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First National Copwatch Conference: A Movement Takes Rise

By: 
Alex Fischer
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

From July 13-15, 2007, nearly 100 individuals gathered in Oakland, California, to discuss and strategize around issues of police abuse. Representing over 20 organizations from around the country, the first National Copwatch Conference achieved its goal of bringing together organizers and activists who directly monitor the police on a local, grassroots level. From New Orleans to Portland, Chicago to Denver, Los Angeles to Winnipeg, organizers met face to face to learn from each other’s experiences while retaining a decentralized, grassroots organizing model. The conference made obvious that a movement is spreading across the US—and into Canada—based in the action of videotaping the police.

The first Copwatch organization started in 1990 in Berkeley, California as a response to increased policing of the homeless community, people of color, and activists on Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue. Copwatching—based on the organizing of prior revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, and Brown Berets—is a nonviolent model of directly monitoring the police with video cameras to both deter and document police abuse. Nearly 17 years later, over 70 groups around the country—not to mention those in Canada, Australia and France—are actively on the streets monitoring local law enforcement. The need for a conference, a space to bring these groups together, and see the faces of their struggling siblings, has been a long time coming.

After going to police accountability conferences lacking the space to discuss direct police monitoring, Berkeley Copwatch co-founder Andrea Prichett wanted to simply create the space for those invested in copwatching. At Friday night’s opening session, she acknowledged the bittersweet truth all of us face in our organizing: the beauty in the emergence of a national police accountability movement is based in the oppressive reality of systemic police abuse. The other keynote speakers, Big Man Howard from the Black Panther Party and New Orleans community organizer Greg Griffiths, spoke to the history and current need for a Copwatch movement.

Sharing strategies

The bulk of Saturday consisted of over 20 workshops with presenters representing over 25 different organizations. Topics included: immigration and local law enforcement, documenting abuse against women and queer communities, media messaging, video activism, working with natural allies, civilian oversight models, independent investigation, empowering homeless and poor communities, organizational security, copwatching techniques, alternatives to the police, training Know Your Rights workshop trainers, policing of gangs, disability and mental health issues, banning tasers, using technology in organizing, and sustaining a Copwatch organization. The opportunity for organizers to see and discuss how they are not alone in the struggle was monumental.

One of Copwatch’s major strengths is its dedication to grassroots organizing. Specific to the members and resources of a given community, no two Copwatch groups are identical. Factors such as communities being urban or rural; cities or towns; their proximity to the US border; the local use of federal law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Homeland Security; and the existence of civilian oversight all shape the way Copwatch groups function within their community. Despite these and other differences, the gathering provided the space for Copwatch organizers to share techniques and experiences around similarities in national police trends, for example the growing number of local ICE raids, the role of the police in gentrification, violence against women and queers, and state attacks on civilian review boards.

But the conference did not focus on the outrageous state of police violence as a hopeless reality; it also provided a space to share success stories and give hope to those dedicated to this growing movement. Attended by conference participants as well as members of the community, Saturday night’s film festival called upon groups to share footage of their local organizing. Featuring the documentary Free Ya Hood from the Brooklyn chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, as well as footage from Phoenix, Denver, San Jose, and San Francisco, the night illustrated both the alarming reality of police abuse as well as local victories in ending such brutality. A necessary event for a movement based around video activism, the film fest was simply another moment to share and understand the national impact of police abuse and the need for a network, a movement, creating true safety in its communities.

A movement. A network. Not a national organization. While Sunday’s plenary resulted in the creation of a national list-serv and website to be used primarily for contacting other Copwatch groups, the movement building resulted primarily from organizers around the country meeting each other face-to-face, leading and attending workshops, and understanding they are not alone in this struggle to keep their communities safe. The national network created at the conference was meant only to support the work of local community organizing; it is not a national headquarters or national organization creating a top-down model of organizing. Each community has its own specific needs and resources to best organize itself. The network will serve only as a way to share strategies and experiences, as well as create discussion around this decentralized movement known as Copwatch. The First National Copwatch Conference was the first of many to come.

About the Author
Alex Fischer volunteers with Berkeley Copwatch (www.berkeleycopwatch.org) and was a core organizer for the National Conference. Coming out of the anti-sweatshop and anti-drug war movement, Alex came to Copwatch as a way to support many movements by organizing around ending state violence and creating alternatives to a police state.