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Baltimore Police State: The Future of America?
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Photo: photo: flickr.com/Robchaos

Baltimore Police State: The Future of America?

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While various pundits try to spin horror stories which target either the private sector or the government as some ominous, all-controlling forces, the contemporary situation of policing in Baltimore illuminates how these two forces are intertwined to the point of being inseparable in contemporary America. In conjunction with unique ideological and historical conditions resulting in part from slavery, Baltimore paints a mini-portrait of the country at large - or at the very least its unsavory tendency toward overt population control at the expense of providing real possibilities for its citizens.

Residents of Baltimore are certainly not the only US citizens to live under the constant vigilance of police surveillance, but they experience it in an overwhelming and direct way which merits investigation. Those looking from abroad would be surprised by the Baltimore Police’s total belligerence. For instance, helicopter surveillance is a ubiquitous presence in the city. Helicopters not only respond to specific criminal activity, but are budgeted to surveil the city like police cars 24/7. The Baltimore Sun has put out pieces defending the practice as a question of public safety, but notably absent is the question of why other, often wealthier cities don’t also participate in the practice. It goes without saying that such conditions, besides being sheerly eerie, are ripe for abuse. In 2016, the city came out as saying there was no conspiracy to hide the fact the helicopters had been taking constant photographs for a private company ominously named “Persistent surveillance systems”. The company funds the photographs in order to “advise’ the police on criminal activity, thus creating a self-serving cycle of government money being funneled into private hands at the expense of the “privacy” U.S. citizens are supposed to be allotted. 

The ubiquitous presence of blue light cameras is a second notable feature of the Baltimore police state. While it might seem like something from a dystopian sci-fi novel, the cameras actually have the word “BELIEVE” written in giant block script in all capital letters across the side. The cameras are in effect constantly across Baltimore and many other cities in the United States (Chicago notably), albeit of course only in areas which the police deem “prone to crime”, i.e. where poor people, usually minorities live. Following the theme of these camera’s novelic quality, residents have taken to highlighting the letters “L I E” on the side of the cameras in order to counter the ham-fisted narrative of authority that the government insists on. The police have claimed that the cameras have reduced crime in certain areas, although the poor recording quality is actually rarely used in court cases in order to assist in convictions. It is not the recording itself, but rather the authorial presence of the cameras which allegedly deters crime. The blue light of course matches the association of the color with the police, reminding residents in a rather explicit manner that state power is never far off. Outside of policing local residents remotely, the cameras also replace police presence in certain areas. Robotic policing is already a reality, and already new more sinister surveillance technologies like facial recognition software are on the rise for use on the general population. What conditions could possibly prompt this kind of response, and why does it continue as other places in America switch to systems of “soft-power”, attempting to smooth out or eliminate such obvious authoritarian symbolism?

The problem is of course intimately tied to the racial realities of Baltimore. In what is known as “the school to prison pipeline”, black Baltimoreans are far more likely to end up in prison than college. Arrests in suspensions in Baltimore schools are reaching unprecedented levels. The schools in these areas are among the worst in country, some have no adequate heating systems leaving the students freezing in winter months (and often leading to school being cancelled altogether), and some do not even include the option to graduate, as it is expected every student will drop out, or finish by paying to receive a GED. The militarization of the school system has reached a crucial point, where students enter schools patrolled by armed guards, and have to be screened through metal detectors on a daily basis. Random searches are regularly conducted, and zero tolerance policies are leading to a record number of incarcerations and drop outs. This type of situation is of course not limited to Baltimore, but was also practiced at my own high school in the suburbs of Chicago.

In instances of what is called “predictive policing” high crime areas are more actively monitored and controlled, these areas of course are almost entirely black neighborhoods. Additional prisons are proposed and constructed based around projected crime rates, without the realization that these predictions are essentially self-fulfilling prophecies, as the prisons then must justify their budgets through housing prisoners. Nationally, prisons are funded at three times the rate of the education system, and the US has of course become the world leader in number of people incarcerated, which looks even worse when considered by percentage of population. The dystopian implications of this practice should be readily apparent, as prisons are essentially being built for crimes that haven’t yet occured: a rather temporally complex method of control. Combined with remote policing practices, Baltimore has crafted a perfect technological structure for systematic and violent population control. Coming back to the hybrid position of private and public, private companies make money from nearly every step of the incarceration process, this aside from entirely private prisons which are on the rise in general in the United States, leading to companies with financial incentives to keep their prisons full.

While Baltimore provides a uniquely horrific vision, it is not something limited to one impoverished city with a brutal history of racism. A new regime of policing has developed... not because these new technologies are simply catching more criminals, but rather because they are creating a structure of criminality which reflects back onto the communities in question. Overspending on prisons and juvenile detention centers has eliminated alternatives, and increasing efficiency of production has simultaneously eliminated necessary jobs, creating a feedback loop where predatory private companies work with the government to squeeze profit from the most vulnerable portions of the population. The Baltimore riots of 2015 were a response to a set of conditions which have reduced possibilities for sustaining life to criminality or starvation.

The American system is incapable of adequately providing for its population, and instead has turned to actively incarcerating or simply killing its surplus population, such as in the infamous case of Freddie Grey which sparked the mass unrest of 2015. Despite the United States’ regular claim to exceptional status as a moral empire which promotes tolerance and personal freedoms, its record at home continues to make such claims increasingly farcical - not to mention tragic.

                                                                   

John Stachelski is a PhD candidate, a research fellow of the Center for Syncretic Studies, and an activist with years of experience in labor, education, and community organizing throughout the midwestern United States.

Author: John Stachelski