April 22, 2006

Witness: Can We Make A Difference?

On NOW this week, David Brancacchio talked with Peter Gabriel about how small cameras embedded into cellphones can record human rights abuses. Gabriel knows that credible video is much harder to suppress and to deny than words or stories. Just as people in Baghdad knew that there were abuses at Abu Ghraib, it was only when the photos documenting the abuses became public that it became impossible for the media and the US Government to deny the problem. Even more, videos and pictures can create an imperative that something must be done to prevent future violations.

Peter Gabriel talked about his involvement in Witness which uses video to testify about abuse and he has seen that pictures really do shame people into action. One example Gabriel talked about was how one video of guards beating young prisoners in California led to the legislature bringing forth a proposal to reform the California Youth Authority (CYA) the day after the video surfaced.

The stories of how abusive and punitive the system run by CYA had been known for a long time. However, in a "tough of crime" era, our elected representives know they can be cruxified in the press if they sponsor or back proposals which can be painted as being "soft on criminals". And governors are elected for how tough they are. Under this atmosphere our prisons have become hell-holes on earth and have created environments that encourage and draw out the sadistic nature of people who have authority over others who they consider bad and deserving of harsh punishment. It took a stunning video to wake the California public and their representatives up to the festering reality of the abuse and to finally break through the blind "tough of crime" spell that had kept the system running without oversight for so long.

As Brancacchio noted, small cameras in the hands of the public can be turned back on the systems that today surround and record our every action to hold those systems accountable to us as well.

Posted by Mary at April 22, 2006 10:53 AM | Human Rights | Technorati links |

Unfortunately, video cameras are necessary but not sufficient to result in action. The people of the Tel Rumedia project have extensive video footage of the physical abuse and beatings of Palestinian villagers by right-wing Israeli settlers in that part of Hebron on the West Bank, but it has been completely and utterly useless in generating any response from the Israeli police or military who are in principle supposed to prevent such illegal activities.

Posted by: Eli Stephens at April 25, 2006 04:16 PM

Eli, I agree with you on that. The people being filmed must be capable of feeling shame. Unfortunately, it appears that the shame bar is rising much higher these days.

Posted by: Mary at April 26, 2006 11:12 PM