To Document or Intervene?

Curator's Note

In recent years, national controversies involving police use-of-force—as in the case with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—often become situations where a moral imperative is fashioned. These situations produce a mandate that the primary response of civilians ought to be watching police, and for that watching to be through the lens of a camera or the screen of a cell phone.

Some such advocates, like Carlos Miller of Photography Is Not A Crime, not only convey a moral imperative to film police, but also provide legal and technical information. This advice includes constitutional and other legal rights to film police and also tips on how to use a cell phone to produce the best possible footage of an incident.

With "Cellphone Witness," In Media Res invites readers to consider a distinction, one often blurred in these controversies: between documentation and intervention. If a primary response to the problem of police violence is to prepare oneself to document—as clearly as possible—a police-civilian encounter, where does that leave room for intervention? Can one both clearly document and efficaciously intervene?

In this case, Devaughn "Bo" Frierson, a San Francisco resident who depends on a motorized wheelchair for his mobility and other aspects of his daily life, was nearly pushed from his chair by San Francisco Police Officer Carrasco.

In the video, there are two interventions. First, Frierson intervenes, and against the admonitions of friends and bystanders. His friend stands at a distance, recording with his cell phone. We are left with a shaky, obscured video precisely because of a second intervention. Frierson's friend, who initially opted to fulfill a new norm to document police stops, surrendered his role as a documenter to instead be an intervener, specifically to prevent Frierson from being thrown from his chair and perhaps to de-escalate the violence being used against Frierson by Carrasco. From a different angle, we see the interaction from a third-party perspective filmed by Frierson’s cousin, Edwardo Delacruz.

How would such video documented controversies change if the primary responses of our fellow civilians were interventions rather than documentations? Of course, intervening in police stops threatens retaliatory violence and there may be clear infractions of existing laws that would criminalize such interventions. I encourage commentors to view this provocation in its ethical and political dimensions, and to bracket questions of legality and safety.



This is an important provocation indeed. Obviously there is no clear answer here, which is why my immediate impulse is to move away from ethics to politics. It seems to me that politics provides a framework for seeing intervention as more multifaceted than the choice of picking up or putting down the camera because, as in Antar's post, the positions in front and behind the camera are never the empty sites that ethics too often relies on (citizenship, etc.). After all, this example is only available insofar as camera and intervention are simultaneous. In political terms we might, then, call for the act of recording to be extended as an intervention itself, similar to the examples that Fatma provides. There the point is not obligation and responsibility but the assertion of a position that the camera plays a role in enabling and producing; it's purpose is not to identify, document and adjudicate right and wrong but to assert a claim. I think this sort of assertion is essential to thinking about the intersection of witnessing and intervention in political terms. Perhaps then the question isn't whether to intervene or record but to examine how recording activities might become interventions that suspend witness and testimony to pursue particular interests and engage in contested sites of struggle.

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