Their Eyes Were 
Watching Cops: An interview with Joaquin Cienfuegos

Sharmeen Khan

Joaquin Cienfuegos is a member of Copwatch LA, the Piece Cooperative, and the Native Youth Movement. He has been organizing in Los Angeles since the age of 17. He was interviewed by Sharmeen Khan in August 2011.

Tell me about the trajectory of your activism and political consciousness. How has it led you to the organizing you do today?

Basically, the reason I’m an organizer now is because of my own personal experiences growing up in South Central LA, and because of the time I spent in Fresno County, a farm-working town in the central valley of California. I came to look at things more critically because of my experiences with racism and the police. I was nine years old when rebellion broke out in 1992 after the police brutalized Rodney King. I knew the police had done something wrong, and that people were angry. And I knew that this was a righteous anger.

During that time, Proposition 187 was also happening in California. This was an anti-immigration bill that prohibited “illegal immigrants” from accessing social services, health care, and public education. The bill compelled people – including most of my family – into politics. It was going to affect not only the undocumented, but also anyone who’d migrated from Mexico or Central America. This impacts a lot of people in LA.

That helped to politicize me. It helped me realize that the US was not only an undemocratic society but a racist one too. Run-ins with the police and getting kicked out of school for talking back to my teachers forced me to read some history and analyze things more. I began to identify as an anarchist after reading about the Mexican revolution, and Flores Magón in particular.

In the summer of 2000, the Democratic National Convention met in LA and there were some huge demonstrations. I participated in demos around immigrant rights and police brutality. After that, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) recruited me. I joined them beacuse they were doing work on police brutality and immigrant rights; it attracted a lot of youth of colour. But while there were a lot of youth of colour organizing in the party, I immediately had problems with its structure. The leadership of the RCP was dominated by white, middle-class men. It was a reflection of the society I was fighting against, and they got defensive when people would challenge them. Most of the people of colour in the organization were just doing the footwork for the leadership. After seeing that, I left the group. At age 21, and I started organizing with anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist projects. I worked with some different organizations and projects that eventually led me to where I am now.

You’re involved with the Piece Cooperative. Can you describe what that is?

The Piece Cooperative was started by folks in Copwatch LA and the Native Youth Movement. It is a worker-owned and worker-run collective project. We started in order to be self-sustainable and rely on ourselves to create opportunities for young people and to share different skills. It allows us to raise funds for the movement by silk-screening shirts and distributing literature. It’s creating an anti-capitalist way of doing things, a horizontal way of way of working. For me, it’s important to lead by example. The way we organize now reflects the world we want to build; it models how we can build and organize ourselves without having to depend on capitalism, corporations, and the institutions of colonialism and white supremacy. It’s important to us to do that in all of our work.We don’t need to rely on a structure where someone micro-manages us 24/7 – we can do it on our own. We make decisions by consensus and, as I mentioned before, we are worker-owned and worker-run. That was the idea behind the co-op. We want to begin to build self-sufficiency while we fight for liberation. We do this by raising funds and creating opportunities for our communities. We connect people to resources and movements working to build a better world beyond capitalism. We want to help build a base for a popular movement through education, grassroots media, and by disseminating revolutionary ideas, principles, and vision. We are part of different organizations and communities but, through the cooperative, we hope to strengthen those networks. We aim to connect with others in solidarity and around a unity that is principled and real. The project is still its infancy; we’re still working on it.

Can you give a history of your involvement in SCAF and Copwatch LA?

After I left the RCP and began organizing as an anarchist, I helped to found the Southern California Anarchist Federation (SCAF), which is an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian organization of working class youth of colour from around LA. It was a way to gather some anarchists – and people in general – to build a revolutionary organization. This led us to build the LA chapter of SCAF. We built chapters in different cities and different areas of Southern California.

In LA, most of the work was done through projects or collectives that ran out of SCAF-LA. Through that, I became involved in Copwatch LA. In LA, we’re dealing with heavy police terrorism, police violence, and police occupation. If you’re involved in community organizing in LA and don’t do any work around police brutality, then – in my opinion – you’re not really going to reach people. You’re not really in tune with people’s experiences.

Copwatch LA came out of some internal conflicts within SCAF. Some other SCAF chapters were trying to tell SCAF-LA what to do instead of allowing the chapter to have some autonomy, which is what we’d originally envisioned. For example, when we had a general gathering, the mainly white, middle class, and male members of the Orange County chapter tried to exert power over working class members and youth of colour in other chapters. My politics around this are clear: if we’re not trying to give the oppressed a voice, a way for them to have their own vision, then we’re not really building anything different. For me, it seemed like SCAF wasn’t going to be be anything different from the RCP or other organizations.

We decided to leave SCAF because of that conflict, because people wouldn’t take those politics seriously, or take seriously our voice or the work we were doing. At that point, we felt the need to create a different type of organization. The funny thing is that, in SCAF-LA and in LA in general, most anarchists are people of colour, which is probably different than in any other area. Because of this, we didn’t need to create a specific Anarchist People of Colour group here in LA, though we’re still part of the APOC network.

Copwatch-LA came out of SCAF’s disbandment. We created an organization in which people patrolled in their own neighbourhoods. Long Beach and South Central were the two communities that made up Copwatch-LA. The folks in Long Beach first started trying to do Copwatch as part of the Raise the Fist Network (an anti-police organization).

So SCAF disbanded because of racial tensions and Copwatch was seen as an alternative to it?

It wasn’t just tension. We disbanded because of political differences – because folks didn’t really want to deal with race. They didn’t have an analysis of race and they also didn’t want to talk about the oppression of women or oppression based on sexual orientation, which were important for a lot of people in SCAF-LA. To some extent, some were class reductionists. I’m still close to a lot of the old SCAF folks in Orange County and LA and other places, but there were power struggles with those who felt they had more ownership over the organization.

We felt the need to step back. At that point, we focused more on the projects in LA that came out of SCAF. Along with Copwatch LA, there was a women’s collective, a labour collective, and a youth collective.

The idea was to eventually create another organization because we felt it wasn’t enough to just copwatch. It needed to be connected to a larger movement. Our ambition was to form another anti-imperialist, revolutionary organization made up specifically of people of colour and working class people. It would be made up exclusively of oppressed people. The goal was not to exclude anyone per se, but to give space for the excluded. We’re always told what to do and how to liberate ourselves. People with privilege tell us that they’re going to show us how to do it. So we felt we needed space to create our own strategy, our own vision, approach, and organization. We created the Revolutionary Autonomous Communities (RAC), which are connected to Copwatch LA.

Concretely, what does Copwatch LA do and how do you do it?

Copwatch is a tactic and an arm of a larger, multi-faceted movement. It’s a way for people to begin resisting, take direct action, combat state terrorism, and build autonomous and 
liberated communities. Every week (depending on the chapter), an organized group of three to five people patrol the neighborhoods they live in with cameras. Each person has a role in the patrol: note taker, first camera person, second camera person, police liaison, and community outreach person. We encourage people to check out our site, www.copwatchla.org. We also provide support for families fighting for justice for loved ones murdered by the police. We help to make these stories public and support these families in building their own organizations to oppose police and state violence.

Because Copwatch LA is a grassroots organization, we rely on our own fundraising for resources. We’ve also been lucky to receive support from the movement and, in particular, our comrades in other cities who are part of networks and organizations like APOC (Anarchist/Autonomist/Angry People Of Color), NEFAC (North East Federation of Anarchist Communists), Accion Zapatista, and MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan). We’ve also held fundraising events, punk shows and hip hop shows, and we’ve received donations.

You mentioned that Copwatch is a tactic in a context of revolutionary change. What makes recording police activity and trying to hold them accountable a revolutionary endeavour and not a reformist one?

I guess it’s how you do the work. In my opinion, there isn’t a big difference between recording the police and going to a demonstration. It’s a tactic that’s been effective though. It’s been revolutionary in practice. Look at the history of copwatching in the southern US; the Deacons for Defense and Justice would go out and defend themselves from racist ranchers, the KKK, and sheriffs. During the time that the NAACP was taking the reformist route, the Deacons were like, “we’re going to take a stand, we’re going to defend ourselves.” The LA chapter of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would do the same thing. They were pro-active in stopping police brutality. The Black Panther Party learned from that, and from the American Indian Movement as well. These organizations all had revolutionary aims.

Copwatching is a self-defense tactic. It’s a tactic with which someone defends their community. Even though we’re not currently in a political situation where we can be like AIM or the BPP and be armed while doing patrols, the camera can be a tool of self-defense. If police see a camera, usually they get defensive; if they see an organized group of people confronting them, they get on the defensive. They’re used to people being afraid of them, or looking the other way, or not doing anything when they’re harassing people. Copwatching also provides an example. When the people see us, they get inspired to do something similar and be part of this type of organizing.

What is Copwatch’s organizing model and why has it 
been so attractive to different communities?

Our motto was that, if you don’t live in a particular neighbourhood or weren’t invited to be there, you shouldn’t be doing copwatch there because you’re not going to face the repercussions. If you patrol a neighbourhood and just leave after, you’re not really building a relationship with the people that live there.You’re probably just bringing down some heat on them and not really being accountable.

The most attractive aspect of Copwatch was that it was understood to be a form of direct action that could be considered a “preventative” measure against police violence. I think for the most part, in LA and in general, activists just wait for the state to come down on people and then react to it – have a demonstration or a press conference or whatever. In my opinion, those tactics and responses are overused.

With Copwatch LA, we felt the need to take direct action to stop police brutality from happening before it took place. We understood that it was going to be a process. We instituted a direct democratic model, horizontal – kind of like a federation. Delegates from each chapter would send a representative to meetings; we’d network with each other, support each other, and give each other training and resources. The goal is for everybody to be able to go out and do this work, and to be successful and safe in doing it. We want to create a culture of people taking action and observing the police.

Huey P. Newton wanted to create a community where people watch police from their windows with shotguns. The idea was to create communities where the police are not welcome. In this spirit, we want to create liberated zones and liberated communities while working hand-in-hand with people from different areas. Our goal is to take back our communities from the state and create autonomous territories. At the same time, we need to work with Indigenous communities, because they’re the original keepers of the land.

Other Copwatch formations have had problems with sexism and machismo. How does your organizing model address age, gender, and sexuality?

From the beginning, we’ve tried to address all forms of oppression. This was especially important to us because we’d dealt with these different forms of oppression within RAC. We talked about it and tried to name all the systems of oppression. The goal was to popularize our findings, not only with the youth in our organization but with everybody in the community. Community is where people can really see how things are connected and how they intersect. So it was part of the overall work of Copwatch. We didn’t just talk about police brutality and the state. We actually looked at how it plays out in people’s day-to-day lives and in their social relationships. In my opinion, you can overthrow the government and get rid of the police but, if those social relationships still exist, then we’re not really changing anything. If we get rid of the police today, we’re still going to have domestic violence and other similar problems because we haven’t dealt with the social relationships that come from the system. These relationships are deeply ingrained in our society and in our people and our communities.

We had a program in Copwatch-LA where the women took the initiative to deal with violence against women. They bumped heads with other feminist organizations that were willing to rely on the police – because they’re “helping the women” – and who didn’t understand that we had a responsibility to intervene; that we had to take responsibilities for our neighbours and our loved ones.

