US News & World Report
By Nicole Hemmer
There's a moment, every time I watch the video of police descending on a McKinney, Texas, pool party, that my heart skips a beat. It's when the officer, now identified as Cpl. Eric Casebolt, takes a break from twisting a young woman's arm in order to face two other teens, then slips his gun from his holster. Even knowing no shots were fired — Casebolt reholsters his gun a few moments later when other officers arrive — the moment reminds me of all the other times the story has ended differently. Remember Walter Scott, the unarmed black man shot and killed by a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, in April. A bystander recorded the shooting, providing evidence that countered the officer's report that Scott had stolen his taser. On Monday, a grand jury indicted the officer on murder charges.
If there is a silver lining to living in an era of constant surveillance, it is this: All these videos have made the topics of police brutality and structural racism almost impossible to avoid. That's because these videos are part of an emerging media strategy for this generation's civil rights movement: #BlackLivesMatter. The powerful images — whether captured by passersby, as in North Charleston and McKinney, or by surveillance cameras, as in the shootings of Tamir Rice and John Crawford — are visceral and compelling. They clarify: Scott's painfully slow, shuffling run away from officer who would kill him; Dajerria Becton's slight, bikini-clad form being wrestled to the ground by an armed officer; Eric Garner's struggles to breathe as a New York City Police Department officer pinned him to the ground.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s likewise relied on imagery — both still and film — to win white Americans to their cause. If Jim Crow laws were going to be dismantled, activists knew, the federal government would have to do it. Sit-ins, marches and freedom rides meant nothing to white segregationists. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," "History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily." White segregationists' hands had to be forced by the federal government — and the federal government's hand had to be forced by public outrage.
By dramatizing the violence upon which segregation relied, activists laid bare the deep immorality of the Jim Crow South. They carefully planned their protests to maximize media coverage because they understood the power of newsreel footage and iconic photographs. Images of peaceful protestors set upon by police dogs or beaten with batons or jeered at lunch counters helped the movement gain allies and secure landmark civil rights legislation.
The media strategy of the Black Lives Matter movement rests on the same premise: That visual representations of police brutality will be more persuasive than the mountains of data that show unequal treatment. The difference is that these are not carefully planned, meticulously timed events. Activists depend on hastily grabbed footage, relying on the luck of getting an incident on tape, backstopped by the knowledge that if they miss something, another incident is bound to happen soon.
It's a strategy that is working in McKinney. Luck has certainly played a big role. The video captured by 15-year-old Brandon Brooks, an observer whose white skin made him practically invisible to police, has remarkable narrative power. Casebolt, the officer at the heart of the story, makes his first appearance barrel rolling through a patch of green suburban lawn, then reappears to shout at a young black man looking for his bag. The rough takedown of Becton follows, interrupted only when he draws his weapon on two nearby teens. While a few people have defended the officer's actions, doing so requires complex mental gymnastics.
McKinney also benefits from an engaged community — both inside and outside the town — ready to build on the Black Lives Matter movement. Journalists and scholars quickly put the events into context (including Yoni Appelbaum's excellent essay on the history of swimming pools and segregation). On Monday night thousands of people in McKinney marched against police brutality. That combination of media and organization has proved powerful in the struggle for civil rights in the past — and with the Black Lives Matter movement, it is beginning to do so again in the present.
This article was originally published in the US News & World Report