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Why DDoS Attacks for Wikileaks Are Not Civil Disobedience

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust. and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. (Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963)

Eddie Brown calmly being carried off by the Albany, GA police, 1963 (Photo by Danny Lyon)

What do MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail and the SNCC lunch counter sit-ins have to do with recent controversial digital protests in support of Wikileaks? Last week, an online activist group known as Anonymous brought down the MasterCard and Visa websites, and purposely slowed down PayPal, in retaliation for the decisions of those companies to stop doing business with Wikileaks. Anonymous called these actions Operation Payback.

Deanna Zandt has written a great report on the flurry of discussion that has erupted in reaction to the assertions recently made that the tactic for bringing down the credit card websites, known as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, is a legitimate form of civil disobedience. (And since I first started writing this post, an excellent further discussion has been unfolding in the comments to Deanna's post.)

Anonymous at Scientology in Los Angeles

Anonymous at Scientology in Los Angeles (Photo by Sklathill)

Deanna explains:

A quick lesson on DDoS for the unfamiliar: a group of people gets together and decides to render a website unusable. They do this by flooding the website’s server with so many requests that the server gets overloaded and either slows down, or stops responding altogether. A big important point: this is not hacking. “Hacking” generally applies to incidents where systems are actually broken into and data is compromised. DDoS doesn’t do this.

To use the case from this week, a group of activists called Anonymous (more on them in a second) decided to render, among others, Mastercard’s website unusable. This does not mean that credit card data was stolen, or that people were unable to use their Mastercards for purchases. It means that if you went to Mastercard.com, you got a message that the website was unavailable.

So, the question: is this a legitimate form of civil disobedience?

I got into the discussion on Twitter on last Friday night (12/9) with Liza Sabater, Josh Mull, Tom Watson and Erica George, and on Saturday (12/10), with Deanna and with Meredith Patterson.

On Friday night Tom's tweet caught my eye: "Taking down Amazon with DDoS is book burning." Josh bristled: "What books were MLK or organized labor burning? It's a sit-in, an occupation." I came down on Tom's side and said, "MLK and SNCC lunch counter sitins were prepared to go to jail. They didn’t do anonymous destruction." Liza saw the lunch counter and DDoS tactics as closely paralel; the Civil Rights Movement protestors "disrupted bness like DDoS," she said. Tom challenged the DDoS/sit-in analogy, saying, "Yeah, if the lunch counter sit-in volunteers carried sledgehammers and destroyed the joint...bad analogy." Josh sarcastically questioned the assertion that Anonymous is violent: "I hadn't heard all those companies were destroyed. That changes everything. What'd they use? C4? Plastiq?" "DDoS is more aggressive than sit-in tho," Erica pointed out; "it denies speech to the other party rather than just exerting it's own speech."

Erica's comment helped me start to understand my discomfort with Anonymous' tactics. Anonymous was responding to the silencing of Wikileaks with more silencing, rather than any kind of civil discourse or political demand. Following the attacks, according to The Guardian, Anonymous declared:

We will fire at anything or anyone that tries to censor WikiLeaks, including multibillion-dollar companies such as PayPal. ((In the days since I first started writing this post, I have not been able to find this statement anywhere except in the cited Guardian news story; I am therefore no longer fully convinced of its authenticity. Nonetheless there are plenty of similar statements in the @anonops twitter stream and elsewhere.))

Anonymous threats are the stuff not of freedom fighters but of cowardly night riders, who attack under the cover of darkness, and White Citizens Councils, who invisibly coordinate sanctions against perceived agitators. I'm not equating Anonymous with the Klan or White Citizens Council; in fact as I've found more of their official statements, I've come to respect their intentions. But  the Operation Payback tactics are closer to those employed by the secret, vigilante defenders of white supremacy than they are to the methods of nonviolent resistance and Black liberation. As King stated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty." The person in the Wikileaks narrative who comes closer to this standard is Bradley Manning, who, in the posture of a whistleblower, knowingly broke the law, accepted the consequences---and now is paying an enormous price for it---in hopes that more truth and less secrecy will free the US from the destructive course it remains on.

I should pause here to make the distinction between DDoS as a tactic by itself and Operation Payback as a use-case by Anonymous. I am primarily focusing on the specifics of what Anonymous did and said rather than on DDoS writ large. Thus far, however, I am generally opposed to DDoS as a tactic. As Nathan Freitas commented on Deanna's post, "DDoS is a lazy form of civil disobedience, at best, and one the participants undertake with very little to no training or preparation for the potential consequences." Ethan Zuckerman has furthermore made a compelling point that DDoS is a destructive practice that can take many websites offline for weeks at a time, if not permanently.

On Saturday (12/10), before she'd written her blog post, I saw Deanna tweet, "I am FAR more worried abt corporations taking away my free speech than @anonops making paypal slow down;" I replied: "I question actions that are not accountable to a community or to the other side. How is that 'civil' disobedience?"

In her blog post, Deanna elaborated on her position:

Anonymous launched a DDoS attack against the websites of the companies that took away people’s rights to support a political organization. Many, myself included, consider DDoS in this context to be much like a sit-in in the offline world. The point of a sit-in is to render a building/room/service unusable for a temporary period of time. Sit-ins aren’t “legal”– you get arrested, and most activists who participate in them know this ahead of time and prepare for it....

In a case like this, who else do they need to be accountable to? Maybe I’m misunderstanding the question, which is why I wanted to take this part beyond the 140-character limit. An anti-war group that sits-in at a recruiting station is accountable to whom? Themselves, certainly. Are they accountable to the entire rest of the anti-war movement? The opposing side, in this case, the military or the police, can hold them accountable by arresting them.

Earlier in her post, Deanna defined civil disobedience neutrally, referring only to a Wikipedia, dictionary-like, definition, but clearly in talking about sit-ins, she is joining Liza and Josh in evoking the Civil Rights Movement legacy. In fact, in the longer statement, released by Anonymous on Thursday, they  themselves made the connection overtly:

During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, access to many businesses was blocked as a peaceful protest against segregation. Today much business is conducted on the Internet. We are using the LOIC to conduct distributed denial of service attacks against businesses that have aided in the censorship of any person. Our attacks do no damage to the computer hardware. We merely take up bandwidth and system resources like the seats at the Woolworth's lunch counter.


Civil Rights Movement leader Diane Nash speaks on the steps of the Neshoba County Courthouse, Philadelphia, MS, June 23, 2007, at a gathering of activists calling for justice for victims of civil rights era racial violence. (Photo by Ben Greenberg)

In the nonviolent practice that everyone is hearkening back to, accountability doesn't mean that you can get arrested---if you get caught. That's true anytime you break the law, regardless of your intent. Here's what's involved, according to Diane Nash, one of the chief architects of the student sit-in movement and of non-violent direct action as a tactic for defending and obtaining civil rights.

We felt that in order to create a community where there was more love and more humanness, it was necessary to use humanness and love to try to get to that point. Ends do not justify the means. As Gandhi said, everything is really a series of means.... Truth now for me has very little to do with being good or doing what's right. It's more relevant to me in terms of providing oneself and people around one with accurate information upon which to base our behavior and base our decisions....

I think another fundamental quality of the movement is that we used nonviolence as an expression of love and respect of the opposition while noting that a person is never the enemy. The enemy is always the attitudes, such as racism or sexism, political systems that are unjust, economic systems that are unjust, some kind of system or attitude that oppresses. Not the person herself or himself....

Another important tenet, I think, of the philosophy was recognizing that oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed. So that rather than doing harm to the oppressor, another way to go is to identify your part in your own oppression and then withdraw your cooperation from the system of oppression....

There is so much about the philosophy that people as a whole never knew, because what was reported in the newspapers was just the fact that the demonstrators were not hitting back or not creating violence. But there were five steps in the process that we took a community through. The first step was investigation, where we did all the necessary research and analysis to totally understand the problem. The second phase was education, where we educated our own constituency to what we had found out in our research. The third stage was negotiation, where you approach the opposition, let them know your position, and try to come to a solution. The fourth stage was resistance, where you withdraw your support from the oppressive system, and during this stage would take place things such as boycotts, work stoppages, and nonsupport of the system. (A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, edited by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, pgs, 19-21)

Comments by Anonymous about why they focused on some targets over others suggest some amount of investigation and education among the organizers but little involvement of the people enlisted to help perpetrate the DDoS attacks. As Nathan said in the comment I quoted earlier, "the lunch counter and bus strikers were against specific laws about those places and services. Gandhi refused to buy salt, show his papers, and so on, because he felt to do so was unjust and unfair." Anonymous' resistance was vague and general and veiled in anonymity and certainly did not involve related demands and negotiation towards some alternative state of affairs. The DDoS attack was more like vandalizing the storefront than sitting in. If you bolster censorship, prepare to be censored, was the gist of the Anonymous message. Payback.

When my conversation about this with Deanna was first getting started last Saturday, Meredith Patterson challenged my assertion that progressives shouldn't embrace Anonymous as a spokesperson for internet freedom. She pointed out, "voluntary groups will respond, accountable or not" and for her, perhaps more importantly, "there's not just one prog community; never has been. Personally, decentralised but cooperative action appeals to me more." There's a very rich conversation to be had about political movements and centralized vs. decentralized action and leadership. I can't detail it now, but SNCC was fundamentally a decentralized entity (contrary to assertions made recently by Malcolm Gladwell)---which was deeply inclusive and radically democratic.

Anonymous may have some similar appeal in its inclusive rhetoric that seems to invite us to join them and find power in numbers.

Anonymous is a spontaneous collective of people who share the common goal of protecting the free flow of information on the Internet. Our ranks are filled with people representative of many parts of the world and all political orientations. We can be anyone, anywhere, anytime. If you are in a public place right now, take a look over your shoulder: everyone you see has all the requirements to be an Anon.  But do not fret, for you too have all the requirements to stand with those who fight for free information and accountability.

But there is a fallacy here. XKCD lays it bare.

Wikileaks by http://xkcd.com

The disruptive power of Anonymous lies in secrecy. If there's anything to learn from our recent history and from other troubled times in American history, it's that secrecy and the erosion of accountability and quashing speech destroys our democracy and enables the worst kinds of abuses imaginable.

The intent of Anonymous is not evil, but it is morally murky. One reason the Civil Rights Movement was so powerful was that so many so intensely held to the principles expressed by Diane Nash: "Ends do not justify the means. As Gandhi said, everything is really a series of means."

Further Reading

In the last week, since I first started discussing this topic and writing about it, a number of other bloggers have written pieces that make similar or complimentary points. By no means a comprehensive list, here are some of the posts that I read along the way as I was working on this one:



Vote today. No excuses. Do it.


It Isn’t Easy Being Green but It Gets Better


Dumbshittery Stops Right Here (Vote!)


Gregory Isaacs when I was 13

Gregory Isaacs has died.

I was first exposed to Gregory Isaacs in 1982 at age 13. The story begins with my cousin, Alan---a story I recounted here several years ago.

When I was thirteen, my dad took me to the Film Forum, just outside the West Vilage in NYC. My cousin Alan’s first film was being shown there, a film called Land of Look Behind, a documentary about Jamaica just after Bob Marley’s death. At the time I did not know Bob Marley’s music and I knew nothing about Rastafarians or Jamaica.

All I really knew was that when I was five Alan lived with us in our house in Teaneck, NJ. He and my dad used to take photographs together and process them in my dad’s darkroom. We converted our attic into a bedroom for him. Alan photographed me there. He somehow limited the available light to a shaft coming in from a single window.

He left us to go to Europe, where he studied with Roman Polanski, worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, and began his lifelong association and sometime partnership with Werner Herzog.

On the screen were astounding images of poverty in Jamaica, Bob Marley’s funeral, Rastafarian reveries, live reggae performances, prisons and military police, incredible landscapes, marijuana smoking, and English made strange by unfamiliar accents that often seemed hypnotic. It was a ninety minute cinematic poem, a dream that has stayed with me for almost twenty-five years.

