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Through the lens of a CNN camera on the ground, a view of American disintegration

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At 5:13 a.m. Friday in Minneapolis, under a blue-gray dawn sky choked with smoke, the power and frailty of the camera’s democratic potential were dramatized in front of the world when police arrested CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, his producer Bill Kirkos and photojournalist Leonel Mendez. The confrontation had started a few minutes earlier, but it was at 5:13 when one member of the team who was being taken into custody asked if he could put the camera down. Suddenly the all-seeing eye was on the ground, recording legs, shoes and concrete. Now the world was askew, utility wires cut across the frame at a sharp and unnerving angle, and every eye on the planet could see the scene unfold from the same position that George Floyd, the African American man pinned under the knee of a white Minnesota police officer on Monday, witnessed in the last moments of his 46-year life.

The television camera generally reflects the traditional orientation of screens, capturing the world in the horizontal mode known as “landscape” format. At 5:13, it was accidentally rotated 90 degrees, converting landscape to portrait mode, giving us a picture of ourselves.

When George Orwell distilled his chilling vision of totalitarianism into a single image, he imagined this: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” The last word is critical — forever. It implies a choice, a small measure of hope. As long as the picture of a boot on a face is intolerable, there is hope for political self-determination, a meaningful public sphere and democracy. When it becomes tolerable, when it is normalized and visions like the one America witnessed Friday morning are commonplace, then the authoritarian longings latent in every democracy become totalitarian reality, and there is no escape from what Orwell called the “intoxication” of brute power.

As the CNN crew member was being led away, someone picked up his camera and carried it a few yards before setting it down again. The machine was still recording, and inadvertently and passively it captured another vision, common to people across the world. Now it seemed to see the world again transparently, and the consciousness it suggested was that of a protester — from Hong Kong, or Cairo, or Venezuela or any of the European cities where, a generation ago, people gathered to throw off the shackles of corrupt regimes. Its eye bounced along above the pavement, as if connected to a body that was offering no resistance, that was being carried off limp and compliant by armed thugs in state uniforms. And then it just lay on the ground, seemingly broken and spent, but still conscious, still looking out at the boots of the cops a few feet away.

No news organization is perfect, and volumes could be written about how CNN has turned news into theater, how the narcissism of celebrity degrades its coverage and how it has substituted the argument of self-aggrandizing ideologues for genuine discourse. But Jimenez and his crew were doing their jobs, and nothing caught on camera in those six or seven shocking minutes suggested that he was acting in any way counter to journalistic norms, public safety or police requests. He was, as one of his crew said off-camera, just doing his job. That he, a journalist of color, was arrested by cops whose pale arms suggest that many of them are white, and that CNN, which has been a consistent object of President Trump’s puerile and corrosive abuse, was the target raises deeply disturbing questions. Among them: How many police in America are loyal not to the public but to a racist brand of populism that has found in the president its vigorous avatar?

In authoritarian countries, the camera suggests surveillance and the manipulation of truth for ideological ends. In a democracy, the camera functions as a proxy for the ideal citizen, for the person who takes time to attend public meetings, who moves about in public space, who always wants to know more about the world. It suggests ideas of transparency, access, curiosity and openness, and a form of governance that has nothing to hide and nothing to fear.

It doesn’t just provide a simulacrum of consciousness roving the world; it suggests a larger sense of conscience, too. As long as the camera is present, people will behave in certain ways, because they can be seen, because they wouldn’t dare give free rein to their darker, more violent impulses if the world is watching. Anyone who has engaged in peaceful protest at least hopes for the old reassuring power of the camera, to keep people in line with their professed values, to keep the police faithful to their oaths.

And so it seems almost as if the camera can create public space, can forge a realm that is peaceful, open and free. But that power is dependent on those who are watching, and it withers if the camera repeatedly captures outrages against decency and nothing happens. Which is exactly the case in Minnesota, and all across this country, where cameras have caught police gunning down people of color, resting their body weight on their necks, choking them while they lie passive and unresisting. State-sanctioned murder feels everyday and commonplace; nothing changes; and yet the camera, which captures it all, is the best hope for renewing at least a little bit of principled resistance.

The arrest of the CNN crew cannot compare, by any moral calculus, to what the camera caught on Monday: bystanders pleading with police to stop killing a man, bystanders who very likely knew their own cameras offered little protection if the police were indifferent to the cries of man begging them to let him breathe. But it is another epochal moment in the disintegration of American public life, and its consequences could be profound.

If the police target journalists, and single out journalistic organizations they disapprove of for particular sanction, then we can be certain of one thing: There will be more George Floyds, more abuses of power, more corruption of public life.

The boots we saw in Minnesota early Friday will be there and everywhere, trampling faces, forever.

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