Tranae’ Moran: Oral Histories of Surveillance
[O]ur message could have been co-opted multiple times by different people. We had to be clear that we are completely against biometric collecting software in residential properties anywhere in this city, not just here, and not just facial. Wwe have to figure out what’s the best way to describe this thing in every form. Because we learned that facial recognition technology can take the form of many. They can just use your fingerprint or your face or your gait, like, they can identify who you are by the way you walk.
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Tranae’ Moran (she/her), tenants rights activist and resin artist born and based in Brooklyn, New York.Tranae’ shares her widely reported on story about how her housing complex resisted the implementation of facial recognition technology. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Kim M Reynolds: Can you introduce yourself, your ways of knowing and who you are?
Tranae’ Moran: My home is in Brooklyn. It has always been in Brooklyn. I am a Brooklynite and I am very, very proud of that. I am 28 years old. I went to elementary school in Clinton Hill at PS 20. And then I went to 113, which is another junior high school in Clinton Hill. So I’m from Brownsville, but a large majority of my childhood was spent in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. There’s multiple facets of living in Brooklyn, and from my childhood, I got to see the differences in living in what is considered to be the inner city or the hood, to Fort Greene the more white neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I got to see those contrasts. There’s a really a large difference in being educated in Brownsville and being educated in Fort Greene. I could see the differences, and I could understand why my mother sent me to school that she did. My mother risked her job by sending me to that school because of our zoning laws. My mom did what she had to do to put us in school in a different neighborhood.
So from there, I went to Williamsburg for high school, and that’s when I started finding artist communities and just exploring more and learning about where I’m from. And from there I went on to Brooklyn College. I wanted to get out of the city—trust me I did [laughs]—I wanted to go to Hampton University so bad, I got a pretty cool scholarship but it didn’t come to the full thing. So I decided to stay in the city and go to a CUNY [City University of New York]. Brooklyn College was cool even though I wanted to leave and transfer to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], because I wanted to go to school for fashion and wanted to do fashion merchandising so very badly. That’s just the creative spirit in me, I guess. The transfer of credits didn’t work nicely for me and I was like, “No, I can’t waste the money my mom’s spent me on studying, I have to stay here.”
So I ended up staying there. I graduated with my bachelor’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing, and I went on to work in showrooms and tried to figure out this fashion merchandising dream that I had. But that quickly just did not happen because life. I was working in a showroom, I had a job right out of college and I had just moved into my new apartment and got an office in there… and then I found out I was pregnant [laughs warmly]. Then my office in my apartment became a nursery really quickly, and as I had my baby, I found resin, and that’s what brought me into the artistry that I am in now; working with resin and creating jewelry and resin art, and now rolling into a community arts space where we are teaching agency through art. So right now I’m no longer in the fashion industry, in my personal business I make jewelry and so that’s my creative outlet.
My community organizing work happened shortly after baby Kane when I moved back into my mother’s apartment. And one day we received this manila envelope from HCR [Housing Community Renewals], and it was an application for a request to make modifications to our security system, which was already like Fort Knox in my brain. I was already so surveilled and uncomfortable with the amount of cameras. In our building there are cameras everywhere, even on the floor we live on. You watch me take out my trash, and I have to be dressed because you guys are watching me all the time. I’ve received notices under my door saying my kids are running in the hallway—like, I know you watch us. You’re seeing us all the time.
So we received this manila envelope with the application that was pretty big, like 28 pages or something like that, where only two of them describe the modification. So we didn’t have much information on what this thing actually was. So once that happened, that’s when I just started talking to my neighbors. I was always the kind of person to question things, especially with gentrification happening in New York City. You see landlords doing a lot of weird things, so it’s obviously something is happening here. During this time, our building was getting renovations done and our landlord is very communicative with us. He sends out newsletters, and we get notices under our doors literally every day for random things or repairs on the waterline.
So getting this application from HCR was like, what is this? No one talked to us about this. We have an active tenant’s association and an active board where they’re supposed to be a part of conversations like this, and no one heard anything about it. So like, what is happening? And we were seeing these renovations already happening. At some point, our mailboxes were in the basement because there were renovations happening, and so our mail was messed up for that time. Things weren’t just as they usually are, so it was like, something is happening here, and my antennas were up.
