Going to Boston to counterprotest white supremacy following the violence in Charlottesville did not turn out to be dangerous, but there was no way to know this in advance.

Walking the Talk or keeping my plans?

When I first learned of the antiracist rally in Boston, it did not cross my mind that I should go. I was already booked on a flight away from Massachusetts that Saturday morning. However, on Thursday, a friend invited me to a preparatory training hosted by SURJ — Stand Up for Racial Justice. I was curious and that evening was free, so I went. Once I arrived to the training, I realized that I had been too busy to consider that I might change my plans. Nearly everything that I learned that evening was, to be honest, a reason to keep my original plans, that is, reasons not to go participate in the counter-rally and march in Boston.

Stellan Vinthagen holds the Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance at UMass Amherst.

Stellan Vinthagen holds the Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance at UMass Amherst.

There were more than 20 people attending the just-in-time SURJ training; emotion in the room was high. Introductions and conversation centered on personal motivations for participation—almost nothing about strategy, goals, or specific mission. Similarity of purpose was assumed. No one seemed to blink when we were told that the march organizers, the Movement for Black Lives, had asked for white allies to put our white bodies physically in-between Black activists and white supremacists, and also between Black activists and the police. Further, the leadership had decided not to commit this march to nonviolence: they reserved the right to self-defense. Finally, just as the Mayor of Boston was actively discouraging the white supremacists from holding their (so-called) free speech rally, the Mayor had also sought to discourage the counter rally — creating a pre-condition in which violent police intervention was more likely.

It had already been a long day at work. My energy began to fade as each risk, and their compounding interactions, became increasingly clear. About an hour 1/2 into the training, we divided into groups for bonding purposes. Since I didn’t think I was going, I let my friend know I was heading home. We had a quick conversation about the lack of input into the design process…for instance, were we being deployed disposably by black leadership? Did they care about or disregard our (possible) intellectual contributions and the health and safety of our bodies? A basic reversal of power roles is not the kind of society I’m seeking to help build. I kept to myself my worries that the white supremacists had planned the sequence and locations of rallies long in advance, so their prior planning was possibly more extensive. We could literally be marching into a trap.

Who was I kidding?!seeds tshirt

Before I’d driven ten minutes I knew that I was going to cancel my flight to Missouri to see the total solar eclipse with my closest longterm buds. Yes, the counter-protest felt like a set-up. Yes, it felt like if things went wrong, they would go wrong very, very, very badly. But I’d been talking all week with Patty Nourse Culbertson, who had been on the frontline in Charlottesville. She had explained that even though anti-racism activists in Charlottesville had an entire month to prepare, they still weren’t ready. I realized readiness has both existential and practical aspects. Practically, one can only be as ‘ready’ as one is, and this may never feel like enough.

Preparation

First, communication. Not intending to be dramatic, I just touched base with my main peeps, letting everyone know that I was going to be there. I deeply appreciate the support of my friends and family. It wasn’t that I assumed there would be violence and people would get hurt or possibly killed, but the reality is casualties do happen: prior to Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville, there was Sophia Wilansky’s terrible arm injury protesting the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. The chances of being that individual are drastically lower in nonviolent than in armed, violent conflict, but I cannot pretend there is no risk. It seem important to at least attempt to minimize any subsequent mess.

Grover's signSecond, gear. I perused the links provided by SURJ:

I followed the recommendations for clothing, and selected first aid items, personal protective gear and snacks that I could carry in cargo pants (since backpacks were prohibited).

Action

Will and GroverWell, it was a beautiful day. Sunny, no rain, quite warm but not excessively hot. There were 40,000 of us. We had a marching band, witty and poignant signage, and many, many onlookers who showered us with thanks and gratitude. The free speech rally was fractional in comparison, about 50 individuals. A small amount of incidents with police occurred, some which seemed unprovoked and others that were in response to taunting. I enjoyed myself and remained vigilant, seeking to stick with my group members while staying alert for trouble. Thank god nothing happened because our group(s) had practically zero discipline. If something had happened we would have been scrambling. But nothing did, and so we had a successful march and, as a result, free speech rallies across the country were cancelled.

