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Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia found himself in custody of eight South African policemen in Johannesburg. The policemen opened the back door of their vehicle, and tied Mido’s wrists to a bench in the back of the van. One policemen held Mr. Macia’s feet off the ground while another, in the driver’s seat, started the van’s engine. The driver pressed on the accelerator while the policeman in back dropped Mido to the ground.

As the vehicle accelerated and Mido Macia began to die, a bystander recorded his death on a video camera. The recording made its way to a local television station, which broadcast the lynching to the rest of the country. Not long afterward, the police department arrested all eight police officers.

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Ubiquitous surveillance.

More Cases of Video Evidence

On March 3, 1991, Los Angeles five police officers kicked Rodney King and beat him with their batons until he was nearly dead. George Holliday filmed much of the beating from the balcony of his apartment. News programs broadcast a portion of the tape around the world.

On November 18, 2011, Lt. John Pike, a campus police officer at UC Davis, pepper sprayed students as they sat in front of him during an Occupy demonstration. A student nearby recorded the incident on a cell phone, and posted the video to the Internet. Lt. Pike became an instant sensation, notorious for gratuitious cruelty in broad daylight.

On July 12, 2007, American helicopter pilots shot to kill at least eight people on the street below them in Baghdad, Iraq. Two of the dead were journalists working for Reuters. The other victims likewise were not engaged in any kind of combat. Most telling, the Apache helicopter crew acted as if they were in a turkey shoot, which in a way they were, albeit a truly deadly one. The helicopter’s own camera recorded the massacre. Three years later, Bradley Manning sent the recording to Wikileaks. Wikileaks made the recording available to the world.

On November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder stood near the President Kennedy’s motorcade, his 8 mm camera rolling. I’m sure the people who wanted to pin Kennedy’s murder on Lee Oswald wished that film never existed. Imagine if Zapruder’s film had included an audio track! In any case, no one who sees Kennedy’s head snap back, and sees his wife crawl out onto the limousine’s trunk to retrieve a piece of her husband’s brain tissue, can believe the fatal shot came from a primitive rifle located nearly a hundred yards behind Kennedy. A professional fired the shot that killed Kennedy, and he did not shoot from the school book depository.

Video Evidence of Torture

When reports emerged that the CIA actually tortured prisoners during its interrogations, that it waterboarded them and maintained a video record of its actions, what was its first response? It destroyed the video recordings. When police see someone recording their actions at a crime scene, an arrest, a demonstration, or any place where they interact with citizens, what is their first response? Take away the camera and don’t give it back! If you take out your iPhone and point it at a police officer, you will lose your smartphone fast.

The reasons for these protective responses are obvious. Officers in these kinds of situations want to protect themselves from career damaging disclosures, and they want freedom to act as they like. They know the power of publicity. They know their supervisors will protect them as long as no one knows what they have done. Once the cat is out, they will have no friends, and they will face judgment alone.

Ubiquity of Surveillance

We’re accustomed now to security cameras everywhere: in airports, shopping malls, banks, hotels, playgrounds, intersections, schools, government office buildings, gas stations, grocery stores, our own homes. We talk about the time coming soon when drones will monitor us from the air. We do not have access to any of these recordings, except the ones stored on our own computer. We know that police can force their way into our homes anytime to remove all our data storage devices. Don’t think your right of freedom from unwarranted search and seizure can protect you here. Not any more.

We have technology now to resist the ubiquity of surveillance in our current police state. We have already seen the power of smartphones. You can record a video and post it to the Internet in less than a minute. A smartphone has some drawbacks, though. When you see something you want to record, you have to fish the device out of your backpack, your purse, or your pocket. You have to look at the touchscreen to unlock it and open the video recorder. Even after you start recording, the device demands your attention. Most importantly, people all around you can see what you are doing. Police can descend on you immediately, and they will. Knowledge that they will may deter you from initiating a recording in the first place.

New Technology for Surveillance

Technology is coming that overcomes these drawbacks. Google’s Glass, and Apple’s inevitable competitor to follow, iGlass, will make it possible to record internet video on the fly. One hopes Google will not patent the concept of wearable cameras, as this technology can help change the balance of power between people everywhere and tyrannical government. Yes, a wearable camera is hard to hold steady. People may start a recording, then walk, run, turn their heads left and right, and so on. The recording could be so disjointed that it does not reveal much. On the other hand, you have to hold the camera steady for only a few seconds to capture soldiers urinating on corpses.

