2011 saw a surge in protests at home and abroad. In different ways, surveillance has made it easier for the public to monitor of the state, and not just the other way around.
The 9-11 attacks may have effectively put an end to the prospects of ramming a commercial jetliner into a major concentration of people ever again. Similarly, last year’s videos of police brutality may have effectively ended American law enforcement’s current use of pepper spray and force against non-violent protesters. Americans have taken to the streets before, but never have we filmed the whole thing from just about every angle imaginable. For the first time, the public is using surveillance to keep police accountable using video evidence as opposed to testimony.
For most of the Twentieth Century, information technology was a tool of control – a government that controlled the printing presses and the airwaves was a government that was better at controlling its people. With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s, it became clear that such technology would be more difficult to control. Fareed Zakaria described it best in his 2003 book The Future or Freedom by referring to the current decentralized media landscape as one in which everyone is connected, but no one is in control.
The Twentieth Century view on technology and control was characterized and epitomized by George Orwell’s mid-century dystopian novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian government uses technology and propaganda to monitor and control a tamed population. Two decades after its publication, Gil Scott Heron released one of the most iconic poems of the past few decades – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – lamenting the danger of a docile, media saturated public and offering hope in activism. Whereas the novel envisioned a future of direct and active subjugation, the road to Heron’s perdition was paved with consumer culture and passivity. Both authors feared the slavish control that technology offered to the powers that be.
In the aftermath of the recent revolutions in Egypt and Libya, Western writers have been eagerly and lazily trying to credit Twitter and Facebook for helping to liberate the Arab masses. In our desire to make sense of the situation, we attribute heroic status to inventors and tools that play pivotal roles in historical change. Social networks and micro-blogging are merely embodiments of a larger trend of technological decentralization that has made it much easier to keep an eye on the state. Zuckerberg is a businessman who deserves much credit – people on the street who capture images and video of government brutality are the real risk-takers in this story.
Since September 2011, hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to literally and figuratively “occupy Wall Street”. The demonstrations were initially called for by the Canadian magazine, Adbusters, to take place in New York City’s financial district and have since spread to hundreds of cities around the world, some of them directly related to OWS, others barely. Lower Manhattan, however, remains the cultural epicenter of the movement where slogan “we are the 99%” referring to the Americans who are not among the super-rich top 1% rings clearly. Although critics bemoan the protester’s lack of focus, the common thread so far has been the unhappiness with the inequality and inequity of the American political and economic system.
One of the biggest boosts to the protests has been the (un)popular videos of police officers using excessive force against non-violent protesters. The first such instance was NYPD officer Anthony Bologna (brilliantly referred to by Jon Stewart as Tony Bologna) pepper spraying a group of women who had already been cordoned off by the police. The most notable, and perhaps most disturbing video surfaced last week, showing police, dressed in riot gear, at the University of California Davis campus calmly and intentionally dousing non-violent students with pepper spray as they sat on the floor, passively defying orders to leave. Davis Police Chief Anette Spicuzza issued a statement defending the actions of the officers, claiming that the situation was dangerous and that the students posed a threat and that there was “no way out…of a very volatile situation”.
For years, especially since September 11, 2001, there has been a near religious need, especially among politicians, to voice support for the troops abroad and for first responders at home. Police were seen as the domestic soldiers on the front lines against everything from terrorism and marijuana possession. If you legally carried a gun and worked for the government, your status was suddenly elevated and your actions were less scrutinized. Trusting our law enforcement officials became the new sacred cow.
The most remarkable aspect of the various Davis videos was that there were, in fact, various Davis videos. In just about every version, the viewer can see several, sometimes dozens of students with cameras, i-pads and sometimes laptops hoisted above their heads to capture every second of police activity. Some states have even gone so far as to ban the recording of an on-duty police officer. Thankfully, in August, a federal court upheld the right to videotape such activity as being protected under the First Amendment.
The outcry over the Davis pepper spraying has rightfully captivated the nation’s attention but the outcry following the incident is not an indication that police brutality will go away. The protesters are overwhelmingly upper middle class, educated, and most importantly, tech savvy. It may take some time before the lower socioeconomic classes are able to protect themselves in the same way. Also, technology and surveillance is a two-way street and the Patriot Act is only the public manifestation of a larger trend towards the eroding of our civil liberties and right to privacy.
Superficial comparisons between the streets of Manhattan and Damascus are a red herring. Pepper spray is bad, but pale in comparison to bullets and coordinated brutality carried out during the Arab Spring. If inspiration can be drawn, great, but we must not conflate one tragedy because it somehow resembles a greater one.
The undeniable truth now is that decentralized technology has played a pivotal role in toppling or disrupting several autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. In the United States, it has helped lend credibility to a movement that just months ago was dismissed as a bunch of hippies sitting around in drum circles. The regime continues, but toppling it was not the mission of OWS – the agenda has shifted, and that is no small feat.