An all-new tale of Marcus Yallow, the hero of the bestselling novels Little Brother and Homeland—as he deals with the aftermath of a devastating Oakland earthquake, with the help of friends, hacker allies, and some very clever crowdsourced drones.
This original novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
A Little Brother story
If you grow up in San Francisco, you grow up with a bone-deep sense of what it means when the ground starts to move: quake. The first quake I remember was just a little tremor, a 2.8, but whether it’s the big one or a little dish-rattler, there’s no experience in the world like the experience of having the ground start to move. It’s wrong like seeing a broken bone sticking out of your skin, wrong like being carried upside down, wrong like trying to sign your name with your non-dominant hand, but times a bazillion. I was six when that little dish-rattler knocked the knickknacks off the shelves, and as I recall, I went from sitting on the living room sofa to crouching under the kitchen table by teleportation, or at least I moved so fast and so automatically that I have no recollection of consciously deciding to move.
When the Seneca quake hit, I was halfway from Oakland airport to Coliseum BART, on the shuttle bus, and again, wham, one minute we were tootling down the road and the next, the road buckled and the bus was tilted 45’ up and to the right, and we were all rolling toward the back, flailing or curling up into protective balls, and there was a sound like a burrito finding its way through the digestive system of a cow the size of the galaxy, a rrrrrrrumble that went right up through your skin to your bones and joints, more felt than heard. When it stopped, the sound got louder: car alarms, crashing buildings, screams.
That wasn’t a good day.
I remember that day, the day the quake hit. I don’t remember the day the disaster became the new normal. Like San Francisco across the bay, the city of Oakland would never be the same. When the Hayward fault threw a tantrum, the whole liquefaction zone briefly liquefied (hence the name), and the buildings stupid humans had stuck on top of that gnarly mess of landfill and wishful thinking slid over, fell down, and fell apart.
I didn’t leave Oakland for a week. Ange and I had just landed at Oakland airport after a week-long camping trip in the Nevada desert, a little pre-Burning Man event. We’d gone down to Nevada with full packs and come back with them nearly as full—the people who lived close enough to drive in had much better chow than the dried hippie treats we’d made, and they’d been cool about sharing. So when the Seneca quake hit, we dusted ourselves off and did what you do: we went to see how we could help.
It was harder than it sounds. Without working phones, there wasn’t any way to look at Twitter and read about what was going on out of our lines of sight. But we let the sounds and the movement of other people be our guides, and it wasn’t long before we were in the rubble of a housing project, digging alongside cops, fire fighters, neighbors . . . anyone who could make it. Everyone had stories about things they’d seen: fires, gas leaks, downed electrical cables. We absorbed each bit of terrible news numbly. The same numbness descended on me when I helped a woman move a broken piece of roofing and found her daughter underneath, bloody and unconscious. The first-aid training I’d had kicked in, and I did what I could for her until a real medic arrived, which might have been twenty minutes or two minutes or two hours. The girl’s blood was still on my clothes a week later when I got home to Potrero Hill in San Francisco, on the other side of the bay. In the meantime, Ange and I slept in our tent, ate our rations and whatever we were given at the tables set up by different groups—sometimes church groups, sometimes Occupy Oakland, sometimes FEMA. We never saw the Red Cross, though they raised a buttload of money for “Oakland relief.”
Our phones started working the first night, and we called home and spoke to our parents. They were half-insane with panic: they knew our plane had landed, but hadn’t heard anything else. They wanted us to get home right away, of course, but the routes back into the city were all jammed solid, the ferries filled to capacity. We convinced them that we were in the right place, though in my case I had to remind my parents more than once that at nineteen I was a grownup, and old enough to make my own decisions.
But by day seven, I got up and realized that I’d had a hot shower in a friendly stranger’s house, had made my coffee with water boiled from a working electrical outlet, had checked my email on my working phone, and I looked at Ange and she looked at me and we both said, “Time to go.” We found the people we’d worked with, traded phone numbers and email addresses and long hugs, cried a little, and got on a ferry home.
When we got to Fisherman’s Wharf we stopped in our tracks. “I don’t want to go,” I said. For more than a week, I hadn’t been out of earshot of Ange. We’d fought, we’d sweated, we’d rubbed each others’ sore muscles and bandaged each other’s blisters. Without working network connections, we hadn’t even had that companionable together-but-apart experience of sitting together but being in your own Internet world, prodding at your phone. We’d just been there and together.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, but she was crying a bit. “We’ll see each other again tomorrow morning, doofus. I live two miles from your house.”
She was right, but as soon as she was out of sight, fear started to gnaw at my guts. That’s the one emotion I hadn’t felt during the week in Oakland: fear. I’d felt brief terror when the bus started to roll, and revulsion, and sorrow, and exhaustion, but I’d developed a kind of blank no-space where my fear should have been. Now the space filled up, and fast. Ange was out of sight. Anything could happen. As I descended the BART stairs, the walls and roof loomed over me, and I flashed on all the tons of concrete and plaster and wood and dirt I’d shifted, and imagined what it would be like if those walls were to come down on me.
I didn’t make it to the platform. By the time I got to the final escalator, I was in full panic attack, breathing heavily, clutching my chest, shaking. A young black guy behind me caught sight of me and said, “Woah, you okay?” I tried to say Yeah, it’s nothing, but I couldn’t choke out any words. There was no air in my lungs for speech. I never learned that guy’s name, but he led me by the elbow back toward the turnstiles, and stood with me while I tried to breathe.
“Were you in the quake?” he said.
I nodded. I wanted to say, “It’s not like that, I was a helper, not one of the victims,” but hey, no air.
“That’s cool,” he said. “Going down there after something like that, well . . . I wasn’t even in town that day and I can barely bring myself to do it, you know? I mean, look at that crack on the wall—” He pointed. I hadn’t noticed it. It was like a zigzag of lightning forking down from the ceiling to the floor, radiating out from there. The wall had been shifted, along with the rest of town, by Seneca, but had remained standing . . . for now. It suddenly got a hundred times harder to breathe. “Whoops, sorry! Do you want to get out of here?”
I nodded and gulped air like a fish out of water. He let me lean on him while we went to the turnstiles, and he left me leaning on one while he spoke to the station guard, who took one look at me and buzzed us both through. He got me back up to the surface and I could breathe again.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a lot.” I swallowed a couple of times, wiped at the sweat on my face. I’d been sweating over shovels and pry-bars all week with a bandanna over my face, but this was different. It was cold terror sweat, slimy and shameful. “Sorry,” I said, and found that I was on the verge of tears. Jesus, I was a basket case.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” he said. He sounded sincere. I guess he was. He sat next to me for a while. He was dressed like someone with a job to go to, good shoes and pants with a crease down the leg, but he sat with me for a while.
“Thanks,” I said, finally.
“You’re all right,” he said, and I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a diagnosis.
“I’m all right,” I said, because agreeing was easier than disagreeing. I don’t know if I said thank you again, or what, but the next thing I knew I was walking up Stockton Street, up and up that steep hill, over the summit, and down through Chinatown toward Market Street. I was dusty and dirty and sweaty and tired when I got home, but I was also comfortably numb, which was good, because someone had to be calm and collected, and it wasn’t my parents, who were totally freaked out at yet another incident in which I found myself in the middle of some kind of horrible problem, incommunicado and in the line of fire. Mom and Dad finally stopped hugging me and Dad made a ha-ha-only-serious joke about once being an accident, twice a coincidence, and three times a habit, and they let me go to bed.
As my head hit the pillow, I would have bet a billion dollars that I was going to sleep for eighteen hours and then wake up, eat breakfast and go back to bed for another eighteen. But when I jolted awake, covered in nightmare sweat, the numbers on my homemade nixie-tube clock swore that it was 4:12 a.m. I tried to go back to sleep, even tried my mom’s trick of putting on the BBC’s shipping news—a droning readout of weather conditions in distant places, which could knock her out like a hammer—but I was wide awake, with a totally undeserved three-espresso jitter.
I had a quick shower and brushed my teeth, then took my beard-trimmer to my face and hair, reducing everything to the number-three fuzz I’d been wearing all summer, but which had grown out into an irritating length—hair long enough to tangle, enough beard to catch stray bits of food and to itch my face like a brillo pad. Then I padded downstairs in a pair of boxer shorts and raided the kitchen, putting away a half-pound of granola with whatever nuts and dried fruits I could find on top. I had it with Dad’s homemade yogurt, and it was the pure taste of home, the flavor of a hundred late-night snacks wolfed down after nights spent partying or hacking. As I put the bowl in the dishwasher, I was struck by a terrible urge to throw it against the wall. It was all too damned normal. I’d been a human digging machine for a week, and now here I was, everything same as it ever was. There were still people in Oakland who were in deep trouble—people who’d lost a lot more than the few damaged pictures and knickknacks that were sitting on our kitchen table, awaiting mending. While I’d been in Oakland, I’d been part of something bigger: I’d been helping people, and they’d been helping me. It was weird, because for all that it was a horrific disaster, it was also the chance to live like it was the first days of a better nation, a place where every person you met was your brother or sister, where you did what needed doing because it needed doing.
All my life, I’d been looking for something bigger than me, something I could be a part of. Once, I’d accidentally started a guerrilla army that kicked the DHS out of San Francisco. Once, I’d helped put a bunch of secrets where they needed to go. Both of those things had been complicated, and hard, and they’d left me feeling like I still hadn’t found whatever it was that was the whole point of living.
But standing with my neighbors, day and night, moving big lumps of rock and wood and dirt from where it was to where it needed to be—that had been simple. Never easy, of course. But simple. Doing what needed doing.
That’s what had gotten me up at 4:12 a.m. The knowledge that there was work to be done, and that I hadn’t been doing it.
It was time to get back to work.
It turns out that being semi-employed had one serious advantage: I didn’t need to hit up my boss for time off. All I needed to do was stop scrounging around the startups I knew—looking for a couple days’ work writing unit tests or ramming mountains of analytic data in and out of hadoop to figure out, to the pixel, where every button on a web-page should live—and I was at liberty. Ever since I’d dropped out of university, I’d been saving ten percent of every paycheck in a rainy-day fund, doing everything I could to forget it was there. It seemed no one I knew had a steady job anymore. If I had one penny left over at the end of the day, I should be socking it away against the day when there wasn’t any money to be had.
Well, the rains had come. Literally. Eight days after Seneca, the rains started. Record storms, the kind that end with flash floods and mudslides even in the good times. These weren’t good times. Parts of San Francisco and Berkeley were still boarded up and rebuilding, and Oakland, well, Oakland was Oakland. Slammed by the quake, drowned by the flood, and the part of the Bay Area where there was the least money for seismic retrofits: the earth was angry with the East Bay for sure.
I’d gotten into the habit of making my parents coffee in the morning, at least on the days when I got up earlier than them. I couldn’t bear to watch them drink the swill they brewed themselves. The morning I headed out to report to Occupy Seneca, I made it as extra-special perfect as I could. The rain drummed on the windows and the wind lashed the tree-branches, and we sipped our coffee. Sitting by the front door were my raincoat, my pack in its rain-cover, my rain boots, and a waterproof sailor hat. Dad gave me that one, something he’d been given as a joke by his students a million years before. It was a cheerful yellow sou’wester and it made me look like I should be on a package of frozen fish-fingers. It was also amazing at keeping my head dry, because, you know, sailors.
Ange came in halfway through our second cup, looking crazy adorbs in her slicker and boots. I grinned like a fool as I answered the door and she gave me a drippy kiss that left me with second-hand raindrops all down my front. “Do you like it?” she said, twirling in the front hall. “I feel like a drowned hobbit.”
“It works for you,” I said. “Come in and get fuelled up.”
Dirty secret: if they had to choose between me and Ange, I think my parents would choose Ange. Not in a creepy way or anything—they loved me and everything. But Ange was the clear favorite in the household. The parental units lit up like Christmas lights as she came into the kitchen, fussed over her with tea-towels, offered her breakfast. She grinned at me and stuck her tongue out, because she’d heard my theories on my parents’ relative affection for us before, and she always made the most of it when they made a big deal of her.
Two cups of coffee later, I managed to pry her loose from my parents’ grasp. We suited up and set out, me riding behind her, our bikes throwing up fantails of water as we splashed up and down Potrero Hill toward the ferry docks. I knew to the stroke how much pedalling we had to do to make it up and over, and where the shallowest approaches were, but even so, we were both puffed out and red-faced by the time we boarded the ferry. But even after I caught my breath, I found my heart was still thudding in my chest. It was a good feeling, like the feeling I got just before I first kissed Ange, when I knew what was coming, but still couldn’t believe it.
Ange’s fingers twined with mine. “Here we go,” she said. We kissed again through the curtain of rain pouring down of the brim of my hat and her hood.
“Back to work,” I said, and we squeezed. The ferry bumped away from the pier.
It had only been a few days since we’d last been to Oakland, but things had sure changed in the interim. The worst-hit sites were now partitioned off with hurricane fencing bearing day-glo orange WARNING ribbons. When we’d left there’d been ad-hoc tables and tents with a mix of medics, chowlines, and all-purpose chill-out zones where there was WiFi, power outlets, and a mixture of donated clothes, toys, and furniture. Now there were two camps, and they couldn’t have been more different.
On one side, in what had once been a parkette between two tall housing projects, there was the FEMA camp, where shuffling lines of people queued for hours to talk to various people sitting behind desks in smart, official-looking tents. On the other side, where there had once been a couple of basketball courts, was the Occupy Seneca operation, which was a lot less, um, official. Instead of burly guys in matching raincoats with FEMA and OPD in big reflective sans-serif letters on the back, the Occupy side was a patchwork quilt of people in outdoorsy high-tech nylon stuff, Army surplus ponchos, improvised rainwear made out of heavy nylon shopping bags, and a guy in a huge, trailing coat that seemed to have been improvised from part of a giant, screen-printed vinyl advertisement—maybe a billboard or a banner that had come down with the quake. All the colors of the rainbow were there, but they were all desaturated and waterlogged by the driving rain. They were working out of a set of yurts, camping tents, jerry-rigged shelters, and lean-tos. Kids ran around between these shelters, not caring about the mud spattering up their legs and covering them to the waists. It was warmer on this side of the bay, the kind of freak weather we’d been getting more and more frequently. With the rain and the mud, it gave the whole thing the feeling of a jungle.
We waded into the Occupy camp. An older African American woman, maybe my mother’s age, smiled and said hello.
“Hi there,” I said. “Um, we wanted to help out, okay?” I felt weirdly tongue-tied. When we’d gone from the airport shuttle-bus to the wreckages, we’d been doing what needed to be done. Now it felt like we’d come from Away to Provide Aid, which was a bit weird, even though Away in this case was just across the Bay.
“My name’s Esther,” the woman said. “What’s yours?”
Ange stuck her hand out. “Ange,” she said. “And Marcus.” She pointed at me. We shook all round, solemnly.
Esther looked us up and down. “All right,” she said. “what can you do?”
I opened my mouth, and then closed it. What could I do? Whatever it took, right? That’s what I’d been doing in that long-ago time, a couple days back.
“We were coming in from Oakland Airport when Seneca hit. We spent a week digging and helping out on this side, then went home to San Francisco a couple days ago to see our folks and rest up. Now we’re back to help out however we can.” If I’d said it, it would have sounded all defensive and boastful, but when Ange said it, it just sounded like a statement of fact. I was a lucky, lucky guy.
Esther nodded. “Not much of that now, thankfully. Everyone’s accounted for, one way or another, and now that they’re here, we can’t even go into our homes to get our things.” She cut her eyes toward the FEMA camp and gave a minute shake of her head. “But that was the easy part, as I’m sure you understand. Now we’re figuring out where everyone’s going to live, what they’re going to eat, where they’re going to go to school—” She waved her hands at the tents. “The real work. The hard work.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. I hadn’t really thought this far. What would you do after the digging in the rubble part was over? I felt remarkably useless. I wasn’t a carpenter. I couldn’t build a house. I wasn’t a lawyer, I couldn’t sue to make the City of Oakland provide housing. I wasn’t a teacher, I couldn’t run a classroom for these kids. What was I really good for, when it was all said and done?
Ange, though, didn’t seem to share my anxiety. “We’re here to work with you however we can. We’re all in this together, right? Neither of us have a job. Neither of us can afford a place to live. We’re one earthquake away from living in a tent. So what do we do to start doing something?”
Esther grinned and clapped. “I could hug you. ‘What do we do to start doing something?’ That’s the question, isn’t it? Let’s see what we can find for you.”
Thus began the second phase of our lives in Oakland after Seneca: I washed dishes and then I carried the dishwater a whole block to the nearest working sewer. I helped organize piles of donated furniture and clothes. I rehabilitated a hexayurt made from chipboard that had been assembled and disassembled so many times that it had gone crumbly around the edges and needed to be reinforced with strips of 1x4 lumber I cut with a handsaw, giving myself a nasty scratch or two. One of the medics checked me out and made me text my mom and make sure my tetanus shot was up to date.
Then someone stuck a duct-taped laptop in front of me and told me to start going through a bunch of random files where people had listed clothes and furniture needs, descriptions of lost heirlooms, offers of places to sleep, offers of donated labor, and a million other details, and asked me if I could make sense of them. Four hours later, I was reinstalling the laptop’s crashy operating system, and that was probably the moment that cemented my destiny as Occupy Seneca’s IT drone.
Here’s where the movie of my life will feature a montage of me fixing computers, making the WiFi work, putting together a simple database program where all the different needs and offers could be listed. A woman from Craigslist emailed me and offered to set up an interchange so that people could post offers and requests to either the Occupy Seneca site or Craigslist’s Seneca forum and the two would synch up automatically, so I spent a couple days getting that to work.
Once word got around that there was someone at Occupy Seneca who’d get old computers running again and find them a good home, the semi-busted machines came out by the dumpsterload. It got so that I had to recruit a couple more volunteers to help with the work, and one of them, Kadisha, had the excellent idea of immediately wiping the hard-drives of any machines that came in, because none of us wanted to be responsible for whatever data people stupidly entrusted to us. Weirdly, that got us mentioned on a bunch of cable news shows and went national, and the next thing we knew, we were practically drowning in PCs. Luckily we also got tons of volunteers who were willing to put them together, too, and before long, a whole section of Occupy Seneca was just devoted to teaching people to put together their own computers or picking up computers someone else had put together. Pretty much anyone who wanted a computer could get one just by walking in and taking one off a stack. Some of the kids I had working with me were crazy about it, tried to see how many machines they could do in a day. One guy, Thien, managed 21 working, tested machines in one day, working on them in batches of seven. By the last batch, we’d all stopped work to watch him dash from one machine to the next, swapping in parts from huge plastic tubs full of stuff he’d looted from unsalvageable machines. When he finished, we cheered loud enough to bring the whole camp running, to find Occupy’s nerd squad surrounding Thien’s prone form, fanning him with hankies and bandannas and plying him with my special brew coffee: dark and fragrant as licorice.
Why all the PCs? Because they were the lifeblood of Occupy Seneca. A couple years before, Occupy had been a place: a camp with a bunch of tents where people drummed and protested and, well, hung out.
Occupy Seneca was an activity. We weren’t there for disaster relief. We were there for mutual aid, like it said on the banners and t-shirts and stenciled on the PCs we built. Some of us had jobs. Some of us didn’t. Some of us were homeless because we’d lost our houses to Seneca. Some of us were homeless because we were homeless. Some of us weren’t homeless. Some of us were on drugs. Some of us were straightedge. What had started as a weird mix of crustypunks, project kids, sixties throwbacks and random junkies had turned into something more like a cross-section of Bay Area humanity, like someone took an N-Judah car at rush-hour and upended it at a semi-random, semi-destroyed spot in Oakland.
The thing that bound us all together was the realization that taking care of each other kicked ass. Seneca had knocked a ton of local businesses flat, literally and figuratively, and it had left plenty of people without schools, homes and jobs. But that was just an accelerated version of what had been happening to this part of the east bay—and across America—for years. Pretty much everyone I knew was either out of work or only half-employed, from my parents to all the kids I went to school with.
But we were Americans. By global standards we were rich. Not with money, but with stuff. The economy had tanked, the spreadsheets said that there was no more value left, no reason to put people to work making things and selling thing because no one wanted to buy them because no one was being put to work making things and selling things. Lather, rinse, repeat. But everyone I knew wanted to work, and everyone I knew wanted to buy stuff, and so clearly it was time to stop listening to the spreadsheets.
Instead, we listened to the database. While the politicians were pounding the podium about finding housing for Seneca’s victims, we were taking a page from AirBnB’s book and building tools to help people find neighbors who could take them in. We even found people—qualified teachers!—who wanted to come down and give lessons to kids whose schools had been shut due to structural damage and hadn’t been assigned a new school yet. I’d grown up with online communities, places where the conversation was great but you never got to meet the people you were talking to. And I’d grown up with real-world communities, the people around me, my neighbors, friends and family. But with Occupy Seneca, it felt like we’d finally married them. When online discussions got too heated, someone would always suggest meeting up on one of the sofas at Occupy and talking it out face to face. When face to face discussions seemed to be going in circles, we’d take them online. It was the best of both world. Maybe the best of all worlds.
So, of course, it wouldn’t and couldn’t last.
Afterward, the Oakland PD swore that they’d given notice to vacate, “working peaceably with the Occupy Seneca leadership to ensure a smooth transition.” Only one problem: we didn’t have leaders, we had online forums, and no one from Oakland PD ever posted there openly. Maybe they had undercovers on the message boards. It was pretty obvious, later on, that they’d had them in the camp, probably from the start.
Also, “a smooth transition?” To what? After the midnight bullhorns and the shouts and barked orders, they threw up a fence around Occupy Seneca, a fence with a gate that admitted a bulldozer that smashed the whole thing in ten seconds flat. Yes, flat. Our gaily decorated tent-city, with its donated porta-sans, its computer workshops, its meeting areas and shades and kitchens and safe spaces—all of it pancaked in an eyeblink, shoved rudely into a giant, undifferentiated pile of belongings and projects and work and love that was now just junk. Maybe that’s what they meant by a “smooth” transition, because when it was over, the ground certainly was smooth. They’d turned our camp into a “smooth transition” to precisely nothing
Some people refused to budge when the cops announced that we had five minutes to vacate. Those people went to jail. The rest of us—a skeleton crew of people who were spending the night in the camp, maybe a tenth of the people you’d find at morning rush-hour, when everyone came by for hot breakfasts and my totally, utterly amazing coffee—stood miserably in the ruddy dawn and watched them destroy everything we cared about and worked for in less time than it takes to describe it. Then we watched the cars with our friends in them drive away to jail. Then we raised bail and called lawyers and uploaded videos and made as big a stink as we could.
Everyone was suitably outraged, of course, but not enough to, you know, do anything about it. We kept things going as much as we could: after all, we were online, so who needed to actually physically see each other anyway?
Us, as it turned out. So much of what had made Occupy Seneca work was in the place. A place where we could meet, where kids could be brought for classes. Where we could look each other in the eyeballs and solve our differences. A place where you could get a free computer, or learn to build a computer out of garbage. A place to keep garbage from which to build computers, along with a million other kinds of donated stuff that was carefully cataloged and available to anyone rebuilding their lives to get along.
Occupy Seneca had been the physical embodiment of mutual aid. It didn’t matter if the disaster that clobbered you was an earthquake, the economy, your deadbeat ex-husband, or something weird with your own brain chemistry, we were all there to help each other get through it all. When I told my parents about it, my Mom told me it reminded her of the stories her own mum had told her about living through the Blitz in London, everyone helping everyone else get on with things. Mom and Dad had even been down a couple times, and they’d helped cook meals and then hung out in the evening to talk with the rest of the Occupiers until late.
We’d felt so resilient, but losing out place smashed us flat. Goddamn them, why? All we were doing was helping.
It didn’t take long to learn exactly how and why Occupy Seneca got “smoothly transitioned.” Say what you will about the City of Oakland, it leaked like a sieve. Less than two days after the eviction, I was just about to head out to a contract job when my phone went crazy with DMs on Twitter. I checked in and saw that half the world wanted me to look at a paste-dump from one of the Anon factions: correspondence between various levels of Oakland city government, FEMA, and Oakland PD, the upshot of which was that a private contractor had successfully bid on the megacontract to begin a “renew and rebuild” project for Oakland. A separate thread suggested that the total value of the bid might run to the billions, if they met all their milestones and leveled up by winning the bids to knock down and rebuild all the housing projects that had been damaged by Seneca. Somehow, there was plenty of money for that. Then there was the smoking gun: a three-way round-robin between the city manager’s office, Oakland PD, and the contractor’s PR people, about how much of an eyesore Occupy Seneca was, and how getting us out of there before we became a “permanent, established presence” was a “top priority.”
My first reaction wasn’t anger. It was, “When the hell are these idiots going to start encrypting their email?” I mean, seriously. Here we were, living in the age of the leak, a time when even the goddamned Director of the CIA gets his email splashed all over the newspaper, and these dorks couldn’t be bothered to download a copy of GNU Privacy Guard and generate a keypair. Of course, they’d probably pick “password123!” as their passphrase, so whatever.
But that was only reflex, the reaction I always got when I heard about what a total derpfest computers were for the people who were supposedly in charge of the whole show. It passed quickly, and left behind a kind of cold fury. They’d destroyed everything we’d built, the thing that had given us hope, because they didn’t like the appearance of a disorganized camp of people helping each other out.
The thing became actual news a couple of hours later, when the same cable news show that had covered our little build-a-PC project called me up and asked me if I’d come down and talk about what had become of it all. I said yes, though I hated doing this sort of thing, and then they announced that they wanted me at their studio downtown in, like, fifteen minutes. It was one of those rent-a-studio places with a bunch of small, spotlit black rooms with a camera and a monitor and an engineer, where you’d go and sit on a stool and talk back to a face on a screen, some cable newsdroid in a distant city like Atlanta or New York. I’d done it twice before and both times it had felt absolutely and totally weird. There was a little table with a vanity mirror and a spotlight and half-dried-up pots of makeup and concealer, but no makeup artist. So apparently there was a sort of person for whom this was all normal, someone who’d just show up in a black box, apply makeup, and then talk to a mystery face on a screen as naturally as you’d talk to someone over the breakfast table. I wasn’t that kind of person. I couldn’t even imagine being that kind of person.
They’d had me rush like a crazy person to the studio, but once I got there, I had to wait in that weird black room for two and a half hours, because other stuff that was more important kept coming up and they couldn’t spare a news anchor to interview me. I’d planned on this, based on past experience, so I had my laptop with me, and I was just able to get Internet through my phone, so I tethered up and read the Occupy forums in slow motion. I kept getting fed up with the drip-feed network access and I’d close the lid and just sit there for a while, until I got bored enough that experimenting with the makeup started to seem like a good idea, then I’d get back to the net. Eventually the voice in my headphone said, “Marcus, they’re ready for you now,” and I found myself suddenly, inexplicably in tears. They welled up without warning, and I swallowed hard three times, swiped at my face savagely with the back of my hand, and told the nice newsdroid about what they’d done to the place I loved, trying my best to pretend that there weren’t tears slipping silently down my face while I spoke.
I got outside and wiped at my eyes over and over again until they stopped watering. I felt shaky as I walked down Market Street. I stopped in my tracks when I realized that my traitorous feet had walked me directly to the spot from which I had been kidnapped by the DHS after the bombing of the Bay Bridge. It was a spot of power for me, the place where it had all started, the place where everything changed for me forever.
Of all the ways that my life changed that day, the most profound was the understanding that when things got too screwed up, I couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t just suck it up or shrug it off. I would do something.
As usual, I was the last person to figure out what the rest of the world had already realized. Occupy Seneca was worth fighting for. By the time I checked my phone and got back on the feeds, it was already full of pictures of the crowds massing at the site of the former Occupy camp. I called Ange and got sent straight to voicemail, four times in a row. I sent a text and it bounced. Sent an email, and my heart thudded. Ange would have seen this kicking off, would have tried to call me while I was out, gotten sent straight to voicemail after I parked my phone to keep it from b0rking the studio gear. And she would have headed straight over, figuring correctly that I was a big boy and would see what was going on and get there when I could. Which meant I needed to get back to the ferry docks, right now. I spun around, stuck my phone in my pocket, and starting jog-walking toward Embarcadero. After five minutes, I started to run.
I wasn’t the only one who’d gotten the word. By the time the ferry arrived, there were twenty or so of us in a little knot. Every time someone found something interesting—a video or a pic, a choice tweet—we’d all crowd in closer to watch. Just as the ferry pulled in and we shuffled onboard with the rest of the crowd, I found a link to a live feed from a quadcopter over the scene. The angle was a familiar one to me. Even with all the dropouts and jitter, the video was riveting. There was the crowd, big, writhing, like the inside of a beehive or an aerial view of a huge square dance, depending on your point of view and whether you thought of protests as joyous celebrations of free spirit or as mindless drones following all-powerful leaders.
Around the edges of the protest were dots with horizontal lines ahead of them. These were the Oakland PD, suited and booted in their riot gear, carrying their shields ahead of them. The drone video was sharp enough to pick out the baton each one carried, even on a little phone screen. These cops formed lines with buses behind them, unmoving and ruler-straight. The contrast couldn’t have been sharper: the milling, organic, disorganized movements of the protesters, and the slashing lines of the cops.
Then something happened. It wasn’t clear at the time, but when I watched it later, I could see where it started. A cop on the eastern perimeter stepped forward and slashed down with his baton. Down went a woman in a red head-kerchief, nothing else visible from the top-down view at first, then she was lying on the ground, and was a tangle of grey jeans and a white OAKLAND sweatshirt and white sneakers and brown skin.
Here’s what you see next, if you advance the video one frame at a time. The woman—her name was Trisha Jackson, and she was an Honor Roll sophomore at McClymonds High, and this was her first demonstration—goes down. Four other protesters go to her aid, bringing her away from the cops. One of them, another woman, gestures at the cop, who stands motionless. There’s sound, but it’s undifferentiated, a kind of crowd noise mixed with the wind hitting the mic and the whir of the drone’s propellers.
The cop continues to stand motionless. The camera is sharp enough to pick out the red stain spreading out on Trisha Jackson’s OAKLAND sweatshirt, the red blood staining the hands of the protesters who are trying to elevate her feet, turn her on her side into the recovery position, all the first aid stuff you learn in scouts or summer camp CPR.
Seen from overhead, the crowd seemed to ripple, like a wave had pushed through it. That was the general motion of people moving to see what the fuss was about. Many of them stopped around Trisha, forming a protective reef around her, and the remaining force of the wave was pushed around the reef, up toward the police. When I try to imagine what that looks like from the police’s point of view, it’s kind of scary. Imagine standing there, all armored up and armed to the teeth, facing thousands of people who are pissed as hell, and then, without any warning (at least if you missed the cop who lashed out at Trisha), they all start to push and shove and squirm toward you.
