The specter of colonial violence is tacitly called upon in order to revitalize present violence by setting it within the tranquil continuity of a past tradition, and then it is immediately covered up, for no attempt is made to spell out the real content of that tradition. The drone is the weapon of an amnesiac postcolonial violence
NW: Regarding political economy, over the past 40 years we’ve seen the advent of neoliberalism so where there once existed some semblance, however unjust and unequal, of a social contract and welfare state, now others and myself would argue we’re living within the logic of the killing state. Where once the state was engaged in a biopolitical project ensuring the relative health and reproduction of [certain] populations, now it comes to justify itself through a neocropolitical project by defining those bodies that are killable in order to justify and legitimate state power and its own reproduction. Would you say the drone fits into this neoliberal, neocropolitical paradigm and, if so, how?
HK: My first question would be if there ever was such a thing as the “social contract” and how do we define it?
NW: Right, the pie was never divided equally, but along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion.
HK: Of course, I mean, looking at the U.S. Constitution, it’s really a blueprint for repression because it’s not the language of the law but who has access to that language.
NW: And law always justifies policing, it always justifies police power.
HK: Because it requires that.
NW: There’s a brilliant quote from Nicos Poulantzas that argues “[t]he activity of the State always overflows the banks of law since it can, within certain limits, modify its own law.” This is referred to as the “higher interests of the State [raison d’Etat].” Furthermore, “in a class-divided society, it is always the State, as the practitioner of legitimate violence and physical repression, which takes precedence over law.”
As another critical theorist, Mark Neocleous, has written about at length, our cherished conception of liberty essentially functions as security’s lawyer or, phrased differently, the police power, which is geared towards securing bourgeois insecurity is purposefully ambiguous in its parameters given that liberalism requires the former to function unrestrained and unimpeded by law [despite liberal notions of accountability and transparency]. The police officer is what you might call a “street-level executive” in terms of the power[s] they possess.
HK: Yes, because it’s grounded in property. So then if that is the starting point and again, who would have claim to property and who is stripped off their property as well over time? I think it comes down to what would that social contract be and who could even be the beneficiary of that social contract. When you bring race and colonization into the equation then these factors basically become a major threat to the social contract. That’s where the social contract is pulled out because, supposedly, these factors are a threat to it. We all have an agreement among each other we share but this particular race has become a threat so that notion is used very effectively in these current times, whether we want to call them fascist or fascist-nationalist or whatever the terms may be.
NW: What I found interesting is a quote from an LA Times article where, Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College wrote, “People are concerned because they associate the drones that police might be using with drones that are being used by the military. The drone just has that implication.” LAPD seems well-attuned to how word drone, or police drone, signifies that these interminable wars that we’re been engaged in for over the past 15 years are coming home. Subsequently, they’ve repackaged drones as “unmanned aerial systems,” UAVs, which begs the question of what systems are being served by this technology. However, my interest is in getting your thoughts on what this linguistic sleight of hand reveals.
HK: Well, I think this is all a public relations piece. But, going back, I think we need to challenge that assertion by, for example, looking at the tank, which was first experienced by the public as a military technology in foreign theaters of war. But then the tank ended up on the streets of their hometown as well. The first time they saw a machine gun was in a theater of war and, because it was us using the technology, they cheered for that: kill the enemy. For people who have experienced violence at the hands of the state, which constitutes a large portion of people in various forms, these technologies aren’t inspiring simple fantasies or illusions that the drone will be used [in a police capacity]. As we say at the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition: it’s not a moment in time, but a continuation of history in how tactical weaponry and other technologies have become part and parcel of domestic law enforcement.
So no, it’s not a far-fetched idea. People are not hallucinating but rather, it’s based on their real, lived experiences and the way they’ve experienced this violence. Furthermore, we have to consider the historical context of the post-1960s civil war to understand the advent of the drone in terms of the shifts in policy and how the language around the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on crime and the assignment of the criminal Black face and the status of the criminal Black face. While we cannot enslave, penal labor is real. So in a sense, what will the carceral state look like? It’s not just confined to the physical aspects and manifestations of incarceration, but to the broader notion of the carceral state itself.
That’s where the drone fits into what we term the “stalker state” and the wider “architecture of surveillance.” They inform other tools as well: they gather and collate all that information and knowledge via tracing, tracking, surveilling and ultimately, stalking people, primarily Black and Brown bodies. That’s what it really comes down to: the sense that people are not overreacting with the presence of police drones, but are concerned because they’ve experienced state violence firsthand.
NW: Would you expand upon your conception of the “architecture of surveillance” for readers unaware of what that implies?
HK: The architecture of surveillance is something that comprises various forms of information gathering, storing, and sharing that have taken place. We’ve been able to identity some of both the human-based and technology-based practices of how people are being traced, tracked, and hunted. But I think in that we also need to look at what it’s been built upon. It’s certainly not new. Rather, the architecture of surveillance is an extension of the already existing structures and policies around policing. For example, behavioral surveillance was always there and was used very blatantly. For illustration, the language of risk assessment, as Pete White here at LACAN would say, basically views the Black body as a site of risk. So with all this language we have to uncover and expose the purpose of tracing, tracking, and hunting the body itself and, in that, there are various tools.
Suspicious activity reporting is one such tool, which I would argue is one of the foundational programs of the stalker state itself and we just saw the first arrest under the FBI’s Black Identity Extremism program in Dallas, Texas for this young Black man [Christopher Daniels]. The FBI’s Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide reiterates the risk assessment assigned to Black bodies. So “reasonable indication” – ”observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning” – is purely a behavioral surveillance piece. Similarly, in this Black Identity Extremism case in Texas, the FBI’s guidelines clearly state that the FBI investigator can use a totally non-transparent assessment method, which then allows them to proceed in arresting someone. So I think how, post-Civil Rights blatant discrimination to today’s crime of “driving while Black,” the second is really a precursor to predictive policing. Driving while black is predictive policing. We’re predicting that this Black body is a threat to the system and we’re going to stop them.
There’s also this fallacy of 1st Amendment Constitutional Rights and protected activity, but at the same time, we have this person as a suspect, this person being subjected to SARs [Suspicious Activity Reports], this person is suspicious because they’re taking photographs in a public space. But the person who was arrested in Dallas was in an open-carry state and had license to own a gun, claiming, as other people have done, a 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. But these weapons were, from the state’s perspective, in the wrong hands. So a camera in the wrong hands of an Arab-looking person or a Muslim-looking person can constitute a SAR being opened up on them versus the tourist from Italy or wherever [who goes unnoticed and unbothered]. It’s critical to have these conversations and ground ourselves in race because the system has been built on that. Class has to be a factor as well, but how we look at race, at white privilege and white supremacy sets the tone, when talking of police and policing the body. It becomes really critical.
NW: Regarding the cross pollination between the police power and war power, which is reified through the technology of the drone, there’s a revealing passage from Tyler Wall that, “The broad discretionary powers, executive decisions, institutional impunity, legal unaccountability, and necropolitics that have been the basis of so much outrage over targeted drone killings have long been operative in the most banal operations of police power. Hence, from the police perspective, the adoption of drones to police the “homefront” is a logical, commonsensical conclusion. Drone power is quintessentially police power and understanding better grasps the very real and extraordinary power of drone systems.”
Furthermore, Robin Kelly provocatively asks, “What are signature strikes if not routine, justified killings of young men who might be al-Qaeda members or may one day commit acts of terrorism? It is little more than a form of high-tech racial profiling.” What do you make of these arguments? Basically, that drones operate within the same logic(s) of police power.
HK: I agree.
NW: Following up on these critical notions of police, there’s also the argument advanced by Wall “emergency is the lifeblood of police power and police the lifeblood of emergency power. There is no emergency without there being a threat and all threats conjure some specter of police.”
HK: Yes, they always have to create an emergency. I reminded of apps like Nextdoor.Com, which are being used to profile neighbors with law enforcement agencies like LAPD joining these websites. So emergencies are created. In Georgetown, what was exposed with Nextdoor.Com, through transcripts and discovery, was that they were exchanging notes among each other on suspicious looking Black men and women in these neighborhoods. So emergencies are created. Similarly, if someone is deemed a suspect based upon their potential risk to the system, now the surveillance of that suspect has to happen in order to keep an eye on the situation so they don’t harm us. It is used as a preventive strategy and now we’re entering into the language of predictive policing or preventative policing. That’s where it becomes critical to unpack it and blow the shit out of it and name it as it is: targeting Black and Brown bodies.
NW: What’s interesting is the notion of preventative or preemptive policing, which seems to me sort of a redundant or tautological use of language given that policing is always preemptive.
HK: You raise a good point, but there’s a reason to frame it that way because policing, by itself, has to be over time presented as part and parcel -the propaganda and the narrative- of the community it supposedly is tasked with serving and protecting. That’s why it’s been presented as practically akin to a public utility. This is a service that our state within the civic system has to provide like electricity and water. So police by itself is viewed as a necessary living-and-breathing function of the state. Once that has been established, police abolitionists need to work to challenge this norm. We have to break down the stalker state.
One program I was previously unaware of is called the Good Neighbor Program where Housing and Urban Development offers 50% discounts to law enforcement officers, firefighters, and teachers when they move into a economically disadvantaged community. The logic being that they’ll supposedly revitalize these communities. So these are existing programs within the system itself that create a status of people that situate an elevated level. In order for society function appropriately, peacefully, and in a healthy manner these are the supposedly necessary ingredients. The preemptive function of policing is a given, but the question is how, as activists, do we prevent this practice and preemptively engage in that struggle? That’s the question.
NW: Coming back to drones and your ongoing campaign against LAPD’s recent procurement of these devices: how should activists fight the proliferation of this technology whether in the hands of the military or the police?
HK: The first point would be for activists and organizers to completely reject the use of drones domestically and abroad. They cannot be controlled or regulated with even the most restrictive policies. For the activist community, it’s very critical that they do not accept this technology and hold the line against their usage. The fight is against these programs and for their complete dismantlement and abolition. Ultimately, we are guided by the principle[s] of harm elimination and subsequently, we cannot allow new programs and technologies to enter the fray as well. Harm elimination necessitates the complete rejection of any tools that would further exacerbate harm or strengthen the capacity to inflict harm.
NW: Hamid Khan, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
HK: Thank you.