The folks whose cars are parked in the restaurant's lot on the west side of Cleveland want you to know exactly how they feel. There's the grey pickup truck with a homemade sign taped to its rear window, almost impossible to miss. It shows a giant fist with the middle finger flicked up in the air next to the world "police." The middle finger also forms the 1 in "1st Amendment."
And there's the black SUV with white stenciled lettering spelling out "IDEAS ARE BULLETPROOF" on the driver's side, "NO MASTER NO SLAVE" on the passenger's side, and "COPBLOCK.ORG" above the New Hampshire license plates on the back.
In a side room at My Friends Deli & Restaurant, a group of 15 to 20 people chat over chicken wraps and sweetened ice tea, and their talk mainly centers on how police officers "are a gang of thugs getting away with murder" and what the group can do to stop them.
It's the second annual Cleveland get-together for the region's Cop Block chapter leaders, its supporters and anyone curious about "police accountability." Their numbers are small, but growing. It's a sect of self-appointed watchdogs, citizen vigilantes, actively searching out cop abuse on camera (and provoking it, at times) and spreading their findings through social media. The Internet is the little brother to big brother and Cop Blockers style themselves the physical outreach of that discussion.
"Last year we had three other people," says Doug Odolecki, a Parma resident and leader of the Greater Cleveland Cop Block. "It was me, a girl from Indiana, a guy from Michigan and Pete. And this is what we've been able to grow it to."
Pete is Pete Eyre, co-founder and philosophical leader of the four-year-old national Cop Block organization. That's his black SUV out front. Along with his pal Adam Mueller — known by his alias Ademo Freeman — Eyre started Cop Block in New Hampshire, as the organization's site says, "an outlet to share his personal experiences as a victim of the war on drugs as well as the ongoing harassment from local law enforcement due to his previous victimless actions."
Cop Block's logo is a video camera trained on a profiled officer, and that's essentially how they work: keeping the cameras rolling as an attempt to capture actions they deem abusive or dangerous threats to personal liberty.
The organization applies the libertarian philosophy of the non-aggression principle: that it is immoral and unethical for anyone to initiate aggression against another, whether that's violence, threats or fraud, while self-defense is perfectly justified in response. "We don't hate cops," the website reads. "We believe that no one — not even those with badges — have extra rights."
There are now more than 100 local chapters of Cop Block — "a decentralized project supported by a diverse group of individuals united by their shared goal of police accountability" — across the country, ranging from recently formed chapters consisting of nothing but a solitary guy running a Facebook page with a few dozen "likes" to well-established chapters with passionate members who regularly meet up for nights of public outreach. The parent organization counts a quarter-million followers on social media and tens of thousands of subscribers on YouTube, all commenting on and posting videos from themselves and others, all in the name of transparency.***
In late February 2013, a Maryland college student was roughed up by Baltimore police officers after the cops noticed he was filming them making arrests on the street.
"Look at me," one of the officers can be heard screaming in the video. "Do you see the police presence here? You see us at all? We're not fucking around, do you understand? Do not disrespect us and do not listen to us. Walk away and shut your fucking mouth or you're going to jail." The student asks if he's committing a crime. Doesn't he have freedom speech?
"You don't," the officer responds. "You just lost it."
Videos like this and others pop up on Reddit — there's a sub-Reddit called Bad Cop, No Donut that collects stories and videos of police abuse and crimes — and on sites dedicated to watching the police. Some of them deal with the issue of recording cops at all, others cover actual crimes captured by bystanders on their cell phones. And those videos have spurred arrests and lawsuits around the country. Those collected images can be all victims have to combat the official version of events that oftentimes happen much differently than they're relayed.
Earlier this year, a man died after police in Moore, Okla., responded to a call about a fight in a movie theater parking lot.
"It was his actions of taking aggressive, physical stance and his refusal to be cooperative with investigations that led officers to believe he needed to be detained," the police chief said at the time about the death. Cell phone video released by the family's lawyer, however, showed five officers on top of the man's unconscious body, with his panicked wife pleading with them, asking if her husband was dead. Witnesses described cops slamming the man to the ground and pepper spraying him before he went unconscious.
On March 26, police in Albuquerque, N.M., said they were responding to an apartment complex after a call about a man who pointed a gun at a kid. Police secured the area, but shot the man to death as he stepped out of the apartment, detailing in their report that he came out with a gun and fired a shot first. A video posted to YouTube soon after the incident showed the guy didn't even have a gun — he was holding a cell phone. The shooting occurred in the midst of massive protests in the city after police fatally shot a mentally ill homeless man for illegal camping just ten days prior.
One month ago in Philadelphia, the city's district attorney's office announced that a police officer there will face criminal charges after cell phone video from last year show the cop beating, cuffing, and forcing an Iraq war veteran into the back of his squad car after the man pointed out to him that the officer made an illegal turn.
There are plenty more examples, but most if not all of them come via videos captured by bystanders by happenstance. They're not looking for trouble or training their cameras on cops at all times; they simply react when something happens. This is in contrast to Cop Blockers, who are more akin to tourists on safari, prodding and poking for a reaction on the streets when the idealistic conversations and philosophical debates are left back at the table and they're looking for something — anything — to get on video.***
Pete Eyre is the national Cop Block leader and the main draw at My Friends tonight.
"My goal is to live in what I call a 'mutual appreciate community,'" he says. "We care about each other so we look out for each other, so the idea that there's an institution that steals from people under the guise of protecting them is wrong. Any arbitrary authority that says they have the right to control you, the right to control your life... It's something out of love, not anti-police, but out of love."
Eyre is 33 with a bushy beard and the build of a UFC fighter, but he carries himself softly in conversation, reeling in folks at the table with his relaxed personality. He speaks fluidly and subtly drops dismissive language about cops into the conversation with ease. They aren't police officers, they're police employees. The police don't wear uniforms, they wear costumes. A person isn't sent to prison, they're put in a cage.
Odolecki, Eyre's host for the evening, is more flushed and angry in his didactic rants, though he has brought a homemade cake with him tonight, baked and decorated with the Cop Block logo in frosting by his wife. The 42-year-old has a penchant for protesting DUI checkpoints — what he calls "Papers, please! Checkpoints" — near his Parma house and in surrounding suburbs. He'll find out when one's scheduled and then head down the road and hold up a sign warning motorists of the awaiting presence. Odolecki's anger is rooted more in vague distrust of The Man than Eyre's thoughtful questions about the legitimacy of law enforcement.
"Some smart-ass cop is going to call this a weapon," he says while pulling out a Leatherman multi-tool. Odolecki was arrested by Parma police during one of his protests for having a concealed weapon, but he wasn't filming then — a fatal flaw, he explains. Always be filming.
"I was pissed off at myself because I had to go through all this fuckin' shit," Odolecki says. "Community service, paying these people money — I don't want to support their criminal organization. And then I got in touch with Pete here, got it going in Cleveland and we're exponentially growing."
That's a common thread among a significant portion of the Cop Block crowd: pissed off suburban white men.
Jacob Frost arrives to My Friends with some friends and associates from back home in Bellevue, Ohio, where he leads the Ohio Cop Block chapter. The 22-year-old says he got into the organization and philosophy because "the only people who have ever harmed my life have badges."
"My brother got in trouble for hacking a few websites," he says. "I was 15 and they kind of took him from me, so I started Ohio Cop Block because my family member was affected."
His brother Mitchell Frost, a freshman at the University of Akron in 2006 and 2007, hacked into and temporarily took down the websites for Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rudy Giuliani, among other conservative sites, "to prevent the hate and conflict and fear mongering from being seen by people." In a case that got nationwide attention, Mitchell was later sentenced to 30 months in prison.
"And then I got in some trouble and I really got dedicated to it," Jacob Frost says, referencing a January 2012 incident when he was busted by two Bellevue police officers and a Homeland Security agent after a package he ordered online containing methylone — a synthetic substance banned by the DEA in 2011 because it's used to create bath salts — was sent to his house.
"It seems like people only really care about rights when something happens to them," he says. "And it's happened to me since I was 15. The only people who have ever harmed my life have badges."
The head and sole member of the recently formed Columbus chapter, 28-year-old Aaron Parker, brings a unique perspective to the bunch. He's an Army veteran, having served in the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.
"What really solidified it for me was I had the entire Whitehall police force pull their weapons on me," he says, after an incident not too far outside the Defense Supply Center. He didn't have his military ID on him and the guard wouldn't let him in without providing his social security number. So he left. "Next thing I know, seven or eight squad cars roll up on me, half of them with their guns drawn. Luckily their sergeant from the rear has some common sense asking me what's the problem. I don't know, I say. He's like, 'Well, we got a call someone was trying to force their way onto the base.'"
Some newcomers hang around listening to the battle stories, wanting to meet the guys for the first time. There's Chuck, who drives that old grey pickup truck with the middle finger saluting cops in the back window. He got to My Friends early and had been anxiously sucking down coffee at the counter until the others started showing up around 7. He says he's been trying to find some protest movement to be a part of "ever since the FBI managed to kill Occupy Cleveland."
Attorney John Gold drops by the restaurant. A 2004 Case Western law school grad, he's the area's de facto legal advisor to the cop blockers and a light-hearted, semi-voice-of-reason in a group so thoroughly devoted to libertarianism views of the law.
"How do you uniformly apply them across any spectrum of people without it being arbitrary at some point?" he asks at one point, playing devil's advocate. "That's my question. How is that better than what we have now where at least we have some sort of expectation or understanding of what is and what's not?"
His office in Sandusky is sort of an informal mini-headquarters for the group and the Peaceful Streets Sandusky folks (similar group, similar mission). He's been arrested twice for arguing with cops.
"A lot of people talk about how they want to fight for justice, but it just never happens," he says. "But I have weird circumstances: I'm twice-divorced, no kids, 40 years old — I'm a Corvette away from being a walking cliche — with 10 years of experience. What do I have to lose? They don't have any leverage on me. I don't have any family for them to threaten, no wife to wag her finger at me. Screw it, I'm going to do this!"
During a trip to Austin for the Peaceful Streets "Accountability Summit", the Sandusky group met with Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers. "He's talking to us and he said 'you know, we walked around with those rifles not to defend ourselves, but so the cops would know who we were. It would put them on edge and make them do their job right,'" Gold says. "[Seale] said, 'The phones you carry around with you today are so much more powerful than those rifles we were walking around with back in the day.'"
That's their new marching order, and that's what they shall do now — head out into the Cleveland night with cell phones and cameras to do some actual cop blocking.***
"We're going to take a little ride down to West Sixth," Odolecki says in the My Friends parking lot. He's still furious about what he read in Scene's March 7 cover story about Cleveland police officer Vincent Montague shooting an unarmed man in his vehicle on the street back in June 2013 for what amounted to a traffic violation.
We follow the spray-painted Cop Block truck downtown to find a parking spot for three cars and end up on Lakeside Ave. near the Justice Center, which is perfect for these libertarians.
Eyre pulls out a beige fishing vest from his trunk, puts it on and stuffs its pockets with pamphlets, and attaches a small video camera to a monopod. Odolecki swoops a chain holding a Cop Block badge across his neck; he's easily mistakable for a plainclothes police officer by people who don't read the anti-cop slogan ("Badges don't grant extra rights") on the back of his black hooded sweatshirt.
A couple of guys grab a stack of Cop Block cards that list the five "tips to remember when dealing with police: 1. Record your interaction. 2. Do not talk to the police or answer questions. 3. Ask 'Am I being detained?' If you are not, leave. 4. Never consent to searches, And 5. Be polite, but firm."
Odolecki spots a guy smoking a cigarette near one of the side streets on West Sixth and hands him a card. "We're with Cop Block and we're patrolling the area in case you get fucked up by the cops or anything. Get in touch with us." ("Awesome man, thank you dude," replies the gentleman.)
Frost tries to hand a card to a group of dressed-up bar goers — women in heels and dresses and men in sport coats — but they couldn't be bothered as they make their way past the Velvet Dog security towards the Top-40 music blasting inside.
As the gang makes its way through Public Square to East Fourth, the driver of a horse-drawn carriage driver stops them.
"Are you the guys that drove by earlier in that Jeep that said something about cop-dot-org or something like that?" he asks. He had clearly noticed Eyre's truck. "God bless you guys. Fuckin'-a right? We need dudes like you out there," he says. "You keep downtown safe for the people who enjoy my services."
As he's offering the crew discounts on carriage rides, it becomes eminently clear the driver has a fundamental misunderstanding of what Cop Block does and believes in; he's under the impression the guys are a civilian support service for police in the fight against crime downtown.
The group's wanders over in front of the Tilted Kilt and Parker's pitching Cop Block to two female bargoers who, judging by the laughter that can be overheard, seem to be receptive. But then their sober friend joins the conversation. She's not pleased about what she's hearing.
One of the less fanatical cop blockers notices it's taken a turn: "Well, looks like he opened a can of worms over here." He's right. The woman, visibly upset, storms away, dragging her two friends off to wherever they were going the rest of the night.
