University of Memphis

On the Edge of Mass Surveillance: Navigating a “Live and Let Die” Democracy by Bradly Knox @ University of Memphis

“No system of mass surveillance has existed in any society that we know of to this point that has not been abused.”


Edward Snowden



The first step in combating a top-down oppressive surveillance state is to start at ground zero. The grassroots, Memphis United, is (the epitomized ground zero) civil coalition that aims to expose oppressive police surveillance particularly against minorities. I attended the Tennessee premiere of “Who Will Watch the Watchers?” (hereafter referred as W4).

Photo of documentary: Who Will Watch the Watchers Photo Credit: Nicholas Bradley, Paul Garner, and Gary Moore

This documentary composed by Gary Moore, was shown as part of a joint effort collaboration between Gary (documentary composer), Paul Garner (grassroots organizing director), and my colleague, Nicholas Bradley to document an oppressive police surveillance, particularly the Memphis Police Department. The documentary combined news stories, personal and donated live-action footage, and interviews to piece together problems happening in municipalities across the nation: an abuse of social control. While the documentary was demonstrating police overreach regardless of victim, its primary message: the asymmetrical power structures that disadvantages the Black community. This documentary premiere was a one-hour “walk in the shoes” who face police oppression. After the documentary concluded, there was a panel discussion for audience Q&A. But there is one problem. The panel consisted of four white males (the fourth, not mentioned above, was Bruce Kramer, a lawyer and staunch defender of ACLU). Despite no ill intention of what comprised of the panel, and to the dismay of one of the attendees at this event, criticisms fell upon the panel that do not reflect accurate minority representation who are truly under police surveillance. This highlights the purpose of writing this piece: the affect that an oppressive police state has on one minority group juxtaposed to the White body.

Other activists, for example, Director of Center for Media Justice, Malkia Cyril stated in a keynote speech at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, “For Black people to move about the streets safely in 1700’s America, [they] needed a pass. That was the surveillance technology of that time. A white person had to vouch for you, and every white person was deputized to enforce that system.”[1] Nonetheless, contemporarily, there is still an uneasiness for minorities in the U.S. walking down the street. What kind of collection action problem do we have as a democracy that is conducive to a partly-free society?


Illiberal Democracy

Illiberal democracy then becomes a prominent theme in the discussion of democracy backsliding. But what is illiberalism? This is what happens when citizens are not in the loop of conversation and knowledge by those who exercise actual power in the society: they are instead outside the political process. Black bodies are pigeon-holed as “threatening” and “outside” a political due process. Consider, for instance, Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) draw the line that separates citizens and elites. They say, citizens, are a de facto political power (i.e., power in numbers and force) which (supposedly) threatens government recalibration in the form of coup d’état. We see this already with Black Lives Matter or Anarchist protests (as well as white supremacy and ANTIFA). Citizens are fighting an illiberal democratic structure in the form of oppressive surveillance and stealth authoritarianism with violent protests. A question remains; how are citizens navigating between political inclusion and ostracism? Democratic backsliding emphasizes a divided democracy. Jan-Werner Müller, author of What Is Populism notes that populist ideals are one that covers an entire political spectrum. Müller points out early on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, both, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders can be seen as “populists.” But what could this mean in terms of democracy? Simply. It is the division factor. It is the “us” versus “them” (or the act of ‘Othering’). Populism as a “divide and conquer” strategy is the salt on the wound of democratic erosion: it makes it worse. And with a society pitted against itself, democracy suffers.


USPS Postage Stamp: “to form a more perfect union Photo Credit:


A “Live and Let Die” Democracy

Huq and Ginsberg (2018) diagnose a healthy society as one that demonstrates a “robust civil society and media, as well as individual rights, such as the First Amendment.”[2] Removing the freedom of speech is evident enough of democratic backsliding (just look to the DPRK). Controversies surrounding the so-called “rights” of NFL players for “disrespecting” the U.S. flag is just an ongoing example of criticism that problematizes freedom of speech by oppressing political behavior that would seem obvious, part and parcel to democracy. By looking at theorists Michel Foucault and Achille Mbembe together, we get two sides of the same coin: a democratic “live and let die” society. In other words, countries that deploy security and surveillance apparatus to manage its populations (also known as biopolitics, or roughly translated as “life politics”) also have a system in place for those who “cannot be managed” in a sense. Mbembe refers to this as necropolitics (i.e., necro- meaning ‘dead’ for “dead politics”).

Living. Dying. Democracy. How do all these connect? It is simply correlative, if life decreases, death increases. I do not assess this in a way of actually who lives and who dies. I refer to life and death as symbols to a productive populous. A fully oppressive surveillance state, for instance, North Korea, its citizens are not allowed to have grassroots let alone shop at certain grocery stores. But nevertheless, the DPRK population has a high degree of necropolitics. To put alternatively, the citizen body is placed outside the function of life and into what German political theorist, Carl Schmitt called Ausnahmezustand (German for ‘state of exception’). This state is defined by a governments transcending rule of law in the name of “public good.” The United States has less salient necropolitics in comparison to the DPRK (obviously) but we see backsliding in “quiet” ways that still support this notion.

Democracy hinges on the back of grassroots movements. With the government transcending the rule of law for “public good” is nothing more than a shell game of citizen freedoms that is constantly being challenged by grassroots to no avail. Associate Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark Law School, Ozan Varol, termed the notion of “stealth authoritarianism” as governance that hides behinds the façade of democracy and legal mechanisms to pursue anti-democratic ends.[3] During the documentary, W4, a particular shell game was perpetuated as city politicians attempted to curbside dialogue regarding establishment of a Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB). The purpose of CLERB was to instate citizen oversight on police actions; however, this proposal was deemed problematic and labeled, a catalyst for “more crime” and thus struck down. This live and let die democracy is described as one that idolizes the productive citizen but also one that does not facilitate in the aid of those outside the caste system. On March 17, 1976 Foucault’s lecture series (“Society Must Be Defended”) at Collège de France stated “Sovereign power’s effect on life is exercised only when the sovereign can kill… It is the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die.”[4] So in a world where democracy is eroding – ask yourself – who are we making live; who are we letting die?



[1] Malkia Cyril, “Targeted Surveillance, Civil Rights, and the Fight for Democracy,” October 17, 2015, (accessed October 8, 2015).

[2] Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” UCLA Law Review 65, (2018): 1 – 78.

[3] Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, (2014): 1673 – 1742.

[4] Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, (New York, NY: Picador, 1997).






Leave a Reply