Illustration: Daniel Chang Christensen.

Antonio Buehler and his buddy, Ben Muñoz, were on their way home from a New Year’s Eve party, an hour or so past midnight on January 1, 2012, when they stopped to gas up at a 7-11 not far from downtown Austin, Texas. The next pump over, they soon noticed, two police officers were talking to two women by a black car. The driver was out of the car, doing a field sobriety test in her heels, with one of the cops observing.

Her friend was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, talking to a second cop, texting on her phone. It all seemed pretty civilized. Buehler (pronounced Bee-ler) even thought the backup officer might be flirting with the woman in the car. Then the energy of that interaction escalated. The officer started barking at her. “He said, ‘Get off your phone. Don’t call. Don’t text,’” Buehler remembers. “He reaches in and starts yanking her out of the car. She starts yelling.”

Muñoz, who met Buehler through Stanford alumni circles, started taking pictures. Buehler, an Iraq vet with a long history of principled insubordination, found himself intervening more assertively.

As the cop took the woman out of the car, wrestled her arms behind her back, and forced her to the ground, Buehler, who was also taking pictures, started yelling out questions to the cops. What had the woman done wrong? Why were the officers handling her so roughly?

Not long after, one of the officers turned his attention to Buehler, walked toward him, and asked him what he was doing, why he was taking pictures. Buehler didn’t back down, and kept arguing that he had a right to be there, that he had a right to take pictures.

What happened next was caught on video. A phone-equipped bystander happened to be filming from across the street.

Buehler is backed up against the front of his truck, with the cop in his face. Buehler, who was thirty-four at the time, is a tall and broad-shouldered man, with an air of tensed strength. When he throws his arms out, in response to the officer’s command, it’s both an aggressive gesture, when you see it, and also a signal that he doesn’t have any weapons and isn’t intending to move against the cop physically. Then, as the officer begins to reach for his arms, Buehler really starts yelling. The anger and indignation are audible: “What are you touching me for? What are you touching me for?”

The cop tries to grab Buehler’s arm once or twice, and then tells him to put his arms down. Buehler ignores him and keeps yelling. Then they begin to struggle, with the officer trying to wrestle Buehler to the ground, and Buehler resisting. Eventually, with the threat of a tasing and the help of the second officer, Buehler is brought to the ground and handcuffed.

He was arrested and charged with resisting arrest. Ostensibly, his crime was spitting in the officer’s face, but Buehler denies spitting, and the video doesn’t show any evidence of it (though it was shot from too far away to say for sure).

What happened, in truth, was that Buehler committed “contempt of cop,” as the police have been known to call it. The tenser the situation, the more imperative it becomes—from the perspective of the police and the criminal justice system that usually backs officers up—for people to quickly and completely obey. It’s not, of course, a law that we must obey the police. There are orders that police can constitutionally give, in certain contexts, which we have to obey under penalty of arrest. But in theory, at least, such orders are limited in scope and highly contingent. In practice, you do what the cops tell you to do. And if you don’t, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll be punished.

This is how police officers were able to frame Sandra Bland’s refusal to put out her cigarette, Philando Castile’s reaching for his gun license, and Alton Stirling’s flopping on the ground after being tased as offenses. This unwritten rule is so powerful that even the intent to comply, or the incapacity to do so, doesn’t always forestall police violence. And this is evidence of at least two things: Contempt of cop is in the eye of the cop. And not all cops are judicious, generous, or even rational.

Buehler says he didn’t commit an actual crime, and he was ultimately acquitted of all charges. He was guilty only, he believes, of refusing to recognize that unwritten law that drastically curtails, in the presence of police, our freedoms to speak, argue, move, protect and defend others, act macho, act obnoxious, or simply do something other than what the police want us to do at that moment. It was for this, he says, that he was sent to jail. The police had briefly taken away his sense of autonomy and power over his own body and agency. The entire experience made him feel violated physically, emotionally, and politically.

Buehler went to the local media with the video, the photos, and his account, and they picked up the story. After it ran on multiple channels, as well as in the newspaper, Buehler began getting calls and emails from other Austinites who felt they’d been mistreated by the police. A defense fund was set up for him and the woman whose arrest had been the catalyst. Buehler, who was teaching at a private school outside of Austin at the time, began to think seriously about whether there was a larger and longer-term role for him as a police reform activist. Not long after his arrest, he became a cop-watcher.

