Spy Plane Resumes Flights Over Baltimore Amid COVID-19

May 4, 2020

The expensive aerial surveillance program won't help heavily disinvested Baltimore, say Ceasefire co-founder Erricka Bridgeford and author Brandon Soderberg.

The expensive aerial surveillance program won't help heavily disinvested Baltimore, say Ceasefire co-founder Erricka Bridgeford and author Brandon Soderberg.


Cessna 150m FRA150M climbing out after take-off with flaps deployed and hills behind. aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Jaisal Noor. The American Civil Liberties Union announced it will appeal a Federal Court decision allowing one of the country’s most scandal-written police departments to proceed with wide-scale surveillance flights. The ACLU filed suit on behalf of a number of plaintiffs, who have decried the flights as an unconstitutional power grab by authorities in Baltimore who have a long history of surveilling activists, violating constitutional rights, and engaging in brazen corruption. According to the ACLU press release, the court’s ruling is not a final judgment deciding the case. Plaintiffs plan to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Appeals for Fourth Circuit.

We’re joined by two guests to discuss this. Erricka Bridgeford is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the spy planes. An inspirational speaker, mediator, social reformer and legislative advocate, she co-founded Baltimore Ceasefire, a grassroots effort to reduce homicides in Baltimore, which has an actual track record of success. And Brandon Soderberg, co-author of the forthcoming book I Got A Monster: The Rise And Fall Of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. He’s been reporting on these spy planes and the fight against it.

Erricka, you lost your brother to violence, and you helped found Ceasefire, which has reduced shootings from 30 to 66%, according to analysis by Peter Phalen. Authorities say spy planes are here to help people like you, people who’ve been affected by homicides. They say they’re going to make you safer, they’re going to make the city safer. It’s good for the city. Why are you opposed to it?

Erricka Bridgef…: As a homicide survivor, it’s not something that makes me feel safer. I’m a person who … I do a lot of work with police officers on the ground, and so as individual people, I respect good work that good officers do in Baltimore City. As an entity, Baltimore City Police Department, though, has a record and a history of violating people’s rights all the time. And so this is not the kind of technology, that I would like to see an entity like that have in their hands. I know that when this kind of technology was used before, it’s already been proven that it actually wasn’t effective in helping to solve any of the murders that happened during the time that the planes were flying. I do understand that as a group, homicide survivors are one of the most invisible, not talked about groups that are impacted by homicide. So it’s really easy to play on people’s pain, to try to paint a picture that this could really be a viable way to help reduce violence.

I just don’t believe that that is true. There’s not any evidence to that. There’s more evidence that this will be a new way that will actually traumatize people. It can be very jarring to see planes that are surveilling you, flying all over the city in a place where we’re already traumatized every day by all kinds of things that we see, from blight to violence to everything else. I don’t think that it is an effective use of money to address a public health issue.

Jaisal Noor: Brandon, what does the ruling mean, and have the planes started flying? There’s been conflicting reports of when they’re supposed to start.

Brandon Soderbe…: The ruling, which again, as the ACLU said, they’re already going to appeal it, basically allows the planes for right now, supposedly this week, to fly. The ruling itself is worth really … I’ll kind of quickly quote something from it, which is Judge Richard Bennett saying, “The images produced by the pilot program will only depict individuals as minuscule dots moving about a city landscape.” This is what he wrote. “The movement of these dots cannot be tracked without significant labor. Gaps in the imagery data foreclose tracking of a single person over the course of several days.” So this is kind of a response to one of the arguments against it, which is that it can people. It’s a pretty limited opinion, I’d say, because what it’s basically saying is, “Look, this very specific way they’re using the technology, how they’re using it right now, it can’t track people.”

Now, I’d be curious if Judge Bennett actually has ever seen it or witnessed it in action. I have. I’ve seen the footage. It would be hard to do, but it’s not impossible, and sort of unravels because the ACLU’s bigger argument was, “Okay, for right now, if the technology is kind of janky looking and simple, it won’t be like that in a year or five years or 10 years. Technology is always going to sort of improve.” And so it’s a pretty limited opinion that I’m not surprised the ACLU is going to appeal. And I feel like there could be a very good argument in another court that they would have to sort of maybe win the case.

