This is a repost of a blog from 2009 on the Unity & Struggle blog. The original link is below and I highly recommend folks read it because of the very rich conversation that follows it from folks who have a lot of knowledge, perspective, and firsthand experience on the question.
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.