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What's a riot without YouTube?

Jenna Johnson

In today's newspaper we had not one but two stories about college students partying and clashing with police -- and all of it caught on video by bystanders.

On Monday, a video surfaced that showed three Prince George's county police officers allegedly beating an unarmed University of Maryland student with their batons after the Duke basketball game last month. Prince George's prosecutors launched a criminal investigation and county police ordered an internal investigation of the three officers and the officer who filed charging documents that appear to be contradicted by the video.

And at James Madison University in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, a Saturday afternoon block party turned into a riot. There were 8,000 people, flying beer bottles and rocks, flaming dumpsters, tear gas and pepper spray. And nearly every minute is documented in dozens of YouTube videos (just search "JMU riot" and plan not to get anything else done today).

The Harrisonburg police say they are studying these videos, along with footage they shot themselves, and are hoping to identify more suspects and file more charges. "If they are going to put it up there, we are going to use it," said Lt. Kurt Boshart.

Two incidents. Two very different ways of using video. And this isn't the first time that viral video has played a large role in a student protest or riot, allowing the general public to judge what happened.

You Tube viewers can watch police Taser a University of Florida student during a forum with Sen. John Kerry in September 2007 (you can also buy the ringtone of the student saying, "Don't tase me, bro"). When New York University students occupied a campus building in February 2009, video of the occupation was streamed live online. One You Tube video shows a protester filming a police officer filming the protesters.

There's also raw video online student-police clashes at the University of California, Berkeley, in November and February.

Thanks to smart phones, cheap digital cameras and Flipcams, it has become easy for cops and students alike to shoot video -- and edit it down so it doesn't show events leading up to a confrontation or following it. (The Onion even did a satirical news cast about how police found the cause of a dorm fire by studying the "nearly 43,000 photos" taken during a dorm party using "25 iPhones, 15 Blackberries, 10 video cameras and 40 digital cameras.")

But what does this all mean for student protests?

I posed that question to Angus Johnston, a student activism and student government historian who teaches at the City University of New York and runs a blog called Student Activism.

Clearly, he said, all parties involved with protests are making use of the technology.

Johnston said he has seen an increasing number of videos being posted online after protests -- and those videos are becoming more sophisticated. Some students are even editing together video clips and images, adding music and context for skeptical viewers who want the full story.

"I think what we are seeing... is a move from attempting to document to attempting to tell stories," he said.

But the prevalence of video sometimes difficult for alleged victims of police brutality to quickly prove their case (to the media or authorities) without full, second-by-second footage, Johnston said.

On March 4, college students in California and across the country protested cuts to higher education. At the University of California, Davis, a student said a police officer Tasered her -- an account people standing around her backed up. Still, on the day of the protest, the California Highway Patrol said no Tasers were used, the California Aggie student newspaper reported.

Then the Aggie and AggieTV produced photographs and video showing the student being shocked. The next day, the police reversed themselves, saying that a Taser had been used in "drive stun" mode but officers dealing with the media were not informed of that, The Davis Enterprise reported.

What effect, if any, do you think bystander videos have on student protests? Do you know of any other examples? I am interested in hearing what everyone thinks.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  April 13, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  News Overload  | Tags: James Madison University, NYU, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Florida, University of Maryland  
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