Aftermath

We returned from the march just in time to attend a free evening concert. I couldn’t muster the juice to celebrate, too exhausted. I went home, ate and went to bed early, sleeping for 11 hours. I was still groggy and out of it on Sunday morning. By a delightful coincidence, I was able to go camping overnight at a lovely spot on a beautiful lake. Sitting there in the woods, basking in the afternoon sun, watching the calm water, listening to the sounds of birds, children playing nearby, and the breeze in the trees, I began to feel restored.

Lake TullyLater, after dark, gazing into the flames of a campfire, I realized I was experiencing white fragility.

Think about it. I had just spent an entire day acting as if nothing was wrong, as if everything is normal, as if it was just a usual day…while at the same time remaining alert to the fact that super bad shit could happen at any second. I know it is not an exact parallel, but I had a small epiphany: this is what people of color in the US feel all the time. They must develop and allocate internal resources to manage this tension every day, all day long, and all night, too. 24/7.  No breaks. No 48-hour recovery period, and probably no easy access to nature in which to draw spiritual sustenance.

Not only was my fragility on display, but my white privilege, too.

 

The Imitation Game is impressive in two distinct ways. One is the deployment of cinematic license to dramatically convey what Turing expert Professor S. Barry Olson describes as “the objective truth” about the invention of the counter-machine that cracked Enigma, the Nazis supposedly unbreakable coding machine.

However, Christian Caryl’s criticism isn’t completely wrong: stereotypes about gay men do inform Benedict Cumberbatch’s representation of Turing, and could support homophobic attitudes about what is/isn’t a security risk. That said, Cumberbatch does strike a nice balance between the story of the man and the story of the technology within the constraints established by the script.

In the end, as far as the significance of this film goes, as much as Turing deserves to be celebrated every bit as much as, say, Stephen Hawking, in historical terms it is the computing technology that eclipses the identity of a gay man. This leads to the second, most impressive aspect of the film, which is of a certain metonymy: The Imitation Game is representative of the material birth of postmodernity, in which time and space have been collapsed by the digitalization of communication.

The Ultra project at Bletchley Park brings to mind the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Although the film rightfully celebrates Turing’s life and achievement of “the unimaginable,” like most forms of innovative knowledge his invention has a dark side, too. Unlike the development of the atomic bomb with its obviously ethical aspects, the creation of the computer appears neutral. The ubiquity of computing today feeds ambivalence about the ethics of computing which might render its unintended consequences all the more dangerous because of their subtlety.

The dark side of computing is not videogaming or social media or the proliferation of cute cats on youtube or data mining or even threats to privacy or cyberterrorism (because both of these can still be contained, if enough of us act soon and in concert). Nor is it the deep canalization of subgroups being reinforced by targeted advertising, although this may outrank all the others by perpetuating attitudes of ethnocentrism and prejudice. The difficult challenge of computing is the social construction of time as a race that only the fastest can win.

The race of Ultra vs Enigma prefigures Edward Snowden, #Anonymous, and the Lizard Squad, the latter claiming to be ”working to get access to some of the core routing equipment of the Internet.” This cyber/cipher “game” is as serious now to human life and death as it was during WWII, if not more so, with the entire planet at stake. The Imitation Game should win the Oscar for its historical relevance on top of all the excellent acting and flawless production. Imitation champions anti-sexism and anti-homophobia while skirting wide of racism, “the uncontrolled imaginings of the white mind,” which make it a politically safe contender at this volatile moment of “I can’t breathe” and #BlackLivesMatter.

The imitating that Turing and contemporaries created is far more than a game. As a technology, computing has sped up the rate and pace of human social interaction. Turing’s invention was perfectly in keeping with that era of industrialization: radio, telephones and television were spreading information faster and further than ever before, and assembly lines were improving efficiencies and cranking out products at ever-increasing rates. People were (and are, even moreso now) being trained to the clock, not to any natural rhythms of the actual earth or a biological species.

Conceptualizing time and humanity’s relationship to time is tricky territory, not least because science hasn’t yet figured out where time comes from or what it is. “We’re not in a war with Germany, we’re in a war with time,” is the most important line in the film. The meaning of the scripted line is transparent in relation to the calendar and the clock, to the exigencies of battle: factually and descriptively, it is true enough. Metonymically, however, the meaning is deeply representative, even reifying, of the effect of civilization on the modern and postmodern construction of time.

It wasn’t long after the war when Claude Shannon (also a code-breaker) wrote the foundational paper on digitalization. Turing and Shannon were working on different but complementary problems at the same time. Shannon’s application of Boolean algebra is where all those 0s and 1s come from, the key being that all digitized information is forced into one or the other value. This is (so they say) a great boon for copying but there is also loss of variation, at least some of which has artistic value and intrinsic human merit.

Digitalization forces communication to flow along extremely rigid channels. All analog communication, that is, all human communication, has to be broken down into a binary code: either a zero or a one. There is no variation. (Hence, for instance, the return to vinyl for musicians attuned to the richer quality of analog sound.) The unintended consequence now known as the postmodern condition is an effect of digital forcing. Increases in the speed and ability of communication to reach across distances have outpaced humanity’s ability for sane and sustainable cultural adaptation. It’s as if human society has been sucked into a wind tunnel; people find themselves either in the main flow or in the turbulence. Few seem able to find their balance within the onrush, let alone establish positions adequate to attempt healthy and restorative counteractions.

For proper historical context and relevance, The Imitation Game needs to be understood in parallel with Citizen 4. Whether you approve of Snowden’s action or not, you should see Laura Poitras’ film capturing his conversations with journalist Glen Greenwald as news reports unfolded on our television screens and online news sources. Citizen 4 should win Best Documentary because of the time manipulation it achieves in service of art and social justice. Humans now have the means to recognize and record significant historical moments as they happen. Awards aside, to understand what The Imitation Game can teach us about living through this perilous era in human history, it is necessary to be informed about the stakes of cyber-surveillance and cyber-security’s cipher games. The new imitation game (made visible by the Sony hack with its political fallout and economic consequences) not only threatens privacy, real democracy, and genuine social justice, but is also a crucial playing field where humanity’s efforts to evolve enough to avert climate disaster will be determined.

The Imitation Game is more than a good movie; it allows a rare window for comprehensive reflection on the highest stakes of life and living, here and now.

At the end of May, I’ll be presenting two major workshops at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in higher education.

 

One presentation, called Social Interpreting: An emerging model of simultaneous interactioninvolves Babelverse, which you can learn about by watching this 20 minute video prepared for the @ think! Interpreting conference in Istanbul (March, 2014).

 

 

The second workshop is called Transmedia Character Building for Social Resilience. It promotes the idea that building character (#KRKTR) is an idea that can unify people across all kinds of divisions, and contribute to establishing locally-oriented community connections both within and beyond traditional power structures.

documentary timespace

That’s so #DEAF! from Stephanie Jo Kent on Vimeo.

This is the first ten minutes of a presentation about what the Deaf Community can teach the rest of the world about using interpreters. Later in the talk I explain some details in a timeline, ReTaking RID: A Story of Deaf Empowerment. I summarized the other events of the day-long conference event in Showing Empowerment.

I’ve been pitching Ryan Commerson’s video since I first saw it a year and a half ago. Redefining Deaf is a masterpiece of contemporary theory and political activism. His newest short film, Gallaudet, is the best artistic rendering of how the Deaf see/perceive that I’ve come across.

Can’t get enough of Deaf consciousness?  Watch the post-production video.