20 years after September 11, surveillance has become a way of life

Two decades later On September 11, many simple acts that were once taken for granted now seem unfathomable: walking with loved ones to the door of their escape, meandering through a business plaza, using the streets near government buildings. The commons of our metropolises are now closed with steel and surveillance. Amid the perpetual pandemic of the past year and a half, cities have become even more walled up. With each new barrier erected, more and more of the city’s characteristic features are eroded: the freedom to move, to roam and even, as Walter Benjamin said, to “go astray … as one is.” stray in a forest ”.

It’s harder to get lost in constant monitoring. It is also more difficult to assemble freely when the public spaces between home and work are removed. Known as third places, they are the connective tissue that brings together the fabric of modern communities: the public park where teens can skateboard alongside grandparents playing chess, the library where children can learn to read and homeless people can find a digital lifeline. When third places disappear, as they have done since the attacks, communities can falter.

Without these spaces that unite us, citizens rather live as several distinct societies operating in parallel. Just as social media echo chambers have undermined our ability to chat online, the loss of third places can create physical echo chambers.

America has never been particularly good at protecting our third places. For slaves and natives, entering the town square alone could be a death sentence. Later, Jim Crow’s racial terrorism in the South denied black Americans not only the right to vote, but also access to lunch bars, public transportation, and even the literal water cooler. In northern cities like New York, black Americans continued to face arrests and violence for breaking rigid, but invisible codes of segregation.

Throughout the 20th century, New York has built an infrastructure of exclusion to prevent our homeless neighbors from sharing city institutions that by law are equally theirs. In 1999, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani warned homeless New Yorkers that “Streets do not exist in civilized societies for people to sleep in. “ His threats have prompted thousands of NYPD officers to systematically target and push homeless people out of sight, thus half-privatizing the quintessential public place.

Despite these limitations, before September 11, millions of New Yorkers could walk and wander in vast networks of modern commons – public parks, private plazas, pathways, sidewalks, open lots and community gardens, crossing paths with those. they never would have had otherwise. meet. These random encounters electrify our city and give us a unifying sense of self. This shared space began to slip away 20 years ago, and if we are not careful it will be lost forever.

In the aftermath of the attacks, we heard patriotic platitudes from those who promised to “defend democracy”. But in the years that followed, their defense became the greatest threat to democracy, rebuilding cities into spaces of safety. The billions we spent to “defend our way of life” have turned out to be its downfall, and it is not known whether we will be able to turn the tide.

In a country Where the term “papers, please” was once synonymous with foreign authoritarianism, photo ID has become a pervasive requirement. Before September 11, a New Yorker could spend his entire day crossing town without needing any ID. Now it is necessary to enter almost any large building or institution.

While identity checks have become a muscle memory for millions of privileged New Yorkers, it is a source of uncertainty and fear for others. Millions of Americans do not have photo ID, and for millions more, the use of ID is a risk, a data source for immigration and the customs enforcement.

According to Mizue Aizeki, interim executive director of the New York-based Immigrant Defense Project, “identification systems are particularly susceptible to becoming surveillance tools.” Aizeki added that “data collection and analysis has become increasingly essential to ICE’s ability to identify and track immigrants,” noting that the Department of Homeland Security has significantly increased its support to surveillance systems since its founding after September 11.

ICE has spent millions partnering with companies like Palantir, the controversial data aggregator that sells information services to domestic and foreign governments. Vendors can collect digital login lists in buildings where we show our credentials, facial recognition in squares and countless other surveillance tools that track areas around office buildings with an almost military level of surveillance. According to Aizeki, “as mass immigration policing has intensified, defenders have faced a rapidly expanding surveillance state.”

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