Who Speaks for Community? Rejecting a False Choice Between Liberty and Security

Jun 05

By: Lawrence Grandpre

Last month, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (of which I am the Director of Research), joined with the ACLU of Maryland and other community based organizations to file a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Police Department, claiming their use of a spy plane for surveillance as an unconstitutional violation of civil liberties. 

Given: the nature of mass incarceration, the history of Baltimore police department’s abuses of power (including the stunning revelations of the Gun Trace Task Force), and the history of surveillance technology repeatedly being used to target political dissidents. The current wave of protests against police violence raises the specter of the spy plane being used directly to target individuals deemed “enemies of the police” simply for expressing their 1st Amendment right to protest. It seemed to us like an obvious cause to support. 

However, this action was met with a slew of what has come to be typical rebuttals from certain individuals accusing our actions of being “too sweeping”. Seemingly stunned that shootings and murders seem to continue unabated even in the face of Coronavirus lockdowns and protests against police violence, these individuals support what they call the “pragmatic” policy of surveillance as a necessary measure to abate the plague of violence in the Black community.  

The value of this lawsuit exists far beyond any one result in a courtroom. —It is an opportunity to have a conversation that rejects the false and bias terms on which pro-surveillance forces have attempted to frame this debate

To be clear, being against surveillance is not about being anti-police. In addition to this argument being spurious on its face, —as the child of a 20 year Baltimore police officer, I know it to be wrong, because I know the position I have taken is not done out of a hatred of police, but out of a profound respect for the sacrifice police officers make in being asked to take on societal responses above and beyond their capacities. It is not about challenging police officers. It is about challenging the racial imbued ideology of police-ism: the belief that all urban problems must be addressed primarily or exclusively through the lens of policing. 

Nor is being against surveillance about ignoring the impact of violent crime, or ignoring the experiences of the victims of violent crime. In addition to there being a robust scholarly debate around the effectiveness of surveillance and the need for more comprehensive solutions, I know this argument to be wrong because my advocacy is also based on my own experiences with violent crime. 

In addition to having an uncle killed by gun violence, I was robbed at gunpoint in downtown Baltimore almost one year ago. As I lacked the cash they requested, we walked around downtown until I was able to buy the individual items which they could sell (all under the barrel of a hidden revolver). This crime was committed on Preakness weekend with a bevy of police occupying downtown. As we walked, the individual told me about their previous experiences with incarceration,— how he had just been released from jail with no support, prospects or resources, and thus resorted to an armed robbery in an attempt to get those resources for his family. I had no reason not to believe them, as I logically inferred that no one with alternatives tries to pull off an armed robbery downtown on Preakness weekend, and that the guy holding the gun in this scenario has control of the situation and no real incentive to lie. 

As someone who believes prison does more harm than good, I did not report the incident. I bring this experience up not to use personal experience as a political weapon, but to demonstrate how disingenuous it is when those pushing for surveillance measures claim to have any sort of monopoly on speaking for those in the community who are directly affected by these issues. 

In reality, advocates for social justice agree with the fundamental need for security, but simply have a far more comprehensive definition of security than the so-called “pragmatic” pro-surveillance advocates. Despite claims of social justice advocates being ‘pollyanna’, time and time again social justice advocates have presented clear and direct solutions to a bevy of problems around actualizing community safety, —only to be rebuffed or ignored by the very forces who capitalize on the mere slogan of ‘community safety’ only when new surveillance or pro-incarceration efforts are proposed.  

Communities will never be truly safe until they have a police force that is accountable to them and able to carry out the necessary functions of policing effectively. Independent of the moral desirability of surveillance and ‘tough on crime’ measures, a police force without clear officer accountability and public trust cannot use surveillance tools to increase public safety. Despite highly touted reformist measures like body cameras and judicial intervention, without a fundamental shift toward creating institutions owned and controlled by the people to hold police accountable themselves, public trust in policing is unlikely to improve. 

Despite death at the hands of police becoming a leading cause of death among young black men, advocates have presented solutions to this issue for years, only to be largely ignored by many of the same interests claiming that the “safety” of the Black community is their primary concern when it comes to street violence. Legislation which would give independent investigatory power to the Baltimore City Civilian Review Board, as well as efforts to create a process for the public information act (access to police disciplinary records); an effort which unfortunately received tepid support despite the stunning allegations of the Gun Trace Task Force, and the existence of a 300 officer ‘do not call list’ of officers who the Baltimore City state’s attorney said she will refuse to call to testify in court for fear their disciplinary records would make their testimony legally suspect. 

