Members Only | January 26, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Kobe Bryant and the fetish for Black suffering in America

Sheriff’s deputies are alleged to have circulated among themselves and others images of the remains of Kobe Bryant and his daughter.

The crash site where the remains of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were found.
The crash site where the remains of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were found.

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When basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed in a helicopter crash two years ago, it sent shockwaves throughout America, and the world. LA in particular was in a state of mourning. Like a handful of other basketball legends before him, Kobe quite literally changed the game.

For me, as a teenager growing up playing basketball in the UK, obsessed with the game usually at the expense of other priorities, Bryant was one of my heroes. So I won’t pretend I’m not emotional about this. I am. His death truly upset me, and many others I know. It almost felt like a family member had left. And way too soon.


Those guilty need to face accountability and ultimately punishment.  Law enforcement failed to protect the dignity of the Bryant family, but now they at least deserve justice and have a chance at that, through the courts. 


With that said, even if I’d never played the game, my views on the utterly disgraceful saga that followed Kobe’s death would be exactly the same. What unfolded for the Bryant family and the families of the other souls who perished on the helicopter was horrific. And frankly unfathomable at a time when they should have been grieving in peace.

Vanessa Bryant, following the death of her husband and daughter, filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County in September 2020. The lawsuit alleges that graphic images of Kobe and Gianna were leaked by LA county sheriff’s deputies and shared in settings and circles that had nothing to do with the investigation. Why were they shared?

Lawyers for LA county tried to have the case thrown out, arguing that while the photos had indeed been leaked by officers, because the photos never went public, Bryant’s fear of the worst happening was “not reasonable.” Nevermind the fact that if true, those involved are guilty of serious misconduct. Lawyers for LA County, wanting to throw out the widow’s lawsuit, claim the photos have long since been destroyed and that they cannot be recovered.

A federal judge, though, thankfully has denied the request for the case to be dismissed, and the trial is set to go ahead in February.  

Vanessa Bryant and her lawyers also successfully won the fight for the names of the sheriff’s deputies who allegedly shared the images of Kobe and Gianna’s remains, to be made public. The lawsuit cites violations of privacy, civil rights and distress. She’s had to deal with this nightmare, in addition to suffering unimaginable loss.  


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As the trial date nears, in a new court filing, Bryant’s lawyers have suggested the sharing of graphic images went far beyond a few officers and a handful of others as was initially suggested.  

The suit alleges that close-up photos of Gianna and Kobe’s remains were circulated to at least 28 sheriff’s department devices and by at least a dozen firefighters, multiple bars and even at an awards gala.   The accused are alleged to have engaged in a mass cover up while destroying evidence of their misconduct. 

This scandal is about more than about the indignity of the images being shared. LA law enforcement was tasked with securing the crash scene, and in doing so, should have safeguarded privacy and by extension the emotional wellbeing of victims’ families. But they have done the opposite. With cruelty. And tried to cover their tracks. 

But this case for me, even goes beyond corruption.  

Because the implication that images of Kobe and Gianna’s remains were shared, even among the setting of an awards gala of all places, sits alongside another uncomfortable landscape in America. That is, the fetishisation and exploitation of Black suffering. 

I don’t know the ethnicity or background of the majority of the officials allegedly involved in sharing those images and the reported cover up.  But I’ll hasten a guess at this point.  

Thing is, if LA police didn’t have an awful history steeped in anti-Black racism and policing, they might be given the benefit of the doubt.  


The police are meant to uphold the law; they should not be above it or beyond it. LA police have a lot to answer for. Someone needs to be held responsible. This scandal must not be buried.


But there’s a lot of bad apples in that particular basket. Beyond the obscene twisted sickness of owning a piece of the Bryant family’s trauma saved on phones to show off to friends, all possibilities of what led to this are on the table right now.  

So many officers are potentially involved I find it hard to believe a fetish for Black suffering played no role in the gleeful willingness to revel in the pain of a Black man’s death along with his daughter. 

The ability and entitlement to elicit entertainment from the death of Black people in the United States has a long historical precedent, one rooted in one of the greatest crimes against humanity.

Racists used to take pictures of Black lynchings, bring their kids along to witness the horror and enjoy the suffering. Is there a connection between that history, and the Kobe-Gianna images? Given the issues of policing, and the roots of those issues, is it a stretch to imagine certain officers might be guilty of something similar today? Maybe time will tell. Or maybe they will evade real accountability.


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These things sadly are the norm. I could list countless other examples.  This is why the truth of what happened needs to come out at the trial bravely pushed for by Vanessa Bryant and her lawyers.  

Those guilty need to face accountability and ultimately punishment.  Law enforcement failed to protect the dignity of the Bryant family, but now they at least deserve justice and have a chance at that, through the courts. The police are meant to uphold the law; they should not be above it or beyond it. LA police have a lot to answer for. Someone needs to be held responsible. This scandal must not be buried.


Richard Sudan covers human rights and American foreign affairs for the Editorial Board. Based in London, his reporting has appeared in The Guardian, Independent and others. Find him @richardsudan.

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