12th Avenue freezeout
by Bob Fitrakis
An age-old question on government abuse asks: “Who watches the watchers?” In Columbus, the answer is easy, it’s Copwatch.
Active and visible in the OSU campus area since the May 17, 1996 confrontation between Columbus police officers and 12th Avenue partiers, their slogan is “Refuse to be Abused”; their logo depicts an eyeball for the “O” in the word Cop. A pamphlet they’ve handed out every weekend this fall states: “We have cameras. We have lawyers. We have people who can be seen, and people who can’t. We are watching cops right now in the OSU area.”
And all of it’s true.
Like many seemingly subversive and radical ideas and innovations, the Copwatch concept originated in Berkeley. It is a direct linear descendant of perhaps America’s most well-known militant Copwatchers-the Oakland-based Black Panther Party and the Berkeley-based student liberation movement that brought us the student Free Speech Movement and clashed with the police over Peoples Park in the ’60s.
Like its Bay-Area predecessors, Copwatch was first organized in February 1990 on the south side of Berkeley in response to “police brutality,” according to Berkeley’s Copwatch handbook. The ongoing struggle between the University of California at Berkeley administration and campus-area residents over the removal of the Peoples Cafe from Peoples Park once again brought “people together out of a mutual understanding that this violence, which is targeted at the poor, street people, people of color, activists and hippies is a direct result of pressure from the university, many Telegraph Avenue merchants and landlords to gentrify the area,” the handbook explains.
In its initial manifesto proclaiming “Who is Copwatch?” the organization asserted: “We have come to feel that the very people who are supposed to safeguard our persons and property have actually come to represent a major threat to us.” They weren’t alone and their idea began to spread across the country.
In 1994, the Minneapolis Anti-Racist Action chapter, an organization whose national headquarters is in Columbus’s north campus area, started its own version of Copwatch. One of the Minneapolis founders, Justine-Copwatchers are generally reluctant to use their full name for fear of police harassment-conceded that “Our philosophy is a little different than Berkeley’s.
“We have more of a critique of the state, and what the police work to do, to uphold racist laws and a class-based society and suppress the poor,” she explained. Unlike Berkeley, the Minneapolis Copwatch focuses mainly on the downtown areas where they claim that African-American youth are routinely harassed on Friday and Saturday nights. Justine said that, “Curfews are strictly enforced on black youth and we didn’t see that being done in other areas, so it provided us with a way to have a greater public presence” by monitoring the police.
The instructions in the Minneapolis Copwatch handbook call for much more aggressive action than Berkeley’s. Their teams of four “intervenors” are told that, “It’s your job to find out what’s going on, be a witness, and prevent false arrest and harassment.” The more Gandi-ist Berkeley chapter says, “Treat everyone you come in contact with in a friendly and polite manner”; the Minnesota chapter advises, “Don’t get into philosophical debates with pigs, it’s pointless.” The Minneapolis Copwatch literature proclaims: “We don’t talk to cops!” They instruct their members: “They are our oppressors and you are committed to fighting oppression.” They define one of the notetaker’s tasks in the handbook as recording “Stupid or fucked-up quotes from the cops.”
Despite their more militant tactics and rhetoric, Justine said that only four Copwatch members have been arrested in its two years of existence, all misdemeanors involving interference with official police business.
On the other hand, the fledgling and much less confrontational Columbus Copwatch had four of its members arrested in a two-week period between October 13 and 27, and are adding a different element, the lawsuit. Attorney Jim McNamara said he plans to file suit on Wednesday, November 27 in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court against the city of Columbus and Columbus Police Officer David J. Dennison and, as yet, unnamed John and Jane Doe officers. The suit, filed on behalf of plaintiffs Shammas Jones, Chris Wisniewski, and Walter Leake alleges “assault and battery,” “false arrest,” and “malicious prosecution” against the officers and the city.
