In NYC, a gadfly plays to hidden cameras

By Tom Hays, Associated Press, 09/27/99

NEW YORK - Big Brother is watching Bill Brown, whether Big Brother likes it or not.

In subway stations, parks and corners where agencies and businesses point security cameras around Manhattan, Brown and his cohorts pop up with props: crudely drawn signs quoting Orwell - "We will meet in a place where there is no darkness" - and a boom box sounding mock emergency broadcasts.

"America is now under martial law," one broadcast warns. "Shut up. Be happy. Obey all orders. Relax. Everything is done for you."

Part performance art, part political protest, Brown's theatrics are the work of what he calls the Surveillance Camera Players.

The group is composed of about two dozen self-described anarchists. According to their manifesto, members view hidden cameras as "a tool of social control. ... The group intends to explode the myth that only those who are doing something wrong fear surveillance cameras."

Brown, 40, is a media-friendly subversive with a sense of humor, a former literature professor who now gets by as a legal proofreader on a graveyard shift. He views Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as someone who has turned City Hall into his own Ministry of Love, manipulating the masses under the banner of "public safety."

The native New Yorker founded Surveillance Camera Players in 1996 in response to the proliferation of video surveillance around the city.

"It's hard not to view it all as a conspiracy," he said.

The group's early productions, mainly performed in subways until they were broken up by police, included rapid-fire, dumbed-down versions of 1984, "Waiting for Godot," and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Since then, the group has been a regular feature on an anarchist Web site -`notbored - and has gotten international media coverage.

"It began as a few people fooling around," Brown said. "Now, we're a serious group."

The Surveillance Camera Players has had no trouble being watched: A 1998 survey by the New York Civil Liberties Union found more than 2,300 surveillance cameras trained on public spaces in Manhattan. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey alone reportedly operates more than 1,200 cameras throughout airports, bridges, tunnels, and terminals, most monitored from a control room n the World Trade Center.

The group's latest stage is popular Washington Square Park, a notorious drug-dealing spot in the heart of Greenwich Village where police have installed high-tech, remote-control cameras designed to look like street lamps. Zoom lenses feed monitors watched by police officers in a mobile command center at the park's south end.

On a recent Saturday, the officers were treated to the premiere of "Headline News." The performance, a send-up of a newscast, included Brown slowly banging a drum while other players silently an assault rifle titled "National News," and a horned-and-fanged Giuliani titled "Local News."

Passersby were handed fliers warning, "You are being watched.... Not only can you and your movements be tracked wherever you are in this open-air prison, but every one of your facial expressions is visible too."

The mayor and police officials deny any sinister motives. They have defended the cameras' use in housing projects and other areas, touting them as an effective and popular crime-fighting tool. Besides, Police Commissioner Howard Safir has argued, "You have no right to privacy in a public place."

In an interview, Brown disagreed. Rampant video surveillance, he argued, infringes on a right New Yorkers hold dear: anonymity.

"We're in a place where people want to blend in," he said. "It runs against the very texture of New York. ... The society I would like is where people police themselves, not where people police us by increasingly impersonal means."

Asked about a magazine article describing him as "mildly paranoid," Brown set the record straight.

"I'm very paranoid," he said.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

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

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