The Body Cam Trade-Off

Challenging police violence shouldn't require black Americans to sacrifice their privacy.

Ever since the Snowden revelations, both liberals and conservatives have become increasingly convinced that government surveillance and encroachment into Americans’ lives has spiraled out of control. That the government should play some role in providing safety and security for its citizens is accepted, but how the government achieves these goals is not as clear. We want security, but not at undue cost to our privacy.

This tug-of-war between privacy and security is ongoing and most recently manifested in the battle between Apple and the FBI over rights to the data stored in smartphones. Experts and pundits weighed in on both sides of the debate, presenting nuanced, and often polarized, arguments.

Yet when it comes to providing safety and security for poor people of color in the United States there is little debate. Instead, there is a nearly universal call for more surveillance — more data, more dash-cams, more body cameras.

Support for this type of surveillance is so ubiquitous that Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders (not to mention many Black Lives Matter organizations and activists) have all come out in support of body cams.

How is it that these three candidates, who have staked out radically different positions on most issues, have all landed on the same policy prescription? The answer lies at the intersection of privacy, security, and racial justice and the history of black struggle in the United States.

From Emmett Till to Freddie Gray

For white Americans, the private realm has historically represented the most sacred site of individualism, where a person is free to be themselves, away from the sway of powerful forces and institutions.

Privacy, however, has always meant something different for black Americans. As an oppressed minority, there is a thin line between privacy and invisibility. Poor people of color live life in the margins, a domain that (by definition) receives less attention than the rest of society.

Yet far from a reprieve, this private sphere — or at least the involuntary privacy of marginalization — has often been the site of vicious and violent crimes.

As a result, self-defense is often sought by shining a light on what is most private in hopes that it will expose the injustices to which black Americans are subjected, even if our families and communities are exposed in the process.

Exposing America’s savagery has long been one of black Americans’ most potent tools to combat oppression. Poor people of color’s position at the bottom of the social order has always been maintained through violence, and the abuse visited on our physical bodies has often served as the most damning evidence and indictment of a racist system.

We expose our pain, our literal and figurative scars, with the hope that it will expose America’s systemic violence and in doing so will inspire change. Each time saying, “Look at what America is doing to us.”

There are many historical instances of this. For example, the emblematic image of “Whipped Peter,” the portrait of a runaway slave with a back covered in lash scars, was taken in a Union Army encampment, mass produced, and circulated throughout the North. While the brutality of slavery was far from a secret, it was a private affair; long established as outside of the boundaries of public intervention.

Millions of black men and women were classified as private property and, in America, private citizens can do with their private property as they see fit. The image laid bare the routine violence that occurred on private estates across the South, personified the barbarity of slavery, and was used to recruit men into the Union Army, which would eventually help topple the system of forced labor.

Perhaps the most powerful example of displaying physical wounds to achieve political aims is that of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Till was beaten, whipped, and shot before being dumped into the Tallahatchie River. By the time his body was discovered three days later, it was bloated and disfigured beyond recognition.

Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, saying, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” In so doing, she succeeded in exposing the savage foundation of the Jim Crow order, which was often enforced under the cover of night.

Images of Till’s mangled corpse were printed in several black newspapers and are credited by many as a major spark of the Civil Rights Movement. When asked about her decision to not relinquish her seat on a segregated bus, Rosa Parks said, “When I thought about Emmett Till, I could not go to the back of the bus.”

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, organizers continued to use photo and video evidence of white aggression to personify black plight and further their demands for justice. Footage of nonviolent protesters being assaulted at lunch counters, battered by fire hoses, and ravaged by police dogs illustrated and reinforced claims of America’s white supremacist barbarity and played an important role in shifting public opinion and building black political power.

Given this history, it should come as no surprise that cameras have been a central piece of the twenty-first-century black liberation movement. The pattern (of racist violence, exposing either the violence itself or its physical effects, and a powerful political response) is obviously pertinent to the current political moment.

