Who's Streets? Our Streets! An Interview with Hamilton CopWatch
An Interview with the organizers of Hamilton Cop-Watch
Copwatch is a network of activist organizations dedicated to the observation and recording of police interactions with the public. Formed in the 90's in Berkely it now has chapters throughout the United States and Canada. Scott, a lead organizer of the new Hamilton branch has offered to answer some questions for us before departing to Israel-Palestine on academic research.
What was the impetus behind forming this group?
The motivation behind the formation of Hamilton CopWatch is, at base
level, the same drive which has given rise to CopWatch groups across this
continent and beyond for over the past 20 years: a deeply felt need
to construct cooperative sources of protection against police abuse. In
the face of a local police force whose daily operations threaten the
safety, well-being and dignity of our communities, we have been compelled
out of necessity to seek out our power in numbers, as an organization
dedicated to placing a greater degree of accountability upon cops in our
neighbourhoods. We do this by asserting and enacting our right to observe
and monitor police activities in public spaces (our first street patrols
are set to move forward this year); educating ourselves and the wider
community on our rights when dealing with police; and mobilizing the
masses in demonstrations surrounding issues of police abuse and
How have you tried to get your message out so far?
Since our primary message is one of empowerment and solidarity in reaction
to the disempowering and isolating effects of policing in this city, we
have been working on building a presence in our community through
developing connections with our neighbours so that we are better able to
reflect our collectively held interests in our continued activities as an
organization. One way that we have begun to engage in this dialogue has
been through the hosting of CopWatch documentary screenings at various
venues in the downtown area. Throughout the month of June we ran three
screenings of the documentary film “CopWatch: These Streets Are Watching,”
by discussion around the goals, means and difficulties inherent to the
CopWatch model of police accountability activism.
In the near future, we plan to continue our educational work through
facilitating Know Your Rights workshops throughout the city. This will be
a chance to open up a space for sharing vital information and insights
regarding our rights when dealing with the cops so that we may all be
better equipped to handle ourselves when faced with the reality of police
violence and misconduct. Our street patrols will also be a chance to
engage with community members in aims of spreading a wider culture of
solidarity which works to challenge police impunity.
Canadians can tend towards being pretty deferential to authority. Have you found it difficult overcoming this tendency in your organizing?
I think that the issue of passivity toward authority can be best placed
within the contexts of privilege and/or disempowerment. Concerning
privilege, it is true that many Hamiltonians either don’t see or shield
their eyes from police violence simply because it is largely inflicted
upon more marginalized sections of the populations from specific
socio-economic backgrounds. This is a huge barrier to creating a culture
of police accountability, especially since those in more privileged
positions, such as members of the merchant-owning class, actually stand to
benefit from the heavy-handed policing of Hamilton’s marginalized
populations (i.e. unemployed, working poor, youth, sex trade workers,
etc.) and so have no immediate interest in challenging the coercive
conduct of cops in the downtown core which secure a more pleasing
environment for commerce. It is our hope that this barrier will become
eroded over time, to the extent that the parameters of class will allow.
We will pursue this through continuing to unmask police abuse for what it
is, bringing it under the light for all to see its ugly face. Of course, we
are only one organization, so the more sweeping revolutionary changes
which may have to occur in order to fully erode this barrier of
socio-economic privilege aren’t within our immediate grasp. At best, we
can work to produce one piece of the puzzle for radical change alongside
other groups working to build a better world.
Concerning the barrier of disempowerment which is often coupled with an
indifference to the workings of authority; it is our role as CopWatch to
provide an example of the tangible victories which can be won through
collective action. We must remember that there is nothing innately passive
about the ordinary Canadian. It was ordinary Canadians who in June 2000
fought back courageously against police aggressors at the steps of the
Ontario legislature with the demand that the concerns articulated by the
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty be heard out on that day by government
decision-makers. More recently, it was regular Canadians who in June 2010
took to the streets in the tens of thousands to confront the summit of the
G20 leaders gathering to facilitate the global capitalist system. Many of
those who filled the streets continue to struggle today against the
on-going repressive police terror infecting activist communities aimed at
criminalizing the wave of dissent that swept across the city of Toronto
Our role as CopWatch is to organize the community in a manner that
empowers all of us to recognize our own collective strength against the
seemingly impenetrable forces of the police as a state institution. When
folks in our neighbourhoods bear witness to a growing section of the
population now equipped with the knowledge of our rights and the tools to
put them to use in a way that offers a counter-balance to police impunity,
it is very likely that their prior passivity toward authority may become
transformed into a confidence to expose and oppose the cops who are
stirring up trouble outside of their front doors.
What future campaigns/events/actions are you working on at the moment?
An on-going campaign of Hamilton CopWatch is the specific attention we pay
to the operations of the ACTION Team unit of the Hamilton Police Service.
Founded by Chief De Caire, the ACTION Team functions as an obnoxious body
guard for business interests in the downtown core and beyond at the
expense of the security and well-being of those folks who have already
been pushed to the bottom rungs of the social ladder.
Supposedly working to “Address Crime Trends In Our Neighbourhoods,” the
unit’s day-today activities reveal a systemic policy of harassment,
intimidation and criminalization toward the so-called “undesirables” (i.e.
marginalized peoples such as youth, unemployed, homeless, pan-handlers,
sex trade workers, poor/working poor, etc.) who have built up their own
social networks in the downtown core. Relying on statistics gathered
through surveys conducted within the merchant class in the downtown area,
HPS’s ACTION Team unit points to a marked increase in perceptions of
security and safety in their target areas as justification for their
policies. We say it’s clear who stands benefit from their bullying tactics
and instances of physical abuse and we strive toward tipping the balance
of power the other way, taking our cues from the (would-be) victims of
police violence. As we begin to hit the streets in our own organized
patrol groups, our ACTION Team campaign will be thoroughly underway.
As far as events go, we are currently gearing up for a Community
Jam/Fundraiser in Beasley Park on August 28th. Running from noon until
about 4PM, we’re setting up some different activities and entertainment to
draw in families and people of all different ages and walks of life. From
face-painting to local musicians to balloon animals, baked goods and info
tables, we want to open up a space for building a relationship with the
community. So, come on out! We’d love to see you there!
Is your organizing strictly at the local level or are you in contact with other groups doing similar work in different cities?
Presently, our energies have been directed in most part to building things
up here in Hamilton, but we will definitely be looking to create ties with
other CopWatch groups (or organizations with similar mandates) in
different cities and even different countries. This will be important on
two levels: building solidarity which will strengthen all of our voices in
our linked struggles and sharing our experiences and insights so that we
may be able to learn from one another’s mistakes and victories.
Although our main focus remains local at the moment, we are in contact
with the Centre for Police Accountability in Toronto (www.c4pa.ca) to the
extent that members of this organization have lent their services to us in
the form of sympathetic legal counsel. This support has been crucial for
us, as we do not currently benefit from a membership base with expert
legal training, so the advice and services offered through the Centre For Police Accountability will
help us to continue our activism in confidence.
How does Cop-Watch manage the risk of police reprisals for participants?
This is a big one. First off, all members who enter into CopWatch are made
aware of the risks involved in our type of organizing and are encouraged
to explore exactly how they may want to become involved. Not all members
of CopWatch might be comfortable, for instance, going out on patrol to
monitor police activities and having their faces become known by the cop
who stands down their street every other day. There is lots of crucial
work to be done in various different settings for our organization to
reach its goals. That being said, there is still a risk of police
reprisals of differing degrees facing those who choose to enter into
activities related to CopWatching in general. This could be something as
“little” as a cop giving someone a J-walking ticket where they may have
not before, simply because they saw that individual working a CopWatch
event the week before and they don’t take too kindly to knowing that their
public servant duties are being observed by the public.
