01/26/15

what’s the point of modern trade policy?

At my job, a major project has been the fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Specifically, I organize EFF members to oppose the many digital policies that would impact how signatory countries implement laws—the underlying problem being that the negotiating texts are kept secret from the public while it’s overwhelmingly influenced by major corporate interests. So I spend a significant amount of time reading, and watching the politics behind US trade policy, in order to identify opportunities and targets for direct action.

Over the last 3 years or so that I’ve been watching these TPP talks unfold, one of the things that confound me is how proponents—mostly the White House and some Congress members—defend this and other secretly negotiated agreements. The primary argument is that enabling “free trade” and breaking down protectionist barriers will mean job creation and economic growth. Job creation and economic growth…they both sound like wonderful motives, but the implication that this means that more people, in the US, would live more prosperous, stable lives seems to be extremely dubious.

What we should be asking is, what kind of jobs would this lead to? And at what cost? For example, one of the big arguments I hear for the XL Keystone Pipeline is that it would lead to employment of thousands of workers. But first, how permanent are those jobs, will they be paid well, and what are they actually doing to promote a sustainable future? The jobs that project would create are those that would be paying individuals to literally help shove poison into the earth, and into our water. You can’t think about public policy in such a narrow, irrelevant frame as “job creation”, especially if that means nothing more than putting people at work at a task that doesn’t pay well enough for people to live healthy, decent lives.

When I hear that justification for a policy, what it sounds like to me is a more twisted version of trickle down economics. By helping mega-corporations to make more profit (even if it means infringing on people’s rights, even if it means putting peoples’ lives at risk) they can hire more people and spread that wealth all around. That’s just not how this happens though—companies aren’t incentivized to hire more people for the hell of it, because they can. They’ll only do it if it means yielding more or better product, so they can capture even more profit…

Now’s not the time to flesh this out as much as I’d like, but the point I want to get to is the huge deception of modern trade policy. What they, trade delegates, allege is being negotiated for the benefit of their nation, is actually only for the benefit of the wealthy, influential figures in that given nation. That’s why each country is willing to give up flexibilities on other policies as long as the dominant industry gets its deal. For instance, Vietnam may be willing to cave in to worse copyright rules, insisted by mainly Hollywood companies, as long as it gets better access to US’ textile/clothing markets. That isn’t a reflection of what the people of Vietnam want or need, it’s just that of the powerful textile manufacturing industry.

So if other countries agree to more extreme digital policies, it may harm future opportunities for the tech industry to thrive there. The US, in having the most flexible copyright rules, might be the country where starting certain tech businesses might be more conducive, while it forces other countries to worse rules that would prevent such industries to thrive there. Is this the point of trade agreements? I know for sure that they’re now solely there for the purposes of propping up private industry, but is part of the goal, the point, to have countries become more specialized producers for certain products?

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01/4/15

art-making is gonna happen, 2015.

Some friends of mine mentioned that this year, they were going to forgo yearly resolutions for aspirations instead—a broad set of ambitions, rather than a set list of objectives. It seems like less pressure, allowing you to be more realistic about what you want to accomplish while forcing you to think more directionally and long-term.

So I’m gonna give it a shot.

The only one I’ll write here for now is…

Work towards becoming a part-time artist.

I want art-making be a more regular part of my life. I kept thinking it was just a matter of making time to sit down and draw, paint, write, etc., but when it came down to do it, it was stressful and awful every time. It had been so long since I did it regularly that I’d come to be creatively constipated, worrying and self-doubting what I was making and what I was trying to “say” with my work.

Finally, I came up with an assignment for myself that lets me make something without getting too caught up with all of that: to make a big 30″ x 40″ painting of a California poppy to put up in my living room shared with my roommates. The subject needs to be non-offensive, decorative, and composed and painting well. It took me three straight hours of hand-wringing to realize that I need to just get in the habit of making, so I can at least get the craft of it feeling natural again.

I’ve only really sketched it out and done a color wash (below) but I’m so excited to keep working on it. :D

poppypainting_phase2

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12/7/14

the power of protest theater

I finally made it out to a protest last night in Berkeley over state violence and police brutality, hearing about the march from my fellow dance-flashmobbers. I’m in a group called GUST (Get Up Street Theater), wherein we show up at protests and do one of two dances—one that’s about the environment, and the other that’s related to military industrial complex, state violence, and police brutality.

Our dances—especially in the case of our “Toxic” dance, done to Britney Spears’ top hit song from the early oughts of the same name—is a little bit cutesy. Sometimes it feels like being in a protest cheer leading group. But the point is that it makes onlookers watch, a bit engrossed in the sudden theatrics and the loud music. People put their guard down, which is something most random passerbys don’t do when they see a protest. It lets us get our message across and makes it memorable.

Up until yesterday, I felt that going to a rally, a protest, or a march and doing our dances would make other participants of the general action a little uplifted, inspired, or at the very least, amused. But one of the times we did it last night…it missed the mark. It detracted from the crowd’s collective rhythm of their chants: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” It felt like it added to the impending chaos of that moment when we came upon the headquarters for the Berkeley Police Department. Only a few minutes after we finished the dance, the police began shooting tear gas and the crowd dispersed into a frenzy.

The timing and the use of it matters a ton. Last night, I felt bad that we were detracting from the leaders of the march. It really didn’t help that none of us in GUST are people of color…

[Vine of our dance at the protest]

Despite my misgivings about this particular protest last night, I still believe in the power of theater in direct actions.

Die in at University of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeSolidarity with Ferguson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Die-In [Source]

Many of the more well-known aspects of these protests is the powerful use of theatrics. Hundreds of people holding their hands up, saying don’t shoot. A die-in in the middle of a busy square or street. Students dragging twin-sized dorm mattresses across campuses to represent the weight of the burden of living in a sexist, misogynist system that doesn’t do enough to take care of rape victims. These convey powerful images that get at the heart of these institutional transgressions. They empower people across state and national boundaries, and maybe just as importantly, they help these protests make the evening news in a way that can cut through the incessant mainstream media’s emphasis on the rioting and violence on the fringes of these larger actions.

What’s exciting about this isn’t just that protest theater has been so effective in these recent demonstrations, it’s also that there’s tons of more room for experimentation.

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11/30/14

a collection of readings on Ferguson+racism in the US

When St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, announced that the grand jury would not be indicting officer Darren Wilson for murdering Michael Brown, it was a glaring reminder, or rather, an affirmation, that the justice system is dysfunctional, subjective, and racist.

Map of Nationwide Ferguson Protests

Every time I heard someone whose first reaction is to condemn the rioting, the destruction, and the direct actions that were purposefully disruptive, I’ve made them confront the fact that they’re placing more value on the property that is destroyed over the loss of a human life. No, the loss of hundreds, thousands of lives—black and brown people killed by law enforcement, who get away with it with impunity over and over and over again. Even if rioting is counterproductive, even if it destroys the livelihood of local people, it doesn’t even compare to the atrocity of a system that enables its officials to shoot and kill people and children. It’s a system that discourages and rejects investigations into what happened, who is at fault, and to create a proper remedy that will let families and communities heal and to discourage these murders from happening again.

Our justice system is supposed to be able to resolve conflicts and hold everyone accountable to the same rules, so that people don’t feel the need to take matters into their own hands. When state actors disregard the rules that apply to everyone else, that violates public faith in legal institutions. Which is why cops need to be held accountable more than anyone else—they’re afforded the power to uphold and embody the law. If they don’t even abide by the law themselves, how can the public be expected to respect their authority?

Anyway. I was pretty sick again this week, so I didn’t have the energy to participate in commenting on any of this on Twitter. But I did have the energy to read…and in this past week there has been some of the most thoughtful, heart-wrenching writing and news commentary on racism in America in light of what’s gone down/going down in Ferguson. I’m sure this doesn’t cover it all but I thought I’d compile the ones that helped me, at least, make sense of this all.

Black Lives Matter — Jay Smooth’s New Illipses Video

If there’s one you should read or watch, it’s this one. This is for the people who think that mere destruction of property is remotely as horrifying as people regularly getting murdered by law enforcement. It’s powerfully articulate and gets to the root of the problem of systemic racism. [You can also read a transcript of it]

That unrest we saw Monday night was a byproduct of the injustice that preceded it.
This is not a choice, this is a cause-and-effect relationship. If you’re worried about the effects, you need to be thinking about the cause.
Riots are a thing that human beings do because human beings have limits.
We don’t all have the same limits. For some of us, our human limit is when our favorite team loses a game. For some of us, it’s when our favorite team wins a game.

The people of Ferguson had a different limit than that.


The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a Nigger Nation

Black people desperately tried to defend Michael Brown, pointing out that he was a child, that he was gentle, that he never got into any trouble, that he was going to college. If we fail to name the battleground being fought upon, this fight over what narrative to impose on the details of Brown’s life might seem oddly tangential to the argument over the circumstances of his death. So let’s be clear about the stakes of this conflict: we are trying to decide whether or not Michael Brown was a nigger. A dead human being is a tragedy that needs to be investigated and accounted for. A dead nigger doesn’t even need to be mourned, much less its death justified.


NY Times: What Happened in Ferguson?

