ALL ABOUT RIGHTS BACK AT YOU
The struggle for human rights shapes news around the globe. Join Amnesty International, one of Canada’s largest human rights organizations, and untangle the chaos of your newsfeed. Want to hear compelling stories from people who fight back? Learn more about the systems that define our world? Or hang out with people who believe a better world is possible for everyone? Rights Back at You features stories from frontline activists that cut right to the heart of human rights—being human.
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Ep. 2 – Don’t You Be My Neighbour
Daniella: This episode contains mentions of police violence and Islamophobia as well as sexual violence.
Picture your neighborhood. What do you see? Is there a park? A coffee shop? A busy street full of cars? Do your neighbors smile at you when you see them? Or do they shuffle past you on the sidewalk and not make eye contact? We’re often told to keep an eye on our neighbors, to report suspicious behavior. You know the “see something, say something”-type campaigns. But who is suspicious? And why are we encouraged to spy on each other?
You’re listening to Rights Back at You, Amnesty International Canada’s human rights podcast. I’m your host, Daniella Barreto. In the last episode, we talked about street sweeps and the daily surveillance that happens to unhoused people. They’re watched, told they’re unwelcome, even though public space is meant to be for the public. Sometimes city government excludes them, too. What does it mean to be a good neighbor to people who don’t have an address?
Rowa: The city would turn off the water at the park at night, but then sometimes I’d get calls from folks like residents there asking me, Hey, could you call in and see if if they are going to turn on the water? Because sometimes they just wouldn’t come. But we’re trying to do the work that the city is failing to do because at the end of the day, we keep each other safe. My name is Rowa Mohamed and I’m a Hamilton resident and volunteer for the Hamilton Encampment Support Network.
Daniella: Rowa is a Black Muslim woman in Hamilton, Ontario. She volunteers with the city’s encampment network. They’re supporting unhoused community members by being good neighbors, showing up to help with clothes and food and anything else people need to survive. Evictions have happened in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax. There are probably encampments and evictions happening in your own city, but there’s always organizing against it. Encampments aren’t a perfect place and they aren’t always safe for the people in them, but they’re often safer and cooler than falling apart hotel rooms with pest problems and without air conditioning. Rome made friends with people in the park because it was close to her house and she’d use the track to go for runs sometimes. She gathered supplies like food, water and warm clothes to bring to her neighbours during cold weather. Like one day in November 2021. Her neighbours in the encampment had received notices to their tents.
Rowa: So the notices that people got handed, they say that you have 2 hours to leave the park. They stick it to your tent whether you are there or not. One of our city councillors, Jason Farr, referred to it as the Whack-A-Mole strategy. So just removing people’s tents, throwing away their stuff with these huge dumpsters, a lot of city resources, and then if you’re not there within the two hour period, if folks had enough time to pack up their tent and yours, then that’s great. If not your tent and everything in it, like literally gets scooped up by a big construction machine and gets put into the back of a dumpster.
Daniella: Police were already there facilitating the encampment eviction. Network supporters were there, too.
Rowa: We put up a banner saying “fund housing now”, “end encampment evictions now”. People were having coffee. People were helping pack up things. Some folks were trying to set up the speaker for some music. There was a lot of neighbors walking through the park asking what was going on. It was just a cold day. It was clear, but cold. Days before, it had been a little wet and muddy.
Daniella: Rowa wears a hijab, a piece of clothing or scarf that covers the hair. That day she bundled up warmly.
Rowa: What I do sometimes is I’ll put on like I’ll put on my cap and then I’ll put on my big balaclava and I’ll wear that and then put my scarf on over top.
Daniella: There was a lot of police presence that day, and more people from the encampment network showed up to help.
Rowa: And we were waiting it out because the residents were saying that they just wanted us to be there to make sure that they did actually get the time that they needed and things.
Daniella: According to Rowa, the police were rushing people to leave. The group of encampment supporters formed a line chanting that housing is a human right.
Rowa: Yeah, it wasn’t very loud. It just seemed almost like a gathering. Like when we’d come together just at the park and there was, like, some kind of event. And we’re going to get coffee and standing outside in the cold, which we do a lot of, standing outside in the cold.
Daniella: She says there were more than 12 police cars.
Rowa: I’d never seen that many police cars at an encampment eviction. And there’s always police, like at least one or two. But I’d never seen that many cars.
Daniella: And that the protesters tried to talk to the officers.
