Tag Archives: abolitionist

Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Organizing Under Surveillance

Ashanti Alston and Masai Ehehosi with Molly Porzig

From The Abolitionist No. 18: Surveillance


ditors Note: In exploring the role of surveillance as a cornerstone of the prison industrial complex (PIC), The Abolitionist wanted to examine it through its history, how it has been used and continues to repress struggles for liberation and self-determination. We interviewed two long-time revolutionaries and Critical Resistance members, Ashanti Alston and Masai Ehehosi, to outline some of this history as well as their own experiences organizing under surveillance during for more than 40 years.

A lot of people have very different definitions of surveillance. Can you explain what surveillance means to you?

Ashanti: It’s really important that people have a historical understanding.  We have to always deal with what surveillance meant when there was this European conquest of the African continent–capturing and enslaving millions of Africans over to what became the United States; setting up slave ports and always having to have people keep an eye on those you’ve captured and on possible opposition to your quest to conquer the world. The whole system of slavery is one that is constant surveillance, as it is part of the mechanisms of conquest. When have colonized people not been under surveillance?

It’s important to understand what that means for those of us who are still victims of that original surveillance that came with the conquest of our people that we still have not been able to get off our backs yet in 2012.

Masai: That relates to how I see surveillance–it’s continuous. Years ago when Ashanti and I first started working together, we started to be surveilled and have been ever since. One of the definitions of surveillance is the continued observation of a person or group, especially if they are from one perspective doing something “illegal”. Revolution is always illegal to the oppressor since the independence struggle began. Independence is always considered illegal; just struggling for a just society is always illegal to the oppressor. If we’re talking about anything to cause real change, then we’re also talking about surveillance.

How has surveillance changed over time? What tactics have been used, how have they developed and how are they used now?

Masai: There’s always a greater use of technology to evolve more serious surveillance as time goes on and more advancements are invented. A lot of people who are targets or potential targets help a lot more now with surveillance than before, in the sense of smart phones, Facebook, [credit] cards and things that we do every day and we just don’t think about as surveillance. It may not be a thing where someone is visually seeing us, but our movements, actions and choices are being tracked. We contribute to it. We just don’t think there’s any other way. 

Masai Ehehosi

When I used to work for the health department as a Communal Disease Control Investigator, we would ask people questions about their relationships, their lives, lots of private things. This was over 20 years ago and even back then a lot of people didn’t really realize what was going on. They would just give up information–about who partners were, gave network information and so on. Some the government already had, but a lot they didn’t. They then could make links of people based on information one person gave.

In terms of technology like cameras, some of those things that we got now couldn’t have even been done openly twenty years ago, because people would challenge it, but now people are accepting it. It comes back to the level of organizing that people are actually doing, because obviously a lot of the time people don’t actually feel safe, so they rely on the system’s tools either directly or indirectly. Some of us aren’t doing the organizing that we should be doing in the community that will actually make people feel and be safe. There’s a reason why they don’t feel safe—they’re buying into the propaganda, and we’re supposed to counteract that.

Ashanti: Technology is doing a hell of job, and those of us who want to challenge it have to think of how to do this differently. There’s an evolution of these agencies of conquest, but I keep focus on the role of the police, government, agencies, government programs, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, neighbors, business, media—all of these things are here to surveil or to create the conditions whereby the people that rule this country can keep the people under control, abiding by the law or rule. In some ways, things have changed drastically and in other ways not, because the key groups of people are still under this specific surveillance. This system does what it’s supposed to do to maintain white supremacy. I want people not to be naïve in what we face when we say we want to change this world. This reality and the history behind it, calls for abolition, not reform.

