The Night I Became an Anarchist

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November 2, 2011 was one of the longest days of my life, the events of which shifted the course of my life irrevocably, and helped to shape the person I am today.

Photo by Damon Tighe, via occupyoakland.org
Photo by Damon Tighe, via occupyoakland.org

In the morning, crowds of people gathered in Downtown Oakland, to take part in the General Strike called in response to state repression against the Occupy Oakland encampment a week earlier. The October 25th raid on the camp had seen heavy use of tear gas, flashbang grenades, and rubber bullets, resulting in the traumatization of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and nearly resulting in the death of one young man, who had been hit in the head with a tear gas canister.

Photo via msnbcmedia.msn.com
Photo via msnbcmedia.msn.com

At several intervals throughout the day, thousands of people participating in the Strike marched to the Port of Oakland in an wildly successful effort to shut it down. Bodies crowded the Port’s many berths, ensuring that no business would be done that day, and truck drivers sat motionless on the streets as protesters climbed onto the cargo containers loaded onto their rigs, and scaled sign posts waving flags.

Photo via libcom.org
Photo via libcom.org

Around twilight, the majority of us began the long march back towards downtown, while others continued to blockade the port in a successful effort to ensure that the evening shift would not go to work.

Photo via shannonleeservice.com
Photo via shannonleeservice.com

After dark, I stood by the first aid tent in the Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall, part of a small knot of medics who had not yet gone home for the night. We were all exhausted after having been in the streets since that morning, and were discussing whether or not it was necessary for any of us to stick around. A black-clad person approached our group, handed us a slip of paper which read:

“520 16th Street

The Oakland branch of the Traveler’s Aid Society was a government-funded non-profit that provided aid to houseless people in our area. After the government cut funding to the program the Oakland branch faced foreclosure at the hands of their private lender.

Since then, the space sat vacant, as though it were disposable to those with the keys. To us this space is invaluable. We are reclaiming it for the people. It is now open for our use.

We welcome the Traveller’s Aid Society to resume providing services in this building. Otherwise, we will make it into a library and open workshop space for the people of Oakland.

This space is an example for the country. When the political and financial systems of this nation fail to provide needed services, we must do it ourselves.

We are the 99%. This is our future.”

When we looked up from the scrap of paper, the person who had handed it to us had disappeared into the crowd, presumably to continue passing out slips of paper and spread the word. Another medic and I agreed to check out what was going on, but decided to take a circuitous route around the block to see if we could spot police amassing anywhere. Our walk around the block didn’t turn up anything, but as we approached the Travelers’ Aid Society, we saw barricades being constructed from dumpsters and overturned trash cans. People moved around inside the brick building, and an “OCCUPY EVERYTHING” banner stretched across its upstairs windows.

Via takethesquare.net
Via takethesquare.net

Road flares blazed in the street in front of the building, and people nervously milled about in front. Helicopters flew low overhead, and many people were already masked and making preparations for the inevitable onslaught of  riot gear-clad police officers heavily armed with their “less-lethal” tools of repression. Music was playing, and several people danced in the streets, despite the palpable tension in the air. A tall person wearing a black hoodie, black jeans, black boots, black bandana, ski goggles, and black messenger bag slung over one shoulder took note of the red crosses on my arms and back, and leaned in to tell me they were carrying a first aid kit, and to find them if I needed help. The helicopters seemed to grow louder, and down the block, people were beginning to set their haphazard barricades on fire, claiming that the smoke would help carry away the tear gas which we all knew was inevitable.

Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com
Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com

As the barricades ignited, the medic next to me asked, “Are you sure you want to stay?” I didn’t at all want to stay. I was certain I knew what was about to happen, and I was terrified. I told them I was sure I wanted to stay, anyway. Shortly afterwards, lines of riot police materialized in the darkness beyond the smoke, and began to march towards us.

Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com
Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com

As the lines of paramilitary-clad police officers stomped towards us, someone delivered a dispersal notice, only a few words of which were actually intelligible over the murmur of the crowd surrounding me. I heard a crackling, robotic declaration of “unlawful assembly,” and could make out threats of chemical agents being deployed against us if we refused to leave. A few people lost their nerve and slipped away, but the bulk of the crowd remained. The police lines tromped closer, coming to a halt across Broadway and Telegraph, just past 16th Street.

Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com
Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com

The next few minutes passed in a blur of terror and adrenaline. I know the police probably issued their dispersal order again, now that they were close enough for us to hear it. I’m sure I did hear it. Nobody moved to leave, and I stayed along with them. The gas masks the officers were wearing came sharply into my focus, and delayed instincts made me pull on my own, seconds before the air around me grew thick with tear gas, and people began to run.

Photo by Stephen Lam, via reuters.com

The intial barrage of tear gas dissipated as I moved through the crowd, spraying Maalox and water into the eyes and mouths of the people around me, hoping it would actually do some good. The riot lines moved up again, and the people around me began to run. I ran with them as another volley of tear gas began, and with every step I took, another canister landed directly in front of me. It took four strides before I realized they were aiming for me, and eight strides before the second barrage stopped. I don’t know how much time passed between that second storm of tear gas and flashbang grenades, and I don’t know how I managed to avoid being hit by any of the rubber bullets flying through the air. I operated in a haze, tending to the people around me, making sure no one was left behind. I do remember how glad I was to see other medics who had gone home earlier in the evening back at the intersection of Broadway and 14th. I remember panicking and screaming at some point. I remember walking home, accompanied by a friend who wanted to make sure I got there safely, and I remember showering for a long time, not caring that the steam was reactivating the tear gas dust that had settled into my hair, causing it to burn my eyes, nose, and throat. I remember sobbing in the shower and scrubbing at my skin, feeling like I would never be cleansed, and I remember spending the next week of my life operating on auto-pilot, until I actually learned how to manage the flashbacks which would crop up unbidden and completely unpredictably.

I didn’t know it until years later, but November 2, 2011 was the night I became an anarchist, and despite all the trauma incurred that night and in all the nights afterwards, I’m fairly certain that my first experience being teargassed in the streets of the city I call home was the defining moment which led to my discovering the person I was always meant to be.

An Open Letter to the Man Who Raped Me

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This is hard for me. I know you’ll probably never read this, because reading this would involve first acknowledging that you did, in fact, do something wrong. It is probably worth mentioning that I do believe that you didn’t intend to hurt me. It’s also worth mentioning that, regardless of what you did or did not intend, you did hurt me. Whether you meant to or not, you did damage to someone you claimed to love, and at least some of that damage is irreparable.

I don’t think you’re a fundamentally bad person. If I’m being entirely honest, I don’t even think you’re really and truly 100% to blame for your actions, because we live in a society where the discourse around consent is so incredibly fucked up, you probably didn’t realize what you were doing was wrong until I screamed and started to cry. You might even think that, because you stopped when I cried out in pain, that you didn’t actually do anything wrong at all. You probably think that because you stopped, it wasn’t rape. You did something to me that I had previously told you I would not be okay with, and I am almost entirely positive that you still don’t think it was rape.

You raped me. Even though it didn’t last long, even though you stopped, even though you tried to comfort me afterwards. You raped me.

I don’t need you to apologize to me, not really. I don’t actually really want to ever speak to you again, after I came out publicly about being raped, and you tried to convince people that I was crazy, that I was a liar. I’d be happy if I never had to see you again, after that. I thought, at one point, that I could probably forgive you some day. I thought, at one point, that the pain and anger and disgust might fade, and that I’d be able to at least look at you without wanting to vomit. I know now that none of that is possible, and that if I never saw you again, it’d still be too soon.

I also thought, at first, that I would want revenge. I thought that nothing could possibly feel better and more cathartic than breaking your fingers, your kneecaps, your nose. I used to think that inflicting pain on you would somehow settle things between us. I’ve had to break a man’s foot since then, to get away from someone who grabbed me while I was walking alone at night. I know now that breaking another person’s bones is not something I can ever feel good about, no matter how necessary it is. I know now that I don’t want any revenge, because I’m just not the sort of person who can feel good about bringing more pain into an already-cruel world.

I know now that all I really want is for you to admit to yourself that you did something wrong, and for you to make a commitment to never doing it again. All I actually want from you is for you to resolve to be better about respecting boundaries and obtaining consent. I don’t want to ruin your life, I don’t even want to make you a social pariah. I just want to know that you won’t hurt any future partners the way you hurt me. And I’d appreciate if you had the good grace to stay far, far away from me.

I want you to understand that, despite your best intentions, you did harm. I want you to understand that your intentions don’t actually lighten the burden of carrying what you did to me. I want you to understand that I’m going to have to carry this for the rest of my life. I want you to understand that your good intentions don’t keep away the night terrors and the waking flashbacks. Some small part of me wants you to finally understand that you fucked up, simply because it’s not fair that I have to carry the full weight of what you did to me, while you continue to live your life unburdened by your actions. But mostly, I just want you to know that what you did was wrong, even though you probably didn’t mean for it to be.

All I really want from you is for you to never, ever hurt someone again the way that you hurt me.

Let’s Talk about Rape and Accountability.

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Let’s talk about rape. Let’s talk about domestic violence. Let’s talk about how we treat the people who have experienced it as being somehow at fault for getting brutalized, and how we consistently give rapists and other abusers the benefit of the doubt, while not extending the same courtesy to their victims.

Let’s talk about how a person doesn’t need to INTEND to harm someone, in order to do irreparable damage. Let’s talk about how even though someone may not mean to be abusive, or rape someone, their intentions count for very little (if at all) to the person whose boundaries are being violated, whose agency is being stripped, whose trust is being broken.

Let’s talk about how, when someone is brave enough to come out and publicly speak about how they’ve been abused, they’re seldom believed. Survivors are painted as unstable, liars, attention-seeking, vindictive. Let’s also talk about how, even when survivors are believed, there is still a scramble to place the blame squarely on their shoulders: they were asking for it, they consented but regretted it later, they were drunk, they shouldn’t have been dressed that way, they shouldn’t have said yes in the past, they shouldn’t have said maybe, they should have fought harder, they should have struggled more, they should have yelled, they should have called the police, they shouldn’t have gone out alone, they shouldn’t have gone to that party, they shouldn’t have married that person.

