THE BLOG

Connecting the Dots: From Chelsea Manning to Cece McDonald; From NSA to Stop and Frisk

08/29/2013 12:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

Co-authored with Suey Park

In a recent piece for The Grio, Dr. James Braxton Peterson asked, "where is the liberal outrage on stop-n-frisk?" He juxtaposes the level of rhetorical denunciation and activist action in regards to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency, Chelsea Manning and surveillance with the muted and feeble responses to stop and frisk, mass incarceration, and stand your ground laws. Taking aim at the white liberal establishment, Peterson notes both historic amnesia and the cost and consequences of white privilege as it relates to organizing and transformation:

Yet how can we have a discussion about civil liberties and security, privacy and safety without connecting it to the physical surveillance to which black and brown Americans have been historically subject? In short, why aren't the champions of Snowden, Manning, and others saying anything at all about stop-and-frisk and Stand Your Ground laws/policies. They have been and remain silent on the historical and perpetual encroachment upon the civil liberties -- the freedom to walk the streets without being detained or shot -- of black and brown citizens of the United States.

The growing power state apparatus is nothing new. In the aftermath of 1960s social movements, including the rise of the Panthers and the Young Lords Party, state power reached new heights. Among other things, the passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 highlights the ways that racialized fear and the criminalization of radical activism contributed to both increased police power and mass incarceration. This legislation resulted in the funneling of federal dollars toward the militarization of local police forces. This legislation, which garnered support inside and outside of Washington through racial appeals and fear of social unrest, directly led to the institutionalization politics of "law and order"; which is the belief and practice that incarceration or the fear of incarceration will prevent crime or unrest from happening. It not only criminalizes popular notions of crime, such as murder, rape, theft, and anything punishable by law, but also criminalizes those who seek to shake the assemblance of order that maintains the system. The law being upheld is then no longer questioned, as it is seen as inherently just.

This practice of "law and order" fostered a culture and practice of increased surveillance and state power. As made clear by Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, in her essay Globalisation and US prison growth: from military Keynesianism to post-Keynesian militarism, "the economic panic deepened in the early 1970s, at the same time that radical political activists were assassinated, went to prison, disappeared underground, or fled into exile." Given this history, why are "we" surprised at reports about the NSA? And who is actually surprised?

Additionally, Eisenhower's presidency supported the rise of the military-industrial complex, which is a dangerous collaboration of the state and its corporate backers. We continue to see the aftermath play out as large companies, such as Google, may be "working to curry favor with the NSA, CIA, DoD and others in order to sell its services (to the government) and make greater profits" according to USA Today. Companies such as AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth continue to be criticized for their willingness to give away records to the U.S. government. Perhaps in an effort to fight the "war on terrorism", but most likely as a means to maintain finances in a global market. We also see corporation's willingness to collaborate with the police and protect acts of stop and frisk when companies such as Apple have "recently patented a piece of technology that would allow the authorities and police to block data transmission, including video and photos, whenever they like". This has been a preventative response to the negative footage of the police attacking innocent victims. Although the police, military, and U.S. government at large survey citizens on a regular basis, the people are not allowed to survey their practices.

Ironically, in the same way that trickle-down economics did not correct high levels of unemployment during the 1970s, we see how trickle-down civil rights do not function to expand the rights of the most marginalized. What did effectively take root in the 1970s is the rise of the U.S. Empire in its growing use of militarization, which has worked adversely against protecting the civil liberties of Black, Brown, and trans* folks. This week alone, amid the public discussion of Chelsea Manning, three transgendered women of color have been murdered on the basis of the surveillance of their bodies.

Marc Lamont Hill, on Ebony.com discusses how Cece McDonald's detainment is due to the "law enforcement's lack of understanding or respect for transgendered citizens, many trans people end up with criminal records simply for being transgendered [sic]." The Black trans* community is further criminalized because of rates of poverty, which not only points to the racialization of poverty and its historical roots, but also the absurd rate (38 percent) at which Black trans* folks are victims of police brutality on the basis of profiling due to race and gender. The very government that is to blame for creating gaps in economic equity is then also the machine behind incarcerating the bodies that do not meet its standards or warrant its protection. It is the very institution that is empowered to watch and control and our emails and phone calls.

The state was empowered to regulate, watch, control, and restrict the freedoms of those deemed as either "social junk" or "social dynamite" according to the work of Spritzer. In this ideology, there is a surplus of people who are determined to either be disposable to society or as potential change agents. And as such, the state must use varying methods of social control for both groups. According to Christian Parenti in "Lockdown America," "this is the class - or more accurately the caste, because they are increasingly people of color - which must be constantly undermined, divided intimidated, attacked, discredited, and ultimately kept in check with what Fanon called the 'language of naked force.'" The failure to acknowledge and see the historic antecedents of the "language of naked force" and the connective tissues that link together the NSA and stop and frisk, the abstract and theoretical fear resulting from warrantless wiretaps and the lived fear emanating from racial profiling and mass incarceration.

"Until progressives can have more holistic discussions about the state, surveillance, and civil liberties," writes Peterson, "the reality of digital surveillance will continue to be disconnected from those of us who live under the threat of physical surveillance every day", which touches upon our critique of the limitations of organizing around trickle-down social justice. We fail to protect or support those seen by the state as "social junk" and begin to lean on the side of the oppressor when we forget about the restricted freedoms of those labeled as disposable.

Here is where we see a distinction between in-group and out-group organizing: folks in the in-group become surprised when they are subject to criminalization, which the out-group has been subject to for years. The privilege of the white middle and upper class liberals becomes more evident as their luxury of obliviousness is encroached upon. The use of drones in the U.S. surveillance of borders on a 24/7 basis has been in existence for years, yet is not commonly discussed except when the conversation turns to "domestic drones." It is easy to dismiss this act of surveillance when it does not seem to threaten the civil liberties of many Americans. The hypocrisy of the middle and upper class white left is that outrage can exist over surveillance of telecommunication and not of daily lives as an issue of survival.

President Obama has declared "America is not interested in spying on ordinary people" and has promised for more transparency around NSA and the protection of the American people. However there is no discussion about the link between the protection of our private phone calls and emails and the protection of our private bodies.

Focusing solely on the surveillance of our telecommunication, which primarily targets those of us privileged to possess cellular phones and have email exchanges, as opposed to the physical wire-tapping that happens to racialized bodies and gender non-conforming bodies, reveals the extent to which the middle and upper class white left fails to act in a holistic fashion. The sheer horror and shock of many when informed of the private snooping of the government is then contrasted to the numbness and acceptance when the state uses physical violence in broad daylight against criminalized people. Stop and Frisk and 'Stand Your Ground' laws then seem to only threaten poor people of color and trans* folks, while NSA seems to be a threat to those who have never been victims of surveillance. The state's focus of protecting "ordinary people" by averting its gaze also reinforces the notion that many privileged Americans can pass as being non-criminal on the basis of their non-criminal identities. This happens not only with NSA regulations, but also with laws such as 'Stand Your Ground' and Stop and Frisk. We must first fight against the circumstances in which surveillance can be deadly. For some, the privilege of privacy has never existed.

Follow David and Suey on Twitter @DrDavidLeonard and @Suey_Park.

Originally published at youngist