An Interview with Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Part I

If the future will be possessed by the specters of the past, then consider the ghosts that we are sending forwards: the phantasms of American citizens assassinated without trial and the spirits of those that were in the wrong place at the wrong time–collateral damage. The Reaper was once a scythe-carrying collector of souls. It is now a profitable unmanned aerial vehicle–a drone–that delivers Hellfire missiles [to a street near you].

Ian Shaw

Weapons designed for use in foreign wars have long returned home, boomeraging back to the domestic front where police agencies are always eager to procure and utilize these tools in gaining full spectrum dominance over the populations they’re ostensibly tasked with serving and protecting. The drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, is one such technology of violence, but as lead organizer for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Hamid Khan, reminds us, such means are “not a moment in time but a continuation of history” in the context of the racialized, classist, and gendered aspects that have been constituent of policing since its advent. The weapons may change, but the purpose remains the same: securing the insecurity of racial capitalist order. This interview with Khan centers on drones, discussing the technology while not losing sight of the broader ethical and phenomenological ramifications of this technology.

Nicholas Walrath (NW): Who are the Stop LAPD Coalition? What is the history of the organization and what are your ultimate goals?

Hamid Khan (HK): The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition is a coming together of various individuals and organizations from different backgrounds who have been –in their own life or in various settings– fighting against state violence, against systems of oppression, against the disparities and economic injustices as well as the deeply racist systems that exist in this country. That’s what brought people together: looking specifically at how law enforcement was expanding its operations, which were more aligned in counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency tactics. There’s a lot of conversation around the militarization of the police, but the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition was more or less looking at the police itself and drawing parallels with the U.S. military as well – the economic power, the structural power, the political power and particularly and, more deeply, the cultural narrative that has been built: “Our boys and girls,” “protecting the American way of life,” “our men and women in blue,” “to protect and serve.”

So that was the broader frame and within that, particularly post 9/11, looking at how surveillance, spying, and infiltration have expanded. Also, examining the convergence of technology and the rapid expansion of technology and the infusion of technology: how much power, reach, and bandwidth it has given [police], which was nothing new. Really we’re looking at these issues of information sharing and the information sharing environment as not a moment in time but a continuation of history. Drawing parallels from both historic and current contexts as to how this has been going on, how information has been used quite often to criminalize people, to oppress communities and how surveillance and the spying and information gathering are tools of social control. We’ve really sought to challenge the post-Snowden narrative revolving around the “invasion of privacy” by taking it beyond that. Showing that this is a system intended to cause harm, which is very much rooted in social control and which is rooted in and driven by race, racial difference, and racism.

The second guiding value is that there is always an “Other” attached to these issues. So, over time, looking at how the Otherness and the threat of the enemy create narratives and justifications. We’ve used this piece of the “five faces” before to illustrate this point: the savage Native, the criminal Black, the illegal Latino, the manipulative Asian, and now, the terrorist Muslim. In addition, of course you have queer and trans bodies, women, poor folks, unhoused folks … there’s always this otherness attached to justify the systems of knowledge and structures of power in order to come up with the policies, programs, and legislation to give it the veneer of democracy and the veneer of appropriateness.

The third guiding value is to de-sensationalize the rhetoric of national security. There’s always been a constructed threat: the Russians are coming, the Commies are here, the anarchists are going to take over, and now, the terrorists are among us…so how do we de-sensationalize and bring it back full circle to an understanding that yes, the threat to national security has always been there, but it’s been pretty much codified in the context of the Black body, and the Indigenous body. This is how the threat to national security and the threat to the system, or the existing order –the capitalist system– is and has been seen.

And last but not least, our fight is rooted in human rights versus Constitutional and civil rights or civil liberties because these are very narrow understandings of what our rights actually are. Although, when we speak of human rights even that notion is up for debate. So not looking at it through the lens of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but more in the context that human rights are what we claim as human beings.

