Surveilling Crime Control

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

(…with insights and inspiration from Mess Hall and Rogers Park residents.)

Mayor Daley has declared that in the not-too-distant future, there will be a surveillance camera on every block of the city. But as of today, Chicago’s blue-light surveillance cameras are almost exclusively located in low-income communities of color. Rising investments in this surveillance technology, both public and private, are fueled by hope that they can provide some semblance of safety. Often, though certainly not always, this hope conflicts with the way that residents actually experience safety in their daily lives. The cameras attempt to control where crime occurs and where those involved in the illegal economy can gather. At the same time, the cameras do nothing to address the fact that engaging in the illegal economy is the only financial option available to many people living in the de-industrialized South and West Sides. Such control-based strategies effect the geographical distribution of crime, with far fewer consequences for the frequency of actions deemed ‘criminal.’ Meanwhile, how these cameras enter a neighborhood’s landscape, whose interest they serve, who has the power and voice to bring them in, and what political implications they have, are all highly contentious issues.

In the Rogers Park Neighborhood, near one of the few blue-light cameras on the North Side, a collective of artists used their experimental cultural space to invite nearby Chicagoans to explore such issues. For four months there was a 4’ x 8’ foot poster in Mess Hall’s main window. On the poster, an image of a blue-light surveillance camera was accompanied by the question, “what do you think about having a surveillance camera in your neighborhood?” Open-ended questionnaires were left outside of the experimental cultural center, and those who walked by were asked to write their response to the poster’s question. Just down the block at Glenwood and Morse, the area’s most prominent blue-light camera prominently displayed the question’s relevance. Over the four-month period Mess Hall received between 75 and 100 responses. Many of the respondents replied to the camera saying, “I don’t like it but I feel safer.” Below is a sampling of other excerpts from those responses:

“Since the cameras have been in use, there is a lot less crime on that street in particular. There should be more installed in alley-ways and places where there is not heavy traffic as I have noticed people just doing dirt ‘around’ the cameras.”

“This surveillance camera is not about deterring crime in the neighborhood—it is all about politics. It is to give the appearance that the city is doing something about curbing the amount of crime in any given area… The only possible advantage to the camera is that it may slow down the neighborhood gentrification process. Any rich yuppies who come to the neighborhood to comb the area in search of the ridiculously overpriced condos, upon seeing the camera, might get the idea that this is a high crime area and search elsewhere for housing!” “As long as it doesn’t involve some national ID or tracking system, I think it is fine…”

“It is not effective for the Police department to be dependent on these cameras as a primary source of information. I do think it can help the community become safer by bringing attention to crime in the area… HELP OTHERS WHO ARE VICTIMS OF CRIME and SPEAK UP!”

“I believe this is God’s way of keeping peace and maintaining order especially Roger’s Park… I pray this camera stays for a long time. I don’t care what other people oppose the camera. I believe God put it there for a really good reason. Safety not privacy.”

“There are less problems on Morse now. Our community is comprised of loud and quiet, rude and polite, criminals and cops, the thoughtful, artistic, family-oriented, etc. The loud tend to be heard, the rude noticed, the criminals active. The rest endure. The camera merely gives the quiet, the polite, the cops and the rest… a power that equalizes.”

“To me this camera is just another wedge issue like abortion or gay marriage, to get us all talking about abstract things like ‘Big Brother’ instead of the real civil rights infringements that have been going on here for years, such as government sanctioned ‘war on drugs’ that results in wildly inappropriate incarceration rates and sentence lengths for people of color, treating simple users like murderers and locking them up, even though rehabilitation is cheaper and more successful… No blue-light defense-contract bug-deterrent camera on a street corner is gonna stop me from doing anything I want to do—because I am not a criminal. I call their bluff and you do too if you’re smart… This camera on Morse is just more drug war propaganda bullshit.”

As asserted by the project’s initiators at Mess Hall, the surveillance camera is just one small part of the Chicago Police Department’s wireless network, which they say includes some 8,000 cameras private and public. In an interview with three of the artists who spearheaded this project, one of the artists said that the cameras “keep people from gathering. It has this feeling of this total scar on the neighborhood, which says people in your neighborhood have committed enough crimes to justify this really visually abrasive marker of surveillance.” Before this “scar” was installed, they recall that a few years ago there was a battle between the local alderman, police, and nearby business owners over responsibility for the crime in the area. Through these political battles a combination of camera and private security were brought in to deal with the crime. The landlord for the Mess Hall space, who supported their project, is one of the private businesses paying for the private security force.

Mess Hallers are highly critical of the exclusionary nature of this process, which has helped to decide the terms of safety and crime strategy for the area. In our interview they declared that “what the alderman framed as public discussion doesn’t happen on the streets where these things are having an effect.” In this particular local history they felt like there was no public debate, and they saw their store-front survey as an opportunity to generate some. For Mess Hallers the initiative responded to a police project, which disperses crowds and dialogue in public space, by launching an “experiment with public dialogue.” Initially when thinking about how to respond to the camera they discussed, having a dance party underneath it or creating a flashing blue light of their own design, before designing their project to solicit feedback and “to tap into the psyche tied to the fear of crime.” Interestingly, their questioning of what people think—and thus the catalyst for public debate—was frequently seen as a criticism of the camera in and of itself. Mess Hallers declare that “just asking was tantamount to treason.”

Whether residents are actively commenting on their emergence or not, Chicago’s blue-light surveillance cameras are part of a dramatic shift in the landscape of crowd control in the city. They play a starring role in the criminalization of place and people in the city’s under-resourced urban areas. Those who live around these cameras have routinely recognized that they displace criminal activities, moving them away from commercial zones and towards residential blocks. In this sense the cameras create a physical separation between the legal and illegal economies, so that formal business owners, their customers, and pedestrians can conduct their transactions in the absence of those excluded from the legal economy. Before we get too comfortable with today’s steadily growing network of blue-light cameras, perhaps the time is right for us to truly define safety and security on our own terms.

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