Who is Watching Whom?

Democracy Media Photography

We are recorded everywhere we go in New York City. Security cameras attached to private businesses and homes, traffic lights, random street corners (sometimes with an NYPD sign attached to them) capture our every move. If, somehow, you manage to duck every security camera along your path, you are hard pressed to dodge every camera set up for a news segment, television pilot, or movie shoot, let alone the thousands of tourist cameras snapping frantically, and the millions of smart phones carried by a digitally mindful citizenry. And if you still manage to escape the gaze of an electronic eye, be it state- or privately-owned, your mobile still knows where you are, thanks to GPS systems embedded in every new phone on the market.

How very easily this essay could digress; this is not an essay on the surveillance state—that’s a can of worms best left to another discussion. Instead, this piece zeroes in on the recent phenomenon of the occupation of New York City’s Zuccotti Park, a.k.a. Liberty Plaza, by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, and the myriad cameras active in that storied, concrete square.

After midnight on November 15, 2011, in a military-style, dark-of-night operation,1 the occupation was bulldozed and dismantled. Cognizant that the actions weren’t going to be the New York Police Department’s best public relations moment, journalists and their cameras were kept as far away as possible. (The NYPD claimed the distance was enforced to ensure the safety of journalists, an incredulous claim, considering journalists are reporting from war zones as I write this. Again, I digress…)

Leading up to the violent eviction, however, cameras were everywhere. Policemen videotaped demonstrators and protesters returned the favor, each side claiming that the recording was being done for the safety of all involved. Cameras from media organizations from around the world recorded the entire spectacle. Meanwhile, live streaming on the Internet by grassroots media (like Global Revolution) and journalists (like Tim Pool) allowed a worldwide audience to watch OWS unfold in real-time from the comfort of their homes and offices.

Who was doing the watching? Everybody watched everybody.

On October 15, exactly one month prior to the eviction, OWS arranged for a global day of demonstrations against income inequality. I found myself in the media epicenter of the world: Times Square. As the police moved in on horseback to quell the demonstration, thousands chanted “The whole world is watching!” Never has that been truer than now.

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For this collaborative piece, I asked photographer Ahmet Sibdial Sau (whose OWS images appear elsewhere on The Mantle) to put together a collection of his photographs on the theme of “Who Is Watching Whom?” Hopefully my text illuminates Ahmet’s thoughtful images.

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Support for OWS from across the United States galvanized after a police officer (colloquially known as a “white shirt” because of his high ranking uniform) pepper sprayed young women who were standing on the sidewalk during a march. The egregious activity was caught on amateur video, posted to YouTube, and immediately went viral.

For OWS, this abusive incident showed that the Internet could be used as an instant recruiting device (for funds, volunteers, and materiel) and as a marketing tool (look at those bully cops picking on unarmed civilians!). Subsequent short videos took on lives of their own, garnering more attention and support from places as varied as New York City (a veteran Marine tearing into NYPD officers), Davis and Oakland, California (where even more horrific abuses of police power were showcased) and Seattle, Washington (where even a grandmother was pepper sprayed).

When I could not make it down to OWS, I watched live streaming of events and meetings from a distance. Timothy Pool, perhaps the most famous of OWS grassroots journalists, used a Samsung Galaxy phone to conduct live reporting. Often while watching, I spotted friends and colleagues on the live, unedited broadcast.  And more than once when I was watching online or was in Zuccotti Park and happened to be near Pool, visitors would go out of their way to let the hardcore journalist know that they had been following his U-Stream broadcast from places as varied as New Jersey, California, Western Europe, and South Africa.

Pool’s reporting became so influential that major media organizations like CNN, Time.com, and Bloomberg News tapped into Pool’s live stream, amplifying his work to cable network audiences worldwide. Time magazine highlighted Pool in their year-end report which named “the protester” as the person of the year.2 Pool’s tenacity and on-the-ground perspective set the standard for grassroots journalism of activist exploits from here on out.

In the late 18th century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham conceived the idea of the Panopticon, an institution that placed an observant platform in the center of a circular structure. From this all-observing eye, staff could keep watch on all of the inmates in the perimeter, but the inmates could not tell whether or not they were being watched. The effect was one of restraint—the possibility of being espied doing something illicit was just as strong a deterrent as actually being watched.

At OWS, the NYPD employed similar tactics. An observation platform stood constantly above the din and scrum of Zuccotti Park; nobody could tell if a police officer was in the box, or which way cameras—if any—were pointed. New Yorkers are very familiar with this device, which is not only deployed during large demonstrations, but can also appear randomly in heavily populated areas like Times Square.

The more the people are monitored, the more confident the state becomes that nothing can get through—be it a terrorist, a gang fight, or a sloppy drunkard. One wonders whether, in a city that sees it all, both the citizenry and the police department become complacent in the all-intrusive presence of each other. At Zuccotti Park, this device—and the police who manned it—soon melded into the chaotic background.

