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Earlier this month South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was charged with the murder of Walter Scott. The evidence that led to his arrest was a cellphone video taken by Feidin Santana, a pedestrian bystander. The video contradicted Slager’s own account of events.
Slager claimed that Scott had grabbed his Tazer and was running away with it when he opened fire. The chilling footage shows otherwise. Understandably, the video was played on every major news channel as they covered the events.
Now Santana, the owner of the video’s copyright, is arguing through his lawyers that the fair use period has elapsed and is seeking compensation of around $10,000 for any future uses. While the instant reaction of many people has been revulsion, the situation is complex.
There Is Profit In Death
While some people have been quick to accuse Santana of being opportunistic in attempting to profit from Scott’s death, this is an extremely superficial position on what is a very nuanced situation.
First, it is nothing new for the media to buy stories. As the photography site Fstoppers points out, in photojournalism where photographers capture many “horrific scenes in conflict zones and license the resulting images”, the precedent is that the “most socially relevant and exclusive content [yields] the highest monetary rewards.” Dark as this is, it’s the way the world works.
It’s not even that unusual for citizen journalism. Fstoppers reports that Abraham Zapruder, the man who captured the footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, sold the film rights for $150,000 to Life magazine. When the footage was later declared public property, Zapruder’s family received $16 million from the US government. These are significantly larger sums than what Santana is asking.
Second, the media does not cover events like Scott’s shooting out of their collective empathy. Especially in the US, the 24 hour news media cycle is very much a for-profit endeavour. While displaying the video Santana captured, these networks brought in millions of dollars in ad revenue. While it can’t be argued that Santana’s video is responsible for all their profit, it was responsible for some. If Rupert Murdoch’s coffers are going to be lined by the event, then surely Santana is entitled to a share of the money as well?
Finally, profiting from death is not new or unusual. There are entire industries like undertaking which exist solely for the purpose of making money when people die. To condemn Santana on Twitter without organising protests outside your local funeral parlour shows a hint of hypocrisy.
Filming a uniformed police officer shoot and kill an unarmed black man is not the same as taking a casual video of a street scene. Santana put himself in harms way to get the footage. Despite the fact that filming police in the line of duty is legal in all 50 US States, individual officers do not always respected the law. Just this week the Huffington Post reported that there was an official investigation underway into an incident where a U.S. Marshal destroyed the phone of a bystander who was recording him. These incidents are common place, with officers frequently seizing phones.
The New Republic, in a piece arguing that Santana deserves to be paid, reports on some of the dangers of witnessing misconduct by police officers. Amongst them, witnesses may face increased police scrutiny for unrelated matters. According to New Republic, “When a brother of Rodney King (whose 1991 beating by Los Angeles police after a high-speed car chase was filmed by a bystander) decided to file a complaint about his brother’s treatment, the first thing the desk officer did was to look up the brother’s name in the system to check for outstanding warrants.”
Similarly, Ramsay Orta who filmed Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD, was subsequently arrested for possession of a gun without a permit and spent months in jail before his bail was met by a crowd funding campaign.
Many of the people in the position to film police brutality, like Santana, come from the same communities as the victims and, justifiably, fear for their life. Santana himself, in an interview with MSNBC, explained “I felt that my life, with this information, might be in danger. I thought about erasing the video and just getting out of the community … and living someplace else.”
Technology Fuels Conflict
This is all part of a broader trend: new technologies are bringing the authorities and citizens into conflict. Police officers argued that the Google owned navigation app Waze was dangerous because it enabled users to report on their locations.
Similarly, the FAA is scrambling to legislate the use of drones. Although some people just shoot them down, that is hardly a good solution going forward.
Even the US government, with programs like PRISM, is struggling to deal with technological developments in a way that doesn’t bring them into conflict with huge amounts of their country’s population. It is down to groups like the ACLU to protect people from the government going too far. While the NSA has been quick to defend what they do, arguing that collecting “metadata” is harmless, that simply isn’t the case.
As long as the authorities keep struggling to deal with new technology, conflict is inevitable. The police in particular are going to need to adapt to a world where everyone is a reporter.
The fall out from the Scott shooting, and Santana’s role in it, are only a small part of the broader picture. It’s unlikely that police officers are behaving any differently than they did 10 or 20 years ago. All that has changed is that, thanks to technology, they are subject to a great deal more scrutiny. Few people are brave enough to step forward and record police misconduct – those that do deserve some reward for the good they bring to society.
Given that the news media is profiting off the video Santana took, it’s only reasonable that he should receive something. While the way it’s being handled may be a little distasteful, it is no where near as distasteful as the act Santana was courageous enough to film.
Image Credits: policeman with the handgun Via Shutterstock