JUNE 18: THE VIRTUAL AND THE REAL
ACTION ON THE INTERNET AND IN AUSTIN, TEXAS
ZAPATISTA FLOODNET AND RECLAIM THE STREETS
by Stefan Wray, June 19, 1999, 6:00 CDT
"The resistance will be as transnational as capital."
On June 18, 1999, simultaneous with the G8 meeting in Koln, Germany, people all over the world participated in actions and events under the banner "Reclaim The Streets." Email reports coming in today indicate that 10,000 people gathered in Nigeria and that San Francisco drew crowds of around 500. More news and reports of events will surely be posted in the coming days. What follows is a contribution to this emerging body of material.
Reclaim the Streets European Headquarters http://www.gn.apc.org/rts/ Below are two separate and very different reports. The first describes the results of the virtual sit-in called by the Electronic Disturbance Theater opposing the Mexican government that involved thousands of people from 46 countries. The second is a longer narrative account describing events as they unfolded in Austin, Texas, an action that involved about 50 people and resulted in three arrests. It ends with some comments on hybridity, meshing the virtual and the real.
On June 15, the Electronic Disturbance Theater began sending out email announcements urging people to join in an act of Electronic Civil Disobedience to stop the war in Mexico. The call made in conjunction with the Reclaim The Streets day of action was intended to introduce a virtual component to the numerous off-line actions happening all over the world. But a strong motivation for the action was also due to the fact that in recent weeks there has been a significantly higher level of government and military harassment of Zapatista communities in Chiapas, with reports indicating as many as 5,000 Zapatistas have fled their communities.
The suggested action was for people using computers to point their Internet browser to a specific URL during the hours of 4:00 and 10:00 p.m. GMT. By directing Internet browsers toward the Zapatista FloodNet URL, during this time period, people joined a virtual sit-in. What this meant was that their individual computer began sending re-load commands over and over again for the duration of the time they were connected to FloodNet. In a similar way that people were out in the streets, clogging up the streets, the repeated re-load command of the individual user - multiplied by the thousand engaged - clogged the Internet pathways leading to the targeted web site. In this case on June 18, FloodNet was directing these multiple re-load browser commands to the Mexican Embassy in the UK. (http://www.demon.co.uk/mexuk)
The results of the June 18 Electronic Disturbance Theater virtual sit-in were that the Zapatista FloodNet URL received a total of 18,615 unique requests from people's computers in 46 different countries. Of that total, 5,373 hits on the FloodNet URL - 28.8 percent - came from people using commercial servers in the United States - the .com addresses. People using computers in the United Kingdom accounted for the second largest number of participants, 3,633 or 19.5 percent. People with university accounts in the U.S., 1,677 of them, made up the third largest category of participants at 9.0 percent. Interestingly, the fourth largest category of participants came from .mil addresses, from the U.S. military, for which there were 1,377 hits on the FloodNet URL, at 7.4 percent. Included among the military visitors were people using computers at DISA, the Defense Information Systems Agency. [In the same way that police help to block the streets when they show up at a demonstration, the military and government computer visitors to the FloodNet URL inadvertently join the action.] And the fifth largest group of participants were from Switzerland with 1,276 or 6.8 percent.
The remaining 5,329, or 28.6 percent, of global participants in the June 18 virtual sit-in came from all continents including 21 countries in Europe (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Yugoslavia), 7 countries in Latin American (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay), 6 countries in Asia (Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), 5 in the Middle East (Bahrain, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Georgia (former Soviet Union), and South Africa.
The global Zapatista FloodNet action on June 18 is the first that the Electronic Disturbance Theater called for in 1999. The group began in the spring of 1998 and launched a series of FloodNet actions directed primarily against web sites of the Mexican government, but action targets also included the White House, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, the Pentagon. The highlight was in September when the group showcased FloodNet at the Ars Electronica festival on Information Warfare in Linz, Austria. At that time one of the targets of FloodNet was a U.S. Department of Defense web site. This action is noteworthy because a Pentagon countermeasure since it may be one of the first known instances in which the DOD has engaged in an offensive act of information warfare against a domestic U.S. target - an act some say could have been illegal.