Our approach to the potential of police reprisals against CopWatch members
is twofold. First, we believe in power through numbers and strength in
unity. One of the first points in our working protocol for street patrols
is that all patrols must contain at minimum a group of four, two in the
front and two near behind, each set of two being equipped with a video
camera and a clip board for taking notes. This way, police might become
deterred from violating the rights of our membership, knowing that all of
their actions are being recorded. However, in cases that they continue to
operate with impunity, our records will serve as a basis for pursuing
available avenues for justice with the help of legal counsel. This is the
same approach we take concerning the well-being of (would-be) victims out
on the streets when we are on patrol. The principle of power in numbers
will also be relevant when dealing with particular instances of police
abuse directed toward our membership. Depending on the wishes of the
subject of such abuse, we may choose to hold creative public
demonstrations as a way in which we can apply pressure on the police under
the public eye.
Our second approach has been touched on already and that is our recourse
to legal counsel through the Centre For Police Accountability. On top of providing legal advice, our
legal expert partner is also willing and able to take on civil cases
against police which may arise out of police reprisals against our
This past week saw Ryan Tocher (the main subject officer in the case of the botched drug raid that left Po La Hay in hospital) have charges of excessive force dropped. When police can break into someone's house and beat them to the point where they need medical attention, then have the story splashed across the front page of the city paper and not be charged, how can even something like Cop-Watch have an impact?
The case of Po La Hay provides an example of the necessity for grassroots
direct action groups like CopWatch to mobilize on the ground in this city.
The gross brutality inflicted by Torcher in his beating of Po La Hay on
May 4, 2010 alone calls attention to the need of effective community-based
police oversight. On top of this, the pathetically slow response on behalf
of the Special Investigations Unit to follow their supposed mandate to
seriously investigate instances of blatant abuses of police power,
alongside a despairingly flawed legal system which saw Torcher escape with
no charges on the basis of a judge’s claim that insufficient evidence of
excessive force was used (despite medical records of a broken nose, broken
ribs and a fractured vertebrae), these facts point toward a need for the
pursuit of direct action in order to win justice for the people.
The direct action methods perused by CopWatch consist of our direct
surveillance of police activities as a deterrent to abuse, spreading
knowledge on our rights which are time and time again violated by the
cops, and, where these methods reach their limits, the mobilization of
mass rallies will become an important aspect of our struggle to place
pressure on cops in our city. On the front of building a protest movement
for police accountability, Hamilton CopWatch is excited that 905 Against
Police Brutality -- an organization whose efforts were at the frontlines
of the mass demonstration held in April to confront the Hamilton Police
Service for the police murder of 19 year old Andreas Chinnery – have
recently merged with CopWatch with a vigour to continue mobilizing our
communities to take to the streets.
While it may be overambitious to assume that our efforts might completely
reverse the balance of power, placing the institution of the police fully
underneath the community forces of CopWatch or to render it null and void
all together, it is our goal to contribute toward the emergence of a
general culture of CopWatching, where all our neighbours are attuned to
the realities of police brutality and abuse and feel empowered to raise
their voices, individually and collectively, when and where it occurs.
Hamilton CopWatch itself will play an integral role in sustaining such a
culture of solidarity and police accountability where it arises,
conducting regular patrols and information sessions, but the police must
feel watched at all times, knowing that any incidences such as the Po Lay
Hay beating, the Andreas Chinnery murder or the routine harassment of
marginalized and other sections of the population will not go unnoticed or
Finally, what kind of support do you need from the community and how can people get in touch with you?
There are always many ways for folks to help us out, especially now as we
embark on the first stages of development as an organization. Any form of
help that people may be able to offer will be greatly productive and
appreciated at any time.
One immediate concern would be funding and equipment, as we begin to
prepare for our first patrols. In terms of funds, any amounts will be put
into our patrol project fund and any surplus will go into our continuous
operational costs and future projects. In terms of equipment, we need
video cameras, SD cards, small sound recorders and tapes, an external hard
drive, paper and copy supplies, and walkie-talkies.
If people would like to get involved as organizers, in any capacity, they
can come out to some of our meetings and stay up to date on our mailing
list. Just send us an e-mail. If any like-minded organizations are
interested in working together, we’d love to hear from you, too!
E-mail contact: firstname.lastname@example.org