Only a day after much of America was horrified by yet another graphic video of a police officer in Baton Rouge shooting a black man in cold blood, it happened again. This time, outside of St. Paul, Minnesota, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds sat in a car, live-streaming the aftermath of an officer who had just shot her fiance, Philando Castile, 32, four times, while her four-year-old daughter sat in the back seat.
"He let the officer know that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm," Reynolds said matter-of-factly, while recording as the officer’s gun remained pointed at Castile’s bloody body.
To some, to film a police officer still gripping his weapon defied how one should immediately react to a loved one being filled with bullets for no immediately discernible reason. But when you are part of a population that has been so routinely physically and psychologically traumatized, and that trauma has historically been dismissed with few ramifications for the fingers pulling triggers, or arms choking suspects, or hands arresting black bodies seemingly for sport, Reynolds’ reaction doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable response.
In the aftermath of the Castile incident, and many others fitting the same utterly demoralizing profile, cell phones have been regularly trotted out as the hero. That’s because, without the footage, the country would probably have never seen police officers treating black bodies with the care of disposable video game villains.
Footage of police interactions with America's black population has undeniably been the catalyst for a new era of public discussion about policing and race relations. And we've learned a lot about America from these videos. We've learned that police body cameras may be part of the solution to protecting black lives from senseless brutality at the hands of law enforcement. We've learned that video might be the most powerful weapon black people have against a system that stops and imprisons us at a maddening rate.
But none of that addresses what is arguably the more important issue: why black people need to furnish video evidence for America to listen to what they have been screaming from rooftops for generations. The answer is a truth that often gets lost in discussions praising technology: cell video is necessary for the protection of the black body in America because America doesn't trust black people.
The history of America's distrust of black people, and disregard of black grievances, is as old as the history of black people in America. The first black people to arrive in what is now the United States arrived in chains, a pretty explicit expression of a lack of trust. To be black in colonial America was to be implicitly suspicious and untrustworthy. Slaves were not to be trusted with freedom of movement, literacy, gathering in groups, or personhood. To be black in colonial America was to live a life where complaints about your quality of life were routinely trivialized, dismissed, and ignored. A very real consequence of being “uppity” and challenging the status quo was being sold like a bushel of tobacco or physically brutalized.
That inhumane reality didn’t end with emancipation. Through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era, black people in churches, black newspapers, scholarship, literature, and music, spent lifetimes meticulously explaining the various burdens of blackness. And still, contemporary American life is littered with examples of treating black people expressing urgent concerns over their well-being with suspicion. In 1992, much of the nation’s jaw dropped after video was released of LAPD officers viciously beating a subdued Rodney King in the middle of the highway. That shocking 10-minute video was perhaps the first viral, civilian-generated video. But as shocking as the visuals were, they weren’t enough for a successful criminal prosecution of the officers involved.
Nevertheless, policing in black communities became a topic of national conversation, not because yet another black man was mercilessly beaten by police, but because we were privy to undeniable visuals of police officers beating a defenseless black man. Video, we’ve come to learn, is much easier to believe than black people constantly complaining about their systematic mistreatment.
Protests and rioting followed the officers’ acquittals in the King case, and much of America was shocked at the volume and intensity of those reactions. But the reaction wouldn’t have been too shocking to those who had lived, witnessed, or believed black communities who had been talking about existential policing issues in their communities as long as police have been in their communities. The visceral response was a logical, inevitable reaction of a disenfranchised community reacting to a society that treats black grievances as exaggerations and lies, if it considers them at all.
A similar tale emerged shortly afterward during the O.J. Simpson trial, which, as the recent ESPN Simpson documentary meticulously outlines, was as much about the temperature of early-1990s American race relations as it was about adjudicating whether Simpson was a murderer. Which is why perhaps the most compelling memory of the trial isn’t the verdict, but the shock much of white America had at visuals of black Americans celebrating the decision. The celebrating had little to do with finding joy in two human beings dying or even Simpson’s acquittal; rather, parts of black America were celebrating anything that could remotely feel like a victory — even if it was a flawed victory — against a justice system that rarely seemed to fully consider their humanity or trust the veracity of their grievances.
White shock at black reactions to injustice in America has never been a consequence of black people registering their frustrations for the first time; it’s a consequence of being privileged enough to rarely encounter the visceral images of that injustice. And so it becomes easy to think that claims of brutalization at the hand of police are exaggerations or flat-out lies.
Roughly 20 years after the King and Simpson cases, Michael Brown was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As Ferguson stood up, America was treated to video of a highly militarized police response. Images of tanks and officers in battle gear saturated national coverage. It was a show of force one might expect to see used by the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. But here were scenes, streaming across television, computer, and mobile screens, in a suburb of St. Louis, that spoke to what black communities have been saying for generations: The police respond to us differently.
Once again, those visuals sparked national discussions about disproportional uses of force in black communities, but it also gave some insight into how law enforcement viewed the community it was supposed to be policing. Showing up to a protest dressed for war isn’t just a statement about officer safety; it’s also a statement about trust, or a lack thereof. But it took vivid imagery to make this reality real and to consider whether these scenes would ever take place in a white neighborhood.
So here we are in 2016. After generations of black people talking, marching, praying, crying, and dying because of state-sanctioned brutality and incarceration, we're again starting to see mass mobilization outside the black community about black lives mattering, but only after watching graphic video of black people getting brutalized at the hands of law enforcement. Major television, print, and digital outlets are marshalling the resources to extensively chronicle what has been happening in America away from video cameras for generations.
All this begs a question: If cell video was necessary to validate the cries that have been coming out of the black community about police violence, what else has black America been saying that's been roundly ignored?
Perhaps the lesson we should be learning from cell technology isn’t simply that we should be happy we're finally able to aggregate video evidence of police brutality; it’s also: how do we take that realization and explore other injustices that black people have been talking about for centuries, while so much of the rest of the nation either didn’t believe the magnitude of the problem or didn’t care?
Do we need to be meticulously recording loan application processes and housing discrimination scenarios? In the new digital economy, must we go through recording the process of setting up fake Air B&B profiles as white people, after we've been rejected as a black customer, to prove racism? Because that's the kind of almost unassailable evidence America seems to require to be able to begin to take black grievances seriously.
While we take moments to celebrate how cell phone technology is advancing the national conversation about police brutality, it’s worth taking some time to think about what it says that we need to graphically show brutality and injustice toward black people to in order to have meaningful national conversations about black lives mattering.
Miriti Murungi is a Senior Digital Producer/Social Media Editor for Fusion. He is possibly responsible for the nonsensical ramblings at @NutmegRadio. Also dabbles in yacht rock and used to wear a tie. *tips hat*