The Responsibility of Watching
"The video of Memphis police beating Tyre Nichols challenges public complacency — and complicity. What are our duties as citizens and as human beings?
Do you have a civic duty to watch, or a moral obligation not to?
Some version of that question has confronted us since the body- and pole-camera footage of Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols was released on Friday evening. The argument isn’t necessarily about whether the Police Department should have posted the roughly hourlong, four-part, lightly redacted video online for everyone to see.
The legal and political reasons for doing so, at the urging of Mr. Nichols’s family, seem obvious and cogent. Too often, the worst abuses of power are allowed to fester in secrecy, shrouded in lies, bureaucratic language and partial information. Raw video offers clarity, transparency and perhaps accountability — a chance for citizens to understand the unvarnished truth about what happened on the night of Jan. 7.
That is the hope, in any case: that concerned Americans will become witnesses after the fact, our senses shocked and our consciences awakened by the sight of uniformed officers repeatedly kicking and punching Mr. Nichols, who would die from his injuries three days later. “I expect you to feel what the Nichols family feels,” Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, said in anticipation of the video’s impact. Her appeal to common humanity expressed faith in the power of even the most horrific images to foster empathy and community — and faith in the human capacity to experience outrage and compassion when shown such images.
That faith provides a strong argument for the importance of looking. To turn away in circumstances like this would not merely be to succumb to a loss of nerve, but to risk a loss of heart. In insisting that the world see what had been done to her son, RowVaughn Wells, Mr. Nichols’s mother, recalled Mamie Till-Mobley, who in 1955 placed the disfigured body of her murdered son, Emmett, in an open coffin so that the viciousness of the racists who killed him could not be denied.
A delicate ethical line separates witness — an active, morally engaged state of attention — from the more passive, less demanding condition of spectatorship. The spectacle of violence has a way of turning even sensitive souls into gawkers and voyeurs. Violence, very much including the actions of the police, is a fixture of popular culture, and has been since long before the invention of video. For much of human history, public executions have been a form of entertainment. The history of lynching in the United States is in part a history of public spectacle, in which the mutilation and murder of Black men brought out white crowds to stare, cheer and take photographs.
I’m not saying that looking at the video of Mr. Nichols’s beating is equivalent to joining in one of those crowds, but rather that Black suffering in America has often been either relegated to invisibility or subjected to exploitation and commodification. That is the dilemma that Ms. Wells and others in her position have faced, even as she challenges the public to acknowledge her son’s full humanity.
We don’t automatically recoil from violence. We can just as easily respond with indifference, morbid fascination — or worse. Images are powerful, but not powerful enough to compensate for a society’s failures of decency or judgment, or to overcome its commitment to denying truths that should be self-evident. Mr. Nichols’s case can’t help but recall the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, captured on video by a neighbor. The officers in that case were acquitted, and unrest swept the city.
On Friday, not long before the Memphis videos were posted, a police body-cam clip was released showing part of the Oct. 28 assault on former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, at his home in San Francisco. That attack, carried out by an apparent right-wing extremist, had been the subject of grotesque jokes and lurid, baseless speculations from some of his wife’s political enemies. While the video seems to refute all such claims, it is unlikely to stem the tide of conspiracism and fantasy in some right-wing precincts. The assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, also involved extremists hunting for Ms. Pelosi, and in spite of abundant documentation has been treated by partisans as a tangle of mystery, indeterminacy and through-the-looking-glass distortion.
Video may not lie, but people do. The fact that even the plainest images are open to interpretation, manipulation and mischaracterization places an ethical burden on the viewer. The cost of looking is thinking about what we see. Video is a tool, not a shortcut or a solution. Three decades after the Rodney King beating, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, and a bystander’s video of his killing galvanized a global protest movement. What we do with the images is what matters.
What do we do with these images that come from official sources, and that exist partly because of the impulse to keep a closer eye on law enforcement? In the Memphis videos what is perhaps most heartbreaking, and most chilling, is the casual indifference of the officers to Mr. Nichols’s anguish — and to the cameras that recorded it.
In the pole-camera video, which is the longest of the four segments and has no sound, you see him crumpled against the side of a patrol car and collapsing onto the ground as his assailants and an ever-increasing number of their colleagues mill around, mostly ignoring him. Someone lights a cigarette. Someone fiddles with a clipboard. Because of the silence of the soundtrack and the immobility of the camera, time seems to slow down, and action mutates into abstraction. A human catastrophe is playing out under a ruthlessly impersonal eye looking down from above.
The body-cam adds sound and movement. You feel the frenzy of the chase and the impact of bodies as Mr. Nichols is taken down. Then you hear his anguished, pleading, desperate cries. You also hear the officers complaining that he made them run after him and made them pepper-spray one another, insisting that he must be “on something” and embroidering a story — which they may well believe — about how he took a swing at one and grabbed for another’s gun.
After a while, the drama of the traffic stop, the chase and the beating fades into the routine tedium of the job. The semi-intelligible voices on the radio, the blend of jargon and profanity in the officers’ conversation, their mixture of weariness and bravado — all of this is familiar. We’ve seen this before, not only in real life but also, perhaps most of all, in movies and on television. And of course in first-person games, which the body-cam footage uncannily and unnervingly replicates. We see the violence from the point of view of a perpetrator. We aren’t bearing witness so much as experiencing our own complicity, and taking account of that is perhaps where the work of watching these videos should begin."