Zoom In, Zoom Out: What Lens Are You Looking at Ferguson Through?

When I was a college student, I remember an image from a class that has stuck with me. It was a photo of a uniformed police officer in the UK chasing after a black man. What information did the image convey? What conclusions did we draw from this picture?

Then we were shown another photograph of the same scene, but the camera lens had pulled back to reveal a broader perspective. Now we saw a third man running in front of the black man. What, it became evident, we were looking at was a black man, who was a plain-clothed detective, and a white man who was a uniformed police officer, both chasing after a criminal.

These images, and our readings of them, revealed many things to us. It brought our awareness to how the camera lens, whether fixed image or moving image, has the power to interpret the unfolding of events to us in ways that may or may not align with a fuller, more complex and nuanced picture of those events. And it also highlighted the ways in which we read situations and images through the lens of our own stereotypes and assumptions that we are always superimposing on what we think we are seeing unfolding.

Today, I know that there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights. I know this because I’ve heard about the extensive community organizing and planning and the opportunities to march peacefully that one of our colleagues, Rabbi Susan Talve, has been directly engaged and involved with.

But if you based your knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, you would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Talve shared earlier today in a webinar organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.” What is troubling is not only that the camera lens is hiding from those of us who are not physically present on the scene the larger picture of how the community is working toward change and calling for justice. In choosing to focus in on the violence of the minority, the media reinforces the images of black men being angry and violent. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them through a lens that leads them to believe that they are interacting with someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.

Rabbi Talve explained that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we may ask different questions.

If we see clear signs, as I believe we do, that racism continues to play a significant role in how black men are seen and treated in public space, then these are some of the questions that we might ask:

  • If we value the preservation of human life as the highest goal, and we truly mean that to apply to all lives, are there protocols and methods or tools that police officers could be retrained to use that, while enabling them to enforce law and remain safe, would minimize the need to resort to deadly force?
  • Have we, in fact, put in place procedures to ensure that the use of deadly force is truly the last resort?
  • Have we spent time and effort to ensure that our police officers, whether in small towns or large cities, have the training and education and the cultural competency that can help counter inbuilt systemic racism?
  • Is this something that needs to be tackled at a national scale to ensure that all police forces have access to the same resources, training, and expectations?

I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and say, “let’s sit down together with members of the larger community and try to better understand what these larger concerns are. Let’s look at how we do our work and see if there are new rules, programs, or other steps that we could put in place to minimize the loss of life in these situations in the future.”

I could cite Jewish sources on the value of preserving life. But those sources won’t help us find a path forward in Ferguson until we are able to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others. And before we all jump to conclusions and debate and analyze based on the very incomplete pictures that most of us have, let’s start by pulling back the lens and asking whether we truly know what is happening to the left and right of where the cameras are currently pointing. And if we don’t, let’s begin by listening more closely to the communities who are crying out to be heard.

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