maybe things will be better
july 5, 2016, baton rouge, louisiana. a convenience store owner standing in the doorway of his shop films two white police officers executing a 37 year old black man, alton sterling, in the parking lot. the officers scream obscenities at alton as they proceed to shoot and kill him. after he has obviously died, they raid his pockets and continue to curse.
“don’t fucking move or i’ll shoot your fucking ass bitch!”
“put your fucking hands on the car! put your hands on the car or i’ll shoot you in your fucking head, you understand me? don’t you fucking move, you hear me?”
after a year of deliberation, the us department of justice announced they would not bring charges against the officers. a year after that, the state of louisiana announced they too would not bring charges against the officers, claiming that they had acted in a reasonable and justified manner. a few days after the verdict, the officer’s body camera footage was released to the public. one officer was fired for violating use of force policies, the other suspended three days for losing his temper.
the footage triggered massive protests and calls for the prosecution of the officers involved.
sparked primarily through viral social media posts of police caused murders of black people, a nationwide debate on the criminal justice system has permeated practically every facet of united states culture since the murder of eric garner in 2014. the following spectacularized media coverage created a reactionary environment for uprisings, rebellions, and demonstrations that helped formulate black lives matter. the resulting dialogue on criminal justice reform and abolition, police accountability, and the structural racism of the state has achieved a level of focus previously relegated to leftist activist circles.
a commonly proposed tool for police accountability is the police body camera (PBC).
“if only there was footage of the entire altercation, then the families of the executed would get justice”
“by always having a camera on, police officers will be less likely to act out for fear of the repercussions that might occur if they do.”
as a result of the unrest in ferguson, missouri, following the execution of michael brown, president obama called upon congress to put $263 million toward PBCs. both hillary clinton and bernie sanders, on the presidential campaign trail in 2015, called for the mandatory usage of PBCs across the nation in the name of transparency, police accountability, and an attempt to end an era of mass incarceration.
in october 2016, nypd sergeant hugh barry executed deborah danner, a schizophrenic woman in her apartment. he was charged with murder, a first for an officer since 1999. four months later, he was acquitted at a non-jury trial due to a lack of PBC footage or witness to corroborate. in the new york post, ed mullins, president of the new york sergeants benevolent association said “research has shown that body cameras for the most part clear officers of alleged wrongdoing.”
since the birth of american policing, surveillance has played a critical role. slave patrols were paid to locate and detain runaway enslaved black people. following the so-called abolition of slavery, these patrols were not entirely disbanded but integrated into the constables, as security forces for the state as well as the property of the rich.
this new form of law enforcement was a “reformed” version of the racially subjugating force. enslavement of the same black people could now be justified due to the breaking of newly established laws. this satisfied both the northerners (modern day liberals) in their quest for justice and equality, and the plantation owners (modern day conservatives) whose workforce could now be state-approved.
the incarceration rates of black and brown people far supersedes their white counterparts. arrests for petty violations can easily land someone in a jail of debt as well as physical bondage. the inability to pay for a lawyer or bond can result in a vicious cycle of further infractions that cause the prisoner to face serious time.
there is despair in the reactions to these every day atrocities on both the left and right. a desire for justice and, as occupy wall street proclaimed, TO FIX THIS BROKEN (capitalist) SYSTEM. this logic was also present in donald trump's campaign pledge “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” with its allusions to a time when THINGS WERE BETTER. these statements are demonstrations of an ignorance to their inference.
reforming a system structurally established to subjugate specific marginalized groups and ethnicities of people, while also serving as the security forces of the wealthy and the state, can only modify the image of oppression, rather than absolve itself of it. in the short term, reforms might have the ability to make certain component’s ‘better’; in the long term they validate and prop up a system that is corrupt from inception.
the rhetoric surrounding PBCs maintains that they are a safety device for the public, rather than an additional tool for oppression. these mobile panopticons function as an insurance policy for law enforcement to justify their actions when it best serves them once someone is wronged or murdered, and a trial has taken place. in the meantime, it’s money in the pocket of police-reform-technology company axon, the largest PBC company in the united states. the selling point axon ceo rick smith (also known as the “steve jobs of police tech”) uses for body cameras is:
“imagine having one person in your agency who could watch every single one of your videos—and remember everything they saw—and then be able to process that and give you the insight into what crimes you could solve, what problems you could deal with.”
this isn’t the first time someone has had an idea like this. a panopticon is a prison design, by philosopher jeremy bentham, with the intention of creating a more efficient carceral system. the cells are arranged in a circle around a tower where every prisoner is always potentially visible to the guard in the tower. bentham’s primary goal was not to give the guards the ability to see more, but for the prisoners to patrol themselves. in a similar fashion, the PBC is a panopticon-like system that gives the impression of constant surveillance and thus functions similarly in its 'self-policing' on the side of the watched.
is there a more efficient panopticon than a mobile one? ankle monitors serve this function for the currently incarcerated. but when applied to pre-crime, the silicon valley approach of “uber-izing” everything grants law enforcement the ability to see but not to be seen, to rule with just the idea of surveillance. this amount of environmental and facial recognition data positions the police to be always right, sometimes even before there’s a ‘wrong’.
in may 2018, the american civil liberties union (ACLU) released an exposé on the integration of amazon’s facial recognition software and database—“rekognition”—into law enforcement agencies throughout the country. it illustrates a perfect storm of acquiesced autonomy based on convenience and trust of the systems in place. two months later the ACLU issued another exposé on rekognition: a test on the members of congress. the software wrongly matched 28 members to prior convicts. out of the 28 mismatches, 40% were people of color, even though they only make up 20% of the congress.
the lab @ dc, a government oversight agency in washington dc, rigorously examined the effects of PBCs on the metropolitan police department for seven months. a group of 1,000 officers with PBCs reported 74 more uses of force in a year than officers without PBCs. however, the data is also consistent with the real effect of PBCs being anywhere from a decrease of 97 uses of force to an increase of 244 uses of force per 1000 officers, per year. because this range spans negative, zero, and positive values, the result is considered “statistically insignificant,” or “null.” the lab @ dc writes "more plainly, we interpret this to mean that PBCs have no detectable, meaningful effect on documented uses of force."
where there are attacks, there are defenses. one of the ways humans defend themselves against this crisis-inducing cycle is the negation of hard-to-stomach ideas questioning the structures that provide a sense of order in a turbulent world. assuming the safety of invasive everyday bio-tech because of its convenience value—from facial id on iphone's, to dna tests used to discover the percentages of one’s ethnicity—further validates the logic of PBCs and their utilization of amazon's rekognition.
language such as crazy, insane, idiot, over-reactive, and paranoid, often downplay statements on a present reality, or a reality to come. if someone is relegated to the realm of one ‘whose mental stability or soundness is in question,’ the content of their speech becomes instantly invalid and safe to overlook.
after the execution, the officers continue to yell at alton’s body,
“stupid ass motherfucker”
“stupid fuckin idiot”
after walking away from the scene, a police officer who was not involved with the murder approaches one of the executioners and says,
“is your camera still on?”
“yeah i wanted to leave it on while i--“
then the camera turns off.
by jesse hlebo august 12, 2018
originally published in F Magazine, issue 7, Sep/Oct 2018