A blog series on the excessive, punitive, and discriminatory use of electronic monitoring in the criminal legal system

A History of Tracking Black Bodies, Policing Boundaries

by James Kilgore

Through the Challenging E-Carceration project we’ve interviewed a number of Black Americans about their experiences with electronic monitoring, and there’s one issue that has repeatedly surfaced in these conversations: the connection to slavery.

The late Ernest Shepard, who landed on a monitor after 45 years in prison, said that it made him feel like a “chattel slave” and that the urge to tear the shackle off his leg was almost irresistible. He called the device a “nagging misery,” and felt that it was denying him his status as a person who fought for freedom. “I thought to myself,” Shepard said. “If I don’t take this thing off, what kinda dude am I?”

Jean-Pierre Shackelford, who spent nearly three years on a monitor in Ohio, summed electronic monitoring up like this: “When you think about it, it’s nothing but 21st century slavery, electronic style.”

Emmanuel Andre, a lawyer who directs Chicago’s Northside Transformative Law Center, has dealt with dozens of juvenile clients on monitors. Noting that 90 to 95% of these are youth of color, he told us that it would be “disingenuous” not to look at the historical context of “who we are tracking.”

In our last blog, Coco Davis reminded us of her experience of monitoring, saying “It took a toll on me… It’s like modern day slavery.”

To explore this idea further, this week we present a podcast in which we organized a conversation between renowned scholar Professor Simone Browne of the University of Texas (Austin) and Prof. Brenda Sanya of Colgate University, a member of the Challenging E-Carceration advisory group. Professor Browne has written widely on the ways in which enslaved Black bodies have been branded and restricted. She describes and analyzes this process in great detail in her first book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, which was named best book in Surveillance Studies for 2016. Although she cautions against making too many explicit connections between the past and present, she can’t help but see some parallels.

Professor Browne and Professor Sanya

For her part, Prof. Sanya has related research interests, working largely on the surveillance of Black immigrants in the United States. Below we present some highlights of their conversation which took place at the Annual Conference of the American Studies Association in Chicago in November 2017 (listen to the entire recording here).

The conversation between Prof. Browne and Prof. Sanya features a profound analysis of how the tracking and general surveillance of Black bodies has deep historical roots — and why this practice just won’t go away. Instead, Browne and Sanya speak to the ways in which it continues to evolve with new technologies and new approaches to using technology to enable racist oppression.

Part 1: Understanding the context

“You can’t understand surveillance without understanding how Black people have been surveilled, how they have challenged this and also resisted…”

Part 2: Biometrics

“More and more we are seeing that these technologies are becoming everyday ways of tracking, massifying and accounting for particular populations.”

Part 3: Privacy

In this clip, Simone Browne talks about how a home should be a site of privacy post-incarceration — a place where people can work together to rebuild their lives — but instead that space is being invaded by carceral technology such as electronic monitors.

Part 4: The history of surveillance of Black bodies

Here the discussion includes a description of 18th century New York, where enslaved people had to carry lanterns after dark if they were walking without the company of a white person.

Part 5: Critical Biometric-Consciousness

“One of the key things is to have a critical biometric consciousness…we have to understand what happens when our face, when our iris ‘is made into data.’”

Part 6: Boundaries and Biometrics

“A border [is] fiction…it is something that is put in place when people are making rights claims…rights to have health care, to have votes…to get out of the house without being e-carcerated…[So] it is a question of who has the right to have rights.”

Part 7: Resistance and Rights

In this clip, Professor Browne highlights the FBI’s creation of a new identity and surveillance category — “Black Identity Extremists” — which was in response to the Black community’s resistance to police violence and murders.

Part 8: EM and Popular Culture

“Popular Culture means things…it gets reproduced.”

Part 9: Next steps

“We continually have to challenge the system and not necessarily give in to the easy conveniences of these technologies …it’s nice to watch reality television and now we have a reality television host as our President.”

Share your own stories about electronic monitoring with @mediajustice on Twitter using #NoDigitalPrisons.

This is part four in a five part series titled #NoDigitalPrisons. Learn more about the issue here.