WITNESS responds globally to COVID-19 and the protests against racism

WITNESS responds globally to COVID-19 and the protests against racism

In depth with WITNESS

The Dropbox Foundation focuses on building active partnerships, so in this series In depth with we’re taking an inside look at the conversations we have with our partner organizations to highlight what is top of mind for them. As the first part of this series, we talked to Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, Executive Director of WITNESS, about two events that the world is currently grappling with—the coronavirus pandemic and the protests against racism and police violence. Yvette shares how these events have impacted their programs and what they’ve been doing to support some of the world’s most marginalized people.

Q: Can you tell us about the work WITNESS does?

A: We collaborate very closely with vulnerable communities and help them to safely document human rights violations, expose the truth about human rights violations, mobilize for change, and share their stories. Nearly everyone has access to a phone camera these days but all too often videos are not filmed safely or effectively, and therefore can’t have legal impact or make a difference in a courtroom. We conduct on-the-ground trainings and provide free online resources in multiple languages so they can be used for their full potential in bringing change. We also work from the top down, engaging tech companies and working to ensure their tools, policies, and operations protect critical public-interest content and vulnerable users.

Q: Why has technology been especially critical in light of recent events?

A: WITNESS was founded after the violent police beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991 was captured on video. The video back then sparked protests against racial inequality, just as the recent George Floyd video is now doing. It put on the map what many communities of color in the US had known for a long time but was denied: systemic racism and white supremacy. Today, technology, like mobile phones, are in the hands of millions of bystanders, making it harder to file false police reports, and easier to create a road to justice by showing the bigger systemic picture of structural racism. With regards to COVID, there has been a lot of misinformation on Twitter. There's also been a lot of what we call “danger speech” like hate speech. There has been a trending hashtag called Corona Jehad, which is actively encouraging people to ethnically target Muslims in India. So what happens is very often the online hate turns into off-line violence. So we have a program that's called tech advocacy. We take these real-time examples and push, in this case, Twitter to make sure that they adjust their community guidelines and understand what to take down.

Q: You mentioned collaboration. How is WITNESS empowering vulnerable people to share their story?

A: We deeply believe that if you want to change the story, you have to change who tells it. In order to have a just society, everyone has to have an equal seat at the table. At WITNESS, we start by listening to what people’s needs are, understanding their challenges, and working with them to clearly establish how technology and video can help. During these times of protest, our guidance, tips, and strategies for filming safely and ethically to have impact have been shared globally in many different languages and downloaded thousands of times. For example, we advise that your phone is set up to back-up your media so that if your videos are deleted, they are on the cloud. And even when people are in quarantine during COVID-19, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is arresting and detaining immigrants in America. We have created special guidance so immigrants can safely document their experiences and target change makers.

Q: WITNESS is based in New York but you work in five regions and reach 130 countries. How have the protests and COVID-19 affected other countries where you have programs?

A: Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa immediately stand out, as we are seeing authoritarian governments in these countries using COVID-19 as an excuse to implement extremely oppressive measures. Curfews are generally a good thing but they can be an extremely dangerous tool in the hands of oppressive or authoritarian governments. Right now, they are being used to justify violence against ethnic minorities. People who are deemed to violate lockdown and curfew orders are being tortured and beaten every day. With journalists off the streets, civic media has never been more important. We also believe deeply in learning and sharing between regions and appreciate how our different regions adapt our resources. For example, we've learned so many great tips for recording good audio during protests and concealing people's identities from activists in Brazil that we now share with activists in the US.

Q: And in terms of the WITNESS team, how are you dealing with the challenges COVID presents?

A: WITNESS was already working on many of the issues that have been exacerbated by COVID and in many ways we’re actually well-positioned to handle the current situation. We’re a global team with people all over the world so we are used to having a distributed workforce. We’ve had to transition all our in-person trainings to virtual, but we are experts in video and technology, which helps. The biggest challenge has been fundraising—we’ve had to cancel income-generating events, like our annual gala, and many donors are understandably switching their priorities to frontline health workers.

Q: How has the Dropbox Foundation grant helped?

A: The Dropbox Foundation has been a leader in the human rights space and the unrestricted funding we’ve received has been hugely important. With both COVID and the recent protests, we have had to pivot some of our activities to respond accurately to people’s needs. Unrestricted funding allows us to be nimble and do that.

Q: Finally, what is giving you hope for the future?

A: I think the underlying themes we have seen through both COVID and the protests are the power of community and the desire for change and betterment. The pandemic has helped most of us to better understand and appreciate basic human rights—the health of our loved ones, a roof over our heads, financial security, and a sense of belonging and community. With more people online, we’ve felt the strength of our online community more than ever before, and that’s been very inspiring. We are also seeing more people interested in filming protests and police violence because they see the impact and potential, and learning how to film safely and ethically. We hope this will inspire the use of video as evidence and advocacy and lead to true systemic change in our judicial and political systems. I look forward to what we can achieve together.

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