*

Modern cop-watching began, symbolically at least, in 1966, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seal armed themselves and a few comrades, dubbed themselves the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and began counter-patrolling the streets of Oakland, looking for police encounters with black civilians to monitor. The Panthers didn’t have GoPros or YouTube, but the theory that animated their cop-watching is roughly the same as the one that compels today’s cop-watchers. Police accountability, and restraint, will come only from citizens actively watching the police to make sure they don’t harass, brutalize, or unjustly arrest otherwise vulnerable people.

The Panthers’ model persists in other ways too. Modern cop-watching is, as the Panthers were, a movement of the marginalized—the poor, the traumatized, the underemployed, the previously incarcerated, and the ranks of assorted others who don’t give a fuck. This is in part because the marginalized are far more likely to have had traumatic encounters with the police, which is one of the primary catalysts for engaging in cop-watching. It’s also because the marginalized often have less to lose, in the conventional sense, from being arrested, having their mug shots become public record, and spending days or weeks in jail and court. Stalking the police—filming them, provoking them, challenging them not to mistreat others, daring them to arrest you—endangers full-time jobs. It’s often very late-night work, which can disrupt family and professional life. It can threaten one’s social status, if there is status to be threatened. It’s also just emotionally grueling work, in which periods of intense confrontation alternate with much longer periods of boring nothingness.

The brisk Saturday night I went out with Buehler and two of his fellow cop-watchers, we got going at midnight. Our beat was 6th Street in downtown Austin, the city’s party district. There were a lot of drunk people around, which is why there were so many police officers there.

For the next few hours, like the police, we mostly watched and waited for something to happen. We roamed around, typically solo, checking in on cell phones when we were separated, to make sure everyone was safe. We listened for sounds that seemed different from the normal sounds. We looked for commotion. And we watched the cops, because they would get word of trouble before we did. When they moved, we followed, with handheld cameras.

At one point, there was a sudden hubbub in front of a bar near where I happened to be standing. Then a scrum of cops on horse and foot rushed in to wrestle one or two men to the ground. It happened so fast I almost got backed up against a wall by a mounted officer, which was both exhilarating and frightening. I saw what it was like, close up. I understood viscerally the force of the police rushing in, and the sheer size of their horses. I got a taste, as well, of the risk. A few steps one way or the other, or a stumble, and I could have been injured or arrested. One of the men out with us that night, a local anarchist activist, had been badly injured in a previous encounter with the police.

The thing that struck me the most was how similar the actions of the cop-watchers were to those of the cops. For both groups, life involves late nights roaming around looking around for action, a lot of doing nothing, hoping for and fearing confrontation. The difference, of course, is that the police are paid to do their work, presumptively entitled to commit violence, and backed up by the state, the union, and the criminal justice system. The cop-watchers, by comparison, are vastly less resourced, often presumptively guilty, and if things go sideways, they’re at the mercy of the state, rather than in its protective embrace. Their power is almost entirely contingent. If they catch the right moment on camera, and are able to disseminate it widely enough, public opinion may align with them, which might force some kind of reckoning. Most of the time, though, they are on their own. It’s a crazy thing, in other words, for a normal human to do more than once or twice. It’s also possibly a deeply American and heroic thing to do, sacrificing one’s time, body, and emotional well-being to dramatize the tensions between America’s ostensible commitment to freedom and its practice of ceding the police extraordinary control over the public spaces in which they work and we live.

In the end I was fine. Back to family and work, unharmed. But the risk I took is not one most people want to take, which is why among the small population of people who are motivated to go cop-watching, many come out for a night and never do it again. Others hang in for months and then drop out. Every single one of the currently active core group members of regular cop-watchers in Austin, including Buehler, has had to withdraw for periods of weeks or months to recuperate.

*

Buehler isn’t the stereotypical victim of police aggression. He’s half-Korean, a decorated veteran, a former investment banker, and holds degrees from West Point, Stanford, and Harvard. In many ways, however, he is a typical—or at least not atypical—cop-watcher. Before his radicalizing encounter with the police, he was deeply anti-authoritarian both philosophically and temperamentally. He was at a moment in his life, after leaving finance, after leaving New York, when he was looking for a purpose and a project. He feels called to do something great, or at least significant, with his life. He is someone who does nothing by half-measures.

“He is an intense person,” says Pat Bane, who’s been friends with Buehler since they were in Army Ranger School together. “He has always been intense. I think he thrives on conflict, and because of that he can be polarizing. But if you’re his friend then he’s got your back. He’s someone you can count on in a bad situation.”

Buehler was raised in the projects of Pottsville, Pennsylvania—a small, depressed, very white, post-coal town about an hour northeast of Harrisburg. His parents met when his father was deployed in South Korea, and his mother left the family when he and his younger brother were very young. The boys were raised by their father in relatively rough circumstances, with deeply conservative values.

Buehler embraced both the conservatism and the roughness, and proved capable, from an early age, of excelling in traditional, hierarchical, masculine environments and also rebelling against their constraints. He and his brother were the first in their family to go to college, both to West Point. After graduating, Buehler served for five years in the engineering corps, including stints in Germany, Kosovo, and Iraq. He got into trouble in the Army—for insubordination, mostly—but he also flourished in places like Kosovo and Iraq, where there was room for improvisation and leadership. In Iraq, in particular, he excelled, wheeling and dealing to improve supply chain coordination among not just different units of the American military, but allies, civilian contractors from around the world, and different factions of Iraqi society. He ended up being awarded the Bronze Star.

Bane, who served with Buehler both at Ranger School and in Germany, remembers him as someone who inspired deep loyalty in friends and active hostility in many others. The people who didn’t like him really didn’t like him. At Stanford business school, where Buehler matriculated after leaving the Army, it was much the same.

“He is an amazingly smart person, but when he believes in something, it’s to a fault sometimes,” says Allen Arsenau, who met and befriended Buehler at Stanford. “I remember our first conversation. We were talking about the military and politics, and he was so in my face that this is what he feels, and if you don’t see it you must be stupid. In general, he’s a pretty likable person, a pretty fun guy, but I think he would get further if he were more strategic.”

After Stanford, Buehler took a job in New York working in investment banking. He was good at the job, but it was unsatisfying work, focused on making money rather than on improving the world. After a stab at starting his own private equity firm, he left the industry. In 2010, he moved to Austin, looking to get involved in alternative education. He bounced around for a year or two, trying to figure out what that involvement should look like, and was finally in the process of trying to raise the money to launch an educational start-up—an early iteration of the small school he now runs—when he was arrested and chose to put himself forward as a public symbol of police abuse. When the start-up deal collapsed, possibly due to the arrest and his public visibility, it opened up even more of a void for his new cause to fill.

Over the next few months he continued working on his case, working the media, and talking to other activists in town, and in his broader libertarian circles, about what had happened and what might be done.

Austin, he discovered, both was and wasn’t fertile territory for the kind of activism he was contemplating. It was a deep blue town, politically, with a healthy amount of anti-establishment activism, a major university with a deep reservoir of left-leaning intellectual resources, and a general public disposition to be skeptical of the police and sympathetic to those who would critique them.

But at the time of Buehler’s arrest, there was almost no existing activist structure specifically focused on challenging the police, and there hadn’t been for more than a decade. There were no local cop-watching groups. Black Lives Matter wouldn’t come into existence for another year or two. Buehler saw a space that seemed ready for someone like him to step into.

In the spring of 2012 he began organizing what would become the Peaceful Streets Project. By the following summer, Buehler was a figure in the loosely connected national network of cop-watchers. He had also connected with a core group of five or ten cop-watchers who would go out regularly under the aegis of the Peaceful Streets Project.

Many of the people who’ve joined up with the Peaceful Streets Project have been the victims of rather routine, but often quite humiliating and disempowering, coercion. Others are anarchists or libertarians, with a philosophical commitment to curtailing state power. A number have mental-health issues and trouble in general getting by in life. What they all share is a desire to reassert themselves, and their own sense of autonomy, against a system within which they feel disempowered.

The Peaceful Streets activist style emerged in response this feeling, with Buehler as its most forceful articulator. It is designed both to empower the cop-watchers and to expose and escalate the ambivalence many of us feel when we’re finally forced to reckon with how much power police have, and how little we have in interacting with them.

Buehler, in particular, doesn’t simply film the police. He intrudes disruptively, aggressively, in some ways even abusively into the psychological space that the police are accustomed to controlling. He calls cops rapists and murderers. He tells them to go fuck themselves, gets in their faces with his camera, and basically dares them to arrest him.

In a video from June 2015, for instance, Buehler gets into it with an officer who’s trying to stand in front of him in order to block him from filming.

“Stop blocking my view,” says Buehler. “Stop blocking my view. Why are you blocking my view? You don’t like my First Amendment rights?”

It escalates, and the cop pushes Buehler back. It sets him off.

“Don’t fucking touch me, pig.”

*

In 1999, Peter Moskos was a doctoral student in sociology at Harvard, working under the supervision of Orlando Patterson, one of the great sociologists of race in America. Moskos had become interested in police culture, and wanted to write his dissertation on the subject.

Initially his plan was to do so as participant observer, working closely with the police, and embedding with them for stretches of time. When it became apparent that that wouldn’t work, for a variety of reasons, he decided to become a cop himself. It wasn’t an unprecedented notion. Thirty years before, an organizational theorist from MIT had done something similar. But for Moskos it was a leap.

“I do not come from a family of police,” he later wrote. “None of my friends were police. My parents were teachers. I had few dealings with the police. I was part of the liberal upper-middle class raised with the kindly lessons of Officer Friendly. As a high-school student, the few times I could have gotten in trouble, Chicago police officers always cut me a break. I’m very polite. And white.”

He applied to a number of departments in big cities, being very open about his plan to work for two years and then quit to return to school and write about his experience. After a few rejections, the Baltimore Police Department said yes. Within a few months he was at the police academy. Six months after that he was in east Baltimore, an area afflicted by many of the same sources of chaos and disorder that were dramatized so brilliantly in HBO’s The Wire, including high levels of gangsterism, murder, addiction, domestic abuse, unemployment, and homelessness.

In all important respects, over the two years he served, Moskos became a true blue cop. The book he produced after his tour was over, Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District, a widely reviewed and well-received work published by Princeton University Press in 2008, is a reflection of that. It’s suffused with empathy for the police, and is written as though Moskos still considers himself a member of the brotherhood. It’s also an extraordinary indictment of the war on drugs, which Moskos believes sets police and poor young black men against each other in a structural, almost inevitable, way. And it’s a rare look into what it’s like to be a police officer from the inside.

One of the most fascinating insights it offers is precisely into the borderland where Antonio Buehler and other cop-watchers trespass, the site of tense confrontation between police and the public. Negotiating that space, Moskos writes, is one of the basic challenges of being a cop. And from the police perspective, the governing rule has to be basic as well: “Police officers always assert their right to control public space.”

For Moskos, who’s a complicated thinker, this is uncomplicated. You can’t do your job as a police officer if your authority isn’t accepted. You can’t do your job if people won’t do what you tell them. The more chaos and uncertainty there is in the environment—whether it’s a packed downtown bar district late on a Saturday night, or a poorly lit park where junkies and dealers hang—the more this assertion of control becomes necessary. There’s no other way to operate, he argues, when so much of your job is rousting dealers from corners, responding to domestic violence, managing drunks and junkies, and in general struggling to restore and maintain calm in the face of truly tragic levels of pain, anger, fear, and trauma.

Moskos says you don’t learn how to do this at the academy, but from the minute you’re on the job, you’re taught a broad and often very sophisticated set of psychological, physical, and legal tactics to assert the right to control public space, which after all isn’t actually a right, but rather the de facto result of the incredibly wide latitude we give police to arrest citizens. As Moskos writes, with intended irony, “police can’t legally order adults to go home. It is, after all, a free country.”

What officers can do is arrest people for disorderly conduct, such as public intoxication, trespassing, littering, refusing to obey a lawful order, interfering with public duties, and other minor offenses that many of us are either doing rather innocently, much of the time, or could easily be described by the police as doing.

Even if someone’s not violating any law, cops can create the impression, through tone of voice, that a request is an order. They can back up their unenforceable orders with the threat of arrest for breaking any one of the minor infractions they’re silently cataloguing as they go. They can even exploit the common practice, among people living on the margins, of not carrying identification, because without identification, writes Moskos, “all offenses, even nonarrestable offenses, become arrestable.” So something as simple as jaywalking, which isn’t normally arrestable, becomes arrestable if you don’t have ID. At that point, even if the officer doesn’t have probable cause to search you, because jaywalking doesn’t meet that threshold, he can search you because of the arrest. Anything he finds is then legally permissible as evidence in court.

The result of all this jiggery-pokery is that if a cop tells you to do something, you better do it, unless you have some autonomous power base—money, status, public visibility, friends in high places—that might act as an effective counter to police authority. Or a camera.

*

“Cameras have changed everything,” says Austin police officer and union president Ken Casaday.

Consider that Buehler’s been arrested five times in the last five years, gone through three trials, been labeled a potential domestic terrorist threat by the Austin Police Department, just barely avoided arrest dozens of times, and been convicted of zero crimes or misdemeanors, paid no fines, and spent no time in jail beyond what followed the initial arrests.

It’s a striking record, and lack of record, and a testament to the degree to which the omnipresence of cameras has changed the dynamic between the police and the public. Without video evidence, he would probably have been arrested far more times, and convicted many of them. He also, admits Casaday, “would have ended up in the hospital.”

What the cameras have done is made more visible the borderlands between our rights to live free of state coercion and the police presumption of control over public spaces, as well as their de facto right to control it by violent force. The camera provides evidence for how the police behave in these borderlands, and how egregiously they can sometimes trespass into territory we didn’t quite realize we’d ceded to them.

It is the police’s power to define that territory that Buehler resists, and deeply resents. His original hope, when he launched Peaceful Streets, was that if enough people engage in cop-watching, and in other, similarly disruptive work, the police will begin backing off. At some point, the cops may back off so much that communities will realize they don’t need them at all.

I’m not sure Buehler believes, anymore, that his cop-watching work is contributing to something so vast and transformative. The power disparity between the police and the cop-watchers seems too great, the public interest too inconstant. What he does believe, however, is that the work has brought a sense of purpose and empowerment to many of the people involved in the project. It’s raised public awareness of the power of our cameras to document the police, and let them know that they’re being watched. It’s almost certainly altered the behavior of police in the moment, and on occasion led to the police treating people with less force than they otherwise would. Most importantly, and for good or ill depending on your perspective, it’s scared the shit out of the cops.

In many of the videos, it’s the cops who look and sound anxious, not Buehler. They’re nervous for the reason they’re so often anxious on the job, which is that it’s a profoundly anxious job, one in which they have to deal with the omnipresent threat of violence and disorder. They’re nervous because Buehler’s tactics have punctured their air of certainty and command, which is one of the primary coping mechanisms many cops have developed precisely to deal with the anxiety. They’re nervous because police procedure for interacting with, and detaining, people can actually be quite detailed and labyrinthine, and it’s easy to accidentally get on the wrong side of it. They’re nervous because Buehler’s become a public figure, and an object of media attention. If they arrest him it will cause, at a minimum, a headache for their bosses and for them. They’re nervous because if they don’t arrest him, they risk losing their credibility in front of the public they feel compelled to control.

They’re also nervous because although Buehler is more aggressive and confrontational that most cop-watchers, it could be much worse. He himself could be just a harbinger of more violent resistance.

*

“I feel like I noticed a change, literally overnight, after the cops were killed in Dallas,” says Buehler, referring to the sniper attack in July 2016 that left five officers dead. His sense is that the Austin police are taking a lighter hand with cop-watchers and other protestors. “All of a sudden they were nicer to us.”

Buehler hasn’t been arrested since August 2015, and he hasn’t felt the need to be nicer to the cops. In September of this year, while filming at a rally against white supremacy at the Texas Capitol, Buehler caught one officer losing his cool in the face of clashes with, and taunts from, a group of red- and black-clad antifa protesters. The four-minute video begins with the young cop kneeling on a protestor and pushing his face into the ground.

As another cop takes over that arrest, the first cop—Trooper Roseberry—rises to his feet. He grabs momentarily, and instinctually, at his pistol, then takes his hand off it. He stomps around other officers over to a line of protestors. Then he gets in their faces and jumps up and down and screams. In the captioned Peaceful Streets video, he’s described as jumping “like a monkey,” which is accurate. It’s a display of irrational and overwhelming anger and distress. His fellow cops realize it too, and grab him and pull him back.

Buehler senses an opportunity. After that confrontation dissipates, he tracks down the cop and goes at him. He insults him to his face. He tries to embarrass him in front of his fellow officers. Later, Buehler tracks him down again, this time on the green expanse of the Capitol lawn, and asks what exactly he was trying to accomplish with “all that jumping around.”

“Leave me alone,” says Roseberry quietly, his eyes averted.

“But you don’t have the right to be left alone, you’re a public official. Deal with it,” says Buehler.

Buehler is joined by some of the antifa protestors, and the rhetoric escalates. Soon, some other police come and take the young cop, who looks paralyzed, away. As they walk off, Buehler shouts.

“You’re a coward. . . . Take the coward away. Without the badge and the gun, you’re nothing.”

Daniel Oppenheimer

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (Simon & Schuster), which was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2016 by the Washington Post. He lives in Austin with his wife, psychotherapist and historian Jessica Grogan, and their three kids.

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