The growing and eclectic brand of activism known as cop watching continues to invent creative ways to confront overpolicing across the country. In this episode, Police Accountability Report hosts Taya Graham and Stephen Janis examine the arrest of two Youtube activists and how they responded in light of recent pushback from police departments across the country. The story illustrates how the grassroots movement of holding cops accountable continues to evolve in ways both unexpected and productive.
Pre-Production/Studio: Stephen Janis
Post-Production: Adam Coley, Stephen Janis
Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible.
And today we will achieve that goal by reporting on breaking developments in the case of not one, but two cop watchers who are fighting the system by filming police. A series of arrests that you are seeing here, which show just how hard it is to fight a system that has overwhelming power and is often able to bend the law. But we are also going to show you this: a fake protest staged by cop watchers to prove my former point about how the system is biased towards police and against the preservation of our Constitutional rights.
But before we get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately email@example.com, and please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and that I appreciate them. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. And if you can, please hit the Patreon donate link pinned in the comments below, because we do have some extras there for our PAR family. All right, we’ve gotten that out of the way.
Now, as anyone who watches this show already knows, Stephen and I like to cover the national phenomenon known as “cop watching”. It’s a movement the mainstream media pretty much ignores except to label the practitioners as troublemakers, but that we think warrants the same coverage regularly granted to politicians or cops or other institutions that govern our lives.
I mean, there is certainly plenty of criticism of people who use cell phone cameras and YouTube channels to watch the police. Critics who say it’s all a spectacle aimed at racking up clicks and attention through outlandish antics and provoking the police to respond. But we take a different view, in part, because we, unlike the mainstream media, pay attention to the nuances of cop watching that perhaps those same media elites ignore. Aspects of so-called auditing that people living in the rarefied atmosphere of wealth and power miss due to their immunity to the challenges which confront working people daily in the US.
For one thing, cop watching is pretty widespread. I mean, take a look at the subreddit r/Bad_Cop_No_Donut, which focuses on police corruption, and you will find 500 channels alone. But another important piece of the puzzle our corporate overlords miss is even more revealing, something people who dwell in the corridors of power and wealth can’t even understand, a key facet of cop watching that, honestly, I’m not surprised they missed.
It’s entirely organic. It’s grassroots in the most authentic sense. What I mean is cop watchers didn’t start filming the police because some billionaire decided to fund them. They don’t point their cameras at cops night in and night out like the OG cop watcher Tom Zebra to earn fame and fortune. I mean, they’re certainly not getting endorsement offers from meal kit companies or makeup brands. And I guarantee that First Amendment auditors aren’t receiving lucrative offers from marketing firms to be influencers on Instagram. Hardly. No, this is pretty much volunteer work whose impetus originates elsewhere. A sense of dedication and desire to perhaps comment on the state of our country today that isn’t as simple or as straightforward as it seems. Maybe a yearning to participate and enlighten, or even the impulse to act like an idiot as a broader commentary on how idiotic our country can be.
It is, in a nutshell, an entirely authentic form of dissent. Chaotic? Yes. Offensive? Sometimes. Even painful to watch? Absolutely. But fake? I don’t think so. And that’s why today we are going to make a case on the show that there is more to cop watching than meets the eye. Why it is symptomatic of something deeper and perhaps more troubling than you might think after perusing a few outlandish videos. And we’re going to do so by showing you videos and speaking to several cop watchers about their work and why they do what they do, and why it matters. We’re also going to show that engaging in cop watching comes with a price.
The first case that illustrates some of the ideas we’ve discussed is from the video we are showing you now. It depicts the arrest of David Bourne, a Texas cop watcher who was filming police during a routine traffic stop in Rockwell, Texas last year. Bourne had been working with fellow auditor James Freeman to film the encounter as part of their routine work documenting cops. The pair had been recording the police at what they thought was a lawful distance, but cops on the scene decided that wasn’t good enough. Let’s watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Police Officer: I need you both on the same side. Okay?
Speaker 1: Is that a lawful order?
Police Officer: Yes, because I have to be able to watch you both.
Speaker 1: That’s not a law.
Police Officer: I need you over there on that side.
Speaker 1: What’s your name?
Police Officer: Sir?
Speaker 1: What’s your name?
Police Officer: Sir?
Speaker 1: What are you going to do to me if I don’t?
Police Officer: Sir?
Speaker 1: What?
Police Officer: Will you please walk to that side for me?
Speaker 1: Voluntarily, no. If you’re telling me you’re going to do something violent to me if I don’t, then sure. I’ll comply with whatever you tell me to do.
Police Officer: Sir, I just need you at a safe distance so I can keep eyes on both of you.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: So, even though Bourne retreated, police officers ratcheted up the tension by pursuing him through a parking lot. Take a look.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker 2: He needs to back off. Back him off now. Back him off. Back him off.
Police Officer: Hold on.
Speaker 2: Guys, get off of him.
Police Officer: Stay with him [inaudible].
Speaker 2: Don’t don’t touch me.
Police Officer: Get back! Get back!
Speaker 2: Get off of him.
Police Officer: Get back.
Speaker 2: Get off him. Get your hand off your gun!
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: And finally, after violently accosting Bourne, police arrest him.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker 2: God, you’re an idiot. I’m not going near him. I’ve got to get the shot. I’ve got to get the shot. Don’t prevent me from videoing what they’re doing to him.
Police Officer: Body cameras are going. You have to stay back.
Speaker 2: I’m back. You guys are freaking idiots. Rockwall Police Department, you’re a freaking idiot, dude. You’re an idiot. You guys are morons.
Speaker 3: [inaudible].
Speaker 2: He’s saying, you cannot flank us. You’re not allowed to do that. You cannot flank us. In other words, they are arresting him for being behind him. He’s arresting him for being behind him, or detaining him. Hey, we got the supervisor rolling, right?
Speaker 4: Yes, sir.
Speaker 2: All right, thank you sir.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: So, a cop watcher doing nothing more than filming a traffic stop and exercising his First Amendment rights was facing charges of interfering with an investigation and resisting arrest. Charges that most prosecutors would’ve dropped given the facts as you see them with your own eyes. But of course, not in Texas. As you may recall, Rockwall Texas is the same jurisdiction that prosecuted cop watcher Otto the Watchdog for three years for holding a sign that some people found offensive.
Which is why David Bourne decided to fight the case in court. And what happened when he did? It only says quite a bit about why we cover cop watching, but is also a commentary on the state of our legal system in general. So, I will be talking to David Bourne shortly about his experience. But before I do, I’m joined by my reporting partner Stephen Janis, who has been looking into the case to uncover what’s happening. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So, Stephen, does it surprise you that prosecutors actually pursued this case?
Stephen Janis: Taya, not from my experience covering Texas police. I mean, specifically, we had the HBO case, which is organized crime for following cops around with a camera for like one second. We had the case of Otto the Watchdog, who held up an offensive sign and they prosecuted for three years, and now this case. No, I’m not surprised. It seems like Texas has a very antagonistic relationship with cop watchers. So, really, it’s no surprise at all.
Taya Graham: Now, David can’t talk about the specifics of the verdict because he’s on probation, but can you talk about this case and what the verdict was, and what your reaction is to it?
Stephen Janis: Well, the verdict was that he was found guilty, oddly, of evading arrest, but not found guilty of interfering. So, the underlying crime, he was found not guilty of, which makes the other crime, I think, kind of weird, that they convicted one, not the other. But of course, I’m just still really amazed that they would prosecute a case like this. With all the serious crimes, the mass shootings, problems with guns, et cetera, et cetera, I am just really stunned that a prosecutor wastes public resources to prosecute a case like this where people were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. And as you have mentioned on the show, there is already precedent outstanding with Turner v. Driver that says that it’s okay and legal and Constitutional to film police, which of course it is. I just don’t understand it. But of course, that’s what cop watchers have to deal with.
Taya Graham: And just to get you to weigh in on the topic of the show, why do you, as a journalist, think it’s important to cover cop watching? What aspect of it do you think warrants attention?
Stephen Janis: Because our job is to pay attention to what other people don’t, and to a certain extent, also look at it as more nuanced and complex than what other people think, and a lot of journalists just cover… Because we’re independent media, we’re not corporate sponsored, we’re not part of the police-industrial complex, so we have to cover this in ways that they won’t. And I think it’s important to understand there’s an ideology of exceptionalism concurrent through our mainstream media, in the sense that only the powerful, the rich, the police matter and their voices matter. Only they are complex and rendered in a complex and nuanced way. So, we’re just going to be jerks, and we’re going to cover cop watchers like the mainstream media covers police: like nuanced, complex people who have needs, wants, and individual desires. We’re going to cover them that way just to piss off the mainstream media.
