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Who's taping whom?

Video cameras clash with civil rights at protests.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 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.

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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.

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