Back in 1991, a few white Los Angeles cops unsheathed their batons and beat the epic dogsh!t out of drunkard Rodney King, setting off a string of events that forced the country to truly reexamine racism. It was heavy stuff for a 9-year-old like me to take in, but even then I realized the gravity surrounding it all - what with it being all over the news ad nauseam.
It was probably a one in a thousand shot that a dude named George happened to hear sirens and step outside of his apartment with a Sony Handycam to capture it all, unaware of the unfortunate imprint he was to make on American history.
Nearly two decades later, the vast majority of U.S. citizens of all ages are roaming about with video cameras - and the power to incriminate - chilling in their front pockets at all times. I'm not certain who first had the brainchild to combine telephone and camera, but that which they hath wrought on the social landscape is nothing short of mind-blowing.
If the cell phone camera is not capturing our family members doing the stanky leg at a Fourth of July barbeque, recording videos of our cats running in circles for YouTube consumption or allowing us to complain to the world about how our significant other refuses to do that thing we like because it "smells funny down there," it's being used to capture far less innocuous things, like real crime, real racism and real leaked celebrity sex tapes.
Unfortunate, indictable material captured on phone cameras seems to be permeating the media quite a bit as of late: a Houston teacher is caught beating the brakes off a sixth grader in front of everyone. A Seattle cop mollywhops a teenager for putting her hands on him as he tries to restrain her friend. And in the most chilling video I've watched since "2 Girls, 1 Cup", teenager Derrion Albert is beaten to death in a gang fight he had nothing to do with outside of his school on Chicago's south side.
This is real reality television - no production values, no script and no beautiful yet vapid people out to get easy dough. The drama and the consequences have a genuine effect on the fabric of our consciousness - the likes of which you'll never receive from even the most dramatic episode of Top Chef. It's for this reason that I think it's imperative that people understand that most, if not all, of these videos are framed around a context that we rarely ever see. As irrefutable as the evidence of raw camera footage can be, we should be more careful about the opinions we form about the (often) reluctant stars.
The media has a very long-standing history of framing video and audio clips in insidious "bites" that lure us in without offering anywhere in the vicinity of the whole story. YouTube throws a monkey wrench in this formula by providing individuals the power to post entire scenes that a network wouldn't air, but even then we're only getting part of the story.
Take the video of the girl getting hit by the police officer. Footage starts at the very beginning stages of an arrest that ultimately turns into a scuffle. What we know about how we even got to this point comes from an official police report, which of course can quite handily be biased. He could have said some inappropriate or racist sh!t to the girls before the camera started rolling, or perhaps the girls threatened and incensed the officer in addition to what we saw - either scenario could potentially scaffold how the viewing public received what it did see.
Same deal with the teacher caught squaring off against and whipping on an adolescent harder than any grown-up ever should: Though I agree with her termination and cannot advocate her behavior in virtually any situation outside of sheer self-defense, the video painted the sixth-grader in a light that entirely victimized him; as many of the middle-school teachers to whom I showed the video (many of whom had completely inappropriate responses) would admit, the kid probably committed a litany of sh!tty acts that drove the teacher to her "tipping point" - not so implausible considering the adults that were in the room who didn't bother to pull the teacher off the student.
Hard as it might be to swallow, the same logic applies to the whole Mel Gibson fiasco. We've all known for some time that we would be better off if Mel's daddy would have pulled out early, which is why I don't know anyone that's genuinely "shocked" by his racist, sexist virulence on these voice messages. While context is not so necessary to realize that he's not a good person ("raped by a pack of niggers"? Really, Mel??), the public knows little of his baby mama Oksana Grigorieva's character, or if she did anything that truly drove him to his tirade (if not the domestic violence/attempted murder charge that Mel's staring down the barrel of). She's Miss Innocent in the public eye right now, but what if she really isn't so innocent?
As if the point that you shouldn't jump to absolute conclusions from rogue camera videos isn't enough, perhaps the more relevant lesson here is that you should keep away from dumbass activities in a zeitgeist where there are more mechanical eyes than ever that can catch you in the act: you don't want your mom to see you on film robbing a bank, cussing out a classroom full of special needs students or "creatively" utilizing a cucumber while draped in clown paint.
Because even if it's "not how it looks," you don't wanna have to explain it to your grandchildren. Or your potential boss. Or the judge. Or your wife.