Jeffrey Skoller is a filmmaker, writer, and an Associate Professor of Film & Media at the University of California, Berkeley.

iDocument Police: Contingency, Resistance, and the Precarious Present

Jeffrey Skoller

Volume 1Article 4

iDocument Police: Contingency, Resistance, and the Precarious Present

Jeffrey Skoller

Volume 1Article 4 Download

iDocument Police: Contingency, Resistance, and the Precarious Present

Jeffrey Skoller
Volume 1/Article 4 Download
Jeffrey Skoller is a filmmaker, writer, and an Associate Professor of Film & Media at the University of California, Berkeley.

Video/sound recorders with high data storage capacities, hi-resolution and low light capabilities of miniature high-definition tapeless cameras, solid state surveillance cams, dashboard and body cameras and most crucially, the ubiquitous smartphone with capabilities for live-streaming via social media are transforming the dynamics of the interactions between law enforcement officials and citizenry in the United States. That both public and private law enforcement officers in the United States are almost always armed in their confrontations with citizens is deeply connected to the often antagonistic and violent history of American law enforcement. The emerging continuous, single shot, digital video documents that people are self-streaming and recording as protection when encountering the police and other figures of state authority have begun to transform the national discourse on police violence. These videos are documents whose narrative directions are still evolving in the moment of recording, so outcomes and meanings of the events seen and heard cannot be neatly narrated. Instead, they reveal the immediate present as an unfolding problem for representation, which is often incomplete and always contingent. Thus the very indeterminacy of outcome caused by the presence of the cameras becomes a stage for resistance to state authority. What the recordings document gives insight into what I am calling the time of resistance, a performative mode in which the technology allows the filmer to destabilize the temporality of their interaction with authority by shifting the dynamic of power in the interaction and, in the process, momentarily denaturalizing the terms of power.




The historical turn that dominates much theory and practice of contemporary avant-garde film and documentary in the last twenty years is perhaps part of a response to fin du XXe siécle, postmodern claims of the “end of history,” a sense of a loss of collective historical memory, the eternal now of consumer culture and the inability of traditional forms of historiography to adequately address the fragmented experience of representing relationships between past and present. The historical turn in some of the more sophisticated contemporary documentary theory and practice has focused on retrospective time and the problems of narrating events of the past and its documents. This work on the Archive, the indexical trace, and its digital loss, questions of memory, trauma, testimony, re-enactment, creating previously unheard of cinematic hybrids between Documentary and Avant-garde media practices, have changed the language of cinema.

But, something quite different is happening outside of these discourses and practices that also needs to be given attention. Outside of them is an explosion of the present. The present is in the endless recordings that are given to us immediately, through the technology we access constantly, in every waking moment of our lives. So present-time is constituted in this surfeit of mediation, at high speed, in which every moment is transformed into an event demanding to be paid attention to. We are drawn to one event and instantly to the next, often making it hard to know what is significant about the present as an experience. Clearly this isn’t a new revelation in relation to modern life. Cultural critics have been commenting on the loss of an ability to experience the present at least since the late 19th century. But today there is an even more complex kind of transformation happening with the emergence of new digital imaging technologies and high-speed communications. How are we to discern the importance and value of an archive of recordings that document every single moment of the day? What is useful? What do such recordings make happen as they become part of the very events being documented? Who is making those kinds of judgments of their value?

Watching documents of events as they unfold, unedited, has created an overwhelming sense of the present tense in our daily lives. Beyond the ubiquitous documentation by legions of professional journalists and anonymously mounted surveillance cameras, there is an emergence of a wide range of recordings by non-journalists who have begun to use their smartphones or mini-digital cameras as an interface, as a form of self- protection or resistance in situations in which they are confronted by state authorities — such as police, Homeland Security, Border guards etc. These happenstance filmmakers create a new cinema of present-time, often by turning on the camera and placing it between themselves and figures of state power and authority – sometimes destabilizing the power dynamic in situations they are witnessing or engaged in and at other times highlighting the asymmetrical relations of state power and the citizens they are meant to serve. Often the filmers have little time to pay attention to their recording’s composition, exposure, focus, coverage of the scene, or sound quality. Instead, the camera is simply turned on and left to run until the hard-drive or chip is full. These recordings are then privately uploaded to the web, or released to advocacy or news organizations and, depending on how spectacular the recording is, they circulate virally.

As cinematic works, I’m interested in the ways these durational recordings shift our attention from the highly wrought crafting of retrospective time to the documentation of the contingencies of present-time and the ways these often unanticipated recordings create new forms of attention through performance, drama, and character identification, as well as new forms of witnessing and documentation that might be capable of transforming public discourse and the political landscape.

These self-documenting and witness videos have become a significant form of activism. Such recordings have given rise to a new generation of media activist organizations such as the Black Lives Matter, Copblock, WEcopwatch, Cop Block, NY Resistance and other community groups that inform and instruct people on how to use their cameras and what their legal rights are when confronted by state authorities. Through the activity of video recording, laws are being learned, challenged and clarified in very public ways as a result.

These videos take a number of forms and have a range of purposes. But the ability to publicly post the videos online, is implicit to the performances as they are taking place. Often, these documents are posted unedited as raw footage. Others have been extensively post-produced and include voice-overs or intertitles with explanations and analysis of what occurred and often function as rhetorical evidence of the abuse of power by the state and/or the demonstrating of racism and racial profiling by authorities. Others are instructional, demonstrating how to approach state authorities when challenging their demands. At times, the very same videos that are used by progressive and civil rights groups appear on right-wing libertarian sites such as Honor your Oath, Live Free or Die or Check point USA, to show how the liberal authoritarian state is violating the constitution with illegal stop and searches without probable cause, in violation of the 4th amendment.

These videos can be distinguished between self-documenting performative videos in which the filmer is in direct contact and confrontation with authorities and by-stander videos recorded by happenstance witnesses who are not involved but stop to document police confrontations with others. In these cases, the act of recording often pulls the filmer into the event, either by being confronted directly by the police, or through ways the filmer becomes a protagonist in the event as a witness or interlocutor. In the case of some police shootings, the documenter has become as controversial as the event s/he has recorded. The name and fate of the filmer becomes part of the story. Many of the men who recorded the high-profile police killing of unarmed men themselves became victims of police and state harassments: Feidin Santana who filmed the police shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, April, 2015, the jailing of Ramsey Orta after filming Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island July, 2014, and Kevin Moore who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore also in April 2014. All became part of the event, both as witness to what was happening in the moment of filming and then again as protagonist in the shaping of how the event is understood and responded to after the fact. This seems largely unprecedented.

The emergence of the pocket-size digital camera/phones with large data storage and hi-resolution/low light recording capacities to document being stopped by police has become an essential form of self-protection and documentation for many, but in particular African Americans who are routinely pulled over in traffic stops and arrested at higher rates than other communities in the US.{1} Increasingly, African American drivers are mounting cameras on their car dashboards or they begin recording with smart phones when stopped. Clearly visible to the police officers, the continuous real-time recording of the stop at once serves as a third term witness and allows the driver to raise questions about what is occurring in the moment. With emerging real time, live-feed applications such as Facebook live stream broadcasting, they can be in contact with others when alone in the car while being confronted by officers.


Liveness / Televisual / Streaming

While present-time documentation of events in real time as part of televisual broadcasting has gone on for decades, this personal live- streaming from within the event is something quite different from the TV crew that arrives at an event that is already in progress and turns it into a story. Live television, Mary Ann Doane has suggested, “organizes itself around the event (and) fills time by ensuring that something happens.”


Excerpt: Live television coverage from LET THE FIRE BURN, (Jason Osder, 2013).

What happens is that the event becomes televisual, as the referent becomes inseparable from the medium. Television’s conceptualization of the event is dependent upon a particular organization (or penetration) of temporality that reduces the different ways of apprehending the event.{2} By contrast, in the self-documenting recordings the event is the person who is filming and the presence of the camera itself, as much as it is the object or event being recorded. The act of filming becomes an integral part of the event as it is emerging—and shapes and reshapes it in real time. Often, people begin filming as a form of self-protection in contexts where the authority’s lack of accountability is obvious, before anything explicitly damaging has even happened. In these cases, recording begins before the unfolding interactions even become “events.” The recordings thus reveal how something unfolds in time; the event is not just what happened in front of the camera, it is also the act of recording itself and all that it places in motion.

In July 2016, the continuous live-streamed video on Facebook by Diamond Reynolds reveals a horrifying scene as she is sitting inside a car beside her dying boyfriend who has just been shot at least four times by a Minnesota police officer. Reynolds films in real-time her interactions with the police, showing that the police make no effort to save the life of Philando Castile as he is bleeding to death. Reynolds is at once part of the event and eyewitness narrator explaining to the camera what is occurring as it is unfolding. As she records, the police officer points his revolver through the open window of the car. We see from moment to moment her attempting to prevent the situation from escalating as the police officer becomes increasingly agitated. In this extraordinary recording, Reynolds is at once calming her four-year old daughter who is in the backseat, trying to keep the officer calm so he won’t shoot at them again, and narrating for the camera what is unfolding as precisely and objectively as possible. She is giving as many facts about their situation to whomever may be watching the event online. As she continues filming, she is ordered out of the car and confronted by additional police officers with guns drawn. She continues speaking as she is forced to her knees and her camera/phone is thrown to the ground. The camera continues to record as it is pointed to the sky while the voices in the chaotic interactions between police, Reynolds and her daughter continues off screen.

Once Reynolds is placed into a squad car with her phone back in hand, she continues to narrate, describing the officer who shot Castile in detail and gives the intersection where this is taking place. She asks for those who may be listening to come and help her before her camera/phone loses charge. In subsequent interviews she is asked over and over— largely by white interviewers–how she had the wherewithal to begin filming and how she was able to be so calm in her narration. Reynolds speaks of how common it is for African Americans to be stopped by the police and that she turned on her camera just after Castile is shot: “I knew that people would choose sides and I know they wouldn’t see me as being the person who was telling the truth…By recording I know I would have my side brought to the table.”


The Long Take: Durational & Slow Cinema

I am struck by the way these new kinds of recordings might reshape modes of attention in the documentary form itself, as they focus our attention on the precariousness of moment by moment shifts in power dynamics between people: what exactly is said and how; how things move toward violence or escape it. Can these videos point to an approach to non-fiction observational forms that allows for the provisionality of the present to emerge within representation? Is this form a way of engaging events that are unfolding in the present moment, where their direction is not yet determined and where their dynamics are not yet understood?

In cinematic terms, these recordings might be understood in relation to the durational and real-time practices of the Modernist film avant-garde and the more recently acknowledged stylistic category of “slow cinema” rather than to live-television or documentary journalism to which these recordings might more intuitively be associated. By linking the recordings with such highly formalist practices, an awareness of other narrative possibilities begin to emerge as alternatives to the linear contrivances of narrative emplotment. These alternative forms can give access to a broader range of temporalities in daily life such as randomness, chance, repetition, stasis and drift. Such durational and real-time cinema attempts to equalize each moment as part of the continuous flow of time, allowing the viewer to find the meaning in an event in relation to their own perceptions and intellectual processes. It provides an ethical dimension to the recording of an event by making time noticeable as a material aspect of an event. In the durational films of Andy Warhol such as Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), for example, the continuous recording of events produce drama out of the uncontrollability of the changes that occur over time. At the same time, the entire first reel of the film was accidentally shot out of focus and was only noticed after the film was processed. This too, becomes a document of the contingency of the mediation of the event, its realism now located on the actual surface of the film and in its duration, not just in the profilmic image.{4}


Excerpt: POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, Andy Warhol (1965).

Similarly, the contemporary, durational digital single-shot recordings in which a protagonist and person recording are one and the same, allows an unmediated access to the indeterminacy of the present moment. In these recordings, nothing has been determined to be unimportant or unnecessary ex post facto. Many things are seen to be happening at once and the outcome of the encounter is as yet undetermined. As such, it is still an event containing a multiplicity of possibilities in which some things happen and others do not. Each moment in the continuous shot contains the possibility of having meaning and contains what Russian narratologist Mikhail Bakhtin called eventness. For Bakhtin, certain kinds of narrative emplotment close down an awareness of the moment by moment process of how something happens in an event…”Life comes to resemble a finished product, in which everything is fixed.”{5} As Gary Saul Morson describes Bakhtin’s eventness:

“Eventful events are performed in a world in which there are multiple possibilities, in which some things that could happen do not … The eventful event must also be unrepeatable, that is its meaning and weight are inextricably linked to the moment in which it is performed. Choice is momentous. It involves presentness.”{6}

Like other forms of durational and slow cinema, these recordings can be seen as a counter form of documentary narration that disrupts and undermines the mass-media temporalities of journalistic and documentary film exposition, which is always already shaping outcomes while creating the impression of a process that has not yet been determined. Such documentary form claims authority through its ability to convincingly represent an event through temporal condensation, and the shaping of narrative exposition into linear and comprehensible series of highlights. These direct the viewer to certain aspects of the event often creating a seamless sense of a whole picture, often closing down an awareness of the moment by moment process of how something happens as it does.

Pier Paolo Pasolini argued that the substance of cinema is an endless long take, which like lived reality, is endless time filled only with contingency – therefore meaningless and unreadable. That is, it is unreadable until there is a cut, the cut that when connected to another shot it “renders the present past.”{7} The cut, for Pasolini, stabilizes the images by placing them into history, or what he called an historic present. The cut thus ends the shot, no longer recording each instant of the present, but instead making it the past. The time of the shot is now shaped by its relation to the other shots that surround it. For Pasolini, it is montage that places time into sequence, and gives what he called the “meaningless present” a form, “converting our present, which is infinite, unstable, uncertain, and thus linguistically indescribable into a clear stable, certain and thus linguistically describable past.” But to the contrary, I argue, rather than un-readabilty and meaninglessness, the real-time single take shot reveals eventness — the intensity, drama and political power of the present precisely in its revelation of contingency and the awareness of the present moment as always having the potential for something meaningful to occur. These documents address the actuality of an event that is unfolding in the present moment, its direction and outcome is not yet determined, its dynamics not yet understood or able to be narrated. Its presentness is precisely the emergence of the event, and how in the present moment, it defies immediate understanding and coherence since there are so many things happening at once. But here, the goal of knowledge is not closure, but rather what is going to happen next, something that the viewer must grapple with.

In general, the uninterrupted shot is not only about time, but also about construction of the space of the present. Because the cameras record only what is in front of them, often from a fixed position, there is no perspectival element that can create an impression of a possible ubiquitous view of the event. More specifically, in these digital videos, the single camera, which is often static, at times the image deframed–with little attention to or control over where the camera is pointed–at times out of focus, or moving uncontrollably, renders just a partial view. Much is happening in the frame, but clearly even more beyond it. We become aware of this not by what we’re not seeing, but through implication, not through narrative isolation, but through narrative absence, thus the static camera embodies and clarifies the partial perspective and situated knowledge that is the present.

The fascination of the present moment in these long duration recordings is that anything can happen or nothing at all. Ironically, The unbroken linearity of these recordings exposes the present as a point of rupture and discontinuity that has the potential to destabilize the verisimilitude of linear time. Present-time simultaneously poses the threat of meaninglessness and of pure and uncontrollable contingency. Both meaninglessness and contingency destabilize the narrative coherence and rationality of social control. As Mary Ann Doane has suggested in her work on cinematic time and contingency:

The present can be figured as a point of discontinuity (and hence the condition of the possibility of chance) in an otherwise continuous stream of time.” She continues, “The present as a point of discontinuity marks the promise of something other, something outside of systemicity or an anti-systemicity.{8}

Systemicity, for Doane, refers to the regularized and systemized structuring of time in capitalist economy in the domain of work and leisure. One could add to that the systemicity of state control—of information and population. The contingency that is constituted in every present moment can be seen as having the potential for disrupting the systemicity of state power. In the case of these single shot videos, the state’s system of authority is disrupted by the presence of the camera and the chance that it will catch the police in illegal behavior while at the same time controlling the camera emboldens the filmer to step out of, and disrupt that system’s discourse of unquestioned authority that it presumes.

We can see in these uninterrupted recordings the ways the camera becomes a catalyst for disrupting constructed temporal systems. In videos where motorists record themselves refusing to submit to what they understand to be illegal questioning and searches at Homeland security checkpoints, north of the Mexican border, we see how their refusal to submit to questioning, and arguing the illegalities of the stop with the patrol guard disrupts the time it takes to make the inspection. The submission to the questioning succeeds with threats of being detained and schedules disrupted. The refusal to answer instead disrupts the procedural process as cars begin to back up, unable to proceed. What is a rather meaningless and often illegal bureaucratic action of inspecting each car becomes a long winded and laborious action, and a test of wills, between officer and driver as everybody’s activity slows to a halt. Everybody — driver, officer, motorists behind them, the viewer — becomes aware that resistance to this questioning changes the time it takes to pass through.{9} Even more importantly, they reveal the power of the state as a performance of authority and intimidation, and its limits. These videos reveal instant-by-instant, micro-shifts and changes in the interactions between each player in the scene as they react to the changing power dynamic between officers and the filmers. The chance that resisting authority will erupt into violence, or that it will be resolved by the officer admitting that s/he has no authority to detain the driver and letting them proceed—both are seen in a range of videos – is unpredictable. The present becomes the point of undecidability. Nothing is inevitable, so narrative has no form. Each instant is the disruption of another.

Like an irritant placed between driver and inspection officer, the camera opens a space for confrontation that would be unlikely to happen without its presence. The camera as a third term can reveal how systems have already broken down within the social order, as we see police illegally intimidating or acting outside the law with impunity. Not only are the acts of violence themselves being documented, but the possibility of it being recorded itself now becomes one of the contingencies that these documents reveal. This is not to claim that the ubiquity of cameras will end the violent abuse of the citizenry, especially the abuse of African-Americans by a militarized and self regulating police force, but it is to say that these recording practices are changing the terms of the discourse, making clear that such abuse by the state is murderously real and occurring on a daily basis.

At the same time, the videos themselves do not guarantee that the actions recorded will be read as irrefutable evidence that the event took place as it is seen in the recordings. One only has to remember how the Rodney King tape was successfully read against itself by the defense as evidence of police restraint, even as the video documents King’s brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers. While the prosecution argued that the indexicality of the eighty-one second video speaks for itself, showing in real-time the brutal beating of a defenseless man by at least four police officers, the defense lawyers successfully argued that the document of the beating had no inherent meaning, but could only be read contextually. By breaking up the continuous flow of time in the low-resolution video recording into short discontinuous fragments, at times slowing down the motion or showing series of freeze frames, the defense constructed an alternative reading of the video and argued that one could see how King was resisting and even attacking the police who were doing their job making the arrest. They further argued that the officers were actually exercising restraint in their attempts to subdue him and were justified in protecting themselves from King’s assaults.

By removing the images from the continuous flow of time and performing a close yet decontextualized analysis, they created a second text of fragments and still images from the original footage. As Hamid Naficy writes:

The repeated screening of dissected images turns them into abstractions, into images without referent, into simulacrum. The spatial and temporal integrity that informed the images is vitiated … Through abstraction, absence, and voicelessness, the subject of both the video and the court, in effect, disappeared.{10}

The disappearance of the subject of the video through its analytical fragmentation—what Naficy calls “dissected vision,” allows for any narrative or racial stereotype to be grafted onto the images. Similarly, the continuous surveillance video that recorded the police shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 2014, was used to create a series of six still frames that became the basis of a debate between prosecutors and defense about the captions that were applied to the still frame. The successful acquittal of the police officers was based not on the video itself in the which we see the boy being shot, but the written captions that were applied to the still frames taken from the video.{11}

In a further attempt to understand the King verdict, Judith Butler goes deeper, exploring ideology in the very of act seeing in the jury’s response to the video. She attempts to understand the King video within “a racially saturated field of visibility” that allowed the astonishing verdicts. Butler speculates on the “racial schematization of the visual field” in which the very “disposition of the visible is racist,” making the Black body always already criminal and therefore a threat to the police, despite the visual evidence in the tape to the contrary. She writes “the visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic and forceful.”{12} In both cases, the King and Rice juries didn’t see the videos, but rather read them. Despite the images of King being grossly outnumbered and beaten to the ground by baton wielding police, and of Rice, a twelve-year old child waving a toy gun in a park, the jurors read the police as a bulwark, protecting them against out of control Black bodies.


The Time of Resistance

What do these video documents reveal about the complexity of resistance to state power? These durational recordings demonstrate a mechanics of resistance. Powerfully, they reveal how resistance takes time—how energies, affects and forms of negotiation are produced, built upon or dissipated. The cameras and phones with large digital storage capacities allow for unprecedented, uninterrupted shots. In these durational shots, often nothing happens for a long time before something does. One sees and hears moment by moment the dynamics that give rise to resistant action, very often at the risk to the personal safety of the filmer.

In one video, Robert Trudell from Yuma, Arizona, documents himself challenging the legally questionable stop and searches that he endured each time he passed through Homeland Border Security checkpoints between his home and work (the checkpoints are often 50 miles or more from the Mexican border). In one continuous video recording from a camera mounted on his windshield lasting over 30 minutes, Trudell uses time itself to transform the power dynamics of these checkpoints by refusing to engage with officers on their terms.{13} While he stops his car, he ignores the officer’s request to roll down his window and show ID. Instead, he stares blankly while multiple officers come to the car window and attempt to engage him. Trudell sits impassively for minutes staring back at them. Time slows to a halt as a queue of cars forms. Occasionally, he photographs the officers with a still camera while they decide what to do. The officers try waiting him out. The unbroken duration of the camera’s recording continues to build tension. There is the suspense of brinksmanship; who will act first? Trudell’s time of resistance transforms the temporality of the checkpoint by enacting the temporal disruption of non-cooperation. After 20 minutes, Trudell finally complies when the officers ask him to move the car from the middle of the road to a secondary inspection spot on the shoulder. Trudell still refuses to speak to them, continuing to photograph. Tension mounts as we watch to see how this will resolve. The officers grow impatient as they continue to insist that he roll down the window. The scene is nearly silent until one of the officers walks up to the car, suddenly punches in the window with his fist, opens the door and drags Trudell out of the vehicle. Trudell is thrown against the car, handcuffed and led away. The camera in the car continues to run as various officers peer into the car, rummaging through the back seat and trunk. The camera continues to record until the SD card is full, and shuts down. Trudell was held for ten hours and released without charges. Trudell’s strategy of passive resistance reveals the violence of the state when the officers reassert their control over the situation through physical force.


“Citizen’s Refusal at United States Border Patrol Inland Checkpoint, Pine Valley, California, 31″ pub. YouTube May 2013. (link)

The resistance seen in videos like this one is not only about defying police authority. In more general terms, these are performances of the possibility of resistance within the society of control, with its overwhelming technological intelligence and militarized apparatus directed at its own citizenry. The camera allows the filmer to use the act of filming as a way of challenging the relations of power that allow the police to intimidate and brutalize with impunity. In so doing, the anticipated but unknown outcomes witnessed in the recordings create new forms of drama and character identification, effectively transforming public discourse and the political landscape.

Robert Trudell in costume.

Trudell understands his white privilege in this context and starts to use it in an increasingly more self-conscious performance art and begins arriving at these Homeland security checkpoints in costume, performing different characters as a way to highlight the absurdity of these stops and searches through humor and creative performance. His characters engage the officers and satirize the idea of alien suspects passing through the checkpoints. There is the Yuma Yuman Man, complete with scuba goggles, snorkel and webbed-hand wetsuit, a construction hardhat, and Gopro video cameras mounted all over his body. Ein Berliner 9 is a golden-caped alien in Mexican wrestling tights, sweatbands and a Gopro mounted on his wrestling headgear. Other characters include the Global Hippie with Afro-wig, yellow tinted John Lennon glasses and Hazmat Man replete with gasmask, hardhat and hazmat suit.{14} In all cases, Trudell reverses checkpoint surveillance of the drivers onto to the checkpoint officers, by mounting video cameras all over his car and body to document every angle of the officer’s inspection. When asked to identify his name and citizenship he repeats his alter ego names Yuman Man, Yuman Man, I am a Yuman Man, or ein Berliner 9, ein Berliner 9, etc… He recites poems and sings songs instead of answering the inspector’s questions. Checkpoint officers typically respond with bemusement when they stop and question him, but then wave him through as if he were too weird to be an alien. By transforming each encounter into a performance art work, the behavior of the security inspection officers in turn is seen to be equally performative. Trudell’s videos reveal that while the checkpoints might be valuable tools of intimidation, they serve few other purposes other than to intimidate the local population who are passing through them.

In New York City, African American video activist Shawn Thomas plays a more dangerous game when he uses his camera as a stage from which to perform his legal knowledge and quick thinking in order to question and destabilize police officers’ authority. He allows himself to be drawn into a confrontation as a witness who refuses to move away from the scene or show an ID when confronted by police for filming. Some of his videos begin as a bystander witness, documenting how easily he is drawn into a situation when police confront him for videotaping. Thomas will refuse to give identification when asked, instead demanding the officers give him their ID, badge numbers and precinct. Thomas understands police procedure and what the officers must reveal when asked. We see from Thomas’ point of view as he turns the tables on the officers by insisting that they are public servants who work for him and it is the officers who must do what they are told. He exposes not only their limited knowledge of procedural law but also the degree to which that ignorance is seldom challenged. These assertions lead to dramatically competitive verbal sparring matches in which the officers are unable to compete and are seen to be inarticulate and reactive in the face of Thomas’s quick-witted rhetoric. His footage offers close-ups of officers’ increasing humiliation and lack of control, as Thomas’ off-screen voice goads them by challenging their professionalism.

The camera seems to allow Thomas to fearlessly taunt the officers into the choice of either walking away or arresting him without cause. The exhibitionist confrontation produces a brinksmanship drama. Thomas serves himself up as at once aggressor, victim and tragic masculinist hero through his willingness to provoke the police to violence, to expose how unstable the officer’s authority is, and hence how violence becomes central to maintaining his authority.

In a nearly 10-minute single shot, Thomas is on the Utica Avenue subway platform, recording a police officer guarding a young African American man who is handcuffed on a bench. After several minutes another officer appears and they begin interrogating the young man until the officer sees Thomas down the platform recording the scene, when he takes out his own smart phone and begins videoing as he walks toward Thomas. Thomas tells the officer that he is more than 30 feet away and has a right to record the scene. They are circling one another sticking their cameras in each other’s face as Thomas taunts the officer. This time the officer breaks and grabs Thomas and wrestles him to the ground.{15}


“NYPD Assault on African American Citizens Caught On Camera”, Shawn Thomas pub. Youtube 2/17/2014. (link)

Where these confrontations lead from moment to moment is often highly unpredictable. The presence of the camera changes the scale of power relations between the citizen and the police, causing the gaze to become bi-directional rather than singular. The videos reveal the precariousness of the image of state authority, laying bare the histrionic and often violent nature of its power by destabilizing the police’s performance of authority. The camera as a third term can reveal how systems have already broken down within the social order, as we see law enforcement officials acting outside the law themselves. The recordings also show the possibility of disrupting or even transforming these systems of authority and control. Not only are the acts of violence themselves being documented, but the presence of the camera itself allows for the staging of a kind of political theatre in which the filmer serves him/herself up as performer, provocateur now shielded, if not always protected by the presence of the camera.

Individuals like Trudell and Thomas use the ability to make long-take video recordings as a way provide a stage to perform aspects of their personal identity, most frequently though not always, their masculinity. Thus, the videos can be seen as a kind of character study, as exercises in the exploration of the limits of the filmer’s courage, fear, authoritativeness, capacity for self expression, even competitiveness. To defy the orders of an officer not only calls into question the authority of the state, it becomes a personal challenge to the masculinity of the male officer, who is humiliated by the refusal to obey his authority. The videos reveal the complexities of the ways in which racial and gender positions structure all police interactions.

This racial and gender structuring is also evident in another US Homeland Security inland immigration checkpoint refusal video made by a young white woman with long blonde hair, she is being questioned by a similarly young white Homeland security officer who is shocked by her refusal to follow his orders, to show ID, and to allow her car to be searched.{16} The recording of the officer’s face reveals a whole range of emotions from incredulousness that this young women is defying his orders, to smiling bemusement at her brazen refusal to cooperate as he insists that he has the authority to detain her, to humiliation and anger as she stands her ground and tells him what he is legally able to ask of her. The young officer sees this as a slightly playful situation, but loses his footing when he realizes she won’t back down. Clearly he doesn’t know how to deal with a young woman’s refusal of his authority and ends up walking away as they wait for other officials to arrive. Finally, an older officer arrives and confronts the young woman more aggressively; still she holds her ground and he finally lets her drive on. While the young woman remains defiant, she seems to have little concern that this will escalate into something violent and is more amused than agitated throughout the encounter.

