The first few seconds show something unmistakably alarming: a group of police officers approaches a cluster of protesters at an intersection on a spacious Florida street, and then three abruptly tackle someone to the ground. More spray clouds of irritants into the street, driving the demonstrators back. It’s aggressive and apparently unprovoked, one of countless moments of brutality captured on video during this year’s Black Lives Matter marches.
But the camera doesn’t zoom in or even stay focused on the scene for long. It wanders down the street, following fleeing protesters and catching stretches of nearly empty parking lots, lingering on an armed officer and a little longer on a shrub. After about two minutes, the viewpoints skyward to catch a helicopter, rendered toylike against gray clouds. For the last few seconds, the video stays on the lot. It’s the gaze of a bystander who’s chosen to bear witness, and the video is a new kind of film.
Shot by participants, journalists, and bystanders, many thousands of videos like this one have been posted in the thousands across platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok. Some float through social feeds on their own; others are clipped into YouTube compilations or organized in tweet threads. Cellphones and online video platforms have always been powerful tools for activists — the Occupy protests of 2011, for instance, were extensively documented through live-streamed video — but the scale of the 2020 protests and the amount of footage online that documents them is overwhelming. At times it’s turned social media into a unique kind of cinematic experience, one that breaks film’s conventions in a way that’s eerily compelling.
In July, Baffler critic H.S. Hamrah wrote about being a critic during the coronavirus pandemic. “Cinema does not currently exist, or if it does exist, it’s in the form of videos from the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality,” Hamrah wrote, noting that while theaters were shuttered, a video of Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s death had spread across social media, galvanizing the world. Hamrah didn’t invoke social media replacing cinema as a dystopian media nightmare, at least beyond the baseline nightmarishness of 2020. His observation simply recognized the power of the form.
The film world has also taken notice. Director Reinaldo Green, whose 2018 film Monsters and Men is about a police shooting caught on video, has discussed how an “objective” camera shaped the reaction to Floyd’s death. In an interview, he pointed out that the protest videos have their own kind of objectivity: they’re created by people making the deliberate choice to attend a protest but are shot with less narrative shaping than in much news and documentary footage. The videos are often huge, chaotic scenes without clear individual subjects, posted and shared within minutes. “Documentarians are trying to find a subject that they can follow, a throughline. They’re looking for the leaders, they’re looking for the linchpin person, the loudest voice,” Green says, by way of contrast. “If you’re just a citizen who’s just out there and among your friends, that’s not the lens in which you’re viewing it.”
To Green, citizen videos also reflect the many reasons people attend and record protests in the first place. “You get folks that are basically taking attendance by saying, ‘I’ve been to a protest.’ And then you get folks that are really there doing the good work and really protesting for it for real reasons and documenting for real reasons,” he says. That’s not to say attending a protest only matters if it’s purely altruistic or that there’s no symbolic value to well-known figures — like Sen. Mitt Romney, who tweeted pictures of himself at a march — being seen at a protest. But, Green says, “if the intention is just to take a photo, then I think it’s going to fall on deaf ears. It just feels like noise.”
Some videos become traditional news stories involving specific people. In early June, a Buffalo radio station captured police shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground, an incident that sent Gugino to the hospital for nearly a month. Two police officers were suspended and later charged with assault over the incident only because it was captured on film — since, initially, the cops lied about what happened. Even if they’re chaotic and unpolished, these videos can hold police accountable.
But many clips don’t have this kind of discrete narrative or characters. They show the larger, ambient dynamics of the events: chaotic scenes of officers boxing crowds of protesters into clouds of tear gas, or brief clips of sudden, aggressive arrests under cover of darkness, shot from a distance and published online by an anonymous account.
The style stands in dramatic contrast with the work of far-right activists who have harnessed YouTube and other platforms to project an image of swaggering, individualist machismo, complete with costumed protest micro-celebrities. In the hours before 2017’s Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, figureheads like Christopher Cantwell were being shadowed by Vice documentarians, bragging about their guns and muscles. (The allure of the video was ultimately Cantwell’s downfall, after he posted a widely mocked clip of himself weeping in a hotel room upon being threatened with arrest.)
Algorithmic social media feeds can create their own realities, which means there’s a dark side to this vast supply of protest videos. Depending on who you follow, you might see hours of police pepper-spraying protesters or an equal amount of footage showing rioters smashing windows. Viewers can choose their own narratives when videos aren’t clear. And the most sensational moments can crowd out larger context — including long stretches of peaceful protesting. “We live in a GIF culture, right?” Green says. “Very seldom do people sit and watch eight minutes and forty six seconds. You watch ten seconds and then you share it.”
But for all of the problems of social media, those eight minutes are still online, not left on a TV station’s cutting-room floor. While plenty of videos are clipped into their most viral, context-free moments, some events have so many cameras that you can forensically reconstruct them from different angles. In one grimly slapstick incident, a tweeted video shows tear gas canisters flying toward a peaceful crowd, while a different angle shows that the cans actually ricocheted off an approaching truck… which appears to have been actually a police vehicle. An Instagram video of a Seattle protest captures the frontline effects of a pepper spray and flash-bang attack, while a tweet from a rooftop shows its full scale. It adds up to a fragmented but surprisingly coherent picture.
And the volume of these videos can help fight bad-faith attacks on any single protester. Even something as clear-cut as the assault in Buffalo can become the subject of baseless smear campaigns: within days, President Donald Trump had attacked Gugino as a leftist agitator, and conspiracy theories tried to explain his injuries as low-tech special effects. But the endless feed of protest videos, even ones that never made the news or led to a formal complaint, created a climate where conspiracies looked less credible than ever. There’s no single narrative to this cinema — only a staggering gestalt.
The feed of citizen footage also raises an ethical question for amateur filmmakers. When is it safe to record someone and put their image online? Even if a video leads to justice, becoming an online “character” comes with its own risks. Gugino was harassed online even as he lay in a hospital bed. And if a video identifies people while broadly documenting a social movement, it can inadvertently hurt those whose voices it’s amplifying.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year were magnified by social media, but protesters faced years in prison if they were identified. They used umbrellas, masks, and pseudonyms to hide their digital footprints, and often even that wasn’t enough to protect them. In America, FBI agents used exhaustive Etsy, LinkedIn, and Instagram cross-referencing to identify a woman photographed setting a police car on fire.
As law enforcement has learned to mine social media for potential arrests, software developers have responded with tools like Anonymous Camera, which blurs faces and bodies into unidentifiable spectral shapes. Removing identities might blunt the impact of some videos or even obscure what’s happening. But it’s also a shift away from the simplistic view that greater information will always produce better social change, toward a more intentionally thoughtful balance between exposing injustice and protecting the vulnerable.
During a year of isolation, protests and the resulting footage has created its own kind of communal — and inescapable — cinema. “Once [you] go into the space of a film, you’re curating an audience of people that want to see stories like that,” says Green. “Something that comes in your feed, you can’t really ignore it. You can’t really turn away.”