Copwatch Conference: Seeking alternatives to the police

| August 1, 2011
Toronto G20. Photo: Ariel Estulin

Despite only occasionally surfacing in the news -- with more than 1,000 G20 arrests, tasering deaths, lethal shootings and abuse in holding cells -- police misconduct is not only widespread and historic it is also deeply entrenched, said presenters at a major conference on policing last week in Winnipeg.

The International Copwatching Conference was hosted by Winnipeg Copwatch, an anti police-brutality group founded in 2007. The July 22-24 event attracted participants from every major Canadian city, as well as the U.S.

It's been just over a year since the gates of "Torontonamo Bay", the nickname for the makeshift prison which caged 1,105 demonstrators during last June's G20 mass protests in Toronto, finally closed. During that weekend, the largest police deployment in Canada's history of 20,000 officers led to gunpoint raids, dozens of activists facing years of legal battles, and emerging stories of threats, homophobia, and sexual harassment.

In the wake of these and other widely publicised incidents of police misconduct in Canada -- including the deaths of Dudley George, Robert Dziekanski, J.J. Harper, Matthew Dumas, and the failure to investigate more than 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women -- concern with police brutality in Canada brought several hundred people to Winnipeg.

"These incidents are not isolated -- they are integral to policing," said keynote speaker Andrea Ritchie, a lawyer and co-founder of the group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. "Until we produce a world that does not contain or produce police and prisons, we will never live in a world without violence or imagine alternatives."

At the conference, it was not only police departments who faced criticism. Workshops and panels addressed problems of immigration and border officers, prison guards, as well as the capitalist economic system. Immigrants and refugees face racial profiling, detention, deportation, only set to increase with the Conservatives' proposed immigration laws.

"Copwatching" is a tactic which started in the Black Panther movement but was later taken up by organizers in Berkeley, California, following several high-profile killings and beatings of men of colour by police in the early 1990s, including Rodney King's videotaped assault in Los Angeles, which led to extensive rioting, protests and demands for accountability.

The aim of copwatching, organizers said, is to document and deter police misconduct by observing police and holding them publically accountable.

"The goal of copwatching is to show police we are watching them too, to show people that resistance is possible, and to denounce what is happening on the streets," said François Du Canal, with Montreal's Collective Opposed to Police Brutality

The international conference was the second gathering of the growing copwatching movement, following one hosted by the founding Berkeley Copwatch in 2007. Copwatch groups -- as well as others who use similar strategies -- use tactics including videotaping police, filing official complaints, protesting police misconduct, and hosting "know your rights" public workshops and sharing circles.

"Proactively our tactic is to educate about rights, to observe the police, to build relationships in the community," said Andrea Pritchett, with Berkeley Copwatch.

Some prominent themes of the copwatching conference included specific strategies of the movement, the repression of protest, and the oppressive history and roots of policing.

Many speakers highlighted Indigenous issues, and documented the role of police in colonising Canada -- both historically and today. Many criticised the often-touted idea that police misconduct is the product of a "few bad apples," or rogue officers who should face discipline for their abuses.

"The 'one bad apple' account explains violence as an aberration of policing," said keynote speaker and long-time Indigenous organizer Leslie Spillett, with the Winnipeg community organisation Ka Ni Kanichihk. "It denies a culture of oppression inherent in most policing culture." 

Alongside much attention to racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia and other forms of oppression, many workshops discussed the repression of protest -- what presenters termed the "criminalization of dissent."

Although the police crackdown at last year's G20 protests was frequently addressed, several prominent organizers and academics argued that this is nothing new -- and that police violence against protest has occurred repeatedly in Canadian history.

"The overall tendency of police is to maintain the existing relations of power," said Kristian Williams, an Oregon-based researcher and author of Our Enemies in Blue. "We see it in the period of slave patrols, in times of crisis like the 1930s (repression of strikes and protests) and the 1960s (police attacks on social movements) and today with increasing militarisation."

Speakers pointed to the massively increased budgets for protest security -- at their highest $1-billion at the G20 -- and documented use of infiltrators, agents-provocateurs (undercover police who attempt to incite protest violence), and surveillance -- as examples of the Canada's efforts to silence criticism and protest.

"The problem is not one of communication or better dialogue," said Laurentian University professor Gary Kinsman, author of Canada's War on Queers. "Police do not misunderstand us.

"It is a war on subversion and dissent -- defining anti-capitalist demonstrators as a threat to national security," he added.

Recently, official documents attained by Tim Groves in Briarpatch magazine confirmed that police used at least 12 undercover infiltrators and surveillance to "deter, prevent, investigate and/or disrupt" protests against the G20. 

Many recalled the 2001 Summit of the Americas protests in Quebec City, where tens of thousands squared off with riot police against free trade, as well as other examples of police repression.

"From rubber bullets to sound cannons and bean bags, the police now have the resources to do the repression better," Jaggi Singh, of migrant justice group No One Is Illegal Montreal, said in a panel on criminalising dissent. "The portrait that emerges is increasing repression of global justice movements.

"But if we study the history of social movements, there's always been infiltration and disruption," he added. "We have so much to learn from Indigenous, feminist and socialist movements."

Also presenting at the conference was Alexus Young, a Metis filmmaker and survivor of the Saskatoon police's "midnight rides" -- who described being abandoned in winter without shoes or jacket outside Saskatoon.

"Police just decided I was a target," she said. "We call ourselves a First World country? As citizens we have to say, 'This shouldn't be happening'." 

David P Ball is a writer and photojournalist in Vancouver B.C., on Coast Salish territories. He also co-facilitated a workshop on trauma and mental health at the International Copwatching Conference. His website can be found here.

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