I still don’t know much about the rules and procedures of grand juries. But it seems that it’s incredibly rare for them to refuse to hand down an indictment. This chart compares a typical grand jury indictment process to the one applied to Darren Wilson’s case.

nytimesindictmentcomparison


Burning Ferguson

Sarah Kendzior, in my opinion, is one of the best journalists out there right now. Her pieces are consistently excellent in teasing out and analyzing the power dynamics of various current events, and she does it again with Ferguson.

These phenomena—white flight, decaying poor neighborhoods, struggles over gentrification—are not unique to St. Louis, but understanding their history has made it especially tragic to watch the black neighborhoods of Ferguson be victimized all over again in recent weeks, losing in many cases, what businesses they did have.
When St. Louis burns, it does not rebuild. All around the region are ruins of what was: rotting homes, shattered windows, empty factories, broken communities. West Florissant’s destruction is not London in 2011 or Seattle in 1999: it is the destruction, possibly permanent, of the resources of the vulnerable.


Today in Tabs: I Will Only Bleed Here

A powerful intro to Bijan Stephens’ piece in This Week in Tabs, his collection of even more powerful commentary on Ferguson.

I am the only black person on the editorial floor at my place of employment. The other ones who look like me work as cleaners or in the mailroom. When we lock eyes I nod, and it is both the easiest and hardest thing in the world. I know nothing of their lives, and yet here we are the same. Today I will do this. We will share a look that encompasses last night’s indignities and acknowledges tomorrow’s. We will keep our heads down and our hearts guarded, and I will only bleed here, in words, on this page.


What white people need to know, and do, after Ferguson

Black communities are ultimately protesting systems of injustice and inequality that structurally help white people while systematically harming black people. Just because you’re white and therefore generally benefit from those systems doesn’t mean you inherently support those systems — or need to defend them. Benefiting from white privilege is automatic. Defending white privilege is a choice.

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11/15/14

The Church of Market

we kneel at the Church of Market.
our Holy Purpose is to raise the value of our shares.

faithful are those,
who have sacrificed the earth,
the commons,
our humanity,
at the altar of the Divine Profit.

regulations, are an abomination—

limits on righteous work are the work of the depraved.
they must always be demolished
for the good of the Market.

let us praise the blessed Lords Investors—
which has graced us with the strength to fight such villainy
and let our faith flow through the halls of the State.
one-by-one
we will vanquish these restraints.

let us prevail in this O Divine Profit,
let us prevail.

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11/9/14

a spoonful of conference makes my anxieties go down!

Tomorrow, I’m going home to San Francisco. I’ve spent the last four days here in Warsaw, Poland and I came to attend CopyCamp, an internationalconference that brought together advocates, academics, lawyers, and collecting societies to have a multi-sided debate about the state of copyright and its impact on creators and access to knowledge and culture. I gave a talk on Friday about building a transnational peer-to-peer user rights movement, describing my work with the organizations I partner and coordinate with on campaigns on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and others. People really seemed to like it, and it even got voted as one of the top three best talks of the conference out of the more than 70 presentations. :D

Every time I come to an event like this, where I meet new people working on similar issues, I come away feeling fuzzy, bubbly, and inspired. Cuz the thing is, doing activism can be really disheartening. You’re up against big politically influential entities, and you often can’t see or measure the impact of your daily or even weekly projects. All the time, I question if I’m doing things the right way or the most effectively. I wonder If I’m spending too much time on Twitter, or too little to share current news or conversations. Should I be spending more time studying and learning every legal nuance of copyright policy, or is that counterproductive because it makes me lose sight of the larger discussions, making it harder for me to talk about this stuff in a way that I can get the every day person to understand and to get ‘em riled up?

When I meet others in the copyright activism world, it calms me down about my anxieties. Having even a casual conversation with someone can get me inspired to have more faith in my methods, or to even become curious to challenge them. When I hear a story or find out about some other copyright wackiness that I didn’t know about, it makes me determined to read up about it until I’ve properly filled that gap in my knowledge.

But what I’ve also come to realize in the past few years is that I’m not built to be a lawyer, nor an academic. I’m never going to be sufficiently detailed in my policy knowledge, and I’m actually okay with that. I get excited and energized by looking at the policies, how they affect people’s lives, and to examine the powers as play that have led to them. From there, I can construct the overarching narrative, and share that story with people to get them to care about it as much as I do.

I guess I should’ve known this all along, or maybe I did but forgot for some reason along the way. For some reason, it was during this past week that I’ve come to understand my job and the things I can bring to it. On top of the things I’ve learned, the wonderful/cool/awesome people I’ve met, I feel like this one the best things to come out from this trip. So yeah, that’s pretty cool.

