As people all over the world livestream protests in the wake of, Jon Zeigler remembers when he captured a tragic moment that was seen around the globe.
On Aug. 12, 2017, Ziegler grabbed his camera rig and headed to a counter protest at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The night before, neo-Nazis and alt-right activists had descended on the University of Virginia, chanting racist slogans and carrying tiki torches. Ziegler, an independent journalist who goes by the name Reb Z, wasn’t new to filming protests. He’d already gained a niche following for livestreaming demonstrations at the Dakota Access Pipeline and in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the experience, Ziegler couldn’t have imagined what was about to erupt.
While protesters gathered in the city’s downtown district, an avowed white supremacist named James Fields drove his Dodge Challenger around the area. Then, he rammed his car into the crowd. “We need the paramedics right now! People are badly hurt!” Ziegler says frantically in the video. “Somebody might be dead.”
The rampage killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens of other protesters. Fields was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Ziegler’s video ricocheted around the world, capturing what had been one of the ugliest moments in America’s growing social division. “That clip was able to go viral around the world in less than 10 minutes,” Ziegler told CNET in an interview this week. “People saw it before the alt-right was able to start giving their false counter narrative.”
Livestreams are playing a similar role as protesters take to the streets around the world to focus attention on the Black Lives Matter movement. The cause has taken on new urgency since Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man in Minneapolis, was killed after a police officer jammed a knee to his neck for nearly 9 minutes. (The arrest itself was immortalized by bystanders, who pointed their phones at the scene, while imploring police to let Floyd up.) The livestreams have caught scenes of peaceful protest, police clashes, and everything in between.
As the demonstrations continue, livestreams have served as an almost-personal window into the groundswell of the protests. More intimate than a high-definition cable news broadcast and rawer than a tweeted clip, live feeds capture time and place that edited snippets miss. Livestreams record both the mundane and the extraordinary. There are no cuts, no production. Because anyone can stream from their phones, the videos have become a way to hold power to account. And because they are live, they are spontaneous for all involved, including the person behind the camera.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen next. They don’t know what’s going to happen next,” says Nancy Van House, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information. “It’s unfolding live for everyone.”
‘Another story is told’
Like Charlottesville earlier, livestreams of the Black Lives Matter protests have already captured tragedy. The killing of restaurateur David McAtee in Louisville, Kentucky, earlier this month was one of them.
City police and the Kentucky National Guard sought to disperse a crowd violating curfew outside McAtee’s restaurant, a barbecue joint called Dino’s where police officers reportedly ate for free. McAtee was struck and killed after authorities “returned fire” on the group, according to Gov. Andy Beshear. Police are missing body camera footage of the shooting because two officers who fired into the crowd didn’t turn them on.
Kris Smith, a 41-year-old security guard, was with friends at the shop next door. Smith wasn’t protesting. He and his buddies were listening to music, eating and drinking, he says. Smith had already been streaming on Facebook Live for about half an hour when he heard the gunshots.
He didn’t stop recording. “I wanted everybody to see exactly what was going on,” Smith said in an interview. In the video, several shots ring out, though the shooters aren’t in frame. Police tell Smith to get in his car, then use the vehicle for cover while he’s in it.
Smith, who is black, says police brutality is a problem. He starts livestreaming every time he sees the cops, he says, because the footage is important in holding them accountable. “A whole lot of times, another story is told if you don’t have it. Ain’t nobody going to believe anybody over the police. The police can do no wrong.”
Smith isn’t alone in using Facebook’s livestreaming service to capture interactions with the police. In July 2016, the service made headlines after police in Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, after being stopped for a broken tail light. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the immediate aftermath from the passenger seat. In the video, Castile is slumped in his seat and covered in blood. “You shot four bullets into him, sir,” Reynolds says to the police officer. Facebook initially took down the video, but restored it after public pushback.
Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly mentioned the Castile livestream as an example of how the social network’s tools can highlight injustice. He made the remarks as he justified not taking action against a post by President Donald Trump that alluded to violence against protesters. Zuckerberg likely failed to mention that Facebook Live has more than once been used to stream rape and suicide.
‘There’s no question’
Livestreaming protests goes back further than Facebook and Twitter. It first became a powerful tool for activists in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Back then, streamers would record on phones or other consumer cameras and upload them to video services like Ustream and Bambuser from laptops they were carrying with them.
Streaming became much more accessible when mobile companies joined the fray. Meerkat, the first streaming app to get mainstream attention, debuted in 2015. Still, livestreams didn’t take off until Big Tech invested in the tools. In the same year, Twitter bought the startup Periscope before it even launched. By 2016, Facebook Live had taken streaming to the next level, bringing the tools to the 2 billion people on its massive social network.
The services really began to make their mark on activism during the Black Lives Matters protests around that time, says UC Berkeley’s Van House, who has been researching livestreaming’s effect on protests since the Occupy movement. Facebook and Twitter declined to comment or share figures on the usage of their live streaming tools during the George Floyd protests.
Even though livestreams tend to seem more authentic than traditional media coverage of protests, they can still create warped perceptions. The best livestreams cover hours at a time, says Van House. But many streamers are now doing shorter broadcasts, she says, only turning on the camera during moments of commotion. Cumulatively, those short bursts of video could give the impression that the protests are more violent or chaotic than they actually are. There are also ways to game what streams people actually see. For example, someone who doesn’t agree with protesters could falsely report streams for content violations and try to get them taken down.
Still, livestreams provide a personalized look at what’s happening on the ground during a period of upheaval. Unicorn Riot, a media collective based in Minneapolis, has been streaming the George Floyd protests from top to bottom. In Seattle, a streamer going by the handle Future Crystles has been documenting the demonstrations, including confrontations with the police.
The access is especially crucial now amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has stopped many people from protesting in person. Ziegler has been sidelined for much of the George Floyd protests because of a rib injury, he says, though he livestreamed a protest on Facebook Thursday of protesters in Minnesota who toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus.
Ziegler has been streaming protests since the Occupy movement, but the day of Heyer’s death is seared into his memory. Like a livestream itself, he remembers both the boring and horrific.
As he began recording that day, Ziegler experienced technical glitches: He had audio problems, so the first 45 minutes of his recording was silent, despite a noisy clash between rival groups of protesters. He’d been shooting on his iPhone and sending the video to his MacBook, so it could be streamed to multiple platforms at once using a special program. But he couldn’t get good reception, so he ditched that setup and instead attached two phones to his tripod, one streaming directly to Facebook Live, the other to Periscope.
Then came the crash, and his fateful footage. He says that day encapsulated the importance of streaming for him, especially as protests play out this week. “Now there’s no question of what’s going on,” he said.
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