Aesthetics, Politics, and the Police Hermeneutic: Online Videos of Police Violence Beyond the Evidentiary Function
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This essay argues that we must look beyond the evidentiary functions of online videos of police violence, like those documenting Eric Garner’s killing by the NYPD and the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, to aesthetics as a response to the limits of juridical process. As merely evidence, these videos are “framed” by what the essay calls the “police hermeneutic,” which captures and diffuses their political potential through an interpretive monopoly. Looking closely at the videos surrounding the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant III on the Fruitvale BART station platform, the essay draws on Jacques Rancière’s conception aesthetics in relation to the police order and Michel Foucault’s description of the “spectacle of the scaffold,” to argue that a political potential inheres on the aesthetic level of these images. There the police distribution of bodies and subjects, and interpretation of events, is at once made visible and disrupted by the interventions of fellow travelers and their cell phones on the BART station and then digital media platforms.
In the wake of more than two years of high profile killings of unarmed black men and women approximately 4000 police departments have initiated body mounted camera programs, while the US Justice Department has earmarked $20m to support and expand these programs. Though it is decidedly unlikely that the recent coverage of these incidents reflects any sort of quantitative increase in police violence toward people of color and the poor, a qualitative surge in public attention fuels this effort to increase and intensify the surveillance of law enforcement; no doubt this attention and subsequent response is, in part, a product of digital cellular phone videos and their circulation on the internet. Indeed, it seems that if amateur video can occasionally document such activity, then the continual presence of cameras embedded and surveilling the police will both increase this documentation and act as a form of policing by the police. Yet in this rush to install more cameras in the hands—or sunglasses, body armor, dashboards, lapels, etc.—of police officers, little consideration is given to the interpretation of this video evidence once it enters the justice system where such recordings have by and large failed to yield actual prosecution or subsequent punishment of police for these killings. And even less attention has gone to dealing with these videos as aesthetic and expressive digital objects.
Instances of amateur documenting of “officer involved shootings” and other violence against citizens, especially people of color, have had nearly opposite effects in terms of popular response and juridical process. In fact, what these videos most clearly confirm is the gap between the ways the policed and the police see the use of force. What appears as irrefutable proof of abuse in one context—the home computer or television monitor—becomes a record of appropriate procedural response in another—the grand jury, the prosecutor’s office, the courtroom. Nonetheless both conclusions share a faith in the evidentiary value of these videos, while one interpretation, the interpretation admissible in court, embodies the evidentiary hierarchy and monopoly exercised by law enforcement, legislative, and juridical institutions. As criminal evidence, moving images are ultimately subject to what I will here term a “police hermeneutic” that adjudicates through both precise legal frames and hegemonic presuppositions. Both the ambivalent (at best) effects of amateur videos and the endorsement of body mounted cameras by the very police whose actions are in question suggests that our attention and analysis of online videos of police violence should not be reduced to this evidentiary function.
Without entirely losing contact with the field of evidence, then, this essay turns to aesthetics as a mode of recognizing and articulating the political potentials of online videos of police brutality and lethal force. While aesthetics is primarily understood in contemporary, conventional terms as the province of intentional art and art practice, historically the concept is not restricted to works of art but regards the sensuous encounter with the world. Aesthetics involves the complex and contingent material relations of sense expressed by and between the experiencing subject and the experienced phenomena. As such, there is an aesthetic dimension to any phenomenon—including the evidentiary itself—insofar as it is experienced in and through the senses in a particular way. The aesthetic is a field where multiple and contested positions appear as an ensemble or assemblage, held together, in this case, by the video frame, without being reduced to one another. Encountering these videos, the viewer, unlike the juror, judge, or prosecutor, is not confined to the question “Is this legal?” but encounters a moving whole whose coordinates are at once sensed and sensing, stable yet shifting.
Conceived of in this way, aesthetics confronts and forces a reconfiguration of our understanding of “police” and “politics,” as I use these terms here. Rather than approach the police solely as the apparatus of law enforcement, this essay argues that police and policing are not reducible to the “thin blue line” and instead operate through a large and expansive set of overlapping and intertwining institutions and practices that constitute both a given order and its maintenance. The police are, in this sense, the productive apparatus charged with managing the social distribution of rights and roles, as well as the apportionment of space and resources, including what is often thought of as “politics.” Subsumed within the police, politics is too often confined, especially within conventional discourse, to a separate sphere of official deliberation centering on governmental management, machinations of the state, and electoral outcomes. In the context of both this essay and the videos at its center, though, politics is something different: politics, as I elaborate later in the essay, is the enactment of a challenge to the police and a recognition of the presumptions of inequality that undergird it, especially when registered in an aesthetic assemblage that makes legible and expresses the function of the police in excess of the prescribed territory of official law and its enforcement. Politics in this essay is not only or always the contestation over the production and management of law or policy—indeed it is often the excessive yet intensive irruption of what the law cannot capture and policy cannot proscribe and manage—but the instantiation of a collective recognition and rejection of the underlying hierarchical distribution of the social whose enactment lays bare the empty, abstract equality of law to make perceptible those excluded from this equality.
