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Struggles for Visibility: On the Exhibition of Police Violence in a White Democracy

Ben Brucato
7th Biannual Surveillance Studies Network Conference. Barcelona, Spain.
Publication year: 2016

Abstract: Police developed in modern democracies as the primary institution that would produce the social order through articulating state violence against those identified as threats to it while within their borders (Neocleous, 2000). Also crucial during this time—and therefore to this development—was the elimination of the spectacle of state violence as a key means of social control (Foucault, 1979). Violence has always been fundamental to policing (Bittner, 1970; Klockars, 1985). Nonetheless, its violence was historically removed from broad public view (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). Police have always strategically modulated their visibility to maximize their power. Today, however, partly as a consequence of surveillance and sousveillance technologies and the use of the documents they produce, policing has encountered new visibility, a visibility not as often under the control of the institution (Goldsmith 2010). Many academics, politicians, journalists, and activists anticipate that since police no longer have as much control over when, where, and how they are visible to publics, the power of the institution and its agents to avoid accountability for wrong-doing is in jeopardy (Anthony & Thomas, 2010; Fan, 2012; Jeffries, 2011; Koskela 2009; Robinson, 2012; Stuart, 2011; Toch 2012; Wilson & Serisier, 2010). Concomitantly, they expect that because civilians are increasingly capable of producing the mediated visibility of police through sousveillance, these civilians are thereby empowered (Diamond & Plattner, 2011; Yesil, 2011). As a consequence of this seeming consensus, advocates for those victimized by police—or for “police accountability”—likewise have a nearly uniform response that increasing the video documentation of policing is of certain advantage (Brucato, 2015; Brucato, forthcoming). John B. Thompson (2005) has established that political controversies are products of and are negotiated through “struggles for visibility.” Taking this condition as a point of departure, this paper explores this new visibility of police violence in the United States as a white democracy. Olson (2004) describes “white democracy” as a condition where there is “democracy for whites, tyranny for everyone else” (p. 71). The description of popular sousveillance as enabling “transparency” fails to acknowledge the fragmentation of the polity—and therefore audiences—along what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the color line” (Brucato, 2015). The presumption that the visibility of the racist qualities of criminal justice institutions will spur popular outrage homogenizes audiences in ways that are analytically and empirically unsustainable (Waddington, Williams, Wright, & Newburn, 2015; Cheliotis, 2010). Furthermore, this approach ascribes to viewers commitments to cross-racial identification and solidarity that are rarely demonstrated (Brucato, 2015; Thompson & Lee, 2004; Weitzer, 2002). Instead, the visible itself is racialized (Butler, 1993). Since most of those victimized by police are not white, their advocates must engage struggles for visibility as contentions over the very nature of—and, indeed, the automatic recourse to—the visible.