Watching the Olympics: Understanding and Resisting Surveillance of Mass Events

By Isaac Ontiveros and Rachel Herzing
From The Abolitionist No. 18: Surveillance

These days, systems of surveillance are astoundingly complex, pervasive, and have extraordinary reach.  Understanding surveillance helps us understand technologies that provide the connective tissue between policing, militarization, imprisonment and detention, border control, immigration, urbanization, and transnational capitalism.  Keeping tabs on where people go, how they get there, whom they go with, and what they do is key in maintaining the state’s power and control.In Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault traces the history of imprisonment and explores how Western societies began to define order in relationship to how they punished and imprisoned people.  Foucault also discusses how these definitions of order, in turn, were used to discipline different strata of the population, whether they were prisoners, workers, or children. One of Foucault’s significant contributions to current understandings of how power and control work, is his analysis of how the logic of containment and violence perfected in the prison was extended back out into wider society. Modern philosophies, theories, techniques, and technologies of surveillance have largely been developed and perfected in prisons, settings in which nearly every aspect of life of people in prison was watched, categorized, documented, catalogued, and regulated and in which the idea being stripped of freedom of any kind is intertwined with the of being overseen, at all times. What gets tested and honed within prison walls then flows back into society at large and again back into prisons in a continuous loop. The core of surveillance explored by Foucault rests on idea that surveillance functions most effectively when it is as pervasive as possible, when everyone is certain that they are somehow being watched at all times, and when the feeling of being watched is deep seated and coerces us into acting accordingly to stay in line. Over 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities.  And as our populations swell in smaller and smaller spaces, surveillance is increasingly used to monitor and control people’s activities. Similarly, the threats of people consolidated in limited geographic spaces for mass events—large gatherings such as demonstrations, encampments, and sporting events—tend to trigger mass surveillance. Mass events employ a high concentration of existing surveillance technologies. They are sites for the development and implementation of new technologies. Even as they are by definition not permanent, mass events are sites of legalization and normalization of a culture of surveillance. They extend and expand the criminalization of populations labeled as threats by the state. Mass events generate incredible profits for security firms and companies that produce surveillance and other policing technologies. Finally, and, maybe most importantly, mass events generate a high potential for violence by government and private entities employing the surveillance tools in law enforcement.

The use of police and military surveillance at large scale protests and demonstrations is something that probably won’t strike too many readers as surprising, even as the intensity of surveillance and its relationship to the militarization of policing is truly disturbing.  Demonstrations and encampments from Tahrir Square in Cairo, to Occupy Oakland, to protests against NATO in Chicago have been met with intense surveillance in the form of video cameras, undercover agents, informants, aerial observation, phone taps, digital communications interception, and the confiscation of computers and cameras.  For readers familiar with the history of state counterintelligence programs, you know that the information gathered through these surveillance methods may then be used to target leaders, disrupt the public’s ability to know about and participate in political events, instill fear, suspicion, and spread lies, coordinate violent crackdowns, and otherwise neutralize political demands, and impacts.  When it comes to state repression of political mass mobilization, surveillance is a very important tool.

But in thinking about surveillance as a tool of state repression, it might be less obvious for us to think about other mass events, ones that seem less political and more about fun and games.  Take the Olympics for example.  Aren’t they simply a time when masses of people gather to be awed by the physicality and triumphs of athletes from all over the world, coming together in a spirit of lively competition?  No doubt we have all sorts of different reasons why we might be enchanted and excited by these sorts of sporting events.  Whether we are sports fans or not, the magnitude of events such as the Olympic Games grabs our attention.

2012 London Olympics mascot

Upon the writing of the article, as many as 500,000 are people expected to attend the Summer Olympic Games in London in this year with roughly 2,000,000,000 expected to tune in to watch on television.  No doubt the Olympics are big business.  Host cities spend billions of dollars on construction, promotion, and advertisement in order to court event attendees who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend the games.  In turn, sponsors such as McDonalds, Dow Chemicals, and Coca Cola make millions and millions of dollars in exclusive sponsorship deals.

At the same time, this year’s Olympics are also seeing the largest mobilization of England’s military power since World War II.  Pre-games estimates are staggering, with a mobilization of: 12,000 police officers, 13,500 military personnel (more than England currently has deployed at war in Afghanistan), at least 20,000 security guards, 1,000 U.S. security personnel (including FBI agents), and 300 MI5 (English counterintelligence) agents.  Britain is also mobilizing an aircraft carrier, surface to air missiles, unmanned drones, and fully armed military jets in its security measures.  A key element of this massive militarization of the Olympic Games will be a vast arsenal of surveillance tools including countless video cameras, scanners, biometric ID cards, checkpoints, face and licenses plate recognition devices—all coordinated by state of the art control centers.  legal codes are being reinterpreted and instituted to allow greater police power.  The entire Olympic zone will be surrounded by 11 miles of electrified fence.

The public relations machine put to work by British officials assures the global community that this level of militarization is necessary to keep the Games safe from potential security risks.  They have identified everyone from “soccer hooligans”, to the IRA, to “Islamist terrorists” as potential threats.  The intense display of militarized might creates an interesting logic, forcing people to feel safe by reminding them that this level of muscle in necessary to keep nebulously defined, but highly dangerous threats at bay.  They forget to mention the people they have displaced to build new stadiums, the people they are sweeping up to make invisible during the games, and the people they are suggesting their neighbors should be afraid of. By imbuing their public relations campaigns with fear mongering and the logic of safety through militarism, the British Ministry of Defense continually reminds Londoners and Olympics Games attendees that their acceptance of and obedience to the security protocols being imposed is non-negotiable.  Not accepting it equals a threat to the Games. Threat, in turn, is understood as hostility which, in turn, must be met with a military response.

As urban theorist Stephen Graham has noted, this sort of logic perpetuates an ideology of control, creating a vicious cycle that is also very profitable for collaborations between countries, cities, and security firms.  As Graham states:

So-called “homeland security” industries – a loose confederation of defense, IT and biotechnology industries – are in bonanza mode. As this post 9/11 paradigm is being diffused around the world, the industry – worth $142 [billion] in 2009 – is expected to be worth a staggering $2.7 [trillion] globally between 2010 and 2020.

While there is much money to be made in selling surveillance and security technology and personnel to ensure the smooth functioning of mass events such as the Olympics, the effects of the elaborate surveillance apparatuses put in place for the events outlast the closing ceremonies.  Graham points out that while millions of dollars of construction sit decaying after the Greek Olympics of 2004, millions of dollars of surveillance technology—as well as the extended legality of the use of the technology—are working overtime.  In fact, surveillance technology from the 2004 Summer Olympic Games was put to use in shutting down militant protests of masses of Greek residents against the austerity measures imposed on working people when the country went bankrupt.  No doubt, much of the surveillance technology employed during this year’s Games will be incorporated into London’s landscape as England prides itself on being at the forefront of state of the art security.

London, for instance, is the capitol of the same country that has been bragging about its leadership as a surveillance society, with over 4.2 million closed circuit television cameras installed—about one per every 14 people.  London is also a city known for tracking its residents through cell phones, license plate tracking systems for vehicles, and scans as shoppers enter stores.  Connected with increased militarization of its law enforcement and adoption of suppression style policing, Britain has effectively declared war on its residents, with a particular focus on people of color, immigrants, poor and working class people, and youth.  One need only remember the violent police responses that ignited and fueled last summer’s uprisings in London to have a sense of what happens when these tools are put to work.

Surveillance is a key element in policing, imprisonment, and warfare. It is also intimately linked to the maintenance of the ruling economic and social order.  But, as is always the case, people are resisting.  Mass protests persist and grow despite surveillance-assisted crackdowns. Activists across the globe have developed ways to use technology sometimes related to surveillance—social networking websites, cell phones, text messaging, etc.—to work around the clamp downs.  Similar technology was also used in the spontaneous uprisings in London last year.  Organizations such as the Newham Monitoring Project will be hitting the streets during the Olympics to monitor police and take complaints during the games.  Across the Atlantic organizers are already busy building organizing networks to resist increased surveillance and security violence in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero—a city where police were responsible for 15-25% of all murders in 2010 alone, and where special police forces have been created to “pacify” the favelas in preparation for these mass events.

So while we watch feats of amazing physical strength, agility, and endurance this July, we must also ask what the Olympic Games reflect about the global environment in which we live and what they contribute to that environment.  At what price is this spectacle unleashed and what will it leave in its wake?  How may we imagine these international settings as opportunities to build international solidarity, strengthen international networks, and tear apart the growing drag net of surveillance ever encroaching on our liberation and self-determination?

Isaac Ontiveros and Rachel Herzing are members of Critical Resistance Oakland.

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