Viral Overdose: a case study of racial logics of the opioid crisis

In September 2016, the city police department of East Liverpool, Ohio responded to an incident in which two individuals were rendered incapacitated by opiate use while operating a vehicle. The officers apprehended the moving vehicle, witnessed the loss of consciousness of the driver and passenger upon approach, and a responding officer captured two mobile photos of the vehicle’s unresponsive passengers. Revealing an alert toddler seated in the backseat, photographed gazing in the officers’ direction, the images were promptly posted to the “City of East Liverpool, Ohio” Facebook page with the caption “We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug. We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess.” The posts were met by unsurmountable engagement on Facebook and beyond, affording worldwide visibility by social media users and multi-scalar news outlets.

I argue that the East Liverpool “viral overdose” media frenzy is an early site of provocation that introduces an affectual response of racial animus-driven anxiety surrounding an imagined instability of the white American nuclear family as an institution as introduced by the ongoing opioid crisis. The “viral overdose” image visually illustrates a specter haunting a white America: the family is depicted in a state of opioid-induced dysfunction previously unseen to an American public, upended at once and as a unit. The essay will follow a new line of inquiry of understanding the opioid crisis as an expressive site of cultural production where whiteness undergoes internal monitoring and abjection of transgressors of the acceptable behaviors and lifeways of whiteness.

This essay will investigate a case study of media affectations surrounding the viral reaction to the East Liverpool City Police Department’s photos in a comparative study of an emerging genre of “opioid crisis” journalism and “crack epidemic” news features of the 1980s and their socio-political, cultural, and vernacular afterlives. I propose that the East Liverpool viral incident was a cultural root for differential cultural mythmaking surrounding the “epidemics” across time, place, and racial lines. Vernacular used to refer to lives and bodies touched by drug use, addiction, and resulting family dysfunction display confluence in media discourse but subsequently diverge following East Liverpool’s media frenzy.

The composition will engage fictive and journalistic aesthetic evidence of the divergence in responses to the epidemics and posit that the criminality assigned to crack users and pathology assigned to opioid users serves as a point of further reflection of the anti-black grammar of the American vernacular. Moreover, the essay offers an engagement with critical race theory to understand an American mediascape in which an emergent illicit drug use epidemic can be presented in disjuncture from historical context and unbound by carceral logics. This plasticity of memory of the American cultural consciousness should not be conceived as accidental or a result of an arc of social progress instilling heightened levels of empathy or disapproval for punitive sentencing measures. Given that the same American newsrooms that penned “crack baby” human interest features have authored sympathetic, multidimensional, and humanizing coverage on children of the opioid crisis, socio-cultural response and resulting governance strategy to the impending opioid crisis is dependent on the flesh it reaches.