On February 4, 1999, a 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Amadou Diallo absorbed 19 of the 41 bullets fired by four NYPD officers. Diallo, who was mistaken for a rape suspect, died in the hallway of his Soundview apartment in the Bronx.
For Kimberly Ortiz, just a high school student from the Bronx at the time, Diallo’s death was the impetus for her social activism. “I remember a guy who was going to protest and he took a bunch of us out, and after that I just remember being incredibly politicized.”
Yonasda Lonewolf, affectionately called Queen Yonasda by many throughout social media, wasn’t a byproduct of any single injustice. The daughter of the late Wauneta Lonewolf, an Oglala Lakota Native American, Yonasda was born into the movement at large.
At just seven she was being prepared to navigate a world of political combat, learning to identify undercover FBI agents and throwing off Arizona skinheads all the while.
“One thing that my grandfather taught me early on was that we all are going to be forced to make a decision on what we are willing to fight for,” she said, recalling the time she denounced her second grade teacher’s lesson on Christopher Columbus.
BET’s newest docuseries on the men and women battling injustice, Copwatch: America follows Kimberly Ortiz, Yonasda Lonewolf and other comrades in the struggle, as they occupy the streets of their respective home cities of New York and Atlanta.
In the fight against the extrajudicial murders that seem to incessantly sprawl today’s media headlines, Ortiz and Lonewolf have learned firsthand the consequences and repercussions that come with surveilling cops and challenging those who have sworn to protect and serve us.
“Ramsey Orta is in jail right now, and everyone including myself a thousand percent believes had he not filmed the video of Eric Garner, they wouldn’t have brought all of these bogus charges up against him. They didn’t before. All of a sudden all this stuff came up?” Ortiz halfway quips when she considers that many like her in today’s proverbial struggle run the risk “of being set up, of being targeted by police officers, and of [police officers] having you targeted by other people.”
Eric Garner of Staten Island died in 2014 after being arrested while held in an illegal chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. The video footage captured by Orta went viral and generated widespread attention, raising questions about the corrupt use of power by law enforcement.
Orta is one example of the gamble a civilian takes when he or she decides to record police for evidence in a court of law. Feidin Santana, the man who recorded Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer who fatally shot a fleeing and unarmed Walter Scott, debated whether or not to share the video he captured.
“When you’ve got this police officer and his friends—all have guns, all have the authority to take life and they know that there is a video that is out there of this incident, what potentially might they do? Who knows,” offered Todd Rutherford, the attorney who represented Santana at trial.
“There was no doubt that he believed his life was potentially in jeopardy. The entire course of events happened because he thought law enforcement was about to get away with murder. For it not for his involvement, I believe they would have.”
Despite the guilty verdict of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in the case of Botham Jean, a sole witness by the name of Bunny who recorded Guyger on her cellphone after hearing the fatal shots, soon became the target of death threats. Sharing the video she captured online also garnered arbitrary claims of her being a radical Black extremist, which led to her job expulsion.
Yet, losing your job or being wrongly jailed as a result of trying to do what’s right are just some of the things cop-watchers and activists are subject to face today. Like many of our preceding heroes of the Civil Rights era, for instance, the likes of Ortiz and Lonewolf wake up everyday with the knowledge that sometimes their very breath is at stake.
“I’ve been in Ferguson. I’ve been in Baltimore during the uprising of Freddie Gray. I’ve been on the freeway in Atlanta and on the freeway in Arizona, shutting down and stopping traffic. I’ve been in many major cities protesting against police terrorism, but I never ever felt so helpless at times, so scared for my life, like I was at Standing Rock,” shared Lonewolf about the time she stood in front of a bulldozer in 2016, to protest the contruction of the oil pipeline on sacred grounds in Dakota.
“Being in Standing Rock, we had no internet. Our phones wouldn’t work. Here we are, in the middle of the country, and you wouldn’t see a light for days. The stars, the moon was your light. You would hear stories of people gone missing. It was just a lot going on. It was a difficult time.”
Being one of the very few visibly Black people of the Standing Rock movement, Lonewolf became the recipient of an onslaught of social media harassment she later learned was orchestrated by Tiger Swan, a company she describes as “a security firm that the government Energy Transfer and the oil company and everyone who invested in the pipeline, including Donald Trump, hired to infiltrate Standing Rock.”
That doesn’t account for the tear gas, water cannons, attack dogs and “being hit by rubber bullets” Lonewolf and her comrades endured during the pipeline protests of 2016, 2017.
As a cop-watcher, Ortiz approaches movement work a little differently and from the acute perspective of a Bronx-bred New Yorker who’s been organizing for her city since her teenage years.
“A copwatcher is somebody who understands that when you go outside, wherever you rest your head at, you know that’s your community, and your community is your business. So when you go out there and see police harassing people or stopping, frisking people, giving people tickets, arresting them, it’s your duty to make sure they are okay,” she explained. “Because right now, being killed by a police officer is literally ranked as one of the highest or most likely ways that Black and Brown men and women will die. This is a category of death now.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, a recent study finds that about 1 in 1,000 Black men and boys can expect to die as a result of police violence over the course of their lives. That means they’re 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to die during an encounter with law enforcement.
The same analysis also showed that Latino men and boys, Black women and girls and Native American people trail right behind, facing a higher risk of being killed than both white and Asian American men.
“We know that these things are happening because there’s clear cut evidence, it’s very black and white, and we are seeing it for what it is,” Ortiz added, pointing to the technological advances that have made some of these movements and cases possible. “In order to continue to expose the systemic oppression and systemic racism, we need for you to go out there and help expose [police], too. We have to be out there in order to get them, because they’re out there and they’re for sure getting us.”
When asked what’s personally at stake for her, Lonewolf had this to say: “If I stopped my sons will have to cop-watch. They will have to continue to have to hold these policemen accountable. They will continue to have to scream the names of families, and our family members, that never even got a hashtag. They would have to [keep] fighting to say that as Native Americans we matter just as much, they will have to say that “we are still here” in their life span. All that I do they would have to do in their lifetime. And I don’t want them to fight, I want them to have peace.”
Like Lonewolf, who’s made her political activism more a vocation than an occupation, Ortiz knows too well the potential violence of revolution, but continues to stand on the shoulders of her previous giants all the same.
“I could live in this dangerous world from my house doing nothing, or I could live in this dangerous world outside fighting for my f*cking people and fighting for liberation.”
Copwatch: America premieres Wednesday, October 23 at 11:00 p.m. on BET.
(Photo by Nigil Crawford for BET)