Cameras are Weapons for #OccupyWallStreet

To note that a camera is a weapon is nothing new. Susan Sontag articulated the relationship between the camera and the semiotic violence that “turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” For Sontag the violence was symbolic, as it was “a sublimation of the gun,” thus “to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder” and not the real thing. In the ongoing #OccupyWallStreet protest the gun is no longer a metaphorical weapon, but rather a main tool of combat between police and protestors.

When I walked through the protest on its first day it almost seemed as if there were as many photographers with DSLRs and videographers with prosumer cameras as there were protesters. In most of my protest experiences, protesters bring their bodies as markers of their civic voice/vote, hold signs and shout, while members of the media hold cameras and document; it is of course never so simple, but for the most part, protesters have not held the cameras. Sometimes legal observers have held cameras, but in my experience they had vests or shirts that bore their title. Seeing no vests, I wrongly assumed that most of these people were media covering the event.

As the Wall Street occupation moves through its second week, I keep noticing the cameras. I notice them when arms that are holding them stretch into the frame of the videos I am watching, which of course were also shot by cameras in similar arms. I see the screens of 3G enabled laptops that they are connected to in order to broadcast live feeds of the protest, such as this one (see the laptop at 1:13) And I notice them in the hands of the police in videos like the one at the top of this post, held like a gun in hands that are trained to hold guns.

In this vertical cell phone video above, you can hear the arresting officer calmly and confidently refer to the police video camera footage to justify his actions:

Officer: Get in the car. You did resist. You did resist!

Observer/Protester: No she didn’t!

Officer: She never resisted? We have it on camera.

I’m sure both sides have video footage of that arrest. In the video at the top of the page, a protester is thrown to the ground for apparently no cause, from the vantage point of the protesting camera. The protester only enters the center of our frame right as he is being thrown to the ground, but prior to that, you can see him only for short periods. It seems as if he is closer to the police, and the post’s title suggests he was only “Arrested For Talking to a Cop” though it is impossible to tell what is said, or done. Maybe the policeman’s camera will tell a different story, and certainly that camera’s footage will be used to tell a different story. Even though it is almost certain that he was arrested for no good reason other than that he was a protester, in the end the truth proves elusive to the camera.

Even when the facts seem clear, video does not always lead to justice in court. In a legal culture where convicting police of misconduct is increasingly difficult, video documentation seems to offer some promise, despite the historical precedent of Rodney King. In a 2008 New York City Critical Mass ride a bicyclist was assaulted by a police officer. Though he was not convicted of the assault, he was convicted of lying about the assault in his incident report.

Whether or not the video footage from #OccupyWallStreet will hold up in a court of law to convict a police officer of misconduct, or not, this footage seems to hold up in the court of public opinion. Facebook and Twitter are full of wall posts of these videos, status updates disapproving of the police actions and retweets in support of the protests. Conscious of that, police in New York City have begun a crackdown aimed specifically at arresting photographers and videographers. While these photographers are within their rights in doing this work according to the ACLU, there are incidents elsewhere in which citizens have been arrested under wiretapping laws for videotaping and photographing police.

And on top of it all, Anonymous is jumping in the mix. The cop who maced these women without provocation has been identified and Anonymous has doxed him, posting his personal information to a Pastebin file. It turns out that this officer has received civil rights complaints before, stemming from the 2004 RNC protests, and from a 2001 incident. So far all Anonymous has proposed is sending him lots and lots of pizza, which is one of their typical forms of harassment. Ironically, lots and lots of anonymous pizza orders called in by people worldwide have been a great symbolic and logistical support for the protestors.

Michael Mandiberg

Michael Mandiberg is an interdisciplinary artist who created Print Wikipedia, edited The Social Media Reader (NYU Press), founded the New York Arts Practicum, and co-founded the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Editathons. Mandiberg is professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island, CUNY and Doctoral Faculty at The Graduate Center, CUNY.