Resisting Datafication from the Ground Up Through Radical Solidarities

Over a year has passed since the beginning of the George Floyd Uprising with little clarity on exactly the extent of surveillance technologies employed to target protestors. Last summer, media and lawmakers were awash with outrage over the explicit overreach of federal and local law enforcement agencies use of surveillance and repression. By August 2020, a congressional committee had formed to investigate what was going on in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)[1]. Yet, this outrage appears to have been only political spectacle as the new administration wasted little time rejecting the demands of a historic movement to defund and abolish the police and continuing repression. Already this year, police budgets have received more funding than ever, anti-protest legislation is receiving alarming support, and a national security apparatus expanded its political repression disguised as “combatting domestic extremism”, confabulating new categories of dissidents such as “racially motivated” and “anarchist violent extremists” [2].

Despite the despair many of us may have felt from the seeming failure of the movement’s main goals, we have much to gain from acknowledging the way the state engaged in repression so that we might understand what counterpower remains possible. The degree of surveillance regularly employed during protests reveals the doubling-down of the state on a coordinated strategy of political repression through datafication. This strategy of protest repression mirrors the already established strategies of surveillance capitalism in which the process of datafication opens up the possibility of predicting future social behavior and controlling it [3]. In this case, datafication acts to predict ‘civil unrest’ and control its emergence, consequently foreclosing the political agency of protest to effect unsanctioned structural change. The enclosure of protest is accompanied by an alarming trend of carceral and policing logics bleeding into everyday social infrastructures, digital and physical, from the smart city to social media [4]. This foreclosed agency and creeping carcerality, paired with the enthusiastic exposure of ourselves within surveillant regimes [5], undeniably reproduces the racialized inequalities prisons and policing are founded on. Recognizing that datafication enables this violent and racialized control of bodies throughout hybrid virtual/real spaces, then it seems obvious than an imperative of anti-racist, anti-oppression praxis is to strategize against technological systems of control. Yet, where are such resistances happening and what do they look like?

Continuing critical human geography’s commitment to emancipatory praxis, I aim to locate, amplify and mobilize resistance by “drawing from the local and lived knowledge of communities who have, and continue to exist under intensive surveillance and monitoring” [6]. Therefore, I have grounded this research in the radical communities I had the opportunity to connect with during the uprising in Portland, Oregon. Over 2020, I was able to spend significant time among a radical intersectional counterculture of both new and old activists dedicated to combatting police violence. I also embedded myself within the social media networks of #PortlandProtest and other proximal communities in alt-media spaces, including anarcho-hacker collectives and liberation-centered technology forums. Within these spaces of resistance, I found an anarchic anchor tying together multiple modes of resistance and communities who together desired something like “becoming ungovernable”. I felt very strongly in these communities the harmonies that Marquis Bey celebrates among queer, trans, black, feminist and anarchic struggles for liberation [7]. I find my theoretical foundation somewhere within this radically inclusive coalition of knowledges. At the same time, I felt a severe disjuncture between the practices of those on the ground or on mainstream platforms, and the security cultures and radical digital praxis of alternative online communities. This gap among my research population mirrors a gap in the relevant literatures where injustices of mutating digital regimes are acknowledged, especially in places like Critical Data Studies, but few studies attempt to locate resistances to these regimes.

So, my summer thus far has been spent attempting to dive deeper into these communities and find out what strategies of resistance to datafication might be present or missing, emerging or blocked. My first goal has been to make connections in the local Portland scene so that I might conduct a series of interviews about experiences of surveillance and practices of resistance. I’ve participated in direct actions, mutual aid projects, and community education events in Portland, Oregon as part of my fieldwork for this project over the past month. It has been difficult to make connections in the wake of a pandemic, especially within communities that are notoriously anti-social as the threat of state surveillance and infiltration haunt everyday realities. Nevertheless, through obvious expressions of solidarity in my words, actions, and even clothes, I have been able to form meaningful relationships that are materializing in enthusiastic participation. I am also attempting to conduct (an)archival research of radical zines/pamphlets related to digital security and counter-surveillance practices that are available at protest-related events and online libraries. By understanding how these packets of knowledge are created, mobilized, and preserved, further gaps can be identified that might be open to intervention and improvement. I have plans to design an open-source zine with some collaborators. The zine will address the gaps identified throughout the research project as well as offer an open-source alternative to zine libraries that allows for constant collaborative correction and update. Finally, I am currently arranging interviews with various individuals in online communities involved in alternative technological projects that might have insight into resistance strategies and interest in building critical digital literacies among activist communities that can help dethrone tendencies of a tech-savvy vanguard to form. Together, this research ultimately aims to mobilize the radical energies of those ungovernables in Portland, the unique networks of care and knowledges that support them, and the digital tools that might build infrastructures of the greatest possible autonomy. Research that successfully mobilizes digital resistance and autonomous practices from the bottom-up will have valuable applications across the world, where varying degrees of techno-repression occur that demand our solidarity in resistance.

It was just last week that the People’s History of Portland held one of their monthly community education events in a beautiful Portland park. Activists came to share their experiences successfully resisting an infamous grand jury trial in 2012. At least 3 different local zine distros tabled a selection of material for the event related to resisting surveillance and legal proceedings. The event itself has plans of being made into a zine to be hosted online and shared worldwide. Even before the speakers began, I could recognize the hum of a surveillance plane flying overhead. I wasn’t the only one to notice it as a sea of middle fingers quickly pointed to the sky. A friend next to me quickly went onto the Twitter profile of @pdx_flightwatch, a bot built by a local activist that posts the flight paths of known police-affiliated surveillance aircraft in the area. Sure thing, it was the Portland Police’s Cessna spy craft. I was astounded by the number of times it flew over our small community event in the park next to the rose garden. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the fact that someone had built @pdx_flightwatch exactly for moments like this. We joked that we could find out where radical actions were taking place around the city just by following the spy plane’s flight path. Where there is power there is resistance!

Figure 1. Screenshot of Twitter post from @pdx_skywatch showing flightpath of police place. Source: [8]

Alejandro Andonaegui

Master’s Student, Department of Geography

The Ohio State University

 

  1. https://intelligence.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=1036
  2. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/National-Strategy-for-Countering-Domestic-Terrorism.pdf
  3. van Dijck, J. (2014). Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveillance and Society 12(2):197–208.
  4. Jefferson, B. (2020). Digitize and punish: Racial criminalization in the digital age. U of Minnesota Press.
  5. Harcourt, B. E. (2015). Exposed: Desire and disobedience in the digital age. Harvard University Press.
  6. Minocher, X. and Randall, C. (2020). Predictable policing: New technology, old bias, and future resistance in Big Data surveillance. Convergence 26(5–6):1108–24.
  7. Bey, M. (2020). Anarcho-Blackness: Toward a Black Anarchism. AK Press. UK.
  8. https://twitter.com/PDX_SKYWATCH/status/1412943425431760897

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