Rowa: And we’re just saying like, “please have a heart, have a conscience. Like, where are you asking people to go?” That didn’t seem to work. They were really upset and really agitated. They seemed really nervous and they seemed like they were preparing for a lot. There’s this presumption that when young people of color come together to protest, even though there was tons of white people there, too. But when young people of color and Black people come together to protest that there’s something to be feared, when Indigenous people come together to protest, that there’s something to be feared.
Daniella: She says the police officer grabbed her friend and dragged her out of the way because they’d allegedly crossed a barrier.
Rowa: She uses a wheelchair and there were five officers physically putting their hands on her body and on her assisted device, which is like an extension, and just like pulling her back and forth, back and forth.
Daniella: Rosa says the officer had his hand covering the wheelchairs joystick and was pulling it back and forth.
Rowa: It ran into him as he was pulling it and he said that, yeah, she assaulted him based on all of them pulling her back and forth. And it’s absurd. There’s no way that you can treat citizens like that unless you genuinely believe that they’re less human and that that’s acceptable. You can’t treat people with disabilities like that. You can’t treat women like that. You can’t treat black people like that. Can’t treat anyone like that. But it’s this idea of dehumanization that makes it acceptable. We were chanting and one of the officers called me a b*tch. I was like, “Whoa!”
Daniella: The line pushed forward, and according to Rosa, one of the officers started pushing back.
Rowa: Basically, like he grabbed me, put me on the ground, my hair covering came off, and then he put his knee on my neck. And I screamed the whole time because I didn’t want to die like that.
Daniella: A photo of this moment went viral on Twitter. Despite all the supposed listening and learning that happened after George Floyd, how was this happening again? This time to a Black Muslim woman in Canada.
Rowa: George Floyd was still very much fresh on my mind. In the photos, too you can see everyone falling because when you pull somebody out of a line, when they’re linking arms, you’ve got to pull the whole line forward kind of. And then immediately said, “You’re under arrest,” and then just took me to the ground and I didn’t really have a chance to say anything after that because, like, as soon as my head hit the ground, he put his knee on my neck. And he claims he didn’t.
Daniella: Rowa thought about how it would affect everyone around her.
Rowa: Yeah, I did think about that. Would my family ever be whole again would my community be whole again? Would they be okay if I had died that way? And then also being caught in this space of feeling really angry that I feel like people would have cared more that this happened about this injustice if I had just died.
Daniella: Advocates were being arrested, so more and more community members went down to the park to see what was happening. Rowa and her partner were arrested that day and the protests continued.
Rowa: Then they held me, my partner, for, I think, six or 7 hours and then offered me a ham and cheese sandwich. But I told them, first of all, I’m Muslim. Second of all, I really want my hijab back, which they did not give me during the entire time I was there. And third of all, they took my insulin and I didn’t have it for the entire time I was there. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed that. And then I had to actually tell them that it was emergency and I needed a paramedic to come check my blood sugar because I hadn’t checked it now all day and lots had happened and I wasn’t sure I was okay. They didn’t care about me or my humanity because I am Black and I am Muslim. And it didn’t matter to them if I had my insulin or not. That’s just how they treat people. And that was confirmed to me because that same officer who denied me my insulin and offered me a ham and cheese sandwich had on a “thin blue line”. It exists in direct opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a white supremacist movement, and he had that on his wrist and so I did not feel safe in there at any point in time.
Daniella: The “Thin Blue line” is the idea that police officers are the only thing standing between unchecked chaos and a functioning society. It’s often represented as a horizontal blue line through a grey and black Canadian or US flag. As black feminist scholars Miriame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie explain, “Under the Thin Blue Line, our safety is painted as constantly under attack, and police officers are beyond criticism because they are the only way to a safe society”.
The symbol is associated with backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and it’s been adopted by white nationalist groups. Even though it’s banned on police uniforms by the RCMP and some smaller police departments like Calgary, it still seen on officers across the country. When protesting for racial justice, encountering this symbol holds a lot of meaning.
Rowa: So all of us were charged with either obstruction or assault or both. I was charged with obstruction and assault of a police officer.
Daniella: The GoFundMe page for their legal support reached $43,000. The charges were eventually dropped against Rowa and the encampment protesters.
Rowa: But for a while we weren’t able to go check in on folks. They gave us all these restrictions. And the purpose of the restrictions, I think, was to slow down our work. They don’t want us protesting. They want to minimize our voice. They don’t want us out there saying, hey, the reason that there are people who are unhoused is because you’re overfunding the police. And I think the purpose of these charges is to keep us quiet and stop us from doing organizing work.
Daniella: Rowa and her group could not be deterred.
Rowa: We sat down with the whole community and did an activity about this. Some of our visions were having proper recreational facilities in our community so that people didn’t have to travel too far. Having actual accessible sidewalks so that people could drive their wheelchairs and not have any barriers. Actually learning about Indigenous and Black history in school. Having a community garden where we can grow our own food and have food security and have housing security dreams where every single person matters whether or not they can produce or not.
Daniella: We need to know our neighbors. We need to feel safe. We need to be able to rely on each other. But in an increasingly isolated and individualist world, many people don’t want that responsibility. They outsource it, especially when they feel threatened by people who are different from themselves. In 2015, Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party decided to set up a barbaric cultural practices hotline specifically for Canadians, whatever that means, to report their Muslim neighbors.
Hannan: It was because of a woman who wanted to wear her headwear during the citizenship ceremony. It’s called the niqab, and she was vilified. You had media come after her. You had politicians come after her. Why is this such an issue? Why are people associating Canadian values with a religious headwear and then ignoring the Charter which allows us all to have religious freedom? Does the Charter not apply to Muslim people? Hello, my name is Hannan Mohamud. I identify as a Black Muslim woman of Somali descent from Alberta.
Daniella: Hannan is a law student at the University of Ottawa. She’s also on the board for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and part of a safety network for Black folks in Alberta that includes safe walks, therapists and transit support. Hannan was just a young person when the hotline was proposed.
Hannan: I was in university at the time and I just felt so shocked that this one piece of headwear, clothing, somehow led a discussion about how people should decide or choose to surveil Muslims.
Daniella: Since 9/11, Muslim people have been under intense surveillance, all connected to racist assumptions about danger and safety. Muslim people were cast as terrorists and subjected to extreme state surveillance in Canada and the United States. But whose safety were countries really concerned about? According to the National Canadian Council of Muslims, more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate attacks in Canada than in any other G7 country. In recent years there have been spates of violence towards Muslim people in Canada, from the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017 to debates over what Muslim women can wear to work to a London family killed by a white man crashing a truck into them on the sidewalk. Islamophobia is ever-present here.
Hannan: You had people thinking that it was okay for them to engage in this type of violence because, you know, the politicians are harassing Muslim people. You know, they’re going after a piece of clothing that somehow represents “anti-Canada”. And then you have people carrying out their actions. It was so disturbing. So when you had them encouraging people to report these “practices”, these “barbaric practices”, even using that word, it was almost like the Conservatives are reaffirming their determination to not allow any type of citizenship for anyone who is Muslim.
Daniella: Black Muslim people experience both anti-lack racism and Islamophobia. If you’re a woman or queer or trans, often it’s even worse. The Ontario Human Rights Commission adds that while one third of hate crimes in general happen to women, women make up 50% of hate crimes against Muslim people. There’s a term coined by Moya Bailey. Misogyny Noire, a portmanteau of the words misogyny and “noir” meaning black in French. You can think of it as anti-black misogyny. Black women contend with a specific set of stereotypes and narratives that make us particularly vulnerable to surveillance and violence, including police violence.
Hannan: Black women bear the brunt of the most aggressive police tactics and even shoplifting a store or even transit. They’re beaten. They’re slammed. They’re dragged.
Daniella: Just like what happened with Rowa and the violent takedown of Dalia Kafi in 2017, a Black woman in Calgary who has since passed away. Both of these instances were caught on camera, but little justice has been found or restitution made, if any. The officer who injured Dalia spent about two weeks under house arrest and two weeks under curfew.
Hannan: I think making sense of this level of violence requires addressing years of neglect and ignorance from stakeholders, specifically media governments, feminist organizations, even whose mandates claim to advocate against gender based violence but they fail to understand the intersection of hate crimes as a form of gender based violence.
Daniella: Here’s a passage from Andrea Ritchie’s book, “Invisible No More”, that perfectly lays out the tangle Black women find ourselves in when it comes to criminalization.
“Ultimately, whether a woman of color is read as a drug user, courier, a distributor, a disorderly person, an undesirable immigrant, a security threat, or some combination of these, the war on drugs, broken windows and gang policing, immigration enforcement and the war on terror weave a web of criminalization that ensnares women in devastating ways.”
