Self-described activist creator of Cell 411 app weirdly refuses to discuss its closed source tech because of anti-racist Twitter handle of the person asking

About a week ago I published a post cautiously praising the work of Boulder, Colorado based SafeArx, the company behind a smartphone app called Cell 411 claiming to cut down on the need for police:

Let me be clear that I love the idea of a decentralized emergency alerting response platform. I think it’s incredibly important for such a tool to exist. […] I want to see a project with Cell 411’s claims succeed and be a part of abolishing the police and the State altogether. I think there’s real potential there to make headway on an important social good (abolishing the police, dismantling the prison industrial complex, among other social goods) and I want to offer whatever supportive resources I can to further a project with these goals.

In the post, I raised some basic questions about Cell 411 that seemed to have gone unasked by reporters covering it. Chief among them is that the app claims to be a de-centralized alternative to 9-1-1, except that it’s not decentralized at all. I described this discrepancy as follows:

On the Google Play store, Cell 411 describes itself like this:

Cell 411 is a De-centralized, micro-social platform that allows users to issue emergency alerts, and respond to alerts issued by their friends.

The problem is in the very first adjective: de-centralized. To a technologist, “decentralization” is the characteristic of having no single endpoint with which a given user must communicate in order to make use of the service. Think trackerless BitTorrent, BitCoin, Tor, or Diaspora. These are all examples of “decentralized” networks or services because if any given computer running the software goes down, the network stays up. One of the characteristics inherent in decentralized networks is an inability of the network or service creator from unilaterally barring access to the network by a given end-user. In other words, there is no one who can “ban” your account from using BitTorrent. That’s not how “piracy” works, duh.

Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken to about Cell 411 seem to believe that “decentralized” simply means “many users in geographically diverse locations.” But this is obviously ignorant. If that were what decentralized meant, then Facebook and Twitter and Google could all be meaningfully described as “decentralized services.” That’s clearly ridiculous. This image shows the difference between centralization and decentralization:

The difference between centralization and decentralization.

As you can see, what matters is not where the end users are located, but that there is more than one hub for a given end user to connect to in order to access the rest of the network.

Armed with that knowledge, have a look at the very first clause of Cell 411’s Terms of Service legalese, which reads, and I quote:

1. We may terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if you breach the Terms.

This is immediately suspect. If they are able to actually enforce such a claim, then it is a claim that directly contradicts a claim made by their own description. In a truly decentralized network or service, the ability for the network creator to unilaterlly “terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability” is not technically possible. If Cell 411 truly is decentralized, this is an unenforceable clause, and they know it. On the other hand, if Cell 411 is centralized (and this clause is enforceable), other, more troubling concerns immediately come to mind. Why should activists trade one centralized emergency dispatch tool run by the government (namely, 9-1-1), for another centralized one run by a company? Isn’t this just replacing one monopoly with another? And why bill a centralized service as a decentralized one in the first place?

Despite this, I was hopeful that Cell 411’s creator, Virgil Vaduva, and his team would be willing to at least address the point, perhaps by discussing their development roadmap. Maybe it’s not decentralized yet, but they intend to decentralize it later on? That would be awesome, and important. Moreover, I asked if they would be interested in combining efforts with me or others with whom I’ve worked, since we’ve been developing an actually decentralized, free software tool with the same goal in mind called Buoy for a few months now. I said as much in my earlier post:

I want to see Cell 411 and Buoy both get better. Buoy could become better if it had Cell 411’s mobile app features. Cell 411 could become better if its server could be run by anyone with a WordPress blog, like Buoy can be.

I sent Virgil Vaduva an email last week, and tweeted at him before writing my post. (My previous post includes a copy of the email I sent him.) I was ignored. So I started tweeting at others who were tweeting about Cell 411, linking them to my questions. It seems that’s what got Mr. Vaduva’s attention, since today I finally got a response from him. And that response is extremely concerning for Cell 411’s supposed target audience: activists. Here’s how Mr. Vaduva “answered” my technical questions:

I’m not entirely sure why technical questions like these were answered by a hyper-focus on the militantly anti-racist Twitter handle I happen to be using right now (it’s actually “Kill White Amerikkka”), unless of course if Vaduva is having some kind of trigger reaction caused by (evidently not-so-latent) internalized white supremacy. Later, he called my original post, which, again, included outright praise for Cell 411 a “shitty hit piece.” I even offered to change my Twitter handle (as if that has any bearing at all on the technical matters?) for the duration of a discussion with him, but again, the only replies were, well, have a look:

The full thread is…well, classic Twitter.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of installing a closed-source app that reports my location to a centralized database controlled by a company whose founder actively deflects legitimate technical questions by objecting to a militantly anti-racist Twitter handle and making immature pro-capitalist statements when asked technical questions doesn’t sit well with me. But even if that were something I could tolerate, it raises even more concerning questions when that very same app is one touted as being built for anti-police brutality activists.

Last week, I would have told my friends, “Go ahead and try Cell 411, but be careful.” With this new information, my advice is: “Don’t trust anything created by SafeArx, including Cell 411, until and unless the technical issues are addressed, the source is released as free software, and its creators make clear that anti-racism and anti-capitalism is a core intention of their development process.”

In my personal opinion, tools like Cell 411 that purport to be “made for activists, by activists” need to be comfortable materially advancing the destruction of whiteness and white identity, as well as standing in solidarity with militant resistance to white supremacy. But even putting aside concerns over Vaduva’s discomfort with anti-racist Twitter handles, any technologist worth his salt who wants his closed-source technology to be trusted should be able to answer some basic questions about it if he’s indeed unwilling to release the source code itself.

Mr. Vaduva and Cell 411 fall short on both counts. The sad thing is that any potentially latent racism in Cell 411’s creator wouldn’t be a technical concern if Cell 411 itself were actually decentralized free software, since the intentions or social beliefs of an app’s creator can’t change how the already-written code works. As I said in the conclusion to my previous post:

It’s obvious, at least to anyone who understands that the purpose of cops is to protect and uphold white supremacy and oppress the working class, why cops would hate a free decentralized emergency response service. Again, I want to use such an app so badly that I began building one myself.

But if Cell 411 is centralized, then it becomes a much more useful tool for law enforcement than it does for a private individual, for exactly the same reason as Facebook presents a much more useful tool for the NSA than it does for your local reading group, despite offering benefits to both.

Cartoon of a protester ineffectually trying to shoot corrupt government officials with a 'Facebook' logo positioned as a gun.

[…]

As long as Cell 411 remains a proprietary, closed-source, centralized tool, all the hype about it being a decentralized app that cops hate will remain hype. And there are few things agents of the State like more than activists who are unable to see the reality of a situation for what it is.

Admiral Ackbar: Proprietary and centralized software-as-a-service? It's a trap!

If you think having a free software, anarchist infrastructural alternative to the police and other State-sponsored emergency services is important and want to see it happen, we need your help making Buoy better. You can find instructions for hacking on Buoy on our wiki.

Cell 411, the “de-centralized” smartphone app that “cops hate” is neither de-centralized nor hated by cops

If you’re following anti-police brutality activists, you might have heard about a new smartphone app that aims to cut down on the need for police. Cell 411 is touted as “the decentralized emergency alerting and response platform” that “cops don’t want you to use.” There’s only one problem: its central marketing claims aren’t true. Cell 411 is not decentralized, and there’s no evidence that cops don’t want you to use it.

Let me be clear that I love the idea of a decentralized emergency alerting response platform. I think it’s incredibly important for such a tool to exist. I’m so committed to that belief that I’ve been building a free software implementation of just such a tool, called Buoy, for a few months now.

Further, I believe it’s equally important that the developers of a tool like this actively eschew the State-sponsored terrorist gangs known as law enforcement, because that mindset will inform the tool’s development process itself. On the face of it and from the research I’ve done to look into Cell 411’s developers, I think there is a lot of welcome overlap between them and myself. Indeed, I’m grateful to them for developing Cell 411 and for dropping their price for it, offering it free-of-charge on the Android and iOS app stores, which is how it should be. Nobody should be charged any money for the opportunity to access tools for self- and community protection; that’s what cops do!

I’ve even reached out both publicly and privately to the developers of Cell 411 through email and Twitter to ask them about a possible collaboration, pointing them at the source code for the Buoy project I’m working on and asking where their source can be found.1 I want to see a project with Cell 411’s claims succeed and be a part of abolishing the police and the State altogether. I think there’s real potential there to make headway on an important social good (abolishing the police, dismantling the prison industrial complex, among other social goods) and I want to offer whatever supportive resources I can to further a project with these goals.

But I am concerned that Cell 411 is not that project. The fact is there are glaring, unexplained inconsistencies between their marketing material, the perception that they encourage the public to have about their tool, and their tool’s legal disclaimers. Such inconsistency is, well, sketchy. But it’s not unfamiliar, because this exact kind of inconsistency is something activists have seen from corporations and even well-meaning individuals before. We should be able to recognize it no matter the flag, no matter how pretty the packaging in which the message is delivered is wrapped in.

On the Google Play store, Cell 411 describes itself like this:

Cell 411 is a De-centralized, micro-social platform that allows users to issue emergency alerts, and respond to alerts issued by their friends.

The problem is in the very first adjective: de-centralized. To a technologist, “decentralization” is the characteristic of having no single endpoint with which a given user must communicate in order to make use of the service. Think trackerless BitTorrent, BitCoin, Tor, or Diaspora. These are all examples of “decentralized” networks or services because if any given computer running the software goes down, the network stays up. One of the characteristics inherent in decentralized networks is an inability of the network or service creator from unilaterally barring access to the network by a given end-user. In other words, there is no one who can “ban” your account from using BitTorrent. That’s not how “piracy” works, duh.

Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken to about Cell 411 seem to believe that “decentralized” simply means “many users in geographically diverse locations.” But this is obviously ignorant. If that were what decentralized meant, then Facebook and Twitter and Google could all be meaningfully described as “decentralized services.” That’s clearly ridiculous. This image shows the difference between centralization and decentralization:

The difference between centralization and decentralization.

As you can see, what matters is not where the end users are located, but that there is more than one hub for a given end user to connect to in order to access the rest of the network.

Armed with that knowledge, have a look at the very first clause of Cell 411’s Terms of Service legalese, which reads, and I quote:

1. We may terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if you breach the Terms.

This is immediately suspect. If they are able to actually enforce such a claim, then it is a claim that directly contradicts a claim made by their own description. In a truly decentralized network or service, the ability for the network creator to unilaterlly “terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability” is not technically possible. If Cell 411 truly is decentralized, this is an unenforceable clause, and they know it. On the other hand, if Cell 411 is centralized (and this clause is enforceable), other, more troubling concerns immediately come to mind. Why should activists trade one centralized emergency dispatch tool run by the government (namely, 9-1-1), for another centralized one run by a company? Isn’t this just replacing one monopoly with another? And why bill a centralized service as a decentralized one in the first place?

Virgil Vaduva, Cell 411’s creator, told me on Twitter that the app is not open source but hinted that it might be in the future:

This leaves me with even more questions, which I asked, but received no answer to as yet. (See the Twitter thread linked above.)

Cell 411’s proprietary source code is licensed under an unusual license called the BipCot NoGov license, written by a libertarian group with whom I share distrust and hatred of the United States government. Where we differ, apparently, can be summed up by this Andy Singer quote:

Libertarianism is just Anarchy for rich people.

And that concerns me greatly. Cell 411 originally cost 99¢ per app install on both the Google Play and iTunes app stores. It’s now free, which, again, is a move in the right direction. But by refusing to release the source code, SafeArx holds its users hostage in more ways than one. There are already rumors that the company is intending to monetize the app in the future, perhaps by charging for app downloads or perhaps in some other way in the future. That is fucked. The people who need an alternative to the police most of all are not people with money. That’s why all of Buoy’s code was available as free software from the very beginning; so those people could access the tool. And beyond that, it’s the very people who need an alternative to the prison industrial complex most who are also most in need of safety from capitalism’s exploitative “monetization.”

I hope Virgil chooses to make Cell 411 free software too—i.e., not just free as in no-charge but software libre as in freedom and liberty. A closed-source tool is downright dangerous for activists to rely on, especially for an app that is supposed to be all about communal safety. This has never been more obvious than in the post-Snowden age. If you share our goal of abolishing the State and ending the practice of caging human beings, and you want to dialogue, please do what you can to convince the people running SafeArx and Cell 411 of the obvious strategic superiority of non-cooperation with capitalism.

Which brings me to my next major concern: there is no evidence that cops hate Cell 411, despite the headlines. It’s obvious, at least to anyone who understands that the purpose of cops is to protect and uphold white supremacy and oppress the working class, why cops would hate a free decentralized emergency response service. Again, I want to use such an app so badly that I began building one myself.

But if Cell 411 is centralized, then it becomes a much more useful tool for law enforcement than it does for a private individual, for exactly the same reason as Facebook presents a much more useful tool for the NSA than it does for your local reading group, despite offering benefits to both.

Cartoon of a protester ineffectually trying to shoot corrupt government officials with a 'Facebook' logo positioned as a gun.

I am not saying that Cell 411 is a bad tool. Far from it. My belief is that it is a good tool for individuals and my hope is that it will become a better tool over time. But if Cell 411 is to go from “good” to “great,” then it must actually be decentralized. It must be released freely to the people as free software/software libre. Private individuals who are working to create social infrastructure as an alternative to police must be able to access its source code to integrate it with other tools, to hack on it and make it more secure. This is the free software way, and it is the only feasible anti-capitalist approach. And the only strategically sound way to abolish police is to abolish capitalism, since police are by definition capitalism’s thugs.

It is the explicit intent of police and the State to prevent private individuals from taking their own protection into their own hands, from making their own lives better with their own tools in their own way, by not allowing access to the source of those tools. We, Cell 411 included, should not be emulating that behavior.

I want to be able to run my own Cell 411 server without asking for permission from SafeArx to do so. If Cell 411 were decentralized free software, I would be able to do this today, just as I can publish my own WordPress blog, install my own Diaspora pod, or run my own Tor relay without asking anyone for permission before I do it. This is what I can already do with Buoy, the community-based emergency response system that is already decentralized free software, licensed GPL-3 and available for download and install today from the WordPress plugin repository.

As a developer, I want to see Cell 411 and Buoy both get better. Buoy could become better if it had Cell 411’s mobile app features. Cell 411 could become better if its server could be run by anyone with a WordPress blog, like Buoy can be.

But as long as Cell 411 remains a proprietary, closed-source, centralized tool, all the hype about it being a decentralized app that cops hate will remain hype. And there are few things agents of the State like more than activists who are unable to see the reality of a situation for what it is.

Admiral Ackbar: Proprietary and centralized software-as-a-service? It's a trap!

If you think having a free software, anarchist infrastructural alternative to the police and other State-sponsored emergency services is important and want to see it happen, we need your help making Buoy better. You can find instructions for hacking on Buoy on our wiki.

  1. Here’s the email I sent to Virgil Vaduva, Cell 411’s creator and SafeArx’s founder (the company behind the app):

    From: maymay <bitetheappleback@gmail.com>
    Date: Sat, 27 Feb 2016 20:03:38 -0700

    Hi Virgil,

    My name is maymay. I learned about Cell 411 recently and I’m excited to see its development. It is similar to a web-based project of my own. I am wondering where the source code for the Cell 411 app can be found. I could not find any links to a source code repository from any of the marketing materials that I saw on your website.

    Our own very similar project is called Buoy. The difference is that Buoy is intended for community leaders and intends to be a fully free software “community-based crisis response system,” with the same anti-cop ideology as Cell 411 but built as a plugin for WordPress in order to make it super easy for anyone to host their own community’s 9-1-1 equivalent.

    Our source code is here:

    https://github.com/meitar/better-angels/

    We have focused on the web-app side of things because that’s where our experience lies, but were hoping to create a native mobile app later on. It seems you already made one. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we’re hoping to integrate what you’ve done with Cell 411 with what we’ve already developed in order to facilitate a more decentralized, truly citizen-powered infrastructure alternative to 9-1-1.

    So that’s why we’re interested in looking at Cell 411’s source code.

    Thanks for your work on this so far.

    Cheers,
    -maymay
    Maymay.net
    Cyberbusking.org

    []

Look at how little the actual contents/merit of ideas matters to the Tumblr peanut gallery

Humor me for a few short minutes and let’s conduct an experiment. Have a look at these two posts. You don’t have to read them thoroughly if you don’t want to, just scroll through and skim them quickly. In fact, it’s better if you wait to read the two posts too closely until the end. Okay, ready?

  1. The first post is: A Sneak Peek at Better Angels’ Buoy: the private, enhanced 9-1-1 for your personal community
  2. The second post is: Buoy (the first?) anti-policing community-based crisis response system, now available in Spanish

Both were cross-posted to Tumblr. (Post 1, Post 2.) Both posts describe the same exact thing, a software tool (an “app”) for community-based crisis response. Both posts describe how it can be used instead of police intervention. Both posts even end with similar post scripts. The first post ends with this hidden message in the post’s tags:

Did you notice how incredibly toned-down this post was?

And the second post ends with this P.S.:

P.S. Did you notice how this post has a different tone than my original post announcing Buoy’s prototype release? Guess which one expresses how I really feel.

Now, have a look at some early Tumblr responses to each post.

Here are some representative responses that one of the posts got within 5 days of its publication:

  • From salchristina:
    This is great! Right now I’m working with some psychiatric survivors in Vermont to start an SMS crisis-support hotline so people can safely/easily contact a group of likeminded people, and hopefully have less interaction with crisis service / cops.

  • From limnrix:
    I kind of want to see if it’s possible to connect this to a volunteer medic system (and be one of those medics, although it doesn’t look like I’ll be renewing my certification)

Now, here’s a representative response that the other post got within 5 minutes of its publication:

  • From brazenautomaton:
    I don’t think someone whose views are this skewed can be trusted with… pretty much anything involving personal safety or protection from harm. […] American police, much like America as a whole, are terrible awful bad evil worst, until you compare them to any of the other things they can be compared to. The police are corrupt and need reform, don’t get me wrong. But saying that since they are corrupt, a better option is to cut them out altogether, is one of the worst ideas a person could ever have. […] And my personal heuristic is that any anarchists who are this smug about it cannot correctly assess anything and their perceptions cannot be trusted to any extent.

Quite a stark difference. Remember, these responses are both coming from relatively Left-leaning people who have never been exposed to Buoy before. The only difference is in which post about it they read first. And again, remember that the posts themselves contain relatively similar content relating to the software itself; both describe how the tool works, what its capabilities are, etc. Both posts explicitly discuss the potential for responding to crisis incidents without police getting involved. Both posts contain screenshots or videos showing the software in action.

Now go back and have another, more thorough read of the two posts themselves. Notice anything different about them? I’m sure you do. So, pop quiz: can you connect the dots and figure out which post the people having these reactions saw first?

Same ideas. Identical app. Different tone.

That is what tone policing looks like, people. The biggest strategic failure of so-called Left politics in this country is that so-called Leftists attack people who push politics to the Left literally within seconds of such speech being uttered. I mean, who needs to worry about the Religious Right when you have a political Left that does the Right’s job for them? And then these same leftists often wonder why politics is dominated by right-wing fanatics.

Duh!

Maybe y’all should be asking yourselves questions like, “Why is it that all it takes to radically swing my position from supporting something to being against that same thing is the tone with which it was presented and not the merits or the contents of the thing itself?” And, if you do that, maybe you’ll find an answer that explains why other people, such as those who work for advertisers and PR agencies, are able to manipulate and control everything about you with such ease, from the way you vote to the way you think to what you are even capable of imagining is possible.

Just saying.

Or, y’know, you could just keep scrolling through your dash. That’s probably just as good. Probably.

Buoy (the first?) anti-policing community-based crisis response system, now available in Spanish

Buoy, (the first?) anti-policing community-based crisis response system, is now available in Spanish.

This is a really, really big deal, because communities of Spanish-speaking residents in the United Snakes of Amerikkka are some of the most oppressively policed communities in this so-called “great” country. These are sometimes families of immigrants, with members who may be undocumented, and for this simple reason they are frequent targets of the xenophobic, racist militarized occupation by the huge number of government-sponsored domestic terror gangs known as “Law Enforcement,” police, or ICE.

With Buoy, residents of these communities finally have the beginnings of a fully community-owned and operated emergency dispatch telecommunication system that does not force or even expect its users to cooperate with 9-1-1, or indeed any other traditional “public safety service” offered by government officials. Buoy users choose people they know and trust in real life and organize “teams” with one another. With the press of a single button, they can then create a private group chat that shows each team member the real-world location of all other team members, allowing team members to share video or pictures and otherwise coordinate appropriate responses to incidents, without the interference of police.

Here is a short video introduction to Buoy’s alert-and-response features:

Of course, there are many other ways social groups of any size can use Buoy. Here’s a list of additional use cases.

If you are interested in helping us crush the monopoly of State-backed so-called “protective services,” if you want to evict the police from your community, if you want to be part of abolishing the police and mercilessly eradicating every reason for their very existence, we want and need you to join this project. Have a look at our “Contributing” guidelines for ways you can help. Liberals, Statists, and cop apologists need not apply.

Kill white supremacy,
-maymay, Buoy developer

P.S. Did you notice how this post has a different tone than my original post announcing Buoy’s prototype release? Guess which one expresses how I really feel.

“Societies With Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness” is a case study in Consent as a Felt Sense

I am an insane person because I have self-respecting humane reactions to being forced to do, think, and feel things I do not want to do, do not believe, and do not want to experience.

Societies With Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness“, by Bruce Levine, Ph.D., writing in Mad In America:

Throughout history, societies have existed with far less coercion than ours, and while these societies have had far less consumer goods and what modernity calls “efficiency,” they also have had far less mental illness. This reality has been buried, not surprisingly, by uncritical champions of modernity and mainstream psychiatry. Coercion—the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance—is intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling, and parenting. However, coercion results in fear and resentment, which are fuels for miserable marriages, unhappy families, and what we today call mental illness.

[…]

Once, when doctors actually listened at length to their patients about their lives, it was obvious to many of them that coercion played a significant role in their misery. But most physicians, including psychiatrists, have stopped delving into their patients’ lives. In 2011, the New York Times (“Talk Doesn’t Pay, So Psychiatry Turns Instead to Drug Therapy”) reported, “A 2005 government survey found that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients.” As the article points out, psychiatrists can make far more money primarily providing “medication management,” in which they only check symptoms and adjust medication.

Since the 1980s, biochemical psychiatry in partnership with Big Pharma has come to dominate psychiatry, and they have successfully buried truths about coercion that were once obvious to professionals who actually listened at great length to their patients—obvious, for example, to Sigmund Freud (Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) and R.D. Laing (The Politics of Experience, 1967). This is not to say that Freud’s psychoanalysis and Laing’s existential approach always have been therapeutic. However, doctors who focus only on symptoms and prescribing medication will miss the obvious reality of how a variety of societal coercions can result in a cascade of family coercions, resentments, and emotional and behavioral problems.

Modernity is replete with institutional coercions not present in most indigenous cultures. This is especially true with respect to schooling and employment, which for most Americans, according to recent polls, are alienating, disengaging, and unfun. As I reported earlier this year (“Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane, a Gallup poll, released in January 2013, reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become, and by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. Critics of schooling—from Henry David Thoreau, to Paul Goodman, to John Holt, to John Taylor Gatto—have understood that coercive and unengaging schooling is necessary to ensure that young people more readily accept coercive and unengaging employment. And as I also reported in that same article, a June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have checked out of them.

Unengaging employment and schooling require all kinds of coercions for participation, and human beings pay a psychological price for this. In nearly three decades of clinical practice, I have found that coercion is often the source of suffering.

[…]

In all societies, there are coercions to behave in culturally agreed-upon ways. For example, in many indigenous cultures, there is peer pressure to be courageous and honest. However, in modernity, we have institutional coercions that compel us to behave in ways that we do not respect or value. Parents, afraid their children will lack credentials necessary for employment, routinely coerce their children to comply with coercive schooling that was unpleasant for these parents as children. And though 70% of us hate or are disengaged from our jobs, we are coerced by the fear of poverty and homelessness to seek and maintain employment.

In our society, we are taught that accepting institutional coercion is required for survival. We discover a variety of ways—including drugs and alcohol—to deny resentment. We spend much energy denying the lethal effects of coercion on relationships. And, unlike many indigenous cultures, we spend little energy creating a society with a minimal amount of coercion.

Accepting coercion as “a fact of life,” we often have little restraint in coercing others when given the opportunity. This opportunity can present itself when we find ourselves above others in an employment hierarchy and feel the safety of power; or after we have seduced our mate by being as noncoercive as possible and feel the safety of marriage. Marriages and other relationships go south in a hurry when one person becomes a coercive control freak; resentment quickly occurs in the other person, who then uses counter-coercive measures.

Pair with:

You’re probably a non-racist and a non-rapist, but that’s a pathetically low standard that should be beneath you.

So, I have a question for you: are you you non-, or are you anti-?

Several months ago in response to Ferguson, Baltimore, the killings of Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice my friend Kaitlyn put up a Facebook post breaking down the difference between non-racism and anti-racism.

Most of are non-racist. Because racism is looked upon as some moral lapse, we feel self-assured by simply not being racist. I’m not a bigot. I don’t sing that N-word when my favorite rap jam comes on. I didn’t vote for that guy. I’m not burning any crosses. I’m not a skinhead. “I don’t,” “I won’t”, “I’m not”, “I’ve never,” “I can’t.”

What you end up with is an entire moral stance, an entire code for living your life and dealing with all the injustice in the world by not doing a damn thing.

