Whither Copwatch?

2009 November 3
by Tyler Zimmerman

oscar_grant_shooting

Within the last decade, small groups of individual activists, some part of radical or revolutionary Left organizations, have taken part in organizing “copwatches” in cities across the US and Canada.  Presently, none of us around Gathering Forces are involved in such work (still if we’ve had our share of run-ins with the police in other struggles), though it is a form of organization we are supportive of and believe necessary.  But because of this lack of experience and existing information out there, this post will have more questions than answers.

What copwatching formally entails is observing the actions of the police in the process of routine traffic stops or other encounters, documenting their activity in writing and on video, and collecting names and badge numbers of the officers involved where necessary.  Some may follow this up independently or with other organizations by making complaints or protesting through civilian review boards.  Additionally, some groups do “know your rights” trainings or pass out relevant literature, but it is unclear if most copwatch activities go much beyond this.

The Berkeley Copwatch website claims it is the original copwatch, starting in 1990, but even they have their antecedents.  The historical inspiration for copwatching has no doubt come from the practices of the Black Panther Party, though the Deacons for Defense and the NAACP branch in Monroe, North Carolina led by Robert F Williams had their own forms of armed intervention that was coupled with fighting the Klan and defending civil rights activists.

The Panthers achieved a notorious reputation from both the State, the Left, and the Right through the organized and armed policing of cops in the city of Oakland.  But what can’t be forgotten is that the Panthers were the product of the most powerful revolt of the Black community of its time against white supremacy and the State; the Watts Riots of 1965.  In addition to the collective fist of Black people in ’65 were the words and philosophy of Malcolm X who espoused a philosophy of armed self-defense and revolutionary internationalism at a time when it wasn’t as popular.  However brave and intimidating the personality of Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Panthers, it was the movement of ordinary Black people that sits at the backdrop of the BPP.   The uniqueness of the Panthers were in how they carried out Malcolm’s vision by giving a kind of political and organizational form to this growing rebellion.

At the time of the Panthers’ earliest interventions, it was still legal in the State of California (I think) to carry certain unloaded firearms in full display.  Later a bill was passed into law which barred such use and which was directly due to its exercise by the Panthers.  But regardless of what the legal limitations imposed on the Panthers consisted of, the point wasn’t to merely carry guns to prove how badass they were (which they were), nor was it to catch the police in the act of misconduct and pursue recourse through the legal system.  The point was to mobilize the Black community which it was relatively successful at doing until the general decline of the Black Power movement.

The Panthers had a vision not of good and righteous police but of a society where ordinary people were self-governing in judicial and all other affairs.   Had police followed the letter of the law, it would not have undercut the need for community resistance since legally the police have the right to patrol, question, search, arrest, and even kill individuals.  And should they step beyond what is legally permissible, between the police code of silence (which certainly gives an ironic character to the anti-”stop snitching” talk) and a legal system that is either supportive or indifferent at best, the police will emerge unscathed.  In fact, what we learned in 1992 is that it isn’t until people of color are willing to raze an entire metropole that the State is willing to prosecute police, let alone make any sort of reforms.

The practice of the Panthers was not limited to policing police, in fact they were responsible for providing food, educational, and medical assistance where they were either destitute or did not exist in the black community.

But the Panthers and the Deacons no longer exist.  While it is important to make sense of the demise of these critical organizational experiences, for now we’ll have to leave it at the fact that they are not around anymore.  Copwatches are trying to fill their shoes outside of a mass movement and this presents certain questions and challenges.

Drawing on information available, it appears that much of copwatching is wrapped up in catching or exposing the police.  This is bound up with the notion that the camera in particular both vindicates the need for copwatch and holds police accountable presumably through its use as evidence that can be surrendered in the trying of police who injure or kill people of color.

What I find particularly ironic about this is that every night for the past two decades America has watched police as they harass, beat, and murder people of color and all the while can enjoy a bag of popcorn and a can of beer.  It’s a television show called “Cops.”  Furthermore, the advent of dash cams hasn’t done anything to “hold police accountable” but has been a way that police can directly control video and use it to their own political and legal ends.  Due to technological changes in media, copwatching has become informalized and individualized where cell phone videos of police violence and murder are shared on the web.  And while this can have a powerful unintended effect (see Oscar Grant),  it seems to make cameras for organized copwatch groups somewhat superfluous and drives home the urgency for a different approach.

While I’m not opposed to activists who are involved or are thinking of becoming involved in copwatch exploring what legal options they have that may allow them to carry weapons in plain view, it isn’t simply about displaying arms.  First, the danger of this kind of approach is in the adventurism it may encourage or still worse the wrath of the police if not sufficiently backed with community support.  The Panthers had the benefit of a black community in motion.  In 1960 a few black students could walk into a Southern lunch counter, take a seat, be hauled off to jail, and then thousands of others would follow in their place.  Today, we don’t have the luxury of those circumstances and an armed copwatch group being arrested or shot at can’t expect the community to either follow suit or come to their defense unless they are a well established organization with wide links to the community.  It will have to be gauged and the conditions where this kind of tactic can be effective may not exist without a movement.

We know we do not live in movement times (though we are certainly seeing hopeful signs right now), but besides this what are among the principal reasons for the lack of success or longevity on the part of many copwatch groups?

To begin with, why is information beyond the superficial, such as organizational dynamics, links with other community or political groups, strategy and tactics, politics, etc. so limited on copwatch blogs and websites?  Is this due to internal weaknesses, fear of reprisals, or other unknown reasons?