These enduring ideas are attached to the scientific racism of the 19th century that formed the basis of the eugenics movement and white supremacy. Although they’ve since been completely debunked, many of these fictional ideas persist. Black women were framed as crazy, hypersexual, monstrous beasts. We were disassociated from femininity and presented as “bad mothers”, “loud”, “rude”, “aggressive” and “dangerous”. Ritchie says Black women are still perceived as subhuman and animalistic to be violated, feared and punished. These aren’t always conscious perceptions. It’s so embedded in our society that we don’t even think about it. Take the way people often spoke about Michelle Obama and the derogatory remarks about her appearance in the media. She was dehumanized by being called an ape. There were illustrations of her as masculine and brutish. Tennis superstar Serena Williams is also often depicted in this aggressive and animalistic way. None of these depictions are new. And it’s not only rich and famous Black women who contend with these tired old tropes. These societal perceptions make it dangerous for Black women to behave any other way than completely docile, especially in interactions with police. Most often when people think of police violence, they come up with an image of a white officer beating a Black man. But there are so many other experiences that fit under that umbrella, including sexual harassment and assault. You may remember the high profile case of Daniel Holtzclaw in 2015, an Oklahoma City police officer who targeted and sexually assaulted at least 13 black women and girls.
Daniella: It stretches back decades. In Toronto, there was the case of Audrey Smith, a Black Jamaican woman who was stopped, forcibly strip-searched and left naked on Queen Street in the early 1990s. Reports of officer sexual misconduct are widespread across Canada against women, and particularly Indigenous women. The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and murdered Indigenous women lays it out plainly. “Policing has neglected and targeted Indigenous women in Canada”.
Between 2012 and 2019, Ontario’s SIU statistics show that second to injuries while in police custody, the highest number of cases are sexual assault complaints against police officers. Year after year. And those are only the ones that get reported. The Independent Investigations Office in B.C. doesn’t even include sexual offenses in its definition of serious harm by officers. It’s simply not documented. Which means it stays invisible. Sexual violence happens even within the police force. A final report compiled by three Canadian judges outlines shocking levels of violence against women officers and women working with the RCMP. Another scathing report came out in May 2022 from the Feminist Alliance for International Action. It’s called The Toxic Culture of the RCMP, Misogyny, Racism and Violence Against Women in Canada’s National Police Force. We know many people don’t report sexual violence or assault to the police because they worry they won’t be believed, they may be afraid of outing themselves as involved in sex work or drug use, or they simply may not trust that the institution will treat them with care. Where do you turn when the police themselves are the perpetrators? There’s an idea that safety means more eyes on the street, trained on people we’ve been told are suspicious.
CAMS 1: You know, my neighbors were becoming concerned about things like car break ins and bicycle thefts and an increase in unhoused folks and homeless encampments in the area. Report, report, report. When in doubt, report. Neighbors are the eyes and ears on the ground like it was very much an encouragement of getting neighbors to spy and report on neighbors.
Daniella: This is a representative from CAMS, the Coalition Against More Surveillance based in Ottawa. They’re describing an article they read in a neighborhood newspaper. The reps needed to remain anonymous for this interview.
CAMS 1: You know, nothing is too small. Like just report everything without any kind of reflection on the reasons why people might break into a car or the reasons why people might be living in a tent in the park.
Daniella: CAMS says more surveillance and reporting is positioned as a way to deal with quote
Rowa: “Bad people” in the neighborhood, folks who are poor or folks who are unhoused, Black and Indigenous neighbors, people who are often already the targets of policing and surveillance.
CAMS 2: Automatically you are deemed worthy of surveillance and you’re deemed inherently dangerous. So like people justify surveilling your every move. It’s always been about population control and using various tools to control specific people.
Daniella: There’s an app called Next Door that operates in Canada. Some police departments promote it on their own websites. It’s for setting up a virtual neighbourhood watch, and it’s been criticized for whipping up pre-existing biases and reinforcing racism in neighborhoods. Basically, racial profiling going tech.
CAMS 2: So then everyone in their neighborhood gets this letter and essentially it gives them like a code and they’re supposed to go online. So I went in and I was like, “This is super ‘surveillancey’, especially if it’s not done with the correct intentions, because sometimes even things done with the correct intentions, if taken out of context, are often used against people.”
Daniella: CAMS talked about the proliferation of social media, neighborhood groups where people share photos and videos, often about the dangers they perceive.
