In the time of Oscar Grant police brutality is anything but new. The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project found that from April 2009-June 2010, 5,986 reports of misconduct were recorded, 382 fatalities were linked to misconduct and 347,455,000 were spent in related settlements and judgments. Officers escape scot-free from any consequences for their abuse. Not to mention Aiyana Jones, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and the countless other undocumented victims of police brutality. And of course, Troy Davis an example of gross misconduct not just by police but by the system.
It’s good to know that despite the overwhelming force and control that the police have over our communities, there are people who are not taking it lying down. One of these people is Andrea Prichett, one of the founders of Berkeley Copwatch, a completely volunteer-run organization working to counter the effects of police brutality in their community.
I got the chance to escape the foggy streets of San Francisco and have a lovely chat with Andrea in the sunny meeting room of the Copwatch office which they share with several other organizations. She’s been doing this work for over 20 years and is yet to show any sign of slowing down.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Andrea Prichett.
(Also, after the jump you’ll find an amazing hip-hop tribute to Oscar Grant, Handcuffs, by Native Guns and a fun graphic showing how ridiculous police immunity is.)
Anna Sterling: How did Copwatch get started?
Andrea Prichett: In 1990 there was a lot of police repression that was happening on Telegraph Avenue [in Berkeley]. I lived on Telegraph Avenue. I attended UC Berkeley in the 1980s and then I left for a couple years and was a teacher in Zimbabwe. I came home and I intended to work with homeless people because I was shocked that there was actually so much poverty. I thought I had seen poverty in Africa and was surprised that such a rich country like America would allow so many people to live on the streets. My intention was to work with homeless people and as I tried to do that around People’s Park it became clear that the police were a real obstacle to people getting off the street—this notion of them confiscating peoples possessions and physically kicking them off church steps. A collaboration of homeless people, students and community activists got together and decided, well, we’ll sort of be like witness for peace. We’ll try to stand there when the police are interacting with homeless people and try to get the police not to do those kinds of things. So we’ll write it down and hold the police accountable. We started out with nothing. We had a couple of clipboards. There was this church student group that let us put the clipboards under the seats in the main building and that was our start. We started walking patrols in the March of 1990. A lot of the homeless people kind of faded out because they realized that there was retaliation for political acts. And we would walk side by side on patrols and then later that night the cop would come back to the homeless person and say, “Oh, you’re trying to be one of those cop watchers? You’re trying to be an activist, well, we have something for you.” So we became more and more students and community folks. CopWatch means that we directly observe the police so we’re willing to go to the situations and we don’t interfere. It’s not our intention to interfere with legal police activity. We don’t have a lot of money but we raise enough funds. We have very low overhead no one gets paid. Throughout the over 22 years of existence, Copwatch has sprung up across the country. I just got back from a conference in Winnipeg, Canada where they had their own Copwatch.
AS: What are the gender dynamics in the work that you do?
AP: Shooting a film is powerful. Kind of like shooting a gun, I guess. It’s different. The Black Panthers used to patrol and do a kind of cop watch, but they weren’t watching. They were the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and they were patrolling with guns and penal codes. And they would roll up on a situation, park their car, get out, have their guns and say, “Officer, is there a problem here?” We in Copwatch park the car or walk up on the situation and we shoot footage. And sometimes it is possible for the dynamic… it’s a power struggle. And I definitely have seen it escalate and definitely seen a machismo culture. It could be really unhelpful to what we’re trying to do. They could be a really macho, male vibe about it that’s, like, they want a more dangerous situation. [Ideas like]: “We want to capture some footage. We want to bag the big one. We want to get something really violent.” There’s sort of the traditional gender breakdown in the work. Because, number one, if you go out on a cop watch patrol and you don’t see any violence or abuse that’s a good day. You shouldn’t come home feeling disappointed. Number two, what do we do with that footage when we have it? Do you quickly throw it up on YouTube and exploit that footage? Or do you catalogue it carefully, call the person, call the victim and try to follow through and make sure they are taken care of? There’s a whole follow through of traditional office work. Where you have to do some writing, you have to do some phone calling and oyu have to do the less glamorous stuff then just being the one who bagged the big footage. That work is sometimes gendered oddly enough. And that there can be an action slash excitement of the sexy go out and get the footage versus coming into the office and filing and doing all the infrastructure work that keeps Copwatch in existence. There’s the bookkeeping and the paying the rent and there’s the maintaining the mailing list and all these other things can be really hard to get people to do. And sometimes that work is gendered.
AS: What recent news story made you want to scream?
AP: I heard that highest tax bracket of the wealthiest Americans is 30%. If you’re making millions of dollars the worst it can possibly get is that you would pay 30% of that money. Back in the 1940s, 1950s, the tax rate for people making millions was like 90%. So the disparity I think is pretty telling and pretty infuriating. But there’s so many [stories] to choose from. I mean, the unemployment rate is certainly worth screaming about. The fact that Obama won’t stop the Tar Sands pipeline project that’s supposed to put 1500 miles of pipeline from the disgusting dirty chemically-poisonous tar sands in Canada and pipe that dirty oil all the way to Texas to be refined. It makes me scream because it has nothing to do with stopping this country’s dependence on oil. It jeopardizes the largest fresh water aquifer in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer, which apparently is a fresh water source for 20 million Americans. They’re willing to jeopardize that for profit. It’s maddening.
AS: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
AP: I think the greatest challenge facing feminism today is to infuse class politics with feminist consciousness. I so mourn the loss of women’s spaces, the loss of consciousness around feminist issues. It’s not even so much particular issues that have to do with women or not. It has to do with the approach and the culture of values that feminism for me held, promoted and advanced. Those values are about consensus, politics, inclusivity, real equality, real nurture, justice and care. Those values have been sidelined unfortunately in recent times. As the left has become more desperate in its responses to these attacks, the urgency of the situation or the perceived urgency of the situation makes the left, some groups, or organizations of the left, dismissive of a longer, better process. The urgency to have a demonstration this week or tomorrow and impulses like, “let’s go, let’s do it, who cares what the internal cost is, who cares what the cost to our coalition building is, who cares, we gotta act, we gotta act.” In my mind association with feminism has been that there is a willingness to take the time to build a good process that led to a better deeper unity. I miss that. I do identify as a feminist. But I miss seeing women’s groups at the forefront of the struggles to stop police brutality or the anti-war movement. They’re not as common as they once were.
AS: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
AP: I’m gonna take granola and white wine to wash it down. For the feminist I’m going to take Vanessa Redgrave because she’s pro-Palestinian. She’s been brave her whole career and I think she’s fun to talk to.