How do radicals and revolutionaries who take up the work of copwatch fight off the dynamic of the militant superman and woman?  This was something that even the Panthers were criticized for.  To ask this question more specifically, in a time of severe repression where striking a police officer can result in long years behind bars, where people are understandably afraid of the police, how can working people be convinced to fight back?  Even where folks resist the police (which happens daily, especially among Black people) it is done so on isolated, individual terms and with no consequences and where one can face certain death.

Where instances of police violence are displayed, what does or can the copwatchers do beyond filming?  Does the existence of small copwatch groups mean that activity must be confined to merely filming police?  How can they engage with the larger community and draw them in during copwatch patrols?  Do copwatchers ever knock on residents’ doors during acts of police violence and encourage people to come outside?  Do they draw attention with megaphones and militant chants?  What are ways for the community to have a sense of ownership over what happens in their neighborhoods?

How can the work of copwatch be pushed beyond only policing cops?  What strategies and tactics have worked in terms of keeping the police out of the community or preventing attacks or reprisals?  One tactic that the Berkeley Copwatch raises is suggesting alternatives to calling the police.  Depending on what this means, it can have the effect of broadening and politicizing the work and it hinders the ability of the police.  Bring the Ruckus, on their blog, see copwatch as having the capacity to act as a dual power institution though it isn’t elaborated on what this looks like or how successful it has been.

As one example of broadening the work of copwatch, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in April responded to a campaign by the St Petersburg police department in Florida to offer $1500 to anyone in the Black community who informed on another for possession of weapons which lead to a conviction.  This kind of blatant hypocrisy and divide and conquer tactics by St Petersburg police were countered brilliantly by InPDUM who offered an equivalent bounty to any police officer that offered testimony leading to the conviction of another police officer implicated in the murder of anyone in the Black community.  Any copwatch in St Petersburg should be reaching out to InPDUM and others who are willing to militantly oppose the police.

Another challenge for some copwatches is the dynamic of exclusively white groups.  Without a multiracial, people of color-led organization there is no hope for a copwatch to move beyond isolation or adventurism.  This should be pretty self-evident.

Whatever the current limitations are of this practice it can’t be written off.  They are attempts at free association and they demonstrate the capacity for workers and people of color to be self-governing.  Activists and pissed-off people are right to not sit back and wait for the next mass rebellion but to act and demonstrate what is possible now.   Necessarily the successes will be limited in the absence of a movement, but that doesn’t mean that new strategies and tactics can’t be implemented in the present.  The task is to push in the direction of widening the struggle numerically and politically, place front and center the community’s need to be self-governing, and subordinate the legal aspects (video, documentation) to everything else.

It would be great to hear from copwatch groups or individuals involved with them in terms of how they organize and what successes or challenges they’ve faced or what other tactics, if any, they use aside from video or going through different legal machinations.

  • Jamusa

    Thanks for this post. You lay out some of the problems why copwatch formations have been whithering. Besides a perhaps lack of engagement with the community or lack of multiracial copwatch formations, although I think the Berkeley/Oakland one is fairly multiracial, it also has to do with theories on organization that folks starting copwatch groups hold. A good number are coming out of the anarchist scene during the past two decades. No doubt copwatch and antifa work are two of the most important contributions of anarchists in the U.S. But the foundational politics of rejection of revolutionary organization in favor of a loose network, at times an adventurism over grounding oneself and group into the community, and identity politics feeling whites should organize in their own communities and step aside when POC progressives organize may be some of the problems why copwatch formations seem fewer and fewer.

    Now in Oakland/Berkeley organizing around community self-defense has a long history as you noted, and is in an uptick after the Oscar Grant murder by cops, among many other Latin@, Black and API folks killed by cops this decade. Speaking with folks at Advance the Struggle understand there is some regroupment around copwatch, in groups like Bring the Rukus, http://www.bringtheruckus.org/ and those on the left of CAPE, the liberal community coalition that help animate (but also hold back into official society) protests against Oscar Grant’s killing. In fact this formation the awesomely named Raider Nation Collective is noted on BTR’s site. For those in the know, the Raider Nation (fans of the Oakland Raiders) are thoroughly working class and multiracial, reflecting Oakland and other cities like Hayward in the East Bay. With the Grant trial being moved outside Alameda County and set to start late in this year, organizing efforts are ramping up. Hopefully this can hope re-energize the copwatch thing out here and serve as a model for folks elsewhere. As we saw in Oakland, having a black major and black president didn’t mean shit for Oscar Grant. Also for Asian and Pacific Islander folks as we’ve recently seen in San Jose: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2009/10/29/18627151.php so the need for copwatch as expressions of community self-defense and self-management are needed now more than ever.

  • Will

    Nice Post. To continue forward with your post I have some brief comments/ questions.

    A) The question of dual power.

    Dual Power as far as I understand it, is when a new form of military, judicial, economic, or political formation of oppressed people begins governing in a given space while the established State still exists. This type of situation is extremely tense and cannot last permanently as they represent fundamentally different visions of life, organization, and principles. In other words the dual power organization of the oppressed is the anti-thesis of the State and Capitalism.

    I think this is worth expanding on in the context of Cop Watch. It seems to me that Cop Watch does pose this question in miniature and at times dangerous forms. It is minature cuz it is happening now in the absence of a broad movement. It is dangerous cuz activists can get hung to dry. I would be curious to hear from other Cop Watch activists what kind of repression they felt.

    I could be off on this, but if Cop Watch is seen in the framework of dual power then is the question of a decisive resolution to such a crisis in the offing. Meaning either the cops have to go or the Cop Watch has to go? But both cannot exist. Perhaps this is off… what do others think?

    B) Cop Watch as part of a broader campaign in the community.

    What local organizing can be done in tandem with Cop Watch. In other words how can local organizing develop a mass base for Cop Watch to happen? From what I understand and as Krisna argued, the BPP did this in the context of a mass movement and their own community programs. Is that the answer right in front of my face, that Cop Watch has to start from that community orientation with other programs relating to education, food, healthcare, etc are taken care of as well?

    Can there be a broader campaign to make the streets safer from the police which can involve mass participation, but not have everyone put their bodies on the line Cop Watch style?

    C) Cop Watch in relationship to the escalating violence of the Police against men of color (especially Black and Latino men).

    This is probably not new for anyone reading this blog, but I am trying to think about the escalating militarization of the police in urban American cities where pocs live. If the police are becoming more militarized at what point do they become something more akin to the army? And if this is so, is it relevant to do Cop Watch against something like the army? Are different strategies called for?

    D) Does Cop Watch call for an underground wing of an organization?

    This is really a broader question of what are the appropriate organizational forms to make Cop Watch effective. What relationship would this underground wing have to a public presentation of Cop Watch or a mass movement? How would the underground wing coordinate its efforts with Cop Watch? I want to say underground organizations have not proliferated much in the U.S., but then I look at the various gangs as one easily example. It certainly seems there are people in this country who are willing to build undergroundish type of organizations. I just don’t think the gang way is the way to go for obvious reasons…

    E) Possible victories in light of Cop Watch.

    What are reform demands that Cop Watch can demand for? I have not been on a Cop Watch sight in a long time. What are some of the common ones and how can be used to build a larger movement against the police?

    And if the police are taken out of poc communities then who are people gonna call when there is domestic violence in the house or when there is other fucked up shit going on? These are issues of self-governance that working folks and pocs gotta take up.

    F) http://berkeleycopwatch.org/blog/?page_id=8

    This page was helpful. Especially this passage, “Copwatch is based on the idea that WATCHING the police is a crucial first step in the process of organizing. We do not attempt to interfere in police activity or to resist police misconduct physically. It is our hope that, one day, mass outrage at police and government violence will increase to a point where fundamental change in the nature of policing becomes inevitable.”

    Got more thinking to do….

  • mlove

    MXGM video on their copwatch work in Brooklyn:

    http://mxgm.org/web/people-s-self-defense-campaign-psdc/mxgm-copwatch-video.html

    A really good interview with Joaquin Cienfuegos of the Guerilla Chapter LA Copwatch and also Revolutionary Autonomous Communities:

    http://affinityproject.org/interviews/joaquin.html

    You should check both out.

  • http://www.bartlettpark.net/2009/04/thank-you-to-all-who-came-out-this.html Tom

    Why do you think the Uhuru Movement is helping?

    The St Petersburg, Florida police department offered $1500 for information on possession of illegal weapons which lead to a conviction. This is reducing homicide of black youth. We like that.

    And the reward is not just for the ” Black community” but for anyone. We live in a black majority area where gunfire and homicides are concentrated.

    We support the police when they help us.

    “Divide and conquer tactics”? We are one community that will not be divided. St. Pete crime watch leaders work with police but often have sons, daughters, grandkids or other people they love in prison. We act to stop the violence and prevent our kids from putting themselves in jail. Police attend neighborhood meetings to get direction from neighborhood leaders and members of the public. The city recruits from this neighborhood and helps them buy homes here so that they are part of the neighborhood. Police are getting better in our city.

    We know that the system is not fair to us and we work to move it to a model of restorative justice with alternatives to jail. “Stop Snitching” is not fair to crime victims and future victims who deserve justice.

    This Uhuru reward could be called a brilliant way to get publicity as the mainstream media made a big show of it but I have not heard of any results.

    Every cop knows that people carry camera phones and can send their photo or video out in a live webcast. Violence from police is now very rare.

    “Another challenge for some copwatches is the dynamic of exclusively white groups.” The Uhurus are not exclusively white but do seem to be mostly white and led by white staff. This article gives a good overview: http://www.citypaper.net/articles/2009/08/13/uhuru-philadelphia

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    Thanks for the links mlove, gotta look at those asap. Great article Krisna.

    Will asked: “Can there be a broader campaign to make the streets safer from the police which can involve mass participation, but not have everyone put their bodies on the line Cop Watch style?”

    A friend of mine and I were thinking about this when we were trying to decide what kind of organizing to do in our neighorhood in West Seattle. I suggested copwatch. He raised a good point: that it would only get a handful of youth involved and he wanted to reach out to older folks as well. What can achieve this? One thing we brainstormed (but never tested out cuz we settled into unemployed work) is putting up flyers at bus stops and on telephone polls with contact info encouraging folks to come to us if they’ve experienced police brutality. Then we could do flying squad pickets, protests, etc. outside the precinct. Also, when cops and private security take pictures we could take their photos back. Rather than using videos of cop misconduct to try and get cops fired or tried (which folks are right to say won’t happen without mass action), these videos and pics could be used to agitate in the neighborhood for protests and other direct actions.

    Will also asks: “And if the police are taken out of poc communities then who are people gonna call when there is domestic violence in the house or when there is other fucked up shit going on? These are issues of self-governance that working folks and pocs gotta take up.”

    I’ll be posting some further reflections on this point shortly.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    Tom, I’m not in St. Petersburg so I can’t speak to the specifics of your neighborhood, but I can say that I think the Uhuru movement’s actions are an example of tactical brilliance in the struggle for social justice, and something worth repeating in other cities.

    The police are the most notoriously violent gang in most ghettos. They a target youth of color for brutality and murder. They are also the most highly armed. You say “stop snitching” is unfair to crime victims. What about the cops’ own “no snitching code” where they refuse to inform on fellow officers who commit violent acts of white supremacy? This is what the Uhuru movement’s offer was meant to expose and confront.

    You take a lot of cheap shots against the Uhuru movement which just barely fail to violate our code of conduct on this site. We’re not about dismissing and discrediting organizations that are trying to do something positive to fight white supremacy and to build Black power in communities like ours. For example, you slyly try to discredit Uhuru as “white led”. This is ridiculous. Just because they combine Black Power organizing with attempts to build a multiracial struggle agianst white supremacy and capitalism does not mean they are lead by white staff people. It is straight up racism to assume that just because Black folks allow white folks to work with them means that they are somehow getting played or controlled by these white folks. Don’t you have more faith in the Black activists in Uhuru? You treat them like they’re a bunch of helpless fools who can’t take action without white folks leading them.

    In any case, I think it’s ultimately up for working class Black folks in your hood to decide who is is doing more important work: the Uhuru folks who are trying to stop the police from murdering them, or your group which seems to be all about apologizing for the cops.

    I agree with you on one thing: the fact that so many youth of color are killing each other is a disaster and it needs to end. But how is your vision of working with the police and holding marches against violence going to achieve that? What we need are groups like the Panthers who were able to bring rival gangs together to fight white supremacy instead of each other. In neighborhoods where they were strong, gang violence went down. When the cops destroyed them, gang violence went up. For a good history of this process in LA, check out: http://democracyandhiphop.blogspot.com/2009/10/bastards-of-party.html

  • http://www.democracyandhiphop.com Lauren

    To take a stab at one of Will’s questions:

    “C) Cop Watch in relationship to the escalating violence of the Police against men of color (especially Black and Latino men).”

    I’m not sure how relevant it would be to do copwatch against the military in most places, but there are some examples where it could be useful. New Orleans comes to mind, where, as folks know, the National Guard set up shop after Katrina. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina the NG basically staged a military occupation of the city but even as recently as early 2009 they were still patrolling parts of NO in collaboration with the NOPD. They had full arrest powers and would respond to things like domestic violence calls, but I’m not sure how much they were involved in “routine” traffic stops which seems to be the backbone to copwatch observing.

    Another way of looking at this question is the militarization of the police that has occurred increasingly in the last few decades. Police departments in most major cities have been trained in military philosophy, strategy and tactics, including having military experts lead trainings and hiring as police officers people who are ex-military. The police action at the G20 protests in Philly a few weeks back puts such training on display. While the day to day implementation of it is less visible than the G20, it’s still woven into and honed in “counter-terrorism” teams, ICE raids, and border patrol along the US-Mexico border.

    On another note, one thing that I think Incite! and other organizations have emphasized is the fact that copwatch, when organized effectively, tends to mainly deal with police brutality and harassment against men of color. This is because they are usually done in public places and geared around traffic stops, which tend to profile men, while the brutality that women of color suffer tends to happen in more private spaces – i.e. women being sexually assaulted inside a precinct by a cop; or in their own homes when they call 911 for help in a domestic violence situation; or when they get hemmed up while doing sex work and cops force them to give sexual favors in lieu of being arrested.

    To strategize about copwatch we necessarily have to take into consideration what type of police violence happens where, how it can often (not always) be different for men, women and queer/trans folks, and how to socialize the struggle even in those “private” spaces that tend to hide violence against women/queer folks. I think there are organizations in the Bay Area that actually do copwatch on streets where there are sex workers precisely so that they can confront police brutality against the women and queer folks out there working.

    One last thing. Tom seems to raise a criticism of Krisna’s point about the problem of all or majority white groups doing copwatch in neighborhoods of color. This is an important point Krisna makes for several reasons. I recently had a conversation with a guy who had been involved with a copwatch for a number of years (in Denver if I remember correctly) and he was talking about starting one in Austin but hadn’t yet visited nor tried to build relationships with anyone or any organization in East Austin, where the majority of black and Latino folks live. When I asked him if the Denver organization he had previously worked with had been multiracial, he said that it was mostly white. When I asked him why he thought that was, he said he wasn’t sure but thought maybe it was because it was “easier” for white people to document the police because the cops wouldn’t harass white folks as much, and maybe because people of color are more scared of the cops and so not ready to engage in that kind of work.

    To me, that response was hella insulting. I’ll leave aside for now the fact that it implies pocs aren’t angry as hell about or don’t respond to police violence (even in individualized ways). I’ve heard that kind of response a number of times from activists in all-white organizations that can’t bring around any people of color, and it strikes me as a cover-up for those groups to avoid recognizing that this is a political question, meaning pocs actually care about politics (amazing!) and might not be coming around because they disagree with the group’s politics, group culture, methods, strategy, etc. (on race or otherwise).

    Instead, they avoid dealing with the political issues and instead play the victim game where they justify not bringing out pocs on the basis that pocs are too “victimized” to get involved and thus need the benevolent white savior to do the hard work for us. (Debates over this very dynamic came up in organizations like SNCC which is why it’s so important to know the lessons of that history!!). This becomes an excuse by some activists not to put in the work to build multiracial organizations and build a base of support for copwatch among communities of color. And this creates problems in terms of how pocs build our own confidence to stop police brutality/murder, and to learn from experience how to build our own institutions for self-defense and neighborhood watch from below.

  • http://www.kristianwilliams.com Kristian Williams

    On the Potential Significance of Copwatching:

    The “Whither Copwatch” article raises many good questions, so when one of the members of Unity and Struggle asked me if I would reply, I was grateful for the opportunity.

    To offer some idea of where I’m coming from here: I’ve worked on three very different police accountability or abolition projects, over the last 13 years. All three were based in Portland, Oregon and two went under some variant of the “copwatch” moniker. At present I’m a member of Rose City Copwatch, though I should make clear that I am not writing here as a representative of the organization and no one should try blaming RCCW for whatever idiot thing I might say. In addition to my activist work, I’ve also written quite a lot about the police, most extensively in my book Our Enemies in Blue.

    But enough about me. What about copwatch?

    The first thing to understand is the distinction between copwatching as an activity and copwatch as an organization. The activity is pretty easily defined: people watch the police and document what they do with a goal of holding them accountable or preventing abuse. The organization is harder to pin down. There’s not a central committee that licenses locals and sets policy, or anything of the kind. Instead, there’s a wide range of groups, with varying structures, ideologies, and practices. And then there’s an even wider range of organizations that do copwatch-type work but don’t use the name. (The National Lawyers Guild, for instance, provides trained legal observers at demonstrations.) On the other hand, there are tons of people who, without ever joining any formal organization at all, watch the cops and act as witnesses later.

    With this in mind, let’s consider some of the questions raised in this thread:

    Question One: “How do radicals and revolutionaries who take up the work of copwatch fight off the dynamic of the militant superman and woman? . . . where people are understandably afraid of the police, how can working people be convinced to fight back?”

    Many copwatch groups (including RCCW) actively try to extend the practice of copwatching beyond the confines of their particular organization, to support everyone in their right to observe the police and to encourage people to form their own copwatch groups to meet the needs of their own communities. This support can take the form of offering trainings, sharing resources, and partnering on patrol projects.

    Our trainings emphasize both the legal right to observe the police and also the practical skills required to do so safely. We run through a bunch of role plays, presenting the participants with real-world scenarios, including facing hostile cops, over-friendly cops, and arrestees who are confused about what the Copwatchers are doing. Trainings are a huge confidence builder, but actually putting the skills into practice does even more.

    Our theory is that, when the community is aware of their rights and when the cops know they’re being observed, power shifts away from the cops and toward the community.

    Question Two: “Where instances of police violence are displayed, what does or can the copwatchers do beyond filming? Does the existence of small copwatch groups mean that activity must be confined to merely filming police?”

    I should start by noting that, outside of political demonstrations, in my experience it is pretty rare to see police using overt violence when they know they’re being taped. When they do, there is, at the moment, almost nothing a copwatch group can do besides documenting what happens. For one thing, it is imperative that we not escalate the violence. Secondly, an attempt to physically intervene would usually only result in the copwatchers also being hurt or arrested. Thirdly, our ability to continue monitoring the police depends on our not interfering.

    However, after the fact, the evidence — witness statements, video, etc. — can be enormously helpful. This is obviously true in a legal sense, if the person arrested or hurt is facing charges, or thinking of suing, or filing a complaint. But it is even more true politically. The evidence is important to getting the media interested, or discrediting the police in the eyes of the public, or pressuring the city government.

    We should keep in mind, though, that the goal of copwatching (or at least, my goal when I do it), is not necessarily to “catch” cops misbehaving and cause them trouble. It’s to use the threat of that trouble to deter them from mis-behaving in the first place. Obviously, it’s hard to measure the effect the camera has. But anecdotally, I’ve heard enough people say that the cops immediately became less intimidating and more respectful when we showed up with cameras, that I believe the effect is real and positive.

    Question Three: “How can the work of copwatch be pushed beyond only policing cops?”

    There’s nothing to say that copwatch groups only ever go on patrol. Some groups organize demonstrations, or speak-outs against police abuse. Some lobby for better police oversight. Rose City Copwatch once postered a neighborhood with fliers showing the faces of two killer cops, in an effort to attack their relative anonymity. The possibilities are endless; use your imagination.

    Of course, the actions a group chooses will largely depend on its politics. Some copwatch groups are relatively tame “police accountability” organizations, meaning, in effect, that they want to insure that the police are working within the law. Others come from a more radical, abolition perspective. Still other organizations adopt copwatching as one project among many, or come to it out of a tactical necessity after suffering arrests or police violence in the course of their organizing.

    Question Four: “What strategies and tactics have worked in terms of keeping the police out of the community or preventing attacks or reprisals? One tactic that the Berkeley Copwatch raises is suggesting alternatives to calling the police. Depending on what this means, it can have the effect of broadening and politicizing the work and it hinders the ability of the police. Bring the Ruckus, on their blog, see copwatch as having the capacity to act as a dual power institution though it isn’t elaborated on what this looks like or how successful it has been.”

    Obviously, copwatching on its own is not going to be enough to abolish the police, or even remove them from an area.

    Historically, the police tend to leave areas for one of two reasons: Either they are driven out because it was too dangerous for them (sometimes because of crime; sometimes for political reasons). Or they abandon an area temporarily in order to encourage social decay, eroding political opposition and making it easier for the state when it seeks to regain control.

    I think it’s incumbent upon police-abolition groups to try to develop alternatives to cops and prisons, not only in order to cope with real crime when the cops are gone, but also to undercut the state’s legitimacy now. Rose City Copwatch has been engaged in a long-term program of study, looking at real-world attempts to address crime and provide for public safety without the cops. You can find our overview (draft version), here: http://zinelibrary.info/alternatives-police.

    Clearly there’s a relationship between these various tasks: observing the police to keep them in check; politically abolishing them or (militarily) driving them out of an area; and creating alternative systems of justice. That doesn’t mean, however, that the same organization has to be responsible for all three jobs — or even should be.

    Much of the significance of copwatching– “significance” both as “meaning” and in terms of “success” — will depend on the contexts in which it is done. Copwatching will take on more importance, and be more effective, when the activity is linked, not only to a general critique of policing, but to larger social movements combating inequality, especially those based on race and class.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    Kristian,
    Thanks for your contributions – I generally agree with the points you’re raising. I’m looking forward to reading more of your work – I used American Methods in a talk I gave when we were organizing against the presence of the CIA on campus last spring, and it was very useful. I’m especially looking forward to reading through the Zine ya’ll put together about alternatives to the cops. This is a very urgent question for me and my students as I described in the piece I just posted here on GF ( Fighting Unemployment, Not Each Other). I’ll definitely consider using selections from it in my classes.

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  • http://chicagocopwatch.org Spencer “Thunderball” Thayer

    “While I’m not opposed to activists who are involved or are thinking of becoming involved in copwatch exploring what legal options they have that may allow them to carry weapons in plain view, it isn’t simply about displaying arms.”

    What? When has a Copwatch group ever contemplated used arms? Every premise concluded from this point is nonsense.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    Spencer, I think that comment was describing groups like the Black Panthers who did cop-watches with arms.

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  • http://www.olycopwatch.org Drew Hendricks

    Writing as an individual who has watched cops since 1989 or so, I have to point out the assumption made (and touched on briefly by one or two comments) that Copwatch should be an organization, rather than a tactic. I disagree with that assumption somewhat.

    I practice copwatching as a tactic, and train it that way in my community (Olympia WA).
    Yes, I do identify as an anarchist, but more to the point I’m organizing in a context which has perhaps too much organization mindedness, to the point of persons burning out of political activity because they come into conflict with personalities in their groups. (It’s a politically intense, small college town.) That dynamic in the broader progressive community here has led me to avoid holding Copwatch up as an entity to be joined, or an entity to give someone an identity or lend its permission to observe police. Copwatching in my opinion works best when it is taught as a culture, like security culture. No one would accept a local organization being their community’s “security organizers” and auditing their group’s security needs, so why should we accept this for an essential function such as copwatching? Every picket, every direct action, every demonstration and every trip to the store needs its own copwatching. It is much better if people can spread this function out to the broadest possible number of participants. It is also better if that activity cannot be ‘infiltrated’ by spies and police. (as were the Panthers)

    The best way to make copwatching accountable to and directed by the community is to spread the assumption that it is a tactic to be taken up by whomever needs it. That is not to say that I, as a pink guy cannot use my privileges and perceived ‘whiteness’ as an ally, and it certainly isn’t to say that I get to be an adventurer because I’ve got the video camera in my hands – without regard to the wishes of those organizing the event I came to. But if I can use my privileges as a ‘citizen’ to get lists of who the cops are and what they look like, nearly anyone can use that information from the open source web pages I post it to, and no one needs to ask me for permission to watch cops. Organizing Copwatch as an organization almost always (in my experience) leads to those assumptions being made (can I join? can I watch? How will we decide democratically what to watch?), and leads to overwork for individuals and teams of copwatchers, who then burn out and leave the work undone.

    What is the work? Well, direct observation of police patrols is one common part of it but that only leads to another end – creating indexes of police photos and identities for use by more community members who cannot do that work or don’t know how. Using the Open Records Act and FOIA to gather lists of cops and track those lists for trend information. Gathering digests of police encounters (reports of all tickets and citations and arrests) and auditing them. Gathering the names of persons recently and directly affected and placing them into political context with each other. Documenting and exposing domestic counter insurgency engaged in by the local military intelligence apparatus and college administration. It is placing all of the actions of the police (patrols, arrests, use of force and public affairs management) into political context through public media.

    Some basic rules: “Make it public, make it political. Abuse thrives on isolation. Break that isolation.”

    To quote a famous conservative Jewish theologian; “Persons with no community willing, and able, to defend their rights may be biologically human, but politically they are non persons.”

    The police are the class enemy of organized workers, and as such someone needs to think of them as an occupying military. What is their order of battle? What are their means of communication? How to they gain community support and how can that support be isolated from them? These are intelligence questions, and only an intelligence activity can answer them. To the extent copwatches are organized at all, it should be to answer those questions. But mostly it should be thought of as a tactic, and taught as one, to serve its broadest function.

  • paulwall

    Hey Drew,

    A lot of this I’m still unclear about, but it seems fundamentally that to pose a real challenge to the police it is going to take more than culture or education alone. It will take organization. Will does a great job above of broadening what this challenge means. The post itself takes up the question of the need for active intervention and that video alone will not suffice. (This is a point of contention, however, where some think that the awareness of the police that they are being watched by critical eyes alters their behavior and I believe in some instances that may be true. In many instances the police act with impunity as the MXGM video above demonstrates, as the Oscar Grant murder proves, and as popular culture and reality TV vindicate.) But Will takes this another step further and asks,

    “…how can local organizing develop a mass base for Cop Watch to happen? From what I understand and as Krisna argued, the BPP did this in the context of a mass movement and their own community programs. Is that the answer right in front of my face, that Cop Watch has to start from that community orientation with other programs relating to education, food, healthcare, etc are taken care of as well?

    Can there be a broader campaign to make the streets safer from the police which can involve mass participation, but not have everyone put their bodies on the line Cop Watch style?”
    Now to put this in a more historical lens, whatever kind of organization that poses a challenge to the police whether is within the context of a copwatch alone or a part of a broader community self-help initiative in terms of provision of housing, clothing, shelter, and medical care, the ability to intervene and to impair the functioning of the police will be limited without a movement. To give an example, if the Black Panthers formed today on the same basis as they did in Oakland, CA in 1966, they would not have the same success, support, or growth. People aren’t fighting back the way the did in the 60s and where they are fighting back it is not generalized but relatively isolated. It will truly require a dual power moment where the challenge to state power is on the table. We’re nowhere near that point, unfortunately.

    What I’m not totally clear about is whether you think your particular method is merely adequate to the period we’re living in or whether it works for all time. Where we might agree is that it shouldn’t be overstated what is possible in non/pre-movement times. However, I believe that more can be done now and some are doing it. MXGM has regular patrols, have a high degree of organization and communication, and have a division of labor. RAC does copwatch in tandem with community food programs similar to what the Panthers did. But I know little about RAC’s particular method. MXGM’s particular method I think is great for small groups, but RAC is trying to seriously tackle the question of dual power (as far as I understand it; I agree with Will’s brief definition.)

    With this said, I certainly don’t feel that education on what rights people have, how they can observe the police while minimizing arrest or injury, and encouraging a philosophy of engagement are bad things at all. I just don’t happen to think they can substitute for the work of building organization that does more organized copwatches, creates alternatives to calling police, or reaches out to other organizations doing important work. To me, that’s what broadening the work means. “Every picket, every direct action, every demonstration and every trip to the store needs its own copwatching. It is much better if people can spread this function out to the broadest possible number of participants.” I couldn’t agree with this more, but I don’t think that it is organization as such that has been the obstacle to copwatch, it has been the lack of organization internally, dependence on video, failing to make links to broader community efforts, etc.

    I guess I don’t imagine a more organized copwatch as either antithetical to developing a culture of police resistance, contributing to burnout of activists, or creating an authoritarian dynamic within the communities it works in. I think building sustainable organization is one of the chief obstacles of a lot of the Left today in general. Admittedly I have never been a part of a copwatch organization or group, but having been on the receiving end of police harassment I have tried to exercise the few so-called rights I have. The cops are one of the most powerful organizations of the State and regular people are tasked with posing an organization of their own that is just as powerful although without replicating its racist, patriarchal, and authoritarian character. In my experience with other types of organizing, it has been a lack of a functioning organization that has contributed to burnout.

    The intelligence question is another thing. Why does intelligence gathering need to be organized, but not monitoring/intervening/limiting the police?

    I don’t think this totally gets at all of your points. I’ll have to think about it more.

  • http://kristianwilliams.com Kristian Williams

    I find Drew’s comments perplexing. While I agree, of course, that copwatching can be done outside of a formal organization, Drew seems to push this a step further in suggesting that copwatching works best without any organizations at all.

    Now, on the one hand, I would certainly like to see more people stop and take note when the police are doing their work. And I think that, since the presence of witnesses can shift the dynamics in a specific incident, it seems likely that a broad culture of copwatching would shift the dynamics of policing overall.

    On the other hand, and at the same time, there are numerous manifest advantages to developing and maintaining Copwatch organizations:

    First, it is safer to Copwatch as a group. Groups are harder to intimidate or simply arrest than are lone observers. And stable organizations are better able to respond to harassment when it occurs. An organization can stand ready to aid in the legal deference if one member gets arrested and, more importantly, can make a political issue of it. Cops know this, and so they’re less likely to try bullying an organized group, or taking its camera.

    Second, it’s easier for other people (that is, people who aren’t cops or the Copwatchers) to understand what you’re doing if there are several of you filming and taking notes while wearing “Copwatch” shirts or something else that signals that you’re part of an organization. Otherwise, it looks like you’re just some weirdo with a camera filming the arrest — which may not be exactly welcomed by the person who’s being hassled.

    Third, organizations, at their most basic level, provide a framework for their members to share resources, skills, responsibilities, and work. When an organization is functioning well, it can be smarter, stronger, braver, more reliable, and more efficient than the same number of people working independently.

    While Drew seems to suggest that the informal cultural approach and the formal organizational approach are in some sort of conflict, I see them as being complementary. Formal Copwatch organizations can spread the copwatching tactic both by example and by training members of the public in the relevant skills. Meanwhile, a broadly based, if informal, practice of copwatching demonstrates public suspicion of the police, normalizes the community’s right to observe the police, and in general helps to legitimize the more formal efforts of Copwatch organizations.

    What I don’t see happening is the sort of thing Drew describes: Copwatch groups seeking to monopolize the tactic, or discouraging others from employing it. In fact, all of Drew’s complaints about organizations seem pretty thin to me: Yes, people burn out in organizations, but I think people burn out more in isolation. And yes, organizations inevitably experience internal conflicts, but successful organizations find ways to manage and even grow from them.

    Lastly: No, disorganization is not a protection against repression. A disorganized community may not experience “infiltration” or attract provocateurs in the same way as a formal organization might. But disorganized communities do experience surveillance, snitching, and other forms of disruption. (To take an extreme historical case, consider the extensive neighbors-spying-on-neighbors network established by the East German Stasi.) Besides which, where opposition movements lack organizations, the authorities usually take pains to prevent such organizations from forming. Where there are such organizations, the authorities try to break them up. That’s what the infiltrators and provocateurs are ultimately for. If we decide not to organize, we’re not outsmarting the state, we’re just saving it the trouble of repressing us.

  • Kdog

    Some more history that I didn’t see mentioned above:

    For a time at the height of the Anti-Racist Action Network, Copwatch programs were a major focus of several chapters (Minneapolis, Columbus, Harlem, and possibly others) and had well attended ( 50+) workshops at the annual conferences.

    While not fully elaborated into a strategy, the ARA Copwatch projects naturally tied their efforts into the broader anti-fascist youth scenes and were part of the politicization/education of the ARA base into better understandings of systematic white supremacy.

    (Interestingly, some of the founders of BTR and U&S came out of these projects.)

