Watching Harlem:

Surveillance camera tour Sunday

This Sunday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m., the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) will once again be on the streets of Harlem.

They won't be in Harlem doing a skit or for one of their regular performances in front of the area's surveillance cameras, though. This Sunday, the SCP will be conducting one of their famed walking tours, showing tour participants the various corners, buildings and street intersections where cameras have been positioned to monitor Harlem's every move.

"Absolutely nobody is making this information available," Bill Brown, the N.Y. SCP's founder, said about the growing use of surveillance cameras throughout New York City. Private businesses, state and federal buildings, and the local police have cameras set up to photograph people 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as they walk down the city's public streets.

The SCP have been conducting surveillance camera walking tours of Harlem, the Lower East Side, Times Square, Fifth Avenue (between 42nd and 50th streets), Chelsea, the NYU area and Greenwich Village for two years now. Since even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the group has been noting the growing number of surveillance cameras in New York City.

SCP members don't buy the suggestion that all of these cameras are being installed to provide security. "We're no longer talking about the police setting up cameras to look out for who's going to be a victim of crime," Brown said. "It's no longer about a crackdown on lawbreakers. I think that what they're doing is just keeping track of everybody -- whether you're good, bad or indifferent."

This Sunday's tour takes a look at the cameras positioned on 125th Street through 135th Street, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lexington Avenue -- where, at last count, there are already some 67 surveillance cameras in daily operation.

"Now people say, 'Well, as long as you're not doing anything wrong, what does it matter if they're watching me?' But we have to remember, the people operating these cameras could be looking at you even if you're doing nothing wrong. The people operating these cameras could zoom in on you to look down your blouse, or if you bend over, they could catch a shot of that. They could certainly catch things that are just not their business."

In England, where surveillance cameras had proliferated so much that by 1993, funding for them took up about two-thirds of that nation's anti-crime budget, statistics show that cameras tend to zero in on Black men and their actions.

"If you're gay, Black, Latino, or wearing a button that says 'No to war against Iraq,' these cameras will be used to single you out," Brown said.

New York City's [police] cameras began appearing during the years between 1998 and 2000, when the city was under the leadership of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Since then, and with the establishment of the Homeland Security Act, there have been proposals to have even more specialized cameras -- particularly ones with face recognition software, designed to "recognize" known "criminals" -- placed throughout the city.

Brown says that the SCP conducts its walking tours and provides free maps to tour participants as a free public service. "People should be finding out about this [surveillance of public places]. Our purpose is to educate people about this so that they can find out if they like it or not."

The New York Surveillance Camera Players' free tour of Harlem's surveillance cameras takes place on Sunday, Jan. 19. Tour participants will meet at the southeast corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard at 2 p.m. sharp. No reservations necessary. The tour will take place rain or shine and should last about 60 minutes. Call (212) 561-0106 or E-mail for updated information.

(Written by Karen Juanita Carrillo and published in the 16-22 January 2003 issue of The New York Amsterdam News.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998