Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ian Tomlinson / Sousveillance

I feel uninformed.. I happened to stumble on coverage of this incident of Ian Tomlinson's death. He was a newspaper vendor in the area at the 2009 G-20 meeting and was killed by police who were already in the mindset of fighting protesters.

From Wikipedia... "Ian Tomlinson ...was an English newspaper vendor who collapsed and died in the City of London after coming into contact with the police while on his way home from work during the 2009 G-20 summit protests. A first postmortem examination indicated he had suffered a heart attack and had died of natural causes. His death became controversial a week later when The Guardian obtained video footage showing him being struck on the leg from behind by a police officer wielding a baton, then pushed to the ground by the same officer. The video appeared to show no provocation on Tomlinson's part—he was not a protester, and at the time he was struck was walking along with his hands in his pockets. He walked away after the incident, but collapsed and died moments later. ... After The Guardian published the video, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) began a criminal inquiry. Further postmortem examinations, conducted by different pathologists, indicated that Tomlinson had died from internal bleeding caused by blunt force trauma to the abdomen, in association with cirrhosis of the liver. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced in July 2010 that no charges would be brought against the officer, PC Simon Harwood, because the disagreement between the pathologists meant prosecutors could not demonstrate a clear causal link between the death and the alleged assault. In May 2011 an inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, ruling that the push and baton strike had involved excessive and unreasonable force. As a result the CPS reviewed its decision, and Harwood was charged with manslaughter. He entered a plea of not guilty in October 2011; his trial is set to open at the Old Bailey in June 2012."

This seems a little like ancient history now because it all happened before 2011 and the rising thermostat of civil unrest - Tunisia, Egypt, Occupy, Indignados, Tottenham. It's part of the same story in a way. After Oscar Grant was killed, I was discussing the Oakland protests with someone who said he was undecided. He is open minded towards the left and right, but probably has the sensible centrist's indignation towards the aesthetics of marchers and the far left. I brought up the Toronto G20 and his reply was, "yes, but Canada is a whole separate country from the U.S."

I think incidents where false positives are killed, combined with a shrinking world with instant global communication, are going to gradually erode separations and perceived distances. So a false positive killed by cops in any country is gradually going to have more and more immediacy to anyone else in another country, maybe depending if the viewer/reader has the predisposition to accentuate the dangers of breaking a few eggs, rather than centrists or people on the right who temperamentally might tend to emphasize the stability of entire cultures and time periods. Maybe-- I'm not sure. That's the international angle of it. Also, it happened at a specifically international, neoliberal meeting, which provides a certain backdrop but there might be an exaggeration of the relationship between the inside and the outside. Paul Jay was positing the police response to the G20 in Toronto as a demonstration of one facet of the program being ratified inside the meeting. Almost like a perverse, creepy showcase: the people are not going to like what we're cramming down, so we have to be ready with a draconian smackdown and you can see a preview right here out your window. Sometimes the story of the Democratic Convention in 1968 is told like that too. Maybe it's accurate... I would tend to go with Paul Jay's impressions.

I happened to wander around the Wikipedia article on Tomlinson and click over to 'sousveillance.' Interesting. I usually feel really late to adopt or hear about a particular meme, so I wonder how long this one has been around. The article on sousveillance has an interesting photo of a guy with a necklace that is one of the black, semicircular CCTV cameras. It's interesting to take the "privacy is over" viewpoint to extremes. I listened to one of Vernor Vinge's Long Now talks a few years ago where he was spinning out possible trajectories for the future. One of his ideas was that when privacy is over, the bar for what's unacceptable actually becomes pretty high. So there's that.. I'd like to re-listen to what he said. Another thing on the subject comes to mind. The first fifty pages of Samuel Delany's _Triton_ are so jam-packed with ideas, it stands out as a rainbow in the mind. It is such an odd book. I love it. So in the very first few pages, this character Bron Helstrom steps into a special booth. Inside the booth, you can see little bits of surveillance footage of yourself. Apparently Delany is positing that people can be mollified for the same reasons that the most beautiful sound is supposed to be the sound of your own name. People don't care that much about surveillance cameras so long as they can get a little bit of a narcissistic thrill out of it.

My preoccupation is false deaths and harming innocents. So it's interesting to think about how ubiquitous surveillance changes impunity, if at all. You can't be rendered to a secret prison if there are no secret prisons. I am not inclined to support or approve of this idea that sousveillance makes everything OK, because I suspect there are and will continue to be inequities that favor power, corporations, the military-industrial and other complexes. What about ubiquitous surveillance and trade secrets? I'll be more impressed with ubiquitous "sharing" when Facebook makes all its intellectual property open source. There's a double standard. Sousveillance is intriguing when it breaks down the double standard and says, hey, this is cheap technology that everyone can use.

Weren't there some reports of police in Zuccotti Park "going for the cameras", hitting people at the pocket or the waist to try to break their phones? Did I hear something about phone-video-recording the police being illegal? Was there some sort of "blackout" when OWS was raided? And how is this possible.... maybe the next stage after a blackout is that the cheapness and the ubiquity of cameras goes way up, even higher than it is now, so that a blackout is technically impossible. I say this as a sort of devil's advocate. I hear it coming out of someone, but not out of me. Actual flatness would be one thing. But it never seems to work out that way. The bell that some of this is ringing for me is towards the people who argue for pure capitalism. It never comes to that because of monopolies and cartels. I think there's an analog there. I suppose in a way, an argument for sousveillance could be like an argument for market solutions. Don't legislate privacy rules. Just spread the cameras around and let the mechanism doing the work do the work for rich and poor alike, for the enforcers and the Ian Tomlinsons and Maher Arars. I don't think anyone is actually saying this - I'm just speculating. In both situations, it's no good because of hypocrisy.

I don't know though. What if every person on the planet had unblockable GPS and unblockable cameras rolling. Let's say, coming from the pupil. You can no longer do disappearances. I guess one reason why this isn't a helpful avenue if you're Amnesty or Human Rights Watch is that the people with impunity don't care if you find out. They do it in broad daylight. If you can't go to a black site, you just go to a white site. You control the person's recourse - habeas corpus, due process - the things they would do if they COULD do anything. Maybe the difference is that outrageous videos outrage the swayable center. There is a variability in how many apolitical centrists will come out in the streets for different reasons. Some won't, some will and some might. If every Abu Ghraib and Bagram is constantly on camera 24/7, it might not stop the Lynndie Englands. They'll just do it anyway. But it shocks the conscience, and video footage shocks the conscience in a tangible way.

(Though pictures and videos can be doctored. But aha - now we have massive redundancy! I suppose redundant videos can be faked or altered as well, but I have a hunch that redundancy is going to become a shorthand for true events as time goes on. So the officer beating someone up - if it can be seen from three angles, with three resolutions and sound qualities - you start to doubt it less.)

If you keep on doing it, you might get 2011 levels of people fighting back. If you still keep on doing it, you might get yourself deposed. If you try to do it quietly, maybe that's possible and you solve your PR problem. But if it becomes less possible as time goes on, maybe a completely fair and even-handed, ubiquitous, 24/7, cheap, easy and unblockable panopticon could be a positive thing for human rights? I don't think we'll be there for a couple of hundred years.

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