I-Witness Video (IWV) is a self-styled “international human rights organization” that trains activists to use video to advance their political agendas; provides them with technical and editing assistance; and helps to support and distribute their productions. Founded in 1992 by musician and activist Peter Gabriel, the nonprofit organization is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.
By his own account, Gabriel hit upon the idea of arming activists with video cameras in 1988, while touring for Amnesty International. Gabriel secured funding for IWV in 1991, when footage of Los Angeles police brutality against Rodney King demonstrated the potential of amateur video to command headlines. Seed money was provided by the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, and IWV was established under the auspices of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Claiming to document “human rights violations,” the organization regularly works with 13 to 15 “core partners” on advocacy campaigns called “projects.” Among its recent partners is the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (EBC) which holds that the U.S. criminal-justice system perpetrates “human rights abuses,” especially against “communities of color,” and openly declares its intent to build centers of resistance against “government-sanctioned violence.” Van Jones, the founder and National Executive Director of EBC, also sits on the IWV Board of Directors.
In a recent project, IWV partnered with EBC to create a video called “Books Not Bars.” Placing special emphasis on high incarceration rates among “people of color,” the video characterized the United States as a fundamentally racist country plagued by rampant “unlawful police violence” and an inequitable “incarceration industry.” In the name of “human rights,” it also advocated dramatically cutting spending on the California prison system and called for the abolition of juvenile detention centers. Sponsored in part by a $25,000 grant from the George Soros backed Open Society Institute‘s U.S. Justice Fund, the video was “directed toward policymakers, parents of imprisoned children, and community organizations that can be mobilized to call for a total reform of the system.”
Another recent IWV initiative, “Project Voice,” involved the production of a video “that aims to bring attention to the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border area and its impact on people crossing the border.” Regarding the notion of legal versus illegal immigration as an oppressive anachronism, this IWV project “seeks to recast the current immigrants’ rights debate in the U.S. in a broader human rights framework, believing that immigrants’ rights should be viewed and defined in terms of human rights, not just by legal immigration status.” Moreover, IWV trains a sharply critical camera on independent border-patrol groups like the Minutemen. Calling them “vigilante groups,” the Project Voice video concentrates on the “legal and human rights implications of these groups.”
I-Witness Video also aided anti-war activists who rallied outside the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. In preparation for the convention, IWV trained some 200 of them s to take part in protests around the city. Following the convention, the organization used its collected footage, running to hundreds of tapes, to defend assorted activists who had been arrested during the protests.. As spokesmen for the city’s police department observed, much of the footage was selectively shot, featuring scenes of generally well-behaved activists while eschewing evidence of the disorderly conduct that, in many cases, had moved police to take action.
On IWV’s website, visitors can click on a “Rights Alert” feature and watch streaming videos produced by, or in cooperation with, IWV. A recent offering, co-produced by the American Friends Service Committee and the ACLU, was titled, “Vigilantes and the Border,” and discussed the alleged “racism and xenophobia” as well as the “ugly anti-immigrant politics” of border-control groups like the Minutemen.
On the IWV website, aspiring activists can also find detailed training videos, in English, French and Spanish, explaining how to “use video for advocacy.” Moreover, they can subscribe to a free monthly e-newsletter detailing new IWV campaigns.