To work through and develop the nexus of politics and aesthetics inscribed within videos of police violence, and outside the dominant discourse of evidence, this essay focuses on the videos of Oscar Grant III’s murder by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 on the Fruitvale BART Station platform. In this case the multiple cellular phone videos captured by fellow travelers that morning were nearly immediately transmitted online, broadcast on local and national television, before being used in Mehserle’s trial for manslaughter. While all of these aspects of the videos surrounding Grant’s shooting—their production, distribution, and consumption—are important, it is the five cellular phone videos of the event that are of primary interest here; beyond mere “coverage,” the multiplicity of videos represent an array of different, but not divergent, compositions of these events. This diversity without divergence points to the common formal and aesthetic traits borne out of the particularities of the miniaturized camera and its digital images, including their transmissibility. The role and force of aesthetics in the videos of Grant’s execution by the police becomes apparent once situated in relation to two widely different historical contexts: the interpretative work and evidentiary use of the video tape of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Officers on March 3, 1991, on one hand; and Michel Foucault’s account, in Discipline and Punish, of the transition from the “spectacle of the scaffold” to a disciplinary society in the eighteenth century, on the other. Where the juridical handling of George Holliday’s videotape of police violence remains the touchstone expression of the police hermeneutic brought to bear on images of policing, Foucault establishes the necessary, unruly, and unpredictable aesthetic dimension of police performances. The ambivalence between the display of power and the resistance it produces, which Foucault locates in the “spectacle of the scaffold,” becomes what I call “the spectacle of the platform” in these videos. If the public execution became a site where sovereign power is not only illustrated but is also challenged, then, I argue, the videos of the BART platform express the confrontation between politics and the police inscribed in the sensuous encounter between black bodies, law-enforcement, bystanders, and digital cameras. Within this “spectacle of the platform,” the intermingling of bodies, voices, and forces within the frames and carried by the digital images partake in an encounter with viewers and between the videos themselves that makes legible the antagonisms at the heart of the social.
The Police Hermeneutic
It may now be commonplace, depressingly so, to see videos of police behaving badly, violating the rights of citizens, and violently wielding power in our social media news feeds, email forwards, and television news but the precedent for such videos, at least in a cultural sense, paradigmatically emerged with George Holliday’s 1991 video recording of motorist Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles Police Officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Ted Briseno, and Timothy Wind. Captured via home camcorder, Holliday’s tape was broadcast locally and then nationally within days of being shot and was received with seemingly universal outrage. Within two weeks of the video’s airing the four officers (of the fifteen on the scene) were indicted by a Grand Jury. In April of 1992 three officers were acquitted on all charges, while no verdict was reached for Powell. A year later Koon and Powell were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights; in the interval between trials South Central Los Angeles rebelled.
Of the many legacies left by this civil, media, and legal event, the undermining of our assumptions about moving image evidence, and its authoritative role in verifying the truth of events, is particularly salient. As one prominent theorist of documentary film succinctly puts it: “In the end the footage itself, its indexical status as ‘real,’ could guarantee nothing. Everything hinged on interpretation which was, in turn, dependent on the context established through careful argumentation” . What became visible, more so than anything on the tape, was an aporia between the belief in moving images as self-evident fact and the specific interpretive regimes deployed in response to this self-evidence. The tape was indeed a fact but as André Bazin writes regarding moving image facts, “Facts are facts, our imagination makes use of them...” .
More specifically, the fact of the Holliday tape, as subsequent analysis discovered, was subject to powerful rhetorical and legal framing. While the initial media framing of the tape presented it as having transparent meaning (obvious and excessive use of force), the four officers’ courtroom defense team worked to reframe the tape in two complimentary ways; one building on other media narratives, and a second based on procedural and professional codes of conduct. Where the first, drew on the narrative frame of threatening blackness and urban violence in wide circulation then and now, the second converted these stereotypes into the terms of proper policing in order to substantiate the claim that King constituted a mortal threat, thus authorizing the use of force (up to and including lethal force). This “framing strategy” is still sadly evident in Officer Darren Wilson’s graphic Grand Jury testimony justifying his 2014 shooting of Michael Brown: “he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked”. In court the so-called “dog-whistle” of superhuman black masculinity, finds its compliment, both then and now, in police procedure and legal definitions of appropriate force. Wilson’s testimony, like Holliday’s footage of the 1991 roadside beating, was paired with and parsed by a rigorous identification of specific movements, gestures, and visual details outlined in police manuals for subduing resisting suspects.
Analyzing the trial of the four LAPD officers, Bill Nichols hones in on the structural and institutional and, thus, more dangerous and powerful frame of legal discourse and police policy. The defense’s case, especially its use of the accused officers’ testimony in conjunction with the tape, not only cast King as essentially and generally threatening, but did so in conjunction with the specialized knowledge and vocabulary of policing. As Nichols writes, “The style adopted by the defense team... exemplifies a distinctly administrative or bureaucratic use of language,” which was convincing precisely because, “Police officers embody the procedures and protocols for which a value-free operationalism trains them” . Not only does this “operationalism” obfuscate personal responsibility, as Nichols suggests, the “administrative or bureaucratic” language marshaled by the defense always-already in place condition what is admissible in judging the actions of officers. This code, authorizing and justifying police use of force, treats law enforcement violence as a matter of proper process; the institutional frame grounds the verdict as deciding between whether policy was correctly followed, leaving both the specific policy that justifies police violence and the larger apparatus of policing untouched.
