Witness Me: How Tiktok Users Broke With the Sociopathic American Gaze in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder
Alex Hack / University of Southern California
For most of my youth, a fairly strong divide has existed between millennials and those who came before us.[ ((Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. “The Generation Gap in American Politics,” March 1, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/03/01/the-generation-gap-in-american-politics/))] This chasm evidenced by everything from “OK Boomer” memes to the various ‘millennial tests’ on television that sometimes attempt to prove us inept,[ ((Ellen’s New Millennial Challenge After Rotary Phone Fail, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gjin8t633pc&t=58s&ab_channel=TheEllenShow; What Does Millennial Late Night Writer Karen Chee Know: MC Hammer, Thigh Masters, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLJplORWMyc.))] in addition to the endless attacks on Millennial character that littered the 2010s.[ ((Ryan Jenkins, “The Top 8 Millennial Weaknesses and How to Overcome Them,” Inc.com, June 15, 2016, https://www.inc.com/ryan-jenkins/top-8-millennial-shortcomings-and-how-to-overcome-them.html.; Frank Chung and News.com.au “Why ‘Lazy’, ‘Entitled’ Millennials Can’t Last 90 Days at Work,” New York Post, March 12, 2019. https://nypost.com/2019/03/12/why-lazy-entitled-millennials-cant-last-90-days-at-work/; Joel Stein, “Millenials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time, https://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/))]
It’s been rather lonely, generally unable to connect with the GenXers who somehow managed to, at least ideologically, escape much of the current and impending nightmare that has colonized my thoughts. And so, as Gen Z comes of age, I’m appreciative of the company,[ ((Kim Parker, Nikki Graf, and Ruth Igielnik, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, January 17, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/01/17/generation-z-looks-a-lot-like-millennials-on-key-social-and-political-issues/.))] despite the circumstances. In the wake of a global pandemic, my millennial peers and I find ourselves hope(lessly)tethered to the young faces that spend much of their time sounding off against injustice in one minute or less, wielding an attitude that crystallizes a deep disenchantment, and serving deadpan that warms my blackened heart.
I now see power in our collective cynicism, especially as, even if only for a few weeks, many of us were able to escape the White (neo)liberal ideologies and allegiances that monopolize this country’s political discourse. In the time following George Floyd’s murder, the video sharing app TikTok demonstrated the capacity of generations who lack an inherent faith in America as concept, to do what Elizabeth Alexander describes as taking up “the perspective of […] witness rather than […] spectator,”[ ((Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (January 1, 1994): 77–94, https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-7-1-77, 83.))] and in doing so, briefly managed to collectively reject America’s unethical roots.
Slavery, colonial capitalism, western expansion, and the violence needed to maintain them, are the foundation of what today make American racism so prosaic. According to Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, racism’s mundanity and control over American consciousness betrays a “total violation of reason and comprehensibility.”[ ((Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 169–181, https://doi.org/10.1080/1350463032000101542, 173.))] Despite White supremacy’s lack of comprehensible ethical ground, America conforms to its predetermined mold. This absurd moral blindspot, excused as ignorance, being what largely holds this country and its spurious institutions together. As pointed out by Shannon Winnubst, “White culture” seems very much “allergic” to any claims that White supremacy might be located in the individual “and daily habits of White people across the US and the globe.”[ ((Shannon Winnubst, “The Many Lives of Fungibility: Anti-Blackness in Neoliberal Times,” Journal of Gender Studies 29, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 102–12, https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2019.1692193, 103.))] And it is the stagnant banality of Whiteness and its historical weight that overwhelmingly determines what and how we see, often via cultural mechanisms we hardly recognize.
Martinot and Sexton implicate the spectacle, making the claim that the general public’s relationship to police brutality is one of “spectacular events”[ ((Martinot and Sexton. “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” 173.))] (like the many horrific recordings released over the years) that work to hide racism’s existence in our everyday lives. As the exception to the rule—because, certainly, such acts of wanton violence must be extraordinary in our ‘civilized’ society—they witness exceptionally bad cops, or fearful cops, or misinformed cops, and of course the implicit guilt of the Black body, but never racism’s everyday, rooted, omnipresent nature.
In many ways, George Floyd’s murder broke with this logic, perhaps it was the murder’s duration, eight minutes and forty-six seconds of a cop unsympathetically suffocating a man to death, or simply the video’s lack of explosive violence. Beyond the boredom of the coronavirus, something won out over White denial. Derek Chauvin’s casual callousness as Floyd begged for his life and called out for his mother, his rejection of the pleas of nearby witnesses, and his contempt when they began to question him as the life drained from Floyd’s body, all somehow laid bare the commonplace nature of this disturbing violence.
The murder demonstrated a savagery, that if ignored, would implicate its viewer. A stance reminiscent of the “Mrs. Flint” Alexander discusses from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The white mistress of a southern plantation, Mrs Flint’s “nerves were so strong she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash.”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 83.))] But obligatory attention, driven by White guilt, the kind that encourages the posting of a resource list and little else, does little to escape American sociopathy.[ ((Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Regarding the Pain of the Other: Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect,” in Feeling Photography, ed. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (Duke University Press, 2014), 181–203, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11319fq.13, 188.))]
