We have had a most remarkable several months to end 2015 and are thrilled to go into 2016 with tremendous momentum. This will be our best year ever – guaranteed.
To recap, we ratcheted up our cop watch actions in late summer. As we continued to legally cop watch to bear witness to police activity, deter police from abusing people, and to empower others to stand up for their community members, we found certain members of the Austin Police Department were eager to threaten us (e.g., SGT Randy Dear, SGT Adam Johnson, Ofc Dawn Leonard) or assault us (e.g., CPL Quint Sebek, Ofc Zachary Baldridge).
On August 2nd SGT Randy Dear, CPL Quint Sebek, and Ofc Aljoe Garibay assaulted and illegally arrested Antonio Buehler and Mike Bluehair (from Film The Police Portland) on Sixth Street in Austin. The arrest affidavits that were filed were filled with lies and were easily refuted by the numerous videos that the members of the Peaceful Streets Project took. Unsurprisingly, prosecutors dropped the charges against Buehler and Bluehair. The police have arrested Buehler and other members of the Peaceful Streets Project nearly a dozen times, but they have failed to secure a single conviction against us. Sadly, we will continue to get arrested because the police are never held accountable for their crimes. But this is a long fight, and we will eventually win. Until then, we will continue to shame these cops in the most public ways possible. We wrote up a detailed blog post detailing how the arrest affidavits were filled with lies, coupled with videos of the incident.
In November Playboy Magazine featured a story on copwatching, and Antonio Buehler and the Peaceful Streets Project opened and closed the story. The author Frank Owen beautifully laid out some of the various approaches to cop watch and gave context to the August 2nd arrest that local media is apparently afraid to touch upon. This, coupled with endless puff pieces for the Austin Police by local media, made us realize that there is potentially much more value to working with national media or outlets with broad reach outside of Austin than working with local stations who seem to take their marching orders from APD. Since then, we have worked with two documentary series that will feature Peaceful Streets Project in upcoming episodes, and we are working with a documentary crew that will be following us for at least the next year. Stay tuned for updates!
With our increased actions we have also received support from donors to upgrade our cop watch capabilities. Thanks to generous donations we have been able to purchase 8 camcorders, 3 actions cameras, a livestream camera, a professional still camera, and a quadcopter, along with various other technologies that assist us in our work. The quality of our cop watch videos has really shot up, and we have already been able to provide high quality raw video to several victims of Austin Police so they can use it in their criminal defense and potentially in any future civil suits against the City of Austin and the criminal cops. We could certainly use more donations as we have some exciting plans for 2016, so please consider donating if you have the capacity and interest in doing so. We have a rally campaign set up, and you can find additional ways to donate on our webpage. Additionally, you can always purchase us something off of our Amazon.com wish list.
In December, six members of the Peaceful Streets Project had the great privilege of going to St. Louis to train with WeCopwatch. WeCopwatch had been cop watching for years before PSP formed, and in the past year and a half they have helped set up cop watch organizations in several cities. Of note, they helped set up the Canfield Watchmen in Ferguson after the Michael Brown killing, and WeCopwatch Baltimore after the Freddie Gray killing. While in St. Louis we were able to engage in joint training and cop watch with WeCopwatch as their first official Cop Watch College class. We also had the opportunity to go into Ferguson to rebuild a memorial in the spot where Michael Brown was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson. Although the memorial was taken down the next day, the experience was sobering, humbling, and inspiring. The Canfield Watchmen kicked the police out of the Canfield Green Apartments, showing us it can be done, and now WeCopwatch is building a central training space down the road for cop watchers nationwide.
In the coming year we are elevating our direct actions to the next level. The frequency of our cop watching has already risen, and we will continue to put more cameras on the street on a weekly basis. We will be hosting several Know Your Rights trainings, and we are looking for more opportunities to do so. We will also be collecting and analyzing data to identify improved ways of exposing police crime. We will also continue to file police abuse complaints and file civil rights suits, although we recognize that the system is a woefully inept way of trying to achieve justice – we will do it for documentation and discovery purposes. Also, we plan to host WeCopwatch in Austin in return for their hosting us in St. Louis.
You can get involved with the Peaceful Streets Project! We are holding public monthly meetings at Bennu Cofffehouse in E. Austin at 8p on the first Wednesday of each month. Our first monthly meeting for 2016 was held this Wednesday. We are holding public cop watches on the fourth Saturday of each month, as well. Our public cop watch events will initially meet at Bennu Coffehouse, as well, but at 9p. We also have ample volunteer opportunities outside of cop watch for those who don’t want to risk getting arrested. Come to a meeting to discuss! And once again, you can always donate to help us empower our volunteers to drive change in the streets.
The suspicious death of Sandra Bland three days after an unnecessary, illegal, and violent arrest has reminded tens of millions of people that while national awareness of the problems of endemic societal racism and rampant police abuse may have risen in the year since Michael Brown was murdered, the police have not been deterred in their application of crimes and violence against the public–particularly against people of color, the mentally ill, the very poor, and the homeless. In today’s environment where more and more people are pulling out their cameras to film the police because they expect that the police may violate someone’s rights, it should be unfathomable that police would continue to brazenly commit crimes against the public during a period of increased scrutiny, but as civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson likes to remind people, the police will continue to abuse and kill people.
I once asked an elder, "How do we keep the movement alive?" to which the elder replied, "The police will do it for you."
— deray mckesson (@deray) April 28, 2015
Police get away with their crimes for a multitude of complicated, and often intertwined, reasons. Racism. Classism. Corporations that profit off of incarceration. Corporations that profit off of prohibition. Politicians who are bought by those corporations and by police unions. Expectations of revenue generation by municipal governments. Qualified immunity for cops who commit crimes. Internal Affairs departments that are expected to clear cops of criminal wrongdoing. Chain of commands who believe it is their responsibility to clear cops of wrongdoing. Prosecutors who are eager to paper over cop crimes so that they can continue their symbiotic relationship with the police. Judges who overlook rampant police corruption as they eye higher benches or reelection campaigns where they will be attacked if they don’t come across as tough on (non-cop) crime. These are just some of the reasons, and these reasons give many people comfort in believing that they don’t directly contribute to the problem because they are not members of any of the aforementioned groups. However, one reason that we can directly attribute blame to the general public for is its desire to make excuses for criminal cops by blaming the victim.
In the Sandra Bland case, no reasonable person who believes in basic civil liberties could side with Officer Brian Encinia. Sandra Bland was unnecessarily stopped for a minor traffic infraction that would only result in a ticket in jurisdictions where revenue generation or harassment of a particular community (e.g., the Black community) is a priority. At the conclusion of the stop she was unnecessarily and illegally ordered to put out her cigarette in her own car. She legally (and righteously) refused to put out the cigarette, as is her right. For that, Encinia threatened her with arrest, pointed his taser (a deadly weapon) at her face, and proceeded to assault her. She was ultimately unjustly arrested for assault on a public servant, despite being the victim of assault. She then spent three days in prison because she dared to flex her basic Constitutional and human rights. On the third day the state alleges that she committed suicide.
~ Assata Shakur, 1987
In the Sandra Bland case, there are millions of people who blame Sandra Bland for her own arrest and death. For example, there are overtly racist people like Heather Martin of Allen, TX who sing the praises of Jesus and limited government but who will eagerly back an officer “every time” they commit crimes against any “uppity, mouthy, and criminal [Black people].” Backed by a Confederate flag, she proclaims that #PoliceLivesMatter, making it clear that Black lives do not matter to her.
There are also overtly racist people like retired NYPD Detective Harry Houck who argue that nothing bad would have happened during the stop had Sandra Bland dispensed with her “arrogant attitude” and simply been respectful to Officer Encinia.
They talk about how people (and they mean Black people) should simply shut up, treat the police officer with respect, and comply with all of his commands if they want to get through a stop without any problems (e.g., being arrested, assaulted, or killed). They shift the burden from the police, to not commit crimes, to the victim, to not question or talk back to police officers. Therein lies a problem that highlights our society’s failure to acknowledge its racist history, its racist present, its fixation on power and authority, and its failure to place civil liberties (the thing that many believe makes America great) above a cop’s expectation of being respected by the public.
But the Confederate flag waiving, bootlicking, cop apologizing, #PoliceLivesMatter crowd does make one point that is worth listening to–Black people sometimes should choose to comply instead of die. They get it right for the wrong reasons; they believe that Black people are inferior human beings, and that people in blue uniforms should be allowed to dispose of them if they don’t “act right.” But as most Black people will tell you, they’ve essentially been told the same thing by their parents, stemming from their parents’ desire to see their children survive to old age.
At the Peaceful Streets Project, we go into the streets to document interactions between the police and members of the public, and when we see police violating people’s rights, we challenge them. When they violate our rights, we challenge them. In the attached video, we challenged them quite vocally, with plenty of expletives, when they illegally detained and searched us for documenting their actions during a copwatch in the Rundberg region of Austin, TX. Compare and contrast our behavior to the so-called “arrogant” behavior that resulted in Sandra Bland being illegally arrested and assaulted.
Why did a Black man come up to us at the end of that incident and ask, “how the fuck do you talk to them goddam laws like that?” The answer is because he was amazed that we weren’t beaten and arrested for what we said to the police. Not everyone has the same ability to stand up for their rights or the rights of others. If you are homeless or extremely poor, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. If you are mentally ill, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. If you are Latino or Arab, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. And if you are Black, you are less likely to be able to stand up for your rights without being abused, arrested, or killed. Sandra Bland is just one of tens of thousands of examples of that unfair and unfortunate reality.
It is for the aforementioned reasons that cops should NOT be respected by society. That they are so eager to use violence and commit crimes against people means that they are not productive members of society who deserve our respect. That they are even more likely to use violence and commit crimes against the most disadvantaged members of society means that they are bullies on top of being non-productive members of society. But just because they shouldn’t be respected doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be feared. When we stand up to the police, we fear for our lives and liberty. We understand that we are often dealing with violent thugs who have no qualms about committing crimes against us. But we also acknowledge that we have strength in numbers, we have cameras rolling, and most of us aren’t Black, Latino, Arab, homeless, extremely poor, or mentally ill. We are far more likely to survive a police encounter than Sandra Bland or someone who looks like her. That is privilege, and we will use our privilege to push back against police.
The popularity of cop watching as a direct action tactic has been surging nationally. In the aftermath of the unjust killing of Michael Brown, and particularly the overly aggressive and violent actions that the various law enforcement agencies took against those protesting Michael Brown’s killing, We Copwatch (led by our friend and ally Jacob Crawford) teamed up with the Canfield Watchmen (led by David Whitt) to create a cop watching presence in Ferguson and the surrounding areas. Like the Peaceful Streets Project did in 2012, We Copwatch and the Canfield Watchmen raised thousands of dollars to put scores of cameras into the hands of the people so they could hold police accountable.
But the current cop watching activities of the police accountability movement that has been energized by the killings of Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed (and most often black) people is only the crest of a wave that has been building for decades. The Peaceful Streets Project engaged in cop watching after we formed in 2012 because we believed that that was one of the most powerful ways to let the police know that we were not going to stand by as they continued to commit crimes against the people. Cop watching also allowed us to strengthen communities that would protect and serve each other, instead of hoping that the people who often abuse them might decide to help them when they are the victim of a crime by someone who is not a police officer. Finally, cop watching allowed many victims of police abuse to feel that they were once again in control of their lives. For a victim of police abuse to be able to stand up to a police officer, and film them as the police officer glares at them, and to know that people are there to stand behind the filmer is quite powerful. For many it is a part of the healing process that never comes through the criminal or civil courts.
We were lucky to be able to learn from the successes and failures of cop watchers that came before us. Jacob Crawford and We Copwatch had been cop watching for years, and we were able to use their work as a guide for ours. But we also met members of the Austin Brown Berets who didn’t have the benefit of cell phones and portable cameras when they were trying to rein in abusive and racist police in the late 70′s and early 80′s. We also had the opportunity to host Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and learn from him how they cop watched when all they had were their eyes to bear witness to police abuse, and their rifles to serve as a deterrent to the police abusing them. (Note: The Peaceful Streets Project prohibits the carrying of weapons when we cop watch because we don’t want criminal cops to have a ready excuse to kill our activists; and as Bobby told us, today the camera is more powerful than the rifle.)
Cop watching has come a long way since the 60′s, and too often those who dared to cop watch were ridiculed and slandered by those who claimed to be “law and order” types. But the theme that runs through cop watching from the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, We Copwatch, the Peaceful Streets Project, and the Canfield Watchmen is that the cop watchers have always stood in opposition to oppression and have always been eager to call out the institutionalized violence of the police state. It is the cop watchers that stand up for the most vulnerable members of society – the people the police choose to prey upon as opposed to protect.
