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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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The Rising of the Light:

Photography by Skip Schiel from Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine

October 11 – November 1, 2010

We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

—Dr Martin Luther King Jr

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Apsara Warrior, by Ouk Chim Vichet, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Art Museum

I am very grateful to all who organized and hosted for me on this tour. Without them and many others I’d not be able to do the little I’ve accomplished. I am immeasurably grateful. Unfortunately, a few who promised venues did not follow thru—usually for unexplained but I’m sure understandable reasons. Maybe next time.

—Skip

The journey—intentions, problems, meaning, and achievements?

Three weeks in the Midwest, the hinterland, mostly Cleveland, Detroit, Ann Arbor Michigan, Tiffin Ohio, and Chicago and suburbs. At 2 conferences, 1 mosque, 1 Islamic high school, 2 public high schools, 1 neighborhood center, and 2 Friends meetings. Details here.  Showing Dismantling the Matrix of Control, Gaza Steadfast, and The Hydropolitics of Israel-Palestine, also with the photo exhibitions, Gaza is Home to 1.5 Million Human Beings: How Do They Live? and Living Female in a Zone of Conflict. To approximately 600 people in live audiences, including children as young as 7 years and elders older than me—and an unknown number at former, current and future exhibitions.

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Gaza and Living Female exhibits at AFSC Chicago

My tour organizer and I found fewer venues than we’d anticipated, perhaps our lack of Midwest contacts or the economy or poor timing. At some venues, notably in Cleveland, the audiences were small (10-15 people) and relatively quiet. While in others, the 2 conferences and the Friends meeting, audiences were larger (100-200) and seemed more engaged. People frequently encouraged me to return.

The audiences were mostly welcoming, with a few exceptions—someone at a mosque misinterpreted my Gaza slide show to be siding with Israel, propounding its point of view. A man shut down that show. Later several participants from the mosque apologized and told me this man did not speak for their community. In addition a Jewish adversary from the Boston area, long critical of me, sent a letter to key leaders of a suburban community claiming I was partisan against Israel and worse. The high school at which I was to appear canceled my presentation. Local organizers felt this was not in response to the letter, but to what they thought were my slanted views displayed without sufficient context. No easy road—threading thru a tortured terrain.

I’ve lost friends and supporters as I’ve photographically engaged with Palestine/Israel. And I’ve gained many new ones, especially on this last tour.

Not to take sides is to effectively weigh in on the side of the stronger.

—William Sloan Coffin, Credo

I connected with various people in the progressive Jewish movement who are in the forefront of Jewish activism about Palestine/Israel. I co-presented with Mark Braverman (author of Fatal Embrace, Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land, highly recommended) in Tiffin OH, Rabbi Michael Davis in Downers Grove IL, and Rabbi Brant Rosen (co-founder of Fast for Gaza and the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace) of the Evanston Illinois Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. The Chicago regional office of the American Friends Service Committee’s Mideast program honored Rabbi Rosen, Shirien Damra (a Muslim American graduate student organizer for Palestinian rights), and me with their annual Inspiration for Hope award.

Zionism always was, despite strategically motivated denials and brief flirtations with other objectives [e.g., bi-nationalism], an attempt to establish Jewish sovereignty over Palestine. This project was illegitimate. Neither history nor religion, nor the sufferings of Jews in the Nazi era, sufficed to justify it. It posed a mortal threat to the Palestinians, and it left no room for meaningful compromise. Given that the Palestinians had no way to overcome Zionism peacefully, it also justified some form of violent resistance.

—Neumann, Michael: The Case Against Israel

The Muslim and Arab communities are on the rise, organizing and participating in events like mine, and boldly speaking out against injustices in Palestine/Israel. Potentially they form a funding and political bloc which could influence the course of events in the Mideast.

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Various activists housed and fed me, treating me to tours of their regions. Hospitality seemed limitless, as did love, commitment, and appreciation. Hosts and organizers taught me about issues local to their region, and what’s being done. For example, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor I attended what I call The Red Shirt Affair, a dramatic opposition to a campaign by Israel to rebrand itself by sending current and former soldiers to campuses to propound views supportive of Israel. (Photos here, included in part 1 and part 2 of a 2 part series of my photos from the trip. )

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University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

As if riding thru neighborhoods and homes on a railroad train, I sampled lives as I tunneled thru.

