Montréal Contre-information
Montréal Contre-information
Montréal Contre-information

Queers, Are You Ready for the Backlash? Preparing for a Poilievre Government

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May 282024
 

Anonymous submission to North Shore Counter-Info

A zine version of this text is available.

I’ve always liked connecting with other queer people and talking politics, comparing notes on how we see society and what is affecting us. But lately, this has been feeling quite urgent. The countdown is on until we end up with a reactionary federal government — there will be a federal election no later than October 2025, and if current trends hold, there will be a Conservative landslide that brings Pierre Poilievre to power.

This is soon, but we can still do a lot in 17 months. It feels important to me that queers and their friends use this time wisely, to try to get organized and prepare for a backlash against our social gains of the last few years.

But what makes Poilievre so special? He’s been in government a long time — isn’t he just a regular politician?

Poilievre has said a couple of things that would make for a departure from typical governance in Canada, but I want to focus on two: using the notwithstanding clause to bypass charter protections and rolling back transgender inclusion policies.

The notwithstanding clause (also known as Section 33) is particular to the Canadian political system and basically acts to limit the Charter framework of individual rights (and the courts that enfore it) when a government sees this as going against the public good. It can be used to make laws immune to court challenge for five years, which guarantees there will be an election before it expires, but it can just be applied again. The idea is that governments should be more powerful than the courts, so by invoking the notwithstanding clause, a government can pass laws that they know would be successfully challenged in court based on Charter rights.

Although historically very rare, the context for using the notwithstanding clause has been built up by conservative provincial governments over the past few years. The Coalition Avenir Québec party has used it to go after anglophones and religious minorities, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives used it to force striking workers back to work and limit electoral donations by unions, and the government of Saskatchewan used it to attack trans kids. All this since 2021. Poilievre has promised to use it to bring back criminal sentencing that was struck down as cruel and unusual, but there is no reason to think he will stop there.

The use in Saskatchewan is interesting, since Saskatchewan isn’t the only province that has passed so-called “parental rights” legislation. Alberta and New Brunswick are also bringing in laws restricting the ability of young people to transition, but Saskatchewan’s was the first to be delayed by the courts. So Scott Moe reconvened the legislature in order to break out the notwithstanding clause.

This brings us to what Pierre Poilievre thinks about trans people. He loudly supports the provincial legislation restricting transitions for young people, including access to puberty blockers and even using chosen names. And, as we’ve seen in the US, governments that start out restricting trans youth tend to move on to trans adults. So naturally, Poilievre also opposes the rights of transgender adults. Just this past February, he said he believes washrooms and changerooms should be restricted based on sex at birth, although he added it’s not clear that would be in federal jurisdiction.

Whether or not it has the ability to regulate the washrooms in the public library, a reactionary federal government won’t restrain the provinces or municipalities, leaving an open path for other levels of government to go after trans rights. As a trans person, I’m aware that in two years time, it might be illegal for me to use the washroom in public spaces.

A reactionary federal government probably won’t come right out and take gender identity and expression out as a protected ground in the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (at least not immediately). Instead, it will allow those rights to atrophy, to get picked apart by reactionary laws passed at all levels of government that are shielded by the notwithstanding clause when necessary. We will end up with a patchwork of restrictions on our ability to live openly and authentically rather than a blanket ban.

What stands in the way of this happening?

Politicians will try to have you believe that electoralism is the only way, that the NDP or the Liberals are the only ones who can stop the Conservatives. But the fact that we are even talking about rights being rolled back shows how fragile legislative victories are. Laws come and go. They are (unfortunately) an indispensable part of political and social equality, but they are not the most important piece.

The most important piece is self-organizing. We need to get organized as queers around issues that affect us — not to lobby politicians, but to build a context in which queer liberation cannot be legislated away.

We need to continue changing the culture and building equality and inclusion in practice (and I realize these fall short of liberation). This can happen on a social level by creating more spaces where people can be out and proud. It can happen on the institutional level — remember that many spaces (social services, workplaces, schools) were trans inclusive long before the law required them to be. We can continue that work, going block by block, regardless of which way the political wind blows.

We also need to organize for collective self-defence. Fortunately, we are used to having to defend ourselves. This might occasionally mean physical defence, like at Pride in Hamilton in 2019 or the drag defence actions that happened across the country. It’s worth repeating that without the ability to be violent, the choice to be peaceful is meaningless.

But just as important is social and spiritual defence. Social defence might look like identifying reactionaries in order to undermine and isolate them. This could be local politicians, business owners, or bureaucrats just as much as far-right jerks. Spiritual defence means taking care of yourself while also looking out for those most targeted and helping them to live with strength and dignity. Because the reaction isn’t going to come for everyone at the same time, even if it will sooner or later get around to all queers if left unchecked.

The rallies about these issues have started — we all come as isolated individuals to feel strong together for an hour. But we need to stop going home alone. It is time for us to talk to our friends and set a meeting to talk about the situation, about our strengths and desires, what we can bring to the table. Once we’ve gotten talking, we can reach out to friends of friends and extend the conversation. Let’s form crews of 3-5 people and practice going demos together. Let’s get on the same page about our analysis and about what kinds of actions we are excited to take.

We still have some time to get ready before the attacks intensify, but the coming months will pass quickly. We can’t trust politicians, but I have nothing but faith in our collective strength. We will weather the coming storm as we always have and might even come out stronger for it.

Download this text as a printable zine.

Solidarity Means Attack – Fuck France, Free Kanaky

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May 192024
 

Anonymous submission to MTL Counter-info

This week, an anti-colonial uprising broke out in Kanaky, an archipelago in the South Pacific. Kanaky was named “New Caledonia” by British colonizer James Cook and has been occupied by France under that name since the 19th century. The Kanaks are black indigenous peoples of the islands whose cultures face genocide from white French “immigrants” who drive them from their lands and impose capitalism. For more general information:

https://www.infolibertaire.net/?s=Kanaky

France is a member of NATO, an ally of Israel, the capital of anti-immigration racism in Europe, a nuclear-armed state, etc. By attacking France, we support not only Kanaky’s struggle for freedom but also that of many other peoples, including other French colonies in the South Pacific. and Caribbean.

If you live near a city, you probably live near a French political, cultural or diplomatic institution or a company that does business with them. You probably like under a government which maintains links with France. Targets are everywhere!

Solidarity means attack, the lessons we learned in the fight against genocide in Palestine, Sudan and Congo can be applied at the same time to those pushing for the French-led genocide of the Kanaks.

Black Power Worldwide! Death to France!

Campus Building Occupations, 2008-2010 and Today

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Apr 272024
 

From CrimethInc.

A wave of campus building occupations took place in response to austerity measures following the recession of 2008. As today’s Gaza solidarity movement begins to experiment with encampments and building occupations, it could be instructive to learn from the previous generation of student activists.

On April 22, 2024, inspired by the resilience of the Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia University and other demonstrators around the country, students at Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, California occupied Siemens Hall. This represented the first confrontational building occupation of a wave of student demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine.

Police attempted to storm Siemens Hall in order to evict it; they inflicted severe injuries on some students, but failed to gain entry. The officers established a perimeter around the building, but students and university faculty gathered around them, surrounding them and chanting “De-escalate by leaving!” In the end, local media reported that the police were forced to withdraw:

10:50 pm: All law enforcement have left from in front of the building and appear to be leaving the campus. Scanner traffic appears to confirm that law enforcement has left the scene. One officer said that law enforcement is being “disbanded.” Students are currently pouring in and out of the occupied building.

“Cops go home!” the students chanted victoriously. “People power! We are stronger!”

Taking over a building and forcing the police off campus is no mean feat in the age of police militarization. Yet this is not the first time this century that student movements have employed these tactics. From December 2008 to March 2010, a wave of student building occupations helped to spark a new era of combative grassroots struggle. Starting with only a few participants, these building occupations eventually helped to inspire the Occupy movement, which catalyzed tens of thousands of people into action.

The following text chronicles the emergence of this wave of building occupations from the perspective of those who helped start it, first in New York and then in California. This article originally appeared in issue 9 of Rolling Thunder, our Anarchist Journal of Dangerous Living. It appears here with a handful of modifications reflecting the decade and a half that has passed since.

Students occupied the New School in New York City in December 2008 and again in 2009.

Coast to Coast Occupations

“The coming occupations will have no end in sight, and no means to resolve them. When that happens, we will finally be ready to abandon them.”

Preoccupied: The Logic of Occupation

This is How We Learn, This is How We Fight

By a participant in the occupations in New York City of 2008-2009.

In December 2008, the month of the Greek rebellion, the widely hated president of New York City’s New School for Social Research fired the Provost and appointed himself. He also cut the library in half, shut down a building where students gathered, and raised tuition. When the Faculty came out with a vote of no confidence in him on December 10, previously apathetic students joined those trained by summit battles to take action. Standard campus activist SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] groups wanted to wait for the right time—”the movement is not ready,” “we need more numbers.” We thought otherwise.

After two grueling meetings, on December 16 at 8 pm, thirty students and non-students took the first floor of 65 5th Avenue, in the middle of Manhattan, blocking the exits with chairs, tables, and trash cans from the cafeteria. Within hours, hundreds of people came out in support, and students who until then had only read Hegel were fighting security guards with tables and blocking the streets outside. This lasted from Wednesday night to Friday morning. Authoritarian groups issued demands while autonomous groups conspired to bring in more people and expand the occupation. At key moments, against the formal consensus of some, friends outside were broken in with spectacular actions. A Greek solidarity march came by and livened up the party with a hundred more anarchists. The president was chased down the street to his home, and conceded to some of the demands soon after. We left with no repercussions, but bitter that the university still functioned at all.

Continue reading on CrimethInc.

Earth Night Call To Action

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Apr 182024
 

Anonymous submission to Scenes from the Atlanta Forest

As the sun sets on Earth Day, April 22nd, Earth Night begins…

It is time for the sun to set also on the brand of environmentalist activism that always accompanies Earth Day. We have no use for false political fixes or publicity stunts, and nothing but hostility for campaigns which pretend that we can make everything right if we just practice the right habits or lifestyles. We know that the relentless monster of industry is responsible for environmental devestation. Our responsibility is its immediate destruction. 

The wild is under constant attack. We see all that is wild being destroyed by the machines of industry. The creeping domestication of civilization would tame the wildness in our hearts, would have us forget that we are animals too, that our flesh and blood are of this Earth. Make Earth Night a night to remind each other how wild we can still be. Lets break with old habits and embrace creativity, take up playful experimentation against the forces of industry. Light fires to gather around or to burn what destroys the Earth. Walk the land, look up at the stars, and think of some way to move towards freedom this night, alone or with friends, in ways big or small. Breaking free of the inertia of daily inaction, let’s rekindle the flames of freedom with the fierce burning joy of seeing our desires realized, seeing ourselves and others transformed through the choice to act. For life, for joy, for freedom, for anarchy!

This Earth Night, let that wildness out of its cage, and leap into action. Let’s sink our teeth into that which destroys us, and have some fun doing it. See you in the darkness!

Carpe noctem 😉

Invitation to the 2024 Montreal Anarchist Zine Fair

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Apr 152024
 

Anonymous submission to MTL Counter-info

Our weapons are courage and beautiful ideas.

Every year in May, the blossoming of spring invites anarchists to reflect upon subversive ideas and practices, from throughout history to present day. Total destruction of all authority is the project that sets our hearts on fire. We are wary of political strategies, and instead propose an anarchy wherein the means and ends are coherent, without waiting for the ‘right moment’, without compromise.

The fight for freedom is infinite, a constant which spans numerous lifetimes, and with endless possiblities. Only through permanent conflict will we create spaces where we can breathe (together) for short while, dreaming of and planning for total freedom.

This Fair is a moment to sharpen the analyses and critiques necessary for the project of insurrection. It’s goal is to nourish your imagination. We’re seeking out those who dream of unlimited freedom, and who are fighting for a complete upheaval of society, not simply it’s re-organization. Books, zines, meet-ups and discussions are indispensible for this project of liberation–they give meaning to our actions, and vice-versa.

We encourage (self)published texts created by comrades who aren’t trapped in the industry of book publishing. We want to free the pen from censorship, and the book from commercialization. We want texts to be distributed through autonomous organization, with the goal of sharing ideas with those who feel inspired by them. This can only occur in a free space, through rejecting copyrights and ‘alternative’ markets. This Fair is organized autonomously, through voluntary association and participation, and without any institutional support.

Join us on the 11 and 12 of May, 2024, under the Van Horne viaduct (North of the tracks). Come for two days of discussions, reading, music, and complicity. There will be several tables with zines and books under the viaduct, and with a few presentations followed by discussions in the little park nearby. There will be shows in the evening, as well as food and coffee onsite.

* We strongly suggest you leave your phones, cameras, and all other technological snitches far away from the event.

* The Fair will take place outside and regardless of weather conditions–come dressed appropriately.

* Details on the discussions topics and schedule to come on our website https://mtlanarchistzinefair.noblogs.org/

DNA you say? Burn everything to burn longer: a guide to leaving no traces

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Apr 012024
 

From No Trace Project

[READ] [WEB] [PRINT]

Note from the No Trace Project:

We hope that this translation will help English-speaking anarchists to better understand and protect themselves against the dangers of DNA.

We added many footnotes, either to add information or to explain our disagreements with the original text, especially in the section “A protocol for two“. Our footnotes are preceded by “N.T.P. note”, whereas the original footnotes are not.

We did not include the original appendix which listed French forensic police laboratories and their suppliers, because we didn’t think it was relevant to an international audience.

Contents

      Open Letter from Return Fire

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      Mar 282024
       

      Open letter from Return Fire magazine to the 2024.03.29-31 International Anti-Prison / Anti-Repression Gathering

      The event aims to be an informal and self-organised gathering of activists, representatives and delegates from groups active in the prisoner solidarity / anti-prison / anti-repression struggle, one focused on the consolidation of international solidarity…”

      second call-out for the International Anti-Prison / Anti-Repression Gathering, Brighton

      Hi comrades, known and unknown to us.

      We welcome this initiative, and send our love and gratitude to all gathering in Brighton with the aim of together building a more durable and combative struggle against the authoritarian nightmare of the present-day. From the limits of our own capacity, we’d like to offer some thoughts; reflections that have been born from decades of shared struggle and over 10 years of publishing our magazines with a strong presence of anti-repression/anti-prison documentation and agitation. (This has included putting out texts and translations from comrades behind bars, sometimes with the direct participation of the prisoners themselves.) As limited and fallible as they are, they are what we have to offer: they are here for you and the comrades back in your own areas to do with as you will. Considering the international dimension of the gathering, we have tried to provide adequate context for those less familiar with recent cycles of struggle on these isles, and we have also brought our thoughts into conversation with other writings produced in the course of the struggle in past years, with their questions, analysis and proposals.

      We will address some patterns and strategies of social control and State targeting of liberatory movements, and then make some observations and suggestions which might be slightly ‘up-steam’ of the more visible moments of police action itself, yet which we consider vital to the resilient movements we need to build, rather than only attempting to plug a hole in the dam with a finger of anti-repression work after the fact. This is especially important when we consider that police action is in fact ongoing at all times; understanding modern State philosophies of counter-insurgency allows us to see that repression is the norm, not the exception, and that in a very real sense it is not hyperbole to describe this as the latest adaptation of a permanent social war1 – sometimes nearly invisible yet ironically total – being waged against the population by those who would govern it. This encompasses the repressive apparatus of the security agencies/military, cops and other State agencies down to the smallest level, together with the media, academic collaborators, corporations and recuperated civil society organisations, not to mention our own fear and suggestibility. (As Athina Karatzogianni and Andrew Robinson set out in their essay ‘Virilio’s Parting Song,’ increasingly the (social-)mediascape allows repression to circulate horizontally, free-floating, self-managed.)

      Comrades attending to themes of repression know as well as anyone that our efforts are not bound to the same cycles of rise and fall as the social movements that draw overt police attention (although indelibly linked to our own cycles as living beings, our own moments of extroversion and introspection). Rather, we constitute a base-line rhythm which allows the maintenance of memory, collective learning, support for those under attack, and the patient, inexorable return of pressure to the camp of the oppressor. Or, we fail in the attempt.

      In the UK context, a lot has happened since the international Gathering Against the Prison Society in Brighton in 2009, standing as it did at the door of a following wave of dynamic action in the first half-decade that followed (student revolts, militant squat defence/eviction offence, a 2011 uprising across England following a racialised police execution, the return of a combative anarchist street presence in the pacified wasteland of the capital, anarchist attacks proliferating in the West Country, and more). Repression in its broader sense also moved forward with leaps and bounds; ramping up of police armament and surveillance architecture (perhaps most dramatically under cover of preparations for the 2012 London Olympics), various terror panics over the Islamic-identified “internal enemy,” the “hostile environment” policy of immigration management and its continued internationalisation via partnered detention schemes from Jamaica to (coming soon) Rwanda, a never-ending raft of new legal restrictions on taking to the streets or targeting infrastructures and updated in the era of COVID-19, renewed State attacks on travelling communities and squatting, prisons over-filled to bursting, academic collaboration refining an insidious ‘soft cop’ policing of protests until it is time for the hammer to strike, collusion with right-wing street movements, the surveillance operations of undercover officers being exposed and intimidating both those previously targeted and those aspiring to act.

      While an in-depth analysis of those years will not be attempted here, it is vital for those who have lived through those times (and those that preceded them) to share lessons they have learned and reflections with other generations. The focus for the first part of this letter will be on one specific arrow the enemy has in their quiver, which has rained down on us at certain moments and looks likely to continue: that being, counter-terrorism legislation and framing. We regret deeply not appearing at the Brighton gathering this March 29th-31st to present the following thoughts in person, but in March 2021, the Dutch police raided and seized the servers of the NoState tech collective, taking down a variety of anarchist counter-information and prisoner solidarity pages such as Act For Freedom Now!, Montreal Counter-Info, 325, North Shore Counter-Info, and Berlin Anarchist Black Cross, in the context of an undisclosed ‘criminal investigation’. Although our website is not hosted by NoState and was thus unaffected, news has trickled back to us that the cops were also demanding any information related to our publication project, Return Fire. (Most of the above important webpages are now reopened on new servers, and we send our greetings and solidarity to them.) For now, we will make our contribution from the shadows.

      (Anti-)Anti-Terrorism & Counter-Information Projects

      Anarchists, activists and environmentalists are targetted as “extremists” and “terrorists” with special police teams designed to infiltrate and dismantle their campaigns and organisations.”

      first call-out for the International Anti-Prison / Anti-Repression Gathering, Brighton

      When, in May 2020, the domestic intelligence agency MI5 announced that they were taking over the monitoring and tracking of “domestic terror threats” within the UK from the police, it was probably only a matter of time until the new unit (LASIT; left-wing, anarchist, and single-issue2 terrorism) would be testing its mettle – and doubtless seeking to justify its budget – by playing a public hand.

      Labelling anarchists and other anti-authoritarian enemies of the ruling order as ‘terrorists’ is not a novel development, the term having been leveled – with varied levels of success – against rebels from the French Revolution onwards. In the 20th century, it was the Spanish State that really first brought a comprehensive ‘anti-terrorism’ policy to bear as a permanent tool in its arsenal, at first against Basque independence struggles but quickly also against (other) youth in any self-organised and combative demonstrations and sabotages it could allege to be the work of Basque ‘terrorists’. (Though it wasn’t long before the UK took up the theme regarding independence struggles in the British-occupied north of Ireland, and Germany did so against the Marxist-Leninist and occasionally autonomist/anarchist urban guerrillas of the 1970s plus those it could associate with them.)

      “Since 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union,” we can read in the text ‘A Wager on the Future’ by Josep Gardenyes, “the capitalist world system has lacked an oppositional dichotomy that can modulate and recuperate all dissident movements.” After the jihadist attacks of September 2001, it looked for some time that such a dichotomy had been found: that of democracy versus the figure of the terrorist. Under that sign was gathered all whom jihadists and other authoritarian groups managed to recruit (or among whom they attempted to, or that the State could allege them to…) from what remained of the broader anti-colonial movements after the (nominal) independence wars of the 1960s and 1970s and the most alienated and disillusioned of their children, including those in the West. What followed was its deployment on a truly international scale “as a conjunction of moral narrative, political discourses, institutional mandates, interstate connections, and juridico-military resources that any government allied with the global powers could make use of.”3 What this looks like in practice ranges from unlimited surveillance to the fact that people can stay in prison for months or even years without clear accusation or trial and severe restrictions once released, not to mention social – or even literal – assassination.

      During one of the earliest of the anti-terrorist cases which anarchists in France have faced, in 2008 you could read the following on a poster on the streets:

      In this world upside down, terrorism is not forcing billions of human beings to survive under unacceptable conditions; it’s not poisoning the earth. It’s not continuing a scientific and technological research which everyday further subjugates our lives, penetrates our bodies and modifies nature in an irreversible way. It’s not imprisoning and deporting human beings because they don’t have an adequate little scrap of paper. It’s not killing and mutilating at work for the enrichment to infinity of the bosses. All that is called economy, civilization, democracy, progress, public order.

      The media, as ever, have been instrumental in this effort, not least because of the level of public complicity that a charge like ‘terrorism’ requires (clearly a moral category they shape and promote rather than one ‘objective’ enough to include the endless list of State-inflicted or far-right/racist attacks), to achieve its task of not only neutralising individuals but of disciplining populations. But the media is not the only other non-State (or para-State) institution that plays and has played a significant role; we are talking about academics. Take the 2020 report published by Paul Gill, Zoe Marchment and Arlene Robinson of Univeristy College London’s ‘Department of Security and Crime Science’. In the paper, ‘Domestic Extremist Criminal Damage Events: Behaving Like Criminals or Terrorists?‘, these lackeys of the securitisation industry and cops specifically take the wave of anarchist attacks on a wide variety of corporations, State agencies, animal exploiters, fascists, transport lines, and communications infrastructure that has characterised the south-westerly city and environs of Bristol, England, during the last decade or two, and offers clear recommendations to the repressive organs of the State as to how to equate these sabotages – legally and propagandistically – with terrorism.

