Video Activism

video-aktivisam-385x250Douala, Cameroon   Being in central, west Africa for the latest edition of the Organizers’ Forum and, even more excitingly, the first-ever meeting of all ACORN-affiliated organizers in Africa, my eyes immediately caught a piece in the on-line Times touting that “Inspired by the US, West Africans Wield Smartphone to Fight Police Abuse.” For several reasons I thought, well that’s something.

But having just arrived in Douala, Cameroon after a grueling 3-stop flight across the time zones, my real reaction was to reflect on the amazing courage taking videos of the police would require. We had just gone through an episode which could only be described as hapless and almost touristic in our joy to hit the green fields around the airport. My son, Chaco, had taken several pictures of the airport and its surroundings with his phone in celebration. Six of us were together as we left the airport including Toney Orr from Local 100 in Arkansas, Eloise Mallet from Re-Act in Grenoble, and the two local Cameroon organizers along with Chaco and myself.

We were hauling our bags around the long field to a cheaper spot to take a cab into town. I was walking ahead with Josef, one of the Cameroonians, when we turned because there was some commotion after we had crossed the street to meet our cabdriver. The police were converging on Toney and Chaco at the curb. One short policeman grabbed Chaco’s phone, and the look on Chaco’s face was nothing but shock and surprise, as he tried to understand the problem. A policewoman was also there, and our people started asking, and arguing, about what the problem might be. Suddenly, we were in the middle of a mess, and couldn’t help much since it was all conducted in French.

The problem simply put is that we were informed that it was illegal to take pictures of the police. Period. Something everyone presumably in Cameroon knew, but as dumbass visitors we were going to learn. Eventually, with a third policeman who was the supervisor, an agreement was concocted that allowed the pictures to be deleted and the phone returned. If this is what happens to folks within meters of the airport, I can’t even imagine the risks that others might take trying to record corruption or police abuse in West African countries.

Despite the fact that this was a story of hope in the Times, a more careful reading was also cautionary as they wrote:

Human rights workers say that the practice of sharing videos in West Africa is a natural extension of longstanding frustrations with abuse of power in the region. But even with today’s ability to capture and broadcast evidence immediately, the videos have not always produced tangible results. Often the clips are hard to verify, and few prosecutions have followed, experts say. Scenes of police officers seeking checkpoint bribes or beating civilians sometimes amount to no more than a handful of Facebook comments expressing indignation.

My first message back to the rest of the participants coming to the meeting in Douala once we were on the internet, was plain and simple: Don’t take any pictures of police!

Our message this week in Cameroon will be to build strong organizations. Smartphones and Facebook are not going to be enough.

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We Need to Take Advantage of Opportunities for Formal Protest

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A Group pic of some of our meeting attendees

New Orleans    Recently as our family of organizations met for our annual planning meeting and the groups from each sector reported back, the reporter from the union mentioned that one of their goals for the year was taking better advantage of postings at their contractual job sites where they had access to bulletin boards to communicate with the workers. Such a simple thing really, and so hard fought when first won, but something that requires regular attention to make it work, and therefore easily falls through the crack, especially in 21st century where the ease of social media and a quick “like,” short sentence, or a little more than a 100 character message can allow you to pretend that you have communicated with thousands.

A union bulletin board is a hassle for many. It can’t be simply “the boss sucks,” but has to communicate information to the workers, and in many contracts the boss gets a look at the message and have some say so. Nonetheless, you can guarantee that eyeballs will spend time on the bulletin board in the captive audience boredom of the workplace. The problem is the routine. Anything requiring weekly or monthly, or regular attention requires discipline and a “git er done” philosophy, and that’s amazingly hard to muster.

Thinking about how to better use our bulletin boards reminded me of more formal avenues for protest that also require discipline and perhaps routine, but also have the opportunity to achieve the power of protest. I’m thinking specifically of the public files legally required by some very important institutions where public comments have to be kept and maintained and could carry serious weight.

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) has required banks for almost the last 40 years to maintain a public file on their efforts to reduce discrimination and meet the housing needs of the community through their lending programs. Examiners from the Federal Reserve and the FDIC have been playing patty cake with the banks for so long that the test scores are a little like kindergarten with 98% of the banks easily getting passing scores. We could make this harder and force attention more easily to our issues by utilizing this opportunity by advocating more aggressively for better housing lending to our people from the banks. Why not force the conversations and implicitly question an area’s banking charters by filing comments on disparate housing cost burdens compared to income and geography, the availability of affordable housing and banking support including lending for rental and worker friendly developments, action by banks on foreclosures matched with racial and ethnic statistics, discussion of the problems of the unbanked or underbanked, hard talk on whether banks are offering lending alternatives to predatory products like payday lending and check cashing, and the hard question on how often and how substantively banks are meeting with community organizations. Like the old Lyndon Johnson story about the politician and his intimacy with his pig, “make them explain that to the public” and in this case to the community and the banking examiners.

The licensing renewal procedure for television and radio stations also maintain a public file and requirements on equal access and stewardship of their privileged access to the public airwaves administered by the Federal Communications Commission. Regularly filing objections to the hate speech over the airwaves from commentators and the bias frequently expressed could force review of the station license.

Yeah, it’s not as easy as hitting a button on Facebook, but like the union bulletin boards, you know that these messages will be read and require a response, so it’s not a conversation with yourself in the social network echo chamber. Once a week, once a month, or every once in a while, these are not messages in a bottle put out to sea but a form of “paper protest” that cannot be ignored and might even force real discussions and concrete response and change.

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Please enjoy Sunny Sweeney & Brennen Leigh’s But You Like Country Music.

Thanks to KABF.

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