The police line rippled a couple of times, the cops all rocking their weight back into their back feet and then forward again, shifting to present their bodies side-on to the crowd, like fencers trying offer a smaller attack surface to their opponents. From above, the horizontal lines of the shields became diagonal slashes as they tightened the line. The crowd was still pushing around Trisha and her semicircular human shoal. Some of the people at the front of the wave were now practically on top of the police line, and, realizing this, they turned around and pushed backwards, against the tide of humanity. There’s about ten frames of video when you can actually see the crowd responding to the push-back, leaning back the way they’d come like seaweed in a current. Everything gets very compressed as the push from the back and the lesser push from the front meet, and then, very quickly, the crowd boils toward the police line.
But the police line isn’t a line anymore. It’s broken into a hundred individual policemen, each one with shield and club, shuffle-stepping forward, viciously pushing the protesters back toward the middle of the demonstration. When someone nearly tripped over the still-prone figure of Trisha Jackson, the people who’d been taking care of her seemed to look around and take stock of things, and a moment later she was up off the pavement, being held up above their heads crowd-surfing as the police pushed the line forward.
A few people couldn’t get out of the way of the advancing police skirmish in time. These people took hard baton hits that left them curled up on the ground behind the advancing squadron, to be zip-tied in plastic cuffs and hauled off by more officers behind the skirmish line. But the majority of protesters crushed back, and now the police line on the opposite side of the protest was advancing, too, forcing the body of the protest back toward the first line. Caught between the two lines, protesters were beaten and trampled, panicked and stampeded. Then, because the chaos wasn’t terrible enough, the police strapped on gas masks and a moment later, cannisters of tear-gas were lobbed into the crowd.
The first cannister caught a protester in the head and he went down like a sack of potatoes. Another protester, shirt pulled up over his face, bent down to drag the unconscious man away from the hissing, gassing cannister, but only made it five steps before collapsing in a coughing fit. A couple of times protesters caught up the cannisters and lobbed them back over the police lines. Most of the cannisters went straight into the crowd, though, and churned the existing chaos into full-blown panic. There was nowhere for the protesters to go now. The middle of the crowd was a hissing cauldron of toxic gas. The edges of the crowd were a vicious line of crashing batons wielded by masked and helmeted Oakland PD riot cops in full fury.
As we watched this from the ferry, we found ourselves shouting and moaning with the protesters. The phone’s speaker was playing horrible screams now, sounds that we could pick out over the other noises. They must have been loud. The sun was bright and hot, but the wind was cold, and it found its way into the gaps between my clothes, slithering over my skin and bringing up goose pimples. I was breathing hard through my nose, every breath a bouquet of salt air and diesel from the groaning ferry engines.
Ange was in that crowd.
The police lines continued to force their way in. This was a kettle, a compressed blocking-in of the protest, and as the lines tightened, we saw people slipping away at the gaps between them. Then the lines joined up and solidified. The kettle was complete. The protesters were fenced in. They didn’t look like a square dance anymore. There wasn’t enough room for that kind of random motion. Now they were crammed together so closely that no one could take more than half a step in any direction. The only breaks in the crowd were the injured and those who were caring for them.
Someone else had been reading tweets from those on the ground—the ones in the kettle and the ones who’d gotten away.
“The police are using a loudspeaker to tell them that they’ll all be searched and have their IDs run before they’re allowed to go.”
I groaned. I knew this drill. Every phone would be cloned, all the IDs run, and anyone with any prior offenses or outstanding warrants would be brought to jail. Technically, Ange had a prior offense—she’d been arrested by the DHS and held in their illegal camp on Treasure Island during the Xnet days. The prosecutor had dropped the charges eventually, but I was sure the OPD would still be able to find that arrest in their records. Who the hell knew what her sheet looked like? Maybe it just said “Arrested by federal agents for terrorism-related offenses” and nothing else—nothing about how she’d been unconditionally discharged, and all the charges dropped. That’d be just great.
I’d been speed-dialling her over and over again through all of this, but she hadn’t answered. Maybe her phone was broken, or out of battery, or smashed. Or maybe she was one of the unconscious ones. Or maybe she’d been arrested and her phone had been confiscated. If that’s what it had come to, they were in for a surprise. Ange’s phone would wipe itself after three unsuccessful password attempts, and its memory was encrypted. It was a standard Android build we’d cooked up at Occupy Seneca and helped everyone get running on their phones, except for the people who were stuck in Apple jail, with iPhones that were illegal to load your own software onto.
The ferry finished the crossing and the sailors did their thing with the ropes, tossing them and tying them off and all of that nautical stuff that so many of us had gotten used to while the Bay Bridge was being rebuilt. The gangplank crashed down with a clang that I felt through the soles of my boots. It was only then that I looked around. And froze.
There was a—a what, a squadron? A platoon? Something military, anyway—of armored Oakland PD riot cops standing at the end of the gangplank. They were shoulder to shoulder, visors down, batons in hand. The girl whose phone I’d been staring into, watching the drone feed, hit her video-camera button and swung the phone up to record the cops. A second later, there were dozens of cameras pointing at the officers.
Nobody moved to get off the boat. The cops hadn’t told us we weren’t allowed to, but they didn’t need to. A baton in a gloved hand sends a powerful message.
I became aware of a voice behind me. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.” It was an old woman, Chinese, pulling an old man along behind her by the hand. She gave me a prod in the ribs. “Excuse me.” She followed up by giving me a filthy look, the kind of look I usually give to dopes who stop at the tops of moving escalators while the people pile up behind them.
She took one look at the cops and clucked her tongue impatiently. “Well?” she said. “Come on, some of us have places to be. Out of the way.”
The riot visors were dark and reflected back most of the bright afternoon sunlight, but I swear I saw the front line of cops grin. I was grinning too. A second before, it felt like these guys were about to charge, batons high. Now they were visibly relaxing.
The cops shifted their weight back, then as a group shuffled backward to open up a space in their line. Now they almost looked like a hedge, or an honor guard. The old lady shuffled down the gangplank, dragging her husband, who’d started muttering irritably, and we followed them, along with the rest of the passengers. The phones were still rolling, still shooting video. A bunch of them would be streaming that video to safe online repositories so that it wouldn’t matter if someone seized the camera and erased its memory.
We set off for Occupy.
We couldn’t get very close. Long before we reached the horrible “smooth transition,” we knew from the tweets and the overhead feeds—there were six drones in the sky now, circling, plus all the news-drones that were going out to cable TV—that there was no way to reach the kettle. The cops had established a kind of demilitarized zone between the rest of Oakland and the kettle. Only cops and emergency services types could get past the sawhorses and temporary fences.
But there was something else we knew before we got to the kettle: we’d become an army. Occupy Seneca had stood for more than a month, and we’d had thousands and thousands of visitors in that time. I didn’t know how many, but one of the Occupy data scientists who hung out around the camp had ballparked it at about 40,000 people. There were at least that many in the streets that night, all headed for the kettle. The word of the demonstration had raced around the network of occupiers, supporters, rebuilders and well-wishers around Oakland and the whole Bay Area,.
We’d had experience with kettles in the Bay Area before, the big ones they’d thrown up around the debt-relief demonstrations at the Civic Center. The storm of bad publicity from those times still lingered, and no one at City Hall in San Francisco wanted to preside over any more kettles for the foreseeable future. But this was Oakland, which played by its own rules. Oakland was a city that had been at war with its police force since the previous century, and no one seemed to think that peace was coming anytime soon.
By the time we hit the police barricades, we were all tuned into Sukey, the mobile app that mapped kettles by taking in photos, tweets, texts, and other input from protesters on the ground and gave advice on how and where to escape them. The cool thing about Sukey was that it didn’t require everyone to be tuned into it in order for it to work—so long as there was someone shouting “Go west, there’s no cops that way,” within earshot, the whole crowd could benefit from it.
Of course, Sukey was only as good as the input it got. The Sukey volunteers out on the wide Internet did their best to classify the stuff that came in from the field, but sometimes it went a bit wrong—mostly in the form of false alarms. So every now and again, the rumors would race through the part of the crowd I was in, and we’d crush one way and then the other, trying to get away from a kettle that never appeared. Of course, it was possible that the reason the kettles never appeared is that whenever the cops moved to flank us, we changed shape so that they couldn’t make it stick. No way to tell.
I’ve spent a lot of time in big crowds over the years, and on a tension scale of one to ten, this one was probably about an eight. The voices were tight and strained, and there was angry shouting now and again, especially from those right up against the barricades. Drones kept taking off and landing from the crowd as their tiny battery packs were drained dry and swapped out, and from them, we got a good look at the action inside the kettle. Things had gotten sweaty in there, with exhausted people sitting or lying around, crushed together with the wounded. People called out to the drones for water, but water is heavy (“a pint is a pound, the whole world ’round,” as my mom said when she helped me with my science homework), and no one could figure out how to lift substantial amounts of liquid into the kettle, though there were people on both sides of the kettle who were amusing themselves by lifting in chewing gum, love-notes, copies of the Bill of Rights, Guy Fawkes masks, medical marijuana, non-medical marijuana, and misc. Lots of misc.
I would have been right there with them, field testing the lifting limits of a quadcopter and playing kettle absurdism, but I was half-frantic with worry about Ange. I’d already ducked calls from both my parents and her mom, because I didn’t want to freak them out, and also because I didn’t want to admit that if I couldn’t make contact with Ange in that chaos was that she was hurt and/or busted.
I found myself pulling my phone out of my pocket every couple of seconds to scour the drone feeds and look for her face. Meanwhile, I’d be that guy standing at the top of a BART escalator, the people around me squashing to get past. This was stupid.
So I did what I should have done from the start. I found a curb to sit on a little way from the action, pulled out my laptop and tethered it to my phone, and used the crappy network connection to slurp up all the pics and videos that looked like they were being sent from inside the kettle. I ran every frame through a free photo-processing library that cut out anything that appeared to be a face, then fed that to a facial recognition program that checked to see if that face was anything like Ange’s. It was very dirty programming, and used about a hundred times more resources on the virtual machines I was renting than it needed to. But that still only came out to a couple bucks’ worth of compute time.
At first, the program wasn’t finding anything. So I loosened up the parameters and got too much: manhole covers, car grilles, faces in posters and ads, anything remotely face-like. I played goldilocks with the face-chopping system until it was getting actual live human faces 95% of the time. Then I did the same thing with the recognizer until it was saving the faces of women who looked at least vaguely like Ange. (It helped that I had a huge library of pictures of Ange’s face to use as a training set.) Thereafter, I sat on that curb and clicked through an endless stream of blurrycam pictures of women who looked vaguely like the love of my life, which was more than a little creepy.
But screw it. It was something, and something was better than nothing, at least right then. I click, click, clicked, hands shaking a little, trying not to think of what I’d do if I found Ange and she was one of the protesters stretched out on the ground. Hell, for that matter, what would I do if she was one of the protesters walking around inside the kettle, locked up tight behind the police lines with no medical attention, no toilets, no water, no food and no shelter?
Click, click, click. Some of the faces were familiar because they really did look like Ange—the algorithm was moderately clever and good at its job—and some of them were familiar because they were women (and sometimes men—the algorithm wasn’t that clever) I knew from the Occupy camp. None of them were Ange. Every now and again, my phone would buzz with a call from my parents or Ange’s mom. Less often, a shadow would cross over my screen as someone tried to snoop on what I was doing, but I had one of those polarized plastic sheets over the screen, so anyone not looking straight on would only see blackness.
One of the shadows lingered and shifted, as its owner ostentatiously tried to find a viewing angle that would reveal my activity. I turned around, ready to say something sarcastic like, “Can I help you?” And there, standing above me, was . . . .
“You seem busy,” she said.
I slammed my lid shut, clamped my laptop under my arm and leaped to my feet. “Ange!” I said, and grabbed her and squeezed her like a drowning man clutching a life preserver. She oofed, and squeezed me back, reaching up to get her arms around my neck.
We kissed. Kissed again. Would have kissed again, but my phone buzzed. It was Ange’s mom. I answered it and passed the phone to Ange.
“Hi, Mom! Yeah. No, I’m okay. Okay. No, it’s okay! My phone died. I don’t know. I just found him. I don’t know. I’ll ask him. Maybe his phone wasn’t working. Yes. No. No, I’m fine. Jeez, no. No! Yes. Okay. I’ll tell him. I’ll ask him. Fine. Bye, Mom. Bye. Bye!”
She ended the call and handed me back my phone. “Why didn’t you answer my mother’s calls? Or your parents’?”
“I didn’t know where you were,” I said, my voice cracking a little. “I didn’t want to worry them.”
She swatted me upside the head. “Like not answering them wasn’t going to worry them?”
I rubbed my ear. “Yeah, fine. Why weren’t you answering?”
She held up her phone, which looked like it had been hit with a hammer. It wasn’t just that the screen was cracked. Parts of it were actually missing, revealing the telltale green of printed circuit boards underneath, like glimpsing the intestines spilling out of a gut wound.
“Ouch,” I said.
“I got stepped on,” she said. “A lot.” She hiked up her shirt and pulled her jeans down over her hip bone, showing me the bruises that marred her beautiful skin from ribs to tailbone. I noticed now what I’d missed in the first rush of overwhelming relief: she was a mess. Her makeup was smudged, and there were faded tear-tracks down her cheeks. Later, I’d find out that her right palm was skinned from wrist to fingers, the skin of her left knuckles abraded to match. As my mother would say, she looked like she’d been to the wars.
“Oh, Ange,” I said, and squeezed her again.
“Oof,” she said; then “Oh.” She squeezed me back. “I’ve been looking for you. I knew you’d come. Been going crazy trying to find you.”
“I’ve gone crazy,” I said.
“Uh-oh. What have you done, Marcus Yallow?”
I showed her.
“This—” she said. “This is—”
“Creepy. But yeah, genius. Show me where you’re getting all these pics from?”
The kettle broke, eventually. Oakland PD played that game where they let some people dribble out after having their phones ghosted, kept others standing around in the heat of the afternoon and into the night, then took some of those away, and left others to go when they shut it all down. The protesters kept up their vigil until the last of the kettled had gone, but we left early. Ange put up a brave front, but she was in rough shape.
But that wasn’t the end of it. It was just the beginning. It’s funny—Occupy Seneca might have dribbled away on its own if they’d just let us be. People were finding houses, finding schools, getting their lives put back together. We were all in it together at Occupy, all living through our own slow-motion disasters, but the quake itself was the focus of it all. Once the worst of the visible damage had been repaired, the little bickers and ideological differences would have grown into big cracks, widened by the differences in class and race and ability and so on—all the stuff Americans were supposed to be blind to, and which always lurked underneath the bright, fragile surface, the bottomless, ancient depths.
The “smooth transition” gave us a new reason to go on. Whatever had brought us together, fighting for our survival kept us going.
The next demonstration was planned, not spontaneous. There were more silk-screened signs than handmade jobs made out of scraps of corrugated cardboard hand-lettered with sharpies. We had a permit from the City of Oakland, official “parade marshals” in reflective vests, and a real marching route and everything. In theory, it should have been a pleasant walk. There were kids out, old people, a large cadre of veterans in their uniforms—some of them young women and men in Afghanistan desert camo, more older ones in Vietnam greens and even some WWII and Korea uniforms. Some were in wheelchairs, and not just the old ones. There were a lot of Afghanistan- and Iraq-vintage vets missing arms. I’d heard about that. It was the kind of an injury you got if you had body armor and a helmet, but nothing protecting your arms. A generation before, they’d have come home in a body bag. Now they came home missing an arm. Or two.
As always, the numbers are in dispute. Organizers say x. Cops say [x time 0.5]. Estimating crowds in an inexact science, of course—but not that inexact. There were at least twenty civilian drones doing flyovers during the march, and if you use a computer to estimate based on that footage, you get a number that’s a lot closer to x than one-half x. Call it 45,000 people. Or just call it a freaking huge number of people, if you prefer.
But the energy was . . . different. Something about being organized instead of spontaneous. It changes the nature of the crowd. Maybe it’s the knowing. When you just show up with a lot of people because something is just too screwed up not to show up, you can’t know where it’s going to end. When it’s planned in advance and there’s a route and a permit and marshals, you can be pretty sure that when it’s done, you’ll just be going home, a little more footsore than you were when you started.
We marched. There were bands at intervals through the march, including the inevitable drum-circle types, but also a totally insane brass band whose horns were like a jazzed-out battle-cry; a samba squad; and a “band” whose instruments were hundreds of bells sewn onto their sleeves and pants-legs who jingled their way down the street, belting out a merry rhythm. A lot of the kids had painted faces—clown makeup, animal makeup. Some of the grownups, too. But it was missing something. That spark of anything-can-happen.
Until, that is, anything happened. If you watch it from the drone’s-eye-view, which is the best way to watch stuff happen in a crowd, here’s what you see: first the masks go on, some of them the traditional Black Bloc balaclavas, some of them Guy Fawkes masks, some just bandannas worn around the face like a cowboy movie bank robber. Five of the masked people put on reflective marshal vests, pull out reflective wands and begin to direct the mass of the demonstration down a side street, off the official route, and toward the site of the original Occupy camp, the one place we’d been sternly refused permission to march near.
About twenty percent of the demonstration had already gone past the detour, and it wasn’t like everyone was going to follow a bunch of random dorks in face masks who were frantically waving them to turn, turn, turn here. But not everyone in a demonstration can see the marshals; sometimes you can only see the people who are around you or in front of you.
From the drone, you see the crowd milling and swirling at the detour, a confusion like leaves swirling around a drain. Then, a turning point: the brass band, focused on their intense choreography and awesome jam, swung down the detour, the front row following the dancers ahead of them, who, in turn, were following a couple of masked types who were truly rocking out as they danced their way around the corner. Where the brass band went, others followed. Now the crowd was like a river diverted from its banks, carving a new path, and it seemed to suck up the parts of the march that had gone the “right” way on the official route. A few of the people closest to the detour doubled back and joined it, and then the people who were ahead of them doubled back, and soon the tide of people on the official route had reversed itself and was headed back to join up with the main body of the demonstration.
If you zoom up that aerial footage, you can see real marshals trying to get people back on track, especially the 20% advance guard that was being sucked back again. Some poor souls drifted from the official demonstration to the much larger one, got turned back, drifted back again, ended up lost, droplets thrown off by the river and beached. Here’s where it gets really interesting: for one reason or another, the marshals guiding that lost tribe on its safe, official route turned it back again, directed it to the breakaway. In other words, the fake, masked marshals had become the de facto official route-planners, and everyone else had to follow their lead.
“You see that?” Ange said, freezing the frame. We’d taken over the Turing room at the Noisebridge hackspace in San Francisco’s Mission District by degrees. We’d started off on a workbench, examining the video on my laptop, but we’d drawn a crowd, and someone had warmed up the projector and dragged up the chairs in the Turing room, and then someone else brought in one of the wireless webcams so that people who heard that something interesting was happening at our hackerspace could tune in and watch. Then, inevitably, someone else brought in another projector and splashed the #noisebridge IRC channel on the wall, because what was the fun of watching if you couldn’t join in, especially with quippy one-liners?
“Yeah,” I said. “Why did they join in?” I shifted the ice-pack I was holding to my elbow. The cops hadn’t liked the diverted demonstration route. Not one little bit. They hadn’t been shy about expressing their disapproval, even with little kids and veterans and old people there. The National Lawyers Guild would be pulling shifts at the courthouse for days to get everyone bailed out. Luckily (?), Oakland PD’s high spirits and freewheeling approach to due process meant that pretty much everyone would get out with suspended sentences or charges dropped altogether (there were probably several waiting to stand up in front of the judge who hadn’t been charged with anything at all).
Ange shrugged. “There’s only so much uncertainty and solitude anyone can bear, I guess. I mean, there’s a point where, if you’re in the demonstration, and the whole demonstration is over there, then you have to go over there, too.”
“It’s like liquid democracy,” said one of the Noisebridge founders, a guy I didn’t see very often around the place, because he spent most of his time on the road. The IRC filled up with chatter as people talked about whether this was an apt comparison or not. I tried to remember what liquid democracy was, then I just googled it on my phone and showed Ange my screen. We read the Wikipedia entry together.
Apparently, this was some kind voting system that the Pirate Party liked. It was supposed to be a sweet spot between representative democracy—where you elected professional politicians who quit their day jobs and spent all their time debating the best way to do things and voting on them; and direct democracy, where everyone got polled on every issue, all the time, even when it was stuff they hadn’t a clue about, like whether to give more funding to carbon nanotubes or use the money to fund Lyme disease research at Columbia. Neither of them was very good. The first one gave you professional politicians who spent more time keeping the people who funded their campaigns happy than they did voting for the programs that the voters needed. The second one turned every voter into a full-time maker-of-decisions about stuff that they often didn’t care much about.
