Many times over the years, I have operated as a legal observer at protests. These days, this often means being a person documenting events on video. Legal observers in theory should be treated similarly to media, but do not have any special legal protections beyond those guaranteed private citizens in the First Amendment.
Don’t assume “I’m a legal observer” will get you special treatment or protection. Do assume people might assume you have information they want, so know where to refer people. Direct law enforcement or media to the march/rally/protest organizers. Do not speak on their behalf. Direct protesters who have information to report to the organizers or to groups. like the ACLU.
You’re there to be impartial, but if someone is hurt in front of you and no one else can help, stop filming and help! You’re neutral but you’re not a monster.
Ideally, you will have been trained in principles of nonviolent demonstrating prior to serving as a legal observer. It is mostly common sense, but as with anything, it helps to consider all of the possibilities ahead of time, when it is calm, so you can rely on training under pressure.
This advice is based on my experience using an iPhone to capture video, and my completely amateur level of experience as a photographer or videographer. Much of it would apply, I think, if you were using a Go Pro or some other mounted camera, or a larger and more sophisticated video recorder, but some things might change.
1 – Document the Action, Don’t Become the Action
Decide before attending a rally, march, or protest which role you want to play. Each has value. Your goal is to secure footage that, in the worst case scenario, could be used as evidence in court. You do not want to give anyone viewing it reason to question it. Shouting slogans or providing commentary behind basic who/where/when narration could cause someone to question the video.
You want to stand far enough away that you don’t get swept up in a group of marchers. You want to document interaction between police and marchers to create context and show the whole scene. When things are moving fast, you might become surrounded from time to time. Move to another location.
Do not engage counter-protesters. Don’t engage anyone, really, but particularly those who have come to provoke a reaction, sometimes even a violent one. Be very, very careful when counter-protesters arrive.
I’ll repeat it—you are there to document the action, not be the action. Everyone has a cell phone. If something starts to happen, you can bet dozens of other people will whip out their phones to film, too. They may be closer. Their videos will be more helpful if you pull back and capture the context.
2 – Be Discreet
Again, your purpose is documentation for use at a later time. You’re going for candid shots, not formal portraits. You are not using your camera as a weapon or visible caution sign to shake in someone’s face. Do not walk aggressively toward a police officer holding your camera high and in front of you. Stand, filming with your camera in front of your chest or abdomen. That stance not only seems less aggressive, it steadies the camera.
Be mellow and seem disinterested. Be non-confrontational. Your goal is to capture what law enforcement does when they think no one is watching. If you are filming someone standing directly in front of you at noon, you can always turn your head so it looks like you’re checking out something at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock. The officer is more likely to note where you are looking than the direction of your camera, especially if you are holding it low across your body.
3 – Narrate Key Information
This does not mean provide moment-by-moment narration. Ideally, you should remain quiet so your conversation does not become the focus of someone watching the video. But in the absence of landmarks, or in case of confusion, you might need to signpost what happened, who someone is, or where you are. Even better, however …
4 – Stand Still, Film Landmarks, Film Adjacent Areas & Things
I watched video purporting to be of a particular building in Houston. It didn’t look like that building to me, so I looked for landmarks. The video will make you dizzy, and even though it is seven minutes long, it never stops panning. There is no real way to tell where the video was taken other than the say-so of the person posting it.
Stand sill. Remember, you are documenting information so it can be used later. You’re not doing a tribute to Aaron Sorkin. Movement and shakiness as artistic devices are not helpful in this situation.
Hold the camera on things of note for at least ten seconds so people watching the video without a pause or slow-motion button can register what they are seeing. Film street signs, or the sign in front of a building that has a company name and address on it, then slowly pan to the next thing you are watching. Excellent tip from Larissa, who suggests you could even film a “menu of the day” with a date on it in a restaurant window to provide a 3rd party time-stamp.
The same applies if you are documenting what has happened to a marcher. If someone wants you to film them describing an incident, and they can stand next to a street sign or easy-to-identify building address or sculpture or fountain, show them in context then move in closer to record them talking. That documentation plus the time stamp in the film will show without question where someone was.
Don’t forget to document things as well as people. If you arrive early, document the police staging area and the protest site. If you film an area and there are no piles of bricks, it is going to be difficult for rumors about piles of bricks to carry any weight. And if you film police officers staging in an area where there are unsecured construction supplies, and the police are simply standing around not securing them, or leaving them unguarded, that tells a story as well.
Film the blocks near a demonstration to see what vehicles may be on hand for detaining or transporting those arrested.
5 – Film in Short Bursts
Don’t stop filming in the middle of the action, but if you are just documenting a situation before action seems imminent, consider filming in bursts of 2-3 minutes. That way, if you capture something critical, you needn’t scroll through 35 minutes of nothing happening to find it.
There are arguments to be made for continuous filming when things are moving quickly and happening. But 20 minutes of filming 20 officers holding a line, nearly motionless? You’re not doing Sorkin, but you’re also not doing Warhol’s Empire.
6 – Watch Your Back
You should keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Things happen fast during demonstrations. If possible, stand or sit with your back to a wall or tree. If you are on stairs, or standing on a bench, be extra careful about what is behind you so nothing catches you by surprise. It’s even more helpful when you have someone else who has your back, so when possible …
7 – Film in pairs
I wish I could say that I am part of a two-person ninja squad that communicates like cops in a television show entering a dangerous area using hand signals and subtle head-nods to cover an area without exposing our backs, because how cool would that be?
It is helpful, of course, to film in pairs. You can watch each other’s backs, and you can capture two angles on a situation. Don’t get complicated, but it’s pretty easy to point and use hand signals if you are paying attention to each other.
Try not to walk up to your partner talking, as they may be capturing sound on something they are shooting and your talking will drown it out. Even worse if you walk up and say something that you wouldn’t want other people to hear in court. And approach from the side, so you do not end up featured in your partner’s video.
Hat tip to Larissa who remarks that it can be helpful to have a spotter as your partner who is not filming, but who is keeping an eye on things to help you know what to film next. This may be more helpful than filming in pairs. Consider a threesome? Two people filming and one spotter could work as well.
8 – Don’t Use Tripods or Selfie Sticks
This may seem counterintuitive, but this is not tourism, this is documenting a potentially dangerous situation in case the information is needed for a court case.
At a protest, never carry anything that police could construe as a weapon. Once they decide your umbrella, selfie stick, or tripod is a weapon, they can use that belief, as misguided or contrived as it may be, to justify coming at you with force. It’s also much easier to “accidentally” knock someone’s camera over if it is held up our out away from the person’s body. If you need a better angle, pull back and find elevated ground.
Recent events have shown over and over that law enforcement officers are armed, armored, and prepared to go on the attack. It bears repeating. Do not let them use your selfie stick as an excuse to claim you started the violence.
[By the way, this goes for all marchers. Use cardboard tubes instead of wooden dowels for signs. Don’t carry a wooden or metal flagpole. I hate saying don’t use an umbrella or parasol because they can be great in the blistering sun, but use a small, compact one rather than a giant wooden golf umbrella if you must. Better yet, get a giant hat.]
9 – Back Up and Title Your Files
Protect what you’ve filmed so that even if something happens to your phone, you still have what you’ve captured. You can sometimes upload automatically to Dropbox or another similar program. You can always use a secure messaging system to share videos with someone else in a different location.
When you get home after filming, and charge your phone, transfer the files and give them titles using some naming system that will make it easy to find the right video later. Some combination of date and location of the shot is what I use, like June 2 2020 Walker at Louisiana Street. Keep them together in one folder per event.
In a pinch, you can record on Facebook Live to preserve what you’ve recorded, but better to have experience and be intentional about doing that. I don’t have experience live-streaming so do not have great advice for doing that. And you might not want to do that…
10 – Think Carefully Before Posting Video to Social Media
When something goes down, everyone will whip out their phones, and many will post to social media.
You might capture something you want to post to social media, but I repeat once again, you are documenting what happened for the specific purpose of making a helpful record to be used in court.
This means that you have endeavored to capture information about people—close-ups of their faces, license plates, badge numbers. Consider before you upload a video to Facebook that from a strategic perspective, you might not want them to know what you captured.
You’ve also likely caught lots of detail about people participating in the march. Consider their safety before uploading a video to Twitter. You don’t want your carefully-shot video to be the reason a protester gets doxxed or fired.
You also don’t want your video to be deceptively edited or used in a nefarious fashion. I don’t have the skills to do it, but someone could easily take a video, record a new voice track to it, and completely change the meaning of what you have filmed. Don’t feed the trolls.
You can share video with others you trust to use it effectively and strategically in a way that will not jeopardize anyone’s safety. Those people and entities might include:
- The local ACLU affiliate likely has a media contact on their website. You can reach out to them, as they are most likely to know of any litigation involving a protest or march.
- An investigative journalist you know and trust. If you don’t know anyone personally, consider reporters who work with organizations like ProPublica, known for a high level of professionalism and integrity. Most investigative journalists and outlets have secure upload protocols or at least a secure email or phone number in a twitter bio. The Texas Observer, a great outlet to contact if you are in Texas, gives very detailed information on ways to contact them and transfer data in a secure and encrypted fashion.
- A private attorney, either your own or one representing people harmed in a protest.
Other reasons to let someone else be the person who releases your video include your credibility and personal safety. A video promoted by a recognized news outlet will be much harder to deflect, minimize, or discredit than one tweeted by you when your Twitter handle is @Poodle_Lover_18 and your Twitter stream is largely poodle memes. And you may be 100% in the right and operating in a completely legal fashion, but do you want a rogue police officer to decide to harass you? Or to incur the wrath of Twitter trolls who will dox you?
If you *do* upload to social media, make a copy of the file to preserve the integrity of the original and only post the copy. And strongly consider using one of the face-blurring/meta-data-stripping apps to protect the identities of those filmed.
All the usual rules apply. Be hydrated. Carry snacks so you don’t bonk. Have critical information written in indelible ink on your arm, like your lawyer’s number. Wear sunscreen. Plan a safe escape route. Again, it can be extremely helpful to look into nonviolent demonstration training before you go out to film a march, rally, or protest. Your goal is to help, so make sure you don’t unintentionally undermine the cause you mean to support.