The lawsuit stems from the Columbus Police Department’s actions in the south campus area on the evening of May 17, 1996. It also led to the founding of Copwatch in Columbus. Jones, then a third-year Criminology student, stood behind the police and videotaped them as they charged down 12th Avenue firing tear gas and wooden bullets and making random arrests.
The reason for the confrontation between a couple hundred police and throng of 12th Avenue party-goers remains a mystery. The lawsuit states: “This large police presence was not in response to any emergency situation or civil disobedience. Rather, it was a pre-planned action.” McNamara claims that testimony in the Shammas Jones criminal trial-where a jury unanimously acquitted of all criminal charges-demonstrated that the police planned the confrontation with the partiers “up to 10 days earlier.”
McNamara contends that Jones merely “observed, videotaped, and then turned to walk away” when “he was attacked from behind by the police, Maced in the face, knocked to the ground, pushed and struck violently and repeatedly.” The suit alleges that the police attacked Jones “because he had videotaped improper police actions.” Jones asserts that the portion of his tape that showed the police misconduct was erased while in police custody.
“I don’t have any knowledge of that,” said Commander Steven Gammil, the CPD officer in charge of the situation on the OSU campus the night Jones, Wisniewski and Leake was arrested.
So outraged was Jones by the police action he refused an offer by the city of Columbus to dismiss all criminal charges against him, including disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, if he signed an agreement promising not to sue the city and the officers.
Co-plaintiff Chris Wisniewski, a member of Anti-Racist Action (ARA), was shocked by the police assault on Jones, an African-American, and “paused and made a critical comment on the police action,” according to McNamara. Wisniewski, the suit claims, was also “attacked from behind” and arrested.
Co-plaintiff Leake was Maced “in a police show of force to clear the area quickly,” says the suit. Neither Wisniewski nor Leake were charged with criminal conduct. “Look, there’s three steps here. First, the police hurt you physically if you attempt to witness their actions. Then they arrest you, and finally, they charge you if you happen to catch them on videotape,” McNamara asserts.
Within a week, ARA activists aware of the Copwatch in Minneapolis, took to the streets. On May 31, a dozen Copwatchers demonstrated on the corner of 12th and High with a banner asking a simple question: “Is South Campus a Student Neighborhood or a Penal Colony!?” Diverting from the Minneapolis model, Columbus Copwatchers emphasize not only non-confrontational observing of south campus police activity, but educating area residents of their Constitutional rights. Every weekend night on campus they hand out literature containing “Practical tips in dealing with the police.” One tip advises, “Do not ‘bad mouth’ the police or run away, even if you believe what is happening is unreasonable.”
The summer months weren’t much of a test as to the police’s receptiveness to the Copwatch tactics. News coverage on NBC4 showing police brutality, with video depicting an officer repeatedly punching an arrested student, helped create a friendly environment for Copwatch activity.
Autumn quarter at OSU became the real challenge. It started well enough with Shammas Jones being acquitted on September 23. But then things got ugly. After OSU’s victory over Notre Dame, police provided little or no law enforcement as a small but determined group of celebrators vandalized and overturned cars on 12th Avenue. Public sympathy for south campus residents quickly vanished. With great fanfare, OSU President Gordon Gee disposed of due process and suspended several students suspected of taking part in the vandalism, which occurred off-campus and not under the university’s jurisdiction.
Copwatch members claimed that the Columbus Police Department let the vandalism get out of control to punish 12th Avenue residents critical of their May 17 actions and to manipulate public opinion. It worked. With elected officials and the public at large decrying student vandalism, the police were virtually given carte blanche to control the south campus area.
Liquor control agents posing as store clerks and pizza delivery men invaded the south campus area to crack down on underage drinking. They routinely enter area residences that host weekend parties, checking I.D.’s, making arrests and confiscating kegs. And the mainstream media began to report routinely the number of campus arrests each weekend along with the Buckeye football score. OSU student Anthony Tarantino commented that the police “are taking away all our freedoms. They’re watching us all the time. It’s like we live in a police state.” Another student, Donald Cox, said “The cops are screwing everything up. We need gas masks to party. It sucks.”
