By Tamika Spellman, HIPS Policy and Community Engagement Manager and COS-DC Coalition Member
and Loreal Hawk, The Body Executive Director and COS-DC Coalition Member
Click. Click. Click. The rhythmic sounds of heels connecting with pavement on an empty K Street can be heard on any given night. The suffocated bass of music from nearby strip clubs and bars interrupts intermittently. For Black, Latine, and trans sex workers, after a shift or a date, sometimes it seems like they are the only ones on the street. But they know better.
Zzzzzzzzz. The electronic whirr of the cameras as they adjust and capture the scenes of the District quietly hums along to the beat of the workers’ heels. Always watching, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) uses Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) cameras throughout the District to surveil our communities around the clock. MPD deploys two and a half times as many cameras in communities of color as they do in whiter neighborhoods. This saturation of cameras increases the possibility of a harmful interaction with police, as has often been the case with Black, Latine, and trans sex workers. And even though the cameras ensure that they are rarely out of sight and remain directly underneath the District’s microscopes of CCTV, sex workers are being assaulted, robbed, and murdered. These workers know the cameras are not there to protect them.
Less than a month ago, a sex worker survived an armed robbery with a knife right under one of these cameras. They almost lost a finger. Less than a year ago, another community member survived an attempted armed robbery with a gun that resulted in serious injuries. Yet even with the hum of the omnipresent camera, sex workers are left to bleed and die in our streets as technological bystanders watch on.
Click. Click. Click. The handcuffs closing on Black, Latine, and trans sex workers’ wrists makes a distinct sound. In the same spots—and sometimes mere minutes after sex workers have survived or succumbed to violence—MPD arrives on the scene, not to help but to capture and arrest survivors of violence. Despite camera footage that documents the violence they survived, MPD moves to arrest, not protect, our communities. The message MPD and the District are sending with their actions is clear: these cameras do not exist to protect us. Black, Latine, and trans sex workers, along with many other D.C. residents, experience the violence and lack of protection from the government that continue to eat away at our communities.
Research reflects the experience of many District residents. Between 2008 and 2011, research into the effects of surveillance cameras on law enforcement statistics in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington resulted in a similar conclusion—the cameras have not proven to lower crime rates or keep people safe.
Community groups have stepped in where the government has left a safety void. As a harm reduction organization, HIPS works to provide safety and security from the ripples of surveillance, with a 24/7 hotline to provide emotional support, nightlife tabling, and safety patrols in areas like K Street.
District residents deserve a say in how government surveillance is used—or whether it should be used at all. That’s why the Community Oversight of Surveillance-DC (COS-DC) Coalition is demanding that the D.C. Council end unchecked government surveillance, which does not improve public safety and threatens the privacy and other constitutional rights of all community members. We deserve to know which surveillance technologies the police and other agencies are using and how these tools affect our lives. COS-DC aims to bring D.C. residents, including sex workers and other historically harmed neighbors, one step closer to control over government surveillance so that we can keep ourselves and our communities safe.
Want to learn more and join our efforts? Visit https://takectrldc.org/.