Let’s talk about how people who do fight back against abuse are frequently treated far more harshly under the justice system than their abusers ever will be. Let’s talk about how race affects this, how white women are more likely to get away with bashing back, are more likely to see their abusers sentenced (even if the sentence itself is shamefully light), and how black women are so much more likely to instead be sent to prison themselves. Let’s talk about Cece McDonald and Marissa Alexander, and how they did exactly what we’re told we’re supposed to do when we’re attacked. And how they went to prison for doing it.

Let’s talk about how Woody Allen and Bill Clinton have effectively gotten away with their predatory behavior, while people frothed at the mouth to hold Bill Cosby accountable for his transgressions. Let’s talk about how whiteness enables people to escape accountability, and blackness invites public condemnation. Let’s talk about how at least one person will read this and assume I’m saying Cosby shouldn’t have been held accountable, rather than that Allen and Clinton SHOULD be.

Let’s talk about missing stairs, and whispered warnings, and how we feel unsafe even warning our friends about the abusive behavior of others, for fear of public blowback and harassment campaigns. Let’s talk about how many people undoubtedly miss these warnings entirely, because maybe they’re new here and nobody knows or trusts them enough to feel safe letting them know.

Let’s talk about how nobody is willing to disassociate from people they know to be abusive, because the blow to their own social capital will be too severe. Let’s talk about how this serves only to enable that abusive behavior, and how ultimately, it hurts everyone. Let’s talk about how unchecked patterns of abuse systemically erode the humanity of those perpetrating that abuse.

Let’s talk about how people will say anything to avoid accountability. Let’s talk about the extremes to which they’ll go to ensure that their ability to further abuse remains unchecked. Let’s talk about how far people will go to silence those who would hold them accountable.

Let’s talk about how probably everyone who will read this knows at least one rapist.

Let’s talk about how when told we know a rapist, we always seem to say we “had no idea,” because that person is “so nice,” even though we can probably all think of at least one time that rapist we know willfully violated one of our own boundaries, regardless of whether that boundary was a sexual boundary or not.

Let’s talk about how, no matter what, speaking openly about abusive behavior burns social capital, yet the response is nearly always to claim that it’s only being done “for attention” or to garner some sort of “points.” Let’s talk about how nobody has ever gained social capital ever for pointing out abusive behavior, and how it is generally done at a great cost of personal relationships and mental health. Let’s talk about how to speak out about rape, about abuse, is to open oneself up to a neverending chain of demands for proof, calls to repeat and relive our trauma ad infinitum, and how this silences so, so many people.

Let’s talk about the lengths to which people will go to delude themselves into believing that they could never possibly be friends with a rapist. Let’s talk about the lengths to which people will go to delude themselves into believing they could never BE a rapist. Let’s talk about how both elements of this dynamic end up enabling abuse patterns, and how accountability only ever comes when the ultimate social capital held by accusers outweighs that of the abusers.

Let’s talk about how even when we believe survivors, we’re so often willing to dismiss their need for accountability on the basis of their abuser doing “good work in the community.” Let’s talk about how that ultimately degrades the quality of community, and sullies the concept of community leadership, because it suggests that any transgression can be swept under the rug if someone is smart enough, charismatic enough, self-aggrandizing enough, philanthropic enough. Let’s talk about how we’ll tolerate abuse of others, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact us. Let’s talk about how this means we’re unwilling to hold abusers accountable, as long as we’re benefiting from their continued presence in our lives.

Let’s talk about it, and push back against it, and let’s work together to ultimately abolish the cycles of abuse so many of us are complicit in maintaining. We can do better.

“Stupid” Is Not An Insult

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Today is World Down Syndrome Day. Today, people will be wearing blue and yellow together, and sporting mismatched socks, and standing in solidarity with people who have Down Syndrome. Today, people will be showing support for a group of people who are constantly told that their potential is defined by their diagnoses…

Today I am wearing black and grey, like I do most of the time. My socks don’t match, but they never do. Today, instead of making an Instagram-able gesture, I’m choosing to challenge the casual ableism within mainstream discourse. Today, I’m choosing to speak about the way many of us use intellectual and developmental disabilities as insults.

Like most of you, I was raised to believe that my value in this world was dependent on my intellect. I was taught that the worst thing I could be as a woman, as a person, was stupid. I was taught that only through cultivating intellectual pursuits and acquiring vast knowledge could I possibly be deserving of existence in modern society.

I was taught that it’s not okay to insult people on the basis of their gender, their religion, their sexuality, their race, their economic status, their physical ability, and a million other things they couldn’t possibly help… but for some reason, intellectual capacity was fair game. For some reason, I was taught that it’s perfectly okay to call people things like “idiot,” “imbecile,” or “moron,” despite the fact that none of us have any real control over our intellectual capacity. Despite the fact that, historically, those words are actually grounded in clinical diagnoses, and that throughout history, these diagnoses have been used to deprive people of agency. To deprive people of freedom. To deprive people of things like the right to reproduce. To this day, there are still places in the United States where people who are considered to be intellectually disabled are not allowed to vote.

When we accuse someone of being stupid, we are saying that it is an insult to be like someone with an intellectual or developmental disability. When we use pejoratives derived from a person’s perceived lack of intellect, we are effectively saying that we cannot think of anything worse than being a person with Down syndrome.

People with Down syndrome are PEOPLE. People with Down syndrome have aspirations, and frustrations, and emotions. They’re human beings, with value just like the rest of us. People with Down syndrome are worthy of respect, care, consideration, just like everyone else, and they do not deserve to be your default insult of choice.

There are a myriad words to choose from when expressing ourselves, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to ones who hurt innocent people when we use them. In fact, we can pretty much completely remove the pejoratives and slurs which derive their power from insulting wide swathes of the human population, in favor of words which far more accurately express our anger, frustration, or chagrin, and if we’re so smart that we’ve considered insulting someone else’s intelligence, then clearly we’re sharp enough to come up with a better word to express ourselves than “stupid,” or worse, “r*tarded.”

If you’re not sure where to go from here, consider consulting this wheel for ideas, and stop feeding into the societal norm of devaluing people on the basis of disabilities. You should be able to do better, and people with disabilities absolutely deserve better. If the best you can come up with is, “You’re so awful, you’re like people who have disabilities,” then you’re really, really not trying hard enough.

Debunking that Millennial’s Open Letter to that Millennial Who Wrote an Open Letter to Her CEO:

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So yesterday, I wrote this series of tweets in response to someone who wrote a piece slamming another woman for writing an open letter to the CEO of the company she was working for. (She has since been fired.) Since then, I’ve collected my thoughts in a more long-form format, which is what brings us here today.

In her Open Letter to Millennials Like Talia, Stefanie Williams compares her own life experiences to Talia’s in order to demonstrate that Talia’s complaints are not valid. She talks about the difference in their ages (5 years) and explains that when she was in her early 20s, she too struggled to make ends meet, but she managed to pull herself up by her bootstraps. So what’s the problem?

Well, actually, there are several. As it turns out, Stefanie’s experiences in the New York City metropolitan area around 2009 are not at all comparable to Talia’s experiences in the San Francisco metro area in 2016. To start, Stefanie mentions walking into a bar where a family friend worked in hopes of a drink, and being offered a job on the spot. Here’s the problem: not only did Stefanie have an inside connection that allowed her to score that job, but also the service in the Bay Area has become saturated with workers who are not only experienced, but are also actually skilled labor. In order to find a restaurant job in the Bay Area, one actually needs a broad knowledge of spirits, wines, beers, food preparation practices, local suppliers… and more. Additionally, in order to even be considered for a hosting job (which is where Stefanie started out), one needs to be proficient in the use of restaurant-centric systems like OpenTable and the various POS systems restaurants rely on to do their business. Because the service industry is one of the only areas outside of the tech industry where workers have a chance at potentially making money decent enough to scrape by, even veterans with 10 years of experience, and special skills, are vying against one another for jobs for which they are overqualified and often being passed over for hire. One does not simply walk into a restaurant in San Francisco and get hired in the same way they did a decade ago.

Additionally, Stefanie mentions making $15 per hour, which at the time, was more than twice the minimum wage in New York City. Stefanie says her paychecks, after taxes, worked out to $168 per week for the two shifts she started with. If Stefanie had been working 8-hour shifts (which is rare for hostesses, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt), that puts her take-home pay per hour around $10.50, which is still over 25% more than Talia’s post-taxes rate of about $8 per hour. Putting this further in context, the current minimum wage in the City of San Francisco, where Talia was working, is $12.25 per hour, which means her pre-tax compensation is, at best, only slightly above minimum wage, rather than the double-the-minimum wage Stefanie was earning at the job her family connections landed her.

Stefanie insists that Talia’s problem, that Milennials’ problem in general, is laziness and an unwillingness to do “demeaning” labor, but the real problem is that in most cases, the opportunity simply doesn’t exist. “God forbid she have to give up a weekend day to be a waitress,” writes Stefanie, but the truth of the matter is that no restaurant, bar, or cafe in the Bay Area is going to hire an inexperienced worker who also has scheduling restrictions. Every once in a while, it’s possible to elbow your way into the restaurant industry through connections and perseverance, but a crucial part of that is having open availability, the ability to cover shifts last-minute, and the willingness to work the shifts no one else wants to work (like Monday lunches or Tuesday nights anywhere tacos are not on the menu), not smacking down a resume and declaring, “I WILL WORK SATURDAYS.” Everybody wants to work Saturdays. Saturdays are where the money is. Inexperienced, nontenured newbies do not work Saturdays.

Stefanie also blames Talia for accepting a salary that wouldn’t cover her expenses, rather than blaming Yelp for under-paying its employees, and says Talia’s case shouldn’t be prompting a discussion about wages, but actually Talia’s situation is EXACTLY why we should be talking about wages. Stefanie says Talia shouldn’t have expected to be able to live alone on what she was taking home from a job at Yelp, and there’s a lot to unpack here. To start, in 1938, when the federal minimum wage was first written into law, it was enough to support a household of two on a single income. At its peak, in 1968, a full-time (40 hours per week) job paying the minimum wage was actually enough to support a family of three at or above the poverty line on a single income. This changed in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, and the minimum wage has been insufficient to support a family of two on a single income ever since. If any economy has reached a point where minimum wage is insufficient for a single person to live alone and support themselves, then a discussion about wages absolutely becomes necessary.