I’d especially stress that what the case is also really about is the unprecedented use of this. This includes secretly in 2016, as Erica said. And it didn’t do a whole lot in Baltimore. And the things it did do weren’t necessarily reported. I found it captured a police shooting the police hid. But what I’m really getting at is by saying it can fly in Baltimore, you’re saying you can fly elsewhere. It’s first sort of step. So it’s a precedent-setting rule, and that’s kind of troubling because I feel like maybe the judge doesn’t quite see the large-scale implications. There is an interest in them right now.

Jaisal Noor: So Erica, Baltimore is a city that does struggle with violence. It struggles with homicide. What would you say to someone that we need to take action, we have to do something about homicides? Talk about Ceasefire and what the movement that you’re part of and the city is, is engaging with.

Erricka Bridgef…: Yeah. So I absolutely agree that we absolutely need to be just as persistent and just as arrogant as the energy of murder is. And that’s the only way that we’re going to address something this vast. And it’s going to take all of us to be doing whatever we think our part is. And so that’s what Baltimore Ceasefire 365 is all about. It recognizes the level of hopelessness that a thing like murder can cause. But it is people all over the city and even outside of Baltimore saying murder can not have dominion over our city while we are here to do something about it. And so it is a way to rally people 365 days of the year to do their part, to address all of the root causes, the present traumas and the aftermath of violence. And then to have four times a year where we are purposely all together using our collective energy to stand for peace and for celebrating life in our city.

And just in the short time that the movement has been in existence, we’ve already seen that during these weekends just the energy of the work that everybody is doing is already producing less violence on those weekends. That’s with a lot of people in Baltimore have never even heard of Baltimore Ceasefire yet. So this is just what the hundreds of people who actually know about it and are promoting it and doing the work in it.

So imagine how impactful and how effective it would be if actually 600,000 people knew about it. And not only is violence reduced on those weekends, there’s no backlash or boomerang effect where violence then suddenly goes up in the next few days or even over the weekend. And that’s what we always wanted for this movement, that it would be this thing, and just the energy of it, you would start to see peace a little bit before, peace a little bit at this so that it’s having an effect that is literally spreading over days in Baltimore. And so things like this, things like Safe Streets, things like that, a lot of things happening in Baltimore. You have to literally close your eyes and just go to sleep not to notice all of the work that people are doing to address violence in this city.

Jaisal Noor: And I think one of the most impressive things about what you talked about too is that it’s a grassroots movement. It’s all self-funded. You take donations and it’s all sort of … I mean, you’re doing what you can with limited resources.

Erricka Bridgef…: Yes, there is no organization. There is no building you can go to that Baltimore Ceasefire is in. All of us are volunteers who do this on our “spare time.” But I’m never going to see my brother or my stepson or my cousins or my friends again. I’m never going to unhear the sound of a bullet flying past my ear. And so it’s worth whatever extra time we have because we have to be able to say that while we were here, we were doing our part. We weren’t just complaining about what’s happening in Baltimore. We were uplifting Baltimore and making it exactly what we believe and know that it can be.

Jaisal Noor: So Brendan, it’s sort of interesting to contrast Ceasefire, which is this grassroots model, low budget, but it’s also effective versus the spy plane which is … A serious amount of money goes into that. Who is paying for these flights and what do we know about them?

Brandon Soderbe…: Yeah. I mean, it couldn’t be any more the opposite of Ceasefire, really. It is a billionaire couple, the Arnolds in Houston. He’s a former hedge fund manager, so you can make some assumptions about this guy. He has donated the money for the funding of the plane itself for it to fly and all these things. And he’s doing that because that’s kind of part of the pitch here is, “Hey, it doesn’t cost the city anything.” Although as Erricka has pointed out, it costs the city a great deal of trauma and concern and possible rights being violated. The Arnolds … So they basically have been a pass-through for the money to fund the plane. The Arnolds are also putting money into a mayoral candidate, Thiru Vignarajah, who many of you may know from the Adnan Syed case. He’s the prosecutor. He’s a prosecutor.

