Apprehending the Death of Jamel Dunn
On July 9, 2017, Jamel Dunn, a 31-year-old disabled man, drowned in a Florida retention pond. Five teenaged boys, reportedly between 14 and 17 years of age, getting high together, watched him die while recording the event on a smartphone. The video lasting just 2 minutes and 35 seconds was posted to YouTube and has circulated globally, generating effusive commentary both on- and offline. Many thousands of commentators have expressed incredulity and moral outrage that the teens did nothing to save the drowning man: they did not intervene, nor did they alert authorities. Instead, they taunted and mocked him. “We not gonna help yo ass!” And as Dunn cried to them for help, they laughed and mimicked his cries, cursed him: “boo hoo,” “ain’t nobody gonna help you, you dumb bitch,” “you shouldn’t have got in.” Sinking beneath the surface for the last time, one remarked, “He not comin’ back up. Damn…. Buddy not comin’ back up.” And then, calmly: “Yeah. He dead. Buddy gone. R.I.P.”
Who can be blamed for this death if not the boys? And if, according to the law, they held no fiduciary responsibility to act, did they not have a moral responsibility? Jamel Dunn’s death didn’t take place on the battlefield, in a shopping mall, or in the street. He died on the periphery. These are the grim peripheries, in Mike Davis’s words, where the surplus of capital and racism spills illegibly from its borders. And so it seems to be an instance alone, called out but not called upon in part because it is not quite plugged into a larger public momentum.
A better word than “responsibility” here might be another that splits meaning: to “apprehend” the video and the response to it in at least two senses—an understanding or a grasping, but also another grasping in the form of an arrest or a detention. As with the sword and the covenant, the police are not very far from the video and never very far from its racialized subjects. To understand the video and its circulation is precisely to work through a host of disparate apprehensions.
And certainly, the video also fills its spectators with apprehension. How could the boys mock Dunn’s cries for help, the call for life itself? How could they refuse to save him? How could they post their video to YouTube? And so comes the uneasiness and dread: watching Dunn die and realizing with the boys, “We saw buddy die…. We coulda helped his ass—didn’t even try to help him.” Dunn’s virtual death signifies the belatedness of moral condemnation, underscoring the spectator’s lack of political agency and, perhaps, the desire to inhabit, affectively, a symbolic distinction (at least) between those who let a man die and those who “merely” watch.
But in watching, and watching watching, is a call to imagine the many ways that these boys were moved to the choreographies of this social media event. Indeed, we must imagine their appearance and reconstruct—if we do not reiterate unreconstructedly—the conditions of their appearing, because their faces and bodies do not appear anywhere in the spectacle. To imagine these bodies we might call to mind countless other video-recorded scenes tacitly in dialogue with this one—a veritable archive of quotidian scenes violently attesting that black lives do not matter, that these bodies are expected to die. As Susan Sontag has remarked, “to live is to be photographed,” but to die too, for death is a whole manner of living and all of life’s a screen. Much like the boys, we see without being seen, but rather than shore up a sovereign spectatorship or gaze (ours or theirs) we become, for an instant, as an instance, interchangeable.
From a critical leftist perspective, then, the video might allegorize the left’s absent responsibility and its failure to act materially, if not symbolically. The mass-mediatized cycles of moral indignation—exhorted in response to the digital rhythms of cyclical violence and being seen seeing—can only deflect what happens at a Floridian pond, in our communities, or just outside them. Where a grim illegibility cries and laughs in coincidence, apprehension to the video might be said to apprehend it, again and again, long before we click to watch Jamel die, to watch the boys watching, to watch ourselves watching. It is as if affective compliance, recursively united in moral outrage, disavows responsibility through shared apprehension and a constitutive failure to apprehend in real time.
On the right, increasingly nationalized and border-hungry, the video represents just one more example of what might be called an immunity problem, a violence that “naturally” erupts from “certain” elements of the body politic. While the left seeks unity or solace (at least) in the identity politics of affective indignation—a unity without community—what is circulated by the alt-right is yet more “evidence” of a white nationalist mythic black-on-black violence used to further justify the perceived censorship of “social justice warriors” and “fake news” alike.
The cruelty of this mis-en-scène is neither theatrical nor spectacular; its everydayness fashions violence as a virtual non-event, for them as for us. The boys speak of death, and name it—death as a vital force, rather than life; death as proximate and quotidian; where to live is to survive; and to evade apprehension and cheat death is to jeer and to laugh at it. Amidst their jeers and their laughter, Dunn is already dead, as he is to us, dying a death seemingly banal and unremarkable, and fading from view in the span of the click. In this, his death becomes not altogether unlike those anonymous deaths conveyed daily by statistics and reports: death by drone strike, the collateral damages of war and austerity—otherwise “preventable” but in these cases condoned according to some higher purpose, some edifying Truth, some form of nation-building.
Is this our everydayness—and our shrill empty chants that “all lives matter!”—not just as laughably absurd? The video replays circuits of specular violence, where the banalization of black death is little more than another disabling feature of black life as we might imagine it behind the camera or on the other side of the world. The boys curse as they are cursed. It is a violence, a curse, that these boys, in their way, both avow and disaffirm as our biopolitical infirmity, our own sickness unto death.
As spectators, we too are apprehended by the everyday biopolitical economies of living and letting die that inform this video, the conditions of its making, and the recursive ways it makes us and limns in advance our circuits of moral condemnation as well as the material conditions in and by which black lives could matter. As viewers we are implicated in the circulation and recirculation of the video-recorded event, in the tense of its viewing, and positioned in some sense as ontologically or materially prior—circuits in the recursion of systemic racialized violence and cruel spectatorship. The recursion is ours, but not ours alone to disavow. The dead will not rest in peace.