Howard Safir, Surveillance Cameras and Capitalist Law

"Only someone completely distrustful of all government would be opposed to what we are doing with surveillance cameras." NYC Police Commissioner Howard Safir, 27 July 1999.

On Saturday, 10 April 1999, the National Public Radio program Anthem included a brief and casual segment on surveillance cameras; Bill Brown of the Surveillance Camera Players was interviewed. NPR took up the subject of surveillance cameras a second time on Tuesday, 27 July 1999, but this time in a serious fashion and on the show called Talk of the Nation, which is broadcast here in New York City on WNYC (820 AM). The featured guests were a businessman specializing in security systems, Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

To begin the panel discussion, moderator Ray Suarez gave an introduction to the subject of surveillance cameras. (As summarized on NPR's website, the introduction stated: "In a growing nationwide trend, cameras are being used to watch and record people as they arrive at work, use the ATM, pump gas, shop for clothes or take a walk on the beach. Hidden cameras seem to be everywhere today, prompting a debate over how the technology should be used and whether it threatens our privacy.") During the course of the hour-long broadcast, five or six callers asked questions and made comments. (Despite his best efforts, SCP director Art Toad was not among those who "managed to get through.") A handful of comments that had been e-mailed to NPR were read aloud at the very end of the show.

Not surprisingly, the questions asked and objections raised by the callers/e-mailers were generally more interesting than the commentary of the panelists. The callers/e-mailers focused on some of the things that the panelists (specialists in their respective fields) had overlooked: the use of video cameras to spy upon unsuspecting women for the purposes of sexual gratification; the close association between "high crime areas" and high concentrations of such minorities as blacks and Latinos; and the fact that the security industry has everything to gain from overstating the dangers of the very things that video surveillance presumably eradicates. Each of these topics are germane; as a group, they illustrate well the range and seriousness of the social implications of the widespread use of surveillance cameras.

And yet there were a great many important topics and realities to which no one -- neither the panelists nor the callers and the e-mailers -- called attention. To list but a few of them: the increasing importance in video surveillance of high-speed, big-memory computers and sophisticated software applications; the close association between the camera and social control, which goes back to the obsessive photographing of criminals, the poor and the mentally ill in the 19th century; the status of the visual image in the society of the spectacle; and George Orwell's 1984 (Big Brother wasn't even mentioned!).

But the most revealing aspect of the program was the ground shared by everyone who expressed an opinion on the subject of surveillance cameras, despite the apparently pronounced differences of opinion between, say, "liberal" Norman Siegel and "conservative" Howard Safir. And that common ground was the belief that (the) law itself is fundamentally just and not subject to questioning, reproach or dispute. To one and all, there don't seem to be any unjust laws on the books. (For Police Commissioner Safir -- a master of Orwellian doublethink -- the very fact that there are no laws on the books concerning surveillance cameras is proof of [the] law's essential justice.) For Siegel as well as for Safir, if all the case law concerning surveillance cameras holds that -- despite the spirit and provisions of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution -- individuals do not have the right to expect that their personal privacy will be respected when they venture out into public places and into any private places that they themselves do not own, then the case law can't be wrong and can't be ignored. The precedents have to be followed, even if the case law is plainly unconstitutional -- or should be.

According to everyone who spoke up, if there is a "crime problem" -- if people are smoking pot or panhandling for money or working as prostitutes in Washington Square Park -- the laws against these forms of behavior are not wrong. The "problem" isn't the laws themselves; what is wrong is the behavior prohibited by them. Therefore, the lawful use of surveillance cameras in the park is completely justified, indeed, necessary.

Safir thinks it is self-evident that, on the one hand, law enforcement agencies should be able to use surveillance cameras as often and wherever they like to prevent people from breaking the law and to catch those who do break the law, and that, on the other hand, no (new) laws on the proper use of surveillance cameras need to be drafted and passed. The police know what they are doing, even if the public doesn't know what they police are doing. Norm Siegel -- as well as the "moderate" provider of surveillance-based security and several of the callers and e-mailers -- thinks the order of the day is the enactment of good laws on the proper use of surveillance cameras as tools of law enforcement. What both Siegel and Safir want is a situation in which people who aren't breaking the law will have nothing to fear from the use of surveillance cameras; only the law-breakers need be afraid.

Our position is quite different. We believe that all the laws on the books only serve the interests of the people who have had the money and power to draft, codify and enforce them. Precisely because none of them serve the interests of everyone, all laws are bad laws; there isn't a single good law on the books. (Yes, Commissioner Safir, we are distrustful of all government.) Almost all of the "problems" that surveillance cameras are supposedly being used to solve -- shoplifting, theft and sabotage by employees, victimless crimes such as smoking pot, panhandling and exchanging sex for money -- are only problems for people who have money and power, and are in fact solutions for people who are poor and powerless. We should legalize marijuana and prostitution -- we should completely solve the systemic problems called poverty, homelessness and wage slavery -- well before we use surveillance cameras to enforce unjust and fundamentally discriminating laws against behavior. That is to say, we need to abolish capitalism's unreal laws and unlawful realities, and create a totally new and truly human society in its place.

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