I’m not normally an AMNY-er, but the front page today caught my attention: two reporters counted surveillance cameras on the south side of Union Square and found 170 cameras on one block, and used that as a prop to discuss the proliferation of cameras in the city, primarily Manhattan.
I wonder where it stops – how many cameras is enough? Getting to JFK for my flight last week, I counted 15 (visible) cameras in the Air Train station alone. NYU’s Kimmel Center is slathered in them.
The invisible surveillance creeps me out the most. I was sitting with a friend in Riverside Park one night earlier this summer and saw a Parks SUV drive right up to a couple drinking some beers and issued an open-container summons. Clearly, the Parks Police had no means to spot their containers from the other end of the park by mere eyesight, and used some sort of camera to find them. I looked around: I couldn’t see any cameras on poles, in trees, etc. I got up and looked a bit more. Still nothing. Then, the friend got up and just asked the police: where are the cameras? Of course, they laughingly refused to answer, but the incident set me to mild paranoia about who is watching where – clearly there are surveillance tools you can’t just casually count on the street like AMNY did.
Similarly, when do we have enough police? One thing I noticed about being in Austin was the lack of a visible police presence. Whenever I go anywhere in New York, I see the NYPD. The APD keeps a lower profile, even at big events – on 6th Street on Saturday (what amounts to an open air street festival), I saw maybe 4 cops, whereas at a similar event in New York, I might see 20. New York has 37,000 Police Officers. That’s a shit ton (and I don’t know if that count includes Corrections or Parks officers). When do we stop? 50,000? 60,000? That’s a terrible drain on resources, for what may be a lost cause in the first place.
My real point is this: what is the real goal of such heavy policing? Do we really want to live in a world where all of our activities are under review by employees of the state (who, ultimately, are just people with flaws and human problems like everyone else)? I think a tightly policed social space necessarily undermines democracy because it creates a one-way ratchet towards fascism: once repressive laws are passed, organizing (in a real sense, not just in a ‘write your congressperson’ bullshit sense) to stop those laws becomes more difficult if not impossible, and we have to rely on the benevolent will of our elected officials to check the Po’.
And don’t give me that ‘If you don’t commit a crime you have nothing to fear’ bullshit. You don’t decide whether you commit a crime, the police, a judge and lawmakers do. If ever you were to disagree with a cop in a court of law, you would lose the argument, simply by their badge and uniform. Also, there are plenty of things that probably shouldn’t be illegal that are – and I think we should preserve some space for active civil disobedience outside the law, as a check on immoral law making and enforcement, lest we be stuck with contesting terrifying bullshit via the arcane, corrupt and biased legal system.
Where does it stop? It should be up to you – not Ray Kelly, not Congress, not the Dept. of Homeland Security – to decide.