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Oct 3, 16

Smashed Windows, Social Media and State Surveillance

Submitted to It’s Going Down

On September 21st, 2016 the people of Charlotte, North Carolina took the streets in response to the police murder of Keith Lamont Scott, a 30 year old black man fatally shot by two undercover officers serving someone else a warrant. Resistance to the murder of Keith Lamont Scott took many shapes, ranging from prayer vigils to marches and property destruction. Forty-one people were arrested by Charlotte police (CPD) that night, and an additional twelve would be arrested over the following days for activity that allegedly occurred on the 21st. Through social media, police have made clear they are seeking to arrest more individuals for the events of the 21st, many of them for property destruction. At least 95 warrants have been signed in relation to the Charlotte protest.

Using closed circuit cameras, social media, and other surveillance footage, CPD has identified, charged and arrested at least 22 people after the fact. Police have used twitter to circulate the names and images of people they’re actively searching for, and some of the images being used to confirm identities appear to come from the targeted protesters’ own social media content. The circulation of their images serve two purposes: the first is actually crowd-sourcing information, and the second is a reminding demonstrators that they are being watched.

None of this is new. State surveillance and the political persecution of people fighting for social justice is well known and documented; it has been ongoing for decades. What is new, however, is that many people are now documenting acts of resistance in real time and publicly sharing their footage. This documentation is being viewed and cataloged by police for general intel purposes and also as evidence used to charge specific demonstrators.

Documenting resistance and sharing that documentation is essential for inspiring others and creating a culture of resistance. The idea that people will stop documenting—whether it’s protesters, bystanders or police—is a luddite’s fantasy. The question for those documenting resistance in solidarity with the movement is how we can continue our work without assisting law enforcement and thus facilitating the criminalization of our fellow demonstrators. The following is not an answer, but merely a series of suggestions informed by my experience documenting resistance in Chicago; they are meant to provoke a larger conversation around how those with cameras can love and protect our fellow protesters.

In the immediate aftermath of radical resistance, demonstrators are often quick to upload potentially incriminating footage of their comrades. Retweets, shares, new followers, and “up votes” are not worth accidentally assisting law enforcement. If you are acting in solidarity with the movement, you have a responsibility to review your content before sharing it on social media. This can mean waiting to upload content or dropping to the back or side to review it before posting. If you capture police brutality on film but are worried that taken out context, it may be incriminating, share that footage with a movement lawyer before publicizing it.

For live streamers, it is doubly important to be aware of your surroundings and how action is developing. Live streams provide no opportunity to remove footage from circulation, as most platforms are backing up the video as you stream. To protect the people you’re documenting, it may mean having to go down during portions of the protest. If you don’t want to go down, another alternative is to turn the live stream onto you and narrate the action you’re seeing or frame the shot to only include what you want viewers to see. Your lens could also be trained on police during times when you need to avoid filming demonstrators. In any of these scenarios, being aware of how the action is changing is essential for ensuring you’re not accidentally broadcasting evidence that may be misused by law enforcement.

Photos taken by demonstrators, movement media and journalists can also be used for data collection and supporting or creating charges. With photography, it’s important to remember how images can be taken out of context. The frozen-in-time sight of a hand on an officer while reaching for balance becomes felony assault, an arm extended proves a punch thrown, real or imagined. This is why I will shoot from a distance, intentionally blur an image, increase the brightness to blow out light sources/lens flares and filter my images before posting to social media.

While there are numerous live streamers and live tweeters like @Rebelutionary_Z, @UnicornRiot, and myself that place priority on raising the voices of the movement, many people will sellout you and your comrades in a hot second if offered $50 bucks from Russia Today or Telesur, a transaction which ultimately ensures footage will be available to law enforcement. In the past year, Chicago Police have used images from the Chicago Tribune twice to back up or create fabricated charges against protesters. Many news agencies want to be in good standing with police in order to get information when breaking news is happening, and keeping that good relationship means cooperating with authorities.

In the past year, there has been a dramatic increase in the infiltration of street actions by right-wing media . Some of these so-called journalists are employed by right-wing media outlets like Breitbart, while others are just overzealous racists and misogynists trying to discredit the movement. In some instances, these people will actively provoke demonstrators and police in hopes of getting their “gotcha” journalism moment. Others will silently try to blend into demonstrations, hoping to catch incriminating footage to hand over to law enforcement. It should be noted that many of them have lawyers tailing them, and these right-wing pundits often try to sue people for assault after having been removed from a demonstration. It’s important that activists identify who these individuals are and let others on the ground know. The best way to deal with these “journalists” is to have someone following them, or distracting them from interacting with demonstrators.

With journalists descending on protests looking for their next hot lead and everyone including their mother carrying audio and video equipment in their pockets, it’s important for demonstrators to take steps to protect themselves. For many people, this means masking up.

Although the culture surrounding masking up is often extremely problematic, including heavy doses of toxic masculinity, there are many reasons why someone might want to mask up. For example, in 2012, I was fired from my job for simply appearing in one too many Occupy related press photos. This experience is not unusual; many people are harassed by employers, friends, neighbors, or family members for participating in political activity.

In addition to protecting a person’s identity, uniform appearance and action can create a sense of solidarity among a group of people acting as a unit. Avoiding harassment or identification doesn’t need to require masking up, either; it may be as simple as bringing a disguise or a change of clothes.

It is important to remember that on top of unfriendly or irresponsible live streamers, the press, and closed circuit cameras, many police departments are now filming protests themselves. Police footage is used for documenting activity, identifying individuals, and understanding protest tactics. With the proliferation of body cameras, many officers have become walking surveillance units. Although touted as a way to hold police accountable, body cams are just another tool in the officers’ belts. The lens of the body cam is not documenting police activity; it’s documenting your activity. If it hasn’t happened already happened, police will certainly use body cam footage to charge demonstrators.

Surveillance can go both ways, of course. Rather than training our cameras on each other, we could be focusing on filming the police. By documenting police activity, we can counter charges and discredit the state’s narratives. Copwatching also has many practical applications outside of a protest environment. In the past two years, the importance of documenting police encounters has been made abundantly clear, from Ramsey Orta filming the execution of Eric Garner by NYPD to the countless instances of police brutality captured by live streamers at protests across the country. It’s important to remember that even when filming police, you may accidentally capture images or video that can be used against demonstrators. Even if you feel the footage shows the police misbehaving or being violent, it is best to run footage that features any demonstrators by a movement lawyer before releasing it to the public.

Surveillance is not a reason to avoid protests, but it is a reason to be smart. If we truly want to love and protect each other, it is essential that we ensure our documentation is helping and not harming the causes we are so passionate about. We must be careful with each other so that we can be dangerous together.

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