Yeah, I know I said that I wouldn’t be blogging again until after my submission date, but what are rules there for if not to be broken? I’ve spent much of the evening following the events at the Pittsburgh G20 protests online, unable to drag myself away from multiple Twitter feeds. Finally, Twitter is really making sense to me, after a long time being very dubious of why I would need to use something that was basically a Facebook status update – but without the other fun and stupid things you can do on the Book of Face (as my sister calls it).
The importance of technology in protest was actually very fiercely brought home to me at the London G20 demos back in April. Stuck in the huge police kettle by the Bank of England on April 1st, the Media Activist and I had no idea what was going on – and the Met police goons surrounding us weren’t exactly communicative. Enter the humble mobile phone, and text updates from people elsewhere (in my case, Leicester!), who were a damn sight closer to a computer and those informative Twitter feeds/news sites than we were. In fact, my mobile was a godsend during those two days; it got me a load of useful photos and it kept me in touch with my friends when we got separated in the chaos of April 2nd. And I wasn’t the only one: the vast majority of the overwhelming evidence for the police brutality inflicted on protesters over that 48-hour period came not from professional media photographers and cameramen, but from the phones and digital cameras of protesters and bystanders. In the days following the London G20 protests, more and more amateur photos and footage were being uploaded onto the internet, shared by individuals and groups, and forwarded to the mainstream television and print media. Indeed, if it wasn’t for such footage, the truth about the death of Ian Tomlinson would have probably never come out – the police had, in fact, been publicly lying about Tomlinson’s tragic death almost from the moment it happened.
The subsequent scandals surrounding the police behaviour at G20 seems to have made them rethink their protest tactics – I’ve been on a number of demos in London since G20, the most recent being an impassioned Disarm DSEi anti-arms trade protest in the City of London earlier this month, and the police have, without exception, very ostentatiously been distinctly hands-off in their approach. Despite the continued presence of the FIT (cops with cameras who seem to enjoy photographing and harassing known activists), and the distinct impression amongst many groups that these new softly-softly police tactics won’t last, I suspect that the Met has been quite severely shaken up by the fact that they’re not the ones in control of the technology any more….
And that’s true in other parts of the world too. The mobile phone footage and pictures that emerged during the protests over the result of the Iranian election earlier this year (and the fact that ‘IranElection’ has been a trending topic on Twitter as recently as this week) showed a face of the Iranian people that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t want the rest of the world to see, for example. The demonstrations in Pittsburgh today were all over Twitter (and you know things have got truly international when you re-tweet a link from London, only to find it being re-re-tweeted by a Pittsburgh TV station a few minutes later, as happened to me earlier!), which gave the protests far more solid coverage than the vague paragraph or so they seem to be getting on the mainstream news websites. Tales of tear gas, rubber bullets and ‘military sound weapons’ being used against the Pittsburgh protesters hit Twitter long before the mainstream media picked up on them, showing just how central citizen journalism can be to the newsgathering process these days.
The power of such technology in the struggle to hold the authorities to account for abuses of position is only growing in strength. The police still have the ability to record and track the movements of activists (although why they bother half the time is a bit beyond me – they’re more of a threat to public order than we are…), but they are beginning to realise that we are fighting back with the same weapons. And they really don’t like that. They can no longer hide behind the anonymity of removing their numbers, or the illusory strength of photographing demonstrators to be put ‘on file’. The files are now on them, as organisations like FITWatch amply prove – and these files grow thicker and thicker with every demonstration, with every cameraphone wielded in anger, with every image or video uploaded to the internet…..