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[liberationtech] trip report: online/offline organizing of Boston vigil for Aaron Swartz

Shava Nerad shava23 at
Wed Jan 16 11:13:22 PST 2013

Yesterday, we had a small vigil at the federal courthouse in Boston around
the same time as Aaron's funeral.

Because the courthouse is kind of isolated geographically, there is no way
to have the observance except on actual federal property, but I got there
ahead of time and cleared it with security.  They were very gracious.
 Usually, a group with a sign that asked, "Who killed _____?" would be
asking about the accused in a federal case, of course -- I didn't expect us
to attract much excessive attention from passers-by who would assume we
were mourning the "ordinary" murder victim in an "ordinary" murder case.

Side notes on the MIT involvements:

MIT had held a vigil the day before indoors on their own premises, so this
may be why we got no students (a bit more on that later).  They've assigned
an investigator, internally, from course 6 -- Abelson, who's served on the
boards of FSF, Creative Commons, and a number of groups that would gain him
cred with folks who would question an internal investigator otherwise.  He
is a good choice.  Reif, the new president, has plausible deniability
because the incident happened in the previous president's administration.

I personally feel, as the former administrator of the campus wide site
license program at MIT when I was on staff, that the library system may be
under pressure from vendors other than JSTOR due to their liberal access
policy to keep up pressure on the case or lose their licenses or have their
subs jacked up under some draconian license clauses.  We ran into that with
software back in the day.  Some of these subs/licenses are unique and vital
to a research institution.

Also people are freaking out that MIT released the network records to the
prosecutor's office without subpoena.  As a former liaison to CERT/FIRST
for RTP, I'll give an opinion that this is just as likely to be to show
that there was no illegal activity on the network (no illegal breach of
security as described in the indictment) as anything else.  This is a
common reason for releasing logs without subpoena, is to show that they do
*not* substantiate criminal activity as charged, and my understanding is
that there was no criminal breach as defined by law in this case.

So back to us:

We had myself, another former MIT staffer, another former MIT student, and
another former Tor person show up.  That's it. Out of the 30+ who RSVP'd
YES on social media on Facebook and G+ (some of whom I knew were for show
as they were to distant to actually show -- an interesting
phenomenon...solidarity?  Do we need a "be there in spirit" or  "I want to
be there for fashion's sake but let me throw a switch that doesn't show
except to the organizer so you don't buy food" option?)

I was a little disappointed that we only had four turn up including me.  It
was cold, and a bit breezy, midwinter in Boston.  Security turned out not
to be an issue (I had been concerned).  I did invite people to send me
poems and prayers to fold into paper cranes, and we hung them on a memorial

More press showed up than mourner/activists.  So far as I can tell from
online, despite providing good statements and good visuals, we were
unimpressive by numbers and didn't get airtime except a tiny one photo bit
in the Boston _Metro_.

I am deconstructing this clinically as an organizing exercise:  I put it
together very short term.  I thought I had enough RSVPs to have at least
maybe 10 or a dozen people actually show, but then I had very little
opportunity to contact people individually to confirm considering the media
involved and my own limitations (and the annoying fact that my cable modem
went out the day before and I lost half a day of net access, but stuff

Organizing in the digital age continues to stymie me as trying to overcome
the slackness of the public's approach to activism as an armchair exercise.
 Risk aversion uber alles.   I'll confess I'm feeling smacked in the face
with a wet herring about it today.

Anyway, my friend the former MIT student and I went back to campus after
with the memorial tree and thought maybe the Student Information Processing
Board (SIPB) office would enjoy having it.  SIPB in their time was
notorious for being a hotbed of hacker culture.  He and I were both good
friends with SIPB in our time -- in fact when the group I managed at MIT
had to move to larger office space, my VP at MIT told me he was kicking
SIPB out of their space in building 11 and putting me in there, and I was
struck with sheer terror and immediately went to them to tell them it had
nothing to do with me, fearing an Anonymous style retribution.  Happily,
they understood.  That was 1987, maybe?

So we walked into the SIPB offices on the 5th floor of the student center,
where they've been ever since, and two young men were hacking away.  I told
them what we'd be at, and what the tree was and would they like to have it,
and they both looked at it and said they couldn't accept it, as Aaron had
been something of a "controversial figure at SIPB."  There was obvious
weight and heat behind this.  I was shocked and surprised.  I almost just
turned and left, but I had to stop and ask, if it wasn't too hard, why?
 Apologetically, the one  young man said that Aaron had turned into a
controversial figure at SIPB because after being pursued by the feds, he
had stashed his laptop in the SIPB offices.

It was at this point I realized I hadn't introduced myself, so I did,
apologized if I'd disturbed their work, and thanked them for the
information, and my friend and I and the tree left.

So I guess the threat of what?  Ransacking or seizing other computers?
 Having bad men in uniform sail through?  Was enough to make Aaron
controversial regardless of the justice or not of his case or the justice
or injustice behind the actions of the authorities involved.  At least,
that would be how I'd see that.

A threat of a spot on the permanent record is enough to keep people in tiny
tiny little boxes these days.

These moods tend not to mar my determination for long but they do jaundice
my hope for spontaneous generation of the perfect world from mass uprising
against injustice, if you know what I mean...;)  We have a lot of education
on our plates.

Anyway, I may eBay the tree to benefit the Tor Project -- which might not
be Aaron's *favorite* charity but then it's my artwork too, and he liked
Tor too.


Shava Nerad
shava23 at
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