Included in Alan's beautiful film is this extended sequence, featuring Isaacs talking and performing live in a little Jamaican club.

I wrote my recollection of Alan's film in 2006, as it was about to be re-released on DVD; I'm pleased to see that it still seems to be available. You can also watch the film on YouTube, in parts. More on the film in the rest of my 2006 blog post and here.

Related Reading


Photos and Video from Honk! 2010

10/17 UPDATE: I've started scanning my film from Honk. I'll be adding all the film photos to this Flickr set over the next few weeks.

10/16 UPDATE: My third batch of Honk! 2010 photos is online.

10/15 UPDATE #2: There's a  nice article by Danielle Dreilinger in today's Boston Globe, "A look back at Honk! Fest and three days of activist street bands," which features my video of Veveritse .

10/15 UPDATE: My second batch of Honk! 2010 photos is now also online.


Environmental Encroachment performs at Harvard Square Octoberfest as part of Honk! 2010 (photo: Ben Greenberg)

I've posted my first batch of Honk! 2010 photos on Flickr. Here they are as a slideshow:

I also shot a little video with my iPhone of this fantastic band from Brooklyn, Veveritse.

Some of my fellow photographers have also begun posting their Honk! pics:


HONK! Photo Exhibit Opens This Saturday, Sept. 4, in Davis Square

HONK! Festival Photography Exhibit

I am pleased to announce that I am one of the photographers featured in this show. Press release with more information is below. —BG


Photo by Benjamin Greenberg appearing in the show

Featuring work by:

  • Greg Cook
  • Tiffany Knight
  • Mark Dannenhauer
  • Jesse Edsell-Vetter
  • Benjamin Greenberg
  • Chris Yeager & Akos Szilvasi

Exhibit runs through September 30 with an opening on Saturday, September 4, 6-8 pm in Davis Square, Somerville

(Somerville, MA)  The Inside-Outside Gallery (aka the CVS windows in Davis Square, Somerville) will feature work by 7 photographers: Greg CookTiffany KnightMark DannenhauerJesse Edsell-VetterBenjamin GreenbergChris YeagerAkos Szilvasi. Their photos are inspired by the now annual HONK! Festival and will be on display throughout the month of September.  An outdoor opening reception is planned for Saturday, Sept 4, from 6-8 pm. Free and open to all.  CVS Pharmacy, 1 Davis Square, Somerville, MA. For more information, contact Michael Rome (Photo Exhibit Coordinator), photoshow at honkfest dot org.

In 2006, the very first HONK! Festival was an experiment, a not so humble occasion created on Columbus Day weekend for 12 activist street bands to perform in Davis and Harvard Squares. By 2009, HONK! burst at the seams with over 29 bands [stopped counting for all the impromptu participants]. This photography exhibit chronicles the excitement generated at HONK! 2009. As proven by this exhibition, the now yearly HONK! Festival has clearly become a photographer’s dream. For more information on the photography exhibit and other events leading up to HONK! 2010, go directly to www.honkfest.org/pre-honk/.

Complete information on this year’s 5th annual HONK! Festival [taking place from October 8-10, 2010] will be available soon after Labor Day weekend.  Periodic updates will be posted onwww.honkfest.orgtwitter.com/honkfest/, and www.facebook.com/honkfestival. Further information can also be obtained by calling 617-383-HONK (4665).

At this early stage of the game, the HONK! Festival Committee would like to give special thanks to the City of Somerville, the Somerville Arts Council, and Davis Square businesses for their support of this year's HONK! Festival!


The Takeaway: Federal Initiative Fails to Warm Cold Cases

I appeared on The Takeaway this morning with New York Times reporter Shaila Dewan and Catherine Walker, whose father Clifton was murdered by Klansmen on February 28, 1964. Today's segment was a follow up to Dewan's article in yesterday's Times.


Catherine Walker stands at her father's grave in Wilkinson County, MS.

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Mix of the Week

I'm trying to do one of these each weekend. We'll see how it goes... For more on Rodriguez, see my Tumblr.


All We Have (Treme)

If you've watched the 1st season of Treme then you know: incredible writing and acting in a hard-hitting rendition of post-Katrina life in New Orleans. This edit of clips by here's luck makes an emotional arc out of the experiences of the main female characters. It is, as here's luck calls it, a prayer for New Orleans. I might even call it a psalm.  (Warning: spoilers)


The FBI’s Slow Race Against Time


(Left to right) Shirley Walker, Clifton Walker, Jr., Catherine Walker on Poor House Road, Wilkinson County, MS, near the spot where their father Clifton Walker was gunned down by Klansmen.

As far as I knew, none of the children of Clifton Walker had ever been contacted by FBI agents  regarding the February 28, 1964 racial killing of their father, near Woodville, MS. Still, I thought I should confirm this,  so a few nights ago I gave a call to Walker's second daughter Catherine and asked her if her family has heard from the FBI.

"I wish we had, no," Catherine answered.

I was checking with Catherine because I had just received the DOJ's second annual report on its activities regarding civil rights era racial murders (PDF), as required by the Emmet Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. In the section of the report on "Notifying Victim Family Members," I read:

The FBI has devoted considerable resources to locating the next of kin for the victims, successfully locating family members for 93 of the 122 victims.

I thought: well, I located the Walkers two and a half years ago with almost no resources and without the benefit of even standard reporters' tools, like access to Lexis Nexis. The Walkers haven't reported hearing from the FBI previously, but maybe they've heard from the Bureau since I last talked to them.

"Nobody has contacted me," Catherine said.

"Could the FBI have contacted one of your sisters or your brother," I asked?

"No," Catherine said, "they would have told me."

The Till Bill requires that the Department of Justice "expeditiously investigate unsolved civil rights murders" and "provide all the resources necessary to ensure timely and thorough investigations in the cases involved."

Thus the DOJ reported:

As part of the department’s efforts to uncover relevant information regarding our unsolved civil rights era homicides, we continue to engage in a comprehensive outreach program, meeting with a broad array of interested individuals and organizations.

Outreach has not included reaching the Walkers---though, as you'll see in the list of cases, below, the Clifton Walker murder is one of the 50 some cases that is still open and under active investigation. What has FBI outreach involved, then?

  • Two meetings with NGOs that investigate and do advocacy regarding civil rights era racial murders
  • An unspecified number of meetings with national civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, National Urban League and Southern Poverty Law Center "to encourage those organizations to reach out to their field offices and to try to obtain information on cold cases"
  • Attending the Mississippi Civil Rights Veterans Conference in Jackson, MS in 2009 and 2010
  • Attending a conference on an long unresolved case in Monroe, GA
  • Attending a town hall meeting at a film screening held in Syracuse by the Syracuse University School of Law Cold Case Justice Initiative
  • Attending a town hall meeting at a film screening held in Baton Rouge, LA
  • Outreach to FBI field offices and US Attorney's offices in districts where there are open cold cases
  • Presenting at the 2009 Criminal Civil Rights Conference at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, SC
  • Participation in the annual conferences of the National Black Prosecutors Association
  • Meeting with the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol, the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and "numerous other state and local law enforcement agencies"

The report does not detail any time spent in the communities where the murders that they say they are investigating have occurred.

The Clifton Walker FBI file, which I've obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, mentions in passing seven other victims whose names are not included on the list of cases the FBI is addressing. All of the reporters that I know who work on civil rights era cold cases have found the same thing: one case leads to another. To draw out the connections and make the necessary discoveries, investigators have to go into the communities where the murders occurred and give local people the opportunity to come forward and share what they know and what they've heard.

When I called Catherine Walker I had two important pieces of news to share with her: first, that the DOJ report shows that the FBI has not closed her father's murder case and second, that Wiley Cavin died in Woodville on July 22 at the age of 85. To our knowledge, Cavin was the last living member of the racially mixed carpool that Clifton Walker rode with to and from work at the International Paper plant in Natchez, MS the day he was murdered. Cavin was therefore one of the last people to see Walker alive.

