A Video Survey of Police Interactions: Inequality in Black and White

Comparing examples of white and black Americans’ encounters with police seems to present undeniable evidence of injustice. But does this type of footage ever make a difference?

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Footage of the July 2014 arrest of Eric Garner, during which he died of a heart attack

YouTube screenshot

There is a difference this time; this time there’s a video,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the crowd at Eric Garner’s funeral in July. “Go to the tape. The tape tells what you did and what you didn’t do.” He was referring to the footage of the last living moments of the unarmed black New York City man who died in a police choke hold, footage that had already set off national outrage about treatment of African Americans by law-enforcement officers. “This time we want no excuses, no backbiting. Go to the tape!” the civil rights leader insisted.

Sharpton’s optimism, however, belied history and facts. “The tape” has not brought, and will not bring, justice when it comes to individual acts of police brutality against black victims, or the stark disparities in the ways in which black and white citizens interact with law-enforcement officers overall.

Photographs of lynchings didn’t foster a shift toward justice. News reports of water hoses and police dogs didn’t compel national outrage from “sea to shining sea.” Even the advent of the camcorder did not produce accountability or a cultural shift in America’s Jim Crow policing. Remember that in 1992, after George Holliday documented the beating of Rodney King, a Simi Valley, Calif., jury still found it in their minds and hearts to declare the four officers innocent.

Why would we expect video to change things now?

Despite the amount of evidence of the lack of justice in individual cases and larger patterns of police brutality—for years now, people have been picking up their camcorders and camera phones to document police officers clotheslining, kicking and tasing pregnant black women, as well as beating, choking, body-slamming, punching and even killing unarmed black men and teens—a picture or a video is rarely enough to prompt the necessary action.

That said, our comparison of publicly available videos of black and white Americans in encounters with law-enforcement officers does reveal fundamental racial differences that deserve attention.

Themes emerge: The white subjects directly challenge the authority and knowledge of the police, often confidently citing their constitutional rights. The black videographers taping black subjects, on the other hand, adjust to get better lines of sight for their shots and to capture the dialogue and actions of the cops. They also narrate for us what has already happened to the person being arrested or beaten. People in the crowd offer advice to keep quiet or not to resist. White subjects are often in cars, with their interactions with police calmly captured by passengers. Those videos involving blacks are more often shot in public spaces, to be documented only by bystanders.

The source of instigation is another clear difference. Videos involving white people tend to highlight officers who are patient and willing to listen to the constitutional lessons provided by the citizens they’ve stopped. In one, titled, “Trucker Pulls Cop Over, Teaches Him a Lesson,” not only does the driver challenge the legality of being pulled over, but he also lectures the officer on his speed and his holding a cellphone while driving.

In “How to Tell a Lying Police Officer to Go F--k Himself Politely,” a white passenger says, “I am not your slave,” noting that the police have no right to bother and harass “innocent” and “law-abiding Americans.” This, along with much more condescending rhetoric, does not prompt a reaction from the police officer but instead elicits a willingness to “talk” toward a resolution.

Whereas whites are allowed to escalate situations without consequence, for black men and women, merely existing seems to compel action from the police. We do not see or hear the majority of the black subjects being asked for identification or read their rights.

In “Racist Cop Kicks Man in the Face,” and the video of a California Highway Patrol officer beating a woman, the level of force is apparently without provocation. Ersula Ore, the Arizona State University professor who was arrested for jaywalking, merely refused to give the officer her identification. She questions the reasons for her being stopped (like so many whites in these videos) and tries to de-escalate the situation through an explanation. The officer responds by slamming her into the street. Similarly, Eric Garner’s efforts to reasonably speak with the officers are met with homicidal violence.

In some videos you’ll see black men who are handcuffed pleading with the person holding the camera to keep videotaping, seemingly because, without a camera rolling, they fear for their lives. The videos of the blacks being arrested or, worse, being killed feel like pieces of documentary evidence in the ongoing war of the classes and police brutality.

Many of the videos featuring white subjects show individuals who seem to relish confrontation with the law, even seeking it out. It is no wonder that the titles of the videos and the comments celebrate the knowledge demonstrated by the white drivers, who feel empowered to “teach” those “abusive” cops a “lesson.” With far too many blacks, the response is to do nothing, much less to assert their rights.

For black Americans, there is no reason to seek out conflict with the police because the police confront, control and punish them. We have to look no further than the actions of a militarized police force against predominantly black protesters in Ferguson, Mo., to see some of the most recent proof of this pattern.

Yes, a picture or a cinematic image is worth a thousand words. But the visual reminders of lives lost at the hands of American police officers have not prompted change, much less accountability. Black suffering will be televised but forgotten. The revolution, sadly, will not come solely because police brutality and white privilege are televised, streamed or shared on social media.

Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of That Mean Old Yesterday: A Memoir. David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullman.