Over the past few weeks, I have spent more time glued to my screen than any other period during my six year tenure as Executive Director of WITNESS. Every day, more videos of recent or live-streamed violence, conflict, and human rights abuses reach our devices and our collective consciousness.
Citizen-shot videos documenting the ongoing atrocities in Syria, police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, and the destruction caused by missiles in Gaza reach us within minutes of the events they depict. Today, in an unprecedented way, we carry the realities of our world in our pockets. In the streets and among thought leaders, there is a prevailing sense that the world is a particularly violent and unsettled place.
But is this really true? Or are we, as global citizens with 24/7 access to stories as they unfold in real time, simply more connected to all human suffering? Now that we all are witnesses, how do we ensure that our ability to be witnesses—to capture, share, and expose abuses—actually leads to increased accountability for human rights crimes?
Police violence, and particularly racialized policing in America, is not a new phenomenon. It is a historic, systemic wrong, and the use of excessive force is a widespread civil rights violation. The Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991 propelled WITNESS into being and put cameras on the map as potential tools for human rights defenders. This was the moment when we, as a nation and a global community, first realized the power of ordinary citizens holding an extraordinary tool—video—in their hands.
We also know that police brutality is a widespread, endemic human rights issue facing communities around the world. In most instances, these abuses still go unaccounted for, and the citizens who dare to speak up incur grave risks and suffer repercussions.
As this type of wrong is often perpetrated by people within “the system” against individuals in marginalized communities, video has an important role to play. Often, video is the only thing that can tip the scales from impunity to accountability.
Today, with stories of abuse being captured and shared by millions, we have a unique opportunity to create more human rights accountability. But this does not happen automatically.
When I watch these videos with such potential to transform human rights advocacy, I am concerned about the gaps and the lost opportunities: the videos that cannot be authenticated; the stories that will be denied or thrown out of court—or worse, will never reach their intended audience; a survivor’s account lost in a visual sea of citizen media. Mostly, I worry about the safety of the person who filmed, about her privacy and security.
From our work with video over the past two decades, and particularly from working closely with front-line defenders using mobile phones in recent years, we are constantly learning valuable lessons about the actual needs of human rights defenders and citizen witnesses on-the-ground, and we (and others) have developed tools and resources to ensure that their video documentation is effective and ethical, and that they are safer.
Today, around the world, a broad movement that includes accidental witnesses, lawyers, criminal justice experts, NGOs, bloggers, media collectives, journalists, and affected communities is eager to use video and contribute to justice. They are picking up cameras, or collecting and sharing others’ footage, to prove abuses or demand action.
It is our job to support them. That’s why we are actively sharing the tactics we are learning from brave front-line activists filming in places like Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, Syria, and Uganda. And these lessons come in handy when supporting protesters and citizen-documenters in Missouri. What we are learning from the communities who are at great risk, exposing the illegal police tactics and the murders of their young men, we will share with others documenting police violence in Ferguson, and around the world.
When WITNESS was created, we talked about the power of video to “open the eyes of the world to human rights violations.” Today, our collective eyes have been opened to many of the conflicts and abuses that are going on around us. This creates, for all of us, a responsibility to engage. I am deeply convinced that citizen documentation has the power to transform human rights advocacy, change behaviors, and increase accountability. But let’s make sure that all of us filming have the right tools and capabilities, and that we apply and share the lessons we are learning from citizen witnesses around the world, so that more people filming truly equals more rights.
Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm is the Executive Director of WITNESS. This post is the beginning of a monthly series of pieces from Yvette on WITNESS and our work. You can follow Yvette on Twitter @yvettethijm. Yvette would also like to encourage readers to check out WITNESS archivist Yvonne Ng’s recent appearance on Democracy Now! to learn more about our resource The Activist’s Guide to Archiving Video.