The Politics of Checking In: Confronting Settler Colonial Surveillance

I hope y'all have already considered how you can support indigenous land defense struggles and the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. If traveling there or organizing a local protest is too much, consider donating to the Red Warrior Camp.  

For the last several weeks, I have received text messages and seen Facebook check-ins from friends saying they were at Standing Rock to stand in solidarity with the land defenders defending their territory against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Yet, when I looked at my Facebook feed this morning, it seemed like all my friends -- far more than the usual mobile rag-tag crew of land-defenders -- had checked into Standing Rock. Circulating along side the public check-ins were private posts that -- in coded language -- explained that they were doing so to overwhelm the local police department who had allegedly been using facebook to monitor and target protestors there. 

As is inevitable with anything on facebook, this widespread form of digital action was followed by the accompanying hot-take -- a mode of instant and consumable critique identifiable by the well known formula "well, actually....". These posts say, basically, "it's all well and good that you guys are in solidarity with this protest but this whole thing about check-ins and police surveillance is a conspiracy theory."  

Here, I write in  in order to develop and clarify what I think this incident can tell us about digital surveillance, settler colonialism, conspiracy theories, and solidarity. 

I. The Structural Violence of Settler Colonialism

To start with, Standing Rock is notable because it is the indigenous land defense struggle of this generation. The size of the protest is directly linked to how it has become a metonym for the myriad indigenous land defense that have been going on for centuries but have gained a certain urgency in recent years. Standing Rock as a metonym for indigenous land defense has been consciously articulated by the people who have traveled to the protest --  diné people fighting peabody coal, the Unist'ot'en blockade of a pipeline in the northwestern reaches of turtle island, even folks from Ecuador who are fighting Chevron's incursion in the Amazon have traveled to Standing.  This form of protest -- indigenous land defense struggle -- is notable because it exposes the spatial logics and territorialized violence of settler colonialism. The slow structural violence of environmental degradation is suddenly exposed as a form of conflict over the use of land in which multi-national extractive industries claim that their property rights supersede indigenous use of the land. The Dakota Access pipeline in particular sheds light on how this use of land advocated by industry seeks to protect whiteness: the path of the pipeline was rerouted through indigenous land to protect the municipal water supply of the largely white population of Bismarck. 

This is to say that the stakes in the protest at Standing Rock have become the apparatus of settler colonialism itself -- a type of structural violence that today manifests as extractive megaprojects to maintain a certain (settler) way of life that operates through the expropriation of indigenous land and attacks on indigenous bodies. This apparatus itself is comprised of a slew of different techniques -- from the bureaucratic and legal processes that go into planning, racial and territorial strategies that cordon off certain populations, the technology of extraction, transportation and combustion, the nested corporate structures and forms of financial capital that make the project possible and the Police (in their various, ascending legal juristictions) aimed at assuring that everything functions "as it should". 

II. Police Surveillance, or Conspiracy as Critique

One immediate response to the phenomenon of people "checking in" on facebook to disrupt the surveillance of the Police was to dismiss it as the result of conspiratorial thinking.  Yet, how are we to understand the occult forms of structural violence without resource to a certain paranoid practice of reading that is conspiratorial? While the popular project of constructing narratives about the occult operations of power may indeed be a little paranoid, this doesn't suggest they aren't helpful in challenging the operation of that power. In fact, they might help us apprehend a little more clearly the logics by which certain people find themselves confronted with certain forms of environmental violence like pipelines or the covert tactics used by the police to undermine those who seek to impede the construction of the pipeline. In other words, if the stakes of the protest are indeed the apparatus of settler colonialism, the question should not be "Is it true that checking in on Facebook disrupts police surveillance?" but rather how does such a narrative operate to articulate and thereby disrupt the strategies of surveillance which form a part of this overall apparatus? 

The two lines the Facebook hot-takes that have sought to "debunk" this public narrative of police surveillance have taken are either that the police simply aren't doing this or that such surveillance operates in a manner that supersedes the Facebook user's ability to evade it ("the police have the metadata, so it is ineffective"). I think both concerns misjudge the manner in which this public narrative about police surveillance functions, both as an understanding of how surveillance operates as a form of power and how it constructs a certain imaginary realm of action which has real effects. 

On one hand, this narrative that encourages people to check in at Standing Rock demonstrates not only the popular understanding that we are being surveilled but that we actually participate in producing the digital traces that make us legible as subjects to be surveilled. In her book, Dark Matters, Simone Browne shows how contemporary practices of surveillance are tied to a history of race, how, contra-Foucault, surveillance has not been developed as a universal regime of visibility but whose development was and continues to be anchored in monitoring and control of black life. One manner she does this is by talking about a series of "Lamp Laws" that required Blacks (both slaves and free) and (frequently) Native Americans to always carry a light, be it a lantern or candle, when they traveled. Here, the fear of black (or indigenous) revolt or criminality created a form of surveillance in which the subject to be surveilled had to be an active participant in their own surveillance, providing the very illumination which made them visible. In a world where our movement is not constricted to a cell, this candle as a technology of surveillance provides to me a much more illuminating diagram of surveillance than the panopticon. This diagram helps us both understand the ways in which we are constantly compelled to produce information that makes us subjects of surveillance (through posting public statuses on Facebook, for example) but also the differential racial politics of surveillance. In other words, when someone says that they don't worry about surveillance because they aren't doing anything wrong, it isn't (just) that they have misapprehended the universal nature of the panoptic gaze but because they understand that such a gaze is more concerned with some types of (radicalized, criminalized) bodies than others. 

