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In Sight

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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.

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  • White Trash Liberal

    It’s also a power that can be used to subvert civil rights. Look no further than the manufactured PP outrage.

    The power of protest was also a tremendous tool until COINTELPRO subverted it through infiltration, ridicule, and the stoking of violence.

    The thumb on the scale of social justice belongs to the 1%. And we should be developing vigorous critical tools to be able to break apart the false narratives that will be woven using the same tools.

    • Rob in CT

      Obviously, deceptively edited video is a problem. The attempted O’Keefing of PP and the successful destruction of ACORN are examples of that.

      So it’s a double-edged sword. When it comes to police conduct, the cameras seem pretty useful.

      • Gwen

        It’s very simple. The problem isn’t the power of video, it’s a disparity in who has that power.

        All we need to do to end O’Keefe, forever, is to acorn* his office and his donors.

        I would suggest reading David Brin’s “Transparent Society” book some time, if you haven’t.

        * I suggest we start using “acorn” as a verb to mean: “to use deceptively-edited video to slander an opponent.”

    • CaptBackslap – YOLO Edition

      Was I the only one whose response to the PP video was basically a shrug and “waste not, want not”?

      • Rob in CT sees a troll

        No. But the LGM commentariat wasn’t going to fall for that sort of bullshit. That’s not the worry.

  • Aimai

    I sided with Drexcyia in an earlier thread arguing that cameras alone were not sufficient and (therefore) might be a kind of a distraction from the struggle although useful. However the recent case of the innocent motorist shot dead by the University Cop in Cincinnati is an extremely important counter-example. It is only because of the existence of the body camera and the police department’s knowledge that, sooner or later, it would come out that the police officer was indicted for murder. In fact in one account of the indictment I read a local authority who had been opposed to the push for body cameras came around and changed his mind because of this case.

    Its not just racism or classism that is the issue here–nobody can know everything all of the time. There are hundreds of incidents and situations that need redress, indeed, thousands. For something to rise to the level of city wide, regional, national or international political consciousness it takes enormous social pressure and visibility is almost the first requirement for that.

    • Linnaeus

      Agreed.

    • Brien Jackson

      I don’t know: Joe Deters isn’t a perfect DA by any stretch, but he seems to be legitimately appalled by the officer’s actions (and Cincinnati has made some pretty notable attempts to take policing back to a more community policing oriented approach after the last round of riots). He might have aggressively pursued it regardless, although the video at the very least gives him a ton of evidence in the face of the statements of the officer and the other two pigs who lied to protect him.

      • Drexciya

        However the recent case of the innocent motorist shot dead by the University Cop in Cincinnati is an extremely important counter-example. It is only because of the existence of the body camera and the police department’s knowledge that, sooner or later, it would come out that the police officer was indicted for murder.

        I want to agree with this, I really do.

        But the officer was wearing a body cam and the person recorded on it got shot in the face. If the goal is to increase the likelihood of prosecution in the instance of a black person getting shot under absurd conditions, then perhaps this will be helpful. Perhaps they already are. If the goal is to make sure these people aren’t shot in the first place; if the goal is to provide material protection and a removal of or undermining of all the subtextual threats that go into these kinds of police encounters, then no, bodycams are not responsive.

        Bodycams are only a solution if the problem is that they aren’t prosecuted when they’re murdered. This, to say the least, is not the problem. At best, it’s a problem, one that only exists because the original issue festers largely unaddressed.

        • Rob in CT

          Obviously the end goal is that the officer never draws his gun in the first place in an incident such as this (or, given the details of this one, never pulls the guy over).

          Incidents like this that result in officers going to prison (we’ll see, obviously the case has to play out) will, hopefully, get it through cops’ heads that they have to be less itchy with their trigger fingers.

          Better training of police – both pushing desescalation instead of escalation and seeking to reduce unconcious bias – also has to be part of the picture. That’s a management issue, and I think if management is seeing their officers go to jail and/or suffer major losses in civil suits and get a ton of bad publicity, they will have to respond. Whether they respond effectively is an open question.

        • Barry_D

          “Bodycams are only a solution if the problem is that they aren’t prosecuted when they’re murdered. This, to say the least, is not the problem. At best, it’s a problem, one that only exists because the original issue festers largely unaddressed.”

          When there is no video evidence, I think that it’s safe to say that prosecution is extremely rare.

          As has been pointed out, without video this would have been a ‘self-defense’ shooting

          • Rob in CT

            Right. The officers lied, and those lies would likely have been accepted but for the video.

            So yes, video is only the first, most basic step here. But it seems to be a necessary one.

            • Lee Rudolph

              So I was listening to the radio and they had a brief story on the indicted cop’s successfully posting $1,000,000 bail, with audio from the courtroom. As the judge announced she’d accepted the bail, fucking CHEERS broke out (which she slapped right down).

              • Rob in CT

                Gah.

                I went looking for a news story on that. I found a NY Mag article on it, which is written confusingly (as written, it sounds like cheering was due to the high bail being set, not the guy making bail & being released).

                Then I made a mistake. I make this mistake more than I should. I know better.

                I read the comments.

  • Troll

    Comment deleted

  • White Trash Liberal

    What do we do when a video is posted on YouTube showing a black man being aggressive to a cop, child, or white woman? How do we resist gotcha narratives muddying the waters of a viable movement?

    Breitbart and his proteges will use their network to engage in subversion at the behest of maintaining White Dominance in the public sphere. What can we do about that?

    • Troll

      Comment deleted

      • DocAmazing

        Now, see, the punctuation gives you away again, Jennie. jfL is a teacher; he would never write a run-on sentence.

    • Karen24

      By posting accurate videos, and by discussing and accurately analyzing the tendentious videos.

    • What do we do when a video is posted on YouTube showing a black man being aggressive to a cop, child, or white woman?

      What do we do when people keep comparing the “aggressive” actions of private citizens to murders and assaults carried out by the state?

      I favor pointing and laughing, because trolls hate that.

    • zoomar

      What do we do when a video is posted on YouTube showing a black man being aggressive to a cop, child, or white woman? How do we resist gotcha narratives muddying the waters of a viable movement?

      Acknowledge that the perfect victim doesn’t exist. Understand that a police encounter gone bad will generally always involve a victim who is not at their best. It’s beside the point. This whole controversy is about an epidemic of thieving, abusive, murderous, militarized, badly trained, corrupt police departments and what the public has to do to put them in check. This essay by Leonard Pitts Jr. explains how white people also have a stake in this matter.

      • Pat

        Anybody remember that video of the 4-year old white girl sneaking out of her house in the middle of the night and getting on a bus in Philly? All the big black guys squatting down to get on her level and politely telling her to go talk to the bus driver?

  • Downpuppy

    Are we seeing change? The Guardian count for July is 110 killed by police.

    Any one of the 664 is worth a read. April 28 – Albert Hanson, Jr – a 76 year old man, sitting in a truck on (his?) ranch, upset. SWAT shows up, pretty soon he died.
    I couldn’t find any followup in the last month.

    • We are seeing outrage, which is a necessary component of creating change.

      • Downpuppy

        I’m kind of surprised, when you look at most of these, by the complete absence of outrage. Robert Frost, a 46 year old white veteran with problems, was sleeping in his truck with a gun on his lap. A cop woke him up, he shot the gun, cop shot 3 times.

        Frost’s family just said, yep, that’s what we expected. Nobody even said : Why didn’t they just let him sleep?

      • Pat

        I think outrage has to be focused. It needs a target that’s worthwhile and not out of reach.

        It’s also important to emphasize that while police violence often focuses on African Americans, the fact that their actions are deemed legal makes everyone vulnerable. The color of your skin won’t save you or your teenager if the cop stopping your vehicle on a whim decides to go for an arrest. The laws need to be changed to protect everyone.

        By phrasing the problem this way, we might be able to scare enough white people into supporting change that can make a difference.

        • Nope. Racism is a huge factor in police brutality. You can see it in who winds up dead and who does not.

          The very nicest thing I can say about the idea that anyone should pretend otherwise in order to gain the support of the hypothetical white person who doesn’t really see the problem with police executing black men, women and children is it is an excessively boring idea.

          • Pat

            You’re absolutely right, Shakezula. Racism is an enormous factor. The fact that municipalities make up the shortfall between their tax revenue and their operating budget by stealing money from the black community is the driving force. That robbery drives contempt for the black community, which manifests in violence.

            I will argue here that if liberals have to set priorities for their agenda, that #BLM has to rise to the top and be the first to be addressed. It’s both a political and moral necessity.

            The laws governing use of force by police will have to be changed. It’s only going to happen when every parent sees their own daughter in Sandra Bland and their own son in Freddie Gray or Michael Brown.

            You can call that boring if you like. That is where we disagree.

    • Barry_D

      “Are we seeing change?”

      Yes, because more and more we are seeing what happens.

      Almost all of these murders would have been clean crimes, with the murderers getting away with it. When there was some evidence, the prosecutors would convene a Grand Jury, feed it BS, and use it to justify the cover-up.

      Imagine 2014-15 without video. How many cases would have been very quiet, very local matters which the press might not even mention?

      • Right. Its not like in 2005 cops weren’t killing black people with impunity. It’s just that there was no video of it so no one talked about it.

        • Aimai

          I think we have to be careful about the casual use of the phrase “no one.” White people weren’t talking about it, but I don’t think that’s true for the Black Community. However over the last few years what has really changed the face of the national awareness of regional crimes is twitter–as well as video. Twitter has enabled people (of whatever color) who are following a certain type of incident to link up in real time and communicate with each other about issues of importance to them.

          • Rob in CT sees a troll

            I think better phrasing would be few people with social capital were talking about it.

          • ColBatGuano

            My college roommate from Compton told me stories like these about the LA police…in 1977.

  • charluckles

    I had not seen all of the videos at the NYT link. Infuriating, scary…

  • Turkle

    Nice to meet you yesterday. Bought the book, can’t wait to read it. A question I wanted to ask at your event but didn’t have time to do so:

    Videos rely for their power on their ability to generate empathy in the viewer – there is a strong, emotive, and pre-predicative power in watching them that can have extremely strong political effects.

    But if there is one thing we have learned with recent videos, it’s that there is another audience that watches those very same videos and has exactly the opposite reaction. One audience watches the video of an African-American being choked to death by a cop and feels an instant emotive response of compassion for the murdered victim and rage at the murderous police. Another audience watches the same video and feels terrified of the African-American (there really is so much fear in racism) and sympathy for the brave cop who protects the vile racists from those they hate.

    The same thing goes for any of these videos. Talk with any right-winger and you’ll see that the power of videos to inspire empathy has its evil twin: it provokes precisely the inverse reaction in those with hearts full of hate.

    This isn’t to knock the power of these videos! You have to do what you can to provoke these mass responses, whether it’s today’s shareable videos or yesterday’s muckraking journalism (The Jungle).

    You made the excellent point that once you get one of these mass emotive and empathic responses that results in a mass political action, you have to work to inscribe those gains into law or people will move on.

    But I worry about the weakness of today’s lefty ideology. As you pointed out in relation to individualism, the right has so completely dominated the ideological sphere that people can’t take effective group action any more (I’m reminded of your observation that protest songs don’t work any more – too disruptive of the individual?).

    One of the most instructive lessons from this blog’s own Steven Attewell’s recent class in the history of American economic and social development is how ingrained Keynesian assumptions about the role of the government and the economy once were to educated Americans. This isn’t to say that corporations ever stopped fighting it, of course, but large-scale shifts in national ideology make all the difference in the effects of these sudden mass movements. It seems to me precisely the obvious failure of the left to communicate a coherent ideology that is preventing permanent gains from these movements.

    Anyway, this is rambling, and I apologize. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that without concrete change in predicative ideology, the ability to communicate understandings and expectations, you can’t bridge that gap between the emotive video and law. The left continues to fail utterly in this regard, and it is extremely frustrating. Sorry if this is incoherent.

