(Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle)
(Julla Carrie Wong)
(Joe Vazquez, KPIX)
These striking photographs are from a protest against police violence that took place about a week ago in Oakland. Some of the protestors brought mirrors with them to hold up to the police, and the resulting news photographs present striking images.
“I was holding up the mirror because I wanted the police to just look at themselves. Especially if they were about to take some kind of action just so they had to acknowledge what they were doing,” protester Nichola Torbett told KPIX 5.
Demarco Robinson, also a protester, said, “We want that person to look at themselves so that they can realize they’re not a badge. They don’t have to follow the system that they don’t agree with.”
These mirrors are emblematic of a part of the national reaction to police conduct particularly in Ferguson, MO (but not only there): an acute sense that police are acting in a way that should be impossible for people who understand that they are visible.
Don’t they know they’re on camera? Don’t they know we see them? Can’t they see what they’re doing?
Race, Privilege, and Visibility
My first thought was to say, “we are shocked,” at the seeming obliviousness of, for example, police officers explicitly threatening violence against journalists while on camera. But that suggests that these things are universally surprising, which is not true. The degree to which “we” are surprised is on a spectrum, correlated to the degree to which each of us has to live with the reality of police violence.
For some, these things are totally shocking, and can only be interpreted by analogy to distant times and places — thus the spate of comparisons to police conduct during prior decades of civil rights struggle in the US, as well as comparisons to war-torn regions in other parts of the world today. But for others, what we are seeing is neither a revival nor alien: it is everyday lived reality.
Note: I am not referring just to shock at the extent or severity of racially based police violence against citizens, but also and more specifically to our reactions to the apparent lack of concern over its visibility.
In institutions, there is usually (or should be) a significant gap between levels of misconduct that are accepted or tolerated (or even encouraged) depending on whether or not they are subject to prominent public attention, news coverage, and perhaps future legal action. The default level of citizen cynicism expects bad behavior to be pointedly (and temporarily) suspended or made covert in the wake of a public relations crisis.
And yet, what we’ve seen recently in Ferguson is an apparent eagerness of police to repeatedly double down on illegal behavior, all while in the public eye. They seemingly believe that they can get away with almost anything while the world watches — and the gap between mainstream coverage and what twitter has surfaced, along with the appalling racial gap in public perception, show that (depressingly) they might not even be wrong.
How surprising this is (or isn’t) probably has a lot to do with how accurate an intuition you have of the relationship between white privilege, white power, institutional racism, and police authority. We aren’t talking about a certain percentage of police officers having personal racist pathologies — and we aren’t even just talking about certain police agencies having baked racism into their policies.
Privilege and power shape perception across a society. Racism, as a societal process, tends to blind those involved to its effects.1 So, for the police, racism acts as a kind of invisibility cloak, screening actions against people of color from scrutiny and exempting the police from self-reflection.
This runs counter to assumptions we tend to form in the absence of an awareness of racism. We know, bone deep, that being seen changes how we behave. This knowledge expresses itself constantly in our interactions with each other. Institutions utterly rely on it for purposes of social control. The panopticon is the sociological and philosophical specter of our time. And remember that it does not even necessarily matter whether we are actually being watched; the point of the panopticon is that just the idea of being watched influences behavior.
But racism changes what it means to see and to be seen. And power determines the meaning of observation in any (real or metaphorical) panopticon.
Racism is a Defect of the Eye
I don’t know whether holding up a mirror to a police officer in riot gear is likely to reveal anything to them.2 Racism is a defect of the eye — both the collective public eye and the individual gaze. It is not suspended just because the eye is turned back on itself. The kind of self-reflection that reshapes self-image and behavior is unlikely to be triggered by a single provocative gesture in a charged, antagonistic setting.
But it forms an eloquent gesture for the journalist’s camera, crystallizing in one physical moment a complex and for many people counter-intuitive critique.
In a sense, it is also an implicit critique of the journalist’s camera, and of its inadequacy for changing our understanding of events. The mythologies of journalism and photography want us to feel that images change minds and shape understandings. We want to believe the camera has that power — we want to believe that when a photograph shows others what we see, they will be able to see it, too.
The photograph is supposed be “the mirror with a memory,” and in the hands of journalists, it is supposed to be able to induce personal and societal reflection. But if the mirror with a memory had that power, would people have to be in the streets holding literal mirrors up to the helmets of riot cops?
As John Edwin Mason recently pointed out in two great posts on iconic photographs (Part 1, Part 2), our mythology of photojournalism’s purpose and power is far from the reality. The meaning and significance of even the most powerful, disturbing photographs depends on what viewers are willing and able to see in them.
Time had to catch up with the photographs. More correctly, attitudes had to change, and change they did. But they didn’t change without struggle.
The civil rights movement, the American anti-apartheid movement, and, of course, South Africans, at home and in exile, created movements that convinced the vast majority of Americans that segregation and apartheid were wrong. The anti-Vietnam War movement (and the utter futility of the war itself) led a majority of Americans to support its end.
The photos of King and those of Phan Thị Kim Phúc became icons retrospectively. They don’t reflect the past, they reflect what we now think about the past.
The photos that I posted here are unlikely to become iconic in any case, because (despite the national character of the struggle over police brutality, of which Oakland owns a huge part), these particular photos are at the edge of what’s happening in this historical moment. But there are photos that have come out of Ferguson that should be and hopefully will be iconic — if they can come to stand for a change in how America sees what is happening now.