It was stones yesterday; it will be hand grenades tomorrow and whatever else is available the next day.
—Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet
In a stunning passage written in 1971, Huey P. Newton points out the limitations of applying formal logic to social control. In it he invokes the geometric law that the parts of a figure cannot amount to more than its totality. “But a prisoner,” reminded Newton, “is not a geometrical figure, and an approach which is successful in mathematics, is wholly unsuccessful when dealing with human beings.” According to Newton, the increasing number of dissenting individuals forced into prisons reflected the expansion of abolitionist perspective. Newton’s observation resonates in the age of computerized criminalization, which is characterized by individuals whose life chances are warehoused in database management systems.
The struggle against the spread of policing and punishing machines is entangled with the struggle to abolish the prison. Just as the prison abolitionists discovered the historical precedents and diverse institutions that underpinned mass imprisonment, the time has come to unveil the carceral state’s sociotechnical basis. The abolitionist view makes the ways in which criminalized subjects and computers interact across community spaces, detention centers, jails, living quarters, prisons, hospitals, and workplaces recognizable as a distinct power apparatus. Abolitionism also makes it clear that this apparatus is a reflection of the wider society. Indeed, opposition to digitized criminalization requires creating the conditions where more body cameras, more CCTVs, more data storage facilities, more electronic bracelets, more environmental sensors, and more software applications are no longer commonsense solutions to social problems. Opposition also requires decommodifying the criminal justice system’s institutional landscape. The state is a mere consumer of these technologies; let us not lose sight of the producers. So long as criminal justice technology is produced for profit, newer technologies are bound to make their way to the market.
The abolition of the digital branch of criminal justice requires political solutions, not technical ones. The pitfalls of technical solutions to criminal justice racism were laid bare in the state’s response to the Ferguson uprising. The Obama administration’s reaction to Ferguson was a more technophiliac version of Lyndon Johnson’s response to the urban uprisings a half century prior. Both technocratic approaches only deepened the administrative state’s presence in marginalized black and latinx communities—and both provided economic stimulus to technology corporations. In the case of Ferguson, the president’s office responded by authorizing the national Task Force on 21st Century Policing to explore technical solutions to the escalation of revolts against racialized police violence. Its recommendations hit all the familiar points of liberal-technocratic policing discourse. In the end, the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice were to develop national standards for police audio, biometric, and visual IT infrastructures and work with local police departments and communities to design and implement them. The task force also emphasized developing body-worn cameras for the dual purposes of police transparency and community surveillance, less-than-lethal technologies such as conductive energy devices, and a closed public safety broadband network. The report served as a foundation for the Police Data Initiative, a national program involving police working in tandem with data scientists, design experts, researchers, and tech corporations.
Alternative approaches to abolishing digitized forms of criminalization have already begun to manifest, and they have been most successful by exploiting the viral form. These confrontations have revolved around invading the criminal justice system’s data infrastructure and turning its embarrassment of documents into a liability. Grassroots actors have found success in producing and circulating knowledge, images, and videos through the same media that extend the carceral state. This book would not have been possible without the wealth of resources compiled and distributed by these unsung activists. Both aspects, constant invasion of the administrative state’s data infrastructure and new social forms of data production, have prepared grounds for ways of thinking about escaping the long and cold embrace of digitized criminalization. Against this type of political maneuvering, writes Baudrillard, which is “viral in structure—as though every machinery of domination secreted its own counterapparatus, the agent of its own disappearance—against this form of almost automatic reversion of its own power, the system can do nothing.”
In the case of New York, the city’s police database and surveillance infrastructure emerged as sites of confrontation by civilian libertarians and grassroots organizations. In the early days of NYPD restructuring in the 1990s, a coalition of nearly forty civil liberties and grassroots organizations formed Communities united for Police Reform (CuPR). The group’s goals revolved around finding ways to increase media coverage of police brutality; reform the Civilian Complaint Review Board; end the controversial stop, question, and frisk tactic; and establish independent prosecutors for cases related to police misconduct. CuPR’s steering committee first came together at a Coalition for Community Safety summit in Puerto Rico in 2008. The summit involved a series of workshops to revitalize police accountability activism in New York City. It was the first time such a diverse set of New York–based police activists had come together since September 11, 2001, which was seized upon by city officials and the police union to stigmatize anyone who criticized racial police violence.
