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 growing – but 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 videos – has 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 history – of police brutality racism, yes, but also of our cops’ post-9/11 militarisation and depersonalised policing strategies. There are other cameras out there – dispassionate 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