Douala, 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.