If you wanted to create a script generator for America's local news it would be tragically easy. A local black teen is walking on the street in his neighborhood. He is confronted by police. He is shot multiple times and killed. Police have "nothing to say at this time." The officer involved has been placed on "administrative leave." (He's still getting paid.) People are angry. Change is coming. Then it happens again.
This time it happened on Saturday afternoon near St. Louis. Witnesses told KMOV news that a teenager had been slain by police. They say he had his hands in the air. They say he was unarmed. They say police shot him once with his hands up, then as many as nine more times as he was on the ground.
His name was Michael Brown. He was 18 years old. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, he was two days away from becoming a freshman at Vatterott College. He was on his way home from visiting his grandmother.
The media literally took "no justice, no peace" chants & changed it & reported it as shouts of "kill the police" that's what we're battling— yoncé (@deanneFIERCE) August 10, 2014
The official story is seldom worth hearing in isolation. It took a day for Ferguson police to affirm that they had, in fact, shot and killed a teenager. (The department stated at a press conference Sunday morning that Brown was shot "more than just a couple of times.") The police say Brown was killed after he struggled for an officer's gun, but have still offered no reason why they confronted Brown at all. While we wait, news organizations say "the police have not confirmed" or "there's no official word yet," which ignominiously excludes the authority of the eyes and ears of those around us.
There are good reasons to distrust the information found in social media; incorrect reports, false reports, or outright bullshit can lead to online witch hunts like we saw in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. But official media narratives can be just as sketchy. An AP report filed on Sunday claimed that crowds around the crime scene shouted "kill the police" at dozens of heavily armed officers from more than 15 police departments. Local witnesses dispute that claim.
Everyone is watching now. A powerful Twitter topic, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, went big last night. It asks a simple question: what picture of you will be shown on television when you're shot by the police?
Everyone is watching now. Some of the best information coming out Saturday's protests was from KMOV reporter Brittany Noble. But it wasn't on local television first. Before news from Noble even aired on TV, she was sharing witness statements on Twitter and Instagram. These testimonies were shared by people across the country.
National conversations are the result. A Twitter conversation led columnist and Twitter personality Feminista Jones to organize a national day of silence for Michael Brown and other victims of police brutality. Local groups — in Oakland, in Philly, in Knoxville, in Atlanta, and in other cities — are now signing up across the country to participate.
You can't hide from a YouTube video
Community narratives are vital against heavy-handed police tactics, especially narratives that can be proven. When the New York Police Department killed a Staten Island man in July, the police could have authoritatively said he was violently resisting arrest, or some other reason that would appear to justify aggressive tactics. Instead, a friend caught the whole disturbing incident on camera, which shows police unnecessarily putting a chokehold on Eric Garner as he desperately tries to tell them he can't breathe. The video was put on the internet. There was no hiding from it. Just like there was no hiding from the video of LA police brutally beating Rodney King in 1991. Just like there was no hiding from the video of police officers shooting Oscar Grant in a Bay Area railway station in 2009.
When police know they're being watched, they behave better. Cops in one California study used force nearly 60 percent less often when they were forced to wear cameras, The New York Times reported. Of course it's really obvious to expect that people behave better when they know they could be held accountable. It's so obvious that police have been fighting for years to make it illegal for people to record what they do in public. But the police lost that fight. Now everyone is watching.