Emilie Rensink | The Anti-Media
On Jan. 8, the police-accountability Peaceful Streets Project announced its founder Antonio Buehler had filed suit against the Austin Police Department (APD), City of Austin, chief of police and five APD officers for civil rights violations.
The lawsuit claims Buehler’s freedom of speech and right to be protected against unlawful searches and seizures were violated when he was arrested on Jan. 1, 2012 and during subsequent arrests. The suit also holds Austin and the APD police chief liable for not providing proper training and policies for officers on the issue of citizens’ right to film police.
The incident on Jan. 1, 2012 made national headlines after a video of it went viral, and Buehler became something of a folk hero to police accountability activists for standing up for his rights.
Early New Year’s Day 2012, Buehler and a friend had stopped at a gas station when they witnessed APD officers using what they believed to be excessive force on a woman. Buehler began capturing it on his cell phone. Immediately, officers walked over to stop him. When he refused, things escalated. This is when, according to Officer Patrick Oborski, Buehler spat in his face. He was then forcefully put in handcuffs and arrested.
According to Buehler, all of his actions that night were lawful and in direct response to the injustice he was witnessing. “I was the designated driver that night. I only tried to take pictures because I saw cops assaulting a woman who did not commit any crime, and then I only started yelling at the cops when she begged me to record.”
Buehler also denies spitting in the face of Oborski and claims the charge was trumped up to justify arresting him. Video and eyewitnesses seem to back up his side of the story.
“Three witnesses came forward in the coming days, including one who had video evidence that proved that the cops lied. In addition, there was a surveillance camera that would prove the same. The only evidence that the police have is the affidavit from Officer Patrick Oborski, an affidavit that is riddled with lies that are contradicted by a half dozen witnesses and two videos,” says Buehler.
The Peaceful Streets Project was started in the aftermath of the incident. The overarching aim of the project is to keep police accountable by letting them know they’re being watched, thus preventing violence.
Buehler says the effect of police knowing that they’re being filmed has already produced positive results.
“I think [filming police] has had a huge impact. The police are now talking about people filming them, and how they should always be on their best behavior. We’ve also seen it with our own eyes, when we are cop watching, as police quickly change from being aggressive and rude to those they are interacting with to polite and professional.”
Filming police has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years. However, many suffer backlash from cops who don’t want to be recorded. In fact, it’s not legal in every state to do so, and even in places where it is, police departments often enact policies or hazy guidelines to deter it.
The Austin Police Department, for example, has a directive that instructs those who are filming police to remain at least 50 feet away in order to avoid obstructing the police officer. The National Press Photographers Association issued an official response, calling the directive unconstitutional.
If Buehler wins his lawsuit, the case could be a springboard for demanding other city police departments enact policies and training procedures that reflect the right to video record officers in action. The result could be a shift in the culture and attitude of police-filming, both from the public and from police officers.
Buehler is optimistic. He feels he is privileged in ways other victims of police abuse aren’t, thus giving him a better chance of winning.
“I think my case is unique in several ways. I am not black or Hispanic or homeless. I had never been arrested before the New Year’s Day incident. As a West Point- and Stanford-educated war veteran, non-profit board member, school teacher and entrepreneur, the police are not able to slander me as easily as they do many of their victims. I think this lawsuit can help break down the facade of police as an honorable profession that intends to protect and serve the public.”
On what Buehler hopes to accomplish with his lawsuit, he says, “I hope to expose the lies of the Austin Police Department so people can see how corrupt law enforcement in America is: how they rally around criminal cops, how little they care about the rights of the people and how little they care about justice.”
Those who wish to help with Buehler’s lawsuit can make a donation that goes directly to his lawyer.
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Emilie Rensink writes about social justice, activism and civil liberties. She’s been interviewed by alternative journalist pioneers such as Ben Swann and Dan Dicks for her work as an international co-organizer and media facilitator for the March Against Monsanto in 2013 and for exposing GOP corruption as a Ron Paul delegate in 2012. Her work has appeared on WeAreChange.org, the Reason.com blog, PunkRockLibertarians.com and more.
Follow Emilie on Twitter: @emilierensink