I know the exact day I stopped watching videos of police brutality; the decision wasn’t a conscious declaration, but more of a whisper in my soul: Enough.
It was May 14, 2019. A Black woman with schizophrenia named Pamela Turner, 44, had been killed the day before. A police officer shot her at point-blank range. She begged for her life and screamed, “I’m pregnant!”
When it was revealed that Turner had a mental illness and was not pregnant (delusions of pregnancy and pseudocyesis — phantom pregnancy — can affect people with mental illness, and Turner may also have been trying to protect herself), some attempted to justify her death, claiming the officer was in fear for his life.
But no, the video I saw was an execution. It left me sobbing into my partner’s arms for hours, especially since I am also a Black woman with severe mental health struggles. After attempting to organize a community response for Turner, something inside of me shut off. I knew I could no longer watch these horrific videos. I haven’t seen one since.
The person who recorded the video of Turner has only been identified as a bystander. In the video, you can see that they are trying to stay out of sight. They do not make their presence known, nor do they try to stop the killing from happening.
During the community meeting my partner and I organized, a Black woman said not knowing the bystander’s identity made her angry. “If that person had an ounce of societal power, why didn’t they do anything?”
On May 25, George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer buried his knee into Floyd’s neck, as Floyd gasped, “Please… I can’t breathe… Everything hurts.” A video capturing Floyd’s killing began circulating immediately. The officer, Derek Chauvin, who was seen killing Floyd was arrested today. He has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. None of the other officers who stood by as witnesses have yet been arrested, although charges are anticipated. Protests against police brutality and systemic racism have erupted in Minneapolis, and across the country, in response.
Darnella Frazier, a Black teenager, is the person who recorded that video. She and other bystanders can be heard begging the officer to stop.
“I seen him die,” Frazier said tearfully, reports The Grio. “And everybody’s asking me how do I feel. I don’t know how to feel. [Because], it’s so sad, bro.”
Floyd’s is one in a long line of videos documenting white violence against Black people. A video of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery being chased and killed on February 23 by two white men was filmed by another white man, William "Roddie" Bryan Jr. What Bryan filmed was a lynching; but he was also complicit in this crime, having apparently tried to block Arbery as he attempted to get away. Along with the men in the video, Bryan has been charged with murder.
These videos are inherently graphic and triggering. But the video of Arbery, in particular, has been described as a snuff film, and many Black people on Twitter expressed their deep trauma at watching it, begging for others not to spread it.
Others were angry at controversial activist Shaun King for releasing the video in the first place. Because, yes, the video was the catalyst for the arrest of those men, but at what cost?
The video of Floyd’s killing has also come at the expense of the wellbeing of the young woman who took it. For Frazier, witnessing the incident was traumatizing, but so are the social media attacks she’s received since then, with some people claiming she should have done “more” to help.
Responding to the criticism in a Facebook post, Frazier wrote, “I’m a minor! Of course I’m not about to fight a cop I’m SCARED wtf. Fighting would’ve got someone else killed or in the same position as George.”
Pointing out that the video caused the truth to come out, resulting in a fierce backlash against corrupt policing, Frazier wrote, “Instead of bashing me, THANK ME! Because that could’ve been one of your loved ones and you would want to see the truth as well.”
Frazier was right to be scared of getting involved any further. When Eric Garner was killed by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in July 2014, his friend Ramsey Orta captured it all — even through his own fear. In Orta’s video, Garner tries to explain that he is innocent, then Pantaleo sweeps Garner into a crushing, illegal chokehold until Garner collapses. Eleven times, Garner pleads for his life, saying, “I can’t breathe,” over and over again — a desperate prayer. He is ignored, his head pushed onto the pavement until he loses consciousness and dies.
The officer who killed Garner was not criminally prosecuted. But Orta, who watched his friend die at the hands of Pantaleo, has been locked away in prison since 2016, having been convicted of gun and drug charges that Orta and his supporters say are false and retaliatory.
A March 2020 The Verge profile of Orta details how he was allegedly followed after recording the video, which he truly thought would bring justice for his friend. But instead, because it was a crucial piece of evidence against the police, it ended up, Orta believes, being his ticket to prison.
We’ve been told for a long time now that documentation of racist, brutal acts will lead to their disappearance. Police-worn body cameras have long been hailed as a solution to officer brutality, and yet such violent acts continue to rage on, despite many departments equipping their officers with that technology.
It’s been shown that they’re not conducive to justice, or toward goals of police and prison abolition. Critical Resistance, a police and prison abolition organization, stresses that the mere presence of these cameras does not prevent officers from being able to turn them off, and buying them causes more money to flow into already bloated police budgets. They also increase the police’s capability for surveillance.
But maybe the most important reason police-worn body cameras aren’t making a difference is because of who it is doing the filming. Any video of violence is triggering, but the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing was particularly upsetting because of the person behind the camera: someone who was enjoying the act of taking another man’s life. In it, there were echoes of the photos white people once took at lynchings, as if they were participating in just another recreational event — to them, of course, that’s exactly what the killing of a Black person was.
However, it’s different when it’s Black people, like Frazier, who are behind the camera. These videos are filmed in pursuit of justice, and with the knowledge that, as documentors of a racist crime, they face retribution as well. For Black people, being a bystander is full of terror, danger, and trauma, and yet Black people continue to be active in any way possible, knowing the power of telling our own story.
In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron released his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” warning us that we will not be able to stay home or “plug in, turn on, and cop out” when rebellions — like the one in Minneapolis — occur. He never could have predicted that, almost 50 years later, young revolutionaries wouldn’t be watching much television, but they would be recording everything going on around them — with the knowledge that who is doing the recording matters, and they want to be the one to tell the story of this revolt.