Freedom’s resident cop-botherer, Carl Spender, sits down with John and Kat from Bristol Copwatch to discuss the group’s first year of existence and the painstaking work of building a grassroots police monitoring project.
Please be aware that this article contains descriptions of racist police violence.
CS: I guess it’s traditional to begin with some introductions. So perhaps you could tell our readers who you are and what Bristol Copwatch is all about?
John: My name is John, I’m one of the founding members of Bristol Copwatch, a grassroots community project, support group and police monitoring organisation.
We officially started during the first lockdown but the roots of the project lie in older conversations some of us had been having in activist support groups such as Bristol Defendant Solidarity and Resist, an anti-surveillance project I set up a few years back.
As a group, we’re about building from the ground up, bringing together people who are concerned about police brutality, about abuses of power and then going out to record police misconduct and holding them to account for it; similar to copwatch in the US.
When lockdown happened, we formulated this strategy of getting people together when we knew the police were at their worst and just kind of going out too see what was happening. I set up an email and a social media account, and people just started messaging us to tell us about what was happening with the police.
We’ve had to work hard to earn people’s trust, because in areas like St. Pauls, there’s never been anyone to support or represent people who haven’t been working with the police. We’ve seen this happen with people who work for the council – including councillors of colour! – who claim to be on the side of the community but in the end show themselves to be very much part of the state machine.
But obviously, if you’ve got a bunch of activists on bikes, wearing masks, filming the cops, and you walk into a community like St. Pauls, people there are gonna be like “who the fuck are you?” And that’s what we’ve seen happen as well: during lockdown we did some copwatching around St. Pauls and we talked to some lads and as soon as they saw us around with our face coverings and stuff, they were like “move along officer, move along”. Now I’m mixed race and my mate was white but these lads were like “brother it’s not about your colour, we don’t know you. You say you’re a police monitoring group and you wanna help people being harassed by the police – who the fuck are you? Have you got a flyer, anything you can show us?” And at that point you take a step back and think “it needs to be something that is coming from the grassroots level”. Looking at the way they’ve done it in the US or with Newham Monitoring project – where some of the people in Netpol came from – it’s always been about a community coming together and saying “we know the police are bad and we need to take a stand”. And that’s the initiative behind Bristol Copwatch really.
What we aren’t is out and out anti-police – that shuts down a lot of voices in the community. A lot of people feel very strongly about the police these days but to go out and go “okay acab this fuck the police” that’s got its place – and it’s where a big part of my heart is due to my own experience with the cops over the course of my life – but there are lots of people who get targeted by the police who would not necessarily describe themselves as anti-police and wouldn’t be comfortable talking to a group that styled itself that way. We don’t isolate anyone. If someone is just concerned about the behaviour of certain officers and they want to raise a complaint about them, we’ll support them with that.
CS: I’m really struck by that moment when those lads in St. Pauls say: “we don’t know you; fuck off”. How have you negotiated those kinds of conversations? How are you approaching building the trust and awareness that is so important for community monitoring work?
John: We do a lot of outreach – we go out and do postering and sometimes I flyer people in the street. If I have a longer conversation with somebody what I will usually do is talk to them a bit about me, about my experiences with the police. I’m a person of colour – my dad’s black, from South Africa, and my mum’s white – over the course of my life I’ve been disproportionately stopped by the police, particularly from the age of 16 to 27 (I’m 42 now). This was in Hampshire – Portsmouth is my home town. The police down there are very racist- they are probably on a par with the Met. I’ve not always been an angel – I’ve made mistakes, I’ve been in prison, I’ve been through the criminal justice system. But even before I’d made any mistakes I was being racially profiled. One of my earliest memories was coming back from college, walking down a nice suburban road and as I get to the end of the road a cop jumps out of a car and says “son can I have a word?” I knew he was going to stop and search me; so I ask him what I’ve done and he says “there’s been some burglaries in the area and you fit the description”. I ask what the description was and the cop says, “he’s mixed race” and that was the first clear indication that I’m being profiled because of the colour of my skin.
