An Interlude On Surveillance and The Usefulness Of Identity Politics

I’m often asked, “Why surveillance?”

Running a newsletter is difficult.

Don’t get me wrong, I love NAZAR. Not to hype myself up too much but I do not think a project like this is supposed to exist. As I’ve said before, tech / surveillance, as journalistic beats, do not care to hear my communities. We are not meant to write. We are meant to be in service to somebody else, somehow. As cautionary tales, things to be studied, dissected, and reported on, someone’s next big feature — but that’s it.

However, my love for NAZAR doesn’t change that it is work and the pandemic has forced me to confront my relationship with work overall. I don’t want to exist to work. I’ve begun spending more time on a hobby (that isn’t a hobby but none of you need to be that deep in my business so we’ll settle for calling it that) and refuse to be pressured to give less to it. So with all that said, even if I wasn’t trying to undo the capitalistic logic I’ve internalized, I don’t have the time to devote every minute to work, and I’m trying to find balance.

You can see this newsletter as something of an interlude while I get my shit together. It is concerned with two things: the usefulness of identity politics in addressing surveillance and why I don’t care about making nice with surveillance proponents. It is part me complaining and part me beefing the journalism industry again because fuck it, why not?

I. onto identity…

I’m often asked, “Why surveillance?”

Why is it something I devote so much time to studying, covering, and otherwise discussing?

There are multiple ways to answer this question but it all comes back to identity. I first began seriously looking into surveillance due to the organizing of Somali and other East African youth around Countering Violent Extremism in Minneapolis. Certainly, their concerns with their own oppression shaped their stance against a program otherwise promoted as a community initiative.

Now, sure, identity alone does not make a politic. Hell, me running NAZAR as a Black woman isn’t all that makes it stand in contrast to the aforementioned positioning of tech / surveillance journalism. I could be a Black woman but also be an absolute dickhead peddling surveillance as necessary for my communities much like surveillance stans nationwide.

However, this is not the essay where I slam on “identity politics” because, sorry, my being a Black Muslim woman is still why I’m writing this. Even while acknowledging identity isn’t everything, we shouldn’t pivot to the other extreme of pretending it is nothing. I want to look back to identity politics’ beginnings with the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 collective statement, in which they wrote:

We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.

Why surveillance?

Because I am a Blackwoman (lack of spacing being purposeful) and I am Muslim and I am interested in my own liberation. I am interested in yours, too, but I do not exist to sacrifice myself for anybody; I am not a mammy, I am nobody’s savior. It is neither selfish nor unacceptable of me to say that I see the wounds inflicted on my skin and have committed myself to ensuring I must never bear them again because I care about my own wellbeing.

I love myself.

It is my love for myself and my identities — both the ones put upon me and the ones I chose — that has led me to be concerned with surveillance and guided me to develop this newsletter.

II. making nice with surveillance proponents isn’t my fucking problem…

It is also this love for myself that leads me into my next section which is mostly a reflection on covering surveillance as a journalist.

Last October, I published a Motherboard article on 2020 candidates wanting to fund CVE. After, a number of white men in the security / surveillance industry were in my mentions upset because I had not contacted them to come to CVE’s defense. I blocked most of them.

See, journalism loves to uphold the myth of objectivity, a smokescreen for preserving the status quo and not making waves. Make no mistakes, a “good” journalist is not really supposed to disrupt shit. Just report. And in the interest of being “objective”, we are supposed to give everyone equal airtime because everyone deserves to be heard, right?

Wrong.

To be frank: I do not separate surveillance proponents from white supremacists (even if the proponent in question isn’t white). Why would I? What is surveillance if not an articulation of white supremacy? So, I follow the advice many journalists fail to heed when it comes to covering other white supremacists like the slew of white nationalist groups running around: I do not platform them.

Thanks to an industry’s lies, people who make their living off painting myself and my communities as dangerous and predisposed to “terrorism” feel I owe them space to defend their actions and logic. However, as I mentioned, I love myself so I have no qualms with saying I am anti-surveillance. That said, I am capable of doing my due diligence as a journalist without pretending that surveillance proponents have a position worth entertaining.

Besides, I am not a journalist because I am in love with mainstream journalism’s ideals or the way it conducts business. I’m here to ensure my stories are for the oppressed and not for the people nor industries that oppress us. To do so, I will continue to be the prickly voice on the sidelines, behind you, in your head, wherever, and I will not coddle up to people who replicate the structures that harm me and mine.

As a Black Muslim journalist, that is my job.