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How Video of Police Behaving Badly Made Occupy Wall Street a Global Phenomenon

From the Middle East to midtown Manhattan, the humble cellphone camera is changing the way we view dissent.
 
 
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“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.”

 
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