“Copwatch,” a documentary by Camilla Hall at the Tribeca Film Festival starts with a relentless series of videos depicting police brutality, including the videos of Rodney King and Eric Garner. Seeing them one after the other makes them all the more horrifying.
But this film focuses on the people behind the cameras – the activists who try to document excessive force on the part of police officers – and sometimes end up in trouble with the law themselves. I wasn’t aware of this, but there are organized groups of “copwatchers,” some of whom have been watching cops since before easy phone video and social media.
The group dubbed “We Copwatch” set up a GoFundMe page and collected money to buy cameras, which they then passed out to build a community of copwatchers, instructing them as to their rights when photographing arrests.
The film also makes the case that while Ramsey Orta was formally incarcerated for drug-related charges, he was actually arrested because he filmed the excessive force used on Eric Garner that led to Garner’s death. Of the people who were there that day, he’s the only one who was arrested.
In one chilling moment in the film, a toddler is taught to chant “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” while he smiles and dances, unaware of the seriousness of his words.
“Copwatch” is interesting, but some will, of course, say it’s far from a balanced look at its topic. Plus, most viewers would probably rather hear from officers who are willing to speak out, from victims, and from victims’ families. Certainly, however, taking video of these incidents is an important step toward stopping this violence.