“Pics, or it never happened.”
– Every person on social media ever
Right now, the internet is ablaze with the story of Walter Scott, the 50-year-old Coast Guard veteran recently gunned down by N. Charleston police office Michael Slager. Initially Slager’s story was in line with all the other
fairy tales accounts told by police officers involved in shootings against unarmed black men: that he was attacked and had to use deadly force. Unfortunately for Officer Slager (and I use the term “officer” very loosely here), what he didn’t anticipate was a detailed recording of the incident by a passerby with a cell phone. In the video, it appears that not only was Scott running away from the officer, but that Slager planted the taser he said Scott took from him.
[Because of the violent nature of the video and the fact that I don’t want to be responsible for turning a man’s death into a spectacle, I won’t show the video here or even link to it. But you can find it all over the web.]
Since then, Slager has been charged with murder and has been summarily fired from the department. Even if he somehow gets acquitted (which honestly wouldn’t surprise me at this point), just facing charges is at least one small step in the right direction; especially in comparison to similar situations where the offending officer never even saw a courtroom. However, amidst the brief celebration of social justice realized up to this point, a burning question still remains: what if there wasn’t video evidence?
(1) I have no doubt that Slager’s story of Scott taking his taser would’ve been accepted at face value and would have provided more than enough justification to shoot Scott. “He grabbed my taser” was the line Slager immediately reached for because, well, that’s precisely what officers like him know to say in these kind of situations. After all, to justify your use of deadly force, you have to convince others that the assailant was a scary monster, driven only by a primordial urge to destroy stuff. Your life has to be endangered by a bad person who had to have been taken down.
(2) To that point, Walter Scott would be made into a villain by print, network, and social media. The narrative would’ve read something like this: “Man killed after attempting to assault officer.” His name would have been smeared through the mud. His record of service, ignored. His back child support payments would have become the object of his character assassination (“He was a deadbeat father with no regard for his children, much less figures of authority.”).
(3) Every story involving a villain must also include a hero. So to expound on the story of black criminal meeting his inevitable fate at the hands of the brave and intrepid hero, the media would work diligently to protect Slager’s squeaky clean image. The imagery used to “introduce” us to Officer Slager would have included a Christmas photo with his family, a couple of pics with his adorable family pet, a picture of him at the finish line of a marathon, a photo of him shaking the mayor’s hand, and – of course – a stock photo of him in his uniform; proudly posing with the American flag behind him.
The quote I used above points out – in a rather tongue-in-cheek way – how cynicism rules our perceptions. People generally rule out stories that are absent of verifiable material – pictures, video, etc. So it stands to reason (plus based on similar incidents) that without video proof of this story, Slager would sitting pretty while the media would’ve had a field day in making Walter Scott’s character as assassinated as his body. And honestly, that’s a shameful truth. Had it not been for a random passerby who just so happened to have a cell phone with enough battery life to record the whole thing, that’s exactly what would have played out. Score one for random probability, I guess. Because, again: “pics, or it never happened.”