This article originally appeared in The Washington Informer.
Lock in the image, focus and hit record. Only this time it’s not for a selfie. Feiden Santana from North Charleston, South Carolina, found himself positioning his mobile phone to record the homicide of Walter Scott. In the case of Santana, his video showed an African-American man left to die as a public servant stood over him, doing nothing. For Kevin Moore, his similar curiosities led him from his apartment to the street to capture video of a man from his community getting dragged by the Baltimore police while under arrest. Freddie Gray, the man being recorded, would later die after being in police custody.
For both individuals recording footage, they were in the right place at very unfortunate times. But Santana and Moore used what was at their immediate disposal to deliver justice – their mobile phones.
Millions of Americans are equipped with these types of mobile devices, just like these men. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans now own a smartphone. More Americans are also becoming highly smartphone-dependent as they use their devices to find employment, conduct banking transactions, and secure government services. Not to get too personal, but these wireless devices follow us to work, to the grocery store, on vacation, and even to our bedside.
Americans are so heavily reliant on mobile devices that they can’t often leave home without them or find the time to disconnect from them. As television has become commonplace among American households, mobile technologies are running a close second when leaving one’s cellphone at home can be equated to forgetting a wallet, prompting some people to stop what they are doing to retrieve their devices.
This type of reliance on mobile technology clearly supports many personal conveniences, but what happens when it is used for social justice?
In 2009, when the residents of San Francisco witnessed the murder of Oscar Grant, a young African-American male, at the Fruitvale Station on the Bart, they recorded it. Their cellphones, which at that time were less sophisticated than more contemporary ones, initiated the investigation and subsequent firing of the police officers involved.
Fast-forward to South Carolina. Santana filmed the incident on his mobile device, posted it on social media, and once again the world witnessed another act of aggressive police brutality against an unarmed, African-American male. The world is watching these persistent acts of violence against African-Americans, and it’s not coming from solely police cameras. Equipping local police forces with updated tools for data collection and surveillance will take time. The fact that millions of Americans walk around with their own tools for social justice is much more immediate.
This is not to suggest that we all become roaming vigilantes looking for incidents to record – evasive and intrusive video surveillance is simply not acceptable and, in some cases, is downright illegal. But when you see something that appears to be somewhat suspect, one should not only say something but record it so that justice can be adequately served. Silence can no longer be an excuse for injustice. And with more people actively engaged on social media, the court of online public opinion can support the rally toward fairness.
In the case of North Charleston, South Carolina, it was the inappropriate behavior of a police officer. In Brooklyn, New York, the horrible beating of a teenage girl caught on tape in a fast-food restaurant led to an arrest. Justice was ultimately served in the arrest of the Boston Marathon bomber who was videotaped watching the race prior to his wrath.
The next time you pull out your phone to take a selfie, make a phone call, listen to music, or video chat with your friends or partners, remember that your device can also be a catalyst to drive justice and reform. In the ’60s, Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates fought hard to televise the revolution so that all of America could see what was happening in the belly of the South.
This month, Santana, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who sensed a wrong made it right. And now Scott’s family has closure, knowing that justice will ultimately be served for an unarmed man who fled after being pulled over for a broken tail light. Moore did the same in the Gilmor Homes, and now justice is being sought.
All of these actions recorded on a mobile phone.
- Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D., Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee is Vice President and Chief Research and Policy Officer for the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC). Prior to joining MMTC, she served as President and CEO to NAMIC, a professional association representing diversity in the cable industry and as Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.