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Videos of police brutality now resemble modern-day lynchings

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Remembering Alton.
  • Marcie Bianco
By Marcie Bianco

Managing editor, the Clayman Institute at Stanford University

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Body cameras are supposed to hold police accountable for their actions. As more and more US police forces across the country implement them, the technology has been touted a simple, transparent way to help curtail police brutality.

Cameras cannot eradicate racism or force police officers to reckon with the role they play perpetuating it.

But in the 21st century, when technology is paramount, body cams have not stopped innocent people from dying at the hands of law enforcement. Body cams did not spare the lives of the 136 black Americans killed by police—as of the time this piece was published—in 2016. And body cams have also not exacted much justice for those victims. In 2014 and in 2015, no police officer was convicted “on murder or manslaughter charges… for fatally shooting a civilian in the line of duty,” according to the Huffington Post.

In the digital age, we often look to technology for solutions. Early studies have documented a reduction in police brutality when officers wear body cameras. But the cameras cannot eradicate racism in the justice system—or force police officers to reckon with the role they play in perpetuating it. 559 people have been killed by US police so far in 2016.

As we witnessed in the tragic murder of Alton Sterling on July 5, these types of bandaid solutions can easily slip off—literally. When Baton Rouge police officers Blaine Salamoni and Howie Lake tackled and pinned Sterling to the pavement their “body cameras came dislodged,” Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman Lt. Jonny Dunnam told The New York Times.

How convenient.

The very existence of body cams arguably signifies an acknowledgment of the systemic nature of police brutality. These are cameras intended to police the police. The disciplinary power of body cams is supposed to make officers refrain from exacting unwarranted violence on civilians; they know an objective camera-eye is watching. But observing behavior doesn’t always change that behavior. In this case, instead of confronting brutality ourselves, we seem to be offloading that responsibility onto a machine.

Black Americans know that videos are far more likely to be used to broadcast brutality than they are to stop it.

The pervasive and egregious levels of prejudice evident throughout the police force have been well documented and reported. And racism is the reason why Sterling was executed while he restrained on the ground while domestic terrorist Dylann Roof was given a protective, bullet-proof vest and taken to Burger King after he slaughtered nine churchgoers in South Carolina.
Most heinous is the fact that these body cams seem to act as futile deterrents against the historic and continuous police terrorism of black bodies. The disciplinary power of the cameras arguably has a greater effect on black Americans than on the police themselves. There is no solace to be found in body cams when black Americans know that the videos are far more likely to be used to broadcast more brutality than they are to stop it. These cameras make state-inflicted violence visible to the masses, but they also highlight the often-futile search for justice. There may be some value in forcing Americans—and the world—to stare our ugliest demons in the face. But it is also an exhausting, and potentially harmful, exercise.

As April Reign noted in the Washington Post, the videos have become “tantamount to snuff films.” “Sharing a video on social media or the media will not change anyone’s mind. Either it will confirm what one already believed was true, or a person will look for ways to contradict what they have just seen,” she writes. “The dehumanization of black bodies becomes some sort of perverse entertainment as images of our pain are broadcast for the world to see.”

The psychological damage enacted by these videos harkens back to an even darker era in American racial history.

Indeed, the psychological damage enacted by these videos harkens back to an even darker era in American racial history. In her book Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, Amy Louise Wood explains how lynching is a form of racial terrorism: “Terrifying images of white power and black helplessness refracted not only into black homes and communities but across the American racial landscape,” she writes. “But even that violence and those deaths themselves were representational, conveying messages about racial hierarchy and the frightening consequences of transgressing that hierarchy.” The parallels are impossible to miss.

Wood contends that the “cultural power of lynching” was experienced by whites, too: “The rituals, the tortures, and their subsequent representations imparted powerful messages to whites about their own supposed racial dominance and superiority. These spectacles produced and disseminated images of white power and black degradation, of white unity and black criminality, that served to instill and perpetuate a sense of racial supremacy in their white spectators.”

In 2016 we still see this “sense of racial supremacy,” perhaps most noticeably in the Trump campaign and its supporters. The psychological consequences of this cultural phenomenon have become glaringly apparent once again in light of Sterling’s killing as well as the death of Philando Castile, shot dead just hours after Sterling in front of his girlfriend and young daughter.

Castile’s girlfriend switched on Facebook Live in the aftermath of that shooting, another video that has been widely shared across social media. Technology does not eradicate racism, and it does not exact justice. Assuming otherwise will only make the problem worse.

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