It’s the casualness that sickens you to your core.
In the cellphone video captured on Saturday by a bystander, Officer Michael T. Slager of the North Charleston, S.C., police force lifts his pistol and fires off eight quick shots at Walter L. Scott, who is running away from him at a slow clip. Four shots hit Scott from behind; at least one pierces his heart.
Slager will later state that Scott, who had been pulled over for a broken tail light and who apparently ran because he had outstanding child support payments, attacked him with the officer’s own Taser. The one that, in the video, Slager appears to drop next to Scott’s cooling body.
And here we are again.
The difference, this time, is that it was seen in all its awful totality. Not just seen — witnessed, recorded, and then published Tuesday by The New York Times. No matter how a defense attorney may try to skew it in days to come, the video is incontrovertible. It is horrible, necessary proof of so many things, rippling out in a widening arc from the murder itself: the ease and entitlement with which a white officer can gun down a black man running away from him; the obfuscations of a police department that, until the video was made public, said Scott had wrested control of Slager’s Taser and CPR had been administered (it hadn’t); the “wall of blue” that protects bad cops on the good forces and the entire infrastructure of the rotten ones.
Does anyone actually think the truth of this shooting would ever have come out without a citizen video?
It would have been an officer’s word against a dead man, and so the death of Walter L. Scott would have joined the endless line of African-Americans killed in murky circumstances over the years and decades. The North Charleston video disproves the official story and in so doing casts every official story in doubt. This moment of accountability has been a long time coming. That a man who had trouble paying child support had to die for it makes it that much more tragic.
The videographer, identified as Feidin Santana, who can be heard swearing softly in disbelief on the tape, initially chose to remain anonymous. One can hardly blame him, given that Ramsey Orta, who videotaped the police-chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., last year, has since been arrested twice on charges he maintains are false. (He is on hunger strike in a New York City jail, fearful that police will poison his food as they allegedly have done to prisoners at Rikers Island.)
The larger point — and it applies to the police as well as to all of us — is that eyes are now everywhere. The ubiquity of cellphones and surveillance cameras, of lenses on every corner of our lives, means that we are all seen, for better and for worse. In “1984,” George Orwell envisioned a future state where Big Brother was watching, and based on what we’ve learned of the National Security Agency and other government bureaus obsessed with monitoring us, he was right. But Little Brother and all his cousins are able to watch right back, and so the playing field tilts back toward something a little closer to level.
This has consequences for privacy, for free expression, for the right to protest against one’s government or the right to behave like a dolt in public. The eyes watch citizens in Putin’s Russia, in Erdogan’s Turkey, and in the People’s Republic of China. You’d better believe they watch us here, to what extent we still very much deserve to know.
Yet the eyes — citizen cameras and retail-shop surveillance cams — also picked the Tsarnaev brothers out of the Boston Marathon throng. They witnessed the police shooting of Oscar Grant on a 2009 San Francisco subway platform. The eyes saw the death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland last October, of John Crawford at a Walmart in Dayton, Ohio, last August, of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Wash., earlier this year.
Still, even in the cases in which a citizen journalist captures what appears to be obvious evidence of wrongdoing by authorities, the justice system can look away. This is what makes the images of Walter L. Scott’s murder different. Santana was far enough away to hold both Slager and Scott in the frame, yet close enough to show what appears to be the Taser being dropped at the dead man’s side. There are no edits, although Santana lowers the camera every so often, dropping his “eyes” so he won’t be seen watching. It’s all there. This is the cinema of evidence.
The Scott video joins and amplifies the history of indelible images that testify to the abusive treatment of the poor and powerless in America, especially those whose skins are other than white. That history goes back to engravings of slavery’s horrors made by abolitionists in the 19th century; it encompasses the grainy photos of lynched black men in the 1930s and the professional news photos of civil rights protesters assaulted by fire hoses and dogs in the 1960s. The history includes George Holliday’s consumer-cam recording of the beating of Rodney King in 1991 (and by necessity also includes the news-chopper video of the beating of Reginald Denny by an African-American mob after a jury found King’s police attackers not guilty). Each new image, enabled by each new technology, brings a picture of social injustice into sharper focus.
Our technology imprisons us but it also empowers us; we work out the paradoxes on a daily basis. Who wants to live their lives knowing they are watched? Yet who isn’t coming around to the idea that there should be a cop-cam on every street officer in America? Even the mayor of North Charleston said so, issuing an executive order to that effect. To be seen is to be held to account, a “threat” that one hopes may curb the worst police abuses before they happen. It’s a development that should be welcomed by every honest officer.
Because of the latest citizen-journalist video — one pair of horrified eyes behind a dispassionately recording camera lens — there will be more eyes in the days ahead on those who wield the power of a badge and a gun. Maybe then we’ll see something like the truth of the matter.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.