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Drones and Lethal Robotics: The Future of the Police War on Black Lives

In a society where Blackness equates to risk, technology will reproduce the defining characteristics of anti-Blackness.

Drones, which have been the subject of much protest globally, have become increasingly common among local US police departments. (Image: Drone flight via Shutterstock)

“We are not in a police state now, not yet. I’m talking about what may come. I realize I shouldn’t put it that way … White, middle-class, educated people like myself are not living in a police state … Black, poor people are living in a police state.” – Daniel Ellsberg speaking with Arundhati Roy

Mass movement against police brutality is not a new phenomenon, but the last few years have seen a rise in calls for accountability. The idea that police officers should face at least some repercussions for their actions seems to have struck a chord within public consciousness. But as long as police forces have been around, they have worked to maintain white supremacy through brutality and blunt force. From the birth of modern police departments as slave patrols and Indian constables to their current role as an occupying force in communities of color, this domestic army with a militia in every locality has been tasked with subjugating Black people. The violence waged against Black bodies has often served as the societal predecessor to what will inevitably be waged against everyone else. The police have always seen us as a threat that needed to be monitored and this is fundamentally why they exist to begin with.

The question is not, “What if new technology is used to kill Black people?” The question is when.

As we continue to innovate our strategies of getting free, Black people will also be policed in new, innovative ways that secure the tradition of oppression via the police state. Still, it’s important to note that with or without new forms of oppressive innovation, policing would still be inherently violent in its current formation. The police will adopt modern technological standards, or they will develop new ones themselves. Drones, autonomous robots and “less-lethal” weapons are just a few of the things that are already beginning to characterize this process. The question is not, “What if new technology is used to kill Black people?” The question is when.

An assessment of current technologies of repression can show what the police have in store. Drones, which have been the subject of much protest globally, have become increasingly common among local US police departments. In 2011, North Dakota used a drone to assist in the arrest of armed cattle rancher Rodney Brossart. Drones also currently patrol about half of the US-Mexico border. Predator B drones are used by border control in remote canyons and rivers to collect high-resolution video and track changes in terrain. And Florida International University’s Discovery Lab is developing a semiautonomous “telebot” capable of being controlled by disabled officers. The telebot would give disabled officers the ability to patrol and take a role in modern law enforcement by controlling it. Other robots wouldn’t need as much help as the telebot would. Autonomous robots like Knightscope’s K5 are already being marketed as policing devices that can aid in lowering crime rates. Considered “more R2D2 than Robocop,” the K5 is a monitoring robot that uses existing government and social datasets to alert authorities if a suspected threat is in the area it’s designated to monitor.

The K5 is not designed to “terminate threats,” but fully lethal autonomous robots (LARs) exist as well. While LAR technology is being tested in significant numbers by the military, it’s capable of being imported for domestic use just like drone technology. In 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a report warning of the dangers of such machines, concluding that “fully autonomous weapons would not only be unable to meet legal standards but would also undermine essential non-legal safeguards for civilians” and therefore should be banned. Stuart Russell, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, recently warned of “an arms race in autonomous weaponry whose outcome can only be catastrophic.” He went on to ask, “Where, exactly, will this arms race lead us?”

In questioning where we’re headed, we should also consider what will remain the same. Those who develop autonomous and semiautonomous machines will program them to reflect the anti-Black violence of the police state and the selective profiling of a white-supremacist society. It’s safe to say that those who engineer the machines designed to combat today’s existing “threats” will not construct open-minded robots that rethink the oppressive dynamics of our society. Developers are not tasked with imagining new societies; they work from the pre-existing notions of danger and risk. In a society where Blackness equates to risk, technology will reproduce the defining characteristics of anti-Blackness that its developers carry around daily.

Some political candidates, activists and police optimists have called for new forms of police technology, like body cameras, to combat the historic trend of corrupt policing. The campaign websites of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders present body cameras as a viable means to hold police accountable. Martin O’Malley takes it a step further by naming technology as a strategy for building “community trust” of police. A short paragraph on his site reads like a summation of the liberal, pro-police mindset:

Technology – including but not limited to body cameras – can improve policing and build community trust in law enforcement. But it must meet community and local law enforcement needs, without infringing on individual rights. O’Malley will work with law enforcement, advocates, and other stakeholders to establish national standards for deploying and developing technology, while protecting privacy and communities’ access to data produced by body cameras or similar tools.

But the problem with body cameras as a solution, as with every other merely technical solution to police violence, is that it fails to address the core problem. The issue is not simply securing visual evidence that police are lying about a given incident – often about a victim who is already injured or dead. The issue is society’s inherent anti-Blackness, acceptance of genocidal settler violence against Indigenous peoples and admiration of white supremacy.

It is misguided to place new gadgetry at the forefront of police “reform” when new equipment is something they regularly acquire. The advanced technology of “non-lethal” and “less-lethal” military weapons, such as Tasers, gas grenades and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs) – which were first deployed against Somali “pirates” and for crowd control in Iraq – has already been integrated into police departments as a would-be solution to the outcry against police violence. But these actually perpetuate the violence of the state without addressing its racist underpinnings. Further innovations in policing – like drones and autonomous robots – promise to extend that tradition.

While we focus in the moment on human police officers and the unending brutality of racist oppression, researchers like those at North America’s iRobot division are already furthering the integration of robotics into police work. With such advancements comes no concrete discussion of what will be done to safeguard such innovations from the regular racist actions of human police officers – if such a thing is possible. That conversation is absent because it is of no concern to the system that builds and deploys these machines.

Police technologies already employ built-in racism; consider the technology for facial recognition, which is now used in domestic policing after being used by US military and intelligence agencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These technologies can view nonwhite people as deviations from a set white human standard, sometimes even viewing Black people as gorillas. Such an error furthers the dehumanization that already exists for Black people and contributes to a technologically driven social death. The humanity of a Black person is not guaranteed to be recognized by a computer, just like it’s not guaranteed to be recognized by a white-supremacist society. This suggests how robots will be integrated into the ongoing normalization of police violence against Black people. Black people have already been surveilled and killed abroad extrajudicially by advanced lethal technology like drone strikes in places like Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. It shouldn’t be a surprise in the near future when we hear of a drone or LAR killing its first Black suspect in the United States.

For police officers who regularly view Blackness as something menacing, Black neighborhoods are where citizens viewed as the “other” reside. This has been true for centuries. It allows police forces to treat Black neighborhoods as places of domestic experimentation in depravity. These Black territories are places to be invaded by police officers, who bring with them the weapons of foreign warfare and military use, now designated for domestic utilization against Black inhabitants.

The current mode of precision killing and surveillance that started under George W. Bush’s “war on terror” is blooming in domestic law enforcement. This is clear in the language of war used by National Guard forces in Ferguson, Missouri, who referred to protesters as “enemy combatants.”

When Black people rise up, the images we see of Black neighborhoods often mirror war zones around the world. During the 1921 destruction of Greenwood (also known as Black Wall Street) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by police in concert with civilian white mobs, the community was bombed from the sky with airplanes and shot at with machine guns – fairly recent war technologies at the time. Further examples can be found in the uprisings after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the 1967 riot in Detroit, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, the Los Angeles riots, and the recent Baltimore uprisings. The war is at “home,” and the efficiency of technological weaponry will be used against “enemy combatants,” despite any cosmetic liberal efforts to create an appearance of addressing the problem of extrajudicial assassinations by police.

Though the Obama administration recently passed a mostly symbolic weapons ban that rids local law enforcement of weapons that weren’t being regularly distributed anymore, militarization is still pressing forward. Assault rifles, tanks, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), drones and other technologies are not banned and will continue to be used by police.

Technological advancement for police and their equipment doesn’t translate into safety for Black people. For us, the historic trend of technological advancement for the police has always meant new ways to further our discontinuance. The anti-drone movement, anti-LAR efforts and movements against mass surveillance are not separate from the fight against the anti-Black police state. If anything, these movements should be working in coalition against the violence most nations engage in against their African-descended and Indigenous populations, domestically and abroad. We have had hardly any success holding the police who currently kill, terrorize and brutalize our communities to account. The image of Black family members pleading for justice is as depressing as it is repetitive. But there will certainly be no solace once the state updates its oppressive apparatus, replacing officers, seemingly soulless in their willingness to kill us, with machines whose soullessness is certain.

Technology, of course, is not always a negative when it comes to Black liberation. While the state chooses to develop new ways to use industrial advancement for oppression, Black people have invented countless technologies that function in crucial aspects of everyday life. A key component of Black resistance against the encroachments coming at the hands of the state will be harnessing inventive Black minds. We should not assume that we are helpless just because we’re aware of repression’s possibilities. Our ancestors always worked with little to nothing to secure pathways toward freedom. The uncontainable, everyday rebellion that is living as a Black person on this planet has never been permanently stilled. It’s personified in the inventiveness of the enslaved Africans who continuously made something out of nothing. When Black people have our backs pressed against the wall, we invent. It’s this inventiveness that led us away from ever accepting defeat at the hands of advancements in oppression – and it’s this inventiveness that will sustain our future.

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