"Live Streaming, Occupy, and Omertá" by Sue Basko

Live Streaming, Occupy, and Omertá
by Sue Basko

Some Occupy camps inculcated omertá, a code of silence vis-à-vis authorities akin to that practiced by groups as far apart on the social spectrum as the Mafia, street gangs, and Ivy League fraternities.  Ironically, at the same time, the Occupy groups were videotaping and posting online or live streaming everything – their meetings, protests, special events, reports, and often simple daily living. 

Live streaming in particular made (and is making) Occupy unlike any protest movement before it.  Viewers nationwide and worldwide watch the streams.  The streaming experience is unlike any other visual medium, in that it is live, conducted by one person  (the streamer) and there is direct interaction between the viewers and the streamer, through several streams of chat emanating through Twitter, facebook or the stream site itself.  The streams have a very now-ness about them, particularly at times when the streamer faces possible danger, injury, or arrest. 

If you have seen these, you cannot forget:  Spencer Mills (@Oakfosho) at the Occupy LA raid night with an officer pointing a gun at his head point blank; Spencer repeatedly telling the man, “That isn’t necessary,” until he finally lowered the gun.  Tim Pool (@TimCast) near Zuccotti Park in New York City, being hassled and threatened by Black Bloc mischief makers letting air out of police car tires.  On another occasion, Tim Pool being followed through the crowd by a man dressed in black, who puts up his hood and attacks Tim. 

Both Tim and Spencer, and dozens of other streamers nationally, have brought countless hours of live Occupy to the internet viewers.  Things I have witnessed in these videos include:  NYPD  arresting people on New Year’s eve, in arrests that amounted to random street kidnappings of people truly doing nothing even slightly illegal.  NYPD arresting a legal observer for the act of observing a rough arrest.  Oakland Police turning “move-in day,” when the protesters planned to take over a building as a social center, into a police riot.  The Oakland move-in day  stream was witness to every conceivable error in crowd management: tear gas canisters shot directly into a crowd, kettling of mass crowds, shocking beatings of defenseless individuals.  

The Occupy LA raid night was heavily photographed, videotaped, and streamed.  Viewing these reveals no violence from the protesters, and hugely disproportionate police activity.  One video reveals what some have told about: protesters trying to leave the area, only to be lied to and tricked by police, who said they would be escorted out, and then found themselves zip-tied and sent to jail. Watching these videos, such terms come to mind: police state, doomsday, apocalypse, fascism, overkill.   

Elsewhere, Occupy streams revealed other things: Occupy Chicago had a stream of a bossy policewoman stealing away their just-donated bottled water and tossing it into a garbage compactor truck, with no reasoning other than she said so.  Then there is the Chicago video of police asking each protester if they want to be arrested, letting each make a choice, and calmly arresting those choosing to be arrested.  This video is possibly even eerier and more disturbing that videos from other cities of police rambunctiously corralling protesters.

Occupy streams from various cities also show a lot of the same: Protesters heckling the police.  Protesters disrespecting basic civility.  Protesters acting like thugs. Protesters with filthy mouths shouting at police.  Protesters trying to incite other protesters to violence.  Protesters who seem irrational, confused, mentally ill, or senseless.

 The omnipresence of cameras at Occupy events is known.  A basic assumption, or at least hypothesis, would be that people would be on their best behavior while being videotaped. Yet, some streams show a few police mercilessly attacking protesters.  And other streams have shown some protesters behaving in very unflattering ways.  There seems to be a certain percentage of people who cannot adapt their behavior, cannot control their behavior well enough to act decently, even while on camera.  "The Whole World is Watching" does not stop some people.
The presence of streams seems to have, overall, had a positive effect on the Occupy movement, in making it known, creating a “fan base” for it, finding donors among that fan base, allowing vicarious participation, and allowing inter-Occupy comparisons.  

Has the presence of live streamers had an ameliorating effect on potential violence from police and/or protesters?  This is hard to judge, whether there would have been more violence if live cameras had not been present.  However, this seems inarguable: that the presence of video or streaming cameras has made the most violent or abusive acts known quickly, indisputably, and widespread.  If there had not been video cameras present when John Pike pepper-sprayed the seated students, this incident would have been a rumor, or known only to those who cared to read through lengthy and possibly contradictory descriptions.  Because video cameras were present, we were able to watch the action from multiple angles, to see how blithely callously the students were treated.  The same is true with many other scenes of appalling police violence over the past few months.   

Now we come to the question that has been raised of whether live streamers cause Occupiers to be arrested for crimes.  Each element of this seems to be false. 

First, there would have to be Occupiers committing crimes.  Occupy is a peaceful movement, with no actual membership, but with the criteria that to be an Occupier is to be peaceful.  Therefore, committing any acts of violent criminality means one is not truly an Occupier.

