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The price of bearing witness: watching and sharing movies of police brutality on-line


  1. Michelle A Williams, dean of the college on the Harvard TH Chan Faculty of Public Well being

Footage of police brutality helps guarantee accountability, however the frequency and attain of those movies might affect the well being and wellbeing of viewers, argues Michelle A Williams

In latest weeks we’ve seen an uproar ring out after police killed an unarmed Black man in the USA. I’m talking of Tyre Nichols, who died in January 2023 after being punched, kicked, and overwhelmed by 5 Memphis officers from an “elite” unit. However I could possibly be talking about Eric Garner, or George Floyd, or Philando Castile, or Freddie Grey, or far too many others.

These assaults on Black individuals and communities by these appointed to “defend and serve” match squarely inside a centuries-old sample of violence by state sanctioned actors.1

Our skill to look at the brutality unfold, nonetheless, is comparatively new. With sickening regularity, police assaults are captured on surveillance cameras, cell telephones, even the physique and dashboard cameras meant to carry officers accountable for his or her actions. Then the footage is launched to the general public. We see the blows. We hear the cries. We witness one other life extinguished. We grieve. We protest. We name for reform . . . After which it occurs once more.

I may convey myself to look at simply one of many recordings of the Tyre Nichols killing. Ever since, I’ve been grappling with the affect of those movies.

They do, generally, guarantee a measure of justice for the victims. On the Memphis recordings, you may hear the cops concocting a narrative to clarify their use of power. With out the video to shine a lightweight on the details, that story may have been the definitive model of occasions. Uncontested. The recordings uncovered the reality. Because of this, the officers shall be held accountable.

There’s a energy, too, in forcing the general public to bear witness. Keep in mind what Emmett Until’s mom stated after her son was tortured by a lynch mob: “Let the individuals see what they did to my boy.” Like Emmett’s open casket, video recordings of police brutality are uncooked and irrefutable proof of systemic oppression for many who would fairly look away.

So, the movies do have worth. But they don’t seem to be the catalyst for change we’d hope. In any case, the variety of Black individuals killed by police within the US elevated within the two years after George Floyd’s demise, which was filmed and shared broadly on-line, and police killings rose to an all time excessive in 2022.2

It is usually true that these movies are deeply traumatizing.

Nobody with Black pores and skin must be reminded that this world is harmful for us. Even our most innocuous actions—birdwatching or bug accumulating—can immediate police interventions.34 These movies power us to reckon with the information that such encounters can flip lethal with out warning or purpose.

A number of years in the past, my colleague David R Williams studied what occurs to the general public after an unarmed Black individual is killed by police. He discovered that Black individuals within the state the place the violence came about reported increased ranges of poor psychological well being within the weeks after the incident.5 White residents didn’t. The research didn’t take into account the affect of video recordings, however it’s a cheap speculation that this publicity to police violence would solely exacerbate the psychological well being considerations.

This psychological pressure has bodily repercussions too. We all know that the heightened stress of being topic to racism accelerates getting older—a phenomenon referred to as “weathering”—and is linked to illnesses starting from coronary heart illness to power irritation.6 Anecdotally, I do know from conversations with associates, colleagues, and family members that publicity to those movies can have an immense affect; the trauma of watching cops savagely beat a Black individual is tough to beat, particularly for kids and younger individuals.

It considerations me that these movies might normalize police violence, and within the course of, create a way of helplessness.

As a Black mom, I gave my son “the discuss” as he was rising up.7 I defined how you can act in public, how you can work together with authority, how you can keep away from drawing hostile consideration. Don’t run. Don’t discuss again. Don’t put your arms in your pockets. Don’t give an officer any purpose to get indignant or really feel afraid.

However the movies present that recommendation is ineffective when an officer of the legislation decides to behave lawlessly. The police pelted Tyre Nichols with dozens of contradicting instructions.8 They beat him even when he was handcuffed, on the bottom, and of no danger to anybody. He was not an anomaly. Many movies of police brutality ship the clear and terrifying message that compliance and deference is not going to prevent—even when the officers are Black, even when emergency medical responders are on the scene.9 Think about how that feels to the Black dad and mom, teenagers, and kids watching.

What’s subsequent? There isn’t a easy reply. It feels hopeless, however we can’t lose hope.

Sure, we should bear witness. We should additionally do the work. True change would require uprooting the structural racism that has burrowed so insidiously into our establishments. Every single day that we delay in confronting these evils, the harms proceed to mount—for the victims of police violence, and for all those that are compelled to look at.

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