The past three weeks have been a bombardment of information regarding the US Surveillance State. I was tempted to say “a bombardment of revelations,” but that would have implied it was surprising, and to anyone paying attention for the past decade, that would have been disingenuous. It’s not surprising that the NSA has been collecting metadata on our communications, and it’s equally unsurprising that they’ve been lying about it. It’s not surprising that the FBI has been using drones to spy on US soil, that the US hacks Chinese computers and cell phones, or that the British had spied on foreign diplomats at the G-20. But it is groundbreaking that this information is now confirmed.
Disregarding my own cynicism (I know I should be shocked, shocked!), there is something deeply insidious about the outrage being expressed. Not just the hero-worship or vilification of Edward Snowden. Despite this author’s opinion that, sunlight being the best disinfectant, these leaks are good for the American people, Snowden and the leak process is not the story. The story is the confirmation of an unconstitutional surveillance state to which Americans never consented, never even got the opportunity to debate how many of our civil liberties we’re willing to forgo in the name of security. No, the insidiousness is in the outrage over the surveillance state itself. Now it’s a big deal, now that they’re spying on us. But where was the outrage over Stop And Frisk or any of New York’s other recent surveillance and anti-whistleblowing excesses? Oh, that just happened to Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims. Where was the outrage when we were openly intercepting the e-mail and phone communication of all non-Americans regardless of probable cause? Oh, that just happened to foreigners, they’re not protected by our laws. These inherently xenophobic reactions, which of course are nothing new, highlight our problem: the surveillance state stops being ok when it goes from racist to all-encompassing.
The surveillance state is not a new problem; it’s a new problem for white people. The surveillance state has been a daily thorn in the lives of New York’s minorities for years, but it’s not just inconvenient. The surveillance state as a racist institution has been destroying the economy of majority-black cities and non-white neighborhoods for decades.
“I Believe In A Better Baltimore,” then-Mayor Martin O’Malley told the city in his 2002 re-election campaign, asking Baltimore to “risk action on faith” as he so eloquently put it. And the city bought his hopeful, inspiring rhetoric. but never asked for a plan, and so voted for the BELIEVE campaign, a multi-million-dollar press bonanza that put O’Malley’s administration in very comfortable approval numbers. By the time he left Baltimore for the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis, however, the city’s murder and violent crime rates were back to their horrific mid-90’s levels, as were drug and STD rates, the campaign having changed nothing. Well, almost nothing.
Today, the streets of Baltimore are littered with the tattered remnants of the BELIEVE campaign: scratched stickers on newspaper stands and mailboxes, torn banners on the sides of buildings. In fact, aside from the politicians who pepper their speeches with the word, the only aspect of BELIEVE left intact are the blue light boxes that continue to degrade the economies and self-esteem of Baltimore’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. For those not familiar with the blue lights, their purpose is as purportedly noble to city safety as PRISM is to national security. Officially known as Portable Overt Digital Surveillance Systems (PODSS), the flashing camera system was intended to improve security by filming the actions on the corner. The always-on surveillance cameras track sound as well as image, and can identify a resident’s walking patterns and run a program to calculate the likelihood of their criminality. In minority neighborhoods from Baltimore to Chicago, Big Brother is always watching. The best description of their use and impact comes from John Duda at the Indypendent Reader:
… the streets monitored by these cameras have been marked as permanent emergencies, as territories distinct from the “normal” or “good” areas of the city. Rather than addressing these territories as communities of fellow citizens, the cameras address entire blocks as potential criminals, feeding into a logic in which extraordinary regimes of policing and incarceration appear justiï¬ed. The City of Baltimore has installed at least one camera which illustrates this point perfectly: a camera is equipped with a motion detector and a taped recording connected to a loudspeaker; when anyone walks past the apparatus, their picture is taken, and the recording informs them both that they are a criminal and that they have been photographed.
What a blue light on a lamppost means is that you’ve stumbled onto a problem corner. It has come to mean that, if you regrettably find yourself on such a corner after dark, you should lock your doors and not stop at stop signs or even stop lights if possible due to the imminent threat of carjacking or worse. But as gang rates spike with non-violent offenders caught by the POD cameras seeking protection in prison, what the blue lights really mean is that no business will ever enter these areas. While dealers move over one street to evade the camera, no significant investment or purchase will be made here and the legitimate economy of the neighborhood will continue to spiral downward. And as the blue lights destroy Baltimore’s neighborhoods and the potential of their residents, they pay fitting homage to the bluff that crushed a city’s hope, as underneath them are little black boxes labeled very visibly: “BELIEVE.”
It’s worth noting that in San Francisco, a nearly-majority white city (48%), outrage sparked by the implementation of POD systems brought legal changes to curb their impact on civil liberties. Similar challenges in Chicago (35% white) and Baltimore (31% white) have yielded no results and no media attention.
Non-white Americans have been under surveillance, subject to the violence of a police state, their constitutional rights trod upon, for decades. But now white people know that their e-mails are being read, their phone calls recorded by the government. Now the constitutional rights of people with “nothing to hide” are being infringed upon, now it’s a crisis. Welcome to your first glimpse of the America of forty percent of your countrymen.
Zachary Gallant is a Fulbright Fellow in Post-Conflict Redevelopment with an M.A. in International Politics from the University of London, and a recovering Baltimore City political operative. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacharyGallant.