In the early 1990s, when I was at the Collins Correctional Facility in western New York, July 4 was a big thing. Preparations would start a few days before, when we started brewing homemade wine. Orange and grapefruit juice would go into a bucket placed inside a plastic garbage bag. Into the juice would go as much fruit and sugar as we could steal from the mess hall. Then someone would produce a clean sock, we’d mash a loaf or two of stolen bread inside it, tie it off, and drop it into the mix.
We’d squeeze all the air out of the garbage bag, tie it up, and hide the contraption in a dark corner, or under someone’s bunk. Every few hours someone would have to go, take it to the bathroom, open a window, and bleed the make-shift still of excess air.
By the Fourth we’d be good to go.
At Collins, Independence Day was holiday, and all of us, the prisoners and the corrections officers, would take off and relax. The COs would let all the doors in the prison swing, from the housing units to the yard, and all day we’d walk around, visiting friends in other housing units, maybe play some spades, loop around the yard, maybe play some bocce. In the afternoon, if the weather was good, the mess hall would shift their operation outside, and start grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. There was potato salad, too, and sliced watermelon to finish it with.
After lunch, my friends and I busted out the hooch, which we sipped in opaque plastic cups, to wash everything down.
That was 1992 when there were 810,500 prisoners in America. Since then, the prison population in tripled to 2.3 million people, 713 behind bars for every 100,000 people. Another 4,708,100 are subject to custodial supervision, as probationers or parolees. Some 80,000 children are in juvenile jails. Of these, in 2014, 7 percent of state prisoners and 19 percent of federal prisoners were held in facilities run by private, for-profit prison companies.
The nation that imprisons 7 million of its own people, the most of any nation in the world, has no business celebrating freedom, on July 4, or any other day of the year.
The nation that has more solitary confinement cells than any other nation in the world has no business pridefully waving its flag around. The nation that encourages a culture of sadism among its police and prison guards, by arming them with all manner of modern torture tools, and then being deliberately indifferent to their malicious use, has no business boasting of its human rights record. The nation whose prosecutors, judges, and juries blindly accept police and prison officials’ legerdemain when they are called upon to explain themselves, knows not real freedom, but an illusion of freedom, haphazardly built upon a person’s individual luck in escaping official scrutiny, or their financial ability to buy their way out of it.
On the Fourth of July, politicians and their corporate sponsors like to proffer patriotic bromides designed to make us feel good about ourselves, and our place in the world. They tell us we live in the land of the free, and the home of the brave. They tell us we live in the land of opportunity. They tell us all people are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among those the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Tell that to Akai Gurley. Tell that to Eric Garner, and Ramarley Graham, and Sean Bell, and Timothy Stansbury, and Ousmane Zongo, and Patrick Dorismond, and Amadou Diallo, and Anthony Baez, and Nicholas Heyward, and Ernest Sayon.
All unarmed men killed by police in New York City alone. What happened to their equal, unalienable rights?
When I was a prisoner, prison rules required that I carry my prison-issued identification card everywhere I went within the prison. It was a violation of prison rules to leave you cell without your identification card. You could actually be sent to solitary confinement for not carrying your ID.
Since I was released, in 2003, I’ve made it a point to not carry identification.
Since then, I’ve been stopped by police, while walking or riding my bicycle around New York City, more than few times. Every time they ask me for identification. Every time I say I don’t carry it. Every time they say the could arrest me just for that; they say that the law requires me to carry identification.
Just like when I was in prison.
When I was in prison I read a lot of books. One of the books I read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. From Foucault I learned about the “Panopticon.”
In Greek mythology, Panoptes was a giant with 100 eyes. Only a few of the eyes slept at any one time, so Panoptes was an excellent watchman. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham applied the idea of Panoptes to prison design. In the late 1700s, he designed a prison that was circular in shape, with a guard tower in its center. The prisoners lived in barred, transparent cells around the circumference, while the guards in the tower watched them. However, the presence of the guards was obscured by blinds or other contrivances. Thus the prisoners always felt they were being watched, but did not know when or if they were actually being watched.
Bentham theorized that this architecture of surveillance, actual and perceived, would cause the prisoners to act as if they were always being watched. In this way, the criminals would internalize the surveillance, and become model citizens—because they believed they were always being watched.
Life in America today is defined, and bounded by, the digital panopticon of the surveillance state.
Most New Yorkers live in a building. Most buildings have some kind of surveillance technology. When you walk outside your door, chances are there is a camera documenting you, telling whoever is watching what time you left your house, and when you return. As you walk around the city, more private and police cameras capture your movements.
If you carry a cell or smartphone, digital transmissions from your cellphone “ping” your location to cellphone transmission towers, which are recorded in a digital database, telling the watchers where you go, and for how long you stay there.
Where ever you go, you are recorded. Go into a store, there are cameras. Get on a bus, there are cameras. Go into an office building, still more cameras. If you drive, both fixed and mobile license-plate trackers record the movements of your motor vehicle, as does your E-ZPass.
Get on the subway, more cameras.
On the subway, posters and pre-recorded announcements instruct you, over and over, to snitch on your fellow citizens: “If you see something, say something.” Another pre-recorded announcement says that anything you carry, any kind of bag or box, is subject to being searched by the police, at their whim, without some kind of individualized suspicion, much less a search warrant.
At work, more surveillance.
Customarily, to access office buildings, workers have to prove who they are by carrying and displaying identification. Once inside, workplace cameras record your movements. On the computer, software monitors your internet use, telling contemporary over-seers if you’re doing something other than working. If you drive for work, a GPS device monitors were you go, and tells your bosses if you were late because you stopped for lunch at Burger King, and didn’t get stuck in traffic like you once were able to say.
Even inside the so-called sanctity of your own home, you are still being watched. Thanks to the bravery of Edward Snowden, we now know that everything we read and download from the internet is subject to observation and copying by the government. Even if they are not doing it directly, they can always simply ask the corporation providing your internet service for a copy of your records, and the corporation, dependent on the government for many things, like licenses to do business, will comply. Just like in prison, where prison authorities, as a matter of course, review and screen what you read, as well as your incoming and outgoing correspondence.
Some say that surveillance doesn’t seem to bother most Americans. Most Americans seem fine, some people say, with what amounts to self-surveillance on social media. I look at it differently. I don’t see social media as an embrace of the surveillance state. I see it as open rebellion. I see it as people saying, well, if I’m going to be surveilled, I might as well take some control of it, and offer a counter-narrative to the really sleazy porn I watch online. See Mr. Government Watchman, I’m not all that bad, I visit my parents regularly. I get my coffee from Starbucks. I’m normal. I’m just like everyone else. I’m not a threat.
I think its time we all started being a little more threatening.
You want to really celebrate freedom on this Fourth of July? Leave your identification at home. Smash your smartphone. Break a surveillance camera. Download an anonymous internet browser and encryption software. Buy a big hat or sunglasses to defeat facial recognition software. Cover your license plate in dust. Go for a ride in the countryside. Shoot a gun, maybe buy one. The next time you see something suspicious, don’t call the cops, go up to your fellow citizen and ask about it—chances are you’ll get a satisfactory explanation.
That’s real independence. Quiet subservience is not.