The power of short documentary video to rally viewers to a cause is nothing new, these days. Social justice giant WITNESS pioneered the video-for-action model 20 years ago, when few people had cameras at their disposal, by sharing equipment and training with citizen-activists around the world.
Today, with smartphone-bulging pockets, everyone’s a filmmaker. And for fast-film consumers, it seems like the most appealing films are those that provoke outrage—even if packaged in long, shaky, unfocused videos like the six-minute clip of more than a dozen loud, menacing motorcycles in pursuit of an SUV-driving father and his family that went viral two weeks ago.
But not all outrage is created equal. The motorcycle video promised a powerful audience seducer—violence—and a relatively uncomplicated story: Crazy motorcycle gang chases down father, scared wife, and kid, smashes SUV. Innocent victims, easy perpetrators, senseless violence.
Maybe more complicated outrage needs more sophisticated technique. At the very least, a finer touch does justice to the stop-and-frisk stories in “Where I Am Going,” a Web video series by Communities United for Police Reform.
The videos tell the stories of stop-and-frisk from the perspective of different New York residents and means to advocate against the practice, in which New York Police Department officers stop and pat down anyone they believe looks “suspicious,” a procedure applied disproportionately to people of color. A federal court ruled the practice unconstitutional in August, but the city has appealed the ruling.
So far, the series contains three videos. In “The high school student,” Kasiem Walters says he was too afraid, after being frisked while waiting for a friend, to call police later, when he was robbed. In “The Pastor,” a clergyman tells his congregation that he occasionally advises their kids not to wear hoodies. The third video, “The Police Officer,” was released last week.
Adhyl Polanco, the officer who carries the film, will be familiar to New Yorkers with something of a memory span. Polanco joined the NYPD in 2009; earlier this year, he testified about stop-and-frisk in federal court, bringing with him audiotapes he’d secretly made of his superiors instructing him to bring up his stop-and-frisk numbers. The tapes were reported as evidence of an alleged quota system, which the NYPD and Bloomberg have vociferously denied (and which would be against a state law passed in 2010). Polanco uses the controversial phrase outright in the video: “In 2009, the commanding officers require us to have a 1-20-and-5 quota system. One-20-and-5 means one arrest per month, 20 summons per month, and five stop-and-frisks per month.”
But this cause-doc doesn’t try to win over its audience by reciting numbers or by stoking outrage. This is pure, beautiful, four-minute storytelling, and the advocacy agenda buried beneath Polanco’s personal story is subtle.
The video is unnarrated—we’re guided through a series of everyday-New York images and some personal b-roll by the voice of Polanco, who sounds like a straight-talking nice guy. Here’s the first thing he tells us:
Believe it or not, I been stopped by police after I became a cop. We used to walk to Washington Heights with two older cops, friends of mine, and we got thrown against the wall just for walking down. I’m not saying don’t stop the criminal; I’m saying don’t stop the innocent people.
This seems like straightforward personal storytelling, but what’s actually happening here is something more clever. From its very first words, this video, like the others in this series, gives individual experience more clout than it’s often afforded by news journalism, which trusts institutional authorities more than it trusts ordinary, individual voices. News journalists don’t tend to cover an ongoing story through the eyes of a single source. We acknowledge our lack of authority by for objectivity, a necessary and noble aspirational myth which is also a way of protecting the professional pack by forcing us to borrow the authority of others. We don’t analyze or draw conclusions; we quote relevant “experts.” Put plainly, we’re not actually supposed to know things; we’re supposed to talk to people who do. The more authority sources seem to have, the more authority we do, too.
Case in point: The stop-and-frisk scandal had been talked about for years, but it wasn’t until a civil suit that the stories found sustained media attention. That’s not because journalists don’t care about issues until there’s a lawsuit; it’s because lawsuits make it so much easier for us to cope with our lack of authority.