Police kill people in every state in the nation. Here are the key numbers: As tracked by The Washington Post, 491 people were killed by police officers in the first six months of this year—6 percent more than last year. African Americans continue to be shot at a rate 2.5 times that of Whites.
There is another important development. More of these shootings are being captured on video: 105 in the first half of this year. That’s an upward trend that could save us, if we don’t turn away. It has before.
Let me explain.
Many of us still remember the iconic images of the late ’60s and early ’70s during the Vietnam War: Village huts being burned to the ground by an American soldier using a cigarette lighter to ignite the grass roofs while their occupants looked on and cried. A summary close-range execution of a Viet Cong soldier during the Tet Offensive. A little girl who had been bombed and burned with napalm running naked down a dirt road, arms outstretched. A photo of protesting students shot by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University lying where they fell, bloodied on a grassy campus lawn.
These powerful images brought home the Vietnam War to American living rooms and made it real. It was this footage that tipped citizens to the fact that victory was not a light at the end of the tunnel, as we were told by officials in charge, but that actually the war was more of a hopeless and violent mistake. These disturbing scenes increased the public’s emotional response to the war, as they became mounting evidence of the daily human costs of continuing to fight. Growing criticism and shrinking public support eventually led to a change in policy and an end to American involvement.
It took too long, but this shift in public understanding made an important difference.
So it was during the civil rights era. Today we are celebrating the 50th anniversaries of some of the famous flashpoints of the civil rights movement that finally pressured politicians to abandon the status quo. That change was driven in large part by iconic photos and videos in the media that convinced the public that segregation was immoral and passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were necessary corrective actions.
As terrible as they are, the videos and images are necessary.
Familiar images that moved us then: White intransigence made visible as Black students were taunted on their way to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Civil rights marchers brutally attacked by police dogs and assaulted with fire hoses in both Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. James Meredith, the first black student at the once-segregated University of Mississippi, crawling along the highway after being shot during his “March Against Fear” promoting voter registration.
In the face of heartbreaking images, public consensus grew and turned against segregationist arguments and government inaction.
The late Ed Fouhy was a celebrated television journalist perhaps best known as the Washington producer of CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. He died last year at the age of 80. Ed once told me that on critical issues like Vietnam, civil rights, and even Watergate, the country eventually arrived at a fair consensus forged by a majority of people clearly seeing the truth.
Ed said the nation got through that period of upheaval in part because of what they were seeing and hearing and learning in the photos and videos of that era.
I think of what Ed said when I see the viral videos of police shootings of African Americans in Missouri, Minnesota, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, and so many other places. Viewed in that light, as terrible as they are, the videos and images are necessary.
The New York Times reported this week that there is a shift starting to take place in the legal standards behind police shootings because these actions are being measured against human lives. Previous deference to officers is being questioned “in an era when millions of people are viewing footage of police shootings and making their own judgments. As more encounters are being captured by surveillance system, bystanders’ cellphones, or officers’ body cameras, the public is scrutinizing, case by case, officers decisions to use lethal force.”
So don’t turn away from the unwarranted death toll in our streets. We are the eyewitnesses to outrage. Over time, official violence will become so unacceptable that a new and stronger consensus will line up against it, and then change will come.