The Atlantic just posted a remarkably insightful article about the conflicts between anonymity and transparency in the Occupy movement. This is a topic which often doesn’t receive enough attention, and while The Atlantic doesn’t get to much depth on the issue, it certainly deserves credit for bringing it up. In a particularly tense cut from Tim Poole’s livestream at Occupy Wall Street, they show some of the conflicts which arise when people don’t want to be filmed. Having witnessed much of the same during my own involvement, and repeatedly attempting to bring these issues up at assemblies, I can definitely attest that is has been an issue.

The explosion of social networking and online media in recent years has led to something of a euphoria regarding the benefits of “free information”. Countless examples of abuse of authority caught on tape have shaken countless establishments. At the same time, we’ve already seen a clear dark side to this – Facebook profiles becoming a standard part of job and school applications, for instance. This technology works both ways, and in a great many ways it’s utterly terrifying.

The issue of cameras at protests has been rising for years, if not decades. Police surveillance has been a serious issue as long as I can remember, taking every conceivable form, from cops with cameras to private contractors, vans with tinted windows and covertly installed surveillance cameras. Protesters with cameras have been able to turn these tables somewhat, by capturing police brutality and other rage-inspiring images. This has been enormously tactically useful. It must be said, though, that confiscating film and footage (or even phones and notebooks) from activists and independent journalists has long been a tactic of police at protests. Nearly any big anti-globalization demo you could name came complete with (often very bloody) raids on the independent media centres. After the way Facebook and other social media was used against rioters in London and Vancouver, or Toronto’s G20, it’s more clear than ever that there are potentially huge consequences for anybody you post pictures of.

I’ve seen this stuff end up in court far too often over the years. Don’t doubt for a second that pictures of you peacefully and legally protesting can be used to convict you of whatever they want, or that surveillance camera footage proving your alibi won’t be made available. None of these institutions “work for you”, and none of them are “on your side”.

As I’ve stated before, there are a lot of reasons to wear a mask at a protest, and even more to avoid having your picture there published. This could come down to fears about your boss, landlord, neighbourhood skinheads or, of course, police. Having your picture posted on public, searchable databases goes well beyond simply showing your face at a protest. Unfortunately it’s often now an unavoidable result of showing up at a protest without a mask on.

Issues like this, of course, bring out all kinds of problems regarding race, class and other forms of oppression. It’s not uncommon to hear white, male and very privileged individuals like Tim Pool state that they’re not afraid of being photographed and are willing to deal with the consequences. That’s cool – but don’t make that decision for others. There’s an incredibly exclusionary aspect to this kind of behaviour. Not everybody is privileged enough to be able to become an online representation of a movement, and treating anybody who has apprehensions about being photographed like they have something to hide isn’t solidarity. It’s an open invitation not to show up if you are actually oppressed in any serious way.

Since images in the media or online are all that many people see of these protests, they’ve become the be-all and end-all of protest in too many ways. As DeBord and Vangiem described decades ago, the representation has become reality. Any sense of practical achievements or effectiveness gets lost or buried while attempting to appeal to “normal” viewers. The spectacle presented exists for the sake of the spectators, for whom we’re all expected to march peacefully and politely into the meat grinder of state oppression. Again, this plays into a lot of racist and classist assumptions about who the viewers are (white, middle class etc) and what they want to see. The worst assumption of all, that this kind of “influence” works as a means of bringing “change” totally devalues the protest and everyone present, while glorifying the media used to report on them.

No amount of Facebook “likes” or letters to the editor will change our situation. That’s why people are at the protest in the first place. If it fails to mean something above and beyond being an effective media spectacle, chances are they won’t be back. I’ve seen this too many times, and trust me, if you want to “give the people what they want”, do something effective. We need something that shocks people out of being passive spectators, not something that re-enforces this role. A serious resistance movement can do that, but that means something beyond inflammatory rhetoric. Can you think of a real resistance movement anywhere which would willingly post this much information about their members? Stating that we’re willing to reveal all of this is a very clear sign to any who would join that we’re not serious about being any kind of threat.

I cringed when I watched the first Occupy Wall Street arrests, as onlookers shouted over and over again, in front of cameras “GIVE US YOUR NAMES” in an increasingly demanding tone. That uneasiness paled, though, to my utter nausea while watching the livestream from Tim Pool. To accuse someone of being violent by blocking a camera’s view is laughable, while the inherent risks of this kind of filming are very serious. Obviously, the mainstream press has no problem getting their hands on it. Never once does Pool admit that he has the option to simply point the camera somewhere else when asked. Instead he plays the victim while demanding to film everything and everyone on behalf of his thousand online viewers, despite their wishes to the contrary. Many of the Arab Spring uprisings were followed by brutal crackdowns, using Facebook and other online media to target protesters. Only time will tell what befalls those here, but there’s no doubt that this kind of “transparency” will play a big role.

Loose clips sink ships, folks, be careful where you point those things.