Taya Graham: And now I’m joined by the man whose questionable arrest led him to a protracted court battle. So, to discuss what happened next and how he will continue to fight, I’m joined by David. David, thank you so much for joining me.
David Bourne: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Now, you were also falsely arrested by the Rockwall Police Department while cop watching as well, right?
David Bourne: That’s correct. James Freeman and I were out filming. We weren’t even looking to film in Rockwall, we were on our way to another destination, and we saw a police officer had another person pulled over. So we decided to go film and document it. Rockwall PD tends to try to put people in their place. So, this is a very wealthy, very white-dominated county. So, if you’re a minority, if you’re Black, Mexican, Asian, if you’re not the right color and don’t have the right income – You could be the wrong color, but if you’ve got money then you’re fine. Or status. And even poor white people. So, we just thought we would document it. And I ended up getting arrested for interfering and resisting arrest and evading arrest even though we were not interfering.
In the state of Texas, it’s already been deemed that interference is a physical act, and I was nowhere near the police officer nor his traffic stop and impeding his investigation. But because these guys, these police officers, felt the need to put me and James and others in our place, they decided to target me that day and ended up arresting me and violating my rights and putting me in a cage.
Taya Graham: So, can you tell me about the problems you have seen with the Texas police department and activists?
David Bourne: We’ve had phenomenal activists come out of the state of Texas, [inaudible], Phillip Turner, James Freeman. We’ve had [inaudible]. We’ve had a lot of others. And as we’ve seen, typically, police have gotten to the point where they don’t care about the rule of law. They don’t care about law. They go out, and generally speaking, the majority of them – And this is why they protect the bad ones – They will go and do whatever they want. If their feelings get hurt, they’re going to make you pay. If they don’t like you, what you’re doing, holding them accountable, exposing their evil, exposing their corruption, they’re going to make you pay. And so kudos for Philip Turner for creating judicial law in our circuits. It doesn’t matter. As you’ve seen with me, Caroline in Fort Worth, Manuel [inaudible], everybody else, HBO, Matt, everybody else who’s been arrested in the state of Texas, it doesn’t matter.
These police officers will continue to do what they want, because we have case law giving us the right even though we had the right before. We had the right before to document and film what they’re doing. Philip Turner went out and got case law specifically for what we do, and it doesn’t matter. How many people have been arrested since that decision? Tons. Dozens, hundreds, and these are just people we know. How many other people do we not know that have been arrested or harassed or had their phones or equipment taken and broken? We don’t know. But what we do know is case law, to these officers, means nothing. Until they’re actually held accountable, then they’re going to continue doing what they’re going to do.
Taya Graham: So, you just mentioned HBO Matt and Ismael Rincon, Texas cop Watchers that are facing organized crime charges because they have YouTube channels. Why do people continue to do this, especially when arrest, jail, or retaliation are all possibilities?
David Bourne: Most people – And I can only speak for myself – But most people have watched a video, or had something happen to them in their lives, where they’ve decided, enough is enough, I’m going to do something about it. And what that is to each individual, it’s different for everybody. So, some might be creating case law. Others might be on a mission to file lawsuits and try to hold police officers and police departments accountable that way. Others just may want to go out and film. Others might want to become big influencers, and other people might be trying to flood social media and make this a trend, or others that may be trying to educate people. So, we have so many avenues and so many things that activists and people could be doing across the board. And yes, when you decide to pick up a camera or you decide to oppose the opposition from state tyranny and oppression, which comes down to the enforcers, which end up being law enforcement, as this is… So, this whole movement, I believe, comes from the tires on the car.
That’s where the motion gets started. We know that the judges and the DA and the prosecutor and the lawmakers and everybody else above it, most of them are just as evil and corrupt. But this is where heads butt, is in the streets with law enforcement, because the laws and rules and regulations that they decree down to us [inaudible] come to a halt. This is where we come head-to-head with these corrupt practices and unjust procedures.
Which, by the way, are putting hundreds of thousands and millions of Americans in jail, many of them not deserving. Many of them just were poor, can’t afford attorney fees, can’t afford the penalties or fees that they were given down to by the judge, were given bad or incompetent or even corrupt public pretenders. So, many of these people don’t even deserve to be in jail but were dealt a raw hand, and to be honest, there’s not enough of us to help every single person out there. We can only do so much.
Taya Graham: So, as we discussed at the beginning of the show, David’s story is not just about a court case, but the larger movement of cop watchers that surround it. And when I use the word “movement”, it’s not a word I use lightly. So, what do I mean? Well, anyone who pays attention to the ups and downs of the great American experiment knows that, for the most part, real change comes from the bottom up. What I mean is that when things go awry, it’s the people, not the powers that be, who fight to make things better. And it’s not always through political activism that this occurs. Sometimes change occurs through popular culture. Just think of the energy and anger of punk music as it spread across America, or how hip-hop was birthed in the neglected and forgotten South Bronx when teenagers literally invented a genre, a new type of music that not only changed the world, but allowed art to bring the realities of bad policing, poverty, and social isolation to a world that had otherwise ignored it.
Now, I’m not comparing cop watching necessarily to either genre, nor am I saying that filming the police is some sort of art form. Although, I would say some like Otto the Watchdog and the notorious Eric Brandt certainly push that envelope. What I’m trying to point out is that there is a great American tradition of a bunch of people getting together and inventing a way for their voices to be heard when they would otherwise be ignored. Throughout our history, Americans have deployed technology and grassroots tactics to make points about our fledgling democracy that the elites are often too deaf to hear.
Which brings us to another question which I’m sure you’re asking now. But Taya, if cop watching is some sort of grassroots movement, then why does it focus on cops? Why not get people to advocate for raising the minimum wage, or free healthcare for all, or some other more practical demand that would directly make our lives better?
That’s a fair question. So, let me try to answer. Let’s consider for a moment that police are not just about law and order. What I mean is that cops and law enforcement play a broader role in our society than just making arrests and solving crime. I mean, just consider this recent report on the falling closure rate of homicide cases across the country. This investigative piece found that, as of now, less than half of all murders result in charges. The findings, though, have done little to prompt any hand wringing amongst law enforcement partisans. Often, this lack of success is blamed on uncooperative witnesses, not enough overtime for detectives, or the ongoing consequences of the pandemic. But the reason I bring this up is that it points to another more fundamental truth. Law enforcement has other purposes that aren’t readily apparent, aspects of the profession that are driven by politics, and the good versus evil narrative that often impedes our ability to analyze it honestly.
How do I know this? Well, from the work of cop watchers, specifically Munkay 83, Liberty Freak, and Eric Brandt. Now, as many of you know, the trio is a group of well-known cop watchers who work in Denver and have been filming police for years. Eric, who we have covered on the show, is actually serving a 12-year sentence for making threats against judges. As we’ve said many times before when covering Eric’s activism, threats against the life of judges are both unacceptable and have no place in holding the government accountable. We did not condone his words or find them acceptable in any fashion.
But today, I want to focus on a specific arrest and the case that resulted from it, and how the justice system reacted to it, which illustrates what I mean about the ability of cop watchers to reveal less obvious truisms about police through their work. The case began in the video you are seeing now, when Munkay 83 and Liberty Freak were staging a so-called “F the Cops” protest. Let’s watch.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker 5: So, while everybody else is enjoying this beautiful place here in Denver, the homeless don’t get the same privilege, because they’re less than human. They get arrested for being here because they have no money. Because they have no place to be, so the only place they have is our public spaces, but, we’ve got to get these fucking bums out of here so that the tourists can enjoy their vacation. But, you see, that’s pretty fucking sad, because that’s the same angle that the Mayor took, and he [inaudible].
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Now, both the sentiment and the language caused offense. And for that reason, even though the group was on public property exercising their First Amendment rights, they were arrested. Police justified the arrest by arguing the train station was in part private property, an argument that the cop watchers pointed out was tenuous at best because the property itself belongs to the city, and only in parts is leased to private firms. But instead of simply arguing the case in court, this group of activists chose to make their point in a wholly original fashion, a plan that shows both the ingenuity and the creativity of cop watching.
That’s because, as the case was making its way through the courts, Eric had an idea. why not stage a pro cop rally at the same location, and see if it also led to the same result? Wow, so the point, as you can see here in this video, is to tease out, in a very clever way, if the law was enforced with bias, and if police are sometimes more interested in projecting social power than maintaining public safety. Stephen and I were actually on hand when they implemented the plan. Joining the demonstration were legendary cop watchers Laura Shark and Tom Zebra, among others. And yes, our cameras were rolling when the effing pro cops protest took place. Take a look.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker 6: [inaudible]. Support your men and women in law enforcement here in the city of Denver. They need your support. Brave men and women that keep us safe every day need your support. These brave men and women [inaudible] protect all of us, and they need our support.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: And guess what? No one got arrested, and no one complained. In fact, the group actually found supporters who cheered them on, and the police who did show up seemed flummoxed by the entire spectacle, and were unsure of what to do.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker 7: We’re not trying to stop you guys from doing what you want to do. It’s just a matter of us trying to [inaudible].
