Homeless fight back with high tech
A tent city resident with a videocamera allows people around the world see police slashing tents.
By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published February 2, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - Tina May grabbed a $30 disposable plastic videocamera when she saw police officers cutting down tents at the homeless camp she called home.
The police kept cutting. May kept filming.
Just a few hours later, May's video of the Jan. 19 raid went up on the Web site YouTube. It has logged over 13,000 views in a few weeks, been shared on blogs and Web sites like MySpace, and promoted St. Petersburg as a national poster child for cruelty against the homeless.
May's video shows how new media technologies allow even the most destitute draw attention to their causes. They don't need expensive digital equipment, just a cheap camera, a compelling image and the Internet.
Cassandra Van Buren, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who studies new media issues, said the inexpensive cost of digital cameras, coupled with easy-to-use sites such as YouTube, now mean that nearly everyone - even the homeless - can become a watchdog.
"What we're seeing now is that regular citizens have access to their own distributions through YouTube and the Web in general," Van Buren said. "That's the big shift you're seeing that enables this type of citizen countersurveillance."
May, just 14 years old when she first ran away from home, is a tiny 32-year-old woman who wears bulky jackets and fuzzy pink slippers with red hearts. She was arrested six days after she made the famous video, accused of pawning a stolen drill that she said was hers.
May is proud that she made the video.
"I didn't think it was right that they were slashing our tents," May said. "I'm glad I did it. People know all about us."
Since the initial raids, more homeless people have put up tents at two locations: On 15th Street near Fifth Avenue N and on 18th Street near Central Avenue. Mayor Rick Baker has since said the decision to cut the tents "was a mistake." Police officials - who initially said they took away the tents because of concerns with fire codes - say they don't anticipate any more raids.
Eric Rubin, an advocate for the homeless, said many people in the city's two tent cities now have disposable cell phones and videocameras. A MySpace page called homelesstentcitystpete offers regular updates and a list of needs water, toilet paper, portable shower.
"The reality is that a picture is worth a million words," Rubin said. "It's now being used as a form of protection as well."
May says an advocate for the homeless bought the plastic videocamera and gave it to her boyfriend, who gave it to her before he was arrested. She had just brought her stuff to the tent city at Fifth Avenue N and 15th Street and hadn't even put up her tent when she saw police pull up.
After shooting the video, May went to a CVS drugstore to get some DVDs of the video made for $51.99. She kept one DVD, and several other copies were passed around. One advocate for the homeless - May isn't sure who - uploaded the video to YouTube on a home computer hours after the raid. The credit reads: "Video by Tina May."
The views and outrage soon followed, as viewers registered their disgust: "Outrageous. ... This is a terrible act. ... This is atrocious."
The local music group Meyer Baron & the Spaghetti Band even wrote a song called Walk On By after watching it.
The song begins:
"In a city known as paradise
Under a picture postcard sky
folks in uniform came to haul
your a-- away
They sliced up your tent city
and drove you to the streets
Where nothing is a heavy price to pay."
Times photographer Cherie Diez and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.