“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.
Page 2: Testimony
As Tina Askanius has emphasized, social media has proven important in extending struggles on the street into cyberspace on a symbolic realm. Although one doesn’t want to over-idealize such uses of social media (and plenty of activists have questioned how wise it is to use commercial platforms with their vast surveillance mechanism, data mining, and copyright issues), social media platforms can become centralized forums where information can be found, solidarity can be expressed, and actions declared that build off of on-the-ground community organizing. As the above example suggests, organizing over social media does not just chronicle ills occurring in the past and present, but also points forward in regards to future mobilizations (Tina Askanius, “Protest Movements and Spectacles of Death,” 114).
Additionally, social media provides “crucial emotional conduits through which organizers have condensed individual sentiments or indignation, anger, pride and a sense of shared victimhood and transformed them into political passions driving the process of mobilizations” (Paolo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets, 14). The Sunset Park Rent Strikers particularly mobilize on the notion of shame, of exposing the substandard living conditions through photography and video that their slumlord imposes upon them.
For example, El Grito produced a video for the Facebook page. Although only three minutes in length, it quickly establishes Flores’ expertise as a filmmaker not only in its high production quality, but also in its succinct editing and careful framing. It begins with a piercing noise like that of tinnitus as the camera tilts down from the top of the building and descends down some cement stairs into the basement like a voyage into rental hell. The discordant noise is soon matched with a visual cacophony of a mountain of trash and crumbling walls of the basement. A low guttural noise follows on the soundtrack. The sequence cuts to a discarded, broken porcelain sink on the floor.
Immediately contrasting this dark imagery are shots of a close-up of a goldfish in a tank, a religious saint bric-a-brac, and some dolls on a table as the camera pulls back to show the inside of a tenant’s apartment lying directly across from the rubble in the basement. A woman’s voiceover speaks in Spanish: “Here lives a family. This is part of the basement. A family with kids and a woman soon to give birth. In front of this door, there is a basement full of garbage infested with rats and insects. This is an injustice.”
In a quick duration of shots, the video economically not only establishes the poor living conditions of the building, but also the humanity of the tenants through close-ups of their belongings like religious items, pets, and toys while one of the tenants describes the landlord’s neglect. The video continues with other tenants speaking to the news while we watch additional shots of deteriorating and cramped apartments with crumbling walls, moldy ceilings, and asbestos crumbling insulation follow.
Testimony is an important device in much activist documentary since, as Patricia Zimmerman notes, it provides “a way of opening up the repressed trauma to enter history again” (States of Emergency, 63-64). Testimony is the first step of allowing people to seize back a sense of agency and perhaps mobilize collectively. Although when the video was shot, the tenants had only just begun to organize themselves, the video’s use of editing that connects various tenants’ voices together with images of languishing apartments asserts a collective vision. Testimonies allow individual traumas to coalesce into a collective understanding and political action.
Furthermore, the video attempts to publicly shame the landlord. The importance of affect should not be underestimated, since it’s one of the strengths of using art for activism. As Sara Ahmed points out, emotions and affects are socially constituted. They both define and traverse social and individual realms. They also help establish hierarchies and define boundaries. She writes, “Emotions are not simply something ‘I’ or ‘we’ have. Rather, it is through emotions, of how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces and boundaries are made …” (The Cultural Politics of Emotions, 10). Art, therefore, plays a central role in mobilizing emotions in either a progressive or regressive fashion. Activist video, for example, is often employed to relate a sense of collectivity and the shared emotion its participants feel.
In the case of the Rent Strikers video, the primary emotion is outrage and shame. According to Ahmed, shame is a powerful emotion that implicitly suggests the failure to approximate an ideal by the person who is the object of that shame. The video witnesses the deplorable conditions of the apartments and buildings, drawing attention from local news agencies, since the ideal of adequate housing is clearly not being met by the owner. Shame is supposed to create discomfort within the one being shamed so he/she becomes uncomfortable within his/her own skin and perhaps lead to action.