That’s the great thing about “non-“: you can pull it off by simply rolling over in your bed and going to sleep. So why are you sitting at home and watching unfold on TV instead of doing something about it? Because you’re a non-racist, not an anti-racist.

Now do this for me: take the “C” out of “racist,” and replace it with a “P.” I’m not a rapist. I’m not friends with any rapists. I didn’t buy that rapist’s last album. All these things that you’re not doing. Meanwhile, people are still getting raped. And Black boys are being killed.

It’s not enough that you don’t do these things.

Your going to bed with a clear conscience is not going to stop college students from being assaulted. You thinking climate change is terrible is not going to stop climate change. You being so assured that you’re not anti-black, anti-muslim, won’t stop the next hate crime. And it’s wonderful that you recognize how brave gay people are when facing persecution, but they aren’t the ones who need to be brave.

We need to get active. We need to hold people accountable. We need to accept that what hurts one of us hurts all of us. And we need to stop thinking that injustice going on in the world isn’t to an extent our fault.

We need to stop being non- and start being anti-.

By Marlon James, via The Guardian.

Pair with Allies Must Be Traitors: On Barnor Hesse’s “action-oriented identities.” for more on anti-racism and You Can Take It Back: Consent as a Felt Sense along with “I said ‘yes.’ But I feel raped” for more about how we’re conditioned to behave as “non-rapists” rather than anti-rape.

What tools should we be building to end capitalism?

Someone recently asked me:

In terms of ending capitalism, what tools do we need to start building? How can we help one another connect to the resources we need? If we need laptops and phones to stay connected, but we do not have the natural resources to build them in communities close to us, how do we help one another connect and create while staying decentralized? Does that make sense? Are you already envisioning particular tools?

I wrote an answer I think is the synthesis of a lot of my thoughts about this, and want to share:

That is a really big question. To fully answer, I think it requires an agreement on definitions and a solid shared understanding of those definitions. That’s not something a lone email will be able to offer, so I have to refer you to a number of other sources for that kind of background. (We’ve talked about a lot of them in person, already.)

That said, with the necessary background, I think the answer to “what tools should we be building in terms of ending capitalism” is to rephrase the question so it’s more like: “What are some useful paradigms/models/frameworks we should be building tools based on in order to speed capitalism’s demise?”

I think it’s more important to understand capitalism as a way of thinking than it is to understand that a given tool X is implemented “capitalistically,” because ultimately capitalism is not a thing any more than love or hate are “things.” Capitalism is not a thing one can hold in one’s hand. Rather, it is a way of experiencing the things one holds in one’s hands, or feels about other people with whom one has relationships. There is no physical or digital tool that can directly change such an abstract thing.

Change must come from the other direction: how one thinks and what one values. It is obvious that “how one thinks and what one values” greatly affects the tools one makes, as well as affecting how one chooses to use said tool(s). If you value domination, you will choose to make tools that increase your ability to be dominating. Domination is ultimately what capitalism—the way of being a productive member of society as we know it today—rewards, both financially and otherwise. If society is to thrive, that needs to change away from valuing domination and towards valuing empathy and trust. A society based on domination is not one in which most people’s individual quality of life is high. That’s not just my opinion; a lot has been written in a great many academic and other fields about the importance and correlation of empathy and trust in societies for a joyous life. (Google it.)

But no tool, even tools that were carefully crafted to avoid conferring the ability to dominate on their users, are immune from being used in ways that dominate others. The evidence of this is simply that someone who wishes to dominate someone else can simply withhold knowledge of said tool from them (using the innate human ability of not speaking to that person), thereby increasing the gap of capability between themselves and the person they seek to dominate. And notice that this has nothing to do with the design of said tool. The problem is a human, cultural one, not a technological one.

So with all that said (and hopefully understood), if one chooses to build tools anyway, as I do, and if one chooses to do so with the intent of destroying capitalism, as I do, then it’s important that the tools we choose to build are carefully chosen so their predictable impacts have the most benefit to those who share our intent of destroying capitalism and the least benefit to capitalists.

There are some tools that benefit one group of people more than others. But knowing which these are or will be is complex because that trade-off is never static; it changes with each new tool’s introduction and also with the changing cultural morays of a given society in a given time. This isn’t always predictable, but what is predictable is the ways in which different groups incorporate new tools. Bruce Schneier writes about this when he says:

There are technologies that immediately benefit the defender and are of no use at all to the attacker – for example, fingerprint technology allowed police to identify suspects after they left the crime scene and didn’t provide any corresponding benefit to criminals. The same thing happened with immobilizing technology for cars, alarm systems for houses, and computer authentication technologies. Some technologies benefit both but still give more advantage to the defenders. The radio allowed street policemen to communicate remotely, which increased our level of safety more than the corresponding downside of criminals communicating remotely endangers us.

As anti-capitalists, one of our goals should be to identify, design, and deploy technologies that are more use to anti-capitalists than capitalists. There are many good examples of this. Food banks. Public libraries. Distributed telecommunications (like BitTorrent, IPFS, Tor onion services, etc.). Fighting for truly public spaces (like how Occupy Wall Street tried to take back public parks for living purposes). All of these things are anti-capitalist, and there are many more more like them. We should support all of these things and anything that supports those things, would be great.

In other words, we need to be building infrastructure. And when I say infrastructure, I don’t just mean anti-capitalist infrastructure (infrastructure useful for directly attacking capitalism, such as defunding and directly combating the existence of militaries and police, as projects like CopWatch or our project, Buoy, aims to do, although I do think this is useful and important, too). I specifically mean ALTERNATIVE infrastructure: infrastructure useful for doing things other than capitalism.

What does infrastructure enabling doing things other than capitalism look like? That’s a HUGE, diverse array of things that are actually pretty familiar. Public (shared) roadways are the canonical example. Roads themselves are a tool; they are neither capitalist nor anti-capitalist, they have existed long before capitalism. The capitalist part of the modern conception of a roadway is the part where someone thinks to themselves, “there’s a pothole here, but I’ll do nothing about that because it is not my job to fix it, it is the State’s job to send someone here to patch this up.” That’s how capitalism ends up taking over control of roadways. That’s the force that ultimately enables a powerful, dominating entity, such as a government or corporation, to put up toll booths and “privatize” and thereby control access to an otherwise uncontrollable, un-ownable thing such as physical movement.

We’ve already begun building alternatives to this way of thinking. For example, see the “citizen pothole reporting mobile app” developed over 6 years ago.

This kind of app is a nice try, and there have been a lot of these coming from initiatives like (the badly misguided) “Code for America” brigades, but it ultimately benefits capitalists because the developers of these apps take the basic assumption of capitalism (that someone “owns” the road—and that this owner is the State) and amplifies it.

A more anti-capitalist or capitalist-alternative “pothole fixing” app would have included instructions for how to fix potholes in the app itself, included a feature for locating the materials needed to fix potholes on the map (even if that just means directions to the nearest Home Depot), and then walked the end-user through the process of traveling to and fixing the potholes that they navigated to. Of course, anti-capitalism is a gradient. To offer an even more effective alternative to capitalism, the app could include a feature where people are able to list their own garages as spaces where other users (pothole-fixers) could freely take and/or borrow the supplies needed for fixing potholes. Like a pothole-fixing equivalent of a food bank. Instead, all the app does is further centralize responsibility, not to mention the knowledge, for fixing potholes in the entity who is already not doing a good job of fixing potholes: the local (capitalist) government, while also turning citizens into agents who, themselves, further enforce the cult of capitalism amongst their peers.

Do you see the difference?

So when you ask me, “what tools do we need to build in terms of ending capitalism?” my answer is: “we need to rebuild every single tool that exists, including the tools used for fixing potholes in the streets.”

Which tool will you work on? There are many to choose from. Each is important. Each is necessary. The key point to understand is that building alternatives to capitalism do not come about by building anti-capitalist technology. It comes about by building pro-social technologies IN AN ANTI-CAPITALIST WAY.

In other words, alternatives to capitalism are all about the process, the journey, the way in which you do a thing, not the product, the destination, or the specific thing you choose to do or build.

Hope this helps,
-maymay
Maymay.net
Cyberbusking.org

Technology, the Internet, and Race: Tool for Liberation or Oppression?

Enhanced transcript of panel introductions at the “Technology, the Internet, and Race: Tool for Liberation or Oppression?” session at the recent at 25th annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Washington, DC held on October 14th, 2015. The transcript is “enhanced” because its links were added by me, the transcriber, and do not mean to imply an acknowledgement or endorsement by the speaker whose words were hyperlinked.

[music]

Singer: iMix! What I like! What I like! What I like! What I like!

Jared Ball (producer @iMiXWHATiLiKE): Good afternoon, everybody.

Audience: Good afternoon!

Jared Ball: A’ight, we wanna keep things moving here. My name’s Jared Ball. It’s an honor and a privilege to moderate the next panel. And I just wanted to say, just very quickly, I appreciate Joe Torres and the work he does with Free Press, and that organization in general. And the efforts around these particular kinds of conversations. Because I think one important value of centering the experience of so called people of color in any question is issues of privacy and surveillance supreme among them, is that doing so immediately forces an immediate focus on the imperial and colonizing of the nature of the State itself. Such an approach lends itself to gaining a view from below, from the among the so called wretched, the subjects of colony of empire. And with that said, I want to welcome our panel.

Alvaro Bedoya: Great intro for that, thank you, Jared. Everyone, I’m Alvaro. I want to talk about two substantive points to answer this question and one strategy point which we can expand on later if it comes to point, is that surveillance technology doesn’t target everyone equally. It disproportionately targets the weak, it disproportionately targets the unpopular, and so we need to look at privacy as a shield for the weak and as a shield for the unpopular. The second point is that surveillance is often beta tested on vulnerable communities, and we need to start explaining how that happens because I think we’ll create broader coalitions. And that’s the third point: how do we act on this to counter surveillance and to stop it?

And so, on the first point, I think, and I’m aware that I’m preaching to the choir in large part here, but I think a lot of Americans, when they think of surveillance of vulnerable people, they might know Martin Luther King and the vicious surveillance of Martin Luther King by J. Edgar Hoover. What they might not know is that J. Edgar Hoover also surveilled Cesar Chavez, and also surveilled the Black Panthers. It was critical in the dismantling of that organization. But before [that], it was Japanese-Americans who were surveilled. Before that, it was a W.E.B. Du Bois who was surveilled for trying to go to Europe while Woodrow Wilson was trying to negotiate some pretty lofty principles, and point out that a major population in Woodrow Wilson’s hometown in the United States was not exactly getting that same fair deal. Y’know, after all this it was LGBT service members, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that when unpopular, powerless people meet the gears of government, they tend to lose. And so what privacy is, it’s a space that allows them to do that work without powerful forces stopping them. And I think this is a framing useful for us.

The second item: surveillance being beta-tested on vulnerable communities. So, quick story. So, I was born in Peru, I came here when I was five. My grandmother is straight out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, lives in this old, old house—it’s been crumbling—in a little mountain town in Northern Peru called [TK-NAME OF TOWN HERE]. And, um, for years, I think all of us remember when a long distance call was, like, a really big deal. And for years we would call my grandmother, and it would be a really bad connection, it was a really big deal for us. And uh, the fact of the matter is, probably from about 1993 on, every single time my brother and I called our almost centenarian grandmother in a little mountain town in Northern Peru, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was making a record of it. And this is kind of the secret history of the “215 program” that folks in this room probably know about, but I don’t think the point has been sharpened in this respect. Before 215, the program that allowed the collection of all of our call records all the time, was a Drug Enforcement Administration program that logged international calls. They were not international calls to just anywhere, they were international calls to mostly all Latin-American areas and certain areas elsewhere. And, um, I remember this story coming out, and no one making the second leap in that sentence. The first leap being all international calls were logged, the second leap being that probably means that if you’re a Latino living in the United States, every time you called your mom, or your grandmother, your grandfather, anyone back home, the Drug Enforcement Administration was keeping track of that.

And so, another instance I think you’re going to see this is with facial recognition. The FBI has a fifty-million strong database of faces that State and local law enforcement can use to identify suspects in photos. Before I left Capitol Hill, my boss, Senator Franken, inserted a request, made a request that would include in an audit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s facial recognition systems statistics on demographics and on who is in this database. And I suspect what’ll happen if GAO [Government Accountability Office] is able to produce this information is that it won’t be an equal representation of all of our communities in that database. That database is gonna be disproportionately poor, disproportionately Black, and disproportionately Latino. And so I think we need to reckon this fact.

Final point, and then I’ll close because I know we just wanted to do brief statements here. When I was a Senate staffer working on NSA reform legislation, and I know some of you have heard it before because I’ve said it to you, I noticed something very troubling. And it was this: we had so many hearings about NSA. We had so many hearings. We had hearing after hearing after hearing and that’s wonderful and each time the administration had sent people and they get yelled at and they would yell back and it was true sort of exchange of ideas, as much as you can have in an unclassified setting. Um, one thing that I never heard in any of those hearings—and I could’ve missed it, but I’m pretty sure I never heard it—was the name Martin Luther King. Or was the name Cesar Chavez. Or was any bit of this history of disproportionate surveillance of vulnerable communities. And, um, I think that’s everyone’s loss. I think that’s our loss because—I think that’s everyone’s loss because they don’t know, but I think it’s our loss because our coalition could be all the more stronger the more we have the civil rights community activated and moving alongside with us. I’ve said this before to someone and they’ve said, “Well, Alvaro, y’know, we don’t really need the Left. We need the Right. We need the Right to get to 60 [votes].” And this person was exactly right. You need the Right, you need Republicans, and God bless them, God bless folks that are in the Republican party that are with us on this surveillance issue, we need those folks to get to 60. But we need the Left to make sure that what we get out of that 60 is actually worth something. Because there are amendment notes after amendment notes and if your coalition is not strong you will lose those votes and you will get a far worse product because of it.

So, looking forward, we have a debate about Section 702, which allows for the surveillance of communications collected in the United States with one international—I’m sure I’m getting some tiny piece of that wrong—but, um, in those communications collected are some entirely domestic communications, we now know that. But in those communications are going to be awful lot of communications by immigrants. And this program does not affect everyone equally. It disproportionately impacts immigrants, it probably disproportionately impacts Latinos, and I think we need to put that forward and talk about that.

And I think I will close there.

Anika Collier Navaroli: Thank you. Thanks everyone, thanks again for coming. So before I talk a little bit about the surveillance and technology piece, I want to talk a step backwards and I want to talk about the notion of privacy as we currently know it. So the way that we typically think about it in these circles is the philosophical or the legal definition. And in doing that I think that we make certain assumptions. And I want to talk a little bit about those assumptions.

So, first, I think the assumption that we make is that there is agency over one’s own body or one’s own personhood. And I think the second assumption that we make is that privacy is this thing that exists. And in order to do so I think that we create a certain privilege. And to say that, I want to say essentially that there are certain communities within the United States who have never had the privilege of what I’m going to define as privacy.

So, privacy, by “privacy” what I’m talking about is non-surveillance, or a non-monitoring. And so basically what I’m going to talk about a little bit here is the Black community, just because that’s the community that I’m a member of, that’s the one I know the best, and it’s the one that I’ve studied the most.

So, I attended a conference very similar to this a couple of months back hosted by a lot of the same folks and I went to a panel that was about cybersecurity. So it started with the NSA programs Alvaro was just talking about and I think this is one that definitely did it right in discussing the historical impact and the disparities. And what I was shown at the very beginning of this panel was a document that was put up on the screen. And it was a very simple document. This document was stated to be the very first piece of surveillance within the United States. And what that was, was a “slave pass.”

An official "Negro Passport" issued by the Confederate States of America's official War Department in 1865.

And this was, for those of you who don’t know what a slave pass is, it was a piece of paper that was given to Black Americans back in the day. And this allowed them to physically move from one confined plantation to another. And without this pass, there was a serious risk of bodily harm and/or death. So from the very beginning of Black folks being in America, their physical presence has been monitored and surveilled. And this includes folks that were privileged enough to be free. They had Freed Men Passes, and without these, they were not able to move about freely. And as some folks have seen from “12 Years a Slave,” but those didn’t also always work all the time. So just moving back through history we see from the very, very beginning the notion of privacy as we know it never existed for Black folks in America.

And as we move through history, we end slavery, and then we have physical signs that told folks where they could walk, where they could sit, where they could eat, where they could drink, where they could do the very simple things of life. And again, very physical movements of people being monitored, being surveilled, and not following these signs again created a risk of serious bodily harm and/or death. This continued. So we go through what Alvaro was talking about, we know about the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. We know about Assata Shakur, in her book she talks a lot about when she became really big—her autobiography, excuse me—when she became pretty big in the Black liberation struggle, there was a certain point at which she stopped receiving phone bills, but yet her phone was never disconnected.

Audience: [laughter]

Assata Shakur, a Black woman.