Kim M Reynolds: When did this start happening? When did you get the first notice?
Tranae’ Moran: So in July of 2018, the owner of the building submitted the application for the modification, but we did not start to receive word that this was happening until October of 2018, and it was a scattered delivery of the notifications. So I was starting to talk to my neighbors at that time, but there were people who still did not receive this notice, they still didn’t get this packet, they didn’t know what was going on. By the end of October 2018, we were sharing it [the notice] via email trying to figure things out. We usually have community meetings once a month, but we called an emergency tenants’ meeting and I mean, the turnout was… I created the flyer for it, and we put it out in both buildings, 24 floors, 700 and something apartments. We have one community room and it had never been that packed before. Like, people come out to address concerns, but it’s usually, like, 15-20 people.
But that day people could not fit. It was so many people because we were outraged and wanted to understand what’s going on, no one talked to us about this. So just knowing that we had the support of our neighbors that early on, like we weren’t even sure what exactly was happening, but just knowing that we had people was, like, good. I was like, “Okay, we have something to work with and back up.” The general consensus of our tenant community was that everyone was outraged. Everyone felt like they were targeted, they were being targeted. They felt like gentrification was coming for them. The two buildings are majority elderly people, they watch the news all the time. They see gentrification, like, gentrification is almost like a triggering word for them, they feel like it’s coming for them; it’s like the boogeyman. So they’re like, “No, they’re gonna use us or watch us.”
We have some history with the building management. Our previous building management, he used to work for 73rd Precinct, which does not have a good reputation in our community at all. So there was a worry with that because there were rumors of previous tenants being evicted because of something that he shared with the precinct. So now with this facial recognition thing is even crazier. So at this time, literally, the building management was not going to give you a new mailbox (mailboxes were still in the basement at this time), unless you took a photo, unless you went to the management office and had a photo of yourself taken for them to keep on file. Why? Why do you need a photo of me and you see me every day? We have a security system already, you know? So why do you need my photo?
After the tenants’ meetings, I started doing research and I found Joy Buolamwini. She is the MIT researcher, and she is in the documentary that was just released Coded Bias. She did the Gender Shades research, and once I read that, I was like, I mean… and I love the way her website is set up where she had these bite-size kinds of things where you didn’t have to read the whole research paper, which I really appreciate. Because I have a lot going on in my life [laughs], and I am not coming from the world of academia, so I’m not even used to digesting that kind of language. So I really appreciated the way she had her information set up. I watched a PBS interview she had and after that, I felt equipped enough to explain to our tenants why this is really a problem outside of our natural intuition that something is wrong, because I think people really need to pay attention to that. Like, if you just naturally feel like something is off then you should just do some research and not just ignore it because I feel like that’s just a common thing. Like, people feel like something is not right but they just won’t say anything and then at the end of it, people will say, “Oh, something told me to,” and you should have just went with your inclination.
After the tenants’ meeting, I had to just educate myself. At first, I needed to learn and know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t the only person who had concerns about this issue. After I found Joy, that’s when we started a petition to just get signatures and write a letter, an objection, to the application of the modification of services. But when we wrote the letter, we thought we should have somebody just go over it and figure out how we were going to deliver the letter. So that’s when we got Brooklyn Legal Services involved. Always in the back of my mind, I feel like I need backup [laughs], I’m not playing with the Nelson Management. So 2019 was just, like, a year of shocked faces because every time we told someone what was happening—from Brooklyn Legal Services to local officials, to Town Hall, City Hall. Everyone’s faces were like, what is happening? And I was like, “How come you don’t know?!”
So we did a letter, an objection, we brought on Brooklyn Legal Services to go over that and help us with the delivery of that, and also help us really understand the application that we got and decipher that. They also helped us understand some of the history of our building because they had worked with our building before when it went rent-stabilized. So logistically, they were already familiar with our building and the laws that apply to it, etc. So they decided that, because they just have more insight with things like this, that we should deliver our letter of objection in person and invite the media as well, and we were like, “Yeah, because with more eyes, more people will listen.” We have all these tenants, we can—and then from there, that’s kind of where the art and agency come in because while we were doing the petition, we realized that there was a certain community of tenants that just were numb to what could go wrong with the tech. They were people with iPhone X’s and used that as a way to say it’s fine and I was like, “but did you read the terms when you turned it on?” Because I know I read mine, and I had an iPhone X; I had never used it because I read the terms and I was not comfortable with them once I saw that it will track your face until whenever it decides to stop.
