They took our Capitol, stormed the halls, pilfered our documents, and shattered the norms of our democracy. The lasting damage from Wednesday’s attack will not come from the mob itself, but from how we respond. Right now, a growing chorus is demanding we use facial recognition, cellphone tower data, and every manner of invasive surveillance to punish the mob. In the days since the attack, the airwaves have been full of former law enforcement officials claiming that surveillance is the answer, such retired FBI special agents Danny Coulson and Doug Kouns. Even many who are normally critical of policing have jumped on the surveillance bandwagon in the desire to find justice. As understandable as it feels to give police even more powers in this crisis, this would be a gigantic mistake.
We don’t need a cutting-edge surveillance dragnet to find the perpetrators of this attack: They tracked themselves. They livestreamed their felonies from the halls of Congress, recording each crime in full HD. We don’t need facial recognition, geofences, and cell tower data to find those responsible, we need police officers willing to do their job.
It’s hard to state just how jarring the images from the Capitol were. Not the violence from the Republican rioters, but the passivity, even complicity, of the police. After a quarter century of activism, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen protesters of color and progressives arrested, beaten, and worse.
People speaking out against injustice are met with brutality as a matter of course. But while millions of Americans face violence for protesting legally, white conservatives can break the law with impunity. That’s the failure we witnessed: not the angry mob but cooperative cops who were willing to look the other way or even pose for coup selfies.
This is nothing new in American history, but it’s rarely been captured so vividly. This is our history, same as the countless officers who turned a blind eye, or even lent a hand, to the racist lynch mobs of the past. This is the same racism that fueled the targeting of BIPOC communities for so many generations. And it should also be a moment of reckoning for American police, not a moment to give them greater deference and power.
This is why it’s so infuriating to now hear pundits call for even more powers for the officers who investigate the attack. PBS Newshour anchor Hari Sreenivasan tweeted “Protesters who stormed the Capitol – who don't believe in Covid or mask-wearing… should be easier to identify with facial recognition.” But why? Many of those who entered the Capitol gave their name to the press, posted their photos to social media, and continue to brag about their crimes. They broadcast their confessions to the world. Officers should be able to arrest these attackers with nothing more sophisticated than a DVR and a tip line.
If we give into the narrative that we need new invasive measures to solve this case, we will only further accelerate the growth of the national security state that failed to keep us secure from white extremists. Prior to this, there was a growing national movement to ban facial recognition, with cities across the country taking steps to ban the technology. Today, in the wake of this attack, some are seeing a justification for this biased and invasive technology, but we must not reverse course.
There's an old lawyer's saying: “Bad facts give you bad law.” And there are possibly no facts worse than what unfolded on January 6. But if we respond by giving police more powerful tracking tools, we know they'll simply turn them on the same BIPOC communities they always target. For the police charged with protecting our Capitol, the concern is not that they had too little power, it is that they lacked the willpower to use it against white conservatives.
Instead, Congress should draw a very different lesson. Rather than responding to these attacks with a new mandate for expanded policing powers, we need to expand our civilian oversight. For years, we’ve done little to address police discrimination, even as we saw it take the lives of so many Black Americans. Today, we see that the price is even higher: Our unaccountable policing poses a threat to the republic itself.
In the first hundred days of the Biden administration, we need a national effort to hold state, local, and federal police accountable. This means new requirements for civilian oversight, as we’ve enacted in New York, Oakland, and San Francisco, requiring police to tell the public how we’re being surveilled It also means requiring every police force in the country to have an independent civilian agency empowered to investigate and discipline officers. This must be the moment that we kill off the anti-democratic notion that police departments can police themselves.
We must also continue to hold the line against invasive and biased spy tools like facial recognition, even in this horrific case. If we give in to the feigned claims of necessity and begin to roll back limits on this anti-democratic technology, Wednesday’s attack will just be a prelude of what’s to come.
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