As more footage of the late Sandra Bland’s final hours of life spiral further onto the desks of talking heads and other media outlets, I think it’s important to acknowledge the ability of a film to desensitize and distort the abuse of a human being.
We live in an age and culture where we’ve seen so much abuse on screens in film and television that at certain points it’s merely a spectacle to observe, regardless of whether it’s ‘real’ abuse or not. For this, the comfort provided by the distance and space encapsulated on a screen provides us with a sense of detachment, which is empowering to a degree, but also dangerous.
It’s empowering because we can see and analyze an abuse taking place in a film, but dangerous because we cannot feel the physical and cognitive abuse experienced by the people being filmed. Thus, while some of us might be considerably horrified at seeing a fellow human being treated like an animal on the screen, the feeling of horror provides us with a false or minuscule understanding of the lived experience of having one’s body violated by the hands of an attack in such a way.
The lived experience of having one’s body violated by anyone is a harrowing sequence of traumatization in and of itself, but in the case of police violence, this horror is exacerbated by the fact that the inflictor of that trauma is sanctioned by an institution that literally surrounds and leaves no way out for your escape.
To name just one such instance: When police take you into custody, they attack you not just with their own imposing bodies in uniform, but with the bodies of concrete walls that limit your eyesight, and with the bodies of voyeuristic police cameras watching your every move, and with the bodies of cold steel handcuffs that weigh down your wrists, as well as other instruments that enclose themselves upon YOUR BODY.
We can’t and will never understand such abuse by watching a film or reading a description of it; we can only feel it to understand it, and even that understanding will be limited by the frequency at which we experience such abuse.
Here, it should noted that Black people in America have faced more of this type of psychological, political, and ultimately physical violence than any other group of people since – to quote the great Angela Davis – “the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
At the same time, while it’s fundamental to acknowledge how the color of our skin is extremely important in determining our treatment at the hands of our government, it’s my opinion that racial makeup is still second to the size of our pockets and the wealth controlled by our heritage. To paraphrase Chicago’s Alvin Lau on the success of Tiger Woods: If you’re rich, you don’t have to worry about stupid shit like this.
This is where it gets complicated: as an increasing number of white middle class Americans continue to fall into the cracks of poverty with people of color they once presumed they were ‘above’, the current trends of police and state violence suggest that the rights afforded to such white Americans will also suffer impoverishment.
In California, the vast majority of people victimized by the power dynamic of this country over the last few decades have been black and brown skinned bodies, but there are myriads of poor white bodies in the state and across the country that have been imprisoned as well, and it’s not because of the color of their skin, but because of the scarcity of resources with which they’re able to defend themselves as poor people standing in the way of a government that feasts on poor people.
In turn, at the same time that we become increasingly tolerant of the violent defense of this dynamic when it’s captured and viewed on screen, our country is witnessing the concentration of wealth into fewer and more vicious hands than before.
And in the humble opinion of yours truly, unless we recognize and support the Americans fighting for a better way for our country now – those Black and Brown people organizing – this power dynamic is just the tip of the iceberg in the land of the free and the home of the brave of the future, one piece of violent footage at a time.