Project Green Light & The Threat of Hyper Surveillance

(This summer I was given the opportunity for a fellowship with Green Light Black Futures. Under this organization, I learned a lot about Project Green Light and hyper surveillance. I also learned what safety looks like for me as a Black woman. So, I want to shout them out for the incredible lessons that lead to me writing this important blog post. You should know about this even if you are not a Detroiter. )

On January 1st, 2016, the Detroit Police Department teamed up with a few local businesses on a project to lower crime rates in the city. They named it, “Project Green Light.” It started with eight businesses, and now there are 500 places partnered with Project Green Light. Flashing green cameras, are placed on top of local businesses, churches, and housing to surveil the area and stop violent crime. There are many flaws to this system of crime prevention. Hyper surveillance and anti-Blackness are the biggest ones. 

Project Green Light preys on our need to feel safe. After talking to some Black Detroiters about why Project Green Light is harmful, some seemed to accept it as long as it could possibly prevent crimes. We’ve convinced ourselves to take the bare minimum that the system gives us to live happy and safe lives. Even if it can be harmful to the lives they claim to be protecting. We have to demand more or create our own vision of what a happy and safe life is for us as Black people. 

Studies on facial recognition have shown that there are racial and gender biases in the technology. Technology is as flawed as those who use it and program it. Is facial recognition really a good method to use for something as serious as crime? There have been incidents in Detroit where DPD’s facial recognition software incorrectly identified Black suspects. 

In October 2018, watches were stolen from the Shinola shop in Downtown Detroit. Video stills were used to match DPD to Robert Williams’ license photo. A loss preventions employee at Shinola identified Williams’ as the suspect in the photo lineup. Months later, he was arrested at his home in front of his wife and children. Robert spent 30 hours in holding. It wasn’t until he was brought into interrogation that the investigator realized that they had made a mistake. Wayne County Prosecutor, Kym Worthy, apologized and assured that the case has been dismissed. Investigators are now working to expunge Robert Williams’ record. Who knows how many more Black people have been affected by this? How many of the falsely accused will have their cases dismissed in a justice system that is unjust? 

According to a great article from Riverwise Magazine, millions have been spent on Project Green Light. Last year’s police budget was well over $300 million. Mayor Duggan believes that it should be increased. Meanwhile, about $14 million was spent on economic development and about $26 million for parks and recreation last year. So, why is “Defund the police” a controversial statement? 

 Over policing and hyper surveillance has not been proven to stop crime. But, I think that good schools and livable wages would help a lot more. There are literally people living without water in our city. We haven’t seen the push for that in our local government, just a push for more police and more buildings for the neighborhoods that are being gentrified. Black Detroiters deserve better. 

All over this country, Black people have had a painful history with policing. The creation of police was never for helping Black people. It was for capturing and punishing them. Police were the first slave catchers. During the Reconstruction era, they unfairly targeted Black people and imprisoned them to perform free labor. From then on, Black people have been falsely accused of crimes they didn’t commit. They have been given excessive time in prison for non-violent offenses. Many have been arrested as political prisoners. Now we see police brutalizing and murdering Black people on camera. How could hyper surveillance and policing help a majorly Black city?

The U.S. government continues to create surveillance systems to “protect” Americans like the COINTELPRO, U.S. Patriot Act, and Project Green Light. But these systems have been proven to be harmful. Now we see protests being surveilled using drones. Activists are being arrested using facial recognition. How far will hyper surveillance continue to go? Are we in the beginning of the classic novel, “1984”, by George Orwell? He predicted what will happen if we don’t wake up now. 

More Information about Project Green Light and Hyper Surveilance

Michael Oliver’s Story

Robert Williams’ Story

Facial Recognition Biases

Hyper Surveillance of Black Activists

Surveillance Under the U.S. Patriot Act

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