A City Under Surveillance

For at least the past two weeks, the City of Oakland (CA) has been beset by helicopter fly-overs lasting hours and occurring daily. The latest assault began at 2am and, as dawn approaches this morning, still is at full throttle. I’ve spotted up to four choppers simultaneously circling my neighborhood. These would be under the command of various TV stations, police and other law enforcement agencies. They infect the environment with an insistent, inescapable thumping noise.

I started investigating this malaise. Clearly some of the traffic it has been in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, but I doubt many folks are out in the wee hours for this purpose. As a tool of law enforcement, it’s an expensive choice at $450 an hour to operate – to say nothing of the $2-3 million price tag for the aircraft itself. The office of the outgoing major allowed they could only relay complaints to the police department. The incoming mayor thinks the city should buy more choppers.

The Port of Oakland has a noise complaint hotline, but no power to enforce restrictions. I have yet to call the news stations and the FAA, but their regulations state: ”No person may operate an aircraft …over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, below an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

“Helicopters may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed… if the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface and at an altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.”

I venture these rules have been violated with impunity. A crash in any Oakland neighborhood would be an avoidable disaster.

Meanwhile, I asked a neighbor about his reaction to the chopper infestation. He said there was some discussion about it on a social network called NextDoor. I posted a comment about the restricting the fly-overs. Some of the replies:

“If you want to live where real stuff is going on you have to accept that real stuff is going on. There are always earplugs or the Suburbs.”

“This is the beginning of the 21st Century my friend. Actually i like it when the new media is in the air providing live details of an unfolding incident or even that you can view on your phone live.”

“These helicopters are above our homes because the protestors are coming closer and closer to our homes… I’m thankful for this [presence].”

These comments miss the point. Accepting ‘the Oakland reality’ or news junky-ism or a mistaken notion that choppers represents protection deny that surveillance of this magnitude and frequency is provocative and unacceptable.

I hold an abiding suspicion of things militaristic. Having spent time in active war zones, I understand the fear this kind of technology evokes. I also believe that we cannot rest in the belief that the horrors of Rwanda or Darfur or Syria would never happen here. Weaponry gives the upper hand. And the Pentagon is quietly offloading plenty of weapons to American police departments – including armored personnel carriers and RPG launchers.

The book The Bosnia List describes how a Bosnian Muslim at the age of 11 saw his hometown – where Croats, Bosnians and Serbs had been peaceful neighbors – disintegrate into bloody chaos with armed militia trucking dead bodies down the street. The unimaginable happened because people with racial and religious antipathies got pumped up with too many weapons.

In the US, raids by heavily armed SWAT teams have risen to about 50,000 a year. Police killed 458 Americans last year – the world’s extreme leader in death-by-cop. Nearly1% of our adult population is incarcerated – overwhelmingly blacks and more than 5 times the average for rich countries. And we’ve got 300 million handguns in our cities and towns.

Helicopters are the most visible evidence of police militarization. Where do residents of a purported democracy draw the line? This is so much more than a noise nuisance issue.

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