Why the Police Like Body Cams

I was locked out of my blog due to a technical issue for the last several days. Much has happened since then, including the Peshawar attack, which has taken up most of my mental space. But, I want to archive some relevant articles here on the body camera issue:

The Cops Hate Body Cameras. So Why Are They OK Being Filmed | The Nation | Dec 19. 2014

This article notes what I’ve said earlier: that body cameras will increase surveillance of communities of color. Then, there are also other issues:

Other New York cop watchers, like Julien Terrell, worry about who will have authority over the recordings, and argue that the recordings should go to an independent body “with teeth” and should not be handled internally within the NYPD. Dennis Flores, who has experience with officers attempting to withhold and tamper with video and recording evidence told The Nation, “The NYPD already uses cameras [referring to TARU and CCTV surveillance cameras], and we don’t have any access to them. There’s no oversight. There’s no way for anyone to force them to release that type of footage. It’s at the police department’s discretion and the city’s law department. So they hold evidence when they know that you’re innocent. I expect the same thing with these body cameras.”

A Fusion investigation found that “the way body cameras are used usually serve police more than citizens charging misconduct. And in the data from two cities provided to Fusion, there was little evidence police body cameras reduced police involved shootings or use-of-force incidents.” Fusion determined the main reason body cameras tend to help police more than civilians: turning the camera on and off is at the officers’ discretion. In Albuquerque and New Orleans, during high profile police shootings, the police officer’s camera was off while they killed an unarmed civilian. And in New Orleans, cameras were off for 60 percent of use-of-force incidents. Although body cameras are advertised as a tool that helps keep police misconduct down, the reality is a little more complicated. The investigation shows that body cameras are not likely to lower use of force by police officers but more likely to absolve police officers of wrongdoing.

Investigation of 5 Cities Finds Body Cameras Usually Help Police| Fusion |

The cameras are marketed to police departments as a way to reduce citizen complaints and litigation against officers. Steve Ward, CEO of body camera manufacturer Vievu, told Fusion, “If police officers wear body cameras, 50 percent of their complaints will go away overnight.” He said the cameras “overwhelmingly” help the officers.

6 Ideas for a Cop Free World | Rolling Stone | Dec 16.2014

But police are not a permanent fixture in society. While law enforcers have existed in one form or another for centuries, the modern police have their roots in the relatively recent rise of modern property relations 200 years ago, and the “disorderly conduct” of the urban poor. Like every structure we’ve known all our lives, it seems that the policing paradigm is inescapable and everlasting, and the only thing keeping us from the precipice of a dystopic Wild West scenario. It’s not. Rather than be scared of our impending Road Warrior future, check out just a few of the practicable, real-world alternatives to the modern system known as policing:…

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Body Cameras & the White Gaze

SIDEBAR
In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (Butler 1993: 17).
Even before the latest episode of Serial was aired in which white reporter Sarah Koenig just can’t quite believe Adnan’s mother, Jay Caspian Kang had written about white reporter privilege:
“I am still disturbed by the thought of Koenig stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them, and subjecting it all to that inimitable “This American Life” process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found.”
On techno-fetish and questions of racism and who can be believed in the context of the “war on terror,” see my pieces, here and here.
“We revolt simply because for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” -Frantz Fanon

The discussion about body cameras is taking off. Some liberals have responded to the criticism of techno-fetishism (see my prior post) by claiming that without the camera in Eric Garner’s case, we would be reduced to “unreliable” witness testimony and confusion — as in the Michael Brown case. Let’s unpack this a little.

The video footage made ZERO difference to getting legal justice for Eric Garner’s family. So, for Garner’s family, the footage meant nothing. For African-American communities too, the ruthlessness, racism and rank injustice of the police is not news. For segments of the Muslim community that have been subject to heavy surveillance, this is not news. In fact, I imagine this is not news to significant segments of communities of color who have had first-hand experiences with the police. So, really, when you talk about how “at least” this time Garner’s murder was videotaped so it can be proven, what you really mean is that it can be proven to the white subject, to those people for whom the racism of the police is largely a theoretical matter. That is the implicit subject towards whom you are oriented. And this subject, you say, can now judge for himself; he doesn’t need to rely on the “unreliable testimony” of witnesses. But, if you are a liberal, you know well enough that “unreliable testimony” here is code for testimony given by Black people. After all, the only testimony that actually mattered in both cases was that of the white cop. So, what you are really saying is let’s continue to invest in the racism that got Garner and Brown killed in the first place by continuing to legitimize the white gaze as the site of truth production.

