One can believe, for example, all of the following: Crime is out of control in San Francisco, Boudin deserved his recall, and the police need more funding. But that person will likely still feel uneasy about the prospect of being filmed at all times. Within blue cities like San Francisco, which may have turned against the sort of progressive tactics that Boudin employed, the people who want to get tough on crime may very well still be concerned about warrantless racial profiling.
I have written quite a bit in the past few months about what I see as a shift in Democrats in urban areas, one that has ushered in a host of new mayors who promise to be tough on crime. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I believe there is a limit to how far these Democratic strongholds will go in the name of cleaning up the streets. In San Francisco, for example, even people who advocated Boudin’s recall said they supported criminal justice reform, and many of the policies he promoted remain popular.
This is where progressives should rely on civil liberties language. By calling out that warrantless and pre-emptive surveillance is wrong and un-American — full stop — you train the focus on the act itself, and not the larger, slipperier context that prompted it. You do not have to argue, for example, that while violent crime is up, other crimes are not. These arguments might be true, but it’s exceedingly difficult to convince the public to not just worry about the violent crime part and demand something must be done. All citizens should be concerned with the excesses of what that something may be. To accomplish that broader consensus, you have to argue that it could potentially touch everyone’s lives, and not just people in high-crime neighborhoods.
Over the past 20 or so years, the proliferation of doorbell cameras, security cameras, data sharing and even cellphone videos has laid down the infrastructure for a frightening grid of surveillance that reaches every part of our lives, likely in ways we cannot yet grasp. But even within these dizzying times, there are still some clear choices that can be made. Refusing to allow police officers and city officials the right to tap into thousands of cameras and use them without clearly defined limitations should be an easy choice, and one that’s supported by much of the public. But to make sure these types of measures are spotted and properly resisted, we need to take civil liberties seriously and not just think of them as fodder for the culture wars.
Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”
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