“Yeah, I knew what I was recording, but I didn't think he was going to die.” This is how Ramsey Orta responds when I ask him what was going through his head when he shot the video of Eric Garner’s death. Orta tells me that just a week before, he had filmed a video of his friend getting beat up by the cops on the same Staten Island block where Garner was choked by Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
It has been eighteen months since the world watched the scene unfold through Orta’s cellphone and just over a year since a grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo, and still, Orta is not able to keep the incident in the past, telling me he does not regret filming, but wishes he hadn’t attached his name to it. Ever since filming the video recognized as a crucial exposition of police brutality,the police have targeted Orta in a long string of encounters, including five arrests last year.
Orta recognizes the police intimidation he has faced in Manhattan and Staten Island since 2014 as retaliation for filming the video. After Garner’s death, Orta started to experience police surveillance: flashlights shining through his window, cop cars following him in his neighborhood at all times of day and night, and family members being searched after leaving his house. This intimidation escalated into more blatant acts of harassment when his child’s mother was continuously questioned at her job, his house was raided, and Orta himself had several run-ins, a few he filmed, during which cops questioned him, claiming they believed he had a gun or that he fit the description of a suspect.
When I ask Orta about his arrests and their correlation with the video, he explains “the first arrest was the gun charge and it happened to be, I believe, the day after or the same day of the non-indictment of [Daniel] Pantaleo, and then the house-raid happened a couple months later when I was going back to court.”
Orta was arrested in September 2014 and sent to Rikers Island Prison, where he soon discovered more strange behavior that felt differently than when he had been there years before for other cases prior to Garner’s death. Hearing guards whisper and feeling watched, he became paranoid that prison personnel were trying to kill him, and he stopped eating food from the prison, surviving on candy bars and cookies for two months. His fears appeared justified when meatloaf from Rikers Island Prison tested positive with rat poison last April. Despite paying his bail, Orta was kept in prison, and even after having been released, he says he is still stalked regularly.
Over the past two years, we have learned about the United States crackdown on whistleblowers, including the manhunt for Snowden after he exposed the NSA’s domestic spy program, and the imprisonment of CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling after being convicted for leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter about a failed U.S. effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. The harassment against Orta is part of a system that punishes those who expose local police abuse, and he’s not alone. Kevin Moore who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest and David Whitt who filmed riots in Ferguson following Mike Brown’s death, have faced similar treatment. Orta put it bluntly when I asked about shared experiences, “Harassing the family and the friends, the stalking, the following, we all get the same treatment.”
When a citizen turns the camera on the state and chooses to watch the law-enforcers, they are systematically targeted for exposing structural abuse. On top of the personal repercussions for people like Orta who choose to expose police brutality, many who provide the audiovisual proof of police corruption are low-income people of color who are not paid for their citizen journalism, contributing to immense unpaid digital labor.
Regardless of this disparity, Orta, along with Whitt, Moore and a few others continue to film the police presence they observe. The three of them work together in WeCopWatch, a network that focuses on holding law enforcement officers responsible for their actions. Notwithstanding his work with the organization, Orta explains the futility of trying to hold a legal system accountable, reminding me that his video wasn’t important in the trial, “If [it had been], we would have had an indictment.” When I press him on the importance of accountability, he says, “There is no reason to hold [cops] accountable for what they’re doing because the system believes that what they’re doing is right.”
Orta says it’s more important to educate people, “That way we can break the system down to make a new one.” With WeCopWatch, he is raising money to support his work as a journalist, and on Sunday, January 24, the art collective ISLA will be hosting a show called VIRAL, in support of Orta and WeCopWatch, donating proceeds from select artworks by local and international visual artists to Orta’s cause.
Before ending our phone call, I ask Orta if there is any advice he could give someone who is watching police brutality. He tells me, “You have the right to film the cops, whatever they're doing, if it's something good or bad. If you got a camera, make sure you pull it out, record everything…stay a couple feet away from the situation, that way you're safe, and before you expose what you just recorded, try to have a legal backup system.” He pauses, and then, “It all falls back into your fear. My advice is to stay strong and don't get scared.”
At the end of the conversation, these words are heavy. His next court dates are January 11, 13 and 25.