Video technology changes the evidence, maybe society

Video of Freddie Gray, other incidents lend credence to concerns about police interactions.

It has been another one of those weeks on the media beat — a week of seeing jagged, disturbing video of an unarmed black man being violently subdued by police.

It has been happening a lot in recent months: Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C.; Eric Harris in Tulsa, Okla.; and now 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Even after decades of writing about vast media change, I'm in awe of the power of these citizen-made cellphone videos. They are disrupting patterns of media distribution and consumption that have been in place since World War II, and they are challenging what appears to be an unjust system of policing in some places based on the color of one's skin.

In Baltimore, there have been protests night after night since the first of two videos showing Gray's arrest surfaced last weekend and tore through the media.

I wonder if collectively these videos will reach a critical mass and have the same kind of societal effect today that network news footage of Southern law enforcement officers using attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful marchers had on the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Or will it take more than new media technology to change American life when it comes to police-community relations and race? From radio, to TV, to the Internet and social media, we as a culture have traditionally been starry-eyed about new communications technology being the panacea that will enrich our lives and make for a more democratic and perfect nation. Is citizen-made, cellphone video just the latest flavor?

"Now that we have video, it certainly has made a difference in what's being seen on the policing front," said former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien, who reported* the channel's landmark documentary series "Black in America." "I think people are starting to understand that maybe there's some validity to these stories — stories of people saying of their police encounters, 'I was fearful for my life.'"

O'Brien stressed that black people have known about the validity of the stories for a long time.

"Ironically, we did a chunk of this in our first 'Black in America.' Now, seven years later, as the technology improved and got personal-sized, more people are beginning to understand that if you are black, interaction with police can end in your death, whether you're guilty of something or not," she said.

O'Brien, who left CNN in 2013 and now runs her own documentary production company, Starfish Media Group, speaks with an authority on the subject that few can match. "Black in America," which debuted in 2008, offered mainstream audiences a deep and clear-eyed look at the disparities in the way citizens are often treated by police based on the color of their skin, among other insights. The films were steeped in the kinds of stories she mentions, narratives from survivors of the kinds of encounters citizens are now capturing on cellphones.

"It has been a kind of interesting evolution to see how this conversation has moved not just out of the black community, but with the protest marches around Black Lives Matter here in New York City, more into the mainstream," she said.

"But I have to ask at what point, at what number video that ends in the death of someone who is unarmed do enough people start to say, 'Wow, maybe this really is a thing? Maybe what people have long said about injustice, unfairness and disproportionate treatment under the law, maybe there's some validity to it.'

"It is kind of unfortunate that it had to be sold that way, like, 'See, now we have evidence.' ... But the video helps us confront it."

O'Brien has incorporated such videos in her documentaries. "Black in America: Black and Blue," which aired on CNN last year and focused on police-community relations, used them to chronicle young black men being physically assaulted and abused by police on the streets of New York.

"We interviewed all these young kids who would show me their videos," O'Brien said. "And in many cases, they were capturing their interactions with police. And one thing that really struck me was how in some cases, even if the interaction wasn't physical, just how disrespectful police were to them."

Despite her understanding of the power of citizen video, O'Brien is uncertain just how much progress has been and will be made as a result of it in the real world of race as it is lived by black Americans.

"Keep in mind that we saw Eric Garner killed on camera and the officer wasn't indicted," she said. "And a glance at the cases that proceed to trial and conviction show the deck is stacked against civilians."

Jamil Smith, senior editor at The New Republic, sounded an even more pessimistic note in an article headlined "Videos of Police Killings Are Numbing Us to the Spectacle of Black Death."

"We keep poring on the visuals and re-traumatizing ourselves, hoping it'll break through similarly reflexive defenses of law enforcement and inspire real reform," he wrote. "But to what end? Increased awareness has not translated into prevention and policy. Judging by the lack of advancement on those latter fronts, the surge of video evidence has only made our society increasingly numb to the spectacle of black death."

I disagree that the only result of the videos has been to make viewers "increasingly numb." Media images do not affect us in such a monolithic manner. We each react in ways shaped by our personal histories. And I know how deeply they continue to affect me.

Eric Deggans, National Public Radio TV critic and author of "Race-Baiter," believes the video images are already affecting society, particularly in giving voice to a previously marginalized group of people of color.

Deggans has long participated in public forums among community activists, lawyers, journalists and police, he told The Baltimore Sun in an interview last week.

"There's always a contingent of really militant, really angry people of color who show up and who are kind of pushed to the side. And the establishment says, 'These are people who might mean well, but they're apologists for criminals.'"

But not anymore, thanks to the videos.

"These videos show that these people have a point and they are not necessarily apologists for criminals. They show that there's something going on that the cops are not being completely honest about," Deggans said.

"These videos bring accountability to the police," he added. "There seemed to be a lot of situations where we were told that people had weapons, or that people were unruly, or that people deserved what happened to them. But when you see the footage, you see a different story."

That's the case in Baltimore where the two videos that surfaced seriously challenged the initial police version that Gray was arrested without "force or incident."

Still, the cellphone cameras with their documentary data are not enough on their own. No technology is.

In the end, it's what we do with that technology.

Here in Baltimore, thanks to the cameras and courageous citizens who filmed Gray's arrest, we have now all seen the videos and heard the anguished screams on them. We know what meaning we have each made of them.

We now wait to see what our elected and appointed civic leaders will do with the evidence they gather.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

* This story has been updated. A previous version incorrectly characterized Soledad O'Brien's work on "Black in America."

If you go

Soledad O'Brien with be speaking at 1:30 p.m. May 2 at the "It's Time 2015" conference at the Baltimore Convention Center.

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