Charles Booker’s noose ad is complicated

OPINION: The campaign ad delivers an evocative indictment of Booker’s political opponent while simultaneously reducing Black trauma to something of a political tagline.

Charles Booker Kentucky
Democrat Charles Booker Speaks to a gathering of supporters as he announces his candidacy for the United States Senate at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, July 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, file)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I’m genuinely conflicted, y’all. Yes, Charles Booker’s latest ad is powerful and effective, and yes, it is a crude use of Black trauma. Both are true.

Even allowing myself to enter into this gray area of “yes, and” warrants a gold star for being a mature adult who can hold space for this internal conflict, but it’s the truth. The “noose” ad delivers an evocative indictment of Booker’s political opponent while simultaneously reducing Black trauma to something of a political tagline.

As a political strategist, I go on-air every single week demanding that Democrats paint pictures and evoke emotion to ensure that their messaging cuts through the noise to actually reach voters and prompts some form of behavioral next step—be that voting, advocating or protesting. And this ad hits a nerve from the moment it starts. 

Anger. Rage. Heartbreak. Viewers, particularly Black viewers, will feel it all immediately. And then comes the wave of, “Well, he ain’t lying.” The video editors were intentional about intricately and seamlessly weaving in the legislative history and brutality of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s harmful, obstructionist votes. Between images of lynched bodies and even a noose meant for Vice President Mike Pence that insurrectionists carried to the steps of the Capitol during the violent attacks on Jan. 6, there was Charles Booker, Democratic Senate candidate for Kentucky, reciting Paul’s problematic statements and votes. 

This impactful ad paints a plain picture of who Sen. Paul is—an obstructionist who doesn’t care about anyone at all. Paul blocked anti-lynching legislation, which took more than 100 years to pass through Congress, simply because he felt like it. Paul did the mental gymnastics to somehow, someway, decide that access to health care was slavery. Paul is on the record saying that he would have opposed the Civil Rights Act and the American Disabilities Act. And just last week, Paul voted to block the domestic terrorism prevention legislation in the wake of the Buffalo mass shooting, which is being investigated as a hate crime. 

Honestly, Booker’s ad didn’t have to do any heavy lifting to frame Paul because he is such an easily defined villain. Now adding this villain narrative to the emotional experience of seeing and hearing a noose swing from a tree, seeing Booker with a noose around his own neck, prompted more than goosebumps on my skin. My muscles tensed involuntarily as the 1-minute-and-13-second ad concluded. 

My Black self knows that I winced for very different reasons than a white viewer would. Not because I was seeing the images of the bodies of murdered Black people, but because the brutalized bodies of my ancestors were being used as part of a political strategy. As effective and emotional as this ad is, we can’t ignore the reality that on the other side of making people feel deeply is the crude use of past traumas for shock value. 

While watching, my feelings repeatedly oscillated between, “Damn, this is good,” and, “Oh no, not Black trauma as a tool.” As well as, “Wow, this is emotional and visually impactful,” and “Wow, this is manipulative as hell.” 

During an interview with Roland Martin on Roland Martin Unfiltered this week, Booker emphasized the need to call out hate and how personally difficult it was to make this ad. When Martin asked Booker about putting the noose around his own neck, Booker responded, “As someone who appreciates storytelling and the power of creativity, that was one of the hardest things I had to do, and it was something that fell on my spirit in the sense of lifting up the truth of the challenges we face. But it was hard.”

Simultaneously, I appreciate Booker being candid about his own response to creating this trauma-centered ad, and I also have to ask if there was an alternative that could have been similarly impactful. To compound my own conflicted feelings, I couldn’t help but consider if this ad carries some degree of similar intentions behind Mamie Till’s decision to show the world what they did to her baby, Emmett. 

Now, don’t try to fight me for considering the parallels on this because there are a few. Namely, the impact of showing the world the truth of the trauma Black people face and have faced throughout history in order to drive change, as well as the need to capture and hold the public’s attention because of what’s at stake. In the case of the Kentucky Senate election, what’s at stake is ending the filibuster, protecting voting rights, codifying the right to abortion as federal law, banning assault weapons, sending resources to families and children in need, raising the minimum wage and so much more. 

All that to say, this is a complicated ad.

Juanita Tolliver

Juanita Tolliver is a veteran political strategist and MSNBC Political Analyst who previously served as National Political Director at Supermajority and Director of Campaigns at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter: @juanitatolliver.

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