Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Surveillance State Ironies

All the incredible video documenting grotesque police abuse of peaceful protesters across the country provides a bit of irony: Just as we citizens are being increasingly watched by both commercial and governmental interests, so too can we now watch them - and use it to our advantage.

I don't need to go into too much detail regarding our burgeoning surveillance state and our loss of privacy in just about all areas of life. But, consider the bigger picture...as I wrote on this blog in the past, whether its the knowledge that everything we do on the internet is followed and stored, that we can be wiretapped for no reason and without a warrant or probable cause, that smart grid systems monitor our daily in home habits and actions, that our emails can be intercepted, that our naked bodies must be viewed at airports and stored, that our book purchases can be accessed (particularly if Google gets its way and everything goes electronic), that street corner cameras are watching our every move, and that RFID tags and GPS technology allow for the tracking of clothes, cars, and phones (and the list goes on)...what is certain is privacy itself is on life support in this country...and without privacy there is no freedom. I also fear how such a surveillance society stifles dissent and discourages grassroots political/social activism that challenges government and corporate power...something that we desperately need more of in this country, not less.

With that overview, I think its particularly fascinating, and ironic, that "we the people" are so effectively documenting, through smart phones and video cameras, the kinds of law enforcement abuses that we otherwise would not have been able to in the past - and thus would have remained unknown and unpunished.

With this in mind, I found an article by one of my favorite writers - Will Pitt of Truthout - that describes how this "Peoples Surveillance State" is being used, particularly in the documenting of the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. Pitt writes: 

In the aftermath of September 11, there was a big push to create a national surveillance system in the name of national security. Cameras were installed at traffic lights, ostensibly to catch people running red lights and stop signs, but those cameras came with a nifty side benefit: they recorded everyone within reach of the lens in their comings and goings. Cameras were installed at street corners, ostensibly to provide security against crime, but again, you were recorded wherever you went. Bank machines all come with security cameras, and those added to the ever-broadening web of national surveillance. Finally, almost every cell phone now comes with software that, so long as the thing is turned on, can track your every step by triangulating your position via GPS and the cell towers your phone signal bounces off of.

Those with a fealty to the quaint ideals of American civil liberties had, to no great surprise, a big problem with putting this system in place. Combine the concern over having millions of innocent people on camera with the fact that the Bush administration decided to spy on pretty much everyone by way of the NSA because no one had the guts to stop them, and what you had - and have to this day - is a pretty damned paranoid situation where everyone is being watched by The Man. Today, it is almost impossible to be anywhere in America without something tracking you. After this technology had been in place for a few years, it even became fodder for cop shows; half the episodes of "Law & Order: SVU" after 2008 involve catching criminals using this web of eyes and ears. As you can imagine, the bad guys almost never got away.

The basic idea behind setting up this incredibly invasive system, if you listen to its advocates, is that security is paramount in the aftermath of 9/11. There were plenty of people, after the Towers came down, who were very happy to surrender their liberties in the name of security, despite Benjamin Franklin's warning about deserving neither and losing both. Nowadays, the existence of such a system is established fact, leading to yet another bout of cognitive dissonance: those in favor of such a system a few years ago, because it meant the state was looking out for their safety, are now in all likelihood the same people railing against the state with guns on their hips at Tea Party rallies...but that's a brain cramp to be dealt with another day.

The advent of the Occupy movement, the length of time that movement has been able to hang fire, and the vast number of cities in which it is taking place, has led to an astonishingly violent reaction from the very state we are supposedly trusting to watch over our every move. There have been a dozen incidents of gruesome official violence against peaceful, non-violent protesters, including the near-murder of an Iraq war veteran by police in Oakland...violence the likes of which has not been seen in America since the dogs and firehoses days of Birmingham, Alabama.

Last Friday, students at UC Davis in California were subjected to an attack by police that beggars likeness. Here's the thing, though: this time, it's all on film. 

If you haven't seen it yet, what you're looking at is a dozen or so protesters seated with their heads down, arms linked, in peaceful non-violent resistance. An armored UC Davis police officer calmly pulls out a can of pepper spray the size of a fire extinguisher, shakes it up, and hoses these seated students down from one side to the other and then back again. Several of the students subjected to this attack required hospitalization, and there is an unconfirmed report that one of the protesters had a UC Davis cop shove the nozzle of his pepper spray canister into her mouth and then pulled the trigger.

As Pitt also mentions, the result of this video has been millions of hits, calls for the firing of the Chancellor and cops responsible, an investigation of the incident, and even greater resolve in students across the state and country to continue to speak out against ever increasing tuition costs and fee increases (among MANY legitimate complaints). Granted, we will see if justice is served, and we all know that video alone isn't enough to convict even the most glaringly abusive and illegal tactics. Nor does video guarantee real, systemic reforms to what is clearly an increasingly authoritarian, and militarized police force.

But certainly, it VASTLY improves the potential that justice will be realized - and reforms will be instituted. More than anything though, what this kind of peoples surveillance offers is the ability to educate the larger public about what is really going on in this country - particularly when you have the temerity to speak out against "the elites". This education opportunity, and how it might serve to motivate and inspire more people to get involved with their democracy and demand change (as well as make cops think twice about their actions) shouldn't be discounted.

If you want to see what I mean, check out Joshua Holland's Caught on "Camera: Ten Shockingly Violent Police Assault on Occupy Protesters"and consider whether it impacts your opinion on these matters.

1 comment:

Ruby Claire said...

I didnt know much about RFID tags and GPS technology , thanks for writing on them.

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