Who Watches the Watchmen?
Crying foul over the actions of a Greensboro police officer is more than a pastime for some residents of the Gate City. For some it’s a passion. For others, it’s a career. The ceaseless drumbeat of “racism,” “injustice,” “brutality” long ago fell on many dismissive ears.
But advances in camera technology, a surge of libertarian sensibility and a global focus brought about by events in a St. Louis suburb have brought renewed attention to accusations of police abuse of power. Just as the American public begins a national soul searching over the militarization of domestic police, and the propensity for power to wield its might, separate incidents in Greensboro have served as a catalyst to bring an array of police accountability movements together.
It should be no surprise to anyone who it is right there in the middle, at the crux of the matter, defining in clear, sonorous tones the underlying issues at hand. With a meticulous approach whose irresistible earnestness leaves one receptive to his message, Nelson Johnson outlines the reason for what he describes as “one of the more significant gatherings that has taken place in this city.”
The gathering took place on the evening of Sept. 11, a fact not lost on Johnson when he moved to the front of the meeting room at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Regan Street, just on the edge of the campus of NC A&T State University where Johnson was a student almost 50 years ago.
“All meaning has context,” Johnson said, his voice low but forceful, as the audience yearned to follow. “It arises out of context. If we look at things isolated “¦ we miss the significance of it.”
Johnson noted that no one present could forget where they were on Sept. 11 the year the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.
“I want to use that respectfully tonight to say that there are more blacks and Latinos in our federal prisons system today, 440 times more than were killed on 9-11 in 2001,” Johnson said. “I want you to feel this. If we took the population of Charlotte, all of it “” women, children and babies “” and if you add to that the entire population of Greensboro and put on top of that the population of Durham, you would still not have as many people as there are black and Latino people in the federal prison today.”
Johnson is at the vanguard of a growing group of activists pushing for an independent citizens police review board, among other initiatives, that like-minded citizens believe will serve as a balance against a police force that is thought to be out of touch with the black community. Despite a diverse command staff, accusations of racism plague the department. Despite the most recently departed police chief’s assertion that the Greensboro Police Department is among the most transparent and community-minded in the country, the demand for external citizen review of complaints against police officers is the new rhythm of the city’s activist community.
City officials say it is a moot point because any independent police review board would lack legal authority over city personnel. That hasn’t stopped residents from forming the Interim Citizen’s Police Review Committee and beginning to catalogue complaints of police abuse of power.
Johnson described the purpose of the meeting as building a movement, which he compared to a river.
“After a while the streams become a creek, then the creeks connect with themselves and become a river,” Johnson said. “When you’ve got a river going “¦ a river doesn’t ask permission to get to the sea. It carves a way through the landscape and goes out to the sea. That’s the kind of movement we have to build in order to bring the change that all of us deserve.”
Before police in the small town of Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed an unarmed teenager walking in his own neighborhood, residents of Greensboro were clamoring for an independent police review board.
An inciting incident in the recent history of the city’s police department took place in April 2013 when officers responding to a noise complaint at a graduation party for Bennett College students turned ugly. Student leaders from the storied women’s college were roughed up while leaving the area. One officer was fired and another suspended for their excessive use of force.
After last year’s city council elections, the new council formed a subcommittee to look at changes to the way the official city entity, the Complaint Review Committee, looks at allegations of police misconduct. The subcommittee has met a handful of times, and surface level changes to the way people are appointed to the review committee are expected to be the major recommendation.
That’s not good enough for some.
A week after police in Ferguson, Mo., reacted to the outpouring of anger at the shooting death of Mike Brown by forming a battle line in the streets backed by armored personnel carriers, Johnson made public a video of a young black man being arrested within sight of his grandmother’s front door after a Greensboro police officer confronted him for “walking in the street.” At an Aug. 21 press conference, many of the city’s black clergy urged the creation of an independent police review board as part of a plan to bring the police department into greater contact with the public.
Alphonso McGlenn, pastor of Bethel AME Church and the president of the Greensboro NAACP, said the Ferguson incident was due to a “disconnect between the predominantly black community and the police force.” He said there was a similar disconnect in some parts of Greensboro.
“We don’t want a Ferguson here, but we do know that Missouri is not the only community sitting on a powder keg when it comes to the disconnect between policing, governance and citizenry,” he said at the press conference last month.
