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.