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.
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
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.
The New York City Police Department, the largest law-enforcement
agency in the country, is bound by a federal court decree - the
Handschu agreement - which originally provided that there can't be
any investigation of political groups when a crime isn't present,
says Franklin Siegel, a New York civil rights attorney. …