By Charles Davis (Asst. Prof. of Architecture History) | This essay notes the historical shift pf techniques in activists’ resistance to police brutality. The bold images of the Black Panther Party that intertwined black masculinity with armed resistance have given way to a broader public armed with camera phones and other tools from social media. Might this shift mark an epochal transition of strategies and aims in the maintenance of minority civil rights?
The first instance of recording police abuse that I can recall (at least vividly) is the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
Though the footage was grainy, and I was still in high school, it was a visceral reminder of the monopoly on state-sponsered violence that police officers employed against the black body. It also keyed me into the power of video to promote change. Because of the power of video, the LAPD was considered a menace in the eyes of the public. It would be interesting to write a history of public surveillance of police abuse that begins with the Rodney King event and moves forward, marking the innovations in video technology that made continued surveillance affordable to the general public.
The image of Black Panther Party members brandishing weapons in the name of self-defense is very powerful. It is also a bit simplistic.
Such images inspired many radical black youth to don weapons in defense of themselves in the 1960s and 70s. One of the most prominent examples of this is the student riots conducted at Cornell University in 1969. This event was precipitated by the radicalism of student protest movements, the racial language of one Economics professor, and the burning of a cross outside of the black women’s dormitory. Black male students, responding to their ‘duty’ to protect the women, took over the student union (Willard Straight hall) on parent’s weekend to bring attention to their plight. After several failed attempts by several students to forcibly take back the union, several protesters smuggled in weapons. When a deal was reached with university administrators to end the siege, three male students were photographed coming out of the union with weapons and bandoliers of bullets across their chest.
This image, of course, scandalized the public and solidified a rapid backlash against the protesters. How could they endanger public safety? Shouldn’t we ban weapons on campus? The irony was that most of the bullets donned in this image were not even compatible with the guns used. Let me say this again – the weapons were just for show, they could not be used. These students literally imitated the aesthetic of black empowerment shown in Black Panther Party propaganda. (I can only assume that the weapons brandished by campus police, however, were quite real.) All of this is to say that black masculinity can easily run amuck when it is too easily swayed by visual images of empowerment.
Franchesca Ramsey, a very funny (and brave) blogger for MTV news runs a youtube channel entitled ‘Decoded’. She first came to internet fame with her video ‘Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls’.
Her new youtube channel for MTV features skits, rants and all forms of explorations of contemporary race issues. According to one response to a video post, Leigh states that she believes that comedy can be used to get people to think and discuss issues that would normally be too uncomfortable. (See MTV’s newest show on whiteness as evidence of how uncomfortable it is for some to discuss race.) She recently posted a video that highlights the power that advances in camera phones provides to young black people who may be targeted for special scrutiny by police. The post, entitled ‘Why do Cops Hate this Phone?’ cleverly dovetails images of broadband coverage with a geographical depiction of sites of police violence.
(This brought my love of maps, comedy, and activism together in one great image!) Later in the video, two police officers (one black and one white, to avoid the appearance of impropriety) treat the phone a young black man is holding as a weapon. This visual play on images actually affords the camera phone the status of a weapon, or at least a weapon that can combat police brutality. What I find interesting about this moment is that it evaporates once a white sales person takes the phone away from the minority customer, which renders its power invisible.
At first glance, this substitution might seem to be straightforward–the criminalization of blackness extends to pervert any action of the black body, no matter how innocent. This projection is completely absent in the presence of whiteness, which deescalates the situation. However, I believe that there is a more subversive (and perhaps unintended) message in this exchange. As it exists, the video reinforces the privileges of whiteness that preclude certain citizens from having to think about police brutality toward themselves. However, there are plenty of people of all colors whose instinct is to begin video taping an overly aggressive police exchange, or to serve as witnesses of such exchanges when the need arises. (I can think of the range of witnesses that made videos of the recent tackling of Jahda Bakari at a recent pool party in Texas as evidence of this.) If this impulse is universal, that is to say, if everyone who comes in to buy a camera is told about their ability to record police brutality, then we have the basis for a broad based multi-racial coalition of public protesters.
Might it be better if police officers think that all of us are ready with our phones to record any record of misbehavior?