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Lithium Protest photography, trauma porn, and the surveillance state

Jun. 10, 2020
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In America, the fact that we live in a surveillance state has literally become meme-able material: yes, FBI man that lurks on my computer as I type this, I’m talking to you. But really, there’s a darker truth behind this playful, internet-wide subversive nod to the violating practices of our government. And in the wake of the civil unrest boiling over across the country, all eyes are on us, none more so than our own government. 

Automatic license plate readers can track any cars in the vicinity of a protest or demonstration, and law enforcement can utilize both facial recognition and wireless interception to identify and harvest sensitive information. Call logs and SMS messages can be easily ripped from your idle devices, and the FBI is demanding people report and identify violent protesters captured on video.

Protests have erupted in every region of our nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd; in response, the government is not only enabling law enforcement to drive vehicles through crowds of protesters and fire on peaceful demonstrators, they’re also violating every right to privacy in the book to track, threaten, and prosecute protesters. 

Small armies of militarized police have been deployed in cities across the country; while some have used the chance to embark in a tad bit of abhorrent performative activism, these productions only thinly mask the extensive brutality unleashed on demonstrators. Amidst reports of mass police violence against protesters, the scariest weapon that law enforcement wields may not even be the tear gas, tasers, mace, bullets, or literal vehicles arming the onslaught. Instead, it is the weaponization of private information. 

Even bringing a cellphone to a protest is a risk—and a sizable one, at that. If arrested, any devices on you are completely subject to search and inspection. To take it even further, sensitive information broadcasted from your phone can be pried from your mobile carriers at any time, and accidentally connecting to an IMSI catcher, a device used by cops that basically acts as a cellphone tower, will allow them to collect your private data. It can be used on entire crowds in one swoop. 

All this is why we must take extra steps to protect ourselves, because it is an assault from all fronts; turn off your GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth; activate airplane mode; and, I cannot stress this enough, turn off facial and thumbprint recognition on your phone. This puts you in a very vulnerable position to cops who are just one unnecessarily forceful manhandling away from gaining access to your device. 

It’s time to admit that this constant threat to privacy is not meme-able anymore, no longer a cynically humorous shrug at an abusive authority; we live in a surveillance state and it is terrifying. Not only does it facilitate the persecution and disruption of protesters and demonstrations, it also enables retaliation. 

And yet, in spite of all of the dangers that having a culture built on living online may cultivate, our digital generation has utilized this tool as a mechanism of activism, organization, and accountability. We have turned the tables; we have subverted the system by amplifying our collective voice in a public sphere. We are protesting now because of the documentation of an abhorrent act of violence. When it hit the digital platforms we engage with daily, it set the world on fire. 

We are speaking directly to the people. We have demanded the world’s attention; know that they are watching. Know that some are looking for any slip-up, any mistake. All media platforms are being monitored. So are the videos collected from police cams, drone footage, and stolen data. Know that your face can show up anywhere. The revolution may not be televised, but it is being surveilled; this is an era of digital policing. 

I implore you to think about all the brave people joining us in our fight that face unparalleled risk; they may be undocmented, have a criminal record, be queer-identifying or gender-nonconforming. Be mindful of what photos you take and how you store them, both ones you share and ones you don’t; be wary of live-streaming, and the risk it carries—you don’t know what vulnerable faces you may capture, even if only for a split second. Understand that as police violence escalates, so will the violation of our private information, weaponized to systemically root out protesters, starting with the most unprotected. 

These are the platforms where we are organizing, where we are documenting an event that history will remember; we can’t be anything less than fiercely vigilant in how we are utilizing it, while protecting each other in the process. Yes—even if that means blurring faces in photos, or deleting protest content all together. It is not censorship or whitewashing; it is making difficult decisions to defend civil liberties. 

Though there is a human and photojournalistic value in showing hard, challenging, and graphic images to fully tell a story, don’t do so for the purposes of trauma porn, or in spite of the sacrifices involuntarily forced onto those who never wanted to be in your photo in the first place. 

Right now, we are all documentarians, journalists, and activists in our own right. Every single day, in every action to uplift, archive, and spread awareness, we are honoring the memory of George Floyd, and the many, many stories like his. In these roles, we are also bound by not inflicting further harm in our advocacy; we have to be better. We cannot report carelessly, endanger lives, or make political art while not caring about the political consequences. 

Please, be aware that taking a stand is a risk; please be aware that, when you photograph someone’s uncovered face, you make that risk greater. Don’t endanger black lives, even if done in an effort to defend them.

Photo by Alda Amer for Axios