On 19 July​ 2015, a sullen, hot day with white skies, an unarmed black man was killed in Cincinnati. The incident began when Officer Ray Tensing, a member of the University of Cincinnati campus police, pulled over Samuel DuBose, whose car was missing its front licence plate. Tensing was wearing a body camera, and when the Hamilton County district attorney released the video ten days later, on 29 July, Americans watching the news that night saw about two minutes of what happened.

After calling for back-up, Tensing pulls in behind DuBose, who has stopped his car on Rice St, a pleasant green road outside the university campus. Tensing walks to the car, and the men have a seemingly amiable conversation. The officer is insistent but polite, DuBose vague and indistinct (at one point, he hands over a small bottle of gin). Tensing, addressing DuBose as ‘sir’, asks if he has his licence on him. No, it turns out he doesn’t. Tensing asks him to unfasten his seat belt, but DuBose turns on the ignition instead. Suddenly, Tensing reaches into the car with his left hand and shoots DuBose with the revolver in his right hand. This last action happens very quickly and in a blur: you can hear the shot, but you can see the revolver only in slow motion. The car moves forward, brushing Tensing. He falls to the ground. As his body cam jumps and spins, he rights himself and chases after the car, which comes to a stop down the street with a sickening noise as it hits a telephone pole. In the front seat, Samuel DuBose is dead.

The Cincinnati video is one of more than twenty visual records of police violence against black men, most of them unarmed, that have surfaced in the last three years. Some of these videos were made by passers-by or bystanders; their profane, disbelieving remarks can be heard as they comment on what is happening before them. Some of the other videos were shot by fixed surveillance cameras or, like Officer Tensing’s, by the police themselves with body cams or dashboard cams in patrol cars. The recordings of homicides and police shootings in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Staten Island, Houston, San Antonio, North Charlotte, Chicago, Baton Rouge and other cities have been taken into evidence in criminal investigations and in civil suits against local police forces. They have fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement and the gathering outrage over the difference in arrest rates between whites and blacks for the same crime. Looking at the videos has also become a way of grieving. ‘I have waited for 15 years for this moment,’ Ta Nehisi-Coates said on 24 November 2015, when receiving the National Book Award for Between the World and Me, his essay on race and violence. Coates’s close friend Prince Jones was killed in Virginia in 2000. ‘When Prince Jones died, there were no cameras. There was nobody looking. The officer that killed him was not prosecuted. He was not even disciplined by the police force.’

In the Cincinnati video, today’s compulsion to take pictures of everything reaches a bizarre fulfilment: Tensing is both participant and witness; he is the shooter and the detective investigating his own actions. Instant video recording has the capacity to dissolve the distinction between actor and observer and sometimes between witness and news reporter. The most extraordinary of these participatory accounts is the Facebook Live video – users can broadcast whatever they are watching as it is happening – recorded on 6 July in Falcon Heights, Minnesota by Diamond ‘Lavish’ Reynolds. She was riding with her four-year-old daughter in a car driven by her boyfriend, Philando Castile, when they were pulled over by Officer Jeronimo Yanez for driving with a broken tail-light. Reynolds turned on her mobile-phone camera a few minutes later. As Castile sits dying next to her, she narrates clearly and urgently. Castile told the officer that he had a licence to carry arms, she says, but the officer began firing at Castile when he reached for the licence. ‘Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him,’ Reynolds says. ‘You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his licence and registration, sir.’ As she speaks, Yanez, still holding a gun on Castile, shouts incoherently (‘Fuck!’ is clearly heard) but doesn’t call for an ambulance. Reynolds, now in the back of a police car, continues speaking plainly, methodically. ‘The police shot him for no apparent reason,’ she says. Is she in shock? In denial? No, she merely seems determined to set down the reality of what has happened. But at last she loses control. She screams, and her little daughter in a tiny but firm voice can be heard saying, ‘It’s OK. I’m here with you.’

We are confronted with violence in the media all the time, but these eight minutes of video are harrowing in their explicitness, their grievousness, their attempt to make sense of the senseless. By recording the reality of the shooting, Reynolds affords herself a means of emotional survival. She also provides the rest of us with the human response missing from the police in all these videos: disbelief, rage, grief, the recognition that yet another young black man has been killed. The video transforms an excruciating personal disaster, a private moment, into a public and political event.

If we are not police or prosecutors, not a member of a community-relations group or a public commission on violence; if we are just citizens, how should we respond to these videos? What is their value, emotionally and morally? Why look at them again – or even once? No matter how they were made, they are ‘stories’ that share a common sequence of events and an aura of terrible authenticity. Indeed, the videos wouldn’t have surfaced into public view if they weren’t narratives. Yet the particular story they tell has a consciousness-altering significance. As one watches, one thinks: ‘This man who was alive is no longer alive.’ And that thought is followed by anger and shame. Similar things were happening in the United States long before cameras were around to record them. A given video, we realise, represents not just one life extinguished but many lives extinguished; not just one instance of inept, maybe criminal police work but a stage in the unravelling of public trust in legal authority itself.

I have spoken to people who refuse to watch the videos because it would feel prurient, or they fear becoming complicit with the police; certainly the Cincinnati video, in which we are bound to Officer Tensing’s body, is spooky and upsetting in the way that it links the act of witnessing to homicide. But that is a quirk of technology, not a moral failing of the viewer. And the potential charge of voyeurism gives way to the likelihood that looking at the videos pushes the white viewer into a new relationship with power and race. The videos demonstrate white dominance operating against black men on the streets – a sight that comes as no surprise to black Americans, but could convince many white people that African Americans have been making sense about such matters for years.

The videos show the police at their worst, and only at their worst. We know little of what happened before the recording began; or of the officers’ past behaviour and record. Nevertheless, the way the police act in such moments can be studied for intimations of commonly held attitudes, the assumptions and expectations that exist before and after these deadly confrontations. One looks for something else in the videos too: intimations of the wider culture, a culture in which many of us consume violent images all the time, on television, on the internet, in movies and in video games. We may encounter the videos inadvertently, watching the news for example, but they don’t drop from the sky. No one who sees them lives in a state of innocence.

In film after film, TV show after TV show, the police are dogged, persistent, sometimes clever, always tough. When they commit violence, they may be ‘unorthodox’ or even ruthless, but they are mostly in the right. In such movie series as ‘Dirty Harry’, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’, with their ‘rebellious’ cops; in such shows as Miami Vice, NYPD Blue and CSI, with their swashbuckling big-city guardians; in such hard-charging films as The Departed, L.A. Confidential and End of Watch, the police are generally honest, often fearless exemplars of legitimate authority in a complex and ferocious society. In the long-running series COPS, a half-hour ‘documentary/reality’ show, camera crews ride with the police as they pull over and sometimes spreadeagle young black men against their squad cars or on the ground. As we watch from the police’s point of view, the ‘action’ has a queasy tinge of exploitation. Another long-running TV series, Law and Order, in its many versions, puts the issue of legitimacy most explicitly: the police are at the centre of a rational moral world, in which investigation is followed invariably by prosecution, a lockstep sequence which may not always produce justice but remains tirelessly cogent in its pursuit of it.

Of the famous shows, perhaps only the David Simon classic The Wire adds the dimensions of fallibility and compromise to the image of the police. Here the police sometimes act with righteous violence, sometimes not. Often they are stymied by the peevishness and self-interest of police bureaucracy. They live in the real world, the fallen world: the attractions of crime are far more potent than they are. But how often does that version of police work play in the heads of actual policemen? In most popular culture, the policeman is an avenger, and violence is justified by the badge itself.

In life, we try to stay as far as possible from lawless aggression, but in media and art, we never stop feasting on it. Moviemakers and TV directors shape violence for beauty and strength, for excitement, for development of style or character. In art, violence can be an expression of physical and even moral grace; at the least, it is a fascinating spectacle. But the street videos reveal actual violence as abrupt, clumsy and stupid – as mostly a series of preventable mistakes. In their hapless, tawdry way, the street videos shame – disenchant – the aestheticism of commercial and high-art violence. The police can’t be guiltier than the rest of us in their viewing habits, but they are possibly more deadly in the licence they take from those habits. And they are possibly so numb after committing violence because their entire viewing experience has told them that there is nothing wrong with it.