McGlenn opened the accountability meeting on Sept. 11 by asking those gathered to join him in a song. He encouraged everyone to stand and sing a few bars of the hymn, Victory is Ours.
“Whatever your note is, lift your note,” McGlenn said. The crowd sang “unity is ours, unity is ours, we told hatred to get thee behind, unity is ours.”
Standard activist fare, but what happened next was strictly digital.
Meeting facilitator David Allen introduced a video depicting the recent arrest, which he said “represented what the problem was.”
The video reenactment shows Rufus and Devin Scales leaving their grandmother’s home on Memphis Street and walking toward Atlanta Street. A white car stands in for the patrol car of officer T.B. Cole. The car stops as it passes the brothers, but they keep walking.
Suddenly the footage from Devin’s actual camera, shot during the incident itself, comes on the screen. One can see Officer Cole rushing up onto the Scales brothers from behind.
“Did you hear me?” Cole demands as the brothers turn to face him. “Hi, how’s it going? Take your hands out of your pockets. Do you have your IDs?”
The Scales brothers are quiet and calm, but one of them asks why Cole needs their identification.
“ID, fellas. ID,” Cole barks. “I will take the camera “¦”
Cole reaches up and snaps the camera shut. The brothers claim they produced their identification, and Cole requested they follow him to his patrol car in order to get them back. As they walked back to the car, Rufus asked “What’s this bullsh*t about?”
The brothers allege that Cole turned and grabbed Rufus, forced him to the ground and began the series of events seen on the second part of Devin’s video. The video shows Cole on top of Rufus, as Cole forces his hand into the back of his neck and cuffs him. Devin remains still with his hands placed at the small of his back.
Cole ended up charging Rufus Scales with three misdemeanors: intoxicated and disruptive, resist, obstruct and delay, and impeding traffic (sit/stand/lay), according to an arrest report.
Lewis Pitts, a retired civil rights attorney fighting beside Johnson to bring about an independent citizen review board, said the officer’s actions made little sense if he accused the brothers of being drunk and disruptive yet made no initial attempt to arrest or handcuff them and then turned his back on the two men after asking them to follow him to the car.
“What triggered this thing and what we see in a national context is this officer demanded to be in a dominant position and expected submission,” Pitts said.
After the video reenactment, Devin and Rufus Scales came to the front of the room, joined by their father. The crowd clapped when Johnson recognized their father for continuing to stand up beside his sons. The crowd moaned when Pitts read the charges that stemmed from the videotaped incident.
Johnson said the incident was indicative of the way police chose to interact with black residents in their own neighborhoods.
“Don’t put all of this on Officer Cole,” Johnson said. “Officer Cole is being normal. If it were not normal, it would not be a big deal. But this happens all the time, and therefore, it is part of the culture.”
NC A&T Professor Derick Smith, chair of the interim citizens police review committee, told the crowd that the group had been organizing for several months but is “now open for business.”
“We’ve been meeting because you the citizens have asked that we provide for you a firm, but fair, civilian police review process,” Smith said. “That process is independent in spite of recent reports in the media that somehow this is tax duplication. It is not that. We are not paid. We are volunteers. We serve at your pleasure.”
Smith said the rationale for the committee was that Greensboro had committed itself to effective community policing. The group feels that should include a community oversight process.
The ICPRC has established various communication methods “” email, telephone, Facebook and a post office box “” and Smith urged citizens to begin forwarding their complaints to the committee.
But the ICPRC is not the only committee moving along these lines. Student activists formed their own group, the Youth and Student Coalition for Police Accountability, in the wake of the Bennett College incident. A young professional, Darryl Baskerville, has launched Greensboro for Justice in the wake of an incident where he claims police slammed him and charged him with delaying an investigation after an off-duty police officer working security at a downtown nightclub demanded his identification.
Baskerville, a former U.S. Marine, said the incident began when one person he was with at the club was banned for passing out fliers. He joined the friend outside to leave and was approached by the off-duty officer who demanded his ID “to enter it into the system because he had been banned.”
Baskerville said he asked the officer what system he was to be entered into. The officer responded by grabbing Baskerville’s arm to place him under arrest. He said he was swarmed by additional officers, and slammed into a patrol car.
“I felt the weight of the officer’s forearm behind my neck while against the trunk,” Baskerville said. He claimed that another officer used a choke hold to force him into the back of a patrol car. Once inside the car, Baskerville said he remembered his head ringing and his vision being blurry.
“If you don’t know, this is how the Greensboro Police Department handles inquisitive residents,” he said. Police across the country have become extra terrestrials in the communities they patrol and had begun to make the public the enemy, Baskerville said. The problem is compounded when officers do not live and spend money in the communities they police, he added.
“This is not about cop hating,” Baskerville said. “It is partly about bad cops who are cultivating an ill culture present in the department and the good cops who are doing little to change it.”
Baskerville said the community should support accountability efforts and push back against police violence and corruption in the justice system. He said his group, Greensboro for Justice, was collecting the stories of victims of police violence and helping people file complaints in order to push back.
While many come to call for independent citizen review of police activities after random interaction with authority turns south, some go out looking for police officers to watch over.
Greensboro resident Brian Watkins is one such activist. A member of a movement called CopWatch, Watkins said he believes citizens have a duty to photograph and film police officers during the course of their normal duty.
“Whenever I see somebody getting pulled over, anytime I see a cop in a neighborhood, I just get out and start recording,” Watkins said. “I generally don’t have any problems.”
But recently a patrol officer took exception to Watkins taking a photograph of his car. Watkins said he had attended a Food not Bombs rally on Sept. 8 and was on the way to his home on Taylor Street when he came across officers on Winston Street.
“I stopped and recorded them because I think it’s a good idea for all citizens to record the police when they are on duty,” Watkins said. Nothing unusual happened on the scene. Watkins got back into his SUV and drove toward the end of the block. But one of the officers followed him home. By the time Watkins reached Wendover Avenue, he said the officer was right behind his vehicle and followed him until he pulled into the driveway on Taylor Street.
Watkins got out of the car and walked up onto his porch as the officer circled the block. The officer eventually came back by, stopped and exited the car, and came walking up into the yard where Watkins, 39, and his roommate, 75-year-old George Longsworth, a retired English teacher, were waiting on the front porch.
Watkins captured the exchange on video and posted it to YouTube. The officer repeatedly asks for Watkins’ identification, which Watkins refuses to provide. Both Watkins and Longsworth question the officer’s right to be in their yard demanding that they produce identification. The officer demands their ID, and repeats statements made by Watkins and Longsworth, as if stalling for time.
“He would repeat what we said because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, apparently,” Longsworth said. “I felt no empathy for the man whatsoever. He didn’t have any clue what he was doing there.”
Watkins said the officer eventually admitted to following him because he took photographs. The officer claimed the department had received “reports of people who follow police around getting in their business.”
“I thanked him for admitting that on camera,” Watkins said. “At least now the pubic can know this. It’s obvious and clear proof that the police will resort to retaliation and intimidation to stop the people from exercising their rights. They really don’t like the idea of being recorded. They definitely don’t.”
Watkins, Longsworth and ally Mark Spitzer, 42, have begun protesting on the backside of city hall, at the bottom of a stairwell where people go up to the courthouse from the parking lot at Washington and Eugene streets. It’s also the path for police officers coming and going from the police department to the courthouse.
Passersby glance curiously at the hand-printed signs the group displays. Many stop to take fliers promoting the new Interim Citizen’s Police Review Committee and to trade stories of their displeasure with police.
“There’s been a rapid increase in violence by the Greensboro police,” Watkins tells a woman and a man.
“Yea,” the woman says as she takes a flier.
“We see that everyday,” the man says.
“The police aren’t going to be investigating themselves, they will sweep it under the rug,” Watkins says.
“You know they do,” the man replies.
When asked why he, a 75-year old retired school teacher, is out protesting against police activities, Longsworth doesn’t mince his words.
“The militarization of police departments across the country scares the living devil out of me,” he said while holding a sign out near the edge of the parking lot along Washington Street. “The fact that they are now in possession of armored personnel carriers … and those kind of vehicles … when I see something like that there’s this little light bulb thing that goes off and Barney Fife’s picture is in the middle of it, and I think ‘Whatever happened to Barney Fife?'”