Do Bring a Phonecam to a Snowball Fight

By now, you’ve probably heard the story—and seen the video.  During the weekend’s Snowpocalypse™ in DC, a gaggle of young urbanites, using Twitter and other social media, announced a big group snowball fight at the corner of 14th and U Streets.  For a while, it was all good fun, with the participants periodically stopping the skirmish to help dislodge a motorist for a snowdrift, amid collective cheers. But an off-duty plainclothes cop whose Hummer had been hit by a few snowballs lost his cool—and advanced on the crowd to berate them with his gun drawn. You’d think an angry, out-of-uniform guy brandishing a gun might set off a dangerous stampede in the snow, but true to form, the DC crowd responded with chanting: “You don’t bring a gun to a snowball fight!”

Initially, the Metropolitan Police Department “reviewed the evidence” and concluded that the officer had only been holding a cell phone after all—folks who’d said it was a gun must have just imagined it, what with all that snow. But it turns out there were a whole lot of video cameras and phonecams there, and still shots and recordings began to circulate on the Internet, making it impossible to deny what had happened.  By Monday, the chief of police had issued a statement calling the officer’s behavior “totally inappropriate” and announcing that he’d be relegated to desk duty pending further inquiry.

As anyone who follows the excellent work of my colleague Radley Balko will be well aware, things often play out quite differently—with departments circling the wagons, and no serious accountability for far more egregious abuses of authority. But video—increasingly ubiquitous and portable—can make a difference. And it strikes me that, in one sense, it helps remedy other kinds of social inequality.  Reviewing that video of the snowball scene, you might point out that the crowd is full of white 20-somethings, many of whom (given the city’s demographics) are almost certainly college-educated professionals, while police misconduct toward less privileged groups is far more likely to be ignored.

What is privilege, though? In cases like these, it consists largely in the ability to be seen and heard—to attract media attention, to articulate your story in a clear and compelling way, to be considered credible by press and the community. All of these, unfortunately, depend enormously on class, status, race, and education. Unless there’s video. And video is democratic these days. You’d have to poke around a bit to find even a bottom-of-the-line cheapo cell phone that didn’t come with at least a still camera, and likely video capture to boot. So while there’s been some attention paid to the potential of this kind of “Little Brother” surveillance to increase accountability—the to lessen disparity in power between citizen and cop—it’s also worth stressing the way it can lessen certain kinds of disparities between citizens.

That said, and just going by memory, it seems like most of the stories I encounter in this vein still involve white, middle-class, college-educated young people. One possibility is that this shows I’m wrong, and that other aspects of privilege still play into their videos circulating while others languish. Another, though, is just that they’re both accustomed to this kind of routine use of technology and sharing of data, and that they take their social power for granted. That is, it occurs more naturally to them that the right response to this kind of misbehavior is to record and circulate it. If it’s mostly the latter, we’re on an interesting precipice, where the main remaining precondition for the leveling effect to kick in is just awareness that the other preconditions are in place.  If that’s right, the next few years should be interesting.