Also important is the opportunity citizens have to replicate the ubiquity of government security cameras. Demonstrators can wear helmets equipped with cameras. They can wear camera equipped goggles that protect them from tear gas. They can use smartphones, of course, and straight, single purpose video recorders. The Occupy demonstrators across the country would have done well to mount video cameras around their sites, to record what happened when police moved in. We know it’s easy to do. They are inexpensive, easy to mount, and hard to see. Batteries power these cameras, and they supply their data feed directly to the Internet.

Another advantage citizens have with mobile internet cameras is the audio component. Government cameras are usually wired in. They are pretty far away from the targeted surveillance area, and they generally don’t pick up audio data that is worth much. Contrast the audio data recorded with Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder video, which supplies so much of the atmosphere and evidence for a turkey shoot. The camera doesn’t lie, especially when the audio recording that accompanies it tells you what’s going on.

Citizen Control

The second to last important point is easily overlooked when citizens feel demoralized and disempowered. Who controls the video feed and recordings matters. When government controls damning video recordings, it can erase them with a single mouse click. When a recording is posted to the Internet, it’s much harder to get rid of it. No wonder Syrian rebels have gone to good lengths to post video evidence of what government forces have done to civilians in their country.

No wonder, too, the FBI acted so efficiently to collect video evidence of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. They couldn’t collect video recordings of the events in New York City, so we see the twin towers explode right in front of us. We see WTC 7 collapse in a controlled demolition. We don’t have video recordings of events at the Pentagon, however, because government made sure they would not be available. You can control evidence of that type more thoroughly at the Department of Defense than you can in lower Manhattan.

Lastly, ubiquity of citizen controlled cameras, video feeds and recordings creates an ocean of devices that government cannot suppress. The famous example of how Danish citizens frustrated Nazi efforts to identify Danish Jews during World War II comes to mind. Everyone wore an armband with a yellow star after the occupying Germans ordered Jews to do so. If every citizen carries a camera into police confrontations like the ones that occurred when officers cleared out the Occupy encampments, the police cannot confiscate all the devices to suppress evidence of their actions. When people wear cameras, in glasses or otherwise, police do not know when citizens are recording and when they are not. Police have to swim in an ocean of video and audio evidence.

Practical Experience

If demonstrators wear helmets equipped with cameras, the cameras record not only the baton, but the sound of wood crashing against the helmet. When a police officer brings his baton down on a citizen’s helmet, he knows the crash of wood against mylar may go out to everyone else in the area, along with the demonstrator’s voice. How long would it take to develop a helmet equipped with video and audio recording devices, headphones and goggles, Internet and cell ready, a mobile communications unit designed for civil resistance? We have the technology now.

Demonstrators in Arab countries who acted so effectively against tyrants used smartphones as a key asset for communication in real time. They used texting, the Internet, cell networks and social media sites to stay in touch, coordinate their activities, and publicize government’s use of force against them. They won, and their use of these techniques is one reason why.

We ought to build on this experience to create an environment where police and other government officials know that citizens watch their public behavior all the time. When they stop a car to conduct a warrantless search, they have to know the car’s computer system records every word. When they face a crowd of demonstrators, tricked out in their riot gear in order to intimidate people they’re supposed to protect, they have to know those citizens – all of them – have means to record their actions.

Two More Compelling Cases

Video evidence of what happened at Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993 is compelling. We see helicopters overhead, flames spreading through the buildings, a siege that culminates in an unprecedented government massacre on United States soil. No one who watches the video evidence can accept Janet Reno’s justification that the attack took place to save the children in the Mount Carmel compound. The children burned with their parents as government forces watched.

One more memory serves well to conclude. Recall the 1968 police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It would not have had such a broad impact on the way people thought about the Vietnam war if people had not seen video recordings of the event. The power of that event lay in its immediacy, in the sight of policemen in riot gear beating young people who wanted to be heard and who wanted to stop the war. Yes, the demonstrators engaged in violent behavior, too. The cameras recorded that as well. The most important thing for history, and for events as they unfolded at the time, is that cameras were there.


We have come far since the violence and civil disobedience of the 1960s. We have technology that citizens can use to alter the balance of power between free citizens and tyrannical government. We have to organize ourselves to use this technology, to constrain and publicize tyrannical behavior. We can’t let ourselves fall under the dominion of a police state if we can prevent it. Ubiquitous video recordings of government behavior can help. Every government official should know that what they do and say when they interact with citizens can find its way to YouTube in a matter of minutes.

The surveillance state has to come under surveillance.