The Tag-A-Rioter Phenomenon and The Everywhere of Crime

At this point, any discussion of why the Vancouver hockey riot happened is decidedly old-hat. The long and short of it is that it happened, plain and simple. I think the more pressing and interesting question is, what happens now?

Almost immediately after the riot broke out, social media networks were alight with photos of rioters posing in front of burning cars, looters running out of stores with armfuls of stolen merchandise, and thugs kicking in windows and doors. It didn’t take long before a Facebook group had been set up that asked users to tag the rioters, if they recognized them. The idea carried over to Tumblr, where a number of “tag-the-douche” blogs caught fire, posting a deluge of crowd-sourced contributions. The idea behind the whole exercise was to help the Vancouver Police track down and arrest those responsible for the destruction of the downtown core following Vancouver’s loss to Boston in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals.

To be sure, I understand the sentiment behind the scheme. Rather than criminalizing a whole crowd, many of whom did no rioting whatsoever, the tag-a-douche system seems to hold the promise of bringing the real perpetrators to justice. All the same, it’s an exercise that simply doesn’t sit well with me.

The link between social media networking platforms with surveillance is nothing new. It’s been a major part of the discourse around information communication technologies (ICTs) for the better part of a decade. But what we saw on Wednesday night seems to signal a disquieting shift in how this relation operates. An entire city was actively encouraged to become a kind of ambient, always-everywhere surveillance wing of  it’s Police Department. For years, people have decried the installation of security cameras in urban cores around the world, denouncing the practice as an Orwellian invasion of public space by unseen private eyes. Yet when the hockey riots broke out, what is essentially the same act- enforcing adherence to the boundaries of civility and legality by (to paraphrase Foucault) shifting power to the visual register- was decentralized, put in the hands of citizens, and transformed into a city-wide haze. What for decades has been scathingly critiqued as an invasion of privacy by pseudo-totalitarian governments went through a whiplash rebranding and emerged out the other side a democratic, crowd-sourced form of justice.

What really happened on Wednesday was the outsourcing of the job of legal enforcement and policing to citizens. I’d say we were drafted or conscripted into taking on the labour of surveillance, but for the most part, it’s a role that has been taken up willingly, even enthusiastically.

I raised this argument with a friend earlier, and she pointed out to me that, while on-side in principle, the acts of the rioters were exceptional. They weren’t rioting in the name of democracy or civil rights, after all. They were hooligans awash in hormones, hive-mind cultural relations, machismo, and shared disappointment*. They needed to be brought to justice, and the city came together to ensure that they were.

Just like my friend, I’m on-side, but only in principle. Even if the cause of this new form of crowd-sourced/distributed/ambient surveillance seems ethically sound, its effects are uniformly distressing. As the work of policing and enforcement is outsourced to us via our smartphones and interaction platforms, the boundaries that define the notion of “criminal” get hazy. We’re not legal or law enforcement professionals, and as such, we simply don’t have the same understanding of what counts as crime as do the Police proper. Yet in this round of riots, a number of people found themselves in the position of having to make just such judgment calls. They were encouraged to send in snapshots of rioters, some of whom were most certainly criminals, but we should always remember that the photographic image has an amazing capacity to disembody and decontextualize. A passer-by caught in the gravity of a photograph of a burning car, for example, while likely legally innocent, is instantly implicated in an ostensibly criminal act.

What happens, then, is that the realm of ‘the criminal’ expands ever outward. Anything that appears criminal or could possibly be criminal gets roped into the domain, regardless of the vagaries of context that the photograph tends to flatten. The boundaries of what counts as a potential threat get wider and wider, and the whole question of ‘crime’ becomes abstract; a kind of fog that turns people into out-of-focus smudges on a smoky horizon.

