The image of Agha-Soltanís bloodied face, taken from one of the videos and deployed by Green Movement supporters ...

... for international protests (pictured here in Athens and Berlin).

Both CNN and Fox News blurred Agha-Soltan’s face in initial airings of her death videos ...

... dulling her potential power as a martyr and ignoring the cultural context of martyrdom in Iran.

Rodney Kingís 1991 beating by the LAPD was an oft-cited precursor to the Grant case, though the videotape of King generated much more public interest than the footage of Grant.

In terms of lasting change brought about by the Grant case, there seemed to be little talk of rooting out racial profiling or revising use of force guidelines in Bay Area police departments, but – tellingly – some did adopt auto-recording cameras for officers to wear. “This is a way to show our side,” remarked San Jose’s Sgt. Ronnie Lopez.



The promise and peril of context

The qualities of the Agha-Soltan videos that enable this broad, even strained, “I am Neda” identification – their universalizing communication of suffering and death, encapsulated in short, dramatic, and aesthetically familiar clips – are the same qualities that exclude cultural specificity. While useful for drawing attention to an activist cause, such videos reduce complex events to spectacle and strip away cultural and political context – a characteristic of YouTube that worries scholars and activists.[39] [open endnotes in new window] This problem is especially prevalent in raw footage distributed online, where it can be re- or de-contextualized when taken from its original site and embedded elsewhere, and where it is often accompanied by uninformed and even misleading user comments. As described above, a lack of context troubles YouTube’s administrators, as well, forming one of the criteria under which they may remove graphic videos from the site. Even as the Agha-Soltan videos reveal conditions in Iran during the protests, they also exclude aspects of Iranian culture and history enmeshed with this murder. Most importantly, the raw footage itself cannot explain the context of martyrdom’s resonance for Islam and for Iran.

Distinct from looser applications in the West, martyrdom in Islam is more codified, and the title can be officially bestowed or denied by legal and religious authorities. At the core, an Islamic martyr, or shaheed, is one whose death creates a powerful testimony to his or her faith.[40] Martyrdom has been a truly formative concept for Iran, specifically, because its population is predominantly Shi’ite – a sect of Islam for which the martyr Hussein is a key figure – and because the 1980s Iran-Iraq War forged countless martyrs who were revered by Khomeini and the government.[41] The concept and history of Islamic martyrdom in Iran provided a frame through which many there discussed or interpreted Agha-Soltan’s death – a set of common cultural reference points familiar to even the secular elements of the Green Movement, whose conception of her martyrdom would not be a religious one.

Understanding the danger that Agha-Soltan’s martyrdom could (and did) fuel the Green Movement, the government launched a long and multifaceted campaign to either co-opt or defuse its power, trying everything from claiming her as a martyr for the state to alleging that she was alive and living in Greece.[42] Accommodating both the complex narrative conventions of Islamic martyrdom in Iran and a simpler “innocent victim” story in the West, the Agha-Soltan videos again demonstrate their global appeal. Her Iranian family and supporters integrated the tropes of Islamic martyrdom into descriptions of her death: pure intentions, fearlessness, a premonition of her death, and a holy corpse that remains beautiful.[43] In Agha-Soltan’s look at the camera, some even saw a variant of a final exhortation – an Islamic martyr’s effort to impart truth to the living with her or his final words.[44]

These qualities were generally ignored in the Western media’s coverage of Agha-Soltan, and in some cases the values associated with Islamic martyrdom were inadvertently undermined. One such value crucial to the function of martyrdom’s recording is that graphic representations of martyrs’ deaths cannot be lumped in with the so-called “gratuitous” violence in Western media that inspires so much hand wringing. Numerous comments online attacked the Agha-Soltan videos as insensitive and violent, but as historian David Cook notes in Martyrdom in Islam,

“In the end martyrdom is about blood and suffering.”[45]

Blood, suffering, and death are essential components of martyrdom and its representation – components that give the act such emotional and persuasive power. The Green Movement and its worldwide supporters understood that immediately, making images of Agha-Soltan’s bloodied face a ubiquitous feature of their protests. Yet these components were suppressed in initial airings of the videos on major U.S. news networks. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC played only a small portion of one video, cutting it just before Agha-Soltan began to bleed from her mouth and nose, and accompanied even this snippet with profuse warnings and justifications.[46] CNN and Fox News both blurred out her whole face – a common practice in U.S. television journalism intended to show respect for the victim and family. These channels reversed the digital annotation KTVU put on the Oscar Grant videos, adding a circle that denies access to one portion of the frame rather than a circle that calls attention to one. In doing so, they erased Agha-Soltan’s identity, her bleeding and suffering, her charged look at the camera, and the emotional power of the video in general. To suppress Agha-Soltan’s identity and the violence of her death in this manner is to neutralize a martyr’s most powerful means of bearing witness, converting non-believers, bolstering the faithful, and honoring the dead.

In these examples of how news networks integrated the Agha-Soltan videos, an uncomfortable insight becomes apparent: calls for simply more context and attacks on YouTube’s lack of context fail to recognize the abuses contextualization can inflict upon footage. Here, the bare encounter with raw footage in the supposedly non-contextualized space of YouTube can provide a clearer and more illuminating engagement with recorded death. I argue that the Grant footage presents another instance of the dual promises and perils of context. Part of the reason that his shooting quickly inspired such passionate protest in Oakland was that the widely-accessible videos of his death seemed to be plainly legible, with no further context required. That is, an African American man lying face down with his hands behind his back and posing no threat to anyone is shot at close range by a white officer. As police procedure consultant Mark Harrison elegantly put it,

"If they were kids from [the wealthy suburb] Orinda being rowdy on the way home from a Raiders game, I don't think it would have gone down the same way."[47]

In the videos was visible evidence of extreme white-on-black police brutality, the sort that many Oakland residents have felt besieged by for decades.

As the saga of Mehserle’s criminal case got underway, however, his supporters and the press heaped on additional context, details YouTube did not offer that – these sources implied – were necessary to interpreting the videos correctly. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle printed diagrams of how officers’ Taser holsters attach to their belts, the process for changing the holster’s configuration, its position on Mehserle’s belt, and how that position could have confused him about whether he was pulling his gun or his Taser.[48]

The San Francisco Chronicle presented this diagram of BART officers’ Taser holsters as a key piece of contextual information necessary to understanding Grant’s shooting.

Most disturbingly, the news media opposed Mehserle’s squeaky clean record as a BART officer to Grant’s five prior arrests, attempting to justify Mehserle’s readiness to use force, even though he was not aware of Grant’s record during the arrest. But the aggressive inclusion of these facts in the news did send a different message loud and clear, one already legible in the way that Grant died: that this young, African American man with a police record was not living a “grievable life” by U.S. cultural standards. By contrast, every piece of personal information about Agha-Soltan that the media promoted seemed to bolster her grievability in the West: her university education, close ties with her family and fiancé, love of travel outside Iran, ambition to be a singer, and oft-asserted love of freedom rather than politics (as if dying in protest of a fraudulent election could somehow make sense as an apolitical act).

Here we might recall a parallel process of dubious contextualization that occurred in the Rodney King case – the case with which Grant’s is so often associated. Bystander George Holliday’s camcorder footage of King’s beating became key evidence in the trial of LAPD officers. Unable to ignore this seemingly damning video, the defense instead presented it to the court in a way that “distorted and dehistoricized” the beating, as Elizabeth Alexander argues:

“The lawyers . . . slowed down the famous videotape so that it no longer existed in ‘real time’ but rather in a slow dance of stylized movement that could as easily be read as self-defense or as a threat. The slowed-down tape recorded neither the sound of falling blows nor the screams from King and the witnesses.”[49]

Such a presentation of Holliday’s video works toward several advantageous effects for the officers: anesthetizing jurors to the shock of the beating by playing the footage many times, dulling its horror by eliminating the audio, and creating time within the short video for lawyers to expansively narrate it. In doing so, they added their own favored context, arguing for why the situation justified each blow or kick King suffered on-screen. The videos of Grant’s death played many times in Mehserle’s trial. They sometimes provided visible evidence for the prosecution to counter inaccurate witness testimonies, but – like the King videos – were also subjected to a series of slow motion and freeze frame replays narrated by experts testifying for the defense. In this case, too, the supposedly inadequate context of YouTube becomes preferable to the videos’ more contextualized displays in court.

Of course, warnings from activists and academics about a lack of context on YouTube must also contend with the form of context YouTube videos do, in every case, provide: the comments of viewers. In the case of the Grant videos, YouTube comments offered a context far more important to understanding Grant’s death than the details of Mehserle’s Taser holster. The comments contain elaborate, brutal, and persistent articulations of racism against African Americans, a context too raw and ugly to be fully printed in the paper or aired on the local news, but that YouTube can display. Overtly racist comments filled with derogatory terms and offensive opinions appear often, from many users, on many different postings of the Grant videos. Their presence and quantity provide an important reminder about one aspect of activism on YouTube: that high view counts measure only visibility, not political alignment. The x-million viewers a video attracts do not translate to x-million supporters of its apparent cause.

