Thursday, March 30, 2023

Attack on Capitol Hill does not justify expansion of surveillance

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They took our The Capitol, stormed the rooms, stole our documents and shattered the standards of our democracy. The lasting damage from Wednesday’s attack will not come from the crowd itself, but from the way we react. Right now a growing chorus demands that we use facial recognition, mobile phone tower data, and all kinds of invasive surveillance to punish the crowd. In the days following the attack, the airwaves were filled with former law enforcement officials claiming surveillance is the answer, such retired FBI special agents. Danny coulson and Doug Kouns. Even many who normally criticize the police have jumped on the surveillance bandwagon in the desire for justice. As understandable as it may sound to give the police even more power in this crisis, that would be a huge mistake.

We don’t need a state-of-the-art surveillance net to find the perpetrators of this attack: they followed each other. They broadcast live their crimes from the halls of Congress, recording every crime in Full HD. We don’t need facial recognition, geofences, and cell tower data to find those responsible, we need police officers ready to do their jobs.

It’s hard to say how shocking the images of the Capitol were. Not the violence of the Republican rioters, but the passivity, even the complicity, of the police. After a quarter of a century of activism, I have lost count of how many times I have seen protesters of color and progressives arrested, beaten and worse.

People who speak out against injustice naturally face brutality. But while millions of Americans face violence for legally protesting, white conservatives can break the law with impunity. This is the failure we have witnessed: not the angry crowd but cooperative cops who were ready to look away or even pose for coup selfies.

This is nothing new in American history, but it has rarely been captured so vividly. It’s our story, like the countless officers who turned a blind eye, or even lent a hand, to the racist lynch mobs of the past. It is the same racism that has fueled the targeting of BIPOC communities for so many generations. And that should also be a time of reckoning for the American police, not a time to give them more deference and power.

This is why it is so infuriating to now hear experts asking for even more powers for the officers investigating the attack. PBS Newshour presenter Hari Sreenivasan tweeted “Protesters who stormed the Capitol – who don’t believe in Covid or wearing a mask… should be easier to identify with facial recognition.” But why? Many of those who entered the Capitol gave his name to the press, have posted their photos on social media and continue to brag about their crimes. They broadcast their confessions to the world. Agents should be able to stop these attackers with nothing more sophisticated than a DVR and an intelligence line.

If we give in to the rhetoric that we need further invasive measures to resolve this matter, we will only further accelerate the growth of the national security state which has failed to protect us from white extremists. Before that there was a growing national movement to ban facial recognition, cities across the country taking action to ban the technology. Today, following this attack, some see a justification for this biased and invasive technology, but the course should not be reversed.

There’s an old lawyer who says, “Bad facts make bad laws.” And there might not be worse facts than what happened on January 6th. But if we respond by giving the police more powerful tracking tools, we know that they will just turn them into the same BIPOC communities that they still target. For the police charged with protecting our Capitol, the concern is not to have too little power, it is to lack the will to use it against white conservatives.

Instead, Congress should learn a very different lesson. Rather than responding to these attacks with a new mandate to expand police powers, we need to expand our civilian oversight. For years, we haven’t done much to combat police discrimination, even as we’ve seen it take the lives of so many black Americans. Today we see that the price is even higher: our irresponsible police pose a threat to the republic itself.


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