There’s something about the presence of a camera that makes many people act their worst. Mike Nelson, a blind veteran who wears a camera upon his chest as a set of “eyes,” has experienced this firsthand. And with his YouTube channel Blind Justice, he shares these experiences with us, too.
Through Blind Justice, Nelson has uploaded nearly 400 videos, primarily footage of city officials, employees and police in the various towns he’s lived in over the last two years. While many feature everyday encounters or calm conflict resolution, the videos that have received the most views are far more disturbing. In some, he’s denied appropriate accommodations per the Americans With Disabilities Act; others capture Child Protective Service employees attempting to hide from him. On numerous occasions, he’s seemingly threatened by police without due cause.
From some perspectives, Nelson is looking for trouble by going into public offices and recording. From others, he’s performing an “audit,” examining how these public services properly or improperly enforce First Amendment rights and ADA requirements. But by his own reckoning, he’s merely recording his everyday life as a means of surviving, while also helping shed light on the treatment many people with disabilities and disenfranchised people more broadly endure on a regular basis.
He began the channel back in 2018, following his participation in a sit-in protest against an ordinance passed in Aberdeen, Washington, prohibiting people experiencing homelessness from occupying sidewalks. “For I think 70 days, we had a sit-in in all these different places in town, sitting and talking with people,” he tells me. “We just backed up a lot of the videos of our engagement with the police, city officials and people living out on the street. That kind of blatant disregard for your fellow man by law enforcement and city officials, it was really new to me. I didn’t witness it firsthand until I started asking questions and investigating and reporting on it.”
Previously, Nelson had kept a camera on him primarily to record his walks. By having his wife, Christina, or other friends and family watch the footage later and explain it to him, he can gain a better understanding of the layout of his neighborhood. During the sit-in, though, Christina uploaded the recordings to Facebook and YouTube. “I guess it caught traction, so we started to expand our scope to other municipalities and other local state and federal government entities to find out where there’s other cases of these agents abusing their power, and specifically targeting the disenfranchised, whether it be because of poverty or disability,” he says.
Since then, Nelson and his family have moved throughout the country. Currently, he’s located in Wake County, North Carolina, where his actions have recently caused public controversy. In September, following numerous aggressive encounters with police, Mike and Christina stood on the sidewalk holding a sign that said “Fuck Cops.” A group of around 20 men in trucks gathered in counter-protest of Nelson, the Greensboro News & Record reported, many of whom carried rifles, Trump flags and signs telling Nelson to leave town.
In October, Nelson was scheduled to appear in court on charges of resisting an officer after allegedly trespassing in a church parking lot. When Nelson insisted on bringing his recording equipment into the courthouse in Rockingham County, N.C., and was barred from doing so by guards, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Nelson was then arrested outside the courthouse and spent several weeks in jail before paying a $50,000 bond.
However, this is among the most drastic cases Nelson has filmed and experienced. “The vast majority of the actions are peaceful; they’re educational,” he says. “If the government employee is lacking an understanding of how to accommodate or that they’re required by law to accommodate, most of the time they’re open to learning.”
In some of the more aggressive encounters Nelson has had, it seems as though people are afraid that they’re being baited into a situation that makes them look bad, as if Nelson is intentionally filming in order to say “gotcha.” “I don’t always go out trying to find discrepancies. It’s just day-to-day life,” he says. “I run into barriers and obstacles that are just par for the course. It’s lack of understanding, lack of education. I think that [understanding] use of assistive technology is light-years away if understanding instructions for [ADA-compliant] walkways and doors and railings is that hard for government agencies to grasp.”
It’s the camera in particular that appears to make people skittish. “I try to put it in simple terms, like how a hearing-impaired person has hearing aids, then a visually impaired person can have visual aids to help them navigate with a camera,” Nelson explains. “The camera replaces the eyes, and you have somebody that can help you interpret the information that it’s recording or broadcasting. A lot of times I’m doing it live, and I have people speaking to me through my headset, whether it be friends or family or a YouTube live audience that has hundreds or thousands of people on there guiding me through various situations.”
In some cases, however, Nelson views the hostility that the camera can elicit as necessary for the activism that needs to be done. “A lot of the advocacy groups seem to approach making change from a very hands-off, very passive approach. I raise the historical context for civil rights — it’s not simply rolling over and doing whatever the oppressor says; you have to take a stand, and there’s going to be a cost and there’s going to be suffering,” he says. “They’re going to resist and punish the people that are demanding to be treated equally. If nobody’s willing to do that from these advocacy groups, then we’re not going to have changed a lot. I’m willing to undergo some pain and suffering in order to try to push the needle for freedom and equality.”
Though the filming may make people uncomfortable, it’s essential for properly documenting and exposing the treatment he receives — especially for an audience who may not receive that treatment themselves. “From its inception, our goal has been to do whatever we can to limit human suffering and to expose the discrepancies that are to blame for it,” he says. “That’s always been the goal, to let people know that this is the state of affairs — to simply turn on the lights, the camera, and to let people see.”