I was recently invited to participate in a new attempt to start a Copwatch grouping in Philadelphia. This is far from the first attempt in Philadelphia at forming a Copwatch group, and all attempts to construct a Copwatch organization here have ultimately failed. These failed attempts are not isolated to Philly, but mirror the failure of the Copwatch model through the entire United States, even in its most advanced forms.
When I first heard about the ongoing attempt to start a new Copwatch group in Philly, I wondered if these comrades were aware of the critical reflections that have been produced through the years. Especially useful is “Wither Copwatch,” from the Unity and Struggle blog. To be clear, I am not writing this to simply dismiss Copwatch. I’ve been involved in various Copwatch projects in and outside of Philly. It is imperative that we critically evaluate our strategies and politics, so that we can actually improve them.
I should emphasize that I think the tactic of Copwatching (openly monitoring the police) is important. When we openly monitor the police, this is a genuine attempt at self-emancipation. People Copwatch all the time without calling it “Copwatch” and without having been taught to do so. It is an commonly observable phenomenon. But like most activism, the Copwatch model fails to build off the activities that oppressed people are already engaged in.
Besides monitoring the police, CopWatch activists will organize campaigns to get particular police fired, promote alternatives to the police, participate in civilian-review boards, advocate for changes in policing procedures, organize “know your rights” legal trainings, and distribute relevant literature. Despite the fact that there are many talented CopWatch organizers, this work never generalizes beyond small circles of activists, and is largely irrelevant to the daily struggles of proletarian communities. Because of the low level of class struggle in the U.S. in the present period, it is easy for CopWatch to perpetuate a narrow, single-issue focus on the police. However, this is not inevitable. It is our own failure.
More than anything else, the core of the failure of Copwatch lies in the inability of activists to properly recognize and engage with working-class militants who are already resisting the police on a daily basis. This is a common thread running through the U.S. left as a whole. Small groups of CopWatch activists build projects and campaigns with no ties to the masses of people who have practical experience with spying on the police, evading them, surrounding them, clashing with them, and building community alternatives to them. Where Copwatch could be a vehicle for challenging and overcoming the divisions within the class, it often unintentionally reinforces them. When activists videotape you and your family getting harassed and humiliated by the police, with no relationship to you or your community, this can be extremely frustrating and alienating and can instil resentment towards the activists. While the CopWatch activists are primarily concerned with openly monitoring the police and lobbying them for concessions, what most proletariats want is to have direct control over the circumstances of their lives. They might use the tactic of Copwatching to accomplish this, but this tactic would be a means to a much larger end: the securing of the conditions necessary for dignity and self-respect.
In a black neighborhood in North Philly, a group of young people who jumped the subway turnstile were being chased out of the subway by a cop. The cop was already gasping for air by the time the kids reached the street level and turned the corner. People on the street used their cell phones to film the very frustrated cop. When the cop frantically demanded that people tell him which way the kids ran, someone intentionally gave him the wrong direction, sending the officer on a wild goose chase. Nobody taught those people to videotape the police or to protect those kids. Situations like this one are handled everyday, not because people are trained by CopWatch activists, but because they are determined to exert control over what happens in their lives.
In another neighborhood in North Philly, a friend of mine was being harassed by a group of men, who had forced themselves onto her front porch. She called her friends in the neighborhood to help her get rid of the men. When a number of her friends showed up, including elders, the unwanted men became embarrassed and quickly capitulated to the demand to leave her porch and stop harassing her. Instead of calling the police, and relying on the state to mediate the situation, these neighbors had created a concrete alternative to the police.
It is a common practice in Philly, as in other cities, for large groups of youths to freely ride around their neighborhoods on dirt bikes and four-wheelers, popping wheelies and doing all kinds of tricks. Nearly all of those who do this have vehicles that are unregistered and thus illegal. However, because of the great speed and versatility of these vehicles, because the riders know the neighborhoods like the back of their hands, it is nearly impossible for the police to stop them. I have witnessed youth pull up to a cop car, taunt the police inside, rev up the engines of their dirt bikes, and speed off without the police even trying to chase them down. For those who are constantly targeted by the police, it is precisely the power to accomplish these everyday acts of defiance which constitutes a new world.
It is true that all these moments of self-activity are limited at every turn, and may even exist side by side with very reactionary ideas and tendencies. As a condition of social existence, the new world is inevitably entangled with the old one. Therefore we must be careful not to romanticize everyday people as if they are magically revolutionary and always right. Such idealization is widespread and leads to nothing but infantalization, paternalism, and coddling. But the point is that, even at an embryonic stage of development, these autonomous activities are far more effective, creative, and powerful than anything initiated by the activists. This new world is no mere abstraction—it is all around us, based on generations of practical experience. The question is one of recognizing it, learning from it, contributing to its self-expression, expanding its sphere of action, and opposing everything that stands in its way.
Ideally, CopWatch should be a means for the advancement of the anti-authoritarian tendencies that already exist within substantial layers of the class. Unfortunately, the CopWatch model does not build off these tendencies, but instead acts as a substitute for them. If CopWatch activists do acknowledge them, they too often have no living connection to them, and as a result, glorify and mystify them.