In Praise Of Using Camera Phones As Defensive Weapons

Much talk — and very little action — has surrounded the issue of gun control and public safety, with the two “sides” arguing that their solution to gun violence will make the average citizen safer. Gun control proponents want there to be more restrictions in place in order to make it more difficult for those who intend to harm to purchase a gun, while conservative gun nuts would like to make it legal for anyone and everyone to carry a gun so that the average citizen can play hero if necessary.

While I don’t care to wade into that particular debate in this post, it got me thinking about another type of weapon, one that doesn’t have the ability to physically harm but has nonetheless made headlines for being deployed as tool of defense, and that the vast majority of us are armed with every single day — our camera phones, especially those that enable video. I’m here to praise the hell out of those everyday videographers, acting in defense of themselves or others, and to also argue in favor of more of us using our camera phones to document harassment, injustice and brutality.

Last week, a Boston woman named Jace Dillan was minding her own business when she noticed a man with a camera filming her — including her “crotch and backside” — and numerous other women in the vicinity without their permission, including a pair of teenage girls. This type of violation — a more egregious form of street harassment — is depressingly common and seemingly impossible to prevent, with limited options for defending oneself. Dillan refused to be rendered helpless, however, and followed the man who had been filming her, armed with a camera of her own — her iPhone. The video she ended up filming, which shows her following the pervert and confronting about what she saw – making sure to zero in on his face, call out his wedding ring and loudly shame him for his gross behavior — was posted to her Facebook account and quickly went viral.

just another day on Newbury St. please help me find and identify this creep. not only did he film my crotch and backside, along with the same of at least 8 other women that i personally witnessed in less than 10 minutes, but I decided to confront him after watching him do the same to 2 girls who could not have been more than 14 years old. DISGUSTING. Posted by Jase Dillan on Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thanks to Dillan’s cameraphone, what could have simply been an admittedly satisfying scene to witness as a bystander on Newbury Street, became straight up social media gold. The video sparked dozens of blog posts rightfully calling Dillan a hero, spotlighting the continued scourge of street harassment and, dare I say it, possibly making perverts like the douchebro in question think twice about filming women, in a lewd manner or otherwise, lest they reap the consequences. And if it hasn’t yet had that impact, well, dammit, it doesn’t hurt to keep trying.

In the meantime, some shaming at the hands of the internet is the least of what a pig like that deserves.

Videos like Dillan’s can also come in handy when going to the police (as she did), either because the footage shows the crime itself or at least the alleged perpetrator. This is especially true given that our culture often doesn’t take women seriously when we say we’ve been abused, harassed, threatened or harmed – whether it’s the justice system throwing up its hands and reducing a victim’s trauma to a case of “he said, she said,” or regular run of the mill assholes who JUST CAN’T GET IT THROUGH THEIR HEADS THAT CATCALLS ARE NOT COMPLIMENTS. Even then, video evidence may still be misinterpreted, downplayed or dismissed entirely. But at the very least, camera phones, in combination with social media, can give victims some semblance of power, even if actual justice is out of their hands.

Take, for example, an incident that occurred this weekend outside a bar in Brooklyn, New York. Writer and YouTube personality Akilah Hughes was punched in the face by a man outside of Crown Victoria Bar in Williamsburg. Writing about the incident on her Tumblr, Hughes said “the only reason I’m not dead or in a coma is because my friend stepped in and fought for me.” When her friend jumped in, Hughes was able to grab her mace (which many women feel they must carry to defend themselves) and hit her attacker with it, but both she and her friend were already hurt.

As if that wasn’t traumatizing enough, Hughes says that when she asked the three grown male employees of the bar who were witnesses to the assault (and did nothing, BTW) if they could get her and her friend some ice, they refused. They told her that “I should be careful with my mace, [because] it ‘could have hit them'” and that “it’s shocking I don’t get punched in the face more often by men since I’m ‘so annoying.’”

At that point, Hughes broke out her cellphone and began filming her confrontation with the bar’s employees, including the alleged manager, over their comments and behavior:

She immediately started uploading the photos and video to her Twitter feed, and then published a post about the incident to her Tumblr, which has since been reblogged over 31K times.

While nothing could have been done to prevent the initial assault, Hughes’ use of her camera phone and social media not only served to warn other NY-area women about how Crown Victoria’s staff treats assault victims, but also inspired supporters to post angry messages on the bar’s Facebook and Yelp pages. By Monday, Crown Victoria had fired the staff members involved for their “wholly unacceptable behavior.”

But women aren’t the only ones to use their cellphones, in combination with social media, as a weapon against violence and oppression. Last week, as you surely remember, more than a few camera phones were covertly trained on Officer Ben Fields when he violently assaulted a 16-year-old black girl after she refused to get up from her classroom desk at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina (just one of many cases of police violence against people of color).

Incidentally, one of the things that allegedly led her teacher to call school authorities (who in turn called in Fields) was the fact that the student had refused to put away or hand over her own cellphone. It’s clear from the covert way in which other students filmed the assault that they too feared having their cellphones confiscated, likely because those phones were being used to document a possible crime. Let’s be real: without video evidence of the assault, would this case have even made the news let alone resulted in Fields’ termination? (That it hasn’t led to his arrest is for another rant entirely.)

There are far too many examples of police officers ordering citizens to put away or hand over their phones (and even breaking them), because those devices were being used to record questionable or downright unlawful police behavior. Look no further than the anti-police brutality protests in Ferguson or Baltimore, or back here in New York, in Staten Island, on July 17, 2014.

Ramsey Orta — the man who filmed the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo and then gave the video to The New York Daily News, burning Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe” into the national consciousness — knows all too well just how nervous cellphone cameras make cops. According to a TIME magazine profile of Orta, since releasing the video, “Orta says that police have harassed him and his family. … He says he was stopped twice for robberies in which he had no involvement and claims that police shone lights in the windows of his Staten Island home.”

While restrictions on phone possession and/or use are certainly less rampant than those enforced for guns, the fact remains that many of those who seek to harm, abuse or harass others recognize that camera phones pose a threat. In some cases, like when the lens is turned on, say, police officer using extreme force, those rules can stand in the way of a victim’s hope of getting justice or protecting themselves and others. That there are scenarios in which a regular citizen would be allowed to carry a concealed weapon but have their cellphone confiscated is pure insanity.

While I am pissed off that such tactics are necessary, I am so fucking inspired by all of the people mentioned in this piece who used their cellphone cameras as weapons against those who sought to hurt, oppress, violate and dismiss them. I am pledging to do the same should such an unfortunate occasion arise and encourage the rest of you who feel similarly to do the same.

Of course, it’s vitally important that you consider the impact doing so could have on your safety and well-being, and to exercise caution — I cannot stress that enough. But if safety isn’t a factor, and the only thing stopping you from taking out your phone and filming someone who has hurt, harassed, violated or oppressed you or someone else is a culturally-induced fear of “making a scene,” FUCK THAT. MAKE A SCENE AND THEN POST THAT FUCKING SCENE ON THE INTERNET. The rest of us will have your back.

[Akilah, Obviously]
[Times Union]