This is precisely the kind of abstraction that feeds the culture of fear. One need only think of a term like “The War on Terror.” It is, by its nomenclature, a war on a concept, a concept that, if most major media and government messaging is to be believed, is always-already everywhere, deterritorialized, insidious, penetrative. It is a way of framing and mediating ‘the other’ that simultaneously uproots it and places it in your backyards. How often have we heard the scare tactic that the people we trust, our co-workers, our neighbours, our instructors, ad nauseam, could be terrorists? Mobilizing this fear of the insidious, invisible threat is only possible when the threat itself seems diffuse and vague, only when we are encouraged to see the suspicious or non-ordinary as potentially criminal.

Granted, there’s a big gap between hockey riot and global terrorism, but the same gaseous vision of crime underpins both. The decentralization of surveillance, then, while perhaps effective at tracking down the odd hoodlum, seems to me a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a new discourse of criminality, both sustaining of and sustained by a vague fear of the other, wrapped up in disingenuous democratic robes.

The tag-a-douche system might seem like a bid for collective, collaborative justice, but ultimately, it simply lays out the technological and social infrastructure necessary for a society of truly universal surveillance and paranoia. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, it has the capacity to literally turn all of us against one another. If we are all potential criminals at the same time as we are all potential enforcers, then, at least in my estimation, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine an every-man-for-himself, very-near future.

*I should clarify: this is actually how I feel about the rioters. They’re total jerks and suck a lot.

Public Broadcasting and the Power of Definition: How Canada Can Learn From Egypt

A man looks out over massive anti-government demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

On Friday, February 10, 2011, the world’s eyes were fixed firmly on Egypt. A news bulletin early in the day had announced that Hosni Mubarak would take to Egyptian state television to respond to the massive citizen uprising that had taken shape in Cairo over the previous 18 days. Speculation abounded that this address would serve as Mubarak’s public resignation, an act that would end thirty years of repressive, plutocratic rule.

When Mubarak failed (initially) to step down, Tahrir Square, the protesters’ stronghold, erupted in angry jeers. Thousands aggressively raised and tossed their shoes, a powerful gesture of disrespect in Arabic cultures.

I watched these historic moments unfold in real time. My eyes were glued to the live streaming coverage provided by Al Jazeera English, the English-language branch of the Al Jazeera network, a public broadcaster funded by the government of Qatar. AJE was a natural choice. Throughout the entire Egyptian drama, the channel has kept a watchful eye, attentive ear, and thoughtful mind turned on the politics, personalities, causes, and effects of the protests.

On AJE, information always came first; the coverage was comprehensive, local, and sensitive to what was happening on the ground. It examined the revolution from the inside out, and on its own terms. When thrust onto the world stage, Al Jazeera shone.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the North American media. Since protests in Cairo began, media outlets on our side of the Atlantic have continually shifted focus away from the revolution itself, away from a consideration of roots and impacts for the Egyptian people, and toward what it means for the United States. Rather than asking “what’s happening and why?” major media on our shores have obsessively wondered, “what is Obama going to do, and why weren’t we consulted?” What is, by all accounts, a fascinating and heartening case of citizen activism was dramatically pruned back by the media: only if it could be framed as an American issue was it an issue worth looking at.

We saw the same kind of split when university and high school students in the UK took to the streets last winter to protest the Cameron government’s sweeping cuts to higher education. On November 12, Al Jazeera English ran a story outlining precisely what the students were protesting- how expensive university was going to get, the history of education funding in the UK, and the like. The North American media, for its part though, seemed content to report that protesters had attacked Prince Charles and Camilla’s motorcade with little explanation of the context in which the attack took place. Issues took a back seat to North American priorities; information was sacrificed to the need to sell, broad examinations of complex issues disappeared within the cult of celebrity and personality.

While remarkable in many ways, then, the Egyptian and British cases also act as urgent reminders of the profound importance of public broadcasting within a healthy democracy. In Canada, the CBC is routinely attacked, by those trumpeting the horn of austerity, as a burden of both the state and the taxpayer. The Harper government has time and again dragged the CBC onto the chopping block by the ear. Frequently, its funding is actually slashed, but commonly, a sword is dangled over its head, reminding us all that its end is but a pen stroke away.

