Odessa Kelly: Oral Histories of Surveillance

[I]t’s like every time we need something as a community… if our community is a food desert, and we want grocery stores, what do we get? Policing. Surveillance. We need housing. We need places to live. And all this gentrification. What do we get? Policing and surveillance in some type of way is woven into whatever the solution is. We want safer streets? What we get? Police and surveillance.
—Odessa Kelly

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 Odessa Kelly, Executive Director at Stand Up Nashville, a grassroots organization of union and community organizers and every-day citizens committed to fulfilling racial justice from an economic standpoint. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.



Blu: Can you tell me about the current work you are in?


Odessa Kelly: I’m now the executive director of Stand Up Nashville. And that was basically me moving out of reactionary activist work, you know, where we react to things that have already happened and, you know, trying to be solutionary. So that moves me to really build a collaboration, and I would just my friends, you know, from the hood of TSU [Tennessee State University], but with like, the institutions, you know, who can actually move stuff. So, our organization built with churches, other grassroot groups, and like labor unions, you know, all the pieces that we can try to weave together to try to turn some of the things that we talked about into tangible pieces.  


At Stand Up Nashville, basically, what we do is kind of a watchdog for public policy, in economic sustainability. So anytime that we can try to remove barriers. And so that’s how we do social and racial justice work. From my end, it is trying to take away every, you know, racist ass excuse to put in a way of saying why we can’t advance. Yeah. Yeah, that’s a little bit of my background.  


Blu: And can you tell us about your first encounters with civilians and your community?  


Odessa Kelly: I’m gonna say had my first encounter was, again, as an adult, or at least it I realized, and I realized it. And that was because, you know, I was working in a neighboring community center, when I think the summer of 2015. A little girl got raped in the projects. [Then] projects had another kid that got killed by two kids actually, [one]… got killed by gang members trying to steal something, and another kid who was gang affiliated, just got beat down or whatever. So it was, like, really bad.  


So this lady who I see around—she come into community center all the time—she came up to me one day. I thought she was a parent or something, you know, why she was coming in? And after a long time just saying hello and stuff with a couple of parents and community, everything they were talking about was that they were sick and tired of all these type of things happening in their community and all this type of stuff. So they were, like, “We’re going to try to do things to you know, protect our community.” I was, you know, like, “Yeah, I agree.” I’m always on board.  


A couple of days later, she came back with me with this petition to be signed. And I read through the whole petition. But it was talking about doing this whole community watch and all this stuff. Six months later, all of a sudden, I just started noticing all these handyman come coming through putting up like all these cameras and stuff everywhere, through the hood, the kids about it and everything, and nobody’s like home. I just started putting up all these cameras. I mean, every corner, you know, putting up cameras everywhere.  


Then fast forward–that was around August—to Christmas. I was having the Christmas party at the community center. That same lady I told you be coming in. She came back into the community center. And the Christmas party is big. Everyone in the ‘hood comes out to it because we’re giving away gifts and, you know, 


Blu: How can I have me some gifts, some food and chill… 


Odessa Kelly: Yo, yeah. So that’s when she was giving away some gifts or whatever but she was talking to someone and she introduced herself that she was part of the housing authority… the ones who run the actual the projects. And I start talking a couple parents, they’re like, “Yes. She the lady over all of the housing and stuff.” They didn’t want to say that she’s the one who kicks you out. I was like, “Really? Didn’t know that.”  


After inquiring into the petition that she had me and several of the parents sign… [it] was so they could put cameras up everywhere in the projects! And that was my first encounter with surveillance.  


We had several community meetings about this, you know, because it’s like, this isn’t working to what it was intended to do. What they did is they sent all the information to this new gang youth gang unit that they had created for a precinct that just opened up… about six months before. So it’s a lot of complaining and a lot of reusing political will to get people to understand. I tell the Councilman, “We will not vote you back in unless we can get something done about this.”  


It was really hard, though, because you had other people—residents and constituents—who wanted to keep the cameras there, because they truly thought it was deterring crime. So trying to get people to see the differences between//// the same mechanism that you think is deterring crime is the same one that is setting kids up to be surveilled and put on list. And that was my very first encounter with surveillance.  


