‘Copwatch’ Documents Activists Recording Police Brutality

Credit: Bow and Arrow productions
A new documentary turns a lens on the people recording law enforcement violence.

O n the morning of April 12, 2015, Kevin Moore was sleeping in bed when he heard his neighbors yelling “They’re tasing him!” He immediately got dressed and ran across the street with his phone, where he found Freddie Gray being brutalized by Baltimore PD officers. Hitting “record” on his phone, he captured Gray howling in pain. It was the final moments Gray was captured alive before police dragged him into a van.

Minutes before, Moore had a choice to make. Would he turn a blind eye, or would he document an injustice? Moore decided he wasn’t going to become a number in the “bystander effect,” becoming another voyeur to an emergency while absolving himself of the responsibility to intervene.

Actions like Moore’s are part of a broader push to speak up and protect neighbors at any cost — a movement that is the focus of Camilla Hall’s new documentary, Copwatch. The film primarily focuses on select members of WeCopwatch, a grassroots organization that not only works to teach people about their rights if they’re stopped by the police, but places cameras in the hands of everyday citizens to capture police activity in a nonviolent way.

The WeCopwatch members spotlighted in the documentary — Kevin Moore, David Whitt, and Ramsey Orta — have stepped behind the lens to record police brutality in New York, Baltimore, and St. Louis.

In addition to revealing the importance of exposing abuse, the documentary shines a light on the aftermath of such activism. Orta’s video of Eric Garner’s last words-turned-mantra, “I can’t breathe,” as he died in a headlock on a sidewalk in Staten Island went viral, prompting him to take several interviews. Copwatch reveals this made him a target for the police, who surveilled him until he was brought up on charges. Orta was eventually arrested and found with a gun, and later charged with second-degree criminal possession. Ramsey, too, was arrested, on gun charges and for domestic violence; he maintains his innocence on the latter, and says he’s been harassed by the police since filming Garner’s death.

Copwatch points out that this might be the “cost” that members of the grassroots organization face as they challenge a broken system set up to fail them at every turn.

The film, which just had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, has plans for more festival appearances in the U.S. and Europe in the coming weeks, and is currently pursuing digital and theatrical distribution. I spoke with director Camilla Hall about police brutality against African Americans, knowing your rights, and the process of making her crucial film.

Camilla Hall (Credit: Bow and Arrow productions)

The brutality against African Americans has been at the forefront of our news cycle since Trayvon Martin’s death. Was there a breaking point that brought you to this subject matter?

There was one conversation I had, with an ex-cop, who’s a criminology professor now. I was talking about the targeting of people who film the police and he said that it was standard practice that if someone was hassling them in that kind of way, they would go and look up warrants and do traffic stops. They were basically following up with that person in a way that was never related to the filming. It was low-level harassment. Hearing that from an ex-police officer as if it was a matter of fact was really the turning point for me.

This is not an easy subject to cover. For people of privilege, seeing these deaths on camera and recognizing them as an abuse of power can be an incredibly difficult pill to swallow. Did you come across individuals who had a difference of opinion, in terms of having a more “Blue Lives Matter” mentality?

One or two people came up to us and were provocative, but in Baltimore people would say, “Oh, cool!” and the same in Staten Island. It was a generally warm response. A lot of the more negative police responses were filmed by the copwatchers on their own.

There are scenes in the film, like the one in Baltimore, where they do the copwatch and it’s antagonistic and angry. I could have taken that out but I wanted to show, this is who they are. This is real. You can understand why that anger is there. In a lot of these communities, there’s still a huge amount of anger and trauma around what has happened.

‘There’s still a huge amount of anger and trauma around what has happened.’

It seems like too often, power can be asserted in the wrong way because people don’t know their rights. In the film, the members of WeCopwatch go around and educate members of the community…

In terms of the training, especially in St. Louis, every single person had an anecdote. Everybody who came in had some negative type of interaction, and in many cases, they could have prevented it by knowing a little bit more about what they could or didn’t have to do. I think that’s really important and in some ways, I feel like this film can encourage people to learn more about their rights.

There’s this unwritten and understood rule, the “Blue Wall of Silence,” which allows people to turn a blind eye and to be complicit in these injustices. In the film, there is a scene where WeCopwatch tries to have a productive conversation with a member of law enforcement, and he seems to be at a loss, too, about how to confront police brutality. Were you surprised by that interaction?

It was really important to me to have an empathetic police officer in the film. Earlier, you see cops being friendly and welcoming, and then we see cops on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. It’s important for the audience to see a conversation with someone who they would feel for. You weren’t going to get that by doing an interview with an officer sitting at a desk. Without that, we wouldn’t have a film because we owe it to the cops to be able to present empathetic arguments and viewpoints.

The way technology’s advanced has, in a way, changed the definition of activism. You can look at someone like Ramsey Orta, and call his tape of Eric Garner an act of activism.

Ramsey Orta (Credit: Bow and Arrow productions)

Yeah. I think it was super interesting because obviously, [Orta] doesn’t come from [an activist] background. He wasn’t really an activist before, but since he filmed Eric Garner’s video he started to read up on stuff. Right now he’s reading The New Jim Crow in prison. Ramsey does have a criminal record. David also had a criminal record, and a lot of those people feel like they don’t have a voice. They feel like since they’ve been incarcerated their voice is no longer meaningful or relevant. To me, it was about hearing these points of views and understanding a little more about where they were coming from.

I imagine while making this film you didn’t anticipate Ramsey would be arrested on gun charges in an undercover sting, or that he would be arrested for domestic violence. Because he denied the latter charge, were you hesitant to capture this, or did you know that you needed to put it on film?

There was a lot of heat around his domestic violence case. It was very stressful to film. That was an example where we didn’t want to hide anything from people. We don’t condone domestic violence, but it’s happening in his community, so that was something we needed to show — but at the same time, why was that being covered? Why was his face in the news? Why was that being leaked by the police to the media? He wasn’t a politician. This is a citizen.

With the election, people have averted their eyes. If you’re not seeking this information out on social media about the recent deaths, you can hide from it, whereas that wasn’t the case just a year ago. How do you think this conversation will change now that we have President Trump, who is labeling himself as the law and order president?

The fight has gotten harder. All of the outcry and the protests were happening under President Obama. Now we have President Trump, and there will probably be even fewer rewards [in terms of accomplishing socially progressive goals]. A lot of people will fall out because they won’t be able to keep the energy behind it. To me, it should be a reason to double-down and fight harder, but there’s a lot of fatigue.

At the end of the day, what do you hope to accomplish with this film?

I want people who have been affected by these problems to see the film. On the one hand, people can empathize and understand some of the situations these guys have gone through, but there are also people on the white privilege end of the spectrum who need to see the film. They need to understand more about the problems that other parts of society are facing. One of the hardest things about the Trump administration is that the privileged right-wing community can [not listen]. So any way of getting this heard by people is what matters.