George Floyd died after being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill to purchase cigarettes. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin applied his knee to Floyd’s neck for approximately eight minutes, as he lay handcuffed, face down on the ground. Though Floyd had a criminal record, his death came at the hands of police when he presented no plausible threat. Rightly, Chauvin has been fired from the police force and charged with murder. Three other officers, who were present and did nothing to intervene, were charged with aiding and abetting that murder.
Perhaps the primary reason this tragedy cannot be swept under the rug is that Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old, filmed the entire event using her camera and uploaded the video to Facebook, where it went viral. Two other videos of the incident, both from security cameras, show other aspects of the arrest, but Frazier’s 10-minute video begins with Floyd on the ground next to a police cruiser and ends with his unresponsive body being taken from the scene by ambulance. The footage is disturbing, but Floyd’s death deserves attention. Watch it for yourself here: tinyurl.com/floyd-video.
The Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) issued an initial statement regarding the incident: “Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
Without the video, what would have happened? Perhaps concerned bystanders might have filed a complaint, or brought suit against the department. The video, however, provided incontestable proof that Floyd died as the direct result of Chauvin’s knee on his neck. And social media provided awareness of the vast abyss between the MPD’s statement and the reality of Floyd’s death. Understandably, America was outraged. This incident, and others that have preceded it, are dramatically changing public opinion about the use of force by police.
Quoting the Brookings Institute: “After the 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, 33 percent of Americans said that police were more likely to use excessive force against Black suspects; 58 percent disagreed. Two years later, the fatal shooting of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota, yielded similar results. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, 57 percent of Americans have come to believe that the police are more prone to use excessive force against Black people.” An interesting aside, the only video of the shooting of Philando Castille was police dashcam video, and it was released after the acquittal of the officer involved. Draw your own conclusions.
This is the power of technology that more than 40 percent of the world’s population, rich and poor, carries in their pockets. It is the power to show people everywhere what reality (or at least realities other than theirs) looks like. It is the power to counteract injustice in the world.
Would you use your phone to film the police in action? In California, it’s legal to film police as long as you are doing it in plain sight (concealed recording is a no-no), you’re in a public place (anti-paparazzi laws prohibit filming on private property), and you are not interfering with the officer. You can download the Mobile Justice app, which not only acts as a video recorder, but also uploads the video to the American Civil Liberties Union as soon as you stop recording, just in case the police confiscate your device. For more information, visit MobileJusticeCA.org.
Of course, the ability to spread messages globally at light speed is not an unalloyed good. When a viral video spreads hate and intolerance, as opposed to stated facts of an event, it becomes a powerful force for injustice. That’s one of the criticisms leveled at both Facebook and Twitter, two services which have the ability to magnify a message, truthful or not, beyond imagination. Both companies have recently begun labeling tweets and posts, which don’t pass fact checks, to stem the spread of factually incorrect information. Facebook relies on third-party fact-checking organizations such as Politifact.com and Reuters, while Twitter does its own checking.
However, Facebook was also criticized for not labeling (as Twitter has done) some of Donald Trump’s posts as factually incorrect. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” Is that a moral stance, or protecting advertising revenues from politicians? Hard to say.
Just imagine if social media outlets had censored the video of George Floyd’s death. Where the line is drawn, and who gets to draw it, are questions which tech alone cannot answer.