Civil Liberties

Armed With a Camera

Protecting protesters' rights.


"It is already far too late to prevent the invasion of cameras and databases," David Brin wrote in his prescient 1998 book The Transparent Society. The only question left to ask, he argued, was this: "Will common folk have, and exercise, a sovereign power to watch the watchers?" In the aftermath of the protests and arrests at last summer's Republican National Convention, swarms of amateur documentarists armed with video cameras set out to prove they would.

Prior to the protests, a group called I-Witness Video, working in tandem with the National Lawyers Guild, trained about 200 volunteers in producing court-worthy records of mass arrests. For example, explains Eileen Clancy, a founding member of I-Witness, if the internal clocks on digital cameras are set correctly, it becomes much easier to later collate images from multiple cameras to provide a synoptic view of an event. By teaming with the lawyers, says Clancy, "we were able to bring together the information about individuals, the locations, the witnesses, the legal status of the cases. All that together gives you a really powerful sense of these events, a capability you wouldn't have otherwise."

According to The New York Times, some 400 people arrested during the convention won acquittal or had charges dropped thanks to on exculpatory evidence provided by video recordings.

Among those cleared was Alexander Dunlop. "I was trying to go to my favorite sushi place," Dunlop told the radio program Democracy Now! "And when I turned onto Second Avenue, the street was a mob scene." When he approached a police officer to ask what was going on and how he could leave, he says, he was cuffed, herded onto a police bus, and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and parading without a permit. The charges were dropped only after a recording emerged showing that he had been doing none of those things–footage that appeared to have been mysteriously excised from a police tape of the event.

As recording devices such as cell phone cameras become cheaper, smaller, and more ubiquitous, Brin's vision of swarms of Little Brothers keeping an eye on police seems accurate. The ever-present telescreen could, ironically, become an emblem of citizen empowerment.?