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Why You Spy on Your Neighbors

Joshua Reeves’s “Citizen Spies” looks at citizens, surveillance, and how the police state conscripts us all.

Chicago Tribune/Getty Images

The day after Trump signed an unconstitutional ban on travelers from Muslim majority nations, thousands of CPB agents showered, ate breakfast, and drove to their jobs at airports across the country, where they proceeded to harass, humiliate, handcuff, and detain hundreds of residents, students, tourists, workers, women, men, and children—all of whom they would have let pass, perhaps with a smile, twenty-four hours earlier. It’s difficult to empathize with these workers, but one imagines that they tell themselves they are “just doing their job:” putting food on the table, paying rent, chipping away at debt. They might even be hoping for a raise.

NYU Press, 256 pp., $30.00

Less comprehensible are the motives of people who do the work of the state without the pretense of getting paid for it. These are the righteous (white) friends who report a green card marriage, the cheery (white) neighbors who call the cops on a black woman entering her own home, the vigilant (white) travelers who decide a Sikh man looks “scary” on a domestic flight, the naive children who snitch on their parents for smoking pot, and so on. These are the sorts of people who can’t help but see something and say something. Sometimes, feeling a surge of civic duty, they may even take matters into their own hands and do something. After all, it was self-appointed cop, Neighborhood Watch volunteer, and civic racist George Zimmerman who extrajudicially executed a boy for walking home alone at night.

Unlike the uniformed officers of punitive bureaucracies, these citizens are not “just following orders,” since they’ve never been given any—at least, not explicitly. Oregon State University Professor Joshua Reeves’ new history, Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society, investigates the motives of these well-intentioned snitches, statist collaborators, and volunteer surveillance agents.

But Reeves, to his credit, refuses to posit a psychological rationale for those who snitch to the state. He looks, instead, at the ways in which American society makes people more likely to call the cops on a neighbor than to intervene when those neighbors are in danger. At a moment when citizens are contesting both the repressive and revolutionary potential of civic engagement, Reeves’ analysis of its evolution as a surveillance tool is exceptionally useful.

Take, for instance, the murder of Trayvon Martin. Reeves argues that Zimmerman’s lethal escalation of the encounter was not an exceptional instance of citizen vigilance, but its logical outcome. What begins as seeing something and saying something can always end with the taking of someone’s life—whether by the vigilante himself or by the cops that he ends up calling. “Zimmerman’s brand of neighborhood surveillance,” Reeves notes in the introduction, “is as American as apple pie.” So too is the long history of “vigilance, suspicion, meddling, snooping and snitching” in which he plays a part.

Not everyone, of course, goes so far as to join their local Neighborhood Watch to hunt black teenagers, as Zimmerman did. Much of the force of volunteer surveillance, Reeves emphasizes, comes from its subtlety. If you polled a room of white people, chances are high that all of them have participated in at least one of the “softer” forms of “citizen engagement”—whether it’s calling 911, sending in a tip through Facebook, or responding to a wanted poster.

The police state, it turns out, has always depended on the lay contributions of suspicious minds to help carry out its work. From the development of citizen patrols to text messages asking New Yorkers to locate the Chelsea Bomber, Reeves reveals this network of citizen spies to be historically ordinary.

The circulation of printed texts in the 18th century first allowed colonial authorities to “extract their subjects’ loyalty from a distance.” This ability to police from afar gave rise to groups of roving armed vigilantes, who meted out the force of law for cash bounties, patriotic glory, or both. But while this ad hoc style of justice suited the frontier, its unruliness threatened the stability of East Coast cities. By the late 19th century, Reeves explains, public opinion had turned against the vigilante, favoring the newly professionalized police officer in his place. Fewer districts were encouraging autonomous citizens to haul in suspects who were “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Instead, posters began asking the public to seek professional help, warning “Armed and Dangerous: Do Not Approach—Contact Authorities Immediately.”

But even after law enforcement consolidated the state’s monopoly on violence, it continued to call upon the eyes of the people. Programs like D.A.R.E. and Neighborhood Watch have been sweeping Americans into the state surveillance system since they were founded in the 1970s. The most quantifiably successful of these volunteer campaigns, in Reeve’s view, are the viewers of America’s Most Wanted, who solved more than 550 crimes during the show’s 29-year run.

It’s not an accident that surveillance-as-entertainment was a hit. But what’s particularly insidious about the spread of what Reeve calls “lateral surveillance”—citizens watching citizens—is how easily it blends into the background of mundane activities, taking on the force of habit. You can track America’s Most Wanted while you’re watching TV, keep an eye on AMBER Alerts while you’re checking text messages, spot a suspicious package while scanning the subway platform for a late train.

No initiative is more iconic in this regard than the federal government’s request to “see something, say something.” Which of us hasn’t seen something? The mandate is ingeniously capacious—designed to capture a range of pan-sensory hunches, and to turn everyday interactions into sites of suspicion, antagonism, and fear. Indirect nudges take precedence over direct shows of force. Why should the cops risk a lawsuit by searching bags when they can ask people to point out suspicious packages for them? This outsourcing of surveillance from the explicit interventions of the police to the tacit cooperation of citizens makes it even easier to be in constant contact with authorities—precisely because those authorities are sometimes us.

