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Let’s Be Candid About Cameras

James Blake and the Case for Surveillance

In general, I worry about all the surveillance. I worry about being filmed when I don’t know I’m being filmed. I worry about my GPS and other phone features giving away my location wherever I go. I don’t like the idea of governments or corporations tracking everything I do. I’m not an off the grid zealot, but in general, I lean towards the philosophy that less surveillance is a good thing.

But I’m a White guy from the suburbs.

And that, it turns out, makes all the difference. If I were a Black male from the city, I’d want cameras on every corner, down every alley, and over every doorway. I’d want every step I took to be recorded from multiple angles. I’d want to be the permanent star of an always on reality show.

To understand why, consider the story of James Blake. The former tennis pro — who not too long ago reached number 4 in the rankings — was walking out of his Manhattan hotel when he was tackled by several plainclothes cops, none of whom identified themselves as police officers before throwing Blake to the ground, where he suffered cuts and bruises; and at least fifteen minutes of shock and humiliation. He was only released after someone recognized him, or it could have been worse.

Here’s how James Blake described the encounter.

You’d think they could say, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you. We are looking into something. I was just standing there. I wasn’t running. It’s not even close (to be okay). It’s blatantly unnecessary. You would think at some point they would get the memo that this isn’t okay, but it seems that there’s no stopping it.

Here’s the important part. The cold, hard truth. If this had taken place a couple years ago, most White Americans either wouldn’t pay much attention to what happened to James Blake, or they’d be fairly certain he was exaggerating.

But now we’ve seen the videos from Walter Scott being gunned down in South Carolina, to Freddie Gray’s limp body being pulled from a police van, to the military-esque action against protesters in Ferguson, to the absurd overreaction to a pool party in McKinney, Texas. One of America’s longest running streaks of injustice has become one its most popular reality shows.

We’ve seen examples like these before, but now — because of the widespread coverage provided by our new surveillance society — they are coming at a pace that we can’t ignore. The evidence is overwhelming.

So this week, when James Blake described his experience on his way to to U.S. Open, we have no problem believing that it was as bad as, or worse than, he makes it out to be.

We’ve seen this movie before.

The idea that a guy like Blake would be treated in this manner comes as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed or experienced such interactions. But for many people, sadly, it took a series of video excerpts to paint a clear picture. And now, there’s simply no denying that the recent series of videos has completely altered the national perception of relations between police and African Americans.

So while I lean towards the philosophy that less surveillance is a good thing, we’ve all been confronted by the evidence that such surveillance can also be a force for good that — hopefully — will force us all to be a little better.

That’s a reality show I’d like to see.

Dave Pell writes NextDraft, The Day’s Most Fascinating News.

I write NextDraft, a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news.

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