Images of Michael Brown’s lifeless body face down on the pavement, video of Eric Garner wheezing “I can’t breathe,” footage of a limp Freddie Gray being loaded into the back of a police van, and the many other recent displays of police violence that have been captured, shared on social media, and broadcasted across the nation have sparked political uprisings and fueled the growth of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Like a back covered in lash scars or a body swinging from a tree once were, a dead black body on a city street, a black skull bloodied by a police baton, or handcuffed black wrists in the back of a police van have been all too common sights for decades in black communities across America.

Like the movements that preceded it, the Black Lives Matter Movement is attempting to shine a light on the state-sanctioned violence that is common in marginalized communities and is generally hidden from the mainstream. Toward this end, cameras are a powerful tool.

Forfeiting Privacy

Poor people of color offer up their personal scars as evidence that the system is criminal, violent, and broken. But the decision to share these wounds does not come without a cost.

Scars are normally hidden. But far from hiding ours, we document them and share them with the world in hopes that the world will protect us from the system that has scarred us. Wounds need to close before they can heal.

But in the pursuit of justice, ours are reopened and exposed over and over again. We pursue justice publicly, opening ourselves up to a level of scrutiny and exposure from which the legal system generally attempts to protect victims.

In short, we are forced to choose between justice and privacy.

Forfeiting privacy in the name of security is not new in poor, black communities. Poor neighborhoods have become testing grounds for many new policing technologies and practices, all of which are justified as public safety tools that will curb the misbehavior of a few bad apples but which collect data broadly and indiscriminately and would seldom be tolerated in wealthier, white communities.

There’s “ShotSpotter,” a system that monitors street noise and alerts police if a loud sound, like a gunshot, is detected but that can also record conversations in what some argue is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Many police departments have adopted the use of facial, biometric, tattoo, and graffiti recognition software and databases.

And on-street surveillance cameras are becoming more and more common in neighborhoods across America. Like stop-and-frisk, these programs cast a wide net, indiscriminately targeting huge numbers of disproportionately low-income people of color.

Body cameras and other technologies that have gained popularity recently as a result of the Black Lives Matter Movement are different only in how they are marketed. Instead of curbing criminal behavior, they are framed as a check on police misconduct. But police body cameras, like their guns, are pointed at us.

In a 2015 city council hearing, former Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey explained the department’s plan to equip all of its officers with body cams by 2019. Ramsey testified that while body cameras could be a tool to curb police misconduct they would also change the behavior of “the people who we’re encountering because they know they’re now on film.”

Expose or Exonerate

A camera can vindicate or implicate. So while the Left sees body cameras as a check on police abuse, the Right sees them as another tool to surveil and control poor people of color. And that is why equipping police with body cams has emerged as the most widely accepted policy solution to curbing police violence.

Trump, Sanders, and Clinton all support body cameras but they all proclaim different reasons for doing so.

Sanders has called for body cams as a means of curbing police misconduct, arguing that “we need to federally fund and require body cameras for law enforcement officers to make it easier to hold them accountable.” Clinton has staked out a kind of a middle ground, reasoning that body cams will “protect good people on both sides of the lens.”

Trump, however, sees body cameras primarily as a tool to exonerate police who have been wrongfully accused of misconduct, telling the Guardian, “It can solve a lot of problems for police . . . they’re accused of things and oftentimes you see the body cameras and, all of a sudden, they didn’t do anything wrong.”

It’s true that video cameras have provided the best shot for justice in countless cases of police violence, that the growth of the Black Lives Matter Movement — currently the strongest movement trying to revolutionize American policing — was fueled by such videos, and that the centuries-long battle for black liberation has always, to varying degrees, relied on documenting and revealing America’s racism. Fighting injustice will always involve exposing injustice.

But it’s troubling that the most politically palatable solutions to police violence require poor people of color to sacrifice their privacy. Black Americans deserve security without surrendering the liberties that white Americans rightly value.

True reform would not just trade privacy for security; it would seek to transform the political, economic, and social systems that make privacy a risk. It would seek to transform the civic hierarchy inherent to capitalism. Cameras can be part of the plan for exposing that system, but they can’t be all of it.