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Big Brother is Watching You

8 Jun

By Kieran Connell

The first blog posted on In Birmingham (30th April) noted the appearance of giant, grey CCTV cameras on the streets of Moseley and Sparkhill, and the possible threat these posed to the artistic work of the street photographer, especially in light of recent moral panics regarding terrorism.

One of more than 150 CCTV cameras trained on Muslim communities in Birmingham

An investigation by local resident Steve Jolly, the findings of which were printed in the Guardian last weekend revealed the shocking extent of this moral panic in Birmingham.

The investigation showed that the new cameras, of which there are 150 around Sparkhill, Sparkbrook, Moseley and Washwood Heath, were requested by the West Midlands Police counterterrorism unit two years ago, and erected over the last few months with £3 million from the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) fund.  Funds from TAM can only be obtained if it can be proved that a project will help to prevent terrorism.

The cameras carry automatic number plate reading technology, and until now have only been installed in ‘iconic sites’ deemed to be potential terrorist targets.  This is the first time that such cameras have been targeted at specifically Muslim areas covering not only areas where Muslim people live in Birmingham (Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Washwood Heath all have above average Muslim populations) but also all routes in and out of these areas.  Alongside the obvious street cameras in grey boxes by the side of roads in these areas, like the one pictured, covert cameras have also been hidden in trees and walls.  Furthermore, this was all implemented with limited or no consultation with either community groups or local councillors.  Some councillors even claim they were ‘misled’ by West Midlands police into thinking the cameras were being installed to prevent crime in these areas, not terrorism.

All of this fits into a pattern of increasingly paranoid behaviour by the police, both in Birmingham and nationally.  The cases of Jean-Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson were well documented; in February 2009 West Midlands police forcibly removed a mural to the victims of Israeli atrocities in Palestine by local graffiti artist Mohammed Ali in Small Heath; and, as reported on this blog (17th May), 2009 also saw the police effectively ban a film set and filmed in Birmingham from being shown in local cinemas.

More than an invasion of artistic freedom, for the people who live in the affected areas these cameras are in effect an invasion of liberty.  For Muslims, it comes just a week after another disturbing Guardian report revealed the horrific anti-Islamism of the English Defence League.  The politics of the scheme is perhaps best summed up by the support the fascist BNP has lent to it, with the group claiming it ‘confirmed once again the accuracy of the BNP’s interpretation of the cause of terrorism in Britain’.

However, there are plans to resist the scheme.  A petition is in circulation on Facebook and currently has more than 200 hundred signatures, and cameras have also been daubed in graffiti, with slogans including ‘1984 Big Brother’, ‘the cops are watching you’ and ‘you are now entering a police state’.  Those worried by the new cameras are encouraged to raise the issue with their MP, either in writing or in person.