This is the context in which any such video operates once ensconced in the legal system. “In court,” as Louis-Georges Schwartz writes of the Holliday tape, “evidentiary videos can only be shown as part of arguments about facts at issue in the case” . At trial, the videotape’s facticity, its blunt and ultimately indeterminate recording of visual and auditory data, confronted the arbitrating fact of institutional codes, training manuals, and official procedures, which determine the admissibility and interpretation of the facts confirmed by the images. Both the tape and the procedural documents constitute, within the legal evidentiary setting, paired texts: one determining the meaning and value of the other, which in turn acts as a material supplement for this determination. The videotape was, just as any other piece of video evidence, greeted in court by an official police hermeneutic that adjudicates the specific questions relevant to this particular case of police force, and establishing the grounds of adjudication itself, and laying out the conditions of possibility for whatever verdict the jury might reach. In this sense, and as their acquittal confirmed, Koon, Powell, Briseno, and Wind were not in fact on trial for beating King but for potentially violating the codification of legal violence; jurors were not asked, “is this a savage beating of a civilian by a law enforcement officer?” but “does this tape depict actions consistent with the guidelines and training for appropriate uses of police force?”
While here I am more interested in the juridical framing of video evidence through policy and procedural documents, language, and standards, the casting of black men as inherently dangerous by the larger culture, especially mass-media images, is also a mode of policing that informs and overlaps with the juridical. Indeed, both “frames” are part of the police hermeneutic: one official, the other ideological. Nor are these forms of policing dissociable from one another or from the existing racial matrix both employ. Though a full examination of race and more specifically blackness in the formation of police and policing is beyond the scope of this essay, the centrality of visibility in both juridical and media discourse resonates with Simone Browne’s recent intervention in discussions of surveillance. In particular, Browne shows that the making visible of the enslaved was a central legal component of slavery via “lantern laws” requiring unaccompanied blacks to remain illuminated and in sight at all times. This excess of visibility, which moves the play of light and sight Foucault places at the center of the panoptic regime beyond the walls of the prison, becomes the sine qua non of articulating race within the police management of the social, while also placing race and racism at the heart of police technologies of control. Surveillance of the black body, the sight of the black body, is both the model and testing ground for policing, beginning in the legal codification of the requirement for enslaved black bodies to always be on display. In this sense the interplay between the media discourse, its dissemination of the images of King’s beating, and the subsequent (attempted) prosecution and acquittal of the five LAPD officers, ultimately relied on what Judith Butler refers to as a “racist organization and disposition of the visible” in which the legal insistence on black visibility means that “no black person can seek recourse to the visible as the sure ground of evidence” .
The contradiction in judgment, guilty in the “court of public opinion” and acquitted at trial, then remains within the terms established by the police that, on one hand, reduce the event to the specific acts depicted in video images while, on the other hand, making liberal use of a visual field structured, as Simone Browne suggests, by the display of black bodies. Just as Browne argues that the techniques for disciplining slaves become fundamental to the broader construction of surveillance, the display of the Holliday tape and its use in both the trial and news media builds on an already existing discourse of racialized images. In the courtroom, video evidence is examined by breaking it down into smaller increments, slowing down certain portions, pausing and discussing “relevant” details, and generally subjecting the images to a proscribed close reading restricting analysis and interpretation to the strictures of “appropriate force” and “reasonable fear.” On television, though, videos are repeated, not parsed. Shortened to a consumable length for news segments, the images serve as background for news report; television news repeatedly displays these videos to enact and authorize its own position within the hermeneutic. Within the iterative structure of television news, the legal verdict is always secondary to the promise of more images covering the aftermath of the trial that can then be mapped onto a flow of images making race legible in the terms of the police hermeneutic. Between the legal and media framing of the specific video and the general discourse—juridical and popular—on race, crime, and policing, a closed circle emerges in which any visual evidence of police violence is enclosed and overcoded by the given police hermeneutic.
The Spectacle of the Platform
The media coverage and trial(s) produced by George Holliday’s videotape set the stage and illustrate the given police hermeneutic awaiting online videos of police violence. The two overlapping “frames” of media discourse and juridical evidentiary discourse remain en force; however, there are significant differences between Holliday’s tape and the more recent digital videos of police violence and killings, most obviously their dissemination on the internet, but also certain aesthetic qualities of the images. Online social media runs adjacent to and overlaps with both these established “frames,” yet is irreducible to them. Both the legal interpretation of images, which can now be retrieved from social media sites as evidence, and the larger media discourse of crime and law enforcement encompass the videos shared on these sites but no longer hold a (near) monopoly on their use and interpretation. Instead, “users” interact with them through various platforms that enable but also exploit these uses. Thus, while remaining an essential aspect of any account of police violence videos, these established framings, which ultimately belong to the police, threaten to eclipse the potential of these videos as aesthetic, that is sensuous, objects whose politics are perhaps better understood in the interstices constituted by their appearance on social media platforms.
Online videos of police violence bring with them, or produce, additional social, rhetorical, and formal “frames” affecting the political potentials of these moving images. Beyond the two hegemonic frames of the police hermeneutic, online videos articulate a social and formal assemblage that exceeds these other aspects of the relation between images of police misconduct and politics. In fact, while an account of the police hermeneutic is essential, stopping at this analysis, especially with online, digital videos like those of Oscar Grant’s murder, neglects the “frame” of the images themselves, the aesthetic boundary that delineates the site of sensuous exchange, expression, and experience. What is bracketed out in the attention to both the legal and televisual functions of the Holliday tape is precisely that which escapes the logic of the police and its interpretive regime. It is the out-of-placeness of aesthetics in relation to the “raw footage” that brings to the fore a politics beyond the either/or of guilt and innocence.
