A convicted felon turns cameras on the cops, putting a balance of power, he says, back in the hands of the people.
"I raise my fist because I want that justice; don't get my freedom, gonna have to take my freedom."
— Sherman Austin, from his song "Raise the Fist"
LOS ANGELES - On May Day, 2007, the Los Angeles police made front page news after clashing with protesters in a public park. Images of baton-wielding officers and cowering protesters, journalists among them, renewed an angry debate over police brutality in a city still scarred by the memory of the Rodney King beating.
Sherman Austin says his own run-ins with the police led him to start Cop Watch.
Citizen video has left an indelible mark on Los Angeles. The King video is the best-known example, but far from the only one. In 2002, a tourist filmed 16-year-old Donovan Jackson being punched and slammed against a police cruiser in Inglewood. Last year, a UCLA student taped an incident in which another student was hit by a stun gun at a school library. The video spread quickly across the Internet.
"This type of stuff happens every day in L.A.," says Sherman Austin, founder of Cop Watch LA, an activist group that was quick to post images and clips of the May Day incident. "It's just a coincidence sometimes there's a video camera around to videotape."
The LAPD disagrees, contending that the average person doesn't always consider the situation that led to the police confrontation in the first place. A spokesperson for the department says the LAPD averages 1.2 uses of force per 100 arrests, which he claims is one of the lowest in the country.
Tools of the trade
Cop Watch LA received wide attention last year when it posted a video of an alleged gang member being punched in the face by one LAPD officer while another officer knelt on his throat. The disturbing video has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube and Cop Watch LA's site.
Ironically, Austin's tool of choice, the Internet, is the same one that landed him in jail several years ago. He was convicted of distributing information about explosives — he argues that all he did was link to a page that included text copied from Abbie Hoffman's anarchist manifesto, "Steal This Book" — and now, as part of his probation, he isn't allowed to touch a computer until August 2007.
He maintains the Cop Watch LA website through instructions to other members, writing out computer code on paper and napkins.
'We want justice'
Norma and Norbieto Martinez are supporters and frequent visitors to the Cop Watch LA office. They feel they have a personal stake in the work.
Their son Gonzalo was killed by Downey, Calif., police after a low-speed chase in 2002. Police fired over 30 rounds at him. The incident was captured on videotape by a freelance news photographer.
"My life has been a nightmare since they killed my son," says Norma Martinez. "The only thing we try to do now is help other people. You know, we felt so sorry for the people who go through this like we are going through. We don't have a life anymore. Even though I have two more sons, it's not the same."
She says they've been offered compensation by the city, but she wants the officers in jail.
"Justice," she says, "that's all we want. Justice."
Cop Watch LA members are often out at dawn to monitor police activity in downtown Los Angeles.
A presence on the street
Cop Watch LA is no longer relying on mere coincidence to capture images of police misbehavior. Dressed in black and red Cop Watch T shirts, the young members are motivated and vigilant — telling their own stories of victimization at the hands of police. When many young adults are often sleeping in during the weekends, they are often getting up before 7 a.m. to patrol downtown LA in an effort, Austin says, to keep police from harassing the homeless population.
I asked him if the police know about Cop Watch LA and who he is. Austin said they do, and that police told him recently, "'We know who you guys are. We know about you. We know you're out here. We're not scared of you guys.'"
But Austin said he thinks police do feel threatened when the cameras come out. The exchange, he said, "came off as kind of defensive: 'We're not [scared] of you guys.'"
"OK," he added, "we're not afraid of you either. That's why we're here."
-Producer: Robert Padavick
-Video editors: Tommy Morquecho and Jon Brick