    • Zamfir

      It works for issues with a mushy middle, people who might be on the good side when pushed but who don’t give the issue much priority, who tend to downplay the events. I am sure I am in that middle far too often. If video can move those people, then the people who cheer the abuse don’t matter. Police brutality might be such an issue.

      I am less hopeful that video will work for modern day Triangle fires. People can be remarkably accepting about work conditions in faraway countries. Like, collapsing buildings are just part of Bangladesh.

      • Turkle

        The Bangladesh disaster is another case in point. Without an ideology that 1) government can fix problems and do good, 2) the force of law is necessarily to restrain corporations, and 3) collective solutions are necessary when individual solutions will not do, it is tough to see how real gains are transformed into law.

        Of course, I am probably just pessimistic. Real legal/political change has rarely been as simple as “the majority changed its mind,” rather, it’s largely been the work of extremely dedicated minorities that were able to apply pressure at the right time on the right authorities. But at a certain time, the critical moment seems to involve garnering support through alliances with the squishy center of American politics in order to drive legislation through, etc.

        I dunno.

    • BoredJD

      I do wonder if these videos, which demonstrate a police officer clearly abusing his authority against whites (although neither citizen was arrested or physically injured), would produce the same reaction in your average viewer than the much more shocking videos that have come out of Texas and Cincinnati.

      http://www.boston.com/news/2015/07/29/medford-mayor-fully-shocked-and-saddened-actions-cop-dash-cam/yyQN8pXOb5yoVY9MP60FAO/story.html

    • shah8
      • zoomar

        I think that Unarmed-black-men-being-killed-by-police-is-the-new-lynching. And much more effective, seeings how there are no reliable numbers available on the subject. Educated estimates would probably put the total such deaths since the 60s at orders of magnitude larger than the approximately 3400 recorded lynchings from 1882-1968.

      • Drexciya

        shah8: Yes, to that link.

  • Gwen

    Unfortunately, we can’t document the atrocities of corporate capitalism by requiring that managers wear body cameras.

    • Aimai

      Right–and the laws against taping/recording people without their knowledge or on private property (the ag gag law among others) preclude workers from taping and recording wearing their own body cameras.

    • zoomar

      The Food Lion/ABC lawsuit also removed the 1st Amendment as a protection for journalists who lie on a job application to gain access to the facility. ABC was able to get the $$ award thrown out, but not the charge of Trespass and Breach of Loyalty.

  • Rob in CT sees a troll

    Alert to our hosts: our troll is back, posting under one name and nymjacking joe from Lowell.

    • Aimai

      Wish we had a “troll be gone” button.

      • Nikola Tesla was reported to have invented an electric death ray. Press a button and someone somewhere else got fried.

      • Rob in CT sees a troll

        I don’t mind trollish comments nearly as much as vile shit posted as if it was from one of our regulars. Thankfully, the troll is not subtle.

    • “I see troll people.”

  • samh

    Police have been oppressing African-Americans pretty much since their arrival in the future United States in 1619.

    Um, the police-as-we-know-it was only invented in the early 1800s…

    Fun fact: in the North, municipal police evolved from union busters, and in the South, they evolved from slave patrols. Surely since then, their function of maintaining the class system has stopped.

  • ralphdibny

    And of course, the Civil Rights Movement was aided immeasurably by the evening news airing footage of police brutality. If I’m not mistaken, that’s where the whole idea of “liberal media” comes from–Walter Cronkite airing footage of Bull Conner’s atrocities. I mean, c’mon–an impartial newsman would have devoted most of his broadcast to black criminality, like we do today.

    • Right. Remember that King picked Birmingham precisely because he knew it would get the headlines that he couldn’t get in Albany since Bull Connor would miss no opportunity to commit police violence against blacks, cameras or no.

  • John Glover

    Yes, in the case of police violence and holding them accountable for their acts, video has been a godsend.

    On the other hand, this has been obvious to the conservative media for a long time. A video of a surfer dude on foodstamps eating lobster leads to cries that the recipients of foods stamps are all moochers and efforts to regulate the items that can be bought and to drug test those who get them.

    Or think about how the ISIS beheading videos spurred our re-entry into the quagmire that is Iraq.

    Or how doctored videos are spurring a movement to defund Planned Parenthood.

    The video image is a powerful thing. On the issue of police violence, it has been used for good. More often than not it hasn’t.

    • zoomar

      Yes, on the other hand. There’s always an other hand.

      Uganda is eradicating River Blindness.
      On the other hand, “Oh, poor Onchocerca volvulus!”

  • Drexciya

    Black corpses are not and must not be the foundation of white awakening and there’s nothing progressive about making that a celebrated and acceptable precondition for political advancement. Whose “tremendous power” is being exercised when white consumption is posited as a sufficient reason for having constant, often fatal, assaults on black bodies glibly reproduced by people with no evident or human connection to the deceased and the most superficial empathy for those of us that can easily see ourselves joining them? What is there to celebrate when, absent a relinquishing of power and a reconsideration of how that power gets to be exercised, all that’s brought into focus is that this can and will happen again and again and again and that, while waiting an indeterminable length for an unformed political benefit to emerge, I might be next? While I can understand the impulse to see some pragmatic, long term political value to this that hypothetically envisions an awakened populous making counter-intuitive assessments in my favor, I think it should be pleated with some consideration for the fact that I want to live and that these videos bring into way-more-than-background focus that I might not.

    I don’t necessarily want to undermine the potential political benefits that emerge from these videos being fixtures of shocked retweets, “moneyshot” style gifs of black people dying, grave-faced announcements that another black person has been shot on cam before showing the video and whatever else, I think there should be an ambivalence to this tactic that brings into focus both the casual dehumanization inherent to their often glib reproduction (a glibness that was reflected by NYT’s disgusting multipart gifset of black people dying as well as this post), how traumatic that reproduction is for people who can do a little more than just feel bad for the people murdered, and how both of those qualities reinforce a narrative of black bodies as noble sacrifices for the possible emergence of white consciences. That isn’t just a gross narrative on its own (and one that can taint even the “victories” that flow from those premises), it makes viewers and political analysts active participants in the cheapening of black life through the minimized gravity afforded to black death.

    Which is just another way of saying, in this, as in most things, there’s very little “us”. Your “political dynamic that we should smile and celebrate” is my “you’re portraying the open dispersal of snuff films as a progressive achievement”.

    And as an aside, of course there’s a Black Lives Matter without them. That hashtag was started and given force during Zimmerman’s acquittal, and it was resurrected when Michael Brown was killed. Both of these were egregious deaths, neither were recorded. The fact that these videos can be leveraged isn’t a consequence of those videos existing, it’s a consequence of there being angry and living activists who take every outrageous and uncontroversial instance of police violence (a classification that does in no way necessitate or require video recording), amplify it and, more importantly, frame it for the benefit of those most likely to see themselves at-risk for such incidents, which furthers that amplification. This political moment exists because of the living.

    • What should be and what actually is are two very different things.

      • Drexciya

        “What should be” and “impossible to incorporate into my conception and expression of political value” are also two different things.

    • Barry_D

      Um, Drexciya, could you please rewrite that first post in more coherent English? You Fog Index is ‘London, 1950’. I couldn’t figure out what you were trying to say.

  • Drexciya

    Incorrectly placed post.

  • Rob in CT

    Based on articles now making the rounds, the video from the other cops’ body cameras shows them “quickly coalescing” around the false narrative. I can’t view them now, but this is another significant issue: cops covering up other cops misconduct.

    Assuming the videos do, in fact, show that the officers colluded to falsify their report of the incident, the prosecutor should have some more charges to file.

  • Rob in CT

    Also, too:

    At the end of June, the CT general assembly passed a law that will provide: 1) money for municipalities to use cameras; 2) push for more minority hiring; and 3) provide training resources from the state police (which doesn’t guarantee said training will be good, I know). They also passed another bill aimed at reducing jail time for various offenses… The senate had already passed the same stuff.

    Also, my google-fu indicates that various municipalities are moving ahead with body camera programs.

    My own town is so small we do not have a police force. We have a resident state trooper.

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