There was too much to take in at first. Too many videos of people getting beaten by police, too many city streets and public squares blurry with tear gas, too many fires and victims and officials and cities and storefronts to keep track of. It seemed at first that despite the size and scope of this uprising, some variant of the usual defeated amnesia might set in; people would settle into a familiar haze of horror, resignation, anger, and impotence. Drag themselves through one week into the next one, move on. But if Trump has perfected the politics of distraction, making it impossible to dwell on any single infraction by providing fresh abuses daily, these protests have somehow—despite or maybe because of the proliferation of shocking, unwarranted violence—done the opposite. They keep focusing Americans’ numb and unexercised attention on the problem. Over and over and over, with each new video, the point no one in power much wants to admit gets driven home: The police are out of control.
In a way, it’s a relief to focus, finally. This administration acts like a DDoS attack on our attention, pinging and pinging with fresh violations of norms and laws until the human equivalent of “service”—the ability to take things in, synthesize them, respond—is eventually denied. People reach their saturation points at different times, but reach them they do, and that’s where many of us have been for a long while during this presidency. But over the past two weeks, something has changed. And over the past two weeks, the police and the videos and the repetition have managed to make a lot of white Americans—most of whom have benefited from a social compact that protected them and looked the other way when police brutalized the less powerful—understand something marginalized groups always have: what it feels like to be excluded from that deal.
For this subset of people, many of whom seem to be in the process of radicalizing, any one of these dozens of videos can become the occasion for a deep dive that unravels most of the assumptions that have shielded police from widespread scrutiny. Take the Buffalo incident: The viewer sees a tall, thin, older man walking toward a group of police officers. He’s wearing a blue sweater. The cops are in short-sleeved shirts and gloves. There are some forbiddingly decorative concrete spheres in the scene, of the sort one might find outside a conference center; the viewer will learn at some point that this is all happening in Buffalo, New York, where, the day before, this very group of officers knelt with protesters in a moving celebration of communal harmony.
The Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team—as you, hypothetical white viewer, eventually learn they’re called—is carrying batons and wearing helmets. The tall old man holds what looks like a police helmet in his left hand. In his right he holds what looks like a phone. As with so many of these videos, you can’t quite hear. This is worrying: You believe in getting all the context. But the first lesson of this mess is that context is a luxury. Like the protesters, like minorities pulled over for a traffic stop, like police, even, the only information you have is what’s in front of you. What you see is this: The old man seems to address the officers briefly, reaching toward one and tapping his arm with his phone. The officer who received the taps reacts as if he’s been stung and shoves the old man hard. The old man falls directly backward, out of the scene. There is an awful sound. The camera pulls back. The man lies on the cement with a dark fluid pooling under his head. His right hand, which is still holding the telephone, gives up; you watch the phone fall as it goes limp. Someone says, He’s bleeding from his ear. Have you just watched an old man die? Is he dying? The officer (who knows no more than you do) looks briefly concerned and walks on. Another officer starts to bend toward the man; he is stopped by his colleagues. They walk on. The man bleeds.
Context will come in time, and it will not make this better. You will read that the Buffalo Police Department reported this incident as an injury incurred when one person at the protest “tripped and fell.” Only when the news team that captured this circulates the footage will the public realize that the record has been falsified. Buffalo Police Cpt. Jeff Rinaldo will say there was no deception at all, just an honest mistake. “How the situation was being observed, it was being observed from a camera that was mounted behind the line of officers,” he says. “The initial information, it appears the subject had tripped and fallen while the officers were advancing.” He will congratulate the police on how quickly they corrected the record. “There is no attempt to mislead,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown will say of the police statement, echoing Rinaldo.
You want to believe there was no attempt to mislead. But something is off. The “initial information” about the incident, you realize, should obviously have come from Buffalo Police Cpt. Jeff Rinaldo’s officers. Not some camera, no matter where it was. In calling an obvious cover-up a mistake, both the mayor and the police captain are acting as if it’s a given that not one of the 14 law enforcement officers you saw in that video—who witnessed what happened—could be counted upon, let alone expected, to tell the truth. Rinaldo speaks in a language so wrenched by adherence to the passive voice that it barely sounds like English: The situation was being observed … the initial information, it appears.
You’ve heard of the “blue wall of silence”—the anti-snitch code whereby police protect each other from accountability to the public. But maybe you thought it was more a Hollywood invention than a plague sickening American towns. Evidence for it, and evidence for rampant dishonesty by police unaccustomed to being doubted or questioned, is mounting. You read, for example, that police reported that $2.4 million in Rolexes were looted from a store in SoHo, even though the store spokesman said, “no watches of any kind were stolen, as there weren’t any on display in the store.” You start to wonder about other police reports on looting. Maybe you’ll think back to last week, an age ago now, when protesters and journalists were beaten and tear-gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could pose in front of a church. The following day, the U.S. Park Police strenuously denied using tear gas at all. If you’re unusually attentive, you might also remember that Park Police walked that denial back several days later, citing confusion over whether pepper balls counted as tear gas (they do).
