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Sunday, Dec 4, 2022

Imagining Safety Beyond Surveillance

Here in idyllic rural Vermont, Middlebury College is a bastion of beauty, tradition, stewardship, and of course — safety. In order to foster elite learning, we have a multitude of mechanisms to protect us from any possible interference from danger outside our marble walls. But according to the Community Council, surveillance cameras may be an added necessity to campus security. As one member of the council said, “While we live in a tight-knit community, we are part of a larger scary world.” Apart from this, there has been no explanation about how surveillance cameras might keep us safer. Many of us are left questioning, are we a tight-knit community? What is implied by “larger scary world?” In the conversation around surveillance on campus, many “common sense’ ideologies and markers of race, class, gender and sexuality are being evoked. We want to both deconstruct this logic and name the assumptions used to justify new cameras.

The construction of an internal Middlebury community — with its highly selected members — as being safe, and those in the larger world being scary, creates a fallacy that violence is enacted by “strangers,” and we are not complicit in it. Moreover, fear of criminal strangers has notoriously been mobilized at a cultural level to increase control over certain people. In other words, at Middlebury and in the larger world, we are not all surveilled equally. Cameras aren’t neutral. Adding new ones will not keep us safer. Certain bodies are already marked as scary and criminal before they have been “caught” committing a crime: black and Latino bodies have historically been watched on this campus, mirroring how they are hyper-policed in the “outside” world. This is also true for gender non-conforming, trans and visibly queer people. The following are a few examples of the discriminatory results of surveillance and policing on this campus.

Recently, a non-white, non-gender conforming individual was confronted by public safety primarily for breaking the overnight guest rule. An anonymous author, writing for beyond the green, argued that her girlfriend was watched, confronted and treated more harshly because of her marginalized identity: she was viewed as having “something to hide,” while other violators of the guest rule are regularly treated with more leniency and given the benefit of the doubt. Surveillance reinforces normative identities by making deviance ever visible. Given that Middlebury has historically regulated and stigmatized non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality — permitting threats of violence against gay and lesbian identifying students to go unchallenged — widespread visibility is not associated with safety for marginalized identities.

Three years ago, a guest that an FYC brought to campus was forcibly removed by public safety. The details of this event are complicated; however, arguments were made then that still hold up now that factors such as the age, race and radical identity of this man likely had something to do with making the students feel “unsafe” and causing public safety to not just ask him to leave, but to (effectively) arrest him. Language of unsafe, stranger and scary is not neutral; rather, these terms are code words for certain bodies and certain practices; and in our society — as well as in the starkly white community of Middlebury — the black (male) body is marked as the most unwanted and unsafe stranger, continuously hyper-criminalized.

In questioning the politics of putting even more power into the hands of the administration, we should ask, why the panic? Middlebury already has multiple systems of surveillance and control: key cards track who has entered into buildings at what time, Public Safety reads our emails, and we have two surveillance cameras (one outside of Parton and one in the MCA). So far — again highlighting how surveillance is not neutral — these technologies have been used to punish acts of civil disobedience on this campus. Through surveillance, Middlebury’s administration arrogates power to itself by gaining exclusive access to the personal information of all who inhabit its campus, disciplining people by rendering deviance constantly visible, and normalizing punitive measures for handling conflict. For instance, just a year ago, one student — notably, a trans student with radical politics — was punished for her protest against anti-gay Red Cross policies. She was found out via key card technology and then suspended for a year. This instance represents a practice of discriminatory surveillance that seeks out acts of deviance and then reinforces punitive frameworks.

