At Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park on Thursday afternoon, as the sixth day of protests against police violence stretched into the seventh, it was clear something had changed.
“We got gassed, and flash banged, and tear-gassed, and rubber bullets shot at us,” earlier in the week, said activist Jack Eppard Barajas. “I wasn’t expecting for the protests to continue peacefully but [here] we are, at almost 24 hours strong, protesting peacefully.”
Those early clashes were shared widely on social media, creating enormous pressure on Seattle Police to deescalate in the days that followed, and leading city leaders to sit down with organizers and make a series of concessions.
It’s one example of how the explosion of mobile video is altering the dynamic between protesters and police across the country. As thousands of Americans take to the streets to protest police aggression night after night, technology is giving millions at home their first window into scenes that are all too familiar to people of color.
Recording technology promised to usher a new era of police transparency in the form of body-worn cameras. But like many new tools embraced by law enforcement, the technology has a more complicated impact on police use of force.
It’s the camera in the pocket of every protester, not strapped to the uniform of every officer, that is dramatically reshaping the dynamics of police accountability. It was the smartphone footage of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died that sparked a nationwide racial justice movement. And it is viral supercuts of police aggression that provide a glimpse into the experience of people of color for their neighbors sheltering at home.
The growing popularity of recording devices, including cellphones, body cameras, and home security systems, combined with social media, creates a never-before-seen mosaic of police behavior. Millions of people across the country are witnessing for the first time what black Americans have experienced for decades. Technology is simultaneously ushering in a new era of police watch-dogging and surveillance, bringing the racial justice movement to a fever pitch.
Videos of violence
While many saw Sony’s 1983 debut of the world’s first camcorder as a major technological leap forward, few could have predicted that it would herald a police reform movement.
But seven years later, an early adopter of the technology changed the world. George Holliday happened to step out onto his balcony with a Sony Handycam in time to capture footage of four Los Angeles Police officers beating Rodney King. A six-year-old Mark Zuckerberg was 13 years from launching Facebook, so Holliday took the video to a local news station. The footage, largely considered to be the first viral video in history, led to demonstrations and riots throughout Los Angeles.
“At least in my lifetime, I can trace back where we are now to that instance because … the emergent personal video technology of that time, the handheld video camera, was something that was very new,” said Daudi Abe, a Seattle Central College professor and writer who teaches the history of hip-hop, as well as a course on race and policing for cadets.
“Not a lot of people had them because they were still so new,” he said. “In a lot of ways, that day in 1991 would’ve been just another day at the office for the LAPD had it not been for George Holliday and his video camera on the balcony of his apartment that night.”
Holliday’s video was the first in a series of incidents of police aggression caught on camera by civilians and shared over the following two decades. Cellphone footage of white police involvement in the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and other black men helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter organization driving many of the protests today.
“We are talking about race in this country more clearly and openly than we have almost ever in the history of this country. Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed,” actor Will Smith said in a talk show interview in 2016, the year millions of people watched recordings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling die at the hands of police officers.
Today, supercuts of police aggression are going viral, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphone cameras and the ease of sharing on social media.
On May 30, a Twitter user named Jordan Uhl uploaded a compilation of clips showing police using force on apparently peaceful protestors. Images of police using excessive force across the country, including trampling a protestor on horseback, indiscriminate beatings, and ramming a crowd with a vehicle, create a mosaic of violence that is more than the sum of its parts. The series is impossible to write off as the actions of one or two bad actors.
Within four days, the video had nearly 50 million views and that’s just the file uploaded to Twitter. Uhl shared a Dropbox link allowing anyone to upload the compilation to their own accounts, leading to far broader distribution. A widely watched video of a white woman calling the police on a black bird watcher in Central Park that contributed to this moment of tension received 5.5 million views, by comparison.
Who is this serving?
Who is this protecting? pic.twitter.com/IK8DkwLLUT
— jordan (@JordanUhl) May 31, 2020
Countless videos of similar acts are spreading online each night. In one video taken in Seattle, a Washington State Trooper is heard telling his team, “Don’t kill them, but hit them hard.” The State Patrol later apologized for the officer’s choice of words. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also apologized on behalf of the State Patrol during an address Wednesday.
“We know that officers in positions of leadership, they’re looked up to by their subordinateness which makes their voices and words very important in these tense situations,” he said, noting that he’s asked the chief of the State Patrol to review the incident.
“DON’T KILL THEM, BUT HIT THEM HARD.”
I am shaking. #seattleprotests #BlackLivesMattter pic.twitter.com/hL1B0xvnQJ
— ?️?☂️Krystal Marx☂️ ?️? (@Bishop_Krystal) June 3, 2020
After these videos continued to circulate on social media for days, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan sat down with organizers of the protests and agreed to lift nightly curfews that were planned through Saturday. She also pledged to abandon the city’s effort to withdraw from a consent decree that has held the Seattle Police Department under federal oversight since 2012. By the end of the week, police officers were maintaining their distance from protesters and reducing their use of force. Seattle PD declined an interview for this story due to the volume of media requests.
Update: Durkan also announced Friday that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best will issue a directive banning the use of tear gas on protestors for at least 30 days.
The shift was clear Thursday when protesters pulled together an impromptu brainstorming session near Cal Anderson Park to discuss next steps, a peaceful tableau that stood in stark contrast to scenes from demonstrations earlier in the week. After about an hour, the crowd size had doubled. In the distance, police officers stood behind a barricade in front of Seattle’s East Precinct.
While thousands of Americans are attending the demonstrations in person, a far greater audience is tuning in online, many of whom are still isolating at home under shutdown orders due to the pandemic. The convergence of events is shining an unprecedented spotlight on police use of force. But not everyone believes it will lead to meaningful change.
“What happens when, time and again, law enforcement officers are recorded brutalizing citizens but left unpunished?” wrote New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo this week. “I worry that police violence will become even more normalized, turning into a crude spectacle that loses even the ability to shock.”
Manjoo noted that the officers responsible for George Floyd’s death knew they were being filmed. “Cameras were supposed to eliminate this sort of horror. Here, they hardly make it better.”
Body cameras: The ‘magical solution’ that wasn’t
When the Seattle and Scottsdale-based law enforcement tech company Axon began shipping body cameras five years ago, they were hailed as a way to bring much-needed transparency to police use of force. But the technology has proven to be more complicated than initially anticipated.
A 2017 report by The Leadership Conference and Upturn describes how body camera footage, when available for review by officers, can be used to shape a narrative about incidents of force.
The ability to review footage can create “an illusion of accuracy because it produces a false impression of how much officers actually remember” and “in the worst cases, because of the inherent limits of body-worn cameras, unrestricted footage review allows officers to square their version of events to the footage,” according to the report.
Flyers posted around Cal Anderson, a hub for the Seattle protests, demand police keep body cameras turned on anytime they encounter a suspect, person of interest, or civilian. But that scenario raises red flags for civil rights groups.
“We have a lot of reservations about the use of body cameras and think that if they’re used, there need to be very strong safeguards to protect people’s privacy and to ensure that they’re not only weaponized against people who are already disproportionately surveilled,” said Jennifer Lee, head of the ACLU of Washington’s Technology and Liberty Project.
Last year, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conducted an experiment in which a randomly assigned portion of more than 2,000 Washington, D.C., officers received body cameras for a seven-month period. The results found that the cameras did not meaningfully change police behavior on a range of outcomes, including complaints and use of force.
However, a year-long study of about 400 officers with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found a 37% reduction in use-of-force complaints against officers who were wearing body cameras.
“The fact that the past few days have been a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go does not take away from how far we’ve come,” said Jeff Kunins, chief product officer at Axon. “It’s why citizens record as well. When a camera is present, it’s not a panacea, it’s not a guarantee, but it certainly makes a huge difference in the likelihood that the people on both sides of that lens are going to behave more appropriately.”
There isn’t enough data to say with certainty how effective body-worn cameras are at reducing misconduct, according to Mary Fan, a University of Washington law professor and author of Camera Power: Proof, Policing, Privacy, and Audiovisual Big Data. The research is as young as the technology itself.
But she said early reports indicate that body cameras are only as effective as the policies that govern their use and officer compliance with those policies.
“There’s a strong temptation to want a technological magic solution in these challenging times rather than address the deep longstanding root causes of the current tragedies,” she said. “With respect to the science and the studies of whether recording works, the results are frankly mixed.”
Seattle PD’s body cameras were turned off during the protests this week due to a long-held policy not to record peaceful demonstrations because of privacy concerns. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday that she asked the City Council to consult with the ACLU about revising that policy.
Lee said the ACLU remains wary of using police body cameras to monitor protests. But when activists control the lens, “that fundamentally changes the dynamics because the cameras aren’t being solely put on the protesters.”
Fan echoed Lee’s comments: “The challenge with body-worn cameras is one side still has control over the button.”
“These windows into the realities that people are living, I think it does help waken the nation,” she added.
Videos of police violence are contributing a national awakening but capturing those moments also comes at a risk to people of color on the frontlines of the movement, as Eppard Barajas experienced first-hand during the Seattle protests earlier in the week.
“When I pulled out my phone, it felt like I was a dog baring my teeth,” he said, adding “It’s totally a risk. But it shouldn’t stop people from doing it.”
If people of color don’t record their own experiences with the police, that reinforces a longstanding tradition of white people controlling the narrative, according to Barajas.
“That is just systematic racism that’s been at play,” he said. “Ever since things have been documented they’ve always been documented through a white lens and never through an objective lens.”
Accountability or surveillance?
Before Floyd’s death ignited a national uprising, less conspicuous windows into activity on America’s streets were cropping up across the country. Home security systems have surged in popularity over the past few years, led by Amazon’s Ring.
Ring said its video camera doorbell system was used more than 15 million times last Halloween, nearly double the previous year’s total. Sales of Ring devices nearly tripled in December despite hacks and privacy issues, according to Recode.
The proliferation of home security cameras isn’t just enabling neighborhood voyeurism. Amazon has privately partnered with more than 400 police forces across the country to expand Ring’s reach and allow customers to share footage with police via the company’s Neighbors app.
Amazon is also a pioneer of facial recognition software, which law enforcement agencies can license, despite concerns raised by civil rights groups. The ACLU and others worry that these surveillance tools disproportionately target people of color and amplify human bias.
“We’ve seen local police departments secretly acquire all sorts of high-tech surveillance tools, such as facial recognition technology, that are dangerous and discriminatory against Black people and other communities of color,” Myaisha Hayes, campaigns director for the online equity group MediaJustice, said in a statement to GeekWire. “In light of the ongoing George Floyd protests and uprisings against police violence across the country, we can expect these tools to be used against us during this current moment of political dissent and protest because the government has a history of secretly criminalizing Black protesters.”
A racial justice movement inside an economic crisis
Though the demonstrations in America’s cities over the past week have captured the world’s attention, it is impossible to ignore the economic and public health crisis serving as a backdrop.
And the two are inextricably linked.
Black Americans are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. They are less likely to have access to healthcare, their emergency funds are smaller, if they exist at all, and they more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans, according to The New York Times. In the wake of the economic destruction the virus has wrought, less than half of black adults in the U.S. have a job.
“Part of the reason black people are dying at a greater rate are issues like access to quality healthcare or healthcare at all,” Abe said. “I think that a lot of communities of color were feeling that strain already and it’s not a small strain. If that’s the gasoline then certainly this incident was a match that just ignited.”
The road ahead
While technology on the ground is helping people of color amplify their calls for change, the companies that deliver those tools are struggling to strike the right tone.
Diversity has always been a challenge for the tech industry, a fact that critics are quick to point out when tech giants post messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Underscoring the tension are Twitter and Facebook’s attempts — or lack thereof — to moderate President Donald Trump’s incendiary posts about the movement.
Yes, I will name names.@amazon needs to stop integrating Ring cameras w/ police depts & selling facial recognition tech to ICE.@Nextdoor needs to publicly deal w/ their Karen problem
Commercial banks need to stop lobbying against the Community Reinvestment Act
Name yours ⬇️
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 3, 2020
The question for those companies, law enforcement, and the country at large, is whether these historic demonstrations will lead to meaningful change.
But one thing is clear: The growing number of recording devices in pockets, on doorbells, and on police officers paint a more comprehensive picture of what people of color experience than ever before. That makes it increasingly difficult to tune out the message activists are shouting from city streets around the country.
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