      (Police efforts to apply the term so far in that area have been somewhat anemic, such as the confused and ambiguous interview with then-head of the unsuccessful4 Operation Rhone investigation aired on a BBC documentary on the topic5 after the iconic 2013 destruction-by-fire of the soon-to-open multi-million-pound police firearms training facility was described by the local Chief Constable as ‘domestic extremism’; that so far they had not found the actions to fit within the “clear legislation” of terrorism, but that “possibly” they were looking at a terrorist cell?)

      Their analysis identified priority interventions for the cops as – among other things like increased stop-and-search and extensive forensic/DNA profiling, as we have seen in other anti-anarchist operations across the theatre of Europe this past decade in both legal and illegal forms – working with the media to portray anarchist and other liberatory movements that use direct action as “domestic extremism” (the term already in vogue but potentially falling from favour6) and then equivocate this directly to “terrorism.” They also specifically recommended targeting anti-repression networks and solidarity groups.

      They needn’t of bothered; this is already old hat to a variety of States directly involved with repressing combative anarchism in the world today, though the prize for that task surely is a tie between Greece and Spain in that regard (with France as a runner-up). Where anarchists in those countries have succeeded in mobilising a counter-discourse against terrorism charges and their social validity, the criminal cases have sometimes fallen flat (to the investigators chagrin);7 and worldwide, anarchist tensions within social movements and explosions of mass rage have often led to their destructive techniques spreading to be used by other exploited and rebellious actors rather than being contained by the repression. What we have seen increasingly, though, is State attempts to close down our means of digital communication and diffusion of our ideas on grounds of incitement, terrorist apologism, even hate-speech.8

      Two of the three authors of the paper on anarchist action around Bristol, Paul Gill and Zoe Marchment, subsequently had their photos, phone numbers and emails circulated by anarchists.9 Not yet have we seen responses to match those in territories claimed by the Chilean State, for example, where the following year anarchists smuggled a bomb into the National Academy of Political and Strategic Studies (ANEPE) at night on the eve of the commemoration of 2019-2020’s popular revolt in those lands, where they knew of “permanent academic activities intended for police forces, in terms of intelligence, investigative and counterinsurgency strategies. It is a repressive body under the Ministry of Defence which also shares knowledge internationally with States such as Spain, Colombia, Israel, etc. Different academics of this den of Power have written about anarchist practices and tendencies, trying to analyze our ideas, dynamics and proposals,” the responsibility claim reads. Previously last decade, other anti-capitalists exposed a member of Brighton’s own Leftist journal Aufheben, John Drury, as a long-standing academic collaborator with the cops, helping to devise policing strategies for protests. (Perhaps more disappointing was the reactions – or lack of reactions – from much of the movements he claimed to be supporting but was actually a parasite upon, earning his wages informing to the enemy.10)

      Our circles have benefited from various forms of using security culture to defend ourselves from policing and journalists; we need to go further and consider how to prevent being compromised by academics (or the communications technologies which we increasingly rely on and which the latter, like the cops, can easily access and analyse). We have to popularise this broad suspicion as far as possible in the movements we participate in (even when there are now an increasing amount of anarchist academics whose studies could benefit us but too often only end up in the hands of their supervisors, the State, and a tiny handful of other scholars). The scandal of recent years of the anti-fascist researcher Alexander Reid Ross, co-founder of the Earth First! Newswire and contributor to an anarchist academic journal, going on to work with former CIA and Department of Homeland Security agents for an ‘anti-extremism’ centre providing intelligence and analysis to technology companies, law enforcement and public officials (and which also produced a report on how anarchists use social media to “instigate widespread violence”,11 comparing them to jihadis and right-wing militias) should bring this awareness to the fore.

      Where the State succeeds in framing their blows against us as “counter-terror operations,” it attempts to ‘monster’, delegitimise and ultimately disappear our ideas and practices, at precisely the point when in many places across the world we are at the frontlines in messy and many-faceted struggles that can still be said to hold a glimmer of liberatory potential. Here in the UK previous generations have also faced this threat at times of heightened struggle; our minds go to the ‘GANDALF’ case that MI5 also backed a generation ago against our circles in an attack on Green Anarchist magazine due to its publishing of Animal Liberation Front (ALF) communiques (clearly intended as a dampener on a decade of generalised dissent and popular participation in ecological action), an example collective memory has failed to keep as alive in the present moment as it should.12 However, on a global scale right now it is clear that, even if the paradigm of anti-terrorism is failing to stabilise the capitalist world-system as it is rocked by revolts, crises, pandemics and wars, it is in sporadic but systematic use against anarchists (amongst others) in most countries with sizeable anarchist movements.

      The annual European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend report (TE-SAT) released a new edition in December,13 with the usual chapter dedicated to “left-wing and anarchist terrorism.” The authors express concern that “anarchist terrorists and violent extremists continue to pose a threat to public safety and security in the EU by damaging critical infrastructure resulting e.g. in large-scale power outages.”14 They note a sharp increase in the number of Leftist/anarchist “terror” attacks in the year they studied compared to the year before, although they admitted that this may index to the fact of “changes in Member States’ classification of attacks as terrorist versus violent extremist.” They note that “anarchist extremists and terrorists in the EU place high importance on the legal and financial support provided to detained ‘comrades’.” The most common “offence” leading to arrest during the period in question, according to them, was not partaking in action, but “membership of a terrorist organisation.”15

      Lest you imagine that simply not committing the more spectacularised acts of what the system projects as terrorism will protect you (or, worse, that denouncing other anarchists for “terrorist tactics” – such as the UK Anarchist Federation did following the 2012 knee-cap shooting of a top nuclear executive in Italy – will keep you safe), consider some of the deployments of terrorism charges of late.

      In the Siberian territories claimed by the Russian State, three teenage anarchists were convicted for terrorism; for having ‘built’ a headquarters of the state intelligence service in an online game, then virtually ‘blowing it up’. In the US during the insurrection of 2020, the time-honoured anti-capitalist and anti-colonial practice of blocking trainlines is what has got some terror charges. Spanish police, according to the media, contemplate attack on a police station (during rioting itself sparked by the conviction of a communist rapper for ‘supporting terrorist violence’ when speaking of armed struggle, as another singer previously was for the same reasons) as grounds for the same.

      As climate heats and ecological communities of life melt down, the hostage-takers at the helm of industrial society will be eager to use the hammer of counter-terrorism (as they never stinted from doing, even when it wasn’t already too late to stop the tipping point) against saboteurs, land-defenders and development-blockers trying to slow the accelerating catastrophe: witness the clamour from the German media and prosecutors over the recent wave of ‘Switch Off!‘ sabotage actions. Prosecutors in Turkey also recently referred anarchist detainees to the counter-terrorism office for incitement over published calls regarding State atrocities; however in that case the charges were also ultimately not brought down on them.

      The European Union is considering putting anti-fascist groups on the list of those designated as terrorists (recall the 14 European Arrest Warrants requested by Hungary for German, Italian, Albanian and Syrian comrades, mostly yet to be captured), and Lina, an anti-fascist from Leipzig, was imprisoned on charges of having beaten some fascists, i.e., “having formed and being part of a criminal organization” under §129 of Germany’s criminal code; a.k.a, its Anti-Terror Laws. In Belarus, comrades who have taken responsibility for burning police stations and the like during the 2020 revolts there received long sentences on terror charges as a result as a clear disciplinary message to participants in the uprising, in a country where the death penalty has previously been applied in a terrorism case there. And if we’re not to commit the common error of forgetting the necessity of sustained and long-term solidarity, from Italy to the so-called US it’s already decades since some anarchist comrades have been under continual imprisonment because of ‘terrorism’ convictions.

      The actions the prosecutors target seem to us, without fail, necessary and important contributions towards movements with teeth, able to take the offensive and also defend ourselves, imposing costs on the system for their moves against us and steady destruction of our lives, dignity and the Earth we both are and are of. And to us these acts are magnified when they hold resonance in a social context, going hand-in-hand with attempts to address our own needs and lives in a variety of contexts of struggle, refusal, and reconnection with the land and its many beings.

      It is also our belief that combating the device of ‘anti-terrorism’ is itself a social process, because that is the terrain that ‘anti-terrorism’ tries to cut us off from by making us appear (to whoever is still fooled by the police spokespersons and their media or academic auxiliaries) as unrelatable, monstrous, fit only for extermination in the white cells of democracy; the oblivion of which they have been throwing those of various Muslim cultural backgrounds and Irish militants into on these isles for so long already with so little social opposition. The question we believe remains to be developed is, what strategies on the social level should we apply to prevent this enclosure, now and in the cases sure to come? How to use the opportunity opened by the repression not to close in on ourselves but to open a social conversation about the deployment of this discourse of terrorism and terrorists? Efforts in the past – looking to the international context – have ranged from “the State is the only real terrorist” to “we are all terrorists then!” How have these discourses aided or hindered, and in which contexts? Perhaps the Brighton gathering this month will collectively shed some light on this issue, with the attention both of those familiar with contexts of the UK and those with experience of counter-terror operations in other countries.

      We think that counter-information platforms and publishing projects have a lot to think about here, not just because we offer a primary form of communicating our ideas and discourses which would challenge the terrorism narrative (though doubtless all anti-authoritarians need to be able to speak about these subjects with all the people in their lives, not just those who will pick up a magazine or read a blog), but because increasingly we ourselves are the target of the counter-terror operations, on the basis of incitement or providing instruction.

      This is significant because – despite the large amount of brave comrades in jails across the continents for direct actions in many forms – law enforcement has long admitted that anarchist affinity groups are especially hard to penetrate, surveil and take out of action.16 “The propagandists of Anarchist doctrines will be treated with the same severity as the actual perpetrators of outrage,” reads a declaration from the Spanish government in 1893 (during the heyday of the “propaganda by the deed” attacks on government and military figures and heads of State), and over a century later – having still failed to stem the anarchist insurgency by other means – this strategy seems set to continue. November 2021, the Italian State launched yet another wave of raids and charges against comrades in its claimed territories; they were accused of being another group that publishes a magazine it seems the police would rather didn’t exist. The charges? “Having constituted and promoted an association with aims of terrorism.”

      It does not surprise us that the UK State is, like its neighbours on the continent, eager to repress the channels anarchists and others use to propagate our critiques and project our dreams. Attacks on publications and web-projects have been rising around the world, in both legal and extra-legal forms – comrades of the Indonesian Anarchist Black Cross (to give but one example) speak of how this “has been increasingly encouraged by the Indonesian Police, with initiatives such as the creation of a “cyber police” or social media police, with one of their aims being to isolate the spread of information not only from anarchist networks but also from other political dissidents and those who have the courage to criticize the state”:

      The Indonesian Police from 2014 to 2019 have disbursed funds of ± 900 billion rupiah, which are used as funds for buzzers17 to curb the spread and growth of counter-information media. In 2018 the Indonesian Police began to re-focus on the anarchist movement in Indonesia. Also, national police recently made a statement about banning media from covering police violence. However, we are sure that both individuals and groups who are focusing on counter-information and grassroots reports will continue to exist and grow. Given the severity of this situation in which all the tools of the State and Capitalism try to carry out silencing and repressiveness either online or physically, this is not the time to be silent and surrender ourselves to fear.

      We do not agree with those who say that these repressive moves specifically target us because of the fear that the system feels from our actions and ideas in and of themselves; rather, it is when those practices manage to seep out across the social terrain, especially in moments of contestation, that our ideas become truly dangerous to the State and its order.18 (For example, the EU “terrorism” report cited above worries about the increasing amount of violence targeting police stations, personnel and even their personal property: during the years when we have seen some of the most intense anti-police rioting of recent years, from France to the so-called United States, often in places with a history of anarchist anti-police agitation and action.)

      For this reason, resisting the enclosure that repression always attempts (whether by the name of anti-terrorism or something else) is always more helpful than allowing the enclosure to do its work, even as we support those directly targeted. Lastly, making fighting repression into a social process rather than an anarchist specialisation also allows for the possibility of prisoner solidarity to become a practice for a wider section of society than our own resources can allow, sustaining us in combating the extreme isolation that terror suspects are often subjected to, and – just as importantly – allowing prisoners a greater possibility to continue to participate in some ways in the struggles that often led them to the cells in the first place, circumventing the efforts of the jailers and investigators to wear us down, hem us in and destroy us.

      Terror charges are a way to strip struggles of intelligibility, of history, of context, reducing the accused to ‘bare life’ that can be done with as seen fit. How to we break out (discursively, spiritually, and of course ultimately practically) of the enclosure raised around us? At least in part, by improving our own intelligibility, history, context, and showing – not just telling – the values which give our lives meaning. Doubtless, beyond simply protesting the ‘excessive’ application of the term, a part of this ‘anti-anti-terrorism’ is too often disavowed by the more populist among us: that part is throwing the dichotomous partner of the dominant terrorism discourse – democracy – into the wastebin as yet another revolutionary dead-end or diversion, to be surpassed along with every other false dichotomy. (After all, which democracy hasn’t been built on a foundation of alienation, slavery, warfare and genocide: on terrorism, if you like?) Before the blackmail of totalitarianisms – democratic, communist, or fascist – revolutionary anti-state solidarity in words and acts.

      The State here (and especially under the Conservative government) has for some time been pursuing a course of successively criminalising every form of rebellion or protest that even edges towards effective disruption of the status quo, a strategy that could be characterised as “shut up or blow up.”19 When even the usual release-values of “democratic dissent” are stopped up (possibly because the global elite, bloated on its own arrogance since the 1960s, barely remembers a time when they were last forced to offer concessions due to powerful movements threatening revolution), we are sitting on top of a powder-key that seemingly could go off at any moment.

      “In other words,” continues ‘A Wager on the Future’, “we live in a world where the powerful are trying to hide and to crush revolts, the desire for freedom, and revolutionary movements behind a curtain of antiterrorism”:

      Antiterrorism is still convincing, it still mobilizes people and serves to justify more repression and control, but at the same time, this is a world in crisis, in which the majority of perturbed people, angry people, precarious people, are reluctant to trust either of the two poles of power. It is a dichotomy made to be taken apart, to allow us to again create a self-defined space of struggle and freedom. […] Yet it seems that few anarchists have taken notice that attacking antiterrorism, discursively and in practice, will not only decommission one of the most potent weapons in the state arsenal, it might also be our only chance of regaining our protagonism, self-defining a subjectivity of negation and rebellion, and projecting revolutionary paths in the coming years.

      In the face of all this, it serves us well to ask how to proceed given that – as anarchists – we are not simply trying to attend to the ravages of repression after the manner of lawyers and human rights campaigners, but rather with an eye to fortifying the very struggles which the enemy is trying to shut down or preempt. Ultimately, the strongest base we have for resisting repression is neither a sound counter-discourse nor the most impenetrable security culture (though both are invaluable), but the maintenance of strong and well-rooted struggles themselves which can continue to give context to the cases of repression and allow those targeted by the State to continue participating, and it is to this – albeit still within the framework of our efforts countering repression – that we now turn.

      Expanding Our Horizons

      In the face of escalated attacks against workers, young people, migrants and the living conditions of prisoners, we call for an encounter to learn how we can combine our struggle…”

      first call-out for the International Anti-Prison / Anti-Repression Gathering, Brighton

      Combining struggles might be easier if we cultivated the ability to see the value in a symphony of complementary roles that each individual struggle, to be successful, must already contain. Yet more often than not this is not what we see in anarchist spaces. Either we find a valorisation of a couple of roles at most (mostly some variation of Warrior and Messenger) at the expense of all others, or we find the malignant heritage of the democratic imaginary in our spaces: everyone is expected to be able to do everything, to ultimately be interchangeable (to use the democratic parlance, ‘equal’). To be clear, more roles than this already exist, and have always existed, else we would never have survived this long as a tendency: but they often are neither valued nor developed (or rather, they are not developed communally and in complementarity, rather than as an individual project or even profession). Hence, we do not let them develop to their full potential. Those dedicated to tackling repression already know this; it is easier to find participation in the Warrior and Messenger roles than in those of attending to the emotional and practical needs of everyone impacted, tasks which are – not coincidentally – feminised in this society.

      A recent Catalan text (forthcoming in English translation) by Josep Gardenyes, ‘Organization, Continuity, Community’, examines this exact dynamic. It lists a whole raft of existing modes of responsibility (sometimes more than one being fulfilled by the same person at some point of their life, but probably with a natural limit to how much time and energy one has to develop skills necessary for too many roles) which are visible once we really examine our spaces and struggles; fighters, healers, caretakers, builders, links, mediators, mediums, storytellers, and – at present – “be-theres”, those without as yet a defined contribution; and finally of course, ideologues who propagate justifications for their own current’s approach instead of actually performing any other role.

      Many of these roles are necessary for multiplying the force of any struggle. This is impossible as long as any one element considers itself the most important; we have lived with the consequences of this arrogance for too long. The few healers among us are over-used and under-appreciated (for example, by the fighters who see themselves as the most vital or even sole agents, yet don’t know how to articulate their emotions or address the endless conflicts they generate around them). The healers, for their part, like the caretakers and mediators, end up turning to pacifist conceptions of struggle. The builders, mostly seeing themselves as the most pragmatic, have their pragmatism channeled away from the struggle (when they feel the model of their former comrades is simply to fight and get locked up for it, rather than anything “constructive”), and their efforts end up fortifying some charitable or otherwise non-revolutionary endevour. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

      Hence, we would like to bear in mind for the rest of this open letter that the basis of how we do what we do could ultimately be what determines the success – rightly identified in the call-out for this gathering as a necessity – of combining our struggles. We are convinced that this also holds keys to resolving difficulties and/or failures of anti-repression practice, both in specialised groups and as a sentiment (or lack of it) in the movements more broadly.

      Before the Blow

      It’s time to stop wringing our hands and instead get organised. What do we have in common and can we build a common platform of action and discussion that helps us build a better world.”

      first call-out for the International Anti-Prison / Anti-Repression Gathering, Brighton

      What framework do we have in mind when we speak of getting organised? To begin to answer this question, of course on the one hand we must have some kind of more specific idea of what the task at hand is. (That organisation must be a verb, a process of action, and not a static end in itself, was known to the comrades of the MIL and the OLLA20 – that organisation is the organisation of the tasks of the struggle.)

      For the purposes of what follows, without entering into justifications for this analysis, we will consider the basic needs of the current situation (at least in the circles we move in and know) as fitting within three themes. Namely, intervening in social conflicts, attempting to widen, deepen, and radicalise them (as we in turn are often radicalised by them). Rooting ourselves in the territories where we live and which we live as (obscured as this is by capitalism), including the land but also our histories and knowledge of how we came to be where and what we are. And, finding communal ways to address our vital necessities of life, away from the mediation of markets, State welfare, and colonial extractivism on any scale, and ensuring dignified survival in the face of attacks (pollution, borders, bosses, queer-bashing, gentrification, imprisonment, whatever it might be). Properly speaking, these three needs are not distinct but overlapping. Nonetheless some of our efforts will be more easily identifiable as relating to one or another of these needs.

      Only once we have already established a provisional framework for what the tasks at hand are, and staked something in realising the projects to achieve those goals, is it necessary to discover which form of organisation will be most fitting for what we are already doing. Hence, each locality and tradition of struggle, with its own intensity of social conflict and internal dynamics, will have its own appropriate organising to address these three needs (or others): that is up to those who live in that reality to determine. To stay with the theme of repression, the strategies of State intervention will differ along with its interplay with media, culture, other social movements and tensions and more, and a valuable task for rebels would be to identify what those dynamics are in their own area.

      But something that all comrades will have to face is how to address, realise, or resolve conflicts in their own circles and organisations. Again and again, we see reluctance or inability to do this hamstring efforts to organise. To not have dead words in our mouth when we speak of our dreams of a world without police or prisons, that has to change: not because – as some prison abolition activists might insist (and unconvinced neighbours might demand) – we must have blueprint solutions for a future we cannot yet know, but because they are the very means needed to carry collective struggle for prison demolition forward without faltering at every step.

      For a start, we should accept that conflicts are not the exception, but the norm. Conflict is our companion through life, and is often clarifying, a means to grow and learn and change. Hence, when we fear and avoid conflict (or try to prematurely ‘solve’ it), we rob ourselves of this possibility. Not only this, but such discomfort can lead to people simply penalising whoever made the conflict impossible to ignore (thinking here of people who have been abused, or who simply cannot continue to ignore a shared problem). Others simply make the most of the situation to accrue points to their own status, without fundamentally changing the conditions leading to the problem.

      It is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ when it comes to a group needing to address conflict, and so we need to talk about it before the fact. To be able to take the collective opportunity, we have to envisage a process in which everyone involved is transformed in the process of a conflict, and not just reduce it to two or more individuals. This is very difficult in a culture which basically boils down to identifying good guys and bad guys, and justifying harm against the latter. There is, of course, an alternative: to pool our abilities and, through a healing process, we all grow together, and we don’t lose comrades.

      But too often people simply prefer not to have to position themselves, or to expel the supposed ‘bad apple’ and leave themselves feeling clean. We need the ability to hold more levels of complexity than that, even (or especially) in the conflicts in which, as so often happens, one person has submitted another to harm and oppression. There is a further step to take beyond simply knowing all the theories around patriarchy, racialisation, and difference in its many forms: educating ourselves of the struggles against them, including how many of the resulting conflicts touch many intersections of power and privilege, and so are messy and complex, not black and white.

