Turns out, MBTA has plenty of dollars – for surveillance.

Kade Crockford reports that DHS has awarded the MBTA $7 million to refit its buses with fancy new surveillance cameras. Why? Oh, no reason in particular. But the MBTA is at pains to point out that they spent none of their own money on the project. What’s wrong with free money?

Let me tell you what’s wrong with free money. Whether it’s coming from MBTA, DHS, the NSA or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it all comes from you and me in the end, and I care just the same about whether it’s being spent wisely.

I understand the politics. MBTA, being a local agency, tends to come under fire if it, say, has a massive budget crisis and hikes fares by 23% to help make up the shortfall. DHS, on the other hand, won’t be protested, and this one grant is a drop in the bucket. Nobody’s going to lose their job at DHS if the money does no good.

Crockford rightly comments:

While surveillance advocates and the companies that profit off of mass spying argue that cameras on public transit are necessary in order to protect the public and to protect bus drivers from (unquestionably serious) abuse, there's no evidence to suggest that cameras have a deterrent effect on serious crimes. In fact, a simple Google search reveals that MBTA surveillance cameras routinely catch people in the act of committing violent crimes, showing that the cameras are not the deterrent law enforcement claims them to be. And while cameras can be helpful to investigators after the fact, studies show that they aren't actually a magic bullet. In London, a city completely blanketed in CCTV, one thousand cameras on the street only resulted in solving one crime per year. The reality is very different from what you see on cop shows.

Boston Magazine reports:

[Attacks] were often prompted by a driver’s refusal to let passengers board because they couldn’t pay the fare.

You know, that’s great. The MBTA wants to reduce the sadly frequent attacks on its drivers, and who could argue with trying to solve that problem? But let’s be conscious here about the fact that they’re choosing a provably ineffective method, because it comes for “free”, and that it incidentally allows the expansion of the surveillance state.

A private business might say, Hey, our customers are so angry with us at our price hike that our employees are being assaulted. Maybe we should find out why; maybe we should find ways to rework what we offer to make our customers feel happier.

A wiser government might say, Hey, our people are poor enough that they are having trouble paying for bus fare; maybe we should explore strategies to reduce poverty, or reduce the proportion of the MBTA’s budget that they pay at the point of service, so that our people will feel happier.

Not the MBTA. Their solution is to implement universal surveillance so those goddamn cray-cray customers who get angry enough to lash out, get what’s coming to them. Because feeding more unstable people into the criminal justice system is “free.”

This is code for so much we see around us. God forbid that we should invest in public goods and pay through general taxation for things that the public wants and that provide a great return on investment, like frequent, cheap buses that run on time, or great public schools and universities, or bridges and tunnels that don’t collapse without warning. That’s just ridiculous. On the other hand, if you have an idea to spy on the public, suppress dissent, or rain destruction on the heads of foreigners, it’s suddenly All You Can Eat For Free Super Tuesday Special Time in DC, and that life-throttling culture is spreading out to your and my communities through grant programs like this.

It’s not a coincidence that our political culture considers it transparently absurd to be investing more in things that make ordinary people’s lives easier, happier, healthier or freer, but self-evidently worthwhile to waste billion after billion to make elites feel more secure.

DHS offers “free money.” That’s why police departments get more and more free stuff, like surveillance cameras and drones and hollow-point bullets and tanks. But there’s a cost to all of us in this, and it’s the old cost that Eisenhower spoke of sixty years ago.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. April 16, 1953

After sixty years, you’d think we’d have learned something. But no, we haven’t, so cameras and drones and tanks it is, this time, next time, next year, and forever, and to hell with whether they actually make any of us safer. Yes, it’s “free” money, but not without strings; it comes shadowed with the jail and the lash.

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