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“The Feeling of Being Watched: A Town Hall Discussion on Profiling and Surveillance” at the Arab American National Museum, Dearborn

The gravest responsibility of the photo historian or journalist is the search through the maze of conflictions to the island of intimate understanding, of the mind, of the soul, amid circumstances that both create, and are created by—and then to render with intelligence, with artistic eloquence, a correct and breathing account of what is found; and popular fancy, myth can be damned. Meaning: get to the guts of the matter and show the bastards as they are.

—W. Eugene Smith (Let Truth be the Prejudice about Smith by Ben Maddow)

Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016.

PHOTOS

September 10, 2016, Saturday, Detroit

At the Arab American Museum last night [September 9, 2016] I attended the program about governmental spying on people in the United States, especially human beings thought to be The Other. It was titled, “The Feeling of Being Watched,” and was a co-production of the museum and an organization called Take on Hate. All four participants were eloquent, knowledgeable, personally experienced with the topic, and had much to offer. I learned mainly about a Homeland Security program called CVE, Countering Violent Extremism, that enlists community members in surveiling their own community. It could be regarded as insidious collaboration, turning students, health professionals, teachers, clergy, anyone in frequent contact with others, into implanted cameras and audio recorders, passing information to the government about suspected terrorists. Pilot programs exist in St Paul, Los Angeles, and my city, Boston.

I could be enlisted—or I could be targeted. Maybe I could report suspicious behavior in my photographic workshops, or I could be reported on the basis of my Palestine-Israel work.

Because of the host site, not only the Arab American museum but the city of Dearborn, Muslim Americans were the focus. But other groups could be targeted as well, notably people of color and immigrants. As several panelists observed, marginalized communities, those living in poverty or extreme racism for instance, are often the most seriously watched.

How effective is such surveillance? was a question raised by several panelists. One panelist claimed that a similar program in New York City has resulted in no arrests of actual terrorists. I’m sure some would argue that this claim is false or irrelevant, but the question remains: given the work and expense involved surveiling, how often do the programs have demonstrable effects? Result in so-called “actionable intelligence”?

Cameras, for instance, may be effective as a deterrent even if they are not hooked up; the idea of being watched may curtail violence. I experienced this yesterday when eating at the New Yazmeen bakery. Some patrons had left food, the space was empty, I helped myself to some delicious-looking flat bread, and considered taking more uneaten food. Then I noticed the cameras, I stopped eating the bread, I smiled at the camera.

History was another sub topic. An immediate precursor of terrorist watch programs was COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI under Hoover, targeting radical Black movements like the Black Panthers. Before that, anti communism programs, most notably the infamous HUAC, House Un-American Activities Committee, hearings and the hero of some, Joe McCarthy. Programs existed before that targeting union organizers, Black leaders, “Bolshevism,” the Irish, other immigrant groups, etc. Surveillance has a long history in this country, as it might in many. Fear seeds suspicion. What precisely is the psychology of surveillance? Not a topic mentioned, except in passing when an audience member asked about the role of psychologists in these surveillance projects.

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Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American­-Islamic Relations

When asked about the future of this program and surveillance generally, a panelist mentioned the need for privacy factor, whether people value their privacy enough to oppose programs like CVE. Because of the proliferation of on-line self disclosure—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc—often encouraging opening lives to public view (I myself exemplify this, my blog in particular, and how much I might potentially disclose about myself if these journals that I adapt for the blogs ever become public), one might guess that many folks do not highly value their own privacy. Thus they may not be too eager to fight for limits to surveillance.

Assia Boundaoui, the director of the film we watched a clip from, The Feeling of Being Watched, summed up the evening well when she built on the idea presented by another panelist, a Wayne State—the panopticon. This is a prison design that places guards at the center of the building, able to observe the prisoners existing in cells isolated from each other. She called for two approaches to surveillance, analogous to prison reform: open the cells to each other so the prisoners can communicate and organize, and reverse the line of sight so the prisoners can observe the guards. That is, all communities affected by surveillance need to coordinate and form coalitions to resist unreasonable surveillance. And those watched need to watch the watchers.

Freelance journalist and former Al Jazeera America producer. Assia Bounadoui

Assia Bounadoui, freelance journalist and former Al Jazeera America producer

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Panopticon

After noticing others making photos with their phones I felt emboldened to bring out my camera and from more than half way back in the hall make a few photos. I began with the moderator, a striking Black woman. I pushed the camera to determine just how much I can do in low light. Given the topic, I wondered if I’d be viewed as a watcher.

Asha Noor, TAKE ON HATE Advocacy and Civic Engagement Specialist

Asha Noor, Take On Hate Advocacy and Civic Engagement Specialist

Later I spoke with a museum staff person, David Serio, who’d introduced the program. He wore a keffiyeh, now known as identifying the wearer as a supporter of Palestinian rights. I offered him two observations: your keffiyeh resembles a Jewish prayer shawl, and have you ever noticed that the keffiyeh design suggests barbed wire? He’d not noticed either but said he enjoys the ambiguity. Talking further, I promised to suggest to Jewish Voice for Peace-Detroit that they link with the museum and the Take on Hate program. And I’d suggest to JVP-Boston which has an ongoing campaign about Islamophobia that they also connect with Take on Hate. I picked up two Take on Hate lapel buttons but they escaped my plastic bag when it ripped open as I crossed Grand River coming home by bike.

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Keffiyeh, courtesy of the Internet

While awaiting the start of the program, after eating Arab nummies, I examined the photographic exhibit, “What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization.” When I initially learned about this I discounted it, thinking, what a weak way to use photography. But examining it more closely I felt it was tremendously moving and brilliantly and simply conceived. I wrote those remarks in the guest book.

The photographer had invited immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries, Iraq and Syria mostly, to choose one thing they brought with them. The artist, Jim Lommasson, then photographed the object and asked for a written comment from the immigrant. So many were touching, like photos of family; in fact, family was a central theme—missing them collectively or missing individuals like grandparents.

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From “What We Carried” by Jim Lommasson

At the end of the exhibit the photographer installed a wall panel asking viewers to write what they would bring with them. I demurred. What would I bring? First thought: a family album in digital form, or all my journals in digital form, or one camera, or something my dear friend S had given me, or one of my kids had given me, or Louise had given me, or something from my mother or father. So difficult to decide. I was reminded of Linda Hass’ photographic project about the stuff her mother’s had accumulated and might send her notification of this show. Linda’s was a different case entirely. She photographed what her mother had accumulated in the United States after she’d lost everything escaping the holocaust.

To be continued

LINKS

The Feeling of Being Watched (movie)

Take on Hate (campaign)

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

What We Carried (exhibition)

Arab American Museum, Dearborn Michigan

“FBI: Hate crimes against Muslims in US surge 67 percent” (2015)

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