Thinking about dash- and body-cam videos with Robert Gooding-Williams

This October I’m speaking as part of the Robert Gooding-Williams Scholar Session at SPEP. Part of my talk discusses his work on the Rodney King video. Given the current and extremely local-to-me debates about whether and to whom police do and ought to release video footage, I thought I’d post that part of the talk.


Smartphone cameras, dash and body cams, and social media have industrialized the making of and appetite for videos of antiblack police brutality. In 2016 videos circulate at a rate that makes such brutality seem more like the rule than the exception. Keith Scott, Eric Gardner, Phillando Castille, Walter Scott, Levar Jones…I could go on. The frequency of their circulation recalls what Katherine McKittrick calls “the mathematics of black life.” In this math, “the death toll becomes the source” (McKittrick 17) of knowledge about black people:

the citation of blackness-the scholarly stories we tell-calls for the repetition of death and violence. The practice of taking away life is followed by the sourcing and citation of racial-sexual death and racial-sexual violence and blackness is (always already and only) cast inside the mathematics of unlivingness (data/scientifically proven/certified violation/asterisk) where black comes to be (a bit) (18).

McKittrick cites the frequency that an image of a whipped slave’s back appears in black studies scholarship. Cop snuff videos circulate similarly: the frequency of their citation forms a rhythm, a pattern, a rate or toll–one of those scripts where the function of blackness is to embody this rhythm of unlivingness. And this rhythm, quantified and quantized as a toll, rate, or other statistic, this then naturalizes the practices that produce it: “the seeming neutrality of mathematics-the governmental trust in the technologies that calculate the textures of skin, eyes, hair-is trusted as innocuously objective, thus providing an alibi for racism” (McKittrick 23).

This is effectively the argument Gooding-Williams made in the early 1990s about the Rodney King video: “narrative recycling” (LAN 10) of anti-black images establishes some patterns as rational–cops using force in defense of self and society–and others as irrational–cops unjustly brutalizing black people. Gooding-Williams gestures toward this in his claim that popular perceptions of the King video manifest a “failure to regard the speech or actions of black people as manifesting thoughtful judgments about issues that concern all members of the political community…as persons with a reasonable appraisal of the circumstances they share with white Americans” (LAN14). When non-black audiences see videos of police brutality, they separate out signal from noise by relying on pre- and over-determined senses of rationality. Non-black audiences assimilate these videos to patterns of citation they already know and understand, and in so doing effectively re-edit or “retake” (LAN 11) the videos, quantizing them to the meter wherein blackness appears only at and as the rate of “unlivingness.” The consequence of this is that all video evidence is effectively doctored. As Gooding-Williams writes:

Rather than assume that filmed facts speak for themselves, these lawyers found in a received stock of already interpreted images of black bodies ready weapons to assault Rodney King’s black body…by the end of the trial, these images had become the ‘truth’ of King’s body, the jury having learned to see in the ‘brute facts’ a narrative recycling of interpreted images familiar to them from other stories” (LAN 10).

Non-black audiences don’t see raw signal: white supremacy compresses that signal, letting through only the rational signal and filtering out the irrational noise. In the case of Rodney King, the video evidence was only legible to the jurors to the extent that they could assimilate it to patterns of seeing and citation that establish black unlivingness and non-human-ness (e.g., as Sylvia Wynter argues in her Rodney King piece, “No Humans Involved”) as fact.

In this way, Gooding-Williams anticipated contemporary progressive critiques of the supposedly moderating effects of police body- and dash-cams, and recent empirical research on these cameras’ effects. For example, the Harvard Law Review argues that “this type of evidence can be manipulated or distorted — both intentionally and unintentionally — in a manner that systematically favors the officers.” A 2016 paper from Temple University Management Information Systems faculty Min-Seok Pang and Paul Pavlou finds empirical evidence of just this. Though the use of smartphones and data analytics tended to reduce police officers’ rates of using deadly force,

when officers wear video cameras on duty, they are 3.64% more likely to kill a suspect. Video cameras installed on patrol vehicles (Dash Camera) are not significantly associated with shootings of civilians by officers…[T]he use of evidence gathering technology (specifically wearable video cameras) reduces an officer’s perceived risk of becoming liable for her use of deadly force. Expecting that a wearable video camera would provide evidence to justify the use of force, the officer becomes less reluctant to deploy deadly weapons” (Pang & Pavlou 24).

The difference between dash and body cams is key. When the camera shows their first-person perspective (the perspective of the body cam), officers believe and expect that viewers of that video footage will see and understand the situation as they do. When the camera shows a third-person perspective (the perspective of the dash cam), officers are more reluctant to believe and expect that viewers of that video footage will agree with their interpretation of the situation. And there’s also empirical evidence to back the officers’ beliefs and expectations: as Pang & Pavlou explain, “Kahan et al. (2009) conducted an experiment with this case and found that 74% of the participants who watched the same video agreed that the deputy appropriately used force to the subject who posed danger to the public” (13). It sounds like both officers and video audiences see these situations as further repetitions of the anti-black images and narratives that constantly (re)cycle through the news and entertainment media.

The King video obviously wasn’t shot from the officers’ first-person perspectives–but in the end, as Gooding-Williams argued, the same thing happened: audiences consciously and unconsciously re-cut the video so that it fit the rationality of black unlivingness. So perhaps the camera’s perspective intensifies a practice that occurs in all instances. Being who I am, I also wonder about sound: body cams don’t record sound, but smartphones do. Videos of Eric Garner and Phillando Castille were taken by bystanders with smartphones, and they do include sound; the Castille video is loud. It doesn’t seem like sound has impacted the way the state and its officers reacted to the Garner video…but I wonder if the silence of body cam videos hides any affect or emotion that we might hear from the victims, and thus intensifies the tendency to see (and not-hear) things from officers’ perspectives? It’s also possible that non-black viewers might hear the stress and fear in Jeronimo Yanez’s voice and that might make him easier to identify with and more sympathetic.
Gooding-Williams’s analysis was both an accurate read of the Rodney King video, and the whole genre of police brutality videos that has emerged in the last several years. Even though he probably couldn’t anticipate the existence of things like body cams, smartphones, and social media, and the media ecology of the viral cop snuff video, his analysis needs to be recognized by and included in the growing body of scholarship and popular criticism on this genre of videos.