by EJ Fox – @mrejfox
The Occupy Movement is the largest mass movement for social change since the 60s, and if it maintains momentum it may eclipse its predecessor in both brilliance and effect. But that’s only if we keep pushing. In retrospect, it’s as if the movement practically exploded out of New York in the fall, propelled by pictures of a vicious NYPD cop pepperspraying female protesters, foreshadowing scenes we would see reenacted all across America. I’d just moved to the Bay Area from New York to join a startup, and I remember telling my best friend about the news I’d read that some protesters had moved into a park to “Occupy Wall Street” – I was ecstatic, but disappointed as I’d just driven across the country.
“The revolution’s starting, but it’s all the way in fucking New York,” I said. I had no idea.
I was aware of and had passively participated in the activist community in New York for as long as I could remember. First as one of those kids you see marching along, on the shoulders or holding the hands of their parents. I have memories of marching through the streets of Manhattan to protest the about-to-begin invasion of Iraq, as New Yorkers waved out their windows and sat on their fire escapes cheering us on.
My first vivid memory of a protest was the Republican National Convention in New York the next year in 2004. The New York Times called it the biggest protest NYC had seen in decades. I was 12, but for the first time I was old enough and conscious enough to be pissed off about George Bush, and I had something of a purpose as a marcher. As I walked with my mom to meet up at Union Square where the march was starting, I convinced her to take me into a CVS and buy me 2 disposable cameras. People interact with each other so differently at a demonstration, and I couldn’t help but want to photograph it. I still can’t. Whether it be protester to protester interactions, offering me or each other food, water, or a sign to hold. Whether it be onlooker to protester, running the gamut of clapping support to attempting to grab protesters’ signs. At RNC 2004 I became aware of a conservative group that specialized in counter-protesting demonstrations called Protest Warrior. They did just that, ripping a sign from the hands of a protester who had infiltrated the convention floor and I remember feeling the anger around that story. For me, most interesting were the interactions with the cops, which I was for the most part kept far away from. But I was hooked.
RNC 2004 was also the first occurrence I can remember of a coordinated online attack in conjunction with a massively organized demonstration, as hacktivists organized an “electronic sit-in” against GOP websites in a foreshadowing of the role Anonymous would later play in the Occupy movement. A release from hacktivists discussed software called “FloodNet”, a predecessor to software Anonymous uses to coordinate DDoS attacks. Called the Low-Orbit Ion Cannon it’s been used to temporarily disable a wide variety of targets, including websites of the Department of Justice, RIAA, MPAA, and MasterCard, among others. The activist language of an “electronic sit-in” and “electronic disobedience” may have been shed, but the culture that built Anonymous was always been tied, however loosely, to the spirit of progressive activism.
I talk about RNC 2004 because there are a lot of lessons Occupy can learn from it, as it appears that both protesters and police are working and modifying pages from the playbook used in New York in 2004. One of the first protests in memory, two years before Twitter, where a massive txt-messaging network among protesters allowed quick effective response to emerging situations with police. Seems familiar.
RNC 2004, like RNC 08, was famously marked by pre-emptive arrests made in this case by NYPD. These arrests, meant to keep potential state-labeled “troublemakers” locked up until after the actions were over were a key part of police repression. These tactics of pre-emptive attacks, and their chilling effects on the exercise of free speech are once again being employed across the country. However we are seeing them most viciously used in Oakland as Occupiers prepare for a spring resurgence, and importantly, May 1st. We are seeing similar arrests in New York and I have no doubt we will begin to see them elsewhere.
Time and time again, I have seen first-hand folks in Oakland be extremely vocal in their convictions, whether that’s by consistently showing up to actions, inspiring others, being the loudest voice in the crowd, or standing up to aggressive cops. Time and time again, I’ve felt worried for these people. Not because they were doing anything illegal, but because I feared their persistence would make them a target of the powers that be. I feared that they would find themselves in the infamous Oakland Photobook used for targeted arrests of key occupiers (a particularly chilling piece of- no doubt- intentional psychological warfare on the part of the Oakland Police Department). Now, too many of these people who I’ve marched shoulder-to-shoulder with and worried about are now in jail, some charged with felonies. (Side note: It’s important to understand this official OPD press release is less than truthful to the facts of the incident, but that didn’t stop it from being regurgitated by countless media outlets as if they had done some independent research.)
Other protesters, like my best friend, arrested but not charged, were told charges could be filed at any time over the next year, and occupiers have even had charges brought against them and warrants issued without ever being notified. Others, arrested but not convicted, are saddled with unconstitutional stay-away orders that bar them from a 300-yard perimeter around City Hall in downtown Oakland. A stay-away order like that would cripple me, as I use the 12th St. BART station to get home and walk by City Hall every day- and these orders are given without regard to whether the crime has anything to do with the location the stay-away is granted for. Many protesters arrested on January 28th, near the Kaiser Convention Center, have had their right to organize slashed with stay-away orders barring them from Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza, a base of Occupy Oakland, despite the fact the plaza has no relation to the crimes they allegedly committed. A clear pattern of police intimidation is becoming increasingly blatant- while internal debates rage as to whether diversity of tactics is responsible for smaller numbers.
It’s in this atmosphere of police repression that I was shocked to hear the news that Anonymous icon and hacktivist Sabu was in fact informing for the FBI - though, now that I knew, in my mind it made sense. The spirit of hacker chat rooms is always thick with near-comic paranoia about the presence of FBI watchers or informants. The truth is that hackers are often times using military-grade encryption and identity-hiding software like TOR. The best are more advanced, or at least technically equal to the power and skill of the FBI or powerful corporation. The real way to take down hackers is through provocateurs or informants, and Sabu was both. The FBI was striking back at Anonymous, just as the police were striking back at occupiers.
As I read the news of the arrests, they were describing that hackers had been arrested in Ireland, and, wow, Chicago. A hacker I’d known, who dare-I-say helped to shape my hacktivist views, who I’d met at protests in DC and even at RNC 04, lived in Chicago. It’d been a while since we talked. I wondered. I told myself it couldn’t be and clicked the link.
Last I’d heard of him he’d been sentenced to 24 months in prison for hacking the website of that conservative group ProtestWarrior (remember them?) with the intention of using the credit card numbers of members to donate to hacktivist and progressive causes. He was only discovered and arrested because of, once again, an FBI informant in a close circle of hackers aware of the action. Jeremy shaped how I view the role of computers and electronic disobedience in a grander box of tools in the fight for social justice, and I owe to him helping to light and keep lit a spark in me that believes computers will help to level the playing field between the people and the corrupt capitalist machine we live in. His arrest is a reminder that security culture is crucial, that our paranoia about infiltrators and FBI observation and disruption are not always unfounded, we must be more cautious.
If we do not learn the lessons of our mistakes prior, we are doomed to repeat them. If we do not identify the tactics of our oppressors and adapt, they will continue to use their dull, slow, and dimwitted brute force to stomp down on us with all the elegance expected of pigs.
When Occupy Oakland first sprouted in Frank Ogawa Plaza I was overjoyed. Like a dream come true, there were people in the park just like me, who were listening and agreeing with what people in New York were saying. But I wasn’t totally pleased; I didn’t understand enough about Oakland. What were THEY occupying? I regret to say this, but it seemed like a big party to me. I didn’t see how incredible the encampment was, people hanging around and talking hopefully about the future, feeding each other. I loved it, but only like one enjoys a sip of water when it is so easy to come by. But now I have a heavy, unquenched thirst for it— one I believe I share with many others. I am willing to fight to quench it.
The powers that be have made it clear they are going to go above and beyond the call of their office to stomp out this new movement for social and economic equality. That means we have to go above and beyond just to break even— and I believe we can. I don’t think they understand that every attempt they make to silence us just fans the flame in our hearts to make things right. Every arrest, beating, kettling inspires more people across the country to put on their boots and join us in the street.