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10/26/14

Citizenfour and the Power of Narratives

I saw Citizenfour this week, the new Laura Poitras documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations. It’s a momentous, chilling piece of film making that shines a glaring light on the disturbing folly that’s become of the US in the post-9/11 world. The hours of raw footage that Laura filmed throughout the week she and Glenn Greenwald first met Ed are intimate in a way that makes you, as a viewer, feel like you are part of the history that unfolds on the screen.

And that’s what struck me most about Citizenfour. The historical relevance of the Snowden revelations not only lies with the truth that he chose expose about the government, but also in the way he did it. It was the way he partnered with Glenn and Laura to curate the release of state secrets, and to do it in a way that they could maximize the impact of the truth and trustworthiness of his actions.

But as anyone who follows the work of Glenn and Laura knows, they aren’t ordinary journalists. They are part of a new crop that reject the ideal of objectivity in journalism—a farce, I believe, that only works to hide the inevitable subjectivity, the motives of the presenters and the producer of the news story. And they are overt about their motive: to shed light on the truth and to expose the dangers of unchecked state power in an effort to inspire change.

To Glenn and Laura, it may have first been surprising, but also strategic to help Ed show his face to the world. In the film, they make it seem as though their main motivation for doing this was for his safety. Making him known to the public makes it much more difficult for any powerful entity that felt threatened by him to snuff him out. He was a guy who did this for the sake of the greater good, not out of some egotistical need, some narcissistic urge. By presenting him as the heroic individual that he is, they were able to ensure that the public would stand by him and his action. What they don’t say is that his publicity would, and likely already has, inspire others to follow his lead as a government whistleblower.

The thing about fighting power is that the powerful do an excellent job of hiding their motivations from the public. In the cases where the policies themselves are carried out in secret, talking about the secrecy itself is enough to rile the public and undermine their faith in their government. Secrecy is a major way they’re able to get away with these policies, but it’s also their greatest weakness. When their actions, and especially their objectives, are revealed to the public, their legitimacy shrivels up along with the faith and trust people had in them.

For activists, our strongest ally is the truth. But sadly the truth alone isn’t sexy enough. The truth can be dry, non-compelling, or confusing. Governments, corporations, and other entities of concentrated power invest a huge amount of their energy in the optics of their actions. When it’s a matter of public opinion, they’re adept at hiding even their most heinous acts by using lofty justifications or simply relying on the fact that the mainstream media won’t report it. Too often it’s because these stories are just too tedious to unpack for the viewers. As John Oliver said to describe the net neutrality fight, whether on purpose or by function, those in power have figured that “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”

Which gets me back to Citizenfour and its potential to add a new wave of energy towards significantly reforming mass surveillance. What the global fight for digital privacy, and really any issue in social justice issue needs, is better storytelling. Stories are what inspire people. Stories are what frame big, complicated, boring issues in a way that humanizes them and makes them tangible for people. No matter how much something warrants newsworthiness because of its impact and relevance for people’s lives, it won’t resonate with them, and they won’t care about it unless they can see the narrative and place themselves within it.

We especially need stories at a time when things are seriously broken. Democracy is a joke. Corporations make and break the rules they want. And meanwhile the government is doing more and more to persecute and silence journalists and individuals who are fighting to fix the system. What Laura does with Citizenfour is tell Ed’s story, to show why a modest, every-day person would put their life on the line for the public-interest, and how they can, alone, put a giant wrench in a powerful, corrupt, and seemingly unstoppable system.

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10/12/14

my ongoing obsession with cooperatives

Between my many “extracurricular” (by which I just mean non-EFF work) activities last week, I met up with a group of people who shared my raging curiosity and interest in learning about cooperative businesses. We watched this BBC 1980 documentary on the Mondragon cooperative, which was only about 50 minutes long, but went into the history and structure of this one very large cooperative network in northern Spain in fairly good detail.

I’d already seen Shift Change, a solid movie that looks at various cooperative businesses around the United States (plus Mondragon as well). Despite me being already pretty convinced that cooperatives are a very viable model for enabling more sustainable enterprises that inherently concern itself with the well-being of its workers and communities in which they are based, I still felt like it portrayed too rosy a picture of cooperatives. When I was finished watching it, I had all kinds of lingering thoughts about their decision-making structure and the management process.

The 1980 BBC doc was pretty thorough about this aspect of Mondragon—how various teams elect a representative to the board, how human resources decisions are made, etc. It seems to work, but it seems like there’s a lot of room for experimentation depending on the size, the product, the location, and all kinds of other aspects of the enterprise.

I feel like I’m hearing more and more rumblings about cooperative, co-owned businesses, and that’s really exciting. The more people start to talk about coops, the more it begins to permeate expectations around new businesses, and at the very least, makes for-profit corporations seems less and less like a sustainable, worthy enterprise, and more like the extractive, parasitic institutions like they are.

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