Videos of rogue cops made Occupy movement explode

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
Posted on October 24, 2011

"This is the most heavily documented protest in the history of the world by a longshot," says Jesse LaGreca, 31, an underemployed restaurant manager who has been at Occupy Wall Street since the beginning. "And It really serves two purposes. One, you're bearing witness you're creating an image that is not being broadcast elsewhere. And I think that really messes with the mainstream media because if we've got our livestream and 30-40,000 people are watching something happen in real time and then seven hours later you see the way the news portrays it, it just totally blows that myth apart."

LeGreca achieved a bit of viral fame himself when he confronted a Fox News reporter at Zuccotti Park earlier this month. The footage never made it onto the network, but another camera was rolling at the time a protester's and in the end the segment was viewed on YouTube by hundreds of thousands of people. "It belies the truth of fair and balanced," LaGreca told AlterNet. "if it doesn't fit the narrative that they're trying to create, then it ends up on the cutting-room floor."

The other purpose is to keep the police honest. "I tell people to document everything, record everything it's really the best way to keep ourselves safe," LaGreca said.

Cameras are changing the way protests are being viewed around the world. In February, the New York Times ran one of 1,000 stories about how protesters in the Middle East were using cellphone cameras to "upstage government accounts" of the "Arab Spring" and draw "worldwide attention to their demands." The humble cellphone camera, noted the Times, "has become a vital tool to document the government response to the unrest that has spread through the Middle East and North Africa."

And so it has been during what some have dubbed the "American Fall." There are currently more cellphones in the United States than there are human beings. Digital cameras are everywhere they're small, cheap and ubiquitous at protests -- and they're creating a sea-change in the way the public views dissent here at home. "It's a lot harder for police to sweep allegations of abuse under the rug when it's on video and on Youtube," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told AlterNet.

"Public video recording has dramatically changed the landscape of police accountability no question about it," Lieberman said. "And it's also impacted the standing of the police department and the police commissioner." She added that during the now-infamous crackdown on protests surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention, her organization viewed the ever-present police surveillance cameras as an effort to intimidate protesters, but, "what we learned in the aftermath of the RNC, was that the police deptartment's own video was a double-edged sword, because not only did it serve their interests, but it also carried the promise of a 'pictures don't lie' kind of record of what went on."

Lieberman noted that video evidence had led to the dismissal of charges against 227 protesters from one location alone during the tumultuous week of demonstrations. "We've already seen that the videos of what happened on the Brooklyn Bridge are being used to urge dismissal of those hundreds of arrests there," she added.

Protesters' cameras have created many of the iconic images of this movement: NYPD supervisor Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying several women at point-blank range; a protester later identified as activist Felix Rivera-Pitre being spun around and punched in the face by a cop; a legal observer being run over by a police scooter and then hit with a baton by another cop; a marine and Iraq vet -- yelling at befuddled cops that 'these are American citizens and they have no guns.' These images helped propel a small movement into a global phenomenon. Lieberman said of the pepper-spraying incident, "I think it was among the many factors that galvanized the public to stop cheering from their computer screens and go down to Wall Street to be part of this protest movement."

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told AlterNet that the video of the women writhing on the ground in agony might end up having an effect similar to that of the infamous civil rights-era footage of Bull Connor setting dogs on black protesters in the South. "That just changed how Northerners viewed the Southern struggles," he said. "And I think we'll see this as more and more videos emerge of people being beaten, sprayed and unlawfully caged during these protests."

Video offers a way for ordinary citizens to hold law enforcement accountable. "Self-policing by the police department is absolutely hopeless," says Ratner, a veteran defender of Americans' civil liberties. "We have a civilian complaint review board here [in New York] completely hopeless. It's a culture that I think will never correct itself." But, he added, "despite the fact that we've seen a lot of violence -- more violence than I would have ever wanted to see our hopes are that there is less violence than there would have been but for the video cameras."

Cameras have become an integral part of activists' legal strategy. "We just encourage everyone to get out there with their cameras," says Ratner. "Let the cops push you around, let them slap you, let them arrest you, but it's absolutely crucial to get your cameras out there. Because all the lawsuits we can bring, which we should resolve five years from now, won't make the same difference as putting that stuff on YouTube and the evening news will do."

Cameras aren't just shining a light on aggressive crowd control. Videos of police abuse at traffic stops, "stop-and-frisk" incidents and just about everywhere else litter YouTube, and according to the New York Daily News, the constant scrutiny is having an effect on rank-and-file officers. "The morale in the whole department is in the crapper," a veteran Bronx cop told the paper. "You can't be a police officer no more," he said. "You're a robot. You're under the microscope. You're under video surveillance. We feel like the perpetrators now, the way we're being displayed."

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