The act of cop watching has become perhaps the most powerful direct action tactic. Know Your Rights trainings are critical in educating people. Giving victims a platform to share their stories of abuse raises awareness. Organizing summits can help build communities. And many people are doing great work trying to change laws to help chip away at the police state. But it seems that cop watching is the tactic that has the greatest ability to change the way that victims respond to police abuse, to immediately alter the behavior of the police, and to help those on the sidelines to recognize that the offense that police everywhere take to filming indicates that the bad cop mentality is rooted deep within the culture of law enforcement.
The movement has now drafted the young and elderly, people of all races and all socio-economic backgrounds, and now the movement is even getting airtime on mainstream media. Last weekend, Peaceful Streets Project founder Antonio Buehler even had a five minute piece that ran on Fox News at 10p Eastern. While this riled up many Fox News watchers, it no doubt also planted some seeds. Perhaps some of them will even join us in the streets as we film the police. This movement is winning, and this movement is on the right side of history.
From Eric Garner to Michael Brown, it has become more and more apparent to more and more Americans that the police state in this country is out of control. Despite endless attempts by police, their cop apologist friends and families, politicians, corrupted media and overt racists, thoughtful people cannot explain away a seemingly endless array of “isolated incidents” in which cops murder unarmed people.
The events in Ferguson, MO are forcing a national debate on the appropriate role of police and their use of force. We believe that conversation must happen if we are going to move toward a more peaceful society. And yes, we believe that there are many factors at play beyond criminal cops. We believe that racism, poverty, corporate interests and public union interests, and a society that is conditioned to blindly respect authority are all factors that have helped increase the aggression and criminality of so many cops. In fact, we believe that the problem is systematic; many well-meaning cops end up becoming the criminals they thought they would be fighting.
While the murder of unarmed people should be unacceptable in an advanced civilization, there are tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of crimes committed by police against the public each year. These crimes run the gamut from bad to horrible. These crimes include false arrests, assault, rape and framing people for crimes they didn’t commit, among others. With tens to hundreds of thousands of victims of police abuse each year, one might expect there to be tens of thousands of police officers sitting in prison; however, cops are able to brazenly commit crimes in front of witnesses and video cameras and get away with those crimes almost every single time. Sadly, innocent people don’t have such good luck. It is estimated that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent, meaning there may be 100,000 innocent people in prison in America. Layer on top of that all of the people who are in prison for non-violent, victimless crimes (such as drug use) and it becomes apparent that justice is a joke.
While we encourage people to get mad over the senseless killings of unarmed people such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown, we also want people to get mad over the constant harassment, victimization and imprisonment of people who manage to escape a police encounter with their life still intact. These victims are everywhere to be seen, however they are often hiding their struggles because they live in a society where victims of police abuse are blamed for their misfortune.
We also encourage people to step forward and fight back whenever they can. It is a shame that more people don’t sue police and their municipalities when they are victimized. We understand, though. Filing civil suits is hard work and there are far too few civil lawyers willing to take cases against the police; particularly if there isn’t serious bodily injury. Further, if a victim doesn’t win their criminal case, most lawyers won’t even consider a civil suit.
John Pharr of Austin, TX is a recent victim of police abuse who has had the resources and courage to fight back. On August 14, 2012, APD officer Christopher Willie pulled over John Pharr under suspicion of driving while intoxicated. When Pharr didn’t obey Willie’s arbitrary orders quickly enough, Willie ordered Pharr out of the vehicle. Willie then threw Pharr on the ground, and landed a few punches on Pharr.
Fortunately, Pharr survived his encounter with this violent cop, and now has filed a civil suit against the cop and the city of Austin. In pursuing the civil suit, Pharr and his lawyer realized that not only did the cops commit multiple felony crimes by assaulting him, but they also perjured themselves in their affidavit. And while the cops will never be charged with their felony crimes, this civil suit might raise awareness with a few more people.
While we recognize that not everyone can file suit against the cops who abuse them, we hope more and more will take the path that Pharr has taken. Winning the fight against violent, criminal cops will not be easy, and there is no silver bullet. Voting won’t solve the problem, nor will filming police. Civil suits, won’t either. However, by using every peaceful means available to us, we can help drive the national debate further, put a human face on the issue of police abuse, and begin to make more and more people aware of the out of control police who have destroyed the lives of millions of Americans.