Naeem — Textual Healing

Topic(s): Activism | Comments Off on Naeem — Textual Healing

Compliments of Shobak
Textual Healing
By Jeremy Scahill,
AlterNet Posted on September 11, 2004,
The guerrilla musicians from the Infernal Noise Brigade were tuning their
instruments, preparing to lead an unannounced, un-permitted march from Union Square to Madison Square Garden. Independent journalists from the Indymedia Center were putting fresh cassettes in their video cameras. An activist was instructing people to line up two-by-two in a straight line because “that way the police don’t have a legal right to stop us when we march.” The cops were mulling about waiting for whatever would come.
Then, Union Square started beeping with a symphony of cell phone text
message alerts. It was like the activist version of that scene in the awful
Tom Clancy movie “The Sum of All Fears” when the mobile phones of all of the
CIA and White House honchos start ringing during a presidential dinner
party. “From comms-dispatch,” read the message. “Reports of police using
orange mesh fencing to surround protesters at Herald Square. Riot cops
moving in. Cameras, medics and legal observers needed.”
Throughout the week in New York, independent journalists and activist groups
used text-messaging technology to coordinate an impressive, groundbreaking
campaign of direct action and comprehensive news reporting. It was one of
the many creative, guerilla tactics employed by the decentralized resistance
movement in North America that grew out of the WTO protests in Seattle in
1999. In contrast to the multi-million dollar security budgets for the
Democratic and Republican conventions and at the recent FTAA meetings in
Miami, activists are using existing technology that is virtually cost free
to mobilize hundreds of actions and thousands of activists.
In addition to the various groups using SMS text messaging to send out
action alerts, warnings, news and announcements, the New York Independent
Media Center (IMC) set up an automated information line that activists could
call 24 hours a day to hear breaking news from Indymedia, a calendar of
events and to listen to a live streaming broadcast from the A-noise radio
collective, which was broadcasting live reports from the streets. At
protests past, the work of Indymedia was primarily available to people at
home. In New York, it went mobile. And it was a huge success.”Our task is to
help facilitate horizontal communication and information distribution to all
the activists in the streets,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, the Indymedia tech
activist who developed the info-line concept. “The police want to keep the
protests under control and stay a step ahead of the protesters. So, all of
this communications infrastructure helps on a tactical level. We’ve
appropriated technology as an essential tool for radical social change.”
He points to a moment during Sunday’s mass protest when the “Thousand Coffin March” needed 60 more people and, through text messaging and the information line, they were able to rapidly deploy the needed people. “When there is a blockade or arrests, activists know where to go or how to avoid arrest,” he said. “All of this helps make the protest more effective.””It was a last minute project, which showed how using free software and about $10, we could create quality phone based information systems,” said Henshaw-Plath.The
project grew out of a concept developed by Aspiration Tech of San Francisco
a few weeks before the RNC. It was based on a software package called
Asterisk, which takes information from the web and converts it to speech to
provide it to mobile phones.
“We were looking into applications for non-profits and activist
organizations to use VOIP and internet telephony in relation to their work
and the upcoming presidential elections,” says Henshaw-Plath. “After getting
the system setup, a casual conversation lead to the topic of ‘wouldn’t it be
cool to do something like this for the RNC protests next week?'”
Henshaw-Plath says that despite almost no publicity, the service received
more than 2000 calls over a 4-day period.The SMS text messaging was
coordinated primarily by using a free service from a website called
txtmob.com. Users could create a personal account free of charge and sign up
for groups similar to e-mail list serves. Some of them were unmoderated and
had unreliable information. But others, like the ones operated by
nyc.indymedia.org and the NY Comms collective, were moderated, accurate and
effective.”There is this ongoing problem of lack of media coverage of
protest activity, particularly in the United States,” says the founder of
TXTMob.com who goes by the nom de guerre of John Henry. “Text messaging
becomes another tool in the activist arsenal, a way of representing their
actions to the outside world in a direct manner, rather than being dependent
upon establishment mass media to tell their story for them.”
TXTMob launched two days before the Democratic National Convention in
Boston. Its overhead cost was the donated labor of Henry and others from the
Institute for Applied Autonomy, an art and engineering collective that
develops technologies for political dissent. In Boston, 200 people
subscribed to the service. In New York, there were more than 5500; a number
that far exceeded Henry’s expectations.”Having this kind of communication
infrastructure allows much more spontaneous, fluid kinds of actions that can
be taken in response to real time events,” says Henry. “It maintains the
element of surprise, which ultimately makes them more effective.”A perfect
example of this was on Sunday when the Mouse Bloc staged a series of
spontaneous street theater protests in Times Square. During the RNC,
Republican delegates had been offered discounts to Broadway shows ahead of
the week’s activities. For hours, the police chased activists around as they
confronted delegates coming out of the theaters. When the cops would shut
down one action, text messages alerted the activists to the next target.
Police undoubtedly received the text messages along with the activists, but
the spontaneity forced the police to engage in a cat and mouse game with the
While the corporate media largely ignored the protests, there was one outlet
where people could turn 24 hours a day for the most up-to-date,
comprehensive coverage available anywhere. The New York City Independent
Media Center website featured multimedia reporting and streaming radio
broadcasts, legal updates and multiple calendars of events during the RNC.
It also produced a one-hour TV show each night that was broadcast live on
satellite television and community TV stations nationwide.”
We simply took the best lessons of past IMC convergences and built on them,
focusing on systems that would facilitate multiple points of information
dissemination,” says Ana Nogueira, one of the founders of the NYC IMC.”We’re
journalists,” says Indymedia activist Josh Breitbart who also works for
Clamor Magazine. “It’s only by being that plugged in that we were able to
break all the stories that we did.”All of this was coordinated out of a
large, donated space in lower Manhattan, which provided a newsroom for
hundreds of journalists to work from during the weeklong protests. The total
cost of the coverage was less than $50,000.”Compare this to the
multi-million dollar budgets of corporate outlets like the broadcast
networks who often can’t even get their facts straight,” says Arun Gupta, an
editor of the NYC IMC newspaper The Indypendent. “We also play a unique
legal role, gathering and compiling video footage that is used by lawyers in
defending people.”
In the midst of creative tech wizards and various innovative tactics,
Indymedia also produced an artifact from the days of old: an actual
newspaper. The NYC IMC produced three special issues of The Indypendent in
less than 2 weeks, one of them during the RNC. The writing was solid, the
reporting was creative and its distribution was incredible. The first
edition alone had a print run of 200,000, the largest distribution in
decades for an independent publication produced for a protest.But the big
story in New York was the dissemination of tactical, real-time information,
like the text messaging.The SMS messages alerted activists of routes that
remained open to travel to protests outside Madison Square Garden, as the
police blocked off large sections of the city. It alerted Indymedia
journalists of where cameras were needed to document protests, legal
observers of real-time rights violations and activist medic teams of where
people were in need of medical attention.
But with the real time updates for activists comes a conundrum: if anyone
can utilize the service, wouldn’t that mean that law enforcement could use
it against the demonstrators or to shut down direct actions
preemptively?”The big question in my mind is whether our breaking news
reporting is more useful for us or for the police,” says Breitbart. “The
police were relying on our website for updates on the protests. The group
that probably made most immediate use of the information was the NYPD.”
Breitbart estimates that Indymedia had as many as 250 journalist/activists
on the streets phoning in updates throughout the protests, far less than the
NYPD. Additionally, the police had a surveillance blimp, helicopters, video
cameras and 200 police officers with helmet cameras capable of live
streaming video back to a central headquarters.
According to The New York Times, the security buildup for the RNC
represented the largest group of police and military forces ever assembled
to provide security at a national political gathering. Just blocks from the
IMC was the Multi-Agency Command Center, or MACC, the security “nerve
center,” out of which some 66 separate city, state and federal agencies
worked during the RNC. Among them, the 37,000-member NYPD, armed with a
security budget of $60 million dollars, which is larger than all but 19 of
the world’s standing armies. “But it’s not clear that they were able to
centralize and compile information as rapidly as could the Indymedia
network,” said Breitbart.
Despite the massive security budget, that’s probably true.The Times reported
that during the weeklong protests, the police were monitoring websites like
nyc.indymedia.org, “discovering this week that, in the course of a protest,
demonstrators were calling in reports to a message service that posted the
dispatches on the Web.” The police say that was especially helpful to the
work of units operating on mopeds, motorcycles and bikes. These “rapid
response” tactics by the police were labeled internally as the “Kelly
Doctrine,” after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. On Wednesday, an Indymedia
journalist posted the following report: “The Entire Scooter Goon Squad is
wrapped around Fifth and 48th reading INDYMEDIA from an internet phone
booth. Everyone should come by and bring your video cameras.”While the
activists don’t have a counter-intelligence program or a mole in the NYPD,
they do have their own surveillance operation. As the police monitored the
activists, the activists also monitored the police. They had their own
central command of sorts, equipped with a handheld police scanner and a
“trunk scanner” that is capable of listening in on police communications as
they switch among various frequencies. The $1500 hardware was donated to the
activists. ”
Monitoring the police scanners helps give you an overall sense of what’s
happening in the streets,” says one of the activists who operated the
scanners. “It was helpful in corroborating reports we were getting from the
field and determining when and where arrests were about to happen.”Despite
the police use of Indymedia to monitor protest activity, activists say it
was a significant step forward in tactical resistance. “It was historic,”
says IMC editor Gupta. “It shows how powerful a decentralized, de-funded
movement has become.””If we don’t do anything, then we have nothing,” says
Breitbart. “The police still have their Intel. On a level playing field,
they’re still going to win, but it is incumbent on people to learn how to
use information in a larger way.”And authorities at the highest level of
government seem to be paying attention. Just as the week of protests was
kicking off, the Justice Department announced it had opened a criminal
investigation into the New York City Indymedia center.
The Department is demanding Indymedia’s internet service provider hand over
records regarding posts on the site that listed the names of Republican
delegates. The federal government is claiming the posting of the delegates’
names may constitute a form of voter intimidation. “The subpoena shows they
view us as a threat,” says Gupta. “It is McCarthyite, Nixonian political
harassment.”The hope on the part of many who organized the Indymedia
operation in New York is that activists will apply the tactics and
technology more broadly in future protests. ”
Frankly, Indymedia has evolved faster than the protest movement,” says
Breitbart. “The next step is for people to learn how to use the information
effectively.”Still, Gupta says, “Technology can’t substitute for good
organizing.” © 2004 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved. View
this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/19845/