Tag Archives: Issue 5

A Word On Security

Who can you trust?

Recently or not, we have realized that the U.S. political system and capitalism as a whole cannot be trusted to act in our best interests, and so we turn to each other. It is necessary to surround ourselves with people we can trust to be on our side, by our side, as we develop ways to survive and eliminate a system that employs false promises and thinly veiled threats to help itself to our energy, bodies, and time. But how do we protect ourselves from being burned again? Our trust issues come from systemic oppression and intergenerational trauma wearing us down over centuries; politicians always promising ‘change’ or ‘hope’ but never really delivering it; trigger-happy cops protecting and serving anyone but us; fair-weather ‘allies’ disappearing when things get tough; companies mining folks’ need to pay rent for profit; and technology tracking our every move under the guise of convenience.

With the absurdity of the world we live in seeming to escalate by the day, it seems like more people are willing to put more on the line to resist. At the same time, the stakes get higher as authoritarian entities gain the momentum and permission to squash any threats to their power. So we’re in a catch-22: we must trust each other if we are going to coordinate resistance, but if we are too vulnerable we expose ourselves to repression and state violence.

Security culture is a term for the customs and practices that provide greater security in many radical milieus. This includes everything from not mentioning who may be working on an anonymous project to not bragging about doing illegal things. As a general rule, if you are aware of someone trying to do something anonymously, do not out them. Further, security culture is about not telling people things they don’t need to know and not expecting to be told things that you don’t need to know. For those unaware of the repression brought down upon autonomous individuals, security culture can seem paranoid, unnecessary, and a sure way to keep people from ever trusting each other. We think security culture is about building trust by recognizing the vulnerabilities of you and your co-conspirators, and taking all possible steps to protect each other. What follows are a few examples showing why it is important to practice security culture.

Standing Rock Grand Jury

Grand juries have a long history of being used by the state to derail social movements. They have the power to subpoena anyone the state thinks might have relevant information, and if the subpoenaed person refuses to testify they can be jailed for up to 18 months for contempt of court. Recently it came out that a grand jury is investigating the events at Standing Rock. It is difficult to know exactly what is happening right now, as the situation is still unfolding and grand juries are supposed to operate secretly, but as of now at least one person has gone public about being subpoenaed and has stated that he will not cooperate with the state, even if it means being jailed. The existence of grand juries makes building trust all the more important, both so that we can operate with people without questioning whether they would serve time to protect us if it came to that and so that we can draw upon those bonds for support if we find ourselves targeted.

Undercovers and the RNC 8

Back in 2008 the Republican National Convention took place in St. Paul. Anarchists began organizing protests years in advance; just days before the convention eight were arrested and charged with felony counts of ‘conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism’. Most of the state’s evidence came from multiple informants that had infiltrated the RNC Welcoming Committee, an open anarchist group coordinating logistics and strategy for the protests. After years of organizing against the case and support from a broad range of people, the state was forced to drop the charges against three of the defendants, with the other five accepting misdemeanor plea deals. Two major lessons demonstrated by the experience of the RNC 8 are that informants often target those who are relatively new to resistance and manipulate disagreements within groups to prevent those who see through them from being able to force them out of activist spaces. It’s also important to remember the strengths and weaknesses of public organizing; groups that anyone can join have their place in resistance movements, but have glaring weaknesses as well. While doing public organizing one should keep in mind that agents of the state may very well be in the room; this is especially true when organizing against high profile events with enhanced security. Be open to finding new friends, but posturing about how ‘down’ you are in spaces like this just paints you as a target, and may even land you with charges (remember that for a conspiracy charge you don’t have to actually do anything illegal). One informant used his credibility as a member of the Welcoming Committee to garner trust and learn of non-public actions; make sure you actually know somebody, or they are vouched for by someone you trust, before working with them on anything that could get you in serious trouble. Members of the Welcoming Committee who kept this in mind were better protected than those who did not.

Jeremy Hammond and Online Security

Jeremy Hammond was a part of the LulzSec hacker group. He was responsible for many well-publicized hacks over the years, with the hack of surveillance-industry giant Stratfor being the most famous. The crucial mistake that led to his undoing was trusting Sabu, the ‘leader’ of the group, who had become an FBI informant. In their personal chats he gave some damning clues as to who he was, that he had been arrested at X protest, that he had friends who were recently arrested at Y protest. That narrowed down the list of who he could be to a select few people. He also had a variation of his cat’s name as his computer password. All of this serves to remind us that staying secure online is especially tricky. Even if you do everything right tech-wise, if the person you are talking with is working for the cops it doesn’t matter, and of course it is much harder to detect inconsistencies or red flags in an online interaction than it is in person.

Beyond these specific examples of methods of repression to protect yourself against, we have some broad suggestions for making connections while keeping each other safe.

Start now. Even if you’re not doing or talking about anything risky now doesn’t mean you won’t later. Start your security practices now so it’s natural for bigger actions.

Learn some history. The anecdotes we mentioned are not exhaustive at all. The more we learn about what has happened before the better we can prepare for the future.

Respect boundaries. It’s natural to want to ask questions to get to know people and express interest in what they do. But questions like, “did you write that zine?” or “do you know who tagged the precinct last night?” ask someone to give information that could be used as a tool of repression against themselves or a friend. More abstract, theoretical topics are much safer. Conversely, be smart about what you share, both in person and online. Any information that could be evenly remotely tied to anything incriminating for yourself or others should only be shared on a need-to-know basis.

Be smart with tech. For your own good and the good of anyone you communicate with. See the infographic below on basic techniques, but if you want to be absolutely sure something doesn’t fall into the wrong hands keep it offline and don’t talk about it near a phone or in a place you are known to frequent.

It’s okay to trust some people more than others. Trust is not all-or-nothing, though it is often presented that way. We all have that friend who we’d trust with our life but not our car. Or the friend who would never actively snitch, but may or may not cave under the pressure of a grand jury. Feel out these limits and remember that it’s okay to play it safe.

Check in (with yourself and others). Don’t second-guess yourself if something feels wrong, and don’t be afraid to ask others you trust how they feel about certain situations.

Keep It Local

This past month Frostbeard Studio, a Powderhorn shop specializing in “homemade candles for book nerds,” had its windows smashed out and its walls tagged with anti-gentrification graffiti. Responses to this incident have varied, from citizens raging about the nerve of someone carrying out such an attack upon ‘community’ or ‘art’ to people stopping short of endorsing the property destruction yet acknowledging the negative effects shops like Frostbeard, whose candles cost $18 apiece, have on historically black and brown neighborhoods like Powderhorn. In what should come as no surprise to regular readers, we have this to say about the smashings: good. We’ll delve into reasons why we think attacks such as this one, as well as the recent vandalism of a local real estate office/art gallery, could help prevent Powderhorn and similar neighborhoods from becoming homogenized hellscapes like Uptown in a bit, but first we want to spend some time deconstructing the often-invoked but rarely examined concepts of ‘community’ and ‘art’.

As was argued in the anonymous essay ‘The Clash of Communities,’ written during the 4th Precinct occupation back in 2015, the concept of a static overarching ‘community’ that includes all people who live within a certain area or who belong to a certain group holds no weight when examined closely. Instead we would do well to think community as something that is constantly in the process of becoming, with different communities “flowing in and out of each other, forming conscious and subconscious bonds, exchanging words and stories,” and at times coming into conflict with each other. From this perspective, community can for some mean working together to police the neighborhood and protect private property and for others mean working together to safely carry out actions that decrease the ability of trendy businesses to thrive and thus attract further waves of settlement and development to the neighborhood. Criticizing an action on the grounds that it is anti-community flattens out this nuance, perpetuating the myth that those who live in an area and want the rent to stay low and those who own businesses or property in the area and want more capital to flow into it somehow share a set of common interests.

Like ‘community’, the word ‘art’ is deployed again and again to deflect criticisms made about the effects that different actions have upon our environment. Art is assumed to be a universal good and thus anything that is labeled art is beyond reproach. But just as there is no ‘community’, there is no ‘art’, only arts, and different arts clearly impact the world in very different ways. There is the art of beautifying capitalist restructuring and the art of exposing it for the shit-show it really is. There is the art of soothing society’s winners, assuring them that they are human after all, and there is the art of reminding society’s losers that defeat is never final. There is the art of convincing yuppies to buy overpriced candles and there is the art of throwing up tags in the middle of the night. Claiming to act in the name of ‘art’ does not excuse one from having to justify one’s actions on ethical grounds.

