Documenting the Little Abuses: Copwatching, Community Organizing, and Video Activism
The ascent of affordable video technology assists in propelling movements for self-determination and self-respect.
“The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs.”
-- Susan Sontag (Regarding the Pain of Others, 89)
Within the last few years an interminable stream of images of young, working-class, black men being killed by the police have flooded commercial and social media. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Mike Brown. Laquan McDonald. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Samuel DuBose. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Images of black men being gunned down repeated over and over again in an endless cycle like a bloodthirsty glitch, their bodies being sacrificed a second time over the airwaves in the search for ratings and outrage. Surveillance and spectacle suddenly converge, a logical outgrowth of a post-industrial capitalist society, as Susan Sontag once mused in her 1977 book, On Photography.
Yet years later, Sontag questioned some of her assumptions of her earlier book -- particularly how it suggested that images of suffering might pierce the psyche and move one to action. She now posed that the danger might not be that people only remember through photographs, but that they only remember the photographs. The same can be said about the recent spate of videos marking police violence against poor, black men. Although such footage might lead one to outrage, compassion, and/or anger, Sontag cautioned that emotion “needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated” (Regarding the Pain 101). If left unattended, untranslated into action, cynicism and apathy arise.
Although the rise of such videos have led to some circumscribed questions regarding police accountability, public access to such footage, and the ethics of implementing body cameras, much less explored are the ways in which local communities are rallying against intimidation by the state through collective organizing and the use of digital technology. Or when such issues are addressed by the mainstream press, it is often done on a superficial level, hastily reduced to an image of a roving band of mostly young men patrolling nighttime streets in search of documenting police intimidation and abuse. These are the copwatchers: a digitized 2.0 version of the type of counter-surveillance that the Black Panthers had mastered back in the late '60s.
Yet there's a much longer and richer history that connects to the present moment of copwatching. Also, much present day copwatching is connected to a thicker network of organizations that are involved in wider issues like challenging the global surveillance, gentrification, depreciating wages, and unemployment that accompany neoliberal practices. I would like to offer a brief sketch of some of these histories and the broader outlook that some copwatch groups hold. It's an attempt to move beyond the image and outside the frame to the actual practices that undergird recent copwatching.
Copwatching has a long history in the United States. As video grew less expensive with the rise of the camcorder in the '80s, copwatching became more integrated into other forms of activism. ACT UP mastered the use of counter-surveillance video in attempts to ward off violence against direct action protesters and, if need be, capture abuses by the police that could then be used in courtrooms to hold officers accountable as well as clear protesters of inflated or imaginary charges. Such technology made its way into the hands of everyday people and led to the first mass circulation by commercial television of homemade footage documenting police abuse: George Holliday’s 1991 video of the beating of Rodney King. (Though one should recall that the very same footage that initially seemed to reveal abuse was later reframed in a court of law under the twisted and convoluted logic of the defense to exonerate the police and justify their use of force).
The first self-named “copwatch” group began in Berkeley, California in 1990 by Andrea Pritchett in response to the police harassing homeless people. It still thrives and continues to influence people. For example, Jacob Crawford joined the group in 2000 and made the training video These Streets are Watching (2003). With the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, Crawford flew out to the city to assist and met David Whitt, who helped found the copwatch group, The Canfield Watchmen. Crawford’s organization, WeCopwatch, travels the country to assist various grassroots groups with copwatch efforts -- a particularly vital resource for small and isolated communities that might lack vital resources to initiate such a project.
Equally important to understand recent forms of copwatching are the earlier efforts by Third Cinema directors to connect filmmaking with activism and everyday people. Although the prohibitive costs of filmmaking in the '60s and '70s largely prevented most historically disenfranchised communities from engaging in any sustained form of revolutionary filmmaking, Third Cinema directors nonetheless theorized what a cinema belonging to the people might look like. Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino stated that Third Cinema needed to serve as a “detonator or pretext” for people to engage in social struggles (“Towards a Third Cinema”, Film and Theory: An Anthology, 283). Julio García Espinosa presciently wrote in “For an Imperfect Cinema”:
Imperfect cinema finds a new audience in those who struggle, and it finds its themes in their problems. For imperfect cinema, ‘lucid’ people are the ones who think and feel and exist in a world which they can change; in spite of all the problems and difficulties, they are convinced that they can transform it in a revolutionary way. Imperfect cinema therefore has no need to struggle to create an ‘audience.’ On the contrary, it can be said that at present a greater audience exists for this kind of cinema than there are filmmakers able to supply that audience. (Film and Theory: An Anthology, 295).
Yet this vision could only become a reality fairly recently as more affordable digital technology emerged and converged within discrete handheld devices like cellphones. Although many copwatch groups and other variants of video activists remain unaware of the inheritances of Third Cinema upon their practices, as Michael Chanan has noted, “they are recreating in new and expanded conditions a phenomenon which has been seen before, several times over -- because video creates cultural space that answers to real social and political needs” (Tales of a Video Blogger, 31-32).
However, other radical traditions do more directly inform some copwatching groups. El Grito de Sunset Park, which I will mainly focus upon throughout the remainder of this essay, is influenced by both domestic and international resistance movements. The group is located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a quickly gentrifying neighborhood located just downstream of Park Slope, a hipster haven that menacingly crouches along its northern border. El Grito is a Puerto Rican group, which has evolved into a more general Latino group with deep ties to the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican radical organization that emerged in the late '60s in part modelled on the Black Panthers. The Lords organized against police violence and advocated for self-determination by running free breakfast programs for kids, an educational center, organizing health care workers, and doing prison support. They championed a position of revolutionary nationalism where they celebrated Puerto Rican culture not over others, but instead to serve as a catalyst in mobilizing other neglected communities of color.
