As the footage itself sends shockwaves across a nation already engaged in an elevated debate about race and the scourge of endemic police violence, the man who shot the horrifying cell phone video of an unarmed man being gunned down by a police officer in South Carolina has come forward to explain what else he saw as the events unfolded before him last Saturday.
In the aftermath of the video's public release on Tuesday—which showed white North Charleston police officer Michael Slager fatally shoot Walter Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old black man, in the back multiple times—Slager was arrested and charged with murder.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with NBC News on Wednesday, 23-year-old Feidin Santana said he immediately realized "the magnitude" of the footage he took.
Though the video [warning: graphic] shows the fatal shots, Santana also told NBC what he witnessed before he turned his camera on.
"Before I started recording, they were down on the floor. I remember the police [officer] had control of the situation," Santana said. "He had control of Scott. And Scott was trying just to get away from the Taser. But like I said, he never used the Taser against the cop."
"As you can see in the video, the police officer just shot him in the back," Santana added. "I knew right away, I had something on my hands."
In fact, Santana said in a subsequent interview—this one on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes—that he was so afraid of what the repercussions for him might be that he considered "erasing the video" from his cell phone.
"I felt that my life, with this information, might be in danger. I thought about erasing the video and just getting out of the community, you know Charleston, and living some place else," Santana said. "I knew the cop didn't do the right thing."
The video taken by Santana has reignited the simmering national controversy surrounding police violence and pervasive racial discrimination, represented largely by the national Black Lives Matter movement—first sparked by the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last year.
Santana also appeared on NBC's Today Show with Matt Lauer on Thursday:
Instead of erasing the video, however, Santana decided to share the footage with the victim's family. As the New York Times reports on Thursday:
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It was at a vigil Sunday for his slain brother that Anthony Scott found out what he had believed was true all along.
First came the unfathomable news that his younger brother, Walter, had been shot to death by a police officer after being stopped in the early ’90s-era Mercedes he had bought just a few days before. Then came the growing doubts about the initial police story that his brother had endangered the officer. Then came the video.
It was delivered by a stranger who approached after family and friends placed flowers and said their prayers at the spot where Walter had died.
“I have something to share with you,” he said. They got into Anthony Scott’s car. Then the stranger showed him the video on his phone. “I knew it! I knew it!” Mr. Scott exclaimed, and what might have been another shooting of an obscure black man by the police suddenly became an astonishing glimpse of life and death, black and white, police and civilian.
The man who presented himself to Scott, of course, was Santana.
Meanwhile, in North Charleston on Wednesday, local residents protested outside City Hall and a press conference by Mayor Keith Summey was repeatedly interrupted by those demanding justice and questioning the lack of equal representation within the city's police department. As the North Charleston Post & Courier notes, "The department is about 18 percent black in a city that is 45 percent black."
On the question of video evidence, or lack thereof
In the age of the cell phone camera and pervasive video monitoring, the intersection between police violence, accountability, and public outrage has become a complex web in which the existence or lack of video evidence has become a central theme. Whereas no video evidence was presented in the case of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, two other high-profile cases—Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio—were both caught on film.
Though calls for police to wear body cameras went into vogue following the events in Ferguson, the idea that this requirement alone would make any substantial difference in how police conduct themselves has been widely challenged. Though such cameras may act as a potential check on police brutality and increase transparency or accountability in some cases, many voices have made clear that simply adding new technology won't solve the deeper crisis.
As professor Peniel Joseph, who specializes in history, race, civil rights, and black power at Tufts University, told CBC News on Wednesday, the problems of policing in many U.S. communities go beyond what body cameras could possibly solve.
"I don't think the body cameras go far enough. [...] Federal, state-wide and local, you would need re-training. You need civilian review control," Joseph said. "Part of the overall reason these incidents keeps happening is because the criminal justice system is just the tip of the spear of institutional structural racism in the United States. The criminal justice has been a source of control and punishment and not a source of justice and protection for especially poor African-Americans and Latino men and women."
Also speaking with CBC, Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, agreed that the problems of policing—especially when it comes to minority and poor communities-—go much deeper than what society at large has been willing to acknowledge.
"We need a radical restructuring of policing in America," Arnwine said, "and part of that starts with changing the culture of policing, where police think that one of their roles is to control — not protect and serve — African-American and Latino populations. When you're approaching the community as a community you view as hostile, as foreign, as criminal, through a stereotypical lens, then you're going to treat that community accordingly."
According to Arnwine, communities need to organize themselves to hold police departments and local governments accountable.
"If there's nobody at the city council asking questions about police accountability, if there's nobody who is making sure the police force is doing their job appropriately, if these issues aren't raised, then you're going to have misconduct by officers who are so inclined," she said. "This desperate need for radical police restructuring is the only way we're going to protect and save black lives."