Foreign Body / Opinion

Growing From Disaster

I would like to make my own response to the recent incident of civil unrest in Isla Vista and the backlash to it. First off, I’d like to express sympathy for the officers injured this weekend in such an unnecessary and gratuitous display of violence. I looked into it and discovered that the ‘right to party’ is not actually part of the constitution that U.S. citizens so cherish. I’ve been trying to remind people of this but my efforts have been largely ignored, alongside (to my chagrin) my efforts to remind people that the ‘right to bare midriffs’ is a right, not a requirement and that I’m happy in my coveralls, thanks. Seriously though, I’d also like to thank the police for containing a situation that could have gotten even more out of hand, and for risking their own safety for ours.

Secondly, I’d like to point out that I think people are too quick to place blame on the out-of-towners. Of course they were a very relevant contributing factor to the unrest, having no vested interest in protecting the reputation of the community and not hesitating to vandalize and trash the place, but they were not solely responsible. In displacing the blame, we neglect to address something that is a real issue in Isla Vista: The negative perception of the police. Since I moved here, the attitude toward the police has been overwhelmingly resistant. While much of the behavior was demonstrated by non-residents and by those under the influence and thus defies rationality, I would like to take a closer look at another potential underlying contributor to the behavior displayed this weekend.

One point of view I’ve heard iterated repeatedly since Saturday night goes something like this: “If you’re going to treat us like delinquents by installing surveillance cameras and forbidding music, then we’re going to behave like delinquents.” Another response I witnessed whilst “on the ground” (I live on DP) was that when the police showed up in full riot gear the response was: “Oh you want a riot? Then we’ll give you a riot.” Right, so where is this coming from? People aren’t actually being oppressed, that much is obvious. I mean, security cameras on public streets are not exactly a novel thing, even though they might be a long overdue fixture in our community. Comparisons are being drawn between Isla Vista and North Korea and to the fictional state of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984 which, need I point out, had telescreens surveying its citizens from within their homes themselves. We do not have secret police busting into our houses at night to eliminate voices of dissent, nor is our freedom of expression being limited. So why do people feel this way? Is it really because security cameras were installed or might it be something to do with how they were installed and what they represent? The sense in the community is that they popped up overnight, without our input and any accurate information about them was hard to come by. Although we had ideas, we were not given any real information about them. The attitude towards them was made clear: The residents of I.V. felt that advantage was being taken of recent violent and sexual assaults in order to spy on the community.

The general attitude towards the police here seems to be, however unfounded, that they are here to ‘catch us out’ rather than to protect us. The sense is that the police spend more time hiding behind bushes and ticketing for minor offenses to bring in revenue than actually combatting violent crime. This attitude results in people like me being reluctant to get the police involved when they are needed through fear of disproportionate weight being given to irrelevant factors like alcohol. Because of this attitude, if I am harassed on my way home from a party I don’t want to talk to the police in case they book me for being drunk in public even though I’m of age and have only had a couple of drinks. We need to work together to alter this vision of the police force.

First up, the issue of the cameras needs to be addressed. I support the presence of surveillance cameras but I also think it needs to be made clear that these cameras are there to help us out, not to oppress us. In a recent AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, Vice Chancellor Michael Young refused to engage in the issue, saying “I don’t buy the ‘the cameras caused us to behave that way.’ Please don’t say that to me. It’s just silly.” Now I think I’ve made it clear that I’m not suggesting the cameras were the sole reason for the unrest but it is obvious that people are taking issue with them and it would be so easy to address this and thus take away that retrospective justification and ammunition from those who might use their presence as an excuse to incite further violence. The fact that authority figures have been so cagey in their response to questions about the cameras has only exacerbated the lack of trust in the community. It needs to be acknowledged that it is not ridiculous to ask firmly and civilly why they have been placed there, for how long, who will be watching the footage, how long it will be stored and to be assured that they have been installed in addition to and not to replace the eyes of actual officers who can intervene. We also need to be assured that this footage will actually be used to help solve crimes and not be taken out of context to incriminate us. I don’t buy the attitude that “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about,” because we know all too well from “reality” television how footage can be manipulated and taken out of context in order to portray someone in a certain light.

Look, I’m not saying that this is an excuse, or that I share these views but if we are not allowed to ask for the most basic information about cameras in our community, what is there really to stop more pervasive measures being taken out in the name of “security” that will actually invade our privacy and work to spy on us? It may seem silly to jump to Orwellian conclusions right now but the concerns being expressed are legitimate, especially in light of recent scandals involving the abuse of national security measures. Refusal to engage on this issue is reinforcing in the community the idea that the police are working against us rather than with us. More transparency is one thing, but I want to hear more ideas as to how we can remove the “Fuck the police” motto from the zeitgeist, reduce gratuitous violence and increase trust in our police force.

Naomi Rea is trying to build bridges, not burn them.

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One Comment

  1. Naomi,
    I applaud your call for more information and community input regarding the cameras. I find it to be a commendable stance.

    I would, however, like to bring up a few notions for you and others to consider before you embrace surveillance.

    1) The chilling effect cameras have on our rights. While difficult to measure, the hidden effects exist. For example, people are less likely to protest, exercise their first amendment rights, attend political meetings, etc that are all needed to preserve an engaged and healthy democracy.
    2) The rhetorical “War on X” that politicians trumpet as a pretext for trampling on our rights. The War on Terror has led to and justified expansive intrusion into our Constitutional rights, namely the 4th Amendment. The War on Drugs has justified military style “no knock” raids for people that are growing some pot plants. These raids have greatly proliferated in recent years.
    3) There exist many studies and papers on surveillance cameras as other governments have instituted them, namely in England. Rather than accept the notion that cameras keep us safe, I encourage people to read these papers in order to understand both the effectiveness of cameras as well as their many negative unintended consequences. I suspect that most people will find the issue of government run cameras is far more complex that it may first appear. For example, are you comfortable with sensitive microphones that can pick up individual conversations? What if people’s speech was picked up, converted to text, and then processed and stored? And what is facial recognition were applied so the government knew (or could know) exactly where you have been, who you were with, and what you said while in public? Think about it. Perhaps you are doing nothing wrong from your point of view, but the government may see it differently (whatever you say can and will be used against you). Also, you may be in the mainstream in terms of your views, but don’t we want activists to feel free to push the boundaries with the fear of reprisal? The technology is already there, and the government is a giant customer for these technologies with the Department of Homeland Security passing out grants to local law enforcement (cameras, fusion centers, militarized vehicles like the one used in IV, etc). The war on terror, IMO, has come home. And President Eisenhower warned us about the Military Industrial Complex. Will we heed that warning or just accept that all these surveillance measures are here merely for our own safety?

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