Over the past few years the use of cameras – whether on police vehicles, on the police themselves or taken by citizen journalists – has been seen as a possible means of achieving more police accountability and preventing black deaths. This cautiously hopeful narrative made Friday’s acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez for the murder of Philando Castile especially upsetting for many.
I think the narrative caught on because it was thought that if we could show them, if they – white America – could see it, with their own eyes, they could no longer deny the truth that there is disproportionate police violence against blacks. If they could see it they would finally accept that racism is real and, perhaps, join the fight against it.
On the face of it, this argument sounds very logical. Isn’t that what we were told about the Civil Rights Movement? The story goes: news broadcasts into white households of police dogs and batons and fire hoses unleashed on peaceful protesters pushed the needle. Seeing it with their own eyes, white Americans came to recognise racial discrimination as a real and evil thing.
I know I was taught this as a student, both in school and through the media, and I have seen it suggested in educational materials as a professor.
Yet here we find ourselves, more than 50 years later, with all evidence pointing to the contrary – demonstrating that it’s not the cameras, it’s the system.
Castile, reaching for his ID, and not his legally owned firearm, was shot and killed at a traffic stop, in front of his partner and her four-year-old daughter. We know the tragic details because his partner, Diamond Reynolds, captured it on video. Before Castile there was Eric Garner, whose death was also recorded on video. Killed by a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, Garner spoke his final words: “I can’t breathe.” Unlike Yanez, Pantaleo was never even indicted.
From slave narratives to cellphone video, media images of racial injustice can only have limited, if any, impact because in order to 'see' the injustice you have to see black people as human.
And before Garner, there was Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless black man in Fullerton, California, who died after being beaten, clubbed and tasered by the police. In this case, three officers were charged. One of them had the charges dropped and the other two were acquitted.
There was also the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina. Standerby video shows Scott, after having been stopped for a traffic violation, unarmed and running away from North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, only to be shot in the back. In this case, Slager was indicted, yet despite the mobile phone video, the first trial has ended in a hung jury. (Ultimately, Slager is tried again and takes a plea deal for civil rights violations, not murder).
And, of course, before all these cases there was Rodney King, whose brutal beating was caught on camera and all four officers charged were acquitted. The harsh reality is that police shootings of unarmed civilians typically end with an acquittal or no indictment at all, yet even in the instances where the officers do receive jail time, these are not open-and-shut cases where jurors seem compelled by video evidence of police misconduct. Video evidence does not guarantee justice for black people in this country.
In a tweet after the verdict came down, Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry warned: “Don’t be fooled into believing a camera will bring justice. They turned lynchings into photo ops & postcards.” I teach about the lynchings to which Perry referred in my African American studies courses. Lynchings took the lives of thousands of black Americans from across the country from Omaha, Nebraska and Marion, Indiana to Waco, Texas and other parts of the southern US.
Lynchings were officially “extralegal”, meaning they were not carried out by local law enforcement. However, in practice the authorities sanctioned them either because they looked the other way or were active participants in “plain clothes”. The photos captured what Hazel Carby calls “the spectacle of torture”. From the tens to the thousands, whites would come to witness a lynching and gleefully take photos in front of dead black bodies. These photos then circulated in the tens of thousands as postcards and photos, with mundane messages such as “What a great day”. These photos are like the live video of Castile’s murder in their level of graphic detail, even more so; nevertheless white America did not see them as evidence of racial injustice.
The issue of what white America can “see” even goes back to slavery. Lately, when teaching about slavery, I have used Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. Of course, Northup’s storytelling is neither in video nor photos, yet the painstaking detail with which he narrates his life as an enslaved person could have the same impact. Yet, enslaved narratives such as his were not seen as compelling evidence at the time. In fact, Northup goes into so much detail precisely because he knew how easily the treachery of slavery could be “unseen” by the white majority.
From slave narratives to mobile phone videos, media images of racial injustice can only have limited, if any, impact because in order to “see” the injustice you have to see black people as human. In his defence Yanez said he was afraid of Castile – afraid of a man in a car with four-year old child in the back seat. Yanez may very well have been afraid and his fear was born out of systematic anti-blackness he likely got from other camera images. His fear reflects centuries of other kinds of images of black men not as complex human beings but as caricatures – hyperviolent, sexual predators, thieves and criminals. Indeed, to say it’s not the cameras, it’s the system is to recognise that images are more than the technology that produces them; they are stories in the midst of other stories.
For every Twelve Years a Slave there were many more falsified depictions of happy slaves, for every photograph of lynching was the accompanying made-up story of a black man accosting a white woman, for every video of a police killing there is a Hollywood blockbuster, an episode of COPS or a news segment on black criminality. And until we deal with the system that creates these images, there will be more videos followed by more acquittals and more injustice.
Suad Abdul Khabeer is an associate professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University, founder and editor of sapelosquare.com and the author of Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.