It was in October 2013 when in San Francisco that I first heard the word “sousveillance.” Just what the hell is sousveillance? From Wikipedia:
The term “sousveillance”, coined by Steve Mann, stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning “above”, and sous, meaning “below”, i.e. “surveillance” denotes the “eye-in-the-sky” watching from above, whereas “sousveillance” denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).
I was in the Bay Area with Jacob Crawford as part of the Police Accountability Tour. We had dropped into a gathering hosted by the folks at Open Garden —the smartphone app that creates a meshnet with other users. So long as one user of the app has access to the Internet others can connect, similar to the veins in a leaf.
At that Open Garden meetup I met a gent — let’s call him Mr. A — who suggested that an app that maximized sousveillance could be of value. His opinion, that pointing cameras at coercers was just the first step.
To expand: if you chance across or are subjected to an interaction involving a person who may claim the legal right to initiate coercion it is now common practice to film the encounter. A decade ago, when fewer people owned camera-laden smartphones, it was more of an anomaly. And prior to that it was even more rare.
1991. That’s when a group of men wearing “Los Angeles Police” outfits beat a man named Rodney King. The fact that a person filmed the incident made a huge impact — maybe not in legal land (court), but culturally, increasing awareness of police employee brutality and unaccountability.
That was right around the time when some peeps in Berkeley, California came together under the Cop Watch banner. Some other folks — all wearing outfits with lettering bearing the word “police” — were harming people who, without a home to call their own, tended to congregate in certain areas, like a park. Those involved with Berkeley Cop Watch introduced a camera to that situation to create an objective record and even more important, to peacefully deter egregious interactions. But I digress.
At the meetup, Mr. A went on to suggest that the capture and leveraging of information related to coercers could be useful. He noted that this could include any bureaucrat, judge, politician, etc. And crazy as some of those folks may be, it’s often the person local to us that is the initiator of coercion.
The coercer may, for example, be a police employee who has slain someone, or even multiple people in shady incidents, yet remains employed. Such a person is well-known among colleagues as being heavy-handed and by others in the community (who may have lost a loved one or a friend or a neighbor) as rogue. Such a person has not exemplified integrity or helped those in need — they have done the opposite and have faced zero repercussions.
So now that we’ve identified such a coercer, what type of information about them might be gathered? And how could it be leveraged? How about identifying the coercers’ whereabouts? Rather than say, protesting outside their place of employment, which is at most an indirect way to express discontent, more direct action can be taken.
In 2012 in Keene, New Hampshire a man driving wildly on the lawns of an otherwise tranquil neighborhood knocked my friend off his bicycle. While leaning out his window, the man stuck an implement into the spokes of my friends bike, causing him to crash hardly. The man threw his car into park and quickly pounced on my friend who was so overwhelmed he didn’t fight back. My friend also probably chose not to fight back in that moment because the man — Finton P. Moore — was wearing a police outfit.
After video of the incident was put online the address of the coercer was obtained and a group of us went to his street. There, we attempted to speak to his spouse who happened to be outside at the time, sang some songs advocating peaceful interactions, then went door-to-door to inform his curious neighbors of what had transpired earlier that day.
At the time I felt that it was super effective and to this day, believe it a tactic to be replicated. Rather than impotently bemoaning the unjust actions done by this police employee we were armed with information about the coercer and we acted accordingly. In more significant situations — such as the example coercer given above, who is responsible for taking the lives of multiple people — other tactics may be employed.
Mr. A emphasized that those engaging in surveillance (think outfits like the NSA and FBI, fusion centers, mass surveillance projects, etc.) that attempt to track, record and analyze the actions of each of us — whether on social media, email, phone, text, our financials, cameras, license plate readers, drones and the like — are nothing compared to the combined efforts of millions of us.
Let me stress — Mr. A was not advocating wanton violence toward anyone. Nor am I with this post. Instead, we are pointing out that through sousveillance, when we do the watching, attention can be directed toward coercers and if warranted, some measure of accountability sought for their actions. It is a thought-provoking scenario (as is the discourse in the book Unintended Consequences and the video When Should You Shoot a Cop). And it may just be the check needed to counter paramilitary policing.
Mr. A suggested that filming was just the first step. I’d couple that with the first involvement of sousveillance: rather than allow a coercer to hide behind his or her place of employment, name them.
For example, not long from the time I spoke with Mr. A I stumbled upon an interaction on a nearby San Francisco street. It appeared as if a few folks were harassing another man. I stopped and filmed. A short time later the three folks, seemingly not fans of my video camera (perhaps not proud of their own actions), turned to leave. I asked the three folks — all being employed by the local police outfit — for their name and badge number. While two promptly provided it, the third continued to walk on. I asked again, and upon stepping off the sidewalk became his target. I was brought to their place of employment, questioned, and eventually let loose.
Afterward, instead of solely calling-out the San Francisco Police Department — a faceless entity — I named those involved, as they were responsible for their actions: Hamdy G Habib #2329, D Khuu #358, and J Woo.
Admittedly, the situation I faced in San Francisco was relatively minor. Others have experienced much more serious rights-violations (such as happened to Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket in Oklahoma or Tashii Brown-Farmer in Las Vegas or the thousands of others killed in the U.S.A. by police since 2000). In those instances, the involvement of sousveillance and the acting upon the acquired information, may be needed. Will we, as suggested by Mr. A, see the development of an app that is constructed to do just this?
What say you? If you have thoughts on this subject of sousveillance we’d like to hear from you. If relevant and desired, your content may be posted at Nevada CopBlock.