— Ben Brucato (@BrucatoBen) December 4, 2014
After Darren Wilson was released from legal responsibility for his murder of Mike Brown, it seemed everyone wanted to believe things would have happened otherwise were the killing captured on video by cameras. “Put a camera on every cop, and we’ll have fewer Mike Browns,” they said.
But this fails to understand the fundamental nature of both police and of video imagery. We might not need much sophisticated analysis to see this, since the same week Obama announced his campaign to put cameras on 50,000 officers, the videotaped killing of Eric Garner failed to even secure an indictment.
Police is the institution of the state charged with the fabrication of social order through violence. In the U.S., the quality of that social order is racial. U.S. police was founded in the institution of slavery, designated as slave catchers. The mandate shifted to preventing Black insurrection as enslaved African populations surged. By the middle of the eighteenth century, police were charged with maintaining proximity with Black residences, intensive surveillance of everyday/everynight collective activity, and routine violent terror. Though the legal standing of Blacks has changed, along with these changes the police institution has modified only as necessary to continue fulfilling the mandate of preventing the insurrection of this chronically politically excluded population.
The first police were slave catchers, forces comprised by volunteer white citizens and conscripted European indentured servants working for their freedom from bondage through violence against African chattel slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 enrolled all whites, including northerners, in the activity of policing all people of African descent. After the system of chattel slavery ended and the Jim Crow era emerged, white citizens were legally and culturally obligated to police segregation. Most all were happy to oblige. During the wave of police professionalization at the turn of the twentieth century, white vigilantes picked up the racist terror against Black communities where the police left off. This inspired decades of lynchings that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Blacks.
One of the earliest uses of cameras was to document lynchings as souvenirs for proud white citizens. A reason we have such a rich historical archive of lynching photographs is because of the work of the NAACP in documenting this reign of white terror. They used this archive to lobby the federal government to intervene. They were, however, unsuccessful in this campaign. It was only after active Black rebellion spread, especially in the south, that the government stepped in to curtail lynching activity.
Lynching photographs—again, one of the earliest uses of cameras—helped condition white audiences to view violence against Blacks, and to culturally situate these within a particular vision of the social order. Decades later, photography documenting the Civil Rights movement inspired fear among whites of the rebellion—and potentially rising status—of Blacks. In the 1980s, the first reality television programs featured mostly white police violently arresting mostly poor Blacks. These programs brought into the visual field, for the first time, images of an institution—police—historically defined as one that fulfills its most crucial functions outside of public view. The police were cast as having difficult, dangerous jobs dealing with undesirable, foreign, scary individuals that were carefully presented in ways that viewers were unlikely to identify with.
Not long after the rise in popularity of such police programs, the Rodney King video was released. Prior to the trial of the officers, sharply racially polarized readings of the video were prominent in the national conversation that emerged. While the release of the video created an initial controversy, it was the failure of the courts to hold the officers responsible—despite video recorded evidence—that prompted a cataclysmic uprising.
Though the Rodney King beating resulted in no criminal liability and little real institutional change in policing, the controversy developed a discourse about the utility of video in exhibiting official misconduct that profoundly shaped thinking about video. The name of Rodney King not only appeared for decades in discussions about police, but also about media, citizen journalism, and consumer technologies. The popular and academic discourses we mobilize today to understand even vaguely related phenomena are genealogically marked with this tumultuous moment.
The consensus that the Rodney King video exposed something and that this exposure had a democratizing effect lingers today, even with decades filled with dozens (if not hundreds) of similar videos—some documenting not beatings, but killings by police—and similar legal and institutional outcomes, specifically a lack of formal accountability of police. This seldom examined premise, that videotaping police use of force offers legal, political, and social opportunities otherwise unlikely, is at the core of my research and has been for years.
As long as cameras have existed, a dominant narrative has prevailed: they offer an objective account that removes subjective experience. And yet, this naive realist view of cameras has also developed decades of criticism. It seems everyone and no one believes in the mechanical objectivity of cameras.
Perhaps, then, we ought to confront the matter empirically: to whom and when do cameras offer what kind of assistance?
The visual depiction of police use of force, and particularly against Blacks, has primarily worked to certify the police institution and its use of violent force to reproduce the color line. Video has worked powerfully to reproduce the white citizens’ demand to maintain proximity, intensive surveillance, and violent terror against Black communities. It has functioned to exhonerate police and certify past use-of-force incidents, and thus to reconfirm the legitimacy of its continuation. These videos have been used not to criminalize police, but to substantiate the criminalization of the victims of police violence.
The demand for more surveillance will have three likely effects, given its history. First, it will work to more reliably criminalize people of color. Second, it will legally and culturally certify police violence used against these same people. The third is most pernicious, and it is the reason why so many people with the privilege to efficaciously speak on the matter are so certain in their advocacy for more surveillance: Video will work to ensure that police maintain their historic role in policing the color line. When officers violently police white citizens, they might be subject to legal and social rebuke if this is documented on video. The call for more surveillance is not to change policing, but to keep it the same.