Tag: direct action

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]

Software Development as Direct Action

Recently, I was invited to speak at the local Code for America brigade in Albuquerque, Code4ABQ. The presentation I put together with the help of R. Foxtale was the first public articulation of the development methodology we have been using for some time in projects like the Predator Alert Tool, the WordPress SeedBank plugin, and other, newer projects still under development (but here’s a sneak peek). It’s also a term we’ve coined to distinguish between common misconceptions of “hacktivism,” which seem to primarily invoke ideas of digital breaking and entering (cracking), or leaking.

Although “software development as direct action” can legitimately be called a form of hacktivism, its focus is explicitly productive: building new stuff. My presentation told the story of the Predator Alert Tool as a way to showcase what we mean when we say “direct action software development.”

A video of the presentation, along with a transcript, is below. As per usual, all of my presentation materials for “Software Development as Direct Action” are Creative Commons licensed; you are encouraged to download and remix this work for non-commercial purposes. :)

Okay, so we’re here to talk about Software Development as Direct Action, and we don’t have much time. There are big problems out there and they need solving today. In the next ten minutes, I’m going to show you how you can solve them.

But first, I want to introduce you to Professor_Oni. And to Mabus. And John Black. And GamerGeekGuy. And all of these people….

These people have been accused by numerous different women of repeated sadomasochistic rapes. We know who they are because of this tool, a tiny browser extension called the Predator Alert Tool. These two-hundred and sixty or so lines of JavaScript—the entire source fits on this one slide—sparked years of debate and has catalyzed hundreds of thousands of lines of criticism, praise, ridicule, panic, relief, and hope across the blogosphere and in corporate board rooms alike.

The Predator Alert Tool is one example of what we’ve come to call “direct action software development.” The purpose is simple: maximum social impact. The method, simpler: Minimum lines of code.

What is direct action software development?

First, I’m going to assume that you already know a bit about what “software development” is. This is a pretty familiar idea: writing code to build apps, websites, or other technology products for use by people with laptops or smartphones. Writing code is the basic act required to produce software. No code? No software.

But what is “Direct Action”? We’ve found that what people think “Direct Action” really is varies based on, bluntly, how much brainwashing they’ve been subjected to. So let me take a moment to quickly describe what we mean when we say direct action.

When we talk about “Direct Action” we mean:

Any action that immediately addresses the root cause of a problem.

That sounds rather obvious. You may even be asking yourself, “Why would people waste time taking actions that don’t immediately address the root cause of a problem?” Well, there are several reasons:

  • Maybe certain actions aren’t permitted by an authority. Some people will limit themselves only to actions that they have permission to take.
  • Maybe they don’t understand, or they misunderstand, the root cause of a problem. In this case, people will often take actions they think will help, even if those actions don’t make much of a difference.
  • Maybe they don’t have some resource they need; they lack the skills, knowledge, or other materials to take immediate action.

Here are some examples of direct action in the physical world:

In most cases, tackling a problem with the direct action approach provides the most immediate solution. It’s also often dangerous, maybe illegal, and definitely disruptive. If successful, it will piss someone off. But at the end of the day, direct action is the single most effective and efficient thing you can do to make meaningful positive change. Historically, no lasting social change has ever been accomplished without a direct action component. Not once. Not ever.

Back to software. “Direct action software development” is a translation of direct action to the digital realm. It is:

Any code that immediately addresses the root cause of a problem.

Code is action. Remember Professor_Oni? He is a member of a fetish dating website called FetLife. In January 2012, a controversy that had been brewing amongst the FetLife community for years finally rose to national prominence when women came forward to accuse numerous prominent FetLife members of sexual assault. In response, the FetLife management deleted the survivor’s postings and threatened to ban them for violating the site’s Terms of Use. This went about as well as you’d expect: word of the heavy-handed censorship spread like wildfire and within a few weeks, many more women had come forward with similar stories, including some who accused the site’s founder, John Baku, of sexual assault. Once again, FetLife’s response was to delete or edit the new postings.

