How video evidence can work for and against African Americans facing police violence

Protests have erupted nationwide after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died at the hands of Minneapolis police on Monday. A video shows an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as Floyd pleads that he can’t breathe. That officer, Derek Chauvin, is now fired and charged with third degree murder and manslaughter. Minnesota prosecutors say the investigation into three other officers involved in Floyd’s death is ongoing. 

And in Louisville, people have also been protesting the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police there when they entered her apartment unannounced. 

Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass , who represents parts of West and South LA, says these deaths come at a time when African Americans are a significant portion of the 100,000 Americans who have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“On top of watching black people die all across the country from the virus ... black people are being harassed for wearing masks, being refused entry into places because they look scary. Black people have been hauled off because they weren't wearing masks. Eighty-five percent of the citations that were given in New York were given to black and brown folks,” she says. 

She points out the unequal response to black protestors this week, while white protestors showed up to state capitols with weapons and without masks but faced no consequences.

“The period that we're in over the last three years with a president who has spent his time stoking racial division, it seems as though all of that has come to a head with the pandemic and with the recent violence directed toward African Americans,” Bass says. 

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., right, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on how COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans on Thursday, April 23, 2020. Photo credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Sipa USA/Reuters

USC journalism professor Allissa Richardson points to the effect of images depicting African Americans dying: “My heart goes out to the children who have to see these images. And not only the images that are indelible because they were right there … but the images that just flashed so carelessly on the news. I can't even watch the news with my 6 year old and 8 year old without an image going by of George [Floyd] laying on the ground with that knee to his neck.”

Richardson is author of "Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism."

She says society has come to a point where the African American community is the only one required to provide visual proof of innocence when crimes/tragedies happen.

“People need these kinds of videos to prove that African Americans did not do something wrong or did not do something to hasten their demise.”

When it comes to videos showing officers' use of force, Richardson says, “We're almost to a point with these videos where they're working in an opposite purpose, instead of just proving immediately that something bad happened and leading immediately to an arrest. There are now people who are saying, ‘What happened before that? Surely there must be a reason that he got arrested, surely there must be a reason he was detained that way.’”

She says the documentation should be used to hasten justice, rather than stitch together a narrative that disproves victims didn’t deserve their deaths. 

Author and professor Allissa Richardson says people now need videos to prove that African Americans didn’t do something wrong or didn’t do something to hasten their deaths. Photo credit: Dajuana Jones

Bass suggests that ultimately, video evidence can do good for African Americans. 

“I remember when the Rodney King video happened in 1990, many of us were cheering. I mean, we felt of course awful that he was beat. But finally, finally, there was evidence. And we were absolutely convinced that now that we have the video, no one will say it didn't happen,” she says. “What happened before Rodney King and still happens when it's not on video: The person that is beat/injured/killed is usually accused of assaulting a police officer, just like George Floyd was accused of resisting arrest, when you can clearly see on the video, he didn't do that.” 

She adds that because of cell phone videos, white people can better understand what black people go through daily. She says she now sees tens of thousands of white people in Charlottesville, Boston and Minnesota protesting against racism.

Even if a person does commit a crime, Bass says there is no excuse for police brutality. “Since when in the United States is public execution without a trial, without a jury, acceptable?”

—Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin



  • Karen Bass - mayor of Los Angeles - @RepKarenBass
  • Allissa Richardson - journalism professor at USC and author of “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest Journalism”