Two Faces of State Violence — Murder by Law Enforcement and Medical Apartheid
By Stop LAPD Spying Coalition
The United States’ state-sanctioned violence is responsible for the protests we see today. This violence is institutionalized through racist ideas, such as anti-black racism, and practices such as policing, militarism, and surveillance. It is made up of structures such as jails, juvenile halls, detention centers and uses both people (police, ICE officers, and soldiers) and technologies (databases and apps) to maintain its power at the cost of communities.
In this current pandemic, structural violence helps explain how the country has been unable and unwilling to develop a public health system that can both prevent death and disability, and prevent certain lives from being disposable. Through structural racism, this violence is enacted unevenly across communities. If you are Black, Brown, or poor, you are disproportionately over-represented in COVID-related death, hospitalization, or infections. Obesity and diabetes are not to blame for these disparities. Rather, structural racism and continued barriers to establishing an effective community health system are.
This form of medical apartheid (i.e. violent racialized negligence) converges with ever-expanding policing and surveillance of Black, Brown, and poor communities. Historically, there has always been points of convergence. Currently, policing and public health surveillance technologies are emerging as responses to the spread of COVID-19, via increased profiling and the increased investment in private surveillance businesses tracking people’s behavior and health data.
The continuing devaluation of Black and Brown life drives government priorities in broader ways, with financial health of corporations being prioritized over the communities of color who comprise an outsized share of our “essential” workforce. To accomplish this, the multiple health systems positioned to manage the illness are the same systems that produce worse health outcomes for Black and Brown people and have failed to equip healthcare workers with sufficient protective equipment and testing. Relatedly, these systems are entangled with private profit motives which have left people in a pandemic without consistent access to quality health care, thereby participating in their state-sanctioned premature death.
Similar to 9/11 and other crisis moments in history, the policing apparatus is ushering in techno-solutionism, guided by the idea that private technologies and expanded surveillance can manage our biologies. This is clear in the role of these new technological tools to enhance public health surveillance practices, data collection, analysis, and sharing. Besides Apple and Google launching sweeping new contact tracing applications, there is Palantir — known for bolstering the police surveillance systems and the federal deportation machinery — which is contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services to help the government create HSS Protect Now, a data platform to track COVID+ patients.
Undeniably, law enforcement’s powers, surveillance, militarization, and funding have expanded post 9/11. In 2004 the Intelligence Reform Terrorism Prevention Act mandated the president to create an Information Sharing Environment, instigating a new culture and infrastructure of data sharing across all law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement became not only boots on the ground but also the eyes and ears for the federal government, with loopholes allowing access and sharing of any data deemed relevant to National Security in the War on Terror. The federal government also emboldened the private sector to become the main conduits of data gathering, sharing, and analysis which includes health data seeing that the Department of Homeland Security has access to COVID-19 data.
Alarms regarding these technologies are largely framed as a privacy concern. However, considering the enhanced surveillance in already marginalized communities, it symbolizes how violence, racism, and health are interconnected. Surveillance data, whether it be health or crime data, cannot escape the fact that it is inherently political, not neutral and is weaponized to contain, control and criminalize certain communities. We see this in the racial disparities within algorithmic policing that target Black people and their communities, bail risk assessments that favor the pre-release of white people, and tech companies like Predpol that manipulate it’s system to track COVID+ people.
These technologies come at a systemic violent cost to community health, connection, and power and have immediate consequences for Black, Brown, and Indigenous life. The protests today are responding to these costs. These solutions leave us skeptical if the responses developed in response to COVID are even designed to promote health. Already, the infrastructure for a larger local public health surveillance network built on racist ideology is underway. And this shift is happening in lieu of building a community-centered health system. The problem is not the execution of contact tracing itself, but what has moved into place to once again make public health a tool of state surveillance.