After Uvalde Shooting, People Consider ‘Emmett So Far’ to Change Gun Debate

When Ollie Gordon scrolls through social media and his emails, notifications always arrive like clockwork.

The Google alerts she’s set up for her cousin Emmett Till’s name often come after mass shootings or incidents of black people like Trayvon Martin or George Floyd being killed. When she reads comments on Instagram or Facebook, the phrase “Emmett so far” is a constant as people turn to social media for solace and community after high-level violence.

“Whatever happens, trust me, Emmett’s name pops up,” Gordon said.

“We have that moment every day, every time there’s a murder,” she said, adding that she’s not surprised when people draw comparisons to Emmett.

Emmett was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, beaten, shot, lynched and thrown into a river while visiting family in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, after being accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. The two white men, one of them Bryant’s husband, who killed Emmett, were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Undated photo of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955.

Undated photo of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1955.

(Associated Press)

Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother, invited Jet magazine to photograph her son’s mutilated face during an open-casket funeral, where she said “let people see” what happened to him. The brutal photo, released at a time when television was becoming popular and long before social media, shocked the nation and fueled the civil rights movement.

While Emmett’s murder exposed the state’s inherent violence against black people, his youth also galvanized widespread outrage.

Now, as the nation mourns the Uvalde school shooting, where 19 children and two teachers were killed by a gunman in a classroom last month, some people believe an “Emmett so far” could change the course of the debate. on gun control in the country, illustrating the bloody and deadly impact of firearms.

The idea of ​​communities and lawmakers seeing gruesome photos or videos of the dead children has raised questions about whether this might bolster the long-awaited traction in gun control measures at the state and federal levels.

But opponents of the tactic say it can intensify the trauma of grieving families or fuel campaigns of disinformation and disinformation, such as when InfoWars founder Alex Jones called the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a farce.

Gordon, who is also president of the Mamie Till Mobley Foundation, heard the arguments but said he didn’t know whether showing pictures of children shot would change people’s minds about gun control.

“I don’t think opening the coffin today, at this time, would have the same effect as it did 67 years ago,” Gordon said. “The world can see everything now. It’s on social media, it’s in the international news, so everyone is very aware and can see firsthand what’s really going on.”

Two years ago, when Gordon first saw the video of Floyd struggling to breathe in Minneapolis, she couldn’t escape because television stations kept replaying footage of him dying.

“I had to close my eyes and just turn the channel, and my heart went out to his family who had to be subjected to this every day, every hour,” Gordon said. “You cannot protect young people, young children, because they have access to it. … I think maybe you become, to survive, maybe you become a little insensitive.”

After the Uvalde shooting, David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University in Philadelphia and former executive editor and senior vice president of The Seattle Times, said it was time newsrooms considered publishing the stories. graphic photos. He said seeing the children’s smiling faces, learning details about them, and watching interviews with grieving families allowed a very large distance from the “horrendous reality” of gun violence.

“I cannot imagine that most Americans would look at a photograph… [of] the damage an assault weapon does to a child’s body, and then not be horrified,” he said. “I refuse to believe that people are so insensitive.”

Boardman said Darnella Frazier’s cellphone video of Floyd dying under a police officer’s knee showed “the power of actually visually witnessing the reality” of police misconduct. And the emotional sacrifice Emmett’s mother made to release his funeral photos not only raised public awareness, but was “a true testament to her courage.”

However, Boardman often took a more conservative approach when leading a newsroom; he was cautious about retraumatizing victims’ families and other victims of violence.

Family members post a photo at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas

Family members post a photo at a memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

If he were in a newsroom today, Boardman said he would be “very careful and deliberate” as he waits to ask families for these photos, get their permission and have a full discussion with them about the potential impacts.

As Uvalde families began burying their murdered children, most opted for open caskets, with no visible injuries, or adorned the closed caskets – custom-made for each shooting victim – with photos from their children’s lives.

“If we depend on something as sensitive as seeing the remains of dead children as better, that in itself speaks of a lack of sensitivity on the part of society,” said Benjamin Saulsberry, director of public engagement at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, an organization of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Mississippi focused on promoting racial justice and educating people about the story of Emmett’s death.

It’s “admirable” that people look to Mobley’s legacy, but considering the years since Emmett’s photo was released, “it’s easy” for people to look at books, shows or other sources without weighing the nuances of their decision, he said. Saulsberry. He noted that it is important for people not to tell families how to grieve or channel their own grief, regardless of the circumstances.

“We have to be careful not to look at the tragedy that people have faced in the past and see how they’ve coped and survived and then say, ‘well, the answer to that is to do what they did,’” Saulsberry said.

Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett’s cousin and the last living eyewitness to his abduction, said he agreed with Mobley’s decision to release Emmett’s photo, but noted that the image did not immediately change. For decades afterward, he said people believed Emmett “got what he deserved.”

He said that “we need something done in America to shock or set our belly on fire about the gun problem”, he is not sure if releasing graphic photos of children would be an effective solution, although he is not opposed to the idea. The problem, he says, is that “America was founded on violence, and it’s hard to get away from it.”

Parker pointed to visit Washington, D.C., in March to watch President Biden sign the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, a version of the bill that took more than 100 years and 200 failed congressional passes.

“One thing I learned, you have to have a lot of patience,” Parker said. “You need to persevere and have the tenacity to turn things around.”

Shocking people with the release of graphic photos won’t necessarily create change, said Mark Barden, whose son Daniel was one of 20 children killed during the Sandy Hook shooting.

Showing the photos can inspire people to commit violent acts based on the grotesque images, said Barden, co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, an organization focused on preventing violence and training schools and communities on issues such as social isolation and suicide. prevention.

“I just think people are desperate to try to do something, anything they can to stop this shooting epidemic that we are experiencing in this country, and I think they are just trying to grab hold of anything that might move the needle,” he said. . said.

After his son was shot to death, the only time he thought about releasing the photos was when families began lobbying the state legislature to protect the photos from the public record. In 2015, then-Governor of Connecticut, Daniel P. Malloy, signed a bill exempting photographs, film, video, and other images of homicide victims from being part of the public records law.

“I can’t risk the price of the lifelong damage it could pose to everyone, but first especially to my personal family and Daniel’s siblings,” he said. “I feel like if someone were to release photographic evidence like this, we would still be saying ‘if this didn’t work, what would it do?’”

When considering how Emmett’s name has been linked to what happened to the victims of the Uvalde shooting, it’s important to emphasize how his mother came to the decision, he said. Dr. Denese Shervingtonchair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science at Willowbrook.

She said that Emmett being mentioned is not surprising because Mobley’s willingness to let people see his pain and how his son died has stuck with people over the decades.

Shervington said publicizing images of violence can harm children’s mental health, causing insomnia, anxiety, depression or isolation. But if the families of shooting victims make a decision like Mobley’s, people shouldn’t necessarily look away, she said. In this case, part of self-care is “emotional feeling” the impact of mass shootings and “letting that emotion take us where we need to go.”

“There’s a lot of feeling avoidance in this culture; we just move on, we can’t stand our pain, we take drugs to ease it, we never sit back with the pain,” Shervington said. “Maybe this is a time for us, collectively, to see this as a collective trauma in our culture, and to sit back with the pain of it, and then let that pain work through us and drive us to action.”

Gordon – who then lived in the same house with his family, Emmett and Mobley – was 7 years old when Emmett died. It was his family’s first experience with death. Her parents and Mobley protected her from what was happening, even though they knew something bad had happened to Emmett, she said. She was not allowed to attend his funeral.

“We were already scared and thinking that the whites would come and get us and kill us,” recalled Gordon. “We were children; we don’t really understand the dynamics of it, but as we get older, we start to relate and understand.”

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9:32 pm, June 9, 2022An earlier version of this article said that Mamie Till Mobley remembered being scared. It was Ollie Gordon who remembered being scared.

Gordon didn’t see the image of Emmett’s bruised face until she was in eighth grade and remembers it now as “grotesque and disturbing”. She saw him while trying to give a report card and started crying in class.

She is happy that Mobley allowed his photos to be released because it helped more people understand the violence black people were facing and join the fight for civil rights. But Gordon says the image of Emmett’s face still weighs heavily on her.

“It had a devastating effect on me,” admits Gordon. “Even now, when I see things and hear things, it still brings tears to my eyes.”

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