In her book, Simone Brown also talks about how the circulation and readership of posters and advertisements about fugitive slaves produced an "imagined community of surveillance" that deputized their readers to suspect blackness and subject it to inspection. Personality quirks or scars in proximity to blackness no longer were personal characteristics of only private concern but possible signs of a criminal escape, described in detail in the ads. Here, again, this look at the racial history is surveillance provides a helpful understanding in the ways in which our notions of surveillance are limited. Surveillance is not just carried out through the single gaze of a prison master but through widely-disseminated (radicalized) public inspection. This has particular relevance for the situation of Standing Rock because I think it is important to consider the manner in which Police and the policing function of surveillance is  not necessarily continuous with the NSA and the covert state surveillance apparatus and its use of meta-data publicized by Snowden. 

In other words, the fact that Facebook has meta-data that shows that such public check-ins aren't actually from Standing Rock doesn't necessarily suggest that the tactics of surveillance employed by the Police are necessarily more sophisticated than those available to the general public. Indeed, if we understand the self-deputization being one of the genealogies of modern surveillance, the publicly available means of surveillance cannot be dismissed as outside the tactics of policing. In fact, it think that it is likely that a well-trained Facebook user who also happens to be a South Dakota police officer, or an employee of Energy Transfer Partners, would turn not to some secret powers of the surveillance state but the techniques of surveillance and monitoring they know as Facebook users. 

To don the conspiracist's tinfoil hat, I have some evidence that would suggest that such a belief in the role of publicly accessible data is part of Policing technology. This year, I had a freelance job to transcribe internal discussions for Motorola as they developed their marketing pitch to sell to police departments the "predictive policing software" that would use data analytics to organize and automate police dispatch. While much of this data was internal police department data (patterns of arrest, 311 complaints, gunshot detection systems  etc..), they also used publicly accessible facebook and twitter data. The high-tech nature of the software was also part of the fantasy that drives police militarization  -- allowing police departments to buy technology that could allow them the imaginative indulgence that they weren't just local police but really were equipped with the same high-tech capacities as the NSA, regardless of whether the software had access to any "private" data. 

All of this is to say that a narrative that connects digital to surveillance to the policing of indigenous communities, particularly ones resisting attempts to build megaprojects on their terrritory, articulates something about the uneven nature of surveillance.  Whether or not the police happen to be surveilling the protestors in this case is irrelevant to the manner in which surveillance has been and continues to be applied discriminatorily to maintain a racial order that posits some bodies as criminal and disposable. Rather than seeking to dismiss the narrative that seeks to expose these discriminatory effects of surveillance, I think we should seek to expand the capacity of these narratives to name the occult violence being carried out on these communities. 

III. The Imaginary Power of Checking In

Finally, I want to turn to how the symbolic act of asserting digital presence in front of a real or imagined threat of state surveillance serves an important symbolic function. In doing so, I want to contest those who want to valorize the "real" or "material" forms of support and show how such digital presence creates a powerful counter-narrative capable of re-framing the debate about the Dakota Access Pipeline. 
As much as it pains me to say this, all my years of organizing direct actions taught me that protests aren't effective solely by the material changes they effect but by the ways in which they combat dominant narratives. Every blockade I've been to has functioned as a "direct action" which materially render the police or industry inoperable. Yet, even as they did this they immediately began to serve as the cornerstone of a narrative -- often formalized in a well-worded press release -- that sought to undermine the legitimacy of the operation in the first place. This is to say that the direct action importantly functions indirectly as well, that the narratives they produce, both for participants and those who later hear about the action, that challenge the legitimacy of a certain operation is often more important than the material effects themselves. Even the most committed nihilists who read to much Bonanno and insist on the unrepresentable pleasure and immediacy of revolt publish communiques. 

Returning to this form of digital action, I think it's instructive to look at how simultaneously both disrupts a form of power that uses the data that people produce about themselves to render them vulnerable to kidnapping or other police operations and exceeds this narrative. In other words, the efficacy of this form of digital action might work within an imagined theorizing of technology of state surveillance and violence but that doesn't mean that such imagining isn't powerful in its own right.  

To look at the symbolic power of disrupting a form of surveillance that operates through rendering certain populations as distinct, I want to turn to analogous form of symbolic protest during World War II. When the Nazis told the King of Denmark that all Jews were to wear the star of david -- the first act by which the Jews would be compelled to mark their bodies and become unwilling participants in their own final solution -- he is reported to have replied that in such a situation he would be the first one to don the star. Here, we understand the possibility of the king wearing this star wasn't going to confuse the Nazis (they would know he was the king and not a jew) but it did challenge the legitimacy of the forms that made people legible and marked them as certain types of bodies. In providing an ethical challenge to the legitimacy of the type of surveillance that would produce a distinction, the King can be seen as creating what Agamben would term a "zone of indistinction" or Tiqqun would call a "offensive opacity" that rendered power inoperable. 

To put it in a more clear manner, I think that publicly taking risks, however imaginary, produces a powerful counter-narrative to the one that would try to isolate and contain the protests at Standing Rock. Checking in is a form of action that says, "If you go after them, you go after me too, their struggle is my struggle". This type of risk-taking, however small it is, is the concrete action out of which solidarity is built. This is not a narrative to be dismissed but one to be elaborated, finding more strategic sites to take risks to confront, attack, disrupt or otherwise render inoperable the violent distinguishing logic of settler colonialism. The confrontation emerging at Standing Rock is just one manifestation of a long war of position, and, as they say, solidarity means attack.