At OWS, constant communication allowed demonstrators in Zuccotti Park to maintain connections with friends and family across the United States, and allowed many interested parties to tap in from around the world. Demonstrators plugged into electric outlets in the park, but when the outlets became overwhelmed, generators (both biodiesel and bicycle-driven) ensured constant electricity and contact. Occupiers had to remain fully charged at all times. A week after the physical occupation was dismantled, William Rivers Pitt warned in a Truthout.org, op-ed:

Memo to the police and the surveillance state you represent: you are not working in the dark anymore. You may have your own system of surveillance, but We The People are watching you just as closely, and we have our own system of surveillance. It's called exposing your vicious, anti-American and thoroughly unnecessary strong-arm tactics for all to see. It is really very easy, takes no time, and we will make you famous in all the wrong ways before you take your shoes off at bedtime.3

At the height of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, thousands of reports were filed by global media outlets on a daily basis. Since the eviction of OWS from the Manhattan plaza, the stories have dwindled considerably, but still hundreds of dispatches about the Occupy movement go out across the mainstream wires nationwide every day.

During the occupation of Zuccotti Park, Occupiers blasted out tweets, Facebook postings, live blogs, and emails on a minute-by-minute basis. Meanwhile, reporters filmed segments that aired live or were recorded for evening broadcasts. The electronic connectivity of OWS often acted as the physical occupation’s beating heart, signaling to the rest of the world the health—or sickness—of day-to-day activities. The 24-hour connectivity was absolutely necessary for the occupation to survive. Glenn Greenwald commented on the need for such connectivity in 2011’s global protests:

The free flow of information and communications enabled by new technologies—as protest movements in the Middle East and a wave of serious leaks over the last year have demonstrated—is a uniquely potent weapon in challenging entrenched government power and other powerful factions.4

Today, even though OWS has been removed from its physical location, its activities have not ceased, and neither have its communicative efforts. One can follow General Assembly and Spokes Council debates (and arguments) live on their Twitter feeds and can access minutes of these meetings on the organizations online hub: www.nycga.net.

In this image, three helicopters hover above Zuccotti Park, keeping a watchful eye. From this distance, it is impossible to tell whether they are news or police helicopters. The three buzzing machines glow like electrified wasps; their presence is eerie and telling. Recent reports indicate that the use of drones (pilotless aircraft) in monitoring Americans is already happening and is due to increase dramatically. The Federal Aviation Administration announced that this spring it will revisit restrictions on drone use in the United States—a move much lauded by the un-manned vehicle industry.

According to Kashmir Hill of Forbes.com:

…the [FAA’s] Unmanned Aircraft Systems office has issued 83 experimental certificates for 20 different kinds of drones. “Currently, 18 of those experimental certificates are active,” said spokesperson Les Dorr. The FAA declined to identify the companies that hold those certificates (and have not yet responded to a [Freedom of Information Act request] for those names).5

The flip-side of this is that crafty, grassroots journalists can adopt the same strategies to keep an eye on police activity around a demonstration. A German company, Service-Drone, for example, has perfected an octocopter, a drone with eight rotors that anyone can use to fly around their city and capture the sights below. Their line of drones also features a GPS-tracking device, which forces the drone (and its camera) to follow a mark. One could imagine, then, a demonstrator with such a device in his or her backpack wading into the thick of things in a democratic action, having a camera trained on them the entire time, and being broadcast on the Internet unfiltered.

After the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park, the New York City Police Department took control of the plaza. In a perversion of recent reality, police penned themselves inside the park and kept civilians out. Protesters and police switched places, giving an opportunity for both sides to consider the other from different perspectives.

Later that night the police re-opened the park (with severe restrictions). As I entered the park again through the single, controlled entrance, a policeman videotaped me and every other individual who walked through that gate. Who knows where that footage rests now, and for how long it will be archived?

As technology (and its users) becomes more sophisticated, OWS (and similar movements worldwide) can better control their image and market their ideas (as well as successes and plights). A new paradigm of protest has been born—one in which power has shifted dramatically (but not wholly, of course) back to citizens. Authorities, unsure of how to behave in such a digital realm, have resorted to panic and extreme measures of abuse by locking up journalists, confiscating electronic equipment, and forcing Internet media outlets to shut down, or at least curtailing their access to a global audience.

Who’s watching whom in this politically vibrant age? Everybody is watching everybody.

February 14, 2012

All photos by Ahmet Sibdial Sau

1. For the raid, helicopters were employed, bridges and tunnels were shut down, sound cannons were used, journalists were detained, and even a City Councilman was arrested. Thousands of police personnel were involved in the operation.

2. Jim Fields. “The Media Messenger of Zuccotti Park,” Time.com (December 14, 2011).

3. William Rivers Pitt. “The People’s Surveillance State,” Truthout.org (November 22, 2011).

4. Glenn Greenwald. “A Prime Aim of the Growing Surveillance State,” Salon.com (August 19, 2011).

5. Kashmir Hill. “FAA Looks Into News Corp's Daily Drone, Raising Questions About Who Gets To Fly Drones in The U.S.,” Forbes.com (August 2, 2011). And see the FAA’s “Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System,” announcement here.

internet, Occupy Wall Street