The secret behind the viral churro seller video

Andrea Salcedo, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 19 2019 08:23 AM

NEW YORK — Sofia B. Newman, an actress with about 2,500 Twitter followers, was returning home from work this month when she saw a woman who was selling churros at the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn having a heated discussion with four police officers.

Newman said she started recording the interaction with her phone so she would have evidence in case it escalated.

“The moment I saw four officers surrounding a woman of color, it was a red flag for me,” Newman, 23, said.

She posted the video, which shows the vendor being handcuffed, on her Twitter account at 12:30 a.m. and then went to sleep.

By the morning, the post had received nearly 50 retweets, mostly from friends and relatives, she said.

But Newman also received a message from Decolonize This Place, a grassroots criminal justice organization. The group asked if it could post her video on its Twitter and Instagram accounts, along with a narrative of the arrest. She agreed.

And that’s when “it started blowing up,” Newman said.

As of Sunday, the post had been retweeted 11,300 times and had been liked by almost 25,000 people.

Within days of the altercation, several local officials, including Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, and Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, two Democrats who are expected to run for mayor in 2021, had seen the video and criticized the officers’ behavior.

It was just the latest in a series of videos, which have been viewed millions of times on Twitter, that have outraged many New Yorkers and resurfaced a conversation about police officers’ interactions with civilians on the subway at a time when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is pushing for 500 more officers to be hired at a cost of nearly $250 million to patrol the transit system.

These videos have all followed a similar pattern: They were recorded by bystanders who happened to be in the subway when the encounters happened and who in most cases had few followers on social media. Yet they attracted a lot of attention almost immediately after being posted.

The common denominator? They all gained prominence after being promoted on the social media accounts of Decolonize This Place.

Amin Husain and Marz Saffore, co-organizers of Decolonize, said the videos showed a reality that people of color had experienced for decades. “Now the argument can’t be made that this is a one-time incident,” Husain, 44, said.

The videos have put the Police Department on the defensive, demonstrating the power of social media and the role technology now has in holding law enforcement accountable. Police say civilians are focusing on the wrong people: Politicians are the ones who can affect the economic conditions that often result in people with limited opportunities loitering in the subway or selling food there illegally, they say.

“A lot of elected officials came out, and their immediate reaction was to criticize the NYPD,” Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said of the churro vendor video at a news conference Thursday. “I’d like to see a time when their first reaction is to help the woman that was selling churros.

“It’s good that people see this,” he added, referring to the viral videos. “Being a cop anywhere is a tough job, and we need the cooperation from all 8.6 million New Yorkers.”

The phenomenon of videos of police behavior becoming viral is nothing new. In the past six years, footage captured by cellphones and police body cameras have prompted protests and started a national conversation on the role race plays in policing and the excessive use of force.

The difference in New York is that one organization, Decolonize This Place, has become the clearinghouse and gatekeeper for most of these videos.

Decolonize, founded in 2016, has 10 members and works with more than 50 other grassroots organizations, Husain said. Its Instagram account has over 86,000 followers, and its Twitter account has nearly 11,000.

Since late October, when Decolonize posted the video of an officer punching two teenagers on the subway and another one depicting officers swarming into a subway car to arrest a man, Husain said people had been sending the organization about 10 videos a day. Staff members are also on the lookout for videos to post, as they did in the case of the churro vendor.

But his organization cannot post all of the videos it receives, Husain said. Five staff members who handle the group’s social media accounts — two of whom are pursuing advanced degrees in media studies — scrutinize the videos to see which ones might have the biggest reach.

The staff members make sure that a video is accurate and that they have enough context of the incident, Husain said. They also work to ensure that it does not depict a subway incident the group has previously brought to light.

Decolonize also avoids sharing videos that show people being beaten out of respect for the victim, Husain said. The organization says it asks for permission to use each video and has never paid for any content.

“It’s the combination of thinking about the Instagram account, about the content we put out, about the movement and the moment what makes these videos blow up,” he said. “It’s connected to on-the-ground organizing.”

Days before Newman recorded the churro vendor’s arrest, Erin Quinlan, a freelance journalist based in New York, recorded two officers asking a man to leave the First Avenue station in Manhattan. Quinlan, 40, said the tone of the conversation raised a “red flag” and pushed her to record it.

In the video, she can be heard repeatedly asking why the officers are trying to remove the man; they do not respond. An officer can be seen telling Quinlan: “Why don’t you mind your own business? It seems like you are looking for a lawsuit.”

Quinlan posted the video on her Instagram account the next morning and tagged Decolonize. At that point, it had been viewed only about 100 times, Quinlan said.

“I intentionally wanted them to see it,” Quinlan, who has about 450 Instagram followers, said of Decolonize, which received her permission to share the video.

It has now been viewed over 400,000 times, and has more than 19,000 likes and 900 comments on Decolonize’s Instagram account.

Without the organization’s help, she said, “there’s no question almost no one would have seen it.”

On Tuesday, another video of an arrest of a subway vendor went viral after it was shared by Decolonize.

The footage shows four police officers piling on top of a man on the subway platform at the 125th Street station in East Harlem. The Police Department later said the man, identified as Byron Shark, 26, had been selling candy illegally.

“When the officers attempted to take him into custody, he would not cooperate and refused to allow them to handcuff him,” the department said in a statement. “As a result, officers assisted in removing the individual from the platform, and the individual eventually walked on his own accord.”

Shark was arrested on charges of obstructing governmental administration and violating a local law.

On Twitter, that video has been viewed 488,000 times, and it has garnered 750 retweets and almost 1,500 likes.

Quinlan said her video had become so popular that she could not keep up with the hundreds of comments and direct messages she had received from supporters as well as critics. In the end, she said, she wished she had never been in a situation that required her to take out her phone.

“It’s not about Go! Yay bystanders!” Quinlan said. “It’s about what can we do to safeguard the most vulnerable of the community. I want no need for bystanders or good Samaritans.”