Center for Media Justice home of the Media Action Grassroots Network

e-Carceration: Race, Technology, and the Future of Policing and Prisons in America

Keynote speech delivered at Fusion Magazine’s Real Future Fair in Oakland, CA on November 15, 2016. Video of the speech can be found here. 

19th century Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci said:

“the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born.

Now is the time of monsters.”

On November 8th, election day in the U.S., millions nodded again to that truth, that there are monsters in the world. For too long, we’ve called this monster, “other”, named the monster “Black”, named the monster “super-predator”, immigrant, terrorist, criminal. Yet all these names served up in news story after story, only hid the cultural labor pains that gave birth to president-elect Donald Trump. They hid material realities that gave birth to a massive security state, ideologically bound by white nationalism, structured by the institutions of mass incarceration, incorporated by privatization, mechanized by racially-based mass surveillance, and powered by digital technologies. It is this system that I want to talk with you about today, for it is this system, expanded by neoliberals that was just handed over to the most terrifying neo-conservatives this nation has seen in a very long time.

As we consider America’s newest monster, might we also consider our own silhouette in the mirror. For if the beast is raised today, this Trump tower of our nightmares, it is our privilege, our denial, our complicity with the decimation of millions of Black and Brown and poor human lives, that put him there. Jeff Chang, author of the recent NYT bestseller, We Gon Be Aight, says it best:

“Cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change.

Or, put another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.”

Simply, it was the culture built by a trans-Atlantic slave trade, by Black codes and Jim Crow, by international colonialism and manifest destiny, by structural racism, decades long domestic neoliberal wars of the elite against the poor that brought us, from Brexit to Brazil, to this political moment: this time, our monsters.
Though we have seen them before, at every stage of human history, in every manner of civilization, still, we somehow fail to recognize them until democracy wheezes and trembles from her deathbed. Only now, after decades of a war on crime, on drugs, on terror, only now that the monster is your monster too, have some of us removed our blinders and born witness to the centuries long patterns of young dying, those Black ways of surviving, the resilience some call criminal, that now becomes a guiding light.

Black Lives Matter.

Like slaves who took their freedom by running, or migrants who created an underground economy when jobs were denied them. Or women who took back their bodies and chose regardless of what man’s law said was their right. They chose. Like those who choose to fight instead of die, to drug instead of kill, to dissent instead of consent. The point is, criminals are made by context, as laws are made and unmade, and made again to retain order. The only question here is whose?

Whose order is maintained when a history of racially biased policing and incarceration creates an American criminal justice system that holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories. Whose order is maintained when 60% of incarcerated people are people of color? When nationally, according to census data, Blacks are incarcerated 5 times more than whites for similar crimes, and Latinos are nearly twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated.Whose order is when 2.3 million children have an incarcerated parent, and yet the cost of a call to speak to an incarcerated loved one right here at home cost more than a call from here to the Philippines?

But these aren’t only numbers. They are my cousin Romeo, who was released from prison this week. He was convicted at 15 for a first offense. He is 32 years old now. They are my uncle Kamau, who has two daughter and loves dogs. He used to do Tai-chi in the mornings. He is a Black Panther. He is incarcerated for life in Georgia, charged with a crime he did not commit. For the last ten years, both on the right and the left, massive pressure has resulted in a shared desire to reduce incarceration. My good friend Van Jones has a campaign called Cut 50, to reduce the prison population by half in 10 years. An admirable goal. As someone with loved ones inside, and who, myself, has been to jail, this is something I desperately want. The question is, de-carcerate at what cost? How? Whose order will be maintained?

When the goal of de-carceration is primarily fiscal, the future of mass incarceration goes digital, and it’s terrifying. I speak here of electronic monitors. The result of electronic monitoring is less overhead with more people under the control of courts and community corrections. According to a recent Pew Research Report, some 125,000 people a year are on an electronic monitor in the US because of an encounter with the criminal justice system. Some estimates put the figure much higher. In 2005 only 53,000 people were on EM.  Most devices now can conduct GPS location tracking, able to track individual’s location in real time 24 hours a day. One of the most common applications of these monitors is in pre-trial release programs. In the spring of this year Philadelphia announced a six million dollar program to cut jail population, largely by releasing more people while they await judgement. According to EM researcher James Kilgore, more than 60% of those in the Philadelphia jail have not been convicted of a crime.  As part of this process the city announced a request for proposals from EM providers to supply the city with about 2,000 ankle bracelets. Grassroots activists like the Media Mobilizing Project and others have expressed concern about who stores all that location data? Can it be shared? How long can it be kept? What are the inputs on the algorithmic formula used to determine who gets released on EM? Why is EM posited only as an alternative to prison? Where, when, and for whom does actual freedom become an option? There is increasing evidence that the algorithmic formulas used to make these decisions contain deep-seated racial bias, so we must explore the extent to which EM both infringes upon core civil rights and represents a new frontier to compile surveillance data. We must ask ourselves, whose order is maintained?

But electronic incarceration is not limited to prisons, jails, and detention centers. It extends its awful reach through the brutal arm of racially biased policing. Broken windows policing, the abusive parent of stop and frisk, gave birth to its technological brain child: predictive policing. Though hailed by some as a methodology that can predict crime and criminals, others call that racial profiling, and say there’s nothing new about that. I would say in fact using science and technology to prove criminality is as old as it gets. Many are clear that research bears out the likely truth that neither crime reduction nor police accountability will ever come from an algorithm. Yes, algorithms can help us wade through the bigger and bigger sets of data that come from a surveillance state. The more we watch, the more data we have, the more we need efficient quick means of creating meaning from that data, and yet despite centuries of data suggesting that good jobs, schools, food, democracy reduces crime; despite data that demonstrates that criminalizing drugs, homelessness and quality of life transgressions increases crime: the result is the same, brutal policing and mass incarceration of Black and brown bodies. So it seems that data is not what we lack. What we lack is power, and no algorithm can change that.

Take Baltimore, for example: Several weeks ago, a federal investigation into the Baltimore Police Department that was prompted by the killing of an unarmed young Black man Freddie Gray in 2015, found a “pattern and practice” of unconstitutional conduct within the Baltimore Police Department that led to a disproportionate rate of stops, searches, and arrests of Black people, as well as excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities. Despite this, and Baltimore’s own Black uprising dubbed “riot” by some, police presence in the city has only intensified through the use of high tech surveillance equipment that disproportionately spies on Black people in general, and Black activists in particular. In the midst of these disparities of wealth and privilege, Baltimore police have moved far beyond wire-tapping to employ high-tech tools such as social media data-mining, facial recognition software, cell phone tracking devices, and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. These tools are used beyond the scope of specific investigations, catching the entire city in their gaze. But the virtual eye of these surveillance practices is trained on Black Baltimore. The latest revelations about Geofeedia exposed by the ACLU revealed how the private data-mining company gained permission to scrape information from social media sites Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and feed it to some 500 police agencies with whom they contract (the three social media sites have since cut ties with Geofeedia). Among them was the Baltimore Police Department who requested assistance during the Freddie Gray protests.  Geofedia responded by tracking hashtags, photos, and video on social media.

Other recently released records show that for the last five years, police in Maryland have used facial recognition software to cull through millions of photographs from driver’s licenses, mug shots, and other police records. Spokespersons defended the software program saying it was being used to “aggressively pursue all criminals.” Baltimore police admitted to using the technology to scan crowds and prosecute those who participated in protests against police violence, despite a high likelihood of inaccuracy. Recent research from the Georgetown Center on Privacy and Technology reported that facial recognition technologies are more likely to misidentify or fail to identify Black faces than those of other races. Though this technology is being used in Baltimore, and rolled out across the country, little is being done to address it’s clear racial bias.

If that were not enough, in Spring 2015 a Baltimore police detective testified in court that Stingray technology had been used in 4,300 cases since 2007. A review of police records by USA Today found that many of these were for petty cases, like a stolen phone, and one-third of cases were later dismissed. Another study showed that in 1,700 incidents of Stingray use, 90 percent were to locate suspects in African American neighborhoods. In Maryland, State’s Attorneys are supposed to be notified by law, but most were kept in the dark. As a result of Baltimore Police Department’s failure to obtain the FCC license needed to use the airwaves needed to operate this technology, civil rights groups brought a formal complaint against the department.

Black activists, and all people in Baltimore, are not only being spied on via their social media and cell phones. The FBI admitted to flying a plane over Baltimore for five days of the Freddie Gray protests with a Baltimore police representative on board. Baltimore police have since outsourced aerial surveillance to the private company Persistent Surveillance Systems. Back in a secret office, they can scroll backwards and forwards in time to observe people’s movements.