Additionally, Stefanie suggests that Talia shouldn’t be living alone in San Francisco, and should instead be living with roommates. However, given Talia’s cost of transportation into work ($5.65 each way), we can extrapolate that Talia is not living in the City of San Francisco, or even in neighboring Oakland. Talia is actually living in the outer reaches of the BART system, most likely either in the Walnut Creek/Concord area, or in the Hayward/Castro Valley area. The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Concord, Hayward, or Castro Valley is actually approximately equivalent to (and often below) the cost of a bedroom in shared housing in San Francisco. In fact, it is possible (albeit rarely) to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Hayward for approximately the same cost as a shared bedroom in San Francisco. This reduces Stefanie’s argument to a suggestion that she is being wasteful in paying for transportation, not that she is being wasteful in her housing expenditures. This also fails to take into account that nowhere in the Bay Area is the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment near BART (our primary and most reliable source of public transit) less than $1000 per month, and the median rent in San Francisco has risen to over $4000 per month. In fact, a quick search for available rooms for rent in San Francisco demonstrates exactly why Talia has chosen to live alone towards the end of the BART lines, rather than seeking a house-sharing solution in San Francisco itself. (Nevermind the fact that Talia probably has good reason for not wanting to live with strangers.)

So let’s do some math, shall we? If the minimum wage in San Francisco is $12.25 per hour, a worker putting in 40 hours per week is making approximately $2254 per month before taxes. Working with Talia’s stated post-tax income of approximately $8 per hour, that number shrinks to only $1472 per month. Remember what that Craigslist search looked like? Accepting the fact that a room for rent in San Francisco with a reasonable amount of access to public transportation is going to cost roughly the same as Talia’s 1-bedroom apartment rented at $1250 per month, that leaves a mere $222 per month for food, transportation, utilities, and everything else someone might need to spend money on. Put into this context, that $20 copay Talia was so concerned about makes a lot of sense, as it’s approximately 10% of her “disposable” income. Even if we assume the new normal is actually sharing a bedroom, a bunk in a shared bedroom in San Francisco goes for $800 per month, which is still more than half of Talia’s post-tax income. Houston, we have a problem.

So, how did we get here? It’s a long story, but in the interest of providing sufficient context for understanding where we are now, I’ll go over it briefly. 2007-09 saw the subprime mortgage crisis wreak havoc not just on the Finance industry, San Francisco’s primary industry at the time, but also on people who had bought homes in areas like Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. As people outside the reach of BART lost their homes and their cars to the economic crash, they began moving back towards the urban city centers of the Bay Area, causing rent prices to climb at a slow-but-steady rate after the initial fiscal catastrophe. With the advent of the current venture capitalist-backed tech boom, rents began to skyrocket at a significantly more rapid rate as demand for housing quickly outpaced supply. Suddenly, workers outside of the tech industry were beginning to experience displacement from their homes, and starting to be driven from San Francisco altogether.

Fast forward to today. Why are people making such a big deal about Talia’s situation? It’s simple, really. For many of us, Talia and others like her are the canary in the coal mine. We’ve grown accustomed to people outside of the tech industry scraping by to survive, but seeing employees of the industry credited with causing this sharp increase in the cost of living starting to join the rest of us in being priced out is a startling development. Where the Dot Com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s certainly had an impact on the economic climate of the San Francisco Bay Area, this current boom has seen the technology industry develop into the backbone of San Francisco’s economy, and stands to do a lot of damage if (when) it collapses. Those who exist outside the industry are scraping by, and the implication that those inside the foremost industry propping up our local economy are also scraping by is indicative of impending economic ruin for us all. It’s not that Talia is the first person to struggle to make ends meet while living here, it’s that people working places like Yelp were supposed to be safe.

In essence, not only is it not at all Talia’s fault that she can’t survive here, but the fact that she can’t survive working for a multi-billion dollar company in the leading industry in the area is exactly why people are discussing poverty and wages; because if people in entry-level jobs there can’t survive, what hope do the rest of us have?

Now, one of the other things I’d like to address about Stefanie’s letter to Talia is the part where Stefanie mentions living with her mother while simultaneously insisting millennials are just too lazy to put in work and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I will never, ever shame anyone for accepting familial support: times are hard, we all do what we need to in order to survive, smoke ’em if you got ’em. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has that same support, and people (like Talia) who do not have that support (remember this?) absolutely do not deserved to be shamed for not having that safety net to rely on. Stefanie had family friends who helped her find a job paying double the minimum wage, and Talia had family friends whose role was decidedly different. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but we’re not looking at an individual issue here, we’re looking at an economic rift built on housing accessibility and income inequality. What one millennial is or is not willing to do is not actually the issue, the issue is the fiscal climate we’ve been dropped into.

Now, admittedly, it was probably a terrible idea for Talia to write a letter calling out her boss and her workplace by name, and it’s pretty unsurprising that she was let go over it. (PS: Girl, go apply for unemployment if you haven’t already! You are almost definitely eligible!) That said, the desperation that drove her to write this letter is very real, and very valid, and the conversations it is facilitating are actually extremely necessary conversations regarding both the cost of living and the valuation of labor in the Bay Area (and beyond.) Stefanie says Talia shouldn’t have such high expectations of an entry-level job, but history indicates that entry level in any field ought to at least be enough to survive on, and it is extremely evident that is not the case in the Bay Area.

