See also: Antonio Buehler and the Peaceful Streets. Links to additional summit videos can be found throughout this post.
On July 14, I attended the Peaceful Streets Project Police Accountability summit. This all day free conference brought about 200 diverse members of the Austin, Texas community together to learn about police abuse and create new ways to fight it.
Though the summit had its genesis from the mistreatment and false accusations against Antonio Buehler after he filmed police on New Years Eve 2011, Buehler himself stayed in the background for much of the day, letting other key project leaders and volunteers be the center of attention. Even when telling his own story, he made it part of a larger panel on victims of police abuse, seen to the right. This let the larger problem — the lack of transparency — show through. For example, it is clear that ‘spitting on police’ has become one of the go-to false accusations when cops need to pin something on an uncooperative suspect or political enemy.
The host of the police abuse panel, Debbie Russell, is a longtime Austin activist who was arrested at the eviction of Occupy Austin. In another highlight of the day, she was joined on stage by Scott Crow, anarchist author of Black Flags and Windmills, for a discussion of alternatives to calling the police and how they’ve been put into place at the downtown cooperative Ecology Action. Even lunch time was thought provoking, giving attendees a chance to tour a vehicle which was customized with cameras, sophisticated recording equipment and even a smoke screen.
Of course, the central event of the day was the formation of a new cop watch group and the gift of 100 cameras to community activists dedicated to filming the police.
One of Peaceful Streets’ leaders, Harold Gray, led a class on How to Film the Police which also referenced the Youtube video How to Film A Revolution. The Peaceful Streets Project is simple — people encountering the police, either at random or on deliberate cop watch groups call a phone number called the Lonestar Liberty Bell and leave a message. That message is delivered to anyone who subscribes to the Bell by email or text message. A Facebook group is available to coordinate efforts as well.
Not only are an increased amount of cameras and communication available at all times in the city, but small teams of 2 or 3 form on a regular basis to film police. Videos are captured on the portable Sony Bloggie cameras or preexisting smart phones, then posted on Youtube and Facebook (and soon will be added to a central repository). Regular cop watches are combined with Know Your Rights Classes, and the Police Complaint Department which waits outside APD Headquarters and the city jail taking people’s stories and sharing food and water. These are simple tools which in whole or part could easily be reproduced in other cities, and it’s clear from events in Anaheim and elsewhere that the need is great.
At the end of the day, the new peaceful streets team stood together, so many of us that we overflowed the available space on stage.That night there was a mass cop watch on 6th Street, Austin’s main nightclub district. About 40 people gathered to film the police together, drawing both positive attention from the populace and negative attention from cops. Though my team didn’t film any useful police action, we spoke to many people downtown and every single one supported our efforts. We even heard from a pedicab driver who, after putting one of our stickers on her pedicab told us about how thieves steal these cyclist’s expensive safety certification stickers, and are then frequently fined by police right afterward for having an unlicensed pedicab.
Since that first night, Peaceful Streets groups have been present in small numbers on many nights. A Liberty Bell caller scooped the media on the night of this tragedy and were present when 6th street was shut down by mounted officers in the wake of a shooting. No serious acts of brutality have been caught on film yet, but it’s important to remember the greater purpose of the project — to discourage police from committing those acts in the first place, because they know they might be recorded. Though it’s too soon to say what effect the group will have on the city’s police, sharing a tiny portion of that crowded stage earlier this month gave me hope.
Peaceful Streets will hold another Film the Police class and organized cop watch on Saturday. Antonio Buehler faces up to ten years in jail; his case is still awaiting a grand jury.
More: Pete Eyre of Copblock.org gives his Peaceful Streets report.