A protester holds up a photo of Eric Garner during a demonstration in New York after a grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges against Daniel Pantaleo. Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty
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The case of Eric Garner shows that cameras won’t stop police brutality of black people

The assumption is that cameras are objective, silent witnesses that provide indisputable evidence, and also that people behave differently when they know a camera is capturing their actions. This is a fantasy.

The National Guard is withdrawing from Ferguson, Missouri. Darren Wilson, who won’t face charges for killing Michael Brown, has resigned from the police force, saying he hopes this “will allow the community to heal”. Attorney General Eric Holder is working on a plan to end racial profiling. And President Barack Obama, looking to build “community trust” in police, requested $75m from Congress to help provide roughly 50,000 body cameras to state and local police departments. 

The assumption is that cameras are objective, silent witnesses that provide indisputable evidence, and also that people behave differently when they know a camera is capturing their actions. And the implication is that, had the shooting death of Michael Brown been recorded, we’d know exactly what happened – and justice would be served.

The case of Eric Garner should put an end to this fantasy. 

Video cameras are an old technology by now. They’ve been used to document police abuse against minorities at least since before Bull Connor, and since the days of Rodney King we have been able to see considerably more of the abuse, as cell phones and security cameras and dashboard cams keep track of encounters between the police and people of colour. And yet, police brutality of black people persists. The only difference is that we are more aware of it. 

After all, an amateur video did capture a white New York City police officer’s chokehold on Eric Garner earlier this year, and the camera’s presence changed neither the Garner’s fate nor that of the officer. Garner is dead, and a grand jury voted on Wednesday not to bring criminal charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.

On 17 July, 2014, as the video below shows, Garner was unarmed and standing on a sidewalk in Staten Island. Plain-clothed and uniformed officers interviewing him decided to arrest him. They knocked Garner to the ground and one officer put him in a chokehold. That officer then pivoted, putting his knee into Garner’s back while using his hands to push Garner’s head into the pavement. 

“I can’t breathe,” Garner wheezes from beneath the pile. “I can’t breath.”

“Once again,” the video’s narrator said, “police beating up on people. All he did was break up a fight. This shit is crazy.”

Before long, Garner was dead.

This video part of an archive of abuse that is vast and growingbut has failed to produce a more trusting environment or fairer justice system. 

Consider the video of Donrell Breaux, from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, confronted by a police officer in his comfortably middle-class home. “You’re scaring me,” Breaux says to the officer, and then pleads to a friend who’s filming the encounter, “Don’t leave with camera.” As the officer redoubles his efforts to handcuff Breaux and reaches behind his back, he becomes terrified. “What are you reaching for?” he asks, his voice trembling. “Please don’t shoot me!” 

As others have noted, there are hundreds of these videos on YouTube, some with millions of views. Advocates of police body cameras might enthuse over this collection, holding it up as proof that sunlight is a natural disinfectant. But it isn’t clear at all that the increasing ubiquity of cameras – or the massive circulation of such videoshas actually decreased the number of men and women of colour victimised by overly aggressive policing. 

But some of these videos do confirm that for people of colour, the court of last resort in this country is the one that delivers financial awards rather than verdicts. In the following clip, a black man is lying on the sidewalk when a white officer kicks him in the face. 

The man recording the incident from some 20 feet away shouts to the victim, “I got it all, G. I got the whole thing, bro,” while a female onlooker shouts, “You gonna get paid.” They assume, for good reason, that the cop won’t be punished by his police department or by a criminal court. Justice for the disenfranchised is reduced to a simple cash payout. 

Of course, these videos do more than simply provide convincing evidence for lawsuits. They show the willful resistance and inventiveness of poor and racially marginalised Americans. In settings that are emotionally charged and dangerous, ordinary people are acting as interpreters and recorders of historyof police brutality racism, yes, but also of our cops’ post-9/11 militarisation and depersonalised policing strategies. There are other cameras out theredispassionate security cameras and dashboard cams, and body cameras showing the police officer’s perspective – but witness videos are as close as we, the viewers, get to the victim’s perspective. While the cameras stop nothing, they do allow us to see. 

These videos are also a living document of an endemic problem in America, and taken together, they serve as a sort of public archive of black pain and suffering – a moral argument for humanity over hair-triggers. They’re also proof that something more than “healing” and “trust” will be required in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and in so many other places in America. Viewed all together, they tell us that it is worth dwelling on the pain and the remorse and the anger, worth listening to Eric Garner’s plea for one more breath, and worth thinking about what a deeper, more permanent repair of our social fabric would look like. 

Matthew Pratt Guterl teaches at Brown University, and is the author of “Seeing Race in Modern America”.

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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”