Now, of course Stefanie is entitled to both her opinion, and the expression thereof. However, as someone who has never lived in the Bay Area, and especially someone who does not live here now, I venture that it would have behooved her to do at least a little research into the cost of living, economy, and history of San Francisco and the surrounding areas before launching into her screed against Talia. But I won’t dig too deeply into what that says about Stefanie’s work ethic, and I’m certainly not going to assign that same work ethic to an entire generation. Because it turns out, Stefanie is only a few months younger than I am… what a difference those months make.

Welcome to the Internet

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Greetings!

Perhaps you are new here. Perhaps you are new to social media entirely. Perhaps not. Regardless of the path you’ve taken to arrive, here we are. And there are some things I’d like to share with you now that you’re here: some Rules of Engagement for Social Media.

Social media can be a wonderful way to keep in touch with old friends, make new friends, and get exposure to ideas and lifestyles that differ from your own. It can be a means for sharing important information, swapping recipes, or soliciting cute cat photos. Social media has a myriad uses, and all of them involve engaging with other humans, some of whom may already be overwhelmed by the volume of interaction to which they are subject, or even beleaguered by harassment from trolls. So how can you keep from adding to this existing burden?

A great place to start is to remember that strangers on the internet do not have the same social obligations to you that your family and close friends do. You are certainly free to initiate a conversation with anyone you’d like, but if you do not have an existing relationship with the person you’re trying to engage, they do not have any real obligation to be responsive. Failure to engage with a stranger on the internet is in no way a social transgression, it is simply maintenance of one’s personal boundaries.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while social media CAN be a great place to learn new things from friends and strangers alike, no one is obligated to hold your hand through understanding these things. The people with whom you are interacting on the internet are (generally) your peers, not your professors. This means that they are not required to explain their statements, or answer questions put to them, simply because you ask. This also doesn’t mean you cannot or should not ask questions, but rather that you should understand that their time is valuable and important to them, and they don’t owe you anything.

So what should you do if you have questions about something a stranger has said on social media? Put in a little investigative work! Your first step should be to check and see what else, if anything, that person has said about the subject in question. Make sure that you’re not responding to part of a multi-piece statement as though it were a standalone comment. Look to see if they’ve posted links to pieces written on the subject, and if so, click those links and read the content.

Your next step should be to consult a search engine. Type your question into a search bar, and spend a little time doing some background reading before going back and asking questions. If, rather than asking basic questions about the subject at hand, you’re asking specific questions about details you’d like clarified, it goes a long way towards showing the person you’re asking that you cared enough to do a little legwork before asking them to put time and effort into helping you understand. Additionally, asking for a person to recommend resources to you rather than asking them to explain things outright is far more likely to elicit a positive response, as it is another line of questioning that demonstrates that you recognize that person’s time and energy as valuable. And of course, as mentioned previously, strangers still don’t owe you a response to your questions.

Another helpful hint for engaging on social media is to make sure you’re respecting the boundaries of others, and only interacting with people who are receptive. If a person asks you to leave them alone, you stand to gain nothing from pushing the issue. If a person isn’t responding to a conversation in which they are tagged, it may be polite to refrain from continuing to tag them into it. If they are interested in participating, and the conversation is public, they’ll check into it and respond accordingly when they’re ready, whether or not they’ve been tagged in each installment. In many cases, non-responsiveness is a way people indicate a disinterest in participating in a given conversation, or in engaging with a person, and respecting that unspoken boundary can go a long way towards demonstrating that you respect them as a person.

As previously mentioned, social media can be a fantastic medium for the sharing of ideas. That said, the things that people say on social media, and the thoughts that they share, are their own. If you’d like to reprint those thoughts and ideas in a different context, especially one for which you are being paid, it is a good idea to first reach out to that person and ask for permission. Taking a person’s statements out of context and sharing them with an entirely different audience than was originally intended can open that person up to a lot of harassment from others and they may not want the exposure. Rather than treating people’s public statements on social media as if they were engaged in an interview with you, reach out and ask if they’ll grant you an interview. Give them the opportunity to opt into or out of exposure, and respect the decision they make.

Social media has the potential to open doors for us all, and as long as we use it responsibly and respectfully, it can be a resource that benefits us all rather than a burden only a few must shoulder.

Cheers, and welcome to the internet!

Everyone is Wrong About Trigger Warnings.

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It seems as though every day, another thinkpiece on trigger warnings flickers across my awareness. Some of these pieces are in favor of trigger warnings, (frequently called “content warnings,” as some people find the term “trigger warnings” to be, well, triggering) while others are adamantly opposed. Some espouse the belief that people have a right not to be exposed to content they might find offensive, while others argue that content warnings “coddle” people, turning them into over-sensitive weaklings who can’t handle the world.

The biggest problem with either of these arguments is that in both cases, they’re being made by people who do not actually have triggers. As a result, both arguments rather overwhelmingly miss the point: trigger warnings aren’t about content that might make us uncomfortable, and ultimately, content warnings aren’t even about avoidance. Instead, they are meant to be a tool to help those of us with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns. They’re meant to enable us to mentally and emotionally prepare before delving into content that might otherwise send us spiraling into flashbacks and anxiety attacks if we’re caught off guard.

In other words, trigger warnings (or content warnings, if you prefer), allow people like me who have experienced great trauma to prepare ourselves before diving into media that addresses scenarios similar to those we’ve experienced. They can be the difference between being sucked into a vortex of overwhelming feelings and memories, and being able to critically examine something that has caused us pain in the past and continues to impact us in the present. Content warnings can be the difference between whether triggering content is therapeutic, or just more traumatic.

It is absolutely true that in some cases, confronting triggering material may not actually be the best strategy for someone trying to overcome past trauma. In cases where the trauma is recent, for example, avoidance may in fact be the best way to proceed. Trauma is effectively a type of wound, and just like any other wound, sometimes it is necessary to allow it to heal a bit before beginning therapy to treat its lasting effects. It is also true that some wounds take longer to heal than others, based on a variety of factors including past damage, access to proper care and treatment, and the simple fact that we’re all built differently. As such, some people may be ready to confront triggering material before others are, and that is okay; we all heal at our own pace.

Critics of content warnings say that shielding people from content that might cause emotional discomfort is “harmful,” and that calling for trigger warnings focuses on shielding people from trauma, rather than helping them address it. The problem with these assertions is that they’re completely failing to grasp the point of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are not meant to shield those of us suffering from PTSD, they’re meant to be one of the many weapons we use to face our demons. They’re one of the many tools in the kit we carry on the path to healing our mental health. Critics who cannot possibly fathom the road we walk tell us we simply need to be stronger and more resilient, with no concept of how much strength and resilience we display on a daily basis.

It is, of course, entirely true that trigger warnings, like any tool, may be used improperly. It is true that they can be used in ways that are harmful. This doesn’t negate their usefulness, it just means we need to think carefully about how and when we use them. Just as we don’t ban society from using hammers simply because some people use them to break things rather than to build them, we shouldn’t decry content warnings simply because some people use them without truly understanding their purpose. Instead, we should work with those who have real triggers to develop strategies for the use of these important tools. Academics express frustration over students bringing up triggers that may or may not be “real” throughout the course of the semester, when they could easily administer a survey at the beginning of the course to determine where students have triggers, and to help those students work through the material that may trigger them. This model not only allows professors to preempt students bringing up issues later in the semester in an effort to avoid content, but also preempts students speaking for hypothetical others by instead encouraging each student to bring up any issues they may have personally. This also opens the door for dialogue with students, so that all parties involved have reasonable expectations of what exactly a content warning means in context of completing the course.

There are a myriad ways in which trigger warnings may be either harmful or beneficial, but the truth of the matter is that unless we start working with people who actually have mental health issues that necessitate them, we’re not doing anyone any favors by writing essays on the matter. And we’re certainly not helping anything by redefining and dismissing a tool based on improper uses of it.

The Inconvenience of Civil Disobedience

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The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. is often honored with acts of civil disobedience in the days surrounding the anniversary of his birth. His legacy of righteousness and refusal to obey unjust laws has carried on to younger generations who still engage in civil disobedience in an effort to address the same struggles Dr. King fought, and who often still hear the same criticisms leveled against Dr. King by his detractors, often invoking the name of MLK himself in an effort to shame his contemporaries into the respectability he so eloquently rejected in his actions and in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

We constantly hear complaints that people are being “inconvenienced” by protests, by acts of civil disobedience. We consistently hear criticisms that these political actions are impacting the ability of people who do not care about the issues being protested in going about their business as usual, and we frequently even hear that civil disobedience alienates people from the causes it seeks to further. If a riot is the language of the unheard, then civil disobedience is the language of the ignored. If a riot is shouting loud enough to be heard, then civil disobedience is pointed discourse too disruptive to be simply ignored in the way that the polite requests and gentle pleas favored by liberal moderate society so often are. Civil disobedience is a firm, unwavering demand to have the humanity of the disenfranchised recognized and acknowledged, and a refusal to allow business as usual to continue until that goal is realized, because for the marginalized, business as usual is simply not sustainable.

What those who complain about the inconvenience of civil disobedience fail to grasp is, not only is it inconvenient by design, but it is not so inconvenient for anyone as it is for those who engage in it. As frustrating as it may be to be stuck in traffic, to have a city council meeting disrupted, to be unable to do one’s grocery shopping, or impeded in one’s daily errands, it is far more inconvenient still to engage in an act of civil disobedience. The organizing of such an undertaking is disruptive to the lives of those involved long before the action itself ever takes place. The action is, of course, inconvenient for everyone present, whether participant or bystander, and the aftermath often involves time spent in jail as well as months worth of legal proceedings that continue to disrupt the lives of those engaged for their duration. Civil disobedience IS inconvenient, and that is the whole point.

People who engage in acts of civil disobedience are doing so because the alternative is infinitely worse. The alternative is suffering in silence while the injustices of the world wreak havoc on their daily lives. The alternative to civil disobedience is waiting patiently while hoping the world will choose to combat systemic inequality on its own, despite clear indications that this will never happen. The alternative is for parents to watch their children continue to be slain by racism, by poverty, by ableism, by a whole host of oppressive institutions who will not be overturned simply because it is asked of them. People engage in civil disobedience, because to do otherwise is to suffer in silence, hoping for change and knowing it will never come. Civil disobedience is inconvenient, but the absence of civil disobedience is fatal.

