Secondhand Oppression

I watch every video of a police shooting that gets released. I don’t say that with any measure of pride. It is simply an admission of sad resignation. I don’t suggest or recommend that people watch these videos (unless they want to debate me on the particulars of a case). I don’t feel it’s anyone’s duty to subject themselves to their viewing. These aren’t high schooler street fight videos; they’re crimes, and worse. Many – maybe all of them – are beyond crimes. It’s like watching slavery happen in real time. It is oppression writ large across the digital landscape, a fatal stain that, once released, never goes away. If you want to know where we are as a republic, a police shooting video is a short cut to the answer. That is the state’s answer to the question regarding the current value of the stock that is your life.

I watch them because the way I fight against racism and the amorphous oppression that comes with it often requires the information that such evidence provides. I don’t want to take someone else’s word for it, and I don’t want someone else taking my word for it. If I’m going to engage the issue with any seriousness at all beyond a random tweet or Facebook status, it should be reasonably expected that I’ve engaged what evidence exists. Again, this isn’t me charging anyone else with being less serious. Sometimes it’s about grieving or reflection or celebrating something unapologetically. The facts are always important, but they are not always the point. So I’m not suggesting people watch whatever police shooting video came out this week. (For the record, this week it’s the 2014 shooting of Chicago’s Laquan McDonald, 17 at the time of his death and in a case as crooked as hell.) I’m just telling you what my process is. My process says, “If you, Scott, are going to engage this issue with the same level of reason and ability that you do everything else and still expect to sleep tonight, you’re going to need x level of material before you open your mouth.”

I don’t physically do as much as I used to in the name of fighting that kind of oppression, though I continue to suffer from its realities. My battlefields have changed over time. I am an agent of the mind, and so my contributions are largely of the mind. I peddle observations, logic and history in an attempt to instill knowing, contemplative passion in people who fight against the same foe in other ways. In that way I operate in much the same fashion as an arms dealer: I show up to the meet on time. I open the briefcase. I show you the event/book/fact. I show you how to hold it, tell you what its name is so it can be distinguished from other armaments. I tell you what it can hit and at what range and with what level of impact. Sometimes I use a colloquialism to make you comfortable with the event/book/fact in your hand. I do not do this to make you feel good about how you may use it. You aren’t coming to me for the payload because it’s pretty, but because it wields power. I pull the barrel back, show you what’s inside, how to load it. I show you what size ammunition it takes. I show you how to work the safety. I tell you to squeeze, not pull the trigger. I tell you it’s not like in the movies. If you want it with a scope to help you find your target, I sell you that as well. I pop off a few sample rounds to show you how to fire it, what it’s capable of. And then it’s yours. Happy hunting.

I take that charge (admittedly self-styled) very seriously. I am compelled to. There are a lot of bad dealers out there, people quick with a meme or just enough facts to get its audience into trouble if used in the wrong way in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve seen people lose all credibility shooting off at the mouth with bad information or an inability to contextualize what information they do have, or just a lack of general flexibility under fire. I don’t ever want that person’s forfeiture to be blamed on my product. Part of what I have to offer against such an oppressive foe draws its power from the knowledge of what the crime is – what it looks like, what its rhythms were, how it differs from what I am hearing and seeing in advance of it. When I say whatever I have to say about it, it carries the extra weight of having witnessed the crime. I don’t compare my weight against the weight of people who refuse to watch them. It’s not a weight lifting contest, and there is zero benefit to camp-blocking inside of our collective victimhood. There’s plenty of oppression to go around. Racism is very accommodating that way.

So I watch all of the videos. Sometimes once, usually multiple times. I don’t enjoy it – that would be beyond perverse – and I don’t think watching them is a replacement for doing something. Doesn’t mean that I do more and it hurts too much to say I do too little. It is that collectively, as a society, we do too little while asking for too much. Our supply of work on behalf of obtaining justice never comes close to meeting our demand for justice. So what little product I have to offer needs to be of some quality because, like most jobs held by black folks, it has to work twice as hard.

I watch these videos because I need to know what happened to the fullest extent that what happened can be known. I can leave my opponents no quarter. Racism is too fluid to be handled gently. Any space you leave it the system fills with opportunities for destruction. When you pray for the bombings in Paris, racism seeks to manipulate that sentiment with self-preservation: Why aren’t your praying for my people? Like God cannot handle all prayers. Like prayer is a hotline or a soup kitchen line. Racism takes that calamity – a horrendous and immeasurably sad act of cowardice – and makes new victims fight with old victims, with long-standing victims, creating new victims and building walls between them when their strength lies in connecting the dots of our seemingly disparate assailants’ behaviors, not in prioritizing our respective victimhood.

A day may come when I can’t watch them anymore. I’d rather the day come when there weren’t any to watch. Unrealistic, I know. It would be easier to do what we did in the past: disavow the experience of these acts by removing all traces of their existence. We used to do that in this country. We used to hide this sort of thing. Now we just hold on to footage for a year while we try to convince a court to never release it or figure out how to best spin it when we must. Most of the time that still works, hiding, and by “most of the time” I mean “That almost absolutely works.” The times it doesn’t work is when it makes the news. Now think about how many times that was the headline in the last year: “Police release video; Cop charged”. Now think about how many times someone got shot. Now cry.


(Photo courtesy of

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