The Day We Fight Back: Are Protests Worth it if They're Hokey?


Prachatai / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Yesterday, "The Day We Fight Back" rallies took place in 24 cities around the world in rejection of National Security Adminstration's (NSA) surveillance. I attended the San Francisco event in order to witness the freedom fighters converge. Despite its inspiring title, the protest quickly went limp.

The event took place outside the AT&T building where whistleblower Mark Klein in 2006 exposed Room 614A, one of the NSA's telecommunications interception sites. One group showed up early with an impressive one-to-five scale model of a predator drone and plenty of picket signs. Mentions of surveillance cheerleader Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) elicited universal boos. All the pieces of a good protest were accumulating.

Klein himself and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Rainey Reitman addressed the crowd over loudspeakers.

"This is our internet. We're going to fight for it. We're going to defend it. We're going to make sure you can't constantly surveill us… and chill our free speech," said Reitman, who detailed the EFF's legislative action against the NSA.

A Navy veteran who wished to remain anonymous shared his feelings. "I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. When I see the government spying on the people, it tells me that the government has declared that I and the American people are an enemy."

Unfortunately, organizers compromised the gravity and sincerity of these messages. Not once but twice they played The Police's "Every Breath You Take" ("Every move you make… I'll be watching you." Do you get it? It's a joke about surveillance. You get it, right?) and projected a Miley Cyrus parody titled "Party at the NSA" on the side of the AT&T building. These seemed particularly tone-deaf, since they aired before a memorial video for the late internet activist Aaron Schwartz.

Some participants also eventually repurposed an enormous circular protest sign about constitutional rights by playing parachute-type games reminiscent of grade school gym class. Guy Fawkes masks and meme-covered t-shirts added to hokiness. After about an hour, the protest's momentum drained.

The San Francisco Projection Department, which co-hosted the event, estimates that it had the highest turnout in the US with 300 participants, which is underwhelming for such a tech-centric city and not a good indication of how the others fared.

"The Day We Fight Back" was far more impressive online than it was on the streets. 

Over 6,000 websites and organizations, from Reddit to the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed solidarity. Google and other internet giants signed a letter to the president calling for reform. Supporters have placed over 87,800 calls and sent 181,900 emails to their representatives. For all the "slacktivism" gibes web-based initiatives get, they do seem to have a real home field advantange when it comes to invigorating people about internet issues.

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  1. Protests are very rarely worth it even when they’re not hokey.

    1. Next month the Westboro Baptist people will be spending a few days in Lakewood, CA, which is near where I work.

      So I might go see what that looks like since they always bring out the more creative counter-protestors.

  2. Fuck the EFF. Those guys’ toadying to every statist impulse that didn’t affect their precious internet is exactly how we got to this point. They thought they could be good little progressives AND have freedom on the web. I’m only sorry we all have to suffer for it.

    1. Especially the net neutrality folks. How any of.them can, with no.sense of.irony whatever, advocate that the goverment should be able to tell ISPs what signals they.can, must, and can’t carry, while complaining about government getting too involved in spying on.and.filtering said signals is far beyond my pea-brain’s ability to comprehend.

  3. Essentially what is required here is a change in the paradigm of the protest.

    In-person protests are generally bloodless, sanitized versions of the old urban mob street riot, beloved of the populations of Ancient Rome, medieval Byzantium, Bourbon France, Revolutionary Boston, etc.

    People protested that way because:

    1. It was the only means available.

    2. The people they were targeting were physically close to them and could plausibly be killed or seized during the riot.

    Basically if the target of your protest is remote, and there’s no chance of the target of that protest being subject to violence, a street demonstration is stupid.

    We need a new paradigm that allows people to participate in political agitation that:

    1. Doesn’t require them to go to any location.

    2. Actually threatens the people and interests street protests used to threaten.

    Honestly, I think the people closest to figuring out how to do this is the Anonymous guys. They’re just dumbasses who manage to cross lines that get themselves prosecuted.

    1. Not that it was really a protest, but the million man march was able to get people to go to a location.

      But the successful protests you mentioned worked because they were impromptu.

      Certainly a flash mob does the same thing, no reason why a flash mob couldn’t be set up for the NSA headquarters. The NSA may well know all about a flash mog but being a bureaucracy couldn’t summon the riot quad in time because that kind of coordination would take them hours at the least.

      The problem with the coordinated nation-wide spectaculars is that they are driven by the ego of the organizers, which is what makes them ineffective and hokey.

    2. Street protests can be important because if you get them large enough it tells people who object they are not alone in their objection.

      Oppressive governments exist by lies. And the biggest and most important lie of all is that if you are object you are alone in doing so. They want everyone to think “yeah this is terrible but everyone else supports it so there is nothing I can do”.

      What large gatherings do is show people that they are not alone. And that is important.

    3. I don’t understand how they get caught constantly. Not that I don’t understand being caught, I mean how do they operate so completely oblivious to like day one security stuff. Don’t do that shit from your house on a computer that you use for personal shit. I mean, seriously, make a bootable thumbdrive of Backtrack with Tor installed and take your laptop to the fucking coffee shop. I’m a damn cook and I know that.

      1. Chef it is because they are mostly morons and petty theives. They caught one of the leaders a year or so ago. He was some bum living on welfare on his mother’s couch that the FBI napped for identity theft only to realize after they had him who he was.

        It was like that scene in Die Hard where Bruce Willis finally realizes that the German terrorists are really there to steal the bonds. “After all of your bullshit talk, you are just a thief” or something to that effect.

        For all of the bullshit anonymous puts out, the guy was just a two bit identity thief. And they are not even good hackers. All they do is DNS attacks.

  4. Apparently Sting did indeed intend the message of every breath you take as a story about a creepy stalker and didn’t understand why people embraced as a love song.

    1. Irony doesn’t work well in song.

  5. They can’t all have the quiet dignity of Code Pink.

  6. Will these same people embrace Rand Paul’s lawsuit? Or will they decry it as racist despite having the same motivations as these protests, but actually perhaps legal teeth whereas these goofballs in the street merely Hope to Change the government’s mind?

    1. Rand Paul’s lawsuit: a statist suing the state. I smell an ulterior motive.

  7. I am thinking that people standing up against this stuff and showing they object is more important than our commitment to hipster aesthetics. But that is just me.

    Reason should frame this post because it describes so much that is wrong with Reason. Who the fuck cares if you think it is “hokey”? The people doing this are right. In the end worrying about whether its “hokey” or not is just you saying, you would rather be cool than be right.

    1. There is an element of protest culture that turns some people off.

      1. Sorry, hit submit before I was done.

        Let me start again.

        There is an element of protest culture that turns some people off. Many protests become multi-faceted, multi-issue affairs where one feels if one ‘shows up’ in the crowd, you’ll get associated with some crackpot anti-gmo group, or a Free Mumia movement.

        I was at the actual infamous WTO protests here in Seattle. In the crowd, right up against the police line. But I was there more as an observer than a participant. And I can tell you, that was considered a seriously successful protest. Jesus, it defined the LIVES of many local activists. But when observing the crowd, it was a HUGE mishmash of grievances, environmental beefs, anti-capitalism, free Mumia, socialist-anarchist riff-raff.

        That turns some single-issue people off.

    2. Not only that, but it’s only “hokey” because the blogger has no sense of humor, or at least no sense that humor mixes well with everything.

  8. Mentions of surveillance cheerleader Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) elicited universal boos.

    DiFi is exemplary at keeping state secrets.

    A blurb from Wikipedia:

    In 1985, at a press conference, Feinstein revealed details about the hunt for serial killer Richard Ram?rez, and in so doing angered detectives by giving away details of his crimes.

    Not only that, Richard Ramirez watched the darned press conference on his motel TV, threw his shoes and clothing off the Golden Gate bridge, and scurried back to Los Angeles to continue his killing spree.

    There might really be a time for a government official to keep information to herself.

  9. No giant Papier Mache heads of Obama? I am disappoint.

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