Walking Tours Shed Light on Surveillance Camera Use

The heavy rain Sunday afternoon was not enough to deter a group of resilient Manhattanites from attending a free walking tour of Harlem conducted by the New York Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), a group that protests the use of surveillance cameras in public places. The group soldiered on for over an hour and a half, even after being shown that they were under the watch of ominous Orwellian eyes--the surveillance cameras the tour was attempting to identify.

The widely anticipated tour of the Harlem area was organized to make New Yorkers aware of the use of surveillance cameras by the private and public sectors. Such constant surveillance, the group believes, "violates our constitutionally protected rights of privacy."

While the SCP has been holding its Surveillance Camera Outdoor Walking Tours since 2001, this was the first in the Harlem area. The goal of the tours is to expose the proliferation of security cameras in different Manhattan neighborhoods.

Bill Brown, a native New Yorker, former American literature professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and co-founder and Director of the SCP, started the group in Nov. 1996 as an "art school prank." He quickly became aware of the seriousness of the matter and reformed the players into a political, rather than performance art, group. As well as conducting the walking tours, the group organizes performances at the sites of different surveillance cameras in order to draw attention to them. Five years after the group's premiere performance, Brown has assembled a thorough website providing details of the SCP's multiple venues, surveillance camera maps, position papers on the subject, and information on other affected cities.

The site also outlines the debate regarding government surveillance camera use and the SCP's work. The SCP's website proclaims it as "completely distrustful of all government."

Brown said he was struck by how oblivious most New Yorkers are to the pervasiveness of surveillance cameras, but understood that they are easily overlooked. Having grown up in a house where his family routinely told him, "If someone is telling you to look up at the sky, they have their hand in your pocket," Brown said that most New Yorkers do not look up at buildings, where the majority of surveillance cameras are situated. He said that New Yorkers, unlike tourists, only "look at the ground in front of them to see what or who they are about to step on."

At the group's first performance in Dec. 1996, the players gathered around a surveillance camera and enacted a special adaptation of Alfred Jarry's play Ubu Roi. The next day, one of the players was informed by his brother, a tank commander in the U.S. Army, that his division had been briefed on the existence of a group who "did magic spells around cameras" and were told to treat the group with no hostility if confronted. This event confirmed Brown's suspicion that what he calls "surveillance camera movement"--the attempt by the government to expand surveillance camera use--in New York City was much larger than he had anticipated. Brown said the reason he has had little political retribution for the SCP's theatrical protests is that they have never "smashed one of the cameras."

"This surveillance camera effort needs secrecy," Brown said. "Secrecy needs oxygen. By talking about it, we pollute their oxygen."

The walking tours are given in a variety of Manhattan neighborhoods, but the Harlem tour was unique due to the findings of the SCP concerning surveillance camera use in the area. Brown conducted thorough studies of the Harlem area because "it was still pocked by large numbers of abandoned buildings and empty lots . . . and could be used as a starting point for documenting the connections between public surveillance and capitalist reclamation [or gentrification]." Brown found that the New York Civil Liberty Union's initial estimation of 36 surveillance cameras in Spanish Harlem had doubled to 67 by the year 2000 and doubled again to 120 in 2003.

When asked about the significance of this growth, Brown pointed to the correlation between the gentrification movements of the previous years and surveillance camera use. He said that as gentrification has grown, the number of cameras has increased. "Although the crime rate has dropped, the cameras have nothing to do with it," Brown said.

Despite this "breakneck speed" of increase, Harlem is still one of the least monitored neighborhoods in Manhattan, the SCP's website says. The number of surveillance cameras in Harlem is very close to the number in the Lower East Side. Citing NYCLU member Norman Siegel's findings, Brown said that the highest concentration of cameras are to be found in wealthier neighborhoods.

"Crime prevention plays little or no role [in surveillance camera use]; high concentrations of cameras are even present in rich neighborhoods that have low crime rates," the SCP's website reads. "The only thing surveillance cameras do is create a safe place to do business."

(Written by Carla Zanoni, and published in the 29 September 2003 issue of The Columbia Daily Spectator.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

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