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Surveillance and the City: Security Theater’s Steep Price


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(photo: Governor's Office)


The fear is real. Like so many Jewish New Yorkers, I felt that pang of dread and revulsion when I heard about the deadly shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City. And, as the seemingly endless list of attacks grew, so did my concern about how our community was being targeted. And then, as we prepared to welcome a new decade, this age old bigotry took terrifying new form in the Hanukkah party attack in Monsey.

Of course, after this onslaught of heartbreak, people are afraid. The fear they feel is real. But the solutions they are being offered are not.

More police, longer jail terms, reversing bail reform, and even calling out the national guard. It’s unclear what’s more absurd: the number of proposals being made or the content of what’s put forward. Friday, the list grew to include 100 new security cameras in predominantly Hasidic areas of Brooklyn courtesy of Mayor de Blasio.

Some of these come from concerned New Yorkers who don’t know where else to turn. But others come from officials who should know better, those trying to exploit our grief and fear to get their moment in the spotlight and push forward their ideological agenda.

One of the most enraging stunts is the persistent attack on last year’s hard-won bail reforms. Less than a week after these common-sense changes went into effect, largely eliminating a cash bail system that treated poverty as a public safety threat, lawmakers put forward the idea of a new bail exception for hate crimes.

Set aside the fact that none of these attacks would have been stopped by such a measure, we’re still left with the rationale of a justice system that is designed to presume some defendants guilty before their day in court.

Perhaps the most chilling suggestion came from State Senator Simcha Felder, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, and City Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Kalman Yeger. Not only did the four elected officials ask for high-visibility policing of Jewish neighborhoods, but they even asked Governor Cuomo to call out the national guard. Are we really going to set-up Baghdad-style checkpoints and blast walls in Bed Stuy? The absurd idea would almost be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.

Let’s be clear: we make bad policies in times of fear. In the 1990s, our fear of crime propelled draconian policies that stripped a generation of New Yorkers (and other Americans) of color of their freedom. After 9/11, our rage and terror blundered us into quagmires half a world away, while propelling outright religious profiling here at home. When we are scared, when we are hurt, we ignore the costs of the security theater that we’re sold.

Like the snake oil elixirs of the 19th century, these cure-alls come at a steep price. Whether it’s the new officers or new surveillance tools, we are being asked to spend millions on measures that may not work at all. In exchange we’ll see cuts to programs that make a real difference in New Yorkers’ lives. It’s impossible to know what will bear the brunt of the ensuing offsets -- will the money comes from schools, transit, or some other vital service? But the heaviest price isn’t paid in dollars and cents, it’s the impact these policies will have on the countless New Yorkers who are wrongfully targeted and arrested as a result.

But our security culture will also take a toll on the Jewish Community. I know our families need to feel safe, but how we find that safety matters. I fear the emergence of fortress Judaism, a faith marked by fear of, and separation from, the outside world. When we isolate ourselves from our neighbors, when we view them as threats, it harms the very solidarity we need in order to overcome this moment. 

Let’s be clear: no amount of policing will end anti-Semitism. You can’t stamp out a hateful ideology with a badge and a gun. Yes, those who commit hate crimes should be prosecuted, but that is not a scalable solution. A hate crime sentencing enhancement didn’t deter the couple that opened fire in Jersey City or the mentally-ill man who attacked the party in Monsey. More importantly, longer jail terms will do nothing to dissuade the next person in mental health crisis who fixates on this twisted ideology.

This doesn’t mean we can’t act, just the contrary. It means we need an immediate response, not from Albany or City Hall, but from each and every one of us. It means that we need more of the solidarity we saw Sunday, when thousands of New Yorkers of all faiths marched across the Brooklyn Bridge against hate.

It means we need the interfaith communities that bring New Yorkers of every background together to combat bias. That is the path out of this dark moment, not by building up walls, but by linking arms and standing together as one city.

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Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. He writes the monthly "Surveillance and the City" column for Gotham Gazette. On Twitter @FoxCahn & @STOPspyingNY.

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