Recording the police is risky, but it’s become the norm for Gen Z

Videos of police encounters have become a crucial tool in holding law enforcement accountable, and for the generation raised with smartphones, recording racial injustice is instinctual.  Nowhere has the power of a bystander willing to hit record been more clear than the case of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, ignoring Floyd's insistence that he couldn't breathe. Floyd's death at the hands of a white officer sparked a global movement against systemic racism and police brutality, bringing even more attention to police violence in the United States as law enforcement tear gassed, beat, and detained demonstrators. In the last year, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown to what may be the largest movement in U.S. history.  Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter last month. But Floyd is just one of countless victims of police violence and racism, and while many people expressed relief over Chauvin's conviction, courts have historically been overwhelmingly sympathetic to police officers.  Floyd's case stands out, however, for one simple reason: The jury was able to see exactly what Chauvin did because there was a video of the entire incident. Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old high school student, had the presence of mind to record Floyd's last moments while walking by. Frazier's video, which went viral on social media last year, is credited with both bringing attention to the broken, racist policing system in the United States and with proving Chauvin's guilt.  Hundreds gathered to rally outside the courthouse after Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict was announced. Image: jeff wheeler / Star Tribune via Getty Images During an interview with 60 Minutes, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison described the video as an "indispensable piece" of the case, adding that he had "real doubts" that the world would know of how Floyd died if not for the video. The first public statement from the Minneapolis Police Department claimed that Floyd was "suffering medical distress" when he was handcuffed, taking the blame off of the officers involved.  "I think that if he [Chauvin] looks at history, he has every reason to believe that he would never be held accountable," Ellison, who was the lead prosecutor in this trial, told 60 Minutes. "There's never been anyone in Minnesota convicted — any police officer convicted — of second-degree murder in the history of our state. So this was precedent setting in that way. So history was on his side." An act of intervention In a country where the police, backed by unions with immense bargaining power, have a history of concealing abuse, civilians can often do little when witnessing a police encounter or racist incident. That gut instinct to begin recording these types of encounters was a "natural progression" of cellphone use, said Cat Brooks, who cofounded the Anti-Police Terror Project, which works to defund the Oakland Police Department, document police abuse, and design a better response to mental health crises that doesn't involve law enforcement. In one of the first cases to use cellphone footage as evidence, passengers on the platform of an Oakland BART station recorded multiple angles of police officer Johannes Mehserle shooting 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back. Since the 2009 shooting, smartphones, which were once a luxury, are a now tool that most people own. Using them to record cops allows people to maintain a sliver of power. The social impact of Frazier's video, particularly, has helped turn recording cops into standard practice for bystanders, especially as police reports have shown to be unreliable time and again.  "It's an act of intervention, the most dramatic one that someone [can take] without putting themselves in harm's way."  "In Black communities, it's a form of self-determination," Brooks continued. "It's an act of intervention, the most dramatic one that someone [can take] without putting themselves in harm's way."  In the more than a decade since Mehserle killed Grant, younger generations developed an ability to capture events as they unfold with steady clarity. Documenting their day-to-day is the norm, and by virtue of constantly consuming digital content, Gen Z and millennials have honed storytelling skills as reporters of their own lives. That means their recordings and would-be evidence is that much more clear, watchable, and compelling. Frazier, for example, was praised for staying steady and keeping Chauvin and Floyd centered in the frame despite the trauma of witnessing the incident.   Amid persistent social media activism, it's also become standard practice to raise alarm over the unjust system by sharing said videos. Like Frazier did after witnessing Floyd's death, those who capture these videos seamless

Recording the police is risky, but it’s become the norm for Gen Z

Videos of police encounters have become a crucial tool in holding law enforcement accountable, and for the generation raised with smartphones, recording racial injustice is instinctual. 

Nowhere has the power of a bystander willing to hit record been more clear than the case of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, ignoring Floyd's insistence that he couldn't breathe. Floyd's death at the hands of a white officer sparked a global movement against systemic racism and police brutality, bringing even more attention to police violence in the United States as law enforcement tear gassed, beat, and detained demonstrators. In the last year, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown to what may be the largest movement in U.S. history

Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter last month. But Floyd is just one of countless victims of police violence and racism, and while many people expressed relief over Chauvin's conviction, courts have historically been overwhelmingly sympathetic to police officers

Floyd's case stands out, however, for one simple reason: The jury was able to see exactly what Chauvin did because there was a video of the entire incident. Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old high school student, had the presence of mind to record Floyd's last moments while walking by.

