This time was different. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder after kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, extinguishing his life in front of dozens of witnesses, several of whom were filming.
For centuries, juries in the US have consistently exonerated whites, especially police officers, charged with murdering Black Americans. Few cases were brought to trial. Those that did rarely won convictions. This reign of terror by white supremacists, especially in the South, has become a mainstay of American culture, etched into the annals of American literature from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
In the 20th century, it seemed possible that new horrifying graphic evidence might flip this script. Photographs and videos of mutilated bodies and attackers caught in the act began streaming into the national consciousness. Yet, it did not seem to sway many in the jury box. Most notoriously, an all-white, all-male jury in the murder trial of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy in Mississippi whose face was tortured beyond recognition (and captured in Time magazine), deliberated for 67 minutes before acquitting the two men charged in the attack. Even during the Civil Rights era, when networks aired prime-time footage of police beating Black Americans with batons wrapped in barbed wire, and siccing dogs on children, little seemed to change.
More recently, a camera in everyone’s hand, and the power to share its images with millions of people, has been shifting how the public interprets these incidents, not as aberrations, but as the normal violent reality for most Black Americans, says Rashawn Ray, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. The murder of George Floyd, in particular, was captured from every excruciating angle—body cams, security cameras, cell phones—and viewed by millions of people around the world, shared and amplified by friends and family on their social media feeds.
And the jury finally believed what they saw with their own eyes. That’s what makes Chauvin’s case a watershed moment in US history.
“The overwhelming amount of video made the difference,” said Ray, predicting heavy use of video from multiple sources will set the precedent going forward.
In the past, a clip might be broadcast on the nightly news and then fade. No longer. Social media ensures that these videos will not only spread far and wide, but never drift far from your news feed. If you’ve ever liked a Facebook post supporting Black Lives Matter, or retweeted a #georgefloyd hashtag, algorithms on the world’s largest social media platforms will ensure you see more of them. And there are many more.
Compare this to the trial of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers accused of beating Rodney King in 1991. An amateur video showed King being beaten by police while lying facedown on the ground. King suffered skull fractures, broken bones, shattered teeth, and permanent brain damage. Soon after the graphic video hit television, two narratives emerged. One, mostly in press serving Los Angeles’ Black community, portrayed the beating as just the most recent case of LAPD’s systematic violence against Blacks, one that happened to be caught on camera. But in the Los Angeles Times, sociologists documented, the narrative was one of rogue cops, not an indictment of the institution itself.
Four LAPD officers were eventually charged in King’s beating based on the video evidence. But defense lawyers and testimony by LAPD trainers reframed the video to argue the officers’ actions were a reasonable response to “dangerous” behavior. Actions as innocuous as King bending his knee on the ground were classified as threatening. All four were acquitted in 1992, sparking riots that left 63 people dead and 2,383 injured.
Images alone are never enough. Social narratives dictate what we permit ourselves to see. “Even the most ‘obvious’ and condemning video evidence is subject to reinterpretation and reforming by skilled legal professionals,” wrote Forrest Stuart, now an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University, in the journal Law & Social Inquiry, in 2011 after analyzing the use of video evidence in King’s trial. The notion of “objective, unambiguous, or unbiased” video, he argues, is a myth.
For now, Chauvin’s conviction remains the outlier. Most police accused of murder have been unlikely to see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a jail cell. Of the 104 law enforcement officers arrested for murder or manslaughter for on-duty shooting between 2005-2019, only four were convicted of the charge (more were convicted on lesser charges), according to Bowling Green State University’s Police Integrity Research Group.
It’s possible this is about to change. Video will only be part of the reason. Public awareness about the daily violence facing Black Americans, sometimes perpetrated by the police themselves, is making it possible for all Americans to see what this evidence truly shows.
“Black people aren’t lying about being brutalized on a regular basis,” says Ray. The public has begun to see “numerous videos of Black people being brutalized by police and then, just as importantly, see videos of white people doing the same things and not getting brutalized.”
That’s finally changed the narrative.