Poor people in Sacramento are being watched. The viewer is anonymous, their gaze only implied by a pair of dark orbs mounted atop a pole stemming from a police trailer parked in poor and minority neighborhoods like Oak Park. Their watch is a strange reversal of the street lights around them; where one serves to illuminate public space, the other takes in light, channeling the image of public space to some remote viewer in a faraway police station.
The shallow ideological dichotomy within this debate, between security and privacy, safety and liberty, masks deeper structural questions concerning whose security is protected and whose privacy is compromised by police surveillance. Running contrary to the narrative of a creeping police state pushed by middle class civil libertarians is a history of police surveillance and suppression against poor communities throughout American history. Rather than representing a break from a tradition of privacy rights, modern police surveillance technology serves to reinforce already existing power structures rooted in class repression and white supremacy.
As Michel Foucault argues, police surveillance, like all forms of surveillance, is a means of discipline. Foucault’s 1975 study on the origin of the prison system, Discipline and Punish, used 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the perfect institution, the panopticon (“observe all”). Bentham envisioned a circular building with a watchtower in the center, from which the observer can view all activity in cells set around the outer wall.
To be effective, those in the cells could not know when they were being observed. Foucault notes “Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the psychological effect of constant surveillance: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment...you had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” In the age of infrared imaging, even darkness provides no cover from scrutiny.
Of course, Sacramento police are in no way unique in asserting their power over working-class communities with surveillance technology. Last December, the ACLU reported on an investigation by the Boston Globe that led to the cancellation of the Boston Police Department’s license plate reading program.
The report found that the readers were used primarily in black and working-class neighborhoods. Responding to the claim that technology is “neutral” and reduces racial profiling, the ACLU stated that “it doesn’t matter if the machine only detects plates and not faces. The outcome is the same: unequal treatment and disproportionate police attention to certain groups of people…” The ACLU further noted that “a stolen motorcycle passed by a license plate reader nearly 60 times over a period of months, and police apparently never did anything about it. That signaled to us that the BPD was really just using plate readers to collect intelligence — vast troves of information about where motorists drive, and when.”
The use of mass surveillance in poor urban communities is not a sign of America’s slow descent into tyranny. Poor urban communities have long lived under the tyranny of police brutality and surveillance. The current application of technology is in continuity with the historical treatment of marginalized communities in America. It’s use must be fought within a broader struggle against racist policing
Surveillance technology can be used for good, if the camera is turned around. On April 8th, the Atlanta Blackstar reported that LAPD officers working in black neighborhoods removed antennae from their police cars, disabling the transmission of dashboard cameras and belt-worn audio transmitters and thereby effectively shielding the actions of police on duty in those areas from scrutiny. A more rigorous requirement of reverse surveillance can alter police behavior; iIn Rialto, California, the use of body cameras worn by police officers reduced public complaints against officers by 88% and the use of force by 60% in a single year.
The ability to record the actions of on-duty police officers by members of the public has increased with the proliferation of phone cameras and the legality of videotaping police. In 2012, the 7th Circuit Court stated that the right to record on-duty police officers was protected by the First Amendment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 1st Circuit ruled that an individual wrongly arrested for recording a cop could sue for a violation of his Constitutional rights. The Supreme Court found the issue unworthy of review, effectively legalizing the recording of officers by civilians.
Activists should combine opposition to the application of new mass surveillance technology with the demand that officers should carry body cameras when on duty while working to create or maintain a diverse independent civilian review board. As socialists, we maintain that such measures are needed not only to preserve civil liberties, but also to mitigate a deeply entrenched legacy of racial and class based policing. In addition, the issue of police surveillance must be viewed in the context of economic inequality under our current capitalist and white supremacist system. Our opposition to mass surveillance must be coupled with the demands of an equally funded education system, ending the “War on Drugs,” universal and accessible health care, including addiction and mental health treatment, and the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. In short, opposing police surveillance must be part of a broader agenda to transform the capitalist system itself.
Author: David Roddy.
David Roddy is a founding member of Davis YDS, and is currently active in Sacramento DSA and serves on the National Political Committee.