A Few Brief Thoughts on Ferguson and Structural Surveillance

While reading the Department of Justice Report of their investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, I was reminded once again of the telos of surveillance (in the Sandelian/Aristotelian/Foucauldian senses): Surveillance is, very simply, about power, in the neutral sense of the word. For example, nations wishing to protect their borders establish outward-facing checkpoints, watchtowers, and patrols. Epidemiologists seeking to prevent the spread of infectious disease establish information collection protocols with hospitals and health care workers. And communities that want to protect their lives and property empower law enforcement agencies to patrol, arrest, and in very limited circumstances, use deadly force to maintain order. Surveillance is, on its face, a necessary part of organization and governance. As we have seen in Ferguson and elsewhere, however, surveillance in support of existing power structures tends to place the larger burden on the powerless.

There are two important things to remember when considering this surveillance-as-power model. First, the power being projected and protected through surveillance comes from those who actually have power to project and protect. This point may seem almost too obvious to make, but when we consider the means and effects of (mostly white) police surveillance on African-Americans in Ferguson, it is clear that the recipients of law enforcement’s benefit is directly tied to how it defines its “community.” Second, we must remember that surveillance does not require—and is not synonymous with—high technology. Technological advances make surveillance easier, more efficient, and more widespread, but the telos remains the same: Collect information to govern, to deter, or to control. Some of our most vulnerable communities have long been aware of these principles through their immersive education in surveillance via patrols, cameras, stop-and-frisk protocols, broken windows policing, and CompStat.

My current research includes the study of these means and effects through what I call structural surveillance. Structural surveillance, based in part on Galtung’s concept of structural violence, is mode- and technology-agnostic, and describes systems that comprise two key characteristics—autonomy and ubiquity. By autonomy, I mean those surveillance systems that have, through legislation, codification, or cultural habit, developed (or calcified) into systems where there is no easily identifiable watcher, and which seem to operate on their own, outside of normal means of control. By ubiquity, I do not necessarily mean that the system is uniform across all communities or populations, but instead refer to systems that have become commonplace to the extent that those outside its gaze either endorse or ignore its existence, and those under its gaze eventually accept it as woven into the fabric of reality. Together, these two characteristics create surveillance systems that appear to violate the usual subject-action-object power relationship, and fade into the background of our daily lives.

Much attention has been focused on the post-9/11 expansions of surveillance, especially with the Klein and Snowden revelations, but in order to understand the effects of a surveillance regime expanded through rapid advances in technology, we should closely examine the structural surveillance established over the past century (and longer), especially in communities like Ferguson. These communities are forced to endure, and eventually accept, surveillance systems that would not be tolerated in communities that have greater access to power. Citizens in these more powerful communities rationalize the structural surveillance as addressing crime and other social problems. This is a matter of debate, but the resulting law enforcement tactics and procedures have taken on those of an occupying force, further exacerbated by the increased militarization of police forces across the country. This approach allows for the establishment of structural surveillance that alienates citizens and communities, and creates lasting economic, social, and health harms that becomes harder to remedy with every generation under such a regime. As we move forward, we should question the expanded deployment and use of surveillance technologies, but do so through the lessons learned from structural surveillance that has existed in many of our communities and neighborhoods for generations.

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