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.
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