Film-makers demand inquiry into 'targeting' of people who record police

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Group of more than 30 documentarians, including eight Oscar winners, has called on the justice department to investigate ‘harassment’ of citizen journalists

People who film police violence are citizen journalists. We stand with them

Film-makers demand inquiry into 'targeting' of people who record police
The undersigned filmmakers include Citizenfour director Laura Poitras, Going Clear director Alex Gibney, Cartel Land director Matt Heineman and The House I Live In director Eugene Jarecki. Photograph: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

A group of more than 40 documentarians, including eight Oscar winners, has called on the justice department to investigate the “harassment” and “targeting” of citizen journalists who record episodes of police violence.

Noting that the citizens who filmed the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner were all subsequently arrested, the film-makers wrote in an open letter that it is “vital we defend the rights of these individuals to use video as a means of criticizing unjust police activity.”

The undersigned filmmakers include Going Clear director Alex Gibney, Citizenfour director Laura Poitras, Cartel Land director Matt Heineman and The House I Live In director Eugene Jarecki.

“Mainstream media has paid ample attention to the images captured by these citizen journalists. Largely, it has ignored the methods in which they were recorded and distributed, and the penalties for those involved,” the letter states.

Like in other high profile police killings from the last two years, the cases of Sterling and Castile, which inspired nationwide protests throughout much of July, both gained attention largely through the release of bystander video.

After Sterling was shot by Baton Rouge police officers during a struggle, the two men who posted viral video of the incident, Chris LeDay and Abdullah Muflahi, were both subsequently detained by police. LeDay did not record the video, but was one of the first people to post it to Facebook and was arrested and shackled the day after posting the video for “fitting a description”, according to the 34-year-old Air Force veteran. He was later released after paying more than $1,200 in fines for an earlier traffic violation.

Muflahi, the proprietor of the convenience store where Sterling was killed on 5 July, was also detained for four hours in the back of a police car while officers searched his store. Muflahi uploaded the second video that depicted Sterling’s death.

Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, the fiance of Philando Castile, who was killed by an officer during a traffic stop just days after Sterling, was also detained by police after the fatal shooting. Reynolds broadcasted the immediate aftermath of the incident on Facebook Live from the front seat of the couple’s car as she spoke with the Minnesota police officer who fired at Castile. He was legally carrying a concealed weapon in the vehicle.

Reynolds was held overnight by police for questioning, sparking outrage on social media with activists using the hashtag #whereisLavishReynolds to call attention to her detention. “They treated me like a prisoner,” Reynolds said the following morning after being released.

The letter to the DoJ calls actions like this, “evidence of a pattern of systemic and vindictive targeting by law enforcement,” adding that the efforts “reveal an intention to suppress footage, intimidate witnesses, control narratives, obscure brutality and punish”.

The film-makers, said that citizen journalists like Reynolds and Muflahi “have made it impossible for white Americans to continue ignoring a truth our leaders have spent centuries obfuscation: black lives matter”.

In 2015, Kevin Moore who filmed the Baltimore police tacking Freddie Gray and pulling him into a police van was also arrested, and released without charges. Moore alleges that police continue to harass him, “they ride past me taunting me with their phones up”, Moore told Vice News in an interview.

Ramsey Orta, who filmed the fatal chokehold arrest of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 also faced repeated interaction with police after the incident, culminating in an arrest on weapons charges. Orta is currently serving a four year sentence on a plea deal and claims police targeted him, and, like Moore, approached him with their phones out on one occasion as a taunt.

The letter calls for more people in the documentary community to join the case, declaring that while “the nature of documentary truth may be slippery”, “the one captured by LeDay, Muflahi, Reynolds, Moore, Orta and so many many more is immutable”.

The justice department did not return a request for comment on whether it would answer the filmmakers’ call for investigation.

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