why do street protests?

As government officials grow depressingly less accountable to the public they’re supposed to represent, we have to resort to  other means to get them to pay attention and set them straight. Going out on the street en masse to air grievances is obviously one of the oldest tactics in the book. Sometimes, it works. It works when it grabs press attention, when it catalyzes others to take action, or when it’s really big and it causes officials to shake in their boots and actually change their course.

But most of the time, it doesn’t do any of those things…and if so, is it just a waste of time?

I thought about this a lot when I was in Washington D.C. for protest actions against the TPP this week and as I went to my third march yesterday in Oakland to perform with my protest dance flashmob group. I spent a pretty significant amount of time and energy preparing for the D.C. actions in the weeks leading to it, getting other organizations to endorse them and invite their members to come out and join us. My goal was to have as many people on the streets at the main action on Monday afternoon as possible.

And we did get a good number people out there (I first said on Twitter that I thought it was at least 1,000 people but given my knack for being horrible at guesstimating large numbers or sizes of things it was probably pretty off). I think it’s safe to say that we had 300~400 people when it was at its largest when we marched through downtown D.C.—apparently, that’s not too shabby for a protest action on the Hill. We had Flush the TPP lanterns shaped like rolls of toilet paper, some big light projections on nearby buildings, and actual rolls of toilet paper with facts about the TPP printed on them that we used to TP trees and statues along the route.

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On the following morning, we had another action to march to each of the 12 embassies of the countries involved in the agreement. It was way smaller (about 60 people) but we definitely made up for it in theatrics and props. We had a big Mr. Monopoly puppeteering the flags of the TPP countries and a massive blow-up globe that four people had to carry on their shoulders.

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Popular Resistance did an incredible job at organizing everything that happened last week. Not only did they plan out a dozen or so separate activities, they coordinated with people who came from all over the country, figured out how to house and feed 30+ people in a church which was our planning HQ, and most impressively of all, kept up their energy and had a positive attitude the entire time. The folks at Popular Resistance were the most impressive organizers I’d ever worked with.

Really though, I think it came down to that: the people you meet at these events. Obviously the goal of doing this kind of thing is to enact some real change but it’s really hard to quantify and measure that kind of impact. But if during the process, you meet and connect with people who share a common goal of resisting oppressive, backward government policies, I’d still say that’s a success.

It’s empowering to get together with a group of total strangers who come from entirely different backgrounds from you and recognize that you’ve got each other on your team. Protests and rallies are just as much about taking up space and creating a spectacle to call attention to an important issue as it is about celebrating your community.

I can say that I definitely needed the inspiration and hope that we still have a chance (see previous bleak blog post for reference). It was an intense few days with the several dozen people who stayed at the church HQ and were involved in all the action.

There was the kindergarten teacher-turned-activist in her 60’s who got teary-eyed with me as we both ranted about how hard it was to make more people care about the TPP. She said she starting doing activism when she realized she couldn’t bear the thought of her kids’ futures in the world the way it was.

There were the 20-something-year old brothers from Michigan who run an organic farming business on their property. They were there because they’re against GMO’s (which we disagreed about) and think Monsanto is an evil company that should not be empowered any more than they are already are (which we agreed about).

Then there was the guy who flew all the way from Washington, from the northern most county in the state. He’s an organizer who managed to turn his entire district Democrat with his grassroots work to rally thousands of people to turn out for local elections.

These and the other people I met this week are, in their various communities, doing whatever they can to be an active participant in re-shaping the future for the better. I hope they went back feeling as pumped and re-energized as I did. We got a pretty good team going, but to win in the long term, we’re going to have to keep building this community bigger, stronger, and with more love and common respect.

Having said that, I think I’m good on going to any more street actions in the near future… 😛

bike ride to point bonita

warning: this is a broring photo life update

It was a gorgeous sunny day out on Saturday so we decided to go out for an afternoon bike ride up to Marin, across the big ol’ Golden Gate.

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Tourists were out in droves, but I couldn’t blame em. The Bay looked ridiculously clear and it felt like the kind of summer you earned after a bitter wet winter…which of course we hadn’t. 😐

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On the way back as I was biking back home up Market Street, I was hit by a car. But I was hit very, very slowly. So slowly it was more like I was gently shoved over. The guy immediately got out, apologized profusely and stuck out his ID for me take a photo. I wasn’t hurt at all though, except maybe my road-confidence. Honestly a giant pine cone that fell out of a tree and stuck the same spot earlier that day hurt more and left a bigger bruise.

Anyway, it was a great day and I needed it. I’m expecting Fast Track to get introduced any day now so I knew I had to recharge to get ready to fight.

I’M READY.

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burning man: re-thinking privilege in a not-so-make-believe world

I wanted to experience it myself. No matter how many things I’d heard and read, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole picture. Wasn’t willing to listen to that little voice of judgment, and honestly, that cowardice that whispered:

“there’s no way you’ll survive out there.
the sun, the dust, the port-a-potties, and no showers for a week.
it’s gonna be seeped in privileged, extravagant, techie bro-ttitude …
it’ll be too much.
all of it will make you feel gross inside and out…”

for the last few years these murmurings stifled the pangs of curiosity I’ve been having about it.
But I didn’t want to care what other people said. I don’t hate on something until I understand what it is, and I only care or feel like I have the place to critique a thing until I do.

the day I was really convinced was when I was getting lunch with an old close friend of mine, Martina. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people so I didn’t even know that she’d gone. This person, one of my favorite people, was someone I didn’t really expect to go to a huge neo-hippie festival in the middle of the desert. It caught me off guard. As I listened to her talk about it, I kept prodding her with questions. She described things she experienced that seems so otherworldly, so unexpected, like a wacky sci-fi world. It suddenly sounded so fucking cool. If she was into it this much, the odds were I would be too.

When it started to become time to make the commitment, I started dating a guy who’d been going for the past several years. he sealed it for me. how could I not try at this point, when so many people, my people, were into it? I wanted to know if I could do it and survive. I wanted to know what the big deal was.

so, I decided to go to Burning Man.

It starts months and months before. At the time it seems like an ungodly amount of preparation, but looking back at it it’s really part of the experience. for your first time, the thing you need to focus on (and quite honestly, all you can really handle) is to figure out how to go and how to survive. Everyone warns you about the excruciating heat, the suffocating dust storms, and the unforgivingly cold, dark nights. I read almost every discussion board and took every random piece of advice I got from friends and strangers about what I needed for the trip. I hadn’t gone on a real camping trip in ages so I was pretty insecure about my outdoor survival skills.

Then there was the planning you need to do if you’re in a camp. I ended up joining Martina’s, which consisted of friends or friends-of-friends of the people who camped together the previous year. We were 60 people, from around the world, most of whom were complete strangers to one another. The process of organizing everything for this many people across 8+ time zones was a feat in itself. We had to plan our food, water, grey water disposal system, shade structure, seating area, signage, etc. etc. I wanted to do everything I could to contribute and be helpful…but I’ll be totally honest and say that I also did it too because I was worried things wouldn’t get done.

In the end, my camp came together remarkably well. It was satisfying to be able to rely on a bunch of total strangers. Everyone was expected to contribute and work collaboratively to build what became our home for that week. pretty much everyone pulled through where it mattered. I was proud that we all created a way that we could all live together on a square plot of dry hard dust, and that we managed to not be a total mess.

In some ways, I guess I should’ve expected this. Burning Man isn’t a place for people who just talk about doing things. It doesn’t matter what you say or plan to do, all that matters is that you did it. That goes for anything you bring to the Playa, to what you end up doing when you’re there. It’s an opportunity to flex cooperative abilities and your giving abilities. At the same time you’re challenged in your willingness to be creative and open to new opportunities, you need to be socially and environmentally aware.

It’s all held together by some basic, intuitively sensible rules. Leave no trace and pick up any Matter Out Of Place. Respect each other’s boundaries. Give and receive whatever you can. You respect these rules because they’re not arbitrary. They’re designed out of utility for the security and happiness of the people who choose to be there. In this way they’re freeing, not inhibiting. These basic rules reflect the event’s slow evolution. I was told that they were the result of lessons learned from tragic accidents and the inevitable necessity for more structure as the city grew and grew each year.

And as it grew, it seems that it became more and more like the world people came there to escape.

That ability to escape is really only something privileged people can do. You need to have the money to spend, and the ability to get time off to disconnect from your job and your other responsibilities. But even then, why Burning Man? Why not spend the time and the resources to go on a relaxing vacation? Why not go into the mountains, surround yourself with thick rustling trees or sprawl out next to some cool peaceful beach?

it’s because the challenge of it’s thrilling. It’s novel to be part of something so big and cooperative. There are few places in this world that invite you to participate and engage in the creation of a shared experience. It forces you to push your comfort zones in ways you never would’ve conceived.

but, as nothing really is, it’s not removed from the real world. Or what Burners call the “default world,” and the very real inequalities in power, influence, and money.

You see it all around. there’s the turnkey camps, where people pay others to set up a camp for them, sometimes coming as a package with expensive chefs, butlers, and the like. Apparently, some of them compose their camps so no one can walk through their whole set up. I saw small clans of segways zoom past me. Sometimes I noticed art cars or camps with older white men sitting at a throne or up high, higher than anyone else, flanked by what I can only imagine to be paid models and dancers in coordinated burner-esque outfits.

It’s gross, for sure, but I was also fascinated by how wealth was manifested there. I guess the point of being in one of those enclosed, turnkey camps is that you get to be all cushy and comfortable while experiencing the dense sensory barrage that unfolds in the desert.

but to me what that shows is two different things:
either, these people are just cowards who don’t think they could handle the harsh environment of the Playa like most do, or they’re just unable to be self-sufficient or work with others well enough to do it themselves. A huge part of being out there is what you do for survival, whether you do it by yourself or with a group. if you’re completely unprepared there are some ways for you to rely on others to get by. But the whole deal is that you think about the basic needs you have, and make sure you take them with you. in theory, the rest of it is about giving and sharing.

What those turnkey camps signify is how its inhabitants don’t know how to be self-reliant. If they do, it’s silly that they’re coming to an event in which that is one of its core principles, and instead, choose to be observers, non-participants. What’s gross about it isn’t that it seems unfair that they “get” to have those set ups, it’s that they’re exploiting the cooperative nature of the Burning Man experience and using it as a backdrop for the cushy vacation they could really have anywhere else.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

In the default world you can never ignore the existence and power that money quantifies and signifies.
one goal out there is to try to suspend its grip on our lives, for just a few days. thousands go to play this game of make believe.

people go to be extravagant in their own way. you can’t ignore the privilege, the wealth, because you can’t go unless the time, the resources, the ability, AND the desire for relentless, expressive, experimental energy that’s all been taken to its absurd extreme. everyone who goes is privileged in this way. the layers of pre-existing, institutionalized power inequities always give certain people access to more things, and out there, to more of those extremes. but to me, it seems like the people who choose to drag their privilege out there with them lose out from actually understanding the point of burning man. i’d imagine it’s hard to experience the raw, unpredictable intimacy of a place where respect and trust comes from being able to be happy to give as much as you are happy to receive. you can’t be as grateful for those surprise gifts if you isolate yourself and bring too much comfort out there with you.

So. I’m glad I got to go and see what it’s like when people are free to question all previous spoken and unspoken rules….how you’re supposed to dress, speak, act, relax, connect, feel, and express to others, it’s all thrown out the window and we’re all dared to rebuild it from scratch. I truly believe it could do more to challenge our default norms, especially our socio-political ones. Since no one in particular is in charge of that, I’m thinking of doing it myself somehow.

South Africa Pt.1: speechless (not the good kind)

I was picked up by a driver at the Cape Town International Airport to go about 200 km northeast to spend the night at an animal conservation/game reserve, after I’d spent over 22 hours in a plane and 12 hours in airports traveling from San Francisco. Walking out of customs, I immediately spotted a short guy in a collared shirt holding a sign with my name in big capital letters. I felt a blip of giddiness at the sight of it—there’s something exciting about meeting a complete stranger at an airport who’s waiting for you, even if it was pre-arranged.