It didn’t come back into my purview until… I’m gonna say about two years ago. And that was with [Amazon] Ring. And all the information me being on the economic side of it, and studying contracts, you know, and looking at money and where it goes to, you know, so it’s funny because of George Floyd and everything that’s happened this year Defund the Police has been a conversation that has boomed, you know, it was really talked about as a invest/ divest type of, you know, yeah, especially all my activist friends in Oakland and other places. But, um, it was something I was looking at, like, damn. We give this much contractually? Our public dollars go this far in making sure that our police are militarized? Or like something you see in the movies? …All the data that is collected and… they get to make these assumptions and that… carries over to the psyche of this hunter mentality of… [the] police.  


Blu: That’s fine… but that resonates with me. For me, the conversation is usually around surveillance equals safety. And folks sell that right daytoday. We see normal signs that allow our psyches to be desensitized to the idea of surveillanceLikewhen you walk into the store, and this store is being monitored. Or, you see blue light cameras all over. Right? My experience here in Charlotte, the west side of Charlotte is where Black and poor people are. And it wasn’t until I did my research that I really, like understood the like, the threshold, right? Like, you go down, Beatties Ford, and it is blue light cameras storefront cameras. The police come, and they knock and talk to folks. And they’re like, “You should just let us get your footage. It’s kind of like mafia style, right? Like you pay me in footage, and we’re going to show up if somebody rob you. Because the owners of these shops are not Black. They’re not from the community. They’re not there to really build with folks. They’re opting in to like protect my property, right? Because I don’t actually belong here.  

Charlotte, I think, was one of the first centers for like how we militarize and move digital surveillance because of big events, right? So when the DNC [Democratic National Convention] came here, the first one we got all this technology I was like, this is problematic, but good intention.  

I was [with a youth group]… and so we get to go into the command center of CMPD [Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department]. You see all of the screen of all of the cameras and a couple of people that are monitoring… but just the audacity to be like, “Here come in. Let ushow you how we keep your city safe... How are we surveilling your community. How here’s this ‘See something, say something.’” Who made that up? Because I think that people of color, poor people did not make that up… So just thinking about the cultural ways in which folks push surveillance and that just becomes “It’s keeping us safe.” But.. homies still get shot. What’s different? You know? But I digress. 


Odessa Kelly: No, that’s, that’s a good point. I’m thinking back—it’s interesting now to understand how much we’re under surveillance. Even all the way just going and walking out high school, to the middle school. I went to predominantly all Black areas. The high school that I went to? There’s cameras everywhere. At one point, they were talking about putting in the metal detectors and all this stuff. And just, depending on who you talk to… I got a cousin now. She like, “Fuck Defund the police.” Because of the trauma we experienced. It’s a real thing coming up in the ‘hood. That’s because we all know the craziness that can happen. The system is doing well. She’d love for there to be, you know, metal detectors in there in the school, because there were instances that popped off all the time. [It’s like] my mom would say, “Well, if you ain’t doing nothing wrong, you won’t mind the camera.”  


Blu: Oh, gotta be.  


Odessa Kelly: Yeah, not understanding that we’re literally building the systems, that those things—that creates the behaviors… even act in an animalistic way to break all of that.  


That has been difficult to deal with. How do you want there [to be] balance? They want their peace of mind. Reimagining community safety? I completely get it. I am understanding how that happens. But trying to get the greater public of our communities to understand that… it’s hard.  


It just really is. And it’s, and there’s like, a generational difference in it. Some of the groups out here who one hundred percent push the protection of our communities and are leading the defund-the-police charge and all those things. I’m on board with you. I’m saying is that it can’t be the eight of y’all. You need to go talk to the mass population, to the Black communities. There are 220,000 Black people in Nashville. Yeah. Like, you got to talk to them, and you just can’t talk to anyone under twenty-five. You’re going to have to have hard conversations with individuals who have been harmed in some type of way and feel as though that that is their line of protection.  


