We See It All is one of the most chilling, dystopian novels I’ve ever read.
Except it’s not actually a novel. It’s a short work of nonfiction about several elements of technology and practices in modern policing in the United States, and how those combine into the potential for a Panopticon beyond anything imaginable in 18th Century thought experiments or George Orwell’s worst fears.
Most people will be familiar with at least some of the elements that Economist journalist Jon Fasman covers regarding local law enforcement capabilities.
But where it really shines is the impression it makes and attendant growing horror the reader experiences realizing that these capabilities are not an “either-or” choice for each department to make but a “yes-and” overlapping of powers.
Fasman covers Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), body cameras, surveillance drones, electronic monitoring such as ankle bracelets, Amazon Ring footage and other privately owned data as well as how cops get access to it, and the ShotSpotter audiosystems that detect what they think to be gunshots and deploy cops to it quickly. The thirteen-year-old shot by Chicago police recently, Adam Toledo, was killed by an officer responding to exactly that system.
As much as any individual piece of surveillance and control can be justified by the expediencies of the moment or in the name of “crime prevention”, “deterrent”, “rapid response”, etc., the overall impression when considering them together is somewhat shocking, especially as Fasman discusses newer technologies just rolling out such as facial recognition. Again, these are all just at the level of local policing, not what the military, NSA, or Homeland Security have access to.
While critical of some aspects of law enforcement and fully aware of its history as a method of dominating and terrorizing Black and brown people across the United States, Fasman is not an abolitionist.
He states his prior assumptions upfront and acknowledges that as a middle-aged white man, even his negative experiences with cops at traffic stops and the like have been in a completely different world from young Black men in particular.
This is appreciated and helpful for knowing how you as a reader ought to judge his reporting on all of these topics as you make your way through the book. It allows you to see where his skepticism is coming from as well as what its limits are.
Subtitled, “Liberty and Justice in the Age of Perpetual Surveillance”, the book is brisk, informative, and efficient reading in how it discusses all of these various technologies and practices.
Long before the end, you can see quite easily why Fasman is so concerned at the ways law has not kept pace with the capability of the state to monitor, discipline, and punish those it considers worthy of that treatment.
In terms of style, a minor criticism is that the author mentions the book was expanded from a series of articles he was writing; not having read those articles, that is definitely the impression you get from each chapter.
But again, a major utility is that all this is in one place and organized in a way that can be fully self-referential.
There are two major issues I took with the book and have grown larger the more distance I’ve had since finishing it.
The first of these is that the ultimate danger the author sets up in the beginning and returns to repeatedly is the idea that United States is heading toward a surveillance and state control system akin to the People’s Republic of China.
For an author who admits to knowing all about the FBI’s COINTELPRO targeting of left-wing groups like the Black Panthers, anti-Vietnam War activists, and American Indian Movement, and for an author who understands that still today, federal, state, and local law enforcement work to surveil and brutalize poor, non-white communities with regularity, there didn’t seem to be a need for a foreign boogeyman of Oriental despotism.
The Atlanta spa shootings in March took this from a nagging concern to one I couldn’t stop thinking about because for all of the “#StopAsianHate” hashtag-style activism and statements of solidarity going around.
The truth is that it’s extremely bipartisan to set up China and Chinese people as an existential threat, as an alien Other threatening American hegemony of the twenty-first century, and this extends to Asian Americans in general due to the history of white supremacy in this country toward them and its historical lack of discernment in meting out violence.
The outrage and shock by Americans at the treatment of residents of Hong Kong by police there was warranted; but it would be pretty rich to try to warn people that, if we Americans didn’t watch out, our own police might start brutally repressing people like that someday. This was true even before the summer of 2020 and the copious video evidence of local cops and federal agents beating, tear-gassing, and arresting everyday people or whole neighborhoods at their pleasure. But such a farce has moved beyond humor now.
This Sinophobia is, narratively, a major part of the book’s message, and this aspect is completely unnecessary. When we say, “#StopAsianHate”, that ought to include bringing up China for, quite frankly, no good reason except to avoid taking stock of our history and shortcomings of state surveillance and domination.
The second major issue is the usefulness of police forces.
Police are directly descended from slave patrols; they have always been instruments of upholding white supremacy through incredible violence, and they will always protect private property rather than people, which is why they have sided with strikebreakers to beat unions and consider broken windows an executable offense, depending on the property and person.
I have, in my life, been stolen from, assaulted, lived in homes that were burgled, and had numerous friends who were sexually assaulted, including violently sexually assaulted.
The police were not any help in these cases, and this is not counting the circumstances where the police were the perpetrators of these harms.
In some situations, such as when a landlord tried to withhold thousands of dollars illegally, it wasn’t even something that was in their purview; if we’d called police when a former employer stole thousands of dollars in overtime wages from my entire office of coworkers, at best cops would likely have referred us elsewhere to lodge a complaint. Yet, they respond differently when a landlord wants to evict someone for missed rent or you’re accused of stealing a work computer.
