Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color

by Joe Scarry

Here’s what I was thinking about as the 2013 CODEPINK Drones Summit concluded: “There is a wing of this movement that is concerned about surveillance; there is a wing of this movement that’s concerned about physical injury to people. If there is one area where there is not always full communication, coordination or agreement, that’s it. . . . If the people who feel most concerned about surveillance are actually successful at sitting together with the people concerned about physical injury, this is going to be an incredibly powerful movement.” (See Drone Free Zone: At the second annual Drone Summit, Code Pink and Cornel West argue that all lives are equal. in In These Times quoted me the day after)

“This movement,” of course, is the movement to stop drone surveillance and warfare. During the summit we need an enormous amount of progress in building the national (and soon-to-be global) network to stop drone surveillance and warfare. Are there really two different wings — two different struggles — or is it, in fact, a single struggle?

What do we mean by “surveillance”?

There is a full-blown effort by individuals and organizations to rein in the use of drones to do surveillance, with some notable recent successes.  A lot of this revolves around words like privacysearch, and warrants; and it is closely tied to NSA abuses and the ubiquitous stationery surveillance cameras in many cities.

Some activists are recognizing the important connections to the use of drones and other technology on the US border, and by government agencies working to repress political dissent.  People are even grudgingly recognizing the centrality of monster data storage and data processing capabilities in making the entire surveillance “octopus” functional.

I wonder if we don’t need to go yet another level deeper. When I first began thinking about drones, I asked, “Does this possibly have something to do with what Foucault talked about?”

I’m not a very good philosopher, so it’s taken me a long time to really understand the role of surveillance — of the uninterrupted gaze — within a large system of power and control.  I’m now beginning to understand that the idea that there are standards of “normal” or “right” or “acceptable” behavior, and that someone (who?) gets to set those standards, and then enforce those standards, is the inherent root condition that manifests itself in ubiquitous surveillance. (See Foucault and Drones: “Surveiller et Punir” Indeed!)

Think of that — the desire and determination to be the “decider” about standards of “normal” or “right” or “acceptable” — as the kernel that sits at the absolute center of the surveillance problem.

What do we mean by “injury”?

As I departed from the first drones summit — the one held in April, 2012 — the biggest realization for me was that the physical injury that the US inflicts on others is hidden from view, rendered invisible; and that the number one job of activists was to reverse that situation — to make those injuries visible to everyone – 100% visible!

The central importance of physical injury must never be lost.  At the same time, we are beginning to recognize the broader impact of drone strikes, and the daily presence of the hovering drone threat, in traumatizing whole communities, and whole sections of countries.  (See Living Under Drones.)

Salima by Nanna Tanier

Years ago, my sister wrote a book called The Body in Pain. The subtitle was “the making and unmaking of the world.”  The book said many things, one of which was that the behavior of power when it inflicts pain and injures bodies is often combined with efforts to more broadly destroy the world of the victim — and by extension, those connected to the victim — and that the physical manifestation (pain and injured bodies) and the more abstract manifestation (individuals and communities whose are destroyed) should be understand to be inextricably interconnected, and in the service of a single end: the exercise and reinforcement of power.

What happens to communities under the gaze of drones?

One of the biggest ideas coming out of the 2013 Drone Summit, in my opinion, is that we will only deal successfully with the crimes being committed using drones when we understand them as part of the much larger war against communities of color.  This message was brought home in presentation after presentation — starting with the inspirational words of Cornel West, continuing with the testimony of representatives of Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries who came to tell their stories– and reinforced by comment after comment by conference participants.

We need to commit totally to resisting that larger war.

There is a small number of people who enjoy privilege and supremacy.  They are a useful category for those who decide what is “normal” or “right” or “acceptable.” Often, they image that they are autonomous actors in the power structure. But they are just a useful category.

A far larger number of people are marked for exclusion and deprivation — and worse — because they have characteristics that are susceptible to the whole apparatus of power:  they are easily recognizable as  NOT“normal” or “right” or “acceptable” . . . under the gaze of surveillance this condition is recorded and propagated . . . for perpetual recording and processing within the data centers of power . . . accompanied by intermittent acts of physical and cultural injury — random, senseless — to reinforce their unshakeable status.  

THIS is the war on communities of color.

(Thanks to Noor Mir at CODEPINK for inspiring this post with her recommendations about the direction of the national and global movement against drones.)

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One Response to Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color

  1. BARBBF says:

    The use of US predatory drones increased by the hundreds during the first 3 years of the Obama administration. This resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians…including hundreds of children. No one in his administration has ever apologized for their deaths. During the 8 years of the Bush administration 54 US predatory drones were used. Obama..ever made a joke threatening some singing group…The Jones Brothers about using drones on them if they got too close to his girls. His audience laughed.

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