Blu: Yeah, I agree. Right, because some folks, because we have to change the way we, like, have autonomy under surveillance, under data collection under capitalism, right? Like the racialized impacts of how we survive and thrive, right? And so, like, as Black poor working class, folks, we are the ones changing our behavior, right? That’s not actually in alignmentand may not be in alignment with what we want to do, right? How we want to self determine, but we now have to account for all of these things in order to keep us so ourselves safe first, right. We experience the side effects of these things but we’re not able to name the actual causes of it right. So people want cops because somebody’s gonna rob me, right? And it’s like, he ain’t robing you cuz he like he ain’t robbing you because he woke up today was like, I’m bored as hell and I just want to rob somebody where he probably robbing you because he needs you to survive because he ain’t got no money ain’t got no money ‘cause he Black, and we live in under racial capitalism, right?  

Like, what is actually capitalism? Right? Like, how does it affect us? And also like, people will be like, I don’t want socialism. Socialism is bad. I’m like, “But you want Medicare for all? Yeah. “Free education? You want to be able to eat. You want this stimulus check? Those are socialist programs! So, what you said around the hard conversations we have to have, especially around community safety, really resonates. “Maybe we’re not getting rid of the police today. Right? Start there. “But when you think about safety in a community, what do you dream of? Like? Do you dream of police offices like patrolling you and showing up? Do you think you just want to walk out your house and eat some fresh fruit? How do we get folks to a dreaming state when we’re constantly in survival?  


Odessa Kelly: Yeah, that’s the reason why I bought it up, right? Because I think it’s into the surveillance conversation. You know… I feel like… [it] ain’t about having moral victories anymore. It’s like the example you gave. The camera went up, but something different still shot. It’s the same thing. Like we have all these moral victories. But we still broke. Right? …I’m all about having a tangible win—something that we can move off of. And so a lot of times with some of the activists here in Nashville who push the surveillance conversation or the Defund the Police—I got no problem with it. Just be succinct with what you’re talking about, and how we move through it. Otherwise we’re not gonna get anything to happen.  


So that brings us to what’s going on now… [The city has] a novel bill that they tried to introduce, or they tried to introduce in Nashville: a license plate reader bill on mobile units in Antioch, West Charlotte, Nashville. Historically [this] was most predominantly a Black community in Nashville, and it probably still is by a small percentile. But damn near 80% of the community rents. That’s how gentrification gets exacerbated, right? Because we don’t own, majority Black Nashville is in Antioch now. Alright they moved us out of the city with 10 minutes out… Why do you want to have this in Antioch? The reason is they want to deter drag racing. No precedents of how this is going to deter drag racing. But it’s like every time we need something as a community…If our community is a food desert, and we want grocery stores, what do we get? Policing. Surveillance. We need housing. We need places to live. And all this gentrification. What do we get? Policing and surveillance in some type of way is woven into whatever the solution is. We want safer streets? What we get? Police and surveillance.  


And this goes back to… we want to reimagine our communities. And it’s hard because the sponsor of this bill—the councilperson in the district—is an African-American female. So that goes back to the conversation. She thinks that she is being a councilperson by adhering to the needs of her constituents. You know, there’s a working middle class community in Antioch. All of us, mostly TSU [Tennessee State University], Vandy [Vanderbilt University] grads… we are here working every day? You secure the home with whatever got kid. What… what are we supposed to do? Right? And wherever that is Black—don’t matter what your class is—poor. You know, we might have a little bougie, affluent part of our community, but we within the confines of each other. 


So what happens is, is that as that class has grown, because you got five HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] here, right? How we do? We don’t really go out and robbing white communities. We rob within our own communities. Well, people in Antioch… Black homeowners think that this is rampant because of the lack of police presence, right? Because in our own mind over 400 years of trauma, we think we know that Black people are so you know, subconsciously afraid of, you know, white people or the police. So in reaction, that’s what they asked for. So that is what she’s asked for. And she’s the one sponsoring this bill.  


So it becomes very hard when you have activists who are like, man, this is gonna be a surveillance issue. But a council woman in one of the largest, predominantly black communities in Nashville, feels as though she’s going to add here to what her constituents want. I keep trying to tell people: “There’s certain conversations that we got to have within our own communities and do a bunch of popular education, before we can really move hard on this otherwise.”  That’s just one of the through lines that I always want to talk about. Surveillance and what it looks like to really what, build, and heal our communities. You know? There’s a lot of tough conversations that have to happen.  


