Thursday, April 30, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Sousveillance Pedestrian on the Oakland B.A.R.T. (Bay Area Rapid Transit): A Discussion on Forums Created by Sousveillors

Sousveillance is described in an article by Steve Mann, who coined the term, as an inverse to surveillance. Mann quotes it as, “a means to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.” The etymology of this term is described in Wikipedia as this;

"Sousveillance" stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning "above", and sous, meaning "below", i.e. "surveillance" denotes the "eye-in-the-sky" watching from above, whereas "sousveillance" denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

This clash between surveillance and sousveillance appears in the media daily as citizens have felt the right and need to document their lives. With technological advances in digital cameras and cell phones with video capabilities, the pedestrian can capture any event within seconds thereby testing the limitations of surveillance.

The importance of the pedestrian sousveillor is very important as a tool for critiques on surveillance. One focus of critique is in the role of law enforcement and of whom they are protecting. This is a question that stems from the role of the establishment and how much political control it characterizes. Do the police subscribe to methods in which law enforcement is used to create a vision of political control that is not protecting the rights of the people? Also, have such methods of political control been mediated by other factors such as media? It is true that rumors of police destroying video evidence during protests and lying under oath have taken place. It is also true that people were specifically hired to take footage of actions in their favor. How deep can the law go to uphold a vision of control?

On New Years day of 2009, in Oakland, California, the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Oscar Grant, was seen through the eyes of many people. The unfortunate event hit the internet immediately and soon became the outrage of many people. Some responded angrily as riots broke out all over the Oakland area. Dialogues of mistaken procedure and murder coursed through the transit system for weeks. But, this would not have been such a heavy topic for conversation without the key participation of a pedestrian onlooker. The brutality of the footage shows how a critical moment becomes so when many variables are not in control. In a moment a shot is fired, followed by the police officer’s moment of confusion, and then everyone else’s hysteria.

Unfortunately, accidents happen all the time. This wasn’t even the first BART shooting.

On Nov. 15, 1992, BART officer Fred Crabtree shot and killed Jerrold Hall in the back of the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. Hall and another Black male friend were standing at a bus stop near a BART entrance in Hayward, and were approached because they fit the description of two men accused of robbery. BART cleared the officer, but in 1996, he committed suicide by hanging. (Muhammad, Sacramento Observer [02/05/09]).

The above event poses an important question: Is video sousveillance necessary to expose a corruption that would have taken place? Without this major piece of evidence police officer Johannes Mesherle could have been acquitted of all charges. The cycle of cover-ups may have already been spinning before the department realized that few thousands had already seen and analyzed the footage. Some of them already noticed that Mesherle had a moment of confusion after he fatally shot Oscar Grant.

It is important to understand that cases like these are not necessarily right or wrong. The officer who shot Grant is only the first to come. The bigger picture that comes from this situation is that something was interrupted. The outcome of the tragedy may have gone in a different route. This is speculative, but from previously mentioned circumstances of Officer Fred Crabtree and Jerrold Hall, it is quite possible. The actual outcome was the open debate as to whether police murder is the same as any other murder. And this forum was finally opened up to a bigger population by the invention of modern digital recording devices, i.e. cell phones and digital cameras.

Now this is a small example of many of these debates arising all over the world. We have all heard or seen the photos from Abu Ghirab and the prisoners. Although the images captured are somewhat horrifying to watch, sousveillance and the participation of commoners to act is a necessary and democratic way of opening forums and debates questioning society’s needs of repair. It is a useful way for becoming more democratic about the ways in which we understand situations and take closer looks at institutions that govern our perspectives and visions. It is nice to say, I heard an interesting debate today on public transit. People seemed so fired up about whether a police officer had mistakenly pulled the wrong weapon to incapacitate a man. The discussion led to the debate of whether police as humanity’s enforcement should be held accountable for accidental murder. More and more people joined in. Overall much better than watching individuals stare off into space, avoiding eye contact while their soul melts away into the dreary hum-drum of their life.

Project Description

Sousveillance Pedestrian Camera-Phone and Police Issue Taser/Glock Cut-outs is my answer to a situation that happened on New Years Day of 2009, where a man was unnecessarily shot. It used as a mockery of the conduct of aggressive police tactics and to symbolize an event through iconery. Each cut-out represent an act and weapon used by both sides of this picture: one, a symbol of justice and a debateable force of control, and two, a democratizing symbol of an oppositional sousveillor.

These tools are free to print and cutout if desired and is hoped to be available in more than one place. I hope it is not too heavy handed. Thanks.