We See It All Cover and graphic illustration
We See It All Cover and graphic illustration

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.

We See It All by Jon Fasman
We See It All by Jon Fas­man (Hard­cov­er, PublicAffairs)

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.

Adjacent posts