The Astonishing Ubiquity of Walter Scott’s Death
We absolutely need video to prove police misconduct. But does over-saturation risk desensitization?
I spent the better part of the last week avoiding video of the Walter Scott shooting. I read the various articles that accompanied it as it came across my screen – up and down my Twitter timeline and in various pockets of my Facebook feed. In every report and opinion, the video of a man’s last violent, terrifying moments were embedded close by, as though the mere description of such tragedy was not enough.
As I sat for dinner at a quiet Italian restaurant, the video I’d long avoided confronted me again and again thanks to CNN’s insistence. As it looped, I looked around to see if other people noticed, or were disturbed, or took issue. Technology, which has made this conversation possible, is now preparing to make many of us desensitized.
An increased public awareness — and perhaps even acknowledgement — of police brutality is happening right now, thanks in large part to use of excessive force being caught on camera through mobile technologies, including cell phone video and dash cams, and body camera technology.
There’s precedent for this. During the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ’60s, it was television that galvanized the country in understanding the inequities faced by blacks in the South. Today, it is the technology in our pockets that helps the nation understand the realities of Black America. It’s digitized and branded and hashtaged and packaged one clip at a time — from the crowds that gathered in the streets where Michael Brown laid slain, to the images that captured the last cries of Eric Garner, to the shooting death of Eric Harris, who was shot by Tulsa police as he fled, unarmed.
Social technology amplifies the cries of injustice:
“He shot me!” yelled Harris, eight times after he’d been shot. “I’m losing my breath.”
“F*ck your breath,” an officer replies. Harris died from his wounds some time later.
To be sure, police brutality is not a new topic among African Americans and Latinos; xenophobia and racism remain a threat to the livelihoods and well-beings of these communities. What’s changed: Their ability to document it. With black and brown folks being the largest consumers of mobile technology, its democratizing power has raised dissident voices of minority communities to a higher volume on issues that matter to them. According to the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, “Latino and black Internet users are equally likely to access the Internet from a mobile device — 76 percent and 73 percent respectively.”
The result? A TIME cover that boldly reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER” across the front and increased skepticism in pockets of non-minority communities about police conduct. The burden of proof no longer rests with the dead, but with the living, breathing person who killed another human being.
The domino effect even has the power to change the way the media collects information to do the business of reporting the news.
But as more cases become known, there is also the risk that the story blends into our collective consciousness like so many others — whether its the “lone gunman” of a school shooting or an “act of terror.” As technology introduces us to the black men and women who have lost their lives at the result of police misconduct, what will the effect be on the already-too-ignored, never-to-be-believed stories of communities that perish under the rule of the police that are meant to protect them? What happens when the country grows immune to a suffering it never really cared about anyway? What does it mean when a man’s execution becomes white noise in a public place? How long will black lives really matter?
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