The thought occurred to me yesterday that had the events of Freedom Summer happened this summer, they would have ended with the police just gunning everybody down. I don’t think that’s quite actually true, because of the nature of numbers and publicity and death and the fact that Freedom Summer had enough white people involved that it would make such slaughter hard to pull off. But I think it’s a fitting thought experiment to launch further reflection on what is happening in this country with civil rights and the police and the kind of near-daily crisis that the African-American population is facing in this nation.
Then, of course, I realized, that this summer is new for only one reason, or the last two summers since we’re now about a year after Ferguson. It’s not that the behavior by the police is new, or the racism has intensified, or that the killings are up. It’s that people are talking about it and paying attention. That’s all that’s changed.
The incarceration rates of African-Americans are truly shocking in this country, the dominant number behind a nation that has used prison as a first-response mechanism to any threat, real or imagined. It is easier to lock up people who disagree with you than to improve their lives, work with them, bridge the divide between your perspectives, or try to build society. We aren’t just failing at nation-building abroad, we’re doing a woeful job with it in every impoverished neighborhood and traditionally disenfranchised group here at home. In large part because top-down nation-building by white imperlialists has always been a broken model. The nations of the developing world that were once colonies were built and established to forever be colonies, perpetual slave states to be milked by foreign powers, their people exploited, but now with their own “independent” flag. It’s hard to trace a problem or a shortfall in developing countries that can’t be directly attributed to this phenomenon.
Similarly, the ghettos, slums, and poor neighborhoods of the US function as colonies, churning out new victims for an American police state, free labor to head to the prisons, and just enough resistance to fuel an oppositional dynamic that can be used to justify crackdowns to the rest of the populous. All while providing enough criminally cheap labor to keep the pyramid of American capitalism churning, allowing people to think working three dead-end jobs at once is “opportunity”, giving just enough hope to the downtrodden that they don’t examine the whole system and tip it over.
So what’s different now? What’s changed this summer, last summer, the last year that the reverberations of this system and all its carnage are finally subjects that the President and those who wish to be the next one (okay, one or two of them) are actually talking about it?
It’s the end of privacy.
The only difference between the publicity of the last year and the silence of all the years that came before is the role of cameras and social media. The reason you know the name Sandra Bland, the reason you feel outraged by what happened to Eric Garner, the reason you can even conceive of a world in which police will violently attack Black teens at a pool party, is because you’ve seen them on your screen. You’ve seen the evidence. It’s not that police are suddenly attacking, incarcerating, and slaughtering Blacks for selling loose cigarettes, failing to use their turn signal, playing in the pool, walking down the street, or not immediately complying with outrageous demands. These things are not unprecedented. They are the long-running status quo of life in this country. You’re hearing about it because you’re seeing it. It’s getting taped and shared and spread and people have a very hard time ignoring an outrage they’ve actually witnessed, at least comparatively to one laden with rumor, uncertainty, and the presumption of authoritarian credibility.
As always, the issue with privacy’s death is its symmetricality. Asymmetrical publicity is 1984. It’s authoritarian and terrifying and every Millenial and Xer and probably most every Boomer has been raised to fear it more than any other system. If the government and those in power have all the cameras, all the investigators, and all the means of dissemination, then privacy is very important. It’s to be guarded and protected. That’s the dynamic which most societies have operated under for centuries.
But our current world offers us symmetrical publicity. The ubiquity of cameras, the near-universal participation in web-based social networks, these are actually the tools of liberation. This concept seemed obvious when the Arab Spring was underway and the complacent advocates of American Exceptionalism thought it was obvious that those “backwards and oppressed” Arab nations were thowing off the yoke of their oppressors. It’s less obvious to that perspective when our own oppressed start rising and resisting here at home. But it is no less true. The advent and ascendance of technology that wantonly disregards privacy as a value is a burgeoning tool of liberation and accountability. It is holding the long-broken mirror up to our authorities and showing how far we’ve gone down a rabbit-hole of oppression, racism, and terror.
It’s why people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are so important. It’s why WikiLeaks and anonymous hackers are meting out more justice than all the non-Supreme courts of America combined. It’s why a world in which everyone wears a camera, everyone is constantly surveilled, if it’s symmetrical and universal and includes those in power, is not terrifying. It may be our only hope.
The only thing preventing a neo-revolution, full-scale riots in the streets, a total demand that we change the practices of our systems, is the fact that we don’t yet have footage behind the prison walls. We don’t have a publicly available tape of what happened to Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland behind those still-closed doors. If you knew what happened, if that video were viral, we’d be living in a much different country this morning.
Privacy is a moral issue. Privacy is complicity with the traditional status quo, one of racism, oppression, violence, subjugation. Privacy gives power to the powerful and strips it from the powerless. Privacy is the shield by which those who would commit abuses and atrocities believe they can do so with impunity.
Living in public, openly, is the mechanism of justice, of comeuppance, of accountability. Yes, it has to be universal. It has to be applied equally to those in power. It has to, for this to ultimately work, go into the prisons, into the police cars, into the torture chambers and basements and Guantanamo and sites too covert to mention or even know about. But the best disinfectant to society, any society, especially a police state, is sunlight.
Whatever benefits you think you derive from privacy, do they justify complicity with what’s happening this summer, every summer, on the streets of America? Do they justify a system that allows racist cops to hind behind their badge and get away with murder? Do they justify a system that views Black lives as expendable and unimportant? Does your right to cling to your secrets outweigh the rights of others to live?
We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. All participated in the systems that create and manage this oppression. Until we’re all willing to examine that ourselves, let others examine it publicly, and commit to that kind of scrutiny, we’re never going to get better enough to keep this from happening. Publicity is freedom. Privacy is death.