Police Violence Didn't Just Stop Happening

Do we need to see cops kill people on video to care?

We'd seen Michael Brown on the last day of his life before. It’s been three years since Americans became familiar with the surveillance footage showing the 18-year-old pushing a convenience-store worker and snatching a pack of cigarillos minutes before encountering police officer Darren Wilson that fateful August day in Missouri. The Ferguson Police Department released that original footage about a week after Wilson shot Brown, to support the officer's account of the teen as a confrontational delinquent. But in previously unreleased video, included in Jason Pollock's new documentary, Stranger Fruit, and published online last week by the New York Times, we learn that Brown had been at that same store earlier that day, around 1 a.m.

Exactly what the documentary footage shows is disputable. The film positions Brown’s actions as a simple deal — exchanging marijuana for cigarillos with the person behind the counter, then returning to hand a few cigarillos back, perhaps the same ones he later grabbed in the originally released footage. Pollock believes that these new images are evidence that Brown wasn't the thief Wilson's defenders made him out to be. "The tape shows that they didn’t show the public everything, so that raises a question about all of their work practices," Pollock told MTV News, referencing both the Ferguson Police Department and the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's office that refused to indict Wilson for the shooting. "They are the ones who need to be investigated." (That county prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, has criticized the documentary as "poorly edited" and "pathetic.")

Regardless of what they reveal, Pollock himself admits that both surveillance videos litigate the criminality of a dead young man who isn't here to offer his side of the story. What I recall upon viewing that footage was having a morbid thought unrelated to whatever Brown was doing that early morning: At least police violence is in the news again. It felt like it had been a while since I'd seen an incident of police brutality that had gone viral or made the front page, yet it isn't as if cops have stopped killing people.

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who recently reported on a court filing in which Wilson admitted to using the word "nigger," has been on top of the Ferguson story since the unrest began. In 2015 he suggested to his editors that they begin doing what the government wasn't: counting fatal police shootings. I spoke to Lowery last Friday, while guest-hosting my colleague Ana Marie Cox's podcast. At that moment, the Post's 2017 count of police-involved killings stood at 219. Lowery said that was "a dozen or two" ahead of last year's pace. So why does it feel like we don’t know any of their names?

"I think much of our attention [on police killings] came from media focus," Lowery told me. "The reality is that, in this moment, so much of what we are focused on — what we are thinking about, what we are talking about — is the president of the United States. And the president of the United States is not talking about these issues, and therefore we are not, either."

The ‘law and order’ Trump sees police officers as being too restricted by law to be able to provide order.

The media obsession with Trump is undeniable; he offers fresh foolishness every couple hours, as we're beckoned to respond to a new budding scandal or outrageous (probably tweeted) statement. Lowery noted that this distracted state is a function of our especially volatile news cycle, and that many other important topics also aren't getting the shine they need. But he also reminded me that we all ignored police brutality for the better part of last year, too. America only focused on police violence in the latter half of 2016, after the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sylville Smith, Keith Lamont Scott, and five police officers in Dallas occurred.

That Dallas incident is particularly important to point out, because its aftermath was a rare moment in which Trump exercised a degree of self-control regarding public controversies having to do with the police. He released a video lamenting the shootings not just of the police officers, but of Sterling and Castile as well. But Lowery is correct that Trump and his administration have barely mentioned police violence, outside of his recent taunt toward activist and quarterback Colin Kaepernick over the athlete remaining unsigned by NFL teams because owners feared a mean tweet from the president. The "law and order" Trump sees police officers as being too restricted by law to be able to provide order. Since taking office, he has empowered ICE agents to terrorize immigrant communities and threatened to use federal troops to overstep the Chicago Police Department.

Trump isn't wasting time translating his draconian ideas about policing into specific policies. He issued a series of executive orders in early February that were little more than a valentine to those who believe that cops have neither been given the tools to succeed nor the proper legal protection. One order directed the attorney general to work with local, state, and federal agencies to see whether current laws protect police officers enough from crimes committed against them. It hints at a forthcoming "Blue Lives Matter" law, like those already signed in states like Louisiana and Kentucky that give "hate crime" protections to police officers, as if they are a marginalized group. Dozens of similar bills have been introduced in statehouses throughout the nation, including in liberal bastions like California and New York.

While the number of officers fatalities rose by 10 percent in 2016, per a recent study, that total is still far lower than the averages over the past few decades. There has scarcely been a safer time to be a police officer in the United States; reinforcing the notion that police are a persecuted class is a recipe for greater tensions in communities already inclined not to trust law enforcement. It's reasonable to conclude that Trump's actions may make things more dangerous for citizens and cops alike.

Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, isn't helping, either. The nation's top law-enforcement official, whose own bigotry Coretta Scott King warned us about three decades ago, denies the existence of systemic racism. In late February, Sessions lamented the (discredited) "Ferguson Effect" — or how "this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police" has weakened morale and shifted blame onto whole law enforcement departments when it's just a few "bad apples" that are making police look malicious.

Sessions may have stumbled onto the real reason why, despite the tireless work of activists, politicians, and everyday folks to keep it in the zeitgeist, police violence has again largely fallen out of the headlines. We aren't talking about it because we aren't seeing it. In recent years we were confronted with an onslaught of footage showing the violent arrests and sometimes fatal shootings of black men, women, and children. Much has been made about how these videos illuminated the urgent problem of police killings to communities that typically don't have to worry about them. But so far, none of the unarmed black people dead by police hands in 2017 have had the good fortune of having a cell-phone camera pointed at them when they were shot.

Alteria Woods is one of the latest victims. Twenty-one and pregnant, she was shot and killed by a SWAT team during a drug raid on a Florida home last Sunday morning. This came less than a week after an extensive Times report detailing how SWAT teams' forcible-home-entry tactics puts people in lethal danger. The Indian River County sheriff claims that Woods’s boyfriend used her as a human shield, but her family is still seeking definitive answers as to how she came to be shot. We only have the word of the cops, and too often in America, that is all the word that the public needs. Unfortunately, without that viral video Sessions complains about, it's doubtful we'll see the kind of citizen outrage or media response necessary to put pressure on law enforcement to avoid killing more women like Woods.

In the meantime, the conversation is getting signal boosts from pop culture. Young adult novels such as Angie Thomas's "The Hate U Give" are tackling the issue. Shots Fired, a new Fox drama series about a police shooting, premiered this week. Pollock's documentary, which premiered at South by Southwest, may also provoke further debate. The response to the new footage in Stranger Fruit alone reminds us how important video is in the struggle to make black lives matter. "For four days," Pollock told MTV News, "we stopped talking about Donald Trump and we started talking about Michael Brown." But in a moment when men like Trump and Sessions are shaping law enforcement policy, we can't count on actually viewing the deaths of black people at the hands of the cops to get animated, nor can we allow daily updates about this collapsing administration to distract us from elevating the names of victims of police violence. No one should need to die, on camera or not, to keep this issue a front-page story.