July 29, 2020

The Panopticon and Protest Surveillance

Jessica polingBy Jessica Poling

There is no doubt that the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd will be one of the defining features of the year 2020. Following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, this recent wave of outcry and activism has dominated public discourse and gained traction—even among those who were previously skeptical of the movement.

The explosiveness of the protests, particularly in metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, have created more tension between civilians and law enforcement, who have at times escalated peaceful protests or harassed protesters. These are just a few of the many visible examples of the mechanisms government officials and law enforcement use to control and manipulate protests. However, to fully grasp the nature of this conflict, it is equally important to discuss the invisible, subtle ways that protestors are surveilled and punished.

Philosopher Michel Foucault’s case study of the “Panopticon” illuminates why invisible means of control are particularly important to understand. Foucault used the example of the Panopticon to exemplify how, contrary to popular belief, modern society is not more peaceful or benevolent than the days when people were publicly physically punished; rather, power has simply evolved to be invisible and executed through everyday surveillance and control.

The Panopticon, he explains, is a type of institutional design used in prisons that relies on surveillance. The architecture of the Panopticon places a surveillance tower in the center of the building, with corridors of cells off-shooting from it. Because of this layout, any guard in the surveillance tower has a 360-degree view of the prison and can see down every corridor, thus allowing them to see if a prisoner escapes their cell at any point.

The prisoners, however, cannot see past their own corridor; if they wish to escape they must then take the chance that the guard is watching them at that moment. Ultimately, the Panopticon is a success because the fear of being watched at any moment pressures inmates to stay in their cells rather than risk the punishment of an escape attempt.

Foucault uses the Panopticon as an example of the role of surveillance in modern society. While power and punishment are not as visible or physically violent as they may have once been, they are nonetheless still very present, just hidden. Consider the omnipresence of closed circuit TV cameras on the street, or the popularity of the Ring Doorbell, which promises to catch or even prevent home burglaries before they happen. In essence, we have become accustomed to living in a society which watches our every move, with the threat of punishment if we deviate.

While media coverage has focused on the violent, visible reactions to the Black Lives Matter protests, it has largely negated the use of surveillance in controlling and punishing protestors. Experienced protestors know, for example, that it is bad practice to post photographs of protestors’ faces because of fear of retaliation from police or one’s place of work.

The FBI even recently explicitly requested photographs of potential looters or vandals. Similarly, the mayor of St. Louis recently doxxed (leaked personal information) about multiple protest leaders, putting not only the longevity of the protest, but the safety of the protestors themselves at risk.

Moreover, there are rumors surrounding the mysterious deaths of several BLM leaders following the Ferguson protests, leading some to wonder whether they were targeted given their public visibility. These examples suggest that protestors are not just controlled and punished on the streets in broad daylight. Rather, protests are also effectively disrupted through surveillance techniques.

Protesters-with-arms-raised-4613902
Source: pexels.com

While many protestors do experience physical violence and disruption, many may also be controlled via state surveillance. By “keeping tabs” on protestors, their identities, and their plans, state actors can effectively control and manipulate protestors and social movements. Because these surveillance tactics are largely not visible and infrequently spoken about in the media, they can potentially be even more effective than visibly violent means of control.

This phenomenon illuminates the continued applicability of Foucault’s Panopticon. The reaction of police and politicians following the BLM protests demonstrates that social movements are not just controlled violently on the streets for cameras and onlookers to witness, but also behind the scenes through surveillance. Thus, much like the prisoners under watch in the Panopticon, protestors must also be mindful of the “guard in the watchtower” who is ready to discipline and punish.

Comments

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