Resisting Technologies of Surveillance and Suspicion

Following the 7/7 bombings in London, a distinct desire to target Muslims for scrutiny and surveillance pervaded the British security establishment in its national arms (MI5) as well as its local elements (Police). The charged atmosphere led to the creation of a large number of policy developments all of which aimed to create mechanisms for the assertion of biopolitical power over the Muslim population of Britain. The Preventing Violent extremism agenda (Prevent) was developed in this regard by the, then Labour, government to implement the general ideological notion that a certain population was in need of greater control. Perhaps the most fundamental shift which was implemented is the removal of British citizenship from those who have been accused of engaging in ‘terrorist’ activities. The suspect status of British Muslims becomes intimately connected in with a suspect citizenship.

One of the key ways in which this suspect community is policed is through scrutinisation and electronic surveillance. This does not only apply when the security apparatus is deployed via the Police, but also in the routine accessing of services, such as national health or education, where employees in these institutions become public spies rather than public servants. It is also clear that the state has gone from a responsive mode to an aggressive targeting of Muslim communities and anyone seen as their supporters. An example of the way in which the intelligence services were directly involved in local level surveillance that might have previously been under the remit of the police was in the creation of a network of mosque infiltrators. These were funded outside of the normal mechanisms of Prevent, with direct linkages to the Home Office, MI5 and the organisations concerned. The process of funding itself was not subject to any of the public scrutiny that is usually associated with public grants and as such reflects the murky nature of the agenda. It is precisely this juncture, of local accountability of police action, of the blurring of lines between intelligence agencies and local policing and of the relentless demand of the state to target Muslims, that was exposed through the Birmingham spy cameras case.

In 2007, West Midlands Police Authority applied to the Home Office for funding from the Counter Terrorism Unit to install CCTV cameras in two areas of Birmingham, specifically, Alum Rock and Sparkhill. Both of these areas had been previously identified as having populations with larger numbers of those charged with terrorist related activities. Even though the funding for the cameras was coming directly from the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), the West Midlands Police Authority ran a public campaign that focused on community safety, rather than spying, even though half of the cameras were only passing information to the CTU. A campaign was launched to put pressure on the police to reveal what the purpose of the cameras was. The main aims of which were to argue that the cameras should be removed, that those responsible for putting them there should be questioned about the rationale for their placement and finally what the justification was for their presence in the first place. After a series of public protests, the Police Authority succumbed to pressure and the cameras were removed.

Even though analysis demonstrates the extent to which the state has become increasingly sophisticated in bypassing protections for citizen rights, this should not lead to paralysis. Indeed, one of the local campaigners in Birmingham expresses this point well:
What we saw was a grass-roots campaign. I never thought the campaign would be as successful as it was. But we kept a consistent pressure on, to all the avenues possible, The Councillors put the pressure on, MPs put the pressure on and we used the media effectively to put the pressure on. And we constantly had the people, approaching the council, approaching the police. We did it. And I think if you do believe in something and keep on going, then sometimes you can win. (Jarrar Mughal)
The campaign to remove the cameras in Birmingham is of course a small dent in the overall repressive activities of the state. Yet it does provide a salutary reminder that it is only through organising and engaging that progressive change is possible.

Virinder S Kalra and Tariq Mehmood,  summary from The State of Race (Palgrave MacMillan)


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