Eric Garner protests
A protester, demanding justice for Eric Garner, holds a placard while staging a "die-in" with dozens of others in downtown White Plains, New York Dec. 5, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

We’ve all seen the Eric Garner video. Widespread demonstrations show how many people remain incredulous that a grand jury could watch it and still produce no indictment in the death of the Staten Island man at the hands of an NYPD police officer. Yet in the aftermath, it's clear that videos are open to a wide range of interpretation; what matters as much as the video itself is the narrative that surrounds it.

“The justice system is a narrative system," said professor Catherine Zimmer, director of Film and Screen Studies at Pace University in New York City. “The important thing to remember is that the video the grand jury saw was accompanied by a narrative for them: the prosecutor’s narrative."

The dichotomy between what people see and the meaning they take away was on full display this week in the New York Times, which published an op-ed piece that drew divergent reactions. “Mr. Garner, who was 43, and left a wife and six children, cannot speak for himself,” the op-ed said. “But the video, at least, speaks for him." And yet in the comments section of that same op-ed, a commenter – who was not alone in his opinion -- read the video’s message differently. “It is all on him,” the person writes. “He could have gone with the police but chose not to. End of story, nothing to see, move on.”

Just how could seemingly objective video evidence be interpreted so radically differently – one interpretation urging that more analysis be done, and another arguing there is "nothing to see"?

Truth, Lies and Videotape

The Garner case, which hinged in large part on video evidence, brings to mind another video from 23 years earlier: the video of the LAPD beating of Rodney King after they pulled him over for not stopping and then resisting arrest. Although the police officers in that case were indicted and went to trial, their exoneration sparked days of protests and unrest in Los Angeles – the so-called L.A. riots of 1992 -- and although a retrial ultimately convicted two police officers, “the most famous home movie ever made,” as witness George Holliday’s video came to be known, ultimately invited interpretation rather than unanimous agreement that what was on the tape was evidence of police brutality.

It was practically unanimous -- that is, until the defense team for the police officers got through with it. Although there was initially excitement that videotape could be used to counter police denials in police brutality cases, it was clear in Rodney King, and it’s clear in the Eric Garner case, that video isn’t enough.

Gary Peller, Georgetown University law professor and co-author with Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw of the essay “Reel Time/Real Justice” in the 1993 book “Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising,” wrote in that essay that initially, there was almost unanimous public agreement – outside of a smattering of white supremacist groups – that when the video was first seen that it was a clear-cut case of police brutality.

Once the defense team took stills of the video and blew them up in court, however, they reframed the meaning of the video. After breaking up the moving image into frozen stills, they removed the audio that would have allowed the jury to hear the police officers using racial slurs against King while they were beating him. Then, they got an expert on prisoner restraint to weigh in on whether, from these stills, King looked like he was in a “compliant” posture or if “a police officer [might] have reasonably concluded that he was a threat to resist.” In doing so, they “created a new narrative backdrop” that “reframe[ed] King as a threat rather than a victim.”

Narrative Backdrop

“The video can never capture what’s outside the frame,” Peller said, which is the “narrative backdrop” that each viewer brings to what they see to organize it and give it meaning.

“What’s scary about this moment is in this particular chokehold case,” Peller said, “is that the image seems so stark. And yet the narrative that is suggested that the police and grand jury must have brought to this in order to reach the conclusion that they did --that the police used reasonable force -- is the narrative that finds black men so scary and dangerous that is seems reasonable to pile onto them and suffocate them to death.”

Zimmer, author of "Surveillance Cinema" (NYU Press) and a film scholar who studies the use of surveillance technologies in films such as the “Bourne” movies, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Saw,” believes the storyteller, in this case the prosecutor, was able to bring his own reality to the video.

“If the prosecution had wanted to paint a picture that supported an indictment, it would have been incredibly easy. The fact that the grand jury didn’t indict, when grand juries only hear the perspective from the side of the prosecutor supposedly seeking an indictment against the police officer, means that actually the prosecutor did the job of a defense lawyer: making those images fit into a narrative in which the police officer becomes sympathetic and it is the victim who is portrayed as a dangerous criminal.”

Like the “narrative backdrop” the defense used in the King case that Peller discussed in which a black man is cast as a “threat,” narrative backdrops in the form of images barrage us daily, reinforcing the idea that black people are dangerous.

“The prosecutor’s narrative wouldn’t work on its own,” Zimmer said. “It is bolstered by centuries of racist narratives accompanying racial imagery, operating in the service of white supremacy: portrayals of black men as violent criminals, so threatening to the rule of white law and order that force is justified and required.”

When asked what the video might teach us, not only about viewing, but about what might be done to avoid future cases like the Garner case, Peller responded, “These events demonstrate that it is inevitable that we experience things vastly differently based on where we live and what’s going on. Ferguson and the Garner case show that the relationship between the police and the community is virtually colonial. The police drive to their beats and experience the community as foreigners, as under siege. They’re there to keep the natives down. The long-term goal has to be to change the colonial relationship between police and their communities. Unfortunately, this is not a project that is on the political agenda.”

More Cameras?

One solution President Obama has proposed to help avoid future Eric Garners is to add even more cameras – in the form of “body-cams.” On Monday, he requested that Congress earmark $75 million to help outfit around 50,000 police officers nationwide with small, lapel-mounted “body-cams.”

Maria Haberfeld of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice told New York Magazine, “It's truly not a panacea and, at least in my mind, the money used for cameras would be much better used if the money were allocated for screening for recruitment and selection and then proper training. Because if you have the right people doing this job, and people are properly trained, you don't need the cameras."

For Professor Zimmer, it all goes back to the question of which narratives we absorb from the culture around us, and which we bring to our viewing.

“You can fit the police with body cameras, record them in the act of murder, but if you don’t change the narrative — change who is in control of that narrative — then you are just further investing in a system that has proven itself time and again to make determinations based on racial fictions, not verifiable truth,” she said. "Camera technologies have developed to enable more and more of the world around us to be recorded, but what difference does it make if the stories you tell about that world are exactly the same?”