      Only experience and intentionality will help us to see if someone (or, more likely, a social space) has caused harm and now seeks to respond to the suffering they have caused – and so will be willing to transform along with us – or they are a danger we must deal with otherwise, so as to protect ourselves. The former of these cases needs to be given the time it needs to play out; but the fear we have too often of conflict leads to people simply weighing up the resources or friendships they would lose depending on whose ‘side’ they would take (in situations often without the idealised duality of ‘abuser/abused’ when we are really honest) and then voting with their feet, not their self-professed values.

      Weathering the Blow

      What more does this have to do with repression? An attentiveness to counter-insurgency and other modern policing theories shows that the chief effect of repression is usually not the direct impact of the blow, but the fault-lines it opens up in the targeted group (or between the targeted group and other groups). If we are not practiced at how to deal with stressful situations, all too often the fault lines tear us from one another; and the tears often occur along the already-fraying parts of internal relationships, and map to power differentials that are best not left unexamined. Therefore, a holistic anti-repression practice to model will take this into account. Looking at how previous police operations affected each locality, how that was dealt with, and who reacted in what way, is without question a job that our enemies are conducting: we should not let them be the only ones to learn and adapt from that knowledge.

      Many great resources are already circulated by comrades regarding how we should react in the face of repression (although updating the versions that exist with new information and legal/technological changes is always a valuable endeavor), from cultivating a wide-spread culture of zero-cooperation with law enforcement to dealing with overt or covert surveillance of our spaces. We are suggesting that attending to the quality of our internal dynamics should also be considered key before the hammer drops. This sentiment was shared by the reflection ‘Green Scared?‘, published in Rolling Thunder magazine in the confusion and paranoia in anarchist scenes of lands dominated by the United States following an extensive ‘Green Scare’ anti-terror operation against activities of the ALF and Earth Liberation Front around the turn of the millennium, during which many former radicals collapsed under pressure and division and informed on each other:

      State disruption of radical movements can be interpreted as a kind of “armed critique,” in the way that someone throwing a brick through a Starbucks window is a critique in action. That is to say, a successful use of force against us demonstrates that we had pre-existing vulnerabilities. This is not to argue that we should blame the victim in situations of repression, but we need to learn how and why efforts to destabilize our activities succeed. Our response should not start with jail support once someone has been arrested. Of course this is important, along with longer-term support of those serving sentences – but our efforts must begin long before, countering the small vulnerabilities that our enemy can exploit. Open discussion of problems – for example, gender roles being imposed in nominally radical spaces – can protect against unhealthy resentments and schisms. This is not to say that every split is unwarranted – sometimes the best thing is for people to go their separate ways; but that even if that is necessary, they should try to maintain mutual respect or at least a willingness to communicate when it counts.

      Needless to say, many of you reading this will have experienced stresses coming from repressive situations, and seen people handling this more or less skillfully. (This includes conduct between prisoners and supporters, between co-defendants, etc.) The time to put skills into practice is now, not once the blow has already landed.

      Recovering from the Blow

      Our communities are increasingly turned into open prisons, “a prison society”, through new technologies of social control.”

      first call-out for the International Anti-Prison / Anti-Repression Gathering, Brighton

      The sadder truth is, that practically none of us had an experience of community in the first place. Why are we so weak that (acceptance of) the prison relationship so easily flourishes among us, when even societies under full colonial occupation or martial law managed to maintain more zones of resistance and insubordination than we see around us today on these isles and neighbouring countries?

      Once again, many gathering in Brighton will be dedicating considerable effort already to prisoner support/solidarity efforts, but it is well known that this is not a general predisposition among our movements; it is often a specialisation (which while we do not necessarily want to reject, it is common knowledge that we want to involve more people in these practices). And the truth is that “we” (in this wider sense) are not good at prisoner support for many of the same reasons that we are not good at supporting each other in general. That is not solely an individual failing, but because here we live, breathe and eat capitalism, and shit out alienation.

      There are many factors that amplify this alienation (neo-liberal dynamics penetrating even into resistance movements, the isolating effects of cybernetic technologies we are presently hostage to, patriarchal socialisation), but they are already known to many of you. Suffice to say that often we don’t know how to ask for help, we don’t know how to receive help, and certainly we don’t know how to give help; or on the contrary, we only know how to receive it as an entitlement or how to give it as a gendered, classed and/or racialised expectation, sabotaging liberatory potential in the act. So, overwhelmingly, we rely on the poisoned gifts of patriarchy and capitalism more than we rely on each other.

      Until we are capable of transforming this sad fact, it is too early to speak of communities here: yet that is precisely what we need to struggle and survive. Not out of a romanticisation of the term: in fact, it is necessary to demystify it. Community is not the best thing ever. It’s not the solution to all problems, all loneliness, all frustration. It’s not everyone being of the same age and radical, sexual or temperamental persuasion. It’s just a body of imperfect people who share their survival. It is (at least sometimes) difficult, painful, life-giving and essential. Because it is how we can finally speak of destroying capitalism and the State.

      There are glances of this potential to be had, even in Brighton: the organisational efforts to exercise mutual aid during the COVID-19 pandemic point to the ability to mobilise resources and connectivity, showing up the State as indifferent to our survival (let alone flourishing), when not an active hindrance. But, like Rhiannon Firth and others have cataloged, for the moment these initiatives only really take wing in the midst of disaster (manufactured or not), and can end up in the worst cases only supporting the return to isolated ‘normality’ while the neo-liberal State stands back: we have yet to treat everyday life as the disaster it truly is, marching us off the cliff of devastation and indignity.

      “The varied attempts to create liberated communities cannot all be measured with the same ruler,” it is written in ‘Against Self-Sufficiency, the Gift‘ (by Sever), “but one failing that crops up pervasively in our present context is worth mentioning”:

      Nowadays most people who have grown up with Western cultural values don’t even know what a community is. For example, it is not a subculture or a scene (see: “activist community” or “community accountability process”), nor is it a real estate zone or municipal power structure (see: “gated community” or “community leaders”).

      If you will not starve to death without the other people who make up the group, it is not a community. If you don’t know even a tenth of them since the day either you or they were born, it is not a community. If you can pack up and join another such group as easily as changing jobs or transferring to a different university, if the move does not change all the terms with which you might understand who you are in this world, it is not a community.

      A community cannot be created in a single generation, and it cannot be created by an affinity group. In fact, you are not supposed to have affinity with most of the other people in your community. If you do not have neighbours who you despise, it is not a healthy community. In fact, it is the very existence of human bonds stronger than affinity or personal preference that make a community. And such bonds will mean there will always be people who prefer to live at the margins. Whether the community allows this distinguishes the anti-authoritarian one from the authoritarian one.

      Yet efforts to judge the communities we are trying to midwife into this world cannot fall into perfectionism; because perfectionism is incompatible with community in this sense. The tension shouldn’t surprise us: properly speaking, no community can coexist under the State, and so any that takes form under its reign is in a constant tension between expanding its autonomy and being liquidated. The only interesting question is where on that spectrum our efforts are at any one time, and how to re-adjust that balance, always pushing for the destruction of the State.

      The consequences of this challenge for facing repression are apparent. Why, to take one example, did so many people in the Green Scare case turn informant? The theme is complex, but ‘Green Scared?’ notes that “[h]istorically, the movements with the least snitching have been the ones most firmly grounded in longstanding communities”:

      Arrestees in the national liberation movements of yesteryear didn’t cooperate because they wouldn’t be able to face their parents or children again if they did; likewise, when gangsters involved in illegal capitalist activity refuse to inform, it is because doing so would affect the entirety of their lives, from their prospects in their chosen careers to their social standing in prison as well as their neighborhoods. The stronger the ties that bind an individual to a community, the less likely it is he or she will inform against it. North American radicals from predominantly white demographics have always faced a difficult challenge in this regard, as most of the participants are involved in defiance of their families and social circles rather than because of them. […] Here we see again the necessity of forging powerful, long-term communities with a shared culture of resistance; dropouts must do this from scratch, swimming against the tide, but it is not impossible.

      […] Healthy relationships are the backbone of such communities, not to mention secure direct action organizing. Again – unaddressed conflicts and resentments, unbalanced power dynamics, and lack of trust have been the Achilles heel of countless groups. The FBI keeps psychological profiles on its targets, with which to prey on their weaknesses and exploit potential interpersonal fissures. The oldest trick in the book is to tell arrestees that their comrades already snitched on them; to weather this intimidation, people must have no doubts about their comrades’ reliability.

      Superseding the Blow

      We stand before a crucial weakness our movements suffer, at least in the countries we know best: and more than a weakness, it is a tragedy, because it speaks to one of the few advantages that the enemy consistently enjoys in the social war. Once again, it goes deeper than a personal failing, although we all participate and have responsibilities and possibilities to overturn this condition. That disadvantage is the lack of continuity (generational, strategic, spiritual) in our struggles.

      The State (and similar hierarchies), as James C. Scott has often emphasised, necessarily simplifies reality so as to be able to understand (that simplified version of) it enough to exert control. Often it is slow, parasitic, lumbering, unwieldy, imprecise. Our living webs of resistance and reciprocative survival – shifting, decentralised and chaotic (to reclaim a maligned term) – have proved infinitely more adaptable, intelligent and agile; this is one reason among many why it is vital to resist efforts to move us towards forms of organisation and imagination that more resemble those of the State itself, as is the proposal of the Left.21 Yet this full potential is not realised, because the hegemony enjoyed by a confluence of the State, colonialism and patriarchy (and their capitalist consolidation then expansion) has managed to effectively break our transmission of knowledge and wisdom over the centuries. The result is that we are constantly starting again from zero when trying to break out of the dominant culture, without understanding how we came to be where we are: whereas the modern State maintains an almost-unbroken institutional memory of how to defeat us again and again, a memory they are constantly updating and refining.

      Counter-repression organising sees this before us in the starkest and most depressing ways: often social revolt erupts, stones are thrown and police confronted, a new human potential emerges upon the barricades even from those we never expected. Then, after the rebellion has been crushed or bought off (or has simply burned itself out), that human potential dissipates back into routine, work, family, amnesia. What in other territories is achieved by genocidal levels of violence and intimidation is fulfilled just as efficiently (or more) by anti-depressants, social welfare, elections, media technology, and regular but sparing applications of policing, torture and imprisonment for those not yet pacified. We are left with prisoners of a war that nobody seems to even remember was raging weeks or months before, one that we are still fighting.

      (Or, we thrust ourselves forward to attack – based not on an analysis of the conditions we find ourselves in, of our strengths and weaknesses, but on a fetishisation of abstract and unchanging principles – without heed for how the revolt can expand and extend itself by seeking solidarity from other social bodies. Sure enough, within a certain number of months or years, we are isolated by our need for security, by individualised survival strategies, the prison system, generational changes we haven’t worked out how to address, health break-downs and exhaustion. And, again and again, the line of transmission of our experiences across generation and phases of struggle is severed, and we’re back to reinventing the wheel.)

      There are heroic efforts to keep that flickering memory alive (often dependent on forms of struggle that are not even recognised as such in the above scenario), and a vital part of that is not letting those repressed become forgotten (most importantly, including outside of our own circles): on that note, we can note the incredible continuity that the Brighton Anarchist Black Cross has maintained over the last decades, a rock in the UK prisoner support landscape, who perhaps will have something to say on this subject. In part, combating this amnesia has been a major goal of the format in which we release our magazine, Return Fire. The idea was to present something sizable and durable, less prey than slimmer and more frequent publications to be thrown away each year, with editorial explanations for those not already versed in our movements, to build collective reflection and memory you could find in one place when thinking about past years and cycles of struggle (as, in fact, has always been a focus in our ‘Memory as a Weapon’ column). Inspirational in this regard would be our eco-anarchist predecessors of the journal Do or Die, published from Brighton, who preserved records from otherwise-ephemeral sources of the ’90s/early ’00s struggles that the newest climate movements make so little reference to and learn so little from.

      There’s a lot we could do differently to address this in our own movements (hints: not basing all our social spaces around the inclinations and rhythms of young militants alone, not modeling relationships that end up in self-isolating couples or criticism-allergic cliques, not managing conflicts so they only end in dynamics of win-lose or lose-lose…) But the memory we are talking about preserving or constructing cannot stay limited to our own small circles; it must draw breath in the streets, it must play on others lips as well. Anti-repression focuses have much to offer here, because – once presented in the messy and heterogeneous spaces where our potential comrades can be found – they can serve as a bridge to connect newer participants with those the State and media are attempting to isolate and annihilate.

      As much was suggested by Peter Gelderloos’ ‘Diagnostic of the Future‘ when, writing in 2018 amidst a riotous US-wide prison labour strike and a resurgent far-right countered by those seeking a progressive democratic renewal, he asked “what are the positions that cut to the heart of the problem, no matter who is in power, while also speaking to the specific details of how power is trampling people down?”:

      It is not that hard to conceive of a way to oppose state power and racist violence that leaves us ready, primed, and on our feet no matter who wins in November, and many anarchists are doing just that. As anarchists, we will always fight against borders, against racism, against police, against misogyny and transphobia, and thus we will always be on the frontlines against any right-wing resurgence. But are not borders, police, the continuation of colonial institutions, and the regulation of gender and families also a fundamental part of the progressive project?

      The principal hypocrisy of progressives can often be found in their tacit support for repression, that unbroken chain that connects the most vicious fascist with the most humanistic lefty. That’s why it makes sense for anarchists to highlight the prisoners’ strike and to bring the question of solidarity with detainees from anti-pipeline struggles and prisoners from anti-police uprisings into the heart of any coalition with the left. If they want to protect the environment, will they supportMarius Masonand Joseph Dibee?22 If they think building ever more oil and gas pipelines at this advanced stage of global warming is unconscionable, will they stand withWater Protectors? If they loathe police racism, will they support the people still locked up afteruprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland and elsewhere, primarily black people fighting back on the frontlines against police violence?

      Such an emphasis will separate Democratic Party operatives from sincere activists in the environmental, immigrant solidarity, and Black Lives Matter movements. It will also challenge the illusion that new politicians will solve these problems, and spread support for the tactics of direct action and collective self-defense.

      We can also greatly deepen our understanding of repression in our areas and our resilience to it by making sure that older comrades (those with knowledge of the struggles and repression of previous decades) are still part of the conversation.

      Considering that our struggles are at heart international (and turning this awareness into more than a simple slogan), forging meaningful connections with comrades in other territories is a necessity too. This gathering in Brighton is invaluable to support those links.

      “Despite the advances in technology, radical communications has not kept pace,” as Eepa put it in ‘Building International Solidarity: Human Relations for Global Struggle‘; “Sure, many anarchics are aware of other struggles through communiques, news reports, or social media posts, but there is a deep rift between these casual interactions and meaningful relation building needed for resilient, effective, and meaningful struggle.”

      They go on to emphasize the potentials that we only enjoy when such a network is under active maintenance and reinforcement, allowing us “to call for advice, to call for reinforcement, or to announce new projects of continental interest”:

      Continental networks also act to ensure that the many varied regions, cultures, and political situations have a fast and effective means of reaching every other group on the continent, without relying on word-of-mouth, algorithms, or news releases.

      […] It can not be understated how much we can avoid stumbling blocks by learning from those who have been there and done that. International networks are also keenly important for ensuring that the relative wealth of even poorer comrades in the industrialized regions of the global north, gets shared with comrades in dire struggle with access to almost no monetary/material resources. We must find ways to ensure that we are getting funds and materials to the most dire struggles. This can only be done when we have developed resilient relationships with comrades across the globe.

      Vital parts of this process of learning will be study of languages and of cultural differences, being observant and adaptive. “If you have a dozen comrades in your group,” Eepa reminds us, “you have enough people to learn lingua-francas for most of the colonized world”:

      Everything you have in life starts with reaching. A toe dipped in the water before you learn to swim, your hand reaching out to grasp a rope you are about to climb, the raised hand in greeting of a new face. You take the first step by reaching out. Communications and solidarity is no different.

      Taking this a step further, we can imagine an anti-repression network (or rather, many) of a city or region which not just keeps up to date on the struggles of anarchist circles in other countries or continents but actually commits to “partnering” with another one across borders. This could look like collectively raising travel funds to send comrades there to learn and share, keeping the relationships alive with long-distance communications and with repeat visits and hosting comrades from there here, always with an eye to sharing resources, contexts and ideas. What this would not look like would be how anarchist travel too often happens; basically as tourism, with the emphasis being on personal experiences (rather than on collectivising contacts we make with our struggles back home), spreading the stupider conflicts among us onto an international level, or – in terms of visiting countries with which our own exercises some variant of a colonial relationship – continuing to see our own countries as the centre of the world and being unable to listen and learn, let alone see the international entanglements of both the global system and of our struggles against it.

      On the local level, the building of our capacities for genuine mutual aid back from the abyss we currently dangle over could be challenging ourselves to each connect with a willing comrade who is not already in our immediate circle – examples could range from prisoners, younger or older people, people who are parenting, people medicalised and/or suffering – and try to commit to a mutually-supportive, transformative relationship with them. (And them with us – the emphasis should be on mutuality, rather than charity, and each person who might fit the above descriptions should also think of who they could choose to support.) Perhaps over time this could expand to more than one person who isn’t already close to us, but we suspect that even engaging one person will be challenging enough for most people already (although those accustomed or expected to perform this kind of care already for gendered reasons will perhaps find it easy to “add” more people, in those cases creating a truly mutual – rather than extractive – relationship will doubtless be the more challenging part). But that could be a path to widening the scope of our relationships, expanding beyond what we are allowed access to under capitalist daily life.

      Not Fearing the Next Blow

      We know that we are likely to see more (and more intense) policing operations against our movements, our environments and friends, our families. We knew, since before we even became anarchists, what this society holds in store for the disobedient, the questioning, those with solidarity and will. The task ahead, ever trying to keep one pace out of reach of our annihilation, may lie not in obsessively avoiding the blow of repression if doing so keeps us isolated, or in obsessively returning the blow if doing so over-reaches and drains us. Rather, it may lie in superceding the blow (which, of course, given the circumstances could well include either avoiding or returning it!) on the social field: breaking the enclosure, and losing the fear.

      Fear is natural and logical given what we know the enemy is capable of (often from personal experience and that of our loved ones). Fear can keep us safe in some circumstances, keep us sharp, keep up wary. It can also disable us, or lead us to seek false securities. For thousands of years, when they didn’t find ways to directly oppose them, our anarchic ancestors on all continents where States formed fled from them and often outlived them, keeping themselves and their anti-authoritarian rejection alive in the process, forging cultures in zones out of imperial reach. Now, as the last mountain and jungle vastnesses are brought under the map and the satellite (if not necessarily under control) and the seas rise to met us while the sky falls down on our heads, the task of destroying the State – not just attacking it, but superceding it in the process – could not be clearer.

      Fear of the struggle will, in fact, keep us in greater danger; but to appreciate this, we have to think of ourselves as part of a larger social body struggling to be born, not as the isolated individuals repression aims to reduce us to when some of us are inevitably jailed. “So long as there are prisons,” according to one statement for the annual Week of Solidarity with Anarchist Prisoners, “the most courageous, sensitive, and beautiful among us will end up inside them, and the most courageous, sensitive, and beautiful parts of the rest of us will be inaccessible to us.” What will keep us strong – whether in the streets, under arrest or on the prowl from the margins – will be the social connections we manage to create; and which will creature us, in a constant process of becoming which we choose to call anarchy, here and now.

      Because the fear we often confront, beyond the simple self-preservation of the flesh we like to call our own, speaks to the isolation and alienation we live in: we too often think that if we cannot create all the changes we need in the world at once, or at least in the course of our individual lives, we will have failed. Perhaps a part of the fear is the desire to not be seen to have been defeated, to have been overcome. But do we not carry the ghosts of every past struggle with us? Are they really so vanquished, or are they still there in the soil we feed from and eventually return to, the dreams we barely remember, the molotovs we throw and the arms we link? Will we not be there when generations we have yet to know assume the same tasks, defending or re-gaining the same freedoms; were we not always there? Or is the undead rationalist spirituality of capitalism – its religion of profits and loss, atoms and cells, borders and straight-jackets – the only imagination we have left?

      Up with the Spring

      Winter begins to turn her face from us, having let us take the opportunities – when we’ve been able – for introspection, healing, sharpening our weapons and theories. Now is the time for planting seeds and tending to them, whether those seeds are the letters we send across prison walls and borders, the fires we light under the structures and arses of our oppressors, or the memories we share so our multi-generational body doesn’t continue to be constantly ripped asunder by the march of capitalist daily life. We enter the aspect of Spring, of fruition, the popping of buds and imaginations. A time for renewal, stands taken and promises given.

      Our affection and solidarity to each sincere heart which will beat in the presence of its kind in Brighton; we look forward to hearing the reflections and proposals of those comrades and more. Anti-repression will remain at the heart of any anarchism in movement, in rebellion, in self- and mutual-defence on a burning planet. We hope some of our provocations will relate to the concerns in this arena, and how it could sit with the rest of our lives as radicals. We hope this could be more fuel for collective conversations in which we identify our capacities, abilities and roles we can develop, finding a harmony between our desires and skills and the needs of others and the present moment; in other words, a shared survival, without which we can never speak in truth of liberation.

      Strength and courage to all dignified prisoners and those on the streets.

      Solidarity to the (other) comrades maintaining – or who have maintained – publications and counter-information websites under the shadow of the “counter-terror” regime and its disturbed dreams.

      Let’s keep this fire from dying.

