On August 9, 2014, residents of the Canfield Green apartments in Ferguson, Missouri responded to the immediate aftermath Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police by taking to streets and to social media to express their disbelief and anger at what transpired. As Brown’s body lay uncovered in the hot street for four hours, crowds of people from Ferguson and beyond began to grow. They added their voices to the growing outrage at the loss of yet another young Black man, at the way the media immediately portrayed him as a criminal, and at authorities’ inhumane display of power in the streets.
It was these local voices, these “first responders”, that alerted the world to what was happening in Ferguson and denounced the response by the police and the mainstream media. The first responders sharply drew attention to the fact that this wasn’t about one “bad apple”, but about deep systemic racism, poverty and decades of injustice in this country.
The death of Michael Brown and the events that followed across the U.S. have unquestionably been a catalyst for much needed conversations around these issues. And while social media and technology alone are not solutions to these problems, they have provided a platform for those most affected by these injustices to counter the mainstream narrative through sharing their own unfiltered stories and experiences.
Tech has also enabled more people to film incidents of police violence on their phones, as we’ve seen in the cases of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castilo and sadly, many others. Now, the voices and stories that have historically been ignored, discredited or exploited are being seen and heard in a new way. As Ta-nehisi Coates reminds us, “It’s not the violence that is new, it’s the cameras.”
A New Era of First Responders
It’s not just bystanders with cameras. There has been an increase in grassroots lead efforts to film police interactions and a surge of interest in community self-defense initiatives like the Anti Police-Terror Project in Oakland or Copwatch, a decentralized network of groups that use video to document police interactions in their communities. It was a member of Stop the Killing, a Louisiana-based group working to document and prevent street violence, that filmed the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. The group’s strategic decision to publish the video after the police report was released helped expose a very different story from the one put forth by officials.
The St. Louis First Responders is a similar initiative that recently evolved out of a Missouri-based WeCopwatch group. The STL First Responders deploy to police shootings and other high-profile incidents involving police with the objective of informing witnesses of their rights and connecting them with legal support, while also gathering evidence to support independent investigations, document the tampering or mishandling of evidence, and challenge the “official” police narrative. Much of their work revolves around educating local community members on their rights when interacting with the police and they are beginning to provide more in-depth trainings on filming police and documenting evidence at crime scenes.
Over the past year WITNESS has partnered with the group to adapt sections of our Video as Evidence Field Guide into a more localized training handbook. The handbook outlines the different roles and responsibilities of the team and provides detailed information on filming evidence. It’s a living document, constantly being adapted to new lessons learned on the ground. Parts of the guide are also informed by other WITNESS partners doing similar work on police violence in other parts of the world. Last fall, members of WeCopwatch and the Brazilian group Colectivo Papo Reto, had the opportunity to meet and share stories, tactics and speak on a panel together about the parallels between the police violence in the U.S. and Brazil.
Earlier this summer I traveled to St. Louis to work with the First Responders on the guide and co-organize several trainings. It was an incredible opportunity to get to know the members of the team and deepen my understanding and respect for their commitment to activism and dedication to ending police brutality. Each person brought their own experience with the police and a unique set of skills to support the group. A number of them were former residents of the Canfield apartments and St. Louis area locals, while others moved there following the death of Michael Brown.
The STL First Responders regularly monitors police activity and deploys when they hear of a shooting in the area. On the scene, they work as a team to identify witnesses and document evidence. Afterward, the team debriefs and discusses next steps. In some cases there is little follow-up that can or needs to be done. But other times, like in the case of Jorevis Scruggs, a 15-year-old shot to death by St. Louis police in April 2016, the group reaches out to the family to provide support and to determine how the evidence they collected might lead to new clues or point to broader patterns of unjust policing.
One key tactic of the group is to draw on expertise from a variety of supporters including community members, legal experts from the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild, copwatchers, digital security experts, and journalists. Jacob Crawford, co-founder of WeCopwatch and the STL First Responders says, “Things happen quickly at a crime scene so we have to move fast to document evidence and speak with witnesses. But we recognize we can’t do this alone. Everyone needs to play a role.”
One evening at our recent training, David Whitt, co-founder of STL First Responders and a former Canfield resident, spoke about the outrage and sadness he felt responding the death of Brown, but also how it motivated him to become more involved in this work. He reiterated that the people of Ferguson, and those who came to take a stand with them, were the true first responders that day.
His words have continued to resonate with me and serve as an important reminder that there is true power in a collective voice and that the voices leading the conversation around these issues must be those of the directly affected. Seeing this growing number of grassroots, community-led efforts to use new media to tell their stories, to expose violations, and to document evidence, renews my hope that more video has the real potential to lead to more justice.
Related Resources & Reading
- Tip Sheet: Filming the Police – US (Español)
- Guide: Basic Practices for Capturing, Storing and Sharing Video Evidence (Español)
Jackie Zammuto is a senior engagement coordinator at WITNESS and leads WITNESS’ work on police violence in North America. You can find her on twitter @JackieZammuto