High-Tech Witnesses: Racial Incidents on Tape

A number of ugly racial incidents have come to light this year because they were caught on videotape. Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, and tech contributor Mario Armstrong discuss how rapidly changing technology affects the way hate crimes are tracked.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Now if the Rodney King beating wasn't caught on tape years ago, would the story have sparked the same outrage? What about Seinfeld's Michael Richards sounding off at a comedy club?

(Soundbite of Michael Richards' routine)

Mr. MICHAEL RICHARDS (Comedian): You can talk, you can talk, you can talk, you're brave now (bleep). Throw his (bleep) out. He's a (bleep). He's a (bleep).

Unidentified Woman: Oh, my God.

Mr. RICHARDS: He's a (bleep). Look there's a (bleep).

(Soundbite of booing crowd)

Unidentified Man: All right, you see? It shocks you.

CHIDEYA: Now today even the latest cell phones are able to record video and audio. Richard's tirade isn't the only recent incident caught on tape. We've got video uploaded to the popular Web site YouTube which showed a white Texas A&M University student in black face.

Another recording made on a camera phone captured an Iranian-American student at UCLA screaming and flailing after campus police shocked him with a Taser. And finally, earlier this year, a surveillance camera in Fort Lauderdale caught a group of white men brutally attacking several homeless people.

So how does technology impact the ways that hate crimes are tracked in this country? We've got with us Mario Armstrong, our regular tech contributor. He joins us from WYPR in Baltimore. And Mark Potok is director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. He joins us by phone from Montgomery, Alabama. Thanks for coming on the program both of you.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director of Intelligence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center): Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: So, Mario…

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Tech contributor): Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: …let me start with you and with the technology.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Okay.

CHIDEYA: It seems like everyday more devices are popping up with still cameras, motion video options, all sorts of recording options. Any person today conceivably could have a way to record an incident. So what have you seen about this trend and do you think it's a good thing?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. This trend is really on the up-tick, as really you hit it right on the head. I mean we have devices now that we carry with us everyday. I mean, Farai, I don't know how many people you know without a cell phone. But 219.4 million U.S. subscribers in the United States have cell phones, and most of these cell phones nowadays come standard with not only just the camera, a still camera collection, but you can also now do video collection of footage.

So these phones, something that you carry everyday, has higher quality resolution, and even digital still cameras have had video capabilities for quite sometime. So you know this is just the beginning of seeing more and more of this type of - I don't want to call it citizen journalism just yet, but it certainly is that type of catching people in the moment and having an easy use way to now capture that and distribute it to the globe via the Internet.

CHIDEYA: You know, Mark, you are at the Southern Poverty Law Center and your Intelligence Project really tracks hate crimes. Some of the things that we have seen captured on video, like the Fort Lauderdale beatings, probably do fall under the hate crimes rubric. Other things are racial incidents but not necessarily hate crimes.

First of all, does your organization get a lot of this kind of citizen video or citizen audio? And secondly, how do you make a decision about what's really a racially motivated or bias crime versus something that's just, you know unpleasant?

Mr. POTOK: Well, on the first question, no, we don't get a lot. I mean there were - years ago we actually tried to collect statistics nationally on hate crimes. But since 1991, the FBI's been doing that and they have, you know, something on the order of 14,000 agencies reporting to them. So no, only very rarely do we actually get anything like that.

You know, in terms of deciding what is a hate crime and what's not, you know, there's basically got to be an underlying crime. You know we talk about hate crimes really what we're talking about are crimes that would be crimes in any case - aggravated battery, murder, assault - those kinds of things which are aggravated, the penalties are aggravated by hate crime penalty enhancement laws.

You know, in a lot of these cases it really is a jury question. Sometimes it's very simple. I mean, you know, when a guy walks into a bar and says, you know, I'm going to go kill the first black guy I see and then walks out of the door and does that; when it's a random murder or attack like that it's very obvious. Or when a person is kind of screaming racial epithets and so on.

But I think the majority of hate crimes in fact begin over extremely mundane matters. You know, the neighbor's tree is dropping leaves in your yard, that kind of thing. So often it really is quite difficult to pry them apart and decide what really is a crime that is essentially motivated by hatred.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me ask you this. Do you think that America is more racially tense or are we just seeing more things because of the technology? How do you parse out, given the statistics from the government and your own research, whether or not America is in a period of increasing racial tension, decreasing, same?

Mr. POTOK: I think that America is in a period of increasing racial tension but I do not argue that that can be proved statistically because the reality is this that the statistics are largely junk.

Just to give you a sense of what I'm talking about, the latest FBI hate crime statistics show Alabama and Mississippi as each reporting zero hate crimes. Meanwhile, California reported 1,379 and New Jersey reported 738. That on its face is completely not believable. And the reason is that it's a voluntary reporting system. Some states like Hawaii doesn't report at all, they don't report whether they had zero or a thousand.

So the statistics are not useful for telling whether or not hate crimes are going up or down. And really I can only speak to you anecdotally. You know, probably the most important evidence that this is a very serious problem societally is that since '92 the FBI has been publishing these statistics and they have shown between about 6,000 and about 10,000 hate crimes per year.

A year ago last November, the Department of Justice did a very serious study based on victimization surveys which are much more detailed and statistically accurate way of looking at all kinds of crime. And what they concluded was that the actual level of hate crimes out there was more like 191,000 per year, in other words, something between 20 and 30 times of the rates that have been reported up to now. So it's hard to know.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: And, Farai…

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Go ahead, Mario.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: You know the increase, I think Mark is right. I mean anecdotally speaking if you look at Web sites like YouTube.com, I mean this is like, you know, anthropologists love this type of stuff that's happening on the Internet. Not love which what would the content that we're talking about, but love the fact that people are flocking to the Internet exposing their lives, making themselves more transparent.

And if you look, I've typed in a search on YouTube under racism, under hatred, under hate crimes, you get all types of first-person accounts of things that happen to individuals themselves or people mimicking situations and scenarios which even adds to that fire, if you will, of this increase of this racial tension.

So now the technology has made it easier. I mean for folks that haven't done a blog or been to a blog site, this is as easy as typing in Microsoft Word. If you can type in Microsoft Word, you can essentially have an Internet site that could have video, that could have audio, that you control, that you own that content for.

CHIDEYA: Mario, let…

Mr. ARMSTRONG: They made it very easy.

CHIDEYA: Let me, you know, point out one thing that I saw online that speaks directly to what you're saying. I think it was called the most offensive Halloween party ever. And it basically showed kids at a university - I can't remember which one - and it was narrated by an Asian-American student, and he was dressed as Hitler.

And then there were other people who were dressed, as you know, Terri Schiavo, you know, who died in a coma. People dressed in black face, people dressed as clan members. And this was something that apparently they were proud of because they did the video, or at least this one student did the video himself.

So in addition to the all of the, you know, the incidents, there's also this -it seems to be a moment in time where some people are flaunting their…

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I mean you're absolutely right. At Johns Hopkins University, you know there was an Internet invitation on Facebook.com, and it was called - Halloween in the Hood, was the theme. And it made these really broad but stereotypical references to African-Americans and derogatory references to the city of Baltimore. And it was initially noticed by the university, who asked the fraternity, the Sigma Chi Chapter, to take down the invitation.

It was once removed by the people that put it up, but then it was posted again. So the university stepped in and talked with Facebook and had it formally removed. But by that time the NAACP and on-campus activists and everybody else had already found out about that.

And that's what's interesting about this time, Farai. We are living in seconds. I mean the Mike Richards event, you know, took place, and within minutes this video is basically up at CNN.com. And within minutes, people around the world can see it. So when we have these types of issues I think people need to also use the Internet to then use it for their platform for their apology as well.

I mean it shouldn't have taken Mr. Richards as long it did maybe to make his apology when in fact his incident was captured by video camera and up on the Internet in seconds. He could have used the same platform to get out his apology.

CHIDEYA: He probably wishes he did now. Well, Mark, we don't have too much time. I wanted to turn to some of things your organization is doing to really help solve some of the issues around hate crimes and, you know, racial incidents. I understand that you train law officers in online hate crime research. What does that mean?

Mr. POTOK: Well, that's one of the many kinds of trainings we do. It means teaching officers how to actually use the Internet to track down individuals. I mean we've, you know, teach techniques, for instance, you may only have the sort of e-mail moniker of somebody who is posting various kinds of things. You know, we have all kinds of techniques for figuring out who that person is.

So we teach those kinds of classes, domestic terrorism classes, hate crime, you know, how does an officer respond to hate crimes in the street, that kind of thing. You know, I think it's worth adding to what was just said by Mario that, you know, the Internet has proved to be extremely useful for us in terms of researching as well.

And, you know, for instance, we just wrote I think a very important story a few months ago, pointing out that there were a great many white supremacists who were being allowed into the military in the United States under recruiting pressure.

And a lot of the evidence we collected were just an endless series, literally hundreds of people posting on YouTube, I'm sorry, on MySpace or on Everyone's Space. You know, things like soldiers saying, you know, I'm in Iraq. I'm in Baghdad right now. Here is a picture of me with an AK-47 or an AK-15, posing in front of a Nazi flag, that sort of thing.

CHIDEYA: Wow.

Mr. POTOK: So the Internet really works both ways and in a funny way.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I mean, Farai, at the end of the day, we're all transparent now. And I think people need to realize that public figures are still getting caught. Look at Senator Allen and others that are just, you know, we are news content hungry. We've opened it up for every individual with the right technology to post information up, so no action now pretty much goes unnoticed or unobserved.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we're going to have to leave it there. But I guess the motto is if you can't be a spiritually enlightened person, at least watch your back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mario Armstrong is our regular tech contributor. He joined us from WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. And Mark Potok is director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. He joined us from Montgomery, Alabama. Thank you both so much.

Mr. POTOK: Thank you for having us.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Coming up, a New York City shooting death puts the NYPD under scrutiny again, and remembering the journalist Gerald Boyd. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable next.

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