Take the Philadelphia Police Department’s twitter, which recruits its more than 130,000 followers “into surveillance devices for a policing apparatus that has come to thrive on its cost-effective method for … identifying with the public through coordinated action.” Like hundreds of police social media accounts across the country, @phillypolice calls for tips and tweets “Wanted” images of suspects alongside Simpsons memes, cat photos, and cops tossing around footballs. Often, the feed publicizes the names of those who’ve committed petty crimes and misdemeanors—effectively serving to shame offenders and generate quick arrest revenue. But Reeves points out that despite the PPD’s “increasingly energetic use of social media,” the crime rate in Philly has risen. Online participation in policing does “little or nothing to address poverty, social alienation, and the other systemic problems that give rise to local crime.”

It might even make it worse. Reeves discusses the viral “Findthebostonbombers” Reddit thread, where amateur sleuths speculated about who was behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. At one point, Reddit’s anonymous commenters matched a wanted photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnev to a photo of Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had gone missing weeks earlier. Redditors inundated the Tripathi family with calls, Facebook posts, and emails; reporters, too, soon circulated the unverified rumor. In reality, Tripathi, who had never been linked to the events, had committed suicide.

Like trolls, police doxx innocent people all the time by misidentifying them as guilty. More than once, law enforcement has accidentally unleashed a mob onto an innocent target through crowdsourcing intelligence from official social media feeds. And under Trump, it’s not difficult to imagine that they might do so wittingly. After all, state-sanctioned racism, transphobia, and the War on Terror already paint targets on the backs of millions of black, Muslim, and trans Americans, who face violence every day. Not everyone is considered equally suspicious.

Reeves’ analysis occasionally mistakes the citizen spy for an abstract, universal subject. But his examples make it clear that they are anything but. Race determines who gets to play detective and who gets marked as a suspect. When Neighborhood Watch was founded at the height of Nixon’s America, citizens were asked to be “nosy” and use their “common sense” to help secure their property. But the sense of what was held in common was reinforced by crude signs of visual difference in white suburbia.

It’s not just Neighborhood Watch volunteers “seeing who belongs,” and then calling the cops on those who don’t. Consider the recent list of signals used to train Department of Homeland Security agents to spot potential suicide bombers, published by the ACLU in February. The DHS recommended officials look for Arab men wearing short hair or fragrance, people glancing about anxiously, individuals sweating, and people of color “blending in with the environment.”

What becomes increasingly cogent as Reeves’ history continues is the way in which even casual snooping exists along a continuum of state violence. Reeves catalogs students who have followed D.A.R.E.’s precepts, for example, unaware that to do so would tear their families apart. In April 1990, Crystal Grendell, an eleven-year-old girl, admitted to D.A.R.E. counselors that her parents owned some marijuana plants. A few days later, officers raided her house, arrested her parents, and sent the girl and her sister to live with a distant relative. When the lines are blurred between sovereign state agents and those who deem themselves citizen spies, the consequences can be lethal. As the attorney representing Trayvon Martin’s family put it, “What made [Zimmerman] shoot was that he was one of them; he felt he was a cop.”

To feel like a cop. In 1972, the same year Neighborhood Watch was founded, Michel Foucault described this feeling as “the fascism in us all.” In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, he wrote that it’s “in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” The logic of the regime doesn’t just act upon populations, but courses through our heads and everyday behavior.

Following Foucault, Reeves emphasizes the emotional dimensions of lateral surveillance. We may be keen to search for an individual’s aberrant psychology, but “saying something” gains its strength from passing as “common sense.” And it is these infectious public feelings that can help us understand how people come to voluntarily betray their neighbors.

In his closing chapter on post-9/11 America, Reeves shows how counter-terrorism strategies govern through ambiguity, confusion, and fear. Under the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR), an inter-agency collaboration that does exactly what it sounds like, residents of Los Angeles were asked to be wary of “joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time” while citizens in Kentucky were asked to look out for “people avoiding eye contact.” It’s no wonder, then, that nearly all of the SAR tips sent to law enforcement were useless, bogus, and paranoid.

Predictably, it doesn’t matter. Lateral surveillance has always been more of an ideological project than a practical form of intelligence. The content of the tips is less important than the fact that people are eager to send them in the first place. “Collective participation in the homeland security apparatus serves a broader sociopolitical function than simple intelligence gathering,” Reeves explains. To see something and call 911 is to actively reinforce one’s allegiance to the war on terror. Whether a hotline actually works is less important than whether people want to use it.

But if snitching ultimately comes down to loving the carceral state, it’s not a stretch to imagine that such love might be rerouted toward one’s neighbor once again. The same perverse impetus that mobilizes citizens to work as surrogates for the administration can also be channeled, Reeves points out, toward schemes for alternative governance in its stead. “Without the assistance of a diverse assortment of citizens and private institutions,” he reminds us, “liberal police power simply could not thrive.” Knowing that this administration relies on the fascism “in us all” to carry out its orders is its own kind of power. So too is the discovery of subversive attachments between ourselves—premised not on terror, but on solidarity.