December 29, 2014

Pictures That Lead: Race and Law Enforcement a Lot More Complex Than NYPD vs. de Blasio

Minchillo de Blasio Ramos funeral

Far too often, the tendency in the media sphere is to personalize, play up hostilities or reduce events to simple binaries — left vs. right, black vs. white, “peace officers” vs. civil rights activists, cops vs. de Blasio. That helps explain why photos of NYPD officers turning their backs to the Mayor while he spoke at the Ramos funeral were so widely published. You can see the police display above as punctuated by outfits like the NY Post.

Media doesn’t do the public or the culture any favors, however, in boiling things down down to the lowest common denominator.

NYPD police Ramos funeral hug

I think that was the aim of this photo from the funeral of a black female officer hugging a colleague. If the gesture was a natural one, two colleagues sharing a moment of grief, the fact it’s a black officer adds at least some dimensionality to the problem of racial profiling and bias (if just to lead us to questions about the composition and culture of respective police forces).

Imagine if the major issues of the day were more prominently illustrated with images that demanded we address them with more complexity?

De Blasios Police funeral

That what makes the photo of de Blasio and his wife arriving at the funeral so much more interesting. Not only do you have the visual dynamics of the salt-and-pepper First Couple of N.Y., you have a rainbow mixture of cops. Sure, several are looking derisive and smirking. At the same time, however, this photo offers significant nuance and complexity. The female officer just above Ms. McCray, for example, seems more riveted by de Blasio’s wife, or just the theater of the moment. Similarly, the black officer, far right, might be seen as thoroughly curious but in a more personal way.

Mayor Hoskins Berkeley

If you were looking for a photo, however, that not only speaks to the complexity of racial politics but strikes a cautionary note about simple “black-and-white” thinking, it’s the one just above. Because it happened just two nights before Christmas, you might have missed the news of Antonio Martin — still another black man shot and killed by police officers in a St. Louis suburb close to Ferguson. I can’t account for the roles of the people, public or city officials, I assume, surrounding the podium. Still, the caption reads:

Dec. 24, 2014: Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins (D) speaks during a news conference. Hoskins defended the officer involved in Tuesday’s shooting and said it was likely justified, citing surveillance video that appeared to show Martin pointing a gun at the officer. Police said the officer, who has not been named, fired back in fear for his life.

Wouldn’t it be a benefit to us all, and also a way to elevate the importance of news photography, to put that much more emphasis on the more complex images or the ones that go against type? As much as street battles or gotcha imagery is notable, the way it dominates the visual news cycle seems to largely reinforce polarization and ratchet up the sense of futility.

(photo 1: John Minchillo/AP. caption: Law enforcement officers turn their backs on a video monitor as Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during the funeral of slain NYPD officer Rafael Ramos. photo 2: Mike Segar/Reuters. caption: Police officers hug before NYPD officer Rafael Ramos’ funeral at Christ Tabernacle Church to it’s final resting place in Queens. photo 3: Carlo Allegri/Reuters. caption: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and wife Chirlane McCray walk past a sea of policemen while arriving for the funeral. Police union officials have criticized de Blasio, saying he contributed to a climate of mistrust toward police amid protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of white officers.. photo 4: Kate Munsch/Reuters.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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