On Friday, Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the cellphone video of George Floyd’s murder, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
There is no doubt the shocking footage of an officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes was the key factor in launching a new phase of the global Black Lives Matter movement — and in ensuring the swift conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
It is also unquestionable that recording what happened required great bravery and sacrifice. Challenging a group of four police officers is rarely safe if you’re a 17-year-old Black girl, as Frazier was at the time. (Ramsey Orta, a Latino man who filmed Staten Island police choking out Eric Garner in 2014, says he’s since been the target of regular police abuse.) Frazier has described how filming the death left her deeply traumatized, robbing her of her childhood and causing panic attacks every time she sees a police car.
What is suspect, however, is a certain kind of liberal self-congratulation that has settled in around Frazier’s video. Many now proclaim confidently that filming police encounters — whether via cellphone or an officer’s body camera — leads to clear and consistent change.
“We would all do well to emulate Darnella’s grit in standing up to those with a monopoly on force and violence as we push for a stronger democracy, a more equal society, and a more just world,” Jennifer Egan, the acclaimed author and president of PEN America’s Board of Trustees, recently wrote of an award the organisation awarded the young woman. “Her truth-telling epitomizes the kind of brave action that PEN America exists to celebrate and defend.”
We are not all Woodward and Bernstein, as comforting a dream as that may be. And videos of police harm are powerful, but not more powerful than the police. Transparency alone is rarely enough to secure meaningful reform — or even justice in the first place. The latest police killing of a Black man in Minneapolis, Winston Boogie Smith, shows why.
On June 3, a joint law enforcement task force comprising local county sheriff’s deputies and federal marshalls shot and killed 32-year-old Smith in a Minneapolis parking garage, following an alleged felony weapons violation. The two sheriff’s deputies who killed him were both wearing body cameras, but had been instructed not to turn them on, even though in October the Justice Department reversed a longstanding policy preventing officers on federal fugitive task forces from wearing them.
And even when there is good footage, that doesn’t guarantee much, as my colleague Andrew Buncombe and I describe in our recent investigation into the 426 people of color killed by police since George Floyd died.
Kendrell Watkins, an Alabama man, was Tasered to death in the midst of a mental health crisis, and police haven’t released a key portion of body camera footage that would reveal how a seemingly calm conversation caught on video escalated into a later section that shows them shooting him with a stun gun as he runs naked down the street.
Video captured police shooting Kurt Reinhold, a homeless man in Southern California, in September after tailing him and mocking his accent, but footage was only released to the public in February. His family still doesn’t know why police began following Reinhold in the first place, and even with all that footage, investigations into the killing drag on.
Police often have a monopoly on the video available, and are often left to investigate themselves. Under this arrangement, multiple studies have shown that body cameras don’t really change how police use force, though they can inspire more people to report misconduct.
Video, in other words, shows us the world as it is, but it does little to make the world the place we want it to be. Police videos are not signs of progress, but the public face of a heinous policy and moral failures. The proper way to honour Frazier is not with a Pulitzer Prize, but with a system that wouldn’t have demanded her courage or created the life-long trauma she now carries.
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