Recording police brutality: how technology is driving the new civil rights movement

The Vergecast


Hey everybody seemingly from the verge cast really special interview episode this week yesterday the verge published feature package where calling capturing the police which was a months-long effort for almost everybody at the site to really interrogate the role of technology in the movement against police violence. The heart of the package is a feature where we talk to. People who had filmed the somewhat viral videos of police violence asking him why they did it. What happened next how they felt in the moment whether they would do it again, really contextualising these that we've seen over and over and over again we estimate videos. One is about a specific incidents with a specific set of men in Baytown Texas who filmed police violence and what happened next another one from the science team is about body cameras and police body cameras, and how they affect your perception. What's going on in some academic research that's come out about that. So I asked verge reporter, Steven and verge video producer, my calf, the two leaders of the site wide project To come on, say talk to me about the project what they learned in. Really I, keep thinking about this, the role that our phones are playing in changing our relationship to the and the government. I don't think any product manager or designer at a smartphone company ever thought that their products will be used in this way or create this moment. This is the direct intersection of technology and culture, which is something the virtuous. Investigate. So this is a really great conversation with John and Maria and a really big project. We're very proud of it that'd be read. Watch it here are John and Maria. Maria Abdul. John Steven Welcome to the virtuous easy doing well I. I'm doing great another beautiful day in. Quarantine Mario. How are you? I'm good. I'm very relieved that this really big thing that we have produced is out there. So now I get to. Take back and reflect de. So Youtube or the editorial leaders have big projects that four I would say two months we just called the police project I. Hope Everybody can see it on site. We're very proud of it in scope it looks at how people have been using technology to record the police record police behavior protests use technology and the tools to organizers protests to organize. The movement around police brutality, and then a lot of how those cameras in particular affect our relationship with the police. So it was a huge project and it looks like one big feature, a bunch of. Additional reports around that feature in two videos that my help produce. Let's start with where it came from. How did this project begin in? How did it take the shape that it ended up being on the site? That is very, very good question because. It was sort of such a big undertaking. We it started in a very different direction than it ended as I think a lot of large projects generally tend to. So it started with an idea, a sort of idea in the staff, one of our executive editor was like we should do something to capture the moment then it sort of fell on me to shape that idea. Which is, which is interesting sort of problem because I was very interested in. Working with the initial iteration of the of the project, but getting a chance to shape it meant that I had to think critically about sort of what what would fit the moment and what would capture the moment. Well, I would say so that's how we came came up with the idea of focusing on the people filming videos of police brutality because it felt like there was a section missing to the narrative that was Benjamin. Circulating around social media, which is to say, we don't really hear from those people like we hear a lot from from victims we hear from police officers, but we don't really hear from people who like the everyday people who are sort of in the line of fire and decide to make the very brave decision to pick up their phones and record and sh like shine light like shed light. On on this type of violence that really sort of goes undocumented because one of the things we police finances, it never really shows up police reports. Yeah. One thing that caught me is I say this a lot but this is a new way of using phones that fundamentally what's happening with with all of these if you look at our feature, we started at very intentionally with Rodney King. George holiday that the person who shot the Rodney King beating in the nineties using gigantic Sony eight millimeter cassette handicap which basically no one had those like some families WanNa had those. But the the that camera was present at that moment in time at one am on that corner to witness that thing was astoundingly improbable and as we've come to now, the presence of cameras is actually more likely than not in just the way people live their lives and so the decision to record seems at once. Easy simple. Everyone has a camera. It seems likely that everything will be recorded, but it also turns out to have dramatic consequences. Yeah. Yeah. I think one of the main threads which will I'm sure get into later is a lot of these people felt afraid of retaliation from the police because they posted on social media they sort of were indentifying themselves as targets, Samara and you pretty. Videos here how how did you pick the two together the verge video team did want in the verge science team did one how do we land in those two? So. At the first video and Ben Evita's. I initially saw the video on this very large like database of other videos, police brutality that had been collected, and that was being shared on twitter that we were using that we were looking through for this project, and when I first saw the video I serve noted it as something worthy. But because it had, it didn't happen at a protest. It wasn't the the video that I thought I was going to focus on but after just Justin Callum did the interview with Isaiah for the peace reporters feature in. Told me after he published the video, there had been an increased police surveillance in his life and that he was feeling a lot of anxiety and a Lotta paranoia since he published video. It just really struck me that he still even with all of the sphere and all this anxiety and what was happening he still wanted to talk to us because he had told Justin that he was interested in being part of the video project and so as soon as she told me that I spoke to him and as we sort of spoke, it was just. So clear that he understood the magnitude of recording and he understood the consequences that comes with it and yet still wanted to bring awareness to not only this moment but also what happens when you record the police? So that's how we landed on that video. So our second video on the role of body cams and capturing police brutality fell imperative that we would cover. It in that way given that it's not only bystander footage that is coming out of these recent protests. It's also a lot of body CAM footage in. So we thought it was important and imperative, and that verge science team thought it was imperative to also cover the role of camps and capturing police brutality, but also how they might actually influence how we perceive police. Violence. So it just added a different layer and a different impact to this larger piece. One thing that caught me about that and Addie has report that just is really stuck with me as we went through the project about how all these videos of protests and police violence are becoming a genre film, and as I read that and I watched the body cam video. It just occurred to me that we actually have to use of the formal language of film to describe what's happening here that the body cam is telling the story because it's one kind of camera it shows you one kind of it has a gaze and all these other cameras have another kind of perspective in it. I. Don't think we ever think about that as these videos is having maybe like that formal connection between what the cameras are doing and what you is the viewer perceived and that to me has been a very powerful through line of this whole project. Actually cameras are active participants in these stories and they shape the narrative. The same way that we we know this in every other situation where there's cameras camera shape the narrative, and they leave things out in a enhance other things and that to me I think there's going to be a big long cultural reckoning over the role of cameras in these moments because we don't really understand how that affects our blazing to the culture to the police to the state, and it's changing because the. Cameras Right now I mean it is ironic a little bit that this genre films started in Los Angeles. Well, that's the most cameras right and it's I mean like you know if you think about it that way it's like it makes sense that like Rodney, King beating was filmed by a person in Los Angeles and maybe not elsewhere but also I, think I think it's interesting that you bring up peace because i. I do think filmmakers understand this. And it is also I mean to to get not conspiratorial but to go a little bit off the rails which I still think it's in line but. The US government spends a not insignificant amount of money advising film makers were making films about the police and the military, and they do get some of these editorial. Editorial. Control some of the stuff. and. I think that perspective does shape the way that we see some of these institutions. Which is why I think it's very powerful that. People on the ground filming and they're making their own narratives about these institutions in real time. So let's start there. That's the that's the big feature. That's the piece reporters. It's eleven interviews with people who film police violence. I want to just immediately atop credit or creative director William troll and the engineer from the box media team Adler who built this thing it is beautiful is quite an experience to go through it. But the stories are actually of course, the most powerful thing. John, tell me about one thing you said to me at the very beginning of this project was this is the same story over and over again? Yes. And there's something about the volume of it that I think really brings it home feature came together and tell me hey, came to that realization and tell us what that story actually is. Yeah. So we interviewed a lot of people that was that was the hard part. One of the hardest parts of the projects was finding people who actually wanted to talk to us but I think we were using Greg sets list on twitter to find some of these people Shasta Greg I did actually interview him for. The you know that's a separate thing but yeah, I think I mean I. Think it's very it's interesting right because through these videos like they all have the same, the same beginning middle and end and. It's once you've see enough of them. It's very it's becomes predictable where the rising action in the falling action isn't purely film criticism terms I. Think the reason that we decided to go this route was because it adds context experience police violence like it's one of the things that like it really gives depth to what's going on and it's stuff that you don't normally see and the idea was to bring that sort of reality. Home to people reading, which is why the reason it's the same story every time and the reason that it's sort of like it was distracting actually at the beginning because I was like, okay, this is a different place. This is a different time. These are different people, but like chronicling the experience effective people in the same way, and that's why it was the same story every time because it's not every day that you see. Somebody who is like an officer? Who's who has sworn an oath to protect the public, just beating the shit out of. A peaceful protester and I think it's one of those things it sort of jars you out of complacency and I think for a lot of the people that we spoke to the interviews it seemed like these people were very sort of Shell. Shocked. They sort of knew the extent of the problem but a lot of them were just normal people who happen to be a protest and happened to be filming when stuff went down and so it was very strange reading these these. Reports from the ground like these eleven fourteen over and over again because. One of the reasons I think that it's important that we have the dateline like when it happened where it happened and like you know how many shares or whatever it, the the videos got was because it, it gave back some necessary context because again, if you're if you're reading this stuff in a vacuum if you're just reading reports. From. People who filmed the stuff it really does get eerily similar in for whatever it's worth videos are almost all at night. If they're usually chaotic and they all feel like are happening same place. Yeah. It's really strange and maybe they are I mean at least psychically speaking right like it's it is the same sort of mental place I think yeah and that was one of the notes as we were putting the thing together that we got from our editors was this we have to return some sense of place to it. So we we added that back in as you were kind of editing each of these individual vignettes. was there a theme that that really came out from each of the people? Was it? What what strikes me as as I watch all these videos there's just everyone has a phone out. Right like all the time it just seems like this instinct to have your phone out that to me is new. That's yeah. That's not how people thought ten years ago or twenty years ago I really do think that's in large part because of the power of social media because again, like the thing about social media, people dismiss it out of hand as like a bad and toxic place which a lot of the time it is like don't get me wrong. However, it is one of the only avenues for social change for people who are marginalized like it's a place where you can go to be heard. By by the institutions who would normally just have the power to ignore you and I think like police violence is one of those things where it is like it is sort of an abuse of power, right? It's one of these. It's like something that it won't show up on an incident report somebody like a cop like using their baton on a protester but if somebody films that and films like the circumstances where it where it happened how it happened like you you you you get a sense of whether or not this was justified and I think. A lot of the Times it's not and a lot of the Times that goes on reported and I think. People have seen that you can actually like get some measure of justice from these otherwise unaccountable institutions by sharing the stuff on social media because public pressure is still a thing and it's interesting that to go back to Isaiah Ben Evita's. He has video that officer fired like his him posting the video actually made a change at the very local level. In his town and I think I think that's a really important thing and I, that's that's sort of what's driving this stuff because again, institutions like the police were previously entirely unaccountable to the public. Mario I mean you, you are yourself filmmaker you talked to Isaiah how do you? How do you take that? That everyone is just instinctively pulling out their phone because they think it will lead to some some change down the road. I think what's interesting about Isiah specifically is that this video doesn't take place at a protest it. He was filming outside of a convenience store they were coming from a barbecue. They hadn't gone to protests recently, they were the at that moment they weren't planning necessarily planning on going to protest later that week however. In as the video begins, you hear him say I've got to get out and record this. You also hear his friends in the car say we've got a record this and yet when we interviewed them, it was the first time any of them had ever recorded police had ever been with other people who recording the police and I think that is largely part to seeing these videos. On twitter and on facebook of police violence being captured by by citizens being captured by civilians, and so they wanted to hold this police officer accountable and they also started recording him preemptively. They didn't start recording him the moment he started you know approaching them they started recording the minute they were pulling over in. So I think that really signifies to us at least to me that. Even. If you've never participated in a protest or never participated in filming the police, you now know that's an option for you. That's an option for you and that's an option for your community. It is I do think the third part that is going on said here. Is that like it is a protective thing too. You have evidence that maybe you weren't doing anything wrong even like, okay like you get pulled over by the cops and they sight probable cause like you're sitting there peacefully. You get to tell your story, view the camera to I think. These videos, I. Am sure are showing up in courts of law across the country. One thing that's really interesting about this. Again, I come back to that the piece from addy come back to the the body cam video from the science team. I was filming someone else he was at a remove right? It was his friend who is in in the encounter at the police. Most of the powerful videos we see the lead to change our are removed. They're not from the participants. How do you? How do you think that plays out in this larger? There's a lot of change in this country. Now, there's a lot of conflict actually WANNA talk we we published the piece yesterday there's been some criticism I wanNA talk about that. But right now we're we're seeing one sort of very clear perspective from a remove. How do you think that's that's playing I. think a big part of when you hear Isaiah speak about filming he talks about the fact that he constantly to remind himself to take a step back because he knew the moment that he engaged directly with these officer, the officer could come out for could come for him. You know he had he very much understood the power dynamics at play. Even, as him as the filmer, so he kept as the officer kept getting closer he kept moving back and he would ask you can hear in the learned the full twelve minute video this incident you continuously hear him ask the other officer in the video hayes it. Okay. If I'm standing here, is it okay if I'm standing here, he's very conscientious of his body and his proximity to the violence to the violence has been that's being enacted against his friends and when we interviewed him the reason that he did take a step back was because he knew that if they took him if he got arrested along with his friends that that video. Might, not like not not got published right? Like he might not get his phone back. These things might happen and he knew the power of that video and the power of what he was holding his hands and he wanted to share it with the world so that meant taking a step back so he do that and it doesn't mean that it didn't traumatize him every time he sees the video he gets. Traumatized by seeing his friends violated in this way however, he understood that the consequences would not have been possible. Had he not taken a step back and capture according? I also think. Just. Generally speaking like we tend to trust videos that come from outside sources or people who are around but not exactly involved. It adds another like an extra veneer of credibility. I think which is. Another reason that like some of the biggest videos that we see are not like it's not the body cam it's not the person on the ground being choked to death. At, somebody else. Who has has has had the same realization as as but. I think you know just subjectively with trust trust those perspectives more because they feel more objective. CVT camera just happened to capture the incident on on film. I would say with this specific incident like the group that was arrested. In Zambia. The was interested but his friends, Skyler Gilmore Phillips were they were all taking part in questioning this officer across the parking lot. So I don't think they were necessarily objective I. Don't I. Don't think they were I think they saw there being pulled over, they recognize the police officer there friend had just been with them at this barbecue and I think the fact that he was able to get the video out there in the fact that you can see the whole incident play out right? Like in our video we don't show the whole twelve minute video, but it's like five minutes. Of Not, much going on until the officer sort of approaches them. So I think the added quote unquote like credibility is that you see the beginning middle and end of that incident Isaiah did not stop recording until the police left Isaiah began filming before the police had even had even gotten out of their cars. So I think with this specific video, it's less about the eject objectively and more about the fact that he was able to capture all. How do you think that ties into one thing that we write about a lot surveillance where all being surveilled all the time you mentioned TV cameras. A on a different day in a different moment. The way our talks about like extremely prevalent C. T. V. Cameras is crap ring put a camera everywhere. Now we're being surveilled in the cops have access to this footage, right? At the same time what we've been talking about a lot is the presence of this camera at a remove actually serves a purpose is Asia. Taking that video from that remove sort of purpose. How should we think about this balance because I I personally right? Like you catch me in a different minute. I'm over here. I'm over there. Actually surveillance is good. No, I think the difference is it really depends on like the the institution that has the footage and what they want to do it. Right like the cops when they get ring footage and what I mean like it's not it's like the cops are using footage to incriminate and I think generally this is very generally speaking in very, very general terms like it's evidence, right? And you know