And the conversations around privacy, right, and access to privacy within surveillance is a class thing. Because if you can make sure you pay your license plate registration all the time, if your license never lapsed, if you got insurance all the time, you’ll never have to worry about it, then that’s a class issue. Like, their responses gonna be like, “Well, people should pay their registration if you ain’t got nothing to hide.” But people use that to move warrants. 


So how do we bridge the political education gap? Or… popular ed to allow folks who see themselves inside of it? Really bringing it down to experiences that allows them to see themselves inside of the issue. So, not be like, “In case your registration, ain’t you in renew your registration?” No! We got to bring this home—like, “Whenever your brother, your cousin is driving your car? Yeah, you know, and just havin’ the police reader brings up yo’ thing… and you look like a light skinned woman… all of this history pulls up.” 


Class in Black communities has made the definition of community a lot harder, because so many of us think that—that’s them and not us. And don’t matter to me.  


I’m really pushing the conversation of surveillance into, like, have everyone on one accord on how we break that. It is ridiculous how much money is made off of surveilling black people, all the way to the lending power of certain banks. And hedge funds come off of the ground. Money’s made off of being bad landlords and tenants in Section 8 public housing for those who are low income, and selling the surveillance after that, to even like AWS services and all these different platforms…  


It’s funny, because I was thinking, 2020—just crazy year, as far as if we’re in this work. What we thought was going to be a slow down exacerbated the work that we do. And the scarcity of resources for Black organizing? It puts us always against each other… And going into 2021 I just thought: how many petty-ass fights arguments did I have with groups, when we should be working together like we all want the same thing? Moving forward, that is going to be a lot of my effort. We are here fighting each other over, semantics of how something looks. And that’ll be interesting as we go forward, because I do have all the tools to build the popular education piece that needs to be put together for a lot of our actors who are passionate about really pushing and pushing that front, you know, to our communities, so or for that we’re really looking to ramp up on surveillance on all ends of it, and how it looks in our communities.  


Blu: And what is a typical surveillance encounter that someone in your community has experienced? What is it typical day in the life of civilians at home? On the streets? Or work at school?  


Odessa Kelly: It depends on what community you’re in. You know, so it is overwhelmingly obvious in what we are predominantly Black communities. I would say typical individual if you live in public housing, under surveillance twenty-four-seven, [you] might even recognize it damn surveillance twenty-four-seven, because that’s all you know?   


I would say outside of that, for African Americans, I would say it is the stores. Go into grocery stores or into the banks or those other type of places. And if you’re driving through affluent neighborhoods, you definitely get caught on like the street cameras. I will say that is probably that I know of our those are probably the most common ways of how surveillance happens here in the city.  


Blu: Who have you organized? Are? Are you organized against? Can you tell me a story about what has that entailed?  


Odessa Kelly: We’re in our first organizing campaign with this dealing with surveillance, and this deal with Amazon. We have just selected our new police chief here in Nashville, literally last week. John Drake is an African American individual. It’s been on for us almost 30 years. And he’s been just as complicit, you know, in the oppression of Black people as any other, you know, former chief or so. So with that, he has been reaching out adamantly to stakeholders and community leaders about trying to build some goodwill and PR for himself as he’s taking this position. And one of the things that we found that we wanted to push is that he would commit to not using [Amazon] Ring or any other type of surveillance, you know, for NPD [Nashville Police Department]. He did publicly commit to meeting with me about that after the Christmas break, so we’re hoping that we can make some strides there. You know, we’ve had two unarmed Black men die. One in 2015-16 and 2017, you know, and part of that too, in a way, was surveillance in how they even got, you know, in a situation with police. There’s been a lot of conversation around it here in Nashville. So we’re hoping that we can push on that front. As far as the people that we have been able to organize.  


We know it’s hard. We’re still in the middle of trying to do that we do the work that we do, which is worker rights and workers sustainability. We’ve talked about surveillance throughout the warehouses and what that looks like in the issue. 