The group formally launched CuPR in autumn 2010. Its legal team focused on bolstering public oversight of the police through, among other things, access to the NYPD’s unreleased data. This tactic was inspired by group member Center for Constitutional Right’s 1999 landmark class action suit Daniels, et al. v. the City of New York, filed after NYPD officers Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss viciously murdered Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo. One of the settlements required that the NYPD allow audits of stop-and-frisk data. The center followed Daniels with a 2003 federal class action suit, Floyd, et al. v. the City of New York, which was filed upon finding massive racial disparities in the data. In a twist, the racial patterns in the data worked against the legitimacy of the state. In fact, the governor endorsed a bill that would relieve officers from having to record a race in instances that did not lead to arrests. Floyd blocked this and won a provision requiring the NYPD’s quarterly dissemination of stop-and-frisk data with racial tabulations. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), also a CuPR member, made efforts to make the NYPD’s hidden data publicly accessible as well. NYCLU drew on an influential 2006 report by the American Civil Liberties Union on pedestrian and motor stops in southern California. The Ayres Report, as it was called, chronicled disproportionate stops and arrests of blacks and latinx persons in Los Angeles. It prompted national discussion about the importance of recording and releasing the racial and ethnic backgrounds of civilians stopped. A year later in New York City, NYCLU sued the NYPD in the New York State Supreme Court to disclose its database with stop-and-frisk statistical data. NYCLU has since released quarterly stop-and-frisk reports and analyses, with breakdowns on stops by precinct, reason for stop, stops resulting in frisks, stops involving use of force, gun recoveries, and innocent stops—all with reference to race, ethnicity, and age. The contradictions between the racial state and the liberal state condensed in these data. It was as if the NYPD’s own data turned against it.
In contrast to civil libertarian organizations, CuPR’s grassroots contingent saw countersurveillance in the streets as the most important tool for mitigating racialized police harassment. As such, producing and circulating its own data was of primary importance. Its tactics were productive as compared to those of the civil libertarians, as they gave rise to new networks, knowledges, and practices. Multiple grassroots groups collaborated to form a protean network of “copwatches” that deposited footage of police–civilian encounters in a central location. The grassroots copwatches were inspired by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXG) People’s Self-Defense campaign. Organized with the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice, National Conference of Black Lawyers, the campaign modeled itself after the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s emphasis on armed patrols. The campaign launched alongside three copwatch countersurveillance teams that monitored NYPD interactions with residents throughout central Brooklyn. MXG regarded copwatches as informal means of identifying and preventing police misconduct while at the same time radicalizing participants. Copwatches continued to grow through the early part of the 2000s, which led MXG to team with the Justice Committee to form the People’s Justice Coalition. The coalition trained and organized neighborhood watch teams in a citywide network. It maintained a cache of video equipment and hand-held radios, which it loaned on fixed schedules, and publicized when members got arrested or issued a summons through LISTSERVs. Moreover, it transferred all footage of police transgression online on the network’s website, on YouTube, and through blast emails. To join People’s Justice, teams needed to agree to guidelines including, among other things, sharing data and footage, making sure to highlight the experiences of trans and immigrant communities in all transmissions, and documenting incidents of police abuse regardless of the victim’s social identifiers.
The countersurveillance apparatus continued to spread alongside burgeoning protests against the NYPD’s rising use of the stop-and-frisk tactic. The populations who were targeted by the police were made crystal clear in the NYPD’s own databases. The data had a magnetic effect across the city’s diverse landscape of antiracist, antihomophobic, immigrants rights, and homeless rights activists. Headlines described this:
A diverse group of people came out to the rally including demonstrators from immigrant, Muslim, homeless and LGBT communities. While stop-and-frisk has been labeled a problem affecting Black and Latinos in the city, other groups said they too have been victims of the practice.
Demonstrators mostly adhered to the organizers’ call to march in silence, hushing talkers along the route. Members of labor unions and the N.A.A.C.P. appeared to predominate, but there were also student groups, Occupy Wall Street, Common Cause, the Universal Zulu Nation and the Answer Coalition. A group of Quakers carried a banner criticizing the stop-and-frisk practice. . . . As of Friday, 299 organizations had endorsed the march, including unions, religious groups and Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arab, and Jewish groups. The turnout reflected the growing alliance between civil rights groups and gay and lesbian activists, who in past years have often kept each other at arm’s length.
Gay men of color, along with women and transgender people of color, are among the black and Latina/os disproportionately subjected to more than 685,000 stops and frisks by the NYPD last year. . . . Along with other members of communities of color, LGBTQ youth of color seek the freedom that has been denied to hundreds of thousands of people of color through around the clock police patrols, police violence, racial, gender, homophobic profiling and stop and frisk.
Whether it’s the abusive use of stop-and-frisk, quotas or systemic abuses of power, our city needs the reforms and accountability provided by the Community Safety Act. New Yorkers shouldn’t be policed different based on the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or any other characteristics that have nothing to do with criminal behavior. The City Council is moving in the right direction to address these protracted issues and our communities support efforts to improve the NYPD.
