An encounter with “Sky Watch” on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Orisanmi Burton as part of our series of anthropological reports From the Field
Figure 1: Surveillance Cameras on Gates Avenue

Figure 1: Surveillance Cameras on Gates Avenue

The first thing I noticed when I reached the corner of Gates Avenue and Lewis Avenue in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY was the pair of surveillance cameras perched conspicuously overhead (Figure 1). Each was approximately 15 inches long and five inches wide. Their white color contrasted sharply against the red brick of the building next to me, as if they were designed to be noticed. But their gaze was not trained on me. Instead, they were pointed toward opposite ends of the street corner. I then noticed a second pair of cameras about 300 feet from the first. One of them pointed directly at me. The other had an altogether different design, a sphere suspended in the air. I imagined a camera inside of it that could rotate 360 degrees. Thick black cables sprouted from the back of the devices, extending across the length of the building like arteries.

I turned onto Gates Avenue and walked west alongside a sprawling brick apartment complex. The apartments were named after Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights leader from Mississippi who, in 1963 was assassinated in his own driveway. He had been investigating the brutal, racially-motivated murder of Emmett Till. Prominently displayed at each entrance to the apartments were signs indicating that the buildings were subject to both police and private surveillance. I stopped to read the four signs that adorned the doorway to one of the entrances (Figure 2). They read:


Figure 2: An entrance to Medgar Evers Apartments.

Figure 2: An entrance to Medgar Evers Apartments.

About a half-mile later I reached the corner of Gates Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard. By then I had counted a total of 46 surveillance cameras. I noticed a uniformed police officer leaning against the brick wall that marked the westernmost boundary of the apartment complex. His thumbs were tucked into the belt that held his gun. He looked barely old enough to legally drink. Above his head was a sign that read “For Rent”. On the opposite block stood a giant metal structure mounted on a hydraulic jack that extended about 50 feet into to the air and approximately 10 yards long. Perched at its zenith was yet another surveillance camera; this one rested on a pivot which presumably enabled it to rotate 360 degrees. Two more cameras sat beneath it. These cameras rested on top of a booth that looked large enough to accommodate two people. Each of the four sides had a pair of windows, but they were tinted so that I had no way of knowing whether or not anyone was actually inside. The letters NYPD were prominently emblazoned in bold blue letters. The booth was supported by a hydraulic lift, which I imagine allowed it to be raised and lowered to a desired height. At one end of its base were four wheels (Figure 3).

Figure 3: An NYPD Sky Watch Tower

Figure 3: An NYPD Sky Watch Tower

From my informants I have learned that this device is colloquially referred to as the “Octopus”. However, FLIR Systems, Inc., its manufacturer, conferred upon it the portentous title “Sky Watch.”  In its 2013 annual report, FLIR System’s Inc says that Sky Watch is “utilized for protecting borders, securing facilities, protecting forces, and safeguarding the public” (p 17). The platforms are equipped with a customizable array of thermal imaging technologies capable of “seeing” in darkness and through walls. This means the person occupying Sky Watch can potentially see inside of someone’s apartment without his or her knowledge or consent. Furthermore, it is not outlandish to speculate that the data extracted by Sky Watch is in some way integrated with the New York Police Department’s controversial Domain Awareness System.

Rather than “protecting borders,” …the deployment of this portable panoptic device may in fact be unmaking and remaking them; effectively contributing to the production of a new spatialized race and class division

To encounter such a clear objectification of state power within a residential space was, for me, a visceral experience. This, I am sure, was the intended effect of the device: the circulation disciplinary power, the projection omnipotence, the evocation of the possibility of swift retribution. Its ostensible target was crime, but criminality is not a static designation. Rather, it is a constantly morphing set of undesirable practices that become criminalized. And as we know, in the United States and throughout the world, the discourse of crime, the enforcement of crime control strategies, and the distribution of punishment is stridently gendered and racialized.

Out of sheer curiosity I called the phone number listed on the “For Rent” sign posted above the police officer’s head. From the person who answered the phone I learned that some of these apartments have historically provided affordable housing for low-income residents, but that the current asking price for a newly renovated two-bedroom apartment was upwards of $1900 per month, a price that is well beyond the reach of many working-class New Yorkers.  It then occurred to me that this assemblage of security – Sky Watch, the 46 surveillance cameras, the patrolman  – might in fact be an agent of gentrification. Perhaps Sky Watch is being used to militate against the perceived risk of victimization from prospective gentry by establishing mobile outposts of surveillance along the fault lines of demographic and economic transition. Rather than “protecting borders,” as FLIR Systems, Inc says in their report, the deployment of this portable panoptic device may in fact be unmaking and remaking them; effectively contributing to the production of a new spatialized race and class division.

Speculation aside, it is clear that Sky Watch, and the culture of invasive policing and security it represents, complicates the simple division between criminal and law-abiding citizen or freedom and unfreedom, as it is yet another example of manifold ways in which neighborhoods, public places, and even the intimate spaces of the home are increasingly subjected to militarized surveillance and domination.

Orisanmi Burton is a doctoral student in social anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His twitter handle is @orisanmi 

3 thoughts on “An encounter with “Sky Watch” on a block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

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