For the most part, this surveillance has been warrantless, secret, and pervasive. In many cases, though not all, these four technologies were used pre-crime, beyond the scope of specific investigations, and fit the description of mass surveillance, with clear evidence of racial bias.

This is what e-carceration looks like in one city, where technology is being used to expand the carceral state, allowing policing and imprisonment to stand in for civil society while seemingly neutral algorithms justify that shift. This is happening. In dozens of American cities today, surveillance technologies from ankle bracelets and body worn cameras (both hailed as advances by advocates), to Stingrays, license plate readers, face recognition and more, are being used to police and jail entire groups of civilians.

At the border and at the protest. In jail and at home. In hijabs and in hoodies. We are living in an open-air prison, and I hope that you see it before it’s too late. I hope you’re able to recognize that power and position, race and wealth, not culpability, determine guilt in America. I’m not talking about episodes, I am talking about patterns. American policing is not historically drenched in fear, it is drenched in bias. Fear only becomes the story in the absence of an accurate analysis of power. When digital technologies are introduced into those dynamics of power, a system of structural surveillance emerges that deploys the use of force to deal with disposable populations, either to feed our systems of criminal justice, social programs and public health, or remove those undesirable people from this earth, permanently. Digital technologies extend the reach of this structural surveillance, make it persistent for some and nearly invisible to those with enough power to escape its gaze.

My friend Hamid Khan from Stop LAPD Spying often says “this isn’t a moment in time, but a continuation of history.” This complex system of overlapping surveillance regimes did not emerge overnight, they became permanent aspects of government and society over time. In 18th century New York, for example, an article I read talked about how the fear of armed insurrection by enslaved people led to a series of ordinances strictly regulating the movement of blacks and Indians within the city. One such class of statutes required all unattended slaves to carry lighted lanterns after dark so that they could be easily identified and monitored by white authorities. Any person of color found in violation of these lantern laws was sentenced to a public flogging of up to 40 lashes.

The same law and order rhetoric that was used to garner support for Lantern Laws and later for Black Codes, that supported Jim Crow, that suppressed the Black vote, has always been racially coded, has always associated Black protest and rebellion with fears of street crime. In 1968, it became apparent that Republicans could cleave Southern whites away from the Democratic Party through tough-on-crime rhetoric that played on racial fears. This so-called “Southern Strategy”, tapped into anxieties among working-class whites that the civil rights reforms of the 1960s would lead to them competing with Blacks for jobs, housing, and schools. The same anxieties Trump used to win. The same anxieties that make a majority white America overwhelmingly vote yes on tougher punishments, longer sentences and more and more surveillance.

This desire for safety, this white fragility and fear in the face of one’s own power and privilege reminds me of abusers in a violent relationship. When the abuser finds that you have stepped on their pride, or stepped out of line, you have broken the rules, accidentally or on purpose, and so they crush your skull. Like they broke Freddie’s spine. Like they killed Philando, Trayvon, Tamir, Korryn, Tanisha, Yvette, Eric, Michael, and on and on. Whose order is maintained?

Policing and prison are both literal and figurative in the American racial context, and living in a digital age and era of big data makes this even more so. Even the processes through which civic life and social services are delivered fall within this system of structural surveillance. My mother used to tell me stories of being on welfare in the 20th century, as conservative backlash movements adopted racially coded language like “welfare queen” that presented images of an out-of-control Black and Latino underclass. The result was a wide-ranging system of welfare surveillance, stripping benefit recipients of their dignity, privacy and, ultimately, their social safety net. Under the guise of fraud prevention and quality control, government agencies closely scrutinized applicants, demanding that they identify all sexual partners, submit to blood and urine tests, open their homes to unannounced (and warrantless) searches by government agents. Whose order is maintained?

Black people have always been watched. Until they are integrated into whiteness, migrants have always been watched. At its core, this pervasive and persistent system of structural surveillance is a means of managing dissident groups, a burden disproportionately borne by Black communities in America and across the globe. This is the digital future of prisons and policing, and under our new president it should scare you as much as it scares me.

Sadly, only when the shards of our humanity are scattered all around us, dust in a vicious wind, do we stop and question whether it is more important that there are people who break laws or, despite the thin veneer of democracy within a nation of such vast rhetoric of freedom and liberty, that it is in fact the law that breaks the people. I have always been more concerned with those who are broken, and what can be done to bring protagonism back. On this day, at this hour of human arrogance, of digital decadence, as our ability to use tools has distorted into the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus ever, so too does fascism ascend; so too does explicit white nationalism gain ground in the White House, his name is Steven Bannon.

Whether we will live in Hitler’s Germany, the America McArthy and J. Edgar Hoover built, depends entirely upon who we see when we look in the mirror. A criminal? A slave? A bystander? An ally? A freedom fighter? There is no room to ride the fence now, now it is time to choose. Which side are you on? The side of democracy or of corporatism? The side racial justice or white nationalism? What are you willing to risk? To do? To say? Will you continue to debate narrowly about a rigged election, or will you broaden to fight against a rigged democracy?

The powers that be have for centuries chained Black bodies to the label criminal, and used that rhetoric to sell white people and everyone else, including Black folks, a false bill of goods. The 13th amendment, the emancipation proclamation, could not relieve itself of that. I stand before you, a criminal Black, a dangerous immigrant, a terrorist Muslim, a predatory transgender, a model asian, an innocent white. All these shades of anti-Black racism are bound up with our notions of innocence and guilt, of criminal and citizen. This racial hierarchy has been written in lightening, with political force, and now, in the 21st century, it has become a digital eugenics, incarcerating us all.

But, even in darkness, there is the unbearable light of your own being. Even as Trump marches his team of terrifying altRight patriarchs into White House, our movements are preparing for him. We are securing our data. We are training each other. We are building movements secure enough to risk, strong enough to sustain through his New York Winter. Despite this growing authoritarianism, we will create new approaches to security and accountability. My mother, a Black Panther, always said to me, remember, “You are the people, not the police.” Scary how a society can deputize you without your consent.

But we came to slay the system and change the world. Electronic incarceration, predictive policing, racially biased mass surveillance all place Black and brown bodies at the center of its gaze, push whiteness, white power and white privilege to near invisibility. Till it becomes niether cause or effect. It is simply the natural environment, built not to be questioned or understood, not to be placed into context, it is the context. This is the effect of a racial surveillance state, when all eyes are on you, and nothing else.

That’s why we have to change this story about surveillance from one focused on elite individual bougoise liberties to reveal the core civil and human rights at stake here. You are the makers, you can choose to recast what we mean by security, you do not have to write the status quo into being, that is a choice. A decision. And depending on which choice you make, in four years, when you point at the monster who will you see?

The only thing that can defeat e-carceration and mass surveillance is a movement equally mass in scale, that draws as much from our history of resistance and dissidence as that system does from our shared history of inequality and suppression, that presents both defense and demands of this state no matter who is at it helm. Together, we can reject the racialized myth of natural selection, criminality is made not born. Progress is not inevitable, it requires our intervention. And if we intervene, if we are willing to put ourselves on the line to acknowledge our shared fate, perhaps then we will deserve to be part of this world again, to be heroes in our own story. I believe. I believe the story of our victory is at least as long as the story of our suffering. I believe that we will tip the balance of power, put the tools of liberation back in the hands of the people, so we can determine our own destiny. Repeat the words of Audre Lorde:

When I dare to be powerful.

To use my strength

In the service of my vision

It becomes less and less important.

Whether I am afraid.

About the Author

Malkia Cyril

Malkia A. Cyril is founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network. For decades, Malkia has strengthened the organizing and communications capacity of grassroots leaders to ensure racial and economic justice in a digital age. A prolific writer and public speaker, Cyril's articles and quotes-- on issues from Net Neutrality and mass surveillance to the communication rights of prisoners and new strategic communications approaches-- have appeared in Politico, the Huffington Post, Motherboard, Mic.com, Essence Magazine, and dozens more, including documentary films Outfoxed, MissRepresentation, and most recently Ava DuVernay's exciting film: 13th, released by Netflix on October 7th 2016. Cyril is a Prime Movers fellow, recipient of the 2012 Donald H. McGannon Award for work to advance the roles of women and people of color in the media reform movement, the 2015 Hugh Hefner 1st Amendment Award for framing net neutrality as a civil rights issue, and the 2016 EFF Pioneer Award for their leadership on digital civil rights. Born of parents in the Black Panther Party, Cyril is now one of few leaders of color in the movement for digital rights and freedom, and a proud leader in the Black Lives Matter Network.

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