Of course if the necessity of justifying one’s actions on ethical grounds applies to artists opening businesses in Powderhorn then it applies to those who smash their windows too. After all, we are sure the owners of Frostbeard were being sincere when they asserted in a Facebook post following the smashing that they are “not a big corporation trying to gentrify the neighborhood (quite the opposite).” Isn’t strategizing to run them out of business a little cruel? Well maybe, from a certain standpoint, but the thing to remember is that gentrification is a structural problem, even as that structure is the outcome of thousands of personal decisions. The owners of Frostbeard don’t intend to gentrify Powderhorn; gentrification is simply an unintended consequence of fulfilling their dream of selling nerdy candles. Conversely, we don’t necessarily wish to see their dream fail (in fact we are fans of many of the books their candles reference), but if their dream succeeding takes us further down the path towards the neighborhood being broken apart then we are forced to take a side and it won’t be theirs. Ultimately the question we should ask in relation to attacks such as these is this: do they work? Because only a reactionary would argue that a few boutique businesses failing and some developers not getting their expected return on investment is somehow ethically worse than hundreds of people being displaced.

Whether or not these attacks work is difficult to determine, and we certainly don’t intend to claim that all that is needed to stop gentrification is to break windows, but in our opinion actions such as these have definite impacts. Despite how it is typically framed, gentrification is not inevitable. Sometimes neighborhoods reach the point that much of Minneapolis is at now and then continue along the road to condo hell, and sometimes they don’t. Much of what determines the success or failure of various development initiatives is out of our control, but not all of it. We have the power to make life much harder for developers. As anyone who has tried to open one will tell you, small businesses are incredibly precarious, especially for the first few years of their existence, and even more so when they are expensive specialty stores that much of the neighborhood can’t afford. For examples of this we need look no further than the multiple trendy restaurants in and around Powderhorn, such as Blue Ox Coffee and La Ceiba, that have gone out of business in the past year or so, not because of any intentional assault but simply because the neighborhood doesn’t yet have the density of yuppies needed to sustain places that charge $5 for coffee or $20 for an entrée. The accumulated costs of the broken windows, higher insurance premiums, and decreased business that could result from increased agitation against these shops could push things into the red for businesses like Frostbeard that have so far been scraping by. If more and more of these businesses fail, fewer and fewer people who desire to live in neighborhoods full of trendy boutiques will move in, preventing the landlords from raising the rent, or at least as much as they would otherwise.

While targeting small businesses will always generate controversy, it is important to recognize that this is a decisive time for Powderhorn and similar neighborhoods. Wait another five to ten years for less-controversial targets like Starbucks to move in and any resistance will be too little, too late. Unlike Frostbeard, stores like Starbucks have sufficient capital behind them to weather broken windows and boycotts if they are confident that they will eventually get a return on their investment. Next year’s Super Bowl also offers developers an opportunity to ramp up their activity across the city; it is likely that this event will have effects that will be felt long after the game is over and all of the drunk executives leave town. Another reason that we can’t afford to waste any time is the fact that various tech companies have their sights set on making hip, progressive, white, artsy Minneapolis the Silicon Valley of the Midwest, “Silicon Prairie” as they call it. The main thing standing in their way is that they are finding it hard to convince top job candidates to endure the winters here when they could get jobs in Austin or the Bay Area, but as the winters continue to grow milder this will hold them back less and less. Now is the time to act—let’s sabotage Silicon Prairie from the get-go.

Beyond the concrete damage done to gentrifying businesses by attacks such as these, in our mind they have an important impact on the semantic field upon which the social war plays out, exposing fault lines within the city that are typically covered up by the progressive image of Minneapolis that is continuously forced down our throats. Such an exposure can be messy, but in our opinion is ultimately therapeutic; certainly it is preferable to the refusal to acknowledge conflict like good Minnesotans. Once an attack like this takes place, everyone who hears about it is forced to take sides, to define their views and act them out, instead of continuing to exist in some progressive fantasy where they can shop at stores like Frostbeard yet claim to oppose gentrification. They may have an “All Are Welcome” sign in their window, but it should be obvious that “All” can’t drop $18 on a candle, much less withstand another rent hike.