Telling Our Stories: Justin Thomas On His Recent Lawsuit Against The NYPD And Why It's Important to Assert Our Rights

The video camera is a police officer’s worst enemy.

This is why across the country aggressive steps are being taken to make the filming of police officers an illegal offense. Those of us who are aware of our rights understand that this is a fallacy and that the law grants us every right to film in any public space—that includes any public street or in front of any public building. It was these very rights that I reaffirmed as I spoke to the officer in front of the Sunset Park’s 72nd Precinct in Brooklyn, NY when he aggressively demanded that I cease filming his precinct and hand over the camera which contained the documented footage. When the officer realized I was well informed on my rights and that I wasn’t going to back down to intimidation or coercion, he wasn’t pleased. It was on these grounds that the officer illegally arrested and detained me, a graduate film student, for two hours on that afternoon in April of 2013.JustinThomasHeadshot

Nearly one year later, the City of New York has agreed to settle with me out of court in the sum of $15,000 in damages for the unwarranted arrest. I am lucky. I am lucky that my friend and colleague was with me at the time of the arrest and was able to document the arrest as it happened. I am also fortunate that the video card containing the footage was not confiscated or destroyed. If my friend had not been present with the camera in hand, things could have ended very differently for me. Instead of merely being arrested, I could have been physically assaulted, hospitalized, or worse yet, killed because I refused to submit to police intimidation. We know this is entirely possible because we see it every day in the news across the police state nation that we live in. Whether it is an activist wielding an iPhone who is beaten down for “resisting arrest” or a 10 year old boy who has his leg broken for filming a police officer that was assaulting his mother in his home, we’ve seen the power the video camera gives us to document police brutality, protect our rights and share their atrocities with the world at large. The police also know of this power—and they fear it.

It is our responsibility, especially those of us who belong to the Black community and other communities of color, to stand up for our rights as individuals, community members and human beings. We need to strive to protect these rights before they are stripped from us and we are left standing helpless in the path of a state-sanctioned genocide of our people, especially our young people. In the face of a police force that occupies, terrifies, and crucifies our neighborhoods under a “justice” system that grants clemency to those who inflict these violations against human life, we must utilize a powerful weapon that we have: the video camera. Whether it is a high-tech prosumer or the digital camera built into your smartphone, if you see something USE IT. You may be saving someone’s life. It saved mine.


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