Online videos of police violence differ formally from the camcorder and surveillance images that precede and intersect with them. Compared with the distant, relatively fixed, and more stable framing of the Rodney King tape, recent examples of online cellular phone videos offer a formal framing that is physically intimate, embodied, shaky, and often filled with bodies and noise. In the case of Oscar Grant III’s shooting the five videos that circulated online, in the courtroom, and on network news, are at a remove from the encounter between Grant, his friends, and the BART officers, but never safely so; the action in the distance is embedded within the movements of bodies and sounds of voices, sirens, and gun shots that threaten to overwhelm the frame that holds them together. Recognizably trained on the exchange between the seated, then lying, Grant and the standing Mehserle, the small, quivering images may be clearer than Holliday’s tape in terms of image resolution but unlike the King tape, where the action is isolated in the helicopter spotlight—itself reminiscent of a dramatic staging—the cellular phone videos do not wholly isolate the event from the surrounding material context. Instead these videos include intimate images of the BART train they begin from, the other travelers returning from New Year’s revelry, the multiple and milling uniformed police, and the transit platform itself. Each video comes from a discrete perspective and traverses its own particular distribution circuits, but the multiple recordings of the event coalesce in their assemblage of this sensuous context; these frames are both singular and overlapping; their differences of distance, angle, and point of view hold together the disparate and uneven mass of bodies, actions, and sounds within a formally reiterative frame. The same event rendered in similar style yet marked by difference.
Certainly these videos were submitted to the multifaceted police hermeneutic described above, and parsed in court through the lens of proper procedure and (good) intention. But, as digital videos circulating on the internet, they were also taken up in new combinations, reframed and turned toward different ends. Though the jury, contained as it was within the strictures of the police hermeneutic, ultimately concluded Mehserle intended to use a taser when he fired into Grant’s back, the videos from the phones of Karina Vargas, Daniel Lui, Tommy Cross, Margarita Carazo, and Jamil Dewar also offer a powerful mise-en-scène of policing. Rather than isolate the contested event (the shooting) from its material and social situation, these videos make visible a police distribution of bodies. Prior to the fatal shot these videos already display policing as a matter of bodily arrangements and management of roles: the black teenagers are lined up, seated against a wall, their hands bound behind their backs by uniformed officers who form a cordon blocking them off from travelers on the train; criminals, police officers, citizens, each discretely positioned in the frame as though expressing an essential sorting of subjects.
This display of bodies becomes particularly legible in a subtly brilliant combination of the videos produced by soulamedia.com and uploaded to YouTube by streetgangs.com.
Here the five cell phone videos and the surveillance video from the BART platform are laid out in a six image grid. While the surveillance video provides a fixed and continuous view down the length of the platform, the five amateur videos emerge temporally synced with the time code of the platform video as mobile points of view distributed and moving between the platform and the train. The sterile and distanced perspective of the surveillance camera is the lone view on the action for nearly four minutes before Karina Vargas’s perspective appears in the upper right of the frame briefly, followed subsequently and intermittently by the Lui (upper left corner) and Carazo (lower middle) perspectives, then shortly after by Cross’s (lower left) and Dewar’s (lower right) angles. All six images are simultaneously visible for barely two minutes. While apparently motivated by an evidentiary impulse toward total coverage, the soulamedia video’s distribution of images makes visible the gap between the police and its subjects. The stable, overhead, and continuous surveillance image, though obviously not comprehensive, instantiates the police’s authoritative and narrow view of the events; the vertical lines of the train, platform, and platform wall stretch along the entirety of the image, producing a sort of visual ledger in which suspects are separated by police officers from the citizenry. Once the cellular phone videos join the assemblage of views, this surveilling perspective is not so much supplemented as placed in relief by the frenetic, kinetic, and haptic handheld images surrounding it. Instead of the disembodied presentation of arranged bodies and actions provided by the none minutes of surveillance camera footage, these multiple perspectives come and go, change position, and move erratically, crossing the lines established by the police point of view and blurring the divisions it imposes.
Unworthy of explicit mention in the media and juridical discourse, this tableau of policing is precisely the standing composition presupposed by their police hermeneutic, while the actions that disturb this distribution of bodies are simply enfolded into the logic of the police hermeneutic, rather than understood as political rejections of this distribution.. As such all these videos, especially when taken up by the news media, exemplify Jacques Rancière’s claim that, “The regime of public opinion as gauged by the poll and of the unending display of the real is today the normal form the police in Western Society takes” . For Rancière the police, just as it is in this essay, are not merely the forces of law enforcement but all apparatuses and conventions operative in the basic management of the social. Though intimately intertwined with what is conventionally called politics, the police “is the opposite of politics” . Obviously exceeding the uniformed officers in these videos, as well as the institutions of municipal and state police departments, Rancière’s concept of the police spans antiquity through to the present conjuncture, yet the choice of the term is closely aligned to Michel Foucault’s account of European governmentality during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In his 1977-‘78 seminar, Security, Territory, Population, Foucault argues that, “From the seventeenth century ‘police’ begins to refer to the set of means by which the state’s forces can be increased while preserving the state in good order. In other words, the police will be the calculation and technique that will make it possible to establish a mobile, yet stable and controllable relationship between the state’s internal order and its forces” . A combination of order and force that permeates the social, mutually defined by and defining the state, Foucault locates the essence of the police in the word “splendor” and the phrase “the state’s splendor”: “What is splendor? It is both the visible beauty of the order and the brilliant radiating manifestation of a force. Police therefore is in actual fact the art of the state’s splendor as visible order and manifest force” . The concept of “splendor” expresses a specifically aesthetic dimension in the function of the police. The police is not only a bulwark against internal threats to the state but also produces a particular partition of the social meant to reflect, represent, and condition the proper places of those held underneath its umbrella. Rancière calls this the “distribution of the sensible” or the “partition of the perceptible.” Where Foucault aligns, or more accurately identifies, aesthetics with the police management of the state (at least within seventeenth and eighteenth century European discourse), Rancière positions aesthetics, at least the modern regime of semi-autonomous aesthetics, on the side of politics. As such, these conceptualizations supplement one another insofar as, contra Rancière, Foucault shows that there is already a police aesthetic at work within the social, which other aesthetics encounter, confront, and antagonize; and, at the same time, contra Foucault, Rancière shows that the police (within his expanded definition) are irreducible to the state, especially in the contemporary conjuncture of global, neoliberal capitalism.
