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Bookmark this: What should we do with videos of police brutality?

A definitive trend in the 2010s was the widespread availability of police brutality footage. But while these videos mobilised some, they've traumatised many.

01 Jun 2020

Content warning: This article contains mention of racism, violence and murder.

Please, not again. You see a name as you’re scrolling, then you see it a few more times. Mostly preceded or followed by “rest in peace”, sometimes illustrated with a photograph. A black face taken from us too soon. Every time, we reflect that we’ve seen this too many times before: the death, the absence of accountability and justice and killers who are often agents of the state. Worse still the grim footage of their execution, the undignified final moments going viral and becoming accessible at the click of a button. It all seems to reaffirm the feeling that our lives are theirs for the taking. We can see what they’re doing to us in HD.

This time its Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old from Georgia who went for a jog through the Satilla Shores neighbourhood and was chased and gunned down by Gregory and Travis McMichael who were holding a pistol and a shotgun. The case lay dormant until controversial activist Shaun King tweeted the footage to his 1.1 million followers and subsequently, the hashtag #IRunWithMaud surfaced, with people calling for justice to be served. On 7 May, the pair were arrested and following calls from Ahmaud’s family, William Bryan, the man who filmed and leaked the footage, was also arrested on 21 May.

This case, and the familiar pattern it has followed, has taken me back to 2016. It was the year that reports of black people being executed in the streets of America or brutalised in the UK, mostly by police, occurred with startling regularity. Videos and live streams had become the activist tool du jour. They served as evidence of the callousness. Finally, the world could no longer deny what we saw within our communities. How could they?

“Finally, the world could no longer deny what we saw within our communities”

At the time I was just getting my start in journalism, riding the hot take wave by reacting furiously to each case. Each face lingered with me as if it were a family member, or maybe it could be me – bloodied, battered, fading in front of the lens. I started to question my own value, meanwhile, white writers could move on, seeing it as “strong content” but not even feeling particularly compelled to join a march. I welled up at my desk and had a quiet moment in the toilets at one point because I was thinking: why is everybody else having a normal day? It completely reshaped how I saw myself and changed how I engage with the news.

In an update sent from Shaun King’s advocacy agency, the activist wrote that 74 days had passed since the attack before the men were arrested. “It wouldn’t have happened without massive numbers of people sending messages to key decision-makers, making phone calls, and speaking up,” he wrote. “1.4 million people signed the petition. Together, we made 168,000 phone calls. And 127,000 people are running in solidarity. It’s a shame it took so much effort from so many of us to finally get these men arrested, but we did it. We can’t let up.”

But with the 20/20 clarity of hindsight, I’ve since questioned whether sharing deaths raises awareness or has become unhealthy voyeurism. When it comes to something as viscerally distressing as a video of a person being murdered, perhaps there need to be more ground rules and decorum around their dissemination.

“I’ve since questioned whether sharing deaths raises awareness or has become unhealthy voyeurism”

It’s important that there is some level of intentionality when sharing or publishing such violent acts. In the last decade, the camera has been seen as a tool for emancipation and that has largely been the justification for triggering footage. It’s even one of the subtle messages hidden in Get Out, (symbolically it’s the camera flash that brings Andre Logan King, Lakeith Stanfield’s character, momentarily out of the sunken place), and more recently we’ve seen a black man, Christian Cooper, use video to highlight the racist treatment he received from a “Karen” (Amy Cooper – no relation) who called the police on him and pretended to be threatened while on a walk in Central Park after he told her to put her dog on a leash. But it’s not that straightforward. 

Do the videos bring about justice?

In the case of Ahmaud, the dissemination of the video has been justified due to the fact it has led to arrests. This, we’re told, is justice. But if we are to see this outcome as a helping hand, we have to somehow agree that incarceration is justice (versus real structural change or chipping away at the systemic issue at hand) – something that isn’t really backed by examples of how locking people up has served us in the past. 

We’ve watched cops squeeze the breath out of Eric Garner, cried as Philando Castile lost consciousness after he was shot four times by officers next to his girlfriend in the same car as her four-year-old daughter on Facebook Live, squinted at the grainy helicopter footage of Terence Crutcher unarmed with his hands up, walking away from officers before being tased and shot just after you hear them call him. Those videos are burned into my psyche and served as a personal moment of political awakening, but as for the cases themselves? 

Officer Pantaleo, the man who choked Eric Garner, was not indicted even if the family did later receive $5.9 million in damages from a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of New York and its police department. Though his family later received almost $3 million dollars in damages from the city of St Anthony, Minnesota, Philando Castile’s killer was also acquitted of his crime. Similarly, the footage was not enough to bring Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby, who can be seen shooting and killing Terence Crutcher, to justice. Not only was she found not guilty, but she also kept her job – moving to become a Rogers County, Oklahoma Sheriff’s Deputy. There are countless cases of police officers being caught red-handed brutalising our bodies but the dissemination of those videos rarely result in justice. It definitely has not sparked any structural change. 

“Black people have been so systematically dehumanised and discredited that people have to see blood spilt to acknowledge our plight”

According to the Washington Post, somewhere between 900 and 1,000 people are shot and killed by police. The same report, which was published last year by the Police Integrity Research Group, found that since 2005 almost 100 police officers had been arrested in connection with fatal shootings but only 35 had been convicted of a crime –  usually of a smaller offence like manslaughter or negligent homicide instead of murder. 

Who are the videos for?

