We Need Videos of Police Brutality. I Just Can’t Watch Them

These videos are both powerful evidence and trauma porn. So where does that leave us?

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Stacy Lee Kong

Apr 23 2021

12 mins read

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Content warning: This newsletter contains references to, and descriptions of, police brutality.

It's been years since I have watched a video of a Black or racialized person dying at the hands of police. After Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and so many others, I just haven't been able to. So, I haven’t watched police shoot and kill Ma’Khia Bryant, or Daunte Wright, or Adam Toledo. I haven’t watched the whole video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he died. I’ll catch bits of footage on the news or as I’m scrolling through Twitter, but I sometimes have to look away when it lands on my TV screen or social media feeds, and I never seek out these videos myself.

 

I’m obviously not metaphorically looking away from these deaths. I read every detail—how many seconds it took for an officer to pull their gun, how many shots, who the bystanders were—both because I need to know to do my job, and because I want to be armed with this information when I run up against people IRL who don’t understand how deeply, fundamentally flawed policing is in North America. But if I can avoid it, I don't literally watch people who look like my relatives, my friends or my students die.

 

Here’s the thing, though: I know someone has to.

 

If not for video evidence, I’m not sure Chauvin would have been convicted

 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that video evidence is a large part of why Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. If Darnella Frazier, a then 17-year-old girl who was taking her little cousin to the corner store, had not held up her phone and captured Floyd’s murder in its excruciating, 9-minute-and-29-second entirety, I honestly don’t think there would have been charges, much less a trial or conviction. Simply put, video makes it slightly harder for authorities to hide instances of police brutality.

And as Chris Vanderveen, director of reporting at Denver’s 9 News, pointed out this week in a viral tweet about the Minneapolis Police Department’s initial report on Floyd’s death, its impact can be even wider. The report is a milquetoast description of Chauvin’s actions that starts like this: “On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 pm, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence.

 

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

 

Thanks to Frazier’s video, we know all of the details that this deliberately vague description tries to hide: that Chauvin’s behaviour was contrary to department training around restraint, that Floyd begged for his life, and that “[getting] the suspect into handcuffs” glosses over an important point—Floyd had been handcuffed before Chauvin even arrived at the scene, and was still handcuffed the entire time Chauvin knelt on his neck while he slowly asphyxiated. Understanding that there's a difference between what police police say and what actually happened is important for everyone, but as I journalist, I found this comparison particularly striking. I know there are reporters who accept what police say uncritically, which shapes their coverage and analysis. In fact, in the same Twitter thread, Vanderveen linked to a November 2020 investigation by 9 News that found more than 100 similar killings in America since 2010, two-thirds of which involved Black of Hispanic victims. Most did not receive national, much less international attention, and as terrible as it sounds, I'm not surprised. I'm willing to bet that police department communications teams approach these types of press releases with the same goals: to push a narrative and divert attention more than actually impart information.

 

(Similarly, police initially claimed 13-year-old Adam Toledo was armed when he was shot. Body cam footage revealed that not only was he unarmed, he also had his hands up and was complying with officers’ demands.)

 

Video also helps show the difference between how police treat white people versus racialized people

 

There’s another angle, too. Not that we should need video proof of this, but footage of police killing people shows the stark contrast between how they approach Black and other racialized people, and how they approach white people.  

Body cam footage of Bryant’s killing shows just how quickly police pull the trigger. According to Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate, her killing happened within seconds of officer Nicholas Reardon, a former U.S. Air National Guardsman, getting out of his cruiser. “The 10-second clip begins with the officer getting out of his car at a house where police had been dispatched after someone called 911 saying they were being physically threatened, Interim Police Chief Michael Woods said at the news conference. The officer takes a few steps toward a group of people in the driveway when Bryant starts swinging a knife wildly at another girl or woman, who falls backward. The officer shouts several times to get down. Bryant then charges at another girl or woman, who is pinned against a car. From a few feet away, with people on either side of him, the officer fires four shots, and Bryant slumps to the ground. A black-handled blade similar to a kitchen knife or steak knife lies on the sidewalk next to her.”

 

There’s a video from a neighbour’s security camera that shows an alternate angle of the shooting, and I’ve seen some people use it to argue Reardon had no choice but to fire at Bryant because she seemed to be holding a knife and attacking two other girls. First, even if someone is committing a crime, it doesn't mean police are justified in killing them. But also? That argument is bullshit. Police can detain people without violence. They just… sometimes choose not to do that. After all, police don’t shoot white men when they attempt to bash officers’ heads in with their own rescue hammers. They don’t shoot white men who shoot at them. They don’t shoot white men who go on murderous rampages at multiple Atlanta spas. They don’t shoot white boys who kill protesters. They don’t shoot white men who massacre churchgoers. (They do buy them Burger King, though.)  