Regarding the dual- or multi-sidedness of aesthetics, its capacity to simultaneously serve the police and politically dispute its given distribution of the social, Foucault’s earlier description of the “spectacle of the scaffold” is instructive. Though the panopticon dominates discussions of Discipline and Punish in visual culture and film studies, the “spectacle of the scaffold” illustrates the importance and ambivalence of aesthetics in policing and politics. Existing historically alongside the rise of the police and its “splendor” later identified by Foucault, public execution and torture were, presumably, central to seventeenth and eighteenth century European policing as spectacular displays of the “state’s splendor.” As Foucault writes,
If torture was so strongly embedded in legal practice, it was because it revealed truth and showed the operation of power. [...] It also made the body of the condemned man the place where the vengeance of the sovereign was applied, the anchoring point for a manifestation of power, an opportunity of affirming the dissymmetry of forces. 
Without giving way to hyperbole, the synoptic description Foucault provides here suggests the persistent need for staging discipline and punishment, much like the distribution of bodies we see in the Oscar Grant videos. Indeed, as Foucault will go on to chart, “humane” punishment may retreat to the closed and hidden spaces of discipline—the prison, the factory, the school, etc.—but the body of the condemned remains, fundamentally, a visible object. In many ways, the panoptic regime is an extension of the police’s need to make visible the object of power, as was the case in colonial and antebellum lantern laws. As such, what those cellular phone cameras, along with the BART station security footage, captured is a display of police power that, despite being within the disciplinary society Foucault argues replaces the “spectacle of the scaffold,” clearly articulates the relation between the condemned, the citizenry, and the executioner as a police spectacle, especially for those assembled on the platform.
If the scaffold was a spectacle of police power, its retreat from public view within other disciplinary mechanisms neither represents a waning of the police nor the rise of a more enlightened form of (state) power generously transitioning to “humane” punishments. Instead, in an analysis few attend to, Foucault situates the rise of disciplinary society not only as an effect of discursive shifts but part of an internal antagonism, embedded within the assemblage of public punishment: “In ceremonies of public execution, the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance”. The “spectacle of the scaffold” required an audience to produce its disciplining affects. And yet, as Foucault points out,
...the people, drawn to the spectacle intended to terrorize it, could express its rejection of the punitive power and sometimes revolt. Preventing an execution that was regarded as unjust, snatching a condemned man from the hands of the executioner, obtaining his pardon by force, possibly pursuing and assaulting the executioners...—all this formed part of the popular practices invested, traversed and often overturned by the ritual of public execution. 
Here we have the flip side of the police aesthetic as embodied in public execution. The very necessity of including the people as both subject and object of the reigning “partition of the perceptible” entails risking the interruption of this police aesthetic by the eruption of another “distribution of the sensible,” making visible an injustice within the spectacle of justice. This is precisely the intersection of the police and the people that Rancière identifies as the condition of possibility of politics and the reason why he aligns aesthetics with politics. In a moment of sousveillance avant la lettre, the “spectacle of the scaffold” is a turning of visibility back against its deployment by the police. 
Within the assemblage of sense details—the sights and sounds, bodies and actions, that fill the frames—arranged by the multiple videos from the BART platform, a dynamic similar to the “spectacle of the scaffold” becomes legible between the police distribution, on one hand, and the politics that challenges this order, on the other. Much as there is a mise-en-scène of policing waiting to be parsed via the police hermeneutic of the courtroom, grand jury, and media personalities, the aesthetic register also makes visible the fellow travelers, the people on the train holding phone cameras, who put themselves into the scene, vocally and physically objecting to the exhibition of police power. Rather than submit to the hierarchical sorting of admissible evidence, the shaky frame, in situ commentary, obstructed and obstructing points of view, and direct interaction with the police presented by these videos binds together and mixes sensible elements, expressing a rejection of the sorting performed by the police and its hermeneutic regime. Shifting the investment in the transparency of indexical images away from the verification of “what happened,” the videos taken on the BART platform and distributed on the internet, confirm and verify what Rancière calls the miscount of the police, giving visibility to the fact that those “behind” the camera, on the train, and occupying the platform defy the police accounting of roles. Where docility and respect for the exercise of police power, as well as faith in the police and legal system, is the presumed and required casting for the bystander, these moving images attempt to reach across the “partition of the perceptible” and snatch away the condemned bodies lined up against the wall, forced face down on the ground, harassed, and murdered, from the hands of the police even if this can only be done in the form of images.
