Walt Handelsman
Walt Handelsman

| Cellphone cameras are chronicling the world, and the potential power of what they capture has been demonstrated far and wide over the past two weeks.

On May 25, 2020, a 17-year-old girl was on her way to a corner market with her young cousin when she noticed a man beset by police. She had the presence of mind to take out her cellphone and press record. That video, a bit over 10 minutes long, set off events that many would not imagine.

It isn't that we haven't seen videos of police violence before — we've seen far too many of them, usually ending in the death of a black or brown man. But this one was different.

Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck

Part of it was the length of the video, the length of time we saw George Floyd pleading with the cops, gasping for air, and eventually dying. Another part was the casual cruelty displayed by Derek Chauvin as he ground his knee in Floyd's neck. With his sunglasses perched atop his head, he gave the impression that this was no big deal to him. He stared directly into the camera, obviously sure that there would be no consequences for his actions.

Black and brown people know this sort of thing goes on all the time. And so would everyone else if we would just listen. But this video forced that reality right into all our faces. The video was everywhere. It was impossible to not see at least part of it. It was not possible to miss the recitation that the knee was on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. All while Floyd was already in handcuffs lying on the street next to a police car. It was 4 against 1, and 2 of the other 3 cops actively participated in suppressing him while the 4th just stood ineffectually by.

(And speaking of that police car, notice that the license plate on the police car says "POLICE" — what's up with that?)

Demonstrators filled the streets in cities across the US and around the world. Demonstrators of all ages, all races, all genders. Collectively people said "Enough is enough already!"

Of course, there was one person unmoved by it all, the malevolent buffoon in the White House. His response was to side with the police and call out every enforcement unit in the federal government to attack protestors with teargas, batons, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, horses, etc. These tactics turned otherwise mostly peaceful protests into scenes resembling a war zone. Things got so tense in Washington DC that the Secret Service rushed the president down into the protective bunker under the White House. This in turn bruised his ego and led to the shameful clearing of streets so he could make a tough-guy walk through Lafayette Park to hold a Bible upside down in front of a church as a photo op.

assault on Lafayette Park
The scene near Lafayette Park, Washington DC

Since then there has been a lot of change: support for the Black Lives Matter movement has soared, the NFL commissioner has admitted it was wrong to not listen to player protests, NASCAR has banned confederate flag and symbols, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has publicly disavowed his presence in Trump's photo op, some cities are taking steps to reform or constrain their police departments. It's all quite heady. Who knows how long it will last? Americans have a notoriously short attention span.

All these things are hopeful signs, but it will take a lot of work to sustain change and cope with the inevitable backlash to come.

It's a sobering thought to realize that none of this would have happened but for the fortitude of that 17-year-old girl to press "record" on her cellphone. We must shine light on dark places, for evil abides there.

After 9/11, the mantra became "If you see something, say something." It's time for a new mantra: "If you see something, record it."

Another thing

First, CNN is reporting that even if Derek Chauvin is convicted, he will still be eligible to receive a pension worth approximately $1 million dollars.

Second, the BBC has a superb article about the people who film police violence. Many of them find themselves targeted and harassed by police as a consequence. In the case of the 17-year-old girl who videoed George Floyd's murder, she was deeply traumatized by what she witnessed. Understandably so.

Last updated on Jul 2, 2020

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