In my neck of the online woods, two violent camera phone videos have been making the rounds and sparking disturbing reactions about if and when it’s OK for a man to strike a black woman.
The first video, popularly known as “The Uppercut,” shows a Cleveland bus driver later identified as Artis Hughes, 59, arguing with passenger Shi’dea Lane, 25, for several stops. Witnesses claim that Lane struck and spit on Hughes, provoking the 22-year employee to punch the woman in her face and physically throw her off the bus. When an unseen passenger screams, “That’s a female,” Hughes retorts, “I don’t care! She want to be a man? I’ma treat you like a man.” Hughes has been suspended and charged with assault. Lane, who has repeatedly denied spitting on Hughes, faces a disorderly conduct charge. A petition for Hughes’s reinstatement posted by a user of Change.org in the United Kingdom has garnered 3,674 signatures.
The second video shows 19-year-old Chicago rapper and Def Jam signee Lil Reese arguing with an unidentified young woman in her home while several of his and her friends watch. Apparently Reese, who is reportedly affiliated with the Black Disciples, threatens to shoot her. She responds, “Baby, they didn’t stop making guns when they made yours.” He pushes her. She throws a punch and calls him a “b—ch” and a “n—-a.” He then backs her into a corner and punches her in the face repeatedly until she falls down. As she screams and cries “wait, wait, wait,” he kicks her. One of her friends attempts to stop him. His friends announce, “B**ch, we up out of here.” On Twitter, Reese has claimed that the video is years old and blames “haters” for posting it.
Both videos surfaced on the advertiser-supported, user-generated site World Star Hip Hop and have received millions of hits. In an MTV.com account of the Reese beating, the embedded video is preceded by an ad for a video game. Cleveland uppercut victim Lane has been on Twitter threatening to make and sell T-shirts that say, “You goin’ to jail now!”
Of course gendered violence existed before social media, camera phones and cesspool sites like World Star Hip Hop did. It existed before politicians like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock minimized the impact of rape to win votes. Gendered violence didn’t begin with 45-year-old Todd “Too $hort” Shaw teaching eighth grade boys how to sexually assault girls or Chris Brown pummeling Rihanna and and throwing a chair at “Good Morning America” when asked about said beating. The head-butting of women of color by men of color didn’t begin with Chad Johnson attacking his new wife Evelyn Lozada, who has herself made money while throwing wine bottles and slapping cast-mates on “Basketball Wives.”
What didn’t exist, though, was the instant and free distribution of the spectacle. The supposedly funny memes built on the perversity of viewers. The attention-seeking of video-bloggers and Twitter users. The horrific name-calling and the concern-trolling about the risks that young, urban women who just so happen to be black take by baiting stressed out black men with our harsh, foul words and swats.
Back in 2000, before online media became the media, collector James Allen published a book of lynching postcards from the 1900s called Without Sanctuary. Throughout the volume, you can see mobs of white men, women and children gazing at the burned, castrated and hanged bodies of black men. When I read this book 12 years ago, I couldn’t fathom how human beings could watch, photograph and celebrate such savagery. I couldn’t understand how one could smell those smells, gawk at those corpses and then buy and mail a souvenir of the experience to a friend or family member. It was just too fucking sick.
Now I do understand. Armed with camera phones, social media platforms and comments sections, we have all become the watchers, the photographers, the celebrants and the distributors of gendered violence.
The only thing we’re missing are the postcards.
Bonus: Read Chicago performer Nikki Lynette’s powerful essay about the cost of becoming desensitized to violence against women of color in her hometown.