But liquid democracy supposedly solved this problem. For every and any issue, anyone could give her vote to some expert. So if there’s someone you know who really understands urban cycling issues, you give your vote on cycling issues to her. And if there’s some expert she trusts on the specifics of some particular cycling issue, she gets to delegate both your vote and hers, and so on. At any time, you can yank your vote from your delegate and vote it yourself, or redelegate it to someone else. It sounded complicated but I’d had plenty of crappy experiences with representative democracy—getting waterboarded isn’t something I’d recommend—and I’d been around groups where everything got put to a vote until everyone was ready to scream, so maybe this was a happy medium.
And it was right: this was like liquid democracy—the people around the edges delegated their vote on which way to go to the people who could see the marshals. The people who could see the marshals delegated their vote to the marshals. The marshals delegated their vote to the cops. When some of the group set off on its own path, the remainder pulled their votes and re-delegated them, and off they went.
It turned out that Ange had cracked a couple of ribs. They taped her up, but everything hurt—bending over, sitting up, carrying things, getting dressed. She got off easy. The kettle had hurt plenty of people, some of them badly. Getting caught in tear gas was bad. Getting hit by a tear gas canister at close range was worse. Not to mention that no one wanted to show up at a demonstration with a helmet or any other kind of armor, because the Alameda County District Attorney loved to add “conspiracy to riot” charges to the rap-sheet if you got arrested with any kind of protective gear, as though wearing a helmet was the same thing as carrying a baseball bat or a crowbar.
But funnily enough, it wasn’t Ange that got scared. It was me. I was technically a convicted criminal, though my sentence had been suspended, and my lawyer from the Xnet days had let me know that if I ever got arrested again, for anything, that sentence could be un-suspended. That meant that I could go to jail for doing something that would get the rest of my friends a slap on the wrist.
I could tell everyone that that was why I didn’t want to go on demonstrations, why I didn’t want to defend the place that we’d made and the thing that we’d built. But the truth was I was just plain scared. There was something about the idea of being caught in a kettle, stampeded and herded this way and that. Once I’d seen it from overhead, seen the casual brutality and the hopelessness of the people who were caught in the middle of it all . . . I’d just lost my nerve.
“Out with it,” Ange said. “Come on, enough. You’ve been lying around heaving sighs like an amateur production of Hamlet over there for the past two hours. Either tell me what’s wrong or cut it out. But actually, tell me what’s wrong. Come on, Marcus.”
I reached for the lamp, but Ange had unplugged it so that she could plug in a charger for a drone-battery. I grabbed my phone instead, which was charging off my laptop, which was plugged into the other outlet. I turned on the flashlight app and threw a dirty t-shirt over it to dim the light a little.
I sat up and looked at her. I’d had a crush on her since the night we’d met. Hell, I’d had a crush on her since the minute we’d met. We’d been through a lot together, and she was pretty much the only serious girlfriend I’d ever had, and vice-versa, and there was a part of me that was rational and said that it was basically impossible that I’d fall in love at first sight with the woman I was destined to spend my whole life with. I told that part to go die in a fire. This was Ange, and when I looked at her, I felt like I wanted to hug her, kiss her, jump on top of her, protect her, and cuddle her, all at once or in no particular order. Turning the lights on in a dark bedroom where she was lying next to me was a kind of wonderful magic trick that never failed to lift my spirits.
Though in this case, my spirits were so low that they were merely lifted from the deepest catacombs to the depths of the lowest sub-basement.
“You look like you’ve been told you can’t have a puppy for Christmas,” she said. “What the hell is going on?”
So I told her. “I know it’s stupid. I wasn’t even there. I was on the outside, where it was safe. You were in the middle of it all. You got hurt. But you still have the guts to keep on going out.” I stopped. I was circling what I felt, but couldn’t bulls-eye it. Sometimes, emotions just couldn’t be reduced to words.
“You’re afraid that they broke you. You’re afraid that you’ll always be afraid.”
And sometimes, emotions can be reduced to words after all.
Which is not to say that it felt good to hear her say it. In fact, I shook my head and told her that wasn’t it at all, even though she’d totally nailed me with a single shot. She did that cocked-eyebrow thing that let me know she had my number, then squeezed my hand and told me to go back to bed.
She is scarily good at figuring me out.
Of course, she hadn’t dropped it. She just tabled it so that she could get a decent night’s sleep. Come morning, while I puttered around her mother’s kitchen making coffee for her, her mother, and her sister, she sat on the counter beside me, playing with her tablet, not saying a word, but letting me see that she hadn’t forgotten our middle-of-the-night discussion.
Ange’s mom had been one of those people who bought an overpriced “pod” espresso machine that used non-refillable sealed bullets of stale, pre-ground coffee to produce a sterile, messless, bitter and nearly undrinkable shot of espresso. She always made a point of telling me how great she thought it was and how she didn’t understand what all the fuss was. Then I thrifted an Aeropress whose flange had cracked and fixed it up with some industrial adhesive, fixed the motor in a burned-out spice-grinder the same thrift shop was throwing out and brought it over to use as a grinder, then began to ruin her for lesser coffee, one cup at a time.
She still made the rotten pod stuff when I wasn’t around, and she still made sarcastic noises when I pressed out a shot and topped it up with hot water, and she refused to let me explain the theory of coffee extraction at low temperatures, but damn, she drank the hell out of the coffee I made her.
I made her three cups before we ran out of beans, and all the while, Ange stood by me, tapping her tablet, letting the distinctive aural mix of protests, drone engines, wind in mics, and police megaphones provide a soundtrack to the morning.
Her sister peered over her shoulder for a bit while I washed up. “Look at that,” she said. “From this angle it looks so easy to get away. Maybe we should get everyone on the ground to watch this feed while the cops are trying to put ’em in a kettle. They’d run circles around them.”
She seemed to picture it for a moment, then she laughed. “What a mess that’d be, though. Like a million idiots texting and walking at once. You’d get your feet stepped on and then you’d get kettled.”
Ange shut off the tablet and set out scrambled eggs for both of us. As usual, she made mine too spicy and made hers insane. But Ange’s spice addiction has its good points. All that hotness quickly obliterates any extraneous thoughts, focusing one hundred percent of your attention on the sensation that you’ve just swallowed a piranha made of live, white-hot coals, and it’s simultaneously chewing and barbecuing its way out of your guts.
But in a good way.
“Funny thing,” she said, looking down at her screen. “We get together at a protest because together, we’re stronger that we would be on our own. But once we’re all in one place, it’s so hard for us to move as a group that we’re easy pickings. We become more and less at the same time.”
“Superpowers are expensive,” I said.
“Now there’s an interesting thing for you to say,” she said. “Has my master plan to get you all hopped up on caffeine and spice-endorphins shaken something loose in that twisty little brain of yours?”
“Funny you should mention that,” I said. “It’s like there’s something good right there, just in the corner of my eye. Don’t want to look at it straight on, it’ll vanish.”
She held her palm out like she was luring a cat out from under a sofa. “Come on out little fella, we won’t hurt you.” She moved her hand so that she was cupping my chin, looking me straight in the eye. “Out with it, Yallow. Superpowers are expensive.”
I snorted. “Fine. Let’s see where this goes. What you can do, what I can do, what any of us can do on our own, that’s ‘human.’ There’s a good wide range in ‘human.’ You got your concert pianists at one end, people like me who can’t play chopsticks at the other end. But even the greatest pianist is less than an orchestra.”
“I don’t know if that’s true. I mean, what if the orchestra sucks?”
I clucked my tongue. “Say the whole orchestra is made up of the greatest musicians you can find. The world’s greatest piano player with the world’s greatest cellist and the world’s greatest triangle player and so on.”
“Okay, I’ve got you.”
“So the problem is that if you’re an awesome piano player, all it takes for you to make beautiful music is to sit down at a well-tuned keyboard and play. But if you’re playing with other people, you’ve got to, you know, pick a song, pick a key, pick a tempo. Spend a lot of time listening to the rest of the band and making sure everyone’s playing at the same time. But you do it, because playing six or ten instruments at once, and doing a good job of it, that’s more than one person can do.”
“It’s superhuman, in other words,” Ange said.
“Exactly. So cooperating with other people gives you superhuman powers. Literally. But it costs something. Every moment you’re spending checking your tempo or arguing about the piece or picking a key is a moment you’re not spending playing music. That’s the tax.”
Ange nodded and opened up her tablet and stared at the screen again. “Look at this,” she said, and pointed to the cops’ rigid line. “These guys here, they’re coordinated, and they don’t need to stare at a phone screen the whole time to figure out where to stand or when to move. They just listen to the orders coming through their earpieces and do whatever their leaders tell them. That’s the price of their superpowers: they have to shut up and do what someone else says. That’s not a deal I’d want to take.”
“Me neither,” I said.
Which brings me to tonight. Or not quite.
It was later that day when Ange sat me down and gave me a little pep-talk about not being afraid, and if I was afraid, not being embarrassed by it. I told her it wasn’t that easy and she countered that she’d never said it was easy, just that it was right. And then she said, “Look, Marcus, the problem is obvious. You’ve seen this all from the god’s-eye view, you know how stupidly helpless we are when they bring on the kettle, and it’s got you freaked out. No one likes to be outflanked, especially not when it’s literal. Before, you fought back because you thought you could win, but seen from the sky, it looks like you’ll always lose, and it’s cost you your nerve.”
“You’re not helping,” I said.
“Shut up. The solution’s easy, if only you’d stop moping. All you need to do is figure out what will cure your feelings of helplessness and do that, and you won’t be afraid anymore. Why don’t you do some work on Sukey? It’s totally aimed at solving this problem.”
“It can’t, though,” I said. “For Sukey to work, you’d need to turn us into an army and let it play general. It sends us marching orders and we do maneuvers like cadets on drill parade. Forget it. Even if I wanted to take orders from someone, no one else would. And imagine what a nightmare it’d be if someone got into the command channel and sent everyone running right into the kettle. The security issues are brutal.” The idea was right on the tip of my brain now, right there, and I wasn’t going to let it slip away. I started to speak as fast as I could—pretty fast—not taking heed of the spit-flecks, determined to outrun my brain’s own shyness and self-censorship: “What we need is, is, is—” It was gone. Back! “Remember the video of those masked people leading the demonstration back to Occupy? Remember the liquid democracy? If you are standing next to the person who knows which way to go, that person can just tell you about it. But if you’re two or three of eleven people away, well, you might never find out. Or you might get stampeded. When I was outside the kettle, on the ferry, watching the drone footage, I could see how people were getting hurt, could see which way they should be running. If someone delegated their sense of direction to me, at just the right moment—”
So, tonight. Tonight I’m putting on a very special boot. It’s the left boot from my roomiest pair: engineer boots I found at a stoop sale and was totally smitten by, even though I needed three pairs of my thickest socks to wear them without them slipping off. Tonight, though, it was a tight fit. It had a thick pad of piezoelectric crystal that turned every step I took into a bit of electricity that was used to trickle-charge a lithium cell we’d liberated from a junk mobile phone from the basket of donated electronics at Noisebridge. That was connected to a strip of velcro that wrapped around the thin, sensitive skin of my ankle, just where a particularly vindictive mosquito might bite you. That velcro, in turn, held a bunch of cannibalized cell-phone vibrators, four of them, at each of the cardinal points. There was a fifth lump, a little Bluetooth shield that connected to my phone, and that’s where the fun started.
The funny thing about this kind of project is that if you can get other people excited about it, you can go very far, very fast. I posted about it on the Noisebridge mailing list on Saturday, and by Sunday night we’d banged together six rounds of prototype. It helped that there was already a commercial kit we could use for basics, a fun little gizmo that softly vibrated the side of your ankle that was closest to north, giving you a kind of innate, subliminal directional sense that was as different from looking at a compass as knowing a city was from looking at it on a map. The software was the tricky part, and that was mostly because we were all set on using Near Field Communications for delegation, and—
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Imagine that you’re at some big demonstration and there’s someone there, somewhere or other, who know where and how to move. Maybe they’ve got an earpiece screwed in and they’re listening to someone who’s watching a drone. Maybe they can see where the kettle ends. Maybe they just know something, or maybe they’re watching a screen. Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that this is someone you want to appoint as your personal guide.
That person is wearing an armband with a couple of identifiers: a QR code (so you can just snap a pic), a number (so you can tap it into your phone), and an arphid.
Yes, an arphid. My arch-nemesis. The ubiquitous radio-frequency ID tag, the snitch chip that beacons your location and identity to anyone with the cleverness to listen. What’s more, this arphid is a Near-Field Communications chip, and NFC is doubly awful.
That’s because the people who created the NFC drivers for Android phones were totally clueless on security. The standard NFC libraries are so badly written that all it takes to totally pwn an Android phone with NFC turned on is to simply brush past it with a loaded piece of paper bearing a gimmicked NFC sticker, and that phone will be yours forevermore—letting you watch out its camera, listen through its mic, sniff all the passwords entered on it, watch its GPS, slurp up all the files and personal pics in its memory, and that’s just for starters.
So yeah, no one who knows anything likes NFC very much. But for our purposes, it was indispensible. We called the app “Hivemind,” and it let a whole group of people move in superhuman synchrony without having to become obedient, militarized drones. Take a Hivemind-equipped phone, tell it who you wanted to delegate your navigation to—by touching them with the phone, scanning their QR code, or keying in their number—and your foot-powered anklet would send you a continuous signal telling you where to go. We didn’t need to outfit a whole protest to make this work, either. If there was someone visible to you who seemed to know where she was going, chances are, you’d follow.
Even if you weren’t the following type, once a large portion of the group was in motion, heading the same way, chances were you wouldn’t want to stand out there on your own, without the safety of the crowd. Yes, safety: a crowd that can’t coordinate its movement is an easy target, while a crowd that has a grain or two of intelligence can move like gas flowing around obstacles, and be as hard to bottle up.
So we needed NFC, and we got it. The more paranoid among us used cheap second-hand Android phones, jailbroken and flashed with a secure fork of the operating system. There was nothing else important on those phones, and after the protest, they’d be re-flashed and restored to a known-good state. The rest of us just crossed our fingers and hoped that ParanoidAndroid’s “secure” NFC drivers would be good enough to withstand any shenanigans in the crowd.
We’d tested the system by inserting two hundred people into the rush hour crowd around the Embarcadero, sprinting from one side of the terminal to the other for an hour. The aerial video was amazing. Our people were immediately apparent, but not because of how they dressed. Instead, you could tell who they were because they moved through the jammed mob like dolphins in a current. Only ten percent of us were loaded with Hivemind, but those twenty people were more than enough intelligence to turn us all into a superhuman organism. The best part was that you could follow anyone you chose, and change who you followed instantly. It was like being an army with no leaders—all the precision and coordination, none of the orders and ranks.
I’ve seen plenty of flashmobs, been in a few of them, but the point of those was always to be noticed, to stop people’s busy lives for a timeout where something extraordinary happened. This time, our flashmob’s extraordinary movement was so subtle and sly that no one but us was sure what was happening, and it wasn’t until we regrouped that the miracle we’d just lived through hit home and we started to cheer spontaneously, cheer loud and long, that the rest of the world had any inkling that something out of the ordinary was taking place.
Tonight, we march on the site of Occupy Seneca and the smooth transition. That wasn’t our idea. There have been demonstrations at Occupy every week since that Black Bloc operation. They’d been getting smaller each week, and we all knew that it was the death spiral for whatever we had there. Smaller numbers meant fewer press cameras, fewer “normal” people willing to come out with their kids or their grandmothers, until it was just street warriors and cops squaring off on a matter of principle, something that would always end with victory for the cops and beatings and jail for the demonstrators.
But tonight will be different. Tonight the hivemind will be inside the demonstration.
We stream in from many places, but we converge, as always, on the smooth transition. Many of us are carrying pots and pans, something we got from the Montreal student protests a few years back—the “casserole” protests that hit the street every night after Quebec’s premier banned public marches, and people responded by walking and singing and banging on pots and pans.
We’re young, mostly, though as always in the Bay Area there’s a lot of aging hippies in their sixties and seventies salted in the crowd. Most of us are grim-faced, aware of the death spiral, with no idea of what else to do. But some of us—the hundred or so wearing Hivemind rigs, sending electricity into our batteries with every step, we’re barely able to contain our excitement, and we’re all grinning at one another like holy fools. We practically dance our way to the familiar police cordon around our paradise lost, the place where we started something extraordinary, now a blank slate, as though everything we did has been erased. It hasn’t. The place wasn’t the important thing. What we did there was the important thing, and what it did to us, that was the important thing, too. Like the Whos down in Whoville, we keep Christmas in our hearts, even after the grinches at the OPD swipe all our stuff and run over it with a bulldozer.
I think that our joy can be felt even by the people who aren’t in on the joke. I’ve been to plenty of marches since the smooth transition, and the sense that we were about to be stomped flat could be felt at every moment. Not tonight. Tonight, everyone has enough of a bounce in their step to power a city. Even before we turn it on, Hivemind is making a difference.
And there, at the end of the street, is the OPD line: sawhorses, temporary fences, and a bristling line of cops with helmets and shields and batons. Of course they knew we were coming. Even if you weren’t monitoring our mailing lists and hashtags (they were) and even if you didn’t have undercover agents burrowed into our group (they did), you can’t really hide thousands of people moving through the streets of Oakland, carrying signs, singing, chanting.
These demonstrations are as formally ritualized as kabuki. The protesters come. They chant. They sing. They mass. The police order them to disperse. Some—more and more these days—obey the order. There’s another police warning. Then the kettle. They keep us penned in for long hours, punitively, caging us up in the rain or the cold or the heat, no toilets and no food, until they decide to let some of us go. The rest go to jail. And around we go again.
When the second warning goes out, about two hundred of us take out our phones. As always happens around this time, the drones take to the sky. The aerostatic blimps are pretty good because their batteries last for ages, but only if the winds are kind to them. The quadcopters and little planes, those ones are the business, they can do airshow maneuvers, catching anything and everything with their night-vision cameras and beaming them back to the rest of the planet—anyone who cares to watch our own little Tahrir moment here in the East Bay. It’s been over a year since any US police force used electromagnetic pulses against protesters’ electronics—the collateral damage and the civil suits buried the SFPD when they last tried it—so the pilots have grown bold.
The firmware on those aircraft is amazing. I’ve written some barely functional software to keep a quadcopter flying, but the stuff they’re using blows me away. I made a stone axe, they made a freakin’ stealth bomber. These clever puppies know how to flock, how to avoid each other, how to find the action on the ground and home in on it for close-ups. The face-recog stuff I used when I was finding Ange? You could use it to tell the drones to find anyone and just follow that person around. Let me tell you, this is a weird experience, walking around with a quadcopter watchfully hanging over your shoulder. No wonder there’s villages in Pakistan where people literally go insane from it all.
The police line bristles. They’ve finally started encrypting their communications, which is like, welcome to 1993, guys, but whatever. Nevertheless it means that we can’t eavesdrop on the messages being whispered in the ear of those stony-faced guardians of public order facing us down, and they are all careful to maintain that pro-wrestler stare-down macho face, not twitching until the moment when they move. It’s “discipline”—by which control freaks mean “pretending to be a robot”—and it’s the price that OPD pays for its superpowers.
We’ve got new superpowers tonight—if they work.
It’s been five minutes since the second warning. I’ve got a table showing the average—mean and median—time after a second warning and a kettle. Five minutes is stretching it. Any. Second. Now.
There. The police know how to do this. They’ve done it so many times before. The line moves. People too close to it get shoved, or, in the case of a cop who’s really feeling his oats, a baton-strike. The line on the opposite side is moving, too. Cops on one side. Cops on the other. Fence on the third. Building on the fourth. The kettle’s shrinking.
But there aren’t enough OPD officers to encircle us. They have to squeeze us all into a space small enough to encompass with their bodies, first. From the sky, it’s like two horizontal lines—the cookies in a huge Oreo—trying to squash a filling that’s much wider than the biscuits. One of the biscuits is angling in, forming a kind of funnel that will eventually bend around to make a corral. From the sky, it’s easy. They’re going this way, so we go that way.
I’ve already spotted someone who’s watching a phone and being led around by a seeing-eye person. I snap her QR code, and now my ankles are giving me a little bump of direction that’s so subtle that I barely feel it. But I’ve practiced with it and I just know that I need to go thataway, even though if you asked me to point to the spot on my ankle where the sensation is centered, I couldn’t tell you. It’s just a knowing, a compass sense, the way that a bird knows where north is, the way that you know where your hands are without having to look.
And then we dance.
When the police lines started moving, there were maybe 2,000 inside the tightening kettle. Hard to say. People in that sort of number are like gas molecules, the kind of thing you estimate, not the kind of thing you count.
But moments later, there were less than a hundred, exactly eighty-two, inside the kettle, and nearly 2,000 standing outside the police lines. Eighty-two is the kind of number you can easily count.
There’s a moment of frozen time as the cops pause to listen to the voices in their ears, swivel their heads to look around. The protesters outside the kettle realize that they’ve been squirted out of their arbitrary detention like watermelon seeds slipping out of a fist.
