After the injustices in Ferguson, a grand jury in New York piled it on by clearing the cop who put Eric Garner in a chokehold and killed him. Garner said “I can’t breathe!” 11 times. If the liberals of Northeast felt quietly smug about the situation in Ferguson, the failure to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the cop in question, should make it clear that when it comes to being Black in America, there is no safe space.
The sad, frustrating and perhaps devastating thing about the killing of Eric Garner is that it was all caught on video. It exposes why the campaign to put cameras on cops is not going to work. Its proponents misunderstand the issue as one of insufficient visual surveillance of the police. The actual issue is racism so deeply ingrained that it transforms the bodies of Black men and boys into “monsters” or, in the international register, the bodies of Muslim men and boys into terrorists. The Left needs to get over its techno-fetish. Visual surveillance by putting cameras-on-cops (or drone surveillance for human rights abuses or whatever) is neither here nor there when racism and empire have outposts in our heads.
Videos and images do not speak for themselves. After all, there was also a video of the beating of Rodney King. In an interesting deconstruction of what happened at that trial, Judith Butler has written about the contesting reads of the video: one that saw a man being beaten and one, the jury, who saw a man who was threatening the police:
From these two interpretations, emerges, then, a contest within a visual field, a crisis in the certainty of what is visible, one that is produced through the saturation and schematization of that field with the inverted projections of white paranoia. The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent of violence…(1993:16).
In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (1993: 17).
That, in sum, is the difficulty of the problem: Racism conditions what we see.
Body cameras and increased surveillance of already surveilled communities. Streets, stoops and public space, particularly in poorer communities, is where a lot of life is lived. Whereas rich people can buy private space, construct gated communities and generally privatize their activities away from the surveillance of the state, activities from the mundane to the harmless but illegal, are often conducted publicly within poorer communities. Thus, structural economic inequality plays out in how space is lived, segmented and surveilled. Body cameras may surveil the police, but they will also increase the reams of surveillance data about these already heavily policed/surveilled communities — which is likely to render them subject to yet more policing. See how that cycle works?
The problem is structural racism and the maintenance of white supremacy, domestically and internationally. The problem is we can’t breathe.