Cruising for Cops

A kid limps up and offers his palm. He wears a black Misfits tour shirt and Marine fatigues, glittery combat boots and a teal-colored mess of hair. Framed by the hazy hues of Mill Avenue on a Friday night, he seems an antagonistic juxtaposition to the street's sugary chain-store harmony. All around him on the cool breeze float garbled laughter, sweet-smelling perfumes and the incessant drone of backed-up traffic.

"You spare a coupla bucks, bro?" asks the kid, his tongue heavy with multiple piercings. "You spare a coupla bucks?"

Tolerance, however, does not extend to the tastes of the scrubbed and well-dressed strollers who pass the kid and his pagan ilk as they sit on a tree well. Most regard this faction reason enough to lose brew-pub-happy expressions and step up their gaits.

The many cops on horse, bicycle and foot in the vicinity are poised to accept any complaint about the actions of the Mill rats.

Pat Schwind, a stoic, thin-haired man with a firm expression, moves toward the punk. Schwind's bright orange tee shirt is like a fire drill amid a sea of khaki and pastel. Stenciled on his shirt are the words "Copwatch" and "Stop Police Brutality." He clutches a stack of small fold-out cards, which he has been doling to willing and unwilling recipients along Mill for an hour.

"Are you aware of your rights, sir?" Schwind asks the punk while handing him a card. "Do you know what to do in the event you are arrested by the police?"

The kid accepts the card with reluctance, opens it, and looks it over quickly. Then, relieved, like an infantry soldier meeting a foreign ally for the first time, he nods at Schwind.

"Are these my rights?"

"That's right," the older man says emphatically, nodding as if to concede that he, too, is down with the good fight. "Learn 'em. You never know."

Schwind turns away and files in with the push of people moving north along Mill, stopping every 10 feet to give out the so-called "bust cards" and Copwatch pamphlets. He and three other members of the all-volunteer group Copwatch do this until closing time.

Schwind is an assiduous member of a Phoenix-based group called Copwatch, volunteers whose purpose is to monitor police in hopes of keeping them accountable. Armed with everything from pencils and pamphlets to scanners and video cameras, the Copwatch activists regularly take to Valley streets.

Copwatch asserts that police brutality is a given, not an exception, and that it is directly related to a long history of white supremacy in this country. If you fight police brutality, they claim, then you fight racism.

Farther down Mill, a group of four older, drink-dazed bums debate the procedures the bust cards recommend for detainees. Because the card outlines 12 steps, two of the bums dismiss the advice as more Alcoholics Anonymous jargon.

An interlocutor sporting a Medusa-like 'do says, "Believe me, if the laws change to shit, I want to know about it, and that's what deese people are 'apposed to do, and they're passing it on to us, brother. Don't you relate to that?"

"How do we see they are who you say they are?" asks a friend who wears a dirty Arizona Cardinals jersey and has yellow eyes and cropped gray hair.

"All right. Understand what I said?" the first one replies. "How many times you been to jail? And how many times too many is that? Hmmmm?"

It is perhaps a measure of success that in its brief history of street patrols, Copwatch video cameras have caught no Rodney King sequels on tape. Police officers are aware of Copwatchers' presence. Then again, perhaps it's because police aren't really as brutal as Copwatch believes they are.

But there's little doubt that Copwatch has some impact on police etiquette. Recent observations on Mill Avenue in Tempe -- both with and without the Copwatchers -- showed that when Copwatch's video camera was rolling, officers' postures improved, their smiles broadened and they became more animated.

Joel Olson, who founded Phoenix Copwatch last year, sees that as progress in his crusade.

Copwatch -- an outgrowth of Ruckus, another counterculture group Olson founded -- holds that police are the foot soldiers in a class system based on race. Copwatch believes a subtext of all police work is to ensure that a city's black neighborhoods stay black and white neighborhoods stay white.

Olson, 32, is married, well-mannered and is the polar opposite of some anarchist prone to biffing cops at punk shows. He sports a close-cropped postpunk 'do; a line of silver loop earrings travel down his right ear. He doesn't look like your garden-variety radical. Olson more closely resembles a well-mothered bard who spouts bad Ferlinghetti at strip-mall coffee houses. He's a computer programmer at Arizona State University and a teacher of philosophy at Glendale Community College. He has a master's degree in political science.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith