By now all of America and most of the world has seen the revolting, enraging video of Walter Scott being shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston South Carolina Police Department. This particular incident may be a watershed moment in white perception of police brutality cases involving Black victims. The usual crowd of racists and police apologists who flock to stories like this to “explain” every police shooting, or try to find some excuse for them, are notably silent on this one.
There’s no way to explain away the fact that Slager killed Scott and then planted a weapon on him to cover his crime. His police department may have already had their story ready for the press and if it wasn’t for the timing and courage of the young man who filmed the killing, and the rapid mobilization of online and on-the-ground activists, this would have gone a completely different way. But mostly, it’s about that videotape. Without it, eyewitnesses would never have been believed, this would have been another “justifiable police homicide” and Slager certainly wouldn’t be charged with murder.
There’s a scene near the end of the film The Last King of Scotland where a Ugandan doctor saves the life of Idi Amin’s Scottish aide after his torture, so he can tell the outside world about the nightmarish atrocities taking place in Uganda. As the doctor helps him escape, he reassures him: “They will believe you”, he says, “You’re a white man.” The Scot escapes, but the doctor gets shot, by the way. The word of a Black person is disregarded by White America in a similar way. No matter how bad the injustice, no matter how compelling the testimony, there is always someone in a position of authority ready to ignore or disbelieve anything that comes out of a Black person’s mouth.
The benefit of the doubt is something that Black people generally do not get when it comes to incidents involving law enforcement. The burden of proof is always on the victim — or rather, on the victim’s surviving relatives — to defend the character of the dead person. The media is always a very willing accomplice to helping the police drag the deceased through the mud; if they have so much as a 20-year-old speeding ticket, rest assured the local news will find it and anytime their name is mentioned, their record will be also. They never mention an officer’s record, or past disciplinary complaints of racial bias, although many departments with officers involved in racially charged killings have had them.
Information influences public opinion and it influences the accuracy of due process. If modern technology had been available during the Civil Rights Era, who knows how many people would’ve been brought to justice? Maybe the men who blew up the church in Birmingham and killed four young girls would have been punished then instead of 14 years later. Maybe the savages who murdered Emmett Till would have died in prison as they deserved to instead of walking free, and who knows how many thousands of innocent Black men now languishing in prison would be free today if only there had been someone taping their arrests or the planting of evidence on them?
Thanks to technology people have the power to challenge police versions of an incident. All cops know this; corrupt cops are afraid of it. That’s why they try to confiscate cameras and cellphones even though that is a violation of your rights. It is legal to film police officers so long as you do not interfere with their arrest, and it is illegal for police officers to confiscate a camera from you while you’re filming them.
I hope one day it won’t be necessary to have footage of a police murder for Black people to be taken at their word but until that day comes, keep your phones charged.