Surveillance Meets White America

surveillance drone

Photo by Kevin Baird via Flickr Creative Commons

The other day I was sitting in my living room in Brooklyn looking out over the East River toward Manhattan. Suddenly, a small plane streaked into my field of vision. It startled me because it was flying very low and appeared to be headed into the building across the street. Then, thank goodness, it dipped behind the building and out of sight.

I rushed to the window to see better, then realized that it was flying very low over the East River—and that it was not a plane at all but a huge drone. It was much larger than a helicopter and looked like a flying saucer with four, rigid legs. It had little lights on the rim and was eerily reminiscent of some science fiction film from the 1950s.

As I watched, I saw a half dozen or so police boats out in the harbor, blocking the mouth of the East River to water traffic, and several more up under the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking watercraft from coming down the river to enter the drone space. There were clumps of flashing red lights at various points along the FDR Drive, which runs the length of the river on the Manhattan side.

Since the river was completely clear of civilian traffic, I’m assuming this was a practice run. I’ve seen many emergency drills around the city over the last decade, but never a drone. This one flew back and forth, up and down, obviously piloted remotely from elsewhere—maybe from the emergency bunker that Giuliani built at the Brooklyn end of the bridge shortly after 9/11. If young guys wearing camouflage and toting machine guns in Grand Central Station is unsettling—and it is—this drone was absolutely dystopian.

Drones Are Everywhere

Drone at Sunset

Photo: Ed Schipul via Flickr Creative Commons

I was reminded of that movie from 1991 called Boyz N the Hood, where you constantly hear the sound of surveillance helicopters in the background, flying over the black neighborhood of South Central LA. While writing this, I couldn’t recall the exact name of that film, so I Googled it and, what do you know, I uncovered an article from The Atlantic in 2012 called “Eyes Over Compton,” about the LA County Sheriff’s Department secretly testing mass surveillance technology, taking high-rez photos over Compton, CA. Just a coincidence, I’m sure, that most of those who live in Compton are black.

So now it has apparently come to this. Surveillance drones over everyone’s neighborhoods, justified by the tired rationale of keeping us safe. When did safety become our highest priority and who decided it, anyway? People come to New York to be free—to remake themselves into who they wish to be, separate from family, stereotypes and the baggage of the past. That’s the same reason many of our ancestors came to the US in the first place.

Of course, some of our forebears came here against their will, packed into ships like cargo. One way or another, they’ve lived under surveillance since the beginning, whether they were in South Central or Compton, Ferguson or Staten Island. It’s time the rest of us, of every culture and background, stopped living in denial about what’s up in the Republic. The Surveillance State is knocking at our door. How shall we answer?