Last week, the public learned that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) has been recording our every move from above for the past eight months. As of last January, BPD has been using a Cessna airplane, equipped with a number of sophisticated wide-angle cameras, to record and track on-the-ground movements, in 30 square miles of the city at a time, for up to 10 consecutive hours.
In the aftermath of this “breaking news”, baltimore residents and politicians alike have raised many questions about the legality, utility, and ethics of this vast and high powered surveillance system which–until the divulgement last week–was being used to record Baltimoreans in secret.
We, Baltimore Palestine Solidarity, are contributing to this dialogue because of our experience examining the exchange of the tools of militarization, colonization, and repression between the United States and the state of Israel. One of our primary commitments is to shining a spotlight on the direct connections between the occupation and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, and the mass incarceration and police terrorization of Black Americans/people of African descent here in Baltimore.
With that in mind, it is imperative that we in Baltimore consider the implications of this type of surveillance for our neighborhoods and lives, as well as for oppressed communities globally. As we continue to debate whether or not to accept the normalization of such surveillance in Baltimore, there are 3 aspects of the “eye in the sky” revelation that must remain central to the dialogue:
- The use of police-controlled surveillance technologies is not new to Baltimore. In an attempt to defend the secrecy of the airplane technology, a police spokesperson likened the technology to an “update” of the Citiwatch program–a network of over 700 cameras, which are monitored 24/7 by a team of retired police officers in a Baltimore Police Department Command Center. These cameras are regularly used to facilitate the arrests and mistreatment of Baltimore citizens. Therefore, as we critique the airplane technology and move towards using political and legal tools to resist the continued use of this technology, it would behoove us to extend those critiques and that resistance to the Citiwatch Program as well.
- These surveillance programs (The Persistent Surveillance Systems Airplane Program and the Citiwatch Program) are extremely costly; to date there have been no comprehensive government or privately funded studies proving the efficacy of these technologies in making “our communities safer.”
The recently approved budget for the Baltimore Police Department is upwards of $480 Million dollars. A large portion of these funds are currently being used for police controlled surveillance technologies and other expensive yet unproven surveillance practices.
According to reports in Bloomberg and the Baltimore Sun, the Persistent Surveillance Systems airplane technology, specifically, came to Baltimore by way of wealthy Texas philanthropists who made a private donation to the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation. The Baltimore community foundation then awarded a grant to Persistent Surveillance Systems, which is a private military contractor. The use of the technology by the BPD has been kept secret from the public for so long partly because it was piloted through a network of independent and unaccountable parties and therefore, never approved by City Board of Estimates. Furthermore, the private interests behind the project–specifically Persistent Surveillance Systems–demonstrate that it is more about potential profitability than safety.
While there is no proof that these technologies help to facilitate community safety, there is ample proof–given both the recent U.S. Department of Justice report on BPD’s law enforcement practices, and Baltimore’s status in 2015 as being the second most violent city in America–that the Baltimore City Police Department routinely violates community members’ civil rights while failing to protect the most vulnerable Baltimore residents (including, those who are Black, poor, trans, disabled, children, and/or victims of sexual assault).
There is no evidence that Baltimoreans benefit from being watched by the State, or from being stigmatized by the bluelights that hover above the police cameras in many neighborhoods. What Baltimore residents could benefit from is better schools, more recreation centers, and eviction-prevention programs (to name a few).
- All politics is international. It is essential that we localize international politics and internationalize local politics.
The Persistent Surveillance Systems Airplane technology was first used by the Pentagon to facilitate the War in Iraq. The arrival of this technology to our city puts on full display that the militarization of police departments throughout the U.S. is part and parcel of imperialist wars abroad.
Similarly, the Citiwatch Technology was developed to monitor the apartheid wall between Israel and the West Bank. DVTel, the company that supplies the cameras to Baltimore, is a subsidiary of FLIR Systems based in Oregon, DVTEL’s executive board is composed predominantly of retired Israeli military leaders. Israel is a state that practices systematic discrimination against Palestinians, Druze, and other demographic minorities and has maintained a military occupation of Palestine for decades.
The aerial surveillance program and the Citiwatch surveillance program demonstrate that militarization and occupation abroad is not separate and distinct from police terror and state repression at home.
If we accept these types of powerful surveillance technologies, which have the ability to document and store information about our every move, we are supplying the Baltimore Police Department locally, and the Military Industrial complex globally, with a tremendous amount of information and power. If we accept and normalize the use of these technologies–which bolster the power of the state–it will have dangerous implications for our abilities to resist systemic repression and inequality from Baltimore, to Palestine, and beyond.
We state these facts with purpose–not to blindly blur the differences between individual oppressions, but to shine a bright light on the material and tactical tools of common subjugation, and to root our solidarity movements in that which binds us in struggle and resistance.
Baltimore Palestine Solidarity (BPS) is a group of local Baltimore activists, working within an anti-oppression framework, to build local solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation through education and direct action. If you would like to get involved with the listening project around mass surveillance in Baltimore, or learn more, BPS can be reached via email at email@example.com.
This op-ed was originally published by OnBckgrnd.com, on Sept. 2, 2016.