Never mind: You’re trying to focus on this one case in Buffalo, and the next steps matter: The Buffalo Police Department suspends two officers without pay while an investigation is conducted. Most regard this as the bare minimum since the principal offenders—who you now know are named Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe—not only assaulted an old man but might have lied to their superiors about it. Maybe you’re relieved there’s a modicum of accountability. That relief quickly dissolves. It emerges that Torgalski and McCabe’s colleagues find this minimal consequence outrageous: The day after the two officers’ suspension, 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resign from the team (though not the police force—they remain employed there) to support their two colleagues. They believe the men who shoved an old man to the ground are being treated abusively. “Our position is these officers … were simply doing their job. I don’t know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards,” said Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans. Before you can pause and really take this in—he did slip in my estimation—the Buffalo Police Union will post on its website, “These guys did nothing but do what they were ordered to do. This is disgusting !!!”
Maybe, as a hypothetical white American who’s always had good relations with police, you are shocked to find the police union excusing obvious misconduct as “just following orders” and doubling down on the lie that the man slipped. You’ve heard that police lie, but it’s being driven home to you differently now that your attention is focused. You’re watching the lies happen in real time. You saw, with George Floyd’s death, that Minneapolis police initially reported he “appeared to be suffering medical distress”—a curious way of saying a man was asphyxiated. The original statement Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder chose to send reporters read “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” That’s all we would have known about George Floyd’s death had it not been for the brave teenager who recorded it in real time. The revelation isn’t that the lies are new. It’s that they’re everywhere.
And there’s more. There are beatings in Fairfax District in Los Angeles, military use of helicopters to terrorize protesters in D.C., arrests of journalists even as they’re broadcasting, attacks on protesters by Philadelphia Police Department commanding officer Joseph Bologna—who was later cheered by over 100 officers and supporters as he surrendered and was charged with aggravated assault.* Police try to run over protesters in Los Angeles and are widely imitated around the country. Sean Monterrosa, an unarmed 22-year-old, is shot to death by police while kneeling in Vallejo, California. Austin, Texas, police shoot both 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala and 20-year-old Justin Howell in the head with lead-pellet bags; Howell is currently in critical condition. Photojournalist Linda Tirado is blinded in one eye by police in Minneapolis. In the same city, medics, journalists, and protesters found their tires slashed after a protest. The damage was initially attributed to “rioters” but turned out to be the work of police, caught on film going around stabbing tires with knives. Minnesota Department of Public Safety spokesperson Bruce Gordon said that the officers “deflated” the tires of Americans to “stop behaviors such as vehicles driving dangerously and at high speeds in and around protesters and law enforcement.”
The lies are offensively stupid (and worryingly authoritarian), but they’re also—in the aggregate—clarifying. What many a white American sees, as the videos stack up against the lies police tell about them, is a system too drunk on power to reform. A look back in the archive yields hundreds of similar examples. Like the San Antonio woman who sued the city because a police officer searched her without cause and pulled her tampon out in public. The woman received a settlement. But there was no apology, no suggestion that what happened was incorrect. The officer stood by her actions, and so did her department: “Internal affairs investigators determined that Wilson’s actions didn’t violate the department’s policies, according to the lawsuit. Following the body cavity search, her performance was described as ‘Exceeds Expectations.’ ”
The problem of the 21st century isn’t a lack of proof—it’s information overload. It’s not that we know too little but that we hear too much, most of it bad, usually through channels that facilitate confirmation bias. Too much knowledge can be a curse, and the noisy environment we all exist in—amplified by the president, a noise machine—can relieve us of unwanted ethical burdens. One can’t be faulted for missing an outrage here or there, considering how many outrages there are. Full knowledge of how our police actually work is almost unbearable to the average person; it perturbs the psychotic idealism to which many a patriot clings.
The good news is that for now, at least, the distraction theory of politics is not working. Trump’s efforts to drive the last few news cycle have failed. People are pushing back at every level on terms that aren’t about him. Police brutality existed before him, worsened under him, and will exist after him unless something is done. This is bigger than Trump, and because it is, it’s also, somehow, immune to the strategies that keep him in power. The barrage of videos of violated rights and beaten bodies should have diffracted the conversation into a million pieces. Instead, each new video adds clarity, urgency, and focus to a question the country has tried strenuously, for centuries, to avoid.
Correction, June 9, 2020: Due to a production error, this piece originally described police beatings as occurring in Fairfax, Virginia. They actually occurred in the Fairfax neighborhood in Los Angeles.