Toward the Shroud

To be ungovernable is to recognize that surveillance regimes cannot be the only answer to a pandemic

Reading Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals in the midst of Covid-19, I come across a journal entry dated April 16, 1979. A year after her cancer diagnosis, she writes: “The enormity of our task, to turn the world around. It feels like turning my life around, inside out. If I can look directly at my life and my death without flinching I know there is nothing they can ever do to me again.” I think of how Lorde’s cancer diagnosis cannot be separated from her time spent working at a Keystone Electronics factory, where she ran X-ray machines. Similarly, I look at the statistics on Black communities affected by Covid-19 at disproportionately higher rates — an iteration of the state’s foundational violence. As I write this, the many ways Black life is rendered expendable — from housing insecurity, to medical racism — are all the more apparent in light of Covid-19.

Lorde’s world-building directive sustains, particularly right now as uprisings across the U.S. — continuing the projects of 1967, 1992, 2014 — dream the world anew in the midst of a pandemic. As the emergency state responds to Covid-19 through the heightened surveillance and policing of the same Black communities that have especially borne the virus’s impact, it must be noted we were always well acquainted with death. “There is nothing they can ever do to me again,” Lorde wrote. We have nothing left to lose and everything to gain.

The many ways Black life is rendered expendable are all the more apparent in light of Covid-19

I am also struck by Shaka McGlotten’s words on illegibility in “Black Data,” published in 2016: “A good mask, one resistant to efforts to decode it, may in fact provide us with a little room to maneuver, a little room outside the grasp of our ‘control society.’” I keep coming back to this quote, rereading it in a moment when masks feel so much more prominent in everyday life.

In the context of Covid-19, we see the state absolve itself for the virus’s spread, and blame now placed on individuals who have seemingly ignored the ethical directive to mask. But not everyone can mask so easily. We know that for Black people, wearing a mask will make us appear more threatening than we are always already perceived to be. Still, there are other kinds of masks and even “a little room to maneuver” for Blackness under the surveilling gaze of facial recognition. There are instances when we elude detection, existing outside machines that were never built for us.

Even before Covid-19, for centuries, the deployment of surveillance technologies by the state has criminalized and controlled the movement of Black people across the Americas. Simone Browne’s Dark Matters contextualizes this, taking up the history of “lantern laws.” In New York City, for example, a law dating back to 1713 required Black people to carry lanterns at night, to remain “constantly illuminated from dusk to dawn, made knowable, locatable, and contained within the city.” We can draw a direct line from such lantern laws to present-day carding or stop-and-frisk practices by police departments, where data is routinely extracted from Black communities which must remain knowable to the state. These surveillance technologies authorize the police to regulate, incarcerate, and kill Black people. They also put the idea of contact tracing and other forms of monitoring during the pandemic in a different light. Constant surveillance shapes the contours of everyday Black life — from our mobility on the illuminated street through to the prison cell. For instance, in the context of Covid-19, from March 16 to May 5, 193 out of 374 summonses for social-distancing violations in New York City were issued to Black people.

While some companies are now promising not to sell facial recognition technology to police, Clearview AI has made no such promises as they pitch their facial recognition technology to U.S. agencies for Covid-19 contact tracing. Already used by ICE and police departments around the world, Clearview AI’s technology matches faces to its database of images non-consensually mined from social media. At the same time, the limited ability of facial recognition algorithms to successfully identify Black people is well documented. Joy Buolamwini’s research reported higher rates of error in facial-analysis systems’ attempts to identify darker skinned women. As this technology verifies one’s identity against biometric databases, Black people are dangerously prone to misidentification errors in a system where cameras are calibrated and optimized for whiteness.

Miraculously, we build warm shelters as we evade the state’s gaze

Other forms of biometric technology, such as fingerprint scanning, are also not immune to error. As Browne notes, “unmeasurable fingerprints are often those of the elderly and people who come in contact with caustic chemicals and frequent hand washing in their work environments, such as mechanics, health care workers, and nail salon technicians or manicurists.” Still, the answer to misidentification cannot lie in reformist appeals for biometric technology that accurately identifies Black subjects or even temporary refusals to market the technology to police. We must demand nothing short of abolition.

Miraculously, we build warm shelters as we evade the state’s gaze. Forms of solidarity and kinship may be conceivable along these lines, among manual workers, those engaged in feminized labor, and Black working-class communities whose labor sustains an over-surveilled pandemic world. Kinship is in every Black liberation project toward abolition, felt in uprisings around the world.

This solidarity is especially important in light of the increased police surveillance practices during pandemic times, such as remote temperature screening conducted without a subject’s consent. Police in Westport, Connecticut, for instance, considered testing a drone that could monitor temperature and heart rate, as well as detect sneezes and coughs, from up to 190 feet away. In another context, similar technology under development by the Department of Homeland Security identifies “criminal intent” by detecting elevated heart rates at airports and borders. The categories of criminal and contagion are imbricated, with Blackness in common.

When we are illegible, when we exist and flourish in the shroud, we can fail at being a governable subject

In response to this, we can imagine futures of Black ungovernability. Ungovernability expresses itself in uprisings that demand the undoing of a world predicated on anti-Black violence. It also manifests as a refusal to be tracked by the state. To be ungovernable is to recognize that surveillance regimes cannot be the only answer to a pandemic. By individualizing blame and placing disproportionate burden on individuals surveilled as contagions, the emergency state obscures its utter inability to contain the pandemic.

When we are illegible, when we exist and flourish in the shroud, we can fail at being a governable subject, and thus succeed at evading the biometric identification of “good” vs “bad” citizens, and the carceral surveillance of Black communities. Being “known” to the state — an effect of pandemic surveillance, or 500 years of regulating Black movement — may mark the difference between life and death. As ungovernable, the conditions of freedom become possible in the here and now, while our faces and fingerprints fail to register in biometric systems. The pleasures of being unknown are infinite.

As Mimi Ọnụọha writes, “there are advantages to nonexistence,” and when we evade the essentialism of being violently understood, “there will always be bits that ooze out beneath spreadsheet cells, things that cannot be contained, or that should not.” To invoke Édouard Glissant, “we demand the right to opacity,” and in our illegibility we momentarily thwart surveillance structures. If you can’t see something, you can’t say something. Any one individual’s health is intimately tied to the health of community. Through mutual-aid projects and infinite underground networks of care, we provide food, housing, and medicine for each other — an ungovernable act, because we were not meant to survive here.

As I write this, we mourn (again, always again) Black death at the hands of police across the Americas. Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Tony McDade. D’Andre Campbell. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. While the state uses Covid-19 as a pretext to expand policing in the name of public health, Blackness is always outside the “public” in “public health.” And as we gather in public space, our masking practices signify so much more than infection control. Worn en masse as we grieve in the streets, engaged in uprisings, masking is the uniform of our solidarity. The mask thwarts surveillance, and some masks even protect against tear gas. The ubiquity of the mask at the scene of the protest illustrates a commons of Black refusal, where we find protection in each other, in our anonymity. It feels as if a Black otherwise might be possible within the ruins of the everyday.

Maandeeq Mohamed is a writer examining racial formation and varied entanglements with queerness.