On a broader level, the racist comments illustrate the way in which YouTube and social media sites are havens for hatred at the same time that they are progressive tools, muddying the image of the Internet as a democratizing, utopic force. As Jason Sperb notes,

“The Internet may be the most efficient textual universe for any scholar wishing to prove that racism is alive and well today, and much more rampant than many will admit.”[50]

Though not the site’s intention, YouTube creates a public forum where racists can connect, with videos that depict graphic violence against people of color becoming nodal points for such gathering. They solidify shared attitudes in a manner similar to the lynching photographs of a previous generation that circulated among racist whites in the United States. Although racist comments on the Grant videos were usually decried by many other viewers posting on the boards, they expose a cultural context for his shooting that does not match the claims about post-racial America elicited by Barack Obama’s inauguration in the very month that Grant was killed, January 2009.

Conclusion: “to rescue some type of meaning”

When Brian Steidle returned from Darfur to the U.S. with his binders full of corpse photographs in The Devil Came on Horseback, he naively hoped those photographs would make an immediate, concrete, and large-scale impact, leading to U.S. military intervention in Darfur. Earlier in the film, he had longed for an act of transformation: for the camera through which he watched trucks of Janjaweed killers to become a weapon’s scope, for what he saw as passive observation to become active intervention. A related act of transformation underlies his fantasy about the photographs, as the dead bodies he preserves in page after page of documentation promise to summon troops who will rise up in their stead and save those who can still be saved. Those troops do not come, but Steidle’s disappointment ignores the smaller-scale responses his efforts must have generated: a few hundred or thousand minds changed about the situation in Darfur, donations to aid groups and human rights organizations, more citizens drawn to rallies and protests on the issues, and maybe even a politician or two inspired to advocate for Darfur.

In the activist use of documentary death, we hope – as Steidle does – to see clear victories, but are inevitably left with partial successes that require too many qualifiers. Agha-Soltan’s recorded martyrdom empowered Green Movement protesters in Iran and shed light on their plight for global audiences, but it did not lead to a new election or a government overthrow. Successes feel even more scant in relation to the Grant videos: Mehserle was convicted, but on a light charge with a short sentence. Further, the narrow media focus on his trial and his individual culpability drew attention away from the structural inequities of law enforcement in the United States and the flawed policies and attitudes in the BART police force that precipitated this tragedy.

In fact, rather than take a hard look at their own tendencies toward racial profiling or their use of force guidelines, several Bay Area law enforcement agencies considered other policy changes in the wake of Grant’s shooting that indicated they had learned a disappointing lesson from the case: get control of the documentary images. Some in the region introduced over-the-ear or chest-mounted cameras to record point-of-view shots of what the officers wearing them see. Though such a system could help make officers accountable in their use of force, that is not the tone with which the police are framing it. San Jose’s Sgt. Ronnie Lopez, for example, explains:

"We live in a YouTube society where people have the ability to record us. We firmly believe officers do the right things for the right reasons, and this is a way to show our side" [my emphasis].[51]

In this aftermath, it is painfully clear that the technological wonders of new media still have very limited power against systematic racism, that their intervention can only go so far in securing justice for lives that are still not grievable in our country.

In addition to qualifying the successes of the Grant and Agha-Soltan videos, I must also note that for the great majority of individuals shown dying on YouTube, no organized political response will emerge to “do something” about their deaths. No users will even make the easy promise to “never forget.” These videos will fall into “the vast sea of little-seen YouTube videos” that Juhasz calls NicheTube.[52] When I stumble upon one of those seldom-viewed deaths on YouTube, I recall David Cook’s powerful insight,

“Ultimately, martyrdom is an attempt to rescue some type of meaning and dignity from death.”[53]

A similar attempt is made by those who produced and circulated the Neda Agha-Soltan and Oscar Grant videos, and by most documentary representations of death, whether of martyrs or not. The act of watching an actual death cries out for justification, some reassurance that it has not merely provided a momentary diversion – just another YouTube offering viewed in between music videos and cute kittens. We want these images to communicate something clear and vital, to effect some change in ourselves and in our world. The Grant and Agha-Soltan videos did so more than most. But they – like all documentary records of lives ending in front of cameras – remain difficult to absorb, perched precariously at the edge of representation.

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