Anika Collier Navaroli: And that was the moment that she realized that her phone was in fact wiretapped. And again, now we know what happened. Everything has been declassified, we know about COINTELPRO, we know about J. Edgar Hoover, we know all these things now. But in those movements, not just the physical movements but also the social movements of Black people were being monitored. So, to me, it’s not extraordinary when we think about today’s society. And we think about the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring Black Lives Matter movement activists at things as simple as concerts. It’s not extraordinary to me that there are allegations in Chicago of Stingray devices being used to monitor the movements of protesters as they move about the streets. These things are not extraordinary in that the existence the privilege of privacy never existed for Black folks in America and to this day is not a notion that is really known.

And so I kinda want to start my thought process there and just realize and ground this conversation in the knowledge that when we talk about surveillance, when we talk about technology, we are talking about brand new tools for a thing that has always been going on.

Hamid Khan: Hi, good afternoon. My name is Hamid. I am from Los Angeles with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. I want to start off by just picking up where Anika stopped where, what I gathered was, for many communities historically speaking and even currently as well, privacy is a luxury, it’s not really a right. So I think that’s something that we need to really just at least acknowledge and put it out there. Secondly, since yesterday, if I was not working on the ground on the streets, just organizing out in Los Angeles, one would assume that surveillance is purely a Federal issue whereas the local police is kept completely out of the equation most of the time. And when you look at history, before the FBI came into existence, the police Red Squads were very much in operation. And the police Red Squads didn’t start because the Russians were coming. The police Red Squads started in the 1880s because of the Haymarket strike in Chicago. That was the formation. In 1886 Haymarket happens. In 1888, Chicago police department is the first department to formally incorporate a section which was going to engage in covert intelligence gathering and surveillance of communities. And from there on, we see this rapid escalation of the Red Squads.

So local police is and has always been on the forefront of surveillance, spying, and infiltration. There was a conversation about Stingrays, there was a conversation around automatic license plate readers, the Los Angeles Police Department has all these tools. We talked about Fusion Centers, the Los Angeles Police Department has its own internal Fusion Center as well. New York Police Department works closely with the CIA. So the point I’m trying to raise is that locally law enforcement have been on the front lines of surveillance, spying, and infiltration.

Which brings me to the point then, of how does it impact communities, and particularly communities of color. And most of the time the conversation starts from impact, rather than core concepts. Like, y’know, okay, well, this is what has happened, without us backtracking and seeing what has been the history behind this thing. Another thing that Anika raised was that this is not a moment in time, this is a continuation of history.

So Bill Bratton is known all around the world, not just in the United States, as one of the “top cops.” I mean, as much bogus propaganda as there is. And Bill Bratton is really the one who pushed the “Broken Windows” theory. So I just want to ask Paul, if you could open that Word document from Edward Banfield. So—if you can—Edward Banfield was the intellectual guru of James Q. Wilson who was one of the coauthors of the infamous Broken Windows article in The Atlantic in 1982, which was coauthored by George Kelling, and this is what set the tone for how Broken Windows was informed:

Edward C. Banfield, a white man wearing a suit and tie.

The implication that lower-class culture is pathological seems fully warranted. Rather than waste time and public money implementing policies based on the false notion that all men were created equal, better to just face facts and acknowledge the natural divisions that exist. Members of the lower classes should leave school in ninth grade, to get a jump on a lifetime of manual labor. The minimum wage should be replaced to encourage employers to create more jobs for “low-value labor.” The state should give “intensive birth-control guidance to the incompetent poor.” And the police should feel free to crack down on young lower-class men.

Edward Banfield, mid-century political scientist, University of Chicago

So that “the police should feel free to crack down on young lower-class men.” This is the origin of “Broken Windows” policing.

So this is the tally as of yesterday how many people have been murdered by law enforcement in the United States as of 2015.

The Guardian's "The Counted" data visualization project keeps demographic records of reported police murders.

Nine-hundred and two already. This is a tally that was started by The Guardian. It’s called “The Counted.” And when you do the math, every seven hours and thirty-six minutes, someone is being murdered by law enforcement. I mean, just posit this for a second. Every seven hours and thirty-six minutes. Today, as we sit here, more than three people on average will be killed by law enforcement. And look at the numbers. Los Angeles leads that. Eighteen already in 2015. When you look at per-million, 5.24 Blacks per million. 2.42 Hispanic/Latino per million. 2.1 white. So 250% is the disparate impact on the Black community on how law enforcement is murdering them.

How is the law enforcement responding when we go and protest this? Can you go to the next slide, please?

LAPD Sheriff's Department officers wearing full body armor, face plates, and other extreme military combat outfitting.

This is what we look at. This is what we are facing. This is the intense militarization of the police. This is when we go out onto the street. This is how we are met. This is how we are brutalized. So when somebody talks about privacy and then people talk about “hacking,” the previous slide shows how families are being hacked. How their spirits are being hacked. How trauma is being created. And this is what is going on the streets of Los Angeles.

And the last couple of slides I just want to show, if you wanna go to the third one. This is now happening.

The Daily Beast reports on the first legal "Taser Drones" in the United States.

North Dakota is the first State in the country that is now authorized law enforcement use of drones armed with “non-lethal weapons,” as if tasers and rubber bullets have never killed people. And lastly I just want to show you a slide. This is what we are facing. This is the LAPD’s architecture of surveillance, something that we know now.

Circular diagram depicts how the various component of the United State's domestic surveillance, spying, and infiltration architecture fit together.

From Fusion Centers to Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program, to “See Something, Say Something,” to the Intelligence Gathering Guidelines where they can legitimately now place informers in political groups where they can also, the cops can take fictitious personas and fake identities to Facebook or social media. Then you look at Predictive Policing, then you look at TrapWire technology, which is a street-level camera that picks up your body image and immediately transfers it to the Fusion Centers, to Stingray, and then somebody was saying that Stingray is not going to be used because now they’re using “dirt-boxes,” the Digital Receiver Technology, which is Stingray on steroids. And then we move into the Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), Drones with high-definition cameras. The DHS memo basically, and this is what leads to the how police begin surveillance of poor people, because my work is based out of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, where gentrification is running rampant, and one of the things this memo said was it took three small cases of low-level arson and they put a memo out that said if there is any housing rights activists, that if there is any rally or if there is anything going on, that should be considered a suspicious activity, and a Suspicious Activity Report should be filed on housing rights activists. And then we see the militarization, Joint Terrorism Task Force, and the Fusion Centers.

And I want to end by saying that as we are looking at this, who ultimately is going to pay the price? I mean, when we look at the murders on the street, the most recent audit of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Suspicious Activity Reporting, two years ago, came out that—now these are counter-terrorism programs, most of the police now is heading towards counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency—that all the SARs that were sent to Fusion Centers, over thirty-one percent of them were filed on Los Angeles’s Black community, the community that is less than ten percent of the population. A three-to-one disparate impact. In the gender count, fifty percent of these SARs were opened on Black women. These are counter-terrorism programs.

Lastly, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has now become the largest repository of biometrics, they have now a database where they can gather biometrics on fifteen million subjects, and that is an extension of the US military (Navy and Marine) program called the Identity Dominance System, which started in Afghanistan where they had basically taken everything off of the whole population of Afghanistan and now as of this month are launching into the second phase, which is called the IDS-2, Identity Dominance System 2.0, where they are going to start looking at a person’s gait, how you walk, how you move your hands and your arms.

So in essence, what we are seeing is now that speculative policing is going to the next level. Because what this all is, it is speculative policing, and I’ve reached my time, so I’ll stop right there.

Singer: iMiX! What I like! What I like! What I like!

[music]

Pair with David Whitehouse on the disturbingly intimate relationship of policing and schooling.

screenshot-6

A Sneak Peek at Better Angels’ Buoy: the private, enhanced 9-1-1 for your personal community

As some of you already know, over the past several months, I’ve been working with a team of collaborators spanning four States and several issue areas ranging from alternative mental health/medical response, to domestic violence survivor support, to police and prison abolitionists. Although we don’t all share the exact same politics, we’ve come together as one group (we’re calling ourselves the “Better Angels”) because we all agree that more has to be done to support communities of people whom the current system fails, regardless of whether that failure is deliberate or not. In the spirit of software development as direct action, we set out to design and implement free software that would have the maximum social impact with the minimum lines of code, as quickly as possible.

Today, I want to introduce you to that software project, which we’re calling Buoy.

Screenshot of the Better Angels Buoy community-driven emergency dispatch system sending an alert to a crisis response team.

What is Buoy

Buoy is a private, enhanced 9-1-1 for your website and community. We call it a “community-driven emergency dispatch system” because everything about its design is based on the idea that in situations where traditional emergency services are not available, reliable, trustworthy, or sufficient, communities can come together to aid each other in times of need. Moreover, Buoy can be used by groups of any size, ranging from national organizations like the National Coaliation Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), to local community groups such as Solidarity Houston, or even private social clubs such as your World of WarCraft guild.

