Tag Archives: olympics 2012

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