We come from communities that are unhealthy and we can’t come at people with the view that we’re better than them because we have the correct language, or because we’re conscious or whatever. Most young people – most young males and even young women – have machismo and are sexist or homophobic. We understand that, and we’ve just got to meet people where they’re at and not where we want them to be. I find that in building relationships with young people the more they talk to you and the more they trust you, the more possible it becomes to talk with them when they start saying something sexist. I do this not in a way that alienates them or pushes them away, but as a friend and comrade. You can explain why what they’re are saying is wrong or how it’s homophobic and what homophobia is. You can explain why we need to challenge all forms of oppression.

How do you define “community”?

This is a good question. In SCAF-LA, we have always said that there are two types of community: community of region and community of identity. I think we do a little bit of both. When we say “community,” we’re talking about specific geographical region – a specific community where people live. But it also has to do with community identity. When we’re talking about anti-oppression politics, people see themselves as part of another community. They might be part of the Black community or the Indigenous community. However, we try to address the issue of belonging, because cultures also influence each other.

In South Central, for example, people have built a lot of relationships, both as a result of the 1992 rebellion and because they’ve lived next to each other for a long time. Black folks listen to broken Spanish while Mexicans get into black culture or even become part of Blood gangs. You have this situation where cultures influence each other and people hang out with each other. This is more true in South Central than in other parts of LA where there are still tensions. But part of our work is to deal with that, to build black and brown unity amongst oppressed people.

Community organizing has to be connected to a larger vision. Your day-to-day work and your victories need to be a part of larger strategy and goal for a different world. You cannot lose sight of that vision. So the process of building a “safe” and revolutionary community needs to be key; challenging oppressive social relationships and building the skills, experience, and capacity of the oppressed is crucial. That way, we won’t depend on anybody but ourselves for revolution.

When you talk about how people organize in their own community, you have some guidelines about not going 
into other communities. How does cross-community solidarity organizing work?

The idea is to build autonomy and solidarity. We have learned from movements: the Zapatistas, Ukrainian anarchists like Nestor Makhno, and other revolutionary anarchists. For me, it’s also about looking at Indigenous communities and how they organize; look, for example, at the Haudenosaunee Federation. I find that many anarchist models are deeply influenced by how Indigenous communities organized themselves.

When I say “solidarity,” it means that we’re actually taking action together. We’re fighting for the same aims and the same goals, and we understand these goals and aims. The reality is that different communities have different conditions, so that’s why you can’t just have one method to fit all. As long as we know we’re fighting for the same goals and the same aims, and we’re sharing resources, I think that’s where the solidarity comes in.

On the question of solidarity, and going back to your experience with the RCP and SCAF, what role do white allies play?

We don’t have white folks in Copwatch LA.

As a general rule?

Well, we’ve had white folks join in the past and some people got angry with their actions. Some white people complained that “they don’t want to let us in Copwatch because we’re white.” However, not only do white people have privilege, they’re also trained in this society to lead. The more white people you have in your organization, the more they’re going to try to gravitate toward power and take things in a different direction.

As people of colour, we need to have our own space. We have a different way of doing things and we need to regain that culture. The way that we organize reflects everything. I feel that there needs to be folks that organize white people, for sure, and the white community needs to organize itself. But it’s not my role to go into the white community to tell them how they’re going to organize themselves. If people see themselves as allies, we can see if we can fight together or not. But there are also people who come in with what we call the “white messiah complex.” They come into oppressed communities and try and tell people what to do. I think that’s one of the reasons there’s a lot of distrust. I think people have to build that trust up, and show that they’re sincere.

What have been main barriers to organizing in Copwatch?

Well, the easiest answer is repression, of course. The biggest barrier we deal with is the state – the police, the courts, the school system, the media. Not only do these affect the work, they also keep people passive. We also have to deal with opportunist non-profit organizations who work with the state to keep people passive and in line – what Paolo Freire describes as keeping people “domesticated” or well behaved.

Another barrier is learning how to work with each other. All of us have internalized oppression and we’re still dealing with its repercussions while learning how to work with each other at the same time. We’re dealing with colonialism, and that reflects in everything we do in our daily lives, including our political work. We’ve got to work on ourselves too.

It can also be a challenge to get people to step up and take responsibility. I think people are taught to look to some individuals to do everything for them and make decisions for them; from the time they’re born, they give authority to someone else. I think for some people it’s easier that way since they don’t have take responsibility, they don’t have to do work because they can just say: “they’re going to do it for us.”

In RAC and in Copwatch LA, we struggle with how people stand up. I’ve been in both of those organizations for a long time but, because I have a son now, I want to step back. At the same time, more and more people are starting to step up, which is a good thing. Creating horizontalism means collectivizing responsibility and creating collective ownership of an organization

Do Copwatch and RAC have relationships with other revolutionary organizations or non-profits?

Yeah, we do work with other organizations; we have alliances. More than alliances with non-profits, I think we have alliances with individuals in non-profits. There are non-profits that do police brutality work in downtown LA on skid row. They do copwatching work and they’ve done it for awhile. But overall, we’re pretty critical of the non-profit industrial complex. We challenge it; sometimes, it becomes antagonistic and people get defensive. We call it out. We criticize it. The reality is, they’ve attacked us.

Some of the larger non-profits work with the police and the mayor. During the May Day march in 2007, a clear line was drawn between the people who work with the police and the people who don’t. Some of the non-profits that work with young people also got attacked; those are the ones we worked with – or at least worked with their membership. When things like that happen, you really see who’s on the side of the people and who’s on the side of the police and the state.

Can you describe what happened during that May Day march in 2007?

At that time, there was a lot of attention on Copwatch. We’d helped expose a lot of police brutality cases, and it became international news. I don’t think the attention was necessarily a good thing, because it brought down more heat on the organization before we were ready for it.

May Day had been growing in the preceding years. There were these huge May Day marches, which many non-profits tried to co-opt. It’s funny, because these people who attacked us don’t even really know the history of May Day itself. They came out and attacked the anarchists just like they did back in Chicago in 1886. A lot of people saw the same correlations.

In 2006, when HB 44371 was being pushed, we saw some of the largest marches in the history of the US. The marches weren’t organized by activists but by families and people who were going to be affected by the bill. The first of the large marches was on March 25, 2006. In LA, we had about 500,000 people in the streets. It was big in cities all over the US, but it was building up to May 1. People were calling for a general strike. They were saying, “we’re going to have a general strike, nobody’s going to go to work.” Poor truckers were saying the same thing. They were going to go on strike, and there was huge support for it. Even the Spanish-speaking mainstream radio and television stations were helping to promote it. On May 1, 2006, there were a million people in the streets of LA. The streets were packed and the cops were outnumbered and unable to stop it. There were two marches that day – one downtown and one in McArthur Park, which historically has a large Central American community. SCAF had its own action where we went up to the immigration detention centre and had a forum.

Toward the end of the march in McArthur Park, police started attacking some of the street vendors. There’s a history of police violence against vendors in that area. People are trying to survive, basically. They can’t get jobs, and they sell tamales and food on the street. The majority of them are Central American women and they’re self-organized. They watch out for each other, they have lookouts and everything; the police attack them a lot. They steal their money, they steal their equipment, and just throw their shit out on the street. So when the police attacked them on May Day, it provoked people to fight and resist. There was a little rebellion toward the end of the march that year, which led to the arrests of a few people.

The following year, I feel like it was already planned that the cops were going to attack the march. They were afraid that it was going to grow into a popular movement capable of making some fundamental changes. The police and the people in power were afraid; they felt like they needed to repress it, to intimidate people and keep them from coming out.

We were asked to do copwatching at that march, to film the police. We weren’t there to do security. The police started pushing people, pushing a lot of our members. They were knocking people over, trying to provoke something. They started provoking the anarchists. A lot of anarchists started linking arms, creating a blockade between them and a group of indigenous dancers. The police had ridden through on their motorcycles and almost hit a little girl, so people created this barricade. That’s when the police started attacking and pushing people with their batons. They brought in the riot police and started shooting rubber bullets and tear gas. Some people – anarchists and other people from the community – resisted and fought back.

But then the media and the police came out saying that Copwatch and other anarchist organizations had provoked the police. And then some mainstream immigrant rights organizations came out and said the same thing. A lot of more grassroots people – and even some non-profit immigrant rights people – don’t really work with those organizations anymore. The line that these organizations took when they took the side of the state and the police showed that they’re not really on the side of the people. We caught a lot of heat for our actions from the media and the police. We felt like they were going to attack us, so we were put on the defensive. Nevertheless, a lot of people came to support the youth, and families too, and the food program.

This conflict led us to put on a really important event to address the police violence. After the police attacked protesters and anarchists were blamed for it, we had to think of a way to come together to discuss it. Although the police were at fault, there were differences in opinion mostly based on people’s understanding of the police. For this reason, we organized a people’s assembly for people to come together and talk about what happened and how we could move forward. During the assembly, we talked about the needs of the community and how we could come together to meet those needs. That’s how the food program came about too: people wanted to build trust in the community and show that Copwatch and anarchists weren’t the enemy. Through the program, we popularized the principles of anarchism and the principles we’re fighting for: direct democracy, mutual aid, cooperation, and anti-oppressive ways of doing work. After that, I remember someone in the community saying, “well, if that’s anarchism, then I’m an anarchist.” It was somebody from Guatemala, an immigrant, who learned through the work. To me, that was beautiful; that’s what we’re trying to build. When we’re talking about community organizing and building community autonomy and collective ownership, that was a good example to me.

How do you address the labour-intensive aspect of Copwatch? How do cuts to social services that a lot of marginalized people depend on affect Copwatch in terms of involvement and participation?

We’re a grassroots organization, so we’re already working with nothing. Lack of resources always affects people; if you have a situation where people are struggling just to survive, they’re not going to have time to be involved in community organizing. At the same time, Copwatch is a survival tactic. The police are killing people, so Copwatch is necessary. There’s a necessity for this type of work because police brutality isn’t going away; it won’t go away unless we make it. The more they cut social services, the more people will get angry and realize that shit needs to change. But it’s not going to happen on its own; it’s our job as organizers to go out there and galvanize people, to agitate people to get organized.

I understand that you want to have police-free zones, and that police don’t keep communities safe. But then how do you deal with perpetrators of violence? What is your vision of community safety?

We have short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. Our main goal is for a future of cop-free communities, but we understand that people aren’t there yet – we’re not there yet. When there’s domestic violence or gang violence, a lot of people feel they need to rely on the state. We’re not going to tell people, “don’t call the cops – that’s wrong, you shouldn’t do that,” because we don’t have the capacity to deal with those things yet. Right now, what we’re trying to do is educate and build the capacity to have mutual aid programs. RAC has had a food program for three years. It’s a way to build community, but it’s also a place where the community can have power – they’re running the program themselves. It’s an example of how things can be different. In organizing, everything is leading through example. We don’t only show how black and brown people can work together in a revolutionary organization, we also provide some real alternatives to the system. If we’re not doing that, if we don’t have something that’s real solid in terms of what we can replace the system with, then why are we talking about getting rid of it?

People have a capitalist mentality ingrained in them, so it’s not surprising that they’re going to have capitalist ways of relating to each other. In terms of gang violence, what’s key is learning from our culture, politicizing people, and helping them to see that they do have the power to take on the system in general. We understand it’s a process. We’re not coming at people with this self-righteous approach that they shouldn’t call the police, because we don’t have an alternative for that. We don’t have the capacity for that. But little by little, people start relying on themselves. If there’s gang violence, how can the community come together and deal with it? When confronted with horizontal violence, how can people start coming together in their own communities to address it?


Notes

1 House Bill 4437, the Border Protecton, Antiterrorism and Illegal Control act of 2005, sought to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to strengthen the enforcement of immigration law and enhance border security. The bill never became law.