Scott Woods: To Watch or Not to Watch Another Video of Police Violence

On “Slave Play,” personal choices and the horrific Tyre Nichols video

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Protesters over the death of Tyre Nichols lead chants of "Hands up, don't shoot" while blocking traffic on the Interstate 55 bridge Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. Authorities released video footage Friday showing Nichols being beaten earlier this month by five Memphis police officers who held the Black motorist down and repeatedly struck him with their fists, boots and batons as he screamed for his mother.(Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)

The Tony-nominated Broadway production, “Slave Play,” rolled into my town last week. Written by Jeremy O. Harris, it is a play that concerns itself with sexual and racial politics, strained through the sieve of antebellum sexual role play, in which various characters play masters and others wear the mantles of enslaved people. The production involves verbal and sexual violence and is randomly interrupted with the caprice of therapy and slam poetry levels of monologuing. The oft-stated reason for all of this intentional titillation and manufactured controversy by its author and its various producers and directors is discourse, of course. To get people talking, not so much about the play itself, but the subjects it interrogates, the feelings it draws out of its audience, its intersectionality. 

The last bit is the bulk of my criticism of the play—the outcomes. This isn’t like other acts of art where the creative thing happens, and the audience is left to its own interpretive devices. Presentations of “Slave Play” have empathy directors and talkback sessions with audiences. These are direct, hands-on attempts to fulfill the mission and values of its author, and to some extent implant an awareness of those values into audiences—audiences that will ultimately be predominantly white and predominantly middle class and above. It is not art simply for art’s sake but an attempt at activism. As I do not generally participate in taste arguments where most art is concerned (whether you like something or not is a different topic), this is where my criticism of “Slave Play” primarily lies: in its ability to generate useful, impactful discussion or—and this is the important part—generate or sustain existing efforts to impart actual change. 

So to say I don’t like the play conceptually, politically and perhaps artistically is an understatement. That said, I have to be honest with you: I haven’t seen it. I have a lot of opinions about the need for such a play in light of its charge, but I don’t intend to spend one dime to see it. What I have done instead is read and listened to countless reviews, watched hours of interviews, and eye-rolled dozens of riffed monologues by hopeful actors extracted from the script. I understand what it is trying to do, and I am able to place it in the context of the art industry it serves. I am as versed in the play as you can be without actually having endured it. Through all of that I can promise you one thing: All an actual viewing of “Slave Play” will accomplish is arming me with more ammunition with which to dismantle it. Neither I nor anyone who loves the play would be served by my sitting through it.

And yet, the first thing I would hear (back when I still engaged this topic with people) is, “But have you seen the play?” Mind you, this would frequently come from people who hadn’t seen the play either. I used to try to get around the frustration of this pseudo-intellectual defense by trying to have the conversation without my rant up front, aka, the discovery package of everything I know. However, it became clear that the order in which I gave my research was unimportant. This was simply one of those subjects that, for whatever reason, many people felt had to be earned by direct contact. At least if you were going to criticize it as much as I was doing. 

Each of us makes a hundred decisions every day to not engage something that we have not actually experienced. We know from personal history, ideology, religious stricture or just enough public-speak on a subject to know that we would not like or get anything out of the experience. Every day you opt out of whole worlds of cuisine or genres of music with the smallest dollop of evidence as to how it might actually affect you.

Many of us are making an opt-out decision right now, in a very public way, over something much more important than a play. I’m referring, of course, to the footage of five Memphis police officers who punched, pepper-sprayed, tased and kicked Tyre Nichols into a pulp—an act so brutal he died from the wounds three days later.

Discussion around footage of police violence has both come a long way while managing to remain stuck in the running blocks. Many of us feel the need to proclaim to the world that we aren’t going to watch such videos and encourage others not to. Such public proclamations are largely well-meaning acts, imploring people to consider their mental health, which in a struggle like this is always a good thing. At the same time, I would guess that they’re in the minority, since the videos have become extremely difficult to dodge. Most people end up watching them out of curiosity, by accident, or for the purposes of making as informed a public statement as possible. Their ubiquity on news platforms alone guarantees that millions of people will see them. 

There are few good reasons at this point to show videos of police killing people to the general public, but the reasons that do exist are profound. The families of victims and their lawyers call for them to be shared in the interest of justice, and there is certainly precedent for the impact of public opinion in the wake of such releases. At the same time, we have been seeing footage of police abuse for generations. It is almost entirely why we know who Bull Connor is. Even in Nichols’ case, the initial statement made by police before the video went out did not align with the contents of the video. We cannot discount the impact of not only the existence of such footage, but the weight brought to bear on a case once the public has taken hold of it.

To the police, video releases are often concessions, ways to forestall protest that would come from the impression that they have something to hide. The logic of that sounds mystifying, but you must consider that they don’t see the contents of such videos as a problem in the traditional sense. They get that something wrong may have occurred, but it’s never a problem they can’t handle. Filmed police abuse is something they’ve become adept at navigating, either through the savvy use of in-house procedures, a deft wielding of the law bordering on magic, or their favorite tactic: waiting until people aren’t talking about the crime anymore. As successful as all of these feints have proven over and over again, no one should confuse winded protest with any actual amendments to people’s opinion of the police in a positive direction. Police simply don’t care what people think of them. They know better than anyone that thoughts and intentions have no bearing on the fallout of outcomes. When you hear William Massey, the attorney for now-former Memphis officer Emmitt Martin III, say, “no one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” you get that intent isn’t something that police concern themselves with while executing that level of violence. They get that they stand a 99 percent chance of getting away with whatever they do in the line of duty. 

The most pragmatic version of the question isn’t if the videos should exist or be released. It is whether or not random people should watch them. As someone who intentionally watches videos of police abuse, I recognize that such decisions are personal. Everyone has to decide how they will be served by consuming such real world horror, and to what end will they use the information it conveys. I watch them because, while I avoid a lot of debates, this isn’t one of them, and I want to contribute as fully as possible to the dismantling of such activity. I have a self-imposed moral obligation to watch them because my activism is morally based. I also don’t share the videos for the same reason. I care what impact such material has on people. It is important to me to consider people as people first, not sacrifices at the altar of Being Right. I know myself well enough to know why I make those decisions, and so long as the decision by others to watch or not watch such things comes from that place, then it is the right answer. I don’t need anyone to announce whether or not they’re going to watch videos of police violence. I only need them to find their lane and put in work to fight it.

Scott Woods

In the end, it was easier for me to stop having one-on-one conversations about “Slave Play,” both for me and for the people who think they want to hear what I have to say. It’s better all around for me to publish such thoughts in some fine publication like this and let folks act like they didn’t read it, and we all remain friends. The stakes on that are low enough that I figure I’m only being uninvited to 10 percent fewer parties and panel discussions when all is said and done. But the stakes are much higher on police abuse, or policing all together, so I draw my lines very differently on the matter. This is how I attempt to compel the people who actually have power to do something that could save lives to do so. This is how I arm people on the front lines. This is how I honor the families of those people killed over traffic stops and dozens of other mundane activities that should not have ended their lives. It is a personal decision, both the watching and the speaking. It isn’t for me to say if you should watch such things, but more, I do not believe you must watch such things to do the work that must be done. Anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to disable your efforts. The people who can enact concrete change on policing have all seen it. Either way, you already know what the ending is.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.