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Surveillance Culture Is Not a Two-Way Street

As the surveillance activity of the state has ramped up over the past several decades, the surveillance of the state by ordinary citizens has become increasingly punished. Whistleblowers get locked up and people who simply film police beatings are...

The 1863 Draft Riot in New York City.

Earlier this month IT specialist Edward Snowden, a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor working for the National Security Agency, released classified documents outing the NSA for monitoring the phone calls, emails, and other online activities of, perhaps, every on-the-grid individual in the United States. Having fled to Hong Kong in apparent fear of retribution from the US government—just as Bradley Manning’s military trial had begun—Snowden said that after three months on the job for Booz Allen, he began to believe that the NSA had created a massive espionage machine that was keeping tabs on “the vast majority of human communication,” and that he was prompted to act to protect “basic liberties for people around the world.”


Predictably, Barack Obama [defended](http:// the program, which he said has been overseen and vetted repeatedly by Congress since 2006, before he was in office. Insidious surveillance of 21st century communication is both legal and necessary to public safety, Obama argued, while acknowledging that it might infringe on certain privacy rights.

As the surveillance activity of the state has ramped up over the past several decades, the surveillance of the state, by ordinary citizens, has become increasingly punished. No president has targeted whistleblowers as aggressively as Mr. Obama; when reports that US soldiers were using rape as a weapon of war were published, Obama said that the information should not be disseminated because it might provoke reprisals against the soldiers—sunlight on their actions, not the actions themselves (rape, torture, killing), were presented as the worst thing that could happen.

But whistleblowing is only one way to out government misdeeds. More simply, you could just film it with your phone or find the footage of any of the millions of security cameras silently recording across the country. Don’t try this in New York State, because soon simply “annoying” a police officer could be an offense punishable by four years in prison. And nothing’s more annoying than having a phone shoved in your face.

Many believe that this proposed law is in direct response to the increase in the public’s willingness to film and document the police while they are working, a legal activity that some say saves lives and prevents police misconduct; an essential community service at a time when police beatings and killings remain common.


Nobody wants another Rodney King incident, including law enforcement, but it’s easier to ban filming police than it is to stop police from beating people. It could be argued that footage of police activity can be taken out of context and used to trump up animosity and threaten public safety rather than exposing actual misdeeds. But evidence of that is scant. Civilian video footage of the police killings of Oscar Grant in San Francisco in 2009 and Ramarley Graham in the Bronx in 2012, were crucial to these being some of the rare instances when police officers have been indicted for killing people while on the job.

David Sal Silva was beaten to death by Bakersfield, California, police officers last month, and the incident was recorded by a concerned neighbor with a cell phone camera. The neighbor called 911 on the cops, and later that evening, at 3 AM, detectives entered her home without a warrant and held the caller and her boyfriend hostage until they turned over the cell phones that had recorded the crime.

When the phones were returned, one of the potentially damning videos had been erased.

Kern County sheriff Donny Youngblood has asked the FBI to step in to oversee the investigation, because he apparently believed that his department was incapable of running an investigation into their own misconduct.

Police officers withholding, erasing, and avoiding video evidence is a widespread phenomenon. Eric Rachner recently sued the Seattle Police Department for withholding a recording of his 2008 arrest taken from the arresting officer’s own dashboard-mounted camera.


The charges against Rachner, a computer security expert, were eventually dismissed and he has since started the website where other civilians can obtain information about pursuing official recordings of their arrests. According the Rachner’s attorney, Cleveland Stokmeyer, even a cursory viewing of the tapes pertaining to Rachner’s arrest would have scuttled any attempts to prosecute:

"They might find, as we did in Eric's case, that the video and the police reports were so at odds that they might as well have been from different incidents," Stockmeyer told the Seattle Times.

The New York City Police Department, a force the city’s mayor described as his own army, has a particularly brazen track record of covering up video evidence and retaliating against those that seek to hold them accountable.

Jazz Hayden, who has popularized the filming of the police in his local neighborhood of Harlem, was retaliated against by officers who he had previously caught on camera acting without the “courtesy, professionalism, and respect” the department claims as their motto.

After teenaged Jatiek Reed was severely beaten by five Bronx police officers last year, one of the assailants stopped pounding on the teen only so that he could mace a second young man who was recording the incident and telling the police officers to “chill.”

 A neighbor who witnessed the incident from a nearby fire escape found himself at the receiving end of an NYPD beatdown by the end of the day.


June marks the one-year anniversary of the police killing of Shantel Davis in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. After police shot Ms. Davis while she was trapped in a crashed car, rather than providing medical help or calling 911, officers at the scene one-by-one confiscated all cell phones in the vicinity that might have recorded the incident. Later they stripped the local businesses of their security footage; neither the NYPD nor the Brooklyn District Attorney has made this footage available over the last year.

Brooklyn police officers are perhaps getting a little savvier. In the following video they can be seen removing a security camera from the stoop of a resident’s home BEFORE laying a beating on him and his friends, an assault that had it been instigated by civilians would be classified as a hate crime.

The surveillance takeover of the US has been exported around the world. This stuff has been discussed and well documented. As Julian Assange noted in his New York Times review of The New Digital Age, by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen of Google, Inc., corporations and the government have constructed a view of technology for the use of imperialism while at the same time both negating and criminalizing the use of similar, if much less powerful and far reaching technology, as parts of resistance movements around the world.

The message is pretty clear that these tools should only be used by the state to maintain power and control, and that a different set of rules, laws, expectations and moral authority exist between ordinary civilians and governments. Somehow this keeps us safe, somehow this, as the president says, is good for democracy and somehow, the vast majority of the American public sees no problem with this set-up.  More about our police state:

The Underachievers Talk About Stop-and-Frisk and Kimani Gray

Testilying: Cops Are Liars Who Get Away with Perjury