“Today, we are not sure if the police are there to protect us,” the NAACP’s Jose De Sosa told ABC News.
That was back in March 1991, and De Sosa was speaking just days after the first broadcast of a videotape shot by George Holliday which showed a circle of police officers brutally beating Los Angeles resident Rodney King with batons and boots.
It would take two years, two trials, 53 deaths, and thousands of injuries before the fallout of the Rodney King tape had settled — as if its two convictions could ever be mistaken for closure — but the footage itself still loops in Americans’ consciousness as a reminder (and enforcer) of a deep schism. Those who took it as proof of an unacceptable status quo drew fury from what the tape showed; those who insisted the incident was justified drew fury from what they claimed the tape didn’t show.
At that time, the video revolution was still young. The pre-reality, verite ride-alongs of “Cops” and the amateur antics of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” were barely two years old. When the King tape hit our screens, it upended expectations of what cops and camcorders were capable of. The object was new; its subject was not.
De Sosa’s uncertainty about the relationship between police and their communities sounds just as relevant today, in large part because nearly a decade into the YouTube era, recordings of police now constitute an entire sub-genre of Internet video.
Police recordings are everywhere online, and their purposes are manifold.
Certainly, these videos are useful in documenting interactions with law enforcement; the presence of cameras serves as a kind of third party that maintains (one hopes) a level of accountability on both sides of the badge. Police forces are increasingly matching this safety mechanism with body cameras of their own. Some people upload their run-ins with police to expose injustice and abuse; others post videos of their routine traffic stops to demonstrate their own tactics for dealing with law enforcement; and for many others, it’s become habit to begin recording when police actions unfold in public.
While many police officers do not like cameras pointed at them (plenty of videos out there of that, too), the right to record police officers at work has been uniformly upheld in cases across the country. Some states, like Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have additional wiretapping laws that specifically target audio. A recent case found 24-year-old Chicopee resident Karen Dziewit facing wiretapping charges, later dropped, for surrepititiously recording her arrest. Every court to rule on the issue has agreed that police have no reasonable right to privacy on duty that would make videotaping tantamount to eavesdropping, but it hasn’t stopped those types of arrests from happening — nor vigilance among citizens from becoming more pronounced.
At some ends of the Internet, the appetite for clips that police the police has ripened into full-blown hunger. Sites like Copblock and Photography Is Not A Crime deal exclusively in clips of police encounters, and YouTube channels like Policecrimecom compile clip after clip of cops being told who is serving whom.
But lately, more of these clips are pushing back against more systemic levels of abuse.
Most recently we’ve seen footage go viral from a September traffic stop in Indiana, which found Lisa Mahone, her two children, and front-seat passenger Jamal Jones declining to exit their vehicle “because [Jones] feared the officers would harm him,” according to a pending lawsuit. Officers smashed the windows, tased Jones, and dragged him from the car.
We’ve seen mutliple videos of Staten Island man Eric Garner taken to the ground by police officers with a deadly chokehold, allegedly as part of an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. We’ve seen Seattle police pepper-spray and detain a man identified repeatedly by onlookers as “the wrong guy.” We’ve seen a man at a South Carolina gas station with his hands up get gunned down by a highway trooper. In all of these examples, we witness white police officers acting against black citizens.
These punches land especially hard in the wake of the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., policeman – an incident for which the lack any video footage now feels glaring. Many of these recordings start in the middle of things, when crisis starts to reveal itself and with little context or clarity; but often what we see in the fragments is enough construct a narrative of overt racism that, as more videos emerge, seems as impossible to expunge as it is to ignore.
And one doesn’t need to dig too deep to find that when the chromatics change, the circumstances seem to follow suit.
One recent viral video features white “liberty activist” Gav Seim questioning an officer allegedly illegally operating an unmarked patrol car to make traffic stops. While the officer smirks patronizingly, he never resorts to pepper spray. Another clip shows a white woman reprimanding police for detaining a local black man in relation to a burglary that occurred (as she sternly points out) in another neighborhood. She demands the officers leave, and they do. In another video, a white driver suspected of possessing marijuana because he has frisbee golf equipment in the car, calmly stands up to the officer while staying seated behind the wheel. This tense interaction peacefully peters out as well.
Of course, the ease with which these narratives pull themselves together speaks to the powers and the problems of this medium of mutual accountability. By exposing unfair interactions to the masses and ensuring that the performance of public duty sticks to a script, we enhance our understanding of the ways rights are waived and privilege is wielded. This kind of evidence can be empowering.
But there’s also a hazard when this documentation erodes from education to entertainment (a Google search of “cop freaks out. . .” reveals the more obnoxious ends of this effort). When we treat these confrontations as content instead of as catalysts, we risk forgetting why we’re filming in the first place.
Better technology and increased accessibility have offered us all a clearer view of what can happen when police and citizens cross paths and purposes, but that doesn’t always amount to a clearer perspective. In watching the police, we must also police our watching; our narratives are just as subject to corruption. Envisioning the grander goal and the bigger picture — a dynamic of shared purpose and cooperation, one that extends beyond YouTube’s frame — could be the least and the best we can do. Assuming, of course, the goal is that eventually we can start to let down our guard.