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On Watching and Seeing: The Limits of Cell Phone Evidence

by Ethan Tussey

by Antar Tichavakunda for IN MEDIA RES

In a press conference following a police shooting a reporter asked a police captain, “Are you basically saying this guy was trying to commit suicide by cop?“ The captain responded, “No, I’m not saying that at all, I’m saying that he basically rushed towards the officers with his weapon out and the officers took action.” Consider two police shootings—one outside of St. Louis, Missouri and another in San Diego, California. Both men were described as approaching police with a weapon; the man in St. Louis armed with a knife, and the other, a gun. The San Diego victim, armed with a gun, was shot once in the stomach, while the St. Louis victim was shot six times and died. Now consider that the St. Louis victim, Kajieme Powell, was a Black man, and the San Diego gunman was white—does that matter? I argue that perceptions matter -- negative stereotypes of Black men make it difficult for American society to see black males as humans. The stereotypes that people hold however can have deadly consequences. Eric Garner, strangled by an officer, was often described as a “gentle giant.” Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, described him as a “demon” with superhuman strength. In both cases, the victim’s Blackness denied him access to humanity. Describing a man as a giant or a teenager as a monster is dehumanizing. Research supports the argument that Whites superhumanize Blacks (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter, 2014). Through superhumanization, people are denied human characteristics and attributed animalistic, supernatural qualities. An onlooker might dehumanize a group by viewing them as uncultured, irrational, childlike, or amoral (Haslam, 2014). This dehumanizing view is dangerous in that it may manifest itself as a bias held by a police officer, witness, judge, or juror. Viewers may watch cell phone video evidence, but unless they see Black males for the humans that they are, recordings of the murders of Black men will not elicit outrage. The recent #blacklivesmatter movement, demands that black people be seen and recognized as humans by society. Concerning Black experience, the protagonist of The Invisible Man, said, “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” These figments of their imagination, or stereotypes, can sometimes have tragic consequences. The next time you look at video evidence, make certain that you see the victim’s humanity. Haslam, N., & Loughnan, S. (2014). Dehumanization and infrahumanization. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 399–423. Waytz, A., Hoffman, K. M., & Trawalter, S. (2014). A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 49, 1-7.

Cellphones and Watching

A local news broadcast clip

from Seeing (2014)
Creator: ABC
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey