From Beirut, Borikén, and Brooklyn with Love
In July 2020, Sarah Aoun, chief technologist at the Open Technology Fund (OTF) and Teresa Basilio Gaztambide, Network Strategy Director at MediaJustice met with Meghan McDermott to talk about their work at the intersection of digital rights, human rights, movement organizing, and the political moment. Sarah, who works with activists, journalists, and high-risk communities on security and privacy, had just co-produced a protest guide, From Beirut with Love; Teresa, who is a filmmaker and cultural worker, had run digital security trainings and story circles with communities impacted by lack of communications. The importance of their work was quickly brought home by recent federal actions in Portland and a brazen assault on the US Agency for Global Media, of which OTF is a key agency. Here, they share perspectives on organizing with love.
Meghan McDermott: What inspired you to create this protest guide?
Sarah Aoun: Following the murder of George Floyd, I talked with friends about similarities between Lebanon’s 2019 revolution and protests here, which suddenly happened on a national scale with people facing similar tactics—pepper spray, tear gas, and riot police. We had learned a lot from Hong Kong so our response was to show solidarity here. We asked: “What are we good at? What do we know?” So it was a combination of digital security, operational security, having participated in protests in Beirut many times over the years and dealing with armed forces. We wrote the guide in a couple of hours and put it online. It has very practical tips for demonstrating because I witnessed people going out in sandals, shorts and tank tops with the riot police in front of them; I was thinking, “no, please wear proper shoes, please.” We also added tips on how to deal with digital surveillance, as it’s very common at protests. We called the guide “From Beirut with Love” because so much of my heart is in Beirut and so much of my heart is here in New York. The guide comes from a place of love because it’s in solidarity with similar struggles that spread across borders. We got positive responses from all around the world, from Chile, Australia, Zambia.
McDermott: What makes these waves of protests interconnected?
Aoun: US imperialism. Whatever happens here truly affects foreign policy and the state of many countries in the world. It shouldn’t but it does. When you have a wave of protests on a national scale in the US being witnessed by the world, it has a different impact than witnessing uprisings elsewhere. And the crux of the matter is racism and racial inequality. It’s a global phenomenon, relatable in Lebanon, East Asia, Latin America. Racism is insidious in all parts of the world. If US folks had been protesting about something else, it wouldn’t have had the same global response.
McDermott: This administration called the military out on peaceful protestors. What does that signal to other countries that, internally as a nation, we haven’t fully or willingly recognized yet?
Aoun: This kind of government response happens all the time against communities of color, but given the intensity of it, friends from the Arab world—Syria, Palestine, Lebanon—were calling to say, “we just want to make sure that you're safe in New York.” They saw disproportional violence on a mass scale, and parallels between their experiences and ours, but they also noticed the military response here mobilized stronger and faster. Having been at the beginning of the revolution in Lebanon, I can say it was a lot more violent here. The protests are okay now, but in the first few weeks, I was like, “this country is crazy.” In Arab countries, we know the military is not there to serve us. In the US, there is a myth of police being here for your protection so it shocked a lot of people, even for those witnessing it from the outside.
McDermott: Teresa, what resonates for you?
Teresa Basilio Gaztambide: What Sarah is saying about law enforcement, how the US utilizes its military and surveillance power to promote its interests around the world, and how they’re bringing it back home. For those who've been under repressive state violence here, it’s not shocking, but seeing images of police decked out like RoboCops, and how much money was being poured into localities to control the populace was. What also resonates for me is the organizing; people have been working on this moment for justice for so long. Organizing led by Black folks in this country has challenged the militarization of the police. So this is a moment of reckoning; it’s racial capitalism. For myself as a Puerto Rican, Latin American, Caribbean person, I associate dictatorships with the military, so it's interesting that people are starting to question what authoritarianism is, if it’s happening here. By the nature of what the US perpetuates globally and by openly promoting white supremacy through an administration that’s modeling itself on dictatorships around the world, we’ve already crossed that line.
McDermott: Tell us about story circles and what people's stories mean to this movement moment.
Basilio Gaztambide: The story circle methodology comes out of Black Southern organizing and the Civil Rights Movement, and I want to credit Junebug Productions and Roadside Theater. It’s from the oral history tradition. Given a prompt about a community challenge, you tell your story in committee, without any interruption, and other people witness it. It is incredibly powerful, transformative, with each of us able to validate shared experiences. We are social beings so with the story circle, we include other cultural activities, eating, music.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the Caribbean in 2017, I decided to do story circles. Myself and every Puerto Rican that I knew out here in New York City were in such a bad place, overwhelmed by the devastation and the ineffectual response by the US and local governments that reflected Puerto Rican lives didn't merit saving, that we were disposable. I was out of contact with my family, the communications infrastructure was completely destroyed, 911 emergency systems were down. People waited months to find out if families were alive. There was growing concern about sanitation, the lack of food and water, spread of disease, rotting corpses. On and on and on, and with the US embargo, it was a shitload of trauma for folks in the diaspora and Puerto Rican archipelago.
So one goal was to produce direct healing through the story circle process and other community care modalities. Healing justice is critical to our movement work, to recognize trauma and harm that oppressive institutions and systems perpetuate. Together with Melissa Rosario of the Puerto Rican healing justice project CEPA, I co-facilitated two story circles in Vieques and Comerío where we partnered with local organizing and healing justice groups. Like Sarah said, it was an expression of love. I just wanted them to know that we love them. There was so much suffering, a disbelief like, “you're really gonna let us die like this, in this horrible way? You're going to throw paper towels at us and claim it's our fault?” Years later, there are still tarps on roofs because nothing's been fixed. It's such a deep level of betrayal of power, of our humanity. When oppressed folks feel that, you have to bring people together and love them. We need to be in the long haul for this fight.
Aoun: Just listening to you speak, I remember how good it is to be in community with others experiencing similar things, as a facilitator and a witness, to sit with people. A lot of my work now is helping people from my computer, but the opportunity to be in these rooms, I'm just thinking about how much I miss it. It's hard to be in isolation. For me, it feeds my soul. It is fuel to keep going, and reminds me why I do this work.
McDermott: How do we keep showing up when we get exhausted or isolated, because of quarantine or by design?
Basilio Gaztambide: The disability community has really challenged this notion of “you have to do everything in person.” Lots of folks who can’t be on the streets are organizing in community. Initially, I felt sorry for myself about being stuck at home, then a colleague with a lifelong disability said, “let me tell you exactly what that's like.” It was generous of them to share that story. It helped me see ableism and how, if I don't feel connected to people, I'm not gonna want to continue to fight. This moment has taught me so much about how to create community. Grace Lee Boggs talks about revolution as evolution. We have to be evolutionary in our organizing, in how we hold culture and community together. So this is a moment that's really challenging us to do that differently. I'm very appreciative of that.
McDermott: Where do we go from here? How do we sustain what is beautiful and working?
Aoun: It’s what Teresa was talking about. Work with what you have, innovate, iterate.
Basilio Gaztambide: I encourage folks to think about the spaces that challenge your analysis. Reimagining the role of the police on a mass scale, only a few months ago, seemed impossible. Let’s radically re-envision all the things that cause so much harm to our people. It's an evolutionary organizing opportunity to broaden what before seemed impossible. That's exciting. Organizing is showing love, so I want to keep learning.