I don’t like to be taken advantage of, I don’t want to feel like I’m being taken advantage of, and I don’t want someone making a coin off of me. The last time I checked, slavery was over, okay? Even though we are still dealing with this, okay, it’s turning into a new type of slavery. And I’ve said this in some of my panels, but it’s literally data slavery. You are working my data for you and I am not getting a piece of that coin; I’m not getting a check; I’m not getting any royalties for whatever software you sell or whatever improvements you make. You are feeding these systems with the faces of people from our community, and you have not cut us a check or made an agreement with us or tell us what you are doing.
It would be a different conversation if you would have come to the building like, “We have this new software and we’re running a pilot project.” Be honest and transparent! Don’t come in here and say, “Oh, you’re lucky, you need this to keep you safe.” Who said we don’t feel safe here? If anything, we feel over-surveilled, we want to get rid of some of this, we don’t need more. Are you crazy? So don’t come to me as if you’re doing me a favor and I should be happy and you’re helping. No, you’re being greedy and you want my information to help yourself. From the research that I did and finding Joy, I found out that these systems do not have our faces in a data set, why is that? Why is that? It’s the tech companies’ fault. Why is it that you can find Susan, but you can’t find Tranae?
There is no excuse for these tech companies, you cannot use us because you didn’t do something that you were supposed to do in the startup stages. Don’t try to develop the software. Instead, this company doing the facial recognition technology decided to start a contract with our building management and chose his only property that is in a marginalized community. He has 12 other properties, he has properties in more affluent communities where they would probably welcome it and feel more comfortable with it, but you decide to come here. Why did you decide to come here? People only come here for one reason: to take. You’re not putting anything into this community. What are you giving us for this information that you’re taking out? It needs to be an even exchange. And that is deep down what bothers me, it’s like, this is slavery all over again. You are working our data to improve these systems and you’re doing it without our consent.
And that was another major issue with this notice and proposal, there was no opt-out option. What was going to happen if I lived here but I didn’t want to participate in the facial recognition technology? What is supposed to happen to the elderly people whose attendants need to come in every day? How is my kid supposed to go to school and come home? My baby’s face changes, so what are you doing tracking his face, storing his biometric data, selling it to third-party companies? I can’t get my biometrics back, okay.
These tech companies literally do whatever they want, when they want because they’re private companies, they don’t have to go to the government to do jack. Luckily, Nelson Management, our building is rent-stabilized. If it wasn’t for my building being rent-stabilized, I would be scanning my face today. Our management did not tell us about the application, Housing Community Renewals, HCR, told us about the application because they had to because that’s their job, because we’re a rent-stabilized building so we need to know what’s going on – that’s just their regulation. But if we were a market-rate building, they wouldn’t have to do anything.
So we submitted the letter and objection to the modification to HCR, and it was a thick stack of papers, luckily Brooklyn Legal Services dealt with that. And in our research with them, we were looking for other cases like ours, and what we found were a couple of other buildings in New York City that had facial recognition technology. So there was a building in Queens in a majority Asian community and they have facial recognition cameras on their building complex. This complex consisted of, I don’t even know, maybe, like, six buildings, a lot of buildings. They have had facial recognition cameras since 2016, and this is 2018 that we’re finding out about it, and no one else knew about it. How did this happen? And the stories from these communities are horrific. They are consistently locked out of their houses, or someone would try to scan their face and it wouldn’t work, and then you wait on the next person and it doesn’t work, and it would literally end up being, like, 10 people outside until it worked for one person and then everyone could go inside. And this would be the same case at Atlantic Towers.
So how is this protecting us? That doesn’t protect us, that makes it worse! And studies have shown from IBM to Microsoft that none of these systems recognize melanated faces, especially melanated faces of women, and our community is majority melanated faces of women, elderly women, and it definitely doesn’t work on elderly people. You know, it sounds like it’s just coins for you, and it sounds like a risk for us.
