In the wake of an uprising in Ferguson, Barack Obama requested hundreds of millions of dollars to arm the police with cameras. This, he thought, was a way of holding police accountable. And he was right, it feeds into the system of “accountability” already in place in local justice systems. It holds them accountable to the system, which is and always has been in their favor. It also makes citizens more accountable to the ethereal force of surveillance and the criminalization of everyday life.
In September, the DOJ released a report [PDF] on the effectiveness of police body cameras. Far from showing a disciplining effect for police officers, it presents evidence that it only further emboldens their disciplining power against us. Sheriff Douglas Gillespie comments
In the testing we did [of body-worn cameras], we had a number of tenured officers who wanted to wear the cameras and try them out, and their feedback was very positive. They said things like, “You’ll be amazed at how people stop acting badly when you say this is a camera, even if they’re intoxicated.” And we also know that the overwhelming majority of our officers are out there doing a very good job, and the cameras will show just that. –Douglas Gillespie, Sheriff, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
This most likely unintentional Foucauldian analysis demonstrates to us that citizens engage in “good” behavior under surveillance from the perspective of the officer.
The last six words are very important, “from the perspective of the officer”. What is being left out, what has always been left out, is the perspective of the citizen. The citizen exists as a subject to the power of the officer’s perspective, because the officer’s perspective is treated, prima facie, as justified. It is the citizen being monitored, the citizen being assessed. This is a movement to surveil us. It is a system which assumes the justice of the established institutions, and the disobedient citizen is always in opposition to these institutions. Police are to be obeyed, is there a more banal and plain statement that can be made about law enforcement? They are the agents of law, they are the institution of criminal justice manifest.
The citizen is informed that he is being recorded and with this simple fact, the officer has imposed on him the perspectives of all who will see it. But who will see it? Assuming it is not disposed of or, otherwise, miraculously disappears, it is the criminal justice system that will view it. A man who is intoxicated is in fact in violation of the law. This itself is enough to condemn him to the ill treatment of the officer. What follows from this video is not neutral evidence. There is no such thing as neutral evidence within a system investigating one of its agents. We do not perceive the events unfolding from a removed, objective standpoint. If we did, no determination of justice and fairness could, in fact, be possible in any direction. We instead see it through the narratives we are given. One person’s assault is another person’s defense of law. One person’s self-defense is another person’s resisting of arrest.
When we say that this surveillance will lead to officers behaving within the confines of lawful police procedure we must also say that it will lead to citizens behaving within the confines of lawful citizen behavior. This technology can and will be used to convict people of victimless crimes. It will be used to monitor our behavior. The camera, through its direction, inherently suspects us and invites us to see things through the officer’s eyes. The officer’s eyes are that of the law. Unfortunately for the citizen, what confines him is massive, immeasurable decrees of law. What confines the officer is internal investigations, friendly prosecutors, jurors, and an understanding that, as has been demonstrated, everyday life has become a largely criminal activity. We are all in danger of breaking the law since the law covers so much of our behavior and appears before us as a stack of books we have not the time or patience to read. This will lead to an internalization of the cop’s perspective in all of us. We will know not only is he watching us, but so is a system which has declared much of our lives to be illegal.
I think the DOJ report is correct. This will lead to obedient citizens. Those citizens who remain in frightful bursts to be non-compliant. What might this do to publicly released video of cases of police brutality? It will turn them into another part of the system, controlled and mediated by it. It will become a new form of spectacle, of something we all know could come for us at anytime unless we remain dutiful subjects. As police are exonerated more and more from video evidence, people will more fully realize their place: as the suspect, the threat, the evidence.
This is not an argument against surveillance. It is an argument for the destruction of the institutions that surveil us in favor of our own spontaneous institutions, our own narratives. Police should be surveilled, for those of us in this movement there could be nothing more plain. The documented murder of Eric Garner, provided by a citizen journalist, raised massive awareness of an unacceptable abuse of power. It was not filtered, at least not as much. It was left up not to prosecutors, judges, and other institutionalized sociopaths, but to public discourse. As a result not only was the officer’s behavior called into question, but so was the petty law he was using as pretext to assault Garner. Jurors will be sheltered as much as possible from the public debate because the system only wants its perspective shown. Ideally there will be two perspectives, with someone defending citizens against ruthless officers of the law. In practice this is hardly ever the case. What the system also omits is the suspicion that certain laws are unfounded in any notion of fairness from people in the real world. In a court, the law is absolute, at least when used against the citizen.
We must tear down this poisonous mediation. Police body cameras will not do this. They will be the property of police departments and will be filtered through well-constructed narratives. We must disempower the police. Police body cameras will not do this. It only disempowers those normals disobeying the law or who are at least suspected of possibly breaking the law. We must always have our own narratives presented. Police body cameras will not do this. Our narratives are ignored and treated as hostile by the criminal justice system, and it is only rational for them to treat them that way.
We must arm the citizens with cameras, with their own media platforms, with critical narratives of state power. We have these resources already. It would be a mistake for us to treat the granting of millions to cop budgets for these cameras when they will so often be used to exonerate them while they monitor and discipline us. Let the state have their cameras, but do not imagine they will be neutral. There is no neutrality in law. Turn your own cameras on them, turn your own perspectives on them. The power is in your grasp now to fight the police state, to challenge it on your own terms.
Translations for this article:
- Italian, Disciplina e Sorveglianza