This month marks three years since Eric Garner was murdered by the NYPD. This month, Black Lives Matter turned four years old. And this month marked four years since a jury of almost all white women acquitted the man who killed Trayvon Martin of second-degree murder. Racism in the United States has been forced out of its hiding hole by the work of black activists—and video has played a part in that.
But does it matter? Are the current conversations around racism actually moving us toward a world where the simple statement that “black lives matter” is no longer controversial? Or have the myriad videos of police officers killing and harming black bodies only re-traumatized people of color and exploited their suffering? The brutal truth is that it’s a little bit of both.
Even as the United States faces a resurgence of white nationalism and a president that has emboldened police, organizing against police brutality hasn’t been for nothing. Right now things are getting worse, but the fierceness with which the other side is fighting is partly because activists have won some battles. There’s no question that indictments of police officers have increased. Mainstream media has started tracking killings and talking about the problem. And video has been a wake-up call for many white Americans, not only through the mainstream media but also through activists’ expert use of online media to tell their own narratives.
That’s why even though it seems bleak, WITNESS is asking you to keep documenting, ethically and safely.
Families and loved ones of people killed by police
Last month, a jury acquitted the police officer who killed Philando Castile, even with a livestream created by Castile’s girlfriend as he was dying—adding to a long list of not-guilty verdicts for police officers. It seems that images of police murdering black and brown people have become a fact of life, and that they aren’t a direct line to justice.
Many families of people murdered by the police have made it clear that, to them, justice looks like a prison sentence for the officers who kill their loved ones. Victoria Davis, sister of Delrawn Small, told me, “Our family is demanding justice, which looks likes a hefty jail sentence for a person who made a conscious decision to murder another human being.” Those who don’t necessarily believe in the courts, like Cephus Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, know we still measure whether lives matter through that “racist criminal justice system.”
Families and loved ones of people killed by police are driving organizing around police brutality. Some family members and loved ones of people killed by police came together in New York to form Families United 4 Justice in 2014. The families explain why they organized this way:
Due to the perceived need that families affected by police violence should be supported rather than exploited and should ultimately be able to represent themselves, the collective was formed with the intent to connect families and hold space for them to assess their needs, support each other, share resources, and organize together.
It now has many members in and outside of New York.You can watch videos of family members speaking about their own stories at the Forced Trajectory Project and the FU4J page. The message that organizing needs to support families comes through loud and clear.
WITNESS staff were lucky enough to hear FU4J members speak at Allied Media Conference this year at a gathering after the horrible, but unfortunately predictable not-guilty verdict in the Philando Castile case was announced. One of the families in particular, the family of Delrawn Small, spoke about how not having video for the first week after Delrawn was shot and killed allowed the media to brutalize the image of the man they knew and loved. Speaking the week of the one year anniversary of his death, Davis told me, “Delrawn was dehumanized by Wayne Isaac, [who] took more of his dignity away when he lied and pretended that he was afraid for his life and protecting himself.” The media went with Isaac’s story, and “when the video was released it contradicted his story altogether.”
What has changed?
Georgetown law professor Paul D. Butler says, “A lot of white people are truly shocked by what these videos depict; I know very few African-Americans who are surprised. The videos are smoking-gun evidence . . . ” The videos do seem to have had an effect. A 2015 Gallup poll showed confidence in police at its lowest since 1993; it seems likely that the 1993 dip was related to the Rodney King video. Another 2015 poll also showed US Americans’ “satisfaction with the way” black people are treated was at its lowest point since 2001. But it’s hard to know how much this really means. Since then, it appears that confidence in police has returned to normal, although the “overall rise in confidence masks [a] drop” among other groups, including consistently low confidence ratings from US Americans under 35, which “could presage a growing loss of respect for police in the future.”
Some of this is due to activists’ use of social media to spread their message—including the use of video. Researchers Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark found that “Protesters and their supporters were generally able to circulate their own narratives on Twitter without relying on mainstream news outlets” and that they even “succeeded in educating casual observers on Twitter.”