when it's coming from people on the ground protests were filming. It's documentation it's like the same footage, but it can be used in very different ways depending on who's doing the asking. For, the footage like and where it's going I think I think that context is actually super important right? Because like in England, for example, there are cameras everywhere. There's just like municipal cameras run by the fucking. Like in London, for example, there's there's cameras run by the Metropolitan Police Department, and that's just that's just a fact of life. And I think it's interesting because like they I think they have like controls on how you can use that stuff whereas with ring networks here it's like sort of ad hoc private companies turning it over to the police whenever they feel like it. I don't know I guess I'm going on a little tangent here. I really do think that like it depends on who's asking for the footage and what they intend to do with it. I think you know people taking footage is as it's intended to sort of exonerate his friends and that they weren't doing anything wrong and this sort of an unjustified thing. And I think the intent really matters. So I think that it's not just about the presence of cameras and footage, but it's also about who has those cameras and this of act of pulling out your phone to question authority to question police officers is actually referred to as surveillance by scholars. It is the opposite of surveillance. Right surveillance is often reserved for those in power. It doesn't necessarily mean it's always the state surveilled someone but the moment that you begin to surveilled them, you were taking a bit away a bit of their agency away from them. You're taking a bit of their privacy away from them but soon, valence is this idea of challenging. Authority by trying to sort of disrupt this power dynamic by filming your oppressor by filming specifically in marginalized communities, the police, and so with surveillance, it is the idea of this is what we're talking about right like it's not mentioned one time in the videos nor is it mentioned in any of these pieces but all of this is what scholars refer to sue balance, which was coined by Steve Man, and it's all about looking from below. So you're not looking from below you're not the person who is above and the position of power. You are the person who's often surveilled right like with Isaiah and friends like they were they knew this officer they. They had never recorded this officer, but they not only knew of him. They had previously had seen incidences of him, and so I think by pulling out their phone, what they're doing is trying to challenge this authority figure to them that had represented sort of. Head oppressed in had sort of harassed or had allegedly harassed and targeted African Americans in their community. So they see this officer, they see their black friend being pulled over they understand this officer had allegedly been targeting and harassing African Americans they pull out their phone to begin to try to create a counter narrative, and before any of these things I think Bijon spoke about this earlier like when you start recording early on, you can sort of see the maybe there wasn't any probable cause and what you hear them saying the first few minutes of the video is, what's the probable cause? What's probable cause like why did you over in the officer officers aren't engaging right? and. So I think the role of that video in that moment is about who has it right? Like you can hear them. Surveillance video from above that's muted that can be distorted. It's about the person who got out of the car who started filming. Once they start one saw him started getting attacked the person who filmed at the very beginning and surveillance often doesn't involve you filming. Once you see the police officers sort of attacking someone but you film when you see a police officer because you want to challenge there are over you. Yeah. The when I say we're GONNA face a long period of cultural reckoning over this I don't think that we the surveillance scholarship is that it's very early stages right and it's not builds out. It's not complete. We're learning how it works and that to me is one of. You know when when the smartphone cameras invented I don't think people thought the people who invented the ship in the back of every smartphone thought we're going to have to have a conversation about surveillance when this is all said and done and that to me is. Right and that I think about that, all of the time like there are engineers and product managers and designers who make these products. and. Sometimes they have a guest of how they'll be used but this to me is one of the most surprising revolutionary uses of the technology right just fundamentally and I think this conversation about what does it mean for everyone to record the state? What does it mean for the state? Maybe record your back with a body camera or something else it's going to change the nature of our relationship with the people in power. It is interesting like one of the things that fascinates me about taking video protest specifically is like I think, a lot of police officers on the ground seat is violence when somebody holds a camera to them because it like it does challenger Authority, but it also like like it is a a thing creating a record in real time that they cannot control in a situation and I think it's just very strange because. Yeah I mean, the perspective really matters who's who's taking the video really