Human Rights

Anarchy at the RNC

Protestors at the Republican National Convention may be trading black masks for tech-savvy tools.
No self-defined anarchist has ever sparked a revolution. But the ideologically uninitiated who have trafficked in the habits of anarchism – chiefly unmediated communication – have toppled dozens of tyrants. – Siva Vaidhyanathan

With a four-day security budget of $76 million and 10,000 police officers facing protestors, the stage is set for anarchy. And that's just what some activists will be resorting to during the Republican National Convention later this month – only they'll be trading black masks for radically democratic, tech-savvy protest tools. Transcending beloved old-school methods, this new wave of activists will use decentralized and distributed technologies to level the playing field with law enforcement.

"There's been an incredible technological buildup on the side of the police, and on the other side people are still holding cardboard placards and making puppets," says artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko. "In the arms race of direct action, there's been incredible changes in the strategies, the training, and the equipment the police use in treating this political process." But the projects she and others embrace are only anarchistic in a strategic sense. While Anarchy suggests a political philosophy loaded with baggage, the term's Greek origins have little to do with chaos or violence: arkhos (ruler) plus the prefix a (the absence of).

This leaderlessness – "uncoordinated actions toward a coordinated goal," as Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his book The Anarchist in the Library – is what links these new-school approaches:

Flash radiojacking: Jeremijenko and the Bureau of Inverse Technology (BIT), will use a special transmitter to break into radio frequencies reserved for corporate stations, giving bursts of information so brief that the FCC can't lock onto their transmission location. During the World Economic Forum demonstrations, BIT called attention to the Bush administration's bogus claims about the safety of the air after 9/11. Each time New York's airborne pollution surpassed the "safe" level, a warning bleep interrupted broadcasts of the local NPR affiliate.

Bikes Against Bush: Joshua Kinberg will hit the streets on an "internet-enabled tactical media 'weapon' for non-violent creative resistance." Outfitted with a laptop, webcam, GPS device, and cellphone, his tech-laden bike will receive text messages sent by visitors to www.BikesAgainstBush.com. At the push of a button, he'll select messages to print on the pavement using a robotic chalk-spraying device; each anti-Bush screed will be time-stamped and gps-mapped on the website. The bike's maneuverability effectively makes all of New York a free-speech zone.

Backpack broadcast: Media collective neuroTransmitter will be toting com_muni_ports throughout the convention. These low-power, backpack-mounted radio transmitters will provide localized, on-the-fly media broadcasts, bearing witness, live, to events you won't hear about on local Clear Channel stations.

WiFi on Wheels: Yury Gitman will be pedaling his MagicBike during the convention. Offering free internet connectivity wherever it goes, it'll wire the UK-based collective OpenSorcery so members can play a military simulator online and on the streets of New York using high-power projectors.
Operations in Urban Terrain (OUT), a first-person-shooter game, aims to critique the militarization of civilian life following 9/11 – a condition the group describes as " a government . . . at war with its own citizens, with soldiers in the midst of the fabric of ordinary life" – by literally broadcasting the game's violence on city walls.

Inflated Crowd Counts: When the demonstration ends, police will inevitably lowball crowd sizes, while activists will present overly optimistic numbers. The Bureau of Inverse Technology will calculate verifiable figures, thanks to a wireless video camera tethered to a helium balloon high above the action. A rollerblader will maneuver the balloon throughout the entire crowd while the high-resolution camera beams visual data to laptops on the ground. The result: a composite image that will be analyzed by software similar to the kind used for counting microscopic cells in labs. "If Bush can dismiss this as a 'focus group' with the wave of his hand, how do you answer that? You have to have a higher standard of evidence, you have to have more compelling images," says Jeremijenko. "And we end up with a family aero-portrait – a self-documentation of our action on the streets."

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Paul Schmelzer is a Minneapolis-based writer and edits the website Eyeteeth: A Journal of Incisive Ideas (http://eyeteeth.blogspot.com).