BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It was borne from frustration, with a police encounter that Johnathan Crum thought was unfair. It started with a question:
Where they at tho?
And with that, the Facebook group WTAT was born. And with that, Crum seemingly touched a nerve.
In a little more than five years the group, originally formed as a grass-roots effort to keep an eye on the police, has become a network of 77,000-strong, a group that has evolved — especially in Birmingham’s black community — from an eye on cops to an eye on crime, an eye on kids, an eye on everything really.
It is now larger, Crum points out, than any Alabama church. So, its mission has changed.
“At first it was just like ‘Bump 12′ or “Let’s keep our eyes on them’ but as I got older, I looked at it like it was a blessing,” said Crum, a father of 7 and full-time employee with a large food services company in Birmingham. “A church doesn’t even have a congregation that big, so I thought ‘Let’s start putting some positive back in the community.’ “
It all began one night in October 2012 when Crum was stopped by police in Valley Brook, an east Birmingham apartment complex that has seen its fair share of high-profile crimes. “One particular night, we were outside, and the police just ran up on me for no reason, because of the neighborhood,” he said. “I just said I’m going to make a group to keep the eyes on the police to make sure they’re doing the right thing. There was nothing bad about it.”
That night he started the secret group, initially called “Where the roadblocks at?” He added 500 of his Facebook friends and, within a week, made his first post on the page. It was like the social media version of flashing headlights when you pass a police officer running radar to warn other motorists to slow down.
“After I made the first post, people took interest in it,” Crum said. “There were maybe two or three people posting a week, not like they do now, but I still looked at that like it was good thing.”
In August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting sparked riots, weeks of protests and brought even more attention to race, crime and police use of force. Then came the death of Eric Garner was approached by police on the sidewalk for illegally selling loose cigarettes. A New York police officer used a chokehold on Garner. A bystander video showed Garner saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died. Laquan McDonald, 17, died in Chicago that same year in a police-involved shooting and 12-year-old Tamir Rice died the same way in Cleveland.
2015 brought the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Sandra Bland in Prairie View. Alton Sterling died in 2016 in Baton Rouge, as did Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
“WTAT took off in 2015 and I think that was a big part in why it took off,” he said. “We started letting people know their rights and stuff like that. Soon we had 10,000 members and we got organized.”
Crum wants one thing to be crystal clear: “The group is not against police or any laws,” he said. “It was only created to make sure that officers of the law were doing their job right.” They even feature a “Cop of the Week” to highlight an officer doing a good job.
The group became a clearinghouse for all topics, ranging from police roadblocks to missing, or found, children. If there’s a shooting, WTAT usually knows about it first. The same goes for a wreck, a drug bust, or a robbery at the neighborhood store. And, more often than not, one of the members of WTAT is on the scene, streaming a Facebook Live video. Stolen cars have been found, as have dropped wallets and lost kids. When anyone is hurt, even police officers, there are thousands praying for them and openly rejoicing when there is recovery.
“We’re really more about news now,” he said. “I think that’s why everybody is so tuned in.”
As of this week, there were more than 77,000 WTAT members on Facebook, more than twice the size of any Birmingham area community Facebook page. Of those, there are 58,000 active members who contributed to 286,800 posts, comments and reactions just over the past month. About 60 percent of the members are women.
“I didn’t think it would get that big,” Crum said. “I’m surprised every day. I’m still in awe about it.”
Crum said he treats WTAT like a corporation, though he doesn’t make a dime. He has rules, and 25 administrators to make sure people behave. Police are not officially allowed in the group, though it’s common knowledge there are at least a few who are.
Also not allowed are pictures of drugs, guns, weed or dead bodies, and no racial slurs. Daytime postings are restricted to public safety issues. After 10 p.m., people can post prayer requests and words of encouragement.
Despite the rules, there is sometimes drama that comes with any community Facebook page.
“We’re pretty strict. This is the best admin team I’ve ever had,” Crum said. “I try to teach them to be professional and put their feelings to the side. I run it like a business.”
Though WTAT remains a “secret” group and will stay that way, it is anything but a secret. That’s why Crum is willing to talk publicly about the endeavor. “It’s a household name now, you can’t hide that,” he said. “I just want to protect the members.”
A spinoff group was launched several months ago called WTAT Topics and Discussion, which is open to anyone and has nearly 4,000 members. “You can ask anything about the community, politics, anything that’s education,” Crum said. “It’s for things like, ‘What can we do to help reduce crime in the community.’ “
Crum said the best thing about WTAT is the sense of community. “It’s a family,” he said. “I let everybody have an opinion. You can voice your opinion as long as it’s in a respectful manner. People don’t feel like they’re in a communist country.”
There already is a WTAT Montgomery, as well as WTAT Georgia, though the memberships aren’t near the Birmingham group. Crum said he’d like to see WTAT in every major city.
“Seeing all the crime and sadness, it brings everyone together,” he said. “I knew I had to do something good with this platform.”
He said he has no idea how far WTAT will go, and how it will further evolve. “I’m just being patient,” he said, “and waiting on God.”