Although such an emotional tactic was important in mobilizing tenants and making the local news to report on such conditions, it so far has been rather ineffective in improving the tenants’ living conditions, since the object of shame remains conveniently hidden from view and keeps changing. The three buildings’ original owner, Orazio Petito, is sadly not unique in his neglect. Matter of fact, divestment is a structural principle used by many landlords in their quest to gentrify neighborhoods. As geographer Neil Smith points out, landlords “pocket the money that should have gone to repairs and upkeep; second, having effectively destroyed the building and established a rent gap [between the potential rent one can pay and the actual capitalized ground rent under use], they have produced for themselves the conditions and opportunity for a whole new round of capital investment” (The New Urban Frontier, 23).
Divestment, in other words, becomes a multipronged tactic by landlords to not only pocket money that should have went into repairs, but also to create the conditions to sell their property to developers while also establishing insufferable living conditions that would clear their buildings of pesky working-class tenants for more upscale clientele who could afford paying higher rents once the buildings are renovated. The buildings in Sunset Park have now been in receivership for the past three years with rotating owners who briefly purchase the buildings to flip them for a profit rather than improve their conditions. Although the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has cleared some of the trash from them, the conditions nonetheless remain deplorable with tenants refusing to pay rent until a landlord finally commits to renovating the buildings.
In many ways, the Sunset Park Rent Strikers draw attention to the gentrification, neglect, and outright hostility directed towards working-class people that defines New York City and many other urban areas across the United States. It’s a part of a larger neoliberal outlook that replaces social welfare with incarceration and repression against mainly poor communities of color in order to displace them from locales that developers believe can yield immense profits. It’s also more generally a management tactic used by the wealthy and upper-middle class on working-class people who have been economically disenfranchised by falling wages and rising precarious employment.
Sociologist Loic Wacquant has succinctly summarized this neoliberal outlook in his book Punishing the Poor: the rise of the penal state in the United States is not in response to crime, but instead “to the dislocations provoked by the social and urban retrenchment of the state and by the imposition of precarious wage labor as a new norm of citizenship for those trapped at the bottom of the polarizing class structure” (xv). For example, in 1980, the United States invested $6.9 billion in corrections and $27.4 billion in public housing. By 1990, $26.1 billion was invested in corrections while public housing only received $10.6 billion. Conditions have only grown worse as Bill Clinton drastically cut welfare and simultaneously increased harsh prison sentencing. The prison-industrial complex has become the new form of public housing. Poverty itself has become criminalized rather than something that should be eliminated.
Nothing perhaps better represented the criminalization of poverty than Broken Windows policing that police commissioner William Bratton applied in New York City during the mid-’90s. In essence, the Broken Windows theory suggests that major crimes and felonies can be curbed if the police start focusing on minor infractions. (In NYPD jargon, such infractions are called quality-of-life misdemeanors). Little to no evidence suggested at the time that Broken Windows policing was effective. For example, during the ’90s, states where Broken Windows was not applied had a similar reduction in crime as states where it was enforced (Marc Lamont Hill, Nobody, 45). In a June 2016 report, the Office of the Inspector General of the NYPD, an office created from a 2013 court ruling against stop-and-frisk policing, declared that there was “no evidence to suggest that crime control can be directly attributed to quality-of-life summonses and misdemeanor arrests” (An Analysis of Quality-of-Life Misdemeanor Arrests, and Felony Crime in New York City, 2010-2015, 3). Furthermore, the report also hinted at the discriminatory nature of such policing being primarily enacted on poor black and Hispanic males aged 15-20.
Although long denied by the NYPD despite various testimonies of police stating otherwise as well as recorded evidence, a quota system prevails that requires police to summons and ticket a certain number of individuals each month regardless of how valid the charge. The most vulnerable become regular targets with such Broken Windows policing since they have the least amount of resources to defend themselves, often tend to not know their rights, and most likely lack any powerful connections. The facts bear this out. In 2011 during the height of stop-and-frisk, the number of stops of young black men exceeded their entire population in the city: 168,000 stops in a population of 158,406 (PROP, “The Case Against the NYPD’s Quota-Driven’Broken Windows’). Even after the supposed end of racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policing, in 2014, of the 222, 851 misdemeanor arrests by the NYPD, 86 percent involved people of color.
Although Bratton had been dismissed from his job by Rudolph Giuliani in 1996, Broken Windows policing persisted. Later, Bratton was reinstated as police commissioner in New York City by supposed liberal mayor Bill de Blasio in 2013. In the meantime, Bratton was fine tuning his Broken Windows policing and repression against the poor of Skid Row in Los Angeles during his stint as police commissioner from 2002 until 2009. As George Lipsitz observed about Bratton’s tenure in L.A., “Policing poor people and taxing their time appear as cheaper options to city officials than building affordable housing, providing physical and psychological health services, enforcing civil rights laws, and paying workers a living wage” (“Policing Place and Taxing Time on Skid Row,” 130).
Many copwatchers and community organizers within NYC fully understand how Broken Windows policing, racism, gentrification, and the disenfranchisement of the working-class all mutually reinforce one another. Josmar Trujillo, a member of Copwatch Patrol Unit and founder of the Coalition to End Broken Windows Policing, has reported on how the Police Foundation, a nonprofit that serves the NYPD, regularly invites real-estate developers to its functions. At one of them, “an audience was shown a map of geographical drops in crime alongside a map showcasing an accompanying rise in property value in the same neighborhood” (“Militarized Policing, Gentrifying City”).
Mayor de Blasio is also well-known for having deep ties to real-estate developers. His supposed affordable housing initiative to build 80,000 units of below-market rate units in the next ten years is plagued by a free market outlook that refuses to acknowledge the necessity of rent control, refuses to pay union wages to building contractors, offers massive tax breaks to developers for building such units, and proposes an unrealistically high median income for locations where wages have stagnated for decades, among many other problems.
According to Trujillo, “Bratton represents the coming together of two type of interests. One: militarized policing with the use of surveillance, informed by military computer algorithms to predict where future attacks would occur. Bratton’s Deputy Commissioner is John Miller [who had worked for the FBI]. Two: Bratton was a choice of the superrich. What makes everything move here is real estate. He was favored by all real estate developers… In order to have business and shopping and gluten-free salads and other shit you need people who can afford it, and that is the connection between policing and gentrification. The changes that we see in terms of housing and gentrification are inextricable from the crushing of poor people and the crushing of a specific class and raced group.”
So one must understand copwatching as only one aspect of local resistance against a neoliberal outlook that eviscerates wages and welfare benefits, privatizes public space, enforces discriminatory Broken Windows policing, and gentrifies working-class communities of color. A fairly representative type of copwatching is found on Dennis Flores YouTube page. 7-19-2012 COPWATCH Films NYPD Transit Cop Assualting has over 284,000 views, the most of any video on it. It should be noted that the transit police conduct the largest amount of arrests and summonses regarding “theft of service”, such as jumping subway turnstiles. According to one report, in 2015 there were 29,000 arrests and 124,000 summonses involving 92 percent of people of color. Transit cops typically target subway stops in working-class neighborhoods of color in Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, and the Bronx since such harassment is largely unchallenged by busy commuters who possess limited resources.
Page 3: Camera on Camera
Like much copwatching, the video is captured by a bystander waiting for the train on his cellphone. The footage is extremely shaky as it films down the stop’s platform watching a transit officer approach a short, young Hispanic male in his late teens to early 20s. Two young Hispanic males sit on a bench in the foreground watching the action take place. The framing is strangely reminiscent of the Lumiere’s “Arrival of a Train” (1895), serving as a modern day version of early cinema that is now in the hands of the bystander and where the regularity of the arrival of a train is unfortunately substituted with the police harassment of young men of color.
The camera maintains its distance but zooms in on the white officer spreading the young man’s arms against the wall. Some indecipherable words are exchanged by the cop as he pats the man down. He checks the man’s cargo pants, but as he gets to the front of them, the Hispanic male jumps, causing the cop to soon grab him by the shoulders and slam him to the ground. The man attempts to stand. The police officer lifts him off the ground and slams him back into the ground again.
As they struggle on the ground, a second young Hispanic male walks closer to the incident, directly filming the cop from his phone. His presence serves two purposes. First, it’s fairly typical of copwatchers to have two cameras filming. One films the incident while another films the camera filming the incident. This allows one to see if the police harass the person doing the filming. Furthermore, if the cops decide to arrest the person filming (and often destroy the footage in the process), the second camera can document it and flee with its footage.
Second, the youth filming close to the incident is using his camera’s presence to mediate the cop’s actions. Although originally the cop might not have been aware of a camera filming him, he is now on notice. The use of the camera to partially intervene during a political action or arrest is fairly typical for activist video. Film theorist Patricia Zimmerman notes how we must distinguish between two different spaces: the space of the political where the action and arrest is occurring and the space of the film that is recording it and partially intervening. Zimmerman notes how the camera is “recast as a membrane, a permeable surface through which relations between and alongside maker and subject pass and commingle. The camera does not provoke; rather, it is the site for a multilayered negotiation and exchange between subjects and makers …” (States of Emergency, 95).
We witness this multilayered negotiation through the reactions of the police officer and Hispanic youth being apprehended. As soon as the officer becomes aware of the camera, he begins to articulate his words more clearly, yelling, “Stop resisting.” The man, also aware of the camera, replies, “But I am not resisting.” As the officer tussles with the man, the young Hispanic man yells, “You got that on video, right?”
In essence, both the officer and detainee start performing before the camera filming them, knowing clearly that it can serve as evidence to either condemn or exonerate their actions. As the officer picks up the young man and walks towards both cameras, he tries to articulate over the roar of passing trains, “I asked you a thousand times … [indecipherable] get your ticket out … [indecipherable].” The person filming close to the officer follows him as he passes while the first camera continues to watch the officer approach and pass him. Tellingly, the cop pretends to not notice the camera. The camera also shoots towards the cop’s chest to get his badge number.
As the officer passes, the first camera person asks, “What’s your name officer?” since under NYPD code an officer has to provide his name and badge number when asked. The young man being apprehended responds, “Yo, ask him his name,” causing the filmmaker to stand and ask for the officer’s name again along with what command he is with. This is an interesting moment of intervention, something that El Grito attempts to avoid. Dennis Flores notes, “I am looking to de-escalate and document now. When I started doing this 20 years ago, I was a lot more confrontational. I wanted to film the cops and kind of like push back; and I still want to push back, that hasn’t changed. But I want to be smarter about it. We need to document them being what they are, not interjecting. I am going to observe and not try to participate in any way. As a right to observe and turn the camera on provokes the police enough.”
Many other groups like Copwatch Patrol Unit are much more directly confrontational, which I don’t have time to speak about here. But I would like to briefly mark how aggressive interactions with the police bring to the foreground the gendered nature of much copwatching, not only in the fact that mostly men participate within it, but also regarding the performance of masculinity by the copwatchers themselves behind the camera and what that means.
Despite intentions of not wanting to intervene on El Grito’s part, this video clearly exhibits how the moment dictates some minimal interaction by the cameraperson in order to properly document the officer’s name, badge number, and unit. Both cameras wedge the officer in between them — one stands behind him and the other one in front — as the questioning by the filmmaker gets more insistent: “What’s your name? What’s your name officer?” The cop objects that they are interfering with police work. But the camera person states: “I’m not interfering, officer. I just want to know your name.” Meanwhile, the young man apprehended encourages the videographer to ask the cop his name as he struggles against the officer tugging him forward. The camera person warns him to not resist.
The handheld roughly shot nature of the video in many ways creates a sense of what Roger Hallas calls embodied immediacy, which conveys “the urgent, visceral sense of the here and now” (Reframing Bodies, 31). The videomaker is immersed in the moment though not entirely a part of it. The very roughness of the video has also become a signature style of much activist video and photography addressing atrocities and wrongdoings. As Susan Sontag notes, “People want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance” (Regarding the Pain of Others, 26-27).
Frustrated with the whole moment, the officer accidentally drops his badge from his uniform. The camera closer to the cop approaches the badge to document it while the other filmmaker warns him: “Don’t touch it don’t touch it don’t touch it.” As the cop calls in on his radio, the kid apprehended restates his case before the camera: “We’re supposed to get protected by this, and you fucking slamming me on the floor, dude. Come on, bro.” While he speaks, the initial camera walks to the badge to also film it in close-up.
As the situation winds down, the cameraperson asks the kid, “Se habla espanol?” The kid refers affirmatively. In response, the cameraman directs him: “No diga mas nada. Dile que quiero un abagado.” (“Don’t say anything more. Tell him I want a laywer.”). The officer remains strangely silent during this exchange and walks off with the kid as the second camera follows him.
Once again, we witness the permeable membrane of the camera that wants to document the event, but also intervene on the man’s behalf so he knows his rights and doesn’t offer any self-incriminating evidence. Just as the camera provides a sense of empowerment and protection, Spanish functions in a similar way, assuming that the police officer doesn’t understand it. Both verbal and visual acuity converge to create a sense of solidarity between copwatcher and the one being apprehended. Tellingly, as the video progresses, the cop’s actions become more subdued and he speaks less. We are witnessing the balance of power shift to a certain degree.
The YouTube page where the video is posted has hundreds of comments, mostly supportive. Although there are a couple who defend the police, many of the comments express solidarity with the arrested, with similar tales of harassment. They also provide telling close-readings of the video. For example, in response to a commentor who claims that the officer did nothing wrong, one user responds: “at 0;40 the cop has his hands between the boys legs and the boy reacts to his private parts being fondled. notice people that the young man has his hands still against the wall. the young man is reacting to an illegal indecent search. and he gets abused for refusing to be searched in this manner. hate the cops.” Yet an earlier user questions the partial nature of the video: “yea because the video only shows an officer using some force on someone. Nothing existed before this video. These two just appeared out of thin air with the officer chasing him for no reason what so ever.”
Such comments show how the YouTube page provides a useful forum in terms of analyzing copwatching videos and their relationship to the events transpiring. Also, it clearly establishes a sense of solidarity among the many members who have experienced police harassment. Yet one doesn’t want to over-valorize the importance of the YouTube page. It’s a good platform to approximate some discussions occurring within the community, but it hardly touches upon the on-the-ground organizing, planning, and relationships that El Grito forges daily. As Claudio Gaete-Tapia cautions, “Your electrical device is only as important as the networks that it creates. If it is connected, but you aren’t connected to anyone, what good is it? If you are connected to someone who already has an established relationship, it is that much stronger. It’s not an either/or. It is what machines are supposed to be for: to help out.”
YouTube is only one of many ways in which El Grito distributes its videos. For example, they have projected videos on buildings in Sunset Park to organize know your rights and copwatch trainings around them. Del Aguila reflects that part of the reason for using the projector was “when you’re handing out a flyer, people will take it but toss it. It is us asking them to take a moment. With projection, they come to us. They want to know what it is. It is outreach without really outreaching. You put something up dope, and now we know who our audience is. I don’t know about it being more effective, but it is a bigger scale of outreaching. Those people who would have taken a half an hour to convince to get interested are now standing before us. The first time we did it, the crowd was so big, the police drove by and were wondering what was going on. The police were shocked, intimidated, and impressed.”
One should stress the deep ties that El Grito had already forged with the community before doing such video projections. So when they decided to engage in projection, they weren’t some outsiders invading Sunset Park, but were already fairly well-respected community members, organizers, and media makers.
Furthermore, it should be stressed that projecting such images of copwatching on buildings is a reclamation of public space. It’s demonstrating in its very action the type of self-determination and autonomy that copwatching wants the local community to embody. Similar to the Black Panthers and Young Lords, it demonstrates exemplary work: “to demonstrate to the community that, if it exercised its power and stood on its rights, and prepared to defend itself ‘by all means necessary,’ the immediate forms of oppression could be held at bay. In this way, a powerless community, schooled to the mentality of colonial subordination, could be transformed into an organized, self-conscious, active social force” (Policing the Crisis, 388). The fact that the police did not intervene during the projection, did not question if El Grito had a permit and or try to catch them violating any petty technicalities demonstrates the power of the group to the community. Although skills sharing and training was its most obvious task, the very fact of showing a group that can reclaim the streets without the cops harassing them also speaks volumes.
The control of public space should not be underestimated. As Murray Bookchin emphasizes, “Ultimately, it is in the streets that power must be dissolved: for the streets, where daily life is endured, suffered and eroded, and where power is confronted and fought, must be turned into the domain where daily life is enjoyed, created and nourished” (Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 15). The streets are where abstract issues are made concrete. For example, in the aforementioned example, one witnesses self-determination and autonomy in action in the ways in which El Grito reclaims buildings and the streets to project videos and engage in copwatch skills sharing.
Along similar lines, El Grito sees their actions around the Puerto Rican Day parade as equally important and highly symbolically charged. Their video Copwatch June 8th 2014 emphasizes the battle over the streets with the police. The video begins with handheld footage documenting a highly heated discussion between a police officer and Enrique Del Rosario, a 17-year-old resident. The camera swivels to a white cop putting his hand before the camera, complaining, “Put that down outta’ my face. It’s illegal to photograph.” The camera person yells back, “No it’s not illegal no it’s not illegal” while the camera tilts backwards towards the sky to avoid the cop’s reach.
Page 4: “… the ground is where the bodies are”
Already the video marks the struggle over both physical and symbolic terrain with the police. Just as the police are attempting to intimidate festivalgoers on the street, they are also attempting to wrest control over the video documentation of such struggles by falsely claiming that photography is a crime. The terrain between the political and filmic temporarily collapses as the police redirect their gaze and actions away from boisterous celebrants of the festival to the videographer. Any sense of agency on the locals’ part — whether it be dancing in the streets or filming the cops — are being contested by the police. Videomaking is being marked as one way to negotiate such a space and contest the police’s authoritarian actions.
The footage suddenly cuts to nighttime footage of the police swarming around Del Rosario, who was copwatching until assailed by the police and then charged with assaulting a police officer. Yet the video documents in slow motion that the officer supposedly assaulted by Del Rosario was actually accidentally struck by another police officer’s truncheon.
The use of slow motion is an interesting moment of how the filmic can restructure space and actions during post-production. Although the initial footage is nothing more than a blur of bodies, slow-motion suddenly opens up the space by revealing the officer swinging his truncheon into another officer. Post-production allows the videographers to command space after the fact in the editing suite; this emphasizes, therefore, not only the power of videotaping in the streets to challenge police intimidation and abuse, but also video’s ability to manipulate footage after the fact to gain control over the events it documents. Walter Benjamin’s observations regarding the political potential of film can equally be applied to that of video: it “extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action” (Illuminations, 236). In this case, it discovers abuse and mendacity hidden within a blur of movement.
This footage along with that from eight other cameras was later used in court to exonerate Del Rosario from charges of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and larceny, revealing another vital function of copwatch footage: serving as evidence. Just as such footage is recirculated on social media to mobilize around and foster discussions, it also recirculates in courtrooms to expose the police not only falsifying charges, but also acting unprofessionally, if not brutally, often escalating situations rather than resolving them.
The second half of the video exposes a police force out of control as a wall of officers lunge at locals who have their hands raised. The camera scrambles to document the multiple instances of abuse like when a gang of cops descends upon one person to tackle and ambush him in a hail of blows. The camera jostles as officers shove the filmmaker’s body and others around him. An officer walks up to one man’s face and starts yelling aggressively, clearly antagonizing him in a testosterone-fuelled rage as other officers threateningly raise their batons at the crowd. The representatives of law and order are being unmasked as a gang of thugs ushering in chaos and violence into the streets.
