“Stop Treating The Protests Like Coachella”: On the Uses of Sousveillance for Social Justice
Kathy Cacace / University of Texas at Austin


A white influencer holds a Black Lives Matter sign
Instagram model/influencer @rusabnb stages a photograph during a Black Lives Matter protest. This image has since been deleted from @influencersinthewild.

Since late May, the United States has seen a sweeping protest movement against racial injustice spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other Black citizens by police officers. These protests build on the Black Lives Matter movement that arose after Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and others were murdered by police and videos documenting events leading up to and including these murders circulated on social media. The recording via cell phone of police violence and the subsequent sharing of these violent videos is a double-edged sword slicing Black Americans both ways. Their circulation may drive awareness in white Americans of the deadly effects of systemic racism, however painfully late that awareness comes, but they do so by inflicting trauma on Black social media users who are, by virtue of their very subjectivity, acutely aware of how the system works.

Technology theorist Lisa Nakamura, whose work on race and technology has been foundational to the field of media studies since the 1980s, spoke on Twitter during the recent protests about the relationship between technology and policing. Early in her career, Nakamura, like many others, hoped that turning the tools of surveillance on unjust institutions like law enforcement might lead to a leveling of power. Instead, it seems that as videos of police brutality proliferate, police violence continues unabated.

@Lnakamur’s post from June 7, 2020.

In 2003, Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman observed the integration of invisible data-gathering technology into myriad aspects of everyday life in order to collect information on behalf of organizations including, of course, institutions like law enforcement. They suggest that “one way to challenge and problematize both surveillance and acquiescence to it is to resituate these technologies of control on individuals, offering panoptic technologies to help them observe those in authority. We call this inverse panopticon ‘sousveillance,” roughly meant to invoke a sense of watching from below.[ (( Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman, “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments,” Surveillance and Society 1, no. 3: 332. ))] Their key example of sousveillance is, prescient of the current moment, George Holliday’s videotape of Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

Mann et al. argue that sousveillance functions through reflectionism, or using technology to hold up a mirror to an organization and asking “do you like what you see?” The difficulty, from recordings of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963 to recordings of police violence at the 2020 protests, is that law enforcement and the justice system resoundingly respond to that question by insisting: “Nothing to see here, move along.” In a short essay on the failed promise of police body cams linked in Nakamura’s tweet, Ethan Zuckerman synthesizes years of research on increased recording of police interactions and concludes that these films “have worked to bolster ‘reasonable fear’ defense claims as much as they have demonstrated the culpability of police officers.”[ ((Ethan Zuckerman, “Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it,” MIT Technology Review, June 3, 2020, https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/06/03/1002587/sousveillance-george-floyd-police-body-cams/))] Such video might be slowed down to reveal someone murdered by police indeed was not armed, was retreating, was still, had their hands in the air. But, played at full speed, those with an investment in maintaining our unjust system of policing can and will see confusion, danger, and split-second decisions that support an officer’s choice to shoot first and ask questions later. Based on the miniscule rates of prosecution for police officers who have killed Black citizens, these recordings of racist police violence by cell phone or bodycam is more likely to exonerate police officers who commit violence than to convict them or even merely get them fired.

Police body cameras in theory fall somewhere between surveillance and sousveillance, in that they are meant to produce a purportedly objective recording of police officers and those with whom they interact. The belief that video can produce an irrefutable record of the truth in fact reenacts some of the earliest hopes about photography as it came to prominence in the nineteenth century. As Rebecca Solnit describes it, in language that fittingly echoes police procedure, photography by the 1850s was considered to be “a piece of evidence from the event itself, a material witness.”[ ((Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows (New York: Penguin Books, 2003): 17.))] Inasmuch as control over body cameras falls to individual officers, who can and do turn them off, they do not function in practice as sousveillance. Likewise, sousveillance of police via cell phone camera has not worked as technology theorists had hoped. Videos shot by witnesses can always be consumed by white supremacy and digested to produce further injustice. 


Closeup of a police officer's uniform with a badge and body camera.
Police body cameras can be thwarted by officers who turn them off or hide their badge numbers.

