Ramsey Orta and Jessica Hollie.
In 2011, Jessica Hollie, an Oakland native who goes by the name Bella Eiko, was a Chabot College student and award-winning speaker in the parliamentary debate league circuit when the Occupy Movement erupted. Hollie joined the protest and quickly distinguished herself as a grassroots citizen journalist. She amassed a big online following thanks to her deft use of social media and livestreaming. She guided thousands of online viewers through historic events like the shutdown of the Port of Oakland and documented clashes between police and protesters.
Around the same time Ramsey Orta was living in Staten Island and working as a landscaper. Orta, who was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, had become friends the previous year with a man named Eric Garner. Like many working-class men of color in New York, the two were frequently stopped, frisked, and questioned by police. By then Orta was already filming the cops, both his own encounters with them, and what he witnessed on the streets. It was no coincidence then that on July 17, 2014 when a group of New York police officers surrounded, tackled, and choked Eric Garner to death for the crime of selling “loose cigarettes,” that Orta filmed the incident
. The video – tragic, iconic, potent – was another turning point in the movement against police brutality.
Hollie and Orta got married last December. Hollie announced the news on her Facebook page by writing, “revolutionary love is a beautiful thing.” Since tying the knot, Orta and Hollie have been working to marry their grassroots media projects. They call their combined brand Bella Eiko Orta Media
“We had a lot of admiration for each other before we met,” said Hollie in an interview.
Both were attending a National Lawyer’s Guild Conference in Berkeley last year when they were introduced. “It got my attention that she was already in the movement,” said Orta. “She wasn’t just in it, she had history of doing her own work.” Orta fell in love fast.
After dating for a short time, the pair drove together from Oakland to Ferguson, Missouri where officer Darren Wilson had shot and killed Michael Brown in August 2014. They helped organize media training workshops and gave impromptu tips to activists about the best methods of recording encounters with the police. They participated in legal workshops, and they marched in the streets together.
“We have this curriculum that we give in a classroom setting,” said Hollie, “but we also go out and do hands on cop-watching in the community, a learn-as-you-go kind of experience. We try to arm people with the facts. We do roll-plays. And then we’re out on the streets with our cameras.”
Orta and Hollie are helping build WeCopWatch
, a nonprofit dedicated to helping communities exercise their right to observe and record police activities. Oakland resident Jacob Crawford is one of the WeCopWatch core team members. Other WeCopWatch organizers include David Whitt of the Canfield Watchmen, a group founded in the days after the killing of Michael Brown to monitor the police, and Kevin Moore, the Baltimore resident who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.
Hollie said she grew up in a family steeped in the Black liberation movement and the labor movement, and that her work with Orta is just the latest extension of this tradition. “My father used to run with the Black Panthers when he was a teenager,” she said. “I grew up around union organizers.”
Orta was less involved in politics most of his life, but he said his mission now is to teach others to use technology and the law to defend themselves against police abuses of power. Orta said he has no choice at this point; he claims that the New York Police have been targeting him
ever since he released footage of Garner’s killing. “Now I’m an activist, which has its pros and cons, but I’m trying to look at it in a positive way, as a motivation,” said Orta. “I see myself doing this forever.”
Most recently, Orta and Hollie had their cameras trained on sheriffs inside New York City’s Staten Island courthouse. Most young couples only go down to the courthouse once – to get married. But last month Hollie and Orta were in court for one of Orta’s hearings. Orta is being charged with selling marijuana to an undercover cop, and possession of a firearm. His supporters say the charges are “trumped up” efforts by the police to punish him for his activism. Orta and his supporters, including Erica Garner
, the daughter of Eric Garner, were filming inside the courthouse hallway when sheriffs deputies confronted them and forced them to turn off their cameras. Once outside they hit record again.
Rather than taking off on a honeymoon like typical newlyweds, Hollie and Orta said they are planning to travel to Austin and Baltimore where they will be participating in WeCopWatch workshops. And of course they'll be taking their cameras with them. As for wedding gifts, the couple is asking friends, family, and supporters to help fund media workshops in New York City.
"In no way has our relationship been a traditional one and our wedding gifts shouldn't be either," they wrote in a recent blogpost.
"Instead of toasters and silverware or his and hers towels (as cute as that all is), Ramsey and I have decided that we would like to get out into the community."