Cameras put focus on civil liberties

Bob [sic] Brown is a true believer, perhaps a little paranoid to some minds, but nevertheless a believer. His faith rests in the scary idea that the surveillance of New Yorkers by public and private watchers is proceeding at an Orwellian pace.

"We're putting in place an infrastructure to track people that recalls the days of the Stasi," he said recently, referring to East Germany's secret police during the Cold War. [Because the writer of this article didn't know what "Stasi" meant,] The word landed jarringly amid the lilacs and cherry blossoms of Washington Square Park on a sunny spring day.

Mr. Brown, bearded and booted [obviously demented], kept his eyes trained on the large NYPD van that monitors [just a few of] the myriad of cameras; [there are] 11 [police cameras] by his count within the park, not to mention the 77 cameras he claims New York University has deployed. An NYU spokesman said even if he knew he would not reveal the exact number.

A sign at the northwest entrance to the park hints at what the watchers are [supposed to be] watching: "Drug sellers and buyers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent." Chess players, strollers and the occasional junkie seem impervious to the uniformed police who are as much a part of the Sunday scenery as [a jabbering lunatic such as] Mr. Brown. He leads "video surveillance" walking tours throughout the city to point out the locations and capabilities of cameras in high-traffic neighborhoods such as Wall Street, Times Square and the United Nations [as well as "low-traffic," i.e. poor neighborhoods such as Harlem and the Lower East Side].

The events of September 11 to the contrary, Mr. Brown is convinced that Americans' Fourth Amendment rights against "unreasonable search and seizures" are teetering on the brink. "Surveillance never prevents a crime. It simply gets splendid footage of it afterwards," he told his visitors. "[For example] We have excellent footage of Mohamed Atta walking through airport security on the morning of September 11. He was very well photographed and [yet] the attack wasn't stopped."

The Brooklyn-born Mr. Brown has his detractors; the mayor's office for one. "The NYPD has shown it [sic] can be a very effective tool without impeaching [sic] on civil liberties," said Edward Skyler, spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. "Washington Square Park is no longer overrun by drug dealers."

The use of surveillance cameras erupted into a major issue in 1998 when the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) mapped the city and concluded that there were 2,400 surveillance cameras in Manhattan alone, a number that Mr. Brown believes has tripled [since then].

Former NYCLU head Norman Siegel said that [back in 1998] 89 percent of the cameras were privately owned and 11 percent publicly owned. "When I was a kid, you could stand on the corner and sing doo-wop," Mr. Siegel said, referring to a group singing style popular in the 1950s. "Now someone is watching and he's not from a record company but from the government." He believes, as does Mr. Brown, that there should be some oversight, at least public hearings, before the city installs [more] cameras.

Arianna Martinez, a 23-year-old graduate student in international affairs at the New School, studied a map showing where the cameras are [in the Washington Square Park area] that Mr. Brown hands out to his audiences [at the Washington Square Park walking tour]. "In the protest-activist community there is a sense that the country, particularly New York City, is becoming very Big Brother," she said. "I know I'll never read about it in the New York Times so that's why I'm here."

Mr. Brown, 43, who wears a [little plastic] badge of activism [it's yellow] that proudly boasts that his mother was a delegate for the 1972 liberal Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, is convinced that even the tours are a subject of particular interest to the watchers.

"Why [would a camera operator take notice of and decide to track the movements of a walking tour such as this one]?" he asked, referring to no one in particular [because, like all tour guides, Bill sometimes asks and answers rhetorical questions to keep the presentation varied and interesting]. "First, because we are lingering [directly underneath an unmarked police surveillance camera]. Second, because we are lingering in a circle in a society [the "grid" plan of Manhattan, which is] dominated by squares and rectangles. And third, because I'm the only one not wearing anything related to the American flag."

[That last bit is easily the worst misquotation ever attributed to Bob, er, Bill, who actually said "No one who has come to today's walking tour, myself included, is wearing anything related to September 11th, the War on Terrorism or the American flag"].

"The only fee [for the walking tour] is patience," he said to a curious passer-by, handing him a flyer [one of the maps referred to above]. [Then, in a totally different context, Bill said,] "We [here in New York] remain the target of choice. And therefore, the laboratory for public surveillance."

It's not just cameras on trees [there are cameras on trees? no shit, really? must have missed 'em] and on building entrances that bother him, but hi-tech heat-seeking helicopters, FBI "nightstalkers" flying over the city and other noiseless spy craft [as well]. "They are watching us. The satellites, too. I'm tracking one from my bedroom window," he told the amazed group.

His theatrical approach to civil liberties is [tauto]logical once he announces he is member of the Surveillance Camera Players, a troupe that performs street theater to protest cameras in public places. They haven't been around lately, he concedes, because the winter was [sic] so cold.

(Beautifully written by Liz Trotta and published in the 21 June 2003 edition of The Washington Times. [Sarcastic] Comments [in brackets] are by Bill [hic!] Brown.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

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