Indeed, the more community leaders who add the Buoy system on their websites, the safer people in those communities can be. One can imagine the Internet as a vast ocean, its many users as people sailing to the many ports on the high seas. Buoy is software that equips your website with tools that your users can use to help one another in the real world; the more buoys are deployed on the ocean, the safer traveling becomes for everyone.

How does Buoy work?

Using Buoy is simple. After a website admin installs and activates Buoy, each user of that website can define their personal response team by entering other users as their emergency contacts. This is shown in the screenshot below.

Screenshot of Buoy's "Choose your response team" page.

The “Choose your team members” page, available under the “My Team” heading in the WordPress dashboard menu, allows you to add or remove users from your response team. When you add a user, they receive an email notification inviting them to join your team.

Screenshot of Buoy's "Team Membership" page.

When you are invited to join someone’s response team, you receive an email with a link to the “Team Membership” page, shown here. On this page you can accept another user’s invitation to join their team or leave the teams you have previously joined.

After at least one person accepts your invitation to join your response team (i.e., they have opted-in to being one of your emergency contacts), you can access the Buoy emergency alert screen.

screenshot-3

You can bookmark this page and add it to your phone’s home screen so you can launch Buoy the same way you would launch any other app you installed from the app store. Pressing the large button nearest the bottom of the screen activates an alert and immediately sends notifications to your response team. Clicking on the smaller button with the chat bubble icon on it opens the custom alert dialog, shown next.

screenshot-4

Using that button with the chat-bubble icon on it, you can provide additional context about your situation that will be sent as part of the notification responders receive.

For some use cases, however, sending an alert after an emergency presents itself isn’t enough. Unfortunately, this is the only option that traditional 9-1-1 and other emergency dispatch services offer. In reality, though, there are many cases where people know they’re about to do something a little risky, and want support around that. This is what the other button with the clock icon on it is for.

Clicking on the smaller button with the clock icon on it opens the timed alert (“safe call”) dialog, shown next.

screenshot-5

Use this button to schedule an alert to be sent some time in the future. This way you can alert your response team to an emergency in the event that you are unable to cancel the alert, rather than the other way around. This is especially useful for “bad dates.” It’s also useful for border crossings or periodic check-ins with vulnerable people, such as journalists traveling overseas.

Regardless of which alert option you select, Buoy will gather some information from your device (including your location and your alert message) and either send your alert to your response team immediately or schedule the alert with the Buoy server. A nice pulsing circle animation provides visual feedback during this process.

screenshot-6

If you pressed one of the immediate alert buttons, the next thing you’ll see when you use Buoy is some safety information. This information is currently provided by the website admin, but we have some ideas of how to make this even more useful. Either way, if it is safe to do so, you can read through this information and/or take one of the suggested actions immediately. In the example screenshot here, Buoy has been installed on the website of a domestic violence survivor’s shelter, so the admin composed safety information that helps DV survivors quickly find and access even more supportive resources, such as hotlines and other nearby services like animal rescuers.

screenshot-7

If you’re in an emergency situation where interacting with your phone isn’t feasible, such as if you are being beaten or chased, you can simply ignore this screen. As long as you don’t lose or shut off your device, your device will send your location to your response team so that they will be able to track and find you, even if you travel away from the spot where the crisis originally began.

If you can interact with your phone, you can also close the safety information window at any time. When you do, you will see that behind the safety information window, a private, temporary chat room has been loaded in the background.

screenshot-8

When one of your response team members responds to your alert, they will join you in this chat room.

In addition to the chat room, behind the safety information window is also a real-time map. (The map can be accessed at any time by clicking or tapping the “Show Map” button. Tapping the same button again hides the map.)

screenshot-9

On the map, a red pin shows the initial location of the emergency. Your avatar shows your current position. As responders respond to your alert, their avatars will also be added to the map.

Buoy is just as easy to use from the point of view of a responder, as it is from the point of view of someone sending an alert. When a responder clicks on a notification from the alert (either by email, SMS/txt message, or whatever other notification mechanism they prefer—we are continually working to add new notification channels as our people-power and resources allow), they will be shown your alert message along with a map. They can click on the red pin to get turn-by-turn directions from their current location to the emergency alert signal. If they choose to respond, they click on the “Respond” button and will automatically be added to the group chat shown earlier.

screenshot-10

When a responder clicks the “Respond” button, they will automatically be added to the same live chat room that the alerter is in. They will also see the same map.

screenshot-11

The alerter and all current responders become aware of new responders as they are added to the chat room and the map. As people involved in the incident move around in the physical world, the map shown to each of the other people also updates, displaying their new location in near real time.

screenshot-12

Clicking on any of the user icons on the map reveals one-click access to both turn-by-turn directions to their location and one-click access to call them from your phone, Facetime, Skype, or whatever default calling app your device uses.

Who should use Buoy? Should it only be used in emergencies?

Although Buoy is designed to be useful in even the most physically high-risk situations such as domestic or dating violence abuses, kidnapping, home invasion, and other frightening scenarios, you can use Buoy however you want. We particularly encourage you to use Buoy when you feel like your situation may not rise to the level of calling 9-1-1 or when you feel like the presence of police officers will not improve the situation.

For instance:

  • If you feel you are being followed as you walk home on campus, use Buoy. Your friends will be able to watch your location on their screens and quietly chat with you as you walk home, ensuring you reach your destination safely.
  • If you or someone you are with feels suicidal, or is having a “bad trip,” and you don’t want cops showing up to your house but need assistance, use Buoy. Responders will be notified of your physical location and will be able to coordinate a response action with you and with each-other in real time without ever notifying the authorities of the situation.
  • If you are with a group at an outing such as a hike or a large amusement park and get separated from your group, use Buoy. Each group member will be able to see one another’s current location on a map, can easily coordinate where to meet up, and can even access turn-by-turn directions to one another’s locations with one tap of a finger.

We’ve designed Buoy with people for whom “calling the cops” is not possible or safe, such as:

  • Undocumented immigrant and homeless populations.
  • Domestic violence victims and survivors.
  • Social justice and social change activists/political dissidents.
  • Freed prisoners.
  • Frequent targets of assault and street harassment (trans/queer people, women).
  • People suffering from a medical or mental health emergency.
  • Especially all the intersections of the above (homeless feminine queer youth of color, for instance).

In other words, these are all demographics who could benefit by having “someone to call” in the event of an emergency for whom “the police” is obviously a counterproductive answer, because when police are involved they are more likely to escalate the situation than de-escalate it.

That said, even if these descriptions don’t fit who you are, you can still use Buoy and if you do, we hope you find it useful.

How can I get Buoy?

Buoy is a bit like a very advanced telephone. Just like a telephone, it’s not very useful if no one else you know has one! For Buoy, or a telephone, to be useful, you have to know someone else who already has it.

Since Buoy is so new and is designed to be used in real-life emergencies, we are only working with a small group of alpha testers in order to ensure that there are no major technical or usability issues before its widespread adoption. However, we are very excited about the possibilities and we are currently looking to include more people in the testing process. If you think this is exciting and want to help put the finishing polish on this tool, please get in touch with someone from the Better Angels collective directly; links to our contact information is posted on the Buoy project’s development site. (Or just email me at bitetheappleback+better.angels.buoy@gmail.com directly.)

That being said, if you are a community leader, and you maintain a WordPress-powered website, you can try out Buoy right now by installing it directly from your WordPress admin screens! It’s just as easy to install as any other WordPress plugin. Similarly, if you yourself are not a “community leader,” but you want to try it out, you can either ask to join our private testing phase or you can tell others in your community about Buoy and see if the group of you can install it on your own group’s website.

If you do that, don’t hesitate to ask for technical or other help of any kind over at the Buoy support forums.

How can I help Better Angels projects?

There’s a lot you can do to help make Buoy better or help the Better Angels collective more generally! Check out our contributor guides for more information! Of course, one of the most immediate things you can do to help is spread the word about this project. (Hint hint, click the reshare button, nudge nudge!) Cash donations are also very helpful! Finally, we’re also trying very hard to get the entire tool translated into Spanish, so if you’re bilingual and want to help, please sign up to be a Better Angels translator here.

We think Buoy is a great tool for building strong, autonomous, socially responsible, self-sufficient communities, and we hope you’ll join us in empowering those communities by making them aware of Buoy.

Prison Abolition Panel: Direct Action Software Development – SFLOKRC 2015

This year’s Students for Liberty Oklahoma Regional Conference (SFLOKRC) held a panel discussion and Q&A session focusing on prison abolition. On the panel were Cory Massimino, Nathan Goodman, and Rebecca Crane. The panel was also the first conference at which the newest project I’ve been working on, Better Angels/Buoy, was introduced to an audience of left libertarians and left-leaning anarchists. I’m glad there’s interest in an alternative to the state-sponsored, government-controlled, horribly centralized emergency dispatch infrastructure known as 9-1-1.

