Editorial: Recent videos documenting police use of force highlight bystander accountability

Last Thursday, April 12, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after an employee called the police claiming that the men were refusing to either make a purchase or leave. The men stated they were waiting to meet someone, who showed up while they were being arrested. The incident led to protests and calls for Starbucks boycotts both in Philadelphia and across social media.

The next evening, Friday, April 13, a black Harvard undergraduate student was forcibly arrested after officers tackled him to the ground and punched him several times in the stomach. The student was standing naked on a street corner, and police determined he had taken narcotics, which may have produced a hallucinogenic effect, prior to pinning him to the ground.

How did the public learn about these two isolated events? Through videos posted on social media. The fact that videos like these, taken by ordinary civilians, are making national headlines proves that systemic racism is still a problem in 21st century America, but it also demonstrates the power of the bystander and the fact that police are being held more accountable for their actions by everyday citizens.

This is not to say that the police force is entirely to blame or alone in its culpability – instances of implicit bias occur every day; the police are just under more public scrutiny. They also have to be more cautious about potential threats, in a climate where gun violence and terrorism are far too prevalent.

Regardless, it is notable that the public is holding itself responsible to call out implicit bias. In both videos, bystanders can be heard in the background. Video recorded during the Starbucks arrests shows the real estate developer, whom the two men were waiting for, pressing police for a reason for the men’s arrest, to which a woman in the background responds, “They didn’t do anything – I saw the entire thing.” During the Harvard arrest, a man can be heard yelling “I’ve got this recorded! I’m watching you punch him!”

These videos, and the audible commentaries therein, raise questions of public accountability for both the police and bystanders. Could bystanders have done more other than voice their opposition and record evidence? The answer is most likely not, unless they wanted to risk being arrested themselves. Should the police take cues from public outcry in the midst of such events, or continue to carry out orders they were given? These questions are fraught with complications, but the fact that we can ask them can be considered a sign of progress, however trivial it may seem.

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