There are more than 250,000 streetlights in New York City, and while the recent change to LED bulbs have made them a nuisance for some residents, they don’t make the people whose windows they illuminate feel watched. But some residents of the city’s public housing have recently had to deal with a harsher light shining on them.
These come from floodlights which are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2014 plan to make neighborhoods and housing developments safer. The bright lights were aimed at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing, which are public-housing units throughout the city that are available to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, and whose residents are overwhelmingly black or latino. Putting forth the plan, the administration cited a 31% increase in shootings at NYCHA developments.
Ever since the installation of the floodlights around buildings in East Harlem and parts of Brooklyn, there have been complaints on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Posts speculate about why a floodlight is up at a particular intersection. They complain that the lights keep residents up at night and that the generators continue to run during the day.
In his speech announcing the program in July 2014, a few months after he took office, de Blasio referred to “omnipresence,” an influx of 200 police officers who were being assigned to patrol 15 of New York’s public housing developments.
“They’ll provide a greater visibility. The residents are really going to see more officers out there,” said de Blasio. “There’ll be more omnipresence. They’ll be patrolling the public areas of our developments, as well as conducting interior patrols. It’s going to greatly increase the omnipresence and the sense of security for our residents.”
A month later, the term picked up a capital letter and the designation of “a new strategy” in the The New York Times: “As part of a new strategy called Omnipresence, the officers now stand on street corners like sentries, only rarely confronting young men and patting them down for weapons.” A Vice report from October 2014 focuses on the installation of new bright lights in a public housing development in Brooklyn called Brownsville.
“It’s overwhelming. The lights shine into people’s rooms, making it hard for them to sleep,” one resident told Vice. “It doesn’t exactly feel comfortable.”
This appeared to be a response to the scandal over NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program which disproportionately targeted black and latino New Yorkers. Rather than intervening in their lives via police stops, the new policing methods would instead make them feel like they are under watch at all times.
A representative from Mayor de Blasio’s office said a number of agencies decided where the lights would go based on “on the ground knowledge about conditions” in the public housing developments.
Throughout history, “you see light being used as a disciplinary and surveillance tactic,” said Simone Browne, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at University of Texas-Austin, speaking in April at a conference in Washington D.C.
“And it’s not just about the visual,” she said of the presence of floodlights specifically. “Think of the psychic effects of having this large hum of a generator of a light in your home.”
This is not the first time New York City has used light to surveil its black population. In March 1713, the Common Council of the City of New York, the pre-cursor to today’s City Council, approved “A Law for Regulating Negro & Indian Slaves in the Night Time.”
It was a “lantern law” and required any slave older than 14 to carry “A Lanthorn and lighted Candle in it…as the light thereof may be plainly seen.” Basically, if you were a slave and out at night, you needed to carry a light in front of you so you could be easily identified. The law was enacted following a slave rebellion the previous April.
Alvaro Bedoya, the Director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology, likens lantern laws to more modern cases of overreaching surveillance, such as the FBI’s wiretapping civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
“It shows how technology has been used to surveil the black community for a very very long time,” Bedoya told me via phone. “Surveillance [has always been] used to control enslaved people.”
According to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, authors of the history Gotham, the lantern law was “in part” a way of curtailing attendance at a school set up for the city’s slaves which often held its classes at night.
As Browne, the UT-Austin professor, writes in her book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, punishment was made partially the duty of the public, who were effectively deputized and allowed to take slaves caught without a light to jail, where they were punished at the discretion of their masters. Initially their punishment could be up to 40 lashes, and the law was later revised so that the number was slightly lower, up to 15.
Browne writes that the lantern is best thought of as a “prosthesis:”
[M]ade mandatory after dark, a technology that made it possible for the black body to be constantly illuminated from dusk to dawn, made knowable, locatable, and contained within the city. The black body, technologically enhanced by way of a simple device made for a visual surplus where technology met surveillance…and encoded white supremacy, as well as black luminosity, in law.
Browne said lantern laws also dehumanized slaves in a broader sense, turning them into human streetlights. “The lantern… kind of incorporated black and indigenous people into the public infrastructure of lighting,” Browne told me by phone.
The laws and their effects were by no means limited to New York. “A Chronological History of the Boston Watch and Police,” published in 1865, recounts a story from 1769 that reads like a tall tale about a slave who keeps finding loopholes in the law to avoid carrying a lighted candle.
New York City’s lantern law passed away with the state’s gradual abolition of slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But some began to rail against it at least as early as March 1784, when the law was amended and expanded to include restrictions on behavior like assembly and carrying weapons. Browne’s research turned up an anonymous letter writer published in the New York Journal and State Gazette who referred to the law as cruel and inconsistent. It compared the treatment of “a white drunkard” allowed to “disturb the street til midnight, with impunity” to that of a “poor black girl of fifteen.” “If a gale of wind unfortunately extinguishes the candle in the lanthorn,” wrote the author, “[she] is hurried to gaol, and next morning ignominiously scourged in public.”
Lantern laws weren’t the only technological surveillance brought to bear on New York’s slaves in the 1700s. At the Color of Surveillance conference put on by Georgetown Law’s Center in April, Browne also discussed the incredibly detailed ads placed in newspapers to assist in catching runaway slaves.
Those too have a modern analog. You might compare elaborate descriptions of slaves in newspaper ads to the monitoring of black visitors to a neighborhood on social networks like Nextdoor. Nextdoor and other community watch apps are plagued with racial profiling, with a focus on “suspicious” people that seems often to be race-based. Unlike those newspapers of old, Nextdoor is trying to fight against being a surveillance network that polices black bodies. It recently made changes to try curbing racism on its app, adding more moderation for racist comments, asking users to only describe “truly suspicious activity,” and banning users from listing race in their descriptions of reported activity.
Two years after it was initially announced, the new lighting of New York City’s public housing remains, ironically, opaque. Residents continue to express a mix of concern and relief at the presence of the lights. The mayor’s representative told me they had received 11 complaints about the bright lights, all of which had been resolved, and that most feedback praised the new lighting.
Meanwhile, new lights continue to pop up. The city is currently running a study involving 400 new lighting units to determine their effect on crime. The study, which began in March and will run for 6 months, has been praised by at least one conservative think tank.
Nobody wants to live in the dark, and perhaps the city’s study will bear out that crime is reduced by the new lighting. Nonetheless, it remains a form of architectural policing, a way in which the city’s low-income residents are treated differently from their better-off neighbors.
“We often think of policing as not the quotidian things,” Browne said, “Like, ‘what’s the big deal about light?'”