CAMS 2: It’s people who still feel comfort in the idea that police are going to come and respond to their situation. Oftentimes, they put these videos up as a means to garner support for more police interventions in the area.
Daniella: One of those interventions is usually more cameras. CAMS was instrumental in challenging Ottawa’s proposal to install an expensive array of surveillance cameras in the city’s ByWard market.
Rowa: You know, installing a camera doesn’t actually prevent the harm. It just captures it.
Daniella: When we layer technology on top of excluding people who are visibly different, you can probably predict that discrimination gets amplified. The more watching that happens, the more likely you’ll get recorded, especially if someone thinks you don’t belong.
Smile. You’re on your neighbor’s camera.
Chris : You know, there’s been a longstanding campaign by not only tech companies, but I think in a lot of ways law enforcement, but even popular culture, to make the case that more cameras equal, more safety. That doesn’t bear out whether we’re talking about CCTV or police bodycams. This is typically not true, but it sounds true and it feels true, and so people believe it. I am Dr. Chris Gilliard. I’m a visiting research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center.
Daniella: Chris coined the term “luxury surveillance”, which includes things like:
Chris : Apple watches and Teslas and Ring doorbells, things that in many cases are luxury or prestige items. The wearer or the buyer typically doesn’t think of them as surveillance, but they have a surveillant function, and in some cases, the surveillant function is the primary function. A joke I’ve made in the past is that what is the difference between an Apple Watch and an ankle monitor is that the Apple Watch collects more data.
Daniella: Chris has a bone to pick with surveillance tech, specifically Amazon Ring. It’s a doorbell surveillance camera with high definition audio visual recording and a wide field of view that connects to wifi. The device can alert your phone when motion is detected and be programmed to call the police directly. You can access real-time and saved footage via the app. There are models marketed for both homeowners and apartment dwellers, and many other companies make similar products like Google Nest. Even though the Ring website says “stops crime” in massive font,
Chris : I mean, I think one of the interesting things is that there’s very little evidence, very little independent research that suggests these devices actually make people or communities safer.
Daniella: Although police departments seem very excited about the potential of ring cameras. Chris told us about a study that shows that people were actually more likely to be “burglarized” if they had a Ring camera compared to if they didn’t. Since Amazon bought Ring in 2018, the devices have only become cheaper and sometimes even given away. An Ontario Superstore in 2021 was advertising a free Amazon Blink with every $250 purchase.
Chris : The value of those devices for the company is not the hardware, so it’s pretty easy for them to give away or provide these devices at a very low cost because the hardware is not the valuable thing. It’s the data that they are able to accumulate by you putting these things in your home or wearing them. If they’re very easy to get, they’re cheap. If they’re omnipresent, then I think it makes people less concerned or less aware of the dangers and harms that they present. “Look, they’re everywhere. You know, they’re in hospitals, they’re in dorm rooms, they’re in our children’s rooms”, things like that. I think making them freely available increases that sense that it should be normal. I think it’s pretty dangerous. If we think about what makes communities safer, it’s not more surveillance. It’s some really boring things, you know, like knowing your neighbor, having streetlights. I mean, you know, it’s things like that, right? It’s how we think of community in ways that platforms and tech companies try to mimic or become the stand in for. But it doesn’t work that way.
Daniella: So if surveillance cameras aren’t making us safer, why were they introduced?
Chris says that Amazon originally needed a way to make sure it wasn’t on the hook for lost or stolen packages. And then the Ring became so much more. It sold a sense of security, real or imagined. And this is how we ended up with an extensive surveillance blanket over our communities and neighborhoods. And this blanket does much more than let us know when our packages have arrived. There are reports that doorbell cameras can pick up audio from conversations up to 40 feet away. It could eavesdrop on arguments, log intimate phone calls to a clinic you might not want other people to overhear or record conversations with friends that you wouldn’t want going viral on the Internet.
Chris : Amazon or Google Nest, Next Door, whoever it is, they have to create the narrative that the only way to be safe is through their products. The only way to have community is through their products. So that’s kind of how we get where we are.
Daniella: Chris’ car was egged. Someone was going around using cars for target practice.
