Left Forum 2015

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The Left Forum was held at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. There were hundreds of panels and workshops; these notes are just a small sample of the conference.


Friday, May 29th

The Internet and the World's Struggle for Survival: the Next Five Years

Juan: Where will the internet and humanity be five years from now? Our world is a struggle between large corporations. Drug cartels have taken control of local governments.1 The internet is a strategic part of social struggle. In a market economy, trade + money = control. We would prefer a solidarity economy, based on the exchange of equivalent work. Social welfare is a human right, independently of how it's funded.

Ecology is the right to life for future generations. Scientific discoveries are universal property. We need social, political, and economic justice.

Right now, much of the internet is effectively governed by a small number of large corporations. Marketing is not the best use of the internet. We would be better off to use the internet for education. Corporations will not give us an internet that liberates society.


Alice: Net Neutrality is some cause for optimism. In the US, we don't have equal access to the internet. Access is controlled by a few large internet service providers.

We use the internet for many things, and underrepresented communities are really being left out. For example, Facebook is effectively trying to control internet access with their internet.org project.

Net neutrality is a civil rights issue. It redistributes power and access. Demonstrations that take place online and on the ground are a powerful way to bring about change. We can't do that with a closed internet.

We're starting to recognize the need to protect our own data.

There is another round of elections coming, and executive appointments are going to matter. For example, the elections might bring in a new FCC chairperson who's less interested in enforcing net neutrality.


Shezad: We're living in an age of unprecedented censorship. Governments are trying to outlaw certain technologies. Individuals are targeted by hate speech. Western powers are attempting to colonize the internet. We don't understand how corporations and governments are working together. Governments are pushing censorship as a governance model for the internet.


Shamika: I'm a tech chaplain; I study technology and theology, social media and social justice, and the intersection between technology and religion. In the digital space, what we say and do really matters. Ethics are important. All of us need to be as uncomfortable as possible, as often as possible.

Joe: A year ago, the FCC was championing a two-tiered internet. The first black newspaper was founded in 1827, right here in New York City. The founders felt they needed to get their voices heard, in order to fight social injustice. Too often, we have a popular press that supports injustice, by not speaking out against it.

Does government regulate industry according to the voices of the many, or the voices of the few. Traditionally, they regulate for the voices of the few. Net neutrality was a marked departure from this. Companies will continue to fight against net neutrality, and we will continue to fight against them. Public awareness of net neutrality makes it harder for corporate groups to oppose it. Spreading public awareness is one more reason why we need an open internet.

Jackie: We need to keep building a movement to grow net neutrality, and to figure out what the internet should look like. We are active producers and defenders of this technology.

Defend the knowledge commons. Put your work under a creative commons license, and use open access publishing.


Question: If a mobile provider allowed unlimited bandwidth, how much of a burden would it be?

Data storage is becoming a big application, and that's going to require access. If capacity is such an issue, then why would carriers allow zero-rated applications? Which data is worth transmitting?

Question: What would it take to get wifi access everywhere?

There are narratives around this. Google and Facebook are trying to provide "free" access, but we all know that their version of "free" doesn't come without costs.

We have to break up some of the monopolies, or we'll never make any headway towards a free internet. A monopoly over the internet is a monopoly over information. In Mexico, the federal government is trying to set up internet access points around government buildings. We suspect that has more to do with control than with providing free access.

Question: Why did many organizations side with the cable companies over net neutrality?

In the 1980s, AT&T was sued for workplace discrimination. That's where AT&T's relationships with various civil rights groups began. Now, AT&T lobbies these groups to support its position, or provides funding to them. Money allows AT&T to influence their position. People are starting to understand the role that companies play, and they're beginning to challenge them. The big civil rights groups haven't separated themselves yet, so more work needs to be done.

If you support free speech you should support net neutrality.

Question: How do we get internet to the global south, particularly to indigenous communities?

Ideally, internet access would come from local groups, who understand the needs of those communities. We need service providers that are part of social movements, to

develop infrastructure where these communities are. Commercial corporations, and even local governments aren't interested in doing this.

Question: How do you ensure that open source and open access continue? Start agitating with universities to integrate FOSS into their programs, and to get rid of Microsoft monopolies.

Comment: Be wary of Google. Google is making it harder for people to find things. We have all of humanity's knowledge to a private corporation, and we don't know how we're going to get it out.

Question: Is anyone trying to research how Google has changed their ranking algorithm over time? Or the relationship between addictive behaviors and technology?


Friday Plenary

What does it mean if capitalism is past its prime?

It's time to stop treating corporations as people, and people as numbers.

The European Union is undergoing US-style neo-liberalism. It's been happening very quickly there, as opposed to a 30-year period in the US.

Austerity can only prevail when democracy fails, and we are left with a dictatorship of debt.

When we are talking about the 99% and the 1%, we are talking about class. There is inter-generational solidarity in this movement.

On the subject of debt, we have a political system that betrays us, rather than representing us. We need to rescue ourselves from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and other such organizations.

Solidarity is our weapon. Through this process, we communicate that our problems can't be solved individually.

Parties have to fulfill two functions: they have to engage with social movements, and they have to fight for social programs and non-reformist responses. There are lots of people who want to participate, but aren't doing that yet. We have to go out and get them.

Persistence is important. Persistence prevents the dialog from stopping.

In May of 2011, many people lost confidence in the two major political parties. People are starting to see problems as collective issues, rather than as individual issues. Things like unemployment.

There are no logical steps in politics. You make moves and you take changes, but there's no logic to it.

Corruption is the capturing of democracy. If the system is corrupt, then democracy is not possible.

In Greece, never have so many people been deprived of so much in so short a period of time. This disaster is unequally distributed. We believe in continuous progress, but progress has stopped. Nobody believes in progress anymore. Europe tells us that it's our own damn fault, but it's really a failure of the capitalist system.


Saturday, May 30th

Organizing in the Internet Era: Building an All-purpose Democratic Platform on the Web

We do lots of things online: discussion, event planning, and decision making. There's not a lot of transparency about who's planning or running events. You just get to know that it happened. Open Street Map was used in Egypt, to plan protests. Our goals is a democratic plan of action, where we can see process, discussions, transparency, and allow others to get involved.

Many organizations are large, but most members are uncommitted. They're not actively involved in the organization's work.

There was an effort to bring Mechanical Turkers (Amazon) together, and collectively object to the semi-exploitative conditions of Turk work. This is a struggle between oppressors and oppressed. This sort of thing has gone on for years.

There's no single place where lessons about activism and organizing are collected. Everyone ends up learning by trial and error. No other field - dentists, doctors, short order cooks - have to learn by trial and error.

Rating and review systems have given people new voices. In some cases, these systems have influenced decisions.

When you communicate intentions (via email), include at least three other people. This establishes a written record of your intent.

There are organizing tools that don't require full HTML capabilities. For example, signing up for text alerts.

Organizations have ideas, and ideas can are usually refined over time. At some point, members of an organization can vote to decide whether an idea becomes a concrete project. Once an idea becomes a project, you need a set of project management tools.

The presenters have been working on a combined decision making and project management solution, available via https://github.com/wannabeCitizen/projectsystem.

Instead of writing one letter to your congressman, get 300 people in your district to sign, and then send the letter. Use this as a way of starting a dialog, and putting a statement of position in front of your legislators. For wider impact, try similar efforts across congressional districts.


Radical Elections: How to Organize and Win

New York Green Party

Independent and third-party campaigns are typically under-resourced with respect to our two corporate parties. There needs to be a lot of trust between a candidate and their campaign manager. The candidate's job is to recruit supporters, recruit donors, and to get votes. The campaign manager's job is to deal with logistics, fight with the database, work on literature, and supervise campaign volunteers. You can set achievable goals at the local level. At the end of the campaign, you want a list of people that support you.

Every campaign needs a good campaign plan. Your goal can be to get elected, to increase party enrollment, or to engage people on an issue. In the Green party we like to use "smart" goals. A smart goal is

  • (S)pecific
  • (M)easurable
  • (A)ttainable
  • (R)ealistic
  • (T)ime bound

Make your goals specific. Specific goals tell your volunteers what you want to do, and what your expectations are. Specific goals also help with planning. For example, a specific goal allows you to determine that you'll need x volunteers for y hours per day, starting z days before the election. Writing a week-by-week plan will help keep you on track with concrete actions.

Try out your messages and issues on people that aren't activists in your group. Back stories are good. They help to humanize you as a candidate. Volunteers are gold. Decide what you'll need volunteers for (i.e., what work you want them to do, and what roles you want them to fill). Training volunteers is critically important. Always work to recruit more volunteers.

What offices to do you want to run for, and what candidates are available to run?

What are the candidates credentials? Be careful of bad candidates.