Refusing the disciplinary lesson of the police mise-en-scène the traveler-subjects in these videos identify with and on the behalf of the punished. Rancière’s less historically rigorous casting of policing and politics, compared to Foucault’s account of penal reform in Western Europe, here illustrates the fact that in other contexts—national and historical—the official state is not the sole purveyor of spectacular punishment; in the context of the United States, official public torture and execution may have retreated, but these spectacles continue to function in policing. Nonetheless, on this platform, the spectacle is shot through with politics and the antagonism to the police order.
Conclusion: “I got you motherfuckers!”: Political Aesthetics in excess of Evidence
Throughout this essay I have argued that online videos of police violence cannot be reduced to or subsumed within an evidentiary discourse ruled over by a police hermeneutic and its distribution of the social: criminal, officer, citizen witness. Instead the videos’ aesthetic dimension offers, without supplanting, a way of encountering and understanding these moving images that defies these assigned positions in order to register those details otherwise excluded from the police account of events and their social determinations. Where a conventional politics embraces the evidentiary promise of images, pushing for body cameras and disseminating best-practices for filming law enforcement, aesthetics presents a different modality and concept of politics antagonistic to the police and policing, whether performed by the beat cop, the prosecutor, petty bureaucrat, elected representative, or CNN reporter.
To conclude with a telling comparison, the aesthetic resonance of Karina Vargas’s recording from the BART train platform where Oscar Grant III was killed stands out in relief against the backdrop of sober recommendations for capturing police violence. In a June 2015 podcast spurred on by the spread of body mounted camera pilot programs in police departments, the WNYC/NPR program “On the Media” ran a piece titled “Breaking News Consumers’ Handbook: Bearing Witness Edition”. An extension of their “Breaking News Consumers’ Handbook” series, the roughly nine minute segment consists of interviews with experts Carlos Miller, from the website Photography Is Not a Crime, University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, and Jennifer Carnig, spokesperson for the New York Civil Liberties Union, culminating in an eleven point brief to guide filming police in public . The list is undoubtedly a valuable resource and the work of the three interviewees is admirable and vital to countering police violence; nonetheless, the bullet points offered as guidelines for “bearing witness” outline a mode of engagement and formal style dictated by the very police regime such videos are meant to counter.
Karina Vargas’s roughly four minutes of footage, aired on Bay Area television and shown in Mehserle’s trial, conforms to few of these guidelines, especially as they relate to the production of the images themselves.
While she appears to have, at least at points, held her phone “horizontally” (point #1), the angle of filming is off-kilter and unsteady, occasionally swinging as though by a rope or in a waving hand, and her videography specifically contradicts the advice to remain at a distance from the action and be as quiet as possible while filming (points #3 and #4) . Instead Vargas moves from the train onto the platform, approaching the officers assembled around the men lined up against the wall, the action increasingly obstructed by various bodies entering and exiting the frame, while her voice and the voices of other travelers chatter into the cellular phone’s mic.
By the (hand)book, Vargas sacrifices the clarity of her witnessing and the evidentiary value of her images through these movements and actions. But in so doing she places herself within the assemblage of sensuous details that permeate the frame. Moving from the wider perspective of detached recording, and after a period in which barely recognizable shapes occupy the frame as it goes in and out of total darkness, the camera and its operator enter the action, merging with the various bodies that pass into and out of the images; Vargas’s voice combines with the cries of those around her, including the young men put up against the wall by the police. This movement, actively contradicting her earlier cries for those on the platform to return to the train car, initiates a more intense encounter with and within the scene. As the camera closes in on the police and the detained, Vargas and her phone are acknowledged by police officers with furtive looks as they block her access to their captives. Once the fatal shot is heard out of the frame, the image retreats from the police, alongside the other bystanders, again becoming indecipherable as Vargas turns and runs for the train doors to join the other bodies amassing inside the car. Voices repeatedly call out “Get on the train,” and the last things we recognizably hear from Vargas are “They just shot him! They just shot that guy!” Then, “I got you motherfucker!” directed at the officers as the train doors close.
From this description it is obvious that Vargas’s video, like the four other cell phone videos of the event, is neither the composed piece of documentation “On the Media’s” handbook recommends, nor the delicate, intentional work of art conventionally associated with aesthetics. The fact that the video frustrates on both accounts is itself a mark of its aesthetic dimension and the political potentials it offers. Considered immaterial, superfluous, and perhaps even detrimental to their evidentiary function, the mass of sense details that Vargas’s video delivers consistently blur the distribution of roles instantiated and enforced by the police. As the cellular phone camera becomes a part of the action it records, the moving images hold together a shifting set of relations that frustrate clear distinctions between witnesses and criminals, recalling the instability that undermined the sovereign’s “spectacle of the scaffolding.” If the police aesthetic is devoted to clearly delineating roles and capacities to maintain the “splendor” of existing social relations, the politics made visible in and through the aesthetic of these videos stems from their refusal to submit to a hierarchy of details and sensuous experience. From the standpoint of politics, as opposed to the police, Vargas’s refusal to be silent, to respect the division and distribution of the social and the sensible, interrupts the given order with a call issuing from an underlying and unaccounted commonality. While legally frustrated by the sorting and valuing of evidence, the proclamation, “I got you motherfucker!” persists in the aesthetic charge of this video, echoing beyond the confines of the police hermeneutic that treats it as mere inarticulate noise.
Benedict Stork’s research focuses on documentary media and politics with an emphasis on aesthetic interventions on historical events. His work has appeared in Synoptique: An online journal of film and moving image studies and In Media Res. He received his doctorate in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society from the University of Minnesota in 2014. He also holds a Master’s Degree in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State University.