About 200 of us know exactly how that happened. For everyone else, it’s a small miracle on a cold night. There’s a mist out now, hanging low to the ground, and it all seems a bit . . . magic.
When you see a magician pull of a wonderful trick, you applaud. We did. We beat our hands together until they were sore, dancing around while the police stood in their rigid lines.
What about the unlucky few caught in the kettle? They hardly seem to notice that they’re prisoners. They’re dancing too, and applauding with us, and then the police get some new order, and the straight lines move again, trying to reposition themselves so that they’re to either side of the main body of the protest once more. We let them do it, because it means our friends in the kettle get to go free.
But when the police move in to kettle us again, we repeat the magic trick. It’s easier the second time around. We’ve had practice. This time, there’s no one in the kettle when the lines close, and we’re back where we started.
This time we don’t dance, we laugh, because it is hilarious. It’s like a Three Stooges routine, where the big tough guys keep grabbing the little guys, and the little guys keep escaping between their legs or through their arms. We’ve had two tries to practice our superhuman powers in a real field situation, and our back-channels are full of the home guard—people watching the drone feeds and watching the tweets and other updates—talking tactics and revising them in realtime. We don’t need to hear what the cops’ radios are saying, because we know what they’re saying: “form a line, make a kettle.” Keep doing the thing that didn’t work in case it starts working.
It won’t work, not ever again.
After a third dance, the drones’ power is so low that we call it a night. The hivemind begins a triumphant march away from the site of the smooth transition, and the rest follow. Not because anyone forces them. Not because there’s leaders. But because we’re united, tonight.
Hivemind became big news in the days that followed. The overhead video—grainy and night-scoped as it was—was spectacular to watch. Even better than the crowd scenes in the Embarcadero. It’s the epitome of the big, lumbering goofus trying to catch the quick and nimble trickster. The blogs, papers and even TV were all over it. I got called up to do another satellite uplink, and this time it was in a little room where there were four other humans who were there to get me ready. They powdered me and put a little lavaliere mic on my lapel and asked me a lot more questions, and then afterward they put on a “spokesman” for OPD in a crisp uniform who explained that police kettles were a matter of “public safety” and that anything that undermined the ability of police to round up nonviolent protesters and corral them for hours without basics like water, food and toilets was practically terrorism.
“But is it illegal?” the smooth talking head asked. I cheered in my little black room. That’s the question.
“Public safety is something we take very—”
“Are they breaking any laws, sir?”
“When you’re talking about large groups of people—”
“Which specific laws are they breaking?” Oh, she was good. He squirmed.
“I’m not here to talk about specific prosecutions—”
“I’m sorry, we’re out of time, thank you very much—”
I confess that I did a little victory dance on the spot.
Even better was when the reporters took us up on our invitation to come down to Noisebridge and actually meet the people who worked on Hivemind, instead of pretending that it was all my doing and that I spoke for everyone. We never called it a press conference and we refused to let them turn it into one. Instead, we ran it like an open house, and we had all kinds of projects going, the laser-cutters whining and the 3D printers churning, and there were a million kinds of hackers doing a million kinds of projects. I think that a lot of the media had come down to find a secret group of semi-terrorists and we forced them to see us as we were: makers who cared about freedom.
Our back-channels—IRC, message boards, email lists, Twitter and Facebook updates—were full of speculation about what would happen next week when OPD had had some time to think about it, and while there was a lot of debate about whether they’d risk the lawsuits and pull out the electromagnetic guns and whether they’d arrest us on sight, we all agreed that the Hivemind we’d run was just the demo and now it was time to get to work turning it into something real.
We wikied up a huge wishlist of features for future versions and let the developers go to town. In theory, a super-elite OPD-DHS hacker could whip up a sly and malicious hunk of code that weakened our security without being obvious about it and check it into the codebase, then use it to start crashing Hivemind instances when the moment was at hand. But I thought it was more likely that the law enforcement presence lurking in our comms channels was there to figure out who to spy on and hassle at borders and build fat dossiers on.
I mean, maybe we could have tried to keep it all secret, but that was a high price to pay to be superhuman. Working together on this project gave us amazing super-powers, and whatever security we built into the system would be better even if the other side knew exactly what we were doing and how we were doing it.
Our best security was to be so wide open that everyone could help and everyone could check each other. A million free software projects have discovered that “if you build it, they will come” is a big fat lie most of the time, but in our case, they did come. The world’s hackerspaces and makerspaces had already thrown in their skills hacking on tools for the Arab Spring. That fire still burned around the world. From Hacker Dojo down the Peninsula to Hacklab in Toronto, the hackers of the world tweaked the code for Hivemind, tweaked our anklet design, and added more goodness to the drone autopilots and image-processing.
Ange was amazing at it. She hadn’t been much of a coder when we met, but she was a natural, and always willing to learn. We were great together, working back-to-back, shouting at each other as we found bugs in each other’s code. One night, we didn’t even leave Noisebridge, just stayed up all night and then went back to my place and crashed out for five hours.
“We need a change of scenery,” Ange said, as we washed each others’ backs in the shower.
“Let’s visit Hacker Dojo,” she said. So we packed a picnic basket and caught CalTrain down to Mountain View and met a bunch of people f2f whose code and messages we’d known intimately, but whose faces we’d never seen live. They shared our picnic and found bugs that we’d never have found on our own, because fresh eyeballs are made of awesome, and because my Ange is made of more awesome still.
It’s amazing to think it’s only been a week since Hivemind made its fantastic debut. Hard to believe that this crowd, these thronging thousands, heads high, a bounce in their steps, are what’s become of the morose rump protest that had been present last week.
The OPD are waiting for us. They’ve tripled their numbers. They’ve put up a kind of cherry picker with armor around it, like a guard house in a POW movie. They’ve got water cannons. They’ve got gas.
We’ve got code, sensors, drones and an audience.
Even before we reach the police lines, the quadcopters are hovering along them, transmitting photos of any officer who has illegally removed his name badge. There’s a group of volunteers who asked for this feature, and they’re sitting at home with giant albums of OPD cops at previous demonstrations with their badges on, and they’re using face-matching to put a name to the face. It’s one thing to be anonymous when you’re blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing, but a guy without a badge who hits you over the head with a club isn’t a cop, he’s a mugger.
These muggers-in-waiting have their own hashtag: #wheresyourbadge, and it’s flooded with pictures and names. You can see it working because these nameless wonders start to thrash in their lines as someone in authority gets a phone call from the OPD’s Internet team and then gets on the radio and says, “Johnson, where the hell is your name badge, goddammit?”
We cheer as the OPD chapter of Anonymous uncloaks and pastes its badges back on. The people who know what’s going on cheer for that; the rest cheer for the sheer joy of a beautiful late afternoon and the wonder of a massive crowd that’s bursting with confidence. Then the ones who know what’s what clue the rest in and the cheers get louder.
The first skirmish comes right away, no warning this time. They’re not in rigid lines anymore—they’ve apparently drilled in smaller squads that can break up and try to outmaneuver us. This probably sounded good in theory.
It’s a total fail. We absorb the police units like amoebas surrounding their food, and then we poop ’em out again. The cops whirl to keep up with us and we dance with them like a do-se-do. Yee-haw!
The cops reform their lines and get ready for the next skirmish. It doesn’t go any better. Neither does the next. We’re all slightly breathless now, because we’ve been dancing like gooney birds for half an hour. We’re all in shorts or jeans and tees. We’re not allowed to wear armor. The cops, though, are wearing twenty pounds of nylon and metal and tactical everything, and they’re sweating like pigs. Some of us had talked about bringing bottles of water to offer them, but figured they’d never accept them.
They’re not going to dance with us all afternoon. It takes two heavy hoses and a full teargas charge, and more than half of us get away, but eventually they manage the kettle. But it’s not the same kind of kettle, somehow.
For one thing, we know which cops to avoid. Another volunteer squad—back playing the home game—has been keeping track of which cops have been too macho to rotate off the line. Those are the timebomb cops, the cortisol-fuelled stressbunnies who are going to stand there, grinding their teeth, until it all gets to be too much and the baton comes out. Word gets around: stay clear of those cops.
We had 487 Hivemind rigs at the start of the day. Of those, 174 ended up inside the kettle, but half of those got watercannoned to death, so our intelligence is a little thin. On the other hand, that means there’s more spare batteries to go around, and the folks on the outside are determined to make sure that we don’t have it too rough. A squadron of drones glide overhead, and in unison they drop small, cylindrical parcels with parachutes that snap open. Inside each insulated tube is a burrito and a bottle of water. The drones circle back and pick up more ammo, and soon there are burritos raining all around.
When the sun sets, I reach into the change pocket of my jeans for the thing I’ve been compulsively checking every five minutes. It’s still there, right down at the bottom of the pocket where I’d shoved it. I hold it tight in my hand.
Ange is next to me, arm around my waist. She’s holding the last bite of a burrito in her free hand.
“You know,” she says, “we should rig up some kind of modified blood-sugar monitor for Hivemind, get it to measure cortisol levels, help figure out when you’re about to go off the deep end. Like that guy—” she says, pointing to a guy who’s getting really worked up, shouting at the cop line.
This is a very good idea, but I can barely take it in, because my blood is whooshing in my ears and my hands are shaking.
“Ange,” I say, around my tongue, which is thick and dry. I swallow, but I can’t swallow, and so I choke a little. I kneel.
I am on one knee.
“Ange,” I say again, and she looks at me, and her eyes widen, because she always knows what I’m going to say before I say it.
“No way!” she says. She drops the burrito.
Time stops. My heart stops. The world stops.
I am not breathing. I realize this just as she claps her hands over her mouth in horror and I inhale and she inhales, and then she says, “I mean, ‘yes,’ of course but no way because of this—”
And now she’s digging in the change pocket of her jeans and she produces a something that sparkles in the last rays of the sun. “I made it myself,” she says, holding up the ring in her hand. “Out of petrified bogwood.”
“I made mine by hollowing out a nickel and polishing it. I engraved the rim. It says love, in UTF-8 encoded binary.” I show it to her.
“The one I made for you says always in Morse.”
We hold our rings. Then she grabs my hand, folds the fingers down until only the ring finger is out, and slips it on.
I do the same to her.
“Will you?” we say.
“Yes,” we say.
The kettle didn’t lift for five more hours. I hardly noticed them. And that time, neither of us went to jail.
There was always next time.
“Lawful Interception” copyright © 2013 by Cory Doctorow
Art copyright © 2013 by Yuko Shimizu