Over the past few days, two shootings have sparked a nationwide discussion about racial profiling and police brutality in America. In the first, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, was fatally shot by police officers because they suspected he carried a gun. In the second, Philando Castile was shot in his car by police on Wednesday.
Both incidents came to light after videos of the incident went viral on social media. Multiple videos exist of the Sterling incident. One of the videos (warning: it's very graphic in nature) is shot by a group named Stop The Killings, a group that keeps tabs on police scanners to film police arrests as they are in progress. There is also CCTV footage from the store and another one shot by a passerby who was closer to the incident. The video above shows protests in Baton Rouge in the wake of the incident.
The Castile incident came to light after his girlfriend made a Facebook Live video in the aftermath of the incident, but Facebook has since deleted the live video but it has been uploaded to YouTube (warning: it's very graphic in nature).
Both videos capture the events in horrifying detail, and are extremely difficult to watch. Some have asked whether they should have been made public in the first place. On the other hand, if the horror is taking place, why stop the world from knowing how it went?
However, Stop The Killings did consider not uploading the videos and waiting for the official version. Upon learning that police had confiscated the footage from the shop, the group made the footage public on Facebook and Instagram.
A fact that a group like Stop The Killings exists points to the fact that smartphones have become integral to social justice movements across the world. Without these videos, the incidents, and more importantly the facts of the case, might never have come to light. But whether these videos will lead to an actual indictment is another matter.
In an article in The New York Times, writer Roxane Gray examined the recent spate of police shootings of African-Americans and wrote, "I don’t think any of us could have imagined how tiny cameras would allow us to see, time and again, injustices perpetrated, mostly against black people, by police officers. I don’t think we could have imagined that video of police brutality would not translate into justice, and I don’t think we could have imagined how easy it is to see too much, to become numb. And now, here we are."
Claiming that the veracity of some citizen journalism videos is doubtful, police personnel took to wearing their own cameras during arrest. Often, this footage is "misplaced". In the Sterling case, the official version is that the cameras were dangling loose and could not record accurately.
In an interview to The Guardian, FBI director James Comey suggested that cellphone videos had increased crime rates because they had made police officers reluctant to come out of their cars for fear of being filmed and having their actions misinterpreted. But that has done nothing to cut down the spate of shootings, with Sterling's death being the 505th such incident in 2016 in the US.
US President Barack Obama commented on both incidents in a Facebook post, and while he chose not to comment on the facts, he wrote that all Americans should be deeply troubled by these events, which are not "isolated incidents". The US Department of Justice has launched a civil investigation into the incident.
The New York Times has compiled numerous raw videos of similar incidents where black men have been the victim. Whether the outrage provoked by these videos or the evidence in them leads to court action is a different matter. But the videos clearly document that a race problem does exist in America and that in most cases the police action is excessive and unwarranted.
That's a point also made by Trevor Noah, host of the The Daily Show, in an episode following the two incidents. He comments on how taking a stand has increasingly meant being against something else when that shouldn't be the case. "Being pro #BlackLivesMatter does not mean being anti Police". He also pokes fun at the official version of the police, which always seeks to disprove the facts in the videos, a scepticism that is picked up by many.