This transformation of social difference into social equivalence was placed at the center of the CuPR’s flagship legislative proposal, the Community Safety Act. Its first provision mandated that age, sex, gender identity/expression, housing status, immigration status, occupation, and sexual orientation be considered “protected categories” in court. It was deliberately intended to transform public discourse surrounding police discrimination by broadening who is included when talking about victims of police abuse. It was also intended to affect how discrimination is assessed in courts. CuPR emphasized that heightening the visibility and voices of peripheral social groups is their overall strategy for NYPD reform. CuPR organizations published interviews with impacted citizens in forty-one media outlets, including BET.com, Caribbean Life, Chelsea Now, Colorlines, DNAinfo.com, Ebony magazine, Epoch Times, Foxnews.com, Gay City News, Local10.com, the New York Times, Hudson Valley Press, the Huffington Post, the Village Voice, the Nation, New Amsterdam News, Norwood News, Reuters, and WNYC News Blog. The act also mandated that criteria for determining police bias be changed from establishing intent to proving differential harm to a particular community. In 2012, the NYPD deactivated its stop, question, and frisk apparatus. After one year of abandoning it as a policy, the NYPD reported that stops decreased by nearly 95 percent. The Community Safety Act was signed into law shortly thereafter. In the end, these strategies, whether litigative or grassroots, revolved around capturing, producing, and circulating information about how the criminal justice system operates. They turned the medium by which mass criminalization is expanding into a site of social struggle.
Information-based struggles against racial criminalization have also crystallized in Chicago. In these cases, the goals of activists included not only capturing, producing, and circulating data relevant to the criminal justice apparatus but also destroying data. In terms of generating data, an independent association of journalists called the Invisible Institute offers an informative case. In 2015, it launched its Citizens Data Project, which publicized a massive database of Chicago Police Department (CPD) disciplinary information. The institute stressed that its origins were rooted in principles of guerilla journalism, most notably the ideal of a horizontally run organization free from corporate capital. One of the institute’s more formative cases involved Diane Bond, onetime resident of public housing on South State Street. Bond was repeatedly sexually and verbally abused by the CPD’s notorious “Skullcap Crew,” an anti-gang tactical unit that was stationed in public housing in the South Side. Members of the crew, including Christ Savickas, Joe Seinitz, Andrew Schoeff, Robert Stegmiller, and Edwin Utreras, received 128 known allegations, 60 citizen-filed complaints, and 20 federal lawsuits in 15 years of operation. In 2007, the institute partnered with civil rights attorneys at the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago’s Law School. One of the legal team’s requests to the court involved lifting protective orders on CPD databases with information on disciplinary histories of officers and “complaint registers” with information on internal investigations of complaints.
While the access to the data was originally overruled in 2009, the opinion left the door open for obtaining the data through the bureaucratic channels established by the Freedom of Information Act. This led to a seven-year campaign by the Invisible Institute, Loevy and Loevy, the People’s Law Office, and the Mandel Clinic, which came to a head in the Kalven v. Chicago decision in the Illinois Court of Appeals in 2014. The Fraternal Order of Police quickly appealed on the grounds that its contracts stipulated disciplinary information would be destroyed after five years. While waiting on the appellate, the Invisible Institute launched a limited preview of the data on a website titled the Citizens Police Data Project in 2015. This was near the same time that then officer Jason Van Dyke murdered Laquan McDonald, which triggered five months of antiracist struggle on Michigan Avenue and in City Hall, which ultimately established conditions for making the rest of the CPD’s disciplinary data public.
The result was the largest public police misconduct database in the country. It gave birth to a universe of data that exposed the racist brutalism endemic to policing in Chicago’s Black Belt communities. From 2007 to 2016, only 1.5 percent of excessive force complaints, 75 percent of which were filed by black Chicagoans, were sustained by CPD investigators. The database also revealed that 20 percent of CPD officers employed for at least a year received ten or more complaints between 2000 and 2016. Of about 112,000 complaints filed during this time, only 2 percent were sustained, and 1 percent led to meaningful action on the part of the police. Moreover, the data showed that the 6 percent of officers accused of physical domestic abuse were twice as likely to have received use-of-force complaints. In 2018, this universe expanded with Citizens Police Data Project 2.0. The updated version quadrupled the size of the original databases and included the disciplinary histories of officers going back to the 1960s and information on nearly a quarter million allegations. Citizens Police Data Project 2.0 allows users to rank officers, à la CompStat, according to the number of complaints they have received, among other statistical values.
Political mobilization around administrative data is not only about producing new data but sometimes also about destroying data. Pressures from the Black Youth Project 100 Chicago, Blocks Together, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicagoans for an End to the Gang Database, Mijente, the Office of Inspector General (OIG), and Organized Communities against Deportations eventually compelled the CPD to abolish its gang database network. Moreover, the Coalition to Expand Sanctuary formed in opposition to the CPD’s gang database network as it was discovered that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services used the database to track, capture, and, in many instances, deport immigrants mostly from Mexico and South America.
