Grab Your Cameras, We Are Little Brother

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 Note:  FA is not espous­ing an opin­ion or posi­tion here on racism in the Unit­ed States, or the killing of Michael Brown. We hope increased sun­light­ing through film­ing of author­i­ties will help restab­lish lib­er­ty, peace and jus­tice in this nation.

Dystopi­an futures have always imag­ined gov­ern­ments oppress­ing us with sur­veil­lance. Under the all-see­ing, all-hear­ing eyes and ears of Big Broth­er, free will is cur­tailed and only “approved” behav­ior is allowed. Edward Snow­den revealed this was no con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry, and we wouldn’t have to wait for the future. We’re already being watched, our lib­er­ty sac­ri­ficed for security.

But what George Orwell and Aldous Hux­ley didn’t fore­see was the par­al­lel rise of “Lit­tle Brother.”

Cam­eras and record­ing devices have pro­gres­sive­ly got­ten small­er and cheap­er, so it was log­i­cal to assume we might all own them one day. It was social media and its abil­i­ty to tie those devices togeth­er that came as a sur­prise. Sud­den­ly, cam­eras in the hands of cit­i­zens became weapons of jus­tice. They lev­el the play­ing field between the pop­u­lace and the pow­ers that be, as long as we turn them on.

Some call it “Sousveil­lance” from the French words for “below” and “to watch”. Cory Doc­torow wrote a nov­el about how the Lit­tle Broth­er ide­al could play out in the future. But we need to be exe­cut­ing the prac­tices to keep author­i­ties in check today.

The con­fu­sion sur­round­ing the sor­row­ful death of Michael Brown could have been resolved by Lit­tle Brother.

There was unfor­tu­nate­ly no clear video record­ing of the inter­ac­tion between Brown and the police offi­cer Dar­ren Wil­son who shot and killed him. The Grand Jury instead saw oth­er evi­dence, more than what was revealed to the pub­lic, and decid­ed not to indict him and send the case to tri­al. After too many heart­break­ing sto­ries of white cops killing unarmed black man in the Unit­ed States, the fact that Wil­son won’t under­go a tri­al has caused under­stand­able outrage.

There’s no doubt police offi­cers have a tough job where they must make split-sec­ond deci­sions about how to defend them­selves. Dead­ly force is some­times required. But it’s rea­son­able to assume that it’s occa­sion­al­ly used inap­pro­pri­ate­ly, fueled by anger or racism. Yet over a sev­en-year peri­od in the US end­ing in 2011, there were a report­ed 2,718 “jus­ti­fied homi­cides” by law enforce­ment, while only 41 offi­cers were charged with mur­der or manslaugh­ter for on-duty killings. That’s just 1.5% of the time.

In many of those cas­es, con­clu­sions are drawn based on incom­plete or con­flict­ing wit­ness tes­ti­monies, and the word of the offi­cer.  Any loss of life is trag­ic, regard­less of who is to blame. But for every­one in this coun­try to feel safe, espe­cial­ly minori­ties sub­ject to racism and oth­er dis­ad­van­tages, jus­tice must be served.

Record­ings by Lit­tle Broth­er could deliv­er the facts need­ed to deliv­er that jus­tice. There are now apps like the ACLU’s Stop & Frisk Watch designed specif­i­cal­ly for mon­i­tor­ing police encoun­ters with civil­ians. The app can record video and send it to the ACLU, or alert users when some­one near­by has acti­vat­ed the app so they can come get anoth­er cam­era angle of the situation.

Beyond sort­ing out the cir­cum­stances of sad cas­es like Brown’s after the fact, cit­i­zen sur­veil­lance of author­i­ty could deter wrong-doing. We wish each person’s moral com­pass could prop­er­ly guide them, but cam­eras offer an addi­tion­al safe­guard. Know­ing their exact actions could be held up to scruti­ny, author­i­ties are pressed to go by the book. If they’re in the right, record­ings would vin­di­cate them.

With time, as portable, high-qual­i­ty cam­eras become more afford­able and portable, more con­tentious inter­ac­tions between cit­i­zens and law enforce­ment will be caught on film. The cam­eras will nev­er be on in all the right places and all the right times, though. That’s why many, includ­ing Brown’s fam­i­ly, are push­ing for police offi­cers to have record­ing devices affixed to their uniforms.

Join with us in our cam­paign to ensure that every police offi­cer work­ing the streets in this coun­try wears a body cam­era”, the Brown fam­i­ly said in a state­ment. Record­ings from dash­board cam­eras in police vehi­cles are already used to this effect. Not only could they resolve dis­putes about sequences of events, they could make polic­ing safer for everyone.

A small pilot pro­gram where offi­cers wore body cam­eras in Rial­to, Cal­i­for­nia saw com­plaints against offi­cers fall 88%, and their use of force decrease near­ly 60%. Sus­pects and wit­ness­es behaved more polite­ly when they knew they were being filmed, and you’d expect assaults against offi­cers would decrease if per­pe­tra­tors feared they’d be caught on cam­era. This is Foucault’s panop­ti­con put to good use.

Still, police may resist the body cam­eras for fear that per­ma­nent record­ings of small­er mis­takes could get them fired. They’d have to change the way they work, and depart­ments might be stub­born about work­ing the cam­eras into tight budgets.

That’s why we all need to play the role of Lit­tle Broth­er when nec­es­sary. A bystander’s cell phone video could bring jus­tice to vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion and mis­treat­ment, or exon­er­ate the unfair­ly accused.

It’s impor­tant to know your rights around film­ing police or oth­er author­i­ties. The ACLU holds that you are per­mit­ted to film in pub­lic spaces where you’re legal­ly present, and may film offi­cers as long as you are not inter­fer­ing with law enforce­ment oper­a­tions. Police are not allowed to con­fis­cate, view, or delete your pho­tos or videos with­out a war­rant. How­ev­er, there is a preva­lent trend of offi­cers harass­ing, detain­ing, and arrest­ing cit­i­zens who legal­ly film them, and any inter­ac­tion with police is poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous, so be careful.

Fight­ing cam­eras with cam­eras may fur­ther oblit­er­ate our pri­va­cy. We’ve been steadi­ly slid­ing in that direc­tion for years. But if we’re los­ing it any­way, we can at least take con­trol of the shut­ter but­ton so we’re trad­ing pri­va­cy for truth.