September 14, 2004

Videotape of Police Riles State's Attorney 

OK, break it up, nothing to see here. Or is there? What happens when community activists begin videotaping the city police as they go about their work in the community? Traffic stops, shoplifting calls, crowds in front of nightclubs, various and sundry disturbances...mostly scenes of officer interaction with African-Americans, captured on consumer-grade video. What is the reaction? Mostly nothing, at least from the police officers themselves. One even tells the videographer he doesn't mind, the media does it all the time, and police even do it themselves. But at some point, an ill-defined line is crossed by the activists, or at least by the State's Attorney John Piland, who files charges of criminal eavesdropping against the documentarians. WILLblog saw the footage in question (and thanks to the quick work of Paul Riismandel, heard the audio as well) at Boardman's Art Theatre in Champaign this past Sunday, along with about 150 other members of the community. I think if John Piland had not taken the unusual step of charging the activists (unusual given the lack of warning or complaint by the police), fewer people would know about the video. What does it show? Nothing like a smoking gun: no police brutality, no abusive language, nothing really to put the police in a bad light, even though the lighting was bad. The video is actually difficult to watch, because the quality is iffy at best. However, the viewer takes away a sense of unease not related to the jumpy camera work. Clearly, these encounters are tense, and the people in the frame don't trust each other the least little bit. It is a case where the police see it one way, and the citizens see it another way altogether. This is not a recipe for good relations, and the area authorities, including the State's Attorney, might want to be aware of that. The activists, Visionaries Educating Youth and Adults, have posted the video on their web site. WILLblog doesn't endorse eavesdropping, and we certainly can't testify at the trial if it comes to that. But the video itself might hold some pretty important lessons for the community, which the filing of charges seems only to underline, and let's hope somehow we make something positive from that.

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