      Until MayDay,

      – R.F., Spring Equinox, 2024.

      This essay also will be distributed in zine form as a companion piece – with an appendix in the form of the text version of Toby Shone’s phone-in from high-security prison to the debate “Thought and Action: Repressive Attacks on the Anarchist Written Word” held in El Paso Occupato, Turin (Italy), March 9th-10th, 2024 to the final (double-)issue of Return Fire magazine, vol.6 chap6 & chap7, forthcoming

      1Reading from ‘Power’, a presentation made by Xander at the 2014 Berkeley Anarchist Students of Theory & Research & Development (BASTARD) conference: “A reoccurring theme in anarchists milieus, social warfare is as complicated as it is simple that can be plainly understood as the war of social relationships and by extension the war to maintain the social body – society. The term originates from the Roman Social War (91–89 BC) between Rome and their Italian allies (Socci), who were instrumental in the wars that established the Roman Republic, but were regarded as less-than Roman and subject to the “unrestricted imperium” of Rome. Their second class status, the Roman slave plantation, and limited powers in deciding Roman foreign policy laid the grounds for the Socci to secede from Rome, set up their own capital, and government (modeled after Rome’s), spawning what became known as the Roman Social War. Relevant to social war today is how the Roman Republic learned the importance of political concessions and developed the technique of political inclusion, as opposed to exclusion, using rights and citizenship to pacify insurrection and create stability and growth for the Empire.

      “Class warfare as it is used today finds its root in social warfare, with the latter attempting to widen the social analysis of power to acknowledge the positive features that invest into people, encouraging self-identification and regulation to prolong and propel the dominate political system. Social warfare touches on the most sensitive, complex and powerful aspects of people, their sociality, and their relationship to society, and the general question of governance and order.”

      2Within this definition they put animal rights/animal liberation action.

      3Being put into comparison with an enemy so supposedly irrational, bloodthirsty and ‘uncivilised’ as fundamentalist Islamic cells may have set a very low bar for what kinds of violence and desolation the State itself was able continue wrecking on populations in the Global South – or individuals/demographics accused of involvement in the North – without provoking uproar. But it seems like on a global level the mechanism of ‘anti-terrorism’ has already shown significant weaknesses in creating a dualistic pole of tamable ‘opposition’ that efforts like our own could be forced in to. ‘A Wager on the Future’ notes that “the figure of jihadism is much less inclusive than that of communism. It is incredible for the Right to accuse the typical anarchist of being an agent of fundamentalist Islam, or for the Left to accuse them of being impragmatic for not supporting it, like they accused us for not supporting state communism. Worldwide, the majority of marginalized people are culturally distant enough from Islam that they are unlikely to ever identify with Islamic fundamentalism (although there are a billion people whom organizations like the Islamic State are seeking to represent and influence as coreligionists).

      “The new dichotomy has another weakness: quite the opposite of the ruling dichotomy during the Cold War, the current one has been constructed in an era when the principal world powers enjoy very little legitimacy and trust. The bloated, greedy, and arrogant figure of the United States in 2001 is a far cry from the heroic protector of liberty from the first two World Wars. And the Europe of 2015 [R.F. – year of spectacularised jihadist attacks in Paris and Brussels], the Europe of austerity, of corruption, of bloody borders, doesn’t look much better.” More recently, it seems that the framework of biosecurity in the name of fighting COVID-19 has been more effective in mobilising public sentiment and passing an endless raft of repressive measures both temporary and permanent, though also not without its limitations.

      4Although there was one Bristol comrade jailed during the course of this operation – Emma Sheppard, now out – her arrest was not intelligence-led (despite the investigators being quick to try to lump the arrest in with Operation Rhone, which featured at least 10 permanent detectives working full-time) but incidental in that she was unfortunately captured during the course of an action itself by staff at the police station which was the target.

      5Apologies for the link to a trash conspiracy theory take in the video description, the YouTube version has been removed already.

      6The text ‘Priti Fascist: Another civil liberties crackdown announced’ suggests that “the state has abandoned the tired old label of “domestic extremist” with its unfortunate whiff of SpyCops and state sanctioned abuse of women and replaced it with an all new and equally vague idea of “aggravated activist”. Despite lack of real clarity around what an aggravated activist actually is the justice secretary has dreamed up the concept of Criminal Disruption Prevention Orders (CDPOs) to combat them.

      CDPOs are another development in the hybridisation of criminal and civil law that began under Blair [R.F. – then UK Prime Minister, architect of thwarted national ID obligation and back in the public eye during the COVID-19 pandemic as a champion of vaccine passports…] that gave us control orders, ASBOs [R.F. – Anti-Social Behaviour Orders], football banning orders and injunctions protecting corporations under the Protection from Harassment Act. What all these processes have in common is that criminal sanctions can be imposed on a civil standard of proof (balance of probablities). They grant the courts powers to regulate an individuals life to point of house arrest; with curfews, rules on places to avoid, people not to see, programmes to engage with, social media not to use etc etc with, and this is the kicker, criminal sanctions including prison for lack of compliance. The far reaching implications of this can be seen clearly with the impact on young Black lives of the Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) as acts that are not regularly criminalised are punished under the criminal law.”

      7A good example of this could be the multiple police “anti-terror” operations in the Spanish State from 2013-2018, which – despite considerable sensationalist media hype – resulted in a large social reaction declaring ‘I Too am an Anarchist’, defeating in large part the attempts to demonise and isolate our comrades there. The majority of the cases collapsed without convictions; although the toll on our movements and structures there was of course high, anarchists on the whole did not emerge more socially isolated than before.

      8Examples could be the social media crackdown against a variety of prolific anarchist outlets in the so-called United States in recent years such as CrimethInc. and It’s Going Down, among others, having their pages shut. This has been taking place within an atmosphere of increased calls for censorship from the Left – who have taken over that social role from the Right of the generation previous – in the name of (statist) anti-fascism and the removal of hate-speech, “conspiratorial” and otherwise pro-oppressive content online. When every tool in the State’s arsenal will sooner rather than later be wielded against those of us who still take to the streets, all the Left is doing is helping lift the guillotine over all of our heads. Other examples of ‘hate-speech’ charges in recent years would be anarchist agitation against ‘Eurocrat’ politicians in Brussels, the seat of the European Union, or the Russian anarchist Elizaveta Tsvetkova’s 2016 conviction for ‘hatred or enmity towards a “social group”’ for spreading leaflets criticising the police, or Kristina Cherenkova of Belarus similarly targeted for similar online posts.

      9September of the same year, UK “anarchist action” resulted in right-wing media outrage after they published the home addresses and telephone numbers of Conservative MPs who support a badger cull fiercely opposed by animal liberation and animal rights movements.

      10From ‘Cop-Out: The Significance of Aufhebengate’ by Sam FantoSamotnaf: “The failure of “revolutionaries” to deal with something that they could clearly and directly effect, as opposed to, for example, writing about things that they can’t influence very much, indicated an attachment to abstraction as self-defeating as a drowning man clinging onto his chest full of gold. The fact that Libcom admin could justify a cop consultant and lie about those who oppose him, calling them liars, and that this cowardly attitude is acceptable to other “anarchists”, “communists”, or whatever makes a total mockery of their supposed “libertarian” anti-state attitudes. A symptom of utter decay. For them, the “radical milieu” is just like any other family, a cosy set of complacent roles happy to shove that awkward skeleton back in the family cupboard. The social movement that seriously wants to contribute to the supercession of this futureless society needs to seriously confront its recuperators, the enemy within.”

      11The authors deploy the usual troupes of an ‘extremist’ online culture of ‘hate’ against police in their review of anarchist and socialist militancy, expressing particular concern over what they call the ‘martyr’ status of Willem Van Spronsen (the comrade who died during his suicidal armed action against the infrastructure and guards of a US immigration concentration camp on the eve of a massive pre-announced detention sweep by the Trump regime) and the fact that he carried an AR-15 “ghost gun”; “a firearm either assembled from a home delivered kit or made with a 3D printer, untraceable by law enforcement.” They shamelessly label our movements as ‘toxic’, not the systems we fight against: such as, for instance, the US Border Patrol, who have a standard internal term for migrants based on the sound they joke about being made when they smash their clubs or torches into the latter’s skulls.

      12It’s worth considering some of the precedents that this case aimed to set, so here’s part of a late ‘90s interview printed in Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed with an editor of the Green Anarchist (GA) paper: “Things are getting hotter for revolutionaries post-Cold War. Internally, the security forces are looking for new targets to keep themselves in work and externally, they’re collaborating more with the ongoing formation of the European super-state, exchanging repressive techniques and levelling them up.

      “From 1990, GA and groups associated with us were targeted by MI5 provocateurs to manufacture an “eco-terrorist threat.” […] After the propaganda came the Special Branch raids, a whole year of them, 55 in all. […] They wanted to link GA’s editors and spokespeople for the ALF to a letter bombing campaign by the Justice Department (no, over here they’re animal lib militants), but by the time it reached the court, the State had decided it was easier to prove we’d just conspired to report such actions. The press continued to report this Gandalf (GA-aND-ALF) prosecution as against a “bomb plot” anyway. As far as the State were concerned, legally and politically, it didn’t matter. In UK, inciting an act carries the same penalty as the act itself – a potential life sentence in this case – and MI5 were busy redefining all “subversion” as “terrorism.” The idea was to criminalize the direct action movement through us, giving the security forces a monopoly when it came to representing it in the media.

      “The odds were massively stacked against all the defendants. Under the conspiracy/incitement laws, thoughtcrime and the rules of evidence that applied in 16th century witch trials still apply in UK. You can be tried simply for your beliefs, your lifestyle, and those of people that may only know you at four or more degrees of separation. Furthermore, the normal burden of proof is reversed – to establish your innocence, you must disprove prosecution conspiracy theory, whilst their interpretations are presumed to be “reasonable inferences.” Not only were news reports deemed incitement, but reviews of text published by others overseas, T-shirt slogans and even listing too many political prisoners on one page! The most trivial associations were deemed evidence of conspiracy – who’d written letters of support to ALF press officer Robin Webb in prison, who’d attended a meeting any defendant had, or received a GA t-shirt through the post, all were raided and threatened with arrest for conspiracy. The State spent 4 million pounds on this prosecution; involved the RCMP [R.F. – Royal Canadian Mounted Police], FBI, Italian and Finnish political police; rigged it so that the trial was heard in Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy and the court with the highest conviction and sentencing rates in UK; and had a former NATO major general presiding and at least a third of the jury from military backgrounds, despite the judge agreeing to exclude such individuals! Defense witness Darren Thurston was deported on arrival in UK as an “undesirable alien” before he could even testify. Judge Selwood blocked defense motions and witness questions as a matter of course, informed jurors he considered defendants guilty even as the defense case was being made, and spent 3 ½ days at the end of the 12 week trial convincing the jury of the defendant’s guilt. Of six charged, one was actually acquitted and two others had their trials deferred until a year later, November 1998. Consistent with the security forces’ gameplan, the judge described the three GA writers convicted as “terrorists” and sentenced them each to three years imprisonment, the same some squaddy who’d strangled his wife and buried her under the patio got in the same court a month previously.

      “During the course of the first Gandalf trial, its implications dawned on the alternative press and the first of many statements of solidarity and defiance were drawn up in support of the defendants. Names came in from across the world including the Nobel laureates Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter, GA continued to be published as usual, and other alternative zines also started running defiant direct action diaries, there were protests at British embassies in the Czech republic and New Zealand, trucks were burned and butchers forced out of business in UK. What finally forced the State to let the Gandalf Three go after 4 ½ months inside was the project of Amnesty International classifying them as political prisoners because of the injustice of their trial. The Three’s release has severly undermined the viability of the Gandalf-2 trial, judge Selwood’s career is now on hold, the Hampshire Special Branch fronting for the Security forces are trying to shift blame and refusing comment to even their own tame media, and the provocateurs are now getting a lot of embarassing attention from the movement. Victory on this may be close, but we appreciate it will be only temporary – Europeanization is continuing regardless and the security forces will still need to validate their new National Public Order Intelligence Unit.”

      13https://www.europol.europa.eu/cms/sites/default/files/documents/European%20Union%20Terrorism%20Situation%20and%20Trend%20report%202023.pdf – we recommend using security tools such as Tails to access this document.

      14Consider, for example, this recent power-line attack which crippled the infamous Tesla electric car “giga-factory” near Berlin for a week or more: https://actforfree.noblogs.org/2024/03/14/berlin-germany-sabotage-of-a-high-voltage-pylon-brings-tesla-factory-to-a-standstill/

      15They also highlight that “creation and use of squats, so-called free autonomous spaces, remained important for anarchist terrorists and extremists in 2022. Those spaces might serve as hide-outs as well as operations bases, and are also utilised to host left-wing and anarchist terrorists and extremists from abroad. Evacuations of those squats regularly present a challenge to law enforcement authorities, given that left-wing and anarchist terrorists and extremists do not hesitate to make use of grave violence against officials intervening.” The attempt to amalgamate ever-new forms of dissent under the rubric of “extremism” and incitement is also visible in other parts of the report, such as that concerning environmentalism. “The line between environmental activism and environmental extremism is often a blurred one,” – blurred, that is, by architects of repression like themselves – “yet some of environmental activists’ narratives might have the potential to incite violence among extremists.”

      16See, for example, the 2005 paper ‘Anarchist Direct Actions: A Challenge for Law Enforcement’ by Randy Borum of the University of South Florida and Chuck Tilby of the Eugene Police Department for the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. The above-mentioned EU terrorism report, almost 20 years later, laments that “The number of arrests for left-wing and anarchist terrorist and extremist offences is generally not very high. Perpetrators and support networks show a high level of security awareness, and the majority of the attacks are carried out at night. This can lead to a very high number of offences committed by individual extremists active over a number of years.”

      17R.F. – Buzzers are in use across the political spectrum in Indonesia (as well as other countries), from underground jihadists to the political mainstream, flooding social media from multiple false accounts per buzzer to spread messages (often ‘fake news’) and receiving payment for doing so.

      18A good example of this could be the wave of arson attacks against phone masts – 5G or otherwise – that also happened (in the UK like other countries) during the timespan between the creation of the new MI5 group and the raids which shut down the NoState server.

      Anarchists had been burning communications infrastructure (for a variety of solid reasons possibly not entirely shared by those torching the masts during the first COVID-19 lockdown onwards, though that’s another topic) for a good couple of decades or so, often communicating in plain detail their methodology and ‘recipes’, including in the UK. However, it was not until this point of the spread of the tactic outside of our own circles – while 325 hosted ‘how-to’ posters for that task and another in solidarity with Badger, a comrade underground since 2011 and sought for questioning by UK police concerning one such arson in previous years – that the Dutch cops moved against the server, while British cops launched Operation Adream and arrested the anarchist Toby Shone (see appendix). This does not seem coincidental to us.

      The operation was authorised by Max Hill, then Director of Public Prosecutions, formerly the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation and who lead the prosecution of various high-profile terror trials such as over the 2005 jihadist bombings in London (including defending the government during the case that lead to Binyam Mohamed being awarded £1m compensation after alleging MI5 complicity in his interrogation while under torture), and who was knighted this year.

      They initially charged Toby under terrorist legislation for being the 325 administrator (as well as for possession of explosive and phone-mast arson manuals, and soliciting funds deemed for terrorist purposes) – but eventually did not present evidence upon trial, although infamously his prison term for unrelated activities and bail terms have been marked by the application of anti-terror conditions regardless, the investigators continue tailing and harrassing his comrades, and the case seems far from closed. Thankfully we are not aware of any public attempts at dissociation with the accused or the project targeted from within the anarchist space, unlike during the preceding Operation Rhone (see the pamphlet ‘Dining with Vultures: Bristol Anarchists & the UK Media’ for reflections on those events which may have contributed to collective learning), despite the “terrorism” framing of the initial arrest.

      19Here in the UK we’ve recently heard threats to treat the home demonstration against a pro-Israel politician as ‘extremism’; almost comic in the face of the bloodiest massacre of the century so far in service of a settler-colonial machine (see Peter Gelderloos’ ‘Israel is Committing Genocide’ for important context) that seems to specialise in murdering children. Yet behind this disparity lies the very real need that various States across the world conducting as-yet-less-intense counter-insurgency on their respective populations have to procure the surveillance and killing technologies pioneered and battle-tested in the Gaza open-prison society. (Here in the UK, the infamous Israeli arms firm Elbit Systems – key to the current genocidal push – rents its UK headquarters directly from Somerset Council, which was targeted by activists for this reason while we were finishing this article.) On this latter point, see the recent short film by SubMedia, Gaza is an Image of the Future.

      20The Movimiento Ibérico de Liberación and the Grups Autònoms, agglomerated into OLLA by the police that hunted them. Non-vanguardist armed groups comprised of anarchists and dissident Marxists during the long Spanish dictatorship of General Franco, fighting not just for the democracy which that regime eventually transformed into voluntarily, but against capitalism in any form.

      21As we have tried to consistently do throughout the volume 6 of Return Fire, here we mean the Left not in terms of everyone whose tastes vary in a specified way from the followers of the Right, but the Left as a historical project continued by self-presenting leadership, as one sprout of a common root with the Right: the State. Each require their own specific analysis and approach when we encounter them in movements, and our attention to the more important tensions that lie beneath these labels at the non-institutional level. As Peter Gelderloos states in ‘Geopolitics for 2024’, “The Right and the Left are the two hands of the State, equally dangerous. The real line of conflict runs between above and below. However, Right and Left are not the same. The followers of the Left are mostly sincere. We need to be present to them to help spread meaningful forms of revolt, and we need to show them the true nature of their leaders. As for the Right, we must always attack its lies and paranoias. The key is to leave the door open for followers of the Right to betray authority, but never accommodating their anxieties. We need to build power based on expansive solidarity to show them what that could look like, but they need to take the step of abandoning identities based on oppression.”

      22R.F. – Joseph Dibee, from the aforementioned ‘Green Scare’ case, was one of its remaining fugitives after being snitched on by another defendant who he had previously been in a relationship with. Having escaped from the US and spent more than 10 years underground in his country of origin – Syria – and in Russia, he was captured in 2018 while flying from El Salvador on a false passport during the stop-off in Cuba, and tortured before being extradited. On trial he repented for his actions and took a plea-deal, leading to one of the charges against him (a 1998 arson of a U.S. Department of Agriculture building) being dropped. Sentenced – by the same judge, Ann Aiken, who has overseen the entire decades-long case and served terrorism enhancements to multiple of the convicted – in November 2022 to community service but no extra prison time (after 29 months of pre-trial detention, during which he was permanently disfigured by a white-supremacist attack and contracted COVID-19) and ordered to pay a portion of $1.3 million in restitution for his two highly-effective arsons. (A much-hated wild horse slaughterhouse – never rebuilt – and a wild horse corral.) He continues to use his skills for solidarity projects with indigenous peoples in so-called Alaska, who are farming kelp as salmon disappear from industrial over-fishing and climate change.

      You Can’t Catch What You Can’t See: Against Video Surveillance

       Comments Off on You Can’t Catch What You Can’t See: Against Video Surveillance
      Mar 252024
       

      From No Trace Project

      [PRINT]

      Note from the No Trace Project:

      This text is a case study of video surveillance in France, and most of its content is based on the French context. However, we believe it can be useful to an international audience because understanding how video surveillance works in France can help to understand how it works in other places, and because a lot of technical, general information is scattered throughout the text.

      Some sections of the original zine that we felt were too focused on France have not been included in this translation.


      Introduction

      In just a few years, video surveillance has become an inescapable part of daily life. Cameras were once reserved for a city’s main streets or the aisles of a supermarket, but now they are found everywhere. They have become so commonplace that we mostly don’t even notice them. However, for some of us, it is difficult to forget the weight of these little machines in our lives and methods of action. They make the areas caught in their field of vision more hostile, because being constantly spied on naturally makes people wary. We end up wondering if we look sketchy and censor ourselves. One characteristic of surveillance is this push towards normalization, making us control our own behavior out of fear of potential repression.

      “Security” through repression and control is one of the pillars of the State, which is always looking for new ways of entrenching and consolidating its domination. Video surveillance, despite being just one tool among others, plays an increasingly important role in the modern security toolbox. This is especially true because cameras support other systems that States rely on, given they don’t have an infinite supply of police. By constantly increasing their field of vision and their effectiveness by installing new cameras and using higher performance automated surveillance software, the police can increase their capacity without having to increase their numbers. But let’s be clear, the increasing use of video surveillance in the public space does not mean there are fewer police patrols in the streets.

      In addition to being a pillar of repression, video surveillance is also, by its nature, an excellent tool for discipline. Its panoptic character — meaning the sense of being potentially observed everywhere and at all times — encourages conformity. This is even more true when we know that video surveillance software is increasingly trying to detect “abnormal” behavior, like stopping in an area where you should walk, wandering when you should know where you’re going, sitting when you should be standing, gathering when you should be alone, etc. Combatting video surveillance means demanding the ability to live without having to increasingly ask ourselves what norms to comply with when we would like to do away with them all. It is a mistake to only see the cameras in the street. Power’s gaze is increasingly intruding in every place where the forces of control seek to assert themselves, like workplaces, schools, prisons, the hallways of apartment buildings, public transportation, etc. Everywhere, the State and its auxiliaries want to strengthen their presence and remind us of it. And how can we forget about the people who install cameras at their homes and whip out their smartphones at the slightest unusual thing? Whether in a demo or on a hike, there are few places or moments when we don’t have to worry about being spied on by a little snitch.

      And as we experienced during the lockdown, not even peaceful beaches, forests, and mountains are safe from the arrogant buzzing of drones[1].

