Hundreds milled around down on the floor and up in the balconies of Oakland City Hall. The atmosphere was festive with enthusiastic, hopeful energy— everyone seemed to know each other. Handmade signs and electric banners waved as children skittered playfully on the floor while the crowd waited for the council to delve into the issue that mobilized this crowd—the potential expansion of the Domain Awareness Center.
Advancing the growth of the massive DAC, an integrated surveillance and security system in Oakland, reached a crucial turning point on Tuesday night’s agenda. The mayor and councilmembers were weighing three options: limit the DAC to the Port of Oakland and revisit parts of Phase One; remain at Phase One and limit surveillance to the Port; or stop the DAC altogether. The final option brought raucous cheers from protestors.
The focus of mounting anxiety among Oakland’s activist community since last summer, DAC won City Council approval of $2 million in funding for Phase Two in July. The first phase dates back to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security allocation of $10.9 million in funding support to the Center in 2009. The heat intensified when fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked data collected by the National Security Agency, igniting a national and worldwide debate about surveillance and privacy which has taken hold here.
Oakland has become an epicenter of the surveillance debate on a municipal level, with a community that is at once weary of street crime and gun violence, yet fearful of big government spying on ordinary citizens and political activists.
As the perceived threat to privacy loomed from the DAC’s massive network of cameras, Shot Spotters and social media, a coalition of Oaklanders came together to form the Oakland Privacy Working Group. The group’s contingency plan was to sue the city to block the DAC. Brian Hofer, the group’s spokesman, says they amassed funds for possible court action, and lined up six or seven attorneys who offered pro bono services.
But court was not their prime destination. Their main strategy was to outflank the DAC’s supporters by marshaling a superior plan of communication.
At City Hall, the group launched letters and phone calls to councilmembers. To garner public support, the group took their warnings to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about the risks of the DAC. Hofer also met with councilmembers to raise awareness, express concerns and develop a rapport between the group and the power centers at City Hall. Despite a long history of tenuous relationships between the council and activist groups, Hofer was easily able to arrange meetings with councilmembers, where he discovered the problem was a surprising lack of awareness of what was at stake.
“I think the light bulb finally went on,” Hofer said, “and they realized how little they knew about this project.”
Disorganization prevailed among city staff—who have thrown their support behind furthering the project—about the integration of the DAC’s components, Hofer said.
The campaign to pass DAC suffered from a classic cart-before-horse syndrome: there wasn’t any privacy and data retention policy in place for the city. Councilmembers Dan Kalb and Libby Schaaf insisted during the council meeting that such a policy must be set before the DAC is approved for expansion. The council requested a policy last July to be in place by the March 4 meeting.
They were still waiting on Tuesday night.
“The administration really dragged their feet. They waited too long, and now we have to pick up the pieces,” Kalb said.
District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaaf, who is also a mayoral candidate in the next election, declared that she “does not feel comfortable” with the idea of moving the DAC progression forward until a clear policy is in place.
At the center of Tuesday’s hive of politicking that night: the council sign-up sheet listed 149 speakers, all of them against the continuation of the DAC. Community members turned out from across the city, representing almost every demographic—young and old, black and white, Asian, Muslim and Hindu.
Civil rights lawyer and mayoral candidate Dan Siegel, a former aide to Mayor Jean Quan, took the mic to plead with the council to “Just say no” to the DAC.
“Staff — I hate to say this — is not being candid with you,” Siegel said emphatically. “What staff is talking about in terms of the DAC is surveillance of labor activists, Occupy protestors and political activists. When the government spies on people, it uses that information against them. You do not want to do this; this is not for Oakland.”
Religion and philosophy also were invoked in arguments against the DAC. Several speakers referred to French social critic Michel Foucault’s concept of postmodern social control as a kind of “panopticon,” equating the DAC with the all-seeing eye of a circular 18th century prison design.
Members of the Lighthouse Mosque raised alarm regarding Islamophobia and racial profiling. They chanted, “God is great,” and quoted a passage from the Quran that commands its readers: “Do not spy on one another.” Their imam, Zaid Shakir, told the council they should be proud of their constituents for coming together as a community.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California threw its support behind the DAC protestors. Linda Lye, ACLU staff attorney, voiced worries about the potential tracking and use of “case records” in Phase Two. Lye consistently referenced a letter she had penned to the council earlier that week.
“If someone is able to access all of the arrest reports within [Oakland Police Department], this amounts to something called summary criminal history information,” Lye said. “That would be heavily regulated by state law, and there would be limited individuals who are entitled to access this information,” she added.
“The staff report doesn’t even address or acknowledge this substantial legal question,” Lye went on. “And also, there isn’t the basic question answered of why does information about an arrest that did not lead to a charge or conviction, how on earth is that relevant to Port security?”
The chambers erupted in outrage from those who insisted the DAC be killed outright, rather than downsized or delayed. There was also confusion among those who simply misunderstood what had just happened.
Lye said the ACLU “wholeheartedly endorses” Brooks’ motion.
Privacy advocate Hofer said that, for his part, he counts the victory as a “significant” one. But he added that his group remains on the alert for any potential threat of anti-union surveillance of the port workers.
“We’re going to keep watching,” Hofer said.