On Watching and Seeing: The Limits of Cell Phone Evidence

Curator's Note

In a press conference following a police shooting a reporter asked a police captain, “Are you basically saying this guy was trying to commit suicide by cop?“ The captain responded, “No, I’m not saying that at all, I’m saying that he basically rushed towards the officers with his weapon out and the officers took action.” Consider two police shootings—one outside of St. Louis, Missouri and another in San Diego, California. Both men were described as approaching police with a weapon; the man in St. Louis armed with a knife, and the other, a gun. The San Diego victim, armed with a gun, was shot once in the stomach, while the St. Louis victim was shot six times and died. Now consider that the St. Louis victim, Kajieme Powell, was a Black man, and the San Diego gunman was white—does that matter? I argue that perceptions matter -- negative stereotypes of Black men make it difficult for American society to see black males as humans. The stereotypes that people hold however can have deadly consequences. Eric Garner, strangled by an officer, was often described as a “gentle giant.” Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, described him as a “demon” with superhuman strength. In both cases, the victim’s Blackness denied him access to humanity. Describing a man as a giant or a teenager as a monster is dehumanizing. Research supports the argument that Whites superhumanize Blacks (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter, 2014). Through superhumanization, people are denied human characteristics and attributed animalistic, supernatural qualities. An onlooker might dehumanize a group by viewing them as uncultured, irrational, childlike, or amoral (Haslam, 2014). This dehumanizing view is dangerous in that it may manifest itself as a bias held by a police officer, witness, judge, or juror. Viewers may watch cell phone video evidence, but unless they see Black males for the humans that they are, recordings of the murders of Black men will not elicit outrage. The recent #blacklivesmatter movement, demands that black people be seen and recognized as humans by society. Concerning Black experience, the protagonist of The Invisible Man, said, “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” These figments of their imagination, or stereotypes, can sometimes have tragic consequences. The next time you look at video evidence, make certain that you see the victim’s humanity. Haslam, N., & Loughnan, S. (2014). Dehumanization and infrahumanization. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 399–423. Waytz, A., Hoffman, K. M., & Trawalter, S. (2014). A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 49, 1-7.


I was wondering if you might explain more about superhumanization and how this contrasts with dehumanization. To me, I imagine superhumanization differently than how it's used specifically here, but nonetheless can see how it could work to explain this situation. We know Blacks are often treated as universally dangerous and threatening, and Black males have historically been associated with extreme physical strength and exaggerated masculinity. So Mr. Powell could have been received as a threat of a certain character and extent by virtue of his symbolic association with the general superhuman strength of Black males. Simultaneously, because his worth was diminished because Black lives are treated as insufficiently human, his threatening quality could be responded to with extreme violence to eradicate rather than manage the threat.

One aspect that, to some extent, follows from the relationship and potential difference between superhumanization and dehumanization is the difference in image types. That is, in the descriptive language used by Darren Wilson, as well as in relation to Eric Garner as a giant, there is an association, at least for me, with spectacular images of spectacular bodies, whether monsters or heroes. In such images excessive violence is de rigour for felling the superhuman because they are otherwise unstoppable. Yet in images like both those in the video above, as well as Eric Garner's repetition of "I can't breathe," the body seems excessively vulnerable, felled with a starkness lacking in images of the superhuman. All this to ask, is there a way that cell phone images and other amateur videos counteract the racial imaginary of superhuman Black masculinity? Do these videos bear witness to both the consequences of these stereotypes and their inaccuracy by foreclosing the mythology of Blackness as an overwhelming threat and communicating corporeal vulnerability?

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