The Cost of Spectacle

Photo: Evan Vucci (AP)

On Wednesday, Associated Press photographer Evan Vucci posted a photo of a Marine holding a White House door open for Gianna Floyd, daughter of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin one year ago sparked worldwide protests. Gianna was in attendance with the rest of her family, lawyer Benjamin Crump and his team—and, for some reason, rapper Lil Baby—all there to meet with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. There, they pressed for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a slew of police reforms that include federal restrictions on the use of force, a national database on police misconduct, and limiting qualified immunity.

But it was Vucci’s photo, and the responses it produced, that overshadowed much of the internet chatter over a bill that is languishing in the Senate after passing in the House.

“This photo is amazing, she looks like she lives there the way she’s going through that door by herself,” wrote one Twitter user. “The level of respect that this shows is wonderful as well.” Marines always stand guard outside of the West Wing doors and are tasked with opening them for visitors, so this photo doesn’t depict respect as much as it depicts duty. But someone concurred, replying, “May she one day lead us all.”

“The best part is she doesn’t think this is special or that she’s different —she’s just going in to see her friend. I hope she calls him Papa Joe,” read another comment. The fanfiction continued in several other tweets, like this: “And then Gianna ran into President Biden’s arms, asked him if he had any snacks cause she was hungry. Ice cream and cheetos were served to the child who knows her daddy changed the world.”

Singer and famed Twitter liberal Nancy Sinatra tweeted, “I hope someone will frame this photograph for Gianna. RESPECT.”

There were also several comparisons made to Norman Rockwell’s famed painting The Problem We All Live With, which depicts a young Ruby Bridges en route to desegregating an all-white public school in New Orleans, surrounded by men who protect her from violence implied by the racial slur written across the wall in the background. It’s a strange comparison, but one that certainly makes sense for those who have cast Gianna as something of a Civil Rights icon like Bridges was, instead of a child whose father was murdered by police. In reality, both were simply young Black girls whose lives were impacted by structural violence and racial discrimination. But accepting that requires an ability to regard Black children as children instead of as symbols.

Yet the false equivalencies, shallow symbolism, and cutesy scenarios aren’t surprising considering the spectacle that has surrounded Gianna Floyd in the wake of her father’s death.

Ever since video circulated last June of then six-year-old Gianna Floyd saying “daddy changed the world,” the line has become a famed catchphrase of sorts for the girl, one that prompted media outlets to interview her, getting her to unpack her grief to viewers when she clearly had little comprehension of what actually happened to her father. CNN even described the video as one of 2020's most inspiring moments in the lead-up to the network’s annual CNN Heroes event.

On Wednesday, at the end of a press conference outside of the White House, the Floyd family, legal team, and associates—led by Crump—lifted their arms in a joint fist raise. Crump encouraged Gianna to join in, pulling her to the front of the podium and physically holding her arm up.

“Say, ‘Say his name,’” Crump said.

Gianna squinted at him, perhaps confused, perhaps because the sun was in her eyes, and repeated the phrase that was fed to her.

“Say it loud, baby,” cooed her mother, Roxy.

She complied. “Say his name.”

“George Floyd!” they shouted.

This isn’t to suggest that there is a nefarious intent behind this. Despite Crump’s reputation as a showboat—Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, called him an ambulance-chasing attorney—so much of this is reminiscent of Black family gatherings and dynamics: The elders encouraging shy youngsters to break out of their shell and socialize, an auntie at Thanksgiving or Easter coaxing their nieces and nephews to “sing that song you learned at Sunday School for us, baby.” The Floyd family is in mourning, and of course, they’d want Gianna to participate in the commemoration of her father’s legacy and the family’s fight for justice. But it also makes it that much easier for the public to project onto her, for them to focus on Gianna’s sweetness and innocence. She’s an easy stand-in that helps the fawning public gloss over the systemic circumstances under which her father was murdered.

Regarding Gianna as remarkable when her circumstances are, in fact, anything but due to the widespread prevalence of racist policing is almost convenient. It’s much easier to focus on a cute kid than the radical and necessary demands that have set forth from the Black Lives Matter movement, demands that could help prevent more mourning children in the future.

It’s bad enough that Floyd is discussed as if he was a willing martyr, a man who died for a cause instead of a Black man murdered by a white cop in broad daylight over Floyd’s alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill. That the peanut gallery has rendered Gianna into a hero as opposed to a little Black girl who has been forced to has grapple with the tragedy of her father’s death in the public eye is beyond bleak, it’s disturbing. Those who participate in this exaggerated flattery may be acting in good faith, but they’re dehumanizing her.

Gianna needs space to grow and grieve away from cameras, away from those eager to rope her into their eager liberal fantasies. But as long as media outlets and opportunistic lawyers continue to exploit her, expect more people to confuse tweets about Gianna eating Cheetos with President Biden with activism.

Staff writer, mint chocolate hater.

DISCUSSION

snide-o-mite
Snide-O-Mite

Thank you for writing so well about what rubbed me the wrong way about this picture.

Yes, Marines are always at entrances to the White House. It was not special that this Marine was holding the door for Gianna. Sure you could call it respectful but those Marines also held the door open for Biden’s white supremacist predesessor and his visitors, like Ted Nugent, too. The fact that so many people praised this photograph is a bad thing.

I’m very uncomfortable with George Floyd being held up as a hero or martyr. He didn’t give up his life. He literally begged for it when Derek Chauvin suffocated him. He didn’t want to die either. He literally said that in the video of his murder. If Floyd had a choice in the matter, I’m sure he wouldn’t choose to die either, especially because a not guilty verdict in his murder trial doesn’t change a whole lot in the system. Police brutality literally happened later that day. One murder will not change an entire system.

Gianna Floyd will not only grow up without a father, but this event will be the main thing that she is known for for the rest of her life. Wherever she goes, her identity will be forever connected to her father’s and Derek Chauvin’s. Her father’s death will be the first (and probably the only) thing people ask about. Every anniversary, the press will contact her. I worry she won’t get to be her own person.

I wanted to feel good about this photograph of Gianna Floyd but I couldn’t because of what it cost to George Floyd, his daughter, and his family.

Knowing what a clueless country we are, this photograph will probably get a Pulitzer.