Race, Surveillance, Resistance

Arnett, Chaz

The increasing capability of surveillance technology in the hands of law enforcement is radically changing the power, size, and depth of the surveillance state. More daily activities are being captured and scrutinized, larger quantities of personal and biometric data are being extracted and analyzed, in what is becoming a deeply intensified and pervasive surveillance society. This reality is particularly troubling for Black communities, as they shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden and harm associated with these powerful surveillance measures, at a time when traditional mechanisms for accountability have grown weaker. These harms include the maintenance of legacies of state sponsored, racialized surveillance that uphold systemic criminalization, dispossession, and exploitation of Black communities. This Article highlights Baltimore City, Maryland as an example of an urban area facing extraordinary challenges posed by an expanding police surveillance apparatus, fueled in part by corruption and limited channels of formal constraint. As Black residents experience the creep of total surveillance and its attendant aims of control and subordination, the need for avenues of effective resistance becomes apparent. This Article argues that these communities may draw hope and inspiration from another period in American history where Black people were subjected to seemingly complete surveillance with limited legal recourse: chattel slavery. People enslaved in or passing through Maryland used a variety of means to resist surveillance practices, demonstrating creativity, bravery, and resourcefulness as they escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Internalizing and building upon these lessons of agency and resistance will be critical for Black communities in Baltimore and other similarly situated places across America that are seeking relief from the repressive effects of pervasive police surveillance.