A new weapon in the wars of the streets

The Blackberry’ electron weapon of choice for looters

There are still people in the streets in England.  The public debate is turning against them, the media has dropped all references to protesters or demonstrators in favor of rioters, looters and criminals.  It seems no one is sympathetic to them (which does not mean the police are free of criticism for discriminatory and demeaning practices) – looting is not the way to win the hearts and minds of the public.  Fighting the police is apparently alright, fighting your neighbors is not.   A lesson future protestors, like the student, teachers, parents and labor unions protesting in Chile might want to heed. Each of the major demonstrations, protests or riots of this year has is own separate lessons.  Sometimes the lesson is for the government and sometimes it is for the protestors.  Egypt was a lesson for government – social media and text messaging was a 21st century way of organizing protests on the run and they can be very effective tools; effective as long as the government is not able to close off electronic and satellite communication systems. The Egyptian government was living in the last century and failed completely to understand the power of social media in organizing spontaneous events.

The importance of social media is stating to look like it will be the lesson from London – and it will be for the rioters. Control or use of the communication systems is potentially two sided and is just as powerful a tool in the hands of the government as in the hands of the students in Tahrir Square.   The modern cell phone is a great device, it does nearly everything except cook dinner and clean the toilet – for example, it is a great tool for documentation; anyone can be a reporter on the scene transmitting images live to the internet.  Pictures and videos of police violence always surface under these circumstances – making it very difficult for the police to plead innocence.  But there are other pictures available too, people in London are using their cell phones to take pictures of the looters, add to that the pictures from cameras all over the city and the police have documentation.  The police are using it, going one frame at a time to identity those guilty of looting.  The most important lesson from London may be text messaging systems.  The looting leaders and organizers have used twitter and BlackBerry messaging to direct the activities of some of the looters.  The providers of those systems are now said to be cooperating with the police, giving the police records of those calling for looting and leading the efforts.    It is not quite certain yet, whether BlackBerry shut off service at any time at the request of the government or whether it is providing messages to the police but some cooperation does seem to be taking place.  The social media tools played a major role in the defeat of Mubarak; it looks very much like those same tools will play a major tool in catching the looters.

When riots break out and threaten society, the police and government need every tool they can get.  The British government is promising to use water cannon and rubber bullets and to provide the legal structure for any tool the police need.  If you live in an area torn by criminal violence you stand and cheer – hear! hear!  If you are not threatened by impending f violence, you might want to stop and think about this.  As long as the government is fair and just, respects human rights and human dignity and is responsible to the will of the people you are safe.  But what happens if it is not, what happens if you become a questionable character by association or false accusation?  Or if another J. Edgar Hoover  or a Joseph McCarthy appears on the scene?  Then we are all in danger and not from criminals in the streets, but criminals in government.  I hope the police succeed in England – the situation is unnerving, we will all feel better to know the conventions of social order are again in place.  I am glad they have the same tools the looters are using to help catch them.  But I am not glad to see one more technological advance that gives government to the ability to look deeper into our lives.


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August 2011
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