This week marks the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. The recent graduate was walking down the street when he encountered former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Three minutes later he was dead. Within hours of his death the first protests formed on the very street he was shot on. The protests have not stopped since.
Nor have the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the state. The last year has seen the largest number of people killed by police, even as the nation has paid more attention to the issue, and the calls for action have been the loudest in decades. For anyone passing through America’s race problems unaware, this year provides an answer to a question that floated gently over America on the night of Obama’s first election–is racism over?–with an emphatic no.
From streets echoing with cries for justice to politricks and cable news echoing with old school racism, this past year has served to shake the sleepy giant of the American masses from their slumber and awaken it from its dream of racial harmony. Americans wake to find some of we the people are suffering the outrageous slings and arrows of white supremacy. They wake to see young leaders of the new civil rights movement taking up the arms of protest against a sea of troubles.
Even as republican presidential candidates bemoan the rise of political correctness, we sail past the tipping point, unlikely to make a full return to times when it is acceptable–and sometime good fun, wink, wink–to disparage blacks openly in the media. Significant because behind the battle over the words we use floats the scepter of power, hanging in the balance as the country moves towards a majority minority population. Make no mistake, this new world we find ourself in is not the promised land, but the wide murky territory between what we used to be and what we ought to be, a land full of deadly mines, traps and open warfare.
Being awake this year has been difficult at some times, soul-crushing others. Bearing witness and speaking truth and two heavy burdens born by the conscious. It does not alway feel good to be awake, but to close your eyes to the reality of the world you pass through isn’t really living. To ignore the oppression of the people of your own nation stands as treason to the dream of a people created equal. So stay up, and pay tribute to the life of Michael Brown with eyes that stay open.
TRIGGER WARNING: this article uses links to police brutality. Videos are used here to emphasize the graphic nature of available video content that has yet to result in widespread radical police reforms. It is my experience as a professor that many students have not seen the videos included here.
Walter Scott was shot in the back while fleeing South Carolina police officer Michael Slanger who now faces charges of murder. What made this case so different from ones before it? When Walter Scott ran for his life, fearing quite rightly the cop who fired 8 times across 15-20 yards, Feidin Santana turned his cell phone on and started taping. Clear video evidence of Slanger shooting the victim, then apparently planing a taser nearby to support the official report he filed that sounds like a broken record of police abuse: “He was a threat to public safety. I was in fear for my life. I had to shoot him.” The video Santana shot gave lie to the official version of events, resulting in murder charges again Slanger, and renewed calls for cameras on cops.
No doubt the constant cascade of black lives culled down at the hands of the state can leave us hopeless, wondering what it will take and what can be done. The power of Santana’s video in this case, and the importance of its incontrovertible evidence in forcing the process to bend toward accountability cannot be overstated. Justice in this case was on its way to being denied before the video surfaced. So can video be the answer?
After each of several recent high profile police shootings, much attention has been focused on putting cameras on cops. Body cameras are already being used in many police departments across the country. The logic goes that if there are cameras on cops, then there is a record that will allow us to see first hand what cops are up to. And for those few bad apples, the camera will act as a deterrent from their crimes. In fact, stats show that officer aggression is down when cops are equipped with rolling a/v. Though sometimes those apples shut the cameras off…..one report places officers’ compliance with camera policies as low as 30%.
The problem with this argument is that it assumes that bad police shootings are simply a function of a few bad cops gone rogue. The root of police brutality, however, lies not just on the individual “bad cops”, but on the justice system that they represent, and the racism that has been a part of that system since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown.
Increasing the visibility of police brutality ignores the deep roots of systemic racism. The police are the pitbull and the end of the leash of the state. Police are charged to serve and protect, but the state is responsible for training, monitoring and disciplining the police.
After video of Rodney King surfaced in 1991, it seemed certain that police brutality’s days were numbered. After all, if you watched the video, you couldn’t deny what you were seeing was wrong, right? But then those cops got off, and the killing of black people by police continued.
In August, we watched heartbreaking death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. We watched him die in front of our eyes. The video couldn’t be clearer. There was no way justice could be denied. But those cops got off, and the killing of black people continued.
Now in South Carolina it looks like their trying to get it right…only four days after, when Santana was prompted to bring the video to light because the police were lying, blaming Walter Scott for his own death. Video is forcing them to come correct. The default setting, though was a police force eager to cover up the death of an unarmed black man. Video can make them come clean, but it doesn’t challenge the dark heart of their policing practices.
Video evidence can no doubt help get justice, but only after the crime has occurred. Cameras on cops? Absolutely. But the presence–or absence–of videotaping does not cause, merely captures, police brutality. A longstanding history of police brutality in the black community needs a complex solution including increased political access as we saw in Ferguson’s recent city council win.
Citizen accountability boards and community groups looking can provide a feedback loop to help nip problems in the bud, and make sure the community can trust those charged with their safety.
To do the heavy lifting ahead, we need an educated and culturally competent electorate that leaves denial behind to chase our dreams of all being equal. Unless the many people that still blame blacks for their own victimization rejoin the all too real world of rampant racial injustice it will be hard to have the kind of electorate that will hold the Sate and local governments to heel aggressive police tactics.
Putting cameras on cops will end police brutality no more than cameras in every connivence store have stopped armed robbery. Video didn’t stop sexual assault, instead it created a whole new platform for degradation. Even now videos of blacks being attacked by police play as both tragedy and trope.
Video won’t bring Walter Scott, or Eric Garner back. Video alone is not enough.