Why Video Won’t Save Us from Racializied Police Violence

This colloquium was given by Sherri Irvin (University of Oklahoma) at the University of Maryland (ASY 1213) on September 16, 2015 from 3:30PM to 5:30PM.


Without an opposing counter-narrative, videos of police brutality will be viewed with a mode of aspection such that no conviction (and in many cases indictment) will be made even in clear cases of excessive force and racial bias.

Acts of Aspection

Paul Ziff’s acts of aspection form the foundation of her argument. When engaging with a piece of artwork there are modes one may enter to look at the artwork. One may step back to get a big-picture view (survey) or look closer at the details (scanning).

Our culture enforces a particular mode of aspection upon videos of police violence. This mode of aspection is one in which all the movements of the black individual are scrutinized. In asking the question “why did the police officer shoot,” we analyze and seek to find evidence for the officer’s exoneration.

This is present in the cases of Tamir Rice with the “right-hand to waistband” commentary and the miniscule movements of Eric Garner overanalyzed. Scrutiny replaces context and obscures more important systemic factors like racial bias.

Acts of Naming

Irvin brings in Sontag’s On Photography to speak about how the act of labeling and naming minimal movements can encourage this aspection. Terms like “resisting arrest,” “failure to comply,” and “furtive movement” are used to characterize small gestures and place blame on the victim.

Police brutality can only be claimed in the absence of any evidence of these furtive movements. Just about any movement can be labeled as such given enough scrutiny and therefore even with video evidence few convictions will be made.


Here Irvin strays away from her thesis to speak about the conflict of interest that may exist between the prosecutor and police officers. They are more willing to go to a grand jury to see whether they should indict rather than directly filing charges because of their need to cooperate with police officers.

There are a few exceptions like in Walter Scott where the video evidence was just so overwhelming where it was possible for an indictment.


Additionally in some cases like John Crawford, grand jury secrecy (where not all video was released to the public) serve the purpose of discrediting lay observers by arguing that the grand jury has additional information and that we are not qualified to comment on the video.

Even in cases of complete video there are claims that the inability to see furtive gestures is evidence of being unqualified to judge the video. This is similar to Hume’s “Standard of Taste” where non-experts (like us) cannot judge the videos and whether they present exonerating evidence.

Racial Bias

The “magical negro” trope serves to encourage violence against blacks particularly. The perception that they are superhuman, strong, and impenetrable to harm causes police to be overcautious of blacks and use excessive force.

This is the case for Michael Brown when Darren Wilson claimed that he as an armed police officer felt like a “5 year old against Hulk Hogan.” Irvin doesn’t dismiss the police officer may genuinely feel this way, but claims that culture encourages this perspective.


The solution to this is presenting a new mode of aspection. Rather than scanning and labeling as furtive gestures we need to view video evidence through a different lens. This needs to incorporate the concept of police brutality and introduce a broader context to videos.

The work of academics and protesters with movements like “Black Lives Matter” encourage a counter-narrative and allows us to subvert the standard mode of aspection.