She crosses the street and turns her head around back towards Parker. "Stop being a fucking victim! Do what you should fucking do as a citizen!"
"Did nobody get that on camera, really?" Parker jokes as he rejoins the group, laughing. "Shit, I should've gotten a cigarette from them before shit went sour."
Onward they go and one block away they find what they're looking for. They spot a Cleveland police officer on foot posted outside the doors of Flannery's. It's nearing 11 p.m. and they're finally going to get their first real "action" of the night, sort of.
"Why are you filming me, dude?" the cop asks one of the Bellevue guys standing a few feet away. "Cut it out." Five or six others start filming him too.
After a few minutes of sarcastic replies on both sides, the cop takes the lead on the questioning. It's been all about cop shootings and citizen deaths until now.
"What do you for a living?" he asks Frost, the guy giving him the most grief so far.
"I, uh, run a home business," Frost says.
"What is it?"
"Electronic cigarettes?" the cop says dismissively.
"Yeah, a new business. But I run Ohio Cop Block too, as a side project."
"You get paid for doing this?"
"No, I'm a volunteer, I just want to help people."
Odolecki jumps in: "We get paid with the satisfaction knowing we're keeping people safe."
"What else? You guys all right now?" the cop says. "You looking for a confrontation here?"
"Oh god no," Frost says. "Don't use your bullying and badge to arrest us, please!"
After a back and forth about traffic tickets and enforcement, the cop steers the conversation back to Frost.
"You're not very bright, are you?" he says.
Frost continues ranting about traffic tickets: "I just think it's wrong to ticket people and force them to pay money for doing nothing wrong."
The conversation follows a similar quick give and take with little substance for a minute or so.
"Are you a little onion skinned? Why are you filming?"
"Why are you bullying us for filming?" Frost asks.
"Okay, well I'm going to go in now, I'm done."
Frost contends that police departments discriminate against future police officers who score too high on IQ tests. "They certainly discriminate if you score too low! Check into that Cop block!"
Frost continues goading the officer: He must be dumb to get a job as a cop.
He's had enough, putting his face directly into Frost's camera, then grabs it for a second before giving it back.
"Don't touch him, that's assault," Parker yells. "You don't have the right!"
The cop gives a light push to Frost's shoulder.
"Going limp, going limp," Frost says quietly to himself, as he makes his knees buckle and falls to the ground the moment he felt the touch. It's a defense mechanism he uses in confrontational situations. Refusing to stand up, he continues filming while sitting on the sidewalk: "What's your badge number, sir? You are ordered by Ohio law to give me your badge number."
"Have a good night guys," the officer says as walks back inside Flannery's. "Have a good night, Cop Block."
Frost, still sitting on the ground with his legs crossed from the "attack," proudly recalls how he stood up to police "bullying" to his comrades' cameras.
"Why you sitting down?" someone asks.
"Because I went limp! I thought he was about to arrest me! I didn't want to escalate his bully-ness. That was a scary situation! That man is a bully!"
The post-confrontation backslapping doesn't last long. Moments later, there's commotion from behind the group in front of Flannery's.
"I think that dude hit that girl!"
The group turns and notices a woman lying motionless on the East Fourth crosswalk. She's unconscious, on her back in the middle of the street. Some bystanders gather around her. Odolecki directs traffic, so the cars trying to turn south down East Fourth avoid the scene. A bystander goes inside Flannery's to get the police officer who had left a minute earlier, but he doesn't come out. Someone calls 911.
A minute later, the flashing lights of a police car pull up to the woman and, of course, some of the Cop Block crew surround the scene and whip out their cameras to start filming the responding officers with the same excitement as before.
Another officer arrives on the scene to help the woman and shines a light into the crowd for just a second.
"Oh god, he shined a light in my eye, that's assault," whines Frost, about five yards away from the motionless woman, without any hint of irony, while rubbing his eyes. "I can't see."
Minutes later, as the woman was loaded into an ambulance and shuffled off to the hospital, Frost continues lamenting the light.
"That was assault on my eyes," he whines to his buddy. "Yeah! Right at me."
As the crowd disperses, Frost and some of his fellow Cop Blockers leave with just what they came for, apparently.
"Who has the video of me being assaulted by the cops?" he asks. The group begins coordinating the dissemination of their videos as they get back into their cars.
"They know we're fucking here now!" shouts Odolecki. "They know it ain't just me now!"