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Watching Back. Surveillance as Activism

Mark Andrejevic

As a freelance reporter in 1992 covering police preparation for street riots in Ann Arbor during the NCAA basketball championship, I remember the officer in charge briefing his forces to remember that they could be videotaped at any time, and to behave accordingly. “Remember Rodney King,” he told them, referring to the internationally publicized evidence of police brutality that, at the time, was only a year old. It was an interesting moment—an instance of what Ming Kuok Lim has described as “inverted-panopticism”: the police were having to behave not only as if they might be watched at any time but, perhaps more importantly, as if their activities could be recorded (for broadcast) at any time.1 Long accustomed to having the last word in “our-word- against-theirs” exchanges about police behavior, the example of Rodney King demonstrated the power of the amateur video in holding authorities publicly and (potentially) legally accountable for their behavior.

Since that time, other high profile examples of amateur video documenting abuse by authorities have surfaced, from a police officer tackling a bike rider in New York City’s Critical Mass ride in 2008 to a 2005 incident in Malaysia in which concerns about abuse were raised by a cell-phone video of police forcing a detainee to do naked “ear-squats” (squatting repeatedly while holding one’s ears) as part of a strip search. Perhaps one of the most highly publicized international examples of amateur documentation of abuse is the case of the torture of prisoners by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, documented by digital images that were taken by soldiers and eventually leaked to the media.

The systematic use of video cameras to hold police accountable has led to the creation of “cop watch” groups across the country (and internationally) and predates the Rodney King incident. The Berkeley Copwatch group, for example, was formed in March 1990 “in response to escalating abuse of people in the

Telegraph Avenue area of Berkeley,” and similar groups have emerged in several other cities, thanks in part to the increasing availability of relatively inexpensive video recording and editing equipment and the emergence of new platforms for distributing video content.2 In many cases, without the video and photographic evidence, it is unlikely that acts of abuse would have received public notice or that investigations into misconduct would have occurred.

What made these such high profile examples of abuse (or allegations thereof) was the fact that there was a video record that could be circulated by the mainstream media, and, in more recent examples, on the World Wide Web. The recorded evidence carried with it both the affective charge of the image (as in the case of the Abu Ghraib photos) and the evidentiary clout of a mechanically generated record. As John Durham Peters observes in his work on witnessing, the mechanical act of recording endows the evidence with an impersonal (albeit vexed) sense of objectivity: “Such mechanical ‘dumb’ media seem to present images and sounds as they happened, without the embellishments and blind- spots that human perception and memory routinely impose.”3

Lurking in the background of these various examples of amateur monitoring of police and state activity is the familiar claim of subversion or empowerment—that the widespread availability of relatively inexpensive digital cameras combined with the Internet as a medium for distributing amateur content represents a shift in power relations. Even as forms of state and commercial monitoring proliferate, the means of monitoring are becoming increasingly available to the public as a tool for holding authorities accountable. As Stephen Green observes, “New media technologies make possible the surveillance, however non-systematic and sometimes manipulated, of concentrations of social power.”4 We might add the prospect of inverse surveillance—watching the watchers—to the list of forms of empowerment associated with increased access to the means of media production and distribution associated with digital media. Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner, for example, elaborate the ways in which “internet developments themselves have furthered oppositional politics generally.”5 But Kahn and Kellner omit the tactic of turning the cameras back on the authorities in their list of revolutionary developments: “Whether by using the Internet to take part in a worldwide expression of dissent and disgust, to divert corporate agendas and militarism through the construction of freenets and new oppositional spaces and movements, or simply to encourage critical media analysis, debate, and new forms of journalistic community, the new information and communication technologies are indeed revolutionary.”6 Copwatching, as a form of inverse surveillance—or monitoring the activities of authorities—might also be added to the list of such (potentially) revolutionary developments.

In this chapter, I explore some of the ways in which authorities respond to the challenge posed by “copwatchers,” highlighting the relationship between access to the means of surveillance and the power of those they challenge. The chapter’s intent is to take seriously the political potential of inverse surveillance as a tool for holding authorities accountable, while at the same time qualifying the claims of empowerment made on its behalf. It is not clear that access to monitoring technologies necessarily shifts the overall balance of power relations in the direction of the people, not least because of the ways in which civilian monitoring relies on the legal protection provided by the authorities being monitored. It is best, in other words, to interrogate all-too-ready claims of empowerment.

Alternative journalism and blogging, especially of the investigative variety, might also be described as ways of holding authorities accountable, but in this chapter I focus on a particular subspecies of media activism devoted to the use of video monitoring for progressive ends: preventing police infringement of civil liberties at public demonstrations and protests. Drawing on Steve Mann’s formulation, Mann and his coauthors have described the practice of turning the cameras back on the watchers as a form of sousveillance (watchful monitoring from below) as opposed to surveillance (monitoring from above, or literally, to watch over). Facilitated by portable digital technology, they claim that “the social aspect of self-empowerment suggests that sousveillance is an act of liberation, of staking our public territory, and a leveling of the surveillance playing field.”7 Picking up on such claims, this chapter is the result of my ongoing engagement with theories of surveillance and its practice in the digital era. In it, I consider what happens when a surveillance strategy typically associated with oppressive regimes of state control is appropriated by the public in an attempt to hold state power accountable.

Surveillance is understood here as a practice conducted against the background of existing power relations. Even the model of the panopticon relies on the power to enclose, to sanction, and to punish: disarticulated from these powers, it becomes a very different mechanism. As David Lyon defines it, surveillance typically refers not just to the collection of information about particular individuals or groups but also to a context in which information is collected “for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been gathered.”8 The very notion of surveillance invokes a force field of power relations. The necessary background to a politics of sousveillance or inverse surveillance is one in which there is both a public expectation of accountability and some mechanism, legal or otherwise, for the public to exert control back on authorities. For example, the Los Angeles riots in response to the verdict in the trial of the officers who beat Rodney King might be described as the result of a combination of an expectation of accountability (police officers should behave appropriately and be sanctioned if they do not) with the perceived failure of existing legal mechanisms to hold authorities accountable. Without expectations and mechanisms of accountability, sousveillance or inverse surveillance would be rendered ineffective as a political tool. If, indeed, there were no penalty for police abuse, attempts to record it would have no deterrent power.

However, expectations of accountability on their own are insufficient to explain the potential political efficacy of inverse surveillance. Monitoring, in this context, is not merely about gathering data; it is also about the narrative that makes sense of the information collected. That is, inverse surveillance relies on the ability to offer a convincing counternarrative to that promulgated by authorities, who may have better access to mainstream media or public relations strategies. In this regard, the success of inverse surveillance depends on the efficacy of such counternarratives—or, similarly, on the ability to subvert a particular dominant narrative. The forms of media production described by Kellner and Kahn—blogging, independent online journalism, and so on— complement the process of inverse surveillance: they help provide narratives that make sense of the video record. Consequently, the political struggle over inverse surveillance often has to do with control over the narrative explanation of this record.

Finally, one of the potential dangers of sousveillance is that associated with other forms of monitoring: function creep. Archives collected by activists, like any database, may become tempting “honeypots” for authorities including police investigators and intelligence organizations. To the extent that authorities have an interest in accumulating as much information as possible, it is questionable whether it is possible to imagine such a thing as a subversive database. The following sections explore the concrete examples of both the victories and setbacks of countersurveillance in examples of the activities of video activist groups I-Witness Video and the Glass Bead Collective, both based in New York City.

 
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