I wave at him and he grins widely, revealing a row of shiny, gold teeth. It’s surprising and admittedly off-putting. He tells me his name is Tony. “Hi Tony, thanks for waiting. Let’s go get Rebecca then?”

We walk to the airport parking lot and to his white Toyota sedan. I make small talk about how long my trek was and that I’m here for an intellectual property conference, and he told me he was born and raised in Cape Town. All I wanted to know was how he felt about the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. He looked mixed, or “colored” as they’d say here to differentiate from “black” and “white” people. I figure he must have some opinions but I felt awkward asking outright.

My sister texted me the news as I was waiting at my gate to board a flight to South Africa. First, I was pretty weirded out by the personal coincidence of it. Then I quickly felt ashamed of my ignorance of the extent of his struggle. I knew what apartheid was…generally. And I knew he was crucial in the fight to rid of its policies and was held in prison for 27 years. That was the pathetic extent of my knowledge. I’m of the generation that knew him as a peace icon, not the organizer, the activist, the revolutionary. I still want to understand more about how he did what he did, but I did know enough to know he is a crucial icon in South African history.

We get Rebecca, who’s staying at the airport hotel about 400 meters away. We start driving into the hills and make some more small talk before the car gets quiet again. I go for it.

“So you heard the big news?”
“Yeah,” said Rebecca. “It’s so sad to hear about Mandela’s passing. It’s strange to be visiting South Africa for the first time when the country is in mourning…”
“Yeah seriously.”
We look at Tony, expecting him to say something.

“Sure…” He says distractedly. Then he says in a burst of excitement. “OH! You know who ELSE died?! Paul Walker! In a car crash!”

I was too shocked to say anything. This must be a joke. Please indicate that you’re joking.

“Who?” asked Rebecca.

“Y’know, Fast and the Furious. So sad…so very sad.” He said as he shaked his head.

“Oh. Right.”

Silence.

I was horrified and so confused. I was particularly shocked because I was expecting him to say anything, anything remotely more reflective. Of course there’s no reason why he’d be representative of any common sentiment… it’s my own fault for thinking that any old stranger that I’d meet here would be engaged in their nation’s story, and be proud of the legacy of a man who sacrificed everything to end legally codified racial segregation. Mostly I was horrified to confirm that people like this exist. They exist everywhere. People who don’t care at all to participate in their community or to celebrate progress in their society.

I have more stories about Tony, who ended up being our “guide” for the weekend and was so dim and yet so bafflingly confident… But I need to go to sleep now. It was a bit amusing at first, then it got somewhat disturbing. Rebecca and I wondered how such a self-delusional person like this came to be, as he continued to make us momentarily speechless all weekend. I’ve never been around someone so unbearable in my entire life. I guess there’s a first for everything.

Returned from New Zealand

I went to New Zealand for the first few weeks of December, and it was a very fun/intense trip.

The first weekend, my colleague Carolina and I put on a digital rights camp for advocates of balanced and/or pragmatic copyright policies that take the reality of the Internet into forefront of their consideration. The following week, we got werd that we “stakeholders” as we’re called, would be banned from the entire venue where the TPP was held (a luxury casino resort in Auckland). Despite that setback, we did what we could to get some influence into the secret trade negotiation meetings.

Auckland was nice. It reminded me a lot of LA where cars seem to dominate the flow and composition of the city. It didn’t make my impressions of the place any better because Internet scarcity was rough; anywhere you went, there were data caps and time limits for any free or paid wifi. But I also had no idea how many Asian people live and work there! I could not walk down a city block without passing 2 Korean BBQ restaurants, 3 cheap sushi shops, and a handful of Chinese fast food joints. It was great.

After that first week of nonstop meetings and hang out seshes with the other awesome digital rights advocates who were there for the camp and the TPP negotiations, I went off for a five day vacation to travel down the North Island to Wellington. Anyway, it’s late and I don’t have time to upload those photos from my play time here tonight, but here are just a few of the photos from the week in Auckland.

I’m uploading all of the best ones to Flickr (yes, that’s right. Fuck Instagram):

http://flic.kr/s/aHsjDgf2P4