And so Vignarajah is a big supporter of the plane. The Arnolds are from Houston and don’t have much or any connection to Baltimore. They gave Vignarajah [inaudible 00:10:29] about $200,000. I believe Vignarajah has a little under $800,000 right now for his campaign. So about a quarter of the money that Vignarajah is running on is coming from these out-of-town billionaires are also funding the plane, which he supports. That sort of technocratic nightmare that all this stuff is kind of ties to that too, because what you also have is you have this argument that you always hear with something like Ceasefire or Violence Interrupters like we have in Baltimore, like Safe Streets, about whether or not it’s effective. There’s all these debates about whether it’s not effective, but we never have these … And it is. It’s been shown to be effective.

But these grassroots organizations, these really small neighborhood-focused organizations have to prove themselves over and over again that they’re worthy, that they’ve done their work. Whereas the spy plane kind of gets to drop in and get all this funding and support, even though it’s been shown when it secretly flew, it didn’t work. And I think that’s really just important to think about, that you’ll have this ton of research and data to try to show you why, hey, Safe Streets or things like that are not as successful as they could be, et cetera, et cetera. Whereas a spy plane, the surveillance plane is allowed to sort of just literally fly in and get what it wants immediately.

Jaisal Noor: And I believe on May 1st, Friday there’s going to be a day of action calling for more funding for groups like Safe Streets during these times, because they’re not only going out there interrupting violence, but they’re helping people, inform people, providing protective gear to people as well.

So I wanted to end on a question to both of you. So on May 2nd, the governor announced that not only will there be a spy plane over the airs of Baltimore, but there’s going to be flights of fighter squadrons, military planes. These things cost at least $60,000 an hour in fuel to stay in the air. And these planes cost something like $20 million each to build. And that goes up tremendous amounts of money. When we’re talking about resources here and how money is spent, what money is spent on, Erricka, let’s start with you. The idea of these planes is that these flights … The whole point is to honor workers that are in hospitals, first responders during this pandemic. Do you think that this is a good use of taxpayer money?

Erricka Bridgef…: I don’t. And it’s a great example of why you should include people who you say you’re doing something for in the conversations about what you’re going to do for them. Because I’m pretty sure that first responders could use that money for a lot of other things that they really need, even if it’s just for self-care in a time like this. But the idea that having some kind of military-focused way to celebrate work that people are doing on the ground is just indicative of America’s culture and belief and violence kind of imagery is the kind of imagery that we should be conditioned with and socialize with even in times of celebrating life. And I think that had they asked people that they were honoring, “How would you like for us to spend this money to honor you on May 2nd?” they could have had a lot of other beautiful, more impactful ways that would actually make people feel honored and appreciated.

Jaisal Noor: And Brandon, we know the Pentagon budget last year was over $700 billion. This country’s spent more than $6 trillion in the last 20 years on war. What’s your response to these flights?

Brandon Soderbe…: I mean, Erricka said it well. This dependence, this obsession with militarism and displays of power in this way is wild. There’s kind of something ridiculous in Baltimore about us having a surveillance plane flying in the air and these jet fighter things flying in the air. We have a helicopter [inaudible 00:14:32] that flies around. So there’s sort of three levels of extreme paramilitary waste flying around in Baltimore’s skies this weekend. That’s kind of ridiculous. And I kind of add too that I don’t know what control our Governor Hogan has over this, because it’s clearly a ridiculous propaganda machine by our president. But we have a governor who’s really always said we need to bring the feds in and spend federal money to stop homicides. Because again, he too does not take seriously grassroots organizations that are stopping homicides currently. And so the idea that again, now we’re going to spend federal money not even on ways to stop homicides which our governors argued for, but to watch a bunch of dumb planes fly through the air is just maddening.

Jaisal Noor: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us. Brandon Soderberg has a forthcoming book, I Got A Monster: The Rise And Fall Of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad with Baynard Woods. And Erricka Bridgeford is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the spy planes. She co-founded Baltimore Ceasefire, a grassroots group that’s been proven to reduce shootings by 30 to 60% in Baltimore city, which is considered one of America’s deadliest cities. Thank you both for joining us.

Erricka Bridgef…: Thank you.

Brandon Soderbe…: Thanks for having me.

Erricka Bridgef…: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.