When Trayvon Martin died from a bullet from George Zimmerman’s pistol on February 26, the nation was indignant to discover that the neighborhood watch captain had not been charged, or even arrested, by the police in Sanford, Florida. Outrage over the unarmed black teen’s death subsequently brought about action by a Florida state prosecutor, and now, over a month after the shooting, Zimmerman faces a charge of second-degree murder.
A string of high-publicity acts of violence (and in Trayvon’s case, negligence) on the part of several U.S. law enforcement agencies has rightly brought the practices of police departments across the country into question. Undergraduates should be particularly alarmed by incidents like the virally infamous, out-and-out show of abuse by Lieutenant John Pike as he emptied a canister of a pepper spray on a line of seated Occupy demonstrators at U.C. Davis last November. More recently, the campus police force at Santa Monica Community College dispersed tuition protesters with a cloud pepper of spray, injuring not only the student protesters, but many bystanders in the process.
It’s hardly surprising that students and a concerned general public are frustrated by the increasingly frequent reports of police abuse (or, alternately, incompetence) around the nation. Iraq veteran Scott Olsen’s head injury reportedly from a police projectile at Occupy Oakland in October; transient Charles Hill’s death from shots fired by the BART police last July; and even the 2009 death of an unarmed, pinned-down Oscar Grant (also courtesy of the BART police) can be enough to shake anyone’s faith in the law enforcement profession.
But surprisingly, there is a silver lining in all this. Just the fact that abuses of police power are more and more common in public discourse is a great thing to have happen. After all, incidents like these are far from new: how familiar is the image of 1960’s civil rights demonstrators pinned against a wall by a stream of water shooting from the Brimingham Fire Department’s hoses?
A key difference between then and now is a growing, even maturing, movement in citizen journalism and social-media activism, with young people as its equally key players. All the incidents above have something else in common besides questionable policing practices: they were all recorded and were all given excessive playback time in the media, which in this case is nothing but good news. Even the “black hoodie” comment Zimmerman slipped to the 911 dispatcher to describe a suspicious-looking Trayvon Martin inspired a “National Black Hoodie Day” in support of justice for the teen after the call was aired repeatedly on national news.
To expose the abuses of law enforcement is not necessarily to expose an entirely new problem, but rather brings to light a set of issues that was previously underexposed. Needless to say, watching Scott Olsen recover from traumatic head injuries or mourning the death of Charles Hill is hard to celebrate, especially when the debates on 1% wealth and the rights of homeless people are still fresh and bitter. But the surge in grassroots reporting and filmmaking coupled with large scale media dissemination—and the increased transparency that comes with it—is a very encouraging sign.