(This op-ed was originally published in The Politico Magazine in August 2013.)
While enjoying dinner in Cambridge recently I noticed two police cars parked in front of the restaurant. Two officers bent a man over a squad car, and cuffed his hands behind his back. The man did not resist and the police did not seem to use excessive force. It was also public. If the cops wanted to hide something, they would have difficulty doing it in that spot with daylight to spare. Dozens of patrons witnessed what I did, and several of them began to whisper and buzz about the excitement outside.
As my boyfriend and I exited, I used my iPhone as as camera to take three shots of the scene, which we had to pass to leave the building. While I didn’t flaunt the gesture, I didn’t attempt to hide it, either. No one seemed bothered by this mundane action (and it was far less obnoxious than a selfie)––except one of the police officers.
He confronted me and asked if I had taken a photo. I confirmed that I had. He demanded that I hand over my phone. I politely declined. Then he grew more aggressive and claimed that it was ‘evidence’ in his crime scene. Again, he insisted I relinquish the contraband. Again, I declined, knowing that his claim was a lie. He said that I didn’t have a right to take photos of the cops. I replied that, actually, I did.
As I tried to pass him to reach my car, the officer moved his body to block my path. Then he tried to take my phone from my hand. I leapt back, a knee-jerk reaction more than a deliberate decision. I told him that his actions were illegal as I slipped my phone into my back pocket. He lunged for the phone, trying to grab it from my jeans. I dodged his effort, restraining myself from kicking him in the crotch (which is what I would have done to any other man harassing me in such a way).
He eventually backed down, realizing that I was more aware of my rights than he had anticipated. I went to my car, shaking, with a rapid heart beat, but with my phone triumphantly still in hand.
This situation is hardly an isolated one. American citizens face arrest, or the threat of it, on a regular basis for keeping an eye on the very people hired, trained, and paid (with taxpayers’ money) to “protect and serve” them. The list seems to grow exponentially every day.
There was the high-profile incident on Leon Rosby, who was arrested in Hawthorne, California, on June 30 for the crime of “obstruction” of police as he recorded video of their cars parked outside of a house in the neighborhood. After agitating Rosby’s dog with the illegal arrest, the officers fatally shot his pet four times.
The evidence? Another citizen taking a video of all of this with his own phone camera. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Mum5iJMlyk)
Also, more recently, Dominic Holden of “The Stranger,” a Seattle, Washington-based publication, wrote about a similar experience. In the July 31 issue, Holden published “Police Threatened to Arrest Me for Taking Their Photo Last Night,” in which he describes interactions with Seattle cops threatening him for taking their photo while they questioned a man who was not under arrest. (http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2013/07/31/police-threatened-to-arrest-me-for-taking-their-photo-last-night)
When Holden followed up with the police department, the response he received was this: “King County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Sergeant Cindi West explains, ‘It’s a free country, and as long as you have a legal right to be there, you can take a picture.’ She elaborated in an e-mail that ‘in general a person cannot be ordered to stop photographing or to leave property if they have a legal right to be there.’ ”
Holden writes, “What happened to me was minor. But I’m writing about it because it’s minor. Officers went out of their way to threaten a civilian with arrest and workplace harassment for essentially no reason. Because they could. Because they didn’t like being watched.”
That’s right, civil servants––whether they are politicians, TSA agents, or police officers––don’t like to be watched. That is what they are, by the way: servants of the people. They are here to help protect and provide services to its citizens. We pay their salaries, after all. So, when did “servants” become “leaders” and “authorities”? People must arm themselves with knowledge of their rights and take back their power.
These self-proclaimed leaders and authorities insist on forcing naked screening images at airports of people simply trying to visit their in-laws in Chicago or fly to Orlando for a trip to Disney World. They justify widespread National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of all phone calls and emails exchanged by law-abiding citizens who used to be (and presumably still are) protected by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And they insist on violating personal space and civil liberties with such intrusive and humiliating tactics as “stop and frisk.”
The response to resistance or even simple questioning of these policies is, “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”
Yet, when free, law-abiding members of the populace do something as simple, harmless, and legal as take photos of officers arresting someone in public or standing around eating donuts, they face harassment and threats of arrest, not the transparency they seek and deserve.
Voyeurism is a two-way street. So is surveillance. And we, the people, should take advantage of that, utilizing our rights to watch the watchdogs. Because, according to Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
If these people in power have nothing to hide, why do they worry so much about an iPhone and curious citizenry armed with knowledge of their rights and basic video technology?
(To avoid arrest or further harassment from the local law enforcement, I am not including the original photos taken of this incident.)