Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it
Ethan Zuckerman, MIT Technology Review
June 3, 2020
After years of police body cams and bystander cellphone video, it’s clear that evidentiary images on their own don’t bring about change. What’s missing is power.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers was captured on video, not once but half a dozen times.
Much of what we think about surveillance comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault examined the ideas of the English reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed a prison—the panopticon or Inspection-House—in which every cell was observable from a central watchtower. The possibility that someone might be watching, Bentham believed, would be enough to prevent bad behavior by prisoners. Foucault observed that this knowledge of being watched forces us to police ourselves; our act of disciplining ourselves as if we were always under observation, more than the threat of corporal punishment, is the primary mechanism of “political technology” and power in modern society.
It turns out that images matter, but so does power. Bentham’s panopticon works because the warden of the prison has the power to punish you if he witnesses your misbehavior. But Bentham’s other hope for the panopticon—that the behavior of the warden would be transparent and evaluated by all who saw him—has never come to pass. Over 10 years, from 2005 to 2014, only 48 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for use of lethal force, though more than 1,000 people a year are killed by police in the United States.