    Kdog
    Michigan-Minnesota anarchist group
    (personal capacity)

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    K-dog, you’re right some of the first members of Unity and Struggle were involved in antifascist work alongside ARA in the midwest. They linked it to Palestine solidarity organizing. I definitely agree it’s key to link antifa and copwatch work together and to broader community organizing projects.

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  • todd

    I think we have to be careful to pull apart issues of strategy, objective conditions, and ideology. I think some of the comments above merge them a bit.

    There are critiques of copwatch given that argue that having an initial group be all white or not having enough diversity explains or is a factor in it not being successful as a movement. While this is probably a factor, its not really a useful critique since it is so broad we don’t really learn anything. There are projects that start that way that do work, what makes this one fail then? I worry that sometimes we use general critiques as responses, but in doing so we don’t look deeper to learn the real lessons about organizing. A counter example would be that there’s lots of unions that have all white staff, but successfully mobilize majority people of color workplaces. Not that that’s what we want to build, but I actually think the racial composition of the organizers in an initial organizing campaign has much less to do with the class and power dynamics of race than is sometimes argued. The real questions of race come out in practice and in the context of the struggle, not just through doing a head count.

    Secondly there’s a suggestion that copwatch will continue to be small because it’s not movement times. This is a chicken-or-the-egg situation to me. Realistically organizers have an impact on history, and though we can’t control or predict high points of struggle, we have an obligation to try. Copwatch is small because its small. It could be that they successfully flip a community. Whatever the explanation is, it needs to look at the conditions and not just the general mood. Though the general mood can help us get a broad picture for sure.

    Personally I’m skeptical about copwatch efforts. Activists are obsessed with the police because they are the most visible and heinous figures of the state and for their repressive role in the most oppressed sections of the working and underclasses. Still, the civil rights era everyone looks to had particular conditions that have changed. Police repression and racism exist, but there’s no longer the uniformity in the application that existed under segregation and that’s because the civil rights struggle forced them to give some concessions.

    In our time the oppressed classes have a contradictory relationship with the police. In my neighborhood all the older people love the police and will call at an instant, and have serious hostility towards the youth in the neighborhood. Youth broadly have hostility to the police, but it runs the gamut. There are allies of the police in neighborhoods, and real division over their role in oppressed communities.

    The problem with police-based organizing in our time is that I think it’s hard to organize a mass movement around it for a number of reasons. For one, it involves a significant risk for people to step forward. That’s true of all organizing, but particularly with the police. Realistically taking on the police would imply all out war, and its not something that you could leave behind or let you’re guard down about. Its one thing if the clan is riding, race riots are exploding everywhere, and you have a decade of civil rights struggle. Today is different however.

    Second, unlike say housing, workplace, or transit organizing against the police is largely a defensive act and the power relations reflect that. While its easy for radicals to think about replacing the police, that’s a bigger logical leap than say winning better working conditions. Except in exceptional times when police terrorism is so great you can’t do anything else, I think people are less tied to their oppression by the police than they are the class oppression of work, housing, etc. That is, except in times where police terrorism makes it unlivable. What we see is that anti-police movements rise and fall with repression. But police aren’t dumb either, they stay out of people’s way enough to keep movements at bay.

    In general, I think copwatch tends to be expressions of activist projects that target police. I think under the right conditions we could see neighborhood based anti-police activity grow, but I’m skeptical about prioritizing that work as our primary movement building activity.

  • http://ellapelea.wordpress.com Krisna

    Hey todd,

    I think principle, strategy, and objective conditions are all distinct things and I appreciate the attempt to take those things up on their own. At the same time, and you do acknowledge this elsewhere in your comment, they can’t be completely separated as principles and strategies each can be become objective forces themselves and can change what was objective before. There’s a dialectical relationship between these questions.

    I also agree with your point about challenging race through the work of actual organizing. It isn’t elaborated above and it can seem like liberal representation politics, when I think, as Steve Biko says, “The one criterion that must govern all our action is commitment.”

    At the same time we have to acknowledge that communities of color are bearing the brunt of increasing police repression in California, Seattle, Houston, and throughout the country. The attempt to offer a challenge to police brutality and harassment has to come from within those communities. What does it mean for folks who aren’t from the hoods and barrios to be organizing there? Does it mean that they shouldn’t or, if they are going to organize there, that they reach out to the community and try to draw them into the fight. As far as I understand, many copwatches are limited to just the form of organization, not as being a flashpoint for wider rebellion which would come as a result of planting roots in the community and socializing confrontation with the police. But as a matter of principle, I think it means something for everyday people to be involved in fighting their own battles lest copwatching become a spectacle which so much of it has been.

    In terms of strategic priorities, it is been the organizing against police brutality in the Bay and Seattle particularly that are organic outgrowths of ongoing struggles against budget cuts and workplace struggle. I agree that organizing against the police is its own ballgame, but at the same time seeing anti-police work as not strategic right now is abstracting away both its relationship to mass struggle and its potential for pushing forward the struggle.

    In Seattle, comrades there have strategically oriented toward anti-police work recently because the custodian organizing at the UW has been grossly repressed by management. Meetings have been infiltrated, workers followed and harassed, creating an atmosphere of fear and hesitancy to continue fighting. This has created the very objective need to begin taking up beating back the cops because it can open up the possibility of bringing in broader layers of the community which can breathe new life into renewed custodian and other workplace struggle. In California this has had similar implications but somewhat different.

  • todd

    Krisna, I think we’re on the same page. Anti-police work is definately a necessary element of our movement, and you’re perspective is solid. In general I think organizing that emerges out of challenges and opportunities that arise in struggle tends to be more organic and robust.