A generation of white people are learning firsthand what people of color already knew: that the cellphone camera is the best defense when it comes to the police. I’m one of these people. I never turn my camera on when I get pulled over by a cop – I’m skinny and white and drive a Hyundai. I feel pretty safe because of it, unless I’m putting myself on the frontline of a protest such as Ferguson where everyone becomes fair game. But I instantly grab my phone when I walk down the street in Venice and I see a young black male with his hands in cuffs, and three police officers standing around him.
Since Rodney King’s beating at the hands of LAPD was caught on camera, video evidence has increasingly been instrumental in empowering victims of crime, particularly amongst the marginalized and oppressed. In recent months videos of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and Eric Harris – all unarmed black males shot dead by the police – have become viral, and in some cases, have been instrumental in bringing their murderers to justice. And in other cases, they have achieved very little except millions of hits and viral internet fame, leading many commentators to note that these videos seem to be commodifying black death, exploiting it, turning it into little more than pornography which desensitizes the public to its horror. Rarely did we see a trigger warning attached to the video of Eric Garner’s death which starts up, unprompted, on whatever social media site we have logged onto, yet compare this laissez faire approach to the hyper-sensitivity surrounding the blocked and censored footage of the deaths of white ISIS victims such as James Foley. In contrast to the relatively easy to locate footage of the recent slaughter of 21 Ethiopian Christians, it’s clear that western audiences are conditioned into considering white lives as more precious than black lives.
There can be no doubt, however, that video evidence has brought the issue of racist policing to the forefront of national consciousness in a manner which is unprecedented since the (supposed) end of Jim Crow. Video provides white America with the incontestable proof that racism – and in particular racist policing – is an enormous problem in the United States. Previously a person of color – indeed, any person – complaining about police misconduct would receive the response that an internal investigation had revealed the claim lacked merit, if it even got that far. Usually a police spokesperson would deny the claim, and that would be the end of that. As Timothy Lynch notes in The LA Times:
“Vincent Bugliosi, the legendary Los Angeles prosecutor who put Charles Manson away, once admitted that most district attorneys have a double standard when it comes to filing criminal complaints against the police. Bugliosi said the unit responsible for investigating officer-involved shootings reviewed hundreds of cases during the 1980s and did not find a single criminal violation. That pattern has held over time. Between 2001 and 2005, there were more than 400 officer-involved shootings reviewed by Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. No criminal charges were filed.”
He goes on to cite an investigation into the practices of the New Orleans Police Department in 2011 which found that the local commanders’ mishandling of police shooting investigations was “so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects.” In 2012, nearly 300 police officers were acquitted of the extra-judicial killings of black people
Given the lack of an easily accessible national database which records incidences of deaths by police, we have no way of knowing the exact history and progression of police misconduct – whether it’s reached a national crisis, or whether it’s always been this bad and those in power have either failed to notice or act – but it’s also telling that it has only been noted in the last few years, and particularly since the Ferguson protests arrested the world’s attention, that there is no national database. The oft-cited claim that every 28 hours a black person is killed by police has been debunked as oversimplifying a Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report – but the fact remains, in the absence of data from the Department of Justice and with only a small percentage of police abuses being caught on camera, the figure may be much, much higher. According to killedbypolice.net at least 350 people have been killed by U.S. police since January 1, 2015, with at least 1,100 killed in 2014. Stats on race are sketchy, but those that do exist are revealing. According to a USA Today review of the most recent accounts of “justifiable homicide” reported to the FBI, a white police officer killed a black person nearly two times a week during a seven-year period ending in 2012.
As video has become more widely available and the national and international press start to cover deaths which years ago would probably have been unremarked upon, unknown and buried deep in unrecorded history, America has found a channel for its outrage with its chilling visual testimony of white hunters seeking out their black prey. The evidence in front of our faces makes denial – one of the key elements in American racism – harder, but at the end of the day, sharing videos of black death may make the police department sweat a little more, but it does not turn a white viewer noticing a pattern for the first time into someone actively campaigning, and being vocal about, injustice in the US. The white viewer can still press pause on the screen, and close their computer down for the night, neatly evading the horrific daily reality for people of color in this country as just another tragic news item.
Having said this, the numbers of sites dedicated to documenting and educating the public about police abuses – such as ‘Killed by Police’ ‘Cop Block’ and ‘Freethought Project’ – are increasing, and have been instrumental in raising awareness around the importance of video evidence. A recent PBS segment looked at WITNESS, an organization that “teaches citizens around the world to safely and effectively document abuse, so that video is as effective in the courtroom as it is on the web” – neatly highlighting that just because a video has gone viral, does not mean it is admissible in court.
The fact remains video testimony exists in most of the above cases only because of chance – a bystander had a cellphone and the presence of mind to whip it out when they saw a police officer interacting with a black male. Those incidents which aren’t caught on camera must be given more serious scrutiny.
For every Eric Garner, there are twenty Ezell Fords.
Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.