Turn on, Tune in, Forever

The Internet’s immortalization of news media

If macabre interest hasn’t yet drawn you to watch the YouTube.com video of UCLA student Mostafa Tabatabainejad being repeatedly Tasered by university police, I’d advise against it. Six long minutes of aggrieved protest, punctuated by piercing screams from shocks of 50,000 volts, is unsettling even for the most Guantanamo-accepting amongst us.

The incident occurred after 11 p.m. last Tuesday in UCLA’s Powell Library. University officials were carrying out a routine late night procedure, randomly checking IDs to ensure only students remained in the library. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Tabatabainejad, a senior at the college, refused repeated requests to show his student ID, first to a community service officer and then to regular campus police. The Los Angeles Times reported that Tabatabainejad declined to hand over his ID, claiming he was being singled out because of his Middle Eastern appearance.

Tabatabainejad’s attorney, Stephen Yagman, stated that Tabatabainejad eventually agreed to leave the library but when a police officer refused to remove his hands from Tabatabainejad, Tabatabainejad fell to the ground in further protest against his unjust treatment. The attendant police then used a Taser on Tabatabainejad, who reacted by trying to get “the use of brutal force to stop by shouting and causing people to watch,” the LA Times quoted Yagman as saying.

At about this point, a UCLA student in the libary switched on a video-recording cell phone. The first sounds that fill the clip, those of a frightened Tabatabainejad repeatedly screaming, “Don’t touch me,” make it clear that the next six minutes will broadcast distressing images. But it is actually Tabatabainejad’s tortured wailing during video’s “Tases” that is truly disturbing.

As Tabatabainejad’s pleading begins to arouse protest, the cameraman moves to a better vantage point to continue filming the incident. What follows reeks of police brutality; the officers repeatedly shock Tabatabainejad for refusing to cooperate.

As Tabatabainejad is removed from the library amid a mounting chorus of student dissent, the police attempt to disperse the crowd. Still, some students try to collect information about the police involved. It is here that one officer inadvertently inserts his entire foot into his mouth; when a student complains, the officer threatens, back away, or else “you’re going to get Tasered, too. Since the incident, the horrifying video of Tabatabainejad’s Tasering has become one of the most viewed on YouTube.com.

Of course, over at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), it doesn’t require a historian to name a few incidents of equally horrifying brutality. In just one of a sickening series of recently-posted YouTube.com clips, two LA police officers dredge up memories of Rodney King as they assault 24-year-old William Cardenas.

Pinned to the ground, Cardenas audibly tells the officers he can’t breath, all the while being punched repeatedly in the face by the “law-enforcement” officials. The bloodied, disfigured face of Cardenas looking squarely into the YouTuber’s camera-phone only helps to personalize the depravity. Worse still, the FBI, according to the Age, only began investigating the incident after the video was released on YouTube.com, more than a month after the bashing. The LAPD “investigation” had, until then, failed to produce any results despite the fact that investigators had the clip.

Now, there’s an important thread that links each of these separate events, and it’s not police brutishness or the unsurprising frequency of “foreign” victims’ names. More significant is the proliferation of cheap camera technology in tandem with aggregation sites like YouTube.com, which has enabled the average citizen to play the role of reporter. Describing events from a witness box is one thing, but the accuracy and clarity of video is a likely trump card in the hands of the victim, especially when hundreds of thousands of people have seen and been affected by the video’s contents.

This is the up-side of new technologies, where anyone can inform the public and play a journalistic role, simply by whipping out her new recording gadget. Immediately the scope of incidents that can be “reported” grows exponentially, and it seems, as a necessary corollary, justice is more likely to prevail. It might sound a touch romantic, but cases like Tabatabainejad and Cardenas are grounds for optimism.

Sadly, there are also negative ramifications for the United States, as the new media can immortalize our society’s worst transgressions. Like the Abu Ghraib photos, the horror depicted in this media will live on well past the fleeting moment in the collective conscious. The mainstream media needs fresh material daily, burdened by the expectation to cover current events. But with these new technologies, time peg is an anachronism, and news, especially bad news, is no longer in the headlines on Monday and forgotten by Friday.

Now, far beyond the considerations of politicians and policy makers, Internet users across the globe enjoy universal and unceasing access to snippets of our gravest moments. Like the Abu Ghraib photos, these videos will be on the Internet forever, accessible to all those wanting them.

Clearly, these video clips are not representative of the true nature of American society, but for those angered by the perceived failings of this country, they add evidence for a long list of grievances. And it will not matter why the incident occurred. Tabatabainejad’s writhing and screaming will be seen by millions of America’s detractors all over the world as evidence of America’s mistreatment of a man of Iranian descent, and they’ll see it as often and for as long as they want.

Welcome to the new media.



Bede A. Moore ’06-’07 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.