The New York Times recently published a video profiling an organization called “Copwatch,” a network of activists that, well, watch the cops. Though the organization was started in 1990, its focus on stopping police brutality has brought the organization back into relevance in the wake of Freddie Gray and the countless others whose stories have sparked outrage throughout the nation. The New York Times video focuses on Copwatch’s movement into and action in Baltimore, primarily, and provides us a uniquely meta opportunity to watch the watchers. You can do so here: http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003824112/copwatch-v-cops-after-freddie-gray.html
Copwatch seeks to hold police accountable for their actions, but does it do so relationally or does it feed into a cycle of conflict?
The founding principle, according to Andrea Pritchett, one of the co-founders of Copwatch, is a “consciousness” of the fact that, in many cases, the cops are ineffective in promoting community safety. It aims to promote a type of transparency, that certainly aligns with the ORANS principles of being clear, grounded, and engaged. In order to have a quality interaction, being relational urges us to prefer face-to-face interaction, but when using technology to “watch” others it can function as a sort of ad hoc journalism.
The New York Times video focuses on three main “copwatchers”. The first is a man named Jacob Crawford, who has been active with the organization for 15 years. When he heard about what had happened in Ferguson, he went to that community to provide his help. It was there that he met David Wade, Michael Brown’s neighbor. Soon the two journeyed to Baltimore, meeting up with Kevin Moore, the friend of Freddie Gray who filmed his video. Together, Crawford, Wade, and Moore spent early May on the streets of Baltimore filming police in riot gear.
Understandably, Wade and Moore come from places of intense fear, anger and sadness. And they bring that energy into their interactions while filming. Moore stands in front of a line of police and shouts at them “You suck!” Later, after a police announcement, Moore taunts the police, noticing that one of them has started laughing and yelling “Oh, we got someone laughing! Don’t stop laughing! Don’t stop laughing!” His camera shakes a little, he’s holding it so tightly. “Without that gun you’re a bitch and a half,” Moore says.
The police in the video also do not model a relational approach. They ask mocking questions and don’t listen to the Copwatcher’s answers. They become defensive.
Crawford wears a t-shirt that shows a policeman kicking a civilian on the ground.
“Hey, why you got a cop beating someone up on the ground?” one cop asks.
“Well, it’s just when the cop is beating somebody up on the ground it’s good to have someone there to videotape,” Crawford explains.
“Why don’t you got the cop fixing a flat tire?” cop asks.
“I wish I saw that more on Youtube,” Crawford says.
“Hey, you should have another shirt that’s showing a cop getting shot by some thug on the street,” pipes in another cop, “like my father was a cop for eighteen years before he got shot.”
In the conflict represented here between the cops and Copwatch, both sides are fueled by anger, resentment, and deep mistrust. But the Copwatchers are also fueled by grief and pain, and that manifests itself loudly. While the police’s anger comes out in snide comments and verbal jabs, the Copwatchers’ anger comes out in screams and profanities. Watching footage in her San Francisco home of the people involved with Copwatch in Baltimore, Pritchett (the founder of Copwatch) sighs and shakes her head. “I love these guys because they’re willing to stand up, and so many people are not, and I guess I want to implore anyone who wants to do what we call “Copwatch” […] it’s about being strategic, that it’s not about my anger. It’s not about my emotional reaction.”
The Copwatchers motives are pure. Moore says that he “wants [his] daughters and [his] sons to be able to grow up in a world where there is some type of peace.” ORANS stands in solidarity with those wishes. But Pritchett’s words ring true. Transforming conflict and being relational are not about living inside of and being ruled by emotional reactions; they are about acknowledging emotions and relaxing them in favor of seeking quality interaction. The years and years of conflict makes it very difficult to accomplish this, but, at ORANS, we believe that it’s not impossible.
What if the Copwatchers weren’t holding cameras, but were holding signs with peaceful messages instead? What if the police weren’t wearing riot gear? The cameras threaten the police, and the riot gear threaten the Copwatchers. The presence of those items are a direct manifestation of fear and as such stand as obstacles to quality interaction.
On a personal level, each person involved in the conflict could have prepared themselves to deal with the conflict more relationally. People on both sides of the conflict could pause before engaging. They could take a deep breath before responding to center themselves. They could focus on the realities around them to ground themselves. And then, they could engage with the other by putting down their riot gear and cameras and listening attentively.
Because of the polarized emotions between the two groups, a quality interaction may be difficult to achieve without the presence of a neutral third party mediator. A mediator may have helped the two parties unearth the fear and resentment that underlies their responses. Understanding the shared emotional groundwork is an important first step in transforming the conflict.
At one point during the video, after a particularly tense conversation between the cops and the Copwatchers, Wade turns around as he walks away and yells back to the cop he was talking to: “Hey, we can keep the streets safe together, how about that?” Let’s start there and sit to discuss how to work together instead of saying it as a parting shot while walking away.
Title: Riot Cops
Photographer: Tony Webster