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Videos of Police Killings Are Numbing Us to the Spectacle of Black Death


We get to see black men tortured or killed by police a lot more often these days, so it’s worth recalling why, a generation ago, it mattered so much to see what happened to Rodney King. We had certainly seen the black-and-white photographs and videos depicting police abuse of African Americans, and we’d seen the grainy images of lynchings past, but the conventional ignorance was that this wasn’t the America we lived in now. This was the early nineties, after all. This was an America that viewed law enforcement in the context of the popular reality show Cops, and where Morton Downey, Jr.’s tabloid television style made uncensored aggression a form of entertainment. But when George Holliday’s video surfaced, it signaled to a lot of citizens just how bad police violence visited upon marginalized communities actually was. People either didn’t know what was happening or were willfully ignorant of it. They needed to wake up.

The fear of becoming the next Rodney King is still here. But what has changed is how often we are viewing that fear being realized. Citizens have taken the upgraded technology available in their phones to courageously document what would have otherwise gone unseen. The uncensored horror is now available on demand, arguably more so than any Hollywood film or reality show on our DVR. (I first saw the uncut footage of Oscar Grant III’s shooting death on YouTube, not the network news.) Thanks to the advent of body and dashboard cameras, the police themselves have played their part in making such abuse more publicly available.

It seems sickly fitting that those killed by police today are no longer transformed into the anointed or the condemned, but, thanks to more advanced and available technology, they become hashtags. With a flood of more videotaped killings, a hashtag seems a brutally meager epitaph, a mere declaration that a victim of police violence was once alive, human, and didn’t merit having her or his life stolen.

Unfortunately, the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops isn’t doing as much as it should be. The legacy of our increased exposure to black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses.

Not only did we see graphic images of the 149 Kenyan university students killed by Al Shabab splashed across our news feeds recently, but two new videos of unarmed black men being killed by police officers surfaced within the last week. Both men were running away when the shots were fired. Walter Scott, 50, was trying to escape North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who shot him eight times in the back before planting evidence near his body to support a false account of the incident. Eric Harris was running from a team of Tulsa County deputies when elderly insurance executive Robert Bates, whose donations to the sheriff’s office and modicum of training earned him the title of reserve deputy, shot him dead.

Scott’s death looks even more brazen than the inexcusable shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park last November. In fact, many of the videos carry eerie and terrible echos of previous incidents. As in Oscar Grant III’s death in 2009, Bates claimed he meant to pull his Taser, not his gun, before shooting Harris. Eric Garner’s futile cry was evoked when the mortally wounded Harris yelled, “I’m losing my breath!” “Fuck your breath!” Bates’s fellow deputy responded. The police dashboard video of Floyd Dent’s traffic stop in Inkster, Michigan, three months ago brought to mind the brutal beating of Rodney King. Officer William Melendez, as the tape shows, began beating Dent savagely almost as soon as the 57-year-old motorist was pulled from his vehicle.

Melendez was suspended for five days last Friday, and a report out of Detroit’s ABC affiliate says he could lose his job. Slager was fired by his department and charged with Scott’s murder. We see these arrests and firings as victories in the struggle for black liberation from police violence; but how much will an over-saturation of videotaped black death move our justice system and government to action? Dozens of Rodney Kings haven’t been enough to move the needle significantly. The videos have helped spur civic protest, which surely have led to more media attention and perhaps legal action—but they haven’t slowed the rate of killings, nor made the officers responsible more accountable. The Washington Post published an analysis last Saturday indicating that only 54 American police officers have been charged for fatal shootings since 2005. Most of those cases involved “exceptional circumstances,” one of which was a video recording of the incident. Let’s put that meager total in perspective. The site, as of today, lists 326 deaths due to police action in 2015 alone. We’d check that against government or police numbers, but alas, no one there is keeping track. These are the kinds of numbers that should shock a nation into unified action. Instead, we face a continued insistence from many that we live in a properly policed America—despite video evidence.

That rosy-hued narrative gets a boost from current and former law enforcement professionals like Howard Safir, who came to the defense of good cops in Time after Scott’s death. “Our citizens gain nothing from demoralized police forces that believe they do not have public support,” wrote the former NYPD commissioner. “Demoralized forces will not be as effective as they can be, and that would have a tremendously negative impact on public safety.” Keep in mind that we just watched an unarmed man gunned down from behind, then handcuffed and framed for an assault as he lay dying. It was later disclosed that Slager experienced an adrenaline rush from shooting. And I’m supposed to be worried about whether the cop feels like I’ve got his back. 

We keep pouring on the visuals and re-traumatizing ourselves, hoping it’ll break through similarly reflexive defenses of law enforcement and inspire real reform. People like Feidin Santana, who recorded Scott’s death, continue to risk their own safety to record these incidents and expose open wounds, literally, in the hopes that someone will do something. Corporate media outlets have grasped the importance, or at least the consumer appeal, of this footage. Activists, journalists, and concerned citizens continue to spread these images throughout social media to alarm and inspire. But to what end? 

Increased awareness has not translated into prevention and policy. Judging by the lack of advancement on those latter fronts, the surge of video evidence has only made our society increasingly numb to the spectacle of black death. Rather than being influenced by the shock of the King video, we collectively have sided with the Cops version of our society. Desensitization of police violence—at least among communities who aren’t suffering from it—is required so that the consuming public may be better entertained by it.

After Scott’s death, Time felt the need to declare on its cover that black lives matter. That statement, still inspirational to many, can seem like an awfully low floor for social advancement; black people have been telling the white power structure that “I Am a Man” since at least the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. America has taken its sweet time in granting black victims this mild degree of humanization. But despite actually seeing the brutalization of our bodies in more vivid detail than ever before,  the police and government have remained unmoved. I tremble to think what act, or accompanying footage, will be required for the powers that be to finally see what’s going on.