The cops keep yelling “back up” along with random profanity strewn comments like “get the fuck off of there” as they push violently into the nighttime crowd. The camera focuses on the officers’ chests to document badge numbers as the crowd starts to chant, “We’re moving. We’re moving. We’re moving.” The camera jostles among the bodies, translating the crowd’s resistance into its uneven framing and shaky footage while random officers attack individuals. It’s less reminiscent of a parade than battle footage where the streets are being struggled over inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot.
Patricia Zimmerman notes how “the ground is where the bodies are and where new documentary strategies can be imagined that promote different histories and new subjectivities that rewrite the new world orders” (States of Emergency, 87). Puerto Rican Day parade becomes an exemplary instance of where this happens. We see new collective subjectivities arising in the video El Grito de Sunset Park June 9th 2013. The video begins with a close up of hands playing a conga drum. Contrasting against the abrupt and jostling handheld imagery of the prior video, this footage is steady and in control. The camera pans up from the drum to a woman singing along to it. She is dressed in a Boricua t-shirt and wearing a white visor with the Puerto Rican flag on it. She also has the Puerto Rican flag draped over her shoulders. The camera focuses on her dancing as locals photograph her and we hear shouts of encouragement like “go on, Mami, go on, Mami” and pleasure from the crowd accompanying her moves.
The camera fluidly and smoothly traverses between the dancer and the elderly drummer, eventually showing a man from the crowd dancing with her. The camera then pulls back to offer a higher angle shot and smooth pan of the crowd of both young and old dressed in colorful outfits on the corner enjoying themselves. In the background we catch a glimpse of the diversity of shops that line the streets: Chinese food, a bagel shop, a jewelry store. Tellingly, no brand name stores are to be seen, signaling the ways in which the neighborhood has still resisted gentrification.
The camera pans back to the right to see Dennis Flores standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a few police officers standing at a distance behind him. He makes a couple of hand gestures to temporarily silence the music and states: “We want to avoid a confrontation with the police. This is about know your rights. This is our community.” People express approval at his words. He continues: “So we want to open up a pathway here so folks could walk by. As long as we are not blocking pedestrian traffic, we’re not breaking the law. We can do this.”
People take heed and start making a space as the music continues. The camera documents the crowd orderly doing so. As the music restarts, some locals start chanting in rhythm, “Let the people walk. Let the people walk,” and dancing to it. Unlike the earlier footage of the police inciting chaos and violence during the 2014 Puerto Rican Day parade, this footage shows people in control of their own lives being orderly, respectful, and happy.
The affect of feeling better is worth stressing here. As Sara Ahmed notes, “For those whose lives have been torn apart by violence, or those for whom the tiredness of repetition in everyday life becomes too much to bear, feeling better does and should matter” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 201). The sense of joy and celebration permeates the sequence. Yet Dennis Flores also ingeniously ties and emphasizes the politics underlying such a celebration by stressing how “know your rights” might be able to lead to avoiding confrontations with the police.
The video exemplifies how El Grito de Sunset Park finds it equally important to document the local culture in order to fight the criminalization of its community. As Anjali Kamat notes, invasive policing like Broken Windows criminalizes normally innocuous behavior:
When the police are trained to watch for certain suspicious behaviors, and they primarily watch people from one community, and those behaviors considered suspicious include walking too quickly or standing for too long, sitting alone too quietly or hanging out too noisily with others, driving too fast or running too suddenly, then every move made by members of this community can easily conjure up the subtext of a larger drug deal, the context for an unfolding crime, a pretext for arrest, probably cause. (“The Baltimore Uprising”, 81)
As a result, video footage that not only decriminalizes one’s actions, but also celebrates it and one’s culture takes on decidedly political importance. Jason Del Aguila stresses, “We are fighting for the decriminalization of our culture. Broken Windows turns innocuous violations into full-level crimes. Our goal is to show the music and the art [of our community]. That’s part of why I wanted to record our local people, the characters of our community. We wanted to show who our community is. We are the artists, musicians, thinkers.” As communication scholar Clemencia Rodriguez observes about transformational media making practices found in war-torn cultures like in Colombia, the same holds true here: the video demonstrates for people “to feel what it is like to trust and be trusted, with the hope that they will develop a strong commitment to protecting these feelings and the social processes that make them possible” (Media Against Armed Conflict, 246).