And what is the relationship with the police, what is stopping these companies from sharing information with the police under the guise of safety and potentially putting several innocent people at risk? Because it may put us in a virtual lineup. I may be at work and something might happen in my neighborhood, and I may be at my best, doing my job as a professional adult who pays her rent, and at that same moment in time, literally—thank you 2020—I can be in the lineup in a precinct and not know it. And then I can go home, say “Hi” to the camera, and then the police come get me because it doesn’t read our faces correctly. Did you see these things with the NBA players with the council members? It showed them all to be terrorists! Like I said, I come home from work, the police are there and they say, “You’re guilty, the biometrics match.” And even though I was at work and I did nothing, how do you fight biometrics? So now it’s not even your fight anymore, now it is the algorithm and a lawyer and you are never gonna win. And now 10 years later, I get released from jail, I don’t have an apartment, my kid is with whoever. And oh, and now you want to say, “Sorry, oh, it was a mistake with the data.” And that is the concern.
Kim M Reynolds: It’s just like white supremacy, reinventing itself and reasserting itself.
Tranae’ Moran: That’s exactly what’s happening.
So in January of 2019, we got notifications a few days before we had to submit our response we intended to send to HCR after handing in our letter and objection. That did not give us enough time to inform ourselves and inform our neighbors, and so we actually had to ask HCR for an extension with the petition that we had signed by tenants. We had backing from Assemblywoman Walker and Councilwoman Samuels who supported an extension for us to reply. So after we applied for that extension, I think we spoke to, like, one person from the media, and this was in February of 2019 at this point, then Nelson decided that he now wanted to have something to say about this because he had been silent the whole time. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t respond to the tenants, but he did call the cops on us when we were gathering signatures for our petition. And once we submitted to HCR, he started to retaliate, calling the cops on us, watching us.
One day, we were flyering for a town hall community meeting that we were going to have and, like, the next day, everyone who was there got a letter under their door—personally delivered, no postage stamp so you’ve come to my house to slide these under my door—printed out photos in full color. And on the photo, it’s our lobby and there’s, like, six people. And he has everyone’s head circled with their apartment number on it, he wrote the time and the date on it and he’s like, “Oh, you were loitering,” and he was essentially threatening us. So it’s like, why do we need the facial recognition cameras? Look at what you’re doing, I see my full face, in color, so why do we need facial recognition? And why is it that if a package goes missing and we ask for the camera footage, you can’t get it for us, but when you want to find people or harass people you’re quick to get whatever you need out of the camera?
So yeah, things like that started happening so from there, we learned we have to be a bit more careful. So we started having our meetings at Brooklyn Legal Services offices which luckily is only two blocks away from our building and we started doing our behind-the-scenes organizing there. So at that point, once we were being harassed, we were like, “Now we need to turn the heat up more, okay?” So through Brooklyn Legal Services, we set up a media type thing where they would reach out to media outlets or media outlets would reach out to Brooklyn Legal Services, and then Brooklyn Legal Services would check them out first and make sure… how can I say this? I guess we learned early that this fight could be co-opted to do something else or people were trying to use what we were doing for their own personal gain, which we did not have time for because we were actively fighting against something that was very real.
Then we started to get more help from tech communities because they started to see the stories in the media and they were outraged as well. Like I said, 2019 was like the year of shocked faces, so many people were like, “What’s going on?” So, we got a lot of support from AI Now, the Civil Liberties Union, and of course, Brooklyn Legal Services – they just held us down the whole time. But—so, the name of the security company was called StoneLock. This was going to be StoneLock’s first residential experience; they had never installed their software into a residential space before, they only did, like, commercial stuff. And then at this point, we had only seen biometric collecting software in jails or airports, never in a place where people live and have to deal with it every day. Like, in an airport that’s just when I fly, it’s one time. But every day to gain access into my home, that’s different.
