Telling Our Stories: Lalit Clarkson on His Experiences Using Organizing and Legal Tools to Bring About Police Accountability

As a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s Peoples Self Defense Campaign, my work has included conducting Know Your Rights workshops throughout New York City and leading Cop Watch Teams in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights Brooklyn. I was also a named plaintiff of the Floyd v the city of New York lawsuit which challenged the New York City Police Department’s policy of racial profiling and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks. I bring up my background as way to convey that change is only created when we, the people, create accountability without waiting for others to do so. In each of these instances, desires to create lasting accountability or restore accountability from the police department to the community are some of the reasons why I engaged in the work. Conducting Know Your Rights workshops for OUR people of all ages throughout NYC helped me to understand more clearly that I wasn’t the only person who felt like the could police violate our rights and we couldn’t do anything about it. These workshops are important for OUR people to understand what the police legally can and cannot do. More importantly, once people have this information they can hold the police accountable. In most the workshops I facilitated attendees had shared that they through incidents in which they felt the police violated their rights but they weren’t sure if the police did or not. There were also many others who would tell me that they felt like they were being criminalized although they may not have had an in depth understanding of the systems of racial profiling and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks. After facilitating these workshops the greatest feeling for me is when people feel better because they now have an understanding about how to deal with police. Some people would even call me after the workshop to explain how the information they learned helped to deescalate a police encounter or avoid an arrest.

While these workshops are a great starting kit of information to help foster accountability in police-community relations, copwatch is the logical next step. We walk the same streets where police violate OUR rights. Using copwatch to announce our presence and send a message that the streets are watching by videotaping the encounter and then building with person being violated helps to foster another sense of accountability. Having been on many patrols, one of the moments effective experiences I’ve had doing copwatch was during an encounter where we were recording two police officers who had 4 four men posted up against a wall. The young men were coming from the C train station at Kingston-Throop Avenues. When we approached to the situation, the officers were clearly verbally assaulting these young men with their guns drawn. When we announced our presence and began video recording, the officers began to put their arms around the young men and mockingly told us to put the footage on Facebook. And then they proceeded to leave the scene. The young men ran over to us excited that our presence helped end the police encounter and prevent their arrests. That night, they were on their way home from playing basketball at Chelsea Piers and the officers were trying to criminalize them for no good reason.

Stories like this show why we do copwatch and want more of OUR people to collectively engage in this practice. The question then becomes how do we create a more lasting accountability while understanding that Know Your Rights workshops and copwatch patrols are important but serve as pain killers for a gun shot wound, metaphorically speaking. It’s important and makes us feel better but those alone will not solve the larger problem. Being a plaintiff in the Floyd v. the city of New York case, was important as a mechanism to create police accountability in a way that the state respects, which is law. The Floyd case contained the collective voices of people being violated by the police screaming that the government had to do something to create accountability. For me, the Floyd case was like doing Know Your Rights Workshops and Copwatch patrols—I encountered and received messages from people all over New York City sharing their stories about their encounters with the police, in addition to commending myself and the other plaintiffs for our participation in the case because they were also victims of police violence. A positive victory in the Floyd case hopefully means that there is evidence of clear racial profiling and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks in this city. WE all know this, but no accountability process was in works until the law agreed with US. So for me Know Your rights Workshops, Copwatches, and lawsuits are all tools that help to create a platform that we should be actively using to bring accountability and empower OUR people in the face of the New York Police Department.

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