On March 18, Stephon Clark was killed in his backyard when Sacramento police shot him eight times, firing 20 rounds in five seconds. A few days afterward, footage from the police helicopter and body camera was released, revealing that Clark was unarmed and that police shot him while his back was turned.
I didn’t watch it.
With increased access to phone videos, surveillance cameras and body cam footage, there has also been an increased availability of these videos documenting the killings of black people. The list of names ― the list of lives we’ve watched ended on video ― would take up this entire column.
For a long time, I watched every video ― some because I chose to and some because social media autoplay features are unforgiving. I watched police choke Eric Garner to death. I watched police pin and shoot Alton Sterling at close range. I watched police shoot John Crawford in a Walmart while he was on the phone. I watched police kill Philando Castile in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter. I watched police shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice immediately after arriving on the scene.
From the moment each story broke, a predictable pattern played out. The police would release their narrative, the officer would be placed on administrative leave and people would begin to protest an extrajudicial killing. Social media chaos follows anytime a police officer kills an unarmed black person, with everyone shouting into virtual spaces for “the facts” ― always giving the officer the benefit of the doubt. The rhetoric of “waiting for the facts” assumes that with enough information about a killing, we can accurately determine the value of a life and the deservedness of its end.
“These videos function much like lynchings.”
But no amount of factual information can counteract the weight of more than four centuries of a dualistic culture that normalizes and glorifies whiteness and assumes black people to be villains, miscreants and thugs. This deeply embedded cultural bias ― white innocence, black violence ― produces a lack of empathy toward black life and stories. Instead of extending empathy, white culture presumes black guilt, an assumption that is revealed every time that we start our inquiries by asking for “the facts” instead of grieving loss of life.
Violence against black bodies isn’t neutral, especially when that violence is enacted by the police and recorded by video footage. Research has shown that watching violence on television causes people to be more fearful of their surroundings and makes them less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. Additionally, watching black people’s deaths go viral has long-term psychological impacts that resemble PTSD. Black people experience increased stress and anxiety as a result of continually seeing the people who are meant to protect, taking life. Through social media, we are constantly exposed to black trauma, suffering and death.
In watching the video footage, we often see with our eyes that officers’ stories about what happened right before they opened fire aren’t true ― but we hear a barrage of reasons why the victim deserved death all the same. And then we watch as the criminal justice system exonerates officers in even the clearest instances of officer error or bias.
“For black people, police videos are moments of trauma, continual reaffirmations of a reality that we live every day: our lives do not matter.”
For black people, police videos are moments of trauma, continual reaffirmations of a reality that we live every day: Our lives do not matter. For white people, they become data points to analyze and critique in order to prove black guilt.
These videos function much like lynchings. They show black people that their lives are at the mercy of whiteness and that their bodies are acceptable targets of violence. And they remind black people that in a culture that celebrates whiteness and demonizes blackness, we can watch black death over and over again, ignoring that every slaughtered black person was just that: a person. A person with a family and a backstory. These were people who went to school, fell in love, had hobbies and pursued dreams. Police videos of violence against black bodies serve as a warning of what the state can do ― and get away with, even when it’s caught on tape.
Videos are helpful tools for criminal proceedings and they help us see the often ugly truth of interactions between black people and the police. In a culture steeped in white supremacy that historically takes the life or wellbeing of black people with impunity, I choose to step away from the trauma of watching videos of extrajudicial killings. Those videos show me what I already know: that America doesn’t believe my life matters.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.