It is true that videos can be used to garner support and mobilise a movement. There were over 50 protests after the Eric Garner video alone, and if you go way back to the 90s, the Rodney King riots burned furiously for almost a week after footage that drew huge attention to the oppression black LA residents were facing was televised. But we’re now in 2020, and black people already know about brutality and oppression. It’s this fact that forces the question of whether creating a spectacle out of black death is for black people, who are already familiar with the evils of racism, or whether it is to make white people see the white supremacy they ignore.

These videos symbolise what all black people already know: the bar for proving racism is so high. It would be unthinkable for Childline or NSPCC to rely on explicit videos of child abuse in order to keep the issue in the public consciousness. In what the media is hell-bent on calling the #MeToo era, the movement has not only been afforded recognition and column inches via the release of explicit footage of the abuse. I fail to recall any. Yet black people have been so systematically dehumanised and discredited that people have to see blood spilt to acknowledge our plight.

“Each video has a ripple effect”

The internet is now home to a catalogue of clips of black people’s final moments at the hands of racists or the state (who are also racist). Is it ok that we can so easily flick through an article like one on the New York Times entitled “Black Lives Upended by Policing: The Raw Videos Sparking Outrage”, a crude listicle complete with embeds of murder, death, terror? Each video has a ripple effect. If a black person who already feels the claustrophobic weight of oppression sees it, the video seemingly affirms that they don’t matter, that they are disposable or worthless, that it could happen to you too and nothing will be done.

A recent study found that looking at videos and TV news about viral killings served as visual reminders of African Americans’ low social position. The distress was linked to PTSD and depressive symptoms among youths of colour (Latinx adolescents were also badly impacted). Pam Ramsden presented research way back in 2015 to the British Psychological Association conference stating that one in four people who watch distressing images of violent events developed symptoms of PTSD.

There are countless other scenarios. A family member who knows the quirks of the victim, their favourite music and TV, the way their eyes would light up a room when they were happy, a whole life reduced to a stomach-churning clip they can never takedown. Back in 2016, Alton Sterling’s wife cried as she explained how her 15-year-old son had to watch the video of his father dying “as it was put all over the outlets to be shown”. He appeared to be in extreme distress. 

There’s also the question of what it does for black people for non-black people to get used to seeing our bodies brutalised, as if it’s just a fact of life and to share these videos widely – especially since we know the unique trauma it leaves us with. A white person might feel slightly bad about racism enough to retweet our final moments, but not to the extent that it will mean that they will become actively, let alone passionately anti-racist or particularly proactive in using their privilege in any constructive way. Lazily resharing the clip and a hashtag is such a small part of the job and if afterwards you just go back to clout chasing or retweeting memes without making any other changes, then you have to question what difference sharing the clip made given that we know the trauma it will have caused black people online.

Then there are the white supremacists who can access these videos, know that nothing was done to get justice for the killer and fantasise about enacting the same brutality. We know that videos have also served as trophies for racist murderers like Brenton Harrison Tarrant from the Christchurch massacre. It’s important to reiterate that William Bryan, who took the viral video of the shooting of Ahmaud, has now actually been arrested for his murder. “Right now, we know that he recorded this video from a very close proximity. According to his attorney, he was home one minute and within minutes, he was behind Ahmaud Arbery with his cellphone, recording his ambush,” the Ahmaud family attorney Lee Merritt said during an appearance on the Tamron Hall Show.

Illustrations by Maïté Marque

New rules

We already know that social media is a warped and wild wild west where almost anything goes. Calling for adequate moderation from the likes of Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg at this point is like begging Voldemort to show us mere muggles some mercy. They simply don’t seem to care enough. But I don’t believe that we need to traumatise people as a part of activism. If I, like Dua Lipa before me, was going to present a set of new rules it would be that if we disseminate a violent video at all it should be handled sensitively.

Firstly, think of the mechanics of the platform you’re posting the video onto. A health and social psychologist who specialises in tech told the New Statesman of the risks to unwitting scrollers when explicit content autoplays before they have the chance to consent to seeing it. There were many complaints that due to Twitter’s autoplay function the video was seen by people scrolling down the timeline without them realising what they were going to see.

Activists have long since advocated for the use of trigger warnings so people know what content they are seeing. And despite the controversy around content notes, it’s not much to clearly label what the video you’re sharing shows so your followers know. In Teen Vogue, Lincoln Anthony Blades writes that he clicked on the video as it was shared with the caption “wow, this is crazy” and he expected it to be an entertaining TikTok. Pixelating explicit content is commonplace on television networks, and perhaps could be used as a way of showing what happened without disturbing clarity. 

“We may not know yet what the long-lasting impact of being a generation repeatedly exposed to videos of people like us being executed without consequence will be”

A resource was drawn up for journalists covering eyewitness media after 46% surveyed said they believed they had experienced vicarious trauma that impacted their life. It cited that meditation and mental health care is essential to counter the things they were experiencing like intrusive thoughts and increased cynicism due to repeated exposure. It stands to reason that any person viewing and trying to make sense of the same footage would have similar experiences. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism set up a project named Dart Center to provide information and support about journalists and trauma. One report on working with traumatic imagery suggested that focusing on elements like clothing rather than faces or lowering the resolution could lessen the impact of the videos. Other tips include reducing the vibrancy of the footage.

In terms of how this could be adopted by social media users at large, it gives weight to the idea that we could be editing, pixelating or blurring certain elements of the video before publishing to minimise the risk of traumatising the audience. We may not know yet what the long-lasting impact of being a generation repeatedly exposed to videos of people like us being executed without consequence will be, but it isn’t too late to reappraise the trend.

Footage of brutality is a powerful weapon, but as much as it brings publicity to a case, it also brings a lot of pain. As such they should be handled with care.