Oh, that’s one thing I forgot to talk about is undocumented people who are here in the city of Nashville. The trauma they go through with surveillance is ridiculous, where [surveillance] is woven into their work. A lot of my Amazon warehouses or other entities like that. A lot of the food poultry places here in the South that attracts a lot of undocumented workers… I’m trying to give them the connection of surveillance from that into your homes, and what it looks like when you buy a Ring and all those things. It has been hard because, again, it’s two different classes of people. You know, those who come to our worker organizing meetings are… not thinking about surveillance from Ring and what that looks like, or having any police technologists thinking about it from a worker standpoint.  


So we’ve been thinking about how do we really bridge the breach between those two… So we have literally taken what is the best approach, and that is building a toolbox. And in the toolbox, we’ve just literally gone out to what we usually do: we hit churches. If you’re in the Black, if you’re in the South, and you’re not hitting churches, then like, what do you you know? Rethink about how you organize it. So we tried to hit up a lot of the churches, just to make them aware of what surveillance is and how it is happening, you know, and we did, we’ve done that for 10 weeks now. So when we’ve come out with this public conversation op ed about challenging our new police chief on not contracting with Ring or Vigilant–the company that is trying to give the police [license plate] readers… they given the equipment for free!  


Blu: Oh, yeah?  


Odessa Kelly: It’s like this odd thing where these—do y’all call ’em P3’s? Public private partnerships. We have these private entities that we let come in, which means that there’s no accountability. There’s no public due process for us, because it’s a privatized company that is doing work on behalf of our government as a public service, a good. So that is always problematic. But when we came up with the public statement of that, people understood what we were pushing for… We’re also working at it from a grass tops level and deterring any public policy that will allow a loophole for that [more surveillance] to happen.  


People have been able to actually understand what you’re talking about and rally behind y’all?  


Odessa Kelly: Yeah, and the weakness in there, too, is there’s another group that we try to organize typically: elected officials? …[If] you’re going to defund the police, you gotta talk to the people and make some type of connection with the people who can actually execute the will of the people. You know you can’t just write them off… disregard them. We’ve tried to step into that space as well. Unfortunately, I have a lot of conversations with people I do not care for. And I think that’s because I have a responsibility to my community to make tangible things happen. So the base that we organize is elected officials. There’s power in knowing that we represent 40,000 voting people…  


Blu: Voting record is 99% talking about it.  


Odessa Kelly: Like that is the language gap… you have to understand this will elect officials here… Yeah. So we try to organize them, and move them, you know, in a way that is more progressive. And it’s worked well. We have people in office who were from a progressive base.  


Now, it’s just the education part, because a lot of them do things out of sheer ignornace. Blu, they literally have no idea what they’re doing. So part of surveillance education in Nashville is literally breaking the bad habits… A lot of our elected officials… [are] allowing resolutions to get dropped off to you twenty-four hours before your council meeting. And you supposed to have your first read on it! It’s ridiculous. Say that you have to have at least 72 hours to get the information… if even want to have it introduced. You know, that gives you time, but you’re lazy-ass to read something, because nine times out of 10, you ain’t gonna? When I get it. They’re like, “I don’t have time to read this.” I’m like, “It’s 14 pages. You have a PhD!”  


Blu: Yeah. Yeah well, can I give you my resolution, and you will not read it and vote to pass it? Because that will not happen.  


Odessa Kelly: Right? You know, but a part of this is like getting them to understand like, saying “I didn’t know anymore” is unacceptable. Like we’re gonna hold you accountable. Like having the knowledge of knowing this, you know, what this means. And what all it entails before you even vote on it.  


Oh, that’s the base that we’ve been organizing.  


Blu: Yeah The last question. If you had a song to describe the vision that your communities are working towards, what would that be? It could be already song, or you can make one, drop some lyrics. I can get your hot beat real quick if you need it. 


Odessa Kelly: Let me see. You know what? Our community is in an awakening stage? Not like it won’t ship. But seriously understanding the reality of the moves that we might have to make or do to really understand what liberation will look like, and how to get there. So I would say, This is America, by Childish Gambino is probably a good one, because we’re still in this state of shock. Everything is hitting us, and we’re actively trying to deal with how that trauma is coming out. And all these different ways and pipelines, and how to move that into one cohesive way and that we move right, which is hard. So that’s why I pick This is America. And part of the crux of that song was in the showing the insanity you go through as a Black man is trying to move forward in life.