In 2009, some may recall, the broadcaster was forced to cut up to 80 news positions and more than 300 more from sports, entertainment, and current affairs, as well as sell $125 million in assets to make up a $171 million budgetary shortfall. While undoubtedly related to the general downturn across all media industries since the October, 2009 economic meltdown, this is a shortfall, says Hubert Lacroix, CEO of the broadcaster, that is also directly linked to the Conservatives’ reticent attitude toward upholding the CBC’s government funding.

Al Jazeera is a public broadcaster supported by the government of Qatar; wholly 85% of its operating budget is drawn from public funds. Headquartered in Doha, Al Jazeera broadcasts to more than 80 million households worldwide, and Al Jazeera English is the world’s only 24-hour English-language news channel that broadcasts from the Middle East.

Neither AJ nor AJE are the domain of advertisers, marketers, or shrewd executives with their eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line. At the heart of Al Jazeera is a structural and ethical commitment to the democratic principles upon which the free press was founded. It’s not about packaging and selling the news to consumers; it’s about gathering and synthesizing information for the benefit of citizens.

Canada must stand up and learn from this shining example. Despite seeing ourselves as a relatively progressive, forward-thinking nation, we live in one of the most heavily concentrated and corporatized media environments in the developed world. Thanks to recent acquisitions and mergers between CTV and Bell, and Shaw and CanWest, for example, the people who deliver content to our televisions and computers are the same people who own the wires and cables that carry that content. All Shaw and Bell need to do is start manufacturing televisions to gain effective control of our media landscape.

Competition? Diversity? Informed citizenship? Think again. Today, we’re more likely to find ourselves addressed as consumers than as voters.  As we give more ever more favor to this privatized media structure, and less support to public broadcasting, we risk handing over our ability to define ourselves on our own terms to organizations that have little interest in Canada as a people, a place, and a culture. We become a market, nothing more.

Al Jazeera’s robust, non-commercial presence in the region from which it broadcasts gives it a tremendous ability to speak to and for its citizens, without having to give into gimmickry to sell content. Being headquartered in Qatar places AJ’s fingers firmly on the pulse of the region and empowers it to address issues from the inside. It’s a powerful bulwark against a North American media landscape bent on shoehorning global issues into an American frame. Josh Rushing, one of AJE’s presenters, puts it best: “CNN films the launch of the missile. Al Jazeera films what happens where it lands.”

By continually putting the CBC on the front lines of austerity cuts, the Harper government puts Canada at the mercy of this way of doing things. Without the CBC, Canada will lose its capacity to define and explore itself as it sees fit. Left without a media platform that is Canadian both in ethos and in practice, we relinquish our own voice. We surrender our sense of self to the highest bidder.

Tahrir Square photo courtesy CBC News

The Ridiculous G20 Media Clampdown

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without Newspapers, or Newspapers without a Government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Thomas Jefferson, 1787

There’s an almost otherworldly idealism in the words of Thomas Jefferson quoted above. His sentiment smacks of an era now seemingly lost to history, when a democracy was not seen as merely a form of social organization that supported a free press, but indeed one that couldn’t exist without a free press. For Jefferson, press freedom was tantamount to political freedom, and all other aspirations of Modernist natural and universal philosophy- freedom of assembly, expression, and the freedom for each individual to self-fashion and chart his or her own path through history.

While Jefferson’s words in many ways today suggest a kind of Libertarian ideology- one where citizens, left to freely engage with one another may forge a more successful society than any government could provide, that is not the idea I hope to bring forth here. Rather, it is the spirit of the phrase I hope to draw out- the notion that a free press is nothing short of a properly filled out ballot on election day; a virtual public square made of pulp and ink rather than cobblestones and mortar. In light of this past weekend’s assault on free press and media democracy in Toronto, such a sentiment is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 18th Century.

With the outbreak of violent anti-G20 protests on Saturday, summed up in the image of a burning police car (suspect though that event may be, as Naomi Klein points out in this interview with Democracy Now!), came a rash of arrests over the course of the weekend.  In the end, Toronto police had staked claim to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history, with over 900 individuals taken into police custody, a total that does not reflect the hundreds more who were detained for hours on end in Toronto streets without cause or explanation, many of whom had no relation to the protests whatsoever.

Just as at every G20/G8 conference, debate on the issue quickly polarized. Black Bloc tacticians were vilified for smashing windows and committing reckless acts of violence, and simultaneously, police were called out for undue displays of force, and accused of putting public relations, politics, and the allure of cash above the preservation of public safety and order. There is truth on both sides, but as a tweet I read the other day put it: “Conversations about tactics are secondary: democracy is getting the shit kicked out of it right now” (@trevornault).

Nothing could be truer. I’m not willing to engage in discussions of to what extent certain police and activist tactics are justified under what conditions here.  That’s a debate that’s happening as we speak just about everywhere you go online- join it if you want to. The deepest wound inflicted upon our nation’s fabric over the weekend was not a smashed window or a burned-out police car- it was the attempt to shut down the free press and staunchly control what information journalists were at liberty to share with the nation.

All kinds of journalists- citizen and professional alike- were subject to a brutal crackdown at the hands of the Toronto Police. Reporters from the Globe and Mail, The Guardian, CBC, CTV, the Real News Network, and community/citizen media organizations were forcibly removed from protest areas, in many cases physically abused, and detained in outdoor holding areas and makeshift detention centres. From following Twitter closely over the course of the events, it seems many photographers had their cameras stripped from them upon detention, and had them either disappear into the vacuum of security office backrooms, or had them returned with memory cards missing or destroyed.

It was a vain attempt at sterilizing the public image of a police organization essentially left to run amock. With an extravagant and bloated $ 1 Billion operational budget for the summit- besting the previous summit’s security budget by ten times- the Toronto Police were left the task of proving to the public that they were necessary to stop this conference from turning into another Seattle. To no avail.

From under the fist of tight media control have emerged hundreds of personal accounts- photographed, written, videoed- of the conditions on the streets, in the detention centres, and throughout the city. Professional journalists from around the globe who witnessed the tumult on the streets have shared their stories with a worldwide audience, citizen journalists have distributed their groundbreaking and often disturbing content through massive networks of activists and citizens, and regular people who had cell phones, iPods, or cameras on hand have made distressing footage of this weekend’s events widely available.

Almost as many cameras as riot police.

This is ample proof that, no matter how hard you clamp down, people will always talk and share. There’s just simply no way around this fact, and those acts of talking and sharing are the cornerstones of a free press, and, if Jefferson’s words have any resonance today, that same free press- professional, citizen, unaccredited, global, regional, local, or accidental- underlies our inalienable rights as citizens under a democratic system of social organization.

If a police organization intervened in our right to freely vote for who we wanted, even if it was the most unpopular of all candidates running in an election, we would be furious. Our right to vote is equivalent to our right to participate in the governmental process. As members of this society, we enter into an implicit agreement with our leaders that we will empower them with our vote, provided they defend our right to mobilize that vote in any way we so choose- even if it isn’t in their favor.

Throughout Western history, the ability to write and publish opinion freely without fear of intervention from an ideologically restrictive interlocutor has consistently been equated with this notion of the vote. As early as the 1500s, just as print culture was opening its eyes in Western Europe, debates quickly flared up between old structures of power that legitimated their authority by controlling the spread of information (read, the church) and reformers empowered by the ability to spread new ideas cheaply, quickly, and in formats accessible to a wider audience. Nearly 300 years later, Jefferson among others firmly codified this link between a free press, the ability to share ideas with others, and the maintenance of a healthy participatory democracy.

The press was attacked in Toronto at all levels- from average citizens, to tech-savvy self-accredited journalists, to old-guard reporters working for papers with 100-year histories. But if we accept the link between our right to engage in the political process and our means of communicating with one another, something much more insidious happened: we didn’t just lose memory cards and news flashes. We got locked out of the goddamn voting booth.