One example is a young activist brother in Cleveland, Ohio, saw them cameras up in the neighborhood and he also knew people in the neighborhood were calling for cameras because of the level of crime. He was trying to explain to everyone what those cameras really meant, but it fell on deaf ears. So he took it upon himself to actually start knocking them cameras out, regardless of what people thought. After so many generations of conquest, even those most impacted by the system begin to call for their own surveillance, repression. This tells you what the new challenge for those of us who say they want change. How do we get people to see that some of the very things that they’re asking for from government are not in their best interest? Continue reading


Networking Rebellion: Digital Policing and Revolt in the Arab Uprisings

By Ian Alan Paul and David Zlutnick

From The Abolitionist No. 18: Surveillance

On January 25th, 2011, demonstrations erupted in cities across Egypt. Eighteen days later one of the world’s most-entrenched dictators was forced from power.

In the Egyptian uprising, digital technologies were used as both a catalyst for the revolution as well as a tool of repression. The events in Egypt, like others of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is complex, nuanced and deeply entangled with the various forces who have a stake in the region’s geopolitical future. A look at the Egyptian security forces’ efforts to police the uprising with the aid of digital surveillance and censorship technologies shines a particularly strong light on the intersection of the former (and most-likely current) regime’s interests and those of the US government, as well as U.S. private contractors. This also provides an example of the increasingly dangerous terrain in which these new channels of communication place activists.

An online revolution?

“We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” -Tweet from an anonymous Egyptian activist

When the first “Day of Anger” was organized in Egypt following the Tunisian uprising, word was largely spread across the country by a series of Facebook event pages. Because Egyptian television and radio were state-controlled, the internet became a means to publicize the demonstrations and evade state censorship. As a result, the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings have largely been described as a series of “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolutions. Implied by these descriptions is that these American-based social networking websites have manifested as a force for global democracy, allowing repressed peoples to find each other and network in ways which were previously impossible or too dangerous under authoritarian regimes. While it’s undeniable that social networking was a prominent tool in the uprisings, it is an oversimplification to say it was the catalyst in the mobilizations and overlooks the conditions and access of the majority of Arab participants.

Actually there were real limits to the reach of these technologies. As one Egyptian organizer reflected on why mass text-messaging and flyering was utilized over simply online organizing, “Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook.” And while the initial calls for protests may have come from tech-savvy middle-class activists, it took millions to overwhelm the security state and bring down Mubarak. For these numbers to reach the street more traditional forms of networking and organizing took place.

In many instances it was not the technology of activists that brought people to the streets, but that of the Mubarak regime. On January 28th, 2011, internet and cellphone services were cut in a desperate attempt to stop the escalating protests. But the consequences of this action actually increased mobilizations. As Yale graduate student Navid Hassanpour wrote in his study, “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”:

The disruption of cellphone [sic] coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways. It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 25, 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy

In fact, it’s hard to believe the Egyptian uprising would have succeeded had organizing been limited to online social networks. The real key to its success was the expansion of involvement to other actors such as the country’s militant industrial labor movement or the Muslim Brotherhood’s rank-and-file activists–two of many such groupings not known for their use of digital technologies. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Issue 18 (“Surveillance”) is Now Available

Issue 18 (“Surveillance”) is out now! In this issue we examine the ways surveillance limits our communities’ capacities to act in liberatory ways.

Subscribe to the paper to get the issue. Your subscription allows us to send it to almost 3,000 people inside prison for free.

As we know, surveillance is an integral component of the prison industrial complex.  Equally as important is our ability to confront surveillance in order to create a society in which people are free of constant tracking and cataloging as a means of driving them into cages or turning their homes and neighborhoods into virtual prisons. This issue seeks not only to document the terrifying sophistication of surveillance systems, while offering examples and spurring dialogue about how to abolish them.

While the topic of surveillance spans a vast variety of issues and sectors, the pieces in this installment of The Abolitionist offer some points of entry for understanding the topic.  From how it is used to limit funding of political organizations, to its role inside Security Housing Units (SHUs), the authors and artists featured in this issue of The Abolitionist help us think about both the impacts of surveillance, and means of resisting those impacts. In these pages, we will see the socio-economic costs of surveillance as well as the history of surveillance used against our organizations and our responses to that pressure.  While not directly addressing the surveillance, we are also excited to bring you Letters to The Abolitionist in response to past issues of the paper, and two authors, David Gilbert and Eric A. Stanley in dialogue via reviews of each other’s books.

