CCTV in Forest Fields: Lessons from BrumTagged as: anpr birmingham cctv local_communities repression sabotage science_and_technology sumac-centre surveillance
One of the things that most disturbs friends from other countries when they first arrive in Britain is the omnipresence of CCTV. Whilst in Europe people are used to seeing cameras at major stations and airports and on government buildings and banks, they are nothing like as prevalent as the cameras we have. And they are certainly never stationed in residential neighbourhoods (or the toilets of junior schools!). The outrage caused by such a development would see them removed immediately, by legal means or sabotage by angry locals. Many visitors are shocked at how widespread the use of this invasive and authoritarian technology is in the UK.
To be fair, we haven't allowed the cameras in without a whimper or two of dissent. In Nottingham, the introduction of CCTV in Forest Fields was vigorously opposed through the proper channels... to complete indifference by the authorities. The cameras have now been spying on the neighbourhood for some time without anything being done about them. There is even one located a few yards down the road from the gate of the Sumac Centre social centre, well placed to keep tabs on who's going to what meetings and gatherings. The attitude of local anti-authoritarians seems to be that "there's nothing we can do about it."
But CCTV doesn't just cause problems for a few anarchists who want to plot in peace. The recent outrage about 'anti-terrorism' cameras in Birmingham might shed light on an altogether more sinister attempt at social control. West Midlands Police, via the Safer Birmingham Partnership, used £3m of anti-terror funding to install 150 Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to form "rings of steel" around the Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook neighbourhoods. These were designed to prevent any vehicles entering or leaving the areas without their registration numbers being registered. 72 of the cameras were covert. Why did they pick those particular areas for this intense surveillance? Because they are predominantly Muslim.
Fortunately the residents of Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook were a bit more militant than the residents of Forest Fields and the outrage that they expressed forced local politicians and police into a humiliating climbdown. Bags were soon put over the visible cameras and there were (unverifiable) assurances that the covert cameras would be inactivated too.
The Birmingham case has shed a new light on the state's motivations for and tactics in deploying its CCTV empire of millions of cameras. Whilst "preventing terrorism" has long been cited as a reason for CCTV deployment near the seats of power and on public transport, it has never previously been admitted to as a reason for spying on residential neighbourhoods. Could the cameras in Forest Fields, one of Nottingham's biggest Muslim neighbourhoods, be being used for these purposes too? Some commentators have pointed out that some of the masts are conveniently placed near some of Forest Fields' mosques.
We might not even know the extent to which CCTV has been installed in the area. The revelation that scores of covert cameras can be installed in an area once the justification of anti-terrorism is invoked is extremely worrying and suggests they are not trying to "prevent crime" at all but are trying to entrap. The state has really let the genie out of the bottle with the Birmingham botch because now people know they are being spied on without their consent. The "paranoia" that anti-CCTV campaigners have been accused of in the past when claiming that cameras can be used to spy on communities has turned out to be reality.
The Home Office and police have always struggled to make the case that CCTV helps to prevent crime (even their own studies suggest otherwise). Recent attempts to convince locals to accept surveillance of their homes and streets have focussed on dealing with "anti-social behaviour" instead. What this really means is relying on the state to mediate your relationships with your neighbours for you. Many in Forest Fields bought that line and supported the scheme as a result. It seems that our communities have become so fragmented that some people actually want cops, and the army of fake cops that strut up and down behind them, to sort out their lives for them.
And once enough people have accepted that the cameras are going to solve everything for us, there's no easy way of going back. Now that the masts are up the authorities can use them for anything they want, whether it is checking who is going to the mosque or who's attending which direct action gathering at the Sumac, and we won't know they're doing it.
The newspaper reports of how the Birmingham cameras were stopped focus on community leaders and public meetings, but a report from a friend in Brum reveals a different story. According to him, the public campaign went side by side with a campaign of vandalism against the cameras and threats to "turn them off or we will". The local authorities, scenting a widespread rebellion against them, turned the cameras off to limit the damage. Perhaps the residents of Forest Fields could learn a lesson or two from this rather less polite approach.
 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/antivandal-cctv-in-school-toilets-defended-1756067.html | http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/08/19/school_cctv/
 http://www.forestfields.org.uk/ | http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2009/04/428746.html | http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=6025
 http://firstname.lastname@example.org/blog/2007/10/national_cctv_strategy_worryingly_incomplete.html | http://www.no-cctv.org.uk/caseagainst/docs/Assessing_the_impact_of_CCTV-HO_study292.pdf | http://www.nacro.org.uk/data/resources/nacro-2004120299.pdf