Thursday, December 4, 2014


On Monday President Barack Obama called for $75 million to equip 50,000 protestors across the nation with body cameras intended to track their interactions with police officers. Using the multiple simultaneous camera angle sources, as well as other high tech gadgetry and training that the three-year $263 million spending package will provide for, protestors will now be able to recreate any recorded event in virtual three dimensional space, similar to the popular Google Map “Street View” feature.

No – not really. The cops get the cameras.

Obama is proposing a three-year, $263 million spending package to increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement and add more resources for police department reform. The package includes $75 million to help pay for 50,000 of the small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job, with state and local governments paying half the cost. AP Article

How bizarre it seems to “record police on the job” by having them wear cameras that will only show what they are facing and not themselves. I suppose if you are at a protest that is surrounded by police then individual officers could inadvertently film each other in action, but if the interaction is between a single police officer and an individual, it is highly unlikely that the officer will get any face time.

I became aware of this proposal reading an article titled “President Obama Is Doing the One Thing That Will Prevent More Fergusons.” What constitutes “more Fergusons” here? Will this “one thing” prevent more shootings of black youths? Will this “one thing” prevent more protests in response to the shooting of black youths? Will this “one thing” prevent more stories of injustice from being heard? The headline does not consider any other option that might put the decision making power into the hands of the people rather than the police (and those that control them). Recording the interaction between a police officer and an individual does nothing to change the existing power dynamic, it is still ultimately up to the officer to decide whether or not to use force. And as we have seen over and over, recording (documenting) abuse of power, while important in and of itself, does not necessarily ensure accountability.

The issue here is not the cameras themselves, as I point to in my opening, it is access and control (as well as the allocation of public resources). Who will have access to the footage that will be collected by officers wearing body cameras? Who will decide how the recordings can and will be used? Who decides where the officers are deployed and what gets recorded? Will this policy amount to yet another fishing expedition in communities that are already profiled by the police? Along similar lines, should your attendance at a political demonstration be taken as your consent to be recorded by the police? In New York City there was something called the Handschu agreement set up to regulate police behavior with regard to political activity. Beyond taking legal action after the police have chosen to disregard the specifics of such agreements, what recourse is there? Who will police the police?

I attended an event last week that involved several artists performing work inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Afterward the audience participated in a discussion with the artists. Surveillance was a major topic of discussion. The use of body cameras by police was brought up by someone who spoke of the importance of the act of witnessing in connection with justice. One audience member responded to this by declaring that surveillance was not intrinsically good or bad as long as we were aware of it. This reminded me of the common refrain if you haven’t done anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about. I wrote a recent post about how people seldom realize what freedoms they actually have and do not have until they attempt to exercise them. I said something to the group about how the information that is collected may seem inconsequential until you decide to run for public office and quickly find yourself discredited through a false narrative based around some small bit of that collected data. Many simply responded by laughingly exclaiming that they would not be running for President anytime soon. But there is more to it than this. Individuals & activist groups are commonly discredited through this process, their potential effectiveness neutralized. Entire segments of the population are demonized through smear campaigns anchored on some small piece of “evidence” taken out of context or even outright staged so as to validate the narrative. We see this same type of logic playing out in the courts as well, where victims of crimes are discredited in order to derail prosecution of the assailant.

I have seen a number of folks questioning the meaning and the use of the terms “looting” and “riot,” perhaps looking to redefine the narrative. I’ve referenced the term “looter” in earlier posts – from my post DAYANIŞMA / SOLIDARITY

Diren Gezi is Gezi Resistance. Taksim (Taksim Gezi Parkı) is the park that is being occupied in Istanbul, Turkey. Not to be confused with Tayyip (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), who is the Turkish Prime Minister. Tayyip Istifa! is a chant for him to resign. Çapuling is chapulling. If you are unfamiliar with the word chapulling, that is because it is a new word. Tayyip (remember him?) has taken to calling the demonstrators ayyaş (alcoholics) and çapulcu (looters). Rather than defend against this, the demonstrators chose instead to reappropriate the term çapulcu. The urban dictionary defines the term as “to resist force, demand justice, seek one’s rights.” The term “looters” shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us here in the US. We have heard it and other similar terminology used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need and those that rise up against social and economic injustice. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the US news media was rife with stories casting desperate victims of Katrina as marauding bands of “looters.”

And from MAN UP

In my previous post I noted how the term “looters” and other similar terms have been used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need, to vilify those that rise up against social and economic injustice. Those who struggle against oppression must be cast as a malevolent force in order to make a defensive response seem reasonable. If they can be successfully cast as a threat, then their oppression appears warranted - the narrative presents this action not as a choice but as a necessary defensive response. When faced with the dualistic framework of fight or flight, there really is only one acceptable option encoded into our (USA) culture - to stand your ground. The mass incarceration of young black males fits into the “self-defense” narrative as a strategy to keep blacks off the streets and off the voter rolls. But it is an offensive strategy as well, generating enormous profit through prison development and maintenance, while supplying cheap labor (less than a dollar an hour) to participating corporations. Are these young men being sold into slavery?

While watching a livestream of the protests in Ferguson the night the grand jury decision was announced I could clearly hear a voice repeatedly announcing that if you were in the street it was unlawful assembly and you would be subject to arrest. Then the voice would simply say loudly “Do it NOW!” Is this a matter of legal rights or solely a matter of compliance? Let me be specific here – are these people in the street (if they are actually in the street) doing something illegal? Or are they being threatened with arrest solely because they refuse to obey an order that has no legal basis? It got me thinking about how the law can be used as a validation of injustice. An example: when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cited a law that he claimed the teachers were in violation of. Doing a bit of research I discovered that this law was passed the previous year, likely for the express purpose of preemptively criminalizing the action so as to cast the teachers in a negative light. This kind of legislative suppression of democracy has been happening all over the country with ever increasing frequency. This isn’t a new idea of course, the laws governing free speech and assembly have been effectively rewritten through all sorts of local, state and federal legislation. From the Patriot Act and NDAA, to H.R. 347 – the “Criminalizing Protest” law. Local restrictions abound on exactly where and how many people can assemble through permit processes that clearly conflict with First Amendment protections. The wholesale privatization of public space further blurs the line between assembly and trespass, casting those who are simply exercising their rights as “law breakers.As with surveillance, the issue here is not necessarily what you have done wrong, rather it is that anything you do can be made wrong for the purpose of your control. 

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

But what if the law has been written specifically to remove any opposition to the injustice, if your imprisonment (or indefinite detention) is the actual objective? When those in power have free reign to ram through laws criminalizing any action they deem threatening to their authority – do we still call it democracy?

As I am writing this I read that a New York grand jury has cleared NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo in the death of Eric Garner, this despite the officer’s use of a chokehold prohibited by NYPD policy, seen in a video recording of Garner’s death captured by bystanders.

Excellent report on Democracy Now concerning Ferguson and the proposed $263 million spending package.

The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate by Matt Taibbi

Seen It All Before: 10 Predictions About Police Body Cameras by Robinson Meyer

1 comment: