Late on Tuesday afternoon I sat at my desk and watched the New York Times video of Walter Scott’s shooting. I saw Scott, clad in a green shirt, running away from North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager. The uniformed officer pumped eight shots in Scott’s direction, striking him five times. I watched as Scott fell to the ground. I listened as the unidentified witness who recorded the incident repeat in disbelief, “Oh, shit!” And then I went on Twitter.
I hesitated before sharing the graphic video and my own thoughts. After all, if this were my own brother, cousin, uncle, or father, I would absolutely hate that the world could witness his demise, that his death had become fodder for evening news shows and Web traffic. There’s always a rightful ethical concern for the loved ones of those who become the subject of such graphic content, and the survivors of it. I understand that—and yet, I shared it and tweeted the following:
#WalterScott’s shooting is horrific. And deeply triggering. But it’s also important that the brutality facing black folks be made visible.
— Jamilah King (@jamilahking) April 7, 2015
There’s nothing easy, or fulfilling, or entertaining about watching a man lose his life at the hands of a man who shoots with the ease of a kid playing laser tag. It was the single most shocking video I’ve watched since that of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, being shot by former transit officer Johannes Mehserle on an Oakland train platform on New Year’s Day 2009. I believe wholeheartedly that, as in Grant’s case, video proof of incidents like these is key to holding people, and institutions, accountable for their misconduct.
Still, I received thoughtful and critical reactions that mirrored the concerns over sharing such a video with the public. “Sharing pictures of Kenyan victims & other images/videos of dead black bodies desensitizes us to the humanity of black ppl,” one person wrote. “There is enough evidence someone is dead WITHOUT seeing their lifeless body. It draws parallels to the images of lynchings.”
This perspective is completely understandable, and in many ways, I agree with it. Where I disagree is here: It’s not enough to simply know that someone is dead. How they died is what matters, and in cases of police shootings and misconduct, answering the how and why is critical to establishing that black people do not simply make up instances of racism and the sometimes deadly impact it has on black communities.
There’s already mounting evidence that the video of Scott’s shooting completely shifted the police’s investigation of it.
“Without the video…it would be difficult for us to ascertain exactly what did occur,” North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said. “We want to thank the young person who came forward…because it has helped us resolve this issue.”
Before the video went public on Tuesday, local news reports relied heavily on Slager’s account “alleging the dead man fought with an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed.” The police also alleged that “during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.” From the looks of the video, that is clearly not the case.
“If things happen when nobody’s watching, would we be here today?” Scott’s family attorney, L. Chris Harris, asked during a press conference on Tuesday night. “Or would it have just been another victim?”
Now, that officer is charged with murder—and we have the video to thank for that.