Surveillance: Bill Brown's Walking Tours

We gaze on two slabs of the Berlin Wall tucked in a corner on East 53rd Street near Madison Avenue. The Wall is out of the way and there is only a small plaque that speaks about the historical importance of the graffiti-bearing concrete. The Wall is important enough, though, to warrant two tiny cameras hidden in tinted globes on the building, and two more obvious cameras mounted about 20 feet up on the wall of a Burger Heaven restaurant. Bill Brown, the leader of the security camera walking tour and an anti-surveillance advocate, has led six of us to this spot. Brown ends his walking tour of midtown here to make his point that "the Berlin Wall gets taken down in one particular place and gets rebuilt all over the world." As he's speaking a white camera comes to life and scans our group, a one-eyed metal lifeform that doesn't seem to like what it sees. More than words, the camera's movements prove Brown's point that we are being watched constantly, unnecessarily, maybe illegally. And as much as Brown hates the surveillance, I can't help thinking he's pleased. It's as if Al Sharpton has stumbled upon the LAPD beating Rodney King.

Bill Brown knows his enemy. On the midtown tour -- he also tours Chelsea, Harlem and every other Manhattan neighborhood -- he's [personally] mapped 190 surveillance cameras, simply by walking around hour after hour looking for lenses directed at public spaces. The New York Civil Liberties Union mapped almost 3,000 cameras in Manhattan a few years ago. Brown hasn't gotten around the city yet, but in Times Square alone he counted 130 cameras where the Civil Liberties Union found 75. Walking with Brown you see that there are cameras everywhere. Clunky safety deposit box-looking closed-circuit tv cameras. Sexy 360 degree rotating cameras inside lantern globes at Saks Fifth Avenue ("There's such an evil grace about these things," tour member Jesse Jarnow says of the Saks cameras.) Cameras in obvious places: at the Philippine consulate on Fifth Avenue. Outside St. Patricks Cathedral. Cameras in strange places: a webcam on the second floor of a wedding registry store on the southeast corner of 45th Street and Fifth Avenue. Cameras everywhere. A wall of surveillance watching us, but why?

Bill Brown will tell you why. Brown, a freelance legal proofreader -- a man who looks at things carefully for his living -- has been watched by the FBI, the NYPD and scores of other public and private agencies who he watches right back. Maybe it's from experience, maybe he is just a mild guy, but cameras don't ruffle Brown. He doesn't mind being filmed by three different cameras while he is pointing out the hundreds of surveillance cameras. He knows cameras. He lists the reasons why a camera would train on our tour group of college-age guys. "We're lingering," he says. There's a war going on, and people are both patriotic and watchful of subversive types, like us. "We're the guys with no flags who didn't shave this morning," says Brown. No one in our group has shaved in at least three days. Brown's stubble is flecked with gray. He's tall, thin and dressed all in denim, with a black thinsulate cap rolled up on his head, like cons in movies do with their balaclavas before they hit a bank. As a group we look suspicious because three members of our group are carrying cameras, all making separate documentaries about Brown. Every time we pass a camera we stop and point. In their investigation of surveillance, Gary Armstrong and Clive Norris, authors of The Unforgiving Eye: CCTV Surveillance in Public Space, found that "anyone who directly challenged, by gesture or deed, the right of the cameras to monitor them was especially subject to targeting."

Today [Sunday 3 February 2002] is a great day for law enforcement types to violate our privacy. It is the third day of the World Economic Forum inside the barriers set up on the east side of the city while outside the barriers, protesters are facing down the police. Brown dislikes the confrontational protests. He wants to "change the climate so that people desire privacy more," and there's no point in going to the barricades for that. He's campaigning to restore the spirit of the city that was first assailed by terrorists on September 11, and then crushed by the push for "homeland security" with more and better video cameras. To Brown, the paradox of the Big Apple is that anonymity is the core of the city's identity. "That's what New York is famous for," he says, "disappearing into a crowd and coming out as someone else."

