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Despite lack of clarity, Freddie Gray video has real public opinion power

Sun media critic David Zurawik talks about the videos showing the arrest of Freddie Gray, a man who later died of injuries allegedly suffered during the arrest. (Baltimore Sun)

As legal evidence, the citizen-made, cell-phone video of the arrest of Freddie Gray has its problems.

It's shot from such a distance that it's hard to identify anyone definitely. And while you can hear screams of pain and anguish on the audio, it's hard to say exactly who they are coming from and how accurately they reflect what's happening to that individual.

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And yet, while the video might not serve as great evidence in a court of law, it definitely has the potential to be highly potent in the court of public opinion.

In that regard, it might even come to have some of the same kind of power as the more-definitive citizen-made video of an unarmed Walter Scott being shot five times in the back by a white officer two weeks ago in South Carolina, and Eric Garner being brought down by police with a chokehold that led to his death in Staten Island last July.

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I believe the Freddie Gray video is already playing a role in the protests in Baltimore over the weekend. For all the clarity it lacks, it provides documentary evidence that an arrest took place and that the manner in which the person being arrested was handled by police caused anger and distress in several eyewitnesses.

Citizens on the scene start to react as the video shows a group of policemen who appear to be pulling someone to his feet.

The first time, they reach for the person on the ground, he lets out a yell of pain, and one officer seems to jump back.

The police officers then pull him to his feet, and there's another scream of pain.

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At which point, a woman's voice can be heard calling out, "Hey, his leg looks broke. Look at his (bleep) leg. That boy's leg is broke. Why y'all dragging him like that?"

There is another scream of pain as the person being arrested is pushed up toward the back of the van.

Whether or not it is an accurate guide to what's happening onscreen, the audio of the woman's voice has tremendous authority for viewers.

The reason for that is the very rawness and lack of clarity of the video. The eye can't figure out exactly what's happening, but the ear offers a narrative that helps the viewer make sense of it - and so it's easy to buy into.

As a viewer, what I saw was someone being lifted to his feet who appeared not to be able to stand. In fact, the way his legs and feet dragged lifelessly behind him as police pulled him to the van would seem to fit with a severe back injury

Gray, who died a week after his arrest, had a broken vertebrae.

His attorney, William "Billy" Murphy Jr., said of Gray, "His spine was virtually severed, 80 percent severed."

I believe the video of the arrest of Freddie Gray will become a big part of this story. Already, it provides a serious challenge to the police report saying Gray was arrested without "force or incident." That's a big challenge.

It is part of a growing body of documentary evidence provided by citizen cell phones and distributed through social media that could have as profound a cultural effect as TV news footage of police using fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful civil right marchers in the South in the 1960s.

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