Theater Troupe Cries ‘Orwell!’ at Bloomberg’s Camera Plan

Melissa Ngo, director of the Identification and Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, cited a study by the British Home Office—the equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security—concluding that electronic surveillance in London has not decreased crime levels.

“People need to understand that the millions of dollars that are being spent on these security initiatives do not come from a vacuum but are diverted from other homeland security initiatives,” Ms. Ngo told The Observer. “Community policing has been proven to lower crime rates … actually seeing cops on the streets.”

In December 1996, Mr. Brown and six other regulars at Blackout Books, a lefty bookshop on Rivington Street, created the Surveillance Camera Players, a guerrilla performance art troupe, to draw attention to surveillance in the former “center of the East Village counterculture,” Washington Square Park.

Mr. Brown said the group objected to the installation of cameras in the park under the guise of the “war on drugs.”

Increased policing failed to stamp out marijuana dealing in the park, he said, but it did manage to “break the back of a 30-year-old tradition” from the days of Ginsberg, Baez and Hoffman: an annual park smoke-out in protest of the marijuana laws.

The new justification for increased surveillance is the “war on terror,” Mr. Brown said, but the drawbacks of electronic surveillance remain the same. “Cameras catch people doing things that fall under the rubric of just none of your business: kissing someone who’s not your boyfriend or girlfriend, adjusting your clothes. The police in the watchers’ booths look for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

Mr. Brown says his job is to “infotain” by educating his audience—which he describes as “college-educated white people who have already decided that they don’t like cameras”—about the dangers of surveillance.

“New York is an adult city, but it’s as if we are children,” he said. “The mayor has a tendency of saying, ‘Just go about your business of working and shopping and let us worry about the rest.’ He’s trying to be cute and funny, but that’s very intimidating.”

 

Lysandra Ohrstrom is a writer living in Brooklyn.