In April, after Walter Scott was shot to death by police officer Michael Slager in South Carolina, an event that was caught on video, the New Republic’s Jamil Smith questioned what it meant for us to watch him — and many other black men and women — die at the hands of the police.
“Unfortunately, the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops isn’t doing as much as it should be. The legacy of our increased exposure to black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses,” Smith wrote. “We keep pouring on the visuals and re-traumatizing ourselves, hoping it’ll break through similarly reflexive defenses of law enforcement and inspire real reform.”
The dashboard camera video of the stop and arrest of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in jail three days after being pulled over on a signalling violation, has sparked similar outrage. And it raises similar questions about what photographing or taking video of violence against African Americans can actually accomplish. Smith cites the video of the beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department as an image that did cause change. But for answers, it’s worth looking even further back in American history to the Civil Rights movement.
The fights against segregation and for voting rights coincided with the rise of television news, and movement organizations often hired photographers who provided images to national print media. And while images and the presence of journalists did play a significant role in the fight for black equality, the Civil Rights movement also suggests some limits to what we should expect from the proliferation of dashboard and body cameras and the increasingly accessibility of cellphone video.
Two of the most frequently-cited arguments in favor of filming and photographing cops are the suggestions that such video would both provide evidence for potential prosecutions and deter the violence that makes prosecution necessary in the first place. A November 2014 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology found that when police officers wore body cameras in experimental conditions, their use of force, and complaints against them dropped. That doesn’t make cameras a panacea: As a critic, I know better than most people that however unambiguous we’d like video to be, people can see very different things in the same footage.
Still, the record of the Civil Rights movement suggests how powerful the belief in photography and video as deterrence can be.
“Generally, nationally broadcast television news served the movement in two crucial if contradictory ways: on the one hand, it tended to modulate segregationist violence against civil rights workers in the field; on the other, it captured and amplified the violence that movement demonstrations occasionally sought, replacing it within a national, rather than regional, context, in which it carried very different meanings,” Sasha Torres writes in Black White and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights. “Ruby Hurley, for example, the veteran Birmingham activist who opened the first NAACP office in the deep south, observes that ‘to me the fifties were much worse than the sixties. When I was out there by myself, for instance, there were no TV cameras with me to give me any protection.’… Andrew Young recalls objecting to [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]’s plans for Freedom Summer; in his view the project was recklessly dangerous, because ‘the presence of national media was virtually the only inhibitor of official violence, and you simply could not get that kind of attention for people in dozens of towns in Mississippi.'”
Attacking photographers and camera operators sent a dual message, too: it could prevent them from capturing images to be disseminated in the national press and on television, and it suggested that they didn’t have a deterrent effect, that journalists didn’t confer herd immunity on the protesters they were photographing, and sometimes were employed by. Even when a deterrent effect did exist, sometimes it only extended so far. Photographer Matt Herron told Collectors Weekly writer Hunter Oatman-Stanford that Dallas, Ala., Sheriff Jim Clark organized a posse to attack photographer David Prince after he photographed a movement gathering. “They shot at Prince, dragged him to the front of the church, and beat him,” Herron recalled. “They were going to kill him, but the district attorney appeared and told them, ‘Don’t kill him because it’ll be bad publicity for us.’”
Then, there’s the matter of whether photos and videos have a galvanizing effect, or whether, as Smith suggested, they simply have a numbing effect. During the Civil Rights movement, video and photographs of violence against protesters were received differently in the North and South.
“This view of on-the-spot news coverage as a tool of social self-awareness has long been dear to the medium’s apologists,” Allison Graham writes in a dry assessment of the idea that such images made Southerners feel bad about themselves in her book “Framing the South: Hollywood, Television and Race During The Civil Rights Struggle.” “To see oneself, to become aware of oneself as an image: such was the legacy of television in the region, according to its early practitioners. I doubt that many southerners of either race would concur. By 1957, many white southerners knew their necks were red, and most black southerners knew they were voiceless images in a tale of blood and vengeance.”
In fact, she argues, some of the people who were photographed behaving in ugly ways wanted to be captured this way, as odd as that might seem from a historical and regional distance.
When Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee photographer Danny Lyon snapped a picture of Mississippi policemen making lewd gestures, Graham writes, “The lawmen’s obscene gestures — directed towards both Lyon and the ministers — translated on the page to a direct insult to the viewer. When Jim Clark’s deputies physically attacked a news camera operator on the steps of the Dallas County courthouse in 1965, no one at home saw the man behind the camera; people watching television saw only faces and hands approaching the lens, images whirling in space, and blood and rain splattering their field of vision. Racist crowds who spat on the lenses of cameras capturing the Selma-to-Montgomery march several months later might as well have been spitting on the viewers at home,” Graham suggests. “Many of the assailants, of course, were aware of this effect; they intended to attack all of those behind the camera who deigned to judge the white South.”
This behavior seems less strange when we remember that there was an actual business in printing postcards of lynchings, depicting both black victims and white onlookers posing with the bodies. It’s only shameful to be photographed siccing a dog or turning a hose on a protester, beating a photographer or standing by the body of a man you murdered if you regard that violence as shameful or understand that killing to be a crime.
In the North, images of racist violence awakened some outrage, but they also served as a way for people who lived in those states to feel morally superior to their fellow citizens below the Mason-Dixon line. In his book, “Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography,” Martin A. Berger notes that Arthur Schlesinger’s account of President John F. Kennedy declaring himself “sick” after seeing Danny Hudson’s photograph of high school student Walter Gadsden being attacked by a police dog was comfortable fiction: Kennedy was more worried that the image would undermine his fight against Communism.
That distancing effect had more positive effects, though, encouraging some southerners to draw distinctions between themselves and their neighbors. Hank Klibanoff, who wrote “The Race Beat,” a book about how news outlets covered the Civil Rights movement, told NPR’s Audie Cornish that he believes the coverage of white supremacist violence empowered some southerners who wanted to distance themselves from segregationists. “It was worse than unbecoming, and I’m not saying that everyone was ashamed of that. I think that many people were hardened by it, but I think many, many people felt ashamed of it, and there were enough voices of sanity and better angels in the South that one could find to mix and mingle with and to find common ground with,” he argued. “That over time, those who had a more progressive attitude could feel some sense of unity and solidarity with a larger group and give hope to those outside the South that it could change.”
In our present circumstances, video and photographs don’t serve to sort out North from South, or southerners who favored integration from those who violently opposed it. Ramsey Orta filmed Eric Garner being choked to death in Staten Island, N.Y. Feidin Santana captured the Tasing and shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina. Sandra Bland’s arrest was recorded in Texas. A recreation center surveillance camera caught Tamir Rice’s killing in Cleveland. “White Only” signs may have been posted in select regions of the country, but police officers can and do kill people of color anywhere in the United States. If Civil Rights-era photography was easy for some Americans to look at because it provided evidence of their own relative goodness, contemporary video and photographs indict every region of the country.
Photography and video aren’t always used to document injustice; the forms can be turned against protesters, too. After Michael Brown’s death, a Missouri police officer posted what he thought was a photograph of Brown with a wad of folded cash in his mouth in an effort to suggest that Brown was less than innocent. The same thing happened to Trayvon Martin in the wake of his killing. Video can be edited, as some have suggested that the footage of Sandra Bland’s arrest was, or released by law enforcement officials because they believe that, despite ugly conduct by police, it bolsters their argument for why an arrest was justified.
During the Civil Rights era, photography could be used to retaliate against the living. People lost their jobs for appearing in widely-circulated images that documented segregation and inequality, and in the New York Times obituary for sheriff Jim Clark, Margalit Fox noted that “In 1963, for instance, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a ‘Freedom Day’ in Selma to register black people, Mr. Clark dispatched a photographer to take pictures of the hundreds who showed up, threatening to send the photos to their employers.” Ernest C. Withers even informed on movement leaders to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Since the Civil Rights era, advances in technology have made it possible for almost anyone to shoot pictures or record video at any time. And the adoption of closed-circuit television systems for surveillance starting in the late 1960s, means that more of our lives are being recorded than ever before. Sometimes, we’re being taped in cities that adopted the technology as a policing tool. At other moments, we’re being captured by private home security systems derived from the one patented in 1969 by Albert and Marie Brown, an African American couple who invented the setup because, as Marie Brown told the New York Times, “it takes considerable time to dial the police and get action in an emergency.”
But the real difference is less in the number or the quality of the images we capture today, but what, if anything, they inspire us to do. If the photography of the Civil Rights movement helped further the idea that the North was good and the South was fallen, maybe we can hope that the videos and photos of the movement now at hand can end the myth of regional superiority and the idea that racism is someone else’s problem.