During a local election, you might not get much media coverage, but you can knock on a lot of doors.

What voters are likely to support you? How have the last few elections gone? Which areas have high turnout; low turnout?

Who are you running against? Can you mount a credible campaign against them? Make a list of potential donors, and call them. No one enjoys doing this, but you have to do it.

For large races, some of your campaign funds have to be dedicated to staffing. Campaign manager should be a full-time paid position.

Have a budget. Consider staffing costs, printing costs. When fundraising, tell people (specifically) how you're planning to use the money.

Figure out who your volunteers are. Colleges may give you interns for credit. You'll need a platform and a campaign slogan. Start with three main points, and work from there.

What are your opponents issues and positions? How will you differentiate yourself from your opponent?

Develop a relationship with the media. Call them, and send press releases. Maintain your media list, and be aware that there is a news cycle.

It's rare for third parties to get in televised debates. If you don't get in the debate, figure out how to protest it.

Make your literature look as professional as possible. If necessary, hire a graphic design firm. Make sure the candidates name is always large and legible.

In larger elections, you'll need to spend a portion of your budget on advertising. TV ads can be pretty expensive. Radio ads are much more affordable.

Always ask people for money. Hold fundraisers on a regular basis.

Get out the vote. What will you do the last month, the last week, and the last day before the election.

Special elections take place on very compressed timeframe. In some cases, they can come up by surprise. You won't have the luxury of extensive preparation time, and you'll have to make decisions very quickly.

Have tiers of campaign goals, depending on how the election turns out. Even if you don't win, you want to end up in a stronger position than when you started. Even if you don't win, you still want to gain something.

Try to inject some radical ideas into electoral races.

Candidates have to be very open and effusive. Campaign managers have to be very focused on strategy, and on the nuts and bolts of running the campaign. Being a candidate is hard. Candidates need a lot of encouragement and support.

Develop an editorial calendar. What topics do you want to talk about during your campaign, and when (i.e., on what specific dates) do you want to talk about them. For example, you can pick events from history, and provide your own perspectives on those events.

Pay to play exists. Buying ad space in a newspaper will likely make it easier for you to get editorial coverage from that newspaper.

At times, you'll feel like you're in the printing and shipping business. Know how many pieces of literature are in a one-inch stack.

Cast a wide net when looking for endorsements. For example, you can approach democratic leaning groups, who might not be happy with your democratic opponent.

Comment: We should talk about what we stand for. Don't be afraid to say "radical" or "left" or "socialist".

When introducing new words to the general population, try to put the word in context. Consider the person who's hearing the word for the first time.

Talk to people about concrete things, more than abstract ideas. Be ready to talk about socialism in concrete ways.

Comment: What makes a good novice candidate? Someone who's willing to listen and learn. Campaigning involves doing a lot of things that don't feel natural, like making lists of people, calling them up, and asking for money.

Comment: When using social media, try to drive people to your main website. Get their contact info, and try to get donations. Don't be disappointed if you try something and it doesn't work. Keep trying; eventually something will work out.

Question: Does NYC have proportional representation?

NYC had proportional representation until the 1930s. We (the Green Party) like it. How hard is it to get proportional representation into your town or city? This depends on your town or city. Proportional representation can be an uphill struggle, but it does have an impact.

How can you make connections between structural issues in government and things like police violence?

Comment: Focus on issues more than on the candidate. Different voters react differently to different things. Some react to issues and some react to personalities. Like it or not, that's a reality you'll have to deal with.


Foreign Policy for All: Re-thinking US Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

US foreign policy has always been about benefiting the privileged, and especially the corporate interests. The United States has worked to spread fracking all across the globe. How can this possibly promote national security? During the cold war, Russia's redistribution of land to the poor was seen as a security threat.

The United States facilitates around 50% of global weapons trade. In many cases, foreign governments use these weapons to keep their own populations in check, often to the benefit of US interests.

Many in congress are beholden to PACs, businesses, and wealthy individuals for financial contributions. Originally, lobbying was seen as a positive thing - a way for citizens to spread views to their representatives. Money has badly distorted this process. We need ways in which we, as ordinary citizens, can affect foreign policy.

Here are some values that should guide discussions of foreign policy.

