Visual Arts — October 13, 2016 11:27 — 2 Comments

Protecting The People: Copwatching With Mike BlueHair

After nearly five years of being filmed and observed by him, Portland police know he can’t be intimidated… they also he’s not going away. We’ve seen his videos in The OregonianThe Portland Mercury, and in Willamette Week, showing him standing between chaos and bloodshed when a gun was pulled on BLM protesters downtown. But have we ever really seen Mike BlueHair? I met up with the local copwatcher for an interview, a ride-along, and a closer look at the man behind the camera.

Not everyone knows what copwatching is, so I asked Mike to define the term in his own words, “A copwatcher,” he said, “is an activist, who systematically observes law enforcement, to promote accountability through the lens of a camera.”

He spent 15 years on the street, and began observing law enforcement when his friend, Carrie Medina, had her cellphone seized trying to document the arrest of a young black man. According to Mike, “The black man was being held down by law enforcement. Carrie was about thirty yards away and started live-streaming. The officer immediately noticed her, walked over, and demanded her phone.”

Contrary to popular belief, copwatching isn’t illegal. Police don’t have the right to demand cellphones, cameras, or any other recording device without a warrant… especially when a citizen is filming for the purposes of accountability. Carrie knew her rights, but the officer insisted, twisting her arm and taking the evidence by force.

During the ride-along, I insisted Mike fill me in on the rules of copwatching. “Always film in a group of two or more people,” he said. “Always announce your presence to law enforcement, and try to be polite. My philosophy is, if they violate my rights or treat me poorly, I’ll treat them poorly right back. That may not work for everyone though, so as long as an officer is being nice to you, try to reciprocate.”

Mike pays careful attention to the first rule, frequently filming with his partner in anti-crime, Robert Lee West, AKA “Uncle Bob.” The three of us were in Uncle Bob’s car, and Bob was driving us toward Portland’s east side, known to some as “Felony Flats.”

Uncle Bob is a barrel of a man, with snow-white hair, a penchant for copwatching, and (like a shark that can smell blood in the water) born with a preternatural sense for finding trouble… we’d barely gotten across the Ross Island Bridge when, out of the corner of his eye, Bob spotted a set of blue and red lights. “Cops,” he said plainly, and took a sharp turn to the right.

Mike grabbed his camera and prepped me for our first encounter. “Stay behind us,” he said. “Don’t get too close to the action. If an officer tells you to stand back, do what he says, and go where he tells you.”

We pulled over on the corner of SE 54th and Center Street, just a few blocks from Pussycats. Mike was still talking, but I was distracted by a pretty young girl in a flower-print dress… a pretty young girl being lead away in handcuffs.

mike-bluehair-01-small

“No, no, no,” she cried, “I can’t go to jail!” The pretty young girl was terrified. She’d already been to jail once that day and though it wasn’t clear why, she’d been pulled-over moments earlier for suspicious driving. That’s when police found a counterfeit bill on her person.

She kept begging not to be taken away, “Please,” she kept repeating. “Please, please, please!” She was guided to the backseat of a patrol car, and (just as she yelled, “I want to call my lawyer!”) the door was shut.

Mike asked if we could see the counterfeit. The officers recognized him, and showed us what seemed to be the face a twenty dollar bill… with the back of a hundred dollar bill printed on the other side. They were proud of their evidence, and we all had a good laugh at what must’ve been the dumbest example of counterfeiting ever. But afterward, my conscience got to me, and I kept thinking about the expression on her face as the pretty young girl begged not to be taken away.

When most of us deal with police, circumstances aren’t pleasant. Whether we’ve called them or had them called on us, crossing lines with the law means we may have crossed paths with a black cat. The only thing worse is when the incident winds up on camera. But when Mike films, the footage isn’t sold to Jerry Springer, and his intention isn’t to make anyone look bad. “I copwatch out of a sense of duty to the community I live in,” he said. “I’m motivated by the want to provide police accountability.”

When Mike says, “accountability,” it means he’s filming the cops… ensuring proper police procedures, and safeguarding the rights of citizens. I asked him if citizens had ever been intimidated or embarrassed by his presence. “Sometimes people are embarrassed,” he said, “or aggressive,” then continued to explain that most of the flack he gets is from citizens who don’t understand. He then told me that when responding to certain calls, he’ll black-out a person’s face, and, when asked, he’ll protect a person’s identity no matter what the circumstance.

Suspicious driving with counterfeit bills isn’t the only circumstance under which Mike films. In addition to activism, copwatching is a form of journalism, and Mike goes where he’s needed.

He was needed in Ferguson… while mainstream media were relegated to what’s known as “a free speech zone,” Mike was on the wrong end of a gun, pointing a camera at former officer Ray Albers, better known as “officer ‘Go Fuck Yourself’,” who pointed a loaded AR-15 at peaceful protesters.

mike-bluehair-02-small

I’ve seen the footage, showing the former officer careening through Ferguson like a deranged ape… incensed with fear… his nervous finger on the trigger… shouting, “Get Back! I will fucking kill you!!!” at a bewildered crowd.

“I think there should be police accountability at any event where there’s going to be potential conflict with law enforcement,” Mike said. He then told me that officer Go Fuck Yourself revealed his moniker when shouting “go fuck yourself” in response to protesters asking for his name.

The ACLU of Missouri stepped in, demanding that officer Go Fuck Yourself be removed from duty. Mike later testified against him, arguing to bar the former officer from returning to law enforcement anywhere in the U.S.

I asked Mike about the free speech zone. “When there’s a special security event,” he explained, “police have claimed the special right to kennel journalists into a certain area,” continuing to explain that, what’s sometimes called “a free speech cage,” is a literal, fenced-off area, not unlike a land-locked republic, in what used to be land of the free.

I asked Mike about fear, “I think that the absence of fear is insanity,” he said. “What you do in the presence of fear defines who you are as a person.”

Thankfully, no one was fearful enough to pull out an AR-15 during my ride-along with Mike and Uncle Bob. No one made a grab for Mike’s camera, or asked him to stand in a free speech cage. Owing in part to Carrie Medina, Uncle Bob, Mike BlueHair, and other local copwatchers, Portland police have received training in accountability awareness. In fact, when the ACLU of Oregon took on and won Carrie’s case, as part of the settlement, Carrie’s been able to have accountability and empathy awareness included in officer training programs throughout the TriMet area.

In other parts of the country, officers are trained in the “ask, tell, make” mentality, but the officers I observed were on their best behavior. Still, I asked Mike why he thought there were so many acts of police brutality committed elsewhere. “From my perspective,” he said, “that of an anarchist, government is force. And police are the naked expression of the force of government.”

“Everything in our society seems to be about dominance and submission,” he continued, “i.e. the threat of force. I don’t think people pay their taxes because they want to be good citizens, they pay their taxes because people with guns are gonna kick in their door and force them to pay taxes. So if a cop is the naked expression of the force of government, then of course police are going to be committing violent acts.”

He added the caveat that, of the hundreds of police encounters he’s filmed, more than 90% of them didn’t involve officers physically hurting someone. “They might be arresting them,” he said, “they might be putting them in a free speech cage, or terrorizing them in some other way, but as far as just sheer brutality is concerned… I don’t see a lot of that.”

Mike, Uncle Bob, and I had been riding around for hours. Bob really is a diligent copwatcher, and was frustrated not being able to hear the police scanner while Mike and I waxed philosophical. We observed a few moments of respectful silence, then listened to our next call.

To a reporter, the information given over a police scanner is frustratingly vague. All I could hear was that a female officer seemed to be in hot pursuit of a suspect, meticulously described as having “a black backpack.” Since Portland PD were acting so nice and empathetic, most of the calls we responded to that night were hardly newsworthy, but this was different, because the female officer decided to call in a K9 tracking unit.

We pulled over on the corner of NE 6th and Clackamas, near Lloyd Center mall. The streets were quiet… too quiet. No really, the suspect in the black backpack was long gone, and absolutely nothing interesting was happening (at all). Mike recognized the K9 unit though, and, after following officer Utzi around for a while, we all went up to pet her.