Nobody else in New York does what Brown does. I call the New York Civil Liberties Union and they say the surveillance project is on hold, and ask me if I have Brown's phone number. No one in the world watches the watchers as visibly as Brown. His website contains a few dozen print and web articles, and descriptions of TV broadcasts about the walking tours and his main project, the Surveillance Camera Players. "We play to the cameras," he says of his media celebrity. "Knowing that the SCP are non-violent from top to bottom, I know the media won't distort what we say." The Surveillance Camera Players perform -- after obtaining city permits to perform in a public space -- George Orwell's 1984 and plays with titles like "God's Eyes Here on Earth," for cameras in public places. Brown and his friends hold up five or six placards with words written in black marker and then perform a simple action, like praying to the cameras. Brown tells me that the Players are "rock star popular" in Germany. Brown's website has links to similar groups in Bologna, Stockholm and Lithuania.

Susan Hull, a member of the Surveillance Camera Players, was with Brown the night he got hooked on cameras. A friend showed him a manifesto called "Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment." The document begins, "it should by now be common knowledge that the camera is primarily a tool of social control." She thought it was funny, but "Bill was on fire about it," she says. The idea, she says, was, "we're going to make fun of the cameras, we're going to show people where they are." She recites what sounds like the group's mantra: "We're not paranoid. We refuse to become paranoid," she says. "The cameras are there to make people paranoid." What started as a one-off joke performance got serious when Brown discovered the influence of surveillance on his own life. In 1998 he filed a freedom of information act with the F.B.I. to see his surveillance file, made when he was protesting the eviction of squatters in lower Manhattan. Former New York F.B.I. bureau chief and current head of New York's State Homeland Security James Kallstrom, wrote Brown back saying he couldn't see his file because it was electronic surveillance. Brown was disturbed that the cameras were there to monitor political protesters.

If the papers and polls are to be believed, public attitudes toward surveillance have changed since September 11. As a whole, we're less inclined to criticize cameras now. After the attacks, Brown says Air Canada's in flight magazine, En Route, scrapped a plan to list the surveillance camera walking tour in its list of cool things to do in New York. Brown says surveillance is a poor defense against terrorism. "There were so many cameras in the World Trade Center that I couldn't map them, but not one of them stopped the disaster," he pauses. "They won't stop future disasters either." Not surprisingly the NYPD doesn't agree. It has a special squad called the Technical Assistance Response Unit devoted to installing, fixing and watching surveillance cameras. The press office will not allow the media to talk to the special unit, nor will it disclose the location, number or purpose of the cameras around the city. Even Tishman Speyer, the real-estate company that owns and manages the building where the slabs of Berlin Wall sit, doesn't want to share its surveillance secrets. I ask Marla Shasetz, the building's property manager, for permission to go into the camera room or talk to the operators. She rebuffs me, saying that the camera room is confidential, especially since September 11. I call back asking for basic information. Are those Tishman Speyer's cameras watching the Berlin Wall? Shasetz leaves a message on my machine: "there are several cameras so we can see people entering and exiting the building," she says, "as well as overseeing the street area, obviously for security purposes." Obviously.

Brown says that surveillance cameras focused on public spaces violate every article of the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution, a battered copy of which Brown carries on the tours. On Fifth Avenue Brown stops at a police camera hidden in a black globe and mounted on a streetlight pole. He pulls a yellow sticker from his bike messenger bag that features a Cyclops eye and says "Camera!" and puts it on the pole. Then he pulls out the constitution and reads the fourth amendment out loud, at such an angle so that the police camera above him can read the text too. My interest piqued, I ask Brown later if he is a patriot, as we sit eating at the Burger Heaven opposite the Berlin Wall. "I can't consider myself a patriot," he says. He's an anarchist who believes in the goodness of people, and says he won't affiliate himself or the Surveillance Camera Players with any political party. But he will campaign until we scale the wall of surveillance to see our constitutional rights on the other side. "The Fourth Amendment just happens to be a beautiful law," he says.

By Matt Van Dusen, 7 March 2002.

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