The site was created by Witness, a Brooklyn-based group founded by the globe-trotting pop star Peter Gabriel in 1992. Conceived in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the group initially focused on getting camcorders into the hands of human rights activists around the world. The goal, in Gabriel’s phrase, was to create a network of “Little Brothers and Little Sisters” to keep an eye on Big Brother’s thugs. He rapidly discovered that distributing tools wasn’t enough. To be really effective, you need a network.
“What we learned over the first four or five years was that the promise that Rodney King represented couldn’t be realized just by providing cameras to human rights groups,” says Sam Gregory, Witness’s 33-year-old program director. “In the absence of technical training, they couldn’t produce video that would be used by news organizations and they couldn’t craft the stories that would engage audiences.” The group did manage to place some footage in the news media, but even then it had trouble leveraging those appearances into actual change.