Baltimore has seen severe unrest for the past week, as residents mourn the death of yet another black man at the hands of police. Earlier this month, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was apprehended after he fled a cop who made eye contact with him. Later, the city’s deputy commissioner would say that his department found “no evidence” of any use of excessive force; but as video evidence shows, Gray was not able to walk without help, and was dragged to the police van. A week later, he was dead.
It makes you wonder: How could a man who was running just moments before somehow sustain a crushed neck and a severed spinal cord? In the original charging document, the filing officer says that Gray “was arrested without force or incident.” But even in a shaky cell phone video, it’s obvious that was not the case.
Also this month, video evidence played a crucial role in bringing charges against South Carolina police officer Michael Slager. Prior to the clip emerging, Slager said he “feared for his life” in a confrontation with Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man. After an eyewitness came forward with the footage, which shows Slager firing several rounds at Scott’s back as he fled, he was charged with murder.
They say the victors write history, but that was before the rest of us had cameras. Though cops don’t generally like being filmed, people continue to turn on the red light, and to point their smart phones at police, who are also happy to keep the power to write history right where it is. Even the most seemingly passive methods of citizen documentation—obtaining arrest records, making public the narrative they scripted—can be near-impossible. Just try to pry those records from the claw-like grasp of our own local departments.
Many have even been kicked, jailed, and arrested, still there remains a responsibility to record. Who watches the watchmen? We do.