It wasn’t Mike’s first time petting Utzi. She recognized him, as did her handler, Sergeant Jason Preston. In fact, all the responding officers seemed to know Mike BlueHair (one even mentioned that he’d watched Mike’s videos), and since Utzi seemed so happy, I asked Mike about his relationship with Portland PD. “I’ve developed a rapport with them over the years,” he said. “They see me consistently observing, they see me consistently not interfering. They know what to expect from me, and they know I don’t mean them any harm. Occasionally I’ll cuss a cop out, or heckle them, but that’s the worst treatment they’re going to get from me.”

I asked if he was interested in setting up a more proactive citizen involvement between police and copwatchers. “I’m at the point right now,” he said, “that I want to turn this into a curriculum, and develop a copwatching by the numbers, or best-practices type of thing.” However, he was careful to maintain his integrity as an independent activist, adding, “I’m interested in getting more volunteers, and producing police accountability media in the form of YouTube videos.”

He’s slowly building interest in that independent/volunteer base, and gladly accepts individuals who’re eager to learn more, by inviting them to join him and Uncle Bob for a ride-along.

The last call during my ride-along was just a few blocks from the dog track, on the corner of NE Broadway and Martin Luther King, where officers were detaining a man who’d been riding a bike in his pajamas.

Allegedly, the man in his pajamas had a warrant out for his arrest. He was a cool customer, taking time to finish his bottled drink before officers put the cuffs on. Then he asked, “Hey, uh… what’s with pointing the camera at me?” It was the first time that night that anyone besides me had asked Mike a question. It was also the first opportunity to consider the obvious.

Everyone, from officer Go Fuck Yourself, to officer Utzi, knows Mike BlueHair… everyone except John Q. Portlander.

The man in his pajamas was searched. A syringe was found. The man was taken away. But I was left with the nagging notion that most of the trouble Mike gets into is from average citizens, Portlanders, who simply have no idea who he is or what he does.

He’s an activist and an alternative journalist who’s been teased, taunted, and assaulted. He’s been stuck between angry protesters throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails on one hand, versus angry police using teargas and blast ball grenades on the other.

mike-bluehair-03-small

People make fun of alternative journalists. I’m a Gonzo journalist… until recently working in the comparatively safe field of arts and entertainment. I make no secret of the fact that, though my articles are true, I cut and paste the truth in a collage of reality that forms a fantasy. I try to tell a good story, but Mike risks his life in an effort to tell the unabridged truth, and his dedication is admirable. “I may have my own anti-authoritarian interpretation of events,” he said, “but the intrinsic value of video is that the camera doesn’t lie.”

It’d be easy to lie with a camera, just as easy as it is to lie with words, but most of what Mike presents is unedited. “The majority of videos I upload are all raw,” he said. “Occasionally, if the run time is really long, I’ll also publish a shorter version to grab people’s attention, but the goal when documenting a police encounter is to do one long clip, letting viewers decide for themselves.”

What viewers decide, is the truth, and the truth is that cops need watching. Whether they’re on camera shooting a six year old, or planting a gun on a 43 year old, the truth protects everyone, and Mike BlueHair is protecting the people. “I’m mostly interested in safeguarding the civil rights of people that interact with law enforcement,” he said. “A lot of times, when people ask what I’m doing, I’ll say, ‘I’m here working for you.'”

Bio:

Words and pictures by Poster Bot

2 Comments

  1. Dirk says:

    A little long, but fun. It’s nice to see Poster Bot covering more serious topics.

  2. TrizzyBob says:

    I was so disappointed and caught off guard, to see that the cell phone civil rights case was dismissed because of an out of court settlement, that I didn’t open any of the documents to see, what injunctive relief was sought.

    . And yet, I still, just know, as I knew then, that I will learn something new from the case, that will be useful, for years to come, I just didn’t think it was possible that someone acting with the right motives, could or would just take the money and run without leaving behind a prominent injunction in place to enforce, if the city fails to keep in place the appropriate safeguards to prevent such unlawful seizures happening in the future.

    But I didn’t know if the plaintiff had the right standing to assert the injunctive relief that was, in my mind, needed to end a pattern and practice.

Leave a Reply

The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney