Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, April 15, 2005
 
The Right To Petition: RNC Arrest Exonerations Part II
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peacably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." (Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States. Emphasis mine.)

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." (Amendment XIV of the Constitution of the United States. Emphasis mine.)
A few days ago, based on a link from WorldChanging, I blogged about this New York Times article by Jim Dwyer about the use of citizen video in exonerating 400 arrestees from last year's protests at the Republican National Convention in New York. Somewhat predictably, I was most immediately intrigued with the connections between the article and the technology of cooperation (as in groups working together) and search (as in information management).

But as Rishi pointed out in comments, "Anyone else scared that the police (or some other agencies) are editing video to falsely charge people with crimes? Isn't _that_ the bigger story here?" That is, in fact, a huge story, and one the New York Times sort of glossed over. The article seemed pitched to be about the positive triumph of technology, actually deemphasizing the negative problems that technology was triumphing over. The story had plenty of quotes from the sources of those problems--the establishment--and none from its victims--the luckily exonerated. You might almost think that Dwyer and the Times did so because it's actually old news. I sort of willingly fell in with their pitch because I was sure a lot of people on the blogosphere would be talking about the legal problems, and I wanted to hit the optimistic, technohappy notes first. Now, as promised (if a bit late) , let's take a look at the rest of it.

Looking at the Constitution as quoted above: We have a right to show up and tell our government we're not happy with them. If the agents of the state then arrest us, limiting our liberty, they have to play fair. That's what the due process is all about. One of the biggest concerns of the constitution is making sure that the government can't use its size and weight to simply toss people in jail whenever it feels like it. Yet with a track record of 91% exonerations so far (and many people plead guilty because they're not New Yorkers and can't afford to keep flying back for courtdates) it seems like the NYPD did throw people into jail whenever it felt like it-- specifically, when it was convenient to the Republican National Convention to do so. Trying to then justify so many arbitrary detentions with doctored evidence just compounds the violation. The I-Witness videos don't make these two violations all better. They don't give the protesters back their valuable time in New York and their guaranteed opportunity to make a statement. I'm not even sure that they give them back their legal fees. They just prevent the error from being compounded even more, by preventing the arrestees from being convicted and fine or jailed for something they didn't do. They caught a grave mistake that might very well be systematic. In other words, we still have some massive problems on our hands.

I took a look today at the Technorati list of blogs who linked to this article: Part I and Part II. (There are two ways to link to NYT articles; the technorati search pages don't always reload consistently; Google hasn't yet archived the pages which link to this article.) About 37 altogether. The article itself gets a blistering review by Casadelogo on Fact-esque, starting with a sarcastic description of the police: ""Their uniforms were freshly pressed and their breath minty fresh as well. Nobody died while being arrested. Rejoice, Comrade!""

Besides me and WorldChanging, only a few blogs seem to take positive note of the populist possibilities. J.B. Zimmerman at Sharptools sees this as a necessary check and balance on the behavior of government agents doing their job. Phila at Bouphonia intriguingly named it a participatory panopticon, after an architectural design by Bentham. Eric at Total Information Awareness News made the same little-sibling pun I did. ("Mistake? Maybe the technician went to the same school as Nixon's careless secretary.") But the vast majority of responses I could find--including the letters to the Editor of the Times--were almost purely outraged at everything that happened before the I-Witness people came along and fixed things.

It's interesting that some people took the tack of "Whoa! How could this happen? Where'd my country go?" while other's took the tack of ""Why am I not surprised that the NYPD would be overly aggressive in wrangling protesters?" (It seems, as I implied above, that the Times also takes this kind of happening as normal, just like the most cynical liberals.) The outrage was not limited to liberals: "I don't believe it, even while I still fully disapprove of the behavior of the RNC protestors during that time," wrote conservative blogger Michael Parker. Some people emphasized the role of the NYPD, and others emphasized the role of the RNC. Michael L. at the Abysmal Kingdom of Mike wrote: "Honestly, if the Republicans weren't there, I'm sure the police would have been all like, dude, just keep walking." Clearly the problem is a combination of the Administration/Party in Power not respecting the right of assembly and the local government being all to eager to abandon due process in servitude to the Party in Power. Most bloggers seemed disconsolate about the possibility of fixing things, as in James Wagner's post title: "NYC police are now proven liars, but nothing will change." Oddly enough, the strongest let's-fix-it came from a blog called we move to canada, citing the six letters to the editor: "This is a lot of letters on one topic, which means the Times received a flood of mail - and all from the same point of view. We need to push for an investigation, and a thorough rethinking of policy towards peaceful protesters."

It is from the letters to the editor that I too take the most hope, and also from the search and video technology I just blogged about. The fact is, the blogosphere and the internet is a highly imperfect sampling of how people have reacted to this story. Blogs are still mostly echo chambers, and people who keep them are generally aware of these kinds of problems. But the Times is still a widely read newspaper, and it seems that many people understood the wider point and are suitably outraged. What the blogosphere can do is try to keep that outrage growing.

I still stick to my longterm optimism. As a commenter and environmental architect Dave Foley wrote on World Changing: It's tempting to let experiences like that breed contempt for the rule of law. It's more constructive to realize that each of us has to help maintain the rule of law - it can't be outsourced. Police need to know they're being watched - but there also have to be real consequences if they lie. Cheap video technology, cheap indexing, and volunteer models give those real consequences some teeth.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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