More details on the Electronic Disturbance Theater can be found at: http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ecd.html
THE BEGINNING OF THE REAL
I turned off my computer, moved away from the screen, and left work at 5:00. My girlfriend picked me up in the car and we passed by the bank so I could cash my paycheck. Good thing too. My balance had literally been 99 cents. Then we drove to the radio station, KOOP, where we do a half-hour news program every Friday.
It was hot inside the station, as it was outside. But the studio was nice and cool, so we sat there and waited for the Working Stiff show to end and the news to begin. We listened to John do a phone interview with someone from the pipe-fitters union. They were talking about a strike.
We started off the news with a long piece from A-Infos about the World Trade Organization. It was a decent article but a bit too long to read on the air. The piece ended with a call for people to travel to Seattle later in the year to oppose the third WTO ministerial conference.
After the news we walked over to join a handful of IWW folks who put out the Working Stiff Journal. They were at Lovejoys, a bar with a decent selection of beer just off 6th Street.
I started talking to a few friends about the war in Yugoslavia and an idea I'd had that it might good to form a focus group on the history, present, and future of war. The idea being that the left doesn't really understand war anymore, or rather, that the left is using the same techniques to oppose war that it used 30 years ago, but that the way wars are fought has changed. The few who I talked to supported the idea and had some good suggestions.
After swilling down a few pints, at around 7:30, my girlfriend and I left Lovejoys and drove over to Ruta Maya. All I knew was that the Critical Mass bike ride was to end up there. And the ride was Austin's effort to be part of the global Reclaim The Street actions that were happening all over the world.
Ruta Maya is a coffee shop in downtown Austin's warehouse district. They import coffee from Chiapas. Local activist groups often stage benefits and events there.
When we got to Ruta Maya people from the bike ride were already filtering in. They had started the ride up by the university. I wasn't on the ride so I only heard snapshots of what had happened. But I learned that a few had spent the previous night working on some stickers that said, "Closed" and "Out of Order." These were to put on ATM machines and other relevant symbols of capital. The ride passed by the Gap. For a moment Gap workers were harassed for selling clothes manufactured in sweatshops.
The crowd inside and outside on the elevated sidewalk was a mix of Ruta Maya regulars, people who came to hear an acoustic guitarist playing inside, customers of Ruta Maya's cigar shop, anyone who happened to be walking by, and of course the cyclists from the Critical Mass/RTS ride.
First I talked to some people involved in Free Radio Austin, a local micropower radio station shut down by the FCC a few weeks ago - which is incidentally scheduled to go back on the air today. We didn't talk about that, but about some of the problems with a new space here called Pueblos Unidos. A long story, but basically there is a power struggle among the original tenets of this allegedly collective warehouse space on the eastside of Austin. Too complicated to go into here. Conversations about Pueblos Unidos, the Grassroots News Network, and Point A threaded through the evening.
The riders included people I've know from Earth First!, from the local bicycle activist scene, and a whole new set of folks from Point A who I don’t really know. I just thought that Ruta Maya was a gathering point after the ride was finished. But it turned out to be something else.
THE STREET After not long, some people started talking about how to encourage others to start standing out in the street in front of Ruta Maya. People had just finished the ride and were all charged up with energy. A moment later, two young riders were moving a construction barricade and a few orange cones into the lane of traffic coming from the west. While at the other end of the block a group took similar barricades and placed them to stop traffic coming from the east.
And then, one at a time, people started leaving the sidewalk or leaving the edges of the street to stand out in the middle. For a little while there were just about 10 people. A few standing near the barricade. A few more down at the other end of the street. And more starting to filter out right in front of Ruta Maya. I actually hadn't anticipated this. I wanted to sit down so I asked someone to pass me down a chair from the elevated sidewalk.
I sat on the chair in the middle of one lane. Someone else picked up another chair and sat down near me. With barricades on both ends of the block, people sitting in chairs, cars lurching forward slowly and trying to get out, others in Ruta Maya started to take notice, and those less inclined to be the first ones to venture out into the street, followed. A Ruta Maya worker came out and said that needed his chair back. I didn't argue. Ruta Maya is a cool place. And by sitting there momentarily it had served to encourage a few more to join.