This sense of control and self-determination is also translated through the video’s very aesthetics. Unlike the jarring editing of the earlier video of the 2014 Puerto Rican Day Parade, this video is comprised of one smooth shot. The sense of self-possession of the crowd becomes embodied in the precise framing and the fluid camera movement. The videographer demonstrates his/her intimate knowledge of not only of the locale, but also the festivities as the footage effortlessly weaves itself between music, dance, a sense of place, and political action. The feeling of self-worth and self-determination gets reinforced by the video’s content as the chanting of “Let the people walk” integrates itself with the music, showing how the realms of the cultural and political mutually inform one another.
Not coincidentally, El Grito de Sunset Park began organizing its own Puerto Rican Day parade since 2015 where the cops were unneeded. Cladio Gaete-Tapia stresses its political importance: “We aren’t taking no more shit. It may seem a small victory, but, fuck it, we’ll take it: Puerto Rican Day parade without the cops. That sends a message that people can organize themselves in the community by and for ourselves.”
Members of El Grito have recently prioritized organizing a Mexican festival in the near future: El Grito de Dolores. Jason Del Aguila stresses the links between the El Grito de Lares in Puerto Rico and that of de Dolores: “Both of them started in little towns that had their uprisings snowball into larger movements.” Dennis Flores adds, “It is important to connect Mexican struggles with ours. What better way to do that than to connect these events?”
This is an example of the manifestation of revolutionary nationalism mentioned earlier. In order to heal rifts within Latino communities, El Grito de Sunset Park uses public festivities to connect related oppressions and resistances. Race is a key modality and starting point towards collective organizing. As Stuart Hall and others observed long ago, “it is primarily in and through the modality of race that resistance, opposition and rebellion first expresses itself” Policing the Crisis, 347). Race is often the primary location where people “make sense of and thus come to consciousness of their structured subordination.” Broken Windows policing, for example, clearly targets poor communities of color. One can’t help observe this not only in one’s neighborhood, but also in the police van, the holding cell, and the court system where black and brown bodies predominate.
The key, however, is to translate these initial racial resistances into a broader framework that can link oppressions between communities across racial lines. Intersectional analysis of race, gender, class, and sexuality then needs to occur. But one must ultimately strategize how to best collectively organize in order to enact immediate changes in the local community as well as pursue long-term, broader structural transformations.
Clearly, the ascent of affordable video technology assists in propelling movements for self-determination and self-respect. It can assist groups in both seizing the streets and cyberspace to challenge and expose police misconduct as well as model the type of actions, attitudes, and feeling that are necessary for collective action. Needless to say, however, much of the most important work occurs off-screen during community meetings and one-on-one interactions where people share stories, deepen their analysis of their oppression, and strategize.
But the videos of El Grito and other copwatch groups offer a glimpse of the way forward. They reveal how art and politics intertwine whether it be organizing around Puerto Rican Day Parade or using video and photographs to shame negligent landlords. Also, the actions of the copwatchers in the streets serve as a model for others to get involved. As Josmar Trujillo emphasizes, “I think what Dennis does and what a lot of other copwatch groups do is inspire people. They normalize copwatching as completely natural if not appropriate behavior when you see the police. It’s about creating a new culture. So when we see misconduct whether it is abusive language or we see whose cars are being searched without proper protocol, we can document all the little abuses and misconduct that have constantly gone on. The more eyes that we have, the more cameras we have on the streets, we’ll get a better sense of what the problem with policing is.”
Copwatching, therefore, must be thought of a starting point towards something bigger, just as the videos must be understood as only the most visible elements of a much deeper form of organizing occurring at the ground level. Both documenting the little abuses and celebrating the local culture are complementary impulses that can lead to greater collective organizing and social change. Seizing control of the technology and the streets is only the opening foray of a much larger struggle. But copwatch groups like El Grito de Sunset Park are pointing the way forward in translating such on-the-ground struggles onto the screen so we can never avert our gazes from the abuses that are regularly visited upon working-class communities of color.