America's 226th Birthday

Despite the harsh weather (97-degree heat), at approximately 1:30 pm on "Independence Day," Thursday 4 July 2002, the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP-New York) performed in front of the series of surveillance cameras that ring Manhattan's historic Bowling Green Park. Though these globe-shaped cameras are not labeled, they are probably operated by a city, state or federal law enforcement authority. The cameras are installed (usually in pairs) upon city-owned traffic poles. Close inspection reveals that these cameras use pairs of small microwave transmitters to beam the images that they capture up to similar devices installed on the roof of the US Customs House. From there, the images can be beamed literally anywhere in southern Manhattan. (Located at the very end of Broadway, Bowling Green is a bit of green in the midst of New York's financial district. Wall Street is just 2 blocks to the north; 3 more blocks to the north and you're at the site of now-destroyed the World Trade Center.)

The SCP-New York had originally planned to perform in front of the surveillance cameras running face recognition software that were installed at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island at the end of May 2002. (The group had been unable to protest this alarming development -- aptly described as "an insult to all Americans" by the American Civil Liberties Union -- at the time it took place because most of the SCP-New York's members were busy touring Germany.) But a team of SCP-New York scouts dispatched to southern Manhattan at the beginning of July 2002 determined that neither Ellis Island nor the Statue of Liberty would be good places for performances because:

1) the stairs leading to the top of the Statue of Liberty have been closed since 11 September 2001;

2) one passes by the cameras running face recognition software after one has purchased non-refundable ferry tickets, which cost $10 each;

3) the ferries that visit (or, rather, circle around) the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island no longer depart from the Battery Maritime Building, which is located on land owned by the State of New York, but from Castle Clinton, which, like the Statue of Liberty itself, is a national monument, which means that it is controlled by the federal government, not the State of New York;

4) the laws concerning performances and political demonstrations, especially those that are staged "without a permit," are more elaborate and much tighter at national monuments than at the places at which the SCP-New York typically performs (indeed, while the team of scouts were at Castle Clinton, they saw a street performer dressed as the Statue of Liberty hassled by security guards, even though she had not entered but was was standing outside of the Castle's entrance); and

5) the group might very well find that the real "price of admission" to the ferry includes the confiscation and, no doubt, destruction of its placards (an entire play), as well as $40 cash (assuming there are 4 performers).

And so, the SCP-New York chose instead to perform in front of the cameras around Bowling Green -- which sits at the entrance to Battery Park, which in turn includes Castle Clinton -- despite the fact that face recognition software isn't being used to "enhance" the performance of the cameras around Bowling Green. The group decided that the use of face recognition software would have to be taken up on another occasion.

On its own terms, 4 July 2002 was the perfect occasion for an SCP performance: it was a veritable spectacle of modern surveillance techniques. In the name of protecting its citizens from "further terrorist attacks," which were said to be possible or even likely on an important national holiday such as the 4th of July, "security" was "beefed up" all over America. The "threat level" was coded "yellow," which means "significant." Some celebrations were cancelled; in Washington, DC, a huge security fence was erected. In New York City, the NYPD deployed 4,000 uniformed officers (and untold numbers of undercover cops) at the fireworks show, used thousands of other officers (some with bombing-sniffing dogs and radiation detectors) to enter and patrol "sensitive" buildings and transportation hubs, used all of its helicopters to patrol the skies, and set up 14 heavily armed checkpoints along major arteries of automobile traffic; the FBI, with help from national weapons research laboratories such as Livermore, used special vans and helicopters to detect "suspicious" radiation emissions, which might indicate the presence of a "dirty bomb"; the US Navy stationed a couple of gunships in New York's harbor; and the US Air Force used F-16 fighters to patrol the skies and enforce "no-fly zones" around national monuments, nuclear facilities, oil refineries, and so forth. It's hard to imagine that the various American military and intelligence agencies that operate satellites and satellite-eavesdroping stations weren't also involved in monitoring all of the activities taking place both "on the ground" and in "the air space" above it.

Wearing the bar codes and American flags that were originally designed for use in the play entitled Amnesia, four members of the SCP-New York -- Bill, Sean, Kimberly and new-comer Erika -- paraded back and forth in front of the surveillance cameras at Bowling Green, performing It's OK, Officer in front of every single one. Written in response to post-September 11th "security precautions" being taken in New York City, It's OK, Officer has since then become something of an SCP classic. It can be depended upon, even or especially when performed in tense or delicate situations. For example, it has worked in front of the Israeli Embassy and in a foreign country (Germany).

But, unlike past performances of the play, this one didn't bring forth questions from the police. The uniformed officers who were stationed at the Customs House (and no doubt elsewhere) watched the spectacle closely, but stayed in the shadows, avoiding the sun. What with the 97-degree heat, there was obviously no way they were going to make themselves physically uncomfortable just so that they could ask the SCP-New York to explain just what the fuck they were doing. What they were doing was perfectly obvious and required no explanation: they were carrying around signs that (ironically?) assured the officers that everything was in fact "OK." In that kind of heat, irony gets the benefit of the doubt.

Laughing and sweating the whole way, the SCP-New York then headed up Broadway, once again stopping to perform in front of every surveillance camera it encountered. There were several on each block. At Wall Street, the group turned right and performed in front of the surveillance cameras installed on the Bank of New York and the New York Stock Exchange, in front of which the SCP-New York hasn't performed since 18 June 1999. Turning right on Nassau Street and then right again on Exchange Street, the group made its way through some of the most heavily surveilled areas in Manhattan: there were cameras everywhere. There were also security guards posted in front of every major building. Though these guards never took their eyes off of the SCP-New York, they mostly smiled in response to their performance. When the group returned to Broadway, some of the performers overheard a voice on a near-by security guard's two-way-radio say, "They should be coming up near you any second."

The group then continued up Broadway and passed by the site of the World Trade Center disaster. A few tourists took pictures of the performance. One woman called out her approval (!). The group continued walking up Broadway until it finally reached City Hall, at which it performed the play in front of each of the police surveillance cameras installed near the building's east side. Once again several uniformed police officers watched, but did nothing, or, rather, did nothing but sweat and smile.

Through out the entire peregrination, Kimberly's friend George handed out SCP flyers and Anna videotaped it. The SCP-New York has high hopes for the documentary Anna says she's making because, as it turns out, she is from Stockholm and will be returning there soon. And so she will have a unique opportunity to videotape performances by and interviews with two SCP groups: the one in New York and the one in Stockholm, which first performed as part of the 7 September 2001 International Day Against Video Surveillance. On 11 September 2002, both groups are scheduled to perform together as part of a second such day.

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NY Surveillance Camera Players