 

And videos increasingly lead to disciplinary action

 

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, video is essential if police are going to face consequences for their actions. Floyd’s family called Chauvin’s conviction “historic,” and sadly, it kind of is. This week, CNN cited work by Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who runs the Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database, which has been tracking police crimes since 2005. According to the story, “in that time... at least 140 law enforcement officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges related to on-duty shootings in the U.S. From that pool, about a third were convicted on any charges. Seven officers—just 5%—have been convicted of murder during that same time frame, according to their research.”

 

To be clear, video doesn’t stop police violence. But there’s plenty of evidence beyond Chauvin’s conviction that indicates it can help hold police accountable. Last year, Reuters investigated the impact of video in 44 different altercations between police and protesters in June 2020. In 35 of those cases, police departments said they were investigating or reviewing the incidents. In two cases, officers lost their jobs (at least temporarily). In four, officers faced criminal charges. In at least six, officers received milder punishment, including paid leave, desk duty or modified duty.

 

Don’t get me wrong—these numbers are still dismal, and Reuters looked at police-on-protester violence, which isn’t the same thing as an “officer-involved shooting.” But it shows that video matters. In fact, the investigation quotes Christy Lopez, who worked in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2010 to 2017 and led the team that investigated the Ferguson, Missouri police department after officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Mike Brown in 2014. “I have been reviewing written accounts of incidents like this for decades, and often it is only when there is a video that there is any chance of accountability, or even attention, regardless of how blatant the police misconduct is,” she told the outlet. “There is no question that video prompts action.”

 

But watching these videos still hurts

 

I get all of that. And yet… I still can’t bring myself to watch these videos. Mostly, I just don’t want to watch someone die. Anyone. This isn’t the movies or a TV show, this is a real human being whose life is literally draining from their bodies and I just don’t want to see it happen. It doesn't make me angrier or more inclined to speak out about injustice; it just makes me sad.

But I’ve also come to realize that watching these videos can contribute to a larger harm. As many writers and activists have pointed out, for some people, consuming images and videos of Black death isn’t bearing witness, it’s consuming trauma porn. And the dissemination of the videos themselves can have the unintended consequence of reducing a person to a “Black body” that has symbolic meaning, but not humanity. As an op-ed in Truthout argued back in 2015, “Black people whose lives have been taken become a commons of sorts: Their bodies are utilized as signs of solidarity, collective struggle and rallying points, and also as media commodities… Although these images were often originally intended to demonstrate the gravity of the deaths of those depicted, the quick and careless ways in which they are used often indicate how little this society thinks our dead are worth.”

 

And worth is an important word there; when media covers police brutality and, to a larger degree, anti-Blackness, it’s because there’s an audience for this information. There are lots of other reasons, obviously—moral, ethical and journalistic—but it’s impossible to separate business from decision-making processes. For years, I’ve felt like there’s an imaginary pendulum in media that swings toward covering social issues and away from it, depending on what else is happening in the world. In 2017, the issues I cared about were “trendy” and there was an appetite to cover them because media outlets knew people were interested. By 2019, I felt like the trend had passed. In 2020, of course, the pendulum swung back, at least partially because there was a new, wider interest in these issues. And to be clear, interest means clicks, clicks mean revenue—and the end result is, even if people’s motivations are good, in the end, Black people’s deaths become monetized while Black people are dehumanized.

 

So… now what?

 

Clearly, this is yet another of those situations where multiple things can be true. To go back to the beginning of this newsletter, there are many valid reasons for recording, watching and sharing these videos. Some people have watch to them because it’s their job, or because it's a way to bear witness and honour a life. Others need to actually see injustice play out to get that it’s happening.

 

But… that doesn’t mean we can’t be a bit more thoughtful in the way we interact with videos and images of Black death, right? Maybe what we actually need to do is interrogate our impulse to share, and to think about what message we’re sending when we embed or link to these videos and images. And there are definitely better, more intentional ways to share. No one needs videos of Black people being murdered to autoplay on our Twitter timelines, for example.

It’s also about sharing images that show these victims’ humanity, I think. Bryant had a TikTok account where she shared natural hair tutorials. In each one, she looks young, happy, innocent—so that’s what I shared, because that’s how I think everyone should remember her: as a girl that had potential and talent and excellent taste in music. I’m willing to bet victims’ families understand the importance of imagery, too. Like, it’s not a coincidence that Daunte Wright’s family released a photo of him with his son almost immediately following his death. It was a savvy way to make sure that the world saw him as he was, and understood what police took from him and those who loved him. And that's the function these images should serve.

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

How gossip has become Yelp for celebrities.

 

Demi Lovato’s fro-yo debacle, and Jezebel’s absolutely correct reminder that frozen yogurt itself is literally diet culture.

 

This in-depth look at Frenchies, the It breed of the 21st century, and one that we “broken to accommodate us,” according to Vox.

 

How jeans are the subject of a surprisingly murky post-pandemic trend forecast.

 

Literally everything Ryan Ken posts on TikTok. Just… all of it.

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