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News Op-Ed

Surveillance and Policing Are Not Safety

In the last two weeks, there has been a racist massacre of Black people in Buffalo, NY; an announcement from the Biden administration that COVID relief funds should go to police for spending on gunshot detection systems and other surveillance equipment; a vote in the House to pass a previously shelved domestic terrorism bill; and now, a massacre of elementary schoolkids in Uvalde, TX.

The massacres show sickness in our society. The responses show sickness in our politics.

The Uvalde school district did everything the State told it to. They paid “Social Sentinel” to scan social media for threats mentioning Uvalde. The gunman posted pictures of AR-15s on social media, and contacted a stranger over Instagram to let her know his intentions. Social Sentinel didn’t catch it.

They paid a school resource officer to keep their kids safe. But police aren’t actually under any legal obligation to protect people not in their custody, and as it turns out, they didn’t protect the kids who got killed. In fact, the police handcuffed, tased, and terrorized Uvalde parents who tried to rescue their children when they saw that the police were doing nothing.

The Uvalde school district also partnered closely with Texas fusion centers to get reports of threats from them too. The fusion centers missed the warning signs as well.

The truth is that mass surveillance systems excel at hindsight. Once an attack has happened and a perpetrator is known, they can easily show us what the warning signs were. But they have no realistic hope of sifting out the signs of a low-probability attack committed by an unknown assailant from a vast and undifferentiated array of data enough in advance to do something about it.

Despite this, our government has poured money into systems of surveillance and policing that have rendered many schools unrecognizable. They have bulked up police budgets, and starved our schools of counselors, nurses, and librarians. They have turned what should be places where kids can find adults and peers who have time to be kind, to take an interest in them, to help them learn, into sites of surveillance, punishment, and alienation. They treat digital monitoring and databasing as a substitute for actual care, and (terrifyingly) as a preparation for adult life. Our students, and especially students of color, are searched and drilled and monitored and policed till they can barely breathe.

In return, all we get is over-funded and over-equipped police who stand by and watch as a mass shooting unfolds, and pepper-spray and handcuff people trying to actually save kids’ lives.

The State keeps telling us that if only we give the police more money and equipment, let them have that little bit more power, let them see just a little more deeply into our everyday lives, that our kids will be safe, and our lives will be better. After all, who better to prevent massacres or to thwart white supremacist terrorism than the police, DHS, and the FBI?

The House’s domestic terrorism bill doesn’t conceive of the solution for terrorism as being nurturing bonds within communities, or providing positive role models, or funding activities that give kids’ lives meaning. Instead, the solution is yet more money for DHS and the FBI to conduct yet more surveillance of Americans. 

These organs of State power weren’t created to protect the bodies of the vulnerable—instead, they were created to protect the profits of the powerful. Police spend very little time preventing—or even attempting to solve—violent crime. DHS was created to respond to and prevent another 9/11, where the attack was planned from abroad. The FBI exists to suppress domestic dissent; when it comes to terrorism, it solves very little that it hasn’t ginned up itself. But nevertheless these agencies come cap in hand, trading on our fear and our grief, asking politicians to let them drain more of our resources that could in fact be used to make our lives and the lives of our children better, kinder, and more secure. And politicians let them.

Whether it’s more microphones, more cameras, more metal detectors, more police in schools, more data sharing, more searches, more partnerships with local and state fusion centers, everybody has an answer, and they’re all variants of the same wrongheaded idea: That if we only subject students, or citizens at large, to a searching enough eye, they will be forced into being kinder to one another.

(Only certain students, and certain citizens, though. You won’t find metal detectors, obsessive monitoring and school police at Andover. There are no night-time no-knock raids at the country club, or always-on microphones in gated communities. DHS won’t be raiding your local Southern Baptist churches; the FBI won’t be launching assessments with no criminal predicate on young Mormon men and blackmailing them into becoming informants.)

Surveillance and policing are politically cheap. But the fear and mutual suspicion they create, block the path towards a society where we trust each other, solve our problems in community with one another, accord dignity to one another; and are thereby, as the Fourth Amendment puts it, secure in our persons, papers and effects.