Looking beyond our campus we can also find examples of how surveillance has different effects on different people, depending on whether their communities have historically been deemed necessary to criminalize or to protect. Expanding on the notion about “which crimes will be punished,” and the idea that surveillance will only increase existing power structures, we turn to the case of Oscar Grant, a black man shot and killed by a police officer in 2009. The murder of Grant was caught on camera and the prosecutor attempted to use the footage to convict the white officer. However, the footage must have been disregarded as evidence, since the officer was not convicted of first degree murder and only served two years in jail before being released. Within a justice system in which carceral punishment is our only mechanism for dealing with this type of crime, this inconsistent sentencing, upheld by systemic racism, completely devalues the life of Oscar Grant. The use of video footage to solve crimes must be considered within the racism that still haunts our criminal justice system. Which “crimes” do cameras call attention to, or have the ability to see? The guise of neutrality, so clearly not in evidence, has contributed to a long history of devaluing certain identities. This type of evidence is used when it holds up current power systems, disregarded when it does not.

You might be asking, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care?” The NYPD’s stop and frisk policy shows us why this should matter to all of us. While it didn’t use surveillance cameras per se, it was a widespread surveillance program that had a devastating effect on thousands of people. Out of over 4 million stops in ten years, only one tenth of percent yielded illegal firearms — the purported reason for this policy. 90 percent of the stops yielded no evidence of criminal activity but the idea that people can be stopped for no reason has far-reaching consequences for all of us. Similarly, surveillance cameras assume guilt and require one to “prove” their innocence. Do you want to trade your rights for such low returns?

Surveillance has an acute effect on the way crime or rule breaking is dealt with on campus, favoring punitive over transformative justice. This can be illustrated in another interview with Director of Public Safety Lisa Bouchard, who states that the surveillance cameras’ purpose is “to keep people safe and solve crimes,” (The Middlebury Campus, 2008). The masculinist logic of objective technological evidence encourages punitive measures and works to obscure the social context underlying an incident on campus through its guise of objectivity. Although the watching claims to be neutral, it is not; the results of surveillance (who is caught, who is punished) are up to those doing the surveilling. We don’t view visual images neutrally, so when exclusive access to video footage is in the hands of administration, it can be employed as “neutral evidence” despite the continued functioning of power.

These technologies cannot be objective because they take on and reflect values from the context of their use, reproducing the unequal social orders in which they are grounded. They do not represent an opportunity for community-based transformation. That surveillance cameras can supposedly solve crimes makes assumptions about what kinds of crimes are committed and where. For instance, we could never hope to “solve” the crime of sexual assault, when the vast majority of this violence occurs behind dorm room doors.

This week a few renowned scholar-activists discussed these issues in light of the larger state-sponsored violence embedded in the prison industrial complex at a panel: Critical Queer Perspectives on the Carceral State. They argued that Middlebury’s surveillance cameras cannot be seen outside of the overall neoliberal state (the U.S.), which repeatedly criminalizes the survival strategies of marginalized people. Therefore, integrating the transformative critiques of these panelists, we must see how surveillance becomes complicit in oppression and find better methods of security. The panelists invited us to consider alternative ways of creating justice and building communities that truly transform our current social conditions; this may enable us to actually become “tight-knit.” One idea is to work on building community and mutual accountability, while developing restorative justice frameworks.

Just like the Prison Industrial Complex and systems of policing and criminalization, surveillance cameras do not make us safe. Rather, they centralize power, strengthen punitive frameworks, criminalize already marked, marginalized, “deviant” bodies and politics. They perpetuate myths of “neutrality” and “objective” technology, which actually stems from patriarchal logics and modes of being and acts unequally on a diverse social body. We should endeavour to be critical of the supposed beneficial effects of expanded surveillance, as it has primarily served to silence resistance, strengthen punishment and target those individuals already marginalized. For more information, visit beyond the green’s blog at go/btg.

MOLLY STUART ’15.5 is from Santa Cruz, Calif. LILY ANDREWS ’14 is from Minneapolis, Minn. ALLY YANSON ’14 is from Naples, Fla. KATIE WILLIS ’12 is from Birmingham, Ala. JACKIE PARK ’15 is from Los Angeles, Calif. ALEX STROTT ’14.5 is from  Baltimore, Md. and ALEXANDER CHABALLIER ’16.5 is from Paris, France.  Artwork by JENA RITCHEY.