Jose LaSalle of Copwatch Patrol Unit speaks at a Disarm NYPD event on March 21. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)
A newly-formed group of activists are teaming up with Copwatch, an anti-police brutality group that records video of police conduct in their communities, to create “no-cop zones,” and maybe even disarm the police, through the use of direct action.
“Disarm NYPD” is a new collective seeking to immediately stop the New York Police Department from killing anyone ever again. The group seeks to monitor and pressure police, with the help of local communities and Copwatch groups, until they retreat from over-policed neighborhoods and then maintain these cop-free zones with alternative, community-based forms of conflict resolution. Along with that, the group also seeks the total disarmament of the police.
“We feel that the police have proven that they’re not responsible enough to carry arms due to the fact that they’ve been killing people so consistently for so many decades,” said a member of Disarm NYPD, who chose to remain anonymous. “We feel that they should be disarmed immediately.”
Along with stripping police of their weapons, Disarm NYPD wants to push the police out of neighborhoods entirely. Then, within these spaces, the group wants to help residents form conflict-resolution bodies to make police obsolete and to build councils and networks to enable local communities to organize their own lives.
Disarm NYPD originally got the idea for “no-cop zones” from the group Take Back The Bronx. After Take Back The Bronx formed in 2011, members would, for a day, take a corner and put up signs on heavily-policed blocks throughout the Bronx to let police know that they were not welcome, encourage residents to roam their streets unafraid of police harassment by creating a block party-like atmosphere, and raise consciousness amongst neighbors on how they could resolve conflicts without involving the police.
Take Back The Bronx, which is still active and in the process of opening up a space in the Bronx, would also open up the mic for anyone from the neighborhood to speak about the police and local issues. Residents were often very receptive to the no-cop zones and used the opportunity to rant openly against cops, as well as connect with their neighbors. Despite the lack of police during these events, the no-cops zones managed to maintain a jovial atmosphere and always happened without any incidents. From these small, temporarily autonomous zones, Disarm NYPD is seeking to expand the concept to include other no-cop zones around the city with the help of cop-watchers and community members.
On March 21, the group organized a panel in Bushwick, with the family members of people killed by the NYPD, to introduce the idea to people and get them thinking and talking about how to live life without police.
“We’ve all been organizing for years,” said the member of Disarm NYPD. “After Ferguson, we got really inspired and started organizing during the demonstrations. And we figured — since it’s getting warm, and especially since that Ferguson report came out — that we need to start taking more action. We can’t let things fall apart. We have to keep the pressure on the police.”
To create these no-cop zones, Disarm NYPD is teaming up with cop-watcher groups, like Jose LaSalle’s Copwatch Patrol Unit, in order to let the police know that they are being watched whenever they are patrolling communities of color. As the number of people watching the police increases, activists believe they will become more hesitant to abuse their power and even retreat from neighborhoods because they don’t want to be incessantly monitored.
“We’re not doing this just for ourselves,” LaSalle said. “We’re doing this because we want to create an impact on the community and empower the community.”
LaSalle recently finished training about a dozen new cop-watchers to be assigned throughout the city. He and Disarm NYPD also plan on holding more cop-watching training courses in the near future and further increasing their ranks, slowly making it impossible for cops to enter certain areas without a member of the community pointing a camera at them.
In addition, the groups plan on holding more local demonstrations in the communities most affected by police violence and staging small-scale direct actions at local precincts to demand that police leave these neighborhoods. Actions like refusing to serve police while at work, setting up Copwatch information booths across the street from local police stations, and finding alternative ways to resolve conflict without the help of police are also included in the repertoire of tools used to create these no-cop zones.
Local youth write on a large banner at a no-cop zone event in the Bronx. (Take Back the Bronx)
No-cop zones allow residents, especially young people, to openly congregate, candidly discuss their disagreements with each other in open view of the community, and focus on the good that could come from resolving their disputes — all without fear of police harassment.
Take Back The Bronx did this on a smaller scale during many of their no-cop zones by calling for residents to “unite our blocks” and getting people to focus on their common needs and oppression. During one no-cop zone event, they set up a large banner with the text “If all the gangs in the South Bronx unite, we could…” and asked young Bronxites to write in an end to the sentence. It was well-received by local youth who wrote in many responses that would decrease conflicts amongst neighbors, like “demand well-paid jobs,” “have a successful basketball tournament,” and most importantly, “get the police off our necks.” With the help of cop-watchers and locals, Disarm NYPD hopes to replicate these no-cop zones on a larger scale and even maintain them permanently.
“We want to use these copwatch patrol units … to keep the pressure on [the police] so they can back up,” one member of Disarm NYPD said. “And when they back up, we want to try to fill that space with something that can create new, revolutionary potentials. And we’d like everyone to take part in that.”
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