Soon there were people in both lanes of traffic out in front of Ruta Maya. At its peak maybe there were as many as 50. Not a huge crowd. Enough to reclaim the street - temporarily. But not enough to remain once the police started to arrive. And of course they did.
But before the police showed up, a few of the people whose idea it was to reclaim this particular section of street spoke loudly and explained what Reclaim The Streets was all about. Small flyers titled "Whose City Is This Anyway?" were passed out. And people started doing a "cheer" of sorts. Lacking were drums or other instruments that are always good for stirring up a crowd.
I first noticed a brown shirted Sheriff's deputy get out of a sports utility vehicle. But he simply walked by, seemingly oblivious to what was happening. Soon thereafter the bike cops showed up. Like a number of urban police forces in the U.S., Austin has its police-on-bicycle contingent, mostly used for patrolling the busy downtown area.
The bike cops started to move around the crowd and address people whom they thought might be leaders. I was actually standing with my back turned, talking to a friend, when one bike cop came up to us. Maybe because I was smoking a cigar he thought I was a 'revolutionary leader'. (Just kidding.) Anyway, the bike cop said to us, "I'm contacting my supervisor and if you aren't out of the street in ten minutes, we are going to start making arrests."
I told the bike cop that I wasn't in charge. But anyway, my friend and I passed on this warning to a few others. So when the three police vans and the handful of marked and unmarked cars showed up - to inadvertently block the streets themselves - we were not surprised.
The three vans barreled down the road from the east and the marked and unmarked cars from the west, stopping right at the intersection of 4th and Lavaca. Obviously, given that there were not many of us and given that we had neither anticipated nor were we prepared to take a stand, we mostly filtered back off the street and onto the side.
But there were a few who - for whatever reason - were not so content to give up the street that quickly. Bike cops and regular police officers stood in the street in between the three vans and the rest of us on the side of the road. People were jeering at the cops. I didn't see exactly what happened - or what precipitated it - but in a flash a group of cops lunged forward and pulled someone from out of the crowd on the side, not even someone who was standing closer to the police, but someone behind another. And then another was arrested. And then a third.
People were yelling and screaming and the cops: "You fucking pigs!"; "Don't you have any real criminals to arrest"; "Whose street? Our street!" They remained for awhile longer. Tensions quieted down. And the vans and the marked and unmarked cars drove off.
All through this, my girlfriend had been trying to call a few local media outlets. She was at the payphone in front of Ruta Maya. At one point she told me she had got through to KXAN. But no media ever showed up.
With the police gone, three of us on the way to jail, a number of the riders - who had only wanted to ride their bikes and not get involved with this mess - on their way out, the ones who had planned this Austin Reclaim The Street action bewilderedly consulted about how next to proceed. My girlfriend and I had both been arrested before and were quite familiar with the process. She knew the inside of Austin's jail and something about the procedure for getting out. She offered her advice to the younger activists and was ready to leave them to it. But I suggested maybe we ought to also go down to the police station to help sort things out. So we did.
THE POLICE STATION
By the time we parked the car and got inside the police station, there was already a crowd of perhaps 20 people, mostly sitting on the floor, inside the area where you ask about new arrestees. It looked like we were now reclaiming the police station, rather than the street!
We weren't sure if the two young women and one young man were taken to this station. And there was speculation that they could have taken them to any number of substations throughout the city, as they are sometimes apt to do.
None of the people whose idea it was to reclaim the section the street in front of Ruta Maya were prepared for arrests, and in Austin there aren't really known activist lawyers - like in some U.S. cities - readily available to help in moments like this. Although a few of the people who ended up being in the Austin RTS action were seasoned activists, most seemed to be people who had never actually had to deal with police arrests before. Or if they had, they certainly hadn't made any arrangements in advance. So everything was handled on the spot.
My girlfriend has a friend who is a lawyer who has helped her out in the past. While she was on the phone to her, others were over at the main desk waiting to hear if in fact the three were at this station and what they were being held for. Finally, at some point between 9:30 and 10:00 we learned that yes in fact the three had been brought to this station, and what the charges were.
One was charged with a Class C misdemeanor for refusing to obey the order of a police officer. Another was charged with a Class C misdemeanor for disorderly conduct. But the third was charged with a Class B misdemeanor, a more severe level, for "inciting a riot."
First of all, there was no riot, by any stretch of the imagination. But more importantly, the young woman charged with inciting a riot - as I later learned - had merely begun to yell out a cheer. She had said, "Give me a 'P'," - and was probably going to spell "PIG" - at which point the cops lurched forward to grab her from out of the crowd.
My girlfriend's friend who is a lawyer advised us that it would be best if a boisterous crowd did not linger in the police station waiting area as it might only antagonize them and encourage them to hold the three longer. So a group drifted off and went to Lovejoys - the bar where we had started the evening off earlier.
My girlfriend and I, and a couple of friends of the people being detained, remained at the police station. We learned that the two with Class C misdemeanors would be able to be released for $200 bond, although it wouldn't be until much later in the night, actually the wee hours of the morning, but that the young woman charged with inciting a riot would have to wait until a judge came at 10:30 in the morning.
When we saw that it was senseless to wait at the police station any longer, the rest of us left as well, joining others back at Lovejoys where we drank from pitchers of beer, mulled over what had just transpired, and continued an earlier thread about some of the internal dynamic of the new warehouse space in Austin called Pueblos Unidos.
THE NEXT MORNING In the middle of the night the two with Class C misdemeanors were bailed out. And at 10:30 or so on June 19, my girlfriend's lawyer friend - a bit begrudgingly - had to go down to the station to deal with the magistrate and help the one with the inciting riot charge get released. My girlfriend went back to the police station in the morning as well - in part to console her lawyer friend who had had to be bothered on a Friday evening she was spending with her husband who works out of town all during the week. She was able to help get the one with the inciting riot charge out of jail, by being able to visit her while in custody and explain the procedure for getting a personal release - but did not agree to be the lawyer for these cases.
Compounding factors were that two of the people arrested, including the one with the inciting a riot charge, had just returned to the country - literally on the afternoon of June 18 - after having been in Guatemala and Mexico.
Now, a criminal lawyer will need to be found. People will have to spend precious and limited resources on the entire legal process. Those who must return to court will have added stress and worry. And what started out as evening or revelry ends up in the onerous world of the courts.
AFTERTHOUGHTS ON THE REAL
Several things are clear. While a degree of planning for this action was undertaken - in that minimally a date, time, and place were chosen and the action was given some form and content - there definitely were important elements in the planning process that were overlooked. The first, obviously being that it should have been known by the people whose intent it was to reclaim the street to realize that this sort of activity generally falls outside the boundary of the law, that the police were likely to show up, and that arrests were possible. And that given the possibility of arrest, contingency plans should have been made: i.e. there should have been a lawyer on stand by and even some sort of legal observer.
The second oversight was that there was no attention given to drawing in media, nor were any of the participants using any audio or video recording devices. No photographs nor any videotape of the above arrests were made to supply concrete evidence demonstrating that in fact the Class B misdemeanor inciting to riot charge is ludicrous. And finally it seems that the nature and purpose of the action was not made clearly manifest to passersby or to unconnected people sitting inside or outside of Ruta Maya.
All of these things - legal preparation, media work, and public relations - are aspects of street actions that are fairly important. And there are clearly people in Austin who have strong skills in all of these areas and whose services could have been called upon. I'm not sure, but I think the Austin RTS action was a last minute one, pulled off by just a few people who didn't have time to do everything needed.
I don't want to sound too critical. During the moment - albeit a short one - there was a temporary autonmous zone. People did in fact reclaim a portion of a street. But the cost of doing this is that several people now unwittingly must face the hassle and expense of the court system.
