The protests after the death of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis have been growing all over the world. We talked with Ambika Samarthya-Howard, Head of Communications at WITNESS and asked her for some tips on how to better document these demonstrations and scenes of violence.
We also talked about the organization’s efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, and what’s coming next for the organization. WITNESS is located in Brooklyn and you can find their videos at nyxt.nyc/witness.
"Before whipping out your camera, assess the situation, assess your own risks (your race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) as well as the safety of the person being targeted by police."
Ambika Samarthya-Howard, Head of Communications at WITNESS
How was WITNESS originally founded?
A witness sees a black man being beaten by police officers. Within days, there is worldwide outrage and a new focus on police brutality and racial injustice. The reason? The witness had a camera. When Rodney King was filmed being beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991, the footage changed history. For musician and human rights activist Peter Gabriel, it led to a question. What would happen if every human rights defender had a camera? That led to the founding of WITNESS. For nearly 30 years, we have trained and equipped human rights defenders around the world. Using our techniques, citizen activists and front line defenders have documented evidence of war crimes, changed discriminatory laws, and protected indigenous lands against extractive industries.
WITNESS is a global organization consisting of lawyers, filmmakers, researchers, and technologists. We are a diverse community with team members throughout the world, from Malaysia to Rio de Janeiro. What connects us all is a commitment to human rights.
How is WITNESS adapting to the coronavirus pandemic?
At the center of WITNESS’ response to coronavirus, we launched a COVID-19 Response Hub that is providing guidance, case studies, sample videos, tutorials, peer insights, and tools for activists, civic media makers, frontline witnesses, healthcare workers, and other members of the public using video and technology in the time of COVID-19. The Hub is designed to help anyone using a mobile phone to expose violations, counter misinformation, and mobilize action in their community. The resource map is accompanied by global, real-time video examples and case studies to aid public advocacy and inspire human rights campaigns. Categories include: abuses justified by quarantines (e.g. exposing officers intimidation tactics and detaining people standing in line for food in Argentina), stories authorities are trying to hide (e.g. the truth about coronavirus from Wuhan), and the disparate impacts of COVID on vulnerable populations (e.g. asylum seekers at a Louisiana ICE facility using video to raise alarm about COVID). Resources are grounded in needs and challenges surfaced by communities across five regions, and are being continually iterated upon, adapted, and translated into multiple languages in order to reach a vast global audience. Since its launch, the Hub has been translated into Arabic, Portuguese, and Spanish and become a go-to resource for activists and human rights defenders around the globe. We have adapted and launched a handful of resources in response to COVID-19, developed in response to what we are hearing from frontline communities of human rights and civic journalism around the globe. Resources include: Using video to document excessive force during restrictions on movement, recording a self-style video for human rights, recording remote video or audio for human rights, and how to slow the spread of misinformation as inaccurate information about the crisis causes further panic. In its first 30 days, our COVID-specific resources were downloaded 6,500+ times. People are spending more than twice as much the usual time on these pages, a testament to the relevance of our guidance.
What are the main things people need to know about to using video and technology to protect and defend human rights, especially in the context of the George Floyd protests in the US?
- If you decide to film during a protest, there are ways you can prepare beforehand in order to be ethical and safe when you document. The most important thing to consider when filming an interaction with police is safety - both your safety and the safety of the person you are filming. Before whipping out your camera, assess the situation, assess your own risks (your race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) as well as the safety of the person being targeted by police. If filming is escalating the situation, it’s best to stop.
Right to Record:
- It’s also important to know and understand your right to record before you film during a protest. In the United States you have a 1st Amendment constitutional right to record law enforcement in public spaces as long as you don’t interfere, but whether or not you are interfering is totally at the discretion of the police officer (and remember that tensions are high during a protest scenario). So it's best to keep at least 6 feet distance between you and the incident you’re filming.
- Lock your phone with at least a 6-digit passcode, not just the touch ID or Face ID. You have a 5th Amendment Constitutional right to not give up your cell phone passcode during a legal search, but that right is not currently as clearly applied to touch and face ID.
Backing up footage and being safe:
- You can also set your phone to automatically back up to a cloud service before you leave the house so that even if you break your phone or lose it, or its confiscated illegally, you’ll still have a backup of any video or photos you filmed. Just be aware that backing up your footage to the cloud could leave the data vulnerable to legal requests from the police, depending on the company’s policy.
- Bring a cell phone charger (a portable one is even better).
- Have emergency contacts, like a legal hotline and a trusted friend who you can establish a check in protocol with, written on your body or memorized.
- Wear comfortable shoes, bring water, extra masks and gloves, and always go out with at least one other person.
The most accessible tool to document this violence is a phone. Are there other accessible tools that you would suggest?
People can also use video cameras and drones to document evidence, and we’ve seen those used often in cases involving building longer documentary and narrative films for documentation and also in our land rights work to show the impact of extractive industries.
Is WITNESS hosting any upcoming virtual events or workshops?
We constantly collaborate with our partners in hosting workshops and events. For example, on June 2nd our Senior Attorney & Associate Director moderated a panel on deforestation and human rights violations as part of the Eyes on the Amazon Project. On June 13th, our partners, Berkeley Copwatch, will be doing an introduction to the People's Database, an initiative for community-based police accountability.
What's coming next for WITNESS?
We are seeing more people interested in filming protests and police violence because they see the impact and potential. With the spread and reach of our guidance, many people are learning how to film safely and ethically. We hope this will inspire the use of video as evidence and advocacy and lead to true systemic change in our judicial, political, and technology systems.
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