Still from film by Poh Si Teng and Ben Laffin
In a period of 10 minutes, we saw the same police car stop three vehicles. Each time we’d walk up with our cameras and phones held out; the cops would put on their best smile, get back in the car, circle the block, go back to the same spot hidden behind a wall, and stop the next car passing by.
They weren’t the exception: in this poverty-stricken Brooklyn neighborhood siren lights are pervasive on any given night. Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy, as it is commonly known) is one of the many New York neighborhoods where a Cop Watch group patrols the streets, encouraged and cheered on by local residents.
Off the charts
Police brutality and harassment are problems in all modern societies. Those at the lower ends of class and race hierarchies stand a much higher chance of being targeted, brutalized, and ultimately killed by the ‘forces of order’. Irrespective of the country they live in, their neighborhoods are heavily patrolled and can often look like occupied territory. From Italy to the United States, from the Netherlands to Brazil, lives have been destroyed.
But of all western countries, none stands out so much as the United States. An American citizen is about a hundred times more likely to get shot by the police than a British person. With regards to police violence and gun culture, the U.S. is just off the charts compared to any country of similar political and socio-economic status.
The data on police killings in the U.S. are notoriously hard to come by. Despite repeated lukewarm attempts by the federal government in the past decades to order the collection of such data, police departments have successfully resisted this. Journalists and human rights groups have recently tried to fill the void.
The Guardian started a valuable project this June under the title The Counted: People killed by the police in the US, tracking police murders in 2015. Their counting is conservative – people crashing to death in high-speed chases or committing suicide in jail are not counted – but very valuable.
In addition, Amnesty International found that all States “fail to comply with international law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers,” and apart from other bizarre regulations (or lack thereof), nine states sanction the use of lethal force to quell ‘riots’.
According to The Guardian’s count, as of August 29, this year the number stands at 768 people killed. Out of those, 372 were white, 196 black and 108 Hispanic. Relating this to their relative share of the population, this means that black people are 2,5 times more likely to be shot by the police than whites. About 4% of those killed were women. Out of the 31 women killed, nine were black. 87% of all victims were killed by gunshots; 5% by taser; and more than 3% by being struck by a police car, equal to the number of people who died in custody.
As Touré F. Reed argues forcefully over at Jacobin, race and class are inextricably linked in this system of police violence. Although being black means running the risk of police abuse even if you’re a professor trying to get into your own house, overall both white and black victims are “disproportionately poor and working class.” All in all, they “tend to belong to groups that lack political, economic, and social influence and power.”
In these circumstances people in these communities were faced with the question: how to protect ourselves and our community from the police?
The wave of the rising awareness of police violence is being pushed forward across the United States by those who patrol their neighborhoods, camera in hand. In various forms these Cop Watch groups – as they are known – have been around since 1990, and New York has had such groups since at least the late 90s.
One group that has been rocking the streets these last years patrols not only with camera in hand, but also with revolutionary politics in mind: CPU, Cop Watch Patrol Unit, active in the Bronx and Harlem, and training new groups across New York.
Jose LaSalle, in his mid-forties and born in East Harlem, has been the public face of this group, and with good reason. His story is inspiring and his humor and smile disarming. His early years were spent on the streets, and caused him 12 years of his life in jail. Returning to mainstream life, love kept him from returning to those streets and had him working a regular job. In 2011, when he had just started Copwatching, his stepson audio-recorded an abusive stop-and-frisk encounter with two cops, making national headlines.
Nowadays LaSalle is joined by a great and mixed group of people, with several black women especially active in the frontlines. One of them is Kim, whose energy is infectious and pushes the entire group to keep going. Another member, dressed in flip-flops and a long dress, seems to know everyone in a 100-block radius, from little kids and older women to the tough guys and junkies. Many of the people in this group are active in other groups too, and have been involved in organizing the Black Lives Matter protests as well.
By now, the police know about Cop Watch, and LaSalle suggests a memo went out instructing the officers how to behave when they were around. They typically behave nicer, but also inform each other about the CPU presence and move away from its patrol. Sometimes a police car follows the group to keep other cops updated on their position, turning it into a cat and mouse game. From their side, the more experienced groups know most cops by name, using it to their advance to keep track of a specific officer’s record.
But most of all, the key to these movements’ success seems to be that they are rooted in the community. This is especially the case for CPU. Walking the blocks from 125th and Lexington in the heart of Harlem, we’re stopped every five minutes because someone in the group runs into someone they know. Other times people recognize the T-shirts and cheer on the group, or come up to talk and give information about police activity, asking them to patrol this or that block next.
There is not one right way of doing Cop Watch; it will depend on the local circumstances, and diversity of tactics blossom across groups. Apart from being rooted or immersing the group in the neighborhood, however, other important factors to success seem to be good organization, steadfastness, and actively involving people. LaSalle’s group diligently writes down all police activity and interaction they observe, and use that information to keep track of neighborhood hotspots and individual cops.
They mix up their repertoire, patrol in several neighborhoods, and walk different routes each time. But they keep coming back to those neighborhoods, have become known faces, and have been going at it unwaveringly for years, building their reputation and network. Their network is never finished, however: on every patrol they invite new people to their training sessions, hand out their card and ask them to call in with incidents and information, and also target families and their kids with information on how to deal with cops safely.
The rest of New York and the country is a patchwork of different Cop Watch groups, with differing ideologies. Since 1999 the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was Cop Watching the Brooklyn neighborhood Bed-Stuy. This same neighborhood and the neighboring Bushwick, are now patrolled by an anarchist Cop Watch collective operating out of the Base, an anarchist social center. But there are also some other, more liberal-type groups who focus narrowly on civil liberties and human rights, without talking about the police as an occupying force and without tackling broader issues.
That the camera can be a weapon of defense for people without the power and resources to defend themselves in any other way has been proven in the past decade. In 2007, for instance, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, launched a project in the Occupied Palestinian Territories under the title “Shooting Back”, distributing cameras among the Palestinians to document their situation. This project had some success and the videos made it harder for corporate media to ignore the Palestinians’ daily reality.
One key requirement for the success of any such project, however, is a civil society that cares. Spreading videos of brutalities is making an appeal to the moral consciousness of the viewer. Documenting incidents can help, but has to be supplemented by dedicated organizing by groups across the spectrum.
The idea and practice of Cop Watch have been around for several decades already. Steadfast organizing and the easy availability of cameras have pushed these videos to the front of the debate, creating the potential for major changes. The fact that by now people outside of the targeted communities seem to care is a significant step forwards.