For Smartphone Journalists, Resistance From All Sides
Livestreamer Tim Pool (in gray) wrestles with a black-clad attacker who knocked his iPhone from his hand while he was shooting video of a protest Sunday night (Jan. 29).
CREDIT: Stephanie Keith
3G and 4G cell connections, smartphones with HD video cameras and the Occupy Wall Street protest movement have together bred new video journalists. Best known by their Twitter handles, they are not associated with a media company and may have never shot video before a few months ago. Many of these rookie reporters remain activists who struggle to balance advocacy with objectivity. But now even some activists are opposing them.
Calling the new reporters "citizen journalists" would bring to mind shaky snippets of cellphone video spliced into the evening newscast. Instead, they are known as "livestreamers" for the continuous coverage, interviews and commentary -- lasting as long as half a day or more – that they send through iPhone or Android apps to online video sites such as ustream.tv.
Many activists and onlookers have praised the livestreamers for their in-depth, energetic reporting. The best known, 25-year-old Tim Pool (@Timcast), got a nod in Time Magazine's 2011 "Person of the Year" issue dedicated to "The Protester." But others, from police to protesters, are angered by the livestreaming "radical transparency" ethic of showing nearly everything. "I don't want people to look at my footage and think, 'Oh he's just a protester. It's all bullshit. What isn't he showing?'" said Pool, whose footage has aired on TV networks including NBC and Al Jazeera English.
Last Sunday (Jan. 29), Pool was struck by one or more protesters while he was videoing a New York City march. The assailants may have belonged to the "Black Bloc" — fringe anarchists who resort to vandalism and are shunned by other protesters. It wasn't the first time. During the Nov. 15 eviction of Occupy Wall Street in New York City, Pool was shoved while videoing protesters who may have been trying to let the air out of police car tires. He said that sometimes another protester hits him from behind while he's filming marches. (Several people, including Pool, theorize that Sunday's attacker may have been an undercover officer acting as a provocateur.)
Some activists have called Pool a "snitch" for showing everything that happens at the protests, potentially including lawbreaking. (And according to Pool, one of the main Occupy Wall Street organizers suggested he "lie low and go to another Occupation," in light of recent tensions.)
That attitude contrasts with earlier feelings about video. Livestreaming began with the actual organizers of Occupy Wall Street. "The whole world is watching!" chant protesters when arrests happen, alluding to the dozens of cameras trained on the events. (The police have their own video teams, too.)
Over Twitter, Oakland-based livestreamer Spencer Mills, known as @OakFoSho, said, "I have not been threatened physically, but I have had arguments/debate w/those that want me not to film some things."
A colleague of his, who goes only by @OccupyFreedomLA, said that her iPhone was stolen while she and Mills were covering the explosive protests in Oakland last Saturday (Jan. 28). "It could be anyone from an opportunist thief to a Black Bloc to an undercover [cop]," she said. The livestreamer added that she had had several run-ins and arguments with Black Bloc protesters.
Unlike Pool and more like many other livestreamers, @OccupyFreedomLA calls herself "an activist first and a journalist second." But she later added, "If I see someone antagonizing the police…I'll shoot it."
In the past, livestreamers worried most about how the police, not the protesters, would react. "The NYPD, they have physically removed me from marches. [A] cop has grabbed me, pushed me, and then formed a motorcade around me, literally just blocked me," claims Pool about his coverage of a New Year's Eve march in Manhattan.
"I had one cop in particular who seemed really out to get me," said @OccupyFreedomLA of an encounter at the U.S. Supreme Court building during Jan. 20 protests in Washington, D.C. "He hit my camera down…and I demanded to know his name, and he refused to tell me." She claims that later, "He put his hand in front of my camera, and I said 'Are you trying to block my shot?' and he said 'Yes.'"
Livestreamers consider any obstruction, whether by a cop or a protester, to be a violation of the First Amendment. But the legal situation is uncertain.
On Sunday in Chicago, the same day Tim Pool was struck by a protester, officers seized the phone of livestreamer Keilah Becker (@occupiechicago) during a march, informing her that she was breaking the law. A 1961 Illinois law on eavesdropping makes it a felony to record most conversations (recorded or broadcasted) without written consent of everyone involved, with the highest penalty -- up to 15 years in prison -- for recording law-enforcement officers.
Debate over the law may heat up around the dual NATO and G8 Economic Summits May 19-21, when potentially thousands of protesters – and likely many livestreamers -- will descend on Chicago.
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the eavesdropping law. Illinois State Representative Elaine Nekritz has introduced an amendment to allow the recording of on-duty police officers. And in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy also called for reform. "As far as the use of videotape, I certainly endorse it, for the protection of the police as well as [civilians]," he said. "There's no argument when you show videotape and can look at what happened."
That, of course, is also why some people are opposed to livestreaming. "Currently there is a discussion that has been circulating the GAs [general assembly meetings of activists] about whether or not to live stream," said Keilah Becker in an email. "I want to stream and believe in something called Radical Transparency. For me, being totally transparent is safe. For others, being totally transparent is dangerous. The argument is transparency vs. anonymity."