So, this is now March, and we sent another letter to HCR because we still had not heard anything back from them after sending the first letter in January. We spoke to the New York Times, and after that, we were, like—because even our local officials still didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t know about the software, and they didn’t know about the plans to put it in. So then we decided to hold a town hall meeting with everyone we could get to come; the assemblywoman, council people—anybody who would come, who we could get in contact with and have them come out—and explaining to them fully what is going on, how it works, why it could be harmful, why we worried about it. So, we had this meeting, and about a third of the way into the meeting, Nelson shows up. This was my first time ever seeing Nelson in my life. The person who manages the building, his name is Rafferty, we always dealt with him, and he is horrible, okay? And Nelson manages the whole management company of Nelson Management, and he shows up with this sleek suit on and looking all clean with, like, his security advisor and his lawyers. And it’s like, what is happening here?
So, we’re all talking and now the tenants are really riled up because Nelson’s here, and people have things to say. [In the town hall meeting] We have a system set in place because we know how our community can be and how passionate we are, so we have an index card system where people will write their questions on the index card, and myself and Fabian Rogers —who was my partner in crime in doing all this outreach stuff—read out the questions individually. So now we have this bucket full of index cards in my group ready to keep going, Nelson shows up and he announces that he’s pulling his application for the modification to security.
So, the room was so happy and so excited, and I felt like I was the only person who was upset, I was tight! Like, this is what we wanted, but at this point, he did that to cut our conversation and to shut us up, and I didn’t like that. I feel like this was still a concern because who’s to say that you don’t pull it out tomorrow, but then two months down the line you put it back in? You’re not saying anything to me. I was not excited, because I don’t trust you, okay? I’m in a three-bedroom two-bathroom apartment and I know you want that, and you’re not getting it back. This is rent-stabilized, my lease will be renewed. So, I just felt like he just wanted us to stop talking to the media because a lot of the articles coming out were now more focused on Nelson Management and he was trying to stop all of that.
So, at the town hall, Nelson made all the media leave the room and it turned out that Assemblywoman Walker was not on our side, she was on the side of the building management. So, there was a lot of internal drama, but our board and Assemblywoman Walker knew Nelson was coming and didn’t tell us. So, she knew about Nelson’s presence at our meeting—and she actually showed up to our town hall late—and tried to co-opt our meeting. Twenty minutes late, she walks through the doors into a packed room, and goes right to the front of the room, taking her scarf off like, “Hey, guys,” as if she’s late to her own meeting and starts preaching the gospel. And I’m just like, what is happening?!
And then she brings Nelson out, kicks out the media, and I say that the media needs to stay here but Nelson’s lawyers are like, “No, Nelson doesn’t want anyone recording him.” But he wasn’t even supposed to be here! Then once he made the announcement, they let media back in and people were like, “No, we’re not pitching this kind of story! No ‘Landlord pulls…'” No. He didn’t work with us to do nothing, he’s not some saint, he did this because he doesn’t want to be embarrassed, he doesn’t want his company name to be tarnished – that’s why he pulled this thing and that needs to be clear. So, obviously the next day we were getting calls from all kinds of reporters asking for our feedback, and— oh my God, that week I was just so in my feelings because everyone was calling with this energy of, “Oh, this was successful and you should be excited,” and I’m like, “No.” Because the next day, the application was still there, so I’m telling these reporters this. And then two days later, he pulled the application.
At that point, things kind of look redundant with media because they were trying to focus on this landlord being a good guy, so we turned our focus since we kind of won this fight, and later on, I took it like, “Okay, we successfully protected our neighbors, for now.” For now because we don’t have any legislation. So that’s kind of where things turned. We turned to getting real laws and real protections for people in the city because this is not just a problem in our community, this is a problem for the whole city and the whole nation. I mean, like, who wants this problem? So, from there, we just started focusing on legislation and a few bills were drafted.
So, I mean, it was really nice to have inspired the conception of those bills [No Barriers to Housing Act], and we were appreciative that people were hearing us and starting to draft things, but nothing that was drafted protected us. The language in the bills just did not help. And then we got to a point where, as we were learning more about the facial recognition, we were learning that this thing can be called by many different names and that we can have legislation made about facial recognition but in six months it’s not called facial recognition and they’re using it. Technology moves faster than the law.
Literally, this thing has been installed in a building complex in 2016, and in 2018 we’re at City Hall and you guys don’t know what’s going on? How is this happening? So, you mean to tell me that technology companies are controlling things now? I mean, they don’t have to ask anyone for it? Mind you, these are international technology companies that are coming from places where they can’t do this work to the US where they can run free, and what is that phrase, “Move fast and break things?” I hate that saying! What do you mean? So, we ended up in different tech spaces, and this is a common thing because technology is a fast-paced world. You cannot move fast and break things that affect real people. You’re moving fast in a real community and breaking things in a real community with real people, with real families. What do you mean move fast and break things? Does this look like a science lab or a community to you? Like, this is a community of real people with real past trauma. Do you know how much PTSD resides in Brownsville… that’s another conversation.
Kim M Reynolds: I think you were talking about some of the legislation that came out of it. And then I think also highlighting the alliances that you guys have made.
Tranae’ Moran: All the legislation and bills, that was a great step forward because we had nothing. So, I’m really appreciative that our legislators took a stab at providing some protections.
For me, coming from the background that I came from and just not being involved in academia or politics, kind of, or any of this stuff, it was nice to know that we can have this effect; like, we really inspired them to do these things and to make these changes, like we actually have a voice that works. It’s strange, being in certain rooms because I feel like I still have so much more to learn about all of this. I feel like a novice, but people are learning from me, like, they’re learning from us and our experience and how we handled it. I’m just—I’m still not content with it, but I want to share this with other communities so that they can have this same kind of moment of realization, that you just need to move and make some noise and say what you want, and you can get results. And just don’t give up and don’t allow your message or your goal to be side-tracked.
Like, our message could have been co-opted multiple times by different people. We had to be clear that we are completely against biometric collecting software in residential properties anywhere in this city, not just here, and not just facial. We have to figure out what’s the best way to describe this thing in every form. Because we learned that facial recognition technology can take the form of many. They can just use your fingerprint or your face or your gait, like, they can identify who you are by the way you walk, or even fart! It sounds crazy, but even a fart [laughs]. And I’m like, well, what do we call, like, all of those things? And we figured out that the best way to describe them for us was biometric collecting systems or software or hardware. Because we were just figuring out, how can we talk about this in a way that the language won’t change in two years? And thankfully the language hasn’t changed yet and we are still using some of the same vocabulary from 2018, but I’m sure there’s some different vocabulary that I don’t know about yet, and hopefully we figure it out soon, but it just never stops.
Out of all of this, and in me wanting other people to have the same feeling of empowerment and knowing that they have a voice and just, like, having agency over the space that you live in. I feel like we should not be paying all of this rent in New York City, just like everybody else, I don’t care what kind of voucher you get, I don’t care who’s helping you pay the rent, the rent is being paid, okay? It’s no matter how the people are paying their rent, the rent is being paid. These people need to have agency over the space that they’re living in. How can you better your life or better the life of your children if you are afraid to make the space around you better, if you are uncomfortable to change your environment? It’s impossible to better things for the future if we’re afraid to speak up for ourselves now. When you see the coffee shops and cafes, and trees and these sitting benches, you cannot complain because you did not make yourself part of the conversation.
But the first part is that people need to know and that they can be a part of the conversation! Like I said, we’re dealing with people who have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in many different ways, so we are dealing with people who just don’t know that they have rights to even do these things because look at the past that we’re coming from. Why is that so hard to believe, for people to understand? Like, yes, these are grown people, they are adults, they have children, but they still are struggling, navigating through life because of the way society is set up in redlining, in zoning laws. And people just need to know what their rights are and know that they have rights as tenants, no matter what kind of tenant you are; rent control, rent-stabilized, market-rate – you have rights as a tenant. We need to all know what those rights are, we need to exercise those rights and we need to speak up when we see those rights being violated. And that is all we did at Atlantic Towers.
And I just want other people to, kind of, navigate in that way and be aware of—there’s something called souveillance, and it’s basically the person being surveilled surveilling back, like, recording the camera. So, just basically being aware of the surveillance around you. We have to do that. We need to make sure we know who’s watching, where they’re watching from, and like, inquire about it. Like, these LinkNYC digital posts that are going up all over Brooklyn, and just all these new technologies coming into spaces where it does not make sense. Literally, some of these LinkNYC digital fancy posts are— why are they are in front of a liquor store and the Chinese restaurant? Why only here? This doesn’t make sense.
