Although the idea of a digital revolution may often feel like a stretch, the recent and tragically ongoing series of videos of black men being brutalized by police — as well as live documentation of ensuing protests — makes clear that smartphones have done some undeniable good: affording people who don’t normally have the privilege of writing history or the news a chance to tell their own stories. Two initiatives launched in the past week are capitalizing on this: a public call by the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) for photographs from the ongoing protests in Baltimore, and a new app from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California that sends videos of police brutality recorded by users to the organization automatically.
“We are, we have been since 1844, the center for Maryland history, particularly centered on the city of Baltimore, and this is part of history,” explains Alexandra Deutsch, chief curator of the Maryland Historical Society. “It’s really our job as an institution to document it and preserve it for future generations to look at and connect with the past. It’s very much the present now, but it won’t be.”
The organization released its public call for “images from professional and amateur photographers in order to document the Freddie Gray protests, unrest and cleanup efforts in Baltimore,” as well as related objects, yesterday — just over a week after the protests began. “It was important for us to be timely about it,” says Deutsch. “This is written into the fabric of the city, for better or for worse. It’s not our job to stand above these events and pass judgment on them, but it is our job to document them and provide a record of what’s happening.”
MdHS’s initiative follows similar efforts over the years: an exhibition called Here Is New York brought together professional and amateur photographs of 9/11 in downtown Manhattan a week after the attacks, and more recently, the Brooklyn Historical Society did the same with pictures of Hurricane Sandy on the one-year anniversary of the storm. But what MdHS is doing may be a first in that the institution is collecting images of the Gray protests digitally, and plans to display all of them — at least at first — in a virtual exhibit.
“This is the first time we’re dealing with the complexity of getting digital images from various sources — questions of ownership and copyright, we’re working with those at the same time,” says Deutsch. “Some of the challenges that came after 9/11, with the artifacts that were collected, it became its own strategic problem of managing that kind of thing —things associated with tragedy like this, they just pour in. We have to be a venue to host them, but we also have to figure out the best way to manage them.”
Deutsch says she and the organization have already begun receiving submissions, and she anticipates (and hopes) that MdHS may one day collect as many as 3–5,000 photographs. But the plan for how they will sort through and organize all of those is still being figured out.
The volume of videos that the ACLU of California will receive through its new app for documenting police brutality will hopefully not be as high — but who knows. Mobile Justice CA “is modeled after the New York stop-and-frisk app that came out three years ago,” explains Marcus F. Benigno, new media strategist at the ACLU of Southern California. The app has been in the works for a year, and the fact that its release has coincided with the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody is “uncanny, almost,” in Benigno’s words.
The app allows users to record video of a civil rights violation by police — only, when you hit stop, the video not only saves to your camera roll but also gets sent immediately to the ACLU. In addition to lessening the amount of work you have to do, this means a copy of the video gets saved in case your phone is confiscated or destroyed. The app also includes a function for filling out and submitting an incident report directly to the ACLU, an option to receive notifications when users are recording incidents nearby, and a copy of the ACLU’s Know Your Rights publication — which in this case is specific to California laws, because that’s the state for which the app was built, but people can use Mobile Justice CA across the country; Benigno says the ACLU of California will send videos from other states to local branches of the organization.
Similarly to MdHS’s open call, Mobile Justice CA presents the problem of how the ACLU will manage a flood of potentially thousands of videos a week. “We’re treating it the way we treat legal intakes: with the disclaimer that we will be checking videos that come with reports,” Benigno says. “Let’s say there was some huge protest happening, we will go through and watch the videos there, but we’re really encouraging folks to submit a report or to even call after and make sure that we do check it.”
The app gives the ACLU a license to use and distribute any video shot with it, but the person who recorded the video retains all rights to it, including copyright.
“This app and many other apps like it, it’s great that they’re coming out, but the issues at the heart of it aren’t new,” Benigno says. “It’s just with these videos and the technology, we’ve been able to shed light on it. For a lot of folks in the black community, it’s a relief that these videos are surfacing, because the conversation is not new but it has seemed like it is.”
He adds that the organization has teamed up with the founders of #BlackLivesMatter to plan “a very aggressive tour across the States … to get [Mobile Justice] to the communities that need it most.”