Theater Troupe Cries 'Orwell!' at Bloomberg's Camera Plan

Fifteen minutes into a talk about surveillance cameras on a late September Sunday in Greenwich Village, Bill Brown pointed over the heads of an audience assembled at the southwestern corner of Washington Square Park.

"I bet none of you noticed the camera that has been staring at us this whole time," Mr. Brown said. A dozen 20-somethings craned their necks to make eye contact with a Police Department camera mounted atop a traffic light at the intersection of MacDougal Street and Washington Square South. The crowd stared, blinking to make out a tiny lens inside a frosted black orb. Mr. Brown shook his head and coaxed the group to another spot.

"Cameras are too late to catch robbery, rape, terrorism," he continued, positioning himself for effect in the blind spot of an antiquated closed-circuit TV camera mounted on a New York University dorm. A pair of gigantic military-issue binoculars hung over his black T-shirt. "You are mopping up the crime scene after the fact, and this is especially true with suicide bombers . . . who would prefer to be caught on video."

For the past seven years, Mr. Brown, 48, a volunteer activist employed by day as a freelance copy editor for a midtown advertising firm, has offered free monthly tours of camera-equipped neighborhoods around the city. He also stages street theater productions in front of closed-circuit cameras in crowded parks and subway stations for the benefit of passersby -- and for whomever happens to be monitoring the video feed.

The September start of a plan to equip the Financial District with a massive camera system by 2009, Mr. Brown says, has brought the surveillance issue to a "tipping point." Modeled after London's "Ring of Steel" camera grid, the plan calls for 3,000 new closed-circuit cameras, over 100 electronic license plate readers, and automatic street barricades to be installed in the two-square-mile area south of Canal Street that is home to the Federal Reserve, the New York Stock Exchange and the headquarters of dozens of financial firms. So far, the Police Department has kept secret the details, such as potential camera locations and contract negotiations. A spokesman for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in an interview earlier this month that the city had purchased 400 license plate readers in October. Footage from the new cameras will be monitored from a single downtown station staffed by police and corporate security guards. The Lower Manhattan network will be funded partly by a $10 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

"What makes this initiative new," Mr. Brown said, "is . . . the very large-scale cooperation between the federal government that actually buys the cameras but doesn't watch them, and the watchers, who are individuals from private security firms hired by corporations and companies. "The reason this is so important is that it confirms what Orwell foresaw in 1984, that there will be a single Big Brother."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at an Oct. 2 press conference in London that cameras are "a little bit of an infringement on your rights," but he argued that they are necessary to make the city safer. "We live in a dangerous world, and people want to have security cameras," Mr. Bloomberg said after touring the Ring of Steel. "There are some people who don't like the cameras, but the alternatives are so much worse . . . . It's ridiculous, people who object to using technology."

Some critics argue that the funding for hidden camera systems could be more effectively spent on traditional methods for reducing crime and deterring terrorists. Melissa Ngo, director of the Identification and Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, cited a study by the British Home Office -- the equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security -- concluding that electronic surveillance in London has not decreased crime levels.

"People need to understand that the millions of dollars that are being spent on these security initiatives do not come from a vacuum but are diverted from other homeland security initiatives," Ms. Ngo told The Observer. "Community policing has been proven to lower crime rates . . . actually seeing cops on the streets."

In December 1996, Mr. Brown and six other regulars at Blackout Books, a lefty bookshop on Rivington Street, created the Surveillance Camera Players, a guerrilla performance art troupe, to draw attention to surveillance in the former "center of the East Village counterculture," Washington Square Park. Mr. Brown said the group objected to the installation of cameras in the park under the guise of the "war on drugs." Increased policing failed to stamp out marijuana dealing in the park, he said, but it did manage to "break the back of a 30-year-old tradition" from the days of Ginsberg, Baez and Hoffman: an annual park smoke-out in protest of the marijuana laws.

The new justification for increased surveillance is the "war on terror," Mr. Brown said, but the drawbacks of electronic surveillance remain the same. "Cameras catch people doing things that fall under the rubric of just none of your business: kissing someone who's not your boyfriend or girlfriend, adjusting your clothes. The police in the watchers' booths look for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

Mr. Brown says his job is to "infotain" by educating his audience -- which he describes as "college-educated white people who have already decided that they don't like cameras" -- about the dangers of surveillance. "New York is an adult city, but it's as if we are children," he said. "The mayor has a tendency of saying, 'Just go about your business of working and shopping and let us worry about the rest.' He's trying to be cute and funny, but that's very intimidating."

(Written by Lysandra Ohrstrom, and published in the 23 October 2007 issue of The New York Observer.)

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