Keeping a close eye on privacy

If you watch the local news, you probably know about Jeff Webb. He's the guy who set up a surveillance Web camera on the roof of the residential hotel in which he lives to try to shame the police into busting the drug dealers operating under his window at Sixth Street, just below Market Street. Though the images he captures are too blurry to be of law-enforcement use, many see Webb as a community hero, a high-tech vigilante battling criminals who otherwise pursue their vocations with impunity.

But he's also become the unlikely target of next week's day of protest against video surveillance. Even more unlikely, his Web cam has caused a schism in the international group organizing the protest; the Surveillance Camera Players have never had to deal with wayward Bay Area activists before.

"In Lithuania, in Bologna, Italy, we've had no such problems," says Surveillance Camera Players founder Bill Brown. Bear with me a moment while I explain the back story. The SCP, which Brown says began as a prank before turning more serious about privacy rights, is based in New York and uses performance art to protest the growing ubiquity of surveillance cameras. Members gather before targeted cameras to perform highly condensed versions of plays like "Ubu Roi," or walk past carrying signs: "Just going for coffee," say, or "Just heading to work."

A month ago a guy who goes by the name of Redmist founded a Bay Area chapter of the SCP, and everyone was happy until, in what was in retrospect a poor move for his activist career, Redmist gave an interview to the French newspaper Liberation in which he expressed ambivalence about Jeff Webb's little Web cam; maybe, he said, an exception could be made for it.

Heresy! Apprised of this deviation, SCP New York took down its link to Redmist's Web site, thus relieving him of his duties as its local representative.

"Finding people who are conflicted about the subject are a dime a dozen," explains Brown. "You can always find someone to say, 'On the one hand, on the other hand.' We have taken a very simple, unconditional stance against any kind of surveillance camera."

Luckily, a new Bay Area leader stepped forward -- one Gekked, who doesn't want his real name used because, as he notes, "the whole point is privacy."

Actually, this being San Francisco, Gekked's objection to Webb's camera is driven less by arguments about privacy rights than by anti-gentrification activism. To Gekked, Webb's Web cam is a symbol of class struggle, of forced displacement, of the use of the police to enforce the interests of the propertied classes in a conspiracy to drive up real estate values by cleansing the city of its poorest residents.

A classical Marxist analysis can be such a breath of fresh air.

"Poor people live around Market Street because that's where the vital support network of social services has been built up for 20 years," explains Gekked. "It might not look pretty to tourists, but it's vital."

OK, but isn't it a little hard to argue that crack heads are good for the neighborhood? "Our contention is that crack heads are part of the community, and that the answer is not Nazi-style relocation," Gekked answers.

Hmm. Meanwhile, Webb couldn't be happier about the protests -- they call more attention to the situation, which is exactly what he's trying to do. "I had my first protester a few weeks ago," Webb says. "He held up a sign that said something like, 'You're being filmed.' I'm going, 'Yeah, do it!' But he got nervous standing there with all the drug dealers. He was only there for four minutes."

The international day of protest against surveillance cameras scheduled for Friday, Sept. 7 is being coordinated by the German chapter of the SCP, and will be broadcast live over the Web, via SCP's Web site ( "The Germans, because they're Germans, have it all scheduled according to time zone," says Brown. "I think the San Francisco protest is supposed to go off from 10 to 11 a.m."

Head down to Sixth and Stevenson then and you'll see Gekked's group performing the Surveillance Camera Players' adaptation of Wilhelm Reich's Mass Psychology of Fascism, a work I don't recall as having especially well- developed dramatis personae, though my area was more 19th century English literature.

Gekked says he chose the play because it embodies everything he believes Webb's camera symbolizes: "Poor people with drug problems have less civil rights than people who aren't poor and don't have drug problems. If that's not fascism, what is it?"

Webb, who's been having some software compatibility issues, is hoping his camera will be functioning in time for the event.

"I will take pictures of all their signs and put them up on my Web site (," he promises. "I hope they bring all their buddies. As long as they're there, the crack deals aren't going on. I'm all for it. That's what they don't quite get."

[Written by Laurel Wellman and published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 30 August 2001.]

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