This moment feels eerily similar to the United States’ response to AIDS in the early years. Bans on travel, international surveillance, press conferences that initially downplayed the crisis, blanketed and changing assessments on how the disease could be contracted, irresponsible and disgraceful nicknames for the disease, the flipped attitudes towards the epidemic coming out of the most powerful office in the country… Although the rate of infection and death from the coronavirus surpasses what we have been told about the rate of infection with AIDS during those early days, lots of lives were lost and continue to be lost.
Those who test positive for HIV and AIDS, remain among some of the most tracked people in the United States. Their surveillance has not led to a feeling of safety for survivors I have spoken with, nor has it led to a cure.
In January, I was interviewed for Logic Magazine. We had a pretty in-depth discussion about the recent history of organizing against facial recognition technology in Detroit. The interview took place two months before the United States would report its first confirmed COVID-19 cases. I, along with many organizers against facial recognition, have had our eyes on China for several years, due to their excessive use of surveillance technologies and their social credit system, but I couldn’t have imagined what was to come. I did however fear that a crisis would create opportunity for the further ramping up of surveillance in Detroit.
For several months, and to pretty much anyone who would listen, including in front of the Board of Police Commissioners (civilian oversight body of police), I would warn about the implications of biometric surveillance in Detroit mirroring the Tuskegee Experiment… In Detroit, and other Black and Brown communities, surveillance and increased militarization tend to be default responses to situations that would actually benefit greater from resources and empathy.
There is much to be learned over the coming months about whether Detroit will attempt to deploy its facial recognition system to track COVID-19 patients, alongside its over 600 surveillance cameras.
Heartbreakingly, we will have lost a lot of folks we love before we emerge from this, but we will have also learned to lean on one another again. We will have gained more clarity about what truly makes us safe.
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