The use of drones to supplement and operationalize US border enforcement and municipal policing disturbs the supposed boundary between military and civilian or battleground and home front. Situating drones in an expanded field of a war power–police power nexus draws together histories of so-called small wars, insurgencies, civil rebellions, labor strikes, prison uprisings, and practices of resistance at various scales that have responded and continue to respond to colonial occupation and racial capitalism. Once we situate drones as a technology of atmospheric policing, we develop a better understanding of the ways these assemblages converge with other forms of atmospheric violence, including the toxic colonial present of warfare.
In the space of less than twenty years, drones have become ubiquitous components of the security infrastructures that produce and police territories and borders of all kinds—from national dividing lines to the more scattered or almost imperceptible spatial relations that have come to characterize an era of globalized conflicts. Most often associated with the sensing and “signature strike” operations inherited from the Bush administration and perfected under the aegis of the Obama administration in Iraq and Afghanistan, drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are now in use “at home” in many countries including the United States. The rapid incorporation of UAVs into conventional battlefield arenas as well as zones considered to be far distant from war suggests that, regardless of size or range, these aerial vehicles and associated systems are believed to offer significant benefits to national governments, municipalities, institutions, and various organizations and interest groups. The use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to supplement and operationalize US border enforcement and municipal policing disturbs the supposed boundary between military and civilian or battleground and home front. Indeed, rather than simply “blurring” the line between these hallmark components of the liberal state, the integration of UAS into border enforcement and civil policing supports Tyler Wall’s (2013: 38) contention that the “security state and security industries” are “virtually indistinguishable.”
How can we understand the growing reliance on drones across political and cultural sectors as guarantors of defense and security beyond oppositional terminologies and concepts? The movement between “military” and “civilian” drone applications cannot be characterized so much as a “trickle down” from military research and development to nonmartial applications than as part of the infrastructure of an “ecology of power” that extends beyond the traditional battlefield (see Bélanger and Arroyo 2016: 17). Mark Neocleous (2013: 580) has argued that we need to think of “war power” and “police power” as a “nexus”—co-constituting and mutually engaged. Thus, it is not simply that a previously neutral or benevolent police become corrupted through “militarization” or that the military safeguards only through “policing.” Rather, our understanding of “war power as police power” (Neocleous 2014) underscores that the nation-state operationalizes its authority through deployments of weaponized force including air power to manage, control, and punish populations and to secure territory (see also Kaplan 2018). The modern military has always included policing functions, and modern police forces have always drawn on military surplus equipment and military practices, procedures, and personnel (see Neocleous 2014; Wall 2016; Seigel 2015; Schrader 2014; Miller 2019). The difference between the military and the police is one of the core structuring elements of the liberal nation-state—yet this separation is aporetic. As Micol Seigel (2018: 54) points out, this divide endures “only because people work hard to make it do so. . . . The dedicated ideological labor required to shore up the bounds of the civilian-military distinction is serious violence work.” This perceived gap between the military and the police, then, creates and maintain notions of interiority and exteriority for the nation-state. It evacuates everyday manifestations of power and renders banal the persistent violence of policing, in favor of the spectacularization of war at a distance.
Situating drones in an expanded field of a war power–police power nexus draws together histories of so-called small wars, insurgencies, civil rebellions, labor strikes, prison uprisings, and practices of resistance at various scales that have responded and continue to respond to colonial occupation and racial capitalism. The rise of air power as an operation of state control on behalf of industrialized nations throughout the twentieth century helps us understand how things like drones are activated and mobilized across various scales of time and space in the context of the security state. This long arc of air power and colonial and civil policing contributes to the emergence of what Anna Feigenbaum and Anja Kanngieser (2015: 81) have called “atmospheric policing”: “those technologies and techniques for controlling populations that are fundamentally predicated on their relationship with air” and that “colonize space in ways that other weapons do not.” Once we situate drones as a technology of atmospheric policing, we develop a better understanding of the ways these assemblages converge with other forms of atmospheric violence, including the toxic afterlives of warfare that permeate the air (as well as bodies, soil, water, and memory) (see Lindqvist 2001; Sloterdijk 2009; Arbona 2010; Feigenbaum 2017; Lambert 2017; Kechavarzi-Tehrani 2017; Shapiro and Kirksey 2017; Simmons 2017).
As Peter Sloterdijk (2009: 47–48) has argued, “being-in-the-breathable” has been at risk since the onset of chemical warfare in World War I. The “colonial present” (Gregory 2004) of atmospheric policing includes the deployment of chemical and sonic weaponry and all manner of attacks on the environments and resources required to support life, inflicting affective and sensorial terror (see Schrader 2018; Nieuwenhuis 2016, 2017; McCormack 2010). The “combat breathing” that Frantz Fanon (1965: 65) linked to resistance and resilience in the face of colonial occupation and terror reminds us that, as Léopold Lambert (2017: 15) puts it, “colonial domination” does not just take place “at the surface of cartographic territories” but “through the (attempted) atmospheric control of every aspect of life.” Understanding atmospheric policing as a key mode of operation in the war power–police power nexus links decolonial struggles with protest activism like the Movement for Black Lives (see Márquez and Rana 2017). As Kristen Simmons (2017) writes, echoing Eric Garner’s last words: “Breathing in a settler atmosphere is taxing. Some of us can’t breathe” (see also Dillon and Sze 2016; Camp and Heatherton 2016: 1–2; Heatherton 2016). Thus, the use of drone technologies to police and manage all manner of perceived crises and threats simultaneously participates in and revivifies an emergency logic of the state through which drone violence, surveillance, and humanitarian interventions operate routinely even as they emerge as exceptional within popular technocultural imaginaries.
The co-constituting convergence of war power and police power through atmospheric policing persists and intensifies in the colonial present of expansive state violence across a range of practices and deployments. Lisa Parks (2018: 14) links the atmospheric to her theorization of “vertical mediation” in the era of drone warfare, arguing that innumerable cultural practices “move through (or beyond) the atmosphere” as they are produced, distributed, and received, and thereby generate “affects and sensations, modulate moods, reorder lifeworlds, and alter everyday spaces.” Similarly attuned to the affective as well as the material effects of contemporary securitization, Peter Adey (2014: 841) has explored “security atmospheres” as fundamentally immersive and dynamic, such that the “everyday is policed as if the worst case was always possible.” Drones operate aerially, but they produce atmospheric policing through their mediation of grounded, material elements. As Parks puts it (2018: 146–47), as drones move through air space, they not only alter the “chemical composition of the air” or affect the “thought or behavior” of those who operate them or are subject to their sensing operations: drones “shape where people move and how they communicate, which buildings stand and which are destroyed, who shall live and who shall die.” The pervasive integration of drones into atmospheric policing does not reduce all operations to the same intensity of violence. The atmospheric policing of drones is augmented by their asymmetric deployment of power, particularly their relatively inconspicuous presence (both audibly and visibly—although their targets on the ground can become adept at hearing and seeing them) (see Bracken-Roche 2016: 169; Hussain 2013). As Madiha Tahir (2012: 110) reminds us, the deployment of weaponized drones in Pakistan (and elsewhere) places entire populations “under conditions of terror” so that the United States “can hunt for terrorists,” constituting tacit justification and approval for material injuries and deaths as national policy under the sign of atmospheric policing.
Despite their mediation of everyday life over a longue durée, the dynamic, atmospheric properties of the complex assemblage that we refer to colloquially as the “drone” can tilt discussion toward its newness and exceptionality. It is important to remember that, as Katherine Chandler (2017) and Katherine Hall Kindervater (2017) have established, “unmanned” aerial vehicles have been developed by the military since the inception of aviation. Moreover, while the more spectacular lethal effects of drone weaponization preoccupy both celebratory and critical discussions, the rapid integration of the technology into civil society challenges the exceptionality of the technology. Particularly over the last ten years, the drone’s more transparently military applications—such as aerial surveillance and “signature strikes” that lead to large-scale civilian casualties—have come to coexist with the brisk development of humanitarian nongovernmental, business, and recreational automated aerial technologies (see Sandvik and Jumbert 2017; Klauser and Pedrozo 2017). Even as public awareness of the pervasive military use of drones has steadily increased, a veritable boom in civilian and commercial applications of the technology has taken place. The justification of the “good drone” in civil society assumes a neutral benevolence to algorithmically driven technologies (see Crampton 2016). Both government and industry advertise drone capacities as the apotheosis of technological mastery thanks to a “digital sublime” that mytholo-gizes artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithmic processes as seemingly unfailable (see Boucher 2015; Burgess 2015; Bolman 2017).
While drones are highly complex technological assemblages that mobilize innumerable industries, technologies, and human actors to produce sophisticated data used not only by militaries but also by municipalities, nongovernmental organizations, industries, and recreational users, they have limits (see Parks 2018). Although drones are popularly perceived to operate in air space at a vast distance from a singular human operator and even semiautonomously, as “quasi-human bod[ies],” drones still work with and through an interface devised by human beings that is, therefore, subject to all manner of “failure” as well as “success” (see Kaufmann 2017: 174; see also Gregory 2011; Chandler 2017; Kindervater 2017; Tahir 2017; Parks 2018). As Mareile Kaufmann (2017: 174) argues, drones create “new forms of presence and absence” through the “technological limits” of their design. In the emergency situations that Kaufmann examines in her work, the drone’s sensing and perceptual limitations not only impact the outcome of humanitarian rescue operations but also generate and inflect the very ways that “emergencies” come to be known and understood as such (186). Drone sensing and “unsensing” participates in and fortifies perceived divisions of all kinds, including the commonsense distinction between military and civilian realms (even as the drone’s histories and applications exemplify the practices of policing that co-constitute both).
In this way, as Tyler Wall (2016: 1136) has pointed out, the drone works in the service of producing, containing, and managing what he describes as “the ordinary emergency logic of police power.” This “globalizing of police logics around the world” includes the “broad discretionary powers, executive decisions, institutional impunity, legal unaccountability, and necropolitics” that are usually imputed to weaponized drones in battle zones (1137). Thus those activities that generate the most public outrage in relation to drone operations at war are themselves an intrinsic part of “the most banal operations of police power” (1136–37), the everyday violence of atmospheric policing (see also Hussain 2003). Maintaining an attention to the everyday “violence work” (Seigel 2018: 12–13) of atmospheric policing by drones refuses the exceptional and spectacular attachments to a digital sublime and the reification of the supposed separation of war power and police power. Rather than reproduce narratives of “dronification” (Shaw and Akhter 2014; Shaw 2016), we argue that drones become intelligible as technologies of atmospheric policing when they are situated in relation to numerous histories and materialities: most specifically, the history of air power not only vis-à-vis war power but also as police power (see Satia 2014; Neocleous 2013). The drone, then, is but one (albeit significant) technology of everyday policing practices that can be traced through genealogies of colonial violence and population management.