This number comes from May 3, 2015, CBS News report Vinita Nair et al., “Body Camera Programs Raise New Challenges,” accessed July 14, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/police-body-camera-programs-raise-new-challenges/. The emerging literature on body mounted cameras is voluminous, if not particularly illuminating. For a sampling of the reporting see “Considering Police Body Cameras” Harvard Law Review, “Considering Police Body Cameras,” April 10, 2015, http://harvardlawreview.org/2015/04/considering-police-body-cameras/, All Things Considered, “Seattle Police Body Camera Program Highlights Unexpected Issues,” NPR.org, accessed June 17, 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/04/15/399937749/seattle-police-body-camera-program-highlights-unexpected-issues, and Randall Stross, “Wearable Video Cameras, for Police Officers,” The New York Times, April 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/business/wearable-video-cameras-for-police-officers.html. For an account of body camera use and best practices from the perspective of policing see Police Executive Forum, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned,” accessed July 14, 2015, http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/resources/472014912134715246869.pdf. For good, ongoing coverage of body-mounted cameras, video recording, and law enforcement, see Radley Balko’s reporting in the Washington Post, especially Radley Balko, “Once Again, Body Cameras Are Only as Good as the Policies That Come with Them,” The Washington Post, May 25, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2016/05/25/once-again-body-cameras-are-only-as-good-as-the-policies-that-come-with-them/, and Radley Balko, “A New Report Shows the Limits of Police Body Cameras,” Washington Post, accessed June 30, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2016/02/05/a-new-report-shows-the-limits-of-police-body-cameras/. Balko’s work makes clear that cameras embedded on police, or more generally, are no panacea when it comes to curbing police violence, raising issues with the tactic in terms of police behavior, policy, and the legality of police mounted cameras. Thanks to Stephen Groening, the editor of this special issue, for this reference to Balko’s work.
This is, to some extent, a return to the Enlightenment concept of aesthetics initially articulated by Alexander Baumgarten, which was both expanded and revised famously by Immanuel Kant, especially in the analytic of the sublime in Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, 1st edition (Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub Co, 1987), 97-140. See also Jochen Schulte-Sasse, “Imagination and Modernity: Or the Taming of the Human Mind,” (Cultural Critique, no. 5 (December 1, 1986): 23–48), which effectively argues that the transition of the aesthetic from the realm of material experience into the focused activity of art making is part of a general move to discipline perception and imagination in terms of bourgeois propriety. Within current critical theory, as becomes clear later in this essay, my conceptualization of aesthetics is closely aligned with Jacques Rancière’s recent work on art and politics. This is also true of my understanding of politics articulated below.
I see and seek significant overlaps here with Fred Moten’s and Stefano Harney’s comments on policy in The Undercommons: Black Study and Fugitive Planning. There they write, “What we are calling policy is the new form command takes as command takes hold,” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Autonomedia, 2013), 74. Policy extends command and control outside its usual, and more recognizable, stations in law enforcement, legislation, and workplace disciplining in the form of NGOs, charities, advocacy groups and other quasi-State/quasi-capitalist enterprises. Policy is an emblematic tool of policing within neoliberal governance.
While the case I am making asserts a certain generalizability of the relation between politics and aesthetics embodied by the videos of Grant’s shooting, this event and the videos produced by it are themselves singular. This is true of other similar videos such as the video of Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of the NYPD, or the fatal shooting of Walter L. Scott in North Charleston South Carolina, or the video of Freddie Gray being shackled and placed in the police van for the fatal “rough ride,” and sadly many more.
Avital Ronell reads this dimension of the King tape as, among many other things, an instantiation of the racialized drug war where King was presumed, based on race, to be using PCP (though he, in fact, was not), such that the beating itself was under the influence of PCP and the narrative frame of black excess and criminality: “Of the fantasies that set off the signals for mutilating the body of Rodney King, one involved precisely a kind of tele-vision that could see little more than the jouissance of the Other... the night blindness that operates the inticate network that is responsible for the policing of drugs, In order to get in gear, the police force had to imagine their suspect on PCP...,” Avital Ronell, "Trauma TV," in Finitude’s Score: Essays for the End of the Millennium (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 306-307. The “TraumaTV” Ronell invokes alludes to a televisual context that included the popularity of COPS, with its endless depictions of black insobriety and the disarray of poverty. On COPS and its relation to visible evidence see Bill Nichols, “At the Limits of Reality (TV),” in Blurred Boundaries : Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1994), 43-62.
“State of Missouri v. Darren Wilson,” accessed July 15, 2015, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1370494-grand-jury-volume-5.html. Given the subsequent discussion of the role of policy and procedural legislation in determining legal use of force by police officers, it is important to note that the Wilson Grad Jury was given inaccurate and misleading instructions, later corrected, on what constituted legal use of lethal force in Missouri. See “Professors Fagan and Harcourt Provide Facts on Grand Jury Practice In Light of Ferguson Decision | Columbia Law School,” accessed July 1, 2016, https://www.law.columbia.edu/media_inquiries/news_events/2014/november2014/Facts-on-Ferguson-Grand-Jury.