      The massive rollout of cameras, improvements to them, and the promise of new uses are terrifying. It is staggering. But we don’t want to simply resign ourselves to it. The omnipresence of video surveillance doesn’t mean we can’t challenge and attack it. Simply put, we refuse to get used to it.

      Despite how it seems, these systems are far from infallible. They have weak links, cracks, and there are many ways of getting around them. The goal of this project is to put our knowledge, tips, and practices in common in order to feel stronger, giving ourselves some tools to deal with video surveillance. So it doesn’t beat us down in our daily lives or stop us from acting.

      Knowing where the cameras are, how they work, how the footage is transmitted and viewed, and how these technologies are evolving is a way of concretely giving ourselves the means to go after video surveillance and the interests they protect.

      This project is based on knowledge acquired from all over by various people and is therefore not the work of technicians or experts. That means it can’t claim to be completely exhaustive or error-free and that, given that the situation is constantly evolving, there will always be additions and modifications to be made. But this also means that there is a lot of information available to those who want to see the rubber meet the road in the struggle against video surveillance.

      “The State is watching us. Let’s put its eyes out!”

      From the streets of Levallois-Perret to the 2024 Olympics

      A brief history of video surveillance

      The first video surveillance system was created in 1942 during World War II in Germany. It was installed to surveil the launch of ballistic missiles against England. In the late 1960s, systems of this type started being developed and commercialized for civil uses, notably to surveil the public space. In 1968, the city of Olean in the United States was the first to install cameras to surveil its streets. Then, in the 1980s, the United Kingdom generalized urban video surveillance systems following attacks by the IRA (an Irish armed independence group).

      In France, the first street cameras were installed in Levallois-Perret at the start of the 1990s by Mayor Patrick Balkany, in a context of uncertain legality. The initiative was vigorously critiqued, and several complaints were made to the Commission nationale informatique et libertés (the national commission on digital technology and liberties, CNIL) despite the fact that policies aimed at security were widely supported by residents of the town. Also the system, made up of 96 cameras, was expensive and hard to use. Regardless, this first experiment unsurprisingly led to the entry of video surveillance into the French political landscape. Not long after, in 1995, a law was passed to establish a legal framework governing the installation of cameras in public spaces. Gradually, video surveillance cemented its position as an issue of public policy. During the 2001 municipal election, safety was a major theme, and the installation of cameras was presented as a key part of many electoral platforms. Following that, this trend only became more pronounced, especially following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

      In 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, put forward a motion framed in terms of anti-terrorism that loosened the conditions for using video surveillance in the public space. The popular fear of terrorism was also used as a justification for the 2007 launch of a national plan for setting up “video protection.” It’s worth noting the semantic shift which, although having no effect on the reality of video surveillance, shows the effort to make it more acceptable or desirable. Everyone would rather be protected than surveilled, after all.

      The same year, an interministerial crime prevention fund was launched with the goal of encouraging municipalities to install cameras in the public space. This fund — with money coming from fines — allowed the State to subsidize, among other things, the installation of cameras and their connection to Urban Supervision Centers (see “Urban Supervision Centers (USC)“) run by the police and the gendarmerie. In 2007, there were about 20,000 surveillance cameras on public streets. According to the Ministry of the Interior, between 2007 and 2014, 2,820 municipalities and 173 intermunicipalities were subsidized through the fund, leading to the installation of 26,614 new cameras.

      The multiplication of video surveillance systems went along with their normalization. On the one hand, the legal framework was refined, such as with the “Loppsi 2” bill that was passed in 2011 to provide direction and timelines for improving national security performance. It added to the list of outcomes that can justify the video protection of public spaces and allowed prefects (government officials in charge of security) to temporarily install cameras during demonstrations. On the other hand, cities that had no cameras up until then came under more and more pressure to install them. For example, the municipality of Villeurbanne, singled out by Sarkozy as a “dark spot” and urged on by neighbouring cities, gendarmes, business owners, and citizens, ended up installing its first cameras in 2018 and had 105 by 2021.

      After the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the November 13, 2015, attacks, the terrorist threat served once again as a pretext for putting new control measures in place. With a state of emergency declared, the expansion of video surveillance accelerated. In Paris between 2015 and 2022, the number of cameras in public streets quadrupled. But an increasing number of small municipalities are also installing video surveillance.

      When an attack occurred on July 14, 2016, Nice was already the most heavily video surveilled city in France. According to local authorities, the fact that the cameras failed to prevent the massacre just meant there weren’t enough. The rhythm of new installations increased, leading to their number growing from 1,300 in 2016 to 3,300 in 2020. In parallel, the city ran a project called “safe city,” which means a connected city where video surveillance and big data watch over everyone’s safety by means of automated surveillance software in partnership with the Thales corporation. In 2019, Nice tried out facial recognition. In the flurry, the CNIL moved to demand a legal framework for this technology. We see clearly here the way this institution serves first and foremost to democratize ever more effective methods of control.

      Public investment in the sector unsurprisingly attracted a cohort of private companies eager to make money in this booming market. Among the leaders in the sector, there are Axis and Hikvision for installation and Engie Ineo and Briefcam for data processing and analysis. These companies are, of course, helped out by the State, which ensures that the law aligns with their economic interests and favours public-private partnerships. In 2020, the combined sales of manufacturers, distributors, and installers of video surveillance equipment (materials and logistics) working with the public sector reached 300 million euros (about 330 million USD). Some companies even held promotions to sell their products to local governments.

      With the COVID-19 pandemic, many security companies seized the opportunity to offer digital surveillance solutions. For instance, in Cannes and Paris, during the lockdown, the company Datakalab tested software for detecting whether a person was wearing a mask. Once again, the CNIL pushed for the existing rules to be adapted to legalize tools like this by pointing out that they do not comply with the law. Elsewhere, the pandemic brought about the expansion of thermal cameras for checking people’s temperature at the entrances of airports, schools, businesses, and government offices. Other cities sent out drones to play messages and support police operations by filming from the sky (see “Types of cameras“).

      The terrorist threat and the war on crime or on COVID were all scarecrows that the authorities held up to make video surveillance more acceptable and to speed up its spread. That said, it is likely that even without the attacks or the pandemic, the tendency would have been basically the same. This is because, in any case, the State sees video surveillance as an incredible boon for strengthening one of its main functions: controlling individuals. It routinely seeks to push the limits of acceptability when it comes to control over our lives by following a familiar path: its pioneering experiments provoke a backlash, critiques are developed and then integrated into a law that legalizes the new measures while making us think that nothing has changed, that we are just as free as before.

      The development of video surveillance did not occur without resistance. Although we can’t say there was a large movement in opposition, neither can we ignore the initiatives and struggles against cameras. Much of this resistance has taken (and continues to take) a legalistic perspective, such as associations of local residents or human rights organizations that denounce the installation or presence of video surveillance through public campaigns and/or legal action.

      With the increasing number of cameras, other forms of contestation have emerged. One technique for fighting video surveillance is to map the cameras in public spaces so that they can be avoided or sabotaged or just to demonstrate their number. More discretely, during their installation, there have been sabotage campaigns, and after their installation, they are routinely destroyed or damaged, sometimes in highly visible ways like during a demonstration (see “Dodging and sabotaging cameras“). These struggles have been accompanied by numerous poster campaigns against video surveillance.

      The video surveillance olympics

      Today, the security industry is gleefully watching the approach of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, which is yet another pretext used by the State and local authorities to reinforce their control over the streets and the public space. We have seen this in other countries, such as in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics, when facial recognition was authorized in certain spaces. In France, it was also authorized on an experimental basis in 2019 and was tested repeatedly with varying levels of success, notably in 2020 at the entrance to the Metz stadium and during the French Open tennis tournament. It is still illegal to use in France, but companies in the sector, who have seen their annual earnings grow considerably in recent years (Thales, Idemia, IBM, XXII, etc.), have been pushing for the laws to be relaxed. Ultimately, facial recognition will not be used during these Olympic Games, but the second Olympics bill[2] will make it legal to use automated video surveillance on an experimental basis, which is a technology that, as we will see in “Automated video surveillance“, is already widely used, despite what these legislative wranglings might lead us to believe.

      This law does not only deal with the time period and the infrastructure around the Olympics as, for instance, it immediately reduces the reach of the CNIL. Although certain measures are intended to apply only during the Olympics, we can expect them to be used in advance or to continue being used afterwards. This might be the case for the body scanners being installed at the stadium entrances (despite their large price tag that could even dissuade the Olympic Committee), facilitating work on Sundays, loosening the rules around advertising, the appointment of the Paris prefect as the sole person in charge of security for the entire Île-de-France region, the increase in investigations into workers and participants in the Olympics, and also automated video surveillance.

      “2024 Olympics. Neither here, nor anywhere else.”

      Other bills that were justified to varying degrees by the upcoming Olympics have already allowed for security measures that involve video surveillance, such as for instance the “Drone 2” bill (see “Types of cameras“). But this new bill opens up fresh possibilities for experimentation with automated video surveillance[3]. This is all thanks to artificial intelligence algorithms that allow for the detection of “abnormal situations, fires, abandoned items, bottlenecks of people,” “by targeting those people who meet certain criteria or even certain categories of actions, like damaging public property.” This software would be able to issue an alert about these behaviors and analyze the footage. What constitutes a suspicious behavior and what areas are affected will be decided by decree. It will certainly be based on the same criteria the police use when stopping people in the street, by, for instance, automatically identifying people who hangout for a long time in the same area or in groups[4]. This affects the areas that will host the Olympic competitions as well as the rugby world cup in 2023, which is being considered a security test in the lead-up to the Olympics. The prefect could also authorize the use of video surveillance for any sporting or cultural event or celebration that requests it, which would then be approved by decree. The footage taken during the experimental period will be kept for one year.

      Footage taken by drones will also be usable by automated video surveillance systems. And automated video surveillance will also be usable by public transportation companies (like the SNCF, the national train company, and the RATP, which runs the Parisian metro and bus lines) on their existing camera networks. The implementation of this software will first require a live test phase in these places and during these events or by using any video surveillance footage from these events, and it could then be put in place until the end of March 2025, despite the fact that the Olympics only last two months. But, like many exceptional or experimental measures, they will then become long-lasting and get legalized.

      The Olympics and this law are opportunities to sell software, to arrange financing, and to integrate them into video surveillance systems in many cities. It is hard to imagine any municipality having a reason to get rid of it afterwards.

      Also, many municipalities where the Olympic Games will take place are preparing to strengthen their public safety arsenal with the help of the State, which generally covers 50% of the cost of cameras in cities through dedicated funds (the SEPD in rural areas, the interministerial crime prevention fund in cities) using equipment that is often delivered with automated video surveillance software. In Saint-Denis, a brand new urban supervision center was opened in 2021. Its network, which counted 93 cameras in 2022, will be expanded to over 500 cameras by 2024, and local politicians are planning to equip the video surveillance system with artificial intelligence to automate the reporting of infractions. The Ministry of the Interior has announced that it wants to add 500 new cameras in Paris and 330 in Marseille (where the boating events will take place), for a total of 44 million euros dedicated to the interministerial crime prevention fund.

      Down with the Olympics!

      Types of cameras

      There are a huge number of different types of video surveillance cameras that vary in several ways: appearance, resolution, mobility, mode (infrared, thermal…), field of vision, zoom, and so on. We can, however, identify a few broad categories of camera.

      • Directional or fixed cameras

      They surveil a single plane of varying size and may have a zoom. Their shape gives a sense of the area they surveil. They are often used to surveil places that people have to pass through, such as a hallway or an entryway.

      • Mobile PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras

      They can pivot 360°, tilt up or down up to 180°, and have an optical zoom. Because of their characteristics, they are often used to surveil wide areas.

      • Fixed and mobile dome cameras

      Dome cameras are cameras installed inside a semicircle of glass. They are widely used because they are resistant to “vandalism” and because their dome is generally opaque and so does not allow you to see where the lens is pointed. They are marketed as being more discreet. These cameras can be either fixed or mobile (pivoting 180° and tilting up or down).

      • Panoramic, multi-sensor cameras

      Multisensor cameras are cameras that have several sensors in a single body and so allow for a panoramic view within a given angle (up to 360°) by presenting the images from its different sensors side by side. This means it is several cameras in one (because of its multiple sensors), which is an “advantage” from a technical perspective — only one camera to install — and from a surveillance perspective — it gives a panoramic view. These cameras are widely used in airports, transit stations, intersections, public squares, and anywhere a panoramic view is useful.

      The following image shows a camera with four sensors that allows for a 180° view. A selling point of these cameras, according to their manufacturers, is that they offer a panoramic view without a loss of image quality. In fact, compared to cameras with a single wide-angle lens, panoramic cameras with multiple sensors allow for a higher quality panoramic view.

      The next image shows a camera that looks like a spaceship or a flying saucer that is becoming more and more common in urban areas. The upper part of the camera is shaped like a crown and has between four and eight sensors that provide a panoramic 360° view in high quality. But in addition, it also has a PTZ camera (in the semicircle under the crown) that allows it to get “clear and detailed close-ups that are very useful in court.”

      The final image shows a type of camera that is very common in Paris. The cops call them “Plater.” With cameras that look like an animal’s nipples or a bunch of grapes, they can also get a 360° panoramic image using the various cameras spread out above as well as high-quality close-ups of specific scenes with the PTZ camera underneath.

      • Nomadic cameras

      Their distinguishing trait is that they can be moved very easily. They are of various types according to the specific needs, and so can be fixed, dome, 360°, or others. Most often, they are attached to a street light so as to tie into the electrical supply. They are equipped with a battery (the white box above the globe) which recharges at night when the street light is turned on. They operate autonomously during the day using the electricity stored in the battery. They can also record to storage and have a means of wireless transmission, which can be wifi, 3G, 4G… These cameras serve to provide temporary surveillance in a given space: “important works that require surveillance, events, time-limited security problems in an area, illegal dumping, demonstrations,” etc.

      • Drones

      In the last several years, first at borders and then in the streets during demonstrations or during the first lockdown, a new type of surveillance camera has made an appearance, one that is extremely mobile and can be deployed rapidly according to the needs of the police. These are drones, or “aircraft travelling with no one aboard” as they are defined in law. Although they were in use long before a legal framework existed, the State recently passed legislation regarding their use by the police following a complaint from the group “Quadrature du net” and France’s Human Rights League. This was first attempted in 2021 in the global security bill, but was overturned by the constitutional oversight committee. A few months later, the same provisions were inserted in another law, this one dealing with “criminal responsibility and national security” also known as “Drone 2”, with a few modifications to make explicit the conditions under which drones can be used, and it was passed successfully in January 2022.

      Excluding the municipal police, cops can now officially use drones to film during specific timeframes and in specific locations with authorization from the prefect. The list of situations where they can be used is limited but sufficiently vague to be applied anywhere and anytime: “The prevention of threats to the safety of people and property, the safety of gatherings in public streets, the prevention of terrorist acts, traffic regulation, border surveillance, aid to persons,” and for the needs of a police or judicial investigation into serious crimes or certain lesser offences.

      Drones are very discreet, but they still make an easily recognizable noise that sounds like the buzzing of a huge swarm of bees.

      • Body and vehicle-mounted cameras

      There are other kinds of highly mobile cameras that are worth mentioning. For instance, there are those that police wear on their chests, so-called bodycams, that they can turn on and off with a single click. They record sounds and images which are stored for six months, and they can also transmit directly to the police station. These cameras show a green light when they are running and red when they are recording, and it is worth noting that it is not necessarily the cop wearing the camera who turns it on, since they can be activated at a distance. Be careful, because the device can store up to two minutes of footage before it is activated and two minutes after it is turned off. Although they were not widespread and had poor quality until recently, in 2021 the national government announced they would be generalized to all police forces and to all officers (both police and gendarmes) in the whole country. The company Motorola won the public contract, which is worth an estimated 15 million euros for 30,000 devices, to increase and modernize the stock. The use of bodycams was also expanded by recent laws to include forestry officers and public transit fare inspectors on an experimental basis, for now.

      It is also planned that by 2023 all police vehicles will be equipped with a vehicle-mounted camera. The general security law also allows for tests of front-facing cameras mounted on trains and buses that are, for the moment, intended to analyze any accidents that occur.

      Image quality

      Video surveillance undeniably increases the State’s capacity to control, but to what extent does it actually help those who want to spy on us? The footage isn’t helpful if it isn’t usable! It is therefore important to understand the technical performance of the various cameras in terms of image quality while also grasping their limitations. They are able to detect “abnormal” activities and trigger police action, but only in their limited field of vision. They can help to identify individuals, but only within the limits of their precision. They can provide colour images by day, but generally not by night… All these limitations are constantly being addressed by their manufacturers as the technology improves.

      How precise are surveillance cameras?

      How far away can a camera, and therefore also those behind the screens, see us? Obviously, there are as many answers to this question as there are types of cameras with their own performance specifications. Still, French municipalities logically all tend to install equipment with similar capacities, following the same offers on the video surveillance market and the same expert opinions. Based on broad trends, we can begin to provide an approximate answer to the question posed above.

      The precision of a camera depends primarily on two technical specifications: image resolution — namely the number of pixels that make up the image — and field of vision — the larger it is, the less precise the image.

      As with television screens, manufacturers are racing to have the highest resolution, and cities update their equipment accordingly. If full HD (1920 × 1080 pixels), or 2 million pixels, remains the most common resolution today, more and more cameras with four, five, or even six million pixels are being installed to film wide areas. Panoramic multisensor cameras are currently migrating from 12 megapixel definition (four lenses with three million pixels each) towards 20 or 32 million pixel definition. The spaceship-like cameras made up of four to eight fixed cameras arranged in a crown with a motorized PTZ camera in the center increasingly have 40 million pixels (5 × 8 million). These are the new standards for the installation or replacement of cameras, but such projects also have limits based on price and data storage. Many video surveillance systems are still equipped with full HD cameras (2 million pixels) or even just HD (1280 × 720 pixels). That said, PTZ’s with full HD are still precise enough to read licence plates with their zoom.

      If we know a camera’s resolution, we can get a general sense of its ability to spy on us in daylight. More specifically, using optical formulas, we can calculate the maximum distance within which surveillance operations can be carried out without complications. These calculations should be done in three steps.

      Step 1: Knowing the minimum pixel density required for the images to be usable

      This is called spatial resolution. For instance, if the cops want to read a licence plate, the image of the plate must be made up of a minimum number of pixels or else it won’t be readable. In the same way, identification through facial recognition requires that the image produced have at least 80 pixels between the face’s eyes. The camera’s spatial resolution, or its pixel density, can be expressed as the number of pixels in an image that correspond to a meter in reality. Here are the spatial resolutions, in pixels/meter, recommended by the Geneva Security Forum (a professional association for the sector) in 2016 on one hand, and by the judicial wing of the national gendarmerie on the other, to achieve different objectives:

      • To “roughly understand an event in order to decide whether or not to trigger an intervention”:
        • Geneva Security Forum: Between 1 and 30 pixels/meter
        • Gendarmerie: 30 pixels/meter
      • To “verify the materiality of an event that has been the subject of an alert: differentiate between individuals, understand their interaction, see in which direction they are moving, in order to trigger an intervention or not”:
        • Geneva Security Forum: 30 pixels/meter
        • Gendarmerie: 100 pixels/meter
      • To “recognize an individual or object if it has been seen before”:
        • Geneva Security Forum: 50 pixels/meter
      • To “read license plates”:
        • Geneva Security Forum: 100 pixels/meter
        • Gendarmerie: 200 pixels/meter

      We can well imagine that these recommendations are intended to push municipalities towards ever more advanced equipment. They should be understood as requirements for optimal video surveillance conditions rather than as thresholds below which the various operations listed stop being possible. As can be seen, the guidelines of the Geneva Security Forum on this subject are much less stringent than those of the judicial wing of the national gendarmerie.

      To get an approximate sense of the State’s capacity to spy, it is better to base it on the lowest requirements in terms of spatial resolution, as these refer to conditions that are less than ideal for police work but where it is still possible. So we will use the numbers given by the Geneva Security Forum.

      Step 2: Estimating the width of the maximum field of view that the camera can film while still maintaining the pixel density level given above

      This is the horizontal field of view. For a given total number of pixels, the higher the pixel density required, the narrower the field of vision. To measure it, we can apply the following formula:

      Horizontal field of vision in meters = 2 x horizontal image definition in pixels / spatial resolution in pixels per meter

      The horizontal image definition is the maximum number of pixels in an image on the horizontal axis. For example, the horizontal definition of an image in full HD (1920 × 1080 pixels) is 1920 pixels. In HD (1280 × 720 pixels), it is 1280 pixels.

      Step 3: Measuring the maximum distance between the lens and the target of observation within which the camera captures an optimal image for the purpose of a given surveillance operation

      To measure this distance, we can use the following formula:

      Distance in meters = focal length in millimeters x horizontal field of vision in meters / height of the image sensor in millimeters

      The image sensor inside the camera is a photosensitive surface shaped like a rectangle that captures the image. The larger this surface, the wider the field of vision. For video surveillance cameras, its size varies from 6 millimeters to 11 millimeters on the diagonal. For our calculations, we will take the largest value (11 mm), given that a wide angle is required for surveilling public space.

      The focal length is the distance between the image sensor and the camera’s lens (see the following diagram). The shorter it is, the wider the field of vision and the lower the image precision, since the pixels are more dispersed for a given number of pixels. And in fact, the focal length for cameras in cities is usually small (around 3 millimeters) in order to get a wide view on a section of street, an intersection, or a square. However, cameras are increasingly equipped with a variable focal length, which is commonly known as a zoom. Cameras like PTZs have a zoom that generally allows the focal length to increase from 2.8 mm to 12 mm, but more powerful zooms exist and are becoming more common, some of which allow the focal length to be increased 43 times.