The emboldened police immediately cracked down on Copwatchers. On October 13, a Copwatch member was arrested for videotaping police arrests. The tape he shot clearly shows that he was complying with police orders. Columbus Alive viewed a video provided by McNamara that shows the police ordering the Copwatch videographer to the sidewalk, a safe distance away from the arrest. The police later push the videographer into a crowd of students and arrest him after he asks them if they want to “get macho for the camera.”
“What Copwatch was doing is perfectly legal,” argues McNamara.
On October 19, Copwatch organized a rally, in conjunction with ARA’s national convention, of some 300 people to march against police brutality in the south campus area. Police squad cars followed the peaceful demonstration and waded into the crowd at Blake Avenue and High Street to arrest a marcher for walking in the street. In making the arrest, they Maced several demonstrators, including this Columbus Alive reporter. Police later denied using Mace to the media.
Copwatch members and police clashed again on October 27. Both Josh Klein and Ann Pussel were arrested while peacefully videotaping an arrest near 12th and High. And fellow watcher Patricia Sikora was ticketed when she followed the police cruiser to the Franklin County jail to bail them out. Columbus Alive obtained a tape of the incident that is strikingly at odds with the police arrest report submitted by Lieutenant Rich Mann. In Mann’s report, “Mr. Klein then walked right up to the officer’s face, pushing his camcorder into their faces. He was again ordered to leave the area. Mr. Klein then walked to the sidewalk taunting and crying at officers.”
The tape tells a different tale. Officers indeed ordered Klein a safe distance away to the sidewalk. At that point, a male companion of the man being arrested says to the Copwatchers, “That’s fucked up. It takes a whole precinct to arrest him.” Police officers, clearly not in any danger with their man arrested and in the cruiser, take offense to the companion’s remark and walk up to the camera. When they put their hands on Klein, he says “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.” In Mann’s version-not substantiated by the tape-Klein says “I don’t have to leave. Don’t you fucking touch me.” Upon arrest, fearing that his tape would meet the same fate as that of Shammas Jones, Klein passed his camera off to Ann Pussel, who was immediately arrested for interfering with police business.
McNamara vows to produce, in addition to the tape, at least three eyewitnesses who support Copwatch’s version. On October 31, the U.S. Justice Department announced an investigation of evidence of patterned discrimination by Columbus Police officers giving Copwatch members some hope that their arrests have not been in vain.
Doug Browell, chief labor attorney for the city of Columbus, commented Tuesday, “We don’t try our cases in the press. So I really have no comment on [the investigation.] What I can say is that the city is cooperating with the investigation as much as possible.”
Ron Zeller, owner of the south campus restaurant Street Scene and self-professed “Copwatch Watcher,” has strong opinions on Copwatch tactics. “Copwatch serves some good purposes, but they’ve overstepped their bounds a little bit.” While he supports the police and criticizes the Copwatchers for interfering, he concedes that the crux of the problem is the government’s policy that tries “to legislate moral and social problems.” He said that out of the 29 altercations he’s had at Street Scene, 27 involved non-college students. “Just today I had a 28-year-old who wanted to throw a beer bottle at the TV set because the Buckeyes lost to Michigan. He’s not a student. There’s too much Section 8 housing in the area. Too much density in the 12th Avenue area and that’s the landlord’s fault, not the students.” He frankly admits that he believes there’s “discriminatory enforcement of the liquor laws in the campus area.”
In anticipation of an OSU victory over Michigan, 400 riot police moved into the south campus area last weekend. No major confrontations or arrests of Copwatch members were reported.
Now comes the winter of Copwatch’s discontent and litigation. It’s not quite as exciting as Huey Newton brandishing a gun and a copy of the Constitution and facing down the Oakland Police in the 1960s, but it may be as equally important in our current climate of rough-’em-up police tactics and prison-building that the police know that they’re accountable to the communities they’re sworn to protect and serve.