How protesters are turning the tables on police surveillance

Some say that police have acted as counterprotesters in nationwide demonstrations against police brutality following George Floyd’s death. | Ben Hendren / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Armed with smartphones, the public is holding law enforcement to account.

The way the Buffalo Police Department tells it , 75-year-old Martin Gugino “was injured when he tripped and fell” during a June 4 protest. This statement was quickly contradicted when footage from a nearby journalist’s phone showed that Gugino fell after two police officers pushed him. The man’s head hit the ground with a sickening crack and blood poured out of his ear. Most of the officers then walked on by him. The video swiftly went viral.
In the past, the Buffalo police’s claim might have been taken at face value and echoed by the news media. But as multiple versions of the video spread across social media, outrage grew to a tipping point. Both officers were swiftly suspended without pay and charged with assault . As local politicians and the police union tried to defend the rule of law, tens of millions watched one of the videos of the cops pushing Gugino, who is a longtime peace activist, to the ground. On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted , without evidence, that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur” who was “scanning” police communications and possibly faked his own fall. These conspiratorial claims were quickly debunked .
Trump’s tweet does, in a roundabout way, shed light on a dynamic unfolding as anti-police brutality protests sweep the nation. Typically, you think of police as the ones doing surveillance during a protest; they are aggressively monitoring the demonstrations around the country. Law enforcement even flew a Predator drone over protesters in Minneapolis last month. But now, with these protests, the president is paranoid that it’s the people who are surveilling the police. He’s not entirely wrong.
The Gugino video is just one of many recent incidents where activists, journalists, and bystanders have caught police responding to anti-police brutality protests with more police brutality . An NYPD officer was charged with assault after a video of him beating a protester went viral on social media, where he was identified. An array of video evidence proved that, ahead of a Trump photo op, police used chemical agents on peaceful protesters near the White House, despite the government’s official denial. And the video of George Floyd’s death is perhaps the most powerful example of a bystander’s footage swiftly disproving the police narrative.
There will surely be more videos like these that hold police to account. Internet-connected cameras are everywhere, and many people have them built into the phones in their pockets. These magical gadgets capture increasingly high-quality images that can be shared to countless apps and websites immediately. And because of the public’s...