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Just over a year ago, an almost simultaneous set of police raids shut down protest encampments associated with the “Occupy” movement across the United States. At the time speculation raged about behind-the-scenes coordination, but very little substantial evidence had come forward to back up the accusations. Then, just before Christmas, as if as a gift, we suddenly got a glimpse inside the workings of this insidious machine.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, an American civil rights group, released documents they just obtained through the Freedom of Information Act detailing the official response to Occupy Wall Street. These documents, which they’ve provided online, detail hostile and coordinated efforts to portray the movement as a “criminal and terrorist threat” beginning a month before the encampment itself. In a linked effort by the FBI, Homeland Security, police forces, regional “fusion centres” and private security, sometimes united into a single entity: the Domestic Security Alliance Council. The activities of this shadowy alliance included surveillance, meeting with financial industry and school officials and even planning the evictions. One (heavily redacted) page even describes a plot to kill protest leaders with snipers, “if deemed necessary”, though it gives few other details.
As the Guardian’s Naomi Wolfe states, this has reached Orwellian levels. The amount of tracking, surveillance and straight-up brutality involved evokes memories of the Red Scares, Palmer Raids and COINTELPRO. Given how heavily censored these releases are, everyone’s simply using the term “tip of the iceberg”, leaving open the question of how far this conspiracy (yes, conspiracy) actually went.
It’s hard to say whether these evictions were the definite cause of the movement’s eventual decline, but they certainly marked an important turning point. The loss of a physical presence in urban cores was a crushing blow, and not one which could be replaced though a presence online or in the media. What followed was months of decline marked by (now legendary) levels of interpersonal squabbling. Only time and further disclosures will tell if these squabbes, too, were engineered from above (like so many in the COINTELPRO era).
What does this mean for activists, organizers, and anybody who might someday become one?
First, it shows clearly that the government response to political mobilizations is primarily ideological. Occupy was labeled “criminal” and “terrorist” long before any actions took place, to say nothing of actual “crime” or “violence”. Contrast this with any number of white supremacist, pro-life or anti-immigrant groups who not only advocate violence but also actually kill people and bomb things on a regular basis, and the focus becomes pretty clear. Brutal violence against marginalized groups doesn’t threaten the establishment (if done right, it re-enforces it). Legal, nonviolent protest directed against dominant groups, on the other hand, does.
We will never be polite, well-behaved or “nonviolent” enough to avoid these risks. Attempting to be only sets a rising standard of absolutely perfect behavior from demonstrators which ultimately makes it easier to justify attacks on peaceful crowds. No matter how we present it, any serious public discussion of liberation is going to threaten those in power, especially if it “gets popular”. Blaming the victims only pits us against each other and prevents an objective discussion of practical safety precautions.
Second, it makes an important cautionary point about surveillance and security. Long before things “turn ugly” (if they ever do), police and their allies are on the scene. They may claim to be there “for our safety”, to direct traffic to deal with “troublemakers”, but those are only secondary goals. Their primary goal is to film, record and write down every bit of data they can find about those involved, especially the “leaders”, often with the help of naive participants. The information they gather never goes away, and it almost always comes back to haunt people no matter how “peaceful” the campaign. The only way to reduce these risks is to make basic precautions a part of all activism, not just the actions we consider “risky”.
The third and (arguably) most important point is one about “paranoia”. If these documents show anything, it’s that there’s nothing irrational about being wary or cautious of undercover agents and big government conspiracies. I’ve involved with protests for over a decade now, and in that time I’ve seen things I would never have believed existed outside Communist China. “Snatch squads”, agent provocateurs, snipers, beatings and worse. These aren’t just anecdotes, either – they’re verified. Every time protesters are put on trial the state is forced to hand over stacks of “court disclosure” to their legal teams, usually confirming our worst fears and then some. Given that my own name has turned up in trail documents after protests I never so much as passed on a flier for, I always smile a bit on the inside when people tell me I’m being “paranoid”.
Take it from someone who’s had a (very tiny) glimpse – there are few, if any, limits to how far these people will go to keep their wealth and power. If people want to talk about paranoia and “conspiracy theories”, how about we start with a look at the conspiracy charges which are so regularly used against protesters? What’s so interesting in these cases isn’t just what the state does, but the justifications it gives. Always, there’s a presumed threat that protesters are right on the verge of an IRA-style insurrection. There’s always a hidden “arms cache” behind the peaceful blockade, rioters hidden in the march and mad bombers working away in the shadows. For all the threats though, and excepting certain entrapment plots, it’s been a decade or two since any attack of the sort in Canada or America, at least from the likes of Occupy.
These fictitious threats aren’t just symptoms of a hostile and militaristic bureaucracy, they’re an important part of how it works. From self-styled “terrorism experts” to the CIA and top Pentagon brass, far too many are now being paid directly in relation to how dire a terrorist threat they dream up. In many ways (as we saw with the Iraq’s “WMDs”), it becomes like theatre. On the domestic front, these efforts serve not only to promote big budgets for police and other security forces, but also to demonize protesters, the poor, immigrants, natives, people of colour or others while demonstrating a “need” for those who oppress them. Like the divorce lawyer who won’t stop egging you on, it’s a sales pitch and we’d be wise to recognize it as such.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a tale of bureaucrats and cops wasting money on commando gear. Real people are involved, and the consequences for them, their families and communities can be devastating. I’ve seen people followed home by private security consultants, snipers on rooftops, agent provocateurs, even the occasional Kafka-esque arrests and incarceration…and that’s just in Hamilton.
Take it from someone who’s spent a lot of time supporting a lot of friends in a lot of courtrooms – this shit gets real. Nothing makes you look guilty like being the focus of an investigation, no matter how little they find. Binders of pictures and days of recordings show you’re clearly a person of interest. If they cannot find the protesters responsible for a crime, they will arrest the first bunch within arm’s reach. If there are no “leaders”, they will appoint some. If nobody commits any “crime” or “violence”, some will be invented, inferred, or blown entirely out of proportion (like chalking). If you’re poor, you’ll find yourself in criminal court. If you’re wealthier, they’ll launch a lawsuit large enough threaten your home. You’ll probably win at trial, but not before a hellish year or two of bail conditions, legal fees and sleepless nights. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen this happen. Don’t just let it happen to you.
Looking back on my time in early local Occupy assemblies, I was often “that guy” who wouldn’t stop bringing this stuff up. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried harder. I’m sorry to say, if you were publicly associated with Occupy in any way, you’re likely now lists which may never see the light of day. If Occupy suffered more than most, it wasn’t because people were too radical or hostile with police, but too friendly. Everywhere there was a prevailing attitude that “the cops are on our side” and “you only have something to fear if you’re doing something wrong”. Some were even accused of being terrorists or infiltrators for suggesting otherwise. Many seasoned veterans just walked away. This wasn’t just a local issue, it came up almost everywhere, but perhaps not often enough.
In this case, the state didn’t just “take a side”, it launched a counter-insurgency campaign. From the outset, it saw the danger – and open, public critique of the economy backed by a mass, in-the-streets movement. In that instant, things like “free speech” and “public discourse” ceased to matter – it was war, and they couldn’t afford to wait and see how things played out.
The worst possible lesson to take from all this would be to stay home. If we do that, they win by default. Worse yet, we prove that these tactics work, ensuring they’ll be used again the next time people take to the streets. This kind of response from authorities shows we’re doing something right. Nobody suggested that changing the world would be safe or easy, but neither, obviously, is the alternative.
A nearly decade-long battle over Tommy Douglas’ intelligence files is now being taken to the Supreme Court. The files, from the old RCMP Security Service, detail surveillance on the socialist leader from the 1930s into the 80s. Jim Bronskill, a reporter, first requested them in 2005, but received only 400 heavily-censored pages from over a thousand. He’s arguing that Libraries and Archives Canada has a duty to preserve and share important historical documents. CSIS, which replaced the Security Service, is arguing that “national security” is at stake and the files risk revealing “secrets of the spy trade”.
National Security? Really? Are they actually worried about spy “secrets” which pre-date WW2, from an intelligence agency which no longer exists? What’s in these files that wouldn’t be in warehouses of much-younger declassified Cold War/WWII texts, many of which are years or decades younger?
Bronskill has already taken this to the Federal Court, where he won, then the Federal Court of Appeals, where he lost. In the interim, a few hundred more pages have been released. They show decades of infiltration and eavesdropping which focused on everything from his support of the American Civil Rights movement to his opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. Tommy Douglas was hardly the only NDP/CCF politician to see this kind of scrutiny, either. Even Bob Rae, now Federal Liberal leader, was followed for decades. One has to wonder what our country would look like if they paid this much attention to mobbed-up construction companies and their political allies…
I hate to break it to CSIS, but “exposing the secrets of the spy trade” has been the basis for decades of best-selling books. Everyone from James Bond to Jason Bourne trace their tales back to places like “Camp X” near Oshawa, Ontario. There’s books, movies, documentaries, museums – hell, I’ve sat in the officer’s lounge of the old East German Stasi headquarters drinking a beer and watching a video tour hosted by Roger Moore. The Cold War is really, really, really over, and many of these files were written before it begun. We’re living in an age, now, where intelligence databases and infiltration/entrapment manuals are routinely leaked online – what relevance to 80-year-old surveillance techniques really have in this context?
Why is the Canadian government so afraid of seeing these files released? That should be obvious. Tommy Douglas was one the most celebrated politicians in Canadian history, yet he spent nearly all of his career under surveillance. The very existence of these files shatters the illusion of a politically neutral state. Agencies like the RCMP have their own agendas which they’re more than willing to pursue at the expense of democracy. Under their watch, even the most moderate of leftist beliefs are enough to label someone an “enemy” or “criminal”.
If they can do this to Tommy Douglas, they can do it to any one of us. If the man who brought us our legendary “Canadian-style health care” was a “subversive”, what does that say about Canada? And if accessible health care, decent wages and human rights are “dangerous” ideas, then what priorities are driving our state?
Since news broke over the weekend the internet has been awash with talk of “Trapwire”, a computer system recently developed to track individuals and activities using surveillance cameras. Though Trapwire’s been known about for years now, it wasn’t until the last batch of Stratfor (global “private intelligence” gurus) emails hit Wikileaks that people really began to panic. As Fred Burton tells it, this system is already in place across numerous American, Canadian and British cities, guarding all manner of “highly valued” potential terrorist targets.
The reaction has been mixed. Many, such as Anonymous, are terrified and incensed, vowing to take down this technological leviathan. Others, such as the mainstream press, have been doing all they can to downplay the dangers. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but I’m inclined toward the former. This may not quite be “Skynet”, yet, but there’s more than enough reasons to panic. For starters, Wikileaks has been bombarded with a heavy DDOS attack all weekend (10GB/second, allegedly), which has prevented many from seeing the actual emails in question. Second, at least one of the emails admits that the system is directed at “activists” as well as terrorists.
What does Trapwire actually do? The main purpose seems to be identifying “terrorists” near specific sites by scanning internet-connected cameras for signs that someone may be “casing” the target (surveying and studying). As someone who’s spent much of the last week wandering around taking pictures of famous sites (like any tourist), this scares me a little. Other claims, such as whether Trapwire is connected into facial recognition software or social media databases seem less clear. It certainly seems that it isn’t quite as bad as Anonymous’ communiqe is suggesting, but at the same time, it’s unquestionably a step in that direction.
This isn’t just about Trapwire. It’s one system built by one company in use for one purpose, however Orwellian. The problem is, these kinds of technological abilities are growing at a frghtening speed. A decade ago, facial recognition software was a pipe dream, mostly because they’d never be able to amass enough photos to scan for more than a few individuals. It would literally have taken a mass-effort on behalf from millions of people uploading photos, selecting faces an typing names. Then came Facebook. Surveillance cameras, too, have multiplied faster than tribbles, fallen dramatically in price and improved dramatically in quality. Then there’s all the other systems – Echelon and the like, used for data-mining, wiretapping and other tasks which have also been installed. Surveillance is evolving very rapidly, and the technological and financial barriers are falling faster every day.
Years ago I visited the old headquarters of the Stasi, the former East German secret police renowned for being possibly the most terrifying domestic spying agency in history. It’s now a museum, filled with what now seem like quaint relics of a 1950s spy film (you can watch a guided tour while eating lunch, featuring Roger Moore!). Were cameras hidden in birdfeeders really so evil? Or their enormous collection of rags in jars which carefully preserved individuals’ scents? Of course not – but in the context of an agency who saw no problem keeping “files” on millions of citizens, almost half the population, they were utterly terrifying. We might never know how many people died in prison as a result of those birdfeeder-cameras, and there’s a horrifying lesson to be learned about how many eyes we want to grant violent and paranoid governments. Today, we’re fast approaching a digital profiling system which scans everybody, all the time, for the slightest eye movements or keywords in private conversations which might indicate “terrorist” intent, without any human oversight until it comes time for arrests.
Does that make you feel safe?
The Atlantic just posted a remarkably insightful article about the conflicts between anonymity and transparency in the Occupy movement. This is a topic which often doesn’t receive enough attention, and while The Atlantic doesn’t get to much depth on the issue, it certainly deserves credit for bringing it up. In a particularly tense cut from Tim Poole’s livestream at Occupy Wall Street, they show some of the conflicts which arise when people don’t want to be filmed. Having witnessed much of the same during my own involvement, and repeatedly attempting to bring these issues up at assemblies, I can definitely attest that is has been an issue.
The explosion of social networking and online media in recent years has led to something of a euphoria regarding the benefits of “free information”. Countless examples of abuse of authority caught on tape have shaken countless establishments. At the same time, we’ve already seen a clear dark side to this – Facebook profiles becoming a standard part of job and school applications, for instance. This technology works both ways, and in a great many ways it’s utterly terrifying.
The issue of cameras at protests has been rising for years, if not decades. Police surveillance has been a serious issue as long as I can remember, taking every conceivable form, from cops with cameras to private contractors, vans with tinted windows and covertly installed surveillance cameras. Protesters with cameras have been able to turn these tables somewhat, by capturing police brutality and other rage-inspiring images. This has been enormously tactically useful. It must be said, though, that confiscating film and footage (or even phones and notebooks) from activists and independent journalists has long been a tactic of police at protests. Nearly any big anti-globalization demo you could name came complete with (often very bloody) raids on the independent media centres. After the way Facebook and other social media was used against rioters in London and Vancouver, or Toronto’s G20, it’s more clear than ever that there are potentially huge consequences for anybody you post pictures of.
I’ve seen this stuff end up in court far too often over the years. Don’t doubt for a second that pictures of you peacefully and legally protesting can be used to convict you of whatever they want, or that surveillance camera footage proving your alibi won’t be made available. None of these institutions “work for you”, and none of them are “on your side”.
As I’ve stated before, there are a lot of reasons to wear a mask at a protest, and even more to avoid having your picture there published. This could come down to fears about your boss, landlord, neighbourhood skinheads or, of course, police. Having your picture posted on public, searchable databases goes well beyond simply showing your face at a protest. Unfortunately it’s often now an unavoidable result of showing up at a protest without a mask on.
Issues like this, of course, bring out all kinds of problems regarding race, class and other forms of oppression. It’s not uncommon to hear white, male and very privileged individuals like Tim Pool state that they’re not afraid of being photographed and are willing to deal with the consequences. That’s cool – but don’t make that decision for others. There’s an incredibly exclusionary aspect to this kind of behaviour. Not everybody is privileged enough to be able to become an online representation of a movement, and treating anybody who has apprehensions about being photographed like they have something to hide isn’t solidarity. It’s an open invitation not to show up if you are actually oppressed in any serious way.
Since images in the media or online are all that many people see of these protests, they’ve become the be-all and end-all of protest in too many ways. As DeBord and Vangiem described decades ago, the representation has become reality. Any sense of practical achievements or effectiveness gets lost or buried while attempting to appeal to “normal” viewers. The spectacle presented exists for the sake of the spectators, for whom we’re all expected to march peacefully and politely into the meat grinder of state oppression. Again, this plays into a lot of racist and classist assumptions about who the viewers are (white, middle class etc) and what they want to see. The worst assumption of all, that this kind of “influence” works as a means of bringing “change” totally devalues the protest and everyone present, while glorifying the media used to report on them.
No amount of Facebook “likes” or letters to the editor will change our situation. That’s why people are at the protest in the first place. If it fails to mean something above and beyond being an effective media spectacle, chances are they won’t be back. I’ve seen this too many times, and trust me, if you want to “give the people what they want”, do something effective. We need something that shocks people out of being passive spectators, not something that re-enforces this role. A serious resistance movement can do that, but that means something beyond inflammatory rhetoric. Can you think of a real resistance movement anywhere which would willingly post this much information about their members? Stating that we’re willing to reveal all of this is a very clear sign to any who would join that we’re not serious about being any kind of threat.
I cringed when I watched the first Occupy Wall Street arrests, as onlookers shouted over and over again, in front of cameras “GIVE US YOUR NAMES” in an increasingly demanding tone. That uneasiness paled, though, to my utter nausea while watching the livestream from Tim Pool. To accuse someone of being violent by blocking a camera’s view is laughable, while the inherent risks of this kind of filming are very serious. Obviously, the mainstream press has no problem getting their hands on it. Never once does Pool admit that he has the option to simply point the camera somewhere else when asked. Instead he plays the victim while demanding to film everything and everyone on behalf of his thousand online viewers, despite their wishes to the contrary. Many of the Arab Spring uprisings were followed by brutal crackdowns, using Facebook and other online media to target protesters. Only time will tell what befalls those here, but there’s no doubt that this kind of “transparency” will play a big role.
Loose clips sink ships, folks, be careful where you point those things.