In an age in which people imagine the power of social media can be employed to catalyze social and political change it can be easy to forget (generally willfully) that the technique of such social change is not easily confined to intended use. The joke of Rule 34 could attest to that on the internet at a simple level all by itself.
But more recently, there's an article that discusses how an app designed to aid civic service for transportation infrastructure can be redeployed as a surveillance aid to find and remove homeless encampments in Seattle.
Along the way there are a few comments about racism in law enforcement in the Seattle area. It's sometimes difficult to appreciate how difficult it is for people in the Puget Sound area to appreciate that there is a white supremacist legacy throughout the PNW. The election of Trump did not magically produce this strand of racist thought but was taken as a catalyst for it to reveal itself. Anyone who has actually lived in the PNW for twenty or more years and has had any education at all about it knows that blacks were not allowed to have the full rights of citizenship in Oregon despite slavery being formally illegal. That strange and terrible double bind may speak of a larger paradoxical legacy of some of the bluest of blue states, a legacy of being against slavery while not exactly being for people of color in meaningful ways.
Encampments like the one in Ravenna Woods are reported to the city regularly. The City of Seattle even offers an app to make the process easier. The Find It, Fix It app was originally designed to allow community members to report potholes, dumping, signal issues, and other neighborhood problems. But the app has warped into a powerful instrument for high-tech community patrolling, enabling individuals to report abandoned vehicles and homeless encampments.
The dearth of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness here, where a tech boom led by Amazon has helped push home prices up by 19 percent a year. But homelessness also disproportionately impacts people of color. Twenty-seven percent of King County’s homeless population is black, yet black residents only make up 6 percent of the county’s overall population. This year, 14 percent of the people who died as a result of living outside in King County were black. These figures make Seattle’s approach to homelessness an issue of race as much as affordability. That connects an app-based “solution” to the problem of homelessness to a dark history of American self-policing, in which public order is delivered at the cost of the most vulnerable.
August Drake-Ericson, a program manager for the Seattle Homeless Encampment Response team, shared during an encampment-removal review meeting that Find It, Fix It was the primary source of complaints regarding unauthorized encampments and requests for removal. The total number of complaints received last year was 12,500, an average of 34 a day. Between February and April of this year, 1,444 unique complaints of unauthorized encampments were submitted.
“The volume of complaints sent through the app does not necessarily impact how removals are prioritized, though,” explains Will Lemke, the director of communications for the Seattle Homelessness Response team. Instead, “the complaints sent through the app can help identify a new encampment for the city,” he says. At this time, the city is not interested in preventing people from using the app to report homeless encampments. For its part, the city says the encampment was moved onto a priority list in April after police arrested one of its residents on charges of being a felon in illegal possession of firearm ammunition.
According to the county’s homeless-services agency, King County shelter beds regularly fill to 90-percent capacity. Their one-night count conducted in January of this year shows that there is a current shelter population of 3,585. If that figure represents a 90-percent capacity, it would mean almost 400 more beds sit empty most days.
Race has long served as a hidden rationale for policing in America. In the South, formal police forces trace their origins to slave patrols used to control and contain black people. After the Civil War, convict-leasing systems were used to manage former slaves and exploit their labor. Vagrancy laws recast former black slaves as vagrants in order to control or eject them from places they were deemed undesirable. African Americans aren’t alone in such targeting, either. In Hawaii, vagrancy laws were used to enforce colonial order, coercing native Hawaiians to work on the plantations. Today, anti-homeless laws in Hawaii perpetuate that tradition, even as the state’s homelessness numbers soar.
Maybe some folks recall a report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
The five states or jurisdictions where a person is most likely to be killed by law enforcement are New Mexico, Nevada, District of Columbia, Oregon, and Maryland. California ranks sixth from the top. Alabama, North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York are the safest (or, perhaps, the worst at reporting).
...The racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans, followed by African Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Asian Americans.
Native Americans, 0.8 percent of the population, comprise 1.9 percent of police killings. African Americans, 13 percent of the population, are victims in 26 percent of police shootings. Law enforcement kills African Americans at 2.8 times the rate of white non-Latinos, and 4.3 times the rate of Asians.
As blue as Oregon and Washington can look on the map in electoral college terms it would be a mistake to think there's no legacy of racism, specifically white supremacist racism, in these parts. While Black Lives Matter activism toward police reform can have any number of salutary aims if the guiding narrative is that police brutality is specifically white against black violence then there's a risk that the Native American populations who, relative to their population sizes, may still be most likely to get killed by law enforcement yet be mainly ignored in rhetorical narratives about race relations--there may just not be enough Native Americans to matter to people who may be caught up in being for or against the narratives and rhetoric of a movement like Black Lives Matter. My concern about an era of Coatesian style appeals to reparations is that probably without intending to a writer like Coates casts the dynamic of white and black in a way that excludes other skin colors by way of public discussion.
A century ago some of the most progressive minds around were not exactly benevolent in their thinking toward Native Americans. One of the things I've grown very jaded and skeptical about in the last twenty years is the reliability with which whites with progressive and reactionary tendencies prefer to scapegoat each other entirely for a shared racist legacy. It doesn't mean I want the Pacific Northwest Indian slavery system to come back, it just means that I don't think that contemporary partisans of red and blue among white people have a compelling reason to keep up the charade in which their respective team is somehow exempt from a legacy or racism or, per John McWhorter, that there's really a way to "atone" for that legacy of racism by way of lighting a votive candle to signal virtue. The traditional Christian ethical teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself and taking the parable of the Good Samaritan as a warning that you don't get to decide who your neighbor isn't should be sufficient for those who call themselves Christian to have some understanding that racism is a sinful disposition for the heart to embrace.
The more people in the West try to embrace some kind of neo-pagan alternative the more folks may discover that that as popular in a certain European country for a while, too. Adorno wrote that the mythology of Judeo-Christian religion was perhaps an onerous mythology but that the neo-pagan alternative being embraced by people in Germany was far, far more dangerous.
Some of the life-path options advocated for by people who sincerely (I trust) want to remedy the legacy of racism may tun out to be no solution to the problem.
That an app for fixing potholes in a city is used to sniff out and remove homeless encampments might be another possibly teachable instance in which what you think you're designing tech for and how it actually gets used may not coincide. If you put your faith in the technique itself rather than what people will use the technique for ... .