by Eleanor Goldfield
Let me preface this post by saying that it may ramble slightly – an hour of sleep isn’t my ideal for composing literary works. That being said, it is also therefore honest, present and without the hesitation that comes with rest and time.
I’m tired. I’m uncomfortable. My ass is numb and my nose is running. I could go home. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live outside on subzero nights like this; the literal outcasts of a system that systematically places profit over people, I am privileged enough to have a home to go to – a warm bed, and perhaps even a cat that’ll deign to snuggle with me for a couple of hours.
But for tonight, I stay. And it’s not because I think the sight of my awkwardly constructed tent or handmade sign will sway FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to consider the will of more than 80% of Americans and more than 75% of Republicans who want Net Neutrality. No, I’m well aware that Pai is a shill shitbag whose only concern is the saunter back through the revolving door that once led him from Verizon to the FCC, and that will now doubtlessly lead to another cushy Telecom title. But this isn’t really about Pai. Sure, he’s currently the one selling our free speech to big Telecoms even as I write this post. But he’s just an empty figurehead. If it wasn’t him, it would’ve been someone else. Telecom companies have been battling hard for this and let’s be honest, we haven’t fought back hard enough. Yes, you tweeted and posted and shared those memes. But what else? And I’m not saying you have to freeze your ass off wearing a bathrobe and hand warmers but I AM saying that we have to do more. We have to move outside our comfort zone because feeling the discomfort of our oppression is the ONLY way that we’ll rise to stop it.
At a Black Lives Matter protest here in DC a couple of years ago, a woman stood in the middle of the street and stared down a car whose driver was angered by the traffic jam. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you,” she yelled. “But my people are DYING in the streets. And that’s a little more important right now.” For the most part in this country, if you’re black, brown, indigenous, LGBTQIA2S or otherwise marginalized by a white supremacist patriarchal state, you don’t need to be told to get uncomfortable. Your existence is not only one of social and political discomfort, it is an act of resistance in and of itself. But a lot of us are just a little too comfortable with the status quo – a status quo, I would remind you, that is rapidly worsening.
Repealing Net Neutrality means losing our free speech – simple as that. The loss of the open internet into a mine field of slow lanes and toll roads is in fact catastrophic on many levels. Indeed, the UN listed access to internet as a human right , thereby solidifying the importance of the internet in our world today. The aforementioned Black Lives Matter movement spread thanks to the internet and the internet has also allowed black folks to tell their OWN stories on a national and indeed global platform – without being first filtered through the corporatized whitewashed media industrial complex. That is powerful – that is power. Now, I’ve covered this issue ad nauseum so I’ll spare the repetition here (for those of you who would like more detail, visit my show page ) but the simple truth is that this issue is big. But like the recent video of a starving polar bear (propagated via the internet) proves – a big issue doesn’t automatically result in big action.
A GW grad who came by our vigil last night as we chalked the sidewalks shook her head and said, “it’s frustrating that there aren’t more people out here.” A man who flew down from New Jersey with his friend noted that this was his first protest and that he thought it’d be bigger. I told him I had hoped for that too but that we gotta work with what we have. And we did have a great, if small, group including several people who came in from out of town: Alabama, Colorado, Jersey, Virginia. And again, I’m not scolding readers for sleeping in their warm beds last night but I am asking everyone this question: at this point, what are you willing to do to protect free speech? And if you replace those last two words with another issue, what is your answer? What level of discomfort, what level of inconvenience are you willing to endure in order to really fight for change? And I’m asking myself those questions as well – because I know that I need to get better, I need to do more, I need to grow.
Margaret Flowers, co-founder of Popular Resistance and one incredibly bad-ass activist and organizer is rather simple in her explanation. “I want my voice to be heard. I live my life by the motto, ‘if you’re silent, you’re complicit.'” And that’s exactly why she slept outside last night. And that’s why I joined her. Furthermore, I slept outside because I wanted to send the message not just to the FCC via chalk art and signs that we aren’t gonna go away on this issue – but more importantly, I wanted to show the internet, the people out there in the shadowy expanses of 1s and 0s that their voice matters and their voice is needed; that this is everyone’s issue and it’s an issue we have to get uncomfortable for – it’s an issue we have to show up for. And ironically, that means showing up in person. Organizing online is incredibly powerful but nothing beats in-person community building and collaboration, and nothing will ever beat the force of people showing up on the ground. If we’d had more people, we might’ve been able to sway Congress to stop the vote. We may have been able to blockade and delay the vote. And would that then be the end? No. Of course not. Along with the discomfort of political engagement, we must embrace the reality that we can never win completely. There is no end game in the fight for justice – it is forever ongoing – even if we do make it to the other side of capitalism with free and open wi-fi, free healthcare and no person left behind. This is something we have to always pay attention to because as we’ve seen historically – when the people drift off, our country falls down . We become the passive subjects of an oligarchy rather than the active keepers of a republic. And while I have my own feelings on the concept of any federal state the size of the U.S., we have to recognize the realities of each issue in order to consider alternatives.
For example, we could decouple ourselves from the likes of Verizon and Comcast via local broadband setups. But how are we gonna even fathom that possibility if we don’t educate ourselves on the issue of Net Neutrality, the corruption of the FCC and the importance of creating alternatives for our internet access? In short, we can’t. We won’t.
The battle for the net is FAR from over. Lawsuits are already in place to combat Chairman Pai’s decision. The effort to put forth an entirely new Telecommunications Act is also in the works – bringing an outdated Act into the 21st century with the necessary details to ensure our human and free speech rights. And regardless of whether or not you feel that systemic reforms are the way to deal with this issue, if you’re not out there on the front lines suggesting an alternative or working with us, your voice isn’t being heard and therefore it doesn’t count. This is not an appeal to vote. This is not a slam against those who have jobs, families and lives that take them away from organizing on any part-time scale. This is an invitation – to come as you are, come when you can but always, always, always, get out there.
Because until we are willing to accept discomfort and inconvenience as a part of our efforts to better our lives – we will NEVER gain the ground necessary to make those lives better. And to be sure, this isn’t just humdrum and discomfort – it’s fun as hell! It’s drawing in chalk and putting up angry emojis outside the FCC at 2am after someone brings you donuts and coffee. It’s conversations over sleeping bags and cold pizza about this issue, that issue and what we can do to effectively mobilize and effect change. It’s community building and open collaboration. It is the stuff that makes up our movements, our networks and indeed our lives. And if we hope to live our lives in a way that pushes for progress, for peace, love and all the other words found in the Hallmark section, we have to embrace the fun and the discomfort. We have to be bothered enough to stand up, sit down, lock down, show up and raise a fist – to unfuck this.