Teaching (anti-)police media

by  Sasha Crawford-Holland

In 2020, uprisings for racial justice in the United States and beyond intensified longstanding conflicts about the social role of police; these have increasingly been waged and adjudicated through media. Video evidence of police violence has provoked and legitimized dissent. Advocates, journalists, and police themselves have mobilized such videos to support a range of political agendas. Activists have been both constrained and empowered by social media platforms. Since the uprisings, growing numbers of educators have worked to acquaint college students with critical frameworks through which to understand the social dynamics of policing. These frameworks tend to emerge from disciplines such as critical race studies, gender studies, history, sociology, and law. Students are also becoming increasingly active in movements against police violence, including work to abolish campus police forces. Yet often missing from activism and curricula are critical skills and vocabularies through which to analyze the images, technologies, and processes of mediation that shape the political terrain where struggles over police (il)legitimacy are waged.

Media scholars have long explored these issues, often in explicit response to instances of state violence. In 1992, the Society for Cinema Studies convened for its annual conference in the days following the acquittal of the police who attacked Rodney King. At that conference, attendees invoked their obligations as “media educators” and adopted a resolution that expressed outrage at the verdict.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The following year, the emerging Visible Evidence documentary studies network held its inaugural conference partly in an effort to reckon with the verdict’s implications for the study and practice of nonfiction media.[2] More recently, media scholars have continued to rethink disciplinary priorities and curricular conventions in response to moments of political crisis.[3] And yet despite these important engagements, pedagogies that center nontheatrical moving images remain marginal, and syllabi are rarely organized around the pragmatic insights that film and media studies can lend activists and vice versa.[4]

In 2022, I received a lectureship from the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights to design and teach an undergraduate class entitled “Documenting State Violence.” The class emerged from my conviction that media studies can provide indispensable tools for understanding both the possibilities and challenges of contesting police violence today. Most students were majoring in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies or Human Rights and arrived with no prior training in media analysis. I had an opportunity to assess, practically, the relevance of frameworks from media studies to intellectual and activist projects oriented toward social justice. Together the students and I investigated how media practices can support or undermine activism against state violence as we explored how they intersect with key topics of concern to film and media scholars—including interpretation, legibility, aesthetics, technology, distribution, audience, access, and consent.

In this essay, I reflect on pedagogy and discuss how media educators can equip students with tools to assess and respond to the contemporary conjuncture of power, technology, and activism. I emphasize media studies’ ability to complicate binaries that reduce thinking about technology to technophilia or technophobia, instead promoting nuanced contextual analysis. In particular, I explore the ethical dilemmas involved in teaching violent imagery, and I advocate pedagogical strategies that foster active learning by guiding students to engage the intersections of media scholarship and activist praxis.

Media activism

I taught this course, Documenting State Violence, at the University of Chicago, a private institution located on the South Side of Chicago. For decades, the university has championed urban renewal projects that have displaced Black residents from surrounding communities while policing those communities with a private university police force thought to be one of the largest in the world. Increasingly, activist groups on campus have been joining forces with community members who have long demanded accountability from the university for past and ongoing harms.[5] Teaching and learning about police violence from within such an institution immediately clarified that we were all, to varying degrees, complicit in it. None of us entered the classroom from a position of moral purity. Instead, we shared an obligation to reject systems that predicate the safety of some on the harm of others.

Our class engaged with these local struggles, placing particular focus on recent police killings in Chicago and the work of local activists employing multimedia strategies to demand police accountability. However, we also looked to a broader range of contexts—from Louisiana to Standing Rock, Cambodia to Palestine—to refract our local situation through the context of other struggles. This comparative approach left us with a prismatic image in which we came to understand best practices for media activism as being context-specific, resisting abstraction into universal principles.

Students came to the class with a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, from political science to human rights, critical race studies to molecular engineering. Very few had experience in film or media studies. However, acquainting students with the building blocks of media studies allowed us to dissect the processes through which police legitimacy is constructed and can be dismantled. It also directed our attention to some of the unintended harms that can result from attempts to challenge police violence through visual media. For example, key concepts in media studies helped us work through the following topics:

As a class, we tracked the construction and deconstruction of police legitimacy across numerous domains of media analysis.

Showing violence

These crucial last topics concerning our encounters with violent imagery became central because any educator dealing with visual media must confront them reflexively. Teaching a class about images of police violence poses inherent ethical challenges. What images should we show, or not show? How do we balance the imperative to teach students about violent histories with our responsibilities not to harm them?[6]

I staged an explicit conversation about these dilemmas on the first day of class, during which I established students’ expectations about the images and issues we would be dealing with. We discussed why we think it important to study difficult (even traumatizing) topics and shared strategies for protecting our well-being as we undertake this work. Such strategies ranged from banal activities like baking and watching silly TV shows to profound commitments, such as keeping sight of the radical, hopeful visions that invariably fuel activist projects. As we developed this discussion in subsequent weeks, difficulties and differences inevitably arose because people have diverse experiences with and ways of processing violence based on their unique histories, positionalities, dispositions, and preferences. Rather than impose a universal standard or pretend to have all the answers, I emphasized that these differing responses to nonfictional media were exactly what we were there to learn about, and I encouraged students to challenge me (respectfully) as disagreements arose.