  • Policy should come from ordinary people; not the elites, and not the wealthy. No single country should control others.
  • Peace and international co-operation. Respect the values of other countries. Massachusetts was founded with the ideology of "come over and help us". Today, we have the idea of American exceptionalism. The US played a significant role in starting the UN, but doesn't want to follow the UN's charters. For example, we don't follow the charter that states "no use of force, except in self-defense".
  • Justice for all. Militarism is unjust. We'd like to see a return to the international court of justice.
  • Human Rights for Everyone. The US initiated the universal declaration of human rights, but we never ratified some of the resulting treaties.
  • Sustainability. This is the opposite of capitalist exploitation.
  • Security. People have a right to safety from aggression and dehumanization. Security includes social and economics aspects.
  • Community. There's only one world, and we have to share it. In addition to these values, we also propose some policies.
  • Nuclear disarmament. The number of nuclear weapons poses an immediate danger, which threatens the survival of humanity.
  • Limit the military to a strictly defensive role.
  • Arms trade. The US should stop being the world's largest arms exporter. For example, we developed the F-35 fighter jet with the intention of selling it to many countries.
  • Peace building abroad and at home. There are many areas where the US will have to change its regional policies.
  • Climate Justice. Climate change is another way in which humanity might destroy itself.

Comment: Some of the current trade agreements show that other countries are no longer interested in America.

Comment: We need to recognize harms that the US has done, and we need to make reparations.

Comment: Athens adopted democracy in order to gain support for a war. Peace and democracy don't necessarily go hand in hand.

Comment: When addressing military spending, ask people what their sources of insecurity are. Will a military address these sources of insecurity?


Equality through Transportation and Infrastructure

The speaker founded Kentucky Bikes after being cited eight times, and arrested once, for riding her bicycle on public roadways. She commutes to work by bicycle, because she's a single mom, and can't afford a car.

Many places in the US have a "if you don't have a car, you don't belong here" mentality. Under pressure from the auto industries, our roads have become autoonly; other modes of transportation are shut out.

Transportation alternatives is an NYC-based group. Our mission is to reclaim NYC streets from the automobile. NYC has six thousand miles of streets, and twelve thousand miles of sidewalk. This is 80% of our public space, and it's not well allocated to people traveling by bicycle, mass transit, or walking.

Take 50 single-occupancy vehicles, and put those people in buses or on bicycles. This opens up a ton of space on our streets.

In 2013, NYC had 286 traffic deaths vs. 194 gun murders. One in three voters knows someone who's been injured or killed in an automobile accident. Traffic accidents are the #2 cause of death for seniors, and the #1 cause of death for children.

There are inequities in our transportation infrastructure. Lower Manhattan (the wealthier part) has plenty of bicycle lanes. Upper Manhattan has very few of them.

If you're a low income worker, you can find yourself spending 44% of your income on transportation. If you make $25,000 a year, the cost of owning a car is a significant portion of your income. Longer commute times tends to correlate with lower income.

We advocate for complete streets. There's typically a 34% reduction in accidents where complete streets have been implemented. All of our neighborhoods deserve safe streets, not just the well-to-do ones.

When cycling, be a PAL: (P)redictable, (A)ware, and (L)awful. We have a PAL campaign in the DC area.

Aside from infrastructure, we can focus our efforts on education. For example, having schools teach bicycle ed in addition to driver's ed. We can teach drivers to practice safe driving habits. We might also require periodic re-taking of the written motor vehicle test (not the road test). This would help people stay on top of their responsibilities as drivers.

If you're on the road, you must follow the rules of the road. We can propose new laws to benefit cyclists. For example, a law that would allow cyclists to treat red lights like stop signs. We can also advocate for the use of comparative negligence (rather than contributory negligence) as the basis for determining fault. An automobile can cause much more damage than a bicycle can. Motor vehicle laws are intended to keep motorists safe; they're really not concerned with pedestrians or cyclists.

Ultimately, we advocate for a three-pronged approach: Education, Legislation, and Infrastructure.

Vision zero is a philosophy of designing streets, so that they're safer for all users of the roadway.


Sunday, May 31st

We Can't Breathe: The Connection Between Movements

(This session was more dialog than presentation, and I only have sketchy notes).

OccuEvolve is an NYC group that grew out of Occupy Wall Street. We help immigrants get jobs and start unions.

Articles to read:

The NYC area has many political clubs. These clubs have a significant influence on politicians.

Potential research topics: How do judges dole out punishment? How do the states determine what is and is not a felony?

Movies to watch:

  • Eyes on the Prize
  • Revolution of Values: Housing, Education, Healthcare

