Tag Archives: surveillance


issue 19.

Theme: Surveillance

Download in English / Descargar en Español

“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.” – Letter from the Editors

Welcome to Issue 18 of The Abolitionist! Included in this issue are important analyses of the various ways the prison-industrial complex (PIC) demands surveillance for its maintenance. In this issue you’ll find a powerful discussion powerful discussion about digital policing in the Arab Uprising by Ian Alan Paul and David Zlutnick, an interview with Ashanti Alston and Masai Ehehosi by Molly Porzig about organizing under surveillance, and more conversations about the detriment of surveillance and how to oppose it in our organizing work.

Many thanks to all our contributors and translators:

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 Alan 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, and Benjamin Wood.

Love and struggle



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

Abolish! Surveillance and Repression Units

From the Prison Blues Art series by imprisoned artist Larry James DeRossett (write to him at Larry James DeRossett, #635046, California Correction Institution, PO Box 608, Tehachapi, CA 95381).

We’ll feature more art from Larry in our upcoming Issue 18: Surveillance.