While her gender and femininity play a role in the white officer’s willingness to peacefully tolerate her defiance, such tolerance is not universal. A very different outcome resulted when the late Sandra Bland, an African American woman, defied the white officer who stopped her for failing to signal when making a lane change. The police dashboard cam recording of the incident that led to her arrest on July 10, 2015, shows that the officer becomes livid when Bland becomes indignant that she has been stopped for such a trivial matter and refuses his order to put out her cigarette. They argue about her rights until he becomes outraged, draws his gun, opens the car door and threatens to “light her up.” As he drags her to the curb and out of frame, Bland directly challenges the officer’s masculinity by asking:

Why are you arresting me … you scared of a female? … You feeling good about yourself? … You want me to sit down now, or are you going throw me to the floor? Will that make you feel better about yourself? … That’ll make you feel real good won’t it, fuckin’ pussy ass. Fuckin’ pussy…For failing to signal you’re doing all of this? You a real man now, you just slammed me, knocked my head on the ground.{17}

Bland’s head then hits the ground as the police officer throws her down. She is then taken to the Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas, where she was found hanged to death in the jail three days later. Each of these videos reveal from moment to moment the complex intersectionality of race, gender and state power. These dynamics register in the ways officers and the detained speak to each other, the ways resistance to authority is both tested and received, and as well, the uneven stakes of these encounters for men and women, whites and people of color.

Framegrab: "Sandra Bland traffic stop (Raw Uncut)" pub. Youtube by Photography is Not a Crime, 7/21/15.

Bland did not record herself with a camera as a form of witness in the process of questioning the officer the way the others did, but the video of her arrest joins the other videos in featuring the performance of resistance as it also highlights the highly uneven stakes of such performance for different individuals. The difference between the intentional performativity of Trudell and Thomas, who are both performing for their own cameras, and Bland who has no idea she is being filmed, is large. But it is clear that Bland was aware that other police had arrived and that there were other on-lookers who are told to leave the scene. In all of the continuous videos, all parties become actors in these dramas of resistance, abuse and arrest.

As harrowing as some of these videos are, they also contain a sense of creative energy that these characters exude as they are pulled into situations that test their own resolve against state power. As performance, it is at once a private game of brinksmanship and evidence collection for an imagined future spectator. Some of the videos feature a present-future dialectic as the encounter unfolds. The actions of the present are building toward a future in which the event will have a second life online and even in the courtroom as a record of the interaction. In this sense, the recordings are exhibitionistic, rather than voyeuristic.{18} The desire to show becomes a central catalyst for the performative acts of resistance that the cameras enable. Active resistance in these police videos is not just about resisting the police. In more general terms, they are about showing models of resistance through personal performance and exhibitionist spectacle.

Technologies and Resistance

Thinking about these recordings and what occurs in the spaces between the camera and the bodies around it raises larger questions about the relationship between technology and resistance. The overflow of technology in encounters between individuals and the state is staggering. The cameras, smart phones, high tech surveillance and communications equipment, guns, other weaponry, and giant databases are part of what British philosopher Howard Caygill calls a “network,” which he sees as a technological “milieu, in which domination and resistance circulate as part of the same network.” Domination and resistance, Caygill writes, “can be understood as coefficients of the structure and density of a technological network.”{19} In these recordings, one can see power circulating across and through various technologies, from gun to camera, and from phone to database. Just as subjects are targeted by these visual technologies as used by the state, those subjects are turning the same technologies back on the state while reveling in the experience of resisting state authority and control, at times performing those pleasures even as they risk freedom and bodily integrity to do so. While these smartphone cameras are not an end in themselves, the videos can, however, show cases of individual resistance, their micro-nature revealing from moment to moment, larger structures of race, class, and gender at work as they come into contact with state power with varying consequences. In the process, they shift the terms of struggle, revealing both the potency and the precarious nature of that state power.

Since its beginnings, film has been the medium that created some of the most profound modern images of mass resistance and collective struggle. No less so, the contemporary media forms explored here are extending this legacy by revealing something about the relationship between power and resistance in the present. That resistance here takes an individualist form of the smartphone is emblematic of our neoliberal period. Thus it is not surprising that the contemporary image of resistance is seen in individual encounter and action. Watching these recordings leads to critical questions: Can this selfie-resistance in which people film themselves performing acts of resistance brought about through increasingly individualized technology lead to profound social change? Do these technologies bring us closer to the kinds of mass movements that can break the flows of the technological network? Can this kind of individualized technology help us successfully mobilize the larger forms of resistance necessary to transform the precariousness of lives not valued? These questions remain to be answered.




Acknowledgements: My thanks to Damon Young and Erika Balsom and for their close readings and astute comments and suggestions in the early versions of this essay. Also thanks to journalist Debbie Nathan, for generously sharing her research on grassroots borderland and resistance activities.

