Without the video, this would have been another police shooting swept under the carpet.
We have heard multiple variations of this sentiment, expressed by Walter Scott Sr. about the killing of his son Walter Scott Jr., an unarmed 50-year-old black man who was shot five times in the back as he attempted to run away from North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager after a routine traffic stop.
Only days later, another video was released showing 73-year-old Reserve Deputy Robert Bates shooting Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with what Bates said he believed was a Taser but turned out to be his service revolver. As Harris lay dying on the ground, he informed officers that he had been shot and was having trouble breathing, to which an officer (with a knee on Harris’ head) responded, “Fuck your breath!” Bates, an insurance company executive, is one of several large donors to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office who has won the privilege of being a reserve deputy.
The claim that without these videos, the deaths of Scott and Harris would have become banal policing statistics — ignored before they would even have the chance to be forgotten — is a powerful indictment of the willingness of some police officers to lie and manipulate evidence in order to conceal the illegal use of force, lethal or otherwise. Slager reportedly dropped a Taser near Scott’s body after the shooting, in an apparent attempt to frame his actions as self-defense.
While the video evidence is important, the repetition of the mantra that without the video, there would have been no story is, at least in part, also an indictment of a media system that has been painfully slow to recognize the shocking disparity in the likelihood of black suspects’ and white suspects’ being arrested, physically harmed or killed— an issue worthy of sustained national coverage. The same goes for the blatantly racist application of the death penalty in the U.S., where the races of the accused and the victim have been shown to play significant roles in who is put to death and who is granted leniency.
It is, of course, important that the news media in the U.S. and abroad are now addressing these issues. Yet it is fair to ask, Would it have taken stories of the magnitude of Harris’, Scott’s, Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s to prompt the news media to cover the use of lethal force by police if the victims of such force been disproportionately white? Would mainstream news outlets have covered the story only if there were videos, or would the presence of overwhelming statistics have been sufficient for an outcry? And would bombastic talk-radio hosts and news programs have been silent for decades if white murderers of black victims were twice as likely to be executed as black murders of white victims?
These questions bring us back to a criticism that I (and many others) have leveled against the news media: An excessive, repetitive focus on spectacular events masks the place of those events in the larger fabric of society. It was only the rapid succession of stories illustrating the excessive use of force by the police in the U.S. — in conjunction with activists who made sure that these stories remained in the news — that led to the current realization that instances of police violence and racism are likely linked systematically.
I am guessing that, like me, when many people around the world watched Slager shoot Scott in the back and then casually walk up and handcuff his lifeless body, one of the first questions to enter their mind was, How can this guy possibly think that what he is doing is OK? The same was probably asked of the officer who pressed the head of a dying Harris to the ground and informed him that his breath didn’t matter. As someone who studies the media, I am aware that blaming the media for social phenomena such as violence, sexism and racism is both superficial and naive. The world is far more complex than that. Yet I also know that we must critically assess the role of the media in supporting or undermining those phenomena.
When we ask how someone like Slager could have done what he did, we should also ask the extent to which decades of relative media silence on the use of force against black residents of the U.S. might have contributed to an environment and sensibility in which Slager obviously considered the act an acceptable option. In other words, the callousness of his act should not be divorced from the indifference to disproportionate state violence against African-Americans demonstrated by the media long before Harris, Brown, Garner and now Scott lost their lives.