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”.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt