Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz, the programmer and Internet activist whose crusade for “Guerilla Open Access” to information allegedly led him to bypass network security at MIT and download millions of articles from the academic database JSTOR. At the time of his death by suicide at age 26, Swartz was facing 35 years in prison for various illicit acts carried out in the name of “opposing the privatization of knowledge,” a call he made in a 2008 manifesto.
February 11, 2013, was also “The Day We Fight Back.” We represents a “broad coalition of activist groups, companies, and online platforms,” according to a press release on the movement’s website, fighting back against NSA surveillance of private citizens, celebrating the defeat of the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) last January, and mourning the loss of a visionary. The protest was initiated by a coalition of organizations fighting for free speech, fair use, privacy, and transparency on the Internet, led by Demand Progress, an internet activist organization founded by Swartz and now led by Rhode Island’s former Democratic State Representative David Segal.
“The Day We Fight Back” compels Internet users, by clicking on banner ads, to call or email their Congressional representatives asking for stricter regulation of NSA surveillance. It enlisted over 6,000 websites to install graphics publicizing the movement. It provides Facebook profile and cover photos to help spread the word. It has, in other words, the basic scaffolding of an armchair Internet organizing movement—a far cry from the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto of Swartz, its would-be spiritual forebear.
Rooted in a few clicks per adherent, what can such a movement amount to? “The Day We Fight Back” is part of a long tradition. What, if anything, has changed?
The first of May, 1890, was not your average Labor Day picnic. (For one thing, it was not in September). But it was the first International Workers’ Day, which has in the years since become the day to honor the labor movement and mobilize around concerns plaguing workers of one country or internationally.
Perhaps the disastrous effects on the labor movement of the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Square demonstration in Chicago pointed to a need for better organization. The Haymarket rally was the continuation of a union strike for the eight-hour workday, which had begun on May 1 across the country. When an unidentified individual (presumed to be part of a group of anarchists) detonated a bomb during the rally, a riot broke out. Seven officers and at least four workers were killed. Fear of unions and Communism and an outpouring of community support for the police ensued.
Over the next four years, the international workers’ and Socialist organizations regrouped. The first Congress of the Second International in 1889 called for a May 1, 1890 general strike around the world—the first May Day celebrated as a holiday for the working classes, as well as a recognition of the Haymarket Square massacre. By the mid-20th century, it was an institution—International Workers’ Day is officially celebrated on May 1 in 80 countries.
MOUVEMENT DU 22 MARS
The Mouvement du 22 Mars did not earn its date-based moniker until after the day in question—and that, in fact, may have been a gift.
On March 22, 1968, students at the University of Nanterre joined leftist militants, poets, and musicians to occupy university administrative buildings, calling for an end to class discrimination in the university system and student autonomy. By the end of the day, the police had surrounded the building and dispersed the students, who publicized their manifesto and called for a continued struggle. That led to ongoing clashes with police and university administrators, culminating in a series of nation-wide uprisings that May.
Focusing on the work of a single day may be empowering, but the fanfare may be self-defeating if it becomes all about the spectacle and the gathering and turns into more of a party than a protest. By holding off the self-congratulating ’til the day’s work was done, the organizers circumvented that risk. The movement didn’t identify with the name until the May uprisings caught hold and felt the need for an origin story. That lag time did not halt the self-congratulating itself, however, as a movement of 150 students, a few workers and artists came to claim an entire day and the whole cause of university reform.
BUY NOTHING DAY
Ted Dave first put up posters encouraging fellow citizens to reject the consumer impulse—by not shopping for 24 hours—in Vancouver in September 1992. Over subsequent years the event grew and was moved to coincide with the biggest consumer spectacle of the year—Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Since then, the movement has escalated. Adbusters now encourages such Black Friday activities as credit card cut-ups, zombie walks through malls, and ten-person phalanxes wielding empty shopping carts to wheel through stores, disrupting the (otherwise no doubt seamless) flow of consumptive traffic.
In 2014, Black Friday experienced its first shopping decline since 2009, the height of the economic recession. But don’t hail Ted Dave as a crusader finally finishing his war. With more stores open on Thanksgiving proper than ever before, and Walmart beginning its Black Friday sales at 6 PM Thursday—not to mention the ever-popular Internet, with the extra incentive of Cyber Monday three days later—the consumer impulse hasn’t so much been defeated for a day as become too powerful to concentrate on its once-native turf. As consumerism evolves, the corresponding protest has yet to show the same flexibility in countering it.
U.S. DAY OF RAGE
The iconic “very sexy poster,” as The Nation called it, was unveiled in Adbusters in mid-July, setting a date for the mysterious occupation. As September 17, 2011 grew closer, it took as its title “U.S. Day of Rage,” inspired by a Twitter account of the same name. With such a title, the day invited speculation about crowds of 20,000 protestors, comparisons to the Arab Spring uprisings, and—at least from libertarian news site The Blaze—fear of an uprising that would attempt to dismantle the stock market.
Just as the hype did not start on September 17, the movement didn’t end there. There was hope for a long time after—and there are still people who believe in the possibility of reorienting political power to the people. There were even other individual days where the 99 percent was called upon to rise up, such as October 15, a “global day of action.” Yet after that first day, the logistics and divides and realities, the question of whom should be represented and how, all set in.
Part of what differentiates the movement around “The Day We Fight Back” from earlier attempts at “democratic” grassroots mobilization is the big-name support it has gained from major NGOs (Amnesty International, the ACLU, Greenpeace) and tech giants. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL previously came together as Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition that lobbies the world’s governments to regulate against web surveillance. Google blogged about Tuesday’s events, and the company offered up its web freedom-oriented campaign platform Take Action to publicize the day.
Two years ago, another daylong protest laid the groundwork for February 11’s activities: a combined information blackout and protest of SOPA and its partner, PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act, in fact a much longer and scarier acronym), with similar broad-based web support. Wikipedia went black for a day on January 18, 2012. Google posted banner ads. Commentators who favored stricter intellectual property legislation railed against the idea of bias in sites intended to provide objective responses to searches; participating sites and protestors responded that the legislation posed a threat to all Internet access platforms and users, regardless of ideology.
Since then, tech moguls’ potential as allies has been called into question. Many of the largest companies supporting “The Day We Fight Back” have come under fire in the last year for providing users’ information directly to PRISM, a NSA surveillance project founded in 2007. Since that project became public in June, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk have faced a rocky relationship with their users, who grew wary of giving out new information. It seems, with their recent outspoken views on web security, they grew tired of the negative press. For the organizers of “The Day We Fight Back,” the motive behind making the movement digital was to attract the “politically aware, slightly more technical community” of Silicon Valley—not exactly the hackers and anarchists who idealized Aaron Swartz.
So what makes a movement think itself capable of speaking for all? Swartz, in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, felt that a small, elite cadre was hoarding a shared cultural heritage. For those who claim to be honoring him, it is the belief that the only way of stopping an omnipotent and omnipresent power is with cohesion—even if it means making a deal with certain members of that very same elite.
EMMA WOHL B’14 disrupts the flow.