So, when I talk to people about what we do as Copwatch I talk about my experiences and as soon as you say “look I’ve been there, I know what it’s like” and make it clear you aren’t part of the state machine – well, that gets a bit of acknowledgement from people and it moves it past “you’re just an activist who hates the cops trying to get people on your side”. Because that’s obviously how some people see it, particularly the police. The cops are out in the community saying “you see that lot there – they’re all fucking anarchists, they’re all bloody troublemakers and they don’t really care about your issues – they just don’t like us, they have a problem with authority” – while obviously the truth is very different.
Kat: I think we’re putting a lot of time into building trusting community relationships. We’ve spent a lot of time just going door-to-door in shops, asking “Can we put our poster up? Can we introduce ourselves? Do you know we’ve got the hotline number?” etc. We go out postering maybe once a week and I think we’re also building quite a good reputation as a group thanks to some of the casework that we’ve been doing.
CS: One thing that jumps out at me in what you’ve just said is the issue of continuity and consistency. All too often activists – well-intentioned or not – try to provide support to oppressed communities but then either entirely fail to deliver on their promises or are never around when the community actually need them. It seems to me that you’re focusing on foundations because you are planning on being in this for the long haul.
John: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do – build that trust and let people know that we’re here if they need us. I think it’s important for an independent organisation or group to come along and say we’re developing the power to challenge the police but we will also help you with harassment, we’ll help you with your complaints, we will help you to hold the police to account in any way we can. We’re here for you as a community organisation and in the end, it’s about you and what you need – it’s not about them, it’s about you and that’s what people need to see.
CS: Yeah, you’re not a group who is going around just saying “come to our event”, you are trying to meet people’s real existing needs. What kind of situations have people been coming to you with?
Kat: We’ve got a few different cases on at the minute. We’ve had some where the police have either been first-responders or just terrible responders to mental health crises or they’ve been carrying out a routine welfare check on someone and have then quite badly assaulted them or even, in fact, arrested them. We’ve also got one bit of on-going casework about the police failing to respond to hate crime and racial harassment, cases in which the police are quite clearly siding with racists. And there’s some on-going casework where the police seem to have targeted someone and really gone after them with repeated stop searches, hard stops – really making their life a nightmare
John: That is a big case against Avon and Somerset police. The person in question has gone through hell with them – he’s a black guy, with a really nice family, really lovely person by all accounts and the police are maliciously harassing and targeting him, primarily because of his colour but it also seems to be because he’s fighting them in the courts. And this is something we’ve seen a lot with Avon and Somerset police: when there is someone is fighting them [the police] in the courts, they will get targeted and harassed by frontline cops, with really serious impact on people’s mental health.
CS: When we talk about racist policing in the UK, we chiefly talk about the Met or sometimes Greater Manchester Police but the kind of situations you are describing are exactly what happens in London. I’m interested in how we can shift the conversation around policing in the UK – how do we can me make clear that (violent) racist policing isn’t just a problem in London, or Manchester or Birmingham – it’s happening all over the country
John: You’re quite right to say it’s not an issue that’s limited to big cities like London, it’s definitely happening in Avon and Somerset as well. The police here seem to be very intent on painting a picture that they are doing a good job; everyone likes them and no one’s got an issue with how they’re being policed. But when we go out on the street, we hear a very different story. And we’re trying to publicise this fact by using our social media presence, by coordinating with other monitoring groups throughout the UK.
Recently, we’ve been trying to publicise an assault of a young black mother on a First Bus in Bedminster which happened on the 16th December 2020. This young woman was with her child and there was a dispute over change not being given to her. The police then turn up – on the grounds that she was causing a public order issue – and proceed to use cs spray on her, as well as leg restraints and one of the cops ends up pulling the baby out of her arms while she is laid out on the floor. There was an outcry about this at the time and Avon and Somerset police referred themselves to the IOPC but there’s been complete silence since then. We’re trying to shed light on situations like this one because we need people to see that it is not something just happening in cities like London or in the north. We have the same problems too.
Kat: Having moved here from living in Tottenham, one of the patterns that seems particularly strong in Bristol and I’m sure it’s related to Bristol’s history as a slave port – there’s a lot of segregation a lot of very stark segregation and it’s led to some policing situations where in places where the black community is very concentrated like St Pauls are under supported and unresourced, if there’s a problem no one’s going to turn up and help and but they’re going to turn up and start doing Section 60 searches any time they think there’s been knife crime. But in predominantly white suburban areas like Brislington, people of colour are hyper visible, and if you are one of the few people of colour on a street then you are incredibly visible and you are going to get a lot of attention from the police.
