A Bird’s Eye View

An out-of-focus black and white photo of a brass band with the MaCCNO logo overlaid it in white. Below the logo reads “The Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans” in white.

Like everyone, we want all New Orleanians (and visitors) to be safe at all times, and we are concerned about a series of high-profile violent incidents that have captured the public’s attention over the past year. People are scared and want action. We do too. However, what should that action look like? As a city, we need to be investing in youth, community, and opportunity, not doubling down on systems we know don’t work.

In 2017, MaCCNO was the first organization to raise the alarm about Mayor Landrieu’s “Public Safety Improvement Plan,” which attempted to couple a significant increase in surveillance (including the creation of the “Real Time Crime Center”) with a number of limits on cultural activity, including restrictions on street performers, a mandate for bars to close their doors at 3 a.m., “enhanced” regulations for live entertainment, and a proposed requirement that every business that sells alcohol (barrooms, music venues, grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies…) install real time surveillance in order to keep their liquor licenses. Most of the cultural restrictions were ultimately abandoned and, after we led a very public campaign, so was the requirement that would’ve forced over 1,500 alcoholic beverage outlets to subject their customers to real-time surveillance. The message was clear—100 years after the City of New Orleans dismantled Storyville, city leaders were still equating music and culture with potential criminal activity—and willing to surveil all cultural producers and spectators in the name of “public safety.”

New Orleans’ culture is one that often takes place in public space: street performers, second lines, St. Joseph’s Night, and Mardi Gras parades all require the personal freedom to create, celebrate, and let loose. There should be public safety measures, but we know that once surveillance is entrenched, it doesn’t recede, it only expands—and so do its uses.

Twenty months ago in this publication, we highlighted the harms and history of surveillance technologies as well as the origins of the Eye On Surveillance Coalition (EOS) and the surveillance ordinance which was being proposed to the New Orleans City Council at that time. A lot has transpired since July 2020. In November 2020, it was revealed that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) had been secretly using facial recognition technology through its law enforcement partners, despite several denials. In December 2020, despite the removal of several key oversight provisions, Ordinance 33,021 was passed, banning facial recognition, ​​cell-site simulators, characteristic tracking software, and predictive policing. With this legislation, New Orleans became the second city in the South (after Jackson, Mississippi) and the 16th in the country to ban facial recognition technology.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before City leaders began discussing how the ordinance could be amended or repealed. In March 2021, as the head of the Criminal Justice Committee (CJC), Councilmember Jay Banks intended to reverse the ban on facial recognition if NOPD presented a policy of their own creation. That same month, the CJC—and full Council shortly thereafter—abandoned that proposal and decided that raising the citywide minor curfew would curb youth-based crime.

Not much has changed within the past year. Evictions still took place despite the moratorium and its extensions, ​​pandemic unemployment assistance ended prematurely, food insecurity remained a constant. Additionally, the negative impact of inadequate health care, absent financial safety nets, and the inability to make a living wage was coupled with the devastation of Hurricane Ida. As a result, violent crime continued into 2022 with nearly three dozen carjackings alone in January. A newly-elected City Council, with five new members, moved quickly to address growing public concern about crime by calling special meetings dedicated to the issue. During these two meetings—one with NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson, the other with District Attorney Jason Williams, among other criminal legal system representatives—the Council requested that they produce plans with concrete steps that they would take to address crime. The surveillance ordinance was a hot topic.

Ferguson asked for the Council’s help to “review and modify the ordinance banning the use of surveillance and intelligence gathering tech” passed by their predecessors just 13 months ago. Next, Williams—who introduced the ordinance as Council president—requested additional funding for “actionable items that can make us safer” like one assistant district attorney and seasoned investigators housed in the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) “to strictly focus on carjackings.”

In early February, Ferguson doubled down on his comments at a joint press conference with Mayor LaToya Cantrell when stating, “We [are] seeking the City Council’s help in amending or even repealing the surveillance ordinance passed last year… that has removed certain tools from the toolbox for our investigators to be able to identify and locate violent offenders.” Cantrell echoed the police chief’s sentiments when stating that ​​surveillance technology was “an essential element in the investigative duties of any law enforcement agency.”

To be clear, these tools have never contributed to the public safety of our citizens. What they actually do is increase the proactive targeting, criminalization, misidentification, and arrest of poor, working class, and marginalized communities of color. Despite the baseless claims of being “an invaluable tool for the police department,” the City’s surveillance apparatus is reactive in nature and doesn’t actually prevent crime. The director of public safety, John Thomas, says as much when declaring the footage from the RTCC cameras allows “the officer or detective to view what occurred just before or after the crime took place.” [Emphasis added] The only metric of success publicly disclosed is that the RTCC has saved police 6,000 hours of investigative time, amounting to $300,000 in officer salary, yet surveillance has cost New Orleanians over $10 million since 2017.

Despite sustained organizing in 2020 and our community collectively saying “NO” to harmful and racially-biased surveillance, all of that work could be erased with the introduction of Ordinance 33,639 by Councilmembers Eugene Green, Oliver Thomas, and Freddie King III at the mayor’s request. While only three pages in length, Ordinance 33,639 not only provides the legislative power to undo the protections of our civil liberties implemented within the current surveillance ordinance, it goes much further. First, it gives NOPD more freedom to use surveillance technology in its investigations of violent crimes, as well as gives the City and NOPD explicit power to use any type of surveillance tech to identify a person accused of a “specific violent crime, sex crime, or crime against a juvenile” and issue a warrant for their arrest. In essence, if this ordinance passes, it opens up a Pandora’s box of surveillance technologies on residents like social media monitoring services, X-ray vans, through-the-wall radar, etc. Though deferred in March, the ordinance is scheduled to be heard and voted on by the City Council on Thursday, April 21.

We’ve previously written and will continue to strive for a city that recognizes that public safety doesn’t equate to dangerous and costly increases in surveillance. As the incarceration capital of the world that also has the most wrongful convictions per capita across the country, the Eye On Surveillance Coalition says it best: “New Orleans cannot afford to go backward.”

The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.

This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.

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