In an attempt to save face, Minneapolis police re-traumatized Black peopleAugust 28, 2020
On Wednesday night, a shooting drew crowds along Nicollet Avenue, a major street known for its shopping center in Minneapolis’s downtown. As rumors that the police had shot yet another Black man flowed, other accounts testified that the man died by suicide. With the city still smoldering from protests prompted by Minneapolis police’s killing of George Floyd in May, the department was eager to clear its name.
But rather than issuing a statement, the Minneapolis Police Department released graphic surveillance footage of the still unidentified man’s suicide. In a now-deleted tweet, MPD labeled the man a murder suspect, who completed suicide when approached by police — at least one of whom had their guns drawn. The video was also shared by the city of Minneapolis’s official Twitter page.
The decision sparked immediate controversy. Releasing videos of graphic suicides is generally ill-advised because it can cause secondary trauma. Mental health experts even recommend against using language like “committed suicide,” which is what MPD said in its original tweet. For Black people, this issue is particularly sensitive, as the Congressional Black Caucus found the rate of Black youth suicide is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group. And in Minnesota, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 10-24. With the coronavirus pandemic linked to mental health struggles among Black teens, an already vulnerable population was doubly harmed by MPD’s actions Wednesday.
After learning about MPD’s decision to release the footage, Kameelah Rashad, founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation and a psychologist who specializes in racial trauma, told Mic in an email that her “initial reaction is one of horror at MPD’s and the city’s blatant callousness and utter disregard for the pain and anguish of this man’s family and community.”
“Horror is followed by rage and disgust,” Rashad continued. “In a city which continues to reel from George Floyd’s murder and subsequent uprising, educational, health and economic challenges due to COVID, and systemic inequities, it is abundantly clear that these institutions continue to contribute to further injury against an already vulnerable and marginalized community.”
That disgust was not felt by Rashad alone. The following day, MPD deleted the graphic video, stating, “After receiving feedback from the community, we have removed the video due to the graphic nature and out of respect to the individual, his family, and the community.” The city of Minneapolis similarly deleted its quote-tweet of the video but did not release an additional statement.
There’s a reason Minneapolis residents side-eye official reports from the police department.
City officials, however, have defended the decision to release the graphic footage. While the city of Minneapolis did not return Mic’s request for comment, police chief Medaria Arradondo told MPR News, “We know that there is distrust right now in certain parts of our community. We know that it’s been only a few days since Kenosha. As soon as we started hearing the first rumblings that this was an officer-involved shooting, we needed to get that information out.”
However, it is hard to see how MPD could claim to want to address “significant public safety concerns” or quell anything while simultaneously macing people and utilizing “less-than-lethal” weapons downtown. Most people do not find less-than-lethal weapons (which is a misnomer) or graphic suicides calming. Besides, tweeting out a video of a man’s suicide does nothing to address the deeper systemic issues behind that distrust.
After all, there’s a reason Minneapolis residents side-eye official reports from the police department. Lies were abundant following Floyd’s killing. MPR News reported that an initial press release about Floyd’s death just described him as someone in “medical distress.” In June, an independent autopsy by the family contradicted the official report, which tried blaming Floyd’s death on underlying health issues and potential intoxicants — and not on the fact that a police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. And early on during protests, Minneapolis officials fell back on the troubling “outside agitator” narrative that ended up being false.
“It is incredibly disingenuous for ‘transparency’ to be invoked in this circumstance when MPD has an undeniable history of being anything BUT transparent when their actions and tactics are called into question,” Rashad told Mic. Online, many have pointed out that it took MPD less than two hours to release Wednesday’s footage, but months to release a video following the 2015 police killing of Jamar Clark. Rashad added, “This logic reinforces the community’s (and many Black folks’) belief and experience that law enforcement will not hesitate to perpetuate further harm in order to protect its own.”
“In the age of the internet, it isn’t uncommon to accidentally run into images of Black death, but this shocked me in a way I didn’t expect.”
According to Rashad, the choice to release the video “will and likely already has had a traumatic impact on those who witnessed this tragic incident.” This is particularly important to consider given MPD and the city shared graphic footage on Twitter, a platform with an autoplay feature. Mic spoke with one Minneapolis resident, Aisha, a student organizer who shared that she has been experiencing a “trauma response” since accidentally viewing the video.
“I saw the video because one of my mutuals was replying to the city’s Twitter asking them to take it down,” Aisha tells Mic. “In the age of the internet, it isn’t uncommon to accidentally run into images of Black death, but this shocked me in a way I didn’t expect. I started physically trembling into the next morning, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I have been having difficulty eating, drinking, and just functioning. I truly was and am experiencing a trauma response.” (Aisha declined to provide her last name.)
For Aisha, the video didn’t absolve the police, either, like the department apparently thought it would. “Yes, he may have pulled the trigger, but would have that happened right then without the police there? I absolutely do not believe so,” she says. “Even if you do believe that this was truly inevitable, does that not show you that police are ultimately useless in protecting us and ultimately speed up our deaths?”
Angela Vang, a local journalist and audio producer, tells Mic that she saw the video after it was retweeted by reporters at The Star Tribune. “I watched it, but really wish I hadn’t. It’s graphic and I had to search for more context afterwards,” Vang says. “I remember feeling shocked that it was even posted and confused as to how it could have passed ethical standards for publication.”
Some have defended MPD’s decision to release the footage by saying that in cases of police killing, people call for videos, so why isn’t it fair to share them in this instance too? However, Black people have long criticized the circulation of police killing videos. In The New Republic, Jamil Smith wrote, “Unfortunately, the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops isn’t doing as much as it should be. The legacy of our increased exposure to Black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses.”
It is this deadening of senses to Black life — and Black pain — that not only allowed MPD to release such footage without any consideration for the repercussions, but that prompted journalists to share the clip, too. Vang says that if the victim wasn’t Black, “media outlets and the city of Minneapolis would never have circulated such a graphic video. Can you imagine the cries of sympathy and horror if this was a white woman? We have routinely made Black death a spectacle and there’s a comfort we feel in witnessing it. It’s our responsibility as journalists, especially those of us who aren’t Black, to understand and interrogate our contribution to that normalization.”
For many, this summer is largely defined by its series of uprisings, and no area is immune. “Every major city’s downtown area has a history of gentrification, displacement, and inequality. Anything wrong with Minneapolis for marginalized communities, you will find monuments to it in downtown Minneapolis,” Aisha says. “It is also where the Hennepin County Government Center is which holds in it Hennepin County Courts. The Hennepin County jail is only about a mile away from where this man died. It’s about time the uprisings hit where the power is concentrated in Minneapolis.”
Ultimately, MPD releasing the video did nothing to quell the protests, because they are not about a single incident. The events that took place in downtown Minneapolis cannot be resolved by the police because, no matter who pulls the trigger, police are the cause of the harm. People like George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and Breonna Taylor may be the initial spark for uprising, but these protests, the looting, the burning — they are all part of a language expressing generations of pain. Across the nation, Black people are frustrated by living under the burden of white supremacy.
“Everyday Black folks across this country experience profound loss and witness dehumanization at multiple levels. It is demoralizing and soul-crushing,” Rashad told Mic. “I encourage those who have had suicidal thoughts to know that they are not alone, to reach out to someone for support, or just to listen.”
She added: “Despite white supremacy’s persistent desire and effort to kill us in innumerable ways, our Black lives always matter. Every Black life matters.”