I wasn’t expecting the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I was disappointed and outraged, but not surprised. Unfortunately, the response of local and state government in Ferguson to the shooting and subsequent protest raised serious doubts about the fairness of those institutions. Furthermore, there’s a dispute at the center of the Michael Brown case as to what happened when Wilson confronted Brown. While I agree with Ezra Klein’s conclusion that Wilson’s story is “literally unbelievable” and find his reading of the testimony of Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s friend and witness to his death, more compelling, I find it possible to understand how a grand jury could take Wilson’s word over Johnson’s.
But I was surprised that Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the death of Eric Garner. I shouldn’t have been. Police officers are very rarely indicted for on-duty shootings (WSJ reference), and only two New York City police officers have been indicted for killing in the line of duty since the 1960s. In addition, Staten Island is whiter, more conservative and more sympathetic to the police than the rest of New York City, suggesting that an indictment was less likely there than in other parts of the city.
Still, there was the video.
There’s not much uncertainty about what happened in the moments before Eric Garner was killed. We’ve seen the argument between Garner and Pantaleo, the group of armed police officers wrestling Garner to the ground, the choke hold Pantaleo performs on Garner, the desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe.” More damning in some ways is the video shot after Garner has been brought to the ground, depicting a group of officers apparently more focused on limiting access to the crime scene than in attempting to save Garner’s life with CPR or another intervention. As Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters: “I couldn’t see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause… What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?”
In 1991, when Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase, a bystander’s video brought the violation of his civil rights to national attention, leading to indictment, prosecution and to rioting when King’s abusers were acquitted. The King video was shaky and blurry, but it was damning, at least in the court of public opinion.
Two decades later, most Americans carry cameras with them all the time, and surveillance cameras are a pervasive feature of the built environment. Video of King’s encounter with the police was unusual at the time. Now, situations like Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, where there is no witness, surveillance or police dash camera video, are becoming the unusual cases.
One of President Obama’s responses to the Ferguson protests has been an announcement that he will seek $75 million in Congressional funding to make 50,000 body cameras available to police forces. Given the massive federal funding that has allowed US police forces to acquire military equipment to wage the putative war on terror, this seems like a step that’s both reasonable and overdue. But given the apparent disconnect between the footage of Garner’s killing and the grand jury’s decision, it’s clear the relationship between cameras and justice is more complicated than it appears at first glance.
Requiring police to wear body cameras likely has a prophylactic effect. Officers know their actions are being watched and know that disciplinary action (short of having criminal charges filed against them) is more likely to result from abuse than when their actions were unmonitored. complaints against police officers in Rialto, CA fell 88% a year after body cameras were put into use in 2012. Other departments have seen significant decreases in complaints by mandating the use of dashboard cameras in police vehicles. Apparently, the panopticon shapes the behavior of the officers being watched in much the way Foucault predicted: the combination of the perpetual possibility of surveillance and a disciplinary culture shapes behavior. What’s not clear is whether the panopticon still works when surveilled behavior is revealed to be consequence free. (It’s likely that there will be consequences for Pantaleo, as he has been stripped of his badge and faces an internal investigation. Wilson has left the Ferguson police force. Those professional consequences are small consolation to the families of the dead men.)
If pervasive cameras help prevent bad behavior but don’t eliminate it, they have another consequence as well: they make police abuse visible to the general public. Yesterday, I heard a closed-door briefing from Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP’s legal defense and education fund. She began by explaining that we are not experiencing an unusual wave of police abuse. Instead, pervasive cameras and the ability to share stories and mobilize via social media mean that we’re seeing far more of these stories. The last two weeks have added two new names to the vast list of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement: Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy shot by a Cleveland police officer while playing in a park, and Rumain Brisbon, a 34-year old father of four, shot by a Phoenix police officer.
Ifill argues that these incidents have been distressingly common for many years, a contention supported by Pro Publica’s research suggesting that black Americans are more than 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white Americans. (Figures from the FBI suggest, though, that we may be experiencing a higher level of police shooting than in years past.) What’s unusual is that these incidents, which generally receive only local news coverage, are being seen by activists – and increasingly, by the general public – as part of a pattern of racism, implicit bias and over-reliance on violence on the part of law enforcement. The shooting of Tamir Rice would have been a tragedy for the young man’s family and community (and yes, for the officer, who will live with the guilt of killing an innocent young man for the rest of his life); now it is also a rallying point for a national movement demanding justice and change.
It’s possible that Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice, will be indicted, though unlikely. Revelations that Loehmann had been determined to be unfit for duty by another Ohio police department combined with the Justice deparment’s censure of the Cleveland police department might put sufficient pressure on prosecutors to bring Loehmann to trial. But let’s consider what will happen if Loehmann is not indicted. Surveillance video shows that Loehmann shot Rice two seconds after his police cruiser arrived at the park pavilion where Rice was sitting. Much as the video of Garner being choked into submission and death makes Pantaleo’s narrative hard to accept, it is impossible to reconcile the footage of Rice’s shooting with Loehmann’s assertions that Rice was warned before he was shot.
Widespread availability of video footage combined with a legal culture unwilling to indict police officers has a likely outcome: further erosion of trust in law enforcement, the judicial system and other public institutions. Faced with imagery that depicts criminal negligence and a legal system that fails to prosecute these actions, the net effect of this imagery is the (further) loss of face in government institutions. Add to this another factor, documented by Micah Sifry in his new book, “The Big Disconnect”. Social media has demonstrated a great ability to organize challenges to power, as in the Arab Spring, but has been frustratingly ineffective in helping build new systems or reform existing ones. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which imagery erodes trust, mobilizes dissent and does little to channel that dissent into paths towards change.
I desperately wish that body cameras were a single, simple solution to police violence against black men. It’s hugely encouraging that use of force was reduced by 60% in Rialto, CA after cameras were introduced, but that reduction is a tribute not just to the technology but to a departmental commitment to culture change. Eliminating disproportionate violence against black men requires training officers so they don’t fire weapons within seconds of an encounter, addressing the implicit bias that allows an officer like Loehmann to overestimate the age and danger of Tamir Rice, and changing a culture of policing that leads too many officers to view their workplace as a war zone, not a community they live in. It requires reforming a prosecutorial culture that is too comfortable with law enforcement, and finding new ways for oversight over America’s tens of thousands of independent police departments. It requires gun control, so that police officers are not – justifiably – concerned that any encounter with a suspect could end in gunfire.
Sharing images of the unforgivable violence against Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others is a necessary but not sufficient step towards change. At best, the knowledge that the world is watching may help slow the hand of a police officer’s hand and keep a confrontation from turning violent. But the contradiction between these unforgettable images and these unjust institutional responses is infuriating, alienating and socially damaging.
I admire much of the work Open Society Foundation does (a good thing, as I’m a board member), but I have a special soft spot in my heart for the Moving Walls program. Since 1998, OSF’s Documentary Photography program has featured exhibitions of documentary photography about human rights and social issues, choosing new artists to feature every 6-7 months through an open call process. The exhibitions provide support for documentary photographers, and inspiration and insight for the staff and visitors who see the images.
The most recent show features ten visual artists reflecting on the nature of surveillance, historically and in contemporary society. Titled “Watching You, Watching Me”, the show features archival images from the Stasi’s secret archives, curated by Simon Menner, a set of photos of weddings and other celebrations shot using a drone (prompting reflection on the ways US drones are used for targeted killings at Yemei, Afghan and Pakistani weddings), by Tomas Van Houtryve, and a deeply creepy set of photos by Andrew Hammerand, called “The New Town”, which were shot via a web-controllable CCTV installed by a property developer and left unsecured.
“Prins Maurits Army Barracks, Ede, Gelderland, 2011.” by Mishka Henner, from “Dutch Landscapes“, a set of prints of Google Maps imagery of “sensitive” Dutch landscapes with details obscured.
Accompanying the ten sets of images are a set of presentations by the artists. Last evening, Hasan Elahi and Josh Begley reflected on their installations in a conversation curated by Professor Patricia Williams from Columbia Law School.
Elahi teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and points that he lives and works in surveillance country, his campus nearly a midpoint between the CIA, the NSA and the Pentagon. Elahi has had ample reason to think about American intelligence agencies. Not long after 9/11, Elahi – a frequent international traveler – was detained by US law enforcement at the Detroit airport. His name had been put on a terrorist watchlist by an anonymous citizen who “saw something and said something”, misidentifying him as an Arab (he’s not) who “fled” after 9/11. After six months of polygraph tests and interrogation, the FBI told Elahi that he was free to go.
But Elahi notes that “once you’re in the system, you can’t really be released from it.” As Elahi traveled around the world, he worried that other FBI agents might not have gotten the message that he was free to travel. So Elahi got into the habit of calling “my FBI agent” and letting him know where he was going and what he was doing, offering reassurance that he wasn’t planning on leaving the US and emigrating to Afghanistan, for instance. “Over time, this turned into a really asymmetric relationship,” Elahi remembered. “I would write longer and longer emails, sometimes thousands of words, sometimes reflecting on personal matters. The response I got was always the same: ‘Thank you. Be safe.'”
Elahi’s artistic project for the past twelve years has been one of relentless self-documentation. If the FBI was going to watch him, Elahi wanted to demonstrate that he could watch himself even better. Elahi’s website shows his current position on a map and offers a recent photograph. Over the years, Elahi has posted 70,000 photos, some organized by themes – his meals, the toilets he’s used, the beds he’s slept in. Each is timestamped and geocoded. “It’s a form of camouflage through overexposure. The signal to noise ratio is overloaded,” he explains. “I’m telling you everything, but nothing, simultaneously.”
Elahi suggests that we think of artistic movements as responses to the military conflicts a society is embroiled within. Dadaism is a way of making sense of the surreal and hyperviolent world of the first World War, while abstract expressionism can be thought of as a response to WWII. Minimalism and Pop Art, distinctly American movements, can be thought of responses to the distinctly American wars in Korea and Vietnam. “We’re currently at war,” Elahi reminds us. “We declared war on terror. How does terror give up?” The selfie, he suggests, is the art form we should associate with the war on terror, the cultural remnant of this moment of surveillance and project of our own presence.
Reflecting on Elahi’s work, Professor Williams notes how transgressive it seemed a decade ago. “Now your webpage looks like my son’s Facebook feed.” Elahi notes that our phones now create a data trail not unlike the the trail he’s worked to create for a dozen years. “Is it still art if a billion people are doing this?” Elahi asks himself. One possible response is that artists, unlike scientists and engineers, benefit from returning to the same questions that haunt them. “Engineers like to solve a problem and move on. Artists solve the same problem again and again.” The banality of the images Elahi creates may be the point: it’s too much imagery for any human, including “his” FBI agent, to process. The absurdity of the desire to collect every piece of information as exemplified by NSA surveillance may show Elahi’s work to be prophetic.
At OSF, Elahi’s images are shown as a multi-colored, wall hung tapestry, one of dozens of ways the images have been shown throughout the years. The piece is titled “Thousand Little Brothers”
Josh Begley’s contribution to the show, “Plain Sight”, plays with the same questions of surveillance and banality, though the imagery in question is radically different. Begley describes his work as “snapshots of experiments in progress”. A computer programmer and data scientist, Begley interrogates contemporary and historical data sets and draws narratives that are both visually striking and politically provocative out of them. Racebox.org is an exploration of how racial categories have changed over time by presenting the racial identification question presented on the US census from 1790 to the present. Prisonmap.com examines “carceral spaces”, the 5,393 prisons, jails and detention centers that represent America’s geography of incarceration. Using data on the location of these facilities compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, Begley wrote a script that captured images from Google Maps for each of these facilities. They are presented as tiles on a vast page, images that look like planned communities or walled cities, but which represent “the landscape of the warehousing of black and brown bodies”.
Recently, Begley created Dronestre.am, an API for information the US government has been utterly unwilling to share: information on where and when US drone strikes have occurred. Imagining an API with this information, Begley built a series of applications that use data from the API, including a mobile phone based tool that alerts you when a drone strike has occurred. Using information from the press – not from the US government – the API is live and reports on known drone strikes as they occur. He notes that more people have now been killed by US drone strikes than were killed in 9/11, but the invisibility of their deaths allows American policy to continue unchecked and largely unquestioned.
His contribution to the OSF show is a piece titled “Plain Sight: The Visual Vernacular of NYPD Surveillance”. (Much of the same material appears online at profiling.is.) It’s the story of a wing of the NYPD which remade itself in the image of the CIA, becoming an intelligence gathering agency with assumptions about what and who should be under surveillance. The secretive unit, initially called the Demographic Unit, and later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, monitored the daily lives of people with “ancestries of interest”, people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Albania and two dozen other countries. (“American Black Muslim” was one of the ancestries of interest.)
Armed with census data, plainclothes agents – usually in teams of twos – tried to “blend in” at coffee shops, barber shops and cricket fields, chatting people up. The officers filled countless files with quotidian observations, endless mundane details about Albanian men drinking tea, Egyptian cab drivers picking up lunch, and so on.
These units became notorious for damaging law enforcement relations with Muslim communities (turns out that most people don’t like being surveilled) and for violating civil rights. Photos, maps and other documents were leaked to the Associated Press, and Begley built tools to capture and present that information in different artistic forms. In the exhibit, a photo mosaic made of surveillance photos is layered on top of thousands of one-line observations of utterly banal events. Another wall shows maps of NYC’s boroughs in terms of points of interest to different communities.
“What does this archive say in aggregate?” asks Begley. “It’s completely banal. It tells you everything and nothing.” Despite years of effort, the demographics unit never produced a single actionable lead for the NYPD. Begley notes that it did end up producing a really excellent map of ethnic restaurants, though. “What doesn’t appear in the frame is the entrapment of young men, the pattern of interrogation that resulted from this surveillance.”
His critique is not just of a particularly inept surveillance effort (finally shut down, under pressure from civil rights group), but the broader NSA strategy of collecting as much information as possible. “We’re creating a haystack of useless information.” Here Elahi’s work and Begley’s come together: the visual detritus of surveillance, whether it’s self-surveillance or surveillance by the police, is utterly banal. But, as Professor Williams observes, despite the repetitiveness of the imagery, “there’s nothing neutral about the mechanisms that creates them.”
Today’s Comparative Media Studies colloquium features one of our own, Assistant Professor of Civic Media, Sasha Costanza-Chock. His new book, “Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!” explores the world of transmedia organizing and the immigrant rights movement.
His talk tonight focuses on his background in media making, activism and scholarship, before zooming into the immigrants rights movement specifically, and one aspect of his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements
Sasha’s background is in the world of independent media, including production of movies like “This is What Democracy Looks Like”, shot and edited by teams of activists working together. On moving to LA to work on his dissertation, he began working on the VozMob platform, a tool that allows people with low-end mobile phones to publish content online. The tool continues to be used by working class immigrants in Los Angeles to document their lives and work.
On coming to Center for Civic Media, Sasha worked with our developers and others to build a hosted version of Vozmob, Vojo.co, which is now used by over 100 groups to collect and disseminate information, including the Sandy Storyline project, which won a major documentary award for their documentation of Hurricane Sandy.
More recently, he’s helped launch Contratados, which is basically a Yelp for migrant workers, reviewing labor brokers, the people who recruit agricultural workers to jobs in the United States. Contratados is a transmedia project, using online tools, radio, paper flyers and others to bring information about immigration rights and practices to vulnerable populations.
Sasha explains that his work is best understood as participatory research, which sometimes looks like media making, sometimes like activism and sometimes like research. This book is based on ten years work in the immigrant rights movement as an activist and scholar.
To understand this space, Sasha uses the concepts of Media Ecology to understand the complex world of English and Spanish language media, online and offline media, as well as concepts like Transmedia Organizing, Social Media Movement Practices, and Critical Digital Media Literacies. He suggests we think about media in terms of a read/write/execute movement – we need to consume media, make it ourselves, and use it to make change in the world. Sasha argues that making media is a critical path towards engagement in activism: making media is often a first step towards a deeper involvement and engagement in activism.
Stepping back to explain the content of the immigrant rights movement, Sasha explains that the immigrants rights community has been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws – he is often termed “the deporter in chief”. Activists are incensed by a massively expanded immigration enforcement budget, now over $3 billion a year and programs like SCOMM (secure communities), which collects biometric information on anyone who is arrested (even if they are not charged or tried) and checks to see if they have legal status to remain in the US. This program was rolled out as an optional program, but local law enforcement discovered that they would not receive federal monies if they opted out. Many local law enforcement agencies dislike SCOMM, as it tends to break down trust between local law enforcement and communities.
Bills like SB1070 – the “driving while brown” bill, which allowed people to be stopped under suspicions of being undocumented – have been challenged in courts, but there’s a large number of dangerous regulations on the books.
Sasha offers the observation that there are complex economic reasons why we might be seeing a rise in militarized immigration enforcement. Private prisons and detention facilities, biometric systems are powerful political and economic actors. Of the 30-40,000 people incarcerated on any given night, roughly half are housed in private prisons, and represent a growth segment for companies like Corrections Corporation of America.
It’s not just about profitability – it’s about the expansion of the security state. Surveillance and security systems have a tendency to expand, even if they’re not effective or profitable. Once you begin building SCOMM, there’s a compelling logic to expanding it to each county, to link it to other databases. Systems like e-verify are only roughly 50% effective, but they continue to expand.
The criminalization of immigration in the US is characterized as a racial project, a reproduction and maintenance of whiteness and racial hierarchy, Sasha argues, citing a long history of research on American immigration and discrimination against the Chinese and other groups. Our version of immigration also supports heteronormativity and patriarchy, allowing immigration for reunification of families, but only traditionally structured families (no same-sex marriage included.) He reminds us that the US is an ongoing project of settler colonialism, a consolidation and control over the borders and “body” of the nationstate, which is ultimately a colonized and occupied state taken from native peoples.
What do immigrant rights groups do in this hostile context? How do they tell their stories and work to shape these systems? We need to consider the shape of an English-language mass media system that tends to be overwhelmingly negative towards immigrant mobilization and narratives. A center-left media occasionally pays attention to issues of the undocumented, but tends to paint immigration as a balance between border security and “a path towards citizenship”. Even in the center-left, there’s an acceptance of the idea of “good immigrants”, implying bad immigrants who need to be kept out.
The rise of outlets like Univision, Telemundo and La Opinion have led to a more subtle dialog on Spanish-language media. This group has become quite powerful in mobilizing, with Spanish-language DJs cooperating to call people in the streets to protest a Sensenbrenner immigration bill. Sasha urges us to consider community media as well. Even with small reach in comparison to the national outlets, these outlets serve as legitimators to activist and community organizations.
Social media plays a role as well, both in terms of organizing actions and giving participants a voice. Sasha wants to focus specifically on how social media can augment relationships with reporters, allowing activists to amplify their message more effectively than sending out press releases. All these pieces function simultaneously, and smart actors in this space learn to operate across these media through transmedia organizing.
The term is descended from Marsha Kinder and Henry Jenkins’s work on Transmedia Storytelling. Kinder looked at the way that stories expanded not just through film but through toys and marketing tie-ins, creating storyworlds that are shaped in part by their expansion into multiple medias and markets. Jenkins sees this work changing the nature of storytelling and changing the media itself, sometimes making it more open to participation and counternarrative. Sasha expands this to consider how storytelling can be accountable and open to movement actors, and how creating media can transform people into movement participants.
In the immigrant rights movement, work is cross-platform: posters, mobile applications, films. What’s important is that people’s media strategy is explicitly cross-platform. Organizers are smart enough to know that they need Spanish language media to cover actions, then push those stories to their base via social media.
This media is participatory – Sasha points to the “Undocumented and Unafraid” campaign as a strategy in which creating media and disseminating it is a key action in joining a movement. A street action was complemented by a Tumblr (for people who couldn’t participate in person) and a video produced after the fact (which Sasha shows.) The movement draws explicitly on the LGBT struggle for acceptance through coming out, and looks specifically at the idea of Undocuqueer – coming out as undocumented to LGBT peers and as LGBT to the undocumented community.
Media production is rooted in a particular community action being taken. Sasha shows us a capture from a UStream of an occupation of an Obama campaign office in Colorado – the stream allowed thousands to follow the campaign for executive action to grant relief to undocumented youth. Dreamers succeeded in forcing Obama to make significant changes to deprioritize deportation of undocumented youth, and there’s now a discussion about the possibility of a return to sit in and occuption to seek change at a moment where change through Congress looks impossible.
The movement is careful in discussing framing. They are concerned with the framing of “I was brought here through no fault of my own”, because that’s a narrative that criminalizes parental behavior. Which narrative you pick – no fault of my own or a broader narrative – helps determine what you advocate for: reform for undocumented youth, or for all undocumented people.
Finally, Sasha reminds us that this work is transformative. By learning how to make and share media, the movement is expanded and the movement’s reach and capabilities are expanded.
Sasha sees this dynamic of transmedia organizing happening in other activist movements, including the Occupy movement. It’s also not unique to contemporary movements – he references research by Rogelio Lopez, carried out at Center for Civic Media, that looked at participatory and transmedia organizing by the Farm Worker movement from 1962-72.
Sasha closes by looking at one of the issues he explores in his work, the professionalization and accountability of social movements. There’s a long scholarship around this issue, looking at ways in which social movements become 501c3 nonprofit organizations. When you make the change from social movement to nonprofit, Sasha points out, you lose the right to advocate for specific candidates. When organizations make this change, start doing the dance with funders, they become increasingly service oriented and depoliticized.
In parallel, there’s a professionalization of transmedia production. Some years ago, “transmedia production” was a hot new topic – in 2010, the Producer’s Guild of America began issuing “transmedia producer” credits associated with films. You can now hire a transmedia producer to create an ad campaign or a cross-platform strategy to market a film.
In the last two years, we’ve seen three professionally produced transmedia campaigns. “Define American” is a campaign from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who identifies as undocumented and queer. The project launched with a video, “Define American”, and a website, which lean heavily on web-based media like Tumblr and Facebook posts, as well as YouTube videos. Vargas has now produced a full length documentary called “Documented”, which explores this movement as well as Vargas’s personal journey. Sasha points out that the film was produced by an undocuqueer individual and has several undocumented production team members. However, there’s an argument that the documentary continues to support a narrative of “the good immigrant”.
He shows us a second documentary, “The Dream Is Now”, produced by the Emerson Collaborative, a foundation started by Steve Jobs’s widow. It’s a professional production, put together by people involved with An Inconvenient Truth, and was screened within the White House. But there are problems with the project. When you arrived at The Dream Is Now website, a modal box pushes you to sign a petition to support the DREAM Act. But the movement had moved on, Sasha tells us, and was now pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, not throwing DREAMers parents under the bus. Activists demanded that The Dream Is Now push a different set of action, but it took months to convince Emerson to change to meet the needs of the movement base. It was a beautiful and powerful piece of media, Sasha notes, but there are issues about accountability to the base of the social movement.
FWD.us is the third project Sasha features. He first shows “the leaders behind the movement”, who are (predominantly white) Silicon Valley CEOs. The campaign focuses on the ways in which immigrants represent a large percentage of the American workforce. One of the main emphases of the film is the need to increase the number of high skilled visas and allow DREAMers to contribute to the US economy. The video features 400 groups fighting for immigration reform… which turn out to be Silicon Valley companies. Sasha points out that most movement actors don’t have a problem with more high-tech workers… but the first policy plank of FWD.us is “secure our borders”, which is a policy that pushes people to cross the US/Mexico border in increasingly dangerous and insecure ways. They support e-verify, a program that auditors have found has a very high rate of false positives, in part because Silicon Valley will get the contracts to build these systems. While this is a deeply professional campaign, it’s unaccountable to the base of the movement and is erasing the broader movement history, replacing citizen organizations with tech firms.
There’s a nice narrative – organizations that have larger budgets are less accountable to the base of the movements. But it’s messy – Jose Antonio Vargas teamed up with FWD.us to promote his documentary. And undocumented youth wrote a letter to Vargas critiquing him for supporting a good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, making it clear that he did not represent all the undocumented.
Sasha ends with questions: do greater resources always mean less community accountability? Is there always a tension between artistic freedom and strong storytelling and community accountability? Sasha believes we can have accountability mechanisms that don’t require the community to sign off on each stage of film production, but do have a powerful relation to community issues. Ultimately, Sasha is interested in building a culture of activism centered on the idea of “Nothing About Us Without Us”, framed by disability rights activist James Charlton.
Sasha invites Sofia Campos, one of the leaders of United We Dream, to the stage to react to his presentation. She points out that the movement has a culture of reflection, but hasn’t been able to publish a book like the one Sasha has. These meta-conversations about the movement can be repetitive and draining, and it’s helpful to have a careful consideration of the history of the movement to refer to. She agrees with Sasha’s contention that the media is a critical piece of the movement – before the Internet, she didn’t know that there were other undocumented people outside of California. In 2010, the internet allowed the movement to come to a higher level of organization and collaboration with unprecedented speed. Knowing that people were working across the country on the issues was a powerful feeling for movement actors.
Critically, the movement has been able to build its own narrative, and it’s been critical to move in the directions they’ve needed of going. She notes that the movement still needs mechanisms for accountability, which makes it helpful to have scholars like Sasha thinking about how the movement and those who want to help push it forward get engaged.
Desi asks why media making is such an important onramp to movement participation. Sasha makes clear that he doesn’t think media making is the most important aspect of movement building, just an important and understudied onramp. In sitting down and deciding how to tell your story, you are likely to contact others and share your experiences, as well as reflecting on the structures you’re struggling against. That struggle tends to lead to a social movement identity. Sofia that producing media is a way of combatting the isolation associated with the experience of being undocumented, and seeing support from others throughout the US going through the struggle you are experiencing.
A questioner makes clear that he’s frustrated by this as a “one sided” presentation advocating “illegal immigration”. He asks whether those who oppose illegal immigration can use the same tools to challenge unrestricted immigration. Sasha notes that the right has used every media at their disposal to make arguments, and argues that those counterarguments are as emotional and manipulative as arguments from the immigrants rights movement. He argues that it’s not an even playing field between powerful corporate actors who control broadcast TV and are likely to shape opinion against immigrant, and that the enthusiasm for social media may reflect a hope of countering those narratives.
Ian Condry asks whether there are new ideas about framing the immigration debate. Is the frame of “lawbreaking and amnesty”, which is gaining some traction, more successful than a narrative of the benefits of immigration, which seems well supported by American history. The idea of DREAMers clearly got through, he suggests, and wonders if there’s a way to embrace its power without the consequence of throwing parents under the bus. Sofia notes that issues of movement politics as well as deep legacies of racism and colonialism come into these questions of framing. The DREAMer framing was powerful because it was a narrative that came from the immigrant community, but sometimes failed to respect the radical, rooted message that the entire system of immigration needs reform. Within that framework, there’s then a question of what’s feasible, and how to negotiate for what people need now in terms of relief. Sasha notes that there’s an instrumentalist approach to media in which you A/B test your way through messages, but that this approach to framing runs the risk of coming into conflict with the community you are messaging around. The path forward has to give the affected community the ability to control the messaging, which may lead to less effective messaging in the short term, but will allow for a messaging driven by ethics and values in the long term.
Jim Paradis notes that he’s impressed with the range of objectives the movement is taking on, from inclusion in higher ed, to broader reform around immigration. He wonders how the movement is putting together a strategy to choose between competing objectives. Sasha notes that it’s a matter of constant debate within the movement: what are we working for short and long term? Political operatives tend to advise we pick a small, specific thing and message around it. But there’s a recognition that there’s a broad cultural shift around the idea of who’s a rights-holding human being. To transform ideas about immigration, we may need to win the larger battle to shift a vision of who’s human.
Jing Wang asks whether there are cross-racial alliances in the immigrant rights movement and what the dynamics of those alliances are. She wonders if the framework Sasha is advocating is equally good for movements led by Asian immigrants. Sasha notes that there is organizing and coalition work across different communities. Sofia notes that there are cultural challenges in this organizing, not just with activists but in connecting their parents, but that these movements are moving forward. Also, the movement is now trying to expand beyond immigration and into the broader space of challenging the for-profit prison movement.
A questioner who works on immigrant rights notes that he rarely attends academic presentations because of concerns about community accountability. He thanks Sasha for his consideration on that issue and asks how the activist community can best work with engaged scholars. Sasha notes that it’s easy for people with privilege, including scholars, to extract stories from communities and make profits with them. He points to work he does at MIT, teaching a Collaborative Design Studio course that brings MIT students together with community organizations to work together productively. This includes laying out explicit expectations about responsibility, participation and ownership in these processes. We need a broader transformation in institutional processes, Sasha argues, to ensure that research serves the needs of a community.
Rogelio Lopez closes with a question about the ways in which movements can spread across the world, where the Ferguson “Hands Up” protest appears on the streets of Hong Kong. What does this mean for movements when these frames spread across nations? Sasha notes that this is an exciting moment, when symbols and tactics circulate at greater speed than any other moment in human history. We see local instantiations of these techniques, and they bubble up at different moments in time – Occupy stalled in the US but came to the fore again in Hong Kong. Power is continually threatened by the potential of horizontal, people’s power. Sofia notes that the spread of ideas on the internet really benefits from the face to face organizing we’ve seen in the immigrant rights movement, which can keep it rooted in communities.
Multimedia artist, writer, activist and teacher Coco Fusco is a visiting associate professor at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies this year, and she introduced herself to the Center for Civic Media community with a stunning talk this past Thursday, unpacking the history and the possible futures of the Cuban blogosphere. Fusco is a frequent traveler to Cuba and has interviewed many of the key figures in the space and offered an overview that’s complex, subtle and by far the most informative picture of the space I’ve heard thus far.
Fusco frames the Cuban blogosphere, in part, from her own background in performance art. Since 2008, when restrictions on cellphone use were lifted in Cuba, opponents to the Castro system have been engaged in activism that Fusco sees as having “a very media-savvy, performative character.” Citizen journalists and activists are sending text, videos and photos that document confrontation with state authorities, which has turned dissent into a kind of performance art.
If dissent is a performance, part of the audience is the United States. Not only is there a massive expatriate Cuban population in the US, there is a media system based and funded in the US, hungry for reports from independent Cuban bloggers. USAID has had a direct role in building this blogosphere, Fusco tells us. Her slides begin with the image of a Wifi logo painted onto a wall in the colors of the Cuban flag. These images are painted by activists, then painted over, in an ongoing battle. “If you didn’t know better, you might assume that ordinary Cubans were demanding free wifi. In fact, it’s part of a campaign by a USAID-supported group.”
The support from the US, the ways Cuba is trying to influence online speech, lead to a blogosphere in which participants are performing for multiple audiences. That said, the space has emerged as a critical digital public sphere for Cuban political dialog. Conventional public debate in Cuba is extremely limited, Fusco tells us. It’s officially organized, hosted solely in Havana, isn’t documented via video and has carefully controlled attendance. There’s no significant space for debate in Cuban daily newspapers or television, so the debates that happen in blogs, often hosted in Spain or Miami, is a critical digital public sphere.
The figures involved with this new public sphere are complicated. Elicér Ávila, blogger at Diário de Cuba, is supported by money from the US National Endowment for Democracy, send through Spain, Fusco tells us. On the one hand. he’s famous for confronting a government official in one of these staged official meetings, and his blog is a key part of the Cuban online scene. On the other hand, he “came out” in 2011 as a spy (in an interview with Cuban super-blogger Yoani Sanchez), part of Operación Verdad, a government project that encouraged the online harassment of independent bloggers in online media. He’s subsequently been “reborn” as a dissident, demanding a new, competitive political party to challenge the state. Figuring out who’s on what side, who is supported by whom and whose politics are genuine or performative is part of understanding this complex space.
Fusco offers a brief timeline of the internet in Cuba, starting with the arrival of internet service in 1996. This service was expensive and out of reach of most ordinary Cubans, so internet usage didn’t really come into play until the middle of the next decade. The “black spring” of 2003, where 75 journalists and human rights activists were imprisoned for their offline media activities heled step the stage for Cuba’s internet transformation. In 2006 when Fidel stepped down and Raúl took over power, many expected the political environment to open up somewhat. But it took “the Pavon case”, the online debate about the rehabilitation of a former government censor and extremist, to demonstrate the utility of online spaces as a place for political discussion. These dialogs took place via email, the medium most accessible to the few Cubans who were online at that time.
Shortly afterwards, Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y blog opened this new space to a younger generation. Shortly after, in 2008, bloggers began meeting in public, weekly, to discuss both political issues and the challenges o being online in Cuba. At the same time, restrictions were lifted on cellphone ownership, opening a new channel to online participation for the majority of Cubans who did not have access to an internet connected computer. By 2009, Sanchez and her husband had founded Blogger Academy, which trains bloggers in how to use key social media tools. The Taza de Café blog, started by Lizabel Monica, launched with technical advice about accessing internet services using Cuba’s slow internet. And in a validation of blogger influence, the Cuban government responded by launching a set of government-sponsored blogs to counter the independent ones. These blogs now outnumber independent blogs by 2:1, but have a much lower reach and readership.
Like many closed societies, Cuba has a complicated love/hate relationship with the internet. Access to the net in increasing – there are now about 1.5 million cellphones in Cuba for a population of 10-11 million, so mobile access has outpaced access to land lines, with teledensity at about 10%. Fusco estimates that roughly 25% of Cubans have internet access, but notes that there’s no way to measure that decisively, as Cubans use wifi from hotels, rent internet access from foreign workers and use any number of creative methods to get online.
The Cuban government tends to see the internet as a threat to national security, and especially as a tool for the US State department to engage in pro-democracy propaganda. Thus the Cuban internet is controlled via site censorship, through the criminalization of some kinds of communication and through limitations to online access. Officially, email in Cuba is through an in-country system, where you need to be a union member or university student to have access. The mobile phone company, Cubacel, is a monopoly, controlled by ETECSA, the national telephone company. Access is slow, and costs are extremely high. Access through a hotel costs $6 an hour, and $4.50 an hour at internet cafes. In a country where the average salary is $20/month, there’s not a ton of usage through those channels. More common is access through the mobile phones, where charges are $1 per SMS message and $0.45 a minute for a domestic phone call. Fortunately, diasporans and other supporters of Cuban bloggers are able to send phones into the country and top up mobile phone accounts remotely. (Most Cuban bloggers have a “donate” button on their blog, which solicits funds for cellphone airtime.) The $2 billion in remittances into Cuba annually are what makes citizen media on the Cuban internet possible.
Even when Cubans can afford to get online, they face substantial technical challenges. Email is really the online reliable service in Cuba, so posting to blogs, Facebook and Twitter happens primarily through email – the best bloggers have setups that trigger tweets and Facebook updates as soon as they publish new content. Cubans have grown used to a culture of surveillance, in which journalism is pre-approved, where sites critical of the government are censored, and where surveillance of phone calls and email is routine. Still, even in such a controlled environment, some information spreads relatively freely.
Fusco explains that most Cubans don’t want clandestine political media so much as they want games, music and movies. They get these through the “paquete”, the colloquial term for a package of digital media delivered on USB flash drives. These drives are assembled by diasporans and often include political news from TV Martí, as well as entertainment media. The keys sell for roughly 2 CUC, or $2 (the Cuban convertible peso, which trades for roughly $1 per CUC – it’s a parallel currency to the Cuban peso, for use in foreign transactions, by tourists and others.) Since games often circulate on these keys, it’s become a popular business to run gaming parlors for $1 an hour. While wholly political paquetes do circulate, the ones that mix political and entertainment content seem to have the best success. (I see parallels to work friends have done circulating CDs with political content in Zimbabwe, to be played on buses and in taxis. A mix that’s 2/3rd to 3/4s music, with 1/3-1/4 political content seems to work, while all politics tends not to get well circulated.)
The paquete is not the only way Cubans are hacking digital media, Fusco tells us. Used phones and smartphones need to be modified for use in Cuba. Anyone licensed to do phone repairs will employ someone – often a small team – to alter these imported phones. There’s also a business in modifying Nintendos and Playstations for domestic use. All software used in Cuba tends to be pirated, and some software – particularly mobile phone applications that depend on network access – need to be modified to work mostly offline. There’s a thriving online market for these products – revolico.com – which Fusco describes as “the illegal Cuban craigslist”.
Those Cubans who are able to get online are often engaged in independent blogging and citizen journalism. Generación Y, founded by Sanchez, is now translated by volunteers into 14 languages (leading to accusations that she obviously must be a US spy, as volunteers obviously couldn’t be counted on to translate a website into dozens of languages…) Sanchez also maintains Voces Cubanas, a group blog representing the broader Cuban dissident blogophere. Havana Times is edited in Nicaragua, but features writing from people on the Island and is regularly translated into English. In addition to technical advice from La Taza De Café, Cuban bloggers can seek legal advice from Cuban Legal Advisor, run by Laritza Diversent, who tracks changing media and propaganda laws closely and offers advice for dissidents on jail and detentions.
That this community survives is something of a miracle, as blogging began as the process of sending SMS messages to friends and asking them to post to websites. Called “blind blogging”, this was replaced by using sites like Blogger, Twitter and YouTube via email. Yoani Sanchez showed Cubans how to use MMS to send data-rich short messages, which Fusco argues led to a major change in US journalistic coverage of Cuba. Still, these journalists and activists face a daunting set of challenges, starting with the difficulties of building a local base, given the cost of accessing the Internet. There are draconian legal restrictions if you are found of publishing with US government involvement, and the online space is deeply dependent on US pro-democracy funding. Fusco explains the debates that occur in Cuba – is blogging a “mercenary activity” funded by an imperialist government, or is this autonomous action by Cuban bloggers, who need money to support this work.
In addition, bloggers are isolated geographically and politically, and rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with others facing similar situations. State security has proven itself effective in fomenting discord between opposition groups. And these groups and bloggers tend to have narrowly focused agendas that can make it hard for them to reach international audiences even when they are technically able.
Fusco offers a bit more hope to Cubans using digital media to shape culture through literature, music and film. Projects like the Voces literary magazine are providing an alternative space for artists who don’t have official recognition from artists and writers union. (This official recognition matters – it is difficult to travel without this official status.) Artists have taken to keeping online video diaries to document their work and their process, hoping this will serve as a “shield” if they are detained or arrested and a rallying point for their supporters. Even given tight restrictions on content, some controversial material, especially films, are making the rounds of global film festivals, including films like Monte Rouge (about a security official visiting the house of an intellectual) and Los Aldeanos (link en español) (a documentary about Cuba’s hip hop underground). Cuban music is making an impact as well – Porno Para Ricardo, fronted by enfant terrible Gorki Aguila, survives and has visibility globally despite four (likely politically motivated) drug arrests of Aguila.
El Comandante, by Porno Para Ricardo
Fusco’s talk ends with discussion of the uncomfortable and complex relationship between Cuban media and audiences abroad. Blog dailies are published in Havana, Miami and Madrid. These sites, which feature writing from Cubans on the island, serve as what should be the opposition press, and are widely quoted by wire services and other international news agencies. They also serve as fodder for TV and Radio Martí, the American-produced channels that seek to reach Cubans on the island and in the diaspora. Martí received a large increase in funding in the wake of the 1996 Helms-Burton acts tightening US trade embargo against Cuba (a reaction to Cuba shooting down “Brothers to the Rescue” planes that sought to rescue Cuban refugees on rafts), and now the US government provides massive funding to pro-democracy media in Cuba.
This funding has supported people like Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, who made five trips to Cuba bringing in phones and, perhaps, equipment designed to disguise satellite phone calls. Gross was arrested in 2011 and his family worries he will die in Cuban prison during his 15 year sentence. While Gross’s case has drawn international attention, Fusco notes that Cuban bloggers who accept US support – sometimes unknowingly – risk similar sentences.
She is hopeful that the $2 billion in remittance money send to Cuba might have more of an impact than the $70 million allocated to USAID, much of which is spent in the US. Projects like ZunZuneo, secretly created by USAID contractors to be the “Cuban Twitter” are far less interesting that projects like Yagruma, which supported creative projects in Cuba through a Kickstarter model before being stopped by the Treasury department in 2013, or Roots of Hope, organized by Cuban Harvard students, which coordinates tech donations to Cuban citizens.
Two interesting points came up in discussion with the Center for Civic Media team. Dalia Othman, an expert on social media in Palestine, noted that the Arabic blogopshere has moved almost entirely onto newer social media platforms. This shift hasn’t happened in Cuba, Fusco believes, because time moves differently on the Cuban internet. “It takes four hours to get to work, so why would you blog everyday? There’s no sense for the tactical use of brevity.” And because Cuba’s internet access is so slow, the always on world of social media doesn’t make much sense to Cuban users.
I asked Fusco what she would advise Secretary of State Kerry to do regarding independent media in Cuba. Her main point was that Cubans are far smarter about what works in Cuba than US contractors. Acknowledging that it’s dangerous for the US to fund Cubans directly, she’d like to see more diverse and less polarized funding for media in Cuba. At the same time, it’s important to question some of the Florida-based expatriate organizations, which have historically been sponsoring violent opposition and are now sponsoring technology. Critically, she thinks Cubans need to get beyond the idea that US support for independent media is a “mercenary” activity – independent journalism should not be seen as mercenary, or as a US demand. Instead, it’s a demand for a functional society.
Once upon a time, there was a blog.
It was written in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia, by a team of young journalists and thinkers who wanted to have an open, public conversation about the future of their nation.
Pictures of some of the Zone 9 bloggers
It’s not especially easy to talk about these issues in Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest country has been ruled by a neo-marxist government (EPRDF – Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democracy Front) which overthrew a brutal military dictatorship in 1991, instilling one-party autocratic rule in its place.
Part of EPRDF’s strategy of control is the silencing of dissent. When students protested rigged elections in 2005, the government blocked all SMS traffic for two years, claiming that opposition activists were using SMS to plan their campaigns. (They were. The real issue is that Ethiopia saw opposition political activity as a threat to regime stability.) Ethiopia briefly had a thriving and energetic blogosphere, but government censorship and harassment of bloggers quickly silenced many of those voices. The country’s independent press has been crippled by Ethiopia’s strategy of imprisoning the strongest journalistic voices, including PEN prizewinner Eskinder Nega, in the country’s notorious Kaliti Prison.
Tens of thousands are held in Kaliti prison, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Journalists and other political prisoners are held in Zone 8 of the prison, and they jokingly refer to the rest of the nation, itself in a prison of sorts, as “Zone 9″. Thus the name of the blog: the Zone 9 bloggers are writing from the outer ring of the prison, the nation itself.
Zone 9 member Endalk explains:
In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.
When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.
Ethiopia sees itself in danger of splitting into rival, warring parts. This fear is not unfounded – Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a thirty-year war, taking Ethiopia’s seacoast with it. (Sadly, Eritrea is also a one-party state notorious for jailing journalists.) Ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and ethnic Oromo have been seeking independent states – their armed movements, the ODLF and the OLF are seen as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian government.
The Ethiopian government does face a real threat from armed militants. But it has a disturbing tendency to label anyone who expresses dissent as a terrorist. Consider Eskinder Nega. Nega’s crime was to report on the Arab Spring protests and to point out that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government did not reform and open up. He was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts and is now serving an 18 year prison sentence.
The Zone 9 bloggers were understandably scared by Nega’s arrest and prosecution, and the blog went silent for over a year. This spring, they decided they could not remain silent any longer. On April 25th, the government responded by arresting 6 members of the blogging team, and three journalists the government saw as “affiliated” with the bloggers.
The charges against the bloggers give a sense of what the Ethiopian government is fighting: dissent, not terror. Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that bloggers traveled out of the country to receive training in encrypting their communications, specifically through using Security in a Box, a package of Open Source software compiled by Tactical Tech, an organization that helps free speech and journalistic organizations protect themselves from surveillance. The Ethiopian government accuses the Zone 9 bloggers of using these tools in an attempt to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy.” In fact, the bloggers were using such tools to coordinate their reporting work, hoping to avoid detection and arrest by a paranoid government.
These charges give a sense for how hard it is to work on free speech issues in repressive countries. Global Voices worked with Zone 9 in 2012 to create the Amharic edition of Global Voices. (That edition hasn’t been updated recently due to the imprisonment of our partners.) Four of the bloggers held in Kaliti are Global Voices volunteers. Other members of the team who work with Global Voices are in exile and would be arrested if they returned home. Knowing how dangerous it is to report from Ethiopia, we helped our volunteers find resources like Security in a Box. Our attempts to help create a safer environment for free speech in Ethiopia are now part of the case against our friends.
Compounding the sadness and frustration we at Global Voices are feeling is the fact that Ethiopia is a massive recipient of foreign aid, hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is a key military ally to the US, seen as a stable, Christian bulwark against Somalia. Meles Zenawi enjoyed a warm relationship with the Obama administration (the President’s statement on Zenawi’s death included a cursory mention of human rights after praising Zenawi’s focus on food security), and there’s been little evidence that the State Department has any plans of getting tough with Ethiopia on issues of free speech or human rights.
At Global Voices, we are trying to call attention to the plight of the Zone 9 bloggers, hoping for action from the US State Department to seek their immediate release, and an easing of Ethiopia’s war on independent media. We are asking friends to join in using the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, and to direct tweets to @StateDept.
This is a hard time to call attention to this situation, we know. Ellery Biddle, writing for Global Voices, notes that her Twitter client autofills the hashtag #Free____ with half a dozen choices, many of them our community members. It’s an appropriate time to tweet the State Department to demand Israel protect the safety of civilians in Gaza, or to demand that news media cover the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. In asking for help, I don’t want to lessen anyone’s outrage about other injustice, but to ask for help bringing visibility to the plight of our friends who are otherwise likely to be forgotten in international diplomatic circles.