Frazier's video, which went viral on social media last year, is credited with both bringing attention to the broken, racist policing system in the United States and with proving Chauvin's guilt. 

Hundreds gathered to rally outside the courthouse after Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict was announced.

Hundreds gathered to rally outside the courthouse after Derek Chauvin's guilty verdict was announced.

Image: jeff wheeler / Star Tribune via Getty Images

During an interview with 60 Minutes, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison described the video as an "indispensable piece" of the case, adding that he had "real doubts" that the world would know of how Floyd died if not for the video. The first public statement from the Minneapolis Police Department claimed that Floyd was "suffering medical distress" when he was handcuffed, taking the blame off of the officers involved. 

"I think that if he [Chauvin] looks at history, he has every reason to believe that he would never be held accountable," Ellison, who was the lead prosecutor in this trial, told 60 Minutes. "There's never been anyone in Minnesota convicted — any police officer convicted — of second-degree murder in the history of our state. So this was precedent setting in that way. So history was on his side."

An act of intervention

In a country where the police, backed by unions with immense bargaining power, have a history of concealing abuse, civilians can often do little when witnessing a police encounter or racist incident. That gut instinct to begin recording these types of encounters was a "natural progression" of cellphone use, said Cat Brooks, who cofounded the Anti-Police Terror Project, which works to defund the Oakland Police Department, document police abuse, and design a better response to mental health crises that doesn't involve law enforcement.

In one of the first cases to use cellphone footage as evidence, passengers on the platform of an Oakland BART station recorded multiple angles of police officer Johannes Mehserle shooting 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back. Since the 2009 shooting, smartphones, which were once a luxury, are a now tool that most people own. Using them to record cops allows people to maintain a sliver of power. The social impact of Frazier's video, particularly, has helped turn recording cops into standard practice for bystanders, especially as police reports have shown to be unreliable time and again. 

"It's an act of intervention, the most dramatic one that someone [can take] without putting themselves in harm's way." 

"In Black communities, it's a form of self-determination," Brooks continued. "It's an act of intervention, the most dramatic one that someone [can take] without putting themselves in harm's way." 

In the more than a decade since Mehserle killed Grant, younger generations developed an ability to capture events as they unfold with steady clarity. Documenting their day-to-day is the norm, and by virtue of constantly consuming digital content, Gen Z and millennials have honed storytelling skills as reporters of their own lives. That means their recordings and would-be evidence is that much more clear, watchable, and compelling. Frazier, for example, was praised for staying steady and keeping Chauvin and Floyd centered in the frame despite the trauma of witnessing the incident.  

Amid persistent social media activism, it's also become standard practice to raise alarm over the unjust system by sharing said videos. Like Frazier did after witnessing Floyd's death, those who capture these videos seamlessly post their footage on TikTok, Facebook, or Twitter. During the height of the protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, demonstrators livestreamed confrontations with police officers out of concern that they'd be misconstrued in favor of police. 

The instinct to share what we've witnessed — often immediately after it happened — has also raised questions about the difference between spreading awareness of injustice and exploiting someone's death. Those who post footage online face an ethical conundrum: They could, like Frazier, be sharing valuable evidence. At the same time, they're sharing footage of someone else's pain and there's not always the opportunity for that person (or their family) to consent.

Circulating videos of violence against Black and brown people has sparked a conversation on the intentions behind reposting these videos. After footage of Floyd's death was widely circulated online, Black activists begged social media users to stop spreading "pain porn." Casually sharing images of brutal, racist attacks on Black people not only sensationalizes their death, but can further traumatize Black viewers. The week after Floyd's death was viewed on countless screens across the world, online activist @tidalectics questioned the drive behind their followers' self-proclaimed allyship

"Is your outrage against racism fueled by only viewing the violent acts of racism?" @tidalectics asked. 

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