By Tanya O’Carroll. Tanya is interning with our Cameras Everywhere Initiative. She is a Master’s candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She has contributed regularly to the blog. including her most recent post on tech companies balancing business practices and human rights. She is also co-editor of a new blog called RightsViews.
Walking through the city of tents at Liberty Plaza, home of Occupy Wall Street, it is immediately striking how many cameras there are floating about. Pointing this out, filmmaker and member of the media working group, who goes by the name of Fix, jokes with me that it sometimes feels like Liberty Plaza is an “occupied surveillance machine.” As if to prove his point, a moment later our conversation is interrupted by the realization that a bystander has quietly stopped to listen and is taping us on an outstretched audio recorder. Rather bemused, Fix explains that it is sometimes difficult to get across that consent still matters. People should feel free to come up and join in the discussion, and yet, others should be able to retain their privacy if they want to.
At the same time, the army of citizen documenters down at Occupy Wall Street has been a major advantage for the movement. It was citizen-shot footage that first transmitted images of mass arrests and police brutality at Occupy Wall Street marches and protests a little over a month ago. The footage taken of New York Police Department (NYPD) cop Anthony Bologna pepper spraying a group of women who were being “kettle netted” by a half a dozen officers on Saturday September 24, 2011 was published by The New York Times, CBS, NPR, The Guardian and TIME among many other mainstream media outlets, gaining Occupy Wall Street some of its first widespread press attention.
Cameras are not only being used to document arrests and police brutality. Echoing the tactics used by activists in Madrid earlier this year (#Spanish Revolution), Occupy Wall Street has made livestream a central feature of its online strategy. As one of those responsible for managing the OccupyNYC livestream, activist Lorenzo Serna told me that the ability to engage a live audience worldwide through the web was one of the most empowering dynamics of the Occupy movement. “It’s similar to the power of the Twitter hashtag #thewholeworldiswatching,” he said. “It creates a dynamic of participation in which a live audience can discuss and create the narrative in real-time instead of reading about events later after the narrative has already been decided.”
Operating a media working group that fluctuates at any one time from between 20-80 people, responsible for everything from video production to post-production, archiving and managing the livestream, activists at Occupy Wall Street have quickly become adept at using video strategically to document and share information with a global audience. While some have years of experience using video for activism, for others it is their first time doing either. I met with Katie Davison, a filmmaker from Los Angeles who was one of the early coordinators of the media working group, and asked for her reflections on how video has played a role so far within the Occupy movement in New York.
The following is our interview from October 25th:
How did you end up getting involved in the creation of the Occupy media working group?
In the beginning I came out with my camera and I didn’t really know any of the organizers or any of the people who’d been behind it. There were 200-300 people who stayed the first night, which whittled down to about 100 the next night. The media working group actually began because a few of us who had come down with expensive equipment needed a place to keep our gear. We quickly got really interested in what was happening with livestream and the technology that the Global Revolution guys were using. They had come out from Madrid with this live stream crew to teach us how to use this technology and they started training people quickly. On the production side, we started uploading people’s content from iPhones and cameras. We didn’t have any platform for Occupy so we created OccupyTVNY, and that became the banner YouTube channel, which we linked to the Global Revolution site.
When there were so many people shooting video, from activists and occupiers to day visitors or even just passersby, how did you manage the task of sharing and uploading video?
It really happened very organically. We had gotten a generator and people would come to plug in their phones. We were realizing that half of what was shot was being shot on people’s phones. In the end people would just come and find you and say “I just shot this angle” or “I just got footage of this arrest.” I don’t think we were thinking about what it could be. At that time we were just thinking it was going to be about documenting this moment in time and creating an archive that represented the voice of the people. Global Revolution helped us get a couple of drives to dump people’s iPhones and smaller cameras and that became the beginning of the Working Group. It was the Union Square day that the media working group really coalesced because that was when we had the first mass arrests.
The Union Square march was the day that footage was caught of a group of girls being pepper sprayed by an NYPD Officer. How did that day change how you saw the role of video in the protests?
On that day I saw them [the NYPD] take down one of the live stream guys and smash his computer. I jumped in under one of the police officers legs to get the shot of it because they were literally pushing his head, the camera and the computer into the ground. And then a moment later I see several white shirts charging him and I step in front thinking they will stop the charge and they knock me to the ground too. Up until that moment I had been treated as a journalist because I was shooting with a camera and shoulder rig. At that moment I realized I had stepped on to the frontlines. There were no lines between citizens and the media.
After the march people literally swarmed the tent. Everybody had footage of this. I think it was the first shocking moment that launched everything, that there was this degree of police brutality. It changed everything for a lot of us. We had three angles including mine of that moment where I had been pushed down on to the ground and we were getting that up online because it was a very telling moment when a journalist had got knocked down. I’ll never forget when we found the fourth angle. We had been missing one last chunk to make it a complete 360 view of what happened.
This is obviously one of the great advantages of so many people carrying cameras; that you can catch a 360 degree view of a moment of police brutality which can serve as incredibly compelling evidence. USLaw.com took some of the video and slowed it down to reconstruct events that day, creating a national conversation about the treatment of demonstrators by the New York Police Department. Yet, that day there was also a degree of luck. Have you made any efforts to systematize these kinds of video tactics?
Yes, that’s exactly what happened. I started realizing that half of what we were doing out there was protecting the people who were on these marches. We developed these badges to let people know we were with Occupy Media and we got these crappy walkies. We would fan out with several people at the front of the line, people in the middle and people at the back. We would talk about what we had learned after each march about the way that police would frame protesters and where action would generally be so that if something did happen we would know whose camera would go where. As soon as it started the march would always be mayhem, but if we could see one of each other we would always try to cover another area so there was always at least one camera.
After that incident we also started making announcements at the Occupy General Assembly, asking people for their footage. People would tell us what they had and we’d know whether we needed it or not to complete the view on any given incident. We could call out if we were missing evidence of something that had happened. It went from reactive to surveillance activist journalism.
Do you think this has strengthened the authenticity of the video, whereby it is much harder to denounce as digitally manipulated or fake?
There has been a lot of conversation among the media working group around transparency. A lot of people feel that livestream or using cameras immediately creates transparency because it is video documentation. I don’t necessarily agree with that because of editing. There are a million ways to manipulate a situation. One thing we do to guard against this is if it’s something like a moment of police brutality we do not cut the footage, we show the entire clip from that one camera angle which doesn’t always make for the most dynamic pieces but is important for transparency.
The number of cameras obviously has advantages for you guys but it also presents challenges for people who, for many reasons, may not want their image online. How do you address this?
There are a lot of undocumented workers here or people who could be fired from their jobs. A lot of people ask not to be on camera and you would always respect that. Within the working group meetings we always ask if everyone if comfortable being on camera. If there’s a block we don’t shoot. Yet, most of the footage is on protest lines and nobody’s getting consent when we film the marches. We are in the process of discussing potential guidelines for citizen journalists. Questions like how do we incorporate new people and allow them to plug-in? What is the philosophy of the working group? We created a charter that became a model for other working groups because we had to deal with some of these issues sooner. Still the question of when it’s appropriate and when it not? That’s a sensitive issue.
You’ve been here five weeks now. That must have been a sharp learning process. Have you figured out a way to share that learning for other activists using video elsewhere?
We have teach-ins every Sunday to teach people how to use the live stream and how they can support us as citizen journalists within our group. We are hoping to strengthen learning with other occupations by using open source to create platforms that will allow us to communicate better. Technology is what is different to anything that has happened before. We are still trying to understand how to use these models to build a global dialogue and global movement that can give voice to people on the ground in each of these places.