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: So you can see in this very creative, and for the most part, absurd display of First Amendment activism, all the contradictions and constructive aspects of cop watching are on display. Yes, on the one hand, it can be a digital spectacle that is both annoying and inconvenient, and it can be at times funny and amusing, and it can also be serious and consequential, especially for those who participate. But, in this case, I would characterize it as something else, perhaps a nomenclature that will surprise you. I would call it the art of the unheard. Not “art” in the conventional sense, but rather the art of making a point when no one will listen. Perhaps the art of getting our attention when we’re too busy to give it. And the art of telling a story in a way that shows, not tells, the underlying truths that may not be readily apparent.
But even more intriguing is what drives this sort of public rebuke of law enforcement through theatrics, meaning it’s why people are willing to put themselves in the public eye, face humiliation and even arrest, that is more telling. Let’s listen to Munkay 83 talk about the impact of this on his life and why he does it at all.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Kyle: You can’t fight what has already happened. You can change what is going to happen. If you can’t change it, you can at least direct it. And if you can’t direct it, well, you can at least document it, and I mean, what more can you do? You know what I mean?
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: I think what we see here is the most basic of all human needs that our digital overlords often ignore: a fundamental desire that cannot be addressed with platitudes or virtue signaling or faux expressions of empathy. It is something more essential to who we are, something that the antics of cop watchers touch upon that we often fail to recognize: the need to be heard, the desire to have a say in how we are governed. And perhaps, just perhaps, a need to be a part of something that has a purpose. Let’s remember that in the age of neoliberalism, the entire preoccupation of the national elites is with their own narrative of supremacy. That is, the few individuals who accumulate so much wealth and power make us believe only their opinion matters. It’s only their stories and their individual glories that are worthy of our collective attention. It’s something Stephen called the ideology of exceptionalism.
That is, the only story we’re telling is the tale of individual wealth. The only action we’re taking is through self-interest and self-promotion. It is this narcotic narcissism that drives the fortunes of social media moguls and power hungry digital impresarios. To them, collective action is useless. Acting together for the empowerment of the community is anathema to their power. They have created a system of immaculate conflict, where our hatred towards each other fuels their wealth and their power and denies us the empathy and mutual understanding that would allow us to solve complex problems for the betterment of everyone.
But I would posit that the antics of cop watchers work in opposition to this idea, that the people who pick up cameras and film the police are a community unto themselves. People who may toil separately, but also work together, as was with the case of Liberty Freak, Eric, and Munkay 83. Activists, or perhaps artists, or even the unruly or annoying, but who still have a common purpose of communal improvement. People who refuse to be silenced in a world that seems to have little respect for grassroots power. A disparate, deeply individualistic process that still focuses on common ideals like our Constitutional rights, government accountability, and freedom. A work of people who are not paid and who receive no money from political PACs or robber barons. People who work as citizen journalists with little compensation or glory, but continue to face consequences for these actions that I think are more revealing than any individual crazy cop video or arrest. Human beings who simply want their voices to count. And I think it is our responsibility on this show to listen.
I want to thank David Bourne for taking the time to speak with us and share his experience. And of course, I want to thank Kyle, also known as Munkay 83 for his time, sharing his video with us, and of course the work that he does as a cop watcher. And I want to thank intrepid reporter Stephen Janice for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support, and mod Lacey R as well. Thank you. And a very special thanks to our Patreons. We appreciate you, and I’m looking at you, my PAR super friends: Shane [inaudible], Pineapple Girl, and Friends in Code. And I look forward to thanking each and every one of my Patrons personally in our next live stream.
And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us, and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ensure your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram, or @eyesonpolice on Twitter.
And of course, you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter and Facebook. And please like and comment. I do read your comments and appreciate them, and even if I don’t always get to answer every single one, I read them. So, thank you for them. And of course, we do have a Patreon link pinned in the comments below. So, if you do feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is truly appreciated. My name is Taya Graham, and I am your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please, be safe out there.