by Ashley Rogers
After the beginning of the George Floyd protests back in May 2020, increased attention was paid to the vast amounts of money American cities spend on their police forces. Towns and cities across the country found their public meetings, normally rubber-stamp affairs, filled with unexpected opposition to police budget increases. In Worcester, workers, activists, and students, including members of the Independent Socialist Group, turned out in force in June to oppose the City Council granting additional funds for the Worcester Police Department. After four hours of public comment, with hundreds of community members voicing their opposition, Worcester City Council voted unanimously to give Worcester PD a quarter of a million dollars in additional funding. Scenes like this played out all across the nation, as working people faced the harsh reality that their elected officials, including Democrats, did not stand against racism, economic inequality, or police brutality.
But while the previous extra quarter of a million dollars allocated was ridiculous, the plan put forward at the City Council meeting this Tuesday, January 19th, was insidious. The request: $150,000 for an expansion of “ShotSpotter” acoustic shot detection surveillance—and for “ShotSpotter Connect,” a “predictive policing” technology that aims to use artificial intelligence and the data from a city-wide surveillance network to, in essence, “predict crime before it occurs.” The ShotSpotter technology is essentially an array of microphones covering entire neighborhoods that listen for the sounds of gunshots and relay that location data to the local police. Connect then aims to take this data and combine it with existing data of police patrols and arrests to produce a forecast of where crime will occur. While the Deputy Chief of Police Paul Saucier was quick to downplay the sci-fi promises of stopping crime before it occurs, Chief of Police Steven M. Sargent wrote to the City Council (found here—attachments under 9.10) describing the system as “effectively extending the capabilities of ShotSpotter Flex to deter gun crime before it occurs.” The dystopian nature of this technology and the degree to which City Council members seem eager to downplay that fact is perhaps best reflected in Councilor Toomey’s slip of the tongue: “We want to make sure we’re grabbing people before the – as soon as the crime is committed.”
Of course, artificial intelligence is no crystal ball—no matter how sophisticated the technology is, it can only do what any human can, using past information to make predictions about the future. And just like a human, how it was taught will have huge effects on what predictions it’ll make; AI is infamously well known for its ability to pick up biases from the information it is given. Deputy Chief Saucier’s answer to these criticisms, raised by ISG members and the community, is that the data collected by ShotSpotter Connect has “no personally identifiable information such as race” and is only location information. But across this country, black people are arrested at rates double, triple, in some cases even ten times that of their white counterparts. Black people are 95% more likely to be stopped on the road, and 115% more likely to be searched in a traffic stop. It doesn’t matter if only location data is collected—if the department arrests twice as many black people as white people, the algorithm will conclude that crime happens twice as often in black communities as in white communities. Saucier repeated that this algorithm only allows them to do what they’re already doing, only more effectively. He is correct, but not in the sense that he might think.
Capitalism’s Racist Roots
The Black Lives Matter movement, including the protests of millions of youth and workers over this past summer, has made millions more aware that racism isn’t an individual problem—it’s a structural problem. As Marxists, we know these racist structures are rooted in and sustained by capitalism. From the transatlantic slave trade, to the ruthless exploitation of African-Americans under Jim Crow/apartheid, segregationist housing policies by big banks and the government, to the vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration today for Black Americans—nearly half of those in private prisons—capitalism has generated and used brutal racist oppression. It’s the fundamental job of the police to defend capitalism, so any technology used to improve policing has built into its foundations exploitation and oppression. Neither the ingenuity of the algorithms nor the facade of mathematical objectivity that is claimed for the technology will prevent its use in defending and perpetuating the racism inherent to the capitalist system.
With only a measly 45 minutes assigned to public comment, members of the public scrambled to be able to speak out against the project before being cut off by the Mayor. No objections were discussed, and it was clear from each contribution that the mood for change that had packed City Council six months earlier had not disappeared in the intervening months. Yet, in a brazen confirmation of how little City Council listens to the working people of this city, Councilor Bergman claimed he “can count on one hand the number of people who have something negative to say about [ShotSpotter].” Most councilors relied on anecdotes from citizens concerned about crime to state their case. Council members seem more interested in the input of the Worcester Police than those who are actually affected by the discrimination of Worcester PD.