I recorded Rebecca’s introductory presentation to the Q&A and panel. Below is a video of the presentation and a transcript. As usual, please share and republish to your heart’s content.

Rebecca Crane: I’m assuming that everybody here is convinced that we should abolish prisons. And so I’m going to talk a little bit about how we as individual people can get involved in that work on the ground. I am not a Libertarian and I’ve heard that there are a lot of people at this conference that also don’t identify as Libertarians, so I’m in good company. I actually came to activism through social justice. I was a teenage social justice warrior way back before there was such a thing as Tumblr.

Audience: [laughter]

Rebecca Crane: And as a social justice warrior, I have to point out that we are a panel of three white people up here talking about prison abolition, and so there’s some really important perspectives about this conversation that isn’t being represented. But I just want to take a moment to hold some space to acknowledge who’s not here in this conversation.

So, y’know, throughout my life I have gotten involved in a bunch of different movements. Restorative Justice is similar to Transformative Justice [discussed earlier in the panel], it’s ways of thinking about ways we might preempt the way that the sentencing process works. Anti-racist activist, queer liberation work, social anarchism. Ultimately, all of these things lead to prison abolition.

It was a bit of a hard concept for me to grasp when I was starting out. I mean, it feels very intense. Like, “Uhhh, what do we do if we don’t have prisons? What do we do with the rapists and the murderers and the pedophiles and all of this?”

And I really appreciated Per Bylund’s talk this morning because even though there’s been some great suggestions about what are things that could replace the prison system, the real issue is that the thing we’re doing now doesn’t work. It’s not preventing crime. It’s not making communities safer. It’s only making things worse and it’s not solving the problems that it claims to solve. And so I feel like the question that when people ask, y’know, “Well how could we get rid of prisons? What else would we do?” Well, the answer is, “We may not know, but we’re doing now isn’t working. So we have try something else.” And we’ve all been immersed in this context of state violence all our lives, so it’s hard for us to look outside of this context and imagine what it might be like to live in a world where state violence is not the solution to crime or to interpersonal violence, but we’re not going to be able to come up with a solution just by sitting around talking about it until we find this perfect utopian ideal. We have to just try some stuff.

So one of the things that I’ve been trying over the past couple of years with some other collaborators, one of them being maymay who’s here today, is try to use new technologies to build some non-state alternatives for community justice and crisis response. So, just as a couple of examples of these, the one that’s gotten the most press—you can’t actually see the whole slide here, um—this is the Predator Alert Tool. It’s a software that exists for a bunch of different social networking sites.

The two ones that I most primarily want to talk about here is the one that exists for Facebook and there’s also a Predator Alert Tool for a site called FetLife, which is kind of a BDSM/fetish social network dating site. And these are tools that allow people who have been victims of sexual violence to communicate with other people in their communities about their experiences. The one that was built for FetLife is specifically—because it’s a small community that uses the site anyway, it’s a way for people to be able to, like, let the whole website know, “Hey, this is this experience I had with this person at this time.” The one that exists for Facebook, because Facebook tends to be more lots of these atomic social networks that are connected to each other, it allows people to say, I, as a survivor, had an experience and I want to be able to connect with other people of my social community who had an experience with the same person. So I can say, “I went to this party, this person put a drug in my drink. I don’t want to talk about this publicly, but I do want to talk to anybody else who has had a similar experience with that same person.” So I can post a little thing and it’ll only be shown to other people who made a similar comment about that person. It just takes advantage of Facebook’s granular privacy settings in some various ways.

And again, these are all experiments. They’re very beta. They’re very proof-of-concept. But they’re ways for people to sort of think about how might we talk about our experiences of sexual violence and building community support and resourcing around preventing and recovering from sexual violence in ways that don’t involve calling the police, which is typically not a system that’s very helpful to survivors of sexual violence anyway.

The tool that we’re working on right now is called Better Angels, and the specific packaging of Better Angels, Buoy, is built for a domestic violence use case. But this is a community-based emergency crisis response app. And so the idea is that I, as a user, would have this on my phone. I set up the people that I want voluntarily on my crisis response team. So I say, if I’m in an emergency situation I don’t want to call 9-1-1. I want to call my brother, my best friend, this friend of mine who lives down the street who’s like a Black Belt in karate, and somebody I know who’s really trained in medical care, and the advocate I know that works at the local shelter. So I set up my own team, and then if I’m in a crisis situation, I just have one click, I hit the button. This alert goes out to all the people in my network. They get an alert saying, y’know, Rebecca’s in crisis. I [Rebecca] can put a little message to say, “My house is on fire!” Or, like, “I’m being harassed by the cops!” They get a message, it shows them where I am, a map of where they are in relation to me, where any other responders are in relation to them, and it drops everybody into a little chat room so that people can coordinate a response. So they can say, “Okay, I see on the map that you’re the closest person to Rebecca. Why don’t you go over there and see what she needs. I’m going to go to the school to pick up her kids.” Y’know, this [other responder] can go to the hospital, or this person can go to the Walgreens and get some band-aids, or whatever else is needed.

So, again, this is just an experiment. This one is in development right now. But these are both examples of a larger concept—which, I also can’t show you the whole slide for?—this idea we’ve been playing with of software development as a form of direct action. So, we’ve probably all heard a lot about hacktivism and Anonymous, going around and leaking things, and breaking into the FBI website or whatever. And, y’know, there’s a very anarchic element to this kind of, like, burn and destroy hacktivist ethic. But there’s also, I think an anarchic element an idea of using technology as a way to build alternative community mechanisms and so these are just a couple of experiments that we’ve done. And there’s a lot more out there!

I wish there was a way to…like, how do I? Is there a way to show you the whole thing?

Nathan Goodman: I can write the URL [of your blog] on the board if you want.

Rebecca Crane: Yeah, yeah, just do that. Thanks. How do I go back to the slideshow?

Audience member: I think you can press ESCape.

Rebecca Crane: Okay. Oh, there we go.

Nathan Goodman: Oh, cool. I guess I don’t need to write it down on the board.

Rebecca Crane: Okay! So, this blog post, the “Software Development as Direct Action” is on my blog there [at unquietpirate.wordpress.com]. I think if you just to that URL the top post right now is about Relationship Anarchy, but you can scroll down and I think this is the second post on my blog right now.

So, if you’re interested, and we can always use people who are technologically inclined, people who want to write code, people who want to test code, or just have ideas, people want to get involved, this is one way you can get involved. Like, say hi, I’m doing some projects, you wanna get involved, you can hit me up and work on some projects with me. Alternatively, there are many other—how do I switch to the slides?

Cory Massimino: There’s an option in the menu….

Rebecca Crane: There we go. So there’s lots of other organizations of various sizes and distributions that you can look up. Here’s a bunch of websites. Black and Pink [BlackAndPink.org] is a prison abolitionist organization that works specifically with LGBTQ prisoners and they have a prison abolition sort of, like, bent and also they just do prisoner support. Critical Resistance [criticalresistance.org] is also just a broad-based prison abolition organization. They’re more based on the coasts, but they’re always looking for people who want to start chapters in their town. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence [incite-national.org] is a group of women of color who have a just, kind of, anti-carceral, anti-violence, and they’ve got some good anthologies, they’ve done a lot of writing. The Anarchist Black Cross [abcf.net], of course, they do prisoner support for people who they consider to be political prisoners. And then there’s some discussion about whether all prisoners are considered to be political prisoners. No One Is Illegal [NoOneIsIllegal.org], which ties into the talk that we’re going to see later today [on Open Borders]. And the Sylvia Rivera Law Project [SRLP.org], as Nathan mentioned, is Dean Spade’s organization. They mostly work on supporting transgender, gender non-conforming prisoners and they also have a prison abolition base. And then just a shout out to, ’cause I know there’s some other people from New Mexico here, Free Spook [FreeSpook.org] is a little prison abolition that’s based out of Albuquerque that’s doing just some really, really, like, hands-on work. They have a specific person they’re trying to get a retrial for and they’re just trying to do education about prison abolition and the prison system and solitary confinement specifically in New Mexico area. The picture I showed earlier of the little ofrenda [English: offering/altar] that was something that they put together for the Day of the Dead celebration and they just do some outreach and education. So if you’re in Albuquerque or anywhere in New Mexico and you want to get involved, look at their website.

And that’s about it. Thanks very much. Feel free to drop me an email [at foxtale@riseup.net with PGP key ID: 7E0021BA] if you want to contact me or if there’s anything you want more information about.

Audience: [applause]