A highlight was exploring my hometown of Chicago—childhood on the Southside and high school years in the northwest suburb of Arlington Heights. Roots and influences. A rich heritage. I hope to return soon to this vibrant and often overlooked sector of the nation.

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Security officer, Cabrini Green, Chicago

Confirming the observations of others in the United States, I’ve noticed a shift in perception about Palestine/Israel. People are more willing to criticize Israel, demand the application of international law, understand the complicity of the United States government in fostering the oppression, and most importantly (thanks in large part to Mark Braverman) realize that the silence of the Christian church community enables Mideast horrors to continue. As evidenced by the people I’ve mentioned, Jews and Muslims and Arabs play a major role in this perceptual and activist shift, standing up for human rights despite the opprobrium this generates in their own communities.

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Prison, Detroit

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My temporary neighborhood in Detroit

My main hope for this journey was to broadcast as widely as possible my images and stories collected over the past 7 years, enhancing the struggle for Palestinian dignity, human rights, and justice, while acknowledging the suffering and rights of Jews and others in that region. And to do this by concentrating on international law, holding accountable all parties in the conflict.

Both Israel and Hamas have failed to meet their obligations under international law to conduct credible and independent investigations [into the assault on Gaza by Israel named Operation Cast Lead from late 2008 to early 2009]. “The Human Rights Council must therefore assess these domestic proceedings and report accordingly to the UN General Assembly and Security Council,” said [Wilder Tayler, Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists]. “The Security Council must take concrete and robust measures to ensure accountability for the perpetrators and justice for victims, and to this end consider the options at its disposal to break the cycle of impunity prevalent in this conflict, including by referring the situation in Gaza to the International Criminal Court,” concluded Tayler.

—International Commission of Jurists, September 2010

Now I bear down on plans for another trip: Gaza for 6 weeks, mainly to teach photography thru the AFSC and to make photos, in the context of a movie being made about Gaza and my photographic work there.

I’ll be blogging and posting photos on my website, so please consider signing up for the Levant list below if you’ve not already.

Levant email list: please write skipschiel (at) gmail (dot) com with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line.

Website: teeskaphoto.org

Articles:

Conference seeks to clarify Israeli, Palestinian hostilities, by MaryAnn Kromer

Cleveland Report: Space for Everyone… “New Jim Crow & 4 Apartheids” by Kim Hall

Video: Students stage intense, silent, nonviolent protest as IDF soldier appears at University of Michigan in PR campaign (“The Red Shirt Affair”)

Article about “The Red Shirt Affair” in the Arab American News, Ann Arbor M

Tour Prospectus

The prophets do not offer reflections about ideas in general. Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

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Morton Arboretum, Downers Grove IL

All we want is to be ordinary.

—Mohmoud Darwish, the late Palestinian poet

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Excerpts from my journal while in Detroit, moving backwards (not always), last to first.

About deindustrialization, depopulation, residential and commercial vacancy, corruption of capitalism—and the rise of urban gardens, local resistance and activist organizations—ending with news about the US Social Forum, Allied Media Conference, and the first public national gathering of anti-Zionist Jews in the United States.

In several parts, with photos and videos.

PHOTOS

The mindful apply themselves; they don’t amuse themselves in any abode. Like swans flying from a lake, they abandon home after home.

—The Dhammapada, verse 91

July 3, 2010, Saturday, Detroit

Another day of much bike riding. This time thru the Arab Dearborn community, making a video as I scouted the store fronts from the Al Ameer restaurant (Al Ameer means prince in Arabic) to the truly wondrous New Yasmeen bakery. There also I videoed, thinking someone might stop me as I scanned the backs of customers waiting patiently for their turn at the deli bar, the bar itself in the background with its display of food. No one did. Even tho I tried this 3 times, thinking 4 times might test my luck. I asked, any magluba?, the delicious Palestinian upside down casserole. No, sorry. But one of the best chicken shuwarmas I’ve had, on a par with those in Ramallah, but smaller, and for $3.19. I ate it later, along with a fruit filled confection, sitting in the shade of a small tree near an abandoned industrial complex on Greenfield Ave.

