In the fall of 2018, the residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized apartment complex in Brownsville, Brooklyn, received an alarming notice from their landlord stating that the key fob system to enter the building was to be replaced with facial recognition technology. More than 130 residents opposed Nelson Management Group’s plan to install the facial recognition system and mandate photographs for mailbox key replacements. Atlantic Plaza Towers resident Tranae Moran led the fight, then celebrated the successful defeat of Nelson Management’s plan by founding the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Alliance (OBA). Fabian Rogers, a former floor captain at Atlantic Towers—a volunteer position that involves helping residents in an emergency—has followed Tranae to OBA in order to continue educating their community about the dangers of biometrics and elevate the joy of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. Issue editor J. Khadijah Abdurahman spoke to Moran and Rogers about what they’ve learned through their organizing work, and how the anti-surveillance struggle fits into the broader fight for environmental justice, social housing, and community reinvestment.
Can you start us off with the basics? What would you like readers to know about who you are and the work you’ve been engaged with since the peak of resistance against facial recognition in Atlantic Plaza Towers?
Tranae Moran (TM): I am a community organizer and community outreach specialist, and my nine-to-five is working with the City’s Tenant Support Unit. I founded the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Alliance (OBA) after assisting the Atlantic Plaza Towers Tenants Association in pushing back against facial recognition technology. After we succeeded in preventing the installation of facial recognition technology in our apartment complex, I wanted to continue the work of educating people about biometric collecting systems and just general tenants rights. I didn’t want to take up too much space in the Tenants Association, so I started the OBA in order to push that initiative forward. So, here we are.
Fabian Rogers (FR): Technically, I think Tranae usually throws the title of cofounder my way, but I’m more of a participant. I’m kind of like an assistant aide of sorts to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Alliance. But, you know, Tranae would beg to differ, of course. Also, I was a floor captain from Atlantic Plaza Towers, but currently I work as a constituent advocate for New York State Senator Jabari Brisport’s office out here in my Senate District 25. Tranae and I have been able to change the trajectory of our careers, essentially, just from organizing, at no cost at all—just kind of pushing forward until folks finally told us we can make a profit from it.
TM: I don’t want to say a profit; I would rather say make a living out of it. People from our community don’t think of civic engagement and community work as an actual career. No one thinks that just by helping the community, you can make a living doing that. So, this was a very eye-opening experience for both Fabian and I, because we found ourselves doing passion work but ended up making some real impact, and were able to use our lived experience through that to start a career in community work.
A lot of articles feature the fight and the resistance that the Atlantic Towers community waged against the implementation of facial recognition technology. I was wondering if you could set the stage for us: What does Brownsville and Ocean Hill look like? What is your relationship to the community and how did that set the stage for this successful battle?
TM: What does Brownsville look like? Brownsville looks like a multitude of things. It’s a very vibrant and resilient neighborhood with a legacy of activism. When the time comes, we are able to come together and make some waves. Just Atlantic Towers specifically, we are a tight-knit community. We’ve been here for generations: elderly folks, young people—it’s just a little bit of everyone. Our Tenants Association is a direct reflection of that: we have municipal workers, we have people who work for MTA, we have lawyers, we have real estate agents, we have teachers, nurses, caregivers. So it’s a very diverse group of people with expertise in different spaces, which means, if we have the right foundation, we can make a lot of positive movement.
There’s a lot of focus on the negative things that happen in Brownsville. I always say to people, I don’t see a lot of this stuff that you guys say is happening here. It could just be because I am from here and I identify what many other people wouldn’t consider as joy! I know people come to Brownsville and may be a bit taken aback, but I just took a walk to go buy a new pair of headphones because the ones I purchased didn’t work out so well and I’m just like, this is such a joyful neighborhood. Yes, we have things happen, but what neighborhood doesn’t have things going on?
I want to magnify the joy that is present here while giving folks the information they need in order to navigate and not be taken advantage of, because there is gentrification coming here in Brownsville and not everyone has the same access to information. OBA is stepping in to assist with the flow of information.
FR: The other thing to understand is the resiliency and the persistence of Black and brown folks within this community in particular. Fighting back against the narrative that you’re a product of your environment—a lot of Ocean Hill-Brownsville-ites are more than what their environment is. At the same time, a lot of their environment is that which they can’t control. Health disparities come from the fact that Brownsville was industrialized and those remnants of industrialization play a role in environmental violence. Things that you can’t see that make it seem as though Black and brown folks are just born with respiratory issues, when it’s really the environment that we’re living in that plays a large role as opposed to our habits and things like that.
When folks find out about the more invisible things like air quality being bad, or illegal projects affecting the health of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a lot of times folks become activists and advocates for the community. People live, love, and learn in this community. I think that that’s a staple as to why the culture of Ocean Hill-Brownsville continues to persist despite gentrification and other disparities.
TM: Brownsville is made up of the highest concentration of public housing buildings in New York. They are not a priority to the city, if you ask me. There is a lot of neglect happening in these neighborhoods. This neighborhood is a food desert. We don’t have markets. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not easy to find. I mean, we do have a beautiful network of community gardens and local people who contribute their time and energy to those gardens, and help to make our community a more vibrant place. But as far as the city coming in to do cleanups and things like that, we don’t see much of that happening.
Are we creating community spaces for people to take up space in and do whatever it is that they want to do? That is not being done, which is why OBA is committed to creating space for joy, imagination, and vision in Brownsville. Because of the things that people have been through, a lot of them are numb and we have to wake them up first—liven them up with some joy again and de-stressing activities through art—before we can focus on fighting biometric information collecting or the things that take a bit more time for understanding.
Not Just Playing Candy Crush
I don’t know if this is your experience, but it’s something I definitely complain about in academic or institutional spaces, when they want to bring in “community,” the currency is “impacted people.” They want you to share a little bit of your trauma, your individual story, and then talk about “organizing”—organizing is anything that’s not writing a paper in the way that they speak. And then they’re done with you, and you can go back to whence you came from until they want to trot you back out again for the pictures and stuff. I’m not even interested in critiquing that. Rather, I want to ask, what does the conversation look like across ourselves and across neighborhood intimacies?
It definitely has stood out to me how OBA has been a collective effort. It’s you leading the fight Tranae, but it’s not like you are the sole hero. Even how you conceptualize what the problem is and how you situate it into both the joyous community and the environmental factors or ecologies of various types of violences that people are subjected to. I really appreciated that. I remember reading all about OBA in 2019, and now we are about to be in 2022 and you guys haven’t just been chillin’ playing Candy Crush. What is the state of OBA organizing, not just with Covid, but over this length of time? What has been like, “Yo, I’m never doing that again,” or “This is what has been really hard,” or however you’d like to reflect on that passage of time?
TM: We have been refocusing what OBA wants to do. At first, the main thought was that we need to get information out about biometric collecting systems. We need to inform our community about the dangers and why they need to be aware of their surroundings. That is still a major theme in OBA but this has just been a very stressful time, so we have been trying to find ways to make an impact that don’t ask for too much energy from our community. They are exerting themselves in so many different ways, with work, with kids going back to school, and just with navigating life post-vaccines becoming available.
We partnered with AI For the People last summer for OBA’s first public outdoor event on Juneteenth. The community appreciated the music, food, and information about all of the invisible harms. Many people didn’t know about the topics we covered, including the fact that National Grid runs a fracked gas pipeline through Brownsville. Leaks in that pipeline can expose people to cancer-causing and radioactive gas. As Fabian just mentioned, we are already dealing with environmental issues in Brownsville. There is a large community of people who have asthma here and respiratory problems, and now things are being done that will potentially cause more harm to the health of the people in this community.
FR: We’ve been trying to connect dots between different struggles going on between housing justice, environmental justice, and surveillance with Housing Organizers for People Empowerment (HOPE), AI For the People, and Brownsville Green Justice. For example, pointing out how our landlord trying to install facial recognition into our building plays into the grand scheme of housing injustice. Anti-surveillance includes pushing for social housing or housing access vouchers for homeless folks and things like that.
National Grid is building a fracked gas pipeline in Brownsville. It’s one of many different corporate entities monopolizing essential utilities for all New York housing. It’s reliant on the fossil fuel industry and so they make money by building new infrastructure, not necessarily through gas flowing. This means they have to find ways to circumvent New York state law and other state laws in order to continue building infrastructure. And they end up picking Black and brown communities that don’t come off as active or as in tune with what’s going on, or seem to have a sense of wanting to push back. National Grid fails to inform the community and then the community has to be reactive, so you suddenly see a community activate and want to inform themselves, understand what’s going on, and push back against corporate BS.
Do you see anti-surveillance organizing as a strategy of abolition or defunding the police? How do you situate privacy issues relative to the other issues emerging in the community?
FR: Sometimes it’s not necessarily focusing on surveillance rights, but just looking at how we deal with corporate enterprises. How do you look at a biometrics company like StoneLock that tried to install its facial recognition system in Atlantic Towers? How do you look at the shenanigans that they pulled off and compare it to the strategies that National Grid is putting in place to try to give folks in Brownsville and Ocean Hill a hard time, in terms of trying to build new infrastructure that will then impact folks’ lives for the sake of a profit that they don’t need?
In partnership with the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, I’ve gotten tapped into different anti-surveillance groups, including the G.A.N.G.S. Coalition (Grassroots Advocates for Neighborhood Groups & Solutions). They are trying to dispel the myths embedded in gang databases by reframing the issue for disenfranchised communities that are riddled with gang and community violence as a lack of opportunity, a lack of funding, a lack of resources that makes folks desperate and have to take risks in order to make a consistent living.
When you dispel the idea of “folks out here just trying to create trouble” and you look deeper into it, it forces you to question the tactics that the NYPD uses in order to build a database to help with their so-called policing. With this gang database in particular, it’s a database built off of police bias. It’s not built off of fact. It’s not built off of factual information.
When I think of justice, I always try to simplify it to the essential issue. What’s the essential device that allows this issue to proliferate in said communities, and how do we tap into communities to try to address quality of life issues? How do we tap into communities to be able to empower themselves to be the force to stop those pejorative relationships? If you get caught up in the monotony, you’ll lose sight of the fact that a lot of times these corporate enterprises are using the same strategies. It’s a very cookie-cutter system, but because it’s in a different sort of industry, you don’t think of it as such.
For me and Tranae and other folks that were on our side in terms of surveillance and data privacy advocacy, we had to think about technology in a different way. We had to think about these issues as a housing issue. You often have to think outside of the context of what you’re put in to really be able to dissect the issue and be able to address it, and then be able to translate it to allow folks to feel as though they can be informed, they can be empowered. And then from there, they can be partners and allies, and oftentimes can be leaders.
TM: We are very reactive when things happen because there are no conversations being held with our community about changes being made. That flow of information seems to not flow to us in the way that it should, which is where I want OBA to be able to step in. I want us to be a hub. A lot of these technology companies, real estate developers, and all kinds of folks who are just making their way over to Brownsville claim that they can’t find anyone to talk to. I’m just like, there’s so many community organizations doing work in Brownsville. How could you not find anyone to talk to and get insights from? So, you decided to still push forward with whatever this project was, without speaking to anyone in the community or trying to have a town hall or anything, despite the fact that we are very open to all of those things?
Why aren’t these companies speaking to the community-based organizations? I want OBA to be a hub where they know they can come here and speak with community members who have expertise in different areas, so that we’re not just like, “Oh, what the heck is that? We never heard of this. What are you doing here?” Instead, it’s like, “Oh no, we had conversations with these people. We let them know that we wanted this and that to happen, and this is what we don’t want to see.” Those conversations don’t happen. It’s always a too little, too late kind of situation for us, and I want to change that.
I want us to be involved in the conversations that are being had about the space that we occupy. Like, we live here. There are people here that have a brain and they have wants and needs, and they want to see different things in their community. When Fabian was speaking about gangs, how kids end up in those situations is that they want to go outside, but we don’t have green fields for them to sit in the grass and look at the sky and just ponder. We don’t have spaces like that. They come outside of their homes into all kinds of confusion. Young people have to navigate through these communities, digesting what they see and that’s how they learn. And it’s not always the greatest thing when they don’t have someone, or an organization, there to explain to them what they’re experiencing, so that they can make better and more informed decisions about how they want to navigate through the community.
Housing and (De)Funding The Police
As far as the gang database, who gets categorized as a gang? You mentioned that National Grid is putting poisonous gas under the ground, affecting a lot of people. Nobody is calling them a gang, right? But if you’re fifteen years old, Black, with certain colors on, you’re more likely to be identified as a gang member.
Tranae, you mentioned the density of housing projects in Brownsville. People don’t seem to understand that you have a high density of projects, but you also have middle-class home ownership and residents with white-collar jobs. So, even when we talk about community, people within the community have very different relationships to the intensity of surveillance and policing. I also know from my experience, caseworkers live in Brownsville, so there’s people who sit in a lot of different places and have different relationships to policing. How are you thinking through class differences and funding relationships as you organize in Ocean Hill-Brownsville?
TM: In Ocean Hill, there’s a larger amount of home ownership than there is down in Brownsville, which I’ve found to be one of the dividing factors. This is one of the reasons why OBA started and why we have this name—I wanted to bring the two communities together because we are separated due to the infrastructure of Brownsville and the density of the housing projects. We have the same issues, but the intensity of those issues is greater in Brownsville. Ocean Hill will probably be gentrified way faster than down in Brownsville. It’s happening at the same time, but the changes are happening a lot quicker in Ocean Hill.
I’m not finding that everyone wants to defund the police here. The police have actually been very supportive of OBA, thus far, in our events and organizing outdoors. I think it’s about the people and not just police in general, because we have been met with folks not being happy about our presence outside. For example, business owners have called the police but when the police arrive, they’re actually helpful and they like what they see us doing, which is creating space for imagination and joy, and providing information on these invisible harms: facial recognition, surveillance, and fracked gas pipelines in Brooklyn.
We want to focus on meeting people where they are, and not on specific topics such as defunding the police, because everyone doesn’t share that vision and we are not trying to divide the community more than it may be already. Everyone has to navigate however it works for their specific family unit. I feel like everyone has that capacity as long as they have the information to do it.
We have not been accepting funding from many organizations. One, because we’re still laying down the foundations for OBA. With the climate of community organizing and community work, and these corporations wanting to put money into the community with whatever other agendas they have going on, I have been trying to be very careful about who we are accepting funding from. We have organizations like National Grid, who are doing great events in our community, but at the same time, they’re running a fracked gas pipeline in Brownsville. They were handing out hot dogs. First of all, why are you giving people hot dogs, anyway? They’re smiling and in community and giving away all these things but, at the same time, they’re being a double. They have these construction workers digging in front of your apartment building, putting all kinds of nonsense into the ground. And they are just going to leave and say, “Okay, we had a great event while you’re dealing with respiratory problems” and who knows what other kinds of health issues because of the things that they’re doing in the community.
FR: An example of resistance we’ve encountered is from homeowners, because Amazon’s Ring doorbell and similar surveillance technologies are marketed to them as basic home protection. One approach that I’ve found helpful is pointing out the corporate relations between a product and possible policing. For instance, Amazon partners with and donates to police departments, and so by buying into the Ring system, you may be indirectly paying into an unnecessary police budget. Trying to build that sort of conversation helps folks understand the bigger picture as to what goes on.
“Defund the police,” in particular, has always been an interesting conversation because people think, like, “Oh, we’re going to take the badges and weapons away from the police.” It’s like, no, folks just want to defund the police’s excessive budget and refund the community for how strapped it’s been for resources. I’m always a stickler for making simple phrases that can open up a bigger conversation. When folks get very defensive about something like “defund the police,” for instance, I’m like, “Well, I think you should look at it in the context that it’s only half the phrase. It’s more of ‘defund the police,’ ‘refund the community.’” We all make the big arguments about how strapped our community has been since the 1970s.
Reaganomics and trickle-down theory started to trickle away the resources that helped working-class blue-collar communities push through by having supportive programs, trade schools, and alternatives to what’s out there. So, we should be thinking about how the police are asked to be a Swiss Army Knife when their training doesn’t allow them to be. A police officer isn’t a mental health expert. That’s just a fact, unless they had that background beforehand and then they became a police officer.
Folks say “defund the police” because we’ve bolstered a couple of different economies rather than the community. If we see that the police have bolstered their pockets, maybe it’s a chance to look at how we can stop the excessive spending and start to think about how to funnel back money into the community. That’s what happened pre-Reaganomics, trickle-down theory, and things like that. That all gets lost in the chaos of folks getting caught up in a phrase like “defund the police” or “Black Lives Matter.” It’s always the monotony of getting caught up in the moment of a phrase that feels triggering, rather than unpacking the history and the impact and the side effects of systemic changes that end up de-establishing what a community can provide for itself and for others.