Surveillance: Interviews with Ruth Gilmore and Stephen Hartnett

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schools, hospitals, stores, theatres, and street intersections,
surveillance cameras have become commonplace. The Big
Brother we feared in 1968 is now here in 2008, masquerading
as homeland security, with a complicit corporate media
that conjures the U.S. as the “good guy” on the world stage,
irrespective of how many people die, are displaced, or incarcerated
at the hands of U.S. foreign and domestic policies
The passing of the Uniting and Strengthening America
by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and
Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 or simply the PATRIOT
Act took things to a whole new level—so much so that our
biggest enemies are not Islamic terrorists but our own government’s
deception and impunity. The possibilities for
surveillance, linked to our heavy reliance on technology,
are countless. In fact, the surveillance carried out 40 years
ago by the FBI’s COINTELPRO can more easily (and legally)
be carried out today by agents of Homeland Security,
who now benefit from the protection of the PATRIOT ACT
and access to much sophisticated technology that was
available 40 years ago.
With these concerns in mind, we asked two prominent
scholars working on issues of the prison industrial complex
to briefly share some thoughts about surveillance in the U.S.
Stephen Hartnett, Associate Professor of Speech
Communications at the University of Illinois
BD: Could you please give us a brief history of surveillance.
SH: Oh, boy! You know we’ve got to talk about slavery
if we’re going do this. Folks need to understand that back
in the plantation days under slavery, the populations were
strictly divided into house slaves and the field slaves. Surveillance
back then took the form of an overseer; a hired,
white working-class overseer who, whenever the slaves
messed around or tried to do anything would, he whip
them on the spot. So surveillance took the form of a pair
of eyes watching a body. The punishment was physical.
And, the punishment was immediate.
At the end of slavery, with reconstruction, all the
slave codes were abolished. And the South had to pass a
new series of laws to criminalize the now freed black
population, in order to keep their labor cheap. So in the
South, they passed a series of laws pertaining to surveillance.
For example, over in South Carolina following
the civil war it was illegal to spit. So, you could look
back at the jail rolls and see tens of thousands of newly
freed, former slaves getting arrested for spitting. In
North Carolina, it was illegal to walk on public grass. So
if it was a particularly nice sunny day and you sat down
on the lawn to have your lunch, Bingo, man! Arrested!
So surveillance then took the form of using the law to
criminalize black bodies.
Following the civil rights movement, the surveillance
took a new aspect and now it’s high-tech. Today we have
surveillance cameras monitoring black populations. And
this is where the drug war comes in. The drug war provided
the technological means to use surveillance within the black
community. And we know, for example, that the user rates
of drugs are equal amongst white kids and black kids in
high school. But if there are more police and more surveillance
in a black neighborhood than in a white neighborhood,
then of course the black kids are going to get busted.
So we’ve reached a new stage of surveillance, where
incarceration is a direct consequence of the amount of surveillance
in any given neighborhood. And from my perspective,
that’s simply a postmodern reflection of those
long standing slave codes.
BD: So now on the South Side of Chicago we now have
what is known as blue light district.
SH: Oh, yeah! We got blue light districts in Chicago.
You know California passed this law called the STEP Law.
It actually makes it illegal for groups of four or more to
stand on a street corner together, because that counts as a
gang. So any gathering of more than four boys on a street
corner, they’ll get picked up by the juvenile police and get
taken in, fingerprinted, and entered into a gang data base.
I guess that’s another thing folks should know. These
databases in California are amazing. What they’ve got now
are called Crime Enhancement Laws. If I’m busted, I get
say five years. If I’m busted but I have a record of being in
a gang, I get an enhanced sentence. But, what we’re finding
is that if they get this one kid, and they put the screws on
him—they get that kid to talk—he starts naming names
and so this database is expanding exponentially. The problem
is that a lot of the kids listed on that gang database
aren’t gang-bangers. They’ve just been named.
And so this is another form of surveillance; and, what
we’re basically doing is criminalizing entire communities,
entire neighborhoods.