Heading south, I found myself once again in the refinery district, this time knowing the scene better, videoing along the marathon expansion to process heavy or dirty tar sands oil. Thinking again that someone might interfere, I kept a 3rd eye out for security. Pausing in front of the main entrance, noticing security I think noticing me, I thought, this might be it. They’ll approach, ask, what are you doing? And I’ll say, either what I am doing, that is, fascinated by the industrial landscape, an independent photographer, here’s my card, or I’ll suggest an exchange, you explain to me why you’re asking and what the operation is, and I’ll explain why I’m photographing. However, I never had the opportunity—no one stopped me.

This has been a consistent experience in Detroit: no interruption of my photography.

From the industrial district along Jefferson to as near the Detroit River as I could. Finding a fishing area, meeting Jarvis who’s fished this region for 30 years, finding the fish disappearing, maybe the pollution, maybe the entrance of other species because of the opening of the st Lawrence seaway. And met a white fisher who asked me to ask the drilling crew what they were drilling for. They said, hiding something I’m sure, drilling on contract for a commercial firm, testing the soil and the water table. The fisher felt confident the commercial firm was the one searching for a suitable site for a new bridge.

I’d been curious about what prevents people from boating or swimming across the relatively narrow strait to reach the US or Canada. He said, it is heavily patrolled at night, and during the day someone would be noticed. I remain curious about this question.

Finally a stop in Cobo Conference Center for a much-needed 2nd crap of the day and a nap, this time interrupted by an obese young black man on security. The hall was filled with black women, some wearing wildly flamboyant hats. Excuse me sir, are you part of the conference? No? then you’ll have to leave. We can’t have people sleeping on the floor. One week earlier during the US Social Forum I’d have been allowed to sleep: a different clientele, a different milieu, a different attitude.

The group was Link, a black organization coordinating volunteer work.

Dropping off my bike where I rented it, Wheel House Detroit, I met Karen in front of the Renaissance Center, took in the exhibits at the relatively new Museum of Contemporary Art in the cultural district, dined at Cass Café, sharing our favorite salmon BLT (along with a garlic curry soup and sautéed spinach), and the movie.

Big night of dreaming: X had returned from India and offered to teach kids Indian crafts. Either she invited others and me or I knew about it. As I was about to join the group, seeing her for the first time in a long time, another young man entered as well. I was jealous of him, sensed he was her lover. Now, whether to join the group or not, watch her from a distance or up close?

Related to the movie Karen and I watched last evening, Ajami, in a second dream I was with a group of men shooting at other men in a graveyard. We all took cover behind concrete gravestones, shot at each other. I recall vividly firing at 2 men opposing me who each hid behind stones, they fired at me. I was worried, not panicked by this fighting, and had no idea, nor cared, what we were contesting.

And in a third dream I was with a group of mixed skin color and gender people honoring Howard Zinn. Someone narrating his life mentioned how linked he was with black people. As he or she spoke these words I looked at 2 black women friends, pointing to them or tapped them on the shoulder as if to say, he’s talking about you. One was particularly beautiful and I believe we kissed.

Karen hated Ajami, found it demeaning toward Arabs, even tho a joint production between an Israeli and a Palestinian. I partially shared her opinion but did not find the film troubling—on those grounds. Set in Jaffa, showing a form of gangsterism among the Palestinian population, revenge killing, drug dealing, families acting tribally, Karen thought this was the entirety of Arab experience depicted. The Israelis by contrast were also lethal but with some justification. One man killed an Arab thinking the Arab had murdered his brother.

Despite my reservations I felt the movie was very well acted and photographed, the story line was somewhat convoluted, using flashback to portray different versions of an incident, and the film was clearly bloody without redemption. My gripe would be more this: all suffering, no hope. I took the film more as an indictment against the general or overall Arab Jewish Israeli culture than targeting Arabs.

LINKS:

Arab Detroit

Arab American News

Photo Story: The Arab Community in Detroit

New Yasmeen Bakery

Ajami

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