The Times has a piece up today on a point I made at last night’s Out of Sight event–the power of video technology to stir outrage is tremendous. Police brutality toward people of color is not a new thing. Police have been oppressing African-Americans pretty much since their arrival in the future United States in 1619. Not only was oppression of black and brown people written into the law, but police violence toward them has often been expected and tolerated and even celebrated by much of the white community. African-Americans, Native Americans (the American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis explicitly around the issue of police brutality) and Latinos have long fought this. But now they have a new weapon–video technology. We saw the first incident of this power with the recording of the beating of Rodney King. Today, between everyday citizens recording police brutality with their phones and cameras in police cars and on police officer’s bodies, we (and by this I largely mean white people who simply have no idea what happens in relations between people of color and the police on a daily basis) see over and over again the horrors of the routine treatment of African-Americans by the police. This gives us tremendous power. The videos do not mean that police are going to stop committing police brutality–at least not yet. We can see that on the videos themselves. But it does provide us a tremendous tool to bring this brutality to people’s attention. There probably is not a Black Lives Matter movement without it. We can read about violence and we can forget about it after shaking our heads. Or we can see it and be disgusted and outraged. The visual power of witnessing terrible oppression is so incredibly powerful for social change.
It’s not just police brutality either. Consider the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. We know that domestic violence is a huge problem in our society and that in violent sports like football, boxing, and MMA, it’s an even greater problem. Yet most people ignored these stories in celebration of their favorite athletes until we saw what Ray Rice did. He may well never play again. Yet when there isn’t video, as there usually isn’t, we don’t act against these people, i.e. Floyd Mayweather.
For that matter, look at the Triangle Fire, where I start my book. The power of change there originated not with the number of deaths. There were all sorts of similar or even worse workplace disasters during the era, especially in mining but also in other textile fire factories. In 1910, a fire killed a few dozen apparel workers at a Newark sweatshop. No one of importance saw it so no one did anything. But at Triangle, rich people saw the people making their clothing die and that created a political movement that led to major changes in workplace safety and fire and building safety codes, part of the broader struggle to tame American capitalism during the 20th century.
Video knowledge scares those in power. That’s why agribusiness is pushing so hard in the states to pass ag-gag laws that would criminalize video knowledge. Animal rights activists getting jobs in factory farms are recording the truly horrible treatment overworked and underpaid and poorly trained workers give to animals that includes beatings and sexual abuse, in addition to the standard caging of animals in incredibly inhumane conditions. These videos have done a lot to publicize the terrible conditions of the meat industry. That scares agribusiness. Rich people profit if we can’t know what they do. The ag-gag bills have largely been unsuccessful so far but they are frightful, for if agribusiness can criminalize footage of their factories, why can’t all industries do the same? They want to make sure we consumers have no idea what is happening on factory floors. Moving factories abroad or to isolated parts of the United States accomplishes much of that, but the power of video and the internet severely undermines it, making the need to criminalize knowledge the next logical step for corporations.
Meanwhile, so long as we can have video access of these crimes against people of color, against workers, and against animals, we need to celebrate it. This is a technological advancement with real power to fight the injustices of the world. We can see that by what’s happening on our streets right now.