HYBRIDITY: THE VIRTUAL AND THE REAL One year ago I wrote a few short pieces with the theme of hybridity, talking about the goal of developing actions that combined on-line (virtual) and off-line (real) elements. In part this was a reaction to criticism the Electronic Disturbance Theater received which claimed that by acting purely in the virtual realm we were isolating ourselves from people who focused more or all of their attention on doing things in the street or in the flesh. We tried to introduce this idea of Electronic Civil Disobedience to the community of activists who every year, for the past few anyway, have gone to the School of the Americas to participate in the more traditional civil disobedience style of action. And at a national conference on civil disobedience held in Washington, DC, this past January, two from the EDT were part of a panel discussion on Electronic Civil Disobedience. Even so, this notion of joint computer-based and street-based actions has a long way to go. There is still a disjuncture, a gap, between what's happening now on the Net and what people are doing on the street. Many people engaged in yesterday's street action in Austin, for example, probably had no idea that the virtual component was even taking place.
EDT's participation in the global RTS actions is another step in developing both the theory and practice of this sort of joint engagement. The Internet is inherently global and so Internet-based actions seem to be a logical match with global street actions. But this is not to say that the particular example of FloodNet is the most ideal way of meshing the street and Net together. The FloodNet action is something that individuals may join from their computers at home, work, or in an educational environment. Even though acting simultaneously, jointly, the participants in the on-line and off-line actions in this case may have been completely different sets of people. What can be done differently?
Some examples from Amsterdam and London over the course of the last few years are instructive. During demonstrations against a meeting of the EU in Amsterdam - which involved massive police presence in the streets - people created web pages in which they mapped out the location of the police. The pages were constantly updated with relevant information to demonstrators from people sending in email messages or calling in from pay phones or cell phones. In another example, in London during an occupation/takeover of a Shell office, activists used a portable laptop connected to a cell phone to send out announcements to the media and others once they were inside. They were also able to directly update a web site during the occupation.
Austin's Reclaim The Street action was about as low tech as you can go. The most sophisticated technology were probably the bicycles used for the first part of the action. Clearly there was no digital technology. No interface with the Net. The closest to this was probably when my girlfriend used the payphone right in front of Ruta Maya to unsuccessfully call media as the police were making arrests. For a moment she tapped in to the telephone infrastructure - which is basically what the Internet is.
What would have happened or what could happen in the future if we are able to enhance these sorts of street actions with a real-time audio and video presence? Imagine if on the elevated sidewalk in front of Ruta Maya and out on the street several people had had video cameras and they were taping the entire action. Further imagine that there were cables running from the cameras to the interior of the café where people were sitting with laptop computers capable of handling video input and these laptops were connected to a phone line in the café - a live stream of audio and video being netcast about the RTS action to a global audience.
Video recording and netcasting the street action may not have prevented people from being arrested, but it certainly would have captured a public record and people other than the participants and the observers at Ruta Maya would have known about it. As it stands there is no recorded imagery or audio of the Austin RTS action. Nor have there been any reports about it in the local media. Nor does anyone on the Net - apart from those reading this - know about it.
One would think that in a town such as Austin - one credited as having one of the fastest growing economies in the U.S. largely linked to the high tech computer industry - that activists here would have the wherewithal to develop these sorts of uses of seemingly readily available digital technology. But there are obstacles. Some of the obstacles are ideological, perhaps. A lingering anti-technology critique. Some of the obstacles are economic. A genuine lack of access. Some obstacles may simply be that the ideas are still new.
To conclude - well at least to stop, concluding may be too premature right now - in addition to an obvious need for more attention to some basic legal, media, and publicity training, there is a need to think about and to experiment more with ways of bringing the street and the Net closer together. We should address this question: how do we bring what is happening on the street onto the Net?
The Zapatista FloodNet action in conjunction with the global Reclaim The Street actions is an example of real-virtual hybridity at a world-wide level. But it is only one form and it lies within the area of Internet as site for resistance and direct action. Finally, then, it seems there are at least two important areas where further exploration is needed: the first, greater experimentation with other forms of on-line action and electronic civil disobedience to be used jointly with actions on the street; the second, greater experimentation with bringing the street and the Net closer together so that what happens on the street is netcast in real-time onto the Net to a global audience.