These are all the sorts of things Fasman is already well aware of, so what is frustrating is not his lack of knowledge but a conceptual framework common to people who are hung up on the idea of “police reform” or worse, “re-imagining the police.” That is, police are fundamentally good and necessary and can be fixed to be something more bad than good. (“What if we could photograph them in the act?” people have been saying since 1884.)
But this is something like saying that the invasion and occupation of Iraq could have been reformed or “done right” if we’d just had the right people in charge, the right training for the military, and the right accountability structures for private mercenaries. It’s true: Abu Ghraib and the Nisour Square massacre weren’t inevitable. But what the U.S. military did to Fallujah was it doing its job.
You cannot destroy cities, displace families, and kill people without destroying cities, displacing families, and killing people. There is no kindly version of an occupying military force; it turns out not to matter so much what percentage of the troops of the occupying power are of a local ethnic group, proved in Baltimore or Afghanistan today just as surely as the British Raj a century and a half ago.
Reviewers have the exceptionally easy job of saying, “Why didn’t you write the book I wanted to read?”, and there’s some of that in my complaints above.
But Fasman himself invites this criticism specifically with his detailing in Chapter 6 of the drone surveillance company “Persistent Surveillance Systems” and its services. He gives the personal history of Ross McNutt and his time in the Air Force, including using military drones to monitor the entire city of Fallujah in Iraq to try to catch insurgents there.
Now, Fasman is highly skeptical of the whole endeavor in a civilian capacity; he discusses the worries people have about their civil liberties, and the lack of transparency or oversight police departments like Baltimore have between them wanted and getting such a new capability.
But he says that the system “performed well in Iraq” — for whom, exactly?
Would the people of Fallujah agree that it performed well?
Or do we just mean it performed well for the U.S. military to achieve its immediate objectives of bombing and shooting the people it wanted to?
In a similar vein, Fasman discusses a time when Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the border of El Paso, Texas, was one of the most dangerous places on earth in terms of homicides due to the struggle between the Sinola and Juarez cartels for control of that, particularly lucrative narcotics corridor.
He relates how the city government hired Persistent Surveillance Systems to put McNutt’s drones in the sky for as long as the city could afford and were able to solve some murders that otherwise wouldn’t have been. The question is: are Mexican people safer when Mexican police have this technology?
For Americans who aren’t emotionally attached to defending Mexican police and consider them distinct from U.S. police, this dilemna should be easier to recognize. If you’re worried that a visit to Mexico might involve the local cops shaking you down for a bribe to avoid jail, how comfortable are you with them being able to track your every movement once they enter your jurisdiction?
If you think this tradeoff is worth it to combat the source of cartel violence, what defense do you think there is from cartels bribing local authorities to use the technology to track rivals or simply informants? The entity that ultimately grew into the cartel Los Zetas even started as a group of Mexican army commandos defecting. Imagine if they’d been able to take surveillance technology with them.
As of 2016, about eighty percent of Seattle police officers lived outside of the city. Rank-and-file officers in the guild overwhelmingly believe a reactionary criminal in Mike Solan best represents their image and interests; they enthusiastically assault and otherwise abuse protesters regardless of the protesters’ tactics.
And of course, they lie from things as mundane as where they should be registered to vote to things as significant as how many officers were injured. They’ve been under a federal consent decree for a decade for their abuses and continue to act with impunity.
The King County budget can without exaggeration be said to primarily be a criminal legal system with some other assorted functions:
The 2021–2022 Proposed Budget requests $1.92 billion in proposed appropriations. […] The criminal legal system consist of the Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD), Jail Health Services, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (PAO), the Department of Public Defense (DPD), Superior Court, District Court, and the Department of Judicial Administration (the clerk’s function to support Superior Court). Together, they comprise 71.6 percent of the General Fund.
Without nearly so neat a breakdown for my home county in West Texas, the city of Odessa is similarly a Fire Department and Police Department with a few other services added on, and Ector County is a way to get people into jail, keep them alive while there, and send them back into the world or to a prison.
This is not a broken system, but a well-oiled machine humming along.
Local governments don’t have a lot of money, but what they do have, they put into cops, jails, and criminal courts. Given more resources and more technology, they will continue to use it just as they always have because this is their purpose.
Many people remarked that Minneapolis in the days of the Derek Chauvin murder trial resembled more the Green Zone of Baghdad than what they expected of an American city. And yes, it is the imperial boomerang at work, the tools honed on frontiers brought back to the metropole to do bloody, efficient work.
But parts of the United States have always been colonies embedded in the polity. This violence, surveillance, and disregard for liberty and public safety has always been present. There are worse tools you can give colonial troops to dominate the populations they occupy, but they can never be good.
This is America, and it’s always been what America is to some of its people. The threat of vastly greater surveillance technology is not necessarily that we will become more like China; it’s that we will continue to be America.