Avert your eyes from the surveillance state
Arizona’s cop protection law signals darker times ahead
Certain states serve as harbingers for the rest of the country.
Looking at Texas, which maintains a stranglehold on the school textbook industry, we can get a preview of right-wing attacks on history curricula. Delaware dances on the cutting edge of corporate money laundering; town governments in New Hampshire can be counted upon to crack open the Overton Window for crank libertarianism. Looking to Idaho and the rural Northwest in general, we see the armed vanguard of white nationalism.
And then we have Arizona, a public laboratory for police sadism. Maricopa, the most populous county, is the home of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Throughout Clinton’s tough-on-crime ‘90s and Bush II’s axis-of-evil ‘00s, Arpaio distinguished himself by bringing back chain gangs, torturing inmates in open contempt of international human-rights law, abusing the power of the police state to harass his enemies, and directing a system of racial profiling so blatant even the U.S. government had to slap him on the wrist for it (Trump pardoned him shortly after taking office, before Arpaio could be sentenced for criminal contempt of court). When Arpaio bragged about running open-air concentration camps for migrants under the hellish sun of greater Phoenix, he was decades ahead of ICE in terms of pure truculent malice.
I’ve never been to Arizona and don’t know many people from there, so I can’t comment on “what their whole deal is,” but something is deeply and especially wrong with their iteration of the U.S. police state. Phoenix cops are among the most violent in a country of violent cops. Last year in the obsequiously pro-cop state legislature, police lobbyists managed to kill nearly every bill aimed at public oversight of law enforcement agencies, and lawmakers even tried to block local citizen review boards via a budget proviso. There is no limit to the impunity, no bottom to the cruelty: Arizona built a gas chamber last year to murder a (possibly innocent) handicapped son of a Holocaust survivor using the Nazis’ favored poison, Zyklon B, before instead digging around to find a good vein in a nearly-botched lethal injection last month.
On July 6, the Arizona governor and former ice cream mogul Doug Ducey signed a law making it illegal to record video footage of law enforcement officers if you’re standing too close to their tender frightened bodies. The bill was introduced by (who else?) an ex-cop representing Maricopa County.
The Arizona Republic reports:
House Bill 2319, sponsored by Rep. John Kavanagh, makes it illegal for anyone within 8 feet of law enforcement activity to record police. Violators could face a misdemeanor, but only after being verbally warned and continuing to record anyway.
Exceptions were made for people at the center of an interaction with police, anyone standing in an enclosed structure on private property where a police activity was occurring and occupants of a vehicle stopped by police as long as recording in those instances didn't interfere with police actions.
The law goes into effect Sept. 24 unless the ACLU can find a judge who will block its enforcement. In normal times we’d be looking at an open-and-shut First Amendment case, but as recent events at the Supreme Court of the United States have shown, this is an activist court with a bulletproof majority installed by a revanchist right wing. There is no reason to believe settled constitutional law on core civil liberties is truly settled.
As Trone Dowd noted in a Vice piece in March, SCOTUS and several U.S. district courts of appeal have consistently upheld the right to film police since the turn of the millennium, but cracks are beginning to show. In 2021 the Supreme Court declined to hear Frasier v. Evans, a case in which Denver cops confiscated a man’s tablet after he recorded them beating a suspect at a traffic stop and shoving a pregnant woman to the ground.
Arizona isn’t acting alone. As often happens with conservative legislation, state lawmakers pass around bad ideas like your peepaw’s Facebook friends share sassy Sam Elliott memes. Oklahoma’s version of the cop invisibility cloak, the “Police Doxxing Law,” passed in 2021 and prohibits Oklahomans from posting videos and pictures of police showing any identifying information, including badge numbers. Florida’s protest suppression law, HB1 from 2021, sought to punish Floridians for “cyber intimidation by publication,” i.e. publishing an officer’s information online with the intent to harass them. A federal district judge blocked the law’s enforcement in September.
Let’s not forget we live in a country governed by two pro-cop parties. Famously Democratic New York City technically allows people to film police, but the officers either don’t know or don’t care about that technicality. They arrested health policy advocate Hadiyah Charles in 2012 for recording a stop-and-frisk on the sidewalk near her apartment; they arrested photographer Shawn Thomas in 2014 for recording an arrest at a subway stop; they beat, robbed, and pepper-sprayed Mark Chapman in 2021 for recording plainclothes cops as they brutalized a woman who had hopped a turnstile.
Mayor Eric Adams, a cop who believes in magic crystals, has been browbeating New Yorkers about recording his officers, saying in a March press conference, “If your iPhone can’t catch that picture with you being at a safe distance, then you need to upgrade your iPhone.”
As states and municipalities chip away at one of the only tools we have for holding police accountable, they are handing blank checks to the police to surveil, track, target, harass, and intimidate whoever they want, at all hours in any place, often without a warrant. The right of our warrior-overlords to observe us without being observed is not to be questioned.
I’ve tried to avoid venting my rage at the police officers who responded to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, but yesterday I watched video footage of them dithering in the hallways for 1 hour and 14 minutes as the shooter massacred 19 children and 2 teachers. The cops displayed the sort of family-dishonoring cowardice that would get you exiled to a remote island in more civilized times.
Last night in Uvalde, City Council accepted the resignation of Councilman Pete Arredondo, who was also somehow the school district police chief. Mayor Don McLaughlin had some harsh words — for the news media, who had fought for public access to surveillance footage from inside Robb Elementary.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman and ABC affiliate KVUE had published the video the mayor didn’t want us to see, which showed Arredondo and the rest of Uvalde's finest cowering in the hallway armed to the teeth behind shields and body armor while children screamed for help inside an unlocked classroom. Mayor McLaughlin said the press were “chickenshit” for releasing the video to the public, nearly 2 months after the shooting, because the cops hadn’t shown the footage to the families of the victims yet.
“What about the cops? Are they chickenshit?” someone in the crowd said. “Y’all are attacking the media. Y’all should attack the cops who did nothing.”
But they never attack the cops; they rarely so much as criticize the cops. Again and again across this country, at best we’ll get a condemnation of an individual officer who failed to do their duty, or who murdered an unarmed person in the heat of the moment — but our leaders dare not critique the institution itself. We are captured and surveilled and brutalized by an occupying force. To speak ill of that force, or even to hold a mirror to it, is to profane the one thing our rotting democracy still holds sacred.
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter out of South Carolina about class struggle, education, parenting, and religion in the American South. If you would like to support my work and get access to the complete archives plus some stickers I’ll send you in the mail, paid subscriptions are $5/month. Earlier this week I published a subscriber-only trail report about hiking to a plane wreck in the Blue Ridge Mountains.