      Focal length diagram

      How to find out the resolution and focal length of a street camera?

      Knowing the technical data for a particular camera may be tricky, but it’s possible to obtain some general information that will give you some pointers.

      Depending on the year of installation, we can guess at the maximum resolution of a camera. A camera installed before 2019 will most likely have a resolution of no more than full HD (1920×1080 pixels), according to the experts at AN2V (the French national association for video protection) in their “Pixels” guides.

      Depending on their shape, PTZ cameras, that have variable focal lengths, can sometimes be distinguished from dome cameras, that have fixed focal lengths. PTZ cameras are often larger and systematically suspended from a horizontal arm. In the case of multi-sensor cameras, the central lens is probably a PTZ with a zoom lens, or at least a PTZ camera.

      Depending on the camera’s position, when its focal length is fixed, you can guess its value. In a large space, such as a square or crossroads, the focal length will be reduced, often to around 3mm, for wide shots. In a narrow street, the focal length will usually be higher, to optimize image quality.

      Depending on the brand, which in some cases is printed or indicated with a sticker on the camera, you can find technical information, or even the model, by consulting the product catalog on the Internet.

      Three examples of commonly used cameras

      For each of them, we can estimate the distance beyond which the image is no longer optimally useful.

      The calculations in the diagram here are theoretical and should not cause us to ignore the full range of possibilities, in particular when it comes to recognizing or identifying an individual. In certain cases, a low-precision image might be enough to recognize a person if the local police already know them well. And also, even when the images themselves are not enough, they can still provide different levels of detail, such as the colour of someone’s hair or the brand of their shoes which, in certain circumstances, can lead to the positive identification of an individual when paired with other information (such as testimonies). In particular, interpreting images to identify a person or to determine what they are doing relies on the judgment of the police who are running the investigation and the judge at trial. The police can claim to have identified someone by using other evidence from the investigation.

      Can cameras really see at night?

      One of the main difficulties with video surveillance is getting usable images when light levels are very low or very high (backlighting). Yet, municipalities are often only able to install traditional daytime cameras that rely on street lighting to continue filming in colour at night. In such cases, image quality is greatly reduced once darkness falls. The poor lighting conditions cause the image to be affected by what is known as “digital noise,” which refers to many lighter and darker patches that give the image a grainy look.

      Still, there are a number of technologies that can be used to optimize image quality in twilight and at night. Many cameras are now equipped with WDR (Wide Dynamic Range) which allows them to simultaneously correct over- and underexposure. To get a sense of how this works, the latest developments in WDR have a level of performance approximately equal to that of the human eye when dealing with backlighting and they are significantly better in twilight. However, WDR still only allows for black and white images at night.

      To film at night, many video surveillance systems are equipped with cameras called “day/night.” These have integrated infrared LEDs that are usually spread around the image sensor and produce a faint but visible red glow. At night, their footage is based on the infrared lights reflecting off people and objects. When the sun comes up, a visible light detector activates a mechanical filter that covers the image sensor. This prevents the infrared light from reaching the sensor, which would distort the colours in footage captured using visible light. The filter gets removed when the sun goes down again.

      Although this technique allows for much clearer images at night by eliminating digital noise, it still has an important limitation: images produced using infrared LEDs are black and white (greyscale). Without colour, it is naturally more difficult to recognize an individual’s clothing, bike, or car.

      Tips and tricks for infrared LED cameras!

      Materials with certain reflective properties, such as shiny clothing (or the reflective strip on a yellow vest), can sometimes be captured in unexpected shades of gray by infrared cameras. For example, a black jacket of a certain material might appear in a much lighter shade, and vice versa.

      You could also create your own infrared overexposure to make yourself anonymous. Some say that self-lighting with infrared LEDs creates overexposure of the camera sensor at night, just as when taking a photo with backlighting. For example, a cap fitted with infrared LEDs on the visor would prevent the cameras from recognizing faces at night.

      If you’re not sure whether it’s a camera with infrared LEDs, you can check with your own camera. Camera lenses, like those installed on some smartphones, are capable of capturing wavelengths longer than those of the visible spectrum, including infrared. So when you take a photo of an infrared emitter, infrared appears on the screen.

      Furthermore, the range of these types of cameras is often quite limited, since the quantity of infrared light emitted is not sufficient to create usable images beyond a distance of about 30 to 40 meters. The smaller the number of LEDs, the lower the camera’s range. To increase their range, infrared floodlights are sometimes installed alongside. These are a sort of spotlight with a white or black screen that turns on automatically when it gets dark. The use of these powerful LEDs alongside cameras can provide a clear image at a distance, but at very close range (a few meters), it can result in overexposure, which can make it impossible to make out a person’s face.

      Another kind of camera capable of filming at night is so-called thermal cameras. In fact, these are heat sensors that are sensitive to the infrared heat emitted or reflected by bodies and other objects according to their temperature, regardless of the lighting conditions. They are not used to recognize or identify people, because their resolution is low (generally 352 × 288 pixels or 704 × 576 pixels), but rather to detect the presence of people in a wide area. They can be found on military sites, industrial facilities that handle toxins, and critical industrial infrastructure as well as on the gendarmerie’s helicopters and at certain border crossing points.

      Thermal cameras for border control

      For several years now, cops on the beaches of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France, have been using thermal imaging cameras to detect migrants wishing to cross the English Channel.

      In 2021, the Greek state installed thermal cameras along its entire border with Turkey. Spain plans to do the same at Mellila (a Spanish enclave in Morocco), in an attempt to prevent the regular attacks on the three eight-meter-high fences by migrants wishing to reach Europe.

      Example of an image captured by a thermal camera, rendered in black and white.

      Maintenance challenges and technical difficulties

      To optimize their field of view and to protect them from a well-placed hammer blow, cameras are often installed at the top of a street light or post, about 7 or 8 meters off the ground. But this comes with several drawbacks for their operation, in particular the maintenance challenges that result. Even a small technical problem means bringing in a lift truck, which can be expensive. This leads to many cases where cameras don’t function as well as they could because they are not cleaned or repaired in a timely manner.

      For instance, it is not unusual that day/night cameras with infrared LEDs get stuck in either day mode or night mode because the visible light detector is dirty, leading to the infrared filter staying on or off. If the filter is permanently in place, then the camera will film in black and white during the day and at night. If it is permanently deactivated, then the images shot at night are full of digital noise. A buildup of dirt on the LEDs can also greatly impact the quality of the footage, since the infrared lighting is partly blocked. Additionally, the heat of the LEDs attracts insects, in particular moths, that fly in front of the lens.

      When installed up high, the camera’s field of view might be blocked by tree branches, which can make the images less usable, as can weather, like rain, fog, snow, and low-angle sunlight.

      Example of an image captured by a camera after raindrops have accumulated on the camera’s lens.

      Sticking cameras on top of a pole might protect them from vandalism, but it exposes them to another difficulty that, although minor, is still interesting to mention, and that is the degradation of the images due to the movement of the pole. The higher the camera, the more its footage is affected by the pole’s movements. Is it possible that a strong wind can help us stay anonymous? In any case, thermal cameras are particularly sensitive to movement, and image processing software doesn’t tolerate a difference of more than 0.015 millimeters between each point in the transmitted image.

      Camera service life

      While most cameras are designed to operate optimally for at least five years, infrared LEDs may only last for 20,000 hours, i.e. just two years of use if they are left on all the time, day and night. Replacing the LEDs every two years seems a complicated and costly maintenance operation, and one that may not be carried out on a regular basis.

      Urban Supervision Centers (USC)

      Most public video surveillance systems have an Urban Supervision Center (USC) where the footage from each camera is sent. There are some cities that don’t have them, though. In those cases, either the video surveillance is only being used as research after the fact as part of a criminal investigation and is therefore not being watched in real time, or the footage can be watched directly in the city’s police station. Apart from this latter case, surveillance typically goes through the Urban Supervision Center. Their modes of operation are not standardized nationally, and so it is worth learning about how they work in your city, which may be different from others. In this section, we will examine how USCs work: Who is watching the cameras? How? Using what equipment? And with what goal?

      Image transmission from cameras to USCs

      In recent years, digital cameras (“IP” cameras), which use the Internet to transmit images, have gradually replaced analog cameras, which use coaxial cables or radio waves (RLAN network: 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz frequency bands). In large cities, IP cameras are often connected to the fiber-optic network, enabling large quantities of video data to be transported to viewing stations and storage locations. In neighborhoods and municipalities where there is no fiber optic network, IP cameras are networked with Ethernet cables, or by wireless means such as WiFi or 3G/4G/5G networks. In Nice, for example, images are transmitted via the fiber-optic network, and by radio waves in areas where there is no fiber-optic network. In Strasbourg, data transmission is with Ethernet where no fiber is present. While wireless means of transmission have the advantage of reducing the risk of cable sabotage and facilitating camera installation, they are more limited in terms of data flow and open the door to other types of sabotage. For some years now, installers have been praising the virtues of 5G, which could partially solve this problem, with a transfer rate 14 times faster than 4G. The optimization of video surveillance is even one of the arguments put forward for the deployment of the 5G network.

      USC operators

      Every USC has a person who is legally responsible for the system. For public video surveillance systems, this is almost always the city’s mayor. It is pretty easy to figure out who this person is by looking at the city’s administrative newsletters and then it is possible to put pressure on them in one way or another. In terms of the other people and companies involved in the maintenance, installation, or communications of the system, more research is required and the information won’t always be available. In addition, the USC has “operators”. These are the people responsible for watching the footage from the cameras and triggering alerts. They might alert about anything from a fire to property crime, and could be involved in regulating traffic or issuing video tickets.

      There are three things about the operators that we feel deserve attention. The first is the legal question of who can surveil public roads. It is currently illegal to entrust the surveillance of public roads to the personnel of a private company or to send public footage to a private company for analysis. In other words, the municipality is responsible for recruiting operators. In fact, municipalities need to recruit agents for this work or else assign the work to their existing agents. This is why most of the bootlickers who work in USCs are municipal cops and traffic enforcement officers. Also, the installation of video surveillance systems in cities is quite often accompanied by the creation of a municipal police force — in such cases, the USC is likely found in their headquarters. It is also worth noting that there is not, for the moment, a common training for video surveillance operators in France.

      The second point deals with the ratio of cameras to operators. It is safe to say that there are generally too many cameras for the number of operators to watch them all. Video surveillance companies typically say that a single agent can’t effectively watch more than five to eight screens at once. If we look at Nice’s USC for example, which is the largest in France, we can see that the operators are understaffed. There are 2,510 cameras, which means they would need to always have between 314 and 592 operators, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so that all the cameras can be constantly and effectively surveilled. But this is not the case, since only about a hundred operators work there, which means that under normal circumstances there aren’t more than that. In Paris, according to 2020 numbers, there are 427 operator positions for 4,000 cameras. The same trend holds for smaller cities. For instance, Poissy (39,000 residents) has only three surveillance monitors for its 80 cameras and seven operators to watch them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In these cases, the operators are watching between three and five times too many cameras to be “effective.” We also know that, in many smaller cities, the USCs are not staffed at night, except for on certain specific days like December 31. Others have reduced staff at night, which further reduces the likelihood, which is already low during the day, of getting caught in the act during these hours. The footage may also be transmitted to the police station during the night. There is no standard practice in terms of when the cameras are being watched.

      The third point deals with an operator’s typical workday. According to one study, operators carry out a number of defined tasks during their workday. First of all, they carry out rounds of passive surveillance, which means quickly switching between all the cameras in order to catch anything unusual or any technical problem. Then, they carry out active surveillance, which means actively searching for crimes in progress. The operators often focus on cameras that show areas considered “at risk” and on individuals who are also seen this way (obviously, these are poor people, racialized people, youths, groups, people who are running, and so on). Also, in most USCs, the operators have to take notes about their activities and about information relayed by the police, which takes up a considerable portion of their time. Finally, operators spend a lot of their time not doing surveillance. Whether they take breaks or look at footage for reasons other than surveillance (one study describes an operator who was constantly looking at their own car to check that it hadn’t been vandalized or stolen and another operator who spent his time checking out women and commenting on their appearance). This is why all the literature about the operator’s work constantly emphasizes the fact that it’s a shitty, boring job with high turnover. It isn’t easy to take this information into account for our own activities, but we can at least be reassured that, despite the impressive technology in place, the human element can still fuck it all up. In this perspective, a study from 2010 states that during the 120 hours that “anthropologists” were watching the operators work, there were “no criminals identified either in real time or after the fact.” Although we should take into account that how rare it is for operators to catch crimes in progress might have changed since 2010, they still don’t have the ability to observe everything that’s happening in the video stream they are watching. In a later section, we will discuss how the goal of automated video surveillance is to improve the efficacy of video surveillance.

      The supervision area

      Every surveillance station is equipped with a few things: a computer with a “human-machine interface”; two screens: a small one for the graphical user interface (often a map showing all the surveillance cameras) and another that shows the footage; a steering joystick for mobile cameras; and a means of communication for contacting emergency services (cops, firefighters, and so on). From these basic elements, each USC is organized in its own way based on its size and its surveillance goals.

      Let’s look at the example of Nice’s USC again, as it is the “vanguard” of video surveillance, to see one way that a supervision center can operate and be set up. In 2020, the USC handled footage from 2,510 cameras. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is located in the municipal police station. About a hundred operators work there. From an equipment perspective, the USC is made up of three rooms with a total of about 90 screens. The first room handles events related to public space. Its goal is to prevent crimes against people and property in progress. The images can be relayed in real time “to the national police, the border police, or the gendarmerie.” The municipal police boasts that its CSU has led to 4,227 arrests in just under nine years, which works out to a little more than one arrest a day. This room is also responsible for “preventing natural or technological hazards, helping people in need, and fire prevention.” The second room handles “the protection of schools and public transit (streetcars and buses),” and we know that the streetcar system has 900 cameras and that there is a camera in front of every school. The third room is dedicated to video ticketing and traffic control. In addition to cameras, Nice’s USC is connected to the alarm system in public buildings and to a system that allows business owners and other citizens who have been trained by the municipal police to send SMS alerts.

      What do these operators do?

      Remote control of cameras

      Concretely, operators have a map in front of them that shows all the cameras, a viewing monitor, and a joystick. The operations they can carry out are basically as follows. They select a camera on the map. They view it on the viewing monitor. They can then zoom in or aim the camera, if it has a zoom and is mobile, by means of the joystick in order to carry out more precise surveillance. If the operator notices an “offence” or “uncivil behavior” in the view of a camera but the target leaves the camera’s view, they can try using the graphical interface to track them. They then take control of the next camera. It is important to note that this operation is only possible when there are lots of cameras.

      Automatic programmed operations

      In addition to the operators’ basic surveillance described above, they can also program the cameras in four different ways:

      Dynamic masking: They can mask parts of a camera’s field of view, often those parts that a camera is not allowed to observe. This function is often used to mask private spaces that are captured by public cameras. Legally, this is always supposed to be done.

      Prepositioning: This function involves assigning positions to a mobile camera. It is possible to assign several positions on a timed cycle. The camera then spends so much time on one area and so much time on another according to its program.

      Memorizing a frame: When an operator is steering a camera, they can memorize a point of interest (a frame) so as to be able to return to it through a simple action at their convenience after having moved the same camera or after setting it to cycle.

      Freezing a camera: This function involves the use of a command to freeze a camera on a given frame. The camera will only be released following another command from the operator.

      Alerting the police

      One of the major operations carried out by operators is to alert the police (excluding video ticketing where operators are authorized to issue tickets independently after having identified a vehicle’s licence plates).

      Once an illegal activity or an “unusual” individual has been identified, the operator’s role is to issue an alert and potentially follow the police’s response in real time or even guide them. In the latter case, the operator does not only alert the police about an incident, but follows the individual in order to guide the police.

      In some USCs. such as in Vitrolles, a system is in place to relay live footage directly to the police. This makes it possible for the police to follow someone themselves rather than going through the USC. In police stations that have these systems, it is possible for the police to not only access live footage, but also “take over the camera and steer it autonomously if necessary.” In some cities, such as Crépy-en-Valois and Bagnolet, the municipal police have direct access to all the surveillance cameras in the city on their electronic tablets thanks to an “ultrasecure” wifi network that gives them access to the footage on demand. It is thus clear that there are multiple procedures for issuing alerts and passing along live footage. Sometimes the operators issue the alert and do the follow-up while other times there are systems in place to transmit images or allow for cameras to be steered by the police themselves.

      Video ticketing

      Video ticketing enables authorized operators to identify traffic violations filmed by a camera on their control screen. Images of the vehicle, its license plate and potentially its occupants are captured to prove the offence. The operator then electronically issues an official report, which will be used to issue a fine at the home address of the holder of the vehicle registration document. The following offences may be identified:

      • Failure to obey signals requiring vehicles to stop (red lights, stop signs, etc.).
      • Failure to comply with speed limits.
      • Failure to respect safety distances between vehicles.
      • Use of lanes and roadways reserved for certain categories of vehicles, such as buses and cabs.
      • Failure to wear seat belts.
      • Use of hand-held cell phones.
      • Driving, stopping or parking on emergency lanes.
      • Overlapping and crossing solid lines.
      • Non-compliance with overtaking rules.
      • Failure to respect bicycle lanes.
      • Failure to wear a helmet on a motorized two-wheeled vehicle.
      • Since 2019, the offence of not having insurance is also subject to fines.

      Integrating video surveillance systems

      In the past several years, many politicians, managers, and other boosters of technologies of control have been encouraging the development of methods of integrating video surveillance with the goal of reducing costs and surveilling wider areas. Sometimes, their desires have run up against legislation that was a bit too restrictive for their liking. But, since the 2007 crime prevention bill and the 2021 global security law, the final barriers to this have fallen. Today, different levels of local governments, regardless of their type, can acquire, install, and maintain an integrated video surveillance network. These networks transmit footage taken on public roads or in areas open to the public in their member municipalities to a regional USC. Then, by means of centralized mechanisms for viewing recordings, the footage is used by municipal police and regional officers.

      Departmental and regional governments can also set up video surveillance systems around public buildings and structures in their sector that they are responsible for (schools, roads, administrative buildings).

      However, integration of this kind is the exception rather than the rule. But the national video protection association (AN2V) is already running a campaign to encourage the spread of video surveillance by convincing local representatives to join integration projects. In their words, it is a matter of avoiding “gaps in the security continuum,” notably by being able to track someone’s movements between municipalities. They also see it as a way of combatting “passive cameras” whose footage is not watched and can only be used after being requisitioned by the police or the gendarmerie, whereas with a USC and its agents watching the monitors, the police and the mayor can be alerted in real time. One of AN2V’s targets are the approximately 35,000 municipalities of fewer than 10,000 residents in France, mostly rural or suburban, that don’t have the funds to get their own USC. To convince them, AN2V is relying on increasingly sophisticated forms of automated video surveillance. This allows them to reduce the number of operators, as they won’t be required to observe a large number of screens, but rather just receive alerts from the computer.

      In the meantime, there are already some examples that can give us a sense of what integration allows for (integration between Paris and the surrounding cities will be discussed in “Video surveillance in the Paris area“).

      The “Plaine vallée” agglomeration (18 municipalities with 183,806 residents) in the Val-d’Oise, is a pioneer in this area. Since 2007, it has established a regional video protection system made up of 212 cameras covering the whole territory (75 km²) as well as 18 nomadic cameras. Twenty-three operators split between two USCs provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

      Seine-et-Yvelines Numérique (SYN) is a mixed, open association that counts two departments in the Île-de-France region among its members (Hauts-de-Seine and Yvelines) as well as thirty municipalities in those departments, nine agglomerations of municipalities, and organizations like SDIS 78 (the Yvelines emergency fire service). Their mission includes integrating the video protection departments of public institutions. This started with the cameras on 116 middle schools, 70 administrative buildings, and 43 fire stations in the Yvelines department. More than 1,900 cameras have been installed to date. Because of the global security law, SYN is now planning to integrate the video protection systems in the public space, which involves linking together each city’s systems. This was piloted in a few cities and agglomerations in 2022 before being opened up in 2023 for more cities to opt in.

      The Centre de supervision de l’Eurométropole de Strasbourg (supervision center for the European urban area of Strasbourg) manages 426 cameras on public streets in 25 municipalities as of early 2022 as well as 300 in spaces that are open to the public. And other municipalities that do not have their own equipment are on the verge of being integrated into the system. In 2014, sensors were installed in Strasbourg on an experimental basis. But, as is often the case, they have remained in place. They are capable of detecting the sound signatures of “situations that threaten to disrupt the peace in public spaces at night” and of alerting the agents who are watching the cameras.

      The Centre intercommunal urbain de vidéoprotection (urban area video protection center) in Nîmes is an integrated network of almost 1,000 cameras with 20 operators who watch them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across the 22 municipalities of the Nîmes metropolitan area. Behind a mosaic of 33 screens that can each show footage from 24 cameras, five teams of four operators watch in turn.

      Building lobbies

      Real-time viewing of cameras in the halls of residential buildings can be passed on to the cops by decision of the co-owners in the event of occupation of common areas. In the event of an “emergency” following an alert from the building manager, the cops can dispense with the owners’ authorization.

      Footage in the courts

      We’ve covered cases where footage is watched in real time. But in terms of footage that is watched after the fact in the context of a legal proceeding, there are several things to note. First, footage is only saved for a maximum of thirty days, beyond which time it must be erased unless courts have requested for it to be kept. Each USC sets its own timeframe for saving footage (generally between fifteen and thirty days). Also, the footage can only be sent to the police if it is part of certain types of investigations, such as a flagrancy investigation, a preliminary inquiry, or a judicial investigation. There is an exception to this in the law that deals with “emergency situations or heightened risk of terrorist acts.” However, in practice, video surveillance departments sometimes pass along footage outside of any legal framework. One example is Alexandre Benalla, a former security officer for the French president, who got access to video surveillance footage without a judicial request.

      There are criteria for how footage can be turned over to the police: it needs to be given directly to them in hard copy; there cannot be any cutting of the footage; it is generally done using a medium that can’t be rewritten (like a USB key or a CD); and the footage is in a format that can’t be read using standard market software. The police then describe the footage in a written statement that can include screenshots, which is included in the judicial file (along with the sealed physical copy).

      It is important to note that private video surveillance footage can also be used in criminal proceedings. Banks, businesses, individuals… These kinds of video surveillance cameras are rapidly increasing. Technically, they need to be authorized by the prefect before they can be installed with an explanation about why, for instance, it’s necessary to surveil the area around the building. Cameras owned by individuals are not allowed to film public roads, but in practice this is increasingly the case. It is possible that the use of such footage by the police could be challenged in court.

      In any case, private footage can be requisitioned by the police or they can be spontaneously passed on by zealous property owners. It is important to remember to be wary of intercoms equipped with cameras, as some of these film constantly or are motion activated, have night vision, or can save footage. In the United States, Amazon’s Ring has made agreements with the police, who can contact any user of their smart doorbells within 400 meters of a crime. This lets them collect up to 12 hours of footage without a warrant. Things haven’t reached this point in France, but there have been cases where intercom footage was provided after the fact to police, such as Ivan’s case in the Paris area in 2022[5]. The length of time that footage from private cameras can be stored is in theory limited to 30 days, as is the case with public cameras.

      An example of doorbell cameras.

      Automated video surveillance

      Types of automated video surveillance software

      Automated or algorithmic video surveillance, which is also called augmented or smart video surveillance by those who market it, is presented as the future of the field. Everyone involved agrees that the increase in the number of cameras, following current trends, needs to go along with automated video surveillance. This is because, although the number of cameras is increasing, the number of operators is not keeping pace. As we have seen, there are never enough operators to watch all the cameras live, especially not effectively. Without automated video surveillance, increasing the number of cameras per operator reduces the quality of the surveillance.

      Automated video surveillance software is thus trying to make it so that all camera footage gets analyzed according to certain criteria in order to alert the operators who then assess the validity of the alert. In other words, automated video surveillance allows for the number of cameras to increase without overwhelming the operators with too much footage.

      Because it is so important, more and more software of this kind is being marketed by companies. It involves adding a layer of algorithms to “classic” video surveillance cameras. The goal here is to automate the analysis of camera footage which has thus far been analyzed by humans.

      Most smart software can be added to any array of existing cameras — there is no need to have a certain kind of camera or infrastructure, it is just a matter of adding the software to the video surveillance interface.

      Until the second Olympics law (see “From the streets of Levallois-Perret to the 2024 Olympics“), there was no legislation specifically governing automated video surveillance. That said, it was not illegal to use it. In an opinion published in July 2022, the CNIL made a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate uses. They considered it legitimate to be used for statistical purposes as long as the results were anonymous. For example: “A system that serves to calculate the number of people in a subway train in order to show travellers which lines are least busy so they can use them.” It was considered illegitimate if used to identify or prosecute crimes. An example is the software used in Marseille to detect damage to street furniture. Also, they pointed out that in any case, the rules around data protection include the right to opt out of being processed by an algorithm, which is absolutely not applied or even applicable in almost all cases. This opinion by the CNIL might leave you thinking they were opening the door to banning this technology which is, as we know, already used in “legitimate” and “illegitimate” ways in at least fifty cities across France. But this was clearly not the case as, on the contrary, the CNIL called for the immediate creation of a new legal framework for automated video surveillance. The second Olympics law is the first step. In other words, rather than pushing to outlaw uses that don’t conform to the laws in place, the CNIL wants to begin legalizing them.

      These are the software features that we are sure are actually being used in cities in France:

      Automatic licence plate recognition (ALPR)

      This technology identifies vehicle licence plates using optical character recognition. To film licence plates at night, the cameras emit infrared light. The software automatically reads the licence plates and sends an alert if it detects a plate number that is found in a predefined database. These readers allow for an alert to be generated when a positive link is made between a licence plate and these files. The cameras capture and store images of the licence plates and of the vehicles as well as the date, time, and location of each vehicle photographed before transmitting that information to the police. When a vehicle is not linked to the database, these details and images are saved for a maximum of eight days; if there is a positive link, they can be saved for up to a month.

      The database in France that is used for comparisons and alerts is made up of files from the FOVeS files (record of objects and vehicles reported stolen) and the SIS files (Schengen information system). The SIS includes people who are wanted for arrest or extradition, missing persons, some people who are banned from a given area, and objects that are sought in the context of a seizure or a criminal case. In France, it brings in data from the FPR (database of wanted persons) which lists people with arrest warrants, those with driving prohibitions or who are under court-ordered conditions, and those who have been flagged as dangers to national security (the famous “fiches S”, or S list). We aren’t sure of this and don’t have any examples at this time, but it seems possible that automated licence plate readers could alert the police to the presence and movements of people on the S list (if the vehicle of the person on the list is included in their file).

      The cameras used for ALPR look either like directional cameras or like a sort of box. In the latter case, there are lights on the side that project the infrared light needed for the cameras to work at night as well as by day. In addition to these cameras that we can find in the urban space, the gendarmes and police at the national and municipal levels have vehicles equipped with automated licence plate reader cameras that are inside the car and in the roof lights. These systems function as follows: when the vehicle is turned on, the cameras automatically read all the licence plates in their field of vision. If a plate is found in the FOVeS or SIS files, it results in an alert that includes the reasons for the alert and the actions to take.

      In 2020, during an investigation into arson attacks against relay antennas, the police looked for licence plates captured overnight by an automated licence plate reader owned by a private security company in a village some twenty kilometers away from the site of the fire. We don’t know if this installation was legal, but it shows that private actors can also have plate readers and that the police don’t hesitate to make use of them.

      Searching and extracting footage from an archive of video surveillance using keywords

      Let’s imagine that some windows were broken by a person dressed in blue in front of some cameras. Using this automated video surveillance module, the cops can search the stored footage of nearby cameras. They would enter the corresponding keywords (height, gender, clothing colour, movement speed) and the software would then try to filter all the footage to present any that included people dressed in blue. This would allow them, if there were enough cameras, to more easily follow the path of the person to identify them.

      This service is offered by the Israeli company Briefcam which, although it only provided equipment to 35 French cities in 2020 (Nîmes, Nice, Aix-Les Bain, Vannes, Deauville, Woippy, Roubaix, La Baule-Escoublac, Gex, Vaulx-en-Velin, Vienne, Moirans, Caveirac, Vitrolles) provided equipment to 200 of them in 2023. The French national train company (SNCF) uses their software in Paris and Marseille. In 2019 in Nîmes, shape-identifying software was used for 1,085 footage requests as part of investigations! (An article that we happened to find states that the Paris police department has shape-identifying software created by Briefcam. This is the only place where we have seen this information, so it needs to be confirmed.)

      This company sells not only this software but facial recognition software as well. All it takes is a simple change in the settings of Briefcam’s software for it to start recognizing not only a person’s direction of movement and clothing but also their face. From a technical standpoint, in the cities where this software is in use, we are only a click away from facial recognition.

      The French company Two-i, based in Metz, also offers software that allows searching in an archive of video surveillance.

      Predictive analysis

      The “Map revelation” software created by the company Sureté globale, based in Angers, carries out predictive analysis and also graphical and geographical analysis on “delinquency, incidents, sales, events…” Using an algorithm, the software is intended to predict future crimes using data collected by the police. The idea is to use these predictions to better guide the cops’ actions. It can lead to, for instance, more police patrols in a given location at a given time because past statistics have shown that it is likely that something will happen. Although it is not technically automated video surveillance, this software is nonetheless designed so that it can incorporate different types of sensors, including video surveillance and alarms, into its maps and interfaces. In Montpellier, the data is provided by both the national police (“car thefts, break-ins, armed robberies…”) and the city (“abuse investigations, social service involvement, complaints in social housing…”). The cities of Montauban, Colombes, Lille, Angers, Villeurbanne, Lyon, and Montpellier, as well as organizations like the national gendarmerie, the Paris police department, and the border police all have this kind of software.

      Sound identification

      There is software that can detect noises that are considered suspicious. This involves, for example, identifying “a sound signature corresponding to a situation that threatens to disrupt the peace in public spaces at night”. Through its connection to the video surveillance system and the USC, an alert issued by this technology can then be confirmed using cameras located near the microphone either manually or by automatically orienting the cameras in the right direction. The sound signatures in question generally correspond to events like yelling, breaking glass, car horns, alarms, and paint being sprayed.

      Although this technology was banned by the CNIL in 2019 in Saint-Étienne following an outcry by local organizations that claimed it amounted to “unlawful processing of personal information,” it is widely used in France. In fact, the company Sensivic claims to have signed a contract with the Ministry of the Interior to provide “security services” for the 2024 Olympic Games and that its equipment is deployed in at least 25 French cities, mostly in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region and in Yvelines. The city of Orléans also has these kinds of sensors and they continue to be used despite local organizing against them. It seems like the company considers the technology legal, stating that it is impossible to “use the microphones to get access to voices or conversations and that any data that might be considered personal in nature is not accessible.”

      Detecting theft in supermarkets

      Automated video surveillance is also used in supermarkets in order to facilitate the pursuit of “thieves.” In this case, the software issues an alert when it detects suspicious movements that might indicate a theft. These practices are not legal, as the CNIL pointed out in 2020. Once again, this did nothing to stop the use of this technology. Products made by three companies seem to be marketed and used in France:

      Anaveo, a 320-person company, specializes in video surveillance for big stores. Its software “SuspectTracker” promises to process footage from cameras to analyze “suspicious behaviors,” such as “movements towards a stroller, backpack, or pants or coat pocket.” Their marketing casually mentions that the thefts it detects will be added to its database so as to continually improve the algorithm. We don’t know precisely how many or which stores this company serves, but we know it has at least sold its software to a Carrefour Market in Bourges and to an Intermarché in Artenay.

      Oxania, a startup founded in 2019, created software called “Retail Solutions” that is able to “recognize the gestures associated with theft in real time, detect behaviors, dangerous situations, customers’ journeys, and much more.” The product launch video calmly admits it carries out biometric analysis of those present in the store: body heat, movements, bodies…

      Veesion, a Paris-based startup that sells a “gesture recognition” software made up of “one software component that identifies people, another that localizes the limbs on the body, another that identifies objects of interest…” which it uses to issue an alert on the telephones of the store’s employees. As a bonus, Veesion offers to analyze “your theft history and to provide personalized recommendations.” We know that this company has sold its software to more than 120 stores in France, including certain Monoprix, Franprix, Carrefour, Super U Express and Bio c’Bon.

      Smart water misters with integrated cameras

      This is not technically an example of automated video surveillance, but rather of “intelligent all-in-one posts” that demonstrate the current “smart city” dream: an ultraconnected city loaded with technologies that integrate artificial intelligence. The water mister designed by the French company Technilum, in addition to its refreshing function, also includes “discrete 180° video surveillance cameras, differentiated motion detectors (pedestrians or vehicles) that can adjust the brightness or trigger an alert, weather and pollution sensors, vibration detectors (in the event of attempted vandalism), interactive screens, and also loudspeakers, plugs for electric vehicles, and, of course, internet access (Wi-Fi and Li-Fi).” Technilum has provided its super water misters to a city on the outskirts of Cannes, Mandelieu-la-Napoule. This company offers as well a whole range of smart light poles in addition to the misters.

      Smart water mister designed by the French company Technilum.

      Counting

      Some software allow counting the number of people in a space at a given time. For instance, the French national train company (SNCF) has tested these kinds of tools in Paris in the “Bibliothèque François Mitterand” station, in 11 stations on the RER line C, and in the Antibes station.

      Loitering detection

      There is software that can identify people who spend a certain amount of time in the same spot, which allows for tracking poor people who occupy the public space. This kind of technology was notably used in the city of Suresnes. Similarly, the company that operates the Parisian metro experimented with a system in 2017 to detect people who stayed still for more than five minutes. The results were rather inconclusive, since it tended to detect “users who were waiting to meet someone or who were looking up how to get to their destination.”

      Crowd detection

      Several cities in France have software that issues an automatic alert any time a crowd gathers.

      Detecting suspicious objects

      Software exists to detect objects that have been abandoned in public transit or public spaces.

      Detecting weapons

      The French company Two-i sells software that, among other functions, can recognize weapons.

      Detecting social distancing

      Two-i’s software allows to automatically calculate the distance between individuals in a camera’s field of vision. This makes it possible to analyze and record instances where social distancing for COVID-19 is not being respected.

      Detecting “loss of verticality”

      This allows detecting people who fall.

      Fire detection

      This allows detecting fires.

      Perimeter protection

      This software can spot any intrusion into a defined area. This could be a building’s property or the area around a bank machine.

      Detecting mask wearing

      The software we have discussed so far is actually in use in cities across France, but from now, we will list software that has only been tested or that has been formally banned after testing.

      The city of Cannes and the Parisian metro used software by Datakalab to do this. In Cannes, between April and May 2020, it was used to “assess mask wearing before the end of the lockdown” by counting those wearing and not wearing a mask. The software was first used in three markets in the city, and then in buses. In Paris, the software was used for three months starting on May 11, 2020, in the station Châtelet-les-Halles. A dozen cameras were used to send texts and emails to the transit company about changes in the percentage of people wearing masks over the course of the day. These experiments were ultimately “put on hold” by the CNIL. Although the CNIL said the software was respectful of personal information due to its anonymization system, it ultimately decided that “this system does not allow users to express their consent — shaking your head to indicate refusal is insufficient.” This ultimately left the company to think of another way for transit users to show their refusal.

      Analyzing emotions

      In 2019, the city of Nice decided to use software from the company Two-i to analyze the emotions of streetcar passengers. This software claimed to detect stress, peacefulness, anxiety, joy, or even depression. In the words of the company, “real time emotional cartography reveals potentially problematic or dangerous situations. Deploying security guards dynamically in an area where people are feeling tension and stress can be a simple strategy for avoiding problems.” In other words, this software analyzes the emotions of individuals or groups and issues alerts if they are related to behaviors considered to be “at risk” in order to “identify potential suspects before they act.” This dystopian project was finally abandoned for technical reasons, the transit company’s computer network not being robust enough.

      Volunteers (snitches) sending cellphone footage to USCs

      In early 2018, the city of Nice tested a system to allow volunteers of the neighbourhood watch variety, neighbourhood associations, and municipal workers to send footage using their cellphones to the USC in order to report on crimes, “uncivil behavior”, and so on. Reporty is an application developed by an Israeli startup founded by the former prime minister Ehoud Barak which allows for the real time sharing of images with the municipal police’s USC which can then geolocalize the phone’s position to facilitate police intervention. In March 2018, the CNIL banned this application, noting that “this system is disproportionate and poses serious privacy risks” notably due to “its weak protections against misuse.”

      Multimedia dissuasion cameras with sound and light

      In Cannet since 2015 and Hyères since 2019, there were already cameras equipped with loudspeakers through which the police can speak and reprimand “uncivil behavior” (like telling someone to keep their dog on a leash or to point out illegal parking). Now, new smart cameras are being designed that can automatically identify behavior considered suspicious using artificial intelligence, whether by video or audio. These cameras are equipped with microphones, artificial intelligence, flashes, and speakers. Once the behavior has been detected, the camera can emit flashes in the direction of whatever triggered it while also broadcasting a message. For example, if the behavior detected is a group of people making noise, the message automatically emitted from the loudspeaker would be “You are in a video protected area and security is on the way.”

      Automatic detection of fare evasion in public transportation

      From May to July 2022 in Besançon, two Keolis bus lines were equipped with sensors made up of two cameras and software that could estimate the amount of fare evasion. The stated goal was to “combat fare evasion in public transportation through behavioral science.” The software counted the passengers as they boarded while also tracking the number of fares paid, then carried out a subtraction before displaying on a screen in real time the number of people who didn’t pay. In addition to displaying in real time the number of potential fare evaders, the screen also displayed one of three messages based on the level of fare payment: “Congratulations, you are great” when the amount of fare evasion was low, “Play along” with subdued warnings when the rate of fare evasion increased, and finally an alert when the number of people not paying was high. The company that advised Keolis in the use of this technology was NF Etudes. They present themselves as consultants, support, and testers specializing in social psychology and behavioral science. Despite its designers claims that the “fraud-o-meter” aims to “encourage individuals to change their behavior without coercing them,” it also generates statistics about when and where fare evasion is occurring which allows them to adjust enforcement schedules or even to send a patrol of fare inspectors in real time if the amount of nonpayment is high.

      Facial recognition

      Although it is certainly related, facial recognition is not a form of automated video surveillance. It is a tool that matches each face to a unique “signature” by measuring the distance between different selected points on the face, which allows for the recognition or identification of a given person in an image.

      Facial recognition is emerging everywhere as an inevitable horizon in surveillance technology. It has become a recurring topic in recent years — facial recognition technology has really gotten people talking. In the mass of information on the subject, it is increasingly difficult to understand its uses and, especially, its capacities at a given place and time. This is doubly true because the actors in this field often have a reason to exaggerate or minimize its development based on their position (a niche startup that wants to brag about its product or a public body that wants to reassure citizens who are worried about individual liberties) and the context (reticent citizens or a political campaign about security). In discussions on this subject, China often serves as a scarecrow, warning us of a possible future in which facial recognition technology is used in classrooms and train stations, databases connect people’s photos with their social credit (on which is then based their access to various public services and their social and economic rights), and cops wear glasses that are equipped with facial recognition. These dystopian tools obviously give us the chills, but let’s not forget that their repressive power also depends on the fear they generate, and if we are to one day endure the future promised to us by bad sci-fi films, currently, facial recognition is limited by the technology and infrastructure it relies on.

      In France, its use is still limited, but we would be naive (and uninformed) if we believed we are being spared, because facial recognition is indeed here, and the State and private companies aren’t holding back. For instance, facial recognition using the TAJ (police records system) has been authorized since 2012 and was used on average a thousand times per day in France in 2019 and more than 1,200 times a day in 2020. These numbers represent the number of times the system was used, not necessarily the number of times that its use led to meaningful results for the cops (often, the quality of the image being searched is insufficient to identify someone or the person is not in the database, which leads to the facial recognition process failing).

      Facial recognition can have two functions: one is authentification, which means it serves to confirm someone’s identity by comparing an image of their face to another one saved in a file (an example is using facial recognition to unlock a smartphone, for instance) and another is identification, which involves recognizing and following a person across several images without necessarily knowing their identity (finding and following a person in a crowd).

      The bulk of facial recognition applications in France so far deal with authentification. Several databases contain photos that are used for facial recognition. The largest is the TES which contains photos from ID cards and passports. For the moment, it is meant to be used only to verify that the person being screened is the same as the person on the ID. It is a database that is mostly used at border crossings, and it cannot legally be used by police or the courts in other contexts. However, the TAJ is also used for facial recognition, especially by the police. This database contains the personal information of people who have had dealings with the police (who were detained, witnesses, or victims) and includes photos (in 2018, this database contained 19 million files and 8 million photographs of faces). From there, the police can take a person’s photo during a stop and compare it with the TAJ using facial recognition to see if they find their identity, and they can also use snippets from video surveillance or images found online, on a phone, or on social media as part of their investigations.

      And if it was still generally possible to refuse to have your photo taken while you were detained before, a new law in April 2022 — which allows the police to take pictures and fingerprints by force if the charges carry a maximum sentence of at least three years — means it is becoming harder and harder to do.

      In terms of the use of facial recognition with video surveillance, it generally serves to identify people. In theory, a trained operator or even a piece of software could follow a person across a city’s network of cameras using a photo extracted from a database or even one taken by the cameras (as long as they are of good enough quality to be usable). The more technology for identifying people advances and the more gaps in the camera network are closed, the more the police will be able to precisely follow anyone’s movements. Today, real time facial recognition is encountering legal hurdles that are keeping it from widespread and indiscriminate use as part of video surveillance systems. That said, the technical capacity exists, and so we are only a few laws and a few infrastructural changes away from seeing these kinds of systems put in place. In Nîmes, for instance, the deputy mayor even bragged about being “just one click away from facial recognition” (the software they have is already capable of it, it just needs to be activated). In recent years, there was reason to worry that the 2024 Olympic games would be used as an excuse to implement or test facial recognition in public spaces, but the government ultimately announced this would not be done, although it did open the door even wider to automated video surveillance. Let’s not have any illusions about the fact that the government, the police, and the security industry are impatiently awaiting the right moment to reopen the debate. We need to then expect that in the next few years, they will try again to authorize the use of facial recognition in video surveillance systems, likely following the classic pattern for security measures: it will first be used within a restricted framework to reassure civic-minded people while also taking a first step towards normalization and wider acceptance (like a congressperson tried to do in 2017 by proposing to use facial recognition only from the “S list”, a list of individuals deemed security threats).

      Video surveillance in the Paris area

      Since 2009, the camera network in the city of Paris has developed in accordance with the PVPP plan (Paris video protection plan), also known as the “1,000 cameras” plan. This plan involved determining the location of cameras, their functions, and who watches them as well as setting the terms with the company that installs them and the one that maintains and upgrades them and their network of 600 km of dedicated fibre-optic cable[6]. It falls under the responsibility of the Paris police department, and it also involves viewing some footage from the public transit companies responsible for the metro, buses, and trains.

      A second plan, PVPP 2, was adopted in 2015 (for 6.3 million euros) and was motivated in part by the attack on the offices of the newspaper Libération in 2013, in which video surveillance played a prominent role in tracking down the person responsible. It involves new cameras, including the ones that look like a bunch of grapes (see “Types of cameras“) and an increased presence in redesigned or newly built neighbourhoods, which brings the total number of cameras to 4,171 (according to the group “Quadrature du net”). These new installations will make Paris’s 1st district the most heavily surveilled part of the city, with one camera per 315 residents. Another argument used to justify the implementation of this second plan was to combat air pollution. According to the local government, cameras allow for more enforcement on streets that are closed or restricted to traffic.

      It is also expected that by 2026, the number of police dedicated to video ticketing will increase.

      The 2024 Olympics will serve as a pretext for the installation of new cameras (see “From the streets of Levallois-Perret to the 2024 Olympics“). As part of the PVPP, the Paris municipal government anticipates installing 320 new cameras by 2026, half of them before the Olympics and a third near Olympic sites. For their part, the Paris police department has promised to install 415 new cameras near Olympic sites and on roads that will be reserved for the Olympics in 2024. For the 500 cameras announced by the Minister of the Interior, it is not clear if those will be in addition to these already too numerous new installations.

      At the end of 2020, there were a total of 37,800 cameras in the Île-de-France region around Paris that were linked to various USCs within the PVPP framework. Among those cameras, there are the permanent cameras on public streets, some of which belong to the city (such as the 300 that were formerly dedicated to video ticketing and whose footage is kept for the same amount of time as other cameras) and others to the national government. Nomadic cameras (see “Types of cameras“) are also connected to this network, and they can be added at a moment’s notice by the Paris police department, as can, more recently, body cameras. In addition to this, there is “third-party footage” which broadens the cameras’ coverage to other places open to the public through 102 partnerships with public and private companies. Within this network of cameras are those of the company responsible for the Parisian metro and bus network, of the national train company (SNCF) in the Paris area, the Gerfaut traffic network, the Louvre Museum, the Louvre Carrousel, the Paris Congress Centre, the Porte de Versailles, Villepinte, and Bourget exhibition centers, the Parc des Princes, the Stade de France (the region’s largest stadium), and the following shopping centers: Aéroville, the Forum des Halles, Beaugrenelle, Rosny 2, Créteil Soleil, the 4 Temps, and Printemps Haussman.

      The number of interconnected cameras is also due to certain municipalities in the inner suburbs — Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne and Hauts-de-Seine — sending along their footage to Paris police department’s PVPP to be used operationally by the “agglomeration police”[7]. But it is not known which municipalities made the choice to participate. This is different from integrating cameras, as the footage is all centralized in the Parisian command centers but it is not clear whether, conversely, the suburban USCs have access to footage from Paris.

      In 2013, as part of the PVPP, more than 4,600 officers were trained to watch footage. This number has increased, notably since 2019, when several police officers, soldiers from the fire service, military employees who work in the information and command rooms of the police department as part of the national anti-terrorism plan, as well as the police, customs enforcement, and the gendarmerie all started getting access to footage and recordings depending on what was going on. Starting in 2022, footage from cameras in Paris could be watched by municipal employees in certain circumstances (to protect buildings, regulate traffic, or carry out traffic enforcement).

      To watch all of these cameras, there are 427 operator positions covering 50 video walls across 85 processing sites, including command posts installed in each of the twenty district police departments in the capital. The footage is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

      As for the network controlled by the bus and metro company, there are nearly 20,000 video cameras on buses and streetcars and about 10,000 in the metro and the regional train lines, and these can be consulted in real time at the company’s security command posts (established in 1995) and by the police. The footage is saved for 72 hours and can be accessed in this time only upon request from the prosecutor’s office. It is possible that the choice to keep footage for less time than the legal limit is due to infrastructural limitations for storing the data from a very large number of cameras. But the company’s agents who watch the footage can decide when it is relevant to keep footage longer, storing it for the legal maximum of 30 days.

      Also, the new generation of subway cars and trains are equipped with video equipment. Footage is saved on a hard drive and can also be watched, depending on the equipment, by the conductor.

      At the national train company (SNCF), the use and storage of footage is similar to what we just described. There is a national security command post and five footage processing centers in Île-de-France.

      In July 2022, a USC that deals specifically with public transit in Île-de-France was launched — the center for operational security coordination (CCOS). Its goal is to coordinate the activity of the various transportation companies’ security services and of the government by relying on the 125,000 cameras in their “France Mobilités” network. A 1,000-square-meter office was set up on the “Île de la cité” in the heart of Paris, inside the Paris police headquarters, and it is active twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The CCOS brings together the regional transportation police’s subdirectorate, the national gendarmerie, and the transit companies’ internal security services (the SNCF’s SUGE and the RATP’s GPSR) in coordination with all the divisions of the police department.

      Dodging and sabotaging cameras

      When the State seeks to extend its control, to position its eyes everywhere, there are many people who would rather avoid them. Sometimes this is out of opposition to video surveillance itself, but more often it is to continue with illegal activities.

      Despite the breadth of the net, there are still blind spots. The collaborative mapmaking site OpenStreetMap has an option to display cameras on public streets that have been tagged by users. However, it is almost impossible to never cross the automated gaze of the police. In light of this, there are two things at play: not being recognizable and not being trackable.

      Tricking the camera is a matter of timing, clothing, body shape:

      • Get changed in a blind spot then come out in a different outfit some twenty minutes later.
      • Wear a ball cap, a COVID mask, sunglasses, and oversized, shapeless clothes and carry an umbrella.
      • Pass through areas with multiple exits, change up your method of transportation, take illogical routes.

      To resist surveillance, we logically end up asking how to render cameras ineffective. Here are a few sabotage techniques that we’ve seen in recent years. Evidently, this is neither objective nor exhaustive, and trying it for yourself leaves room for experimentation!

      Attacking cameras

      Obstructing

      On August 20, 2020, in Portland, USA, during one of many anti-racist and anti-police demonstrations, the building of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, a border control agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) is spray-painted, its windows smashed and two cameras obscured by cones placed on top of them.

      Some people have tried wrapping them in plastic bags, sometimes using a pole and slipknot if the camera is high up.

      Painting

      A little bit of spray paint on the lens will often do the trick and blind the cameras long enough to act. This is very practical for cameras in bank machines or ones that are in reach in general. For less accessible cameras, there have been instances where a brush attached to a pole was used to paint a camera.

      Moving

      Directional cameras can often be moved on their axis such that they film a wall or the sky rather than what they were pointed at originally. Again, if they are not accessible, a broom handle might help turn them to look elsewhere.

      Breaking

      During the nights of August 28 to 31, 2022, 7 of the 15 cameras installed by the municipality of Torcy, in Saône-et-Loire were destroyed. Cops and the mayor speak of “groups of 2 to 6 youths” who destroyed the cameras “with a hammer and by throwing stones”. The bold saboteurs even smashed the cameras at the municipal police station. The bill would amount to 50,000 euros.

      A good old-fashioned hammer will often do the trick if the globe is in arms reach. Many modern models are designed to be resistant to attacks and so are made of plexiglass rather than glass. But if you are persistent, you will eventually get the job done, and if the camera holds up, often its support will break. Sometimes, their support poles are equipped with cladding covered in spikes to prevent climbing. With a bit of dexterity, it is also possible to use projectiles.

      Towards 1:30 a.m., on July 27 2022, people in Nantes heards six or seven gunshots and a man with a rifle was apparently seen and a camera was destroyed.

      Going after their supports

      Tearing off

      It is possible to loop a cable between the camera and its base, then perhaps bring the two ends together with a knot, and pull. This could be done in a demo with lots of people around, or a vehicle could be used to put more force on the cable. Often, the connection between the post and the camera will break, but it’s possible the posts themselves will fall down!

      Sawing

      Ten video protection posts sawed this summer [2022] in Nagis, the bill amounts to about 250,000 euros.

      Battery-powered angle grinders. This technique is slow, onerous, and noisy, but devilishly effective. If the saboteurs cut the pole, then the entire structure needs to be rebuilt.

      Ramming

      It’s just after midnight on the night of January 8 to 9, 2022, when the police are called to intervene in the Gabelle district of Fréjus. There, individuals are using a small mechanical excavator to smash a video surveillance camera installed in front of residential buildings. Others try to cover the lens with paint by shooting paintballs at it. They also try to set fire to the excavator and a scooter.

      Slamming into the pole with construction equipment or any vehicle means the vehicle can then be set on fire at the foot of the pole if the ramming didn’t work. Urban planners typically install barriers and other obtsacles to avoid this kind of attack.

      Sabotaging their power supply and data cables

      There is quite often a hatch in the pole at human height. Sometimes it is raised, so you need to find a garbage can or some sort of ladder to reach it. The hatches are about 30 centimeters by 10 and, depending on the model, can be opened with a size 5 or 6 Allen wrench or a triangular electrician’s key (which can sometimes be replaced by a socket wrench, generally a size 10). If the lock seems too complicated, the latch is often not very strong, and so, using a flathead screwdriver and a crowbar, it might be possible to bend it or force it to turn. It is commonly the case that the hatch is welded shut or even nonexistent on certain models. For those, you will need to find the closest hatch in the ground. Often, in the city, the trenches in the pavement that the cables run through are visible, so it’s easy enough to follow them and open the plate on the ground. Sometimes, they lay concrete slabs overtop to make them harder to open.

      Cutting

      Sharp bolt cutters will be able to cut the cables. You will need cutters with plastic handles no matter what, and the longer the arms, the safer you are. It is even better to use insulating gloves! To reduce the risk of electrical arcs, the power can sometimes be cut off by turning off a breaker inside the same hatch. Cutting a cable while electricity is flowing through it will make a muffled noise and a flash that can temporarily blind you. It is possible that power will be cut to the whole street. Cutting it flush at the top and bottom makes it more difficult to reconnect, especially if you also cut the fibre-optic cable, if that is the method of transmission being used. It is a thinner cable that is not rigid and is made of dozens of microscopic threads that a technician will have to reconnect one by one, or else pull through a new cable. In addition, cutting the fibre-optic cable doesn’t make an electrical arc or any noise.

      Burning

      An action claim published on the Internet tells us that during the night of October 17 to 18, 2022, 8 cameras were destroyed by fire as part of a coordinated action in the center of Marseille.

      On the night of July 22 to 23, 2022, in Chatellerault, two cameras were damaged by garbage can fires at the base of the post supporting them.

      On April 23 2022, in Roubaix, at around 2 a.m., the municipal police on duty witnessed a rather incredible scene. On their screens, they saw a drone with a “burning rope” attached flying around a camera in an attempt to destroy it.*

      Opening the hatch in the pole and inserting a flammable object is a rather effective technique, since the pole acts as a chimney. You need to leave the hatch open so air can get in to avoid smothering the fire.

      Burning garbage cans under the camera can also sufficiently weaken the pole while causing enough smoke so that the camera can’t see.

      When the hatch is in the ground, if it is not full of water, the same technique can be used. The goal is to have the rubber sheaths catch fire by using, for instance, fabric covered in fuel.

      Following the cables

      Limoges, on the night of September 9 to 10, 2022. At around 1:15 a.m., one of several individuals allegedly set fire to underground cables by lifting up plates on the pavement and to electrical boxes of buildings, near Manet street. This arson disrupted the traffic lights and, in particular, rendered the local video protection cameras unusable, which was probably the aim of the operation.

      It is possible to find the switches for the street lights in a neighbourhood, which often share an electrical terminal. This has the benefit of keeping you out of view of the target camera while plunging the area into darkness, as a bonus. If, by misfortune, the electrical circuit is not the same, the lack of lighting still makes it harder for the cameras to see.

      Depending on the city, the footage is centralized in a USC. Starting from a camera’s data cable and following it back, or starting from the USC and looking for a hatch where the data from all the cameras in the city converges is one idea. Often, there is a dedicated network, which is sometimes even written on tags around the cables. This is not always very clear, but it can be deduced. In the worst case, the area is liberated from the alienation of the Internet, and with it of remote work and digital payment, as a bonus!

      Looking elsewhere

      On May 23, 2021, in Saint-Denis (a suburb of Paris), Nathalie Voralek, the city’s deputy in charge of security and public safety, discovers that the windshield of her car has been smashed. It wasn’t the first act of vandalism, as the elected official has also had the tires of her car slashed. A dedication that is not random according to her. This new damage comes just two days after the official opening of the city’s new Urban Surveillance Center (USC) and its 93 cameras.

      Some might also choose to look even further upstream by sabotaging the installation process before the cameras are operational, seeking out the companies that install them and attacking their supplies, visiting the elected officials who finance video surveillance and make the decision to spy on us…

      Mapping

      Although the collaborative mapping site OpenStreetMap (OSM) allows users to map many things, including cameras, cameras are not always visible on the base map. That’s why we have to go through sites that extract the data from OSM to show all the cameras on a new, separate map.

      Surveillance under surveillance” is one such site. Every hour, it automatically extracts data on cameras around the world that are referenced in OSM. By zooming in on an area we can see the exact location of the identified cameras. Of course, the data comes from observations in the field, and some areas may be well documented while others are not. So the absence of cameras on the map doesn’t mean that there are no cameras in reality. But it still gives an idea, especially since at the time of writing this zine in 2023, several thousand cameras in the Paris area have been reported by a large number of people. It is also possible to print camera maps, for example with MapOSMatic.

      So how can you contribute to this collaborative map? There are smartphone apps like Vespucci that allow you to map directly on your phone, but it’s also very easy to take precise note of cameras on a paper map before recording them later on a computer, using Tor and an anonymous OSM account.

      You will need to create a dedicated OSM account. There are small tutorials to get you started with mapping, and especially with adding cameras. But basically, you can add a camera by zooming in on the appropriate area on your preferred background map (satellite image or standard map). Then click on “Edit”, click on “Point” and click on the map to add a point at the exact location of the camera. A window will appear allowing you to fill in the attributes of the point, in this case you must select “Surveillance camera”. It’s then possible to add more information such as the type of camera, its orientation, or whether it’s a city or private camera. But even without all these details it is useful to reference a camera. Once you have referenced one or more cameras, taking care not to change the rest of the map, you need to save your changes. A new window will open, allowing you to add an optional comment and review your changes to make sure you didn’t make a mistake. Click on “Upload” and that’s it, your submission is sent to OSM. Soon it will appear on “Surveillance under surveillance”. Well done!


      1. No Trace Project note: During COVID-19 lockdowns in France, police occasionally used drones to enforce lockdowns in rural areas.

      2. The first Olympics bill in 2018 was mostly about the financial and city planning aspects of the games.

      3. See the text from Technopolis “Paris 2024 : les olympiades sécuritaires du gouvernement” (Paris 2024: The Government’s Security Olympics).

      4. As during other Olympics, people living on the street were displaced momentarily or permanently or were even jailed at certain times. This software will definitely be widely used before and during the Olympics to police people living on the street and prevent encampments from being established.

      5. See “Some Initial Notes on the Investigation File Against Ivan”.

      6. A contract between the national government and IRIS-PVPP, a subsidiary of GDF Suez, established in Courbevoie and financed jointly by the national government and the City of Paris for 5 million euros over 15 years.

      7. Since 2009, the Paris police department has had this authority over the cops of the near suburbs within the framework of “the Greater Paris Area.”

      A Passing of the Torch – an Outside Perspective on the Organization of March 15th

       Comments Off on A Passing of the Torch – an Outside Perspective on the Organization of March 15th
      Mar 252024
       

      Anonymous submission to MTL Counter-info

      First and foremost, I want to state that I was in no way involved in this year’s organization of the March 15th demonstration against police brutality. I knew some of the people involved in its organization before, and some of the people involved in the organization this year, but I only saw the organization evolve from afar.

      So yes, there was a new collective organizing the March 15th demonstration this year. During and after the demonstration, I’ve heard a number of critiques, some whispers between comrades, some more public. I, for one, want to address those critics. I give my heartfelt and complete thanks to the March 15th collective, who stepped up to the plate and filled some very big shoes, with very little time to do it. It’s a thankless and dreadful job, and they have my full support for stepping up to the plate.

      Was it perfect? No. But from what I’ve heard, they barely had about one month to do it. That the collective managed to produce flyers, stickers, posters, and build a coalition in such a limited timeframe is nothing short of amazing. And even if they had more time, we all know that these events are never perfect: as a radical organizer myself, I know we’re doing the best we can with the meager resources we have. We’re always pulling a thousand strands at once, and we’re always threading on the brink of burnout. To say nothing of the chaotic nature of a radical event, where anything can (and often) happens, and where it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. And in my opinion, it’s where the beauty of what we do stems. That in our events, anyone can take the initiative and pick up a flag, a banner, or a megaphone, and take things a bit further than anyone thought we could go.

      Was this year’s organization different from the March 15th demos we’re used to? Yes, but nothing should be set in stone, least of all anarchist events. Yes, the format was different, and while I don’t know the objectives of the collective, my feelings was that this followed a format we used to see more often in the 90s/00s. In the beginning, a semi-radical protest, accessible to most. And then, afterward, the real thing, for those who want to push things further. From what I could see, there was still room for a diversity of tactics, it’s just a different way to organize things. And this format is a nice way to introduce people who would never join a radical protest, to see what happens when people actually fight back.

      ///

      The change in tactics, the new March 15th collective … this leads us to the general state of our movement, of our struggles.

      We’re reaching a turning point in our collectives, where some old groups seems to be struggling: for instance, we know that the Bookfair, another thankless job, is also having issues. The COBP is still doing miracles with, from what I’ve heard, only a handful of people. And maybe the Mayday organization doesn’t gather as much people as it used to? At the same time, new radical collectives are emerging, like the ORA/RAO, the P!nk Bloc and now the March 15th collective. Maybe it is time for us, of the older generation, to pass the torch to the younger one.

      Will the new generation do everything as we, of the older one, used to do? Will they shape the movement as us old crust punks want it to be? No. And well, that’s the goal. People change, ideas change, and our movements must change with them. The priorities, tactics and objectives of the next generation will not be the same as the older ones, and that’s good. It’s not like our older priorities, tactics and objectives are achieving much these days, aren’t they?

      Let’s give the next generation a chance and the space to grow, to learn, and yes, to make mistakes if necessary. It’s the only way to improve what we built over the years, and take it to the next level. And to ensure our movements live beyond our own, short, measly lives.

      Long live the next generation of the Revolution,
      Long live the new March 15th,
      And, as always, ACAB everywhere.

      an older comrade

      We Accuse Enquête and Radio-Canada

       Comments Off on We Accuse Enquête and Radio-Canada
      Mar 192024
       

      From P!nk Bloc

      With its report Trans Express, Enquête gives above all else a platform to the discourses of transphobic groups, inviting discredited pseudo-experts such as Lisa Littman with her theory of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” We consider that the editorial decisions made by this show are clear, political, and dangerous. Enquête does not present a rigorous investigation, but an hour of sensationalist demagoguery echoing the far-right.

      The CBC instrumentalizes specific detransition experiences to reinforce their transphobic discourses. However, detransition experiences are varied, and are often in opposition to the idea that gender must necessarily be stable. In any case, ease of access to transition care is a net positive. While the system is just beginning to take the voices of trans people an their experiential knowledge seriously, something this report seems to want to paint as a problem. We reaffirm that trans people should have the final say on our own medical decisions.

      It is also not harmless that this report focuses once again on the question of children in a perspective of moral panic. The conservative right, as usual, uses the “protection” of children as a primary argument. It is essential to highlight that their demands are never truly for the protection of youth, much less the protection of trans and queer youth, but instead instrumentalize the figure of the child to push an oppressive agenda.

      The report centres the voices of parents and the medical community, almost completely erasing those of trans youth (only one young trans person is allowed less than 5 minutes of screentime in an hour-long report). Enquête posits that listening to trans youth is a major professional misstep. In this sense, the report echoes last year’s far-right demonstrations which called for “parental rights,” read: the right to control the lives of their children. It is essential to recognize the ability of youth to reason, to reflect on their own identity, and to make decisions about their bodies. The real best protection for youth is to assure them a sense of agency and bodily autonomy.

      We are particularly alarmed by the publishing of this report in the climate of ongoing transphobia, and on a platform supposedly renowned for its neutrality. We must denounce the clearly transphobic intentions of the CBC, and their blatant disregard for journalistic integrity and ethics. This report is all the more dangerous in its attempt to normalize transphobic discourses in the “centre-left” by presenting it as a question of “common sense.”

      It would be an ideological backslide to consider the results of this report as legitimate in determining sociopolitical positions on access to care for trans children. We must absolutely not consider these results, which demonstrate a total lack of methodological soundness, as equivalent to the many scientific studies of transition. The results of sound and ethical scientific studies overwhelmingly demonstrate the importance of access to transition care for the protection of trans youth.

      In lending social acceptability to the far-right, the CBC propagates hate and violence against our communities. This must not be taken lightly, especially given the news of the murder of Nex. This tragedy has reminded us that transphobia is far more detrimental to the well-being of children than supportive doctors are. It is also important to recognize that institutional mainstream media outlets like the CBC are a tool of the dominant social order, regardless of where they seem to position themselves on the political spectrum. This has also been evident in their treatment of the genocide in Palestine, which they have all but denied through constant use of passive language.

      For these reasons and many more, it is important to develop our own platforms of discourse and analysis that centre marginalized and revolutionary voices. We must listen those directly affected by the oppressive status-quo to gain a better understanding of it. We must propagate our words and acts of resistance to mobilize and collectively revolt against the systems that oppress us all.