Image via MuckRock via BPD
For a lot of people, last year’s holiday season was punctuated not by shopping deals but rather by chants and protests. Thousands of protesters flooded Boston Common for the annual tree lighting, some pushing against the State House gates where they were arrested. A number of activists stopped traffic while motorists threatened to hit them, and some even shut down travel on major arteries including the Green Line and I-93.
At the time, some select reporters and vigilant citizens documented the occasion from the ground. The Boston Police Department also filmed the whole thing, and now thanks to the work of Beryl Lipton of MuckRock (with which I have worked closely in obtaining public records), anyone can watch six CDs from the state’s effort to record the events. If you don’t have time to dig through the footage yourself, Lipton has boiled the expansive material down to a 90-second documentary that captures the entire evening. This is raw footage of the city during an important moment, and certain parts play out like a real-life citizen action version of Die Hard. In that sense, shout out to the BPD for providing fodder that I hope and expect will fill many more documentaries to come.
Some moments are priceless. At one point in the video, a protestor holds a mirror that he brought as a prop toward one of the camera-wielding police officers. Protesters have used mirrors in attempts to give officers a moment of, ahem, reflection, and in this case the result is a beautiful representation of surveillance and the citizen’s right to film cops. For a moment, the protester becomes the videographer, reclaiming power and turning the cop’s camera on himself. It’s a symbol of the right we have to document police.
It’s ironic that the very tool the BPD hopes will suppress these kinds of actions will, thanks to FOIA and a little crowdfunding, allow the event to live on forever. To record history, the BPD essentially deployed a three-person, taxpayer-funded amateur film crew to capture the event at all angles. Lipton calls the footage “a clear piece of documentary record,” and this is only the beginning.
It’s unsettling to think about the amount of protest footage that Boston authorities have in storage, let alone the terabytes of video files held by departments nationwide. This information all belongs in the hands of the public. Police officers are not editors, and they should not have the power to decide what people can see. When Laquan McDonald was executed by a Chicago police officer, it was the video that exposed the latter’s lies. Without FOIA and vigilance, we may never have seen any turn of events in that case.
In the text that accompanies Lipton’s video, she urges readers to do their own research and file their own requests for protest videos. With a number of pockets of unrest throughout the country, and with many police-related incidents turning violent, I echo her call that such videos belong to the public. Otherwise, filmmaker cops only stand to serve the interests of their departments.
Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Emily Hopkins is BINJ projects coordinator.
Copyright 2015 Emily Hopkins. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.