BD: So it’s all a kind of new Red Scare—a Gang Scare
where long lists are developed, as modern day blacklists?
SH: That’s exactly what it is! And the facts are startling!
If you look under the Bureau of Justice statistics—this is
all available on line—the vast majority of murders in
America every year are committed by middle class white
men. But those surveillance database are pegging 13, 14,
15 year old Chicano and Black kids in the wrong neighborhoods.
So these are the kids getting locked up.
Ruth Gilmore, , Director of the American Studies
Program at the University of Southern California
AD: What are some issues that you see as key to understanding
surveillance in the U.S.?
RG: One of the underlying principals of U.S. political
culture is that the U.S. must always have an enemy, which
must always be fought and can never be vanquished. That
is one of the foundational pieces of U.S. political culture: a
perpetual enemy who must always be fought and can
never be vanquished. And if we look back to U.S. history,
we see that the enemy’s face changes all the time, but that
enemy is always there.
The enemy is often foreign, such as every Communist
on the planet for 70 years; and, often within the territory,
such as Native Americans and people in slavery and Mexicans
in the Southwest and Chinese throughout the country
and so on and so forth. So the US must always have
this perpetual enemy.
Over the centuries of the U.S. becoming the most powerful
nation-state in the history of the world, in terms of its
military and economic power, it has development and perfected
various systems of surveillance—various ways of
keeping an eye on people. And keeping an eye on people
in order to identify—and one might call “profile”—and
then find certain kinds of enemies.
The level of surveillance in the United States is incredibly
deep and it involves all different kinds of social and economic
actors. So much so, that there is the kind of machinery of
surveillance, such as whatever is taping or listening to our
telephone conversation today, cameras at street intersections,
the swipe cards and other materials that people use to come
and go from work now, that don’t just let one in the door but
record that you went through the door. A metal key leaves
no record. It just is a metal key that opens the door rather
than says who went through the door when.
There are many, many other forms of surveillance
which in their constant perfection become an economic
sector that in its increased power, lobbies for more surveillance
in society, so that they can have grants and contracts
to do their work.
Then there’s a way in which ordinary people, the modestly
educated women and men in the prime of their life
also participate, however unwittingly, in the surveillance
society. For example, think about how many of us now
wear photo ideas as though they were jewelry. This is
extremely symbolic of the way in which we have all become
so accustomed to being constantly surveilled in such a way
that the surveillance in this society is highly militarized.
AD: Can you contrast surveillance in the U.S. with its
practice elsewhere?
RG: The United Kingdom is a good example for comparison.
The UK is probably one of the most surveilled societies
in the world. I think every square inch of the United
Kingdom has a camera trained on it. The whole country is
being filmed all the time. Even with that level of surveillance
which is not benign, the incidence of criminalization
and incarceration there is one-tenth of what it is here. So
while surveillance is deep in the UK, its outcome is not the
same as in the United States. In the United States, the outcome
is very often criminalization and incarceration.
AD: How does surveillance link to undocumented
RG: We all get sort of frenzied up about surveillance
and the ways that the politics of fear affects all of our society,
all the time. And, certainly, one of the key issues that
has captured people’s attention throughout the US these
days revolves around the issue of people who are not documented
to work. (I will not use the word “illegal” to
describe any human being.) But there are so many people
in the United States today who are not documented to
work and persistently we see government—governmental
bodies at all levels—trying to figure out ways to surveil
those people. And all kinds of people, who are documented
to work, are mistaken if they think that the surveillance
of those without documentation is going to secure those
with documentation. It won’t.
And the people who are between those not documented
to work and those of us who are documented are, of
course, all the people regardless of citizenship status, who
have been convicted of felonies. They are the people who
are the in-between category of folks, without rights. And
that in-between category opens us all up for peril. Not
because those people have been in prison or had been
convicted and now are loose; but, rather, because of the
ways in which their citizenship rights have been chipped
away—which means that everyone else is next.

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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