Thursday, June 27, 2019

My Thoughts on Sharing the Photo of the Drowned Bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and His Daughter Valeria

We must force ourselves to keep seeing.
Yesterday, on social media, I shared a photo of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria who drowned recently trying to cross the Rio Grande and enter the U.S. after weeks of waiting to enter. As I shared the photo, I stated that, though some media outlets had chosen to hide it behind a click-screen, in my view, we must not let ourselves look away: we are doing this to fellow human beings, and we need to see what we are doing.

Today, I've seen people I respect who are linked to me on social media express concern that this photo is being shared online. In their view, it is offensive, and, in particular, to the Latino community. None of these social media friends has chastised me for sharing the photo, and I take what they say to heart and have been thinking about it. I've prepared a response to them:

It certainly was not my intent to give offense or shock anyone as I shared that photo. As I explained when I did so, I did so because I think it's important for me to face what is being done in my name and with my tax dollars to fellow human beings — and I had to force myself to see this photo and not look away.

In the same way, I found it unbearable to see the bodies stacked outside the Superdome in New Orleans following Katrina, with no aid in sight for the poor people trapped in that city — none for days from our federal government. Because I know New Orleans and have long ties to that city, it deeply pained and appalled me to see those photos. I wanted not to look. I made myself do so.

Martin Luther King, Jr., staged his civil rights demonstrations at flash points like Birmingham and Montgomery because he knew violence would be done to peaceful protesters there, and he wanted the world to see. He adroitly used the new technology of television so that we Americans could no longer pretend about what was happening and had been going on for a very long time in many American cities. Now, as we sat eating our supper and watched the evening news as a family, those horrific images — peaceful protesters being beaten with police batons, having German shepherds set on them, being targeted with fire hoses — flashed into our houses and we were forced to see what we had previously refused to see.

It made a huge difference to the Vietnam War and American involvement in it when we saw in the same way, in the comfort of our houses, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, a little Vietnamese girl, running down a road with fire streaming from her back, after napalm bombs paid for with our tax dollars had been dropped on her.

We did not want to see or think about our complicity in maiming and killing children. We were forced to see, and some Americans then took action.

Omran Daqneesh, sitting in shock after Aleppo was bombed in 2016: no one wanted to see that horrific image. But we needed to see.

Just as we needed to see the drowned body of Alan Kurdi lying on a beach in Turkey in 2015 — needed to see in order to face what relentless war in the Middle East, in which we Americans have a key role, is doing to human beings who then try simply to stay alive by leaving their homes and finding someplace safe to live, as Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria were doing.

I did not want to see the body of Michael Brown lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after Darren Wilson shot him. But I forced myself to look at those photos, because looking away will not serve well the cause of fighting for racial justice in the U.S.

I understand the sensitivities of those in the Hispanic community who are angry that the photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria lying drowned has been placed on the internet. I also understand that it's possible for the sharing of images of those harmed by injustice, killed because of who they are and because they have no power to defend their very lives, can result in a kind of cheap-grace approach to social problems, in which we convince ourselves we've done something because we've shared a photo online.

At the same time, I think that the ability of increasing numbers of people to take photos and videos of events on the spot and share them online is, all things considered, a good contribution to the cause of social justice. It means that what members of minority communities see and know on an ongoing basis can no longer be hidden from all the rest of us because the media choose not to see, to suppress information, and because our justice system looks away, and because our police end up being part of the problem and are capable even of doctoring filmed evidence.

As painful as this all is, it seems to me better that more of us are forcing the rest of us to see now, and not to look away. And I think it's rather tragic that the left divides itself over issues like this, and that some of us undercut solidarity with others of us all of whom say we're working to the same ends, with the implication that we haven't been purist enough or sensitive enough as those chiding us have been.

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