2011-08-20 Anonymous Takes Cyber-Activism to the Streets #OpBART

Image Credit -  @exiledsurfer Image Credit - @exiledsurfer

On August 15, a group of online activists known as Anonymous showed that their words and deeds can indeed move beyond cyberspace. In response to BART's August 11th attempt to foil protest with a shutdown of their wireless communication system, Anonymous launched OpBART to protest these actions. Over that weekend, Anonymous lit up, defacing myBART.org and commandeering thousands of user names from the woefully insecure BART network. This is par for the course for Anonymous.

The events broke into the mainstream news. On Monday morning it was on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and other papers. Monday August 15th was X day for OpBART. With Twitter and social media facilitating the communication, those who care about free speech around the world watched to see if Anon could actually take their action to the streets.

Anonymous successfully carried out their intention. This was a rare pubic appearance that echoed some of their first actions against the Church of Scientology. Shawn Gaynor, writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian noted how this protest was “the most civil of civil disturbances the city has seen surrounding the police brutality issue”.

Anonymous, who defaced BART’s external website now showed their face publicly as activists. Across time and space, struggles for justice from the past converged in SF with present action. Online activism led by the meme of Guy Fawkes masks from the film V for Vendetta emerged and entered the frame of conventional activism. People of all ages came. Ordinary people in nonviolent protest against BART violence and censorship showed solidarity with the group.

There was something unique about #OpBART that is often missing in usual protests. What is it that made this operation different?

One unique aspect was the anticipation before the event. There was an excitement in the air that was palpable at the beginning. There was a sense of participating in something extraordinary, like a superman coming to town to fight for the common people. In the past, there often was a charismatic leader guiding a movement like this. Yet here, the hero is not simply one individual.

Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea!(V for Vendetta).

The hero happened to be Anonymous, the idea behind the Guy Fawkes masks. It is anyone, could be everyone and is found everywhere. Liam Fox concluded his recent article "After the Revolution: Searching for a Messiah" that with so many looking for someone to save us, in the end "the only place we will find our messiah is in the mirror". The mysterious Anonymous mask mirrors back people's own unknown face.

Anonymous is not a defined group and is said not to have any identified leaders. It is an open source handle. William Jackson describes how “Anonymous is not unanimous” and that not everything done under that name is agreed to by the members.

It is the action of a many-headed hydra of justice and a keeper of the global human commons. With nonviolence, solidarity and Lulz their guide, they demand open society in this digital age. The image of Guy Fawkes and the idea behind it inspires people to feel that they can do something they never believed possible.

Anonymous is not merely a group of ‘hackers’. Anonymous is the art of being indignant. It is the art of being one yet being nothing (gamefreaker1398).

SF residents joined the protest and most who participated in it were not actually wearing masks and did not appear to be associated with this loosely tied collective. Yet, all who responded to the impulse that day became synonymous with Anonymous.

This protest contained that mystery, a space for the unknown. Behind the mask there is a deeper dimension of reality and with that presence, the public space is transformed to show views and voices that are typically neglected or blocked out from the mainstream.

A group called the SF Guerilla Opera aided the operation, turning the platform into a stage to act out a scene of “Can you hear me now?” Their act engaged a playful artistic space to show what is happening to our rights.

BART officials shut down the major metropolitan stations and set the protest into action. Outside the Civic Center station, protesters started to march the rail line toward Market street through central downtown. This kind of rally and march is a typical scene that happens in a demonstration. The difference with this was the surrealistic atmosphere that unfolded in the familiar landscape.

The march stopped the busy commuter traffic. Everyday scenes of taxis, buses and cars on the street were replaced with people wearing Guy Fawkes masks and bloody shirts walking from Civic Center to Embarcadero station. Here for a moment, the line between fiction and reality was blurred. Some people welcomed this unexpected event with surprised faces as if they were watching a scene from a film. Indeed it must have felt to them like fiction. When cynicism and apathy permeates a society for so long, ordinary people standing up for injustice has become something that might only happen in the movies. For a period of time, this fiction became reality.

In street protest, placards and clothes are a vital means to convey a message. At OpBART, the presence of a mask without saying a word communicated volumes. Anonymous has been called a hive mind that lives in cyberspace. They communicate through IRC chats, creative videos, bold digital intrusions and press releases. They move in the digital realm through the language of metaphor and imagery.

On August 15th, the protest initiated by Anonymous brought the streets online. Anonymous' message was first made viral on the Internet and then they maneuvered into the physical space by way of their digital literacy.

BART closed the gates to shut out protesters and the consequences of this action blocked commuters' access to the stations. The protesters marched down Market Street to the Ferry Building. The street was half blocked. No bus or cars could go through and BART was shut down. Many of us depend on this light rail system every day, yet often we don’t realize something is amiss until an event happens that steals away our taken for granted convenience.

This disruption to the daily commute was a metaphor. In a way, we are riding on a social structure that surrounds us at times without knowing where it is taking us. Often in that unconscious ride, we remain bystanders to oppression. That Monday, this daily routine was interrupted and people had to think of a different way to get home. For some this provided an opportunity to reflect on where society is going when a transit security force starts using swat-style attacks on people and police state tactics to suppress dissent.

At the closed gate, the cloud chanted “No “Justice No Peace, disband the BART police”. Police responded defensively by guarding the gate with arms.

One protester, Melyssa Jo Kelly spoke to the police aloud: “That was a human being that you turned into a dead man….You don’t need guns. Nobody in the city likes you to have guns.” She confronted the police with their brutal killings and urged BART to disarm.

Outside of the Embarcadero station, the images and voices of those bloody deaths by the brutal police shootings confronted the black militaryesque uniforms who attempted to silence activists with the rhetoric of security.

Another unique aspect of this protest was its global connection. Anonymous symbolizes an idea and an international community. With the help of technology and the notoriety of their recent activity, the protest was broadcast live and watched by many people around the world. There was a sense of solidarity that went beyond the locale. On Twitter the hash-tag
#muBARTak acknowledges the link between censorship in Egypt under Mubarak and this incident that guided the people online to find their way on the street with placards. Subtle, powerful connections between people in the Internet protest had come alive in the social space and fueled the enthusiasm of the demonstrators.

Images of Egyptians going face to face with police at Tahrir Square and the recent riots in London intertwined with the unfolding snapshot outside of the Ferry Building where protesters confronted the BART police. No matter how different the locations and specific issues, images that emerge from what is becoming a global uprising brings out the same impression and show diverging worldviews.

For these armed police it seemed that command and brute force were their only authority. On the other hand, the people had solidarity, creativity and compassion on their side.

A business man on the street watching the demonstration murmured, “those young people are watching too much film.” Yet, is it true? Are they just too much into fiction and out of touch with reality? Or is it rather that so many people have become detached and cynical and lack imagination? Would it be possible to think that those who actively stepped onto the platform of resistance are courageously stepping into the realm of what had become fiction, in order to reach their ideals?

OpBART showed a possibility for future activism and a society that could be. Perhaps with each person's small effort in cultivating these online connections as part of daily life, it will become possible to dissolve the line that divides fiction and reality. Then collective action can invite others to express and live their ideals safely and freely in outer society.

After the protest on Monday, the members of Anonymous returned to their hives. On the surface, life appeared to return to normal. Yet, the public has seen the potent creative power of ordinary people. Anonymous is planning the second OpBARTon August 22nd. They are legion. They do not forgive. They do not forget. Expect them.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer