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
Show Hide image

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”.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage