Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Social Death and the Criminalization of Resistance in the California Prison Hunger Strikes

Associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University

On July 8, more than 30,000 prisoners across California launched the largest hunger strike in state history. Now, three weeks later, more than 600 prisoners continue to refuse meals, in spite of direct acts of retaliation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Hunger strikers report being locked in their cells 24 hours a day, blasted with extra-cold air conditioning, and denied medication on the grounds that it must be taken with food. At least 14 hunger strikers have been forcibly relocated from the SHU or Security Housing Unit (a prison within the prison) into an even more isolated Administrative Segregation Unit. Others have had sandbags placed by their cell doors to prevent “fishing” or passing notes and other items between cells.

Now, as in the 2011 hunger strikes, participants have been issued disciplinary write-ups that exacerbate the very conditions that they are protesting. Media access to hunger strikers has been denied, and some legal visits have been obstructed.

Almost all of the retaliatory actions reported by prisoners are also confirmed by the CDCR in a July 11 press release. In this document, the department justifies its harsh response to the strike action by claiming that it is “organized by prison gangs.” The CDCR has even refused to publicize the number of hunger strikers at each prison on the grounds that this “could put inmates who are not participating in extreme danger.” As Lt. Anthony Baer, Public Information Officer at Corcoran State Prison, explains what might otherwise seem like a non sequitur: “if word gets out that certain prisons are not participating or the number at a particular prison isn’t high enough – those inmates could be in extreme danger.”

The hunger strikers reject the CDCR’s claim that the hunger strikes are organized by prison gangs, and they are well aware of the degree to which appeals to gang activity functions as an alibi for the brutal repression of individual and collective resistance. The second of the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective’s five core demands is to reform the “gang validation” policies that have put 3,000 California prisoners into extreme isolation in the SHU with no way out but to “parole, snitch or die.”

A prisoner at Corcoran, identified by Solitary Watch as "J.", explains the absurdity of the CDCR’s claim that the current strike action is organized by gangs:

It’s crazy cause they’re trying to say us protesting is gang activity, but every race is participating so how is that possible? Then when we eventually all get 115′s [disciplinary write-ups] for it they’re gonna use it to continue to keep us in the SHU… I don’t know if all this is gonna do us any good in the end, but this fight is worth the effort for sure, if we don’t stand up for ourselves who will? (emphasis added)

Another hunger striker, Kijana Askari, analyzes the convenient ambiguity of the terms “gang” and “Security Threat Group” as a catch-all for whatever and whomever the CDCR wishes to ban or crush:

[T]he revisions [to gang validation policy secured by the 2011 hunger strikes] have only strengthened CDCR officials power and ability to label and validate every prisoner in CDCR as belonging to a Security Threat Group – e.g. “prison gang.” At the crux of the revisions is a lack of a definitive and “behavioral-based” criteria, as to what actually constitute as being gang activity. Meaning, any and everything can and will still be considered as gang activity, in spite of how innocuous the activity may be. (emphasis added)

This point is crucial for understanding the situation in California, both in the prisons and on the streets. As Lisa Cacho has argued in her important book, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (New York University Press, 2012), gang violence functions as an alibi for the criminalization of black and brown people and the reinforcement of white privilege. Ordinances that “enhance” sentences for gang activity are disproportionately applied to people of color, whether or not they actually belong to a gang, and suspended for middle-class white people, even when they are convicted of crimes that clearly fit the criteria for enhancement (see, for example, Chapter 1, “White Entitlement and Other People’s Crimes,” pp. 35-60).

Cacho argues that terms like “gang member,” “illegal alien” and “suspected terrorist,” function as markers of de facto status crimes. A status crime “is not contingent on criminal conduct; it is premised upon bodies perceived to be criminal” (43). Perceived by whom? By those with enough social power to identify their own status with the law, its enforcement, and the punishment of those whose status does not shield them from criminalization.

We see this same dynamic at work within the California prison system, where black and brown prisoners are isolated indefinitely in a prison within a prison on the basis of what they are presumed to be rather than what they have done. As the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective explains in the second of their five core demands: “Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement” (emphasis added).

At stake here is the very meaning of social life and social death, and the continued legacy of slavery, both in the U.S. prison system and in the structure of US society.

Hunger striker Mutope Duguma (also known as James Crawford, or as Bow Low) argues:

This place is a plantation or a prison colony and we prisoners are the slaves (a status legitimized by the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution). The guards are free to do with us as they please. They have complete control of our medical care, mail, visits, property, supplies, law library access, laundry, yard, isolation, the lights in our cell, family, friends, lock downs, etc…

The actual objective or goal of all this is to force every indefinitely held SHU prisoner to “debrief” (to turn rat, snitch, turncoat, however you want do define it). Some SHU prisoners break and give their captors names just to escape the terrible conditions of confinement.

In other words, the goal of CDCR gang validation policies is to produce speech acts in the prisoner that justify and support his own repression, and the continued repression of others who are positioned, like him, as twenty-first century slaves whose “status” is always already criminalized.

Duguma is also the author of the original call to engage in collective hunger strikes, back in 2011. In “The Call,” he identifies the conditions in the SHU as a form of civil death:

It should be clear to everyone that none of the hunger strike participants want to die, but due to our circumstances, whereas that state of California has sentenced all of us on Indeterminate SHU program to a “civil death” merely on the word of a prison informer (snitch).

The purpose of the Hunger Strike is to combat both the Ad-Seg/SHU psychological and physical torture, as well as the justifications used to support treatment of the type that lends to prisoners being subjected to a civil death. Those subjected to indeterminate SHU programs are neglected and deprived of the basic human necessities while withering away in a very isolated and hostile environment.

Civil death is a legal fiction; it refers to someone who has been legally positioned as dead in law. Their body may be alive and their mind sharp, but they are denied the legal status of a citizen with the right to vote, to bring a legal case to court, and to exercise their civil right to free speech, free association, and the engagement in peaceful protest.

Social death is the effect of a social practice in which a person or group of people is excluded, dominated and/or humiliated, to the point of becoming dead to the rest of society. They may speak, but their voice is not heard and their words do not matter. They may protest, but their action remains unsupported and ultimately ineffective. They may analyze the central dynamics of power and privilege in twenty-first century America, but their analysis gets lost in the news cycle and buried by official rhetoric.

Social death is the condition under which some people can be condemned to civil death, while the rest of us fail to care or even to notice. It is the condition under which entire groups of people may be exposed to disproportionate state violence, neglect, and/or exploitation, without provoking the concern or support of other members of the community. Social death is both a condition of civil death and one of its effects; they amplify one another in a vicious circle that is difficult to interrupt. Together, civil death and social death name the position of those whose status is always already perceived as criminal and labeled as a “security threat.”

Collective action, such as we are currently witnessing in the California prison hunger strikes, is a process by which those who have been condemned to civil and social death – and those who dwell in the half-life of privilege for whose sake the civil and social death of others is demanded – join together to create new forms of ethical and political life.

It is precisely this collective action, and this promise of solidarity, that is criminalized by the CDCR in its deployment of “gang” rhetoric against individual prisoners and against the strike action as a whole. This rhetoric is more than just an unfortunate choice of words; it speaks to a whole network of policies and practices that intensify the social isolation, physical domination, and psychological torture of prisoners rather than supporting their collective transformation and mutual responsibility as members of a community that includes people on the outside.

But it goes even further. By retaliating against the ongoing hunger strikers and failing to follow through on previously-negotiated agreements in a timely fashion, the CDCR not only criminalizes and punishes collective action, it criminalizes and punishes collectivity as such. By labeling the peaceful protest of hunger strikers as “gang” activity, the CDCR converts their peaceful protest into a status crime and punishes the very existence of solidarity and kinship in resistance to civil and social death.

This legislation and enforcement of the civil and social death of already-marginalized people not only affects prisoners in the California system, but also black and brown people across the U.S., poor people of all races, and anyone whose existence may be perceived as a “security threat” to dominant power.

In the end, the demands of the hunger strikers are very modest; they do not ask for the abolition of prisons, nor even the abolition of solitary confinement. They merely call the CDCR to live up to the “R” in its own name: the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The five core demands are: 1) to end group punishment for individual rule violations; 2) to reform gang validation policies; 3) to comply with the recommendations of a federal commission on long-term solitary confinement; 4) to provide adequate and healthy food; and 5) to expand rehabilitation, education, and recreation programs.

But however modest the content of these demands, the collective action through which they are made, and the collective subject that affirms its existence through this action, is nothing less than revolutionary. We cannot allow the CDC(R) to determine the meaning of this solidarity as yet another status crime and yet another alibi for social and civil death.


Lisa Guenther is associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minnesota, August 2013) and The Gift of the Other. She facilitates a weekly discussion group at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee.

"In an unusually vigorous interrogation of philosophy and the social sciences, Lisa Guenther addresses one of humanity’s greatest inhumanities and its perversely long, extensive history in America. Guenther offers a compelling critique of solitary confinement, in the course of which she pushes phenomenology beyond its classical limits, revealing our inherent inter-subjectivity, our need for both interaction and anonymity, and the moral imperative that America end this cruel and barbaric form of punishment. An urgently needed, powerfully argued study of one of the nation’s gravest moral and socio-political failings."
—Orlando Patterson, Harvard University

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Race relations and our everyday lives: An excerpt from Albert Memmi's "Racism"

The dynamics of race and prejudice in a gated community in Florida resonate throughout the world because they are, in fact, global and human conditions. In Racism, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2000, sociologist Albert Memmi describes scenes in Paris and in Algeria that share significant similarities to the interactions between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Whether we encounter a group of kids on the Paris Metro or a stranger on a dark street in our neighborhood, race relations—and our instant and inevitable prejudicial responses—are inherent to our everyday lives.

Excerpt from Racism (pp. 129-31)

Why is racism so common? Because it is a very convenient tool of aggression.

I have already spoken at length of its expedience, but here are two more examples. I am in the Paris Metro on the Porte de la Chapelle line, with a friend who mentions that its nickname, for those who use it daily, is the “Third World line” or the “Africa–Asia line,” because one encounters so many immigrants from those continents on it. Exactly one Black person is in our car; he appears somewhat mentally deranged and is drumming with his hands on the subway seat, on the window, while nodding his head in rhythm. The other riders have that absent air common to subway riders the world over, but they seem a bit anxious about the gestures of this unfortunate man. My friend translates the general sentiment for me. “They are all somewhat odd,” she murmurs. I decode what she says: “In other words, he is making these impetuous motions because he is black.” If he were white, they would say, he is just a deranged man, but since he is black, they think first of all that here is a Black person. I asked my friend why. She thought seriously about her own reaction and responded in this way. She often takes this subway line, and she always feels a vague anxiety. And today? She admits that she does. And yes, she had thought first of the ethnic origin of our dancer. It is true, it is easy to give in to the temptation to think in biologically racialized terms; the color of the skin, the facial features, the hair all become anchor points for fear, which is then crystallized into hostility.

A second example, again in the Metro: a group of young North Africans loudly invades a subway car. They move around laughing and looking for attention, almost to the point of provocation. My traveling companion, a well-meaning and antiracist university professor, murmurs uneasily, “They shouldn’t do this . . . ” I ask him to explain. He tells me that he would like to protect these young people, in some way, from opinion that is already ill disposed toward them. As North Africans, they are suspect in advance. I have previously discussed this “advice” with respect to Jews: “Be discreet, don’t call attention to yourselves in a situation already turned against you.” My friend recognizes that, in spite of himself, he participates a little in the general sentiment: these are North Africans in Paris; they shouldn’t do this. . . . Whatever they do reflects on their status as immigrants. But clearly, here in the subway, it is not just a question of a specifically “North African” mode of behavior: these are adolescents, full of raw excess energy, maladroit in their growing bodies, not yet familiar with all social norms. They seek to dissipate their discomfort in the unwholesome pleasures of intimidating others who are adult, rich, or different, and they are ready for violence should any incident provide the occasion for it. Yet is this not the behavior of any gang of teenage street kids?

I have purposely chosen these two examples because each contains an element of biological difference. The second is more instructive since it contains two differences: age and ethnicity. These North Africans were both North African and younger than the other passengers. The ethnic difference was instinctively chosen as the focus for fear or anxiety, rather than the age difference; the latter would have been adequate but not as opportune, since it would not have enjoyed the more general sense of racialized ill feeling or hostility.

Today, everyone seems to condemn racism. At least, very few proclaim themselves to be racist. Indeed, those who do practice it, whether in word or deed, do not defend it as a philosophy. Most often, they explain their gestures and words as arising from something other than racism. One could be content with this, and even reassured, and still seek to understand the nature of the racist phenomenon, even though one’s ultimate understanding might be quite disturbing in the end and lead to more than mere indignation. It is necessary to treat racism as a matter of fact, provisionally setting aside all moralism and even, to a certain extent, all preoccupation with action.


Albert Memmi is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Paris, Nanterre, and the author of Racism.

"Memmi offers us a path with a lot of useful information." —Discourse and Society

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The way scholarship works today

In a blog post for Inside Higher Ed, college librarian Barbara Fister considers University of Minnesota Press director Doug Armato's January blog post on open access and the future of scholarly publishing alongside a recent statement from the American Historical Society in favor of protecting scholars' dissertations from public view. Her reaction:

What’s especially worth noting is that the publisher is more interested than the scholarly society is in how ideas flow in and out of various stages of development and how much more public this activity is today - and why that's a good thing. Armato sees the publisher’s work as “pattern recognition” rather than gatekeeper or conveyor of disciplinary distinction.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How the suburban U.S. shopping mall reimagined the city and undergirded architectural modernization

Victor Gruen's Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, was the first fully indoor shopping mall in the world. Photo credit: Bobak Ha'Eri via Creative Commons.

Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University

In 1958, the Architectural League of New York held a photographic exhibit of new street furniture. Today, such an undertaking seems unremarkable but the show warranted a lengthy review in the New York Times. That street furniture was a "major topic" reflected the prevailing opinion of architects and planners that the quantity of both traditional and utilitarian "stuff" of the street – from mailboxes to benches to lighting – had accumulated to the point of "visual anarchy." It had become absolutely necessary, argued League president Morris Ketchum, to establish "overall control" in creating the "right environment" for users of the street.

Regulating a streetscape was hardly a new enterprise. A good many efforts of the early 20th century City Beautiful advocates, from civic leaders to garden clubs, demanded aesthetic criteria be added to functional in the reconsideration of the street. Charles Mulford Robinson's call for civic art, for example, included large scale planning as well as street furnishings. Some critics scoffed at what they dismissed as a doily-on-a-light-pole approach, but other progressives argued that every detail was meaningful, not only issues of scale and use. Visual control and a well-ordered street were also signs of the capillary action of extensive urban management. In a time when industrial modernization was wreaking social and physical havoc on cities, a handsome (and regularly emptied) garbage can on the corner signified that a regime of control and stability was keeping an eye on things.

Victor Gruen's Northland Center in Southfield, Michigan,
was a milestone for suburban shopping centers in the U.S.
In the post-WW2 metropolis, the site of successful civic order and control had relocated. "Ironically," Times writer Thomas W. Ennis noted, the "most imaginative forms" of new furniture were found in suburban shopping centers. In fact, most of the images in the League show published in the Times were of recently completed shopping centers, including Victor Gruen's Northland (1954, Southfield, Michigan) and I. M. Pei's Roosevelt Field (1956, East Garden City, New York). What the Times writer described as incongruent—that urban improvements had brewed in the suburbs—was the central allure of the new shopping center: outside the city, they grew on sites unburdened by history, hazard or encumbrance. The suburb was a seemingly fresh and open territory where planners, architects and builders could experiment with site planning, building groups and complex technical and service infrastructures. One of the challenges of contemporary urban renewal, on the other hand, was the difficulty of demolition, complex existing street and building conditions (not to mention residents!) and a thicket of political and economic networks. However, shopping centers and urban renewal work shared the modernist premise of a new scale of intervention and civic order, a reworking of movement systems and the reapportioning of space to privilege pedestrians. That these were first and more easily accomplished in the new shopping centers earned the centers early approval from both popular and professional circles. In the suburban shopping center, the city could be reimagined as a well-organized, frictionless, modern place, nothing like the old downtown.

Expressing something of the strange optimism of the time, a writer in the Christian Science Monitor (1956) saw the suburban shift in even more profound terms, "The shopping center of the future … will be completely self-contained, offering practically every known product and service." There is more than a touch of totalizing fantasy in such a view (written about the same time as the opening of Victor Gruen's Southdale (1956, Edina, Minnesota), the first fully indoor shopping center)—but the attitude was common. Other tropes used to describe the suburban shopping center in the 1950s include: a better version of downtown; a smoothly-operating urban node; and a perfected city. Underlying this evaluation of the center was the intersection of modernism's predilection for control and the consumer economy that undergirded postwar modernization.

This theme is drawn out more fully in Pedestrian Modern, where I show how American architects at this time conceived of shopping center commissions—in the city or not—as experiments in modernist urban planning and architecture. Morris Ketchum, president of the Architectural League at the time of this exhibit, was no mere observer of the emerging shopping center. As lead designer of one of the earliest and largest, suburban Boston’s Shoppers’ World (1951), he was heavily invested in maintaining the cultural and civic value of such projects. The chapter devoted to shopping centers in his 1948 book, Shops and Stores, regards them as the logical outcome of the expanding city, with new site conditions, widespread automotive use and the growing consumer goods market. Most important, Ketchum wrote, was the unity in organization and management of the project as a whole. He, Gruen, and other retail complex architects prized unity above all, recognizing it was harder to achieve in the city center than outside it. That this enterprise was understood by its protagonists as one of many forms of modernist urbanism might today seem a stretch. Indeed, consumption casts a long shadow over discussions of architecture, urbanism and planning; its specter only raises the stakes in an understanding of how modern architecture and urbanism worked its way through architectural culture.


David Smiley is author of Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956. He teaches at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

"Provocative, original, and persuasive . . . this deeply-researched investigation into the modernist origins of the mall is a model of creative scholarship and design thinking."
—Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

"Pedestrian Modern challenges the idea that architectural modernism involved a critique of shopping and mass culture. Smiley shows that the architects who designed the key consumer settings in the United States explored modernist idioms of transparency, circulation, and master planning. The results, both urban and suburban, made modernism an appealing everyday experience for the general public."
—Gwendolyn Wright, Columbia University

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hot Spotter's Report: Imagining alternate possibilities in a world in which toxicity and exposure are not the exception but the rule.

U.S. Department of Energy radiation hot spot detection equipment utilized at Rocky Flats, Colorado. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Assistant professor of culture and politics at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

Growing up near two major plutonium processing facilities (Hanford, WA, and Rocky Flats, CO) in the nationally distributed U.S. nuclear weapons complex has profoundly shaped my way about the world—from my relationship with the outdoors and understanding of nature to my educational background and sense of humor. I came of age with an awareness that remote areas—areas linked to ideas about American freedom, democracy, and frontier—are often heavily controlled, made, and maintained as remote. I was also cognizant of invisible geographies of waste in the landscape around me: Toxicity had a way of seeping into everyday life, whether through local lore or official reports or workplace exposures.

As I have recounted elsewhere, this is one of the reasons I became a geographer—to consider the ways we might investigate such invisible geographies and unacknowledged military remains, and to figure out how to respond. One ethical response I’ve explored is what others might call a post-sublime and post-ecocidal understanding of nature. This has often positioned me outside of traditional American environmental conservation efforts to preserve “pristine” nature—to bound it and protect it from humans. My experiences have challenged ways of thinking that position nature opposite of waste, and encourage me to find creative ways to address the historical antagonisms between labor and environmentalists.

Hot Spotter’s Report draws on this foundation of ideas. The book is part of a larger body of work (academic projects, arts-based practice, and various public culture forms) focused on the domestic legacies of war—the marks of industrial production, the chemical revolution, WWII and Cold War military work. The category of “remains,” for me, crosses the conventional boundaries that delimit institutions, land, labor, law, animal, affect, and so forth. Empirically, the domestic remains of war can be difficult to see: Toxicity is often invisible (consider radiation); the vast U.S. military landscape—nuclear weapons facilities and chemical munitions arsenals, bombing ranges and test sites, etc.—are largely located in rural areas or deserts with marginalized populations that do not command public attention; and a history of secrecy and misinformation make it difficult to know about these places or to weigh evidence and make claims about exposure.

Additionally, a lot of representational remediation is going on, most notably the sanitizing effects of the “environmental turn” of the U.S. military and “greening” of the nuclear weapons legacy. The rhetoric of stewardship recasts the military as environmental protector. Furthermore, the administrative conversion of former military and nuclear sites to wildlife refuges has been one of the preferred ways to dispose of facilities deemed too toxic to return to any other use. Re-designating a contaminated site a wildlife refuge allows the Department of Defense or Department of Energy (DOE) to save money on the cleanup while harnessing cultural tropes that assert visibly natural spaces to be uncontaminated. The spectacle of nature at these military-to-wildlife sites obscures their material legacies and depoliticizes their labor histories and social controversies.

An even more contradictory “postmilitary” development, the DOE has inaugurated an office for the purpose of sustainably managing nuclear impacts on the land. In response to public demands for government accountability of nuclear waste, the DOE mandates that Legacy Management oversees nuclear hazards in perpetuity—that is, the office is supposed to manage sites, where contamination remains, indefinitely. Moreover, it is to find ways to manage long-term contamination sustainably, in order to minimize government waste. One of my favorite parts of the book is the satirical PowerPoint that opens Chapter 2; it captures the absurd logics at work, such as the way Legacy Management has reduced its own staffing and outsourced its oversight to contractors and remote technological systems, in the process earning a federal-level sustainability award for eliminating government waste in the long-term management of nuclear hazards. In doing the research for this chapter, I realized that I was actually constructing an archive of an organization that has progressively minimized itself to the point of merely making appearances of management.

To address this management endgame of nuclear waste and other efforts to green military remains and the toxic impacts of war, Hot Spotter’s Report employs a variety of performative geographical, feminist, queer, and environmental justice strategies, and utilizes creative documentary formats and satire. In a world in which toxicity and exposure are not the exception but the rule, and wherein sustainability, austerity, and normativity largely dominate our responses to environmental crisis, Hot Spotter’s Report attempts to imagine other possibilities, within even the most monolithic, lethargic, and toxic bureaucratic operations.


Shiloh R. Krupar is author of Hot Spotter's Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. She is a geographer and assistant professor of culture and politics at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

"The nuclear remaking of the world is the ambitious theme of Shiloh Krupar’s innovative and often startling new text. Dispatches from a natural world saturated with the toxic products of the U.S. nuclear state perform the uncertain futures, mutant ecologies, and new subjectivities of a post-nuclear America—an important contribution not only to environmental studies, critical theory, and nuclear studies but also to narrative form."
—Joseph Masco, University of Chicago

"Hot Spotter’s Report is at once a devastating indictment of ‘green war’ and a hopeful search for new conditions of existence in and beyond the toxic residues of militarism. Written with wit and passion, Krupar’s irreverent experiments with fable, satire, and creative non-fiction do much more than disrupt the ongoing sanitization of military violence; they open space for new coalitions and political imaginings in domestic landscapes marked by the legacies of imperial war. A refreshingly novel approach to environmental and political geography."
—Bruce Braun, University of Minnesota

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The history of government surveillance in the U.S.: From the dragnet to Prism

In the 1930s, the dragnet came to refer to the use of radio as the key technology to combat criminal mobility.
This image from 1935 is of a radio program being recorded at KTAR (AM), Phoenix, Arizona. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Associate professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University

Revelation of the U.S.'s massive data gathering operation known as Prism has invoked a broad array of public reactions and debates. On the one hand, people seemed shocked to learn that the NSA has been spying on Americans’ phone calls, texts, and Internet activities, while on the other, there were those who pointed out that government surveillance has not exactly been a secret. And, while the enormous scope and breadth of Prism left a great number of Americans angry, an equal if not greater number seemed less concerned.

A number of debates center on the uniqueness of Prism in terms of its deployment of digital technologies and the ability to collect, store, and algorithmically manipulate vast swaths of data in order to draw up profiles of individuals as consumers, citizens, and now, as potential terrorists or criminal suspects. There is a lingering sense that this is somehow a new phenomenon linked both to the exigencies of a diffuse “war” and the destabilizing potentials found in emerging technologies of communication. But a broader lens demonstrates that this recent incident has deeper historical roots.

The roots of the global War on Terror are found in the domestic War on Crime, that public relations master stroke of one of the New Deal’s new centralized agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Spearheaded by the dynamic and controversial J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI worked to build, organize, file, and make accessible vast stores of information about not only criminals, but citizens more generally. The formation of the FBI was deemed necessary, in part, to deal with a key technology transforming twentieth century American life: the automobile. But while the FBI gets a great deal of credit and scholarly attention, it was at the level of the state, county, and city/municipality, that a range of law enforcement reformers, officials, and agencies made the crucial link between the other key technology transforming interwar life: the radio.

Together the radio and automobile formed a new horizon of surveillance imagined through the metaphor of the dragnet. Once used to describe the routine roundup of vagrants and other potential criminal types in poor neighborhoods in the 1930s, the dragnet came to refer to the use of radio as the key technology to combat criminal mobility. The growing use of the automobile was made possible by the tremendous expansion of usable roads, especially paved roads, that made quick travel across municipal, county, and state lines a vexing problem for the highly decentralized U.S. law enforcement agencies. Radio offered a solution. Its technological ability to collapse space and time led police forces to explore its capacity as both a one-to-many and one-to-one technology in order to coordinate the deployment of automobile patrols over vast swaths of territory. Linked with tools like the telephone and teletype, police forces worked to construct themselves as constantly available, omnipresent forces capable of being everywhere.

But technocratic solutions to perceived social problems do not happen in policy vacuums. While the FBI policy machine spun out an image of the immaculate, upright G-Man, beholden to the law first and all else second, municipal and state uses of radio likewise served as sources of public good will building. From articles in trade to general interest magazines, appearances in films, and finally to being represented on the radio itself, police radio was heralded as the key symbol of police modernization. More than that, its interlinking with the automobile and telephone allowed reformers to image radio as the perfect tool of surveillance. Police forces and popular radio dramas urged citizens to be vigilant in their daily lives and to use those technologies that had become so central to daily life in the Depression era as tools to ensnare criminals in a dragnet made of as many nodes as their were “upstanding” citizens. At the same time, the technologically enabled dragnet was figured as much as about safety as crime fighting; a safety net for a mobile population. The coordination of these technologies in the name of surveillance and safety exactly prefigures contemporary modes of mobile media technology and use.

During the Depression era, using radio as a form of surveillance over mobility relied on a historically emerging relationship between everyday life and the technologies of communication and transportation, captured by Raymond Williams’s term “mobile privatization.” As “mass communication” was theorized as a tool of mass manipulation through methods of publicity, surveillance through radio was imagined as what Orwell would later see as “Big Brother,” a mode of invasive watching enabled by those very tools that made modern life both mobile and manageable. As we find ourselves in a newly emergent moment of digitization and big data, today’s “masses” are now “niches,” or more radically, content providers in and of themselves, who now live in a world of privatized mobilization. No longer is the injunction to watch others (though that is certainly true), but as any number of media scholars have noted, today’s imperative is constant self-disclosure in the name of identity building. That the state and its citizens would see this as a potential tool to arrest forms of global mobility and “terror” is not a historical inevitability, but it is part and parcel of a broader historical trajectory linking the vital technologies of everyday life to state surveillance.


Kathleen Battles is associate professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University. She is author of Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing

"Kathleen Battles fills a gaping hole in the literature on early radio."
—Kathy M. Newman, author of
Radio Active

"A superb cultural study not only of 1930s radio programming within a socio-historical context, but of crime culture and the shifting image of law enforcement in the 20th century."
—Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television