We’ve all seen the video.
Despicable. Deplorable. Damnable.
Michael T. Slager murdered Walter Scott–It’s as simple as that.
But, I cannot help but be slightly disturbed at the rate in which this video has been appearing on various social media outlets. I am disturbed, on the one hand, because of how grotesque the video is. On the other hand, I am perturbed because good-willed people are sharing this video as a sort of coup de grace directed at those who remain in denial about the nexus between white supremacy and police brutality.
Let me explain. Willie Jennings wrote a piece a few months ago where he questioned whether or not police body cameras would prevent senseless murders like the ones we’ve seen this past year (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice et al). He chillingly asserts,
“The continuous use of racialized fear has damaged our collective psyche by entangling in us violence, danger, and fear, woven so tightly together now that to think the one conjures the others. This is why the idea of placing cameras on the bodies of the police to record their actions will never be enough. It takes vision to see, and until the prevailing vision of black bodies is altered from dangerous to fully human… A camera on a police officer is always poised to become a reality television video game, complete with weapon and target.”
Jennings’ point, I believe, is that no amount of technology will aid us in overcoming a problem that is deeply human. But if I could press Jennings’ point further, I’d like to affirm his skepticism towards technology but I also want to get to the reason we, as a culture, are drawn to videos like the one depicting Mr. Scott’s murder; the reason is because we subconsciously prioritize “legitimate” testimony or evidence. Nothing is more legitimate than an “objective”, empirically verifiable video capturing the crime. But, as the quote from Jennings’ demonstrates, cameras do little more than fetishize a situation that should be dealt with on a human level.
Another example of our quest for “legitimate” truth can be seen in the Department of Justice’s report that came out about how Ferguson’s Police Department is in fact a racist environment. I’d never seen a single article shared so many times. Again, I think most people were sharing it with good intentions–but the problem I have is that people in Ferguson (or Chicago, or Oakland, or Detroit, or New York etc) don’t need a DOJ report to let them know that the cops in their neighborhood are racists.
But it is, in our time and place, extremely difficult to give people the benefit of the doubt when, with no evidence besides their personal experience, they explain to you that they have had a violent, traumatic, racist experience with a law enforcement agent. It is only when the empire comes along with its claim of legitimacy that the individual’s testimony can be corroborated. Only when there is a video, or a report, or a memo or an email can an oppressed person’s testimony be legitimized. And the scary thing is, often times, these technological tools still fail to advance the cause of justice for the individual (e.g. no indictments were levied against Daniel Pantaleo, Justin Damico or Darren Wilson).
I am reminded of Luke’s story of Jesus and the Roman Centurion (Lk 7:1-10). A servant of the centurion has fallen ill. The centurion hears about Jesus and, despite his official position in Roman empire, he resolves not to approach Christ directly. When Jesus gets near the house, the centurion begs him not to enter for he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (v. 6). This scene depicts a Roman soldier elevating a peasant Jew above himself. Remarkable! And if that’s not enough, the centurion recognizes where true legitimacy lies; not in his own words (testimony) but in the words of a scoundrel from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.
There is a place for science, technology, data etc–I’m not saying that we just need to avoid all of that. Rather, what I am trying to point out is our propensity to go straight to these evidences as a way of “proving” a reality that you could discover by simply being in relationship with any black man here in the United States of America. I am also leery of our becoming desensitized to violence through our infatuation with technology. Perhaps the best way to “raise awareness” or “fight systemic injustice” is to place less of an emphasis on modern proofs and favor the counter-testimony of those on the wrong side of history.
I’m not saying all this to get on some moral high ground. I myself posted the video but, after thinking about it, I decided to take it down from my Facebook page. I am struggling to figure all of this out. I find myself groping for answers. Desperate, discouraged, doubtful…
My prayers now-a-days can be said in a single breath:
And then in times where “I wake up in the night and feel the dark,” my prayer goes something like this:
Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing.
To be even more honest, I have, on more than one occasion, found myself asking Christ a question I imagine the sons of Zebedee asking, “Lord, when will you exact revenge on the unjust?”