It is particularly reprehensible to insinuate that civil disobedience and the inconvenience associated with it alienate people from causes they might otherwise support. Not only do people have every opportunity to support those causes in their every day lives, but the idea that someone would have been a staunch proponent of equality, and willing to fight to achieve it, if not for being swayed to opposition by being late to work, or yoga class, or wherever else they were headed is actually ludicrous and insulting. One cannot be a staunch proponent of equality in the face of structural injustice, yet be swayed to abandon it by inconvenience, because to exist within the struggle is to abandon convenience in favor of liberation, whether for one’s self or for others. To engage in a struggle against the status quo is to accept the inconvenience of doing so, so to pretend that people might embrace this major inconvenience if not dissuaded by another, relatively minor inconvenience, is disingenuous.

Civil disobedience absolutely is inconvenient. It is disruptive, it is illegal, it impedes the ability of people to go about their daily business, and that is the entire point.

Your Threat Model is Not My Threat Model

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While this is something I’ve thought about quite a bit, for quite a while, the abundance of attention my blog has gotten recently has made it apparent that this needs to be said:

Your threat model is not my threat model.

I know that with regards to privacy and security, the threat at the front of many minds is a certain three-letter agency whose dragnet surveillance was exposed publicly in 2013.

The Snowden revelations have changed mainstream public discourse around privacy and security, bringing these importance of these issues to light for many who have lead lives of safety and complacency. The problem is, for many of us, privacy and safety have been concerns for a very long time, and dragnet surveillance is the least of our worries.

I know many of you are worried about your communications being stored in a database, accessible to the state in the event that you ever become a person of interest, deserving of further scrutiny. I will not tell you that it is an invalid concern. I WILL tell you that there are other guides out there for you, your concern is not MY primary concern, and my writing (aside from this piece) will probably never center you.

Many others of you are concerned with corporations like Google and Facebook collecting data to sell to third parties for purposes of targeted advertising. Again, I will not tell you that your concerns are not valid concerns. Again, I am unlikely to center those concerns.

Still others of you are savvy enough to be interested in using technical tools to keep yourselves safe from spying, regardless of its source. There are many guides out there relevant to your interests. I believe in advocating the skills and tools that the least savvy among us can use, because I believe that being non-technical shouldn’t mean being insecure.

I will always center the non-technical. I will always center those facing real, physical threat from unsophisticated attackers; adversaries who have no resources but time and malice ARE an advanced persistent threat, they are worthy of being addressed, and those who need to defend against them are underserved by the security community.

If your threat model identifies your primary adversaries as Google and the NSA, I will not tell you you’re wrong, but I will say that you’re extremely lucky. I would trade my adversaries for yours in a heartbeat. That said, I am here to help those who face threats like stalking, like abusive exes, like overbearing parents who cannot accept who they are. I am here to protect those who have snooping employers and prying frenemies. I am here to prioritize the people for whom extensive privacy guides are not written, and for whom a lack of privacy will have a very real, very detrimental affect.

I’m here for the people like me, for the people whose threat model mirrors my own, and because we deserve to be safe.

Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol: In Defense of Ada Lovelace

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day when we celebrate women in science and mathematics fields, and congratulate them on their continued struggle against the sexist notion that women do not belong in those roles.

Ada Lovelace, a Victorian-era mathematician and writer, is credited with being the first-ever computer programmer, due to her work with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine. Modern society being what it is, we seem to be incapable of celebrating the achievements of a woman in STEM without calling into question her character, and dismissing her on the basis of what is perceived to have been socially-unacceptable behavior. Two hundred years after her birth, we are still hung up on the fact that Ada Lovelace was… unladylike.

Research into Ada’s past indicates that she drank alcohol, gambled to excess, and was addicted to drugs. In addition, she cursed profusely, and is believed to have committed adultery. These revelations call to question whether Ada Lovelace was, in fact, a role model for scientists and mathematicians everywhere.

Several people have voiced the opinion that in spite of her perceived flaws, Lovelace remains a role model. I contend that Ada is a role model in part BECAUSE of her failure to conform to societal norms. Ada is a perfect example of the fact that shortcomings and a lack of respectability do not need to be barriers to achieving greatness. She is proof that people should not be dismissed on the basis of addiction, proof that there is more to life than clinging to the concept of respectability.

In addition to her drinking, gambling, swearing, alleged adultery, and opium abuse, Ada Lovelace struggled with mental health issues for most of her tragically short life. In an age where we still struggle to accept neurodiversity, Lovelace also serves as a reminder of why we should not dismiss people simply because they do not think or behave the way society has mandated they should.

The legacy of Ada Lovelace is a perfect example of what we stand to lose if we continue to hold role models to impossible standards of respectability, if we diminish the achievements of women based on their failure to conform to an ideal of femininity. Ada Lovelace is an excellent role model, because she reminds us not only of what we can achieve, but also of the fact that we do not need to focus our energy on striving to fit into a societal mold of perfect womanhood. It is shameful to attempt to erase her accomplishments simply because she was unladylike. Instead, she deserves to be celebrated twofold: on the basis of her achievements in the field of mathematics, as well as on her refusal to conform to a patriarchal notion of who she ought to have been, and how she ought to behave.