really really matters. Let's talk about that for a minute in this conversation. In the feature, we have very intentionally chosen to highlight one perspective people filming the videos. We have almost no perspective from the police in return know perspective from the state in return as we are making this project I, you know the editor in chief ultimately I'm for everything I knew we were making that decision I felt comfortable with it. We do hear a lot from the police, but that notion that the camera is impeding the the police officers job that the police are themselves scared of violence they need to be protected that there are people with guns in the street Often fear for their lives how do you think that I mean the piece is almost yesterday right for many people liked it. Some people were critical of it. We appreciate the criticism and makes us better. But how do you how were you prepared for that criticism that there was no perspective from the police as after pieces published how did he react and where are you at now? That's a really I mean that's a really really good question I haven't seen much of that criticism. Charts to my filters I. Guess My. But it's I mean I think the larger question of like what police think is really interesting to me new I. Don't know if you know there's been a few years ago. I actually spent a year in Ohio reporting a story on cops there and like. Like this, this very, it was Liverpool East Liverpool Ohio, which is a very small town between it's like West Virginia Pennsylvania and Ohio. It's right on the border of those places and it was the site at one point of the like it had the worst heroin. Like heroin outbreak people were dying of overdoses every single day like the average was like one a day and the police department was like it largely fell on them to take care of the people and it was really interesting because I what I did was like I just spent like my time going on right alongside like. Suit up get my notebook get in the car and we drive around like I would smoke black and milds with this cop, and we would like He. He would pick people up and so I went to the county jail and like I saw the mechanisms of the state like from the passenger seat, which was very interesting because like the more time you spend with police officers, the more you understand that like. Seeing people seeing people's worst every day does something very bad to your brain. It puts you on extremely high alert. And it makes ordinary situation seem incredibly terrifying and I think. One of the things that goes unexplored is the trauma police officers sort of feel, and they just don't talk about it like all of these. There were seven people department all of them were very, very, very clearly traumatized. In a way that was not obvious to them, but very obvious to me is like an outside observer. And it was interesting because like the other thing that they did most of the time, it was just like social work they were just they knew all the people that were talking to they were involved in the community. Everybody knew them like I remember. The COP I was with like picked up this woman because she like had drugs on her. And he was like, why? Why? Like what happened like we talked about this I let you go last time because like you said, you were working on your raptor what happened to that and it was like one of these things where I was like Oh this guy actually really doesn't understand like where these people are coming from we ended up having to take her to the county. Jail because she didn't have money for bail is like one hundred bucks and he was like on the on the hour long ride back. He was fuming that she would have to spend this long in jail just because she didn't have hundred dollars and so it's one of these things I think like you know there are good cops. The police is fundamentally like disordered. I will say it's like. And I think both of those things are in conversation with each other because like again, there are days that are incredibly bad like this cop was telling me like the worst day of his life I ask offhandedly by the way never ask cop with the worst day of their life is. He Was Not prepared for the answer which was like he was like Oh. Yes. So I had to respond to a call this. This guy had kids who you know his his kids were friends with he locked them in the House and burn the house down because his wife was cheating on him and so this cop had to respond to the call and then go tell kids afterward what happened and it was I was just like that is just like outside. So outside of the scope of a normal person's life. That it's like did it requires examination right and I think that's the kind of trauma that these people are like seeing like one of those one of those events can scarred for life I don't necessarily think being police officer is as dangerous to save a firefighter like statistically speaking. But again, like these horrific incidents of violence really do change your perspective and I think a lot of this kind of trauma is invisible and goes unexamined and it's difficult because a protests which is a very ordinary event. There is A. There is some potential for stuff to go wrong and I think if you're on the lookout for that, like it makes it skews your perspective and you can't see what is happening objectively, which is I think why it's very important that people also film the police at these events because there is another record that is being created in real time.

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