By Grace Raih for BCN #135
The heightened awareness of the danger that police pose to the Black population and the advent of smartphones and social media have allowed bystanders to document police abuses and release them into the digital public sphere. Citizen testimony has great power to expose abuse because it is removed from the interdependent relationship between police, the press, and prosecutors. Following the use of deadly force, newsrooms defer to the police for facts without acknowledging the overt bias of this decision. Investigations into police shootings require prosecutors to rely on the cooperation of police to gather evidence, a conflict of interest as cops are often the only witnesses. In contrast to body cameras where officer-controlled footage can be turned off, “lost,” or withheld by departments, eyewitness video does not rely on the promise of police transparency.
In a move that secures the rights of bystanders, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit struck down a Massachusetts wiretap statute as unconstitutional and upheld that the First Amendment protects individuals who secretly audio record on-duty police officers performing their official duties in public. This decision will shield those who want to record police interactions without subjecting themselves to immediate retaliation for openly recording officers. People who dare to document police activities are frequently commanded by cops to leave the area or stop filming and can face reprisals like sequestered footage, arrest, and assault.
Police narratives can be disrupted by videos that disprove police reports. In 2015, ex-officer Michael T. Slager initially reported that he feared for his life when he shot Walter Scott, claiming Scott had taken his taser during a traffic stop. Bystander video released days after the report not only shows Slager firing into Scott’s back as he flees, it shows Slager then planting the taser next to Scott’s body. Minnesota PD initially told the public that George Floyd died after a “medical incident during a police interaction.” The video that sparked global protests against police brutality showed a different story, one of a horrific execution by police.
These graphic videos cause trauma and anguish for the Black population and, despite the protests that come in their wake, video evidence does not guarantee a conviction in our justice system. It is a sad fact that when witnessing police interactions people know to document them out of fear of escalation and to solidify proof. The media consumption of these videos is vulture-like and unnecessary, societal awareness of police violence is apparent. We shouldn’t need these videos, but not only do police often lie, they methodically stage cover-ups and the blue wall of silence protects them.
Whatever the state decides to do with Derek Chauvin will not change how police function in society. Punishing one cop will not rework or dismantle an institution designed to violently uphold capitalist interests at the expense of the poor and marginalized. The video of George Floyd’s death is an unequivocal murder and unshakable indictment of policing that there is no going back from. Filming the police is not a solution to combat carceral state violence, but its ability to expose has mobilized millions to demand radical change and that is where its power lies.