I spoke with Cavin over the phone last summer. He recalled being interviewed by the FBI as well being under FBI surveillance during the spring of 1964, following the murder:

They set up at that little old store and watched me like a hawk watching a chicken.

Cavin had not been re-contacted by the FBI at the time when we spoke last summer. In fact, none of the  living subjects mentioned in state and federal documents, whom I have interviewed over the last three years, have reported being contacted by the FBI outside of 1964.

It turned out Catherine had some news for me, too:

Remember Wright Williams, my uncle, the one who went to Baton Rouge to contact the FBI about Daddy's murder? He died last weekend, in Atlanta.

"They are dying real fast," she went on.

That's three in the year 2010. First Mr. Nettles ((J.B. Nettles owned the truck stop where Clifton Walker's murder was allegedly planned. I interviewed him with Catherine in 2009. He died in February 2010.)), then Wiliey Cavin and Wright Williams. There is an urgency I feel to get the FBI and the Justice Department to get some answers before they die. Once they're dead that's the end of it. We never get closure.

It is heartening to know that the Walker case has not been closed, but what exactly does it mean that it's open? The Till Bill has not been fully funded by Congress---and that may be a significant part of the problem. These investigations cannot be part-time work for agents or for the federal and local government prosecutors and investigators assigned to these cases. Regional task forces, including full time special agents and attorneys need to be assigned for every area involved.

Without that kind of structure in place, the FBI cannot make the "great progress" that the DOJ report claims has been made on civil rights era unsolved murders. Not one single suspect is under federal indictment, fifty four cases are being closed and only two new investigation files have been opened this year. The Justice Department has not empanelled a single investigative grand jury.

Even where prosecutions are not possible, the FBI has a responsibility to provide as much information as it can to the victims' families. "The truth is the only thing that can take this big burden off of our shoulders," Catherine said "to know exactly who it was that killed Daddy."

(Cross-posted on The Civil Rights Cold Case Project)

Related Reading


Though the DOJ and FBI has frequently alluded to a list of  more than 100 victims, this report is the first instance that I am aware of where the full list has been made public, along with information about whether or not the case is still open. I've pulled the list out of the report for easier access. You can view it, below.

DOJ Civil Rights Cold Case List


Friday Mix Tape


Home of the Free, Prison Camp of the Brown

The lawyer was en route but border patrol "didn't want to wait" so they took her into detention. She allegedly ran a stop sign.


Rummaging in the Government’s Attic

Lessons Learned from More Than a Thousand FOIA Requests

By  Michael Ravnitzky and Phil Lapsley

This is an excellent presentation on Freedom of Information Act requests. It can be downloaded from govermentattic.org.


The Ever Miraculous Pete Seeger

Via Rolling Stone (sorry about the commercial; this is worth it).

Pete Seeger may be 91 years old, but the iconic folk singer still has plenty to protest. On Friday night at New York's City Winery, Seeger debuted a new song he wrote about the disastrous BP oil spill as part of a fundraising concert for the Gulf Restoration Network and Global Green USA . "It's a strange, strange song," said Seeger about the new tune, which featured a simple finger-picked chord progression and gravelly ominous lyrics like, "When the drill baby drill turns to spill baby spill/God's counting on me/God's counting on you." Check out video of "God's Counting on Me, God's Counting on You" above.

After his set, Seeger told Rolling Stone he doesn't write many songs these days, but the oil spill inspired him to team up with folk singer Lorre Wyatt to write the track at his home in Beacon, New York. "I'm a fan of old songs that have a lot of repetition, spirituals," Seeger said. "Some of the greatest songs in the world only have one line, like 'This little light of mine.' "

It was a busy week for Seeger. On Wednesday, he traveled to Albany, New York, where he sang the new number outside the state senate chamber to protest hydraulic fracturing, a controversial natural gas drilling technique. "I performed for 40 newspaper and radio reporters," he said. "It made sense down there, too. When there's a great big problem lets get together and do something about it and not leave it up to the government, the rich the poor."

Apparently there's also a new Pete Seeger record just out!