When civilians and police clash, video makes all the difference. Whether it's disproving an official account or broadcasting an action, video can shape the narrative.
It was a regular evening rush hour at Grand Central Terminal, as commuters chased trains out of the city while casting curious, sidelong, bemused or angry glances at nearby protesters. The group NYC Shut it Down was holding its most recent People's Monday — a weekly action to raise awareness concerning specific victims of police brutality.
This Monday, the group focused on Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teenager who was shot and killed by police last year.
For nearly a year, NYC Shut It Down has been using the grand stage of the train station as a backdrop for demonstrations against the numbing persistence of police shootings. The group started shortly after large-scale protests across the city over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Monday, after a call-and-response session recounting the facts of McDonald's life and death, NYC Shut It Down took to the streets. Inside Saks Fifth Avenue, the protesters held a 16-minute die in, representing the 16 shots police fired at McDonald. Eventually, they made their way to Rockefeller Center, where the police arrested five of the marchers. As has happened often in this year of protests, the arresting led to scrapes, bruises and contradictory accounts from protesters and police.
And also as usual, there was video.
Behind the camera
Keegan Stephan was following behind the protesters and shot video at the moment of one of the arrests.
After his post on social media, the requests starting coming in: mainstream media news desks from Manhattan to Berlin asking to buy or borrow the footage.
It's a common occurrence for Stephan, a paralegal who says he's been engaged in activism in the city for years, from Occupy Wall Street to environmental protests. With the Black Lives Matter movement, he felt it "wasn't my place to be a spokesperson" as a white man. Instead, he aims to support, document and share.
"The most important thing is to get the word out," Stephan says.
Stephan is one of a small group of protester-documenters in New York who uses his videos to keep attention on protests which have grown smaller over the last year but no less spirited.
A video is worth 1,000 words
Video evidence has been a crucial part of the Black Lives Matter movement, from footage of Garner's death to video of McDonald that contradicted police reports.
Every bystander with a cell phone can document — and broadcast — police-civilian interactions. The resulting videos are explosive tinder for the movement.
But the prevalence of cameras at the actions also help to publicize the movement's goals—whether or not the news cameras show up.
James Woods, another protester-documenter, says that this footage provides the "counter narrative."
After more than a decade in network TV, Woods became uncomfortable with the way mainstream outlets were covering the Occupy Wall Street movement — ignoring clashes with police in favor of dizzy hippies. So he went down to the encampment and told protesters they were getting "screwed."
"Congrats, you're the live streamer," Woods recalls being told. It "lit the fire," he says, and he's focused on protest movements on the left and right ever since — Tea Party to Ferguson.
That call to action is familiar to Ashoka Jegroo, who has become prominent in reporting from New York protests in the last year. At a protest he says he juggles activism and journalism, being “a character at the play,” or “the chorus.”
The cameras will keep rolling
Stephan's video captured the still potent tensions between protesters and police. His footage of protesters being roughly taken down and put into handcuffs made its way around his Twitter feed and onto the websites of mainstream outlets.
Video has fueled a movement built on long-simmering tensions and it will continue to keep the pressure on. As news broke that the trial of the first officer indicted in the death of Freddie Gray ended in a mistrial yesterday, Woods said he planned to go to Baltimore to document.
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.