In a year of violent police encounters, much of the conversation has been about cameras: Who should have them, what can they achieve and how can they improve the broken relationship between the police and African-American communities?
Copwatch, an organization created to document police activity and possible harassment, has been at the forefront of the activity since its founding in 1990. But in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., last August — after a white officer shot him and left his body in the road — the movement has gained a new urgency.
The deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, Walter L. Scott in North Charleston, S.C., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore have fueled more outrage and debate because in each case, raw video propelled the incidents into public discussion.
But in Baltimore, in the tense uprising after the death of Freddie Gray, as the video above shows, copwatching was also a form of protest and even provocation — a way to vigorously press for police accountability.
Following the unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death, I found myself inside the Gilmor Homes housing project there, listening to three men in an impromptu rap battle.
David Whitt, 35, from Ferguson, Mo., rapped about police officers having body cameras, calling on civilians to arm themselves with similar gear. Mr. Whitt, who is part of a movement called Copwatch, was Michael Brown’s neighbor, before Mr. Brown was shot and killed by a police officer last August.
All this was happening in the home of Kevin Moore, 28, who was also letting loose. (Unfortunately, his verses contained too many expletives to include here or in the video.) Mr. Moore’s lines were fueled with rage. On April 12, outside of his home, he filmed his friend Mr. Gray being dragged by Baltimore police into a transport van. Mr. Gray died from a spinal injury a week later, and the six officers involved with his arrest were indicted on homicide and assault charges.
As I filmed both Mr. Moore and Mr. Whitt, at ease and venting their frustrations through music, I thought about the amount of convincing it took to get to this point.
I had spoken to Mr. Whitt on the phone several weeks before while covering another deadly police encounter — the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. Mr. Whitt said he was coming down from Ferguson to North Charleston to teach community members about their rights and how to document the police. I asked if I could shadow him to tell the story of Copwatch.
He said no repeatedly, adding that whatever video I was going to get would be stuff that they shot and edited.
Mr. Whitt reasoned that movements like Copwatch had less need to fully engage with mainstream media. Cheaper video cameras and social media have been game changers, and the group could now disseminate information about violent police encounters in black communities on its own. It could bypass the editorial judgments of news media.
But after about a month of back-and-forth over the phone, they saw this as an opportunity to get a wider platform for their organization. And here I was: in a room filming these guys as they strategized over how to do what their namesake suggested.
I spent several intense days with them in early May and returned to meet Mr. Moore again in June. As the days progressed, they became tired but more comfortable, and possibly bored of having me around. They became less and less guarded. It is usually in these moments that characters are most vulnerable and true to themselves. These are the moments that became the highlights in the final video.
One of my favorite scenes from the story is the evening interaction with the police. Having filmed law enforcement in the past, I was extremely surprised at how candid the Baltimore officers were with the guys from Copwatch. Standing two feet away from either group, it was good to observe both sides up close, blaming the other as part of the problem and seeing themselves as the solution.
There have been many stories about the broken relationship between law enforcement and black communities — about how policing in America is complicated. I hope this story will show that policing the police is as well.