During the first Gulf War, I went to protests in Balboa Park. At one of those protests, without warning or apparent justification, police-some on horseback and others on foot-charged into the crowd to disperse the demonstrators. While scrambling to avoid getting trampled by a horse, I witnessed police attack and beat a man about five feet in front of me.
I testified in court in the guy's defense because whatever the cops were saying he did, nobody deserves to get the shit beaten out of them like that. The result of the case, of course, was that the guy got charged with assault and the cops lied, I believe, and got away with it.
Back then, video cameras weren't as ubiquitous as they are now, and all the jury got to see were still photos. I remember thinking at the time that if only someone had taped the incident, justice might've prevailed. But we now know from the Rodney King trial that it may not matter whether you videotape police brutality. No matter how violently cops behave, most people assume it must be justified.
But defiance happens. These days, a young upstart from South Central L.A., Sherman Austin, has been getting media attention for videotaping cops at political demonstrations and on the beat in the 'hood as a founder of that area's branch of Copwatch. Started in Berkeley in the early '90s, Copwatch is now in several cities, including San Diego. Its mission is simple: monitor cops and make sure they're not abusing their power.
This month, Yahoo's “People of the Web” features a video and text profile of Austin, an anarchist activist, musician and former webmaster who was convicted of a felony and sentenced to one year in jail in 2002 for allowing the posting of a link on his server to bomb-making advice. Austin claims he was railroaded.
By now, you've probably gleaned that Austin has an agenda: He vehemently distrusts law enforcement. But does that make what he's doing wrong? I sought the perspective of my friend Mike, who grew up in South Central and became a cop, serving nearly a decade on the force before leaving law enforcement after getting shot during a robbery. I showed him the profile of Austin and then talked with him about it.
CityBeat: In the Yahoo article, Austin is quoted saying this type of thing happens all the time in Los Angeles. Does it?
Mike: I'm inclined to agree with him. When you grow up there, you see it all the time and you start accepting it as a fact of life. It happens in San Diego, too, but in L.A. it is on a much greater scale. But look at the [Copwatch] video [of police arresting and punching a suspected gang member]. We don't know what it took to get the officer in that position. When you're dealing with a gang member, and he won't comply, you have to escalate the use of force. For one thing, you have to assume they're armed. So, at what point is it excessive?
But you said it happens all the time. By 'it' you mean excessive force, right?
You can only take so much. It starts to affect you. It affected me. You get to a point with the power and authority where when certain people resist, you get tired of trying to convince them-you tell them to lie down and if they don't, you make them. Look, regardless of what the law says, if you hit a police officer, you're gonna get beat. Police are human. Some of them lie, steal, have bad credit, their wives fuck other men. I knew police officers who would pick up a gang member, drive them into the territory of a rival gang and throw them out of the car.
Do you think being monitored has any effect on how police conduct themselves?
Absolutely. Honest cops want to be taped. The honest guy doesn't mind. He's happy. If he's enforcing the law within the bounds, he wants people to see he's doing a good job.
What do you think of what Austin is doing?
I think police officers should be monitored, but not by a civilian force. The concept is noble and it makes a lot of sense, but [Copwatch] is not a regulated force and they might get hurt. And they could present the material with the intent to misrepresent.
But who else is going to monitor the police?
Well, internal affairs isn't gonna do it. In a way, there's room for a million of these guys [like Austin] in L.A. The police can't tell him or anyone else not to film them. It's their right. But why doesn't [Austin] also tape the drug dealers and gangs? People in L.A. hate the police. He's going to aggravate cops until one day he comes up on that one cop who destroys his evidence and then destroys him in the process.
What would you tell Austin if you met him?
I would tell him I hope that he could help someone. And he should work toward getting regulations in place. He should try being a police officer-well, he's got a felony now, so that's not gonna happen. You know, it's ridiculous what cops do. But I don't know about civilians taping them. There are good cops, and they need to be encouraged. Cops should work nine months on, three months off. It gets to you.
Ultimately, Mike is articulating the perennial dilemma of the path of the reformer versus the path of the revolutionary. Austin tried revolution and it landed him in jail. Perhaps founding L.A.'s Copwatch is as close to trying to reform the system as an angry young man like Austin will get without selling out.
Mike was once young and angry himself. Abused by cops, he decided to become one and do better. He may not think Austin's tactic is particularly safe or smart, but he recognizes the hunger for justice at the heart of what motivates a black man to try to make a difference in South Central.