Stephen Robert Morse was a freelance journalist and videographer working as a poll watcher for the local Republican Party in Philadelphia in 2008 when he got the call of his lifetime.
Members of the New Black Panther Party, he was told, were standing outside a polling place in an overwhelmingly African-American section of the city.
He shot a few minutes of video that day. One of the videos, showing two New Black Panther Party members standing outside of the polling place — and one of them holding a nightstick — went viral and was the underpinning of a voter intimidation case brought in the waning days of the Bush administration. That case has since exploded into a political controversy for the Obama Justice Department.
A second video shows cops showing up and taking the two men aside. But there was one part of the video that Election Journal, a website focusing on allegations of voter fraud run by a Republican strategist, didn’t see fit to post.
In the extended version of the footage, posted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights this month, a police officer tells Morse to back off. That’s when the commotion begins.
The video shows someone off-screen to Morse’s left, telling the officer “I got him, I got him.” A man who appears to be Chris Hill, a Republican poll watcher who was accused of intimidating voters at the polls by another woman at the location, says “Put it down. You’ve got enough.”
Then Bartle Bull chimes in. “Don’t you threaten him with your hands. You’re threatening him. Don’t you use your hands!”
Soon an individual seems to grab Morse’s arm or his camera — the screen moves erratically. “I’m a fucking professional videographer,” Morse tells the person trying to stop him from filming. “I was paid… to come from L.A. today.”
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has doggedly pursued the Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case, released the final version of their report this week, complete with responses from all the commissioners on the panel. Two Democratic commissioners who have dissented from the investigation pointed out the additional footage in their reply and note that while the Justice Department handed over a full copy of the video, the Commission didn’t see fit to post it online until this month, far after the report had been finished.
The video shows that the white Republican poll watchers who showed up to the majority African-American precinct knew exactly what kind of media sensation they had on their hands.
“We’re on the same team,” says another Republican poll watcher off screen.
“You’re fucking up the story. Don’t fuck up the story,” one unidentified poll watcher tells Morse.
“You guys are lawyers, I’m a videographer,” Morse says.
Morse told TPM in an e-mail that he doesn’t think it was Hill who was intimidating him, but says someone was.
“A couple of guys wearing SUITS were were actually intimidating ME at this point,” Morse told TPM in an e-mail. “It was certainly not Mr. Hill who told me to put the camera down. It was one or two GOP lawyers, whose names I never got and I never saw again.”
“I remember a crowd of maybe 10 lawyers (or seemingly lawyers, suits I should say, since Bull isn’t a lawyer) standing around — in the original (more famous) video — one lawyer makes it into one of the shots, but im pretty sure it was another guy — not the bald guy in the shot — who was being a jerk to me,” Morse told TPM in an e-mail. “At least one person was being a jerk, and I was quite angry at this point when they were telling me to shut the camera — hence the expletive (which i make no apologies for using!).”
“Again, I am certain that it was a suit who was yelling at me and trying to make me stop filming, not Hill who is not wearing a suit,” he added.
Morse said there is more video out there, at least of couple minutes of it. He saw the footage for the first time today, over two years after the incident took place in Philadelphia.
Notably, J. Christian Adams (the conservative lawyer hired into the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration) argued that poll watchers (a role Morse said he was certified for) should be protected under the same provision of the law which protects voters from intimidation.
Late Update: Morse told TPM in an e-mail that he believes he was the person who said “we’re on the same fuckin team” and not “we’re on the same team” as the two Democratic commissioners wrote in their response.
Late, Late Update: USCCR spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky told TPM in an e-mail Sunday that it was Commission General Counsel David Blackwood who decided not to play the full video at a hearing back in April 2010 “because he did not believe the extra minute was important or significant.” She said all commissioners and their special assistants had access to the two minute version prior to the hearing. Commissioner Todd Gaziano also responded to criticism that that the full tape hadn’t been posted, writing that “the conspiratorial interpretation of an extra minute of the Philly video tape in the dissent is reminiscent of those questioning the Warren Commission’s lonegunman finding with novel, frame-by-frame analyses of the Zapruder film.”
[Ed note: The post has been edited from the original.]