UC Davis Update, Featuring 'Catopticon' and Tanks in Small Towns

By James Fallows

After previous items here and here, some updates from readers:

1) Kristin Stoneking, minister of the UC Davis Christian Association, is the woman seen in a now-famous YouTube video walking alongside UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi through ranks of stonily silent student protestors. On her site she has posted several behind-the-scenes accounts of what the Chancellor has been doing, and thinking, and why, plus what might come next. There are a number of surprising touches there, which I will let you find for yourself.

2) Several readers have written in to show off point out that I shouldn't really describe the modern phenomenon of a camera-in-every-hand as "panopticon society" but rather as "catopticon society," or "sousveillance." The theory here is that Jeremy Bentham's original panopticon concept (which I actually wrote a college paper about, so there!) involved one central authority watching everyone all the time. Whereas "sousveillance," a genuinely nice play on "surveillance," means everyone photographing everyone and everything, and then sharing all the images. If you'd like to read more about this and the related "Catopticon," from the French computer scientist Jean-Gabriel Ganascia (in English), here you go.

3) On the storm-trooperization of local police forces, which has been going on for years and whose results are so dramatic in Occupy footage from Davis and elsewhere, a reader sends this report and photo:

 In your post on the terrible incident at UC Davis you briefly discussed the militarization ("
storm troopers" as you called them) of the police.  I wanted to show you just how far this has gone. 

This summer my girlfriend and I toured the U.S. for a few months.  We stopped in Galax, Virginia, a tiny hamlet in western Virginia with (according to Wikipedia) a population of 7,042 as of the 2010 census.  When we got to town there was a street fair going on with a huge bounce-house, a (sad) pony ride, and vendors of fried food. 

In the middle of all of this was displayed the pride of the Galax police.  I've attached pictures for you to see what I mean.  It is called a Lenco Bearcat, a 4WD V10 that is essentially a tank.  According to the spec sheet proudly displayed on the vehicle it can withstand multiple hits from a 50 caliber gun.  You've may have seen one of these guns before, but they can kill from 2500 meters away and the bullets are about 6 inches long.  Wikipedia has a nice bullet comparison here.  The vehicle is armored and has 4 "gun ports".
 
DSCF1927.jpg

I probably don't need to say it, but this is a tool of the Galax police force intended to protect it's citizens from the beautiful rolling countryside around them.  

What does it say about the fears of the townsfolk that they would consider this purchase a point of pride?  What justification can there be? [Update: the Galax police chief replies.]

More than that, I suspect that an entire industry has been created to sell this to police forces.  Such misdirected economic incentives are very difficult to dismantle in the same way that hiring outside contractors in Iraq has caused the mushrooming of the private security firm whose largest actors can effectively lobby office-holders to continue getting military contracts.  A terrible cycle that looks for justification for its existence (beyond greed).

More about militarization after the jump.

Another reader writes:

Thank you for posting the historical tidbit that this over-arming of the police force started with the LAPD in the nineties. I had no idea.

My own theory would have been this: after September 11, 2001, homeland security money rained on police departments all over the country.... In addition, the gear it buys sets the norm even for non-recipients. As regular police become more heavily armed, that becomes the standard of care, so to speak. Campus police won't be allowed to provide substandard protection; the concerned parents wouldn't stand for it. So, the campus cops get helmets, submachine guns and the rest. Tuition hikes and state support will fund that if there's a clamor.

What shocked me was a picture on nytimes.com at the time of the Hutaree story up in Michigan: a half-dozen guys with pea shooters and a lunatic leader were deemed worthy of national attention and a police response that included an armored personnel carrier. It was parked in front of these people's house, with POLICE stamped in white across it. [JF: Here's the AP photo in question.]

Hutaree.jpg


The NY Times casually took a picture and moved on with the story. Not a single line mentioned the weirdness of the fact that these days APC's are part of the regular police fleet somewhere in the United States.

If there's one silver lining in the downturn, I think it's this: homeland security loot funded one-time capital outlays that police departments were happy to undertake without much concern for ulterior maintenance. Now those bills are due, and times are hard. The wisdom of the whole thing might yet be reconsidered. At least, that's what Reason is advocating.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/11/uc-davis-update-featuring-catopticon-and-tanks-in-small-towns/248793/