Some students took up this invitation after our first film screenings. During the first few weeks of the class, I introduced students to a range of cinematic approaches to witnessing violence—from the legal evidence provided by Nazi Concentration Camps (1945) during the Nuremberg trials to the subjective traumas of genocide chronicled in Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture (2013). I had assumed that students would prefer to reflect on the material independently before having to share their thoughts in a group context. However, some were upset by the lack of an immediate opportunity to process traumatic images and histories collectively. Few of my students had taken classes with film screenings before, and they found it jarring to leave—especially after a film dealing with violence—without first regrouping to discuss the screening’s content. Going forward, I facilitated optional post-screening discussions in which students could share their more visceral responses to the material. These informal discussions ended up creating an enriching space of community in which we built trust as a group.[7]

I also made the ethical dilemmas of showing violence central to our discussions by explaining my reasons for including and excluding certain material. Additionally, I introduced students to a range of popular and academic arguments about our duties to show and look at—or to refuse to recirculate—violent imagery. Ultimately, we were left with a complex account of conflicting positions and obligations rather than clear-cut solutions.


One of my central goals (and challenges) for this class was to equip students with critical skills that allow for nuance and ambivalence in the absence of correct or easy answers. I wanted to get them thinking beyond the technophobic or technophilic poles to which conversations about the politics of technology are often magnetized. It can be comforting to rest our analyses on definitive principles, however the issues of (anti-)police media are inherently more complex.

For example, we had to face a key issue: Do social media platforms create new public spheres that enable formerly silenced voices to circumvent traditional gatekeepers, or do they produce a new terrain of exploitation that extracts value from pain and trauma?  The difficulty is that both are true. Images and platforms can both abet and challenge state violence. They can empower people and expose them to further harassment. They can help forge new alliances and enable new forms of exploitation. And they often do this all simultaneously. Embracing ambivalence helped us engage with complexity and explore how existing technological processes can be made to serve different political interests.

For example, we compared Allissa Richardson and Safiya Umoja Noble’s perspectives on the racial politics of bearing mediated witness to anti-Black violence.[8] In Richardson’s account, social media platforms provide alternative spaces for advocacy that bypass the strictures of legacy media, enabling activists to circulate evidence and correct the official record. In contrast, Noble argues that these commercial platforms simply turn Black death into profit while surveilling activists and retraumatizing Black users. Where Richardson insists that digital videos provide important evidence of state racism, Noble underscores that such evidence rarely secures guilty verdicts or material restitution. Where Noble demonstrates how social media platforms isolate images of violence from the historical contexts necessary to interpreting them, Richardson explores how those contexts can be restored through situated practices of Black witnessing.

Rather than presume that one thinker was correct and the other mistaken, we investigated how they arrived at their respective conclusions and emphases based on their different disciplinary standpoints, interpretive frameworks, and archives of evidence. We also found that both authors held crucial insights in common:

This richly contextualizing approach to reading enabled us to appreciate both the affordances and constraints of various media practices. Dwelling in a space of ambivalence, we moved beyond issuing verdicts that sort good objects from bad ones and instead explored how those objects and practices could be transformed.

Creation and/as critique

Often, it was through practice-based learning that we could most fully work through these complexities. Hands-on exercises enabled students to think critically about how media function—and to imagine how they might function differently. For example, students created prototypes for apps that would record, archive, and transmit videos of state violence. This exercise prompted them to consider the implications of their design decisions on issues of traumatization, ownership, consent, and contextualization. They debated how they, as legislators, might regulate social media platforms. They also used their own visual data sets to train machine learning algorithms to classify images and experienced first-hand how artificial intelligence encodes cultural assumptions. By engaging with media technologies at the level of practice, we scrutinized their inner workings and explored how they could be retooled to serve other interests. It was through creative inquiry that critical insights emerged about media’s political possibilities and limitations.

Assignments also helped students build connections between scholarly arguments and activist praxis. For example, students analyzed the practice of cop-watching through the lens of class readings. First, they attended a local activist group’s training in the laws, best practices, and safety considerations of filming the police as a tactic of bystander intervention. Next, they wrote critical reflections about these trainings that built on class discussions about the ethics of recording strangers, ambiguity of photographic meaning, risks of retraumatizing survivors, and racial politics of showing and looking at violence. Through this assignment, students investigated the practical implications of scholarly concepts, analyzing how political praxis supports or challenges them.Students also explored how these theories might translate into concrete suggestions for activists on the ground—such as how to avoid accidentally incriminating someone you’ve filmed, or what to do with footage once you’ve recorded it.

For their final projects, I encouraged students to apply their newly honed skills of media analysis to a context that mattered to them. Students investigated histories ranging from the violence of separation in Korea, to the epidemic of femicide in Honduras, to the politics of mourning in Chicago. Now equipped to approach creative work as a critical practice, some students pursued media production projects through which they experimented reflexively with a medium’s possibilities. For example, they explored how video editing techniques can make unacknowledged forms of violence legible as such, and they grappled with the ethical double-binds of encountering police violence on social media (to “like” or not to “like”?). Recognizing that scholars may or may not be the public with the most to gain from their research, I asked students to think expansively about whom they wanted as their audience (e.g. legislators, grandparents, peers) and what communicative strategies would most effectively reach that group. This, in turn, prompted students to develop their own pedagogies—through, for example, videos and podcasts that aimed to provide middle schoolers with the critical perspectives that my students wished they’d had at that age.

Building reality

From the emotional force that violent imagery exerts, to the ways that people make and remake technologies, students and I continually returned to a key idea: media don’t just passively represent reality; they actively shape, construct, and intervene in it. Popular culture maintains perceptions of police legitimacy and cultivates attachments to institutions such as the police and the carceral system. Logistical media such as predictive models, GPS maps, and drones make specific modes of repression and resistance possible. In some contexts, the very presence of a camera can serve as a form of protection from harm. In others, it can escalate violence.

In short, media don’t only describe—they actively build the reality we inhabit together. It is my hope that the ideas and experiences I have shared here will spark insights, reflections, and critical engagements from students and teachers thinking about media’s role in building a society not predicated on violence.