In one of her last books, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag discussed the ethical complications of looking at ‘extreme’ images – in Sontag’s case, still photographs of war, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing. Sontag rejected the then fashionable notion that the sheer abundance of such images could lead to general insensitivity – an indifference to the suffering in the pictures, suffering viewed at a distance and always mediated by technology and art. ‘The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war,’ she wrote, ‘is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.’ Similarly, we could say that the understanding of how the police handle black bodies, on the part of those of us who have never been handled ourselves, is chiefly a product of the recent videos.

Such images, fully absorbed, can change a culture. Some of the pictures Sontag cited were so powerfully composed that they attained iconic status almost instantly: Robert Capa’s photograph from 1936 of a Spanish Republican fighter, arms flung out as a bullet hits him (that the photo may have been staged doesn’t alter its influence); or the image, taken in Vietnam in 1972 by the AP photographer Nick Ut, of terrified children running from a village attacked with napalm. These photographs came to represent, for many people, the conflicts themselves. The first image enlarged support for the Spanish Republican cause; the second fed the growing popular opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Classic war images are made by photographers consciously exercising their art, and sometimes their political beliefs as well. But the passers-by and participants creating the street videos may have had no particular intention except to record something unusual going on. A few may have been more like gawkers slowing their cars after an accident than passionate believers in law and order. But that hardly matters – moral purity is not required. The police had drawn their weapons, and someone troubled to notice what was happening and make a permanent record of it. They did it with the means at hand. Every camera also imposes its own characteristics – its strengths and limitations – on vision. But a mobile-phone camera probably transforms actual events to the minimum degree possible. Holding their phones out in front of them, in a state of fear as well as curiosity, the witnesses made images whose force derives precisely from their desperation and poverty, their lack of aesthetic intent. The images are clumsy, ugly, bedraggled. Seen on TV or the internet, they haven’t been cleaned up, clarified, reframed or enhanced in any way. Photographs are often said to change ugliness into beauty, but these photographs transform nothing; in their palpably raw state, they are as eloquent morally as they are useful as evidence.

Sontag’s chosen images were still photos – moments frozen in time. In the videos, however, events flow in time; one thing happens after another, without editorial shaping or emphasis. The inexorable forward movement brands the events in consciousness and shapes our reactions. In the videos made by passers-by, the spinning, bucking camera becomes part of the violence of the events, which includes the distress of the photographer, who understandably can’t hold his phone steady. Images from static cameras have different qualities. A fixed surveillance camera, recording in Cleveland on 22 November 2014, captured a 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, pointing a toy gun at imaginary targets. The boy was playing alone in a snowy park pavilion at the Cudell Recreation Center. The video, shot from across the way, is silent, the winter colours so drab that it takes a while to realise that the image is actually in colour. We watch the boy, seemingly lost in a reverie, walk out of the fixed frame, then circle around and come back into view. Does he imagine himself at the centre of some dangerous exploit? Is he stalking bad guys in hiding? He’s like any other kid playing alone with a toy gun, though his toy was a plastic replica of an actual revolver. The camera watches as police officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback pull up in their patrol car. After two seconds, Loehmann begins shooting from the car. Tamir Rice was hit twice and died the next day in hospital.

It turned out that the officers had arrived at the park with limited information. The Cleveland despatcher who summoned the patrol car failed to pass along key details from the 911 caller, including their opinion that the person in the park was ‘probably a juvenile’ and that the gun was ‘probably fake’. But could the officers not have seen this themselves? In the video, Tamir Rice looks small – he’s certainly not a full-grown man – and the police in their car were a lot closer to him than we are, in the position of the camera across the street. Loehmann and Garmback have been absolved of any legal culpability; experts appointed by the prosecutors claimed that their behaviour was ‘reasonable’. Yet what we see offends reason. The officers may have arrived without necessary information, but they were armed with their instincts, and Loehmann’s instincts compelled him to start shooting a 12-year-old boy with barely a hesitation.

