Surveillance, Roombacops, White Rage, and the End of Empathy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Why am I being treated like this?”

–Army Lt. Caron Nazario

“The police? They’re just a machine that does what the wires make it do. Like a vacuum cleaner that sweeps up whatever’s in front of it, and whatever’s small enough.”

–Philip K. Dick, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”

Will Smith

In Virginia, white police officers hold Afro Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario at gunpoint, pepper-spray him, and pull him from his car for an alleged traffic violation, warning him that he is “fixing to ride the lightening.” In Louisiana, police repeatedly tase, beat, kick, and choke Ronald Greene, an unarmed black man[1], even as he tells them he is scared and apologizes for having led them on a high-speed chase. In New Jersey, officer Spencer Finch slaps, punches, and knees in the face a black man as he sits subdued on the floor, hands cuffed behind him. In Colorado, officer Austin Hopp dislocates the shoulder and breaks the arm of Karen Garner, a frail, 73-year-old white woman suffering from dementia. During a routine traffic stop, a North Carolina policeman pulls Stephanie Bottom, a 68-year-old black woman, out of her car by her dreadlocks and drags her to the ground, tearing her rotator cuff. Maryland police tase and knee black teenagers for the heinous crime of vaping. Police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana publicly strip search a 23-year-old black man and his 16-year-old brother in their “war on drugs.” During a traffic stop in Texas officers pin Charnesia Corley, ablack woman, to the ground as a female officer inserts her fingers in her vagina in a search for marijuana. Not to be outdone, in another gang rape strip search, four Illinois police officers assault a white woman following a DUI arrest. In Dallas, police laugh as a schizophrenic white man they have subdued dies in their custody.

Bodycam, cellphone and dashcam footage of these incidents reveal that some police take pleasure in brutalizing those they are ostensibly sworn to protect. After Bottom’s arrest, one of the officers complimented his colleagues on their “good police work.” Another laughingly boasted, “I had a handful of dreads.” Others enjoy reviewing footage of their casual brutality. “It’s like live TV.” Bodycams are my favorite thing to watch, I could watch livestream bodycams all day,” Hopp’s partner, Daria Jalali, revealed as she watched bodycam footage of Hopp brutalizing Garner with him and another officer.

It took 30 seconds for Hopp to assault Garner; less than two seconds for officer Timothy Loehmann to shoot and kill 12-year-old Tamir Rice; nine minutes and 29 seconds for Derek Chauvin to asphyxiate George Floyd. Loehmann, who was almost hired by another police department after the incident, was fired for lying on his original job application but was not criminally charged in the slaying. Similarly, none of the officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, who died after a 12-second barrage of gunfire during which police fired 32 rounds into her apartment, six of which struck and killed Taylor, were charged with her murder.

Hopp and Jalali, the amused abusers of Garner, have been charged and await trial. Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years out of a possible 40. The lesson: if you are going to brutalize or kill someone on camera, do it quickly or pay the discounted price.

For Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century English social reformer, surveillance, in the form of the panopticon, the system of surveillance he devised that placed both jailed and jailer under observation, was a “mill to grind rogues honest.” [2] The architectural design of the system allowed a single guard to observe inmates who, believing that they could be observed at any time, modified their behavior even when they were unobserved. To insure the proper treatment of inmates, the behavior of guards was to be observed by the public at large.

Modern surveillance technologies have exceeded the scope of Bentham’s reformatory voyeurism, but they have not succeeded in modifying behavior. As I have written elsewhere, while they have produced an expanding digital archive of police brutality, they have neither reduced it nor resulted in more police prosecutions. A 2017 study by researchers in Washington D.C. cited by the ACLU reported that bodycams had not reduced police misconduct. Other studies have found that that bodycam footage was more often used to prosecute civilians than police.

Instead of grinding rogues honest, mass surveillance, to judge from the Hopp and Jalali incident, has become a source of amusement for them. Moreover, the ubiquity of the technology has spurred police to devise ways to get around it. Today, social media savvy police swiftly pull out their own cell phones to play copyrighted music when witnesses attempt to record their misconduct, preventing the videos from being posted on YouTube and Instagram since use of copyrighted music may trigger an algorithm that automatically deletes them. The fact that police departments allow their officers to get away with this says a lot about how seriously they embrace “reform.” (Perhaps they would be more serious if the musicians and music companies that hold the copyrights announce they will sue police officers who resort to the practice and police departments that condone it.)

Advocates of police reform maintain that the problem is poor or non-existent training. They fail to recognize that the root of the problem is a lack of basic human empathy. Absence of empathy is a sign of the psychopath, the automaton, the golem that turns on those it was created to serve and protect, the epigraphic Roombacop described by Philip K. Dick. Perhaps, like in the film science fiction Blade Runner, in which “empathy tests” are used to detect rogue replicants, such tests should be administered to police to weed out the psychopaths in their ranks. If so, defunding the police may no longer be necessary, as their numbers will have dwindled through attrition.

It is not that police are completely devoid of empathy. However, when they do show it, it tends to flow not to the black and brown victims of abuse but to their white assailants, as recently occurred when police who responded to a white woman’s assault on a black female shopper in a Victoria’s Secret store were more intent on mollifying her assailant than arresting her. Had the situation been reversed, they would have likely shown less restraint. Not only would police have responded differently, but white shoppers would not have impassively stood by or told the victim, not the harasser, to leave the store. [3]

All of which suggests that this empathy deficit is not limited to law enforcement. It is facile to ascribe such abuse to some peculiarly sadistic “police culture.” More likely, it reflects the quotidian nature of American cruelty that exerts a stranglehold on the nation as unrelenting as any police chokehold. Cellphones, social media and the internet barrage us daily not only with scenes of sadistic police brutality, but also of erratic, entitled white men and women, psychopaths in civvies, who see people of color as a looming menace and use the threat of police violence to intimidate and control them. Social and mainstream media label them “Karens” and “Kens” or bestow on them alliterative sobriquets that combine fake names with those of the real locations of their aggressions. But such labels do a disservice to their victims by trivializing their tormentor’s belligerence and presenting it as an amusing entertainment, twitter fodder, and carrion for Hollywood scavengers.

Was Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whose lies lead to the murder of Emmett Till, a Karen? Was Susan Smith?[4]Was Charles Stuart a Ken? And what about people of color involved in racially motivated attacks? Is Miya Ponsetto, who has described herself as Puerto Rican (translation: I’m a person of color too, so I can’t possibly be anti-black), a “Karen”? Is her twin, another white-passing Latina, Liz de la Torres? Should we bestow similar epithets on blacks who physically or verbally assault Asians and other non-blacks? Is ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith a “Sports Stories Stevon”?

Labels aside, those who perpetrate or acquiesce to racial abuse are not confined to a single race, ethnicity or gender. Joe Gutierrez, the officer who pepper-sprayed Nazario, is a white Latino. An officer involved in the Louisiana strip search is black. Freddie Gray’s killers in blue are black and white. The female officers who molested Charnesia Corley are also black and white. The three uniformed accomplices who abetted Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd are white, black, and Asian. This is not the kind of diversity of which America should be proud.

It would be equal facile to attribute such behavior to a fear of black people that reduces them to hulking, raging beasts that constitute such a threat to police they must use excessive force to subdue them or, failing that, shoot or asphyxiate in self-defense. However, this myth of the raging, uncontrollable black bogey is convincing enough that juries are easily persuaded not to convict police who abuse or kill black people.

And what about white civilians? Do similar fears of personal safety motivate their bad behavior? The evidence suggests not. Instead, they embody and act out in confrontational fits of slur-spewing, chest-bumping, butt-mooning white rage, their own stereotypes of black aggression, projecting them on the targets of their wrath, yet without facing the often deadly consequences that would ensue if they were actually black.

・A manic white woman illegally walking her dog unleashed in New York’s Central Park calls 911 on a black birdwatcher, threatening to tell police that he has threatened her when he advises her that she should leash her dog.

・In Detroit a white woman physically prevents a black family from leaving a parking spot.

・White men interrogate a black delivery driver and prevent him from leaving a gated community in Oklahoma City.

・In the Missouri, the “Show-Me State,” a white woman initially blocks a black man from entering his apartment building. When he manages to get past her, she rides alone with him in an elevator and follows him to the front door of his apartment to determine if it is really his.

・A white woman in L.A. berates a black delivery man and bars him from entering an apartment building, telling him, “This is my building…. I don’t want you. I don’t want you here. I don’t want you here at all.”

Finally, in New Jersey, during a dispute with a black female neighbor, Edward Cagney Mathews, the reigning poster boy for apoplectic white rage, boasts that he is a drug dealer, has been jailed several times, and has friends in the police department, whom he dares her call, since she “will not get any help from the cops because they’re my people.” In another incident (or should we call it an “episode” in the never-ending online serial “The Bold and the Bigoted”), Mathews calls a black male neighbor monkey, launches a volley of n-words at him, and, after publicly announcing his home address to witnesses to his rant, challenges them to “come see me.” A police officer called to the scene, who presumably is one of Mathews’ “people,” simply tells him to “go home,” as if he were a petulant child. A few days later, a racially diverse group of about a hundred protesters assemble before his home, prompting police finally to take him into custody.

These are not actions motivated by fear. They are the acts of those who presume themselves to be above the law; of klansfolk who have traded in their hoods and pressed white sheets for casual T-shirts (with Baby Yoda on them, no less) and ill-fitting leggings; of those yearning to make America a sundown town again.

Surveillance alone won’t grind these rogues honest, but mobilized bodies help to hold them accountable, so long as they are recorded, streamed, and become part of America’s interminable “critical conversation” on race. Conversations, however, do not necessarily result in conversion. Not without empathy, which is in woefully short supply.


1/ In referring to black people in this article, I have chosen not to capitalize “black” until substantive transformation of American police enforcement and the criminal justice system that results in the criminal prosecution of those who use excessive force and produces a quantifiable, long-term reduction in the number of police killings and brutalization of black people is realized.

2/ Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 10, Correspondence, Edinburgh: William Tait, Prince Street, 1842, p. 226.

3/ Ijeoma Ukenta, the target of the attack, has chronicled the incident and its impact on her in a series of YouTube videos at Mama Africa Muslimah.

4/ Or, for that matter, Patricia Ripley and countless others.