In her visceral depictions of violence, Jacobs urges her readers “to reject Mrs. Flint’s perspective and assume instead her own, the perspective of a witness rather than a spectator,”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 83.))] hoping to make abolitionists of them. But for Alexander, the perspective of witness often involves a kinship that acknowledges the precarity of ones own position, as many of the Black testimonies she cites involve the knowledge that this violence is also meant for, and may very well be experienced by, those narrating. And I’d like to claim that a combination of institutional distrust[ ((John Gramlich, “Young Americans Are Less Trusting of Other People – and Key Institutions – than Their Elders,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/06/young-americans-are-less-trusting-of-other-peopleand-key-institutions-than-their-elders/.))] along with TikTok’s format and algorithm, including the idea that those on your “For You” page (TikTok’s home page or “newsfeed”) are also like you—whether that be queer, black, radical, into cottage core, kinky, conservative, etc.—allowed a kind of witnessing and collectivity to take place, that skirted the ubiquitous mundanity of White, capitalist, American logics.
These logics determine the expectation that in viewing anti-Black police violence you accept the assumed criminality and baser nature of those harmed. But this concept has become troubled amongst a group of people that often accept theft, criminality, and sex work as an essential part of their condition under capitalism. In a recent Washington Post article, that declares Millennials “the unluckiest generation in U.S. history” (as if the exploitation of “economic growth” has much to do with chance), we are placed below every generation—in ascending order, The Lost Generation (1883-1900), Gilded (1822-1842), Transendental (1792-1821), Missionary (1860-1882), Gen X (1965-1980), Progressive (1843-1859), Boomers (1946-1964), and Silent (1925-1945)—in economic growth after entering the workforce.[ ((Andrew Van Dam, “Analysis | The Unluckiest Generation in U.S. History, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/27/millennial-recession-covid/.))] This fate, of course, now also befalling Gen Z. And we should be far from surprised that generations forever harmed by American fundamentalism (the same system that has violently abused the non-White for longer than the generational expanse just listed) lack the desire to live and die by its laws.
Rather than being produced for the evening news or as the eye-catching fodder that might populate your Facebook newsfeed, the personal style of the TikTok content posted in response to Floyd’s murder—often handheld, including eye contact, physical proximity, and point of view perspective—avoided what Kimberly Juanita Brown calls “voyeristic distancing,” and in cases of physical harm, foreclosed on the usual visual and aural techniques utilized to allow the viewer to “escape the violation on display,” like obscurity or a reliance on racial stereotype.[ ((Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Entering through the Body’s Frame: Precious and the Subjective Delineations of the Movie Poster,” in Black Female Sexualities, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Trimiko Melancon (Rutgers University Press, 2015), 13–26, 16.))] By directly addressing their audience, the videos managed to bypass the way Black pain and experience is often “distorted and dehistoricized”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 80.))] via the grand American consciousness and the mechanisms that maintain it.
Surprisingly, TikTok instead unearthed a more authentic Black subjectivity and gave it a platform. Some of the most visceral of these videos taking place in automobiles, the enclosed spaces engendering not only a physical closeness, but allowing the user to feel they are in what is normally a private space, creating a momentary intimacy. In these videos we see a dad talk to his child, who is nervous about him participating in the ongoing protests, or a shaken service member worried about Vanessa Guillén, or a young man tearfully ask “why the fuck is white skin still more fucking valuable,” or a family being attacked by a white mob as the young daughter in the backseat cries in fear, or a man pulled out of his car and wrestled to the ground by police. This last perspective echoed by a White twenty-two year old walking home from a protest. The posts’ memetic nature (upsetting movements brought on by police aggression, violently jerking their cell phones around once they hit the ground) demonstrating not an equivalency but a solidarity that surpasses the obligatory social media post.
The videos I mention above, as well as thousands of others, garnered millions of likes, views, and shares. With so many young people already willing to accept the lie of meritocracy, identification with those exploited by the system or with a desire to unsettle it, becomes less of an ideological strain. After Floyd’s murder, videos including demonstrations, police violence and misconduct (much of which has already been removed), oral story telling, protest tips, discussions of White privilege, education, relevant news, indigenous experience and solidarity, and calls for justice and restraint, flooded the “For You” pages of those who already sympathized with the cause. Many of the posts asked something of their viewer, and engendered an incredible amount of action, including the signing of petitions, the creation of websites, the attending of protests, the redistribution of wealth, and eventually the sabotage of a presidential political rally.
TikTok has already slowed the wide circulation of similar posts, actively pulling its users towards a White universalism, one I’d argue is more restrictive than before, the app coming under fire for hiding Black and #blm content.[ ((Megan McCluskey, “These Creators Say They’re Still Being Suppressed for Posting Black Lives Matter Content on TikTok,” Time, https://time.com/5863350/tiktok-black-creators/.))] But for a brief period of time, the users who were ready and willing to amplify and support Black voices became aware of that fact that more is indeed possible, young Americans encouraged to serve as witness and to take up Black orientations[ ((Sara Ahmed, “ORIENTATIONS Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies 12, no. 4 (October 2006): 543-74.))] in new and emancipatory ways. TikTok itself (newly acquired by Oracle,[ ((Siladitya Ray, “Oracle Reportedly Wins Race To Acquire TikTok’s U.S. Operations,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/siladityaray/2020/09/13/oracle-reportedly-wins-race-to-acquire-tiktoks-us-operations/.))] a company whose billionaire co-founder funds the Trump campaign[ ((Siladitya Ray, “Trump Lends Support To Billionaire Donor Larry Ellison As He Backs Oracle’s Bid For TikTok,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/siladityaray/2020/08/19/trump-lends-support-to-billionaire-donor-larry-ellison-ashe-backs-oracles-bid-for-tiktok/.))]) and its social media counterparts will likely never lead to sustainable change, but I believe the app allowed for a kind of mutual looking that reoriented our gaze and briefly opened our eyes to the value of Blackness and the possibility in its perspective.
- Chauvin, aware he is being recorded, looking down at George Floyd as he casually suffocates him. (Author’s screenshot from New York Times analysis.)
- Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below, recorded in their creators’ cars. (Author’s Screengrab)