On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes (8:46 minutes) while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”. This event isn’t unusual. What I’m saying is that black men have been hunted down, whipped, lynched and murdered in the United States of America since black people were first captured, enslaved and trafficked to America from Africa? What makes this and so many events like this different is people’s vanity. In 2002, the first phones with built-in cameras became publicly available, including the Nokia 7650 and the Sanyo SPC-5300.
This will hardly go down in history as a conspicuous event as technology goes. Certainly not in the same vein as the invention of the transistor that revolutionised computing. It is the strangest thing, people’s fascination with taking pictures of themselves and their surroundings turned the innocuous idea of a mobile phone with a built-in camera into the most revolutionary media tool in the history of the world. No more the purview of the intrepid underpaid hack on the hunt for a killer story in time for the newspaper deadlines. No sir, with a few billion camera phones floating around, everyone now has “a story to tell.” This is what made George Floyd’s murder so newsworthy, this is what recharged (forgive the pun) the BLM, Black Lives Matter movement that set off worldwide protests and marches during the only modern-day pandemic that locked down the world.
It used to be that racism and acts of racism were dismissed as anecdotal, blamed on black people’s cultural sensitivity and even their innate aggressiveness. In other words, instances of racism were perennially blamed on the victims of racism, black people. This meant that racism was rendered invisible by society at large, and reduced to individual acts rather than as a consequence of systems that are institutional and structural. So no matter how many black people were still being murdered (I wager that the rate has remained the same since Jim Crow), society ignored their cries for help because it remained an “inconvenient truth” for so long, it became almost habit-forming. But for our vanity and fascination of our world and ourselves, we may never have heard the palpable pleas of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.”
The global institutions that have kept racism alive and functioning for almost 500-years and their quest for ever more wealth and greater profits has spawned an unlikely ally in the fight against racism and produced a handy partner that never lies. Imagine having a Black Panther buddy with you every time you have an occurrence with the police? That’s what it has become folks, a reliable, sometimes unseen friend that no-one can dispute because it records on command in a manner that’s eerily neutral and impossible to overcome.
The lowly camera phone has stepped into the breach and accelerated the exposure of systems on black violence with a relentlessness that has the system shaken. Finally, racism has met a worthy adversary, not one that’s erudite, articulate and can sway crowds with poetic prose. No, one that is as reliable as it is silent, the humble camera phone. Next up is Huawei and the 5G saga, but that is a story for another day…