A golden-tinted video displays thousands of protesters marching down the glamorous, palm tree-lined Hollywood Boulevard. Visualizing the scale of a Los Angeles protest two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, filmmaker Ron Kurokawa captured the footage on his drone. It quickly went viral: the original video currently has 4.8 million views on Twitter alone.
The aerial view, now more accessible due to drones, is an irresistible media depiction of protest. In the first two weeks of June, the New York Times, the Atlantic, People, Slate, and Insider all published pieces centering on aerial images of Black Lives Matter protests around the nation.
Having protested in recent weeks, I can see the attraction of drone images. They offer a vision of the unseeable: the size of an action, and thus a measure of its power. Drones can fill knowledge gaps, which is perhaps why law enforcement also uses them to surveil protests.
As these overhead images went viral on the internet, the Department of Homeland Security logged over 270 hours of protest surveillance footage flying drones, helicopters, and planes in 15 cities. The weekend after George Floyd’s murder Minneapolis, Customs and Border Protection flew a Predator drone (also used to surveil the US-Mexico border) to track “violent acts.” Black Lives Matter has long been watched from above; in 2015, the FBI flew aircrafts to monitor Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore.
Local police departments have also stocked up on drones. In December 2018, the New York Police Department (NYPD) acquired 14 drones, which have the ability to run facial recognition technology on captured footage. These departments deploy drones at “large events” in an unregulated, poorly-tracked technological landscape. Paired with phone tracking devices and license plate readers, drones are part of a large-scale effort to criminalize protest.
Drones have been used in CIA surveillance operations in Afghanistan since 2000. By 2002, drones had human targets, with the remote technology rendering their human operators invisible. According to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, during the Obama administration alone, 563 drone strikes killed between 384 to 807 civilians in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
With the commercialization of drones for non-military uses, you can now pay $350 for a 7-hour drone cinematography masterclass to transform yourself from a “drone owner” to an “aerial cinematographer.” When drones fly above weddings, capture the beauty of natural wonders, and produce images that resemble abstract paintings, their lethal origins are further obscured.
The use of drones in domestic policing builds on a long history of government spying on Black movements. The FBI notably tracked Black activists and thinkers through COINTELPRO from 1956 to 1971, maintaining records on civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., author James Baldwin, and abolitionist Angela Davis, among many others. Alvaro Bedoya writes in Slate, “The FBI used information gleaned from taps and secret listening devices to smear King to the press and potential funders, and to engage in repugnant, sexual blackmail.” Leaked documents showed that continued FBI efforts to track “Black Identity Extremism,” warning of “pre-meditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement” linked to protests after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown.
Today, the same drone technologies shared by social media users in support of Black lives are utilized by the state to surveil Black protesters. Even with an intention to amplify the movement, Simone Browne, author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, warns that the sharing of images on social media can amount to secondary policing. “It’s like policing that now is mediated through…platforms, like Instagram and Facebook …[It] still is about the governing of black life and black resistance by the state or state-adjacent entities,” she told Wired in June.
Regardless of the operator, drones violate privacy. A drone’s danger can be invisible: it captures hours of footage from a public that does not consent to being photographed or know the recording’s ultimate destination. If images with faces become publicized, facial recognition technology can be used to track down individuals. Even a drone’s visibility canquell protest: they intrude and they buzz, reminding protesters of the fact they’re being watched.
Who is behind the drone’s gaze? Drones hide their identities; a protester cannot distinguish the owner nor their intentions. But drone photography is a business in which predominantly white, male photographers profit from protests that have seen countless incidents of police violence against Black individuals. Mainstream publications commission these images to meet demands of public consumption. In June, the New York Times purchased aerial footage of Black Lives Matter protests from private drone video production companies, such as Portlandrone. Individual photographers sell aerial images through photo suppliers like Getty.
While drones can testify to the size of protests, quantifying attendance mimics state tactics. Police estimate crowds based on overhead images, and journalists report these numbers. But the real dangers presented by drone technology necessitate a justice-oriented visualization of protest must differ and disrupt that of the state.
On June 1, the FBI issued a request for photos “individuals inciting violence” during protests. These calls, plus the prevalence of social media scraping, draw attention to constant state surveillance. When just the public presence of photos can endanger protesters, photographers must actively alter their practices to support Black lives and avoid state co-option.
At its core, the drone image exemplifies the distanced position of the looker, peering down onto the crowd, profiting from Black-led activism and participating in its tracking. Many activists demand an alternative. The photographers of Activestills, an Israel/Palestine-based collective, are also movement participants, carrying risks and possibilities as agents for change. “The collective’s emphasis is not on ‘representation’ of the ‘suffering of the other,’ but on the enactment of political agency and the demand for rights — to mobility, livelihood, and protection from violence,” write members Shiraz Grinbaum and Vered Maimon. Their photos become posters and shields, folding into the landscape of protest.
To enter an emancipatory visual practice, observers also need to forgo the desire to see protest from above, to calculate what is ultimately unquantifiable. A single image can never capture a movement that spans cities, countries, and decades.