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Should Big Brother watch everything you do in the Big Easy? Council defers action yet again

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Surveillance cameras have become a ubiquitous feature of the New Orleans cityscape.

The New Orleans City Council was scheduled to vote Thursday* on an ordinance that would mandate live-feed surveillance cameras at every local business with an alcohol license. New Orleanians who care about the city’s culture and the well-being of already marginalized members of our community should hope the measure fails for good, if the Council ever brings it up again for a  decision.

Frequently stalled and rescheduled as community opposition has grown, the so-called Surveillance Ordinance is of a piece with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s “security plan,” a multi-part, $40 million scheme first announced in January 2017. Unlike most other components of the plan (license-plate readers, repaving Bourbon Street, etc.), the Surveillance Ordinance requires City Council approval and thus has presented a rare opportunity for public input.

Written by Councilmember Stacy Head, the ordinance might have gone unnoticed had the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) not been on the alert. After seeing a draft of the mayor’s security plan during a French Quarter Management District meeting in December 2016, MaCCNO spent the past year scrutinizing its deep flaws.

Concerns included the overall lack of transparency; a proposal, since softened, that would have forced bars to close at 3 a.m.; the high price tag — $40 million — at a time when money is urgently needed for projects with potentially more positive impact; plus the mandatory cameras on businesses with alcohol licenses — which is where the Surveillance Ordinance kicks in. The plan seemed to range from misguided to downright dystopian, in ways reminiscent of the Big Brother factor in novelist George Orwell’s “1984.”

The 3 a.m. bar-closure proposal, was modified by the mayor’s office in January 2017  to let businesses stay open past three, provided they close their doors to late arrivals. Police would be dispatched to “encourage” people to get off the streets and go inside. This was offered as a compromise but was rejected on grounds that it would still impair the culture of a city that prides itself on its 24-hour scene and, on the economic side, because it would hurt business owners and workers.

What MaCCNO found most problematic was that “encouraging” late-night customers to get off the street would inevitably invite racial profiling and other forms of enforcement bias. “How differently might a 50-year-old White female visitor on Bourbon Street be ‘encouraged’ as opposed to a 22-year-old Black male in Central City?” the coalition asked in a January 2017 statement. “With many of the city’s primarily Black and Latino service workers — and many musicians — leaving work between 3 and 7 a.m., what kind of ‘encouragement’ might they face?”

Business owners also crafted a letter expressing outrage, and the 3 a.m. proposal was withdrawn a year ago this month — a huge relief to many of us.

With the 3 a.m. closing threat removed, MaCCNO refocused on the still real possibility that any and all businesses with licenses to sell alcohol will be required to install surveillance cameras. The cameras would feed into the police department’s cloud-based central surveillance platform, and would be accessible to the FBI and Homeland Security, among other organizations deemed to be NOPD “security partners.” In keeping with the secretive and undemocratic nature of the rest of Landrieu’s “security plan,” the full extent of access to these feeds remains unclear.

Knowing that a security ordinance would eventually require City Council assent, MaCCNO kept an eye out. That vigil was rewarded last December when the Coalition spotted six lines in a 22-page proposed ordinance mostly focused on administrative procedures for issuing and retracting alcohol licenses (ABOs). Trying to slide the surveillance cameras into a drily written ordinance released amid the distractions of the holiday season was devious and reprehensible, though sadly familiar.

MaCCNO released a video in early January in which musicians, business owners and service-industry workers attacked the measure. Under its provisions, they pointed out, anyone employed in the cultural economy — including waiters, cooks, barkeeps, musicians and janitors — would be on live-feed cameras while at work and, in many cases, as they walked home. The costs of the cameras would be onerous, business owners complained. It was shocking, interviewees said, that the culture of New Orleans would be considered so expendable.

Then there was the law’s anti-immigrant aspect. The Congress of Day Laborers provided a gut-wrenching statement from an undocumented immigrant mother who said she was terrified that federal immigration cops with ICE would monitor the camera feeds and swoop down on her family. Undocumented residents would have to risk deportation just to drop by a grocery store or go out into the night to get medicine for a sick child.

The Surveillance Ordinance, the remaining point of public input, has become the lightning rod for our anger and frustration. As the groundswell of resistance grew, a phone-in campaign demanded that the City Council spike the ordinance. The Independent Police Monitor and the American Civil Liberties Union pointed to research that increased surveillance by crime cameras and video monitors doesn’t cut crime — the initial rationale for the ordinance.

New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison’s dubious justification for that expanded surveillance — it sends the message that New Orleans “is not a good place to be a criminal” — plays into a fear-based political agenda, one that pits the imagined safety of the privileged against very real opportunities for further harm that will be inflicted on already-marginalized communities.

As the MaCCNO video says, no one who resists the Surveillance Ordinance is pro-crime. Rather we recognize that it would actively do more harm than good, and that the initial reasoning behind it was deeply flawed. In a 50-city study of alcohol beverage outlets in the U.S., MaCCNO shows that the Surveillance Ordinance would make New Orleans’ ABOs the most invasively surveilled in the nation — not what a city that care forgot wants to be known for.

The rollout of the surveillance plan is in stride with the “Disney-fication” of New Orleans. Recent police raids on Bourbon Street strip clubs left hundreds of employees out of work. Even more deplorable, by fetishizing surveillance the city contributes to the ongoing flood of black and brown bodies into a criminal justice system predicated on mass incarceration. In a statement last April, signed by hundreds, MaCCNO noted that “as Louisiana already has the highest mass incarceration rate in the world, we have a heightened responsibility to avoid any initiatives that could lead to increased profiling or arrests. A true ‘Safety Plan’ for New Orleans,” MaCCNO added, “should focus on proactive approaches to addressing crime developed in conjunction with the community and drawing from our culture.”

All of this then begs the question: What is the future we see for New Orleans? One in which we address intergenerational trauma and poverty through increased policing? Or one in which we increase our commitment to investing in people? The community response to the Surveillance Ordinance has been a clear example of how New Orleanians feel about the Landrieu administration imposing these surveillance measures in the name of “safety.” The surprise, fear, confusion, disbelief, horror, frustration and eye-rolling derision are in stark opposition to City Hall’s perception of the public’s need.

With the Head/Landrieu Surveillance Ordinance stalled but not dead, concerned citizens need to fight it. More information is available at mailings@maccno.com

*An earlier version of this article was published before the vote was deferred.

Hannah Kreiger-Benson is a musician and does research and programming for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, and Mariama Eversley is a researcher, writer and artist.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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