Second, there is talk of protecting one's “comrades.”  This assumes that an Occupier, a protester, or a streamer views those committing crimes as their “comrades.”  That assumes something very insulting – that protesters associated with Occupy are accepting of crime.  Why should they or would they be?  Why would or should Occupiers working toward a better world accept and protect criminal behavior? 

Third, the assumption is made that crimes committed at Occupy events, in locations being live streamed, are common or likely. In fact, there appears to be a very few such incidents nationwide.  There is a great deal of video evidence of what might be considered annoying or discourteous behavior by protesters, but very little of anything that might even remotely be considered criminal.

In fact, I do not know of a single case nationwide where a live streamer’s video has been used to bring criminal charges.  There is rumor of such in one case, known as the  Oakland Ice Cream Trio, but this has not been verified and seems highly unlikely.  In fact, in that case, there was probably plentiful surveillance video from cameras mounted on a bank and other buildings.  In that instance, it is likely that streamers’ video could eventually be used to show the charges are highly trumped-up. In other words, steamers' video is not likely to help put these “comrades” in prison, but to save them from it.  Some protesters are not exactly angels, and it is common practice for very exaggerated criminal charges to be lodged against them.  The existence of the streamers’ videos gives these defendants a solid chance at combating what would otherwise be their word against that of a police officer or victim.   

Fourth, the assumption is being made by those calling for a banning of live streams that the presence of a live stream video is more likely to lead to criminal charges than it is to lead to charges never being brought, or to charges being dropped, or to video possibly being used as a defense.  It appears that the presence of live streamers presenting unedited, live, nearly irrefutable evidence, must have been a factor in the decision of prosecutors to file almost no criminal charges against the hundreds of people who were arrested at Occupy Oakland Move-In Day.  Hundreds of arrests at the Occupy LA raid have netted very few criminal charges, and of those, many were done away with by attending a free class.  Video from Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, and many other cities has served to protect and defend protesters.  Most likely there will be civil lawsuits against Cities and police where the streamers’ videos will be evidence of illegal tactics or brutality.               

Fifth, attempts to control the known live streamers in no way removes cameras. The police always have cameras; protesters should also have cameras.  Also, in any large crowd, there are other streamers, others shooting non-streamed video, and many taking photos.  Today, cameras are prevalent and pervasive, especially in large crowd gatherings. In addition, there are public and private surveillance cameras mounted all over.  A few years ago, the City of Chicago mounted cameras on street poles, so that the entire city is now on camera.  Other cities have cameras, but perhaps not such a comprehensive system of them.  Many businesses and homes have cameras.  Newer surveillance cameras are so small and match décor, they are not noticeable.  Therefore, the argument against live streamers at Occupy protests is a specious argument, for one cannot control the presence of cameras in any public location. 

In conclusion, live streaming cameras have added an excitement and home participation to Occupy, the streams have brought Occupy to national and international prominence, and the video of protests has acted overall to protect protesters from false criminal charges, as well as to provide evidence in future civil lawsuits.

Viva la streama.

Bio: Sue Basko is a lawyer, writer, filmmaker.  She is founder of this site and welcomes your essay. Read more at http://occupypeace.blogspot.com  and http://suebasko.blogspot.com   

Top Photo credit: Photo by Aaron Kuehn, Occupy LA raid.                     


  1. I love your take on the topic. The only reasons I have witnessed why livestream hasn't happened in our area has been on the local college campus where there are a number of DREAM Act-eligible folks who don't want to be deported. Other than that its livestream all the way. It only gives us more arrows in the quiver to take down the vampire squid, not less.

    Anyway, well done.

  2. "In fact," you write, "I do not know of a single case nationwide where a live streamer's video has been used to bring criminal charges. There is rumor of such in one case, known as the Oakland Ice Cream Trio, but this has not been verified and seems highly unlikely."

    One member of the IceCream3 is Nneka Crawford (pictured here http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?f=/c/a/2012/03/06/BAAS1NGGI6.DTL&object=%2Fc%2Fpictures%2F2012%2F03%2F05%2Fba-OCCUPY06_SFC0107323788.jpg&type=newsbayarea).

    Nneka's best friend is livestreamer Bella Eiko, who video recorded the protest at which the IceCream3 are accused of a hate crime.

    As it happens, Bella is also the streamer to whose Ustream channel John Seal links in his "Transparency Essay" here on Occupy Symposium, when he writes: "A blessed few have been anointed as the chosen ones by the OO hierarchy."

    In a tweet dated 10:48 AM - 14 Mar 12 https://twitter.com/#!/BellaEiko/status/179987498703912960 Bella wrote: "I feel bad cause it was my video used 2 arrest Nneka who is my best friend. She called me 2 her. I'm not a snitch."

    Bella is a college student, not an attorney, so you're better qualified to determine whether or not her video was indeed "used to arrest" Nneka.

    What surprised me, as a non-lawyer, was that the IceCream3's legal team chose to not enter this video—which Bella provided to them at their request—as evidence in the recently concluded preliminary hearing that bound the IceCream3 over for trial. Common sense would infer that if the video proved their innocence, it ought to have been introduced to exonerate them. Hopefully you as a lawyer can shed some light on this. Thank you.

  3. Alan, there are many unknown factors. There were two live streamers present at the incident and one has made mention of not seeing such acts as a robbery, of which the defendants were accused. If BellaEiko has detailed video, then it might be possible for either side, prosecution or defense, to use it, if the judge allows it to be admitted as evidence. It is not very easy to get a video admitted as evidence. If it is admitted as evidence, keep in mind that the very same video can be viewed and interpreted in different ways.

    As for the defense not using the video at a preliminary hearing - these are perfunctory hearings, the purpose of which is for the prosecutor to show the judge there is probable cause to have a hearing. Such cause is usually based on the complaint of the witness/ victim as told to and investigated by the police. The defendant is presumed innocent at this hearing and need not present any evidence. If there ever is a trial, and if the defense lawyer thinks the video would help, and if the video is admitted as evidence, then it would be shown. If the video is shown at trial by the prosecution, then the defense can also use it to show their point of view of what happened. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a static piece of evidence; either side may interpret the same piece of evidence very differently.

    At this time, the defendants are presumed innocent. We won't know what evidence will be used until after the trials takes place, if they ever do.

    1. ought and is are very different for folks when due process failings are posed as a feature, Bradley Manning and Gitmo, rather than a bug, like the wiggle room of video and audio being illegitimate evidence.

  4. Thank you for explaining this to me. I had no idea video is not readily admitted as evidence, nor did I realize that a preliminary hearing is merely perfunctory. So we can't draw any conclusions from Bella's video not being presented by the defense team.

    Also, Bella's belief that her video was "used 2 arrest Nneka" does not really contradict your original point that there's never been a case in this country "where a live streamer's video has been used to bring criminal charges." At this stage, we don't know what role, if any, Bella's video played in the District Attorney's decision to prosecute the IceCream3.

  5. Alan, I read someplace that BellaEiko was told by a lawyer who may or may not represent one (or all) of the IceCream3 defendants that her video was used to identify who the people were who were present at the incident. If that is true, and I do not know if it is true that the lawyer said that or if what the lawyer said is true, that does not mean the video tends to show guilt or innocence of the charges. To my knowledge, there was never any real question about who was present at the incident. If the case goes to a trial, and if BellaEiko's video is used as evidence, it might tend to show guilt or innocence, or might be interpreted by some jurors one way and by others the opposite way.

    This is my guess, and I am going far out on a limb here. My guess is there was probably some sort of rude altercation that has been blown out of proportion into a huge crime. Last I heard, the defendants were charged with a hate crime and a robbery. To me, it sounds more like they were hanging around the sidewalk near an ATM or bank, which is never a good idea, and were disrespectful to a nearby resident, which is also totally wrong for any protester to do. But as for this being some big crime? Probably not.

    That's my take on it. We'll all have to wait and see what happens. Did some incident occur? Yes. Was it a big crime or any crime? We'll have to see what a jury says, if it ever goes to trial. Will video be used? If the case goes to trial and if the prosecution or defense wants to use it and if the judge admits it as evidence.

    AS for preliminary hearings -- The defense almost never presents any evidence, because there is no point in doing so. It isn't a trial and presenting evidence just gives a prosecutor advance notice of the evidence likely to be used. That is almost never to the defendant's advantage. The only purpose of a preliminary hearing is to show proof, on a very low standard of proof (probable cause) that a crime was committed and that the defendant was the person who committed the crime. I have sat through such hearings where all it is is a police officer reading the arrest report.

    - Sue

  6. Love this site, love your twitter feed, agree w/most everything you've written here.

    I can't tell if its' mostly ironic or amusing, perplexing or maddening in that I'm labelled a hopeless radical & rabble-rouser when in the midst of my workaday life - while being considered a reactionary apologist for the 1% in a group of other occupiers when I insist that intentional violence (as opposed to situational physical defense) will serve no good purpose and is a deal breaker for the vast majority of would be supporters.

    Thanks, rjFortunato

  7. At a federal criminal trial concluded yesterday in Oakland, two livestreamers best known for separately covering Occupy Oakland testified for the defense: Jessica Hollie (aka Bella Eiko) and Nick Baban (aka Oaktown Pirate). However, their archived video images were instrumental in convicting the defendant. The incident in this case was not an Occupation, and the accused was not an Occupier. Nevertheless, dozens of protesters associated with Occupy Oakland were closely involved in the event, so I thought you might be interested in this development.