There have been dramatic changes over the past ten months toward curbing unchecked police brutality, far beyond what anyone might have anticipated in their scope and depth. In painfully stark contrast, we are worse off than ever regarding common sense gun control laws pertaining to background checks for lunatics and felons, gun trafficking, concealed carry, and the easy accessibility of military style rifles, handguns, bullets, and massive bullet clips. Well-decorated generals, including Colin Powell, have insisted those weapons belong only on the battlefield because they are only about killing people.
Brutality against minorities has been part of our history since Columbus landed. The absence of common-sense gun control is a much more recent social phenomenon. How is it possible that in the space of less than a year, there could have been so much progress in one area and loss of ground in the other?
Answer: Live videotapes
In December, 2012, the world was shocked by the Sandy Hook Massacre of 20 second-graders and six of their teachers at the hands of a floridly psychotic young man armed to the teeth with military assault weapons. Three months later, the oft-maligned documentarian Michael Moore correctly predicted that any gun control bill would be shot dead on the floor in the upcoming Senate vote in April. He further asserted that the NRA would continue to control a corrupt Congress. He suggested that the only event that would horrify and galvanize Americans to force pro-gun representatives out of office would be a leak or the release of massacre videos, either live as they were happening or the carnage in the immediate aftermath. He cited the mother of Emmet Till, an innocent 14 year old black boy accused of flirting with a white woman, who was horrifically tortured, mutilated and killed in 1955 by the KKK. His mother insisted upon having an open casket for the world to see. No one who has ever seen those pictures will ever forget them. Weeks later, as Moore points out, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat and the Civil Rights movement was launched. Both in Viet Nam and in the 1965 Civil Rights Legislation, popular opinion was reversed with the release of film documenting our atrocities.
Ask any advertising executive about the persuasive power of pictures and videos versus words. Ask ISIS the most effective way of terrorizing the world.
Moore was widely misunderstood and attacked as advocating to the parents of massacred children that they make such film available to the public. He was not. No one, ever, anywhere would have that right. He was, however, proposing the impact against the NRA should any such video happen to be leaked or released. Understandably, many of the Sandy Hook families were horribly aggrieved by Moore's suggestion that such a thing might ever happen. Herein lies the moral dilemma that has prevented first responders, news people, and bystanders with smartphones from leaking such footage: How could one possibly violate the privacy and inflict further heartache on family and loved ones? There are sick people who would do very sick things with such material. It is here that we are handcuffed by the unconscionable gun manufactures and their despicable lobbying front, the NRA leadership. They are guided by something very different than a moral code. They know gun sales skyrocket after every mass shooting
Since last December, one need only google "police brutality video" and a frightening world of staggering footage opens up. But to my personal relief, I myself have not been able to find unsterilized live footage of any US massacre from security cameras, smartphones, etc. Even the Columbine video has been carefully edited such that we do not see students begging for their lives. Even the words I've just written are jolting and many might think irresponsible. We do see helicopter shots of fleeing children, terrified family and loved ones rushing to the scene, survivors telling their shocking stories.
As horrific as this would be -- indeed, because it would be that horrific -- imagine the impact of nightmarish, surreal scenes from live unedited footage of a mass murder or up-close video of the immediate carnage. Given the death grip of the NRA leadership, I believe Moore makes a very persuasive prediction that it may well be that only such live, gruesome video could generate the level of outrage in the American public necessary to insist their congresswomen and men vote for common sense gun control or be run out of office.
Recall the unprecedented furor following Sandy Hook. The Obama administration put the full weight of the federal government behind a four-month all-out effort to gain the support of the American public for common sense gun control, with great success. In the ensuing four months, fully 90% of all Americans, including 84% of all gun owners, favored some form of tightening as measured by:
- Gallup: 91%
- CNN/ORC: 92%
- CBS/New York Times: 91%
- Morning Joe/Marist: 87%
- Quinnipiac: 92%
- Fox News: 91%
- Pew: 85%
- USA Today: 92%
- ABC/Washington Post: 91%
And yet in April, 2013, at precisely the time these numbers were rolling in, legislation proposing only the slightest of changes for universal background checks failed to achieve the requisite 60 vote majority in the Senate by a vote of 54-46. The 46 overwhelmingly Republican senators did not vote the wishes of their constituents, but rather the advancement of their careers and the explicit threat of the NRA to withdraw re-election funding and transfer support to the opposition. 90% in favor, 46 votes against. Classic Washington math.
In striking contrast to our deadly failure to advance sensible gun control, the story about reining in police brutality couldn't be more hopeful. To be clear, the shocking videos of policemen gunning down unarmed victims have continued apace. But police caught on those tapes are starting to be indicted quickly, undoubtedly to prevent violent protests demanding justice. Jail sentences are being issued, as opposed to no consequence or light slaps on the wrist. Old cases prior to 2014 that have been sealed by local police forces are being court-ordered to be opened, released to the public, and re-investigated. The video of a flat-out cold-blooded murder by LAPD officers of a completely innocent, unarmed man, though chilling, is rather typical. The overwhelming majority that are good cops, meanwhile, has been well-served by video demonstrating their actions were legitimate.
Americans began paying very careful attention last summer during the violent protests over the police killing of 18 year old Michael Brown. Although there is unfortunately no tape of his shooting, the ensuing upheaval brought widespread attention to the shocking videos of the choke hold death of 43 year old Eric Garner and, most tragically, the killing of 12 year old Tamir Rice that occurred at the same time. The simultaneous deaths of those three unarmed black males were responsible for waking up Americans who were accustomed to hearing and reading news reports before breezily moving on to the sports pages. Now we were seeing brutality as it is happening. The videos continue to pour in and America will never be the same.
Last Thursday, October 1st, in a bitter irony, two major events occurred within the span of a few hours. First, the New York Times reported blockbuster police brutality legislation in the state of New York. From this point forward, police will be required to report in great detail any forceful encounter with the public and to account for their actions. There are many provisions, but by far the most important is the stipulation that officers witnessing other officers are now required to report what they see. Failure to do so will result in serious discipline, including possible dismissal. Although this will take time, breaking omerta, the conspiracy of silence among police officers, in conjunction with the earlier appointment in New York of special, independent prosecutors to investigate excessive force, are far and away the most consequential provisions for curbing police violence. No other measure is even close.
But also last Thursday, once again, a deranged man with guns entered a rural Oregon college, murdering nine students and wounding several other before he killed himself fleeing rapidly responding police.
We have the usual outrage. "Something must be done! How can we sit back and do nothing!" The bizarrely incomprehensible truth is there is no evidence whatsoever that anything will be achieved. History suggests we will continue as a nation to flail about in vain and accomplish nothing. Jeb Bush will have been right when he shrugged off the mass killing with the phrase, "Stuff happens." The fervor for change following Sandy Hook appeared to be unstoppable. Dead wrong.
Videos of police brutality have galvanized astonishingly productive action in the space of less than a year. We can hope that the legislation from New York will serve as a model everywhere. But there seems a terrible likelihood that Michael Moore is right. Absent gruesome live video, is there anything that can prevent the NRA from grinding its boot-heel against our necks?
Last December, I concluded a piece examining the deaths of Brown, Garner, and Rice with the sentence, "Cameras are everywhere." I was wrong. Not quite everywhere.