Sam Rosenberg: Weighing the costs and benefits of capturing injustice on a cellphone

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - 6:26pm

Whether it’s police brutality against Black Americans, unmediated violence or public acts of verbal and physical abuse, capturing and posting videos have become imperative when it comes to highlighting everyday acts of injustice. But what these kinds of viral videos portray in their content is almost as vital as how they are framed, who watches them and whether or not they will achieve their desired effect.

The most recent case of a viral video of injustice came just earlier this week when several passengers on an overbooked United Airlines flight captured something on their phones that has already caught national and online attention: two aviation guards removed a male passenger off the plane by force. Based on the various videos that shot the event, the scene is quite disturbing. You can hear the collective shock of nearby passengers and shrill sound of the man’s scream, all while witnessing the security guards aggressively drag the man out of his seat and onto the plane’s floor. Another video shows the man, his face now bloodied, running to the back of the plane and mumbling to himself: “Just kill me. Just kill me now. I need to go home.”

Since the incident occurred, people have expressed their anger and frustration on Twitter and other social media platforms, claiming that this man was unjustly taken off the plane. However, some online skeptics have tried to rationalize the situation, remarking how the man didn’t cooperate. It makes sense that people would react in both ways. For some, it’s a human instinct to empathize with the victim, while others might simply feel the need to justify the motive of the authority in question. But either way, this situation shouldn’t be that hard of an equation to solve. Even if the man refused to comply, the incident captured on camera is clear enough evidence that the way in which this man was taken off the plane was unruly, inappropriate and just plain wrong.

Since the beating of Rodney King in 1992, recording videos has become a powerful weapon in documenting injustice. With the universal accessibility of social media, these videos have now an even greater advantage of reaching audiences all over the world.

Camera phone videos were particularly influential after the shooting of Michael Brown, as they illustrated the Ferguson riots, highlighted the issue of police brutality and ultimately spread the message of resistance in the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, videos have become incredibly significant in documenting unjust beatings and killings against Black male civilians (i.e. Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile).

Despite how cellphone videos can bring important awareness to a rarely discussed issue, there’s something still very problematic and somewhat counterproductive about the act. Other than not telling the full story behind what is being portrayed, the passive act of capturing and posting videos of injustice reinforces bystander culture. The camera has the power to illustrate a misdemeanor, but what about the person capturing the event? Or the other people nearby witnessing the incident? Shouldn’t they be doing something? The most plausible theory to explain this passivity is because using a camera phone is easier and much safer than attempting to defuse the situation yourself.

Then again, it also depends on the dangers of the situation. Will filming these kinds of incidents actually stop people from inciting violence against others? In some cases, recording for evidence can make a huge difference in how we perceive issues like race and criminal justice. But even when someone films an innocent man selling cigarettes being choked to death on the sidewalk, there’s still a probability that there won’t be justice for the victim.

Viral videos of injustice might also not be the most helpful tool in giving full context of what they’re capturing. In fact, whatever incident is being depicted can have drastically different effects on viewers, depending on the angle or quality of the camera. When we watch these videos online, they automatically prime us to side with either the authority or the victim, based on our implicit biases. Do we side with the victim because we feel compassion for someone who is being hurt physically and emotionally? Or do we side with the authority because we hate it when a person refuses to respect and listen to them?

My guess is that the blame should lie not with the victim or the authority, but the power structures that are responsible for creating such a incident, deliberate or not. Perhaps it isn’t the man on the United Airlines we should be blaming, or even the security guards who carried out this horrifying act — what they did was nevertheless awful and should not have been as violent as it ended up being. Rather, it is the incompetence of United Airlines that deserves the most accountability. Not only did they overbooking the flight, but the company was negligent of this mistreatment in forcibly removing a passenger. United CEO Oscar Munoz has released a statement, apologizing to the passenger and the online community for its mistake, but the damage is already done. The repercussions will live forever on tape.