by Wally Cuddeford
In March 2007, Port Militarization Resistance held its first protests at the Port of Tacoma against Stryker shipments headed to the war in Iraq. Attending those protests was Joseph La Sac, a videographer and student at University of Puget Sound. On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 6, Joe was approached by two police officers who told him he could not approach the protest with his camera on, and ordered him to turn it off (something police are not allowed to do). At one point, one officer threatened to break the camera if Joe did not turn it off; then he grapped the camera and tried to turn it off himself. The entire exchange was caught on videotape.
Soon afterward, Joe posted a truncated edition of his recording on YouTube. “Film is Not a Crime” became one of several compelling videos from the Port of Tacoma protests to go viral, establishing PMR as one of the first anti-war protests in the U.S. to successfully use YouTube to bring its own message (and its own evidence of police misconduct) to the world.
I recently interviewed Joe about these events, and about recent developments in police brutality caught on tape.
Wally:So first, what got you involved in PMR and the Port of Tacoma protests in the first place?
Joe: I wanted to make a video showing the shipments against the backdrop of the 2007 surge operations. Before that I was making videos about technology and society.
Wally:The evening those two officers harassed you, was that the first evening you brought your video camera?
Joe: I heard about the shipments first from friends. I went to the port by myself to film and yeah it was the first time I went during the shipments, and I didn’t think there would be any problem filming since the local TV news had video of it already too.
Wally: So tell us what happened, starting with the moment they approached you.
Joe: I was on foot and the police told me to get to the other side of a checkpoint barricade in the opposite direction I came from. This was an open public street — no sign that it was closed and no “no trespassing” signs. But the police wouldn’t let me go back and retrace my steps even if I was going to leave. They wanted me to walk into a trap, by having me cross the barricade. It was absurd. I kept the camera rolling and asked questions. Then I was in the back of the cop car with my hands cuffed. The video of it wasn’t shortened. That happened in about a minute or less. I could have added a video of me talking about it instead of using text but it was quicker to edit and post online with text.
Wally: Was there anything they said after the detainment…
Joe: They drove me to the 11th St. Bridge where I was supposed to go home from. The whole way there the cop driving was lecturing me. He was telling me how much the law didn’t matter. He said he didn’t give a fuck about judges or the law, literally that’s what he said. His point to me was that I shouldn’t make it a legal matter, or file complaints to the ACLU or whoever, because it wouldn’t make a difference. For an argument he wasn’t convincing me at all. I sat there and listened because he was telling it like it is. I don’t care about the law either but for different reasons. The police really don’t give a fuck about the law, and the law only serves capitalist interests when they are appealing to the law. Justice is to the advantage of the stronger, is what Thrasymachus said to Socrates. I think too many people believe the myth that Socrates puts out, that in some way justice is objective, and that there’s a right and a wrong. Or somehow the pure “form” of legal justice doesn’t involve corruption or violence. That’s the myth. I don’t think you need to lie to say what you really mean to say.
Wally: How long did it take you to turn your recording into a YouTube video?
Joe: Around 6 hours after the recording. After the interaction I went to a meeting of mostly student activists about the port demos and told people what had happened.
Wally: Tell us about the response you got from your video, both from the mainstream media and from the Tacoma police.
Joe: RR Anderson drew a comic of me as a sailorboy getting my camera kicked over by a pig. There was an interview of me on King 5 which aired on Northwest Cable News the whole weekend leading up to the bigger demonstrations at the port. Friends in Bellingham called to say they saw me on TV. After the police started shooting tear gas the atmosphere was more tense. I kept sending riot videos to news stations and websites. A media worker from King 5 watched some of the footage and said, “It looks like a war zone down there.”
Wally: If I remember correctly, Tacoma PD said they would “investigate” the incident, and perhaps punish the officer involved. Did anything at all happen?
Joe: No, nothing happened. If something happened I wasn’t notified. They PR’d the situation to make it appear they were investigating. There was no investigation. But a week after the port demonstrations a TPD public relations officer, along with two seargeants, met with mediators at the University of Puget Sound. TPD requested that students who were at the demos participate in the meeting in order to potentially establish some trust between the police and the students.
About five or six of us showed up. It wasn’t their approach that rubbed us the wrong way though. I went to the meeting to rub their lies in their faces. I think they should feel like shit for being the police. I was making videos against them all week. But one of the reasons they gave for shooting tear gas was that some demonstrators identified themselves as anarchists. So “freedom of speech” is bullshit too. I remember we stopped them to explain, “So you’re saying you’re going to profile someone based on their politics…” You basically have to repeat it back to them, but even then they didn’t get it.
Wally: Was there any legal action to come from this?
Joe: I was in school and didn’t have time to take legal action. Looking back I could have. The police were communicating back and forth to Homeland Security about all sorts of people in Tacoma and Olympia, and other people have successfully sued for those things. They had cameras aimed at peoples’ houses, paid informants, and followed peoples’ cars to pull them over and search their vehicles.
Wally: Now, you went on to film events at the rest of the Port of Tacoma protests in ’07. Tell us a bit about the things you witnessed and filmed there.
Joe: The police said they issued a trespass warrant for me, that if I came back to the port I’d be arrested, even if I was in the public right of way. But they were letting me go that time with a warning. I went back later that week and filmed the cops firing tear gas onto people who sat down in an intersection. I filmed them taking away backpacks and searching them arbitrarily. Then the police lied on the local news station, making up stories about things that didn’t happen, making it sound like they were in danger and retaliated. They said people threw pieces of road blockades at the police, which never happened. I made videos showing how that never happened, and later questioned the TPD spokesperson on camera and found out he wasn’t even there when it happened, never read any reports, and repeated that lie based on internal police rumors.
Wally: After going public with “Film is Not a Crime,” and filming other events at PMR protests, were you ever singled out by the police at any of these protests?
Joe: During a port demo in August of 2008 I was arrested for trespassing in an open, empty parking lot with no “no trespassing” signs. The police had a lot of pre-set traps everywhere that if you stumbled into them you’d get to spend the night in jail.
Wally: We’re approaching the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riots. It’s been said that the only thing unusual about the Rodney King beating was that it was caught on tape. Indeed, it’s undeniable that there have been countless Oscar Grants, and probably a few Scott Olsens, who we may know nothing about, whose only difference was that their attackers were never caught on video. At the same time as police brutality is becoming more and more documented, it’s becoming a bigger and bigger topic in the public sphere, as these events become harder to dismiss. What are your thoughts in this change of consciousness?
Joe: It’s misleading to think there needs to be video evidence in order to prove police did something. Police are always covering their own tracks. It’s completely corrupt. They answer to no one except for the streets, and now “these streets have eyes” (eyes and video cameras too sometimes), and the streets fight back too.
We know police serve the same function in every society. By sharing the videos and experiences in the public sphere, yes, people are not only aware of it. They also know other people have been through the same exact things and feel they are not alone.
The police who beat Rodney King were let off the hook even though it was caught on video. That was a signal. Every time people call attention to the police and the police are let off the hook, there’s a big smoke signal over that city. That’s an alarm going off. The alarm says they’ve gone too far, and now the heat turns up on them. The police are unecessary. They make our lives worse. I can see that pretty clearly. These institutions were created to destroy us, repossess whatever we have, leave us with nothing, and put people in prisons to rot for the rest of their lives.
Wally: A year ago, there was a story out of Miami where police shot and killed someone, and then confiscated everyone’s cell phones and deleted the video. But the video got out because someone hid their memory card under their tongue. There have been other advancements in technology which make it harder for police to suppress amateur video. Have you been keeping up on these kinds of new technologies available to the amateur videographer?
Joe: That was pretty slick of them: putting their memory card under the tongue. It’s very good to have a backup I think. MP3 recorders aren’t new but they’re pretty fun and you could record the cops when they start lecturing about Plato and Socrates.
Wally: Finally, rather than address the root causes of police brutality, many politicians have sought to simply criminalize the witnesses by making it illegal to film or publish film of police brutality. What are your thoughts on this?
Joe: Police never want to be on video. The government never wants to be challenged. Illinois raised ‘filming the police’ to a felony this year. A few days ago a federal law passed making it illegal to demonstrate if the Secret Service has jurisdiction in an area, so people can’t demonstrate if a political official is near. This system always wants to control narratives and create the vantage points for you. So they want to control their own image. It shows why they exist, to control perspectives. They want your perspective of them, the perspective you have of yourself, and your perspective of the world. They show you their roles for everything in the world, from their perspective. So yeah the media repeat word-for-word what the police say. The media are the police too. It’s symbiotic between them, because they complement each other as a business relationship, in service of the same system. And of course the media and police don’t want you to show a perspective unlike their own.
Wally: Any final comments on this subject?
Joe: Destroy what destroys you, dawg.
Wally Cuddeford is a longtime resident of Olympia and member of the social justice community.
A look back at the Tacoma Port protests
by Wally Cuddeford