But by June of that year, the topic of sexual assault within the supposedly “safe, sane, and consensual” BDSM subculture was flashing across headlines of Salon.com, the New York Observer, and other high-profile media outlets. Activists from within the BDSM community had been organizing “Consent Culture” working groups for some time, and their membership numbers swelled.

Rape is exceedingly common in the BDSM scene. In fact, even the community’s own lobbying groups such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom—one of their board members doubled as FetLife’s community manager, by the way—admit to a 50% higher occurrence of consent violations among BDSM practitioners than the general populace. That’s nearly as bad as police officers, who statistically speaking are also twice as likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence. The BDSM scene has a self-delusional belief that they are “all about consent,” but in reality, they are at least as bad with sexual consent as everybody else, and likely a lot worse given their penchant for eroticizing abuse. Many women and Submissive-identified people within that community, including myself, had been saying this for a long time, but had been routinely ignored.

Even during the height of these national debates about “the BDSM community’s consent crisis,” the Consent Culture working groups were pitifully meek. They had collectively decided that “something must be done,” but what they chose to “do” was make a petition calling for the removal of the clause in FetLife’s Terms of Use that the site’s management was using as justification for censoring rape survivors. But as is often the case, when you must beg for something from a master, you find that they will not grant your request. Three years later, FetLife has still refused to change their policy and is still censoring rape survivors—unless those survivors use the Predator Alert Tool.

In October 2012, I realized that the root cause of the FetLife problem was simply that site management got to control what users saw when they browsed the site. But the Internet, which was made famous by mashups, allowed a unique opportunity to route around FetLife’s censorship in a way FetLife could not control. I wrote a simple mashup between a public Google Spreadsheet and FetLife that enabled anyone to report a negative experience with a FetLife member. With a mere 260 lines of JavaScript, that information could then be overlaid directly on FetLife.com.

With Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, the problem of FetLife’s censorship all but vanished: FetLife users could now warn other FetLife users about predatory behavior, and FetLife’s site management was powerless to stop it. Just a few weeks ago, we met a woman right here in Albuquerque who had used the tool to alert others about a local “Master” violating her consent.

Users of the tool then began asking for a similar capability on other sites, like OkCupid and Facebook. There are now seven variations of the Predator Alert Tool browser add-on, each designed to work with a particular social network or dating site. Importantly, none of these tools has been developed in collaboration with the social network in question. Most sites have refused to acknowledge the tool, despite inquiries from journalists and community members. Some sites are actively hostile, sending DMCA takedown notices and even threatening to ban Predator Alert Tool users. Meanwhile, the already overwhelming positive response from the user community continues to grow.

Predator Alert Tool arose directly from the needs of the community that it serves. It enabled the user community to do exactly what the authorities at FetLife didn’t want done, or what OkCupid and Facebook don’t want users thinking too critically about. And it accomplished this by just implementing that capability rather than waiting for permission to do so. Its impact was immediate and disruptive—on purpose. These characteristics are indicative of all direct action software development projects.

Today in 2015 the petition proposed by the “Consent Culture” working groups has still not achieved its goal of stopping FetLife from silencing rape survivors. Predator Alert Tool was able to accomplish that goal in one night of coding, with these 260 lines of code, three years ago.

In 2014, Creative Commons creator Larry Lessig appealed to technologists, to you, to take up this cause of immediate, direct action software development:

[T]here is a movement out there that has ENORMOUS needs which you, uniquely, can provide. The obvious ones, the technical needs. This is a movement that will only succeed if we find a way to knit together people in a different model from the television advertising model of politics today. […] This movement is STARVED for people with your skill who can figure out how to make this work. It desperately needs this type of skill offered by people who genuinely believe in the cause as opposed to people who are just trying to get rich.

If you want to change the world, but you don’t want to make a lot of money doing it, let’s talk. We’ve been doing direct action software development since before we knew what to call it, and we’re going to keep doing it. It would be wonderful to find other people who are excited about working with us. There are big problems out there. And they need solving.

Today.