The NSA and George Orwell

On Thursday, July 18, a rally was held in Hartford, CT to voice our opposition to the wanton spying taking place by the NSA. The crowd was relatively small, perhaps 40 or 50 people, but the rally was followed by a march to the courthouse and back. Along the way we shared pamphlet information with people walking in the city, waiting at bus stops and folks at corners who were paused waiting for crossing lights to change. I was happily amazed that so many of the people to whom we handed our pamphlets were actually taking the time to read them, then and there! How many times have been handed a flier or other written communication only to toss it away as something not relevant at that particular moment?

What follows is a statement I shared at the rally. My first intention was to highlight how frightening it can be for many people to speak out due to fear of being identified as “a person of interest.” My second intention was to publically declare my refusal to be intimidated by such a fear. The reality is that safety, like strength, is often bolstered by growing numbers in community. Here’s hoping we will all find the strength to overcome fear and continue to speak, act and educate on behalf of the things we believe in.

Good afternoon. My name is Debra Cohen. I represent activists and would-be activists who must confront the very real fear that our phone conversations, emails and social media posts are now fair game for the government to collect, file and potentially use against us.

My personal activism started a relatively short time ago with Occupy Hartford. When I first became active and participated in marches against Bank of America and the biotech industry, I gave no thought to the danger in which I might be placing myself, only that I was taking advantage of my rights to protest and free speech. Recently, I have collaborated with Shannon Watson and Rebecca Burton, two dedicated and visionary women, to create Activate CT, an activist group which encourages not only the sharing of information on a wide variety of political concerns, but also serves as a call to action to everyone who sees wrong and recognizes a responsibility to put it right.

That call to action is made difficult when people are afraid to take a stand, make a public statement, join an action or even talk with people known to be activists for fear that their names will suddenly become part of list of people to be watched. They ask: What constitutes suspicious behavior? How will the gathered information be used against us? What is the government doing that is so egregious that our communication about and actions for change constitute such paranoia on the part of those in power? We have heard people say that they are hesitant to get involved because they are afraid of retaliation, loss of their job, the ruin of their reputation or, at the very least, the hacking of their computer. This is unacceptable and the NSA must hear a clear and definitive statement from Americans across the country that we will not tolerate indiscriminate spying, nor will we stop the work we are doing on so many fronts, despite that threat.

Are you working for food safety, for an end to wars, for economic justice, for education reform? Are you working for environmental protections? Are you working to eliminate the enormous influence over our government held by big banks and corporations? Do you use your phone or computer to speak with anyone else who can answer yes to one or more of these questions? If so, the government now considers you fair game…say goodbye to your privacy and hello to the possibility of having your life disrupted.

There are two possible results of the NSA spying debacle. The first is that enough fear will be instilled in current and would-be activists as to curtail our commitment to investigate the issues that are most important to us. We will sit by and allow our environment to be wasted, corporations to take unfettered control of our economy and trade and all of this will happen while wars continue to destroy whatever hope may have existed for a peaceful planet. This will happen because George Orwell got it right in 1984.

The second possibility is that we will become so energized by this outrageous attack, so motivated to stand up and say NO!, that it will be impossible to silence us. Rather than the government secretly skulking in the shadows in an attempt to catch us at something they think we might do in some un-named place at some un-named time, we will work past fear to stand openly, in large numbers to state publicly and loudly… NOT A CHANCE! CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? I plan to make the second possibility my reality and see to it that Mr. Orwell’s vision remains a work of fiction.