She wanted the world to see what they did to her baby.
So when thousands came to mourn Emmett Till’s swollen, mutilated body, Mamie Till Mobley kept her son’s casket open and allowed photographers into the funeral so America would remember what happened when two white men in 1955 lynched a 14-year-old boy for flirting with a white woman.
Last week, more than 60 years later and shortly after a police officer shot her boyfriend during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., a woman calmly pressed a smartphone record button.
Diamond Lavish Reynolds made sure the audience on Facebook Live could see Philando Castile’s slumped body as blood filled his white shirt and life drained from his face.
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From civil rights era photographs to today’s live video, visceral, personal and often graphic images have long exposed injustices experienced by black Americans that were ignored, denied or distorted by people in power.
History has shown that such images can incite an appetite for change within mainstream society, and now the power to create powerful images is in the hands of anyone with a cellphone.
That power has become a real-time means of protection, allowing people to document experiences that they feel may later be misrepresented by officials or misunderstood by the general population.
“I would say African-Americans have always used media, their art and their music to tell these stories,” said Stephanie Shonekan, chairwoman of the black studies department at the University of Missouri. “These videos are another way of testifying about what is going on. If you don’t listen to the words people say, then maybe images are more powerful.”
When the Till photo was blasted across the world, it offered a disturbing rebuttal to the idea that America was a place of freedom and progress. Other iconic and transforming images have also become so seared in our consciousness they don’t need much description: the Selma hoses, Kent State, the Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm attack, a hooded detainee in Abu Ghraib prison.
A civil rights still photograph invited a viewer to imagine the horror that came before and after these frozen moments. They were often taken and distributed by news media. The Rodney King beating — a foretaste of the coming power of video — was distributed by a TV station.
The 21st century’s iconic images are immediate. And they’re often not just moments in time captured for the newspaper or a slice of a TV broadcast. With the advent of the smartphone social media, they provide more context than ever.
Reynolds’ live stream depicted a situation captured on camera in several locations in the past several years — officer-involved shootings of African-American males subjected to what appeared at the time of the video release to be unwarranted deadly force.
Last week you could watch a Minnesota police officer’s voice seem to shake as his hand held a gun trained on Philando Castile as he died. You could watch life slip out of Alton Sterling, the Louisiana man shot outside a gas station by police investigating allegations that Sterling had threatened someone with a gun.
And just as soon as you processed these images, a sniper targeted and killed five police officers monitoring a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.
These images were equally terrifying — panic on the streets of Dallas, a police officer shot as he runs to stop a sniper suspect — and prompted a new wave of discussion and opinion that seemed to evoke a strange sense of competition between the images, as if they could not neatly coexist in the American psyche.
What images would define and dominate attention last week? The Louisiana shooting? The Minnesota shooting? The Dallas shooting? And would they inspire change or continue to polarize?
South African comedian Trevor Noah addressed the dichotomy on “The Daily Show” on Thursday, even before news of Dallas, reminding the audience that it is possible to be “pro-cop and pro-black.”
“You know the hardest part of having a conversation surrounding police shootings in America?” Noah asked. “It always feels like in America, it’s like, if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else. It’s such a strange world to be in.”
The images from Reynolds’ video in Minnesota were not just powerful because of what they showed, but what they said about the person who took them. A woman had been so concerned that her experiences would be misrepresented that she chose to film her own tragedy live. The perspective of the police officer and what police investigating Castile’s death will conclude is uncertain.
Wednesday evening, Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, was calm and conciliatory to the police officer that shot her boyfriend as she narrated the aftermath to a Facebook Live audience.
“He was trying to get out his ID and his wallet out his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was, that he had a firearm and that he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm,” Reynolds narrated with her 4-year-old daughter in the back seat.
Later she was removed from the vehicle.
“They threw my phone, Facebook,” she shouted, and then her voice broke as she realized her boyfriend had died.
Reynolds’ calm narration had an immediate sense of credibility that unnerved him, said Bob Hoffman of Overland Park, who is white.
He was so moved that he wept Thursday and then joined a friend in organizing a vigil on the Country Club Plaza on Friday to honor and mourn the lives of Sterling and Castile. He called it a small act from a “nobody” who felt compelled to speak up.
“I wanted to join the nation in supporting her and in calling out the injustices — I do think blacks are overtargeted (by police),” said Hoffman, a 64-year-old business analyst for a database marketing company.
But by Friday, after the shootings in Dallas, he had canceled the event. It wasn’t that he no longer felt the outrage inspired by the images captured by Reynolds, he said. It was as if, he explained, the competing images from Dallas had inspired a conversation that was more complicated, charged and potentially dangerous than before.
“It totally changed the entire conversation of what’s going on in the country,” Hoffman noted. “I didn’t want to start getting into these debates about ‘police lives matter,’ because of course they do.
“I felt like I could be putting the people joining me in harm’s way … that angry people who are not engaged in the entire conversation might just think that we are against the cops.”
Weighing the power of the images from Minnesota and Dallas also again exposes how different viewers think about the state of race in America.
The images from Dallas depict the horror of a sniper shooting that killed five police officers, injured seven more and disrupted a peaceful protest. The incident inspired people to call for unity and others to assign blame to various groups, from the Black Lives Matter movement to gun proponents.
Ashlee Germany, a Lincoln College Preparatory Academy graduate who starts law school in August at DePaul University, hopes what doesn’t get lost in the mourning after Dallas is the consideration that the Minnesota video is proof, she says, of systematic racial profiling by some law enforcement officers.
“Something I kept hearing was ‘the police were targeted, the police were targeted,’ ” said Germany, 24, who is black. “It’s like, black people are targeted (all the time). The police were targeted that night.”
Some young people of color say that creating their own images of incidents possibly related to racial profiling may be their most potent tool against a justice system that they feel does not consistently serve or protect black lives.
“Without her pulling out that camera and recording the police officer’s reaction, her demeanor, her fiance’s debilitated state, this would have never been national news and very likely wouldn’t have even been investigated thoroughly,” Germany said.
For those who have personally experienced racial profiling, the right to film an interaction with a police officer has become a topic of discussion.
Kansas City native Terryl Robinson said he is hyperconscious of his behavior around police because of the way he looks — he is “a 6-foot-3, broad-shouldered, 300-pound African-American man.”
He has watched a police officer tail him for miles and then turn off when he called 911 and asked why he was being followed. He says a friend once called a 911 operator during a traffic stop and let the person on the phone listen to a police officer speaking to him aggressively.
“We’ve told each other if you don’t feel safe, whip out your phone. Or call 911,” said Robinson, 31.
Germany recalls having similar conversations with her friends. She reminds her three younger brothers that they can record an interaction with police if it starts to feel off, that the images contained in their phones might be an insurance policy.
“What’s crazy, though, is at the end of all these conversations, it always ends in acknowledging that your black skin is the threat,” Germany said. “So it’s almost a paradox. It’s a depressing conversation, but cameras seem to be the closest thing to protecting ourselves.”
But if Reynolds had tried to preserve her own truth about what happened between her boyfriend and the Falcon Heights police officer, Germany is uncertain what the effect will be.
Is the nation capable of absorbing what the Minnesota and Louisiana images might tell the public about problems in law enforcement at the same time it mourns and celebrates the lives of five brave law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty?
“It feels like it’s out of our control,” Germany said. “It’s now in white people’s hands. The ball is in your court.”