It is difficult to find words in the aftermath of yet another police shooting of a black man caught on video; it is especially difficult in the aftermath of two such incidents, occurring within about 48 hours of each other.
Early Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, La., Alton Sterling was shot and killed by two officers who are, in video footage released to the media by activist bystanders, pinning him firmly to the ground. And Wednesday evening, in Falcon Heights, Minn., Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop over a busted taillight. Immediately following the shooting, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, began live-streaming on Facebook Live, capturing his last few seconds of consciousness.
Watching these videos is itself fraught — it is difficult to separate the spectacle of death in them from the crucial information they contain. Actor and rapper Ice-T echoed the words of other black activists when he named Reynolds’ video “Another COP snuff film.” In this video-saturated culture, this is an important conversation—one that encompasses both the right to broadcast and the right to privacy, on social media platforms that will autoplay videos in your timeline or attempt to segue from one awful thing to more “related content.” (The images are unavoidable, too: Just as the New York Daily News took an image of Sterling and made it the splashy front page of this morning’s issue, the image of Castile’s white shirt soaked through with his blood as he collapses in the driver’s seat might well be unavoidable in the next few days.)
We are a viewing audience all too used to pulpy gore and CGI. And given how little change has occurred, on a practical policy level, following the outcry over dozens of these videos, it’s hard to not side with the activists who implore us to stop watching, to allow these victims of police violence their last few minutes of dignity. If this were fiction, I would charge the producers with exploitative violence, because over and over again in this far too populated “genre,” the victims are denied any story except their gruesome and state-sanctioned death.
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But Reynolds’ video is different. It does not end with Castile’s body. In an awe-inspiring expression of dedication to getting the story out, she continues to broadcast for just over nine minutes. She begins to grieve for Castile on-screen, describes the incident on-screen, and confronts the cop on-screen: “Please, Jesus lord, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir.”
She keeps filming as she is shouted at to step out of the car and keep her hands up; her phone is taken from her and, apparently, tossed away a short distance. She continues to speak into the phone, addressing the unseen audience as “Facebook,” as the camera uselessly films a cornflower blue evening sky, and some power lines crossing on the diagonal. Sirens can be heard, and the words of the police officers. One, presumably the shooter, is shouting curses. The camera goes black for several minutes, but continues to record audio. Reynolds’ voice is the clearest, the loudest. She is grieving, in pain. When the visuals return, the camera finds the face of Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter, who was reportedly in the backseat during the shooting. The little girl’s high-pitched, confused concern for her mother cuts through the background noise.
Reynolds, and her daughter, used the camera to take back the narrative of what happened to them and what happened to Philando Castile. It is horrifying that they needed to do so, but by continuing to record, this video is so different than one of the aforementioned “snuff films.” It is her voice, and her perspective, and her face that becomes the center of the narrative — not a dead body, but a living one; not the story of uniforms overpowering the unarmed, but of the unarmed that are still standing. It is the type of counter-programming that uses the camera to its most fundamental purpose — to provide not just the narrative but the alternative narrative; the other side of the story.