The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Be your own Tank Man

On this day 25 years ago, I was 14 years old, and attending a summer basketball camp at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I was a nerdy kid who got average grades, mostly because I was much more interested in reading the newspapers or my parents’ Time magazines than my geometry textbook. In the preceding weeks, I’d become entranced by the Tiananmen Square protests. And so when the crackdown began, in the breaks between our scrimmages and drills at the Lambert Fieldhouse, I raced back to the dorm in which we were staying to watch the breaking coverage on the tiny black and white portable television I’d brought with me. The reception was awful, but just coherent enough to make clear that an atrocity was in the making.

Over the next few mornings that week, I bought a newspaper to read at breakfast. (As you might imagine, this made me hugely popular with my fellow 14-year-old campers.) I’d end up chatting with some of the coaches, who were also watching the coverage on TVs with better reception. The Tank Man image has always stuck with me. I have an artist’s rendering of it sitting over my desk.

In some ways, the Tiananmen protests failed. The crackdown ended the democracy movement. The protest leaders who weren’t murdered were arrested and imprisoned. The reforms introduced in China over the previous decade were rescinded, and a more oppressive, autocratic regime took  over. But the Tiananmen protests also mark the brink of a more significant and profound revolution — the technological revolution that has made governments more accountable and transparent than any period in human history.

The Tiananmen Square protesters were media savvy. They knew the power of nonviolent protest. They were camera-friendly and non confrontational. One example: They timed their hunger strikes to coincide with a historic visit to China by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The students knew the Chinese government had invited international media to cover the summit. The hunger strikes attracted attention and sympathy from the foreign press, and convinced many journalists that if they stuck around, they could witness something more historic than the summit.

The crackdown hit just as 24 hour news was lifting off.  A few years prior, CNN had been the only network to capture live footage of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and two years later would vault to household status for its live coverage of the first Gulf War. The mobile phone was also a rapidly spreading new technology, and it allowed reporters to call in live reports after the Chinese government had shut down other means of communication. Just a couple years later, in March 1991, we’d see another demonstration of the power of personal technology, when George Holliday picked up his video camera and began recording a bunch of police officers beating up motorist Rodney King on the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street in Los Angeles.

Over the next quarter century, the internet of course took off to become arguably the most significant contribution to human freedom in the history of the world. Historically, technology has been used to oppress and destroy. Before the internet, the only notable exception was the printing press. Certainly, the internet can also be used for oppression. But its very nature and purpose — the decentralized dissemination of information — makes those efforts impossible. Perhaps the best example of that is the Chinese government’s pervasive efforts to erase the Tiananmen massacre from the Chinese internet. It just can’t be done.

Close behind the internet is the advance of the cell phone, and not far behind that, the flourishing of social media. I don’t think it’s really possible to understate the power of being able to live stream a video to an off-site server, where it can be archived and protected. We saw this on display during the Arab Spring protests of 2011. For all of human history, oppressive governments have silenced, then beaten or imprisoned, then ultimately murdered peaceful resistors, as the latter become a progressively real threat to power. But for the first time ever, the brutal government crackdowns of these protests were streamed, photographed, and tweeted in real time by the protesters themselves. The story would be told not just through state-run media, or even the eyes of a few foreign news producers, but through thousands of videos, images, tweets, and blog posts form the protesters themselves.

George Orwell famously said “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” As we’ve seen in Venezuela and the Ukraine this year, technology hasn’t changed that. But today, there’s a good chance that someone is close by with a cell phone to record that boot stomping and send it to an offsite server, where it can’t be erased, and is safe should the cell phone be destroyed. The video can then be post it to social  media, where it can be replicated and forwarded until it’s archived forever. We’ll likely never know Tank Man’s name, at least not with any certainty. But the name Neda Agha-Soltan is etched in history.

Closer to home, advances in personal technology have unleashed unprecedented transparency upon law enforcement officials. This was most on display during the Occupy protests in 2011, when tech-savvy activists were able to capture, disseminate, and publicize incidents of police brutality. The images and videos of incidents like the infamous pepper spraying of protesters at UC Davis not only led to disciplinary action against the offending officers, it also generated widespread awareness of police brutality, and generated some much-needed discussion about how we respond to protest in America.

But the power of personal technology is even more apparent in more mundane, day-to-day interactions with police. YouTube today spills over with videos of police abuse that, were it not for someone nearby holding a cell phone, would likely have gone unnoticed, unaddressed, and unpunished. Video isn’t a panacea. In too many cases, video has shown clear misconduct that still went unpunished. We should also be careful to guard against the abuse of video — to understand the power of editing and the importance of context. But citizen-shot video has leveled the field a bit. Previously, if a citizen’s account of an incident was contradicted by the testimony of a police officer, prosecutors, courts, and police agencies took the officer’s word as the truth. That’s no longer a given.

The phenomenon has had such an impact that the popular defense attorney/blogger Scott Greenfield has coined the phrase “But for video” specifically in reference to stories in which video has contradicted the police account of an incident, and effected a more just outcome. These incidents have also had an impact beyond the scope of the cases themselves. They’ve put other police officers on alert that their actions could be caught on video at any time — and that the video could surface days or weeks or months after they’ve written up a report. That can only nudge even the worst cops toward honesty, if only to protect themselves. Citizen-shot video has also inspired police departments to begin outfitting officers with their own video cameras, another reform that, provided it includes some important checks to protect privacy and prevent tampering, is a move toward transparency and accountability.

Finally, the recording-the-cops phenomenon has also bred a healthy skepticism about law enforcement. It’s important to point out that this skepticism hasn’t manifested as violence against police. Over the same period all of this has been happening, citizen-on-cop violence has been dropping, and by quite a lot. Instead, it has resulted in “cop watch” sites, sites that document and data process police abuse, and a general internet culture that sees a gun and a badge not as indicators of unassailable legitimacy, but as reasons to be especially skeptical and cautious. Contrary to what some law enforcement leaders have suggested, this isn’t a culture that hates cops. It’s a culture that understands that police officers are human, which means they’re just as capable as the rest of us of blowing a fuse, lashing out, or lying to cover up their mistakes or the mistakes of a colleague. This is a healthy thing.

Perhaps even more importantly, the internet itself breeds an ethos of transparency and healthy skepticism of power. The first generation that can’t remember a time before the internet is a generation that craves information, loathes censorship, and revels in exposing abuses of power. We seem to have reached a tipping point, at least in the developed world, where technology has surpassed and by all appearances will continue to outpace government efforts to contain information. It’s hard to envision a time when we won’t have an Anonymous, a Snowden, or a Manning who have the  technical know-how and the ideology to bring abuse to light. And the internet generation generally sees that as something to celebrate.

The beautiful thing about all of this is that today, anyone can be Tank Man, at least metaphorically. Carlos Miller is a good example. Years ago, Miller was arrested for photographing a police officer. He wrote about that arrest on a blog. After hearing about similar arrests, he started the blog Photography Is Not a Crime. Today, he relentlessly documents cases in which police have violated a citizen’s First Amendment right to record on-duty law enforcement officials. He has also unquestionably been a big reason why that right is now recognized in every state in the country. Miller’s first book comes out this week — a how-to guide to citizen journalism. Antonio Buehler had a similar experience. In 2010, Buehler was arrested for using his cell phone to record what he thought was a police abuse incident at a gas station. The experience moved Buehler — a West Point graduate and Stanford business school graduate currently attending Harvard — to start the Peaceful Streets Project, a police watchdog organization.

But you needn’t be a journalist or even have had some traumatic experience with law enforcement to be your own Tank Man. Anyone can file an open records request. You don’t need to be affiliated with any media outlet. The Student Press Law Center has an easy-to-use generator on its website. Just plug in your state and what you’re looking for and it will produce a request for you to print out and mail.

You’d be surprised at what you can find. In many states, for example, any email sent from a government computer or a government account is subject to open records laws. You can request copies of budgets and expense reports, then comb through them for evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse. As for your local police department’s arrest reports to examine for evidence of racial or ethnic profiling. Or ask for documents pertaining to all the no-knock drug raids they’ve performed over the last few years. Even if you don’t get what you’re looking for, the mere fact that a government agency turned you down might itself be newsworthy. Start a blog and write about what you’ve found. If you don’t want the attention yourself, contact a local journalist or a sympathetic blogger to tip them off.

You can also keep your own phone ready to record your own interactions with police, local government meetings, or other events covered by your state’s open records law. In 2012, the ACLU launched “Police Tape,” an app for your smart phone that enables you to stealthily record police. The app records without making it obvious that it’s recording. You also have the option of sending the video to an offsite server, so if it’s deleted from your phone, there’s another copy that can’t be erased. (Links to download it for the iPhone or Android here.)

One more thing. We’ve set aside lots of days in which we either celebrate or honor government, or that otherwise are intended to inspire feelings of patriotism. Here in the U.S., we have Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, and Presidents Day. Nearly every other country on earth has its equivalents. It’s somewhat appropriate that the 25th anniversary of the Tiannamen Square massacre would fall the same year that we lost R.J. Rummell, the economist and historian who spent much of his life documenting the atrocities committed by governments. I suggest we start looking at June 4 as an opportunity to remember and reflect upon those atrocities. It should be a day when we celebrate whistleblowers and martyrs, recognize journalists and activists who were ignored or pilloried for exposing injustice, and remember the 174 million people murdered by governments in the 20th century alone.

I’m not suggesting anything formal, here. Some sort of state-recognized holiday would completely miss the point. Rather, I’m suggesting a voluntary day of remembrance, and perhaps a day in which we each do something, even a small thing, to keep a  local, state, or federal government a little more transparent, a little more accountable. Submit an open records request. Donate to an organization that fights government abuse. This isn’t a partisan thing. There are worthy groups on the right, left, and elsewhere. Write a letter to the editor. Plan to attend a protest.

This isn’t about full-time activism, anarchism, or abolishing the government. Nor am I suggesting that bad interactions with police or a local zoning board is the equivalent of the Tiananmen massacre. My point that governments have enormous power, including a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Because governments are made up of flawed human beings, there will always be potential for that power to abuse and oppress. So it’s important that we be vigilant about keeping governments answerable to the people they serve.

So I’m suggesting you take the day, even if only this day, to be your own Tank Man.