Saturday, June 06, 2020

Rodney King, George Floyd, and the Visual Media

About 29 years ago, for us, young people in India, a weekly television news program called 'The World This Week', was the only window to the outside world.

Of course, for us then, listening to BBC news on short-wave radio was possible. But ‘watching news’ was still a new thing. And it was very different, and more interesting, than listening to the radio or reading the newspapers.

It was in this program that I clearly remember ‘watching’ the video of police brutality on Rodney King.

It was probably the first-ever amateur videotape leaked to TV News, in the USA. And the first violent video that must have gone ‘viral’ – on TV News - long before the term ‘viral’ for videos got coined.

I remember the veteran Indian newscaster Prannoy Roy telling us how this footage was taken to a US TV station, from where several cable news networks had picked it up. And how it had spread like wildfire then.

When camcorders or handy cams were still very new in the market, this recording of violence in the USA, against a black man, had shocked and infuriated people.

We had come to know later that Rodney King was an ex-convict, on parole, who was chased by police, for speeding and was brutally beaten.

But whatever King’s legal status was, the brute force itself, led to a huge outcry. Some had counted 33 baton strikes on a completely unarmed man.

Moreover, all hell broke loose when those four police officers, on trial for hitting King, were acquitted.

The news had immediately caused huge riots, arson and looting in Los Angeles.

About those 1992 Los Angeles Riots, Wikipedia tells me this: “The complete disorder in the Los Angeles area was only resolved after the California Army National Guard, the United States military, and several federal law enforcement agencies intervened.

“By the time the riots ended, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion”.

It was then that the ‘Insurrection Act’ was used, for the last time, in the USA. And according to some legal experts, invoking this Act once again could completely undo all these years of police reform.

Let us flash forward, now, to these last ten days in May-June 2020. We have seen the death of George Floyd, or what had happened just before his death. It was also caught on camera.

In fact, it was caught by not one, but many cameras. Some cell phone cams, and some CC TV ones.

In them, we have seen a grown man cry out for his mother in utter helplessness. We have seen him ask for water and say he cannot breathe, again and again. But the knee on his neck didn't let him breathe.

Between that Rodney King's time and this George Floyd's time, a lot of water has flown under the bridge. Things have changed a lot. Some for the better. Some for worse. Racism may have declined. But apparently, it is not all gone.

But let us admit it. If we had not seen the video, we would not have believed it. We would not have been shaken, or stirred, emotionally like how millions are today.

We must acknowledge that visual evidence is a critical component of truth. It is not easy for us to understand and believe some events unless we see the visuals. Very often, visual imagery exudes a strange power. An inexplicable influence. The old maxim of ‘seeing is believing’ clearly holds water.

The visuals of the George Floyd Protests too, whether they are of mobs looting stores, or of policemen shoving down old protestors,  can provoke us to various emotions.

Depending on which side of the fence we are, we could get angry at the other side.

Today’s ubiquity of visual recording devices tells us something interesting. That the Orwellian imagination of a dystopian age - of a big brother watching us - has mutated, into something different today.

Not only into continuous government surveillance, if the government so decides, but also into the availability of numerous independent recordings, in different versions, that can be checked, rechecked, and used to verify the facts.

Sometimes, depending on the perspective, the angle of the camera, and the one who'd shot it, we can get at least a good segment of truth; even if not all truth in all its entirety.

The power of the visuals is something we definitely cannot avoid now. Our TVs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, coupled with broadband and cloud, are giving us enormous power to record, store and retrieve them in ways that were hitherto impossible.

With the number of cameras become larger and larger, and with the broadband becoming broader and broader, the visual data is sure to become more and more. And the future generations will have to wade through gazillions of pixels to find out what they want.

According to YouTube statistics, people watch "One billion hours watched daily"!! And I am sure it will keep increasing.

Whether we must be thankful for the availability of many recording devices all around, or whether we should be upset that they are causing needless paranoia could be a matter for debate.

But without a doubt, the footage from millions of cameras could be a nemesis to some.

Especially to those on the wrong side of the law.

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