In conversation with Bill Brown
from New York City's Surveillance Camera Players

Bill Brown is a member of the New York City Surveillance Camera Players. The SCP are an anti-surveillance activist group that has been organising, amongst others, walking tours of cameras in NYC and coordinated the third international day of action against video surveillance on the 19th and 20th of March 2006. "We Know You Are Watching, The Surveillance Camera Players 1996-2006", was recently published by the Factory School.

The SCP seem to be an exception to the rule that U.S. radical groups are not very well known outside the U.S. -- why?

Because we haven't been caught by typical hang-up setups that effect the left scene and anarchists, the inability to really understand the richness of what the media can mean. I am a very fierce media critic and find that the media lies consistently; nevertheless they are not a monolith and you can exploit cracks, inconsistencies and contradictions within them. Other groups in the U.S. either ignore the media all together or depend upon them completely. So either way their fortunes rise or fall with media attention. The only reason that the SCP get involved with the media and have done so successfully is that surveillance is media. You are inextricably involved in the media by definition of being interested in surveillance cameras. It would be impossible to not be involved with them at some level simply by being involved with surveillance cameras, which are a media. They just aren't a public media or an artistic media but they are irreducibly mediatric or theatrical. Other campaigns in NYC, whether anarchist or radical, do not begin by examining the roots of their problem nearly as clearly or the problems they examine are too broad. In other words, there is a knee-jerk response without thinking that the media does not necessarily know what it's doing at all times and it could therefore report things that other parts of the media think should better be suppressed. And they report things now without knowing that they would have better been suppressed ten years from now. The media is not nearly as conniving, sophisticated and in control as we think it is. From what I've seen behind the scenes, it comes out looking so well just because it is technically flash. But these people are not in full control of what they are doing . . . they do loose control in occasion.

Would this same remark go beyond the media to include other forms of power?

Absolutely. Whether it is police power in the street, with their tactics or their sense of organization for protecting a summit, it is generally easier to involve an enemy that is ruthless and highly organized than it is to realize that this enemy is actually very splintered and fragmented. This takes place not just in the media but in armies, actions, political actions, police's actions, financial actions: everything that they are not fully in control of their technical means, while there is a fantasy that they are.

Why is it a group like the SCP happened in NYC? Does it take the toughest forms of repression for such a brilliant anti-repression practice to come out?

I think so. Surveillance is not an issue that unites other parts of the country. There are some parts of the country that either have no surveillance cameras or have no concern about their uses. It happens to work very well in NYC because of its large amount of cameras. It is also very involved in the federal and international government, therefore there are federal and international cameras here. And the news media is based here. The great weakness of the news media is that they need to fill their content 24/7. In the moments when they are stretched thin they might put something on the air that in their better judgement would probably keep off the air. So here in New York a number of things overlap: Surveillance, growth and property, military actions and the news media. The SCP could not function at these levels of success in any other city. There wouldn't be sufficient numbers of cameras, sufficient numbers of them connecting with the police and the military and there just wouldn't be enough media to make it worthwhile to do such a thing. Ultimately the SCP use the media against itself.

Why didn't a group like the SCP happen in London, a city with features very similar to those characterising New York City?

People in London and elsewhere in the UK told me "it's too late, mate." They understood the cleverness of performing against the cameras, using the media against itself. That we just use surveillance cameras against themselves and engage in a war for the control of their images. People in England told me that this is a great idea but comes ten years too late. The surveillance camera players concept works best where cameras are freshly installed. When they are deeply ingrained as in England, the tactic is obsolete: it's then necessary to burn the fucking things. But in places like Turkey, Greece, Lithuania, Sweden, Germany . . . places where cameras are just going up, a negative public response is stronger. The public opinion there has much more of a role to play than it does in England. In the U.S. or in England the cameras have been up for a long time. Therefore the types of tactics that the SCP use aren't necessarily as effective as in a country where the subject is brand new and the theatrical public relations aspect of it becomes very powerful.

But at the same time in countries with freshly installed cameras, burning them down is easier. In Greece, people often burn down cameras and get some public support for doing so. A few days ago Athens lawyers' association made a statement, demanding that the cameras come down and expressing its solidarity to those who destroy them . . .

Yes, I saw the story . . . which is unique. And calls marking a change in how we approach the international day of action next year: by not distancing ourselves from violent forms of protest against the cameras. This has been a very important issue that has taken years to be able to think about. The cutting edge movement against surveillance cameras in Turkey, for example, is not yet destroying cameras; it is simply performing against them, mapping them, raising the subject. In other countries more dramatic action is called for. But for example in the American environment if you were destroying cameras people would see you as a reason for putting more cameras up: you're just another violent activist. While in Greece that switch is not capable, because the cameras are so new and fresh.

One group in France petitioned the mayor asking him to bring down the cameras. I can understand the need for diversity of tactics, but to what extent? If you had a group petitioning for better control of the cameras would you consider it part of the international day of action?

I would not. . . . Over the world there are different ways of protesting. The French network did indeed have a petition sent to various mayors of France. It was very clever in its way though I found it openly reformist. It was admitting that mayors have power, which I don't think they do. It was attempting to draw a distinction between the mayors of these cities and transnational capital by saying that the mayors are people with faces and names; that they come from communities, that they might actually like their communities etc. Trying to say that our problem is not with the government but with transnational capital. It was a fairly clever strategy to divide parts of of the ruling class from each other -- the mayors from the federalists -- but at the same time they did admit that the mayors have power. I wouldn't be able to support such an action in the same sense that I am not able to support an action that would call for simply registering the cameras, regulating them and allowing them to stay in place. It seems to me that if we are going to get the government involved at all it should be to rule that the cameras shouldn't exist. Ultimately they should come down until such time that their use can be confined.

And finally, the eternal dividing question in our movement, on violence and non-violence. . . .

There is plenty of violence in standing there with certain signs; you're doing violence to the ideology or the respect of the watchers. In Munich there's a law saying that you can't give the finger to a camera because you are showing personal disrespect for the camera operator. In this Munich law it isn't symbolic protest, it's very much a direct threat against the watcher. There is a very violent aspect in simple performances. It's legally accepted violence; it's not breaking the camera, but you are really breaking that person's authority.

The charm of the SCP is in that it has balanced the two extremes. It never got involved speaking to politicians, never humbled itself to be able to speak to them. On the other hand it has not done the reverse, which is to break cameras. It's managed to be active in this ground between typical bourgeois leftism and typical anarchism which is more direct action without the theory: it's managed to dance between the two fairly successfully.

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By email

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