Walking the fine line between caution and paralysis takes patience and care.  We hope that the sampling of perspectives offered here provides new insights and information and generates energy and a renewed commitment to fighting for a world free of the fear and mistrust on which surveillance depends.

Thanks to all our contributors!
Ritika Aggarwal
Toshio Meronek
Zachary Ontiveros
Molly Porzig
Andrea Salinas
Kamau Walton
Ashanti Alston
Kijana Tashiri Askari
Inger P. Brink
Nasim Chatha
Jay Donahue
Masai Ehehosi
David Gilbert
Rachel Herzing
Larry James DeRossett
D’Andre Moore
Isaac Ontiveros
Ian Paul
Renee Perry
Oliver Spires
Eric A. Stanley
David Zlutnick
Luigi Celentano
Susana Draper
Leah Furumo
Armando Hernandez
Kentaro Kaneko
Alma Muñoz
Sylvia Romo
Andrea Salinas
Gabriel Torres
Alfonso Tovar
Alia Trindle
Benjamin Wood

Rattling Cages: Our Issue 17 Launch Event (June 21)

Click here to download the flyer in PDF format.


issue 17 header

Download in English / Descargar en Español

“Surviving within capitalism, U.S. imperialism, the PIC, and other systems of oppression takes a creativity, spirit, and will that can be found in all of us, even in what may seem to be insurmountable circumstances. The stories and perspectives found in this issue are but a mere sampling of the long legacies of resistance that connect so many of us.” – Letter from the Editors

Welcome to Issue 17 of The Abolitionist! In this issue we hope to continue the momentum we have built since the release of Issue 16, which focused on Life after the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). We now look at some of the work that is happening to get us to that goal. It is crucial that, in addition to envisioning what our world could look like after the PIC, we familiarize ourselves with the work happening now to make it so. Challenging the social norms and barriers that exist between our loved ones and their communities, finding new ways to keep one another healthy and safe, and building up the world we want instead are all things that we will explore in this issue.

As you read through this issue you will hear from many of our allies–including organizers and former prisoners–but not enough from people that are currently imprisoned. As we work out the new structure for our paper and try these new themes and systems for receiving contributions, we would like to emphasize the importance of contributions from current prisoners. The next issue will be focused on surveillance and it is crucial that we hear the
political perspectives, analysis, and strategies of imprisoned people inside.

Many thanks to all our contributors and translators:

Diana Block, Kate Conway, Abdel-Alim Da’ana, Regina Diamond, Susana Draper, Juliet Fox, John “Mac” Gaskins, Rachel Herzing, Amelia Kirby, Manuel La Fontaine, Lala, Ben Lorber, Jalil Muntaqim, Isaac Ontiveros, Faith Phillips, Justin Piché, Sylvia Ryerson, Laura Whitehorn, Luigi Celentano, Susana Draper, Leah Furumo, Aries Jaramillo, Kentaro Kaneko, Alma Munoz, Lynne Purvis, Amy Smith, Gabriel Torres, Alfonso Tovar, Alia Trindle, and Benjamin Wood.

Love and struggle


Two PIC-Related Open Calls for Submissions

Attention all PIC-loathing writers and researchers: the International Conference on Penal Abolition and Survivors in Solidarity with Prison Abolition are both having open calls for submissions of writings related to, yep, abolition. Here’s the info:


The International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA)

ICOPA 14 Trinidad  June 13-15, 2012.

www.actionicopa.org e-mail mediate1@hotmail.com

This year is the 50th Year of Independence in Trinidad and Tobago and a time to re-think institutions, examine assumptions, and explore new ideas on building a just society.  In 2002 Trinidad and Tobago transitioned penal policy from punishing and diminishing people to correcting and restoring. Prison communities are envisioned as foundations for human enrichment and populations and recidivism rates were reduced locally. Development and justice took new steps as this idea took root and spread to other agencies of the criminal justice system. In recent months, the State of Emergency reversed that trend; greater numbers of people were arrested and imprisoned, expanding the carceral project.

Continue reading