For Chuck Kleinhans — in memoriam



Background Video: Trudell, Robert. “Citizen’s Refusal at United States Border Patrol Inland Checkpoint, Pine Valley, California, YOUTUBE 31 May 2013, Immigration Inspection Stop at Campo Border Patrol Station Excerpt: live television coverage from Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder (2013)
Poor Little Rich Girl, Andy Warhol (1965)
“NYPD Assault on African American Citizens Caught On Camera” by Shawn Thomas pub. Youtube 2/17/2014
{1} See: Lafraniere, Sharon and Andrew W. Lehren “The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black” New York Times, Oct. 24, 2015 (link)
{2} See Doane, Mary Ann. “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe.” New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader Chun & Keenan, eds. Routledge. 2005 pp. 251-52. In her essay, Doane focuses on three different temporal modes of apprehending an event that structures time in live-television—information, crisis, and catastrophe. “Information is the steady stream of daily ‘newsworthy’ events characterized by their regularity if not predictability. The content of information is ever-changing but information, as genre, is always there, a constant and steady presence …” Crisis, involves a condensation of temporality, it names an event of some duration which is startling and momentous precisely because it demands resolution within a limited period of time. The crisis compresses time and makes its limitations acutely felt. Catastrophe is the most critical of crises for its timing is that of the instantaneous, the moment, the punctual. It has no extended duration (except, perhaps, that of its televisual coverage) but, instead, happens “al at once.”
{3} Diamond Reynolds interview with George Stephanopoulous, ABC TV News pub. July 16, 2016 (link)
{4} See de Luca & Jorge, eds. Slow Cinema Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
The desire to capture the contingency of the present moment was also an aspiration of an observational Documentary cinema in which the camera could capture the processes and contingencies of the filmmaker. This reached its apotheosis in American Direct Cinema of the 1960’s with its sync-sound portable hand held cameras, despite the fact that the films were highly edited and often dramatically shaped to create a suspension of disbelief similar to fiction films. this form of observational cinema came under immediate criticism as a practice that was ethically questionable in the ways it created the impression of an unmediated view of an event. The seeing eye of the cameraman remained an absent presence, structured within the narrative to be ignored rather than taken into consideration or understood as a third term and a problem for representation.
{5} Morson, Gary Saul. Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. New Haven University Press. 1994 pp. 21.
{6} Ibid. pp. 22.
{7} Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “Observations on the Long Take” October 13, MIT Press, 1980 pp. 3-6.
{8} Doane, Mary Ann. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, The Archive. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2002. pp. 106.
{9} Many of the Homeland Security checkpoints are set up as far a hundred miles from the Mexican border in California, Arizona and Texas catch undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers. Officers stop each car and ask each driver if they are US citizens. If they reply yes, and there is no further suspicion of illegal status, they are waved on. Protesters see these stops as illegal harassment or racial profiling since they are not border inspections nor is there probable cause to be stopped and questioned. For a full description of these security checkpoints: listen: Debbie Nathan “The Border between American and America” This American Life, NPR broadcast. Nov. 21, 2014. (link)
{10} Naficy, Hamid. “King Rodney: The Rodney King Video and Textual Analysis The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties. Jon Lewis ed. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Pp. 301.
{11} See Smith, Mychal Denzel. “Why Video Evidence Wasn’t Enough to Get Justice for Tamir Rice” Dec. 29, 2015. The Nation.
{12} Butler, Judith. “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” in Reading Rodney King/reading Urban Uprising Robert Gooding-Williams, ed. New York: Routledge, 1993. Pp. 16-17.
{13} Trudell, Robert. “Citizen’s Refusal at United States Border Patrol Inland Checkpoint, Pine Valley, California, 331 May 2013, Immigration Inspection Stop at Campo Border Patrol Station” (link)
{14} U.S. Border Patrol Checkpoint Adventure Ride Film – “ein Berliner 9”. Pub. Apr 8, 2013 (link). Border Patrol Checkpoint Über Alles – Dam that Yuman Man, pub. 7/5/2013 (link)
{15} “NYPD Assault on African American Citizens Caught On Camera” by Shawn Thomas pub. Youtube 2/17/2014 (link)
{16} “Cute Girl Exerts Her American Rights Tells Off Border Patrol Police” pub. Youtube, by 9/20/2013 (link)
{17} “Sandra Bland traffic stop (Raw Uncut)” pub. Youtube by Photography is Not a Crime, 7/21/15 (link)
{18} The distinction between the exhibitionistic and voyeuristic in these videos resembles Tom Gunning’s formulation of the Cinema of Attraction in his famous essay, in which he argues that cinematic fascination in early cinema and its reemergence in the modern Avant-Garde film, lay in the harnessing of visibility and “exhibitionist confrontation” rather than the “diegetic absorption” of storytelling forms. Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” Wide Angle Vol. 8, nos. 3 & 4 Fall, 1986. pp64.
{19} Caygill, Howard. On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance. London. Bloomsbury Pub. 2013. pp. 200-202.