The Cleveland video is not the only such instance. In November last year the Chicago police released a dashboard cam video recorded in October 2014. A black teenage boy named Laquan McDonald runs along the central divider of a Chicago street. Seen from the rear, he looks blithe, maybe stoned and happy. He slows and veers to his right as the police arrive in multiple cars. He’s holding a small knife, just barely visible in the video, but as he moves away from the police, one of the officers, Jason Van Dyke, entering the fixed image from the left, shoots him repeatedly – 16 times in 13 seconds. The video is silent, so we don’t know what was said, but we can see that the police did not attempt to disarm McDonald as he walked away from them.

These videos may reveal no more than a fragment of a situation, but the viewer can ask questions and draw conclusions from what can be seen. The Cleveland and Chicago videos break into public view as individual disasters but also as symbolic events in which licensed force obliterates not quite innocence (Tamir Rice was waving a replica gun, Laquan McDonald was holding a knife) but overwhelming vulnerability. The viewer, indulging the fantasies of the impotent, asks: ‘Why don’t the police take cover, negotiate, intimidate? Why don’t they use pepper spray, shoot bean-bag rounds? Why don’t they make arrests?’ In other words, why don’t they treat the young men as citizens? It’s as if there were some elementary reality that eluded our understanding. Meaninglessness offends the demand that violence make sense, that it fall into some morally decipherable pattern. But the decipherable pattern here is that some police officers feel free to shoot black men.

On 4 September 2014 in Columbia, South Carolina, state trooper Sean Groubert stopped Levar Jones, a 35-year-old African American, for not wearing his seat belt. As Groubert’s dashboard camera reveals, Jones pulls into a convenience store and Groubert pulls in after him, halting perhaps 15 feet away. Groubert tells Jones, who is standing outside his car, to get his licence, and Jones quickly reaches in and then springs out of the car – at which point Groubert shoots four rounds, wounding Jones in the hip. Absurdist black comedy takes over: the two men fall out of the frame and Jones can be heard asking, ‘Why did you shoot me?’ Groubert, who addresses the man he has just shot as ‘sir’, tells him: ‘Well, you dove head first back into your car’ – ‘I’m sorry,’ Jones says – ‘Then you jumped back out.’ Nervously, Groubert reassures Jones that an ambulance is on the way. In Groubert’s version of what happened, recorded a bit later in the video, he tells his supervisor that Jones acted aggressively – which is not what we have just seen. (How many times, without the recording of videos, have such cover stories gone unchallenged?)

Despite the video’s restricted point of view, it reveals quite a bit: an officer losing professional control, abandoning common sense and firing on instinct; and then snapping back, attempting to reassert control and authority, and re-entering a normative ethical world in which you try to help someone who is hurt, even if you hurt him yourself. The video doesn’t tell us why Groubert lost possession of himself, though we can make some guesses. What we see and hear is that Groubert felt threatened by a black man moving in and out of his car at the wrong speed. Groubert was possibly so frightened of black men that he believed he needed to shoot before he got shot himself. Many such confrontations are fuelled by racial fear and by mutual suspicion, emotions exacerbated by the American plenitude of guns, which has the effect of dissolving common sense and normal hesitations. Would a police officer in London or Tokyo or Ottawa assume that a man moving quickly was reaching for a gun?

In the videos that run on, we can see what happens after the violence, and what we see tells us a great deal about the moral and emotional condition of urban police work. In one widely seen video, recorded on 4 April 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina, we seem to have joined in the middle of a movie, but a movie that is savage, senseless, pitiless. The image bucks, the camera pitches down. It is held by a young man, later identified as Feiden Santana, as he blunders along the side of a fence. Once Santana has got a good enough view, he holds the camera steady and we see Walter Scott, a man of about fifty, abruptly running away from a policeman, Michael Slager, who then discharges eight rounds from his revolver, five of which hit Scott in the back. Scott falls, and Slager, running up to the immobile body, shouts: ‘Put your hands behind your back!’ Santana keeps his camera on Slager as he returns to where he and Scott had been standing earlier, and we watch as Slager picks up his taser, which is lying on the ground, and returns to Scott, dropping the taser by the body, as if to suggest that the two had struggled over it and that the struggle had produced the shooting.

We have the morbid impression that some ritual is being enacted, a ritual determined by years of experience and expectation, with each man locked into a pre-assigned role and declining to exercise the freedom of choice – the choice not to run away, the choice not to shoot. But this video and some of the others suggest another possibility too – that the officers acted recklessly because they believed they wouldn’t be held to account no matter what they did. After Scott falls, another officer shows up and, though Scott is surely dead or dying, handcuffs him. The second officer doesn’t attempt to give Scott medical aid; instead, he searches his body, and then the two policemen stand around. As a separate video reveals, the encounter had begun when Slager pulled Scott over for driving with a missing tail-light. In this video, recorded earlier by Slager’s dashboard cam, Slager gets out, converses with Scott at his car, then returns to his patrol car, at which point Scott bolts. Those were Scott’s crimes: a missing tail-light and then running away. As he lies dead, neither Slager nor the other officer seems particularly upset about a trivial situation that has spun wildly out of control. We get the impression that for the two cops, what has happened is less a catastrophic mistake than an unsurprising outcome.

That impression of stolid unconcern, or indifference, is unmistakeably present in the notorious Eric Garner case. On 17 July 2014, in Staten Island, Eric Garner, a large man with a record of arrests for minor offences, was detained for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. A passer-by, Ramsey Orta, muttering to himself, films Garner, backed against a building wall, as he says to the police: ‘Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!’ At which point Officer Daniel Pantaleo leaps at him, grabs him in a choke hold and wrestles him to the ground. As four other officers pile on, Pantaleo pushes Garner’s face into the pavement with his hands. ‘I can’t breathe,’ Garner is heard to say, 11 times.

Again, a desultory period follows. Silent now, Garner doesn’t move; but the officers handcuff him anyway without administering CPR or any other first aid. One officer says to him: ‘Sir, the EMS [Emergency Medical Service] is here, answer the questions, OK?’ and then a young woman takes Garner’s pulse and says, ‘Sir, we’re the EMS. We’re here to help, right?’ The tone of these exhortations suggests that Garner is faking or laying low. After a few minutes, Garner is finally placed on a stretcher and taken to hospital, where, an hour after the assault, he was pronounced dead.

We hear none of the policemen saying, ‘My God, I think we killed this guy,’ or anything remotely like that – not in this video, or in any other where a voice track is part of the recording. An expression of open emotion would no doubt violate unspoken police codes; it could be seen by other officers as a sign of weakness – or of guilt. The police are not trained to be martyrs. If they feel threatened, they attack, and regret is beside the point. But is it professional routine and professional pride alone that account for the strangely affectless behaviour? In both the Walter Scott and Eric Garner incidents, it’s as if the officers needed to stick to routine despite the evidence of their senses; as if they needed to believe that the man was so dangerous that he remained a threat even when badly wounded or immobile on the ground. Something more than ineptitude and panic is there in these acts: refusing to accept that a man is dead may be a way of refusing to acknowledge that one bears any responsibility for his death. Feelings of pity have been chased away, as far as we can see, by fear.

Simone Weil, in her essay of 1939 on the Iliad, defined ‘might’ as ‘that which makes a thing of anybody who comes under its sway’. The police possess ‘might’ in a privileged way; they embody the legitimate use of force. In these encounters, they turn a man into a thing and, as the videos reveal, once a black man becomes a thing his body may produce nothing but alienated scorn. The physical brutality is only the first shock; the emotional brutality revealed by the negligent or hostile treatment of the dead or dying body suggests deep layers of callousness, a condition that underlies behaviour on a day-to-day basis. In ancient Greek civilisation a body could become a ‘thing’, but abusing it or neglecting it was an offence against the gods as well as against the state.

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