All of this is happening in a state with the most extreme version of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights in America. Those who call for a balance of police power and civil liberties are simply refusing to acknowledge how far out of balance the status quo already is, revealing the unacknowledged interests and delusional nature of the attempt to ‘balance’ a set of scales which seem to reflect more myth than reality. 

Another bit of mythology employed in favor of surveillance, is the myth that surveillance is equivalent to deterrence. In reality, it is not the belief that one is being surveilled, nor the length of sentences, but a sense of certainty of being caught as specifically being convicted, which deters crime. Many potential violent offenders believe they will not be caught, and that police are generally not competent, thus complicating the basic premise which deterrence is based on. Beyond this, at this point offenders know that many cops will break the law to try to catch them, and thus believe with a good lawyer they can beat the case, as evidence will be thrown out (especially with a police force with the troubled track record of the BDP). 

The community which the pro-surveillance agenda claims is clamoring for more police presence, is not a monolithic mass of helpless victims. In reality, we hold diverse views and see safety in a more comprehensive frame than the pro-surveillance supporters are willing to accept. We do not view keeping murder under 300 as a victory, but as an arbitrary number that obscures the actual depth of violence occurring in everyday assaults and other incidents, like mine, which are never reported to the police. 

We want safety more than most of the “pro surveillance” advocates could ever imagine. However, many of us believe that safety is not simply the absence of violence, but the creation of conditions for human flourishing. Thus, we refuse the false opposition of a choice between community instability created by violent crime, with the community instability caused by mass incarceration, unaccountable policing, and the slow starving of our community institutions to feed a ½ billion-dollar police budget deemed to be the only “investment” our community needs. 

We advocate for genuinely preventative programming, recognizing that violence is produced through a complex set of historical conditions and circumstances which, though difficult to solve completely, must be addressed in a real way, not just pawned off on police who can only act after the crime is done. Programs like B-360, (which utilizes young people’s interest in dirt bikes and, instead of criminalizing it through surveillance, seeks to foster it to teach usable skills), are seen as essential to anything worthy of being called a “public safety strategy”.

Similarly, we wonder how it is possible that, in the face of so many rich and powerful people beating their breast to exclaim their commitment to ‘public safety’ in our communities, that programs like Kujichagulia Center, (which being African centered, uses rites of passage programming to intervene with youth who are at risk of becoming perpetrators of violence), can struggle to be fully funded and supported. 

We question how bills like SB0844, sponsored by Senator Jill Carter, which would have put money directly in the hands of community-based anti-violence organizations, could quietly die in committee in 2019, while a bill like those supporting the Hopkins police force (despite widespread community opposition), can roll out to pass in the same session, —all in the name of a version of security which directly opposes what we are explicitly asking for. 

Given all this, we can’t but wonder if the obsession with murder rates and violent crime might be more about marketing Baltimore to outside interests as a ‘safe city’ to do business in and move to, rather than about valuing the lives of the people already living and working in these neighborhoods. 

These programs can technically exist with robust surveillance, but robust surveillance will not complement nor “balance” out these sorts of interventions (as some claim), because it inherently undermines them. Not only are critical resources that could be going to preventative programming going to surveillance, but the racial bias embedded in society leverages these surveillance technologies at the vulnerable black youth who need programs, not prison. 

I personally have been in rooms where tech-savvy surveillance firms tout that in addition to video, cameras can be equipped with audio which is so sensitive that it can detect the shaking of a spray paint can to detect kids doing graffiti. Given an understanding of how racism functions, is there any doubt that young poor Black kids will be criminalized by this sort of technology, while kids from MICA doing the exact same graffiti will not be subject to similar levels of criminalization? 

The pro surveillance crowd screams “people are dying, we must do everything we can”, yet when common sense police accountability measures, funding for community-based violence prevention organizations, or even supporting witness protection come up, these same forces have often been deafening in their silence. 

An armed robbery is something no one ever wants to be involved in, but I refuse to let a myopic, racialized politics of retribution masquerading as “evidence-based policymaking” define my scope of political possibility. People like me who understand the structural causes of violence, know that none of us will ever be able to truly be safe until the conditions which produce violence are addressed. 

The spy plane is just one example of a larger constellation of policy decisions attempting to flatten the discussion of these structural issues into a false dichotomy between “civil liberties” and “security”. Those who seek a world which values not merely the criminal justice of arrest and incarceration, but a social justice which addresses the violence of poverty and structural racism, would do well to reject such false choices.

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on our upcoming projects, events and activities.