When there are so many homeless people when we are just like this… I actually tried to pick the remain[ing], you know, tenants in good standing. They may not be able to pay for rent, but they can pay 50% or 60% of the rent. But still they don’t care. They don’t want it at that point. Now they’re not accepting your rent. They say no, I’m not taking that and only to be able to take you to housing court and file for an eviction holdover case and then fix you because you haven’t paid rent when you’ve been trying to pay the rent, but the landlord has not been accepting. Like it still says sad. If it’s done, the kind of power that landlords have.
Just another layer that I think no one thought about, we’ve been fighting with our landlord, right? Like, I have 700 tenants mad at the landlord. You don’t think I felt a little at risk? ‘Cause, like, the cameras are watching me! It was a moment where I just felt very paranoid and scared in my unit. And when he sent the photo of everyone in the lobby with the apartment numbers he was basically saying, “Go in your house and stay in your house.” What if something happens to my family or my kid? Luckily, we didn’t stop [organizing], but it came up later in conversation. Luckily BLS [Brooklyn Legal Services] opened their doors to us and gave us insights and tools we didn’t have.
Also, having Fabian as my right hand, like, to speak and carry parts of this was amazing. And I mean, I guess I’m always very humble because I didn’t come from this space. So as always, like, eyes open, ears open. I want to see and ask questions and learn this language.
I think I think that’s like a really full place to end. I think I only had one more question, which was just too you mentioned at the beginning, before we had like, before head started recording as well, which was just about the now. He said it’s like a Brooklyn Tenants Alliance group. Can you just talk about that, just briefly, kind of as an outcome, and then what you’re doing now? Because you also said, so you kind of consulted on this. Sounds like you’re not like a novice really, at all. Like, I think it’s a really nice place to be able to be like… I think we can defeat ourselves by saying I’m not Ruha Benjamin, you know, I mean, because I feel the same way. I’m like, I’m not these people. But I know, but it’s like, um, I think what was so amazing also about researching your work, and just the situation in general was like, really how formalized and I think really smart. Your media strategy was like, I just felt like it was really well done. It wasn’t like haphazard, it was like, really clear and he could see, but I think it but institutionalized the narrative, you know, I mean, so now people can Google this thing. And it’s like a very, it’s something that happened in time that is like, cohesive, like, a semi cohesive narrative. So I just, I hear you that it’s like novice but also sounds like you have contributed quite a lot in the way that you can’t because also, we can’t expect ourselves to, like, contribute the whole fucking but you know, I mean, like, it is us that is the contribution but my, my question to you, yeah, it was just the Alliance.
I guess this still has kind of just been settling with me but thinking of what our individual contribution actually was to this outside of just shedding light on it, I feel it’s the strategy. We contributed a strategy to fight and to push back against it that can actually be successful. Because the other complex in the city that has the facial recognition, their community was very scared to talk to the media. And that was a difference. And they were scared because a lot of them are undocumented, so didn’t they feel comfortable, or they felt like they couldn’t have a voice like we did because of that situation. They didn’t want to be deported or lose their- because they’re complaining about facial recognition. So, I think them seeing us and reading about what was going on in the media just gave them that boost to come out of the shadows about it.
But getting to Ocean Hill Brownsville Alliance that came out of the Atlantic Towers Tenants Association… we realized that we wanted to continue to operate under Atlantic Towers Tenants Association but, one, it’s a mouthful, and two. Our community is majority elders and working people who don’t really have the time and capacity to deal with all the tech stuff (this facial recognition kind of got separated as tech stuff). We are still dealing with the repercussion of our pushback, and we feel that our landlord has retaliated against us through the form of MCI’s, which is a major capital improvement. That was the first thing that happened. He dropped the MCI on us, basically increasing our rent for the repair of the lobby. We had to pay for the upgrades that we didn’t ask for. A month ago, we got a notice from our lawyers that an application was submitted to put submetering into our building. Submetering is when you pay for your own electricity, and at Atlantic Towers, electricity and gas are included in our rent charge.
Now he’s trying to separate that fee and make us pay for our own electric, which makes no sense at a time like this when you’re not supposed to be adding additional charges or increasing anything because we are in a pandemic. But other than that, you decide to want to put submetering into our building when we are all home all day, so your electricity bill has gone up and you don’t want to pay it, you want me to pay for it now. But I already do pay for it, this whole time we’ve been paying for it in our rent payment, so you’ve gotta figure out how you’re gonna work out your finances, that’s not our fault. Now he wants us to pay our own electricity and wants to install submeters into all the apartments so that he can not be responsible for our electric anymore, which is really frustrating.
