Sunday, November 23, 2014

An Unlikely Defense of Anonymous



Many years ago, I was picketing Jessica McClintock’s boutique on Union Square in San Francisco with about 25 other people.  McClintock makes these prom/bridesmaid dresses that look like they belong in Gone With the Wind, and she had contracted with a local sweatshop to manufacture them.  The contractor had gone out of business and disappeared without paying the workers, who were all Asian immigrant women.  A group called Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates, AIWA, helped the workers organize to convince McClintock to pay the back wages and accept responsibility for the conditions of the women sewing her clothes.  Several years after this particular picket, the workers finally won their demands.

AIWA had a lot of funny chants for these actions.  In addition to the old standby, “Jessie, Jessie, you’re no good, pay your workers like you should,” my personal favorite was “Greedy, tacky and unfair, I wouldn’t buy her underwear.”  Another one, adapted from what I believe was a then-popular football cheer, went “U-G-L-Y Jesse has no alibi, she’s ugly! She’s ugly!”  (According to Yahoo Answers, the cheer originated with a movie called “Wildcats” in which Goldie Hawn plays a football coach.  Never heard of it but think I’ll rent it soon.)  Now I was never a big fan of that one but in the mouths of Asian women workers, it was pretty clear that UGLY referred to not paying your workers, and maybe a little dig at the clothes, which are unquestionably hideous (see photographic evidence above).  But some men on the picket line decided to amplify the message, yelling, “Yeah, she’s downright homely.  I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.”  These men, I might mention, would not have been mistaken for Robert Redford on the street.

My friend and I told them to stop, that the chant was not an excuse for misogyny.  I don’t remember if they did or didn’t.

I do remember what happened when we tried to talk to some straight men at an antiwar march in 1991.  This was during the first US invasion of Iraq and they were carrying a big cartoon cutout depicting George HW Bush f**king Saddam Hussein in the ass (raping? sodomizing? hard to know what to call it, but we did not want to look at it).  We told them it was homophobic and offensive.  They’re response was something very pithy like, “Get lost, bitches.”

My friends and I used to get in knock-down-drag-out fights with members of the so-called “Revolutionary Communist Party” back in the eighties and nineties when their official position was that gay people were a product of bourgeois decadence and would go to reeducation camps after the revolution.  During one of those arguments, the poor guy who had made the mistake of trying to sell us his newspaper told my friend Daniel to “stop thinking with his genitals.”

I could go on and on but you get the point.  I’ve never been part of, nor heard of, a social movement that didn’t have to struggle with misogyny, homophobia, ableism (oh, sorry, we can’t hold our meetings in an accessible space), racism, classism, fat oppression.  There are two simple reasons for that: the movements take place in our society, which is rife with all those ways of hurting one another; and they are made up of human beings, who are (mis)educated and affected by our society.

These moments reeled through my head as I read the hit piece on Anonymous in the current issue of The Nation, which was one of the more widely shared links in my activist circles at the end of last week.  Like many of my friends, I was initially gratified to read all the dirt Adrian Chen dishes about the hacker group.  I’ve never loved technofixes for social problems.  I’ve written before about the problems I have with hacking as a major form of activism:  it’s solitary, covert and expert-driven.  The very Anonymous nature of Anonymous and its ilk make it virtually impossible for them to spark a movement, because where would you find them? For those of us who are not supergeeks, there’s no way to join.  And yes, the people who are supergeeks are most likely to be young, white men who play the kinds of video games that produced GamerGate.

I don’t like Guy Fawkes masks; I think they’re creepy and I don’t want to be in street actions with people who don’t trust me enough to let me see their faces.  I also don’t like people who claim to “be” the movement or its leaders, as I have heard Anonymous people do – or more accurately, people who claim to be Anonymous, because of course we cannot know who really is Anonymous.

So it was very tempting to join the chorus of, “Look, see, they really are Nazis and misogynist trolls,” let’s disavow them.

And yet, in a cooler moment, I feel Chen goes too far.  His piece is called, “The truth about Anonymous’s Activism,” but it should be called “Some (more) truths about Anonymous’s activism.”  It’s interesting and important to know that one of the first Anonymous groups “invaded the online teens’ game Habbo Hotel and formed their matching avatars into a giant swastika while spewing racial epithets.”



Anonymous, by its name and its principles, is a loose network with no gatekeepers and no accountability.  That’s a good enough reason for me not to work with them, and to discourage anyone who listens to me from doing it.  But as the examples I started this piece with attest, Anonymous doesn’t have a monopoly on people sincere activists shouldn’t be associated with.  People were raped at Occupy camps.  One of the founders of Common Ground became (or turned out to be) a government agent.  Moreover, many respected activists have dubious pasts.  Dan Ellsberg worked at the Pentagon.  Ed Snowden donated to Ron Paul’s campaign.  Diane Ravitch promoted charter schools.  The question can’t be who they were, it’s got to be who they are now.

Hacking is well-known as a male-dominated and white-dominated culture and much of Anonymous seems to fit right in.  But hackers are also doing some of the most innovative and accessible community-building projects around, in the form of “hackerspaces” where they share skills, equipment and space, often free or very cheap.  Noisebridge in San Francisco has an anti-harassment policy on the website for its 5200-square foot space which “contains an electronics lab, machine shop, sewing/crafting supplies, two classrooms, conference area, library, darkroom, and kitchen.”  Oakland’s “inclusive hacker space”, SudoRoom, is part of a new “collective of collectives” that just got a glowingwriteup in the East Bay Express.  I’m eager to check it out although the one time I was there for a meeting, when I think they’d just moved in, I found it about the moldiest place I’ve ever been. 

Anonymous has done some messed up things and they’ve done some very good things (like exposing evidence of the Steubenville rape and taking down the sites of credit card companies that refused to process donations to Wikileaks).  I think denouncing Anonymous at a time when the FBI is using it to stir up fear and justify bringing more “intelligence specialists” to Ferguson is a mistake. Call them out on their shit, yes, but don’t hit them when they’re down.  But we outside agitators need to stick together.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Better Fast Than Right? Between The Colorlines

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an announcement for Facing Race 2014, a national conference organized by Race Forward: The Center For Racial Justice Innovation.  A number of my friends have gone in the past and found it stimulating and useful.  This year’s conference is in Dallas, in November and I have no desire to travel that far, and anyway I hate conferences.  BUT, ever since reading The New Jim Crow, and especially since the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court on the same week that gay marriage was given a shot in the arm, I have been burning to be involved in a movement for racial justice – specifically a movement targeting U.S. apartheid.

Yes, you read that right – I am saying that the U.S. has an apartheid system.

We used to have formal apartheid only in the South, but at that time, we didn’t need it in the rest of the country because whites were a huge majority. So we could have “majority rule” and still have white rule, and with it a “system of segregation and discrimination” which, in case you did not know, is the definition of the Afrikaner word, apartheid.  Ta-Nahisi Coates’ explosive article on reparations in The Atlantic documented the myriad ways in which that unacknowledged apartheid system has been built up over the last eighty years: housing segregation, educational discrimination, employment discrimination, enforced income inequality, denial of credit, discrimination in public benefits, “the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”  Today one of my friends posted on Facebook an article reporting that families headed by a white person without a high school diploma are wealthier than Black and Latino families headed by someone with a college degree.  (I do wonder, incidentally, how that breaks down in terms of age; I’m guessing that most of those white high school dropouts with 51,000+ of wealth are older, but that’s not here or there.  In 1950, 56.3% of whites 25-29 had graduated high school.  In 2012, it was 94.6%.  For Asians it was 96.1, for African Americans, 88.5 and Latinos, 75.1.)

Now there are lots of organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, that are, in theory, working to rectify these gross injustices.  In point of fact, Race Forward (until recently Applied Research Center), the organizer of the conference and publisher of Colorlines, itself has an office here.  So I shouldn’t need to go to a conference 2000 miles away to find something to get involved in.  Sadly, though, none of the myriad racial justice nonprofits seems to be looking for middle-aged, middle class white women to become part of their cadre.  Quite understandable.  Not, mind you, that I have to be cadre.  I’d be happy to help stuff envelopes (huh? I’m sure the young organizers would say?  What’s an envelope?), proofread copy for their websites, or make phone calls.  I frequently discuss this with a friend who has similar interests.  She called an organization we both admire and offered to call people who had signed up to volunteer, find out what they want to do and try to get them plugged in.  The organizer she spoke to eagerly embraced that idea.  He never called her back.

So I did not immediately delete the Facing Race announcement from my inbox.  I left it there to fester.
The next time I thought about it, it was because I saw a tweet on #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, from someone (not sure who – can’t find it now) saying they were boycotting the conference and Colorlines because #IStandWithAura.  Okay, I knew who Aura is (here I want some credit for not making a bad pun like what color is your aura).  Aura Bogado is the news editor of Colorlines, a frequent contributor to The Nation and AlterNet.  I generally like her stuff.  We have some mutual friends.  I frantically paged back back back in my twitter feed to find out why I needed to stand with her and boycott a conference I hadn’t decided to go to.



What I learned was this:  On September 10, Bogado posted an article responding to a video, or t-shirt commercial, by a company called “FCKH8.”  I never heard of the company but I h8ed them instantly because everything around here knows that “H8” has something to do with the gay marriage.  (Proposition 8 was the ballot measure that outlawed gay marriage in California, the very same one that was struck down a few days after the Voting Rights Act.)

Here’s how FCKH8 describes themselves:  “FCKH8.com is a for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as “mini-billboards” for change. Started in 2010 with comedic viral videos that captured millions of views on YouTube, FCKH8.com has shipped almost 200,000 equality tees, tanks and hoodies to supporters in over 100 countries.”

You don’t really have to go to their website to get the picture.  I have no doubt that they’re people who care about the issues they are promoting, as well as people who never met an issue they couldn’t make a buck off.

The specific video Bogado (and apparently other Colorlines staff who contributed to the article) were responding to was advertising a t-shirt that says, “Racism Is Not Over But I’m Over Racism.”  It’s title: A Kinda Awkward Note To America By #Ferguson Kids.”  The article raises a bunch of very legitimate questions about this video and its kind:  “Even if the children are from Ferguson, it’s unclear if or how they’ve been compensated. Either way, the idea that these kids are from Ferguson is paraded for consumption…. According to its website, FCKH8.com “recently became owned and managed by Synergy Media,” a corporate branding firm whose clients include Magnum bodybuilding vitamin supplements and pretty offensive “Buckeye Boob T’s” (the latter despite the fact that FCKH8.com says it’s anti-sexist).  There’s an entire economy around black death—and this ad campaign illustrates it all too well. Ironically, this economy’s profit margins depend on upholding the very racism this video claims to want to eliminate.”  Bogado’s post also mentioned that $5 from the sale of each shirt “will supposedly go to unidentified ‘charities working in communities to fight racism.’”

The article, which is quite short (353 words), drew a spate of h8 tweets and accusations of "reverse racism" by supporters of FCKH8, along with a press release revealing that Race Forward was one of the “unidentified organizations” designated to receive the money.  On September 15, Race Forward added a 464-word “update,” read by many as an apology and unwarranted criticism of Bogado, who was not mentioned.  Hence #IStandWithAura was born.

As far as I can tell the original post contains exactly one claim which is inaccurate: that FCKH8 didn’t have gear specifically promoting transgender equality.  Everything else addressed in Race Forward’s update was not a statement but a question or a comment about the appropriateness of the video’s medium and message.  Race Forward didn’t know that it was one of the designated charities, and said they were turning down the money.

Also as far as I can tell, Race Forward does not denounce Aura Bogado, the original blog, nor apologize for its content.  The statement was signed “Colorlines and Race Forward,” which is more confusing than clarifying.  Bogado is the news editor, so one would expect her to have been involved in crafting the response.  Was she not?  Her supporters jumped in to StandWith her and denounce Colorlines, which the next day issued a Unity Statement, criticizing itself for its response.




  
For her part, Aura Bogado seems to have said nothing.

What this incident illustrates for me is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and one of the reasons I’ve been blogging less and less frequently.  The Internet Age rewards people who don’t think too long or deeply about what they put out in the world.  Big duh, right?  The evidence of that is everywhere, from the smearing of Sunil Tripathi as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, to the #CancelColbert campaign which harmed its creator far more than it did Colbert or the people who sent an offensive tweet in his name.  Yet the ethic of better fast than right continues to gain credence.

I recently sent an op-ed about a Supreme Court decision to a respected online publication.  They rejected it because the decision was four days old already.  I understood, but was frustrated.  This sped-up news cycle privileges the voices of those who can drop everything to pen their comments.  But it also privileges those who don’t do too much research, or let the fact that they don’t know much stop them from mouthing off.  And then we get mad at each other and jump on each other for being wrong.

Could the people who wrote the original post on Colorlines have looked a little more carefully at the website of FCKH8 and seen that they have some transgender-themed t-shirts?  Indisputably.

Could Colorlines have taken time to talk to Bogado and others about the implications of their response to criticism before posting it, making sure no one felt disrespected?  Definitely.

Is there a benefit to people boycotting Colorlines, one of the most thoughtful (usually) publications out there taking race seriously?  Not a chance.

Will the bad feeling created by this public fracas live on in subtle or not-so-subtle ways?  Who knows?

As I have previously observed, movement people are notoriously purist and quick to judge.  I shudder to think what my friends and I might have done to one another in the eighties, if we had had Twitter at our disposal.