I know this in the context of drone attacks. I have written about it a little here. It’s never enough for Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis to say that they are being killed, that their brother or sister or mother or father were killed by American bombs or American empire; it must always be supplemented by the voice/testimony/witnessing of the western journalist, or the voices of officials within the US government or western humanitarians. Those are the sites of production. It’s never the stories centered on people who have survived or families of the dead that make the front page; the big stories are the ones where officials, or some form of westerner leaks internal information. It’s as if we can see the boy with a glass eye and the prosthetic legs, but we refuse to believe his story until someone humanitarian lawyer or some official says, yes, we sometimes bomb young boys too. Journalists — white and otherwise — who are reasonably intelligent know this and discuss it. As one friend/reporter said to me last night expressing the dismal situation of magazine journalism in which the main character must always be white or western. “You have to ask yourself, if this story were a movie what role is Matt Damon going to play?” And that role, better be at the center of your story. Many of us have had stories killed for failing to abide by that rule. This is not a problem solely in the conservative media. This is a problem of the liberal media. This is even a problem of the most visible media on the liberal to left political spectrum.

So – I, for one, am absolutely sick of this shit.

It is not the duty of periled communities to make you the white/westerner believe. It’s not the duty of these communities to continue to be subjected to the white gaze so you can make your crap judgments at your own leisure. Wake the fuck up and confront your own racism. If you approach every testimony by people of color with suspicion, even as the pattern of racism is written in blood, you’re a racist. And, if you are juxtaposing the “clarity” of the Garner case due to the video as against the “confusion” of the Brown case due to the “unreliable testimony,” you’re a racist. Both of these cases are equally clear and are part of a pattern of racism. To sever the Garner case from Brown’s shooting or Travyon Martin’s or hundreds of other cases is to operate on racist assumptions that only things which can be witnessed by you — the white subject — are clear. You are making a highly racially charged argument that relies implicitly on a series of racist propositions in order to make it make sense.

Finally, you might want to ask yourself why it is that you are so hung up on body cameras, why it is that attempts to point out that body cameras won’t resolve structural racism, lead you to debate the issue of body cameras rather than think, discuss and organize against racism.

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We Can’t Breathe

After the injustices in Ferguson, a grand jury in New York piled it on by clearing the cop who put Eric Garner in a chokehold and killed him. Garner said “I can’t breathe!”  11 times. If the liberals of Northeast felt quietly smug about the situation in Ferguson, the failure to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the cop in question, should make it clear that when it comes to being Black in America, there is no safe space.

The sad, frustrating and perhaps devastating thing about the killing of Eric Garner is that it was all caught on video. It exposes why the campaign to put cameras on cops is not going to work. Its proponents misunderstand the issue as one of insufficient visual surveillance of the police. The actual issue is racism so deeply ingrained that it transforms the bodies of Black men and boys into “monsters” or, in the international register, the bodies of Muslim men and boys into terrorists. The Left needs to get over its techno-fetish. Visual surveillance by putting cameras-on-cops (or drone surveillance for human rights abuses or whatever) is neither here nor there when racism and empire have outposts in our heads.

Videos and images do not speak for themselves. After all, there was also a video of the beating of Rodney King. In an interesting deconstruction of what happened at that trial, Judith Butler has written about the contesting reads of the video: one that saw a man being beaten and one, the jury, who saw a man who was threatening the police:

From these two interpretations, emerges, then, a contest within a visual field, a crisis in the certainty of what is visible, one that is produced through the saturation and schematization of that field with the inverted projections of white paranoia. The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent  of violence…(1993:16).

….

In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (1993: 17).

That, in sum, is the difficulty of the problem: Racism conditions what we see.

Body cameras and increased surveillance of already surveilled communities. Streets, stoops and public space, particularly in poorer communities, is where a lot of life is lived. Whereas rich people can buy private space, construct gated communities and generally privatize their activities away from the surveillance of the state, activities from the mundane to the harmless but illegal, are often conducted publicly within poorer communities. Thus, structural economic inequality plays out in how space is lived, segmented and surveilled. Body cameras may surveil the police, but they will also increase the reams of surveillance data about these already heavily policed/surveilled communities — which is likely to render them subject to yet more policing. See how that cycle works?

The problem is structural racism and the maintenance of white supremacy, domestically and internationally. The problem is we can’t breathe.

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Bros and Colonialists

Looking at this, I am irresistibly reminded of this:

Not till the mountains were left behind and the American pioneers began to push across the trackless plains, did America cease to be English and become American. In the forests and on the trails of the Frontier, amid the savagery of conflict, the labor of reclamation, and the ardors of the chase, the American nation was born….

Now let us turn to the other side of the world, where…the British Empire may be seen shaping the British character, while the British character is still building the British Empire. There, too, on the manifold Frontiers of dominion, now amid the gaunt highlands of the Indian border, or the eternal snows of the Himalayas, now on the parched sands of Persia or Arabia, now in the equatorial swamps and forests of Africa, in an incessant struggle with nature and man…The Frontier officer takes his life in his hands; for there may await him either the knife of the Pathan fanatic, or the more deadly fevers of the African swamp. But the risk is the last thing of which he takes accountI am one of those who hold that in this larger atmosphere, on the outskirts of Empire, where the machine is relatively impotent and the individual is strong, is to be found an ennobling and invigorating stimulus for our youth, saving them alike from the corroding ease and the morbid excitements of Western civilization.

In this lecture delivered in 1907, George Nathaniel Curzon, the former British Viceroy of India (1898 – 1905) who would go on to become the future British Foreign Secretary (1919 – 1924), discussed frontiers as a critical geography for the development of imperial character. Note how closely the violence of empire is here, entwined with the development of character. That is, the overwhelming force meted out upon “darker” races, is indivisible from the development of the character of the “white” imperial. Going out there in the wilds of the “frontier” zone, whether it is Africa or Persia or wherever, is what ennobles, invigorates and saves them from the “corroding ease” of western civilization. Risk as experience is critical to this venture, for it is through the performance of exposing oneself to harm that the character develops. I say “performance” because of course when the colonialists go to Africa or Persia or wherever, they are backed by the force of empire. On mere suspicion of threat to the white man, entire villages are burned. Entire towns are bombed. Curzon knows this.

For the horrific deaths of 3,000 people on American soil by a murderous gang on 9.11, entire regions have been laid waste — again. It is on the tide of the latest empire that Bro TV’s rides (the link above). (I realize it’s a Kickstarter campaign, but the point of parsing through it is that it’s exactly in such semi-formal locations that the half-submerged racialized and imperial tics, attitudes and practices really flourish. I hope the actual show proves me wrong, but well, let’s see.)

The show’s host Adam Valen Levinson says, they are going to the “most forbidden and unfamiliar places on earth.” But, forbidden and unfamiliar exactly for whom? The staging of western subjectivity as the subjectivity goes uncommented. The co-creator, Marc Iserlis chimes in, “places with the worst reputations imaginable or without any at all.” That the reputation of the country which is in their first episode, Iraq, correlates to its position as a punching bag or (perceived) adversary for American empire also goes uncommented — even though it is that political relationship which delivers the sense of frisson, danger and risk that makes it desirable for a Bro TV episode. The twining of fear and desire circulates empire as entertainment:

When we thought of all the places we could possibly go to kick off the show, we couldn’t think of a better place (with a worse reputation) to have a great time in. While the name Iraq generally dictates images of fear and danger, we’d heard of Iraqi Kurdistan as an easily-accessible, warm-hearted autonomous region with gorgeous landscapes and awesome kebab.

In the months before we left, conflict erupted in Iraq.  On the day our flight was scheduled out of New York, ISIS was reported 30 miles away from Erbil (the airport on our tickets).  It was not at all what we had anticipated — all the dangers of “Iraq” seemed so much more real.  Still, our goal didn’t change: to see what the place felt like at a time when its reputation was worse than ever, and to connect with people on the ground living their day to day lives.  This was the only way we knew how to find out.

And what we found gave us so much hope amidst all the craziness.

ISIS is 30 miles from Erbil. The Taliban are 60 miles from Islamabad, a refrain oft-heard in 2009 and 2010 as the TTP took over Swat, a phrase often-uttered by two sets of people: 1) journalists eager to boost their own war-correspondent credentials and ‘devil-may-care’ bravado and 2) pro-war hawks to stage their own vulnerability, even if the political realities of those miles means that the TTP has little to no-chance of militarily taking over Islamabad. In other words, the instrumentalization of danger twined the journalist with the war-hawk, each using it for his own ends. It is a well-worn, tired, imperial tradition in which Bro TV now partakes. But, it has launched the career of many a western usually white, usually male journalist just as it also launched the careers of colonialists.

The twist is that unlike Curzon who saw “savages” on the frontier, these bros — and by that word, I now mean the rather irritating staging of pseudo-edgy white masculinity (see the smash shots set to pulsating music of jumping off cliffs, riding with soldiers, gun in hand in the Vimeo video) — want to find bros everywhere. (The sexism of this project would require a whole other post.) That is, they want to find people like them everywhere. But, there aren’t in fact people like them everywhere because the rest of us are positioned quite differently vis-a-vis the imperial project. Those living and surviving the violence in Iraq for instance, don’t necessarily have the option of choosing to perform their risk for money, fame, or television fame. Even living next door to ISIS won’t land them a television show, unless of course, it is mediated by a western, usually white subject — like the Bro TV team. In other words, these bros — the ones making the show — are intertwined with the imperial project, even, the privilege of the imperial project. So, they might find allies, even friends in Iraq or wherever they go — but bros? No. What Bro TV  does then is to make imperial force, that is, the very condition for the Bro TV project, invisible. It operates by rendering the privilege and position of the Bro team invisible by presenting bro-dom as some kind of un-located, universal condition in which they are just some of many bros. This is, in fact, exactly how American empire operates.

Empire today is fundamentally liberal.  The imperial project now rests rather heavily on the idea of a globalized single humanity — a globalized “bro” — which then deserves “democracy” and “freedom” or whatever — and hence American empire must enforce it. Levinson notes that in their search for bros, they are going to “all these places we’ve been marking off limits, to connect, to eat the food and find out what it really feels like to be there.” In their search for “bros,” COIN forces also sit around having food and tea with local community leaders in places marked as “off-limits.” What the Bro TV project and COIN share is an imaginary that assumes a global project, that wants to pretend all sides are equal, and expects others to accede to their bizarre delusion. Ignore those uniforms, the guns, the occupation. Ignore the camera. Let’s eat.

The point isn’t that one can’t “connect with people.” The point is, you can’t do it when you go looking a type — the bro — in order to make a terrible television show and cash in on your choice of taking a risk. Yes, sometimes, western journalists get killed, and it’s awful. I still haven’t been able to watch any of the circulating videos. But, the point is that while they are globally mourned, there’s no equivalent for the *many more* local journalists who are killed, and who do this work because they have no choice. The validation of western journalists for making the choice to take risks while locals who have no option to do otherwise rarely get the recognition they deserve, speaks to the utterly racist backdrop of global media circulation. This is what the Bro TV campaign capitalizes on.

This ain’t your grandfather’s racism. It’s hip, it’s cool, it elects Barack Obama and it’s calling you for dinner.

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Surveillance, Late Liberalism & Race(ism)

If, as scholars have suggested, surveillance is no longer about speech (content) but about circulation (form), then the question “Can the subaltern speak?” is superseded by: how does the subaltern circulate? Discussing the new social networking app “Yo”, Robin James, draws on Jodi Dean’s notion of communicative capitalism to discuss how an emerging politics may be about circulation:

Speech, understood as the transmission of meaning, that might be relatively obsolete these days. But circulation might have its own politics, its own political possibilities. In fact, I would argue that most contemporary concerns about, say, data surveillance, these are actually contests over the politics of circulation, not the politics of speech. (Or, maybe more accurately, they’re primarily about circulation, secondarily about speech.)

(To be fair to Spivak, if I recall correctly, the essay was somewhat about the strategic circulation of the “subaltern” and not about recovering an authentic “subaltern” voice or speech.)

“Big data” has been critical to this project. In late liberalism, the goal of surveillance, as some scholars (Robin James, Jasbir Puar, among others) are pointing out, is calibration: to establish patterns of normalcy and weed out outliers. So, the US government’s claim that it’s not “listening” to us is somewhat correct. The point isn’t to listen to speech so much as it is to establish big data sets for the project of calibration. And, as with NSA surveillance, so with the drone wars: The former NSA director has stated “we kill based on metadata.” Thus, this calibration idea also underlies the imperial global policing regime, which is about constant and never-ending policing to continue calibration. Although we refer to drone attacks as “war” loosely, I think this project is conceptually different from “war.”

Going back to Spivak’s essay, the Subaltern Studies School was dealing with the silence of the archives — the figures written out of history. Now, we are dealing in a sense, with a different problem: an enormous archive. We’ve gone from questions about repression/silence/exclusion to questions about appropriation/manipulation/circulation.

This is, I think, partly a result of the success of humanitarian regimes to some extent, that is, the insistence that we are all human means that the ostensible logic of categories of killing must become ever more fine-grained and therefore, we must all get “heard”/surveilled. So, for instance, while the old orientalist trope about “wild tribesmen” is still around, the strongest argument on the (neo)liberal side is not that the tribesmen are all savage, but rather that the imperial state is conducting a “surgical” campaign to weed out the “militants” –i.e. calibration and policing which unlike war, are never-ending and pre-emptive projects.

This is partly what explains the sudden upsurge of interest in surveillance among white, upper-middle class Americans, those classes and groups of people who have historically been considered (and considered themselves) beyond the scope of activities and actions the government usually reserves for the marginalized. Thus, it was not the surveillance of Muslims, or the AP breakthrough reports on that topic, that spurred interest. It was Edward Snowden’s revelations of the systemic, widespread and mass nature of the surveillance that turned it into an issue. The NSA is surveilling everyone where everyone is code for white, middle-class America. In response, organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have made arguments that effectively seek to put into motion the old, race-based ideologies to argue against surveillance. Consider this article on their website titled “Tea Party, Taxes and Why the Original Patriots Would’ve Revolted Against the Surveillance State” about how the “founding fathers” would not have stood for this. The EFF mobilizes a whitewashed version of American history to argue that to ‘true’ American patriotism is being like the founding fathers — who would have opposed surveillance, a story that implicitly marks American origins and its founders as pure, beacons of the right and true and ethical. That leads one to wonder where the rest of us – who are subjects of racial profiling – might find solidarity, since EFF’s rhetoric is not meant for us.

For, if racism seems to disappear overtly, it has nonetheless become a standing procedure of governance, as Sherene Razack has argued. In her book, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, she writes that when racism “is systematized and attached to a project of accumulation, it loses its standing as a prejudice and becomes instead an organizing principle.” (9)

Those are my notes for now.

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The Image and Terror

Did American citizens in the spring of 2004 notice the resemblance of Lynndie England leading an Iraqi on a leash to Tintoretto’s treatment of a similar moment in the Passion? Did they notice the uncanny coincidence in the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ at the very time the Abu Ghraib images were made public in the spring of 2004? Did they notice the resemblance between Gibson’s portrayal of the pleasure and glee that the Roman soldiers take in torture and the grinning faces of American soldiers mocking their Iraqi victims? Did they ask themselves what has become of Christianity in a time when its major cinematic expression completely eliminates its positive message in favor of an obsessive concentration on the minute details of the tortured human body, from beatings, to a scourging that literally flays the flesh from the victim, to agonizingly slow death by that “stress position” known as crucifixion? Did they notice that Arabs and Muslims have now assumed the position of the sacrificial victims in a Christian crusade against evil?

Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present by W. J. T. Mitchell

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Re-presenting Pakistan | Upcoming Talk

Re-presenting Pakistan: Journalism, Justice and the “War on Terror”

Pakistan has been called a failing state and the most dangerous country on earth. Yet, stories about the Pakistani victims of the “war on terror” remain scant even though thousands of Pakistanis have been bombed, disappeared, detained and displaced. This panel will examine the relationship between representation, media and war in the context of Pakistan. It will discuss alternative models to pursue and publish ethical journalism.

PLACE: Columbia University | Journalism School |  3rd Flr, Lecture Hall
TIME: 7pm – 8:30pm

MODERATED by: Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars and dean of Columbia Journalism School

Madiha Tahir is an independent journalist who recently produced a short documentary, Wounds of Waziristan, about survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. She is co-editor of a collection of essays, Dispatches from Pakistan and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.

Asim Rafiqui is a photojournalist who has been investigating human rights issues in Pakistan. His most recent project covers the lives and stories of Pakistani prisoners in the US prison at Bagram. Rafiqui is also a fellow at the Open Society Foundation

Sarah Belal is a prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer who has been working to get Bagram prisoners released. Her organization Justice Project Pakistan has been litigating on behalf of families of prisoners. Belal is also a fellow with the UK based human rights organization, Reprieve.

Saadia Toor is the author of State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. She is an associate professor of sociology at CUNY and works on populist movements and feminism and religion, in Pakistan.

Presented by The Sevellon Brown Fund, Columbia Journalism School Photojournalism Dept., & Center for International History

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LATELINE | ABC AUSTRALIA

On Nov 08.2013, Steve Cannane interviewed me about Wounds of Waziristan on Australia’s national primetime show:

 

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The Takeaway | NPR

Nov 04.2013, an interview on The Takeaway on the significance of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death:

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