But we now have the Ocean Hill Brownsville Alliance to help inform our neighbors about these things. Like right now we’re making brochures about submetering and what it is, the impact it can have on a community. And we are prepping to hold some art and agency workshops. Through our pushback, I realized that art really helps bring people together and kind of creates an even playing field just for everyone in the group, or just puts us on the same page. So, when we were preparing to go up to HCR to deliver the opposition, before that, we had a poster-making party where we all got together in the community room and made posters and signs. We made all of these cool signs that we used for when we went to go deliver the opposition, when we went to City Hall, we brought them with us to help share the message so that nothing can be confused and that our exact words are seen. So, in doing that and having the kids involved it just bought the whole community, all generations, together in a space where we could all do the same activity, comfortably share ideas, share insights, and build our backbone in the organization. It created the camaraderie that we needed. People like to feel like they’re a part of something.
So, yes, to continue to share information about biometric collecting systems and facial recognition, we will be hosting workshops and arts and agency sessions, bringing people in from different groups to inform the community. And luckily, I just secured a really nice studio space that is big enough to hold panels, so I’m just really, really excited to get community in the space and get the flow of information going. That’s what the Alliance will be tackling. Getting information to people to feel empowered and belonging to the space. And at some point, maybe the Alliance can become a hub where tech companies and agencies reach out before they try to deploy stuff and get some insight, like, maybe we could provide focus groups so that we’re all benefiting each other and it’s not extracting from the community. It needs to be an equal transaction because my community has been extracted from for years.
Also, what I’ll be focusing on for the next few months is the census because our numbers are pretty bad here in Brownsville, and for a few different reasons, I mean, there’s so much distrust in the system—as there should be. But we’re working on getting our census numbers up so that we can get more funding in our community, which is always a thing because, for some reason, we never have any funding.
Kim M Reynolds: What is arts agency to you?
Tranae’ Moran: We created a brochure version of a toolkit—because sometimes toolkits are 40 pages long and not digestible— along with a book of hypotheticals with different situations and different outcomes that people can solve different issues. But in the toolkit, it explains the Ocean Hill Brownsville Alliance, arts agency, definitions of what agency is and what advocacy is, and just opening the eyes of our community and trying to inspire some more civic engagement.
Arts agency is teaching agency through art and showing people how going with your initial inclinations, or asking a question, or being curious can have a huge impact on your outcome of whatever you’re dealing with. So as far as, like, working with resin and mixing your two formulas together, you have to know like, is this a two-part solution? Is this a one-part solution? What exactly am I doing here? How does this work? So just getting people in the habit of feeling comfortable about asking questions. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the feeling, but I know, in the past, when I was younger, I really had a lot of anxiety about asking questions. I felt like I should just know things, especially in school; I was one of those people if the teacher called on me, I would start sweating. When people are dealing with situations that they don’t feel that they are equipped enough to manage, they just kind of let it go by, which is what would have happened with the facial recognition thing.
The packet was meant to be intimidating to us. It was 30 pages. But really, all the information we needed was in two pages. But just the fact that it came in a manila envelope, and it was 30 pages, and it came from Housing Community Renewals, people felt like, “Oh someone else will deal with this.” And that doesn’t help us. We can’t depend on other people to say something, and that has become a common thread in communities – we wait for somebody else to come in and be the savior and it’s like, No, you should be the one to speak about it, you felt that feeling on the inside. That person who’s coming in to fix this problem from another community, I’m sure they don’t have the same feeling as you because they’re not coming from the same place. So if we want to see the change that we need to see, we need to be able to advocate and speak for ourselves and explain clearly what we want, what we’re looking for and what we don’t want, and what we’re not looking for. Through the [inaudible] alliance, I feel like I will be able to pull these things out of community, our community that is really diverse and mostly Black from all over. I just want people to get in the same space to empower each other to ask questions and share answers, and that’s the goal of the Ocean Hill Brownsville Alliance.