Nichols offhandedly distances the Holliday tape from aesthetics on the grounds of the footage’s “realness,” especially as it regards the use of techniques such as slow-motion or freeze frame: “When what we watch is actual violence, slow motion and freeze framing identify the application and effect of that violence graphically. [...] The purpose of viewing a different, slower or frozen version of the same thing is not entertainment or aesthetic pleasure. The spectator, or juror, uses these devices for other ends. In this context close analysis hardly creates an ‘aesthetic’ of the sort associated with Hollywood fiction,” “The Trials and Tribulations of Rodney King,” in Blurred Boundaries : Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1994), 30. This is true enough, however, the aesthetic is here reduced to fiction and pleasure, denying the underlying aesthetic dimension of videos of this sort. Beyond denying the aesthetic dimension of such videos, Nichols also misses the ways blackness in fiction is itself often subject to an authorizing discourse of “realness” that denies the role of aesthetics—as imaginary, fictive, or poetic—in expressing truth. In this sense black film is denied access to aesthetic value, arbitrary and limited as it is, by insisting on an authorizing appeal to the “real.” For a more thorough argument in this vein see Valerie Smith, “The Documentary Impulse in Contemporary African-American Film,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent (New York: New Press, The, 1998), 56–64. Smith offers an overview of the ways testifying to “the real” becomes an obligation in mainstream black fiction films.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years of prison, of which he served one year after receiving credit for time served before and during the trial. The case turned on whether Mehserle used his gun mistakenly, which the jury’s concluded could reasonably be the case, thus leading the judge to choose not to enact the “gun enhancement law” which would automatically increase the length of the sentence.
Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics And Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, 1 edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 31. And, of course, every controversy that accompanies the broadcast of videos of police violence is nearly immediately complimented by a poll measuring the apportioned responses by recognized social groupings, especially race and gender though occasionally geographic region (and rarely, if ever, class).
We have seen striking examples of this sort of state display of “splendor” in the military style roll outs of heavily armed law enforcement following the Boston marathon bombing and the Ferguson, MO grand jury announcement.
As is hinted at in the concluding paragraphs of the preceding section above, race is a complicating factor that sadly escapes this essay’s grasp and both Foucault’s and Rancière’s understanding of police and aesthetics. It would be a disservice to attempt a summary of the rich and ongoing scholarship carried out in black studies and black cultural studies that might correct this. Nevertheless, in Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Alexander Weheliye takes up blackness, and black studies generally, drawing on the concept of “racializing assemblages,” which is in certain ways analogous to the police. “Articulated assemblages such as racialization materialize as sets of complex relations of articulations that constitute an open articulating principle... structured in political, economic, social, racial, and heteropatriarchal dominance,” Weheliye writes, before specifying: “Racializing assemblages articulate relational intensities between human physiology and flesh, producing racial categories, which are subsequently coded as natural substances, whether pure or impure, rather than as the territorializing articulations of these assemblages” Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 49, 50-51. For Weheliye, the “racializing assemblage” is the constitutive outside of the social, producing through epidermal naturalization, an axiomatic ground for the “splendor” of the state and the police distribution of the social. Just as Weheliye examines racializing assemblages to interrupt the discourse of biopolitics, this concept has similar potential to both disturb and deepen the conception of the police and politics articulated here.
This notions hues close to Simone Browne’s argument regarding the centrality of slavery as the testing grounds for developing technologies of surveillance. Discussing colonial lantern laws in New York City, she writes, “We can think of the lantern as a prosthesis made mandatory after dark, a technology that made it possible for the black body to be constantly illuminated from dusk to dawn, made knowable, locatable, and contained within the city. The black body, technologically enhanced by way of a simple device made for a visual surplus where technology met surveillance...” Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2015).. Here, and throughout Dark Matter, Browne subtly challenges and rewrites Foucault by foregrounding the ways surveilling blackness, from chattel slavery to mass-incarceration, operates as an intense prefiguration—from the perspective of Foucault’s studies—of disciplinary society.
Once again I must signal my debt to Simone Browne’s Dakr Matters. See Browne, Dark Matters, and her discussion of sousveillance in the book’s introduction, esp. pgs 18-24, as well as her deft employment of the concept throughout the text. Sousveillance represents the reversal of the gaze of surveillance; it is an embodied look that is intermittent, variable in intent, and tends toward action rather than recording.
Beyond the economic dimension of the police order that these internet platforms participate in, the question of user data is hotly contested in terms of the relation between these private entities and state law-enforcement agencies. Besides the issues swirling around privacy, surveillance, and free speech, the use of individual’s data in prosecutions is borderland where police power is being negotiated between the state and capital.
“Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Bearing Witness Edition - On The Media,” accessed July 15, 2015, http://www.onthemedia.org/story/breaking-news-consumers-handbook-bearing-witness-edition/. Other “Handbook” entries have focused on, among other things, mass shootings, natural disasters, and transportation accidents. The “Bearing witness” piece is unique in that the other “Handbooks,” true to the series name, primarily deal with media coverage of these events, offering advice on how best to sort the haphazard information disseminated as “Breaking news,” especially on 24hr cable news networks and viral social media. Here the “Bearing witness” version serves as both a guide to producing videos of (potential) police misconduct and, implicitly, a model for consuming them; this semantic slippage is indicative of the power of the police hermeneutic to overcode the meanings of such videos.
Vargas’s personal narration and commentary on the events of January 1, 2009 can be found here: https://youtu.be/dZ1mCTQx3UI. To be clear, Vargas’s account of both the event and its aftermath, while interesting in their own right, ignore the aesthetic dimension of her video—even as her sense of trauma points to the sensuous nature of her experience. Thanks, again, to Stephen Groening, the special issue’s editor, for this link.