By Roberto Rodriguez
Being in media virtually my entire life, I often wonder what makes a story go viral while another virtually identical story, does not. Why do some stories make the national and international news, and are addressed – such as the separated children at the border – whereas some barely cause a ripple on a local blog, and thus ignored – such as the Border Patrol killing of Claudia Gomez Gonzalez?
In some cases, this question may simply amount to trivia, but when it involves issues of government and law enforcement abuse, media coverage or the lack of it can greatly impact justice and the pursuit of justice, especially considering that it often involves heavy trauma, including extreme brutality and loss of life.
My specific interest regarding this topic has to do with the fact that since 2014, there have been some 5000 killings in this country at the hands of law enforcement, and yet, most people know at most, but a few dozen. And even among those, it is a mystery as to why we know those few, but not others that are virtually identical. For instance, why do people across the country know the name Eric Garner, but not Luis Rodriguez? Both were killed at about the same time and both of their last words were: “I can’t breathe.” Why do we know of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, but not 13-year old Andy Lopez? Both were holding toy rifles when they were slain. Why do we know of the killing of Stephon Clark, but not of the death of Daniel Covarrubias, great-grandson of Chief Seattle. Both were killed while holding cell phones.
Perhaps it is that the stories that go viral fit our pre-existing beliefs. And while that may be true, often, it is news editors/directors that greenlight a story, or not, and that may be the determining factor as to whether a story goes viral, or not. That perhaps may have been the historic answer prior to the internet and social media, though nowadays, many stories often get national and international coverage precisely because they first went viral in the etherworld.
Perhaps a better question actually is: why do these killings of red-black-brown peoples persist when no other country in the “First World” world comes anywhere close to this amount of bloodletting? There may in fact be a correlation between media exposure and outrage, though certainly, all the outrage of the past 5 years has certainly not put an end to this scourge. And the biggest reason that these killings continue unabated is precisely because there have not been successful prosecutions and long-term prison sentences to act as a deterrence.
The questions become circular; why do these killings continue and why are all these killings “yesterday’s news?” The simple answer may be dehumanization. We know several of those highly publicized cases by name of primarily Black men, and a number of Black women, such as Sandra Bland, and children, killed by police across the country, but in this same time frame, more than 1000 Black peoples have also been killed, the vast majority whose names remain unknown to the general public. Beyond not knowing about them, with the advent of video cameras and Youtube, one would think that convictions of officers involved in such cases would now be much easier, and yet, convictions, and officers doing hard time for such killings are as rare as they’ve ever been.
From a media standpoint on this topic, the mass media has earned a D-, at best. They contribute to the idea that the issue of law enforcement abuse is confined to the Black community. According to this same trope, Brown peoples have issues with the Border Patrol/ICE, but not with police. The killings of Mexicans along the border indeed are out of control and impunity also reins there. However, the killings by police are at even greater crisis levels, yet below the nation’s (media’s) radar.
Since 2014, people categorized as “Hispanics/Latinos” have been killed on average about 200 per year, with the vast majority killed, being Mexican/Central American, especially West of Chicago and Puerto Rican and Dominican on the East Coast. Since 2014, the total is close to 1000 killed. Statistics by groups such as killedbypolice.net, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, generally show about a third less of those numbers, primarily due to the lack of uniform reporting practices. This group is highly miscounted, primarily because many are dispersed into all the racial categories, especially the White and the “unknown” categories. Each year, many Garcias and Gonzaleses are found in such categories, thus causing a substantial undercount. And those are simply the ones that can be identified via last names.
The media is also derelict at reporting on the killings of native peoples as they are actually the group with the highest rate of killings by law enforcement. And no news there.
These three groups are mentioned here because historically, their deaths cannot be viewed as random, as both their bodies and communities are highly patrolled, the result of viewing them as less than human. The same thing cannot be said for Whites that are killed, though too many are still being killed, random or otherwise.
In my research, dehumanization on this continent literally came with the arrival of 3 ships in 1492. Despite this, not all is hopeless. Perhaps we are reaching the tipping point. For example, when two African Americans were arrested at Starbucks in May, it caused immediate national outrage, causing all their U.S. stores to close down for racial sensitivity training. Perhaps we are one killing away for the entire nation to go into revulsion. I would have thought that perhaps the killing of 73-year-old Francisco Serna, who was holding a crucifix while killed by Bakersfield police, would have been that case. But his name hardly nudged the Liberty Bell.
Regarding the killing of Gomez Gonzalez, she became about the 100th person killed by the Border Patrol since 2003. It gathered coverage in the United States and Guatemala perhaps for a few days, this at the same time when the Royal wedding garnered perhaps 1000 times more coverage. This perhaps is the very definition of dehumanization and the embodiment of impunity.
This impunity is 100% Americana and has always been so, though under the current administration, the unadulterated bigots have once again become publicly emboldened. No punishment equals opening the floodgates of white supremacy and misogyny. Perhaps the exception has been the universal outrage regarding the separation of the children at the border. The president’s painting of them as violent MS13 has not actually worked. Perhaps there’s a formula here to be emulated.
Rodriguez is an associate professor in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona and can be reached at: [email protected]