The reaction of the mainstream media to Black Lives Matter and videos of police violence has no doubt been complicated—but there has been a reaction. People on the far right claim the coverage has created an unnecessarily negative attitude towards police, while activists and survivors of people killed by the police point to the continuing criminalization by the media of those killed. That being said, some outlets have taken police brutality seriously. In particular, some mainstream media have started to track police killings. This is especially important because until now, there were no reliable statistics—and the unfortunate reality is that statistics do make advocacy easier. The Guardian created “The Counted” to track the number of people killed in 2015 and 2016. The Washington Post database is continuously updated—as of July 15th, 543 people had been killed by police this year. Before 2015, two projects existed, Killed by Police and Fatal Encounters, and they were both open source.
Another important change is that the rate of indictments of police officers in deadly shootings has increased. According to criminologist Philip Stinson (whose research has been called the “best data set on police misconduct”), in 2015 police officers were indicted at 3 times the average rate—that was 18 officers. In 2016, 13 officers were indicted. Stinson pointed out: “If you take the cases with the video away, you are left with what we would expect to see over the past 10 years—about five cases.” It remains to be seen whether the current political moment will drive that number lower.
Unfortunately, successful prosecutions do remain rare—but this seems to be in part because legally speaking, they’re very hard to obtain. Two landmark Supreme Court cases, Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner, give wide discretion to police officers in deciding when to use deadly force. They require juries to judge police officers based on whether their use of force was “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. Juries are given very specific instructions that they must adhere to this standard. This requires considering what a “reasonable police officer” would have done, and it’s often hard to show any evidence that an officer is “acting outside of her training, or even if her training allowed her flexibility of a decision at that point.” That’s from a letter written by the foreman of the jury that acquitted white Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby in the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man. Officers are, indeed, trained to “shoot to kill,” even at individuals carrying a pocketknife.
What’s more, all-white or nearly all-white juries and district attorneys who are friendly with police officers make the process harder. A Huffington Post analysis of 13 cases from 2005-2016 found that “majority-white juries decided 11 of those 13 cases” and that “in almost every case, the racial makeup of the jury did not reflect local demographics.” That’s not to mention that most states require a prosecutor to convince a secret grand jury to issue an indictment before a prosecution goes forward.
Even as the narrative changes, and even as white Americans view police more suspiciously, prosecutions will remain rare if these sorts of structural issues in the courts aren’t addressed. But it’s incredibly important not to see the lack of convictions as indicating a failure on the part of activism. While indictments don’t mean convictions, no indictments mean no chance for a conviction at all. Knowing the legal barriers in place, it’s perhaps even more surprising that any officers have gone to jail for their acts of violencel, and it speaks to the incredible work of organizers – as well as the impact of video.
It’s clear the political climate is getting worse. Incidents of hate and the comfort level of white supremacists are going up. And the media’s attention has shifted away from police brutality and Black Lives Matter. It would be incredibly easy to feel as though filming and other forms of activism do not matter. But it’s important to remember that activists are facing backlash in response to wins. And if progress isn’t possible right now, the next best thing is standing against these regressive forces. Video is only one piece of that resistance. Even now, filming law enforcement lets them know they’re being watched. It makes it harder for them to deny their acts of violence.
If you film, WITNESS will be there to help you make it safe, ethical, and effective.
To us, that means taking into account how traumatic these videos are not only for survivors, but for black Americans in general. It means avoiding dangerous police encounters. It also means whenever possible, capturing videos in a way that makes them effective, such as capturing details of the scene and recording the date, time and location. And importantly, it mean being thoughtful and careful about how and when to share videos.
Regardless of how you choose to work against police brutality, in the words of Victor Dempsey, brother of Delrawn Small;
We shouldn’t have to wait until one of our family members is taken from us. We HAVE to fight now.