Although the Young Lords were a strong presence only until 1972, some of their core organizers like Richie Perez and Vicente “Panama” Alba became founders of many other organizations in the New York City area during the '80s and '90s such as the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights in 1981 and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in 1995. In 1994 and 1995, “Panama” reached out to the leadership of various NYC Latino gangs to organize against police violence. Dennis Flores, a founding member of El Grito de Sunset Park, was one of those members. As he recalls, “Richie Perez and Panama brought people together, you know, and basically got all the leadership to meet and create a truce. He pointed out that it’s the system’s fault that has us pitted against each other. Instead, let’s organize against police abuse, which we did.” Monifa Bandele of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement similarly reflects, “He took young organizers all night long in an office and talked about strategies, speaking about history. One of the things that would happen at mobilizations was that former gang members would work with community organizers.”
Flores was also influenced by international resistance struggles such as the teacher protests in Oaxaca, Mexico during 2006-2007, where he spent some time. He notes, “The stuff we were seeing was how they were working collectively, a bunch of organizations working collectively using the media. They were citizen journalists documenting stuff, exposing the violence and repression. It felt like an extension of copwatch.” Also, he felt emotionally connected with the Oaxacan people: “I was out there during the day of the dead, which resonated with my experience, my indigenous and African roots and traditions of honoring the dead. I got to see death in Mexico. It helped center me about what was important, about what was worth fighting for. It changed my whole outlook on how I organized and what I was trying to build.”
Similarly, Jason Del Aguila, a cofounder of El Grito, also did organizing work in Guatemala, home of his parents, and El Salvador. He worked with h.i.j.o.s, a group fighting against the forgetting and silencing of those who have been disappeared in both nations. He reflects, “Guatemala already has a history of social movements and resistance and organizing. And now they’re adding these new artistic cultural elements to it [like hip hop and punk rock]. And I could identify with all of it, and that’s where I got my organizing/activism boot camp.”
El Grito’s very name refers to earlier anticolonial revolts like El Grito de Lares, an uprising on the island of Puerto Rico in 1868 of poor people to abolish slavery and rid Spanish colonialism. As Claudio Gaete-Tapia, another core member of El Grito, observes, “During colonial times for the past 500 years there has always been a shout, an outcry. So even if you’re outnumbered and outgunned and outspent, there are some things you don’t put up with. The indignity is non-negotiable. It is a really human thing. So that’s the people -- the scream. It is a communal scream.”
The original impetus for copwatching in Sunset Park emerged much earlier from a need to keep the police from harassing celebrants of the Puerto Rican Day parade that overflowed from Manhattan into Brooklyn. Copwatching was initially a yearly event in the early '00s. But as Flores and Del Aguila began to speak more in-depth with their neighbors, they realized more regularized copwatching was needed as well as more substantive community organizing like they had engaged with in Latin America. Del Aguila comments, “We ended up catching more injustices in the neighborhood whether it be slumlords or police or people targeted by jobs for documentation issues. We saw these things build up. They are landing in our lap, and we can do something about it.” They became a more permanent organization in 2013 and only in 2015 achieved a 501c3, nonprofit status.
Not surprisingly, many of their videos concern issues that lie beyond the limited parameters of copwatching. For example, they and Occupy Sunset Park teamed up with the Sunset Park Rent Strikers in 2012. Three buildings on 46th street in Sunset Park had been in extreme states of disrepair, contaminated with asbestos, rats, and mold, lacking heat in the winter, and overflowing with garbage in its basements. The tenants went on strike as a response. Around two weeks afterwards, Gaete-Tapia remembers, “We went over there to see what is going on, learn about their organizing and share with people our experience. We want to help them with direct action and figure out how we are going to do it. They were going to be evicted. We brought some cameras in and pushed the envelope and got people engaged in their own fight. You know, Dennis started filming and bringing attention, and then they reacted, and we drew attention to who was behind it.” Because Flores and Del Aguila had vast experience with organizing, they helped the rent strikers strategize. Similarly, Gaete-Tapia is an urban planner, so he would help the tenants negotiate the city bureaucracy. He stresses how they emphasized to the rent strikers that change “doesn’t happen in one meeting. This happens by withholding your rent, forming a union, an association. Then we got them legal help.”
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El Grito helped publicize the issue by drawing the local news to the issue, creating an art exhibit where they featured the photos they took of the deplorable conditions of the buildings, and establishing a Facebook page. Dennis notes that El Grito “uses art to document with cameras -- photojournalism and documentary filmmaking to use and expose to share information with the general public ... We organized art exhibits with the photos we have taken, seeing it as a tool for engaging the public in terms of art. We look for ways in which our presentation can be successful and how to mobilize a community to take a stand. One of the ways has to be through art.”
The Facebook page created a space where videos, pictures, news coverage, and activist events converged. For example, a 31 October 2014 entry has nine photos that document the substandard living conditions of the buildings and apartments. Underneath them reads: “What if you didn't have to leave home to find a scary house on Halloween? Tenants have been living in a house of horrors caused by devilish landlords, ghostly speculators, evil spells cast by unscrupulous lenders and hobgoblins looking to gobble up their homes.” Afterwards, it lists the organizations forming a coalition around this issue. Finally, it announces a protest occurring the same day at the buildings at 3:30PM.