While city councilors have praised the work of Worcester PD and claim to be working towards the safety and wellbeing of this city’s residents, anti-racist protestors arrested on political charges are still being prosecuted by the Worcester DA. Despite video evidence displaying police brutality, confirmed by an independent law firm, none of the officers involved have yet faced consequences for their actions. Even phones stolen by police have yet to be returned! The June 1st protest that led to these arrests was called by Democratic City Councilor Khrystian King. In a City Council meeting held the day after the arrests, councilors lauded the Worcester PD, even praising officers involved for their “restraint!” This is a sign of things to come, as new movements develop that threaten the interests of capitalism, and police are used more and more frequently to crush protests. As the curiously tame police response to this month’s Capitol Hill riots reminds us, the goal of the police isn’t to protect the peace—it’s to protect capitalism. The thousands of protestors arrested during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations echoed the role the police & FBI played in suppressing the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program aimed to surveil, blackmail, and discredit top civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panther Party. How ironic that this City Council meeting took place the day after King’s birthday, when similar data-driven policing technologies enabled police to surveil Black Lives Matter protestors this summer, including artificial intelligence-powered data mining not too far removed from what ShotSpotter is planning on deploying here. The police chief claims ShotSpotter can prevent a homicide—will it also help crush a protest?
We Need Independent Working Class Politics!
Worcester has seen time and time again that we can’t trust the Democrats and Republicans (no matter how “non-partisan” they claim to be) to look out for our interests. Whether it’s the Democratic-majority City Council voting against public pressure and giving even more money to the police, the planning board ignoring multiple meetings worth of opposition to approve Amazon’s new warehouses, or the Worcester DA prosecuting anti-racist protestors on political charges, it’s clear the capitalist city government is not built to protect the interests of the working class. It’s clear that, if we want any hope of fighting for the change we need in our communities, we need to organize opposition beyond City Council hearings and their endless subcommittees! In the 1980s, under the harsh austerity of the Thatcher regime, our co-thinkers in the UK—Militant, now known as the Socialist Party—were able to win thirty million pounds in funding from the conservative Thatcher government, the Militant-led Liverpool City Council being the only council to secure any additional funding. This victory was won not by convincing each councilor to support this platform, but by building a mass movement of the working class to put pressure on the City Council and win! Electing new councilors who stand on working-class values and are independent of the corporate two-party system is an effective tactic, but only as part of a mass movement that can put force behind these councilors’ demands and hold them accountable to the working people of this city!
Last year’s Black Lives Matter movement represented a huge step forward for workers in this country standing up for our rights. But it also revealed the critical lack of organization among working-class movements in this country that ultimately allowed BLM to be defused and rerouted into support for Biden and other Democrats. But corporate parties offer no solutions to the crises we are facing today. Trying to defeat capitalist oppression without organization is like trying to drive a car with no engine! Ultimately, it’s the fuel, the energy of the working class and youth, that propels us forward—and last year’s protests showed we have no shortage of that. But without an engine, without the organization necessary to turn that energy into useful work, you might have a full tank, but the car will still sit in the driveway. Tuesday’s meeting reminded us of the critical role that organization plays in fighting for the interests of the working class. As long as we remain disorganized, all we can do is hope to convince council members through impassioned arguments and emotional appeals. We must break from the two-party duopoly and build our own working-class party that is independent of big business and that can fight against the oppression and exploitation perpetuated by capitalism and its functionaries. We could win so much more by taking the fight outside of City Council and into the streets, into workplaces and organized labor, building a mass movement and an independent worker’s party to take on the repression of Worcester PD and police departments around the country, and win demands that working people need! From this political basis, ISG is building a fighting coalition of working people and community organizations to coordinate a community response to the political repression of anti-racist protestors. This solidarity campaign shows a good example of how mass opposition to police surveillance and racist oppression can be organized. Get in touch with ISG, and read our socialist program on fighting police brutality, to get involved in building the power of the working class to fight for a socialist world!
Interested in socialist ideas for fighting racism? Check out our pamphlet Against Racism & Police Brutality: Build a Socialist Fightback.