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When Cops Attack Online

New Media Can Still Mean Old Politics

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev Posted: Jun 28, 2009

Editor's Note: When a police union recently used blogs and the YouTube to attack someone they deemed a troublemaker, Silicon Valley was abuzz. But should they resort to new media to settle community level disputes, wonders Raj Jayadev, director of Silicon Valley De-Bug.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A few months back, I wrote an article called
Copwatch 2.0. It was about the shooting death of Oscar Grant by law enforcement, the fact that the act was shown on YouTube, and how our Internet culture has changed the landscape of police accountability.

I think the San Jose Police Officers Association just read the title because based on their recent Internet postings, they have their own ideas of what happens to police accountability in a hyper-communications era. They feel that if activists are using new media to expose what they feel is police abuse -- posting videos and blogs of civilians getting tased, beaten, or otherwise mistreated -- cops can create their own media as well.

In activists circles, there is a common phrase used these days: "Media is a weapon." That just means we may not have money or political clout, but if youve got a laptop and a cause, anything is possible. But that message is presumably for the disempowered. When applied to groups like law enforcement that actually have real weapons, that message takes on a different set of possibilities.

And with that, I found myself the subject of a law enforcement YouTube video produced by the Police Officers Association, and the lead story of a new blog they created, called, Protectsanjose.com. The fact that a police association would use the devices presumed to be the tools of activists created quite a political buzz here in technology-obsessed San Jose. Cops were using YouTube and blogs to call activists bullies. You can check out one of their videos here:

Our world had been turned upside down.

New media culture is defined by its ability to create conversation globally by connecting those who otherwise would not be able to communicate with each other. But when used in the place of actual face-to-face discourse among those who live in the same city, and if placed in the bright lights of cyberspace, it can make it as dangerous to the local as it is liberating for the global. Its like using a machete to spread butter.

There were angry anonymous video responses, debates over free speech rights, letters by City Council members, and flared tensions all around. But the lesson learned was not about what was different with technology, but rather what stayed the same. Even in the heart of Silicon Valley, where innovation is synonymous with salvation, new media does not necessarily mean a new political discourse when it comes to community level conflicts.

The web may have been the way Barack Obama mobilized millions. It may be allowing the Iranian revolution to be tweeted to the world. But when confronted with divides of the local like trust issues between police and communities of color in San Jose it simply inflamed hostilities, forced people to choose sides, and created more polarization in a divided city. Indeed, in covering the issue, the headline of our local paper, the San Jose Mercury News read, Cops vs. the Activists. Most of us activists, and Im guessing a lot of cops as well, didnt even know we were in an us-versus-them framework until the POAs new media exploitations.

The video, which was put together by a PR firm contracted by the POA, was an edited clip of me speaking at City Hall about police issues, and the need for accountability and transparency. It airs pieces of my testimony, with pop-up words that are intended to dismiss what I am talking about. It even takes a jab at the fact Im wearing a T-shirt.

It was an awkward production and reminiscent of liberals attempts to use AM radio to talk tough about conservatives: They just seemed desperate and out of sorts. At one point in the video, its most dramatic, they contend that I am making a threat to City Council when I talk about a street response. I was speaking of rallies, marches, public forums things people are doing right now in Iran for democracy, and the gay rights community is doing in San Francisco for equality. But the viewer is led to believe I am actually warning the city council that I am going to lead a violent riot. Mind you, the same week this broke, my organization was awarded a grantfrom the city, based on the deliberation of the mayor, the police department, and the district attorneys office in support of our violence prevention work.

In justifying the video, the POA executive branch wrote on their website that they felt I was indeed threatening elected officials with violence, and blogged that my organization, which is comprised mostly of young people of color who come together to produce community media through their art and writings, were thugs, who attempt to get their way by threatening anyone who opposes them with physical violence. The executive message then poses an ominous ultimatum to the mayor and the City Council to choose which side they are going to be to on, and asks, Are they on the side of us, the protectors of the weak and vulnerable? Or are they on the side of the thugs, who attempt to get their way by threatening anyone who opposes them with physical violence?

And there you have it, one video and one blog later, a city that was once working towards resolving issues between the police and particular communities now finds itself in an us vs. them online war. The comment boxes of the blogs overflowed with the web 2.0 equivalent of chest bumps from police officers applauding the POA for finally standing up to the Anti-American activists, as well as plenty of F--k the Cops rantings.

Of course the cyber-reality of the video requires real-life context. The eclipsing political issue for San Jose for the last eight months has been statistics revealed by the Mercury News that our police department has more public intoxication arrests than any other city in the state, and does so at a racially disproportionate clip. For example, the arrest rate was 58 percent for Latinos, who only represent roughly 30 percent of the general population. The revelations led to the convening of a city-appointed taskforce (which included my organization, the NAACP, ACLU, and the police department among other stakeholders), and overall has made the once marginal issue of police practice front and center for political debate.

To be honest, I was not cognizant of and didn't care about the political implications of the POAs use of new media at first. I was fairly freaked out when I saw the video and read the blog. When most working people use their professional association to say someone is a threat, it means they might be referring to a person who might take a prospective client, or might move your job overseas. When the POA, which has weapons and the power to arrest, calls you a threat, who knows what they mean, or what one presumes they will do to suppress that threat?

We got a lot of advice after the cyber campaign. Old school activists told me not to be out at night, and to change my phone number. Some told me I should turn myself in for arrest to make a point. Others told me that this is a psychological war, and we should match them blog for blog, video for video. City Hall insiders instructed me to try to imagine what Obama would do, then do that. I have no idea what Obama would do, cant afford a new phone, and am not going to get arrested.

The way I see it, new media should facilitate new understandings for people to know who you are. But when you can knock on a door and talk face to face, there is an honesty in that which the Internet hasnt been able to match yet. Anyone on Facebook or MySpace can testify to this. I wonder how many feuds, fights, divorces can be attributed to web 2.0.

But dont get me wrong. I am not against anyone using new media, including the police. I actually think it could be very helpful if cops twittered. Most of us dont know what they do when they are off duty, and getting a play-by-play of their day could be really informative. And they could learn more about us as well. In the old days they would tap the phones of organizations or send in infiltrators, but who needs all that when they could just be our friend on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter?

In the meantime though, I think were just going to do something very un-Silicon Valley and try to have an in person sit down with the POA. Maybe we'll post that on YouYube.

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