These are some of the guiding values of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition: to be rooted in some of the most marginalized communities and to shift the focus, especially against the post-9/11 conversation – the operations, the practice – which was seen more as an impact to the Muslim community; and yes, it has been to a great extent the primary targeted community, but really looking at it historically. There’s always been an “other” and we try to look at how these justifications have been used to continue to dehumanize and marginalize communities that have traditionally always been marginalized.

NW: Shifting to the topic of drones: could provide some context in terms of how LAPD has procured this technology as well as the public’s initial response with regards to the supposed community outreach LAPD engaged in?

HK: The history of the use of “flying objects” is nothing new at least as long as people have been able to create something airborne. The Coalition released a report, our Drone Report, which goes into the history of the technology within the contexts of law enforcement and the military. What we need to do is look at the time around the mid-1950s and 1960s when the helicopter was introduced to law enforcement. LAPD was one of the first agencies that acquired these helicopters that now have evolved into the largest fleet of any domestic police department. The helicopter has played a critical role in the control and enforcement of communities considered a threat to the system: poor communities, Black communities. It has been used from law enforcement’s vantage point very effectively and not merely as a practice of law enforcement, but also to coerce, threaten, intimidate and harass communities as well. So that’s where we see the development of helicopters to the extent that LAPD now has, on the regular, at least one or two helicopters always in the air because they have linked predictive policing and hotspot policing with aerial support as well. So that emerged over the last two or three years, this linkage with predictive policing and hotspot policing.

Of course, war abroad is war at home and these are all landscapes and theaters of war. The U.S. has been waging war outside its borders around the world for at least 220 years since the founding of the Republic, but while we look at war outside of the U.S., the war internally on people has always been waged from day one. I think we really need to shift the focus of waging wars as well. Waging war has not been fined tuned on – I mean, of course there’s a correlation with communities outside of the U.S. – but it’s really been honed-in in terms of the skills and the narrative and the idea of the threat that was pretty much created here with the Indigenous communities. It started with the Indigenous communities and then among the colonizers themselves: this whole system of land cartels, expansionism, and settler-colonialism. Then, of course, came the enslavement of Africans. So waging war on communities has been a consistent feature of the history of the United States.

This brings us to examining what are the tools that have been used and how have these tools evolved over time as well – whether this was through slave patrols or the creation of militias, which turned into informal law enforcement and then into more formal institutions. As policing has become more formalized, the use of aerial vehicles has been very normalized as well over the last 60 years. So drones were a natural extension. If we look into the use of drones and the intent of drones, it’s primarily been a platform for aerial surveillance and assault whether by dropping bombs or using missiles. Weaponry.

So the intent of the drone has always been to advance to a point where remote warfare can be conducted and then aerial surveillance can happen and weaponry can be delivered as well in the shape of bombs and missiles. It was just a matter of time before using drones in theaters of wars abroad were going to be brought home as well. But again, it’s going into the whole methodology of counter-insurgency and how – other people have obviously done much more research, for example Kristian Williams and other folks, so they can speak more to it – it’s a constant interplay between domestic and foreign actions that both inform each other. It’s not like one is informing the other but that both are entangled. For example, the U.S. Marine Corp was assigned with LAPD to learn the urban theater in South Central Los Angeles in the early 2000s when they had about 70 Marine Corp folks assigned to them; then the Marines used these tactics in Al Anbar and other provinces in Iraq and they were trained here by the LAPD. Additionally, El Salvadorian death squads were trained by the LAPD in the 1980s so that whole history is there as well.

There’s a strong correlation and rippling of the domestic and foreign. In that context, drones has become a very significant piece and they are talked about as a cost cutting device, a cost saving device as well. Then there’s the accessibility, capacity, and maneuverability of a drone where the drone can go where the helicopters can’t access just by virtue of the size of the drones themselves. The whole argument and piece around special circumstances, special situations, under catastrophic conditions, under hostage situations and this, that, and the other is the same story we heard as well when SWAT was being created: the Special Weapons and Tactical Units. These units have become normalized over time as well, which we then speak of it as “mission creep.” Drones now signify a time now where police departments are building their air forces. It’s as straightforward and simple as that.

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