September 23, 2016

Digital Ghosts

Mining the Dark Corners of America's Racial Present
by Victor Bramble '17

Victor Bramble ‘17 is a Royce Fellow, concentrating in Ethnic Studies and Modern Culture and Media. Victor's research focuses on the ways our increasingly common and mundane experiences with digital media technologies fit within and evolve from histories of colonialism and slavery. For his Royce research, Victor is analyzing and cataloging online news stories and public databases to find the traces of the life and death of Mya Hall. A black, transgender woman, Hall was shot by the Baltimore National Security Agency Police force after take a wrong turn toward their headquarters. Victor believes that Hall’s life and death exemplify the gaps, errors, and inconsistencies of public memory. Through the research, Victor hopes to understand how we can properly remember and mourn victims of structural violence thus informing broader work against transphobic and racist violence.

"The police officer stops just after his second greeting. He tells me that with everything going on in the world he just has to ask, 'Do you hate me?'”

It takes an hour to get there in our car. I'd never really been in the South before until a few weeks ago. This is the first time I've travelled this deep into the country. Confederate flags bloom and blur into the quiet pastoralism of central North Carolina before I can really take them in. Lately I've been avoiding the more difficult parts of my research and I feel like this trip will help me get some perspective. Earlier this week, police officers killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in different parts of the country and I’m having trouble processing my feelings.

I’ve been collecting and analyzing online news articles about Mya Hall. On March, 30, 2015, just before the Baltimore Police Department killed Freddie Gray, the National Security Administration’s Police Force killed Mya Hall and injured her friend Brittany Fleming. While many motorists accidentally end up at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, and some even injure NSA police officers and damage NSA property, Hall is still the only one to have been killed there.

We drive for what feels like twenty minutes up a gravel road toward the parking lot. I look out at the shaking trees surrounding us expecting gnarled branches and twisted bark; bracing myself for something sinister. And yet, they simply hang there, just trees. Getting out of the car I can feel how calm it is here. The buildings are far smaller and less menacing than movies and television have led me to expect.

When the FBI investigated Hall's death they determined that no charges would be filed against anyone involved. Rather than raising red flags about police misconduct and excessive force, most media organizations instead blamed Hall for her own death, many of them even labelling her a suspect in a “shooting” at the NSA headquarters.

At this point in the summer I’ve been at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for almost 2 months. As part of the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program I’ve been researching the news coverage of Hall’s case. When I get back to Brown I know I still have many more months to continue examining Hall’s death as a Royce Fellow. More than the amount of work to be done, the timing makes the journey still ahead of me feel endless and perhaps insurmountable.

Walking into the squat house in the middle of the swaying grass, our group is greeted by signs and displays with information about where we are: the Historic Stagville Plantation, part of one of the largest plantations in the South. Many other participants in the program chose not to come, but somehow I felt touring this place would give me some direction, or perhaps, at least make it easier to cry.

Similar to my research in the archives of police brutality, I came to this plantation expecting to find ghosts in every corner, but as the tour wears on I am struck by how naive that would actually be.

The next week, another Black student and I fly to Boston from the research program in North Carolina to attend a graduate school recruitment event for another organization we are both a part of. We are waiting for the airport shuttle and in that moment a police officer walks by and greets us twice in succession. While I am usually cautious around police officers, I only nod tiredly as I’ve slept barely three scattered hours between the flight and the previous night.

I finally figure out what was so naive in my expectations of the plantation when the police officer stops just after his second greeting. He tells me that with everything going on in the world he just has to ask, “Do you hate me?”

Perhaps the plantation is a graveyard, but so is the rest of this country. The trees at Stagville aren’t the only things haunted by the weight of their past; we all are.