John: The level of racism in the police in Bristol is something else to be honest. It’s very old school, very colonial – black people live there and we live here and you don’t come in our area, know your place. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the article “A Report from Occupied Territory” by James Baldwin but it’s very much like that – the cops are like an occupying army, like slave patrols – we’ll go out and check the black people are behaving themselves and if they’re not we’ll make examples of them.
It seems to me that with Avon and Somerset police, the ones at the top are very much a media friendly organisational “we’re defeating institutional racism, we’re doing unconscious bias training” meanwhile the street level PCs are old school racist who go out and make people’s lives hell because of the colour of their skin. It’s something that’s clearly ingrained in the culture of Avon and Somerset police but we’re hearing a very different noise from the top – the higher up we go the more they deflect. But I guess that’s the same with cops everywhere y’know?
CS: I suppose one of the changes we’ve seen in the Met over the last few years is that they’ve stopped denying that they police communities differently. Instead, we’ve got the likes of Deputy Commissioner Steven House openly defending racial profiling by frontline officers. But it seems that in Bristol the senior coppers are trying to present a different, more “progressive” face, which results in strange spectacles of the kind we saw last summer, where you’ve got frontline cops acting like a racist occupying force and then you’ve got the higher ups getting their eat bent by Priti Patel for not intervening to stop the Colston statue going in the river.
John: Thing is with the Met is what they do, the other forces around the country then do – as the Met are their main go-to for strategy and tactics. My biggest concern is that the Met’s strategy is going to filter down to Bristol. We’ve already seen a 38% increase in stop and search in Bristol and surrounding areas, so we’ll have see how things go.
Kat: I’d totally echo that and it’s probably a good place for us to slip in a little plug for the event we’re hosting on March 6th which will bring together activists both from the Bristol area and beyond, to talk about the policing of racialized communities.
CS: Am I allowed to ask who’s on the panel?
Kat: Of course! We’ve got Siana Bangura – who made the film “1500 & Counting” – talking about deaths in custody; we’ve got Ken Hinds from Haringey Stop and Search Monitoring Group; we’ve got Lawrence Hoo from Bristol and Neal Brown, the Youth and Engagement Officer for StopWatch who will give us a practical history of stop and search and run through some know-your-rights material. In the first hour, we’re hoping to get the big picture from panellists and in the second hour, we’re going to really open up into a community conversation with quite a lot of Q&A.
CS: So, apart from the meeting on the 6th March, what else have you got planned?
Kat: We’ve got a fair bit cued up for the next while. Casework is on-going and we see that as the core of our work, because that’s how we can build up a picture of what’s happening around Bristol – moving from individual incidents to large-scale trends. We’re also looking to produce a Bristol bustcard. And, as lockdown eases, we’re hoping to do more bystander intervention stuff. We’ve done some over lockdown but Covid restrictions have made it difficult and we have had some members threatened with arrest when they’ve tried to intervene in stop and searches.
John: I’m very keen to not just grow the group but grow the relationships with some of the legal people. We have a very good relationship with Kellys, ITN and Bindmans and we’re starting to get to know firms in Bristol too.
I’d like to see us at a point where we can start to finish mapping what’s happening in Bristol and around the county and we can say “alright we know there’s particular problems here and there” and focus our activity in those areas. That’s a long way down the line and, as you know, building anything from the grass roots is such a monumental task but as Kat said, we’re growing – and I’m really happy about that.
Kat: We’re looking to grow slowly and sustainably. I think there’s a big temptation sometimes to run before you can walk, particularly when you start getting loads of media or speaking requests. I think we’re always trying to check ourselves and being like “are we building our base?” “are we prioritising community outreach?” and if we’re not, we know it’s time for us to reorient.
Bristol Copwatch’s event “Justice Nowhere: Racist Policing Under Lockdown” will take place on Saturday 6th March 13:00-15:00 GMT. Registration details can be found here.