Black Lives (and Stories) Matter: Part II

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This is the second in a series of blog posts about Black Lives Matter.
Post I

Today’s almost daily video of a fatal shooting at the hands of police prompts the natural question, why are we hearing about all of these cases now? Is there a rise in police-involved shootings, or is it a result of cell phone documentation?

What we learned from our interviews with former Black Panthers and activists in the 1960s is that harassment and brutal treatment of young African Americans by police in northern cities was a common occurrence, though rarely documented or prosecuted.  In most of the stories we heard in our interviews, the arrest or beatings began after an unlawful stop or search on the street, where the person was unarmed and had not committed a crime.

At 19 years old, Wayne Pharr joined the Panthers after organizing on his college campus. In an interview for our film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Pharr recalls his first interaction with the police which began with a traffic stop and ended with a brutal beating. Though he tells the story with his characteristic humor, it is evident how quickly police interactions can escalate and even result in murder. The circumstances of his story are reminiscent of today’s well-known cases like #FreddieGray in Maryland, #SandraBland in Texas and #AltonSterling in Louisiana, where unarmed Black men and women are perceived as a threat, detained, beaten or shot. In most cases, the officers rarely face punishment.

From the Black Panthers to the Black Lives Matter organizers, communities on the frontlines of violent interactions with police will continue to lose patience for a system that devalues their lives. It is time to heed the calls for police accountability, and implement concrete reforms to our broken system of policing in this country.

One way that the documentary community, in particular, can show up in this moment is to support the ‘citizen journalists’ shedding light on instances of police misconduct. (T)ERROR co-director David Felix Sutcliffe, in collaboration with the International Documentary Association, has spearheaded a campaign to organize filmmakers to support the #RightToRecord:

“Armed only with camera phones, citizen journalists have shattered America’s myth of racial equality. Instead of garnering Pulitzers and Peabodys, they have been targeted, harassed and arrested by members of the very institution whose abuses they seek to expose.

As filmmakers, we may differ on our definition of “documentary.” But many, if not all of us, harbor a core belief: that images have insurmountable power. Not merely to create change, but to trigger fresh thoughts, to nudge our audiences toward a new seat in the theater of public opinion, one whose vantage point endows them with a more informed and empathetic view.

These citizen journalists have done just that. More so, they have changed the course of our country’s history, dwarfing any impact our own cameras have created. By hurtling these images through the front windshield of public consciousness, they have made it impossible for white Americans to continue ignoring a truth our leaders have spent centuries obfuscating:black lives matter. While our society struggles to absorb this truth, police departments nationwide have maneuvered to asphyxiate the efforts of those whose cameras and courage have revealed it.” Read the entire statement here.

We hope you will join Stanley Nelson and the entire Firelight family in urging The Justice Department to investigate harassment of citizen journalists who document police abuse. 

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