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Last night one of WITNESS’ longstanding allies, Raull Santiago, was detained along with two friends as he livestreamed an abusive encounter with Riot Police officers wielding assault rifles on a dark highway overpass in Rio.  The officers lived up to their reputation and behaved exactly like you’d expect one of the most violent and lethal police forces in the world to: they threatened, they pushed, they searched cellphones (illegally), they provided no explanations, and then they arbitrarily detained Raull for “disobedience.”

That’s when Raull’s video came to an abrupt end. When he was released a few hours later, he asked the reporters covering the incident: “would this have happened to three young people on motorcycles in (the rich neighborhoods of) Ipanema, Copacabana or Leblon?”. Would they even be covering the incident at all if Raull wasn’t such a well-known activist?  Would you be reading this now?

For those living in Rio’s favelas and historically underrepresented communities, this was just another Thursday…or Monday…or Tuesday….  These communities have long denounced the brutal impacts of police operations and the “war on drugs” on their daily lives: closed schools, abusive searches, verbal threats, physical assaults, arbitrary orders, home invasions without warrants, property damage and destruction, torture, disappearances, death.  And if this was bad under so-called leftist governments, who sent military tanks into favelas during major sporting events like the Olympics to make tourists feel safe, imagine under current governor Witzel, who declared upon taking office that his new instruction to officers was to “aim at the head” and “shoot to kill.”  Same Witzel who authorized helicopters to shoot live ammunition down into favelas, taking the usual terror of police operations to another surreal and terrifying level.

Police seem to be relishing in this now official policy of almost guaranteed impunity.  In 2019 police in Rio killed more people than ever before recorded – an average of 5 a day in the state of Rio alone. It’s estimated that 75% of those murdered in Brazil are young black men – one every 23 minutes.

So it’s no surprise that Police get nervous when they see someone filming.  They understand the power of those images and don’t want you –or anyone– to see them.

Raull understands this power too, deeply.  The collective he co-founded with friends in 2013, Coletivo Papo Reto, uses video and technology to protect their communities’ rights, dispute narratives and mobilize support for the Complexo do Alemão favelas. Their work has been critical on so many fronts, receiving growing international recognition over the years. At WITNESS we’ve been lucky to collaborate with them since 2014.

So it’s probably safe to assume that the officers that stopped Raull and his friends last night probably weren’t expecting such a fuss.

We decided to take a closer look at Raull’s video to pull out some key lessons it brings.

Raull begins his livestream just before 6pm with a tweet reading: SOS – EXTREMELY VIOLENT RIOT POLICE OFFICERS(…)  He narrates the encounter for about 5 minutes before the video ends suddenly as he’s detained.  Here’s what we can learn from his case:

  • Security: The Right to Record is protected by Brazilian law, but Raull knew he was in a very delicate security situation and that things could deteriorate quickly.  After assessing his options he decides to go the visibility-for-greater-protection route, livestreaming and inviting his followers to “stay with him” and alerting the officer that “400 people were watching along with him”.  This proved a good move in the end, as Raull’s wide-reaching network quickly mobilized to support, lawyers went to the police station to assist and allies helped spread the word.  Key point: it’s never enough to have your Right to Record written into the law, always assess security before deciding whether filming will help — or harm.
  • Narration: First, Raull remained calm throughout the encounter, addressing the officer respectfully despite the tense circumstances.  He says while filming: “I’m opening my bag to look for the ID you requested”, making it difficult for the officer to later make any false claims, like saying he thought Raull was grabbing a weapon, for example. This is super important! If you lose your cool then it’s more likely your video could be used as evidence against you, so don’t give them that opportunity.  Second, the narration added important context for the viewer as Raull explained their location and described what was happening for viewers. Key point: stay calm, state only the facts and avoid opinions that can be used against you; be sure to state the date, location and time as you film.
  • What the video captured: Raull filmed important visual details during the encounter. By watching the footage viewers could understand the position of the officers in relation to him and his friends, the officer’s identity (despite no visible ID badge), the weapons the officers were carrying and how they were handling them (finger on trigger, for example), how the checkpoint was set up, officers in the background illegally looking at his friend’s cellphone; Raull would also switch from the front to the back camera so we could see him too as the events unfolded.  Key point: it can be hard to keep a steady hand in a moment like this, but Raull’s experience allowed him to capture the most essential visual information that could protect him and the truth after the incident was over. Best way to prepare is…well…to prepare!  Learn about the right to record in your country, think about what and why you’re filming, and what you hope your video to result in afterwards.
  • What the video didn’t capture: As a well-known and widely respected activist, Raull has a significant following on social media and this helped secure the different types of support needed, from lawyers to journalists, and fast.  He also had Lana, a fellow member of Coletivo Papo Reto, by his side throughout the entire incident. Lana worked quickly behind the scenes activating allies as needed, keeping people informed what was happening at the police station, carefully documenting the process.  Key point: always have a Lana, or someone you deeply trust by your side; if you’re filming in high security areas talk about scenarios like these beforehand, discuss who you could contact for help, when visibility is a better strategy than other low-profile tactics, etc. This is crucial.

Thankfully, last night ended with everyone safely back at home in Rio.  And in time to sing Happy Birthday to Raull (yes, it was his birthday).

But we know this won’t be the last time a violent officer tries to stop someone from filming — in Brazil or elsewhere.  Like Raull, activists in other countries have also stood up to defend their Right to Record in critical moments – people like the indigenous protesters in Ecuador, Mildred Owisa in Kenya, Kianga Mwamba in the United States, journalists Kofi Bartels and Mary Ekere in Nigeria and so many others.  We stand with you.

We remain committed to working with partners around the world to affirm, defend and promote the Right to Record.  Because we know that body-cameras on Police won’t solve these problems, and because we, the people, ultimately have more cameras than they do.


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