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Friday, October 07, 2005

Police technology and the disappearance of uncontrolled space

There have been several stories in the local press recently about police technology. In the Arizona Republic, there was another article on the three escaped tent city inmates, all of whom have now been recaptured. Sheriff Joe has seen fit to electrify the fence surrounding the place, but this observant trio figured out a way around it. By climbing a section of an interior fence and then walking across another non-electrified pole, they managed to escape.

That story is pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, since a camera recorded the breakout, the weakness cannot be exploited again, at least not in the same way. Being against prisons obviously means opposing the physical means of confinement, and it's pretty easy to take a position against barbed wire, surveillance cameras and electrified fencing. But what about DNA testing?

The Arizona Daily Star reports that Tucson's police DNA lab, like many across the country, is experiencing a backlog of as much as nine months. That means a lot of things, but it certainly means people who are innocent sit in jail for longer. And we've all heard plenty of stories about convicted men and women, some facing very severe sentences, exonerated thanks to DNA testing. Right now, Drew Whitley, convicted more than a decade ago of murder, waits for the results of just such a test that he hopes will clear his name. “The DNA will prove that I'm an innocent man,” he says.

The fact is, much more often than not, DNA testing is used by the state not to exonerate, but to incarcerate. And when the facts don't match up, police and scientists lie, like West Virginia State Police forensics expert Fred Zain did. Like all tools of the state, DNA testing primarily exists to quantify and control, not to liberate. And as much as we like to pretend that scientists stand apart and independent of social pressures, ideology and bias, this is rarely the case. Technology is typically sold to us by highlighting its most liberty-friendly qualities, even though in practice technological advances routinely fail to deliver. And, most importantly, they reduce the physical and mental space not under the control of the state or capitalism.

And so DNA testing has been sold to us as a liberatory technology, freeing the wrongly convicted from jails. But, in fact, when we look closer what we see is that DNA testing, first discovered in 1985 and applied to criminal prosecutions in the US starting in 1989, parallels quite naturally the massive incarceration boom, which has added well over a million prisoners since 1985. Along with the rising prison population, the state's DNA database has exploded as well. Further, the cheaper methods currently used have expanded the types of crimes testing is used for. In California, DNA can be taken and processed for misdemeanors cases. DNA testing, far from freeing us, has intensified the state's war on the poor.

But the state isn't the only authoritarian institution in America. Business is increasingly finding uses for the technology. In a current high profile case, the Chicago Bulls demanded that center Eddy Curry take a DNA test to determine if he is likely to develop the potentially fatal heart disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Curry refused. NBA commissioner David Stern came out in support of testing. He further suggested testing all rookies.

Which brings us to Taser International. Always controversial, Taser International recently dropped the "non-lethal" classification from its widely used Taser stun gun. The weapon has been linked to more than 100 deaths by Amnesty International. Despite this, many people agree with Taser International CEO Rick Smith when he said, "It's far safer than hitting somebody with a baton or a club. I mean, those are caveman-era tools." The AP reports today that the ACLU has filed suit against the Scottsdale-based company, hoping to restrict their use. And yet even the ACLU parrots much of the Taser line: "While the Taser stun gun has the potential to save lives ... it poses a serious health risk as long as it remains largely unregulated." It seems all the ACLU wants to do is put a better, cleaner weapon in the hands of the police.

The ACLU and so many critics of Tasers fail to recognize that the weapon is part of a much larger project of technological social control through the development of less- or non-lethal weapons. Unlike guns and billy clubs, non-lethal weapons do not threaten the myth of the democratic state, which must be seen as responsive and accountable to the people to maintain legitimacy.

In that sense, the many violent reactions of the state to people's power inherently threaten the logic of its continued existence. And the mythology of the democratic state has always allowed it to falsely portray movements that seek to challenge the system rather than participate in it as counter-democratic. The development of non-lethal technologies, like Tasers, represent an attempt by elites and scientists at finally closing the door on revolutionary movements once and for all. In the next few years, we can expect to see the deployment of these technologies for both individual and crowd control. Many of these systems are already deployed overseas, and some have seen use domestically, such as in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

But the myth of the democratic state is just that - a myth. Whatever their merits, democratic states still maintain massive divisions in power and wealth. And, like all states, they seek to preserve the power of the wealthy elite in charge. And they know, just like we ought to know, that social change comes not from within the system, but from outside it, from movements that seek to challenge it on terrain that it does not control as completely as it does the ballot box or the airwaves, sometimes as a mob in the streets or as a few individuals in a resistance cell. These new technologies represent one part of an attempt to close that space once and for all, and to solidify for all time elite rule. That's why our position on these technologies must not be one rooted in compromise or the logic of the dominant class. Our position must be entirely oppositional and abolitionist. Unlike the ACLU, we must be against Tasers, not just against their irresponsible use. And that goes for the rest as well.


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