The logo for the Stop Watching Us coalition and recent rally of the same name is of a hand held up in a “stop” gesture, within the pupil of a large, all-seeing eye. It was featured prominently in the rally’s meticulously crafted flyers, signage, and banners, including the stage erected at the edge of the Reflecting Pool on Capitol Hill.
While there were frequent allusions throughout the rally to 1984, I kept looking at the logo and thinking of The Lord of the Rings’ eye of Sauron. Aside from the fact Orwell is an incomplete (at best) analogy to our current situation, fantasy seemed a more appropriate lens to think through the framework currently used by the anti-surveillance movement in the United States as experienced in the Stop Watching Us rally.
To be fair, I’d spent the week prior in D.C., traveling around Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, driving through forests and farmland to the edge of intelligence agencies and data centers. Perhaps I was unreasonably looking for a Helm’s Deep moment at a Shire festival. But Tolkien provided an apt analogy for the varied skill sets and disciplines brought together by the cause. (I’ll leave it to journalists, technologists, activists, lawyers and policy wonks to decide who among them are elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards and men.) On the anniversary of the signing of the PATRIOT Act, our fellowship of seemingly unlikely bedfellows came together to take a stand against the orcs, Balrogs and corrupted men who sought to place Middle Earth under the reign of mass surveillance.
The rally was, of course, neither the only tactic nor the only fellowship. Rallies, congressional visits, public programming and cryptoparties have also been organized by a number of Stop Watching Us supporter groups since the story broke. The day before the rally some coalition members participated in a “lobby day” where they visited congressional offices to voice their concerns. Following the rally, organizers delivered banker’s boxes of the over 575,000 signatures to the Stop Watching Us petition to Congress.
However, the tone of the rally made clear that while circumvention technology, education, legal intervention and really nice swag are valued components, policy was pretty clearly the strategic lead of Stop Watching Us. After all, its foundation is a petition to Congress. The petition’s demands are fairly policy-wonk friendly:
Some of these demands are visible in Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s Freedom Act bill, which may actually have a fighting chance of getting passed. While I believe in the good intentions of these efforts (I signed the petition!), I worry that these objectives are first, fairly toothless — “accountability” for the Sarumans and Wormtongues of the surveillance state will be merely theater as they settle into comfortable executive positions at defense contractors — and, second, fairly useless in addressing the international and ideological implications of surveillance. Ironically, many of the organizations supporting Stop Watching Us have an international, intersectional focus. I’m not sure where that perspective went during the rally, but the hints of it felt desultory at best.
While a few speakers at the rally actively called for a defunding of the NSA and international solidarity, within the framework of the rally’s demands, literature, and call to action the surveillance state still exists, it’s just not bothering the “innocent” — but the state still gets to decide who is and isn’t innocent. The movement’s logo flatly defines resistance to surveillance as reflected within the frame of surveillance itself. While I have the utmost respect for many of the organizations involved in Stop Watching Us and know some organizers personally, I think its emphasis on nationalist policy wins and the political process as principal call to action contributed to the hollow feeling of the rally itself.
Mass surveillance is a tool for establishing and reinforcing asymmetrical power relations. It does this through collecting and withholding information, segmenting and classifying populations, and instilling fear and uncertainty. It is a tool that is regularly used against marginalized communities. I’ve heard this analysis at other events but it didn’t really take center stage at Stop Watching Us. At the rally itself, I heard it most in one moment of the statement from Edward Snowden read by Jesselyn Radack. Snowden was only able to share his story to begin with because he didn’t go through the right channels. I fear that overemphasizing policy at the expense of shared principles builds well-branded campaigns rather than movements. It panders to asymmetrical power structures rather than speaking truth to it.
What I’m trying to describe — unfortunately for my strained metaphor, but perhaps fortunately as a way forward — is an approach to building mass surveillance resistance for people rather than citizens, one that accepts the premise that there is no eye of Sauron and there possibly may be no Sauron at all. This isn’t to say there aren’t threats; there are rings of power and palantir. There are cruel and stupid trolls, cruel and evil wizards, and cruel and evil men. Dismantling cruel and evil systems takes fortitude and risk. It requires beliefs over talking points, compassion over campaigning, empathy over easy metrics. I believe that every activist and NGO and lobbyist and journalist who cares about mass surveillance has the best of intentions. But those intentions have to go deeper than campaign wins or YouTube views or petition signatories.
I respect the necessity for a diversity of tactics in tackling this issue — after all, one does not simply walk into Mordor. I don’t think policy wonks should stop wonking, or organizers should stop organizing. But for all these varied tactics to work together harmoniously toward something greater than itself, we have to look deep into the abyss of Mount Doom, deep into the eye of Sauron, and imagine a world beyond it.
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