article: "Who's Taping Whom?"

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Headline: Who's taping whom?
Byline: Michael B. Farrell Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Date: 09/15/2004

As Angela Coppola stood on a sidewalk and pointed her silver
mini-digital camera at a New York City police officer, he turned his
video camera right back on her.

Ms. Coppola, an antiwar activist, says she was simply exercising her
right to videotape the demonstrations held during the Republican
National Convention. But the police officer, she argues, was
overstepping his bounds.

"It's a form of intimidation. Why should they be monitoring us for
doing this?" asks Coppola, a member of the No RNC Clearinghouse, a
group organized to facilitate protests during the convention.

Widespread use of digital cameras at both large demonstrations and
small antiwar rallies raises serious questions about intimidation,
civil rights, and privacy. Should police be able to record peaceful
demonstrators? Are activists using cameras to antagonize police? As the
technology becomes more pervasive, its limits are being tested in
courts and questioned by civil libertarians.

Growing numbers of "video activists" say cameras protect their rights
and help spread their messages. Filming a demonstration, they say,
lessens the possibility of police abuse and, if abuse occurs, the tape
becomes evidence.

But police, too, are attempting to protect their rights. They use video
in the event protests turn violent, to investigate crimes afterward,
and to transmit images through wireless cameras to police command
centers. They use it for training and, they say, to investigate groups
that may have links to terrorist organizations.

Now that the RNC protests are over, the efficacy of videotaping will be
tested. With about 1,800 arrests during several days of protests,
footage of those demonstrations is being collected and cataloged by
groups like the National Lawyers Guild. Much of it will be evidence in
court.

"There is a huge amount of power in these videos in terms of protecting
the First Amendment," says Alan Graf, a National Lawyers Guild attorney
and activist from Portland, Ore., who used video evidence in a
class-action lawsuit against the city of Portland over a 2002 protest
that went awry. "Normally it's [the police's] word against a scruffy
protester, and the protester loses," says Mr. Graf. "This is the new
tool to protect the Bill of Rights."

Filming protests of every ilk is nothing new. Documentarians have been
doing this for decades. The United Mine Workers and the AFL-CIO have
long used film to document strikes. Police departments and the FBI,
too, routinely photograph, videotape, and conduct surveillance of
radical groups.

"The camera can be a witness, and also be a deterrent," says A. Mark
Liiv, a documentary filmmaker and member of Whispered Media, a San
Francisco video activist collective. Mr. Liiv has been documenting
political demonstrations and environmentalist actions since the
mid-1990s. Today, he says, "Video is so prevalent at demonstrations"
that about 1 in every 10 protesters at the protests in New York carried
some kind of digital camera.

Laws pertaining to the use of video by police vary by state and are
hotly debated, says Bruce Bentley of the New York chapter of the
National Lawyers Guild.

The New York City Police Department, the largest law-enforcement agency
in the country, is bound by a federal court decree – the Handschu
agreement – which originally provided that there can't be any
investigation of political groups when a crime isn't present, says
Franklin Siegel, a New York civil rights attorney.

"Basically it said you can't take video or photographs of demonstrators
'until the first fist flies,' and that stood for many, many years," he
says. But the decree – named for a 1985 class-action lawsuit brought
against the police for using surveillance on activists – was modified
in March 2003 after the department went to court arguing it needed more
flexibility to investigate terrorist-related cases.

One new provision – which Mr. Siegel says is probably going to be
challenged in court – allows the police to attend any public event as a
member of the public. "What the police have taken that to mean is that
they can photograph and videotape with impunity," says Siegel. "We are
going to be moving to prevent the police from using these relaxed
standards … in the context of First Amendment activity."

The US district court judge who approved the department's request to
amend the Handschu decree concluded that the provision was outdated and
limited the NYPD's ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.

The relaxed guidelines allowed police to videotape political activity
throughout the RNC protests, but a spokesman for the New York City
Police Department says that police used video cameras only when they
felt the demonstrations might turn violent. "There is no intent to
intimidate anyone," he says.

It's intimidating to protesters to be videotaped by a police officer,
says Sidney Tarrow, professor of government and sociology at Cornell
University. But "that intimidation has limits," he adds. One police
officer with a video camera at a massive protest does not amount to
intimidation, he insists.

The rise in video activism is only one way technology is altering
social movements. Cheap and accessible, digital technology – like text
messaging through mobile phones – has enabled activists worldwide to
organize on the Internet.

Activists have taken advantage of the convergence of technologies "more
successfully than any other group in society," says Lance Bennett,
political science professor and director of the Center for
Communication and Civic Engagement at the University of Washington.

In Manila in 2001, mass protests that eventually brought down
Philippine President Joseph Estrada were organized using text messaging
over mobile phones. When President Bush traveled to London in November
2003 antiwar activists who organized roving "Chasing Bush" protests
relied on text messages and the Internet.

"Protesters have a large-scale communication medium at their service
for the first time in history," says Mr. Bennett. "That's a tremendous
advantage."

But this "could turn out to be a cloud with a black lining," says
Tarrow. Now that the revolution has been pixilated, downloaded, edited,
posted on the Internet, it can reach anyone with a computer – including
police officers, government agencies, and opposition groups.

"Of course they're watching," he says.

(c) Copyright 2004 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.