A report by the OIG illustrated the arbitrary yet instrumental nature of the database for managing poor black and latinx men and immigrants. For one, it demonstrated the capriciousness endemic to how the CPD identified individual subjects and areas as gang related in its databases. Individuals were classified as gang related according to various, unverifiable criteria. Being arrested in the company of a registered gang member, identifying oneself as a gang member, and having tattoos recognized by gang specialists in the police department were all grounds for being classified as a gang member. Just under 60 percent of people in the network were registered by police for residing in or frequenting a gang’s area; affecting their “style of dress, use of hand signs, symbols”; or maintaining an ongoing relationship with a known gang member. Over 11 percent of people registered in the network as gang members were not even associated with a specific gang. What is more, the CPD did not notify individuals that they were registered as gang members and had no process for appealing the gang member designation. For geographic areas, the gang-related classification can be a function of the density of individuals classified as gang related or local graffiti, spatial statistical analysis, or the discretion of elected officials, community members, or gang units. The Inspector General’s report calculated that some 95 percent of the 134,242 cataloged throughout the gang database network were categorized as African American, black, or Hispanic.
The data in the CPD’s database were astonishingly inaccurate. The OIG found that CPD officers had entered “BLACK,” “BUM,” “CRIMINAL,” “DORK,” “LOOSER” [sic], “SCUM BAG,” and “TURD” as occupations on gang member profiles. Nevertheless, the consequences of being included in the gang catalog could be severe. Such was the case with Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant who was falsely identified as a gang member. Catalan-Ramirez was severely injured during an ICE raid and locked in an ICE-approved detention center for a little under a year. He was only released after protracted efforts by Organized Communities against Deportation, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
In 2018, Chicagoans for an End to the Gang Database filed a class action complaint against the City of Chicago, the police superintendent, and CPD officers. Its core complaints were that the gang databases were arbitrary, discriminatory, over inclusive, and error-ridden. The coalition also argued that individuals categorized as gang members were denied due process protections, and were subjected to harassment, false arrests, and false imprisonment. The coalition calculated that 128,000 people were included in the database, 95 percent of whom were classified as black or Hispanic. Early in 2019, the coalition passed an ordinance prohibiting the Cook County Sheriff’s Office from adding new information into the Regional Gang Intelligence Database and from sharing information from the database and outlining steps to destroy it.
The struggle against digitized criminalization points to the need to politicize our understanding of data production. These struggles establish the basis for a truly political digital theory. The many coalitions formed in opposition to this development have shown quite clearly how racial governance has adapted to the era of big data. Their labors also illustrate the need to pursue decarceration and decriminalization through viral tactics, among others. So far, effective resistance has been a matter of turning the digital infrastructure of the racial state against itself, turning its tendency to document everything into a vulnerability, scrutinizing its datasets, producing data on the practices it seeks to hide, destroying the databases that abet its necropolitical functions, circulating abolitionist content with an eye toward intergroup coalition building, and replicating the process ad nauseam.
If opposition to digitized modes of criminalization is to gain momentum, it cannot be only defensive; it must also be abolitionist. This is to say that it must question the very society that incentivizes the production of technologies for racialized social management. It must consider who the beneficiaries are, be they in the government, the university, or the IT sector. This is to say that the conflict must come face-to-face with the wider political economy of criminal justice technoscience that has quietly expanded for half a century. This type of critique, which is the hallmark of critical theory, will be needed to produce alternative ways of addressing the social problems specific to the cities chronicled herein. For we have seen how massive amounts of revenue and collective energies have gone into producing IT to manage everything from drug violence to homelessness, unemployment, and truancy. It is worth asking how we might capture these resources and use them for life-affirming solutions to the problems engendered by our distinct social system. It is also worth asking how the public might seize the means of digital communication and use them toward abolitionist ends.
Such discourse is desperately needed. The infrastructure that supports digitized criminalization has been laid for the most part outside public debate or even awareness. This book is at least three decades late, and there is no doubt that many of the technologies it chronicles have already been replaced by newer ones. Nevertheless, a growing number of people are mobilizing in opposition to the digitization of the War on Crime. It can hide in secrecy no longer. The state officials, technology corporations, and university professors who have helped build this computer-aged edifice are already on the defensive. In 2014, the Oakland Privacy Working Group and other organizations blocked the extension of the Port of Oakland’s real-time crime center. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition successfully pressured the Los Angeles Police Department to abolish its predictive policing program five years later. In spring 2019, San Francisco became the first city to ban facial recognition surveillance technology. And market bubbles haunt the criminal justice technology industry just like any other. These factors serve as a reminder that no matter how daunting it appears, mass criminalization in the digital age is not all-powerful. In fact, the expanding number of challenges to criminal justice technology might be a sign that it has run up against a threshold and will be tolerated no longer. Maybe it will be scaled back to avert deepening the crisis. We will see.