Growing up as a teenager in Newark, N.J., the summers were often correlated with the dread of enhanced police presence in the city brought on by the infiltration of New Jersey State Troopers.
This practice of state police support in Newark continues to this day. Much like the entire nation, the citizens of Newark accept the appearance of enhanced security without much discussion about privacy and/or civil liberties especially significant given the state’s long history of racial profiling and the plethora of police stops casually justified as “driving while black.”
What we refer to now as “stop and frisk” has been tactical practice for urban police departments for nearly all of my life. That it has been formalized and institutionalized in the 21st century only serves to strengthen law enforcement’s reliance on it and faulty justifications for it.
Maybe if you’ve never been profiled; if you’ve never been stopped for no apparent reason, questioned about your destination, tousled and frisked, searched and put up against a wall or a car; maybe if you’re not painfully aware of how many of these kinds of encounters (between police and innocent citizens) have ended in the deaths of too many innocent victims to tally here; maybe if you have no connection to the utter humiliation of being publicly detained by police for no reason, then it might be difficult to comprehend the underpinnings of privilege in the recent discourses on the NSA, Manning, Snowden, and the unchecked access to our digital lives.
The left’s outrage directed at the Obama administration in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information has been palpable and well documented in both print and television media.
While the discussion has sometimes centered too much on Snowden and not enough on the principles of civil liberties in relationship to national security, I find myself in agreement with those who are suspicious of any government that wants us to simply trust that they will do the right thing regarding our rights.
Yet how can we have a discussion about civil liberties and security, privacy and safety without connecting it to the physical surveillance to which black and brown Americans have been historically subject? In short, why aren’t the champions of Snowden, Manning, and others saying anything at all about stop-and-frisk and Stand Your Ground laws/policies. They have been and remain silent on the historical and perpetual encroachment upon the civil liberties – the freedom to walk the streets without being detained or shot – of black and brown citizens of the United States.
The facts are that we live in a surveillance state; we are complicit in this surveillance via our willingness to exchange privacy for (digital) consumption; the government, at least since the Bush era, has voraciously deployed new technologies to enhance its surveillance capabilities; and poor people, women, and people of color – black folks, Latina/Latino Americans, Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as anyone who looks like any of the aforementioned have and will continue to be subject to physical surveillance.
Digital surveillance summons fears about privacy. State-sanctioned physical surveillance produces fears about safety and ultimately fear for one’s life. The concept of living in a society that watches you but does not fully acknowledge or recognize your humanity is a reality too many Americans face on a daily basis. Once you add state sanctioned polices designed to normalize racial profiling, the placement of cameras in traffic lights or on street corners, and/or the invasive searching of some who would like to travel by airplane, then the picture of the surveillance state becomes clear.
To speak of digital surveillance and national security without even considering physical surveillance and the humiliation and sometimes murder of innocents is a gross oversight that sadly seems to thrive along class, gender and racial fault lines. (Where were all of the privacy advocates/journalists protesting the proposed trans-vaginal probe laws?) In this context, outrage about the NSA seems hollow to those of us who are sensitive to the ways in which racial profiling undermines the fabric of our communities.
The Zimmerman verdict proved to us that the surveillance tactics of law enforcement can be lethal in the minds (and hands) of would-be vigilantes. And the laws and courts have condoned it. How many times did we hear from Zimmerman’s defense team that it is not a crime to follow someone? Following someone is one of the oldest forms of surveillance. Videotaping is also an older form of surveillance.
Being watched, followed, profiled, detained, and searched is physical surveillance. This kind of surveillance has been authored into our laws and most on the left and right are willing to trade the freedoms of poor people and people of color in order to enjoy the veneer of safety in our communities.
Until progressives can have more holistic discussions about the state, surveillance, and civil liberties, the reality of digital surveillance will continue to be disconnected from those of us who live under the threat of physical surveillance every day.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson