“It Could Be Something We Didn’t See On The Tape” — Ahmaud Arbery and the Eternal Guilt of Black Victims

Christian Christensen
3 min readMay 8, 2020

“I will say that looks like a really good young guy. It’s a really disturbing situation to me (…) it could be something we didn’t see on tape.”

When Donald Trump made this comment about the murder of US jogger Ahmaud Arbery by a group of white men who stalked and shot him, he tapped into a long, ugly history of responding to the use of deadly force against black citizens by questioning the victims, and not the accused. By suggesting that something — anything — could have happened to make the killing of an unarmed black man defensible.

That “it could be something we didn’t see on the tape.”

What we didn’t see on tape.

The un-taped life.

The things that happen when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Work. Playing with your kids. Happiness. Shopping. Studying. Grief. Showers. Boredom.

Except, for African-Americans such as Ahmaud Arbery, these things are rarely assumed to be part of the un-taped life. The presumption of normality (let alone decency) is a luxury of privilege. Arbery’s un-taped life is framed as a potentially unlimited collection of invisible transgressions and provocations. He could be a thief. Why was he there? Why didn’t he comply with three armed men threatening him? What was he hiding? Even when white men film themselves stalking and murdering an unarmed black man, the internal logic of systemic racism dictates that the violent act so carefully catalogued must not, and cannot, be the whole story. Something that happened in the un-taped black life somehow forced the hand of those in the taped white life.

Because, to accept the alternative — the killing was planned and unprovoked — is to expose the murder to be a product of a racist society.

Think about how often the “what we didn’t see on tape” angle, and all of the variations on that angle, have been invoked: Michael Brown in Missouri; Oscar Grant in California; Eric Garner in New York; Eric Harris in Oklahoma; Walter Scott in South Carolina; Philando Castile in Minnesota; Tamir Rice in Ohio. Even when police officers are filmed choking an unarmed man to death as he begs for his life, or…