I first heard of Radley Balko in June 2007, four months after my first arrest and two months after launching this blog, when he wrote an article for Fox News on the rash of arrests against citizens with cameras that had been sweeping the country since 9/11.
It had been a particular bad year, probably due to the fact that cameras were becoming cheaper and people were becoming smarter about their rights, which naturally made police even more aggressive.
The fact that Fox News would even publish such an article was mind-blowing to me, as I was a very passionate democrat back then, completely disgusted by what everything Bush did after the attacks. Now I’m just a disgusted American; a liberal with strong libertarian leanings with no expectations from any political party.
But after reading the article, I did a little research on this Balko guy, not sure what to expect with a strange name like that. And I wrote a blog post about his article, the 15th one I wrote since launching the blog two months earlier, which shows you it was much slower back then.
From my June 21, 2007 piece, which came out two days after Balko’s article:
In what seems to be a growing trend sweeping the country, police arrested a man after he used a camera to record their actions.
These arrests have become so widespread that even Fox News is taking notice. Well, actually a freelancer who writes a biweekly column for them.
Still, I’d never thought I would see the day when my name is mentioned on Fox News in a story where my rights are being defended. But there it is in the fifth paragraph.
Photojournalist Carlos Miller was arrested in February of this year after taking pictures of on-duty police officers in Miami.
And in the eighth paragraph:
It’s critical that we retain the right to record, videotape or photograph the police while they’re on duty.
I have to hand it to writer Radley Balko, who describes himself as a “libertarian” on his website, for putting the “Fair and Balanced” in Fox News.
His website, of course, was his blog, The Agitator, which impressed me immediately, especially considering it would receive more comments than his Fox articles.
Back then, most journalists considered bloggers to be amateurs and most bloggers were writing, what I call, Dear Diary type blogs, mostly reflections of themselves; personal musings and such. And the few that were doing something journalistically were not getting published on national news sites.
So Balko became an immediate inspiration for PINAC and I’ve enjoyed watching his journalism career blossom, knowing he was paving the way for guys like me.
My other inspiration was Thomas Hawk, the blogger who inspired me to launch Photography is Not a Crime in the first place after showing me the power of the blog through his relentless reporting of my arrest, who I met in 2010 when he came down to Miami (my archives are all screwed up due to the constant migration of the blog to various platforms over the years, which is why the photos are missing from that post).
Last weekend, I met Balko for the first time during the 2nd Annual Peaceful Streets Summit in Austin where we were both featured speakers, along with Pete Eyre of Cop Block and Jacob Crawford of Cop Watch, who is a brilliant video editor as you will see on his Youtube channel.
I also met Antonio Buehler for the first time, the Austin man who was arrested in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2012 after he photographed a cop aggressively arresting a woman at a gas station. The cop charged him with felony assault on an officer, accusing Buehler of spitting in his face, not realizing another citizen was recording the interaction from across the street, showing a different set of events than Patrick Oborski had described in his arrest report.
After his arrest, Buehler and several other Austin activists launched the Peaceful Streets Project, where they encourage citizens to organize groups and go out and record cops in public in the hope to keep them honest. The organization has spread to other cities.
On Saturday, Buehler presented an award for Bad Cop of the Year, which went to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, not a surprise choice considering he oversees the police department that has arrested Buehler three times for recording them in public.
And the Good Cop of the Year award went to Howard Williams of the San Marcos Police Department, who had one of his own officers arrested after he beat up a woman, knocking out her teeth, for walking past him during a traffic stop.
And I met Bobby Seale, co-founder of the 1960s black militant group, the Black Panthers, who was the featured speaker of the conference.
Seale has a controversial past to say the least, having served four years in prison for contempt of court while being tried for inciting a riot in the infamous Chicago Eight case of 1968, from which he was severed for lack of evidence, turning it into the Chicago Seven.
But he made frequent outbursts during the trial, which lead to the contempt of court conviction:
Early in the course of the trial, Black Panther Party activist Bobby Seale hurled bitter attacks at Judge Hoffman in court, calling him a “fascist dog”, a “honky”, a “pig”, and a “racist”, among other things. Seale had wanted the trial postponed so that his own attorney, Charles Garry, could represent him (as Garry was about to undergo gallbladdersurgery). The judge denied the postponement, and refused to allow Seale to represent himself, leading to Seale’s verbal onslaught. When Seale refused to be silenced, the judge ordered Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, citing a precedent from the case of Illinois v. Allen. (This was alluded to in Graham Nash’s song, “Chicago”, which opened with: “So your brother’s bound and gagged, and they’ve chained him to a chair”). Ultimately, Judge Hoffman severed Seale from the case, sentencing him to four years in prison for contempt of court, one of the longest sentences ever handed down for that offense in the US up to that time.
While Seale was in prison, he was put on trial for allegedly ordering the murder of a suspected informant, charges that were dismissed after the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and he was named a suspect in another murder but that didn’t go anywhere either.
But he put all that controversy behind him after he was released from prison in 1972 and ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973, receiving the second most votes in a field of nine candidates.
And he left the Black Panthers in the subsequent year after an alleged violent falling out with co-founder Huey Newton, which he always denied, but others have reported.
I put all that out there to let readers know I am well aware of Seale’s history as so many people on Facebook have mentioned concerned of my association with him.
I sat next to Seale at dinner Saturday night after the conference with a handful of others and used the opportunity to get to know him.
He is 76 years old and comes across as a man of wisdom, experience, street smarts, humor but with the naivety of many men that age, along with the stubbornness to not let that keep him from reaching his goals of producing a film about the Black Panthers during their heyday, for which he is trying to raise money.
He has lost the hate, if he ever had it, but hasn’t lost the passion.
And he is grateful for the camera and the internet for allowing the world to see what the black community has seen for decades, a rampant abuse of police power.
He was fascinated by my stories of run-ins with police over cameras and impressed when I told him about Photography is Not a Crime.
And I was fascinated by his stories of his run-ins with police – which involved guns, not cameras – and impressed at his ability to recite case law word by word without missing a beat.
Things have changed a lot since 1968, the turbulent year I was born in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. A year of political upheaval and protests over an escalating but unwinnable war in Vietnam as well as American cities besieged by race riots, including one in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood while the Republican National Convention was on Miami Beach.
It many ways, it has changed for the better in that racial relations, while undeniably still strained, are much better than they were back then.
But it has changed for the worse in many ways, including in the way police have become ridiculously militarized where they treat the Constitution as a formality, if they don’t march all over it.
And that is Balko’s expertise, having just published the book Rise of the Warrior Cop, which he was promoting at the conference. I purchased a copy and asked him to sign it and we talked a bit about my upcoming book on citizen journalism where I will teach readers how to be the best independent journalists they can be.
I started reading the book on the flight back to Miami today and it is extremely informative and extensively researched, which will be no surprise to anybody familiar with his work.
He explains that the rise of the militarization of police began as a reaction to the 1965 black riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as well as the 1966 incident where a white man in Austin killed his wife and mother, before standing on a tower on the campus of the University of Texas, just a stone’s throw away from where the conference was held, and began shooting people at random with high-powered rifles, killing an additional 17 people and wounding 32 others.
Perhaps it is only logical for police to react to violence with violence. But there is no excuse for the rampant abuse we see on a daily basis against non-violent citizens who are not even breaking the law.
We can take a page from Seale and the Black Panthers and assertively monitor cops on duty without shame or fear, but using cameras instead of guns.
Because even Seale agreed the camera is much more powerful than the gun.