“Go look at my Twitter. Tuscaloosa PD is about to have a lawsuit to settle.”
I got that text at around 9:30 p.m. last Sunday from my brother, a sophomore at the University of Alabama (located in Tuscaloosa, AL, in case you did not make that connection). Before I had the opportunity to click the link, he followed up:
“Before you watch it, keep in mind that it was for a noise complaint. It was bad.”
Enough to get my attention, that is for sure.
I scrambled to Twitter, visited his feed, and was treated to first published by Kellen Kling, who I can only assume is also a student at Alabama.
In case you did not care to watch the video, here is a quick summary: several officers enter an apartment. They are yelling. Several students are dragged out of the apartment, the officers curse at them, and then the tasers and nightsticks emerge. One student is tased and hit repeatedly with the nightstick. Three students are arrested.
Wow. That did look bad. All supposedly over a noise complaint. Right?
At the time, I was not sure what truly was the story behind the video. (It has since come out in an official statement from the Tuscaloosa PD that the officers were indeed at the apartment because of a loud music call.) All I knew was what my brother told me—that this was over a noise complaint. I also saw the statement of Kellen, who asked, “Is this legal?”
Otherwise, I had nothing to go off of. Just the video. That is it.
And here is the thing. I do not know who is right in this situation. Actually, it is all but impossible to know who is right.
I know how it looks from the video at hand (bad) and I know now that it was indeed a response to a noise complaint, but there was no way that I or anyone else could have known that before the statement was made on Monday. I also did not see what happened before the video (just the door being opened), nor did I know the nature of the complaint other than “loud music.” That is it. That is all I or anyone else who was not there could know.
And yet, despite that, there is no shortage of people on either side who are suddenly experts in contextual clues and extrapolation. (See: Reddit and the Boston Bombing.) “Punks go looking for trouble then they are going to find it,” said one commenter on AL.com, who apparently supports the police. “Tuscaloosa PD is about to have a lawsuit to settle,” said my brother, seemingly on the side of the folks who were arrested.
All of which is to say that there was an important thing missing from the puzzle when I first viewed the video (and today, even): context.
The problem with incidents like these is that we just do not have context. We do not know what is here, or what is not. We just have a video of a short snippet in time. We do not know what happened before or after, and we certainly do not know exactly what unfolded. It is as if someone stuck us in a time machine, put us in the middle of an argument, and forced us to figure out what people were arguing about or why. Talk about a difficult situation.
I do not claim to have a solution for this. (Either the video mentioned here or the lack of context on social media.) All I know is that context is important. And in the context of a conversation about social media, if you do not have context, what do you have?
At the time of posting, the three officers in question have been placed on administrative leave. The investigation into the incident is ongoing.
Image credit: CC by Tony Webster