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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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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."

For photographer Carlos Miller, who runs a Web site, Photography Is Not a Crime, which catalogs instances in which citizens are harrassed or arrested for recording in public spaces, the answer to that is simple. “It's when they act like idiots that these videos go viral,” Miller told AlterNet. “if they acted professionally, the video would be boring and nobody would care. I have a friend who's a captain in a local police department, and he tells his guys that they should just always assume they're on camera,” he said. “If they abide by the law, then there shouldn't be a problem.”

Miller became an activist after being arrested for photographing public spaces in Miami in what he dismissively terms “the whole post-9/11 environment,” and since then he has tracked efforts to punish citizens for recording what they see around them. In three states – Maryland, Masachussets and Illinois – people have been arrested on felony eavesdropping charges.

In Maryland, a motorcyclist named Anthony Graber was shocked when police raided his home, confiscated his computer and charged him with a crime punishable by up to 16 years in prison for recording a traffic stop. Thankfully, a judge threw out criminal charges in the case (leaving Graber with several traffic violations),  ruling that a police officer on duty should have no expectation of privacy.

“We saw a sharp increase in those arrests last year,” said Miller, “but less this year because a lot of these cases were being thrown out of court and city attorneys began issuing memos saying, 'you really can't arrest people on wiretapping in these circumstances.' But they still happen.” What's more, “a lot of times you'll hear police threatening people with it. We had a video recently where this arrogant cop in Pennsylvania came up and threatened to arrest these people on wiretapping charges, but in Pennsylvania, there isn't even a law on the books.”

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