Atmospheric Policing as Border Enforcement
One pervasive application of atmospheric policing takes place through US border enforcement, in which sensing and surveillance operations proceed almost unremarked until moments of perceived crisis attract public and media attention. The hallmarks of the Obama-era drone program—network-centric distance warfare, around-the-clock “situational awareness,” supposedly precise targeted assassinations, and an inverse ratio of mortality of military personnel to local population (with a lethal lack of distinction between combatants and civilians)—underscore the appeal of drones to US police departments and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In the post-9/11 era, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expanded its organizational and legal reach to incorporate the CBP, the technologies of border enforcement have come to include a growing reliance on UAS that include ground and aerial vehicles and sensors, ground stations, communications systems, databases, pilots, analysts, and so forth. Keeping in mind Christine Agius’s (2017: 370) caution that “more than demarcations,” borders are “constitutive,” the installation and operation of UAS in the United States is part of the “violence work” (Seigel 2018: 12–13) of nation-state geographies as they emerge in the era of the “war on terror.”
Justifications for funding atmospheric UAS (and several decades of previous “high-tech” surveillance programs) are often premised on the argument that the nonurban zones of the border are so vast that they are difficult, if not almost impossible, to police by any other means—a border geography created by the policies and practices of the CBP itself. While the CBP was established as far back as 1924, “modern” US boundary enforcement in this zone began in 1994 when the CBP attempted to shift immigration from metropolitan “corridors” to more rural areas in an effort to both discourage and channel border crossings (see Boyce 2016). While it was hoped that the rigors of traversing harsh terrain that included deserts and mountains would diminish the number of people making unauthorized attempts to enter the United States, CBP assumed that pushing such migration away from cities and into the countryside would isolate and, in effect, overtly criminalize migrants, making it easier to identify and remove border crossers (248). Therefore, from the 1990s onward, border enforcement operations drew on what Mathew Coleman (2007: 56) refers to as the “criminalization of immigration law.” These practices, routinized in ways reminiscent of earlier periods of immigration policing in the 1930s and 1950s, increasingly produced immigrants as subjects of policing and criminalization without options for legal recourse or recognition (see Coleman 2012: 424–25). Yet, the effort to push border crossers into dangerous stretches of uninhabited territory as criminalized subjects produced mixed results. As Geoffrey Boyce points out (2016: 249), unauthorized entry ballooned even as the hazards of such crossings greatly increased. Agence France-Presse (2018) reports that just in the last year as border crossings decreased “dramatically” by 44 percent from 611,689 to 341,084, the number of people who died attempting to cross the border rose significantly to 412. A report issued by the International Organization for Migration (2018), a United Nations nongovernmental organization, noted that even the number of these deaths, which overwhelmingly occurred because of “prolonged exposure to the extreme environments” as well as to drownings during river crossings, must be assumed to be an underestimation. If more people are choosing to avoid undocumented border crossing, those that do make the attempt face intensified atmospheric policing and encounters with other technologies that augment the violence work of border surveillance and enforcement.
In this moment of greater focus on the inherent violence of the “hardened” US-Mexico border, it is easy to forget that, back in the late 1980s and 1990s, there was avid discussion of an increasingly “borderless” world brought about by globalization and the mobility of transnational corporations and capital (see Rivera 2012; King 1991; Ohmae 1999). Even as, because of the so-called war on drugs, the US-Mexico border was increasingly constituted through militarized policing, free-market advocates, transnational corporations, and liberal politicians were calling for a relaxation of border enforcement. Thanks to NAFTA and other such initiatives throughout the period, although the US-Mexico border became “impressively policed,” it also became “busier and more business friendly” (Andreas 2003: 6), leading to greater flows of people, goods, and services between the two nations. It is generally agreed that the September 11, 2001, attacks abruptly put an end to such open border movements, as securitization became not only an increasing political requirement but a burgeoning business opportunity in and of itself as surveillance and sensing operations attracted DHS funding (Nevins 2010; Coleman 2007, 2012).
Throughout the 1990s and into the next century, attempts to secure the enormous 8,878-mile perimeter of the continental United States prioritized areas of perceived greater risk to the defense of the nation-state. The two great land mass borders have presented securitization with a formidable task even without taking the coastlines into account. The uneven application of UAS between the northern boundary line with Canada (which extends for 3,283 miles) and the southern boundary with Mexico (which is measured at 1,954 miles) demonstrates the ways that geographical borders are constituted through differing intensities of violence (see Andreas 2003; Coleman 2012; MacDonald 2018). There is widespread acknowledgment that the US-Mexico border is one of the most “militarized” in the world (see Pompa 2018).1 Donald Trump’s bombastic threats to completely wall off almost two thousand miles of territory accompanied by a marked increase in detentions and deportations of undocumented persons has generated a spectacle of crisis. Trump’s relentless demand for a physical barrier that will inscribe a geographical boundary in three dimensions coexists with the efforts to implement UAS and other atmospheric policing operations in the border zone that have been underway for several decades. As Alex Rivera (2012: 10) has pointed out in this regard, “The new systems don’t replace the pre-existing ones—they exist in parallel and intermingle.”
Nevertheless, the aporetic divide separating war power and police power, especially in relation to drones, reconstitutes itself as the news media seems to be able to concentrate on only one term of the binary at a time. Thus, during the Obama presidency, while whatever slim outrage was increasingly directed against drone operations, particularly in the border zone between Afghanistan and Pakistan, “situational awareness” and other sensing operations in the US-Mexico border zone were largely ignored and underreported in the mainstream press. Meanwhile, although the Trump administration has greatly increased drone attacks overseas,2 there is little comment on this violent development, while racist discourse and policies directed against asylum seekers and border crossers who gather at southern checkpoints have, at the very least, garnered media attention (see Ackerman 2018; Axe 2018; Rosenthal and Schulman 2018). When we critique the deployment of drone technologies by the CBP, we disturb the spectacularization of a unifocal media gaze on a narrow conception of border zone geography that also occludes any recognition of more dispersed border policing along with colonial histories and continuities.
Atmospheric policing of undocumented border crossings from the south, then, operates in several dimensions—constituting a geographical zone across the boundary of Mexico and the United States while simultaneously operating through scattered practices of locating, identifying, criminalizing, and detaining subjects. Indisputably, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the accompanying rapid escalation of militarized security, the US-Mexico territorial border has become more intensely policed and surveilled. Until the adoption of UAS, CBP aerial vehicles included helicopters, light airplanes, and aerostats. Aerostats that are part of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) have been used by the Department of Defense in the Middle East and South Asia and by DHS in the Florida Straits and parts of the Caribbean as well as the borders with Canada and Mexico (see Longmire 2014: 71–73). With border enforcement placed under the aegis of the newly formed DHS, advocacy increased for “high-tech” approaches including “sensors, light towers, mobile night vision scopes, remote video surveillance systems, directional listening devices, [and] various database systems,” as well as drones (Haddal and Gertler 2010: 1). The large-scale Predator B made by General Atomics was put into use at the US-Mexico border by the CBP in 2005, and a version adapted for use by the Coast Guard, nicknamed the “Guardian,” was deployed in 2008 (see Longmire 2014: 76). In September 2017, CBP announced that it would begin to test a small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) program. Now supplementing the larger and much more expensive Predator B drones, which cost upward of $16.9 million per unit and weigh forty-nine hundred pounds, are smaller, less expensive UAVs, such as AeroVironment’s RQ-20B Puma (fourteen pounds) and RQ-11B Raven (just over four pounds), as well as InstantEye quad-copters (CBP 2017). In an April 2018 report (DHS 2018b: 3), the DHS argued that because sUAS “are highly portable and can be rapidly deployed to high-risk areas,” incorporating these technologies into existing border surveillance will allow “CBP to reduce surveillance and situational awareness gaps.”
The expansion of the CBP’s drone program to include sUAS must be considered in conjunction with the network of digital and human surveillance practices that identify undocumented immigrants as criminal subjects both at official US national borders and throughout the internal territories of the United States. As Coleman suggests (2012), placing violence at the US-Mexico border in relation to internal immigration policing makes it possible to draw deeper connections between these and other counterinsurgency practices that animate racialized US policing. For example, as Coleman (2012, 2007) and Joseph Nevins (2018, 2012) point out, undocumented immigrants are, in fact, more likely to be apprehended in transit at a distance from actual borders, whether traveling to work, school, or other daily activities that simply require movement, as well as at places of work or during migrations across and through border zones (see also Amoore 2013: 79–104). In addition to the use of more conventional forms of apprehension by police, such as the traffic stop or checkpoint, as of January 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has gained access to Vigilant Solutions’ national database of more than 6.5 billion license plate scans, supplemented by license plate reader data provided by other police agencies throughout the United States (Maas 2018; Farivar 2018). License plate readers, or LPRs, are often positioned atop stop lights or police patrol vehicles and can scan up to sixty license plates per second. LPR data is then stored in large, interoperable databases at the local, regional, and national levels and can be queried to generate intimate snapshots about drivers’ routes, homes, workplaces, and other areas where they travel (Farivar 2015).
Creating data mosaics such as these to identify and predict criminality, in this case the criminality associated with undocumented border crossing, is not disconnected from the proliferation of surveillance technologies such as drone imagery, ground sensors, and aerostatic imagery throughout the US-Mexico border region, as well as what is referred to as “pattern-of-life” analysis in US drone warfare and its broader war on terror. Within this framework of counterinsurgency, the accretion of data points, when placed in relation with each other, generate predictive patterns of mobility and partial subjects as either threatening or nonthreatening, criminal or lawful (see also Amoore 2013; Chamayou 2015, 2014; Miller 2017). While the scale and applications of these policing practices should not be oversimplified or conflated, algorithmically driven forms of surveillance, exemplified by but not limited to drone surveillance, work in concert with rather than supersede other more conventional forms of US counterinsurgency and policing practices. Together, these digital, and nonetheless deeply human, policing practices are purported to enhance perceived situational awareness and to generate threatening and criminal subjects.
The “virtual wall” that atmospheric policing is presumed to offer border surveillance has many documented limitations.3 Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports and an audit by the DHS Office of Inspector General found both benefits and limitations in the deployment of UAVs in border zones. Benefits listed in the CRS report include “improving coverage” in remote sectors, greater length of time in the air (over conventional helicopters), more “sustained coverage,” greater range, personnel safety, and precise and real-time imagery (Haddal and Gertler 2010: 3). Limitations of UAVs in use along the border have been reported to include a high accident rate (with at least two crashes), inability to fly or provide useful data because of bad weather, and much higher costs than manned aviation along with shifting and complex regulations and policies related to integrating into civilian airspace (4–5). CBP drones cannot fly in restricted airspace or anywhere near commercial flight zones (which precludes operations in and around key regions such as San Diego, California, and Yuma, Arizona) (Bier and Feeney 2018: 2). A CATO Institute report pessimistically noted that in 2013 drones regularly patrolled only “about 170 miles of the 2,000 southern land border” (Bier and Feeney 2018: 2). Moreover, a recent DHS audit found that surveillance and reconnaissance systems used by the CBP did not institute effective safeguards for UAV images and video, placing border surveillance operations at “increased risk of compromise” (DHS 2018a: 2).4
After decades of layered “high” and “low-tech” border enforcement tactics and strategies, the most recent implementation of sUAS, utilizing much smaller, consumer-grade drones, brings a variety of users to the border zone, producing new subjects of atmospheric policing. As one UAS industry news service (UAS Vision 2018) has pointed out, small unmanned aircraft systems are piloted by “drug traffickers looking for a way into the country, the U.S. government trying to keep them out, and even journalists hoping to get a new point of view.” The small size and light weight of the aircraft make them very difficult for any targeted or interested individual or group to detect. With the CBP move to incorporate sUAS along with the growing ubiquity of similar aircraft deployed by many different groups with any number of interests and intents, the atmosphere of the US-Mexico border will become a much more crowded and complex space. The extremist vigilante group, the American Border Patrol (ABP), which operates its three aircraft as well as foot patrols from a ranch in southeastern Arizona, recently demonstrated a stand-alone seismic detection and ranging mechanism (SEIDARM) that would be used to detect sUAS as well as “persons and/or vehicles” at the border (see Waitt 2018). ABP, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “one of the most virulent anti-immigrant groups” in the United States, believes that “terrorist groups” will use sUAS to launch attacks on US territory from Mexico (SPLC 2018; Waitt 2018). Former DHS Security Chief Kirstjen M. Nielsen (2018) believed that sUAS “can be used to spy on us, to threaten our critical infrastructure, or to attack crowds and public places.” Warning of a “spike in the use of drones at our borders,” Nielsen cautioned that “drones will soon become a part of everyday life” and, therefore, investment in “drone-defense technologies” must be implemented as soon as possible.
The spectacular panic of the threatening drone swarms notwithstanding, sUAS at the US-Mexico border exemplify the “ordinary emergency logic of police power” (Wall 2016: 1136). If the larger UAVs were too distant and rarified to fully replace the finely tuned capacities of the human border patrol (whether CBP or ABP) to read signs left by border crossers on the ground in order to track and hunt them down (referred to as “sign cutting”),5 then the smaller aircraft offer new, if less spectacular, opportunities for atmospheric policing (see Longmire 2014: 83). This rearticulation and reimagination of indigenous ways of knowing place may be transposed to the sUAS to enhance situational awareness in the everyday routine of border enforcement. The war power–police power nexus ensures that the latest instantiation of drone systems will create new avenues for profiteering, regenerate racialized border spectacles, and reanimate and transform atmospheric policing. The movement of small aircraft—more silent and mobile if less able to achieve greater heights and less directly weaponized than their larger military counterparts—in the zone we know as the US-Mexico border will make a difference in the air space, certainly. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other aerospace contractors and researchers are betting that the next iteration of sUAS will operate more autonomously, in coordinated “swarms,” changing “movements on the ground,” “affecting thought and behavior,” altering conditions in the air (see Parks 2018: 146–47). Situating CBP sUAS in the atmospheric dynamics of the war power–police power nexus requires new understandings of those borders “on the inside of the U.S. state” as well as the geopolitical national boundary line and of policing as it is operationalized across multiplicities of authorities and scales (see Coleman 2012: 420).
Atmospheric Policing and SWAT in the Los Angeles Police Department
“Modern policing,” as Joshua Reeves and Jeremy Packer (2013: 360) have argued, involves more than “just cops walking (or driving their beat).” Reeves and Packer remind us that media, including police intelligence and logistical communications, have been “central to the fledgling liberal police project” since the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, linked to anthropometric science and rogue’s galleries, as well as twentieth-century automobility and digital technologies (361). More recently, a “digital ideal” that promotes “rapid and flawless storage, translation, and dissemination of evidence and other data” has “preoccupied the police imagination” (361). Policing in the United States has not only emulated military forms of organization from its inception as a professionalized force but also adopted operational practices and technologies for information gathering and population control from the military as well (see Correia and Wall 2018: 149–50). Just as air power has been crucial for the military throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, control and deterrence via atmospheric policing have been foundational components of modern police forces.
Given the rise of a formidable war power–police power nexus since the nineteenth century at the very least, technology transfers between the military and the police are not a new phenomenon. Police in the United States have drawn on military concepts, modes of organization, and equipment (including, from the era of World War I, aerial vehicles)6 from their inception. In a report published in 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) charged that police in the United States have become dangerously militarized with almost no oversight or official restraint. In an exhaustive study, they conclude that US policing, especially via paramilitary teams like SWAT, has become “excessively militarized,” largely owing to federal programs like the US 1033 Program that “create incentives” for state and local police to acquire and use weapons that would otherwise be used only on battlefields. As a consequence, the ACLU found that, while the justification for the acquisition of aggressive weaponry was often linked to incidents of hostage, active shooter, or barricade scenarios, the majority of deployments of paramilitary weapons were used to execute search warrants in “low-level drug investigations.” Further, the ACLU (2014: 5–6) concluded that the use of aggressive tactics and weaponry “primarily impacted people of color,” revealing “stark, often extreme racial disparities” in the use of SWAT teams and in the deployment of aggressive weaponry, leading to a marked increase in the “risk of bodily harm and property damage.”
In focusing on the most recent, egregious flow of weaponry from offshore battlefields to municipalities in the United States, the ACLU rightfully draws our attention to urgent matters that require all manner of redress. Yet, the history of flows of military equipment, weaponry, procedures, and organizational structures stretches back much farther than the 1033 Program cited in the ACLU study. Here, once again, “militarization” is a less efficacious concept, since it constructs a more benign police force in an idealized past that is only recently linked to the military. Without reducing significant distinctions in levels of violence and harm to banal equalizations, greater attention to the continuities of colonial policing practices across time and space makes possible a much richer, more complex set of histories of state violence and population control. How, then, to account for the kinds of intensification in aggressive policing and the more recent racialized geographies of cities like Los Angeles where SWAT teams deploy paramilitary weaponry for routine “emergencies” without resorting to simplistic constructs of “militarization”?
We can link the scattered border zones that the CBP instantiates “on the inside” of the United States through conventional physical checkpoints and raids as well as through situational awareness systems to the predictive policing technologies and paramilitary weaponry deployed by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) SWAT as a war power–police power nexus with deep roots in a specific place. Los Angeles is known to be a city forged through aggressive policing and containment. While the entire state of California plays a significant role in this history of genocide, carcerality, and racial violence (see Gilmore 2007; Cuevas 2012), Los Angeles has constituted itself paradoxically as a city of immigrants that works to pacify and expel those who challenge the emergency logic of nation-state borders. Incarceration and policing play a key role in this history. As Kelly Lytle Hernández (2017: 2) argues, despite the fact that levels of incarceration in Los Angeles have surpassed those of counterpart urban areas at least since the 1980s, what is remarkable is that “the rate of incarceration during the 1930s in Los Angeles was no different than it is today.” Even before a formalized legal structure governed practices of confinement in Los Angeles, one of the first structures erected by Spanish colonists in 1781 was a jail used to imprison the Native Tongva people (4, 29). By 1910, Los Angeles “operated one of the largest jail systems in the country” (2). Additionally, Hernández rightfully demonstrates that the LAPD has functioned as a counterinsurgency force, describing Los Angeles as a nodal point in the cross-border magonista movement that led up to the Mexican Revolution (92–130). Through a joint counterinsurgency program undertaken by Mexico and the United States, thousands of magonistas were arrested and imprisoned, including political leader Ricardo Flores Magón, who spent a total of three years in US prisons, nineteen months of that time in the Los Angeles County Jail (93). Hernández (96) draws on the cross-border policing of the magonista movement to demonstrate that incarceration did not contain magonista insurgency but, rather, fomented it.
Notably, these cross-border counterinsurgency operations took place just after the first wave of professionalization swept through the LAPD under Chief John M. Glass at the turn of the twentieth century. The magonista counterinsurgency described by Hernández, then, poses a significant challenge to the mythology of police professionalization, particularly as it has been narrated through the history of the LAPD (Herbert 1996, 1997), in which emphases on individual officer conduct and technologization were meant to dispel growing concerns with police violence. As “a story about the reform of the police into the force of progress” (Correia and Wall 2018: 123), the nineteenth and twentieth-century reimagination of policing as not simply a profession but a science also positioned individual police as experts in a technology-driven field (122–26). The mythology of professionalization has created further perceptual difference between the tenuously bifurcated war power and police power, eliding the function of police as a counterinsurgency force (see Schrader 2017). However, as the story of the magonistas forcefully demonstrates, the LAPD has continued to perform the violence work of pacification under the sanitizing sign of professionalization and technologization.
In this context, the adoption of sUAS by the LAPD is not an aberration; rather, it demonstrates the consonance between forms of atmospheric policing by and for the colonial settler state—working to consolidate both its territorial expansionist and racial projects (see also Wall 2016; Neocleous 2013; Satia 2006). Thus, the addition of drones to supplement SWAT operations is in keeping with, rather than a departure from, a history of atmospheric policing within the LAPD. While LAPD SWAT has become infamous for its disproportionate policing of Los Angeles’s Black and brown communities, aerial surveillance of racialized communities has been endemic to the LAPD since it acquired air power. As Mike Davis (1990: 251–52) describes, the LAPD’s effort to achieve “ground-air synchronization” following the 1965 Watts Rebellion grew to such intensity that so-called high-crime areas were under nineteen-hour-per-day surveillance and exceeded “even the British Army’s aerial surveillance of Belfast.” As the first of its kind, LAPD SWAT has from its inception included the use of air power and aerial surveillance to supplement its ground operations and to contain racialized threat (see Davis 1990; Adey 2010; Singh 2014; Wagner 2009). Notably, the LAPD’s first SWAT operation on December 6, 1969—a raid on the Los Angeles headquarters of the Black Panthers—included aerial support provided by a helicopter (Davis 1990: 298; Balko 2014: 76–78).
As air support became a prime feature of LAPD policing throughout the late twentieth century, some neighborhoods of Los Angeles became subject to the loud, thumping noise of the police helicopter rotors—a nocturnal sonic signature that has evoked comparisons to war zones.7 Once again in the forefront, the LAPD began to integrate conventional helicopters in predictive policing practices in the early years of the current decade. The “everyday emergency” atmospherics produced by routine police operations that include predictive procedures focuses scrutiny of specific populations in minutely granulated ways. As the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition (2018: 1) reported recently, predictive policing can be situated “within the broader creep of data-intensive surveillance.” Operation LASER was launched by the LAPD in 2011, using a predictive policing system developed by PredPol Inc. to “develop hotspots in neighborhoods” and to create a list of targeted individuals (3). Individuals who are identified through predictive features and data collected from patrol and parole officers are placed into a chronic offender bulletin (COB) and ranked via a point system. Those individuals with the most points become “primary targets” for policing (3). LASER and PredPol coordinate with atmospheric policing, emulating the utopian “system of systems” made infamous during the so-called digital revolution in military affairs of the 1990s and reflect the use of predictive analytics as a key feature of the US war on terror (see Miller 2019). Indeed, PredPol emerged from “military-funded university research based on statistics from the 2003 Iraq insurgency,” while LASER is based on technology created by Palantir, a “big data company” that “mines government and corporate databases for signs of criminal and or international terrorist activity” (6).8 Drawing on Palantir and PredPol informatics, LAPD helicopters fly over “hot spots” as a mode of deterrence as well as pursuit (see Mather and Winton 2015), creating new articulations of much older understandings of particular spaces as criminogenic (Jefferson 2017).
The noisy drawbacks of helicopter flyovers in densely populated areas may be partially alleviated by the partial rollout of sUAS in LAPD atmospheric policing. The LAPD acquired its first two small drones in 2014, discarded from Seattle following a public outcry over their proposed implementation in that city. The two 3.5-pound Draganflyer X6 drones caused controversy in Los Angeles as well. As the Los Angeles Weekly (Anderson 2014) reported at the time, then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck “made the rounds” of newspaper editorial boards and television stations in an attempt to gain public trust. Privacy concerns and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations at the time that prevented drone flights above four hundred feet kept the Draganflyers in storage. The 2017 LAPD SWAT sUAS pilot program aims to assuage public concerns by emphasizing search and rescue. Their guidelines and procedures document (LAPD 2017) clearly specifies, however, that SWAT seeks to learn whether sUAS will “enhance” their ability to “safely resolve dangerous, high-risk tactical situations and improve situational awareness capabilities during natural disasters and catastrophic incidents.”
Converging initiatives by the aerospace industry, research universities, government departments, and consumers have led to a sharp uptick in interest in UAVs and sUAS (see Kaplan 2017). According to a recent study conducted by the Center for the Study of the Drone (2017: 1), as of April 2017, more than 347 police departments and emergency management units have acquired UAVs, primarily in the form of consumer-grade drones. Aiding in this development, the US Department of Transportation opened a pilot program of their own in May 2018 aimed at “opening the skies to advanced drone operations in regions across the nation” (see McNeal 2018). In response to increasing industry pressure, the Integration Pilot Program (IPP) allows for operations otherwise prohibited by FAA regulations, such as “flight over people, at night, and beyond the line of sight” (McNeal 2018). Deviating from the top-down practices of FAA regulation, the IPP will give participating communities latitude in testing drones for their own purposes and in their own ways (although while coordinating with state and local government, departments of transportation, zoning boards, etc.).
Nearly coterminous with the rollout of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sUAS program, in early October 2017 the LAPD posted its suggested guidelines for implementing an sUAS pilot program to supplement its current SWAT operations (LAPD 2017). These guidelines, approved for adoption by the Los Angeles Police Commission on October 17, 2017 (see also Meredith 2017), describe that “sUAS may be deployed to provide enhanced situational awareness” in cases of “barricaded suspects; active shooter incidents; assessments of explosive devices and explosions; hostage situations; natural disasters; hazardous materials incidents; search and rescue operations; and perimeter searches of armed suspects with superior firepower, an extraordinary tactical advantage, or who are wanted for assault with a firearm against a police officer” (LAPD 2017; emphasis added). In addition to the wide range of events and situations for which drones are imagined to be of particular use for LAPD SWAT, it is noteworthy that they are explicitly identified as enhancing situational awareness in police operations. Here, civil police forces do not simply rely on military terminology to describe the environmental attunement of police personnel; these proposed guidelines demonstrate the powerful association of drone sensing with a perceived ability to radically extend the police sensorium beyond human capabilities. The logic presented by the LAPD indicates that situational awareness is rendered more complete and the propensity for human error is all but eliminated through the technological precision attributed to the drone. Further, by using the language of situational awareness, the proposed guidelines imply that drone sensing is much more than visual, where the sensory capabilities that the drone affords presumably outweigh the potential invasiveness of drone surveillance. These twinned justifications accrue added significance given the violent histories of racialized policing associated with the Los Angeles Police Department and, not least of all, LAPD SWAT.
Atmospheres are not stationary containers of the air we breathe. Atmospheres are dynamic constructs—elements of mobility as well as containment, joyful pleasure as well as weaponization, enduring as well as vulnerable to extinction. If atmospheres are potentially multiple, the relatively recent history of the occupation of air space for policing offers a potential entry into critical engagements with the colonial present of violence work. The advent of air power in the twentieth century inaugurated what Sloterdijk (2009: 29) has described as “atmoterrorism,” “an assault on the enemy’s acute environmental living conditions, starting with a poison attack on the human organism’s most immediate environmental resource: the air he breathes,” and what Feigenbaum and Kanngieser (2015) have called “atmospheric policing.” Drawing on Feigenbaum and Kanngieser’s term, we have attempted to create a space for understanding the specificity of drones in operation in the air over nation-state border zones as well as interior metropolitan areas without losing historical connections to other atmospheric modes of terror, such as the deployment of the lethalized form of tear gas directed against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border in November 2018 (and that is regularly used to attack civilians in sites ranging from Gaza to the streets of Paris and cities throughout the United States). Sonic weaponry such as the long range acoustic device (LRAD) and tear gas work with drone systems, large and small, to isolate populations and deprive them of freedom of movement, the right to work, to protest, and to inhabit space, as well as the right to breathe.
This violence work of atmospheric policing in the colonial present writ large operates specifically in the case of drones. UAVs and UAS at every scale and range change and interact with the atmospheres through which they move and mediate relations with the ground. The relentless processes of colonialism that require dedicated practices of territorial occupation and aerial patrol and attack have brought fear into the lives of those who must look skyward before they dare to move or even breathe, changing their “patterns of life” or risk death. The routinization of atmospheric policing does not diminish its harrowing effects on those who are constituted as its target subjects. Yet, the war power–police power nexus strives to maintain a division between state violence that is directed “overseas” against purportedly deserving targets and the control and interdiction of criminalized populations “at home.” These sensing operations, increasingly operated at smaller scales and with more layers of data mining and situational awareness, alter and produce identities, influence behavior, and restructure perceptions of locative life. In this way, situating the drone as a significant iteration of atmospheric policing requires attending to its densely political complexities, such that its past as well as its potential must be historically grounded rather than contextually unmoored.
We would like to thank Madiha Tahir, Shamus Khan, Ilana Feldman, Fatima Mojaddedi, and the other participants in a Public Culture workshop for insightful comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank Javier Arbona, Jennifer Greenburg, Laleh Khalili, Ingrid Lagos, Anjali Nath, Lisa Parks, Stuart Schrader, Eric Smoodin, and Tyler Wall.
As the ACLU (Pompa 2018) reports, the “number of Border Patrol agents more than doubled between fiscal year 2000 and 2011.” By 2016, CBP officers numbered 19,437 in the field nationwide, augmented by significant numbers of personnel from other agencies and the National Guard and US military.
As Lisa Parks (2018: 191) notes, “Within his first 100 days of office, Trump authorized almost 100 drone strikes in Yemen alone, making vertical violence a defining characteristic of his Presidency.” Spencer Ackerman (2018) reports that Trump “launched 238 drone strikes in his first two years in office.”
The term virtual fence was first applied to the SBInet program, inaugurated in 2006 and touted by DHS (2009: 2) as the best way to protect the United States “from dangerous people” and to achieve “effective control of U.S. borders.” Despite the $8 billion poured into SBInet, by 2010 the DHS admitted that the program was a failure, with cost overruns, “poor oversight,” lack of a “clear focus,” and poor communications with the program’s primary developer (Boeing) (see Homeland Security Newswire 2010). SBInet was preceded by the project launched in 1989 as the Intelligent Computer-Aided Detection System (ICAD), which became upgraded and transformed into the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) in 1998. Although a 2005 Office of Inspector General audit of ISIS revealed “dubious contracting practices, inadequate equipment and misuse of operations support centers,” the technology platform was folded into a newer program, the America’s Shield Initiative (ASI) (see National Immigration Forum 2014). By 2005, approximately $340 million had been allocated to ISIS and AI, yet both programs failed to perform meaningfully. Nevertheless, SBInet was funded, implemented, and discontinued—all within five years at an even greater cost than its predecessors.
The finances of the alluring capacities of the UAS “virtual wall” are sobering. According to the libertarian CATO Institute (funded by the Koch brothers): “Each Predator B drone costs $17 million to purchase and $12,255 per flight hour to operate. Thus, CBP’s drone program cost a grand total of $225 million from 2013 to 2016. These figures likely understate the cost of the system’s depreciation because they assume a 20-year lifespan, but 18 percent of CBP drones crashed in their first 10 years. For comparison, manned aircraft with surveillance capabilities similar to the Predator B cost only $1,500 to $2,000 per flight hour. Each drone apprehension costs the federal government $32,000. This cost of drone apprehension compares with the average cost of apprehension of less than $9,000” (Bier and Feeney 2018: 3).
We thank Christina Jo Pérez for drawing our attention to the way that CBP “sign cutting” practices rely on and generate mythologies around Indigenous modes of reading the environment.
One of the first recorded deployments of an aerial vehicle by police took place in 1914 in Miami when a Curtiss F-type seaplane was used to capture an escaped prisoner. By 1918, the New York Police Department had formed its volunteer air section using surplus decommissioned Navy planes.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Air Support Division was inaugurated in 1956 with a single helicopter and is currently the largest municipal police aviation department in the United States, featuring helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and, now, drones (see Correia and Wall 2018: 69).
It is worth noting that Palantir was founded by Peter Thiel, “a prominent advisor to and supporter of Donald Trump” (see STOP LAPD Spying Coalition 2018: 6).