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"This is a story about databases. What if the databases themselves are the characters?"
Part two of NAZAR's roundtable interview with the Community Justice
📝 Monthly Round-Up
Technologies of Black Freedoms: Calling On Black Studies Scholars, with SA Smythe, J. Khadijah Abdurahman — “‘How is this still happening and it’s 2021?’ And I’m like, this is because we never left 1492.”
‘‘Constantly afraid’: immigrants on life under the US government’s eye, Johana Bhuiyan — “The US government program was launched in 2004 as a ‘humane’ alternative to detention for immigrants waiting for their cases to be heard in court, a surveillance system that was supposed to keep track of people in the program while helping them access social services.”
From Data Criminalization to Prison Abolition — Normally, I dedicate this list to readings. I’m making an exception and linking to video of a panel event Puck Lo participated in that’s referenced in this interview.
last month, NAZAR published part one of its roundtable interview with the Community Justice Exchange. in February, the organization published a report on data criminalization which is defined as “the creation, archiving, theft, resale and analysis of datasets that mark certain people as threats and risks, based on data culled about them from state and commercial sources.”
for once, i’m keeping my introduction short because i’m behind on other edits. but when i first came across CJE’s report, i was immediately drawn in by its website. too often, reports are expected to stand alone. and let’s be honest: a lot of reports are dry as hell to get through. that wasn’t my issue with CJE’s report but even then, i was fascinated by the multiple ways of engagement that the organization developed. i could go on about how dope the bestiary is but there’s also a quiz now!
if you missed part one of the discussion, check it out first. but for the rest of y’all: in part two of NAZAR’s discussion with CJE’s research director Puck Lo and migrant justice organizing director Ana María Rivera-Forastieri, we dove into the how the report’s creators ensured that their findings could connect with as many people as possible.
Rivera-Forastieri: I'm seeing a lot more folks focus less on the individual technologies of that program and more [on the] whole apparatus [as] the problem. I'm hoping this will be a contribution to that conceptual shift that I think folks are grappling with right now. Help us think deeper on how historically this has actually taken place and why these technologies [exists]. One of the co-panelists that Puck had at the Haymarket event recently talks about [how] they're like ghosts. These are ghosts that are coming from a different time but they're the same ghosts. They just have perhaps a different form and we need to be informed about that in order to be able to be smarter in our in our strategy.
I like asserting that grounding yourself in the oldness of a problem can provide clarity — and thinking of things as ghosts of these problems. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, though. It's good to have this resource to provide clarity and give an example of how you can think of problems as old without saying, "Oh, well, we're stuck then because this has been around forever."
With that in mind, I wanted to talk about what comes outside of the report. It doesn't stand alone. There's an entire website, bestiary, you've mentioned a curriculum, and I can see that there's a quiz coming soon. It's not a question but I'd love to hear more about the website — building that out, building this curriculum, and also more about the bestiary because I love that idea.
Lo: Oh my god, well, that was definitely the funnest. I think a good week of my life I was like, "I can't believe this is my job." Have you ever heard of this game called Dream Date?
I have not.
Lo: Dream Date came into my life at an odd moment where the Occupy stuff was happening and we were going to jail a lot to pick people up. We would have to wait for hours. A friend of mine adapted this board game from the '90s called Dream Day to play while we're waiting. You pick random people that you see from the car. You make shit up about them. Then there are four rounds and each subsequent round gets more intense. The first round might be like, "You ask someone out for dinner", and the fourth round is like, "Surgically meld with this person” or “you leave the planet together."
I feel like that was the context of which the bestiary became itself. I had been swimming in DHS databases for three months and it was bonkers. I enjoyed it in that kind of strange way. But it was also like, "Wow, this is insane." I can't even describe my day to my closest friends. And then, I can barely keep these acronyms straight myself because there's so many and so much overlap.
We wanted to be careful [not to] create victim stories. It wasn't about that.
State documentation is [a] weird requirement within agencies to name aspects of the technologies that collect what they call personal identifying information. So your name, social security number. For different levels there are different tiers of report. Even though it's required by law, there's no evidence that anyone's been penalized for writing something incorrectly or not writing a thing. It's like they don’t expect anyone else to read this stuff. After parsing all this and trying to explain what each thing is it was like, "Oh, God, we need to come up with a new method."
One of the people we were working closely with was billy dee, who's an incredible artist. At some point, we collectively came up with this idea: What if we turn these databases into monsters? Because the other thing we were struggling with [was] how do we illustrate this. All of the ideas that came prepackaged into our minds were things like illustrating the arrests. We wanted to be careful [not to] create victim stories. It wasn't about that. We thought: This is a story about databases. What if the databases themselves are the characters? Which is sort of an idea that I've been playing with in my head but not thinking about explicitly. billy took it and said, "Well, there's this medieval form, the bestiary, where both actual and fictionalized creatures were described, drawn, and collected."
We went from there. At some point, we created and answered questions like: What are the ideologies of these various beasts? Who are their friends? Who are their frenemies? What are their hobbies? Reading in those odd direction was so fun. We created Google Docs and billy drew from that. But they also did their own research and historicized every single illustration. NGI and NLETS were the two firsts.
NLETS is an interstate law enforcement database. It's supposedly a nonprofit but it's just cops. In the beginning, it was about connecting different state cop databases with each other. At that time, you could have a warrant in New York, drive to New Jersey, and then your warrant wouldn't show up. Now, NLETS is connected to lots of other countries and it is an easy way for ICE, for instance, to tap into driver's license information — which has vehicle registration and home addresses. It had that '90s sort of feel, still, and we thought [of] that, "Take a bite out of crime" imagery.
On the other hand, NGI is the second largest biometric database in the world — or that's what the FBI says. It steals your fingerprints from anything you might have given it to. I once worked with youth when in my 20s and I had to get fingerprinted. That was when I discovered that every arrest I had as a juvenile still shows up on my record even though I was convicted of nothing and a youth during some of it [so] that shouldn't show up at all. Again, bringing Simone Browne's work into this [we were thinking about] the ledger, the slave ship, and the archaeology of this particular database. We wanted to link it right back there. But also: Have you ever seen the movie Spirited Away?
I have seen that one, yeah.
Lo: My favorite character in that is the hungry ghosts. It's kind of like hungry ghosts meets slave ship ledger. I think it's executed perfectly. Each entry has its own history — TECS [is] a CBP database. Every time you cross the U.S. border, whoever interrogates you or waves you through can take notes. Once I crossed into Canada and I had a house plant. I had to declare my house plant and that notation appears in my TECS record. billy turned that database into this Robocop frontier character, which is perfect because that is its origin story as well.
Rivera-Forastieri: With the website, we worked with an awesome group [called] Research Action Design. They were brilliant. billy was part of the group [as an] illustrator. RAD was able to listen to our ideas and be like, "Alright, how do we make this into a website that people will want to look at?" When we got the first mock up, everyone was like, "Wow!" It's a long process of lots of back and forth. Them also understanding the issue, reading the report, trying to figure out a way to create something that people would be attracted to. It's been an awesome process to to work with them too. Is there anything else around RAD we should add here?
Lo: What I would add to that — which I'm so grateful for because we honestly didn't understand or know how to do it — is the accessibility features that are built into the website. Essentially, the website is responsive to data packet speeds ranging from the slowest flip phone to the highest return screen. Those were all decisions that [Tim] made way back in the beginning without even explaining the importance of them. The loading is one aspect and then there's, you know, I'm embarrassed to admit that we saved the image descriptions until last. We're like, "Oh, God, now we have to do them all." And then they’d say, "No, I already did them."
Language accessibility is part of that, too. We're still considering having everything translated into Haitian Creole. We're also experimenting with this anti-intellectual accessibility app called Hemingway. It wants everything to be written at a fourth-grade level. It loves Trump's speeches. Anyway, RAD wants us to experiment with having essentially a fourth grade-ish Hemingway approved level writing for the quiz. While I'm not totally sure I aligned with Hemingway's biases, it's an experiment. It's an attempt to have things available in different ways.
I don't know if it's the right term but there's somebody I know through organizing who's doing — or been trying to do — easy read approaches to the Quran. Similar thing. Breaking down these concepts so that they're more accessible to everybody to read which I think is dope. Not so sure about Hemmingway but I understand the concept and what it's getting at.
Lo: Yeah, that's where the like willingness to play along comes from.
Those are the questions that I had. Is there anything either of you want to add that either I didn't ask about directly or it didn't come up in conversation?
Lo: I would say if you had the bandwidth and haven't watched the Haymarket panel yet, I would. I was in awe of my co panelists and the moderator. I learned so much from everyone's perspectives and it was also validating. It felt like "Oh, no, we are here for a fucking purpose." The timing is right now. We have this window to make dramatic changes to our own approaches and demands that could be very disruptive. Harsha [Walia], our moderator, was like, "How this all feels related is that ultimately this is a problem of borders and nation states." That's the big, big picture. And then if you ask yourself, "Well, what even is the border now?" What has stuck with me is this quote from Angela Davis and Gina Dent talking pointing out the jail was in fact the border that separates a free from the unfree.
“Data is the regime and mechanism by which the unfree are sorted from the free.”
When I think of data, that's literally what it's doing now. Data is the regime and mechanism by which the unfree are sorted from the free. Borders are enforced through the collection, maintenance, and enforcement of data. What I hope nobody thinks is that we're randomly choosing data as a target. We need to familiarize ourselves with this world because this is how we are now being supervised, monitored, and our actions then disciplined. Everyone’s on that panels work contributes in advancing that analysis. I'm so grateful to get to know them.
Rivera-Forastieri: So much of this was also learning about connecting data to the motivations behind the nation states wanting to have social control over people — preserving itself and the tools that it has used historically to do that. That's why it's so important for us to look back at how that has happened throughout history. The drain of 1492! Which is not a quote that I had. Puck and I are obsessed with Logic Magazine, I don't know if you've read it?
Oh yeah, I just subscribed to it!
Lo: In the latest issue, the 1492 drain comes from an interview between [J. Khadijah Abdurahman] and SA Smythe. We need an entirely new theory of time.
Rivera-Forastieri: That's exactly what I've also been learning in this process. We need to understand the history in order to be able to understand the motivations of why the state operates in the way that it does. This is all part of the preservation of this white supremacist nation state. Hopefully, this is a contribution to that school of thought that people like Khadija, Sarah, and others are contributing [to] in the moment.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.