For just a moment, try to set aside your preconceptions. Try to set aside your ideological leanings, your ideas about power, money, and political speech. Even try to reach past your automatic emotional responses and most visceral feelings. And for a moment, just watch the video below this graf. It was shot in downtown Manhattan by Luke Rudkowski.
The picture plane is slightly tilted, a tell-tale sign the camera is sliding off its operator’s shoulder. He is stretching on his toes to peer over the shoulders of the crowd in front of him, where he sees two men in oddly formal dress – white shirts, navy blue hats, black, gold-clipped ties, and black gloves – wildly swinging batons at those nearest them. The swings cause the crowd to retreat behind the camera while the operator stays firmly in position. A man in a navy uniform attempts to guide him back, but from the right side comes a white shirt. We don’t see the impact of the baton, just the rotation of the white shirt’s shoulder, but the camera shakes as the operator is hit in his lower body, causing him to let out a pain-filled “Ugh!” The camera falls into a maze of legs as the operator’s body crumples to the ground. Now, take a look at the above footage shot in Oakland, California.
It’s daylight, and there is a scrum against a metal barricade. On one side, along with the camera is a roiling crowd, on the other navy-uniformed men wearing helmets with clear plastic faceplates. The uniformed men hold clubs – one even has a shotgun, the barrel of which creeps up to the chest level of the crowd – and it is clear by the way they are standing that they are trying to obscure the scene behind them. The camera fights against the crowd to get a view through the navy-clad legs, catching glimpses of a body being pinned to the ground. As the body writhes, you can see that it is a woman, and as she tries to escape her position, she is repeatedly struck with a club. Witnessing this only stirs the crowd more, with one man yelling, “Stop! That’s a female!” The uniformed men try to close ranks and hide the incident, but their faceplates can’t hide the fear and uncertainty their individual faces betray. Now, look at this footage shot at the University of California, Berkeley.
The camera in the above footage is perched high above the action. There is a large crowd made up of young people, at the foremost edge of which is a human chain formed by the locking of elbows together. The chain stands toe to toe with several anonymous individuals in identical body armor, who are initially statuesque. Near the center of the human chain is an Asian girl, who is noticeably smaller than any of those on either side of her. Without warning or provocation, one of the armored individuals shoves the butt of a nightstick in the girl’s stomach, lifting her off the ground, knocking her back into the crowd, and collapsing the chain. Other armored individuals follow suit, thrusting their sticks into the retreating crowd. When there is a cut to a ground-level shot, we can see a young man being repeatedly struck as he is pinned against a bush with nowhere to move. Another young man is stripped of his shirt, thrown to the ground, and a knee is placed on his neck as plastic zip ties are used to bind his wrists.
All of these scenes have a specific context. They were all captured by digital cameras at specific Occupy protests – New York City, Oakland, and Berkeley, respectively – over the past three months, and disseminated via YouTube. Each has its own specific crowds of protesters, with their own ideas about global capitalism and level of agitation, and each has its own specific law enforcement officers, with their own notions of duty and implements of crowd control. Each video shows a specific act of police brutality, but focusing on the specific context can be more limiting than illuminating. As more Occupy camps are violently evicted across the country, these scenes could be, and are, taking place anywhere. And at the moment when the baton, or fist, or pepper spray makes impact, the institutional divide between protestors and police officers becomes temporarily irrelevant. In these videos what we are really watching is bodies coming into conflict, and one using force to subordinate the other.
When one body uses force over another, it is always an attempt to assert control: to minimize the other body, to contain it, to take away its agency and purpose. In effect to silence it. Not just to silence the speech that may be emanating from the body, but to silence the statement the body itself might be making by virtue of where, when, and how it is positioned. When policemen hit protesters, the aim is to push them back and force them to disperse. When a policeman seizes a protester, the first movement is always to force them down to the ground. Take a look at this footage shot during a November march on the New York Stock exchange.
The video was shot at the intersection of New York City’s Pine and Williams Street and it shows brief jostling at the line between cops and activists, followed by one officer reaching forward to grab a young woman by her scarf and yank her down, out of the crowd. The assault is a disturbing image in and of itself, but equally as upsetting is the mechanics of the tactic on display. We see the police finding any excuse to intrude on the protest, and snatch away a participant, taking away her right to assemble, which in essence is the right to occupy a given space.
And the occupation of space is what is at the very heart of the Occupy movement, to use public areas – parks, plazas, university campuses – as the primary tool of redress, by asserting that they are commons. The concept of the commons is, according to Peter Linebaugh in The Magna Carta Manifesto, “The theory that vests property in the community and organizes labor for the common benefit” – an idea that dates back to 1215 at Runnymede and the limitations placed on the power of King John. The commons are more than just public spaces, but they are those liberties – trial by jury, Habeus corpus, etc. – that are essential to the individual use of those spaces with agency and purpose.
The antithesis of the commons is the commodity. Ever increasingly our public spaces are serviced and maintained by private entities, and open to general use in highly regulated increments requiring prior approval, and often for monetized purposes. Accordingly, officials now view public spaces as they do any asset that can be commodified, and deploy law enforcement to protect them accordingly. “The insanity of the commodity arises from its inherent contradiction or double bind: on the one hand it is useful, convenient, or commodious, on the other hand it is bought and sold for profit and gain,” Linebaugh writes. “Guile replaces plain dealing.”
The key word there is convenient. Commoditization has eased many of the daily tribulations of modern life through convenience, but it has also bred an unhealthy civic culture in which the value of individual actions is not determined by ethical judgments, but by judgments of the market. The disruption of conveniences by the Occupy protesters is the reason for much of the popular scorn heaped upon them, but it is also their very purpose.
And so what we are seeing in those videos is a contest for space, to define space. One side uses the power of their bodies and speech, the other uses force. After watching the clips, it is necessary to let the specific context of what we have seen sink back in – to consider the role that money and political considerations have in law enforcement; to consider the appropriateness of the actions of the crowd. But the most important specifics to let in are the very realness of the injuries that are sustained. The bruised tissue on the face of a woman punched by a NYCPD officer is real. Look at this video shot by journalist Michael Tracey as he covered a march by protesters through the streets of Manhattan. Around the 1:40 mark, an NYPD officer can clearly be seen assaulting a protester in a green shirt.
This following footage was shot on the campus of the University of California, Davis. The scorched eye sockets and nasal cavities of the sitting students casually pepper sprayed at UC Davis are real.
Now witness the concussion and broken skull of an Iraq War veteran in Oakland. His story is real, The camera finds him in Oakland, California.
Of course, cameras can lie. As Brian de Palma put it, “the camera lies 24 times a second.” And that is film; digital lies much more frequently, in every pixel. Every edit and choice of framing omits as much as it shows, and thus no image is ever complete. But to focus on the camera’s lie is not so much a deconstruction of the media, but an ancillary construction we build in order to interpret what we are seeing. And we should always question what we see. But the lie can become an excuse not to absorb what we are watching, and not to take responsibility for it. The lie can actually become an excuse not to watch.
Louis Godfrey currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He is originally from Salt Lake City, UT, where he spent five years reporting on politics and court cases, before turning to writing on film. He also likes cats.