Chris : I have no idea who did this, but the morning after it happened, my neighbor across the street neighbor came out to me and said, “Well, I have the ring doorbell footage. If you want to see it or if you want me to send it to the police”. So this is like a nuisance crime, right? Like, I mean, I wouldn’t even call it a crime, this is like a nuisance. I don’t know who did that, but it’s a problem I can solve with white vinegar. Part of the problem with these devices and with these technologies in the ways that we’ve been encouraged to use them and think about them is that they escalate things into crimes or things that have to be investigated. I don’t call the police for something like that because there’s a whole chain of events that might happen that is much more complex than me just getting a sponge and wiping down my car.
Daniella: Chris has a friend who bought a Ring.
Chris : You know, we’re still friends (laughs). I encouraged him not to get it, but one of the things that was really interesting was to see his behavior change, like someone walking by or someone sitting out on the curb in front of his house, you know, all these sorts of things then became causes for concern and anxiety. A colleague of mine, Joan Donovan, talks about how the Internet turns us all into cops. To see his behavior change, which is like, “Oh, someone passed by the threshold of this device. I’ve got to go check it out. Who is this person? Are they a criminal? Are they trying to steal what I have? Should I send it to the police?” Right. Like, enables this sort of cascade of, like, anxiety and fear and projection that otherwise would not have existed. I think that’s an underreported function of these things. Right? Which is to ramp up people’s anxieties about the fear of outsiders, the fear of people who they don’t think belong in their neighborhood and things like that. And as we’ve seen that that can be very dangerous and in some cases deadly.
Daniella: Some would argue that ring cameras normalize and entrench surveillance even further into society. An example Chris gives is how the police widely requested footage of BLM protests from Ring cameras in Los Angeles, despite not having a specific issue to investigate.
Chris : They just wanted video of protesters. And this is a thing that people have warned about and been sounding the alarm about. Amazon needed a way to address package theft. And so now we have another layer or a network of widespread surveillance throughout the country.
Daniella: The size of tech companies’ reach into our homes is massive. There have been reports of Amazon, Google and Apple employees listening to audio snippets on their respective voice assistants. Amazon has a drone that can fly around your home, capturing video footage of everything around it. And hackers have been able to access these devices relatively easily, giving them the ability to speak to you and watch you during your most intimate moments. More surveillance means more devices and increased profits for companies who thrive when people are afraid of each other.
Chris : There is a stretch of time when they were pitching it as a crime fighting device where they actually explicitly tried to incentivize consumers to become like cops so they would offer bonuses or benefits or credits or something like that. If you reported a potential crime. Ring, had lots of deals with law enforcement across the country in which they would kind of essentially encourage law enforcement to be sort of de facto “doorbell sales people”? They would provide promotional copy, in some cases, Amazon or Ring spokespeople would provide talking points to law enforcement for not only talking to consumers or potential customers, but also how to refer to the devices or how to get people how to encourage people to sign up for Neighbors, which is the Ring platform. Now, some of these practices, they don’t do anymore. And that’s one of the things that the company will say, “well, we don’t do that anymore”. But the parallel that I’ve made is that’s like me bragging about not using training wheels on my bike anymore. The training wheels are the thing that allowed me to become a proficient bike rider, so I don’t need them (laughs). So to brag that I don’t use them anymore is not really a statement worth commenting on. The policies that helped Ring gain the sort of market penetration that they have now, they don’t need them now.
Daniella: In the United States, more than 2000 police and fire departments have a partnership with Ring. It’s quite difficult to find information about police partnerships with Ring in Canada, hopefully because they don’t exist to that extent. But in 2019, the RCMP in Prince George published a now-deleted press release, excitedly revealing that they’d been working with Amazon since January 2018 to help stop package theft. The articles say that Amazon was super helpful in setting up GPS-tracked bait packages. Of course they were. The City of Windsor had a much higher profile attempt to partner with Ring and get police on the Neighbours app. In 2020, the mayor barreled headfirst into trying to be the first Canadian city to do this kind of deal. He said he wants his police service to respond to crime efficiently, effectively and with all the modern tools available to them. The partnership seems to have fizzled out.
And remember Sidewalk Labs? Google was on the verge of setting up a whole smart city within a Toronto neighbourhood. Everything would be connected to sensors and cameras with mass amounts of data vacuumed into storage. COVID-19 hit and they packed up shop. Many residents think this was due to massive community resistance they faced despite Google’s shiny appeal.
Chris : I mean, I think one of the larger problems is that up until now or up until very recently, there’s been a lack of the understanding of the the kind of widespread harm and damage to a society there is by having kind of unfettered biometric sensors everywhere. I don’t look for control of these systems because I don’t think they should exist. These things should be abolished, dismantled. I mean, put on a rocket and flown to the sun.
I think that it disrupts kind of like a foundational understanding about a free society, which is the ability for people to traverse their day unmolested and in relative obscurity, the ability to worship, associate, to go to the doctor, you know, and do all these things that we do which are not illegal or unlawful or even immoral. And so when we give more power and put the more technology in the hands of these systems, they’re always going to be leveraged against the most marginalized, the least powerful set of people and individuals in a society. And part of the problem is that people who deploy these things or use them often think that they’re always going to be on the right end of the camera. They think they’ll be the watch-er and not the watch-ee. And while that is true in the short term, I think in the long term, it’s not true for anyone. There are just a variety of power dynamics. And in some cases, people are going to be watched in ways that they hadn’t anticipated and don’t especially enjoy.
Daniella: In 2022, a Vancouver City Councillor tried to introduce a motion to cover the city in more CCTV cameras. The argument was along the lines of the same old argument you’ve heard in this episode. Strangers are suspicious and dangerous. There are people who don’t belong, so we need cameras to keep us safe and reduce crime. The police know where these cameras should go and we need to fund this project all in the name of public safety.
But these justifications are based on assumptions we now know aren’t true. There was swift backlash from organisations like Pivot Legal Society, Open Media, PACE and the BC Civil Liberties Association. The goal was to educate other Councillors and make sure the motion didn’t get enough votes to pass. They clearly outlined what Chris has been saying: research does not show that more cameras have any significant benefit for public safety or reducing violent crime. They also said expanding surveillance is inseparable from racist technologies.
Ultimately, the only person who voted in favor of it was the person who introduced it. Melissa de Genova. She also happens to be married to a police officer.
So what makes neighborhoods safer? It’s exactly what Rowa and other folks at the Hamilton Encampment Network do. Get to know our neighbors, look out for each other, and maybe then, like Chris jokes, destroy your Ring camera and blasted into the sun.
That’s it for Rights Back at You this time. Amnesty International has launched a global campaign called Protect the Protest. The right to protest is under growing threat around the world. And you can take a stand. If you’d like to learn more. Visit the link in our show notes.
This episode was produced by me, Daniella Barreto and Serisha Iyar. Written and hosted by me. Story Editing, Sound Design and Post-production Work by Katie Jensen at Vocal Fry Studios. Theme Music by Produced by Youth. Podcast Artwork by Sasha Mbabazi.
Tune in next time when we talk more about what public safety really means. What’s behind calls to defund the police and why body cameras may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
Produced, written, and hosted by Daniella Barreto. Co-produced by Serisha Iyar. Story editing, sound design, and post-production work by Katie Jensen at Vocal Fry Studios. Theme music by Produced by Youth. Artwork by Sasha Mbabazi.
A special thank you to Leon Liberman, Adjua Akinwumi and Serisha Iyar.
BOOK: Andrea Ritchie “Invisible No More”
Chris Gilliard: “The Rise of Luxury Surveillance”
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1 | FACIAL RECOGNITION AND POLICING PROTESTERS
Meet Derrick Ingram. After he shared a photo of himself from a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest, the New York Police Department surrounded his apartment and his friends jumped into action. If police can use facial recognition and surveillance technology to target activists like Derrick, will protesters think twice about speaking out, even in Canada?
2 | STREET SURVEILLANCE AND THE WAR ON DRUGS
What does the future of harm reduction look like for communities that are already overpoliced and surveilled? In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, we connect with harm reduction activist Hugh Lampkin who saves lives with naloxone and community building. We investigate how drug criminalization impacts Black people in Canada, and visit the MySafe machine, a palm-scanning smart vending machine for drugs.
4 | Walking While Black
Gyasi Symonds filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission after being street checked by Halifax Police. He won. Despite his victory, street-level surveillance and carding are still widespread across Canada. A movement to defund the police and invest in the community has erupted from coast to coast. We pass the mic to grassroots groups to hear about where they want funding to go, and what new worlds we can imagine.
5 | Access Denied – tech at the border
Borders have long been sites of colonial enforcement about who can come, who can go, who gets expelled, and how Indigenous Peoples are treated. Canada’s border is no different. When you’re fleeing danger in your home country and entering another, is it fair to have life-altering decisions made by technology
— technology that can be unreliable and reinforce bias?