The difficulty with sousveillance as a technology of equality is in the fundamentally inequitable distribution of what I will call non-optical authority, or power that is not derived from images, between the citizen and the state. A bystander may capture clear video of a police officer committing a racist murder, but the state does not get its power solely from images of just policing. That video may circulate through both social and traditional media, thereby changing public opinion toward the officer, department, or institution of policing.  But the police are not celebrities; their power does not come from public opinion. At its most effective, that video might a) produce incremental change by persuading viewers to vote for political candidates interested in defunding the police and/or b) become a piece of evidence in a trial whose terms are set by the state. Data shows that district attorneys almost never bring charges against police officers who kill citizens; though more than 1,000 people are killed by police each year, only 110 have been prosecuted since 2005. Police certainly gain some portion of their power from public approval, but it pales in comparison to the deadly authority they derive from state-issued credentials, in the form of a badge, and state-issued tools of enforcement, including weapons. A citizen’s camera might be able to record the state’s bullet, but it cannot deflect it.

All this said, there are two strange angles through which sousveillance seems to be serving a purpose throughout this summer’s sustained Black Lives Matter uprising. The first occurred on Instagram. Shortly after the protests began, the popular Instagram account @influencersinthewild turned its feed away from its usual content—stealthily shot videos of Instagram influencers staging elaborate photographs of themselves in public—and focused in on white influencers staging photos of themselves at protests without meaningfully contributing to the movement.[ ((All videos have since been removed by the account owner. Descriptions have been constructed from the author’s screenshots, contemporaneous transcriptions, and where necessary, memory.))] A typical video (since removed), depicted a slim, well-dressed white woman in a floaty black gown and high heels. She is with another fashionable white woman who holds a camera. As a Black Lives Matter protest passes by, she steps into the flow of foot traffic holding a protest sign in one hand while arranging her garment and hair with the other. The short video ends as she assumes a pose for the camera. The caption implores her, or perhaps @influencersinthewild followers, to “stop treating the protests like Coachella” (referring to the California music festival known as much as a place to be seen as it is a place to hear artists perform).

From June 1 through June 7, 2020, @influencersinthewild published ten such user-submitted videos. This manifestation of sousveillance does not turn its camera on the traditional institutions of power, like the police. Instead, this account exposes and undermines people whose power is explicitly optical—that is, accrued through images. It uses shame to dispel power gained through social regard. Not unlike @celebface, an Instagram account that exposes digital editing of beauty photographs by major and microcelebrities on their social media accounts, @influencersinthewild interrupts the seamless presentation of self as product. Theresa M. Senft describes micro-celebrity as “a practice, rather than a person: it’s the presentation of one’s online self as a branded good, with the expectation that others are doing the same. When this presentation involves an intention to monetize, I call that person an influencer.”[ ((Teresa M. Senft, “Fame, Shame, Remorse, Authenticity: A Prologue,” in Microcelebrity Around the Globe, ed. Crystal Abidin and Megan Lindsay Brown (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2018): xiv.))] Crystal Abidin further theorizes the appeal of internet celebrities, a more broadly conceived category than the microinfluencer, and finds that the qualities of exclusivity, exoticism, exceptionalism, and/or everydayness “each corresponds to a specific form of capital that arouse interest and attention, whether positive (i.e. out of admiration or love) or negative (i.e., out of disgust or judgement).”[ ((Crystal Abidin, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2018): 19.))]

The white female fashion, beauty, or wellness influencer often sits at the crossroads of exclusivity, exceptionalism, and everydayness, publishing an uninterrupted, impossibly optimized self for direct consumption or as the ambassador for a brand. In its usual function, @influencersinthewild subverts these images by creating a third dimension: by filming from an unanticipated angle, the viewer sees their construction rather than their supposed naturalness. The influencer is no longer a perfect body on a beach during the golden hour. She becomes an awkward spectacle of self-promotion amid the “real” everyday. When these influencers are placed within the context of a social movement for Black lives, the exposure of the construction of a meaningless gesture serves the opposite function: revealing that no work went into the protest, no effort was made to contribute to the cause. 

@influencersinthewild creator George Resch, known on Instagram by his pseudonym “Tank Sinatra,” is the director of influencer marketing at BrandFire, an advertising agency in New York. After posting the ten videos exposing untagged, unidentified white influencers using the protests to stage self-branding, Resch found that followers of his account were able to crowdsource both online and offline identities of the offending influencers and heap criticism on them. The woman in the black dress was revealed to be @rusabnb, a model/influencer with more than 200,000 followers. In the following days, she used her account to position herself as the victim of bullying, posting “I will and have bent the knee for George Floyd and this movement! But I will never bend the knee for this criticism!!”


Screen capture of @rusabnb's response to criticism
One of @rusabnb’s responses to criticism for using a Black Lives Matter protest to create content. @rusabnb has since made her account private.

Resch responded first by posting an IGTV video in which he which he admitted that white influencers who “have co-opted the BLM movement in order to get content” are committing “the single most egregious act of cultural appropriation” but ultimately decrying the doxxing of their personal information. “My purpose was to expose the behavior, not the individual,” he explained. Resch then scheduled an Instagram Live interview with @rusabnb, a choice which was met with emphatic backlash. “The fact that you’re having a girl who stood for a photo shoot at a BLM protest as a headliner says a lot about your account,” said one commenter. “We don’t care about her struggle in the aftermath of posting. You shouldn’t be giving a voice to her. She doesn’t deserve one.”[ ((Author’s transcription of a screenshotted comment on a since-deleted post.))]

On the live forum, @rusabnb and the woman who had taken her photograph, who appeared to be some sort of handler, chalked their “mistake” up to cultural difference and lack of education, since they have only lived in the U.S. for a little over a year. @rusabnb did not apologize, focusing instead on threats and insults she has received and emphasizing instead that “you never know how people can react, and we never expected something like this,” that “everyone makes mistakes,” that critiquing her action was “detrimental to the movement,” and lamenting that her business is “ruined.” Resch then invited Black critics from among his commenters to join the Instagram live, relying on the free labor of Black social media users to clean up @rusabnb’s damage.


Still from IGTV video featuring @influencersinthewild and @rusabnb
@rusabnb tearfully talks to @influencersinthewild, emphasizing that “everyone makes mistakes.” This video still is from the @influencersinthewild live forum on the protests, now archived on that account’s IGTV section.

Resch has subsequently scrubbed his platform of any protest-related videos and @rusabnb has turned her account private. While scant evidence of these videos exists online except for Resch’s archived IGTV videos, this episode does demonstrate the effectiveness of sousveilling—through cell phone recordings and by scrutinizing their public-facing data—individuals whose power relies on optical authority. @instagraminthewild users were able to capture and identify a white microcelebrity capitalizing on the racial justice movement, and @rusabnb’s account remains private, her business effectively disrupted.

As the doxxing element of the @rusabnb episode demonstrates, sousveillance is as much about understanding the data online images contain as it is about producing counterimages. I would like to propose, then, an expanded understanding of sousveillance to include not simply “reflecting” authority, but by submitting the data produced by authority to the same sort of scrutiny to which our data is subjected. My second example of effective sousveillance emerged in Austin, Texas, when the Austin Police Department published an image of a pile of supposed thank you notes received by the department during the June protests. 


Picture posted by APD of suspicious thank you notes.
The original image posted by the Austin Police Department on June 6, 2020.

Their Twitter/Instagram post was intended to work on the plane of images to rehabilitate the public perception of the APD after seriously injuring a number of protesters with so-called “less lethal” rounds, including shooting a pregnant Black woman in the abdomen. Social media users were quick to notice that all the thank you notes were written in the same handwriting and had no stamps on them. When asked by the press who sent the cards, the department was unable to come up with a coherent response, citing first a “kindergarten class” (though no Austin schools are currently in session) and later “a group of kindergarteners.” Further reporting by Texas Monthly procured images of many of the cards through an open records request, which only compounded the suspicious appearance of these artifacts. Comedians like Nathan Fielder quickly seized the opportunity to mock such an obvious stunt.

@NathanFielder’s post from June 9, 2020.

If the intention of the APD was to minimize civil unrest and convince social media users that they enjoy broad public favor, subjecting their image to civilian scrutiny had the opposite effect. Sousveillance here is not about producing a counterimage—say, photographing a police officer churning out a hundred phony thank you notes—but instead in recognizing the information embedded within images the APD has produced of itself to gain optical authority. Other examples of this expanded notion of sousveillance might include using police promotional images to associate violent officers with names, badge numbers, or other data by which they might be held accountable for crimes against citizens. This would approximate the sort of inspection that facial-recognition technology applies to images of protestors and subject police images to it.  

Mann et al. concede that widespread sousveillance may not be an “act of liberation,” but instead “only serve the ends of the existing power structure” by “fostering broad accessibility of monitoring and ubiquitous data collection.”[ ((Mann et al, “Sousveillance,” 347. ))] My argument here is not that sousveillance should be as ubiquitous as surveillance. Many during the recent uprisings have in fact cautioned against citizens widely documenting the protests on social media because such images can be used far more easily by police than by fellow citizens, and resistance may best be accomplished in these situations through other means. Rather, I submit that sousveillance should be understood as a tactic to be applied most forcefully where white supremacy and other forms of oppression seek to garner power through images—and where that power can most effectively be crushed.



Image Credits:

  1. Instagram model/influencer @rusabnb stages a photograph during a Black Lives Matter protest. This image has since been deleted from @influencersinthewild.
  2. @Lnakamur’s post from June 7, 2020.
  3. Police body cameras can be thwarted by officers who turn them off or hide their badge numbers.
  4. One of @rusabnb’s responses to criticism for using a Black Lives Matter protest to create content. @rusabnb has since made her account private.
  5. @rusabnb tearfully talks to @influencersinthewild, emphasizing that “everyone makes mistakes.” This video still is from the @influencersinthewild live forum on the protests, now archived on that account’s IGTV section.
  6. The original image posted by the Austin Police Department on June 6, 2020.
  7. @NathanFielder’s post from June 9, 2020.


References:




Policing Pop Culture: “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” and Representing Southern Law Enforcement
Phoebe Bronstein/University of California, San Diego


screenshot from Danny Meets Andy

A still from the Make Room for Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy Griffith.”

In February of 1960, The Andy Griffith Show premiered on CBS as a backdoor pilot to Make Room for Daddy (ABC, 1953–57; CBS, 1957–65): “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” (Feb 5 1960). [ ((The earlier ABC incarnation of Make Room for Daddy was called The Danny Thomas Show.)) ] While there is much to say about the unlikely success of Andy Griffith–which premiered at the height of the Civil Rights Movement–this column will focus on the construction of the Southern police in the pilot. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” provides particular insight, given its timing and topic, into how a popular culture text reflected and obscured anxieties about the police, institutionalized racism, and the South. The end of this column then briefly considers “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” within the context of contemporary pop culture police representations.

Andy Griffith was not CBS’s first attempt at setting a primetime show in the South. Earlier efforts included the pre-emptively canceled Confederate-drama The Gray Ghost (1954) and the season-long Reconstruction-era western Yancy Derringer (1958-1959). But it was the network’s first successful attempt to feature the South in primetime. The region had, before Andy Griffith, posed concerns for networks and advertisers, worried about offending and alienating white Southern audiences with racially progressive television, or even with programs that appeared to critique the racism vividly on display in Civil Rights news broadcasts. [ ((For more on the ways in which Andy Griffith and earlier southern representations negotiated these concerns, see Eric Barnouw’s Tube of Plenty, Stephen Classen’s Watching Jim Crow, and Allison Graham’s Framing the South. )) ]

Central to communicating the terror and violence of the white South were a series of Southern sheriffs featured on nightly news broadcasts [ (( Graham, Allison and Sharon Monteith, “Southern Media Cultures,” in Media, ed. Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith, vol. 18 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, p.17. )) ] . These men were versions of the same model–sweaty, overweight, angry, and ill-spoken types with deep Southern drawls. Their image came to stand for all that was wrong, terrifying, and violent about the region. As Allison Graham and Sharon Monteith note, by 1963, “nationally and internationally circulated images of [Birmingham, Alabama] city police commissioner Bull Connor worked as cultural shorthand, communicating within seconds the reasons for black protests and the kind of violent resistance that would meet them” [ (( Ibid., pp. 21-22. )) ] . These images, which allowed a national audience to see “glimpses of the brutality black citizens had lived with for over a century,” suggested that racism had a particular look and feel and was the fault of a few individual bad men, rather than a systemic problem. [ (( Ibid. )) ]

It is within this violent context that Andy Griffith premiered. The tensions and discomforts of representing the South construct Andy and the sitcom’s whitewashed world from the outset. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” featured Danny (Danny Thomas) and his family traveling through the rural South by car. [ (( It’s worth noting here that Danny Thomas was Lebanese, which complicates his position in the South in interesting and important ways. )) ] The episode begins as Danny pulls into town behind Sheriff Andy’s police car after Andy has pulled him over for running a stop sign. Danny is frantic and fast-talking with a thick New York accent. Andy moves and speaks more slowly. He takes Danny’s insults as they come, from calling Andy “hayseed” to mocking Andy’s Southern drawl and asserting that the stop sign is a tourist trap meant to trick poor visiting “city slickers” like himself. He even calls Andy the “Jesse James of the police.” Danny insists on pleading his case in front of the justice of the peace (who, of course, happens to be Andy), sure that his Northern rationality will win out. After all, Danny exclaims, “who’s heard of a stop sign with no road.”

Even as Danny insults Andy and the town of Mayberry, Andy remains calm and level-headed. He responds to Danny’s quick-talking outrage with logic and reason. Facing the camera and Danny’s children–and by proxy, the viewers–he explains that, indeed, the town did vote to put in a road six years ago but they’ve only raised enough money for a stop sign. Andy’s calm and fair demeanor renders Danny’s complaints, insults, and his assertion that he’s been duped ridiculous. Against Danny’s Northern brashness and the slew of Southern stereotypes he unleashes–which includes a claim that Andy probably doesn’t even know about television–Andy is calm, kind, and patient, not to mention, handsome. In fact, Andy is as far from a lawless Jesse James as one could possibly imagine.

Like earlier renditions of the police on television–for instance, Joe Friday of Dragnet–Andy’s appearance and mannerisms signal his moral fortitude and trustworthiness. Andy’s patience is epic, and even comic when juxtaposed against Danny’s small-mindedness about him and the South. Through their exchanges, Andy comes across as rational and fair-minded, while Danny appears childlike and petulant. Like Joe Friday and the police of 1950s procedurals, who as Jason Mittell asserts were “part of [the] social order…not to be questioned—at least not on mainstream television,” Andy’s presence as sheriff, justice of the peace, and jailer, carries the same authority [ (( Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Television. New York: Routledge, 2004, p.41. )) ] . Thus, when Andy charges Danny with $100 and ten days in jail for running a stop sign, we mostly feel empathy for Andy, who has to tolerate Danny’s rudeness, even as we know this punishment is perhaps excessive (and won’t be enforced).

Furthermore, Danny’s subsequent stint in jail is comfort-laden: home-cooked meals from Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and a cell door that doesn’t lock. The jail, the pilot suggests, can’t possibly be so bad, when citizens of Mayberry even voluntarily commit themselves to prison. As Danny stands and protests Andy’s position as the all-around law in these parts, a drunk older man stumbles in from the background and ambles up to Andy’s desk, declaring himself “under arrest.” The camera follows him as he locks himself into a cell, the next shot revealing a close-up of Danny and Margaret’s (Jean Hagen) confused expressions.

Reaction to man jailing himself

Danny and Margaret react to the man jailing himself.

At the height of Civil Rights violence and its attendant news coverage, Andy Griffith suggested an entirely different and virtually opposite vision of the white South, where even jails were friendly, despite nightly news reports providing clear evidence to the contrary. If, as Stuart Hall attests, “representation is a practice, a kind of ‘work,’ which uses material objects and effects,” where “the meaning depends, not on the material quality of a thing, but on its symbolic function,” then re-making the white Southern sheriff in the midst of civil rights news coverage on an entirely white sitcom worked to smooth over and re-imagine the symbolic function of Southern law enforcement, and by extension, the region [ (( Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997, pp.25-26. )) ] . Where the Southern sheriff by 1960 signaled all that was horrific and violent about the South, the pilot of Andy Griffith upends this image to envision both the Southern sheriff and Southern law enforcement more broadly as kind, compassionate, and above all fair. After all, Andy doesn’t even carry a gun and instead carries out Mayberry’s justice system with a gentle paternal touch.

Andy brings food to Danny

Andy brings Danny food in jail.

The set of complex and conflicting representational maneuvers enacted in “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” to re-make the South as safe provides a sustained example of how ideas about the police were tethered to ideas about America. This narrative smoothed over and obscured the cracks in the legal and political system which the Civil Rights Movement made glaringly visible. Notions of the police as the moral center still persist in contemporary pop culture and in many primetime police procedurals, from Law & Order to Major Crimes, Bones, Elementary, and the recently canceled Castle, to name just a few. More often than not, even when a corrupt cop plot arises, the episode resolves with the bad officer being jailed, killed, or at least dismissed. This plot device suggests that it is not the police system that is corrupt, but rather that bad policing is caused by bad individuals.

We must pay attention to contesting narratives, more often than not caught on tape, about systemic police violence–from the death of Sandra Bland in police custody to the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, and too many more. Looking back at “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” we can see how the episode mocked racism and the attendant violence supported, enacted, and often condoned by Southern law enforcement. This vision was extremely effective in making the South safe for primetime viewers: Andy Griffith became one of the most successful television shows to ever air. The pilot, then, reminds us that police representations in popular culture still serve a dangerous ideological purpose that must be questioned, historicized, and, ultimately, re-imagined.

Image Credits:
All images are author’s screen grabs from Make Room For Daddy episode “Danny Meets Andy.”

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