It's a warm Saturday night in Texas, and a former Wall Street investment banker and one-time Army officer is training a small group of people on the tactics of cop watching.
"Our first job is to help the person being detained," says Antonio Buehler, forty, as he clicks through his Power-Point presentation at Monkeywrench Books in Austin. "It's not to get You-Tube views."
After this introduction to videotaping police interactions with civilians, the volunteers for the Peaceful Streets Project that Buehler co-founded will sally forth on one of their patrols to record activities of the Austin Police Department.
How did Buehler, who has degrees from West Point, Stanford, and Harvard, come to this cause? To understand that, you have to go back to the early morning of New Year's Day, 2012.
Buehler, a newly arrived Austin resident, was standing at a gas pump outside a downtown convenience store when he heard a woman scream. He watched as police pulled her from a vehicle and threw her to the ground. The woman called out to him to videotape what was happening. Buehler approached with his cell phone and, after a verbal exchange with police, was himself arrested and charged with a felony for assaulting a police officer.
The incident prompted a years-long series of legal actions that included dismissal of the felony and Buehler's acquittal on an additional misdemeanor charge. It also caused the previously straitlaced Buehler to reexamine his attitude toward authority and oppression. Later that year, he and other activists founded Peaceful Streets, and Buehler was arrested five more times in the next few years for activities related to cop watching.
Cop watching and filming, it turns out, has a long history. California activist Andrea Prichett co-founded Berkeley Copwatch in 1990. And of course Rodney King's arrest, perhaps history's most influential cop video, occurred in 1991.
Yet Peaceful Streets, in large part due to Buehler's record as an Iraq War veteran, has become the standard-bearer for cop watching in the last few years. He acknowledges this fact while noting that it makes him somewhat uncomfortable.
"My role especially in the police accountability and police brutality space is unique in that I'm not black or brown. I'm not from a historically oppressed or marginalized group," says Buehler, whose olive skin, straight black hair, and facial features suggest his Korean and Caucasian ethnicity. "Oftentimes, I want to step back and allow other...