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.
Before the lawsuit, complaints about stop and frisk could seem anecdotal. Bundle those individual complaints into one legal complaint, however, and the story has new life. The trial is a gift to the journalistic form, a performance, by the prosecution and the defense, of the professional demand that there be at least two sides to every story. It’s easier to make a quote stick to the walls of the inverted pyramid when it comes from inside a courtroom.
Back to the video, and to what’s so brilliant about the use of Polanco’s story: Polanco’s credibility is rooted not in his participation as a whistleblower in the class-action trial, which is the reason the mainstream media had earlier taken interest in him, but as a human being who has experienced stop-and-frisk firsthand. The fact that he is a cop is used in the video’s first sentence with irony, rather than to wield legitimacy against a a skeptical viewer. This video trusts us to trust him—his personal impressions and the conclusions he draws from them—a choice which infuses more humanity in four minutes than can be wrung from gallons of ink spilled covering the lawsuit.
Careful, clever journalism could do that too—but often does not. It could also do what this video does next: take us, quickly and deftly, behind the scenes of a consequential choice—in this case, Polanco’s decision to join the NYPD. The video tells us that Polanco grew up in Washington Heights, and he remembers “murders every night.” He wanted to be a cop after a female officer visited his elementary school. He talks about some of the frisking he’s done, and how badly he felt.
No doubt some viewers will call Polanco’s story biased—because it’s only one voice; because he’s clearly anti-stop and frisk; perhaps even because he’s a person of color. Indeed, because of all of these things combined, this video doesn’t look like the stuff we’re used to calling journalism. But it does what we want the best journalism to do: help us feel the human stakes and inner emotional stories of today’s most pressing topics.
Make no mistake: there is an agenda in these videos. And that’s where careful journalism would, and should, never tread: The video ends with a call to “join the campaign” against stop and frisk by sharing the video. But this series does something journalists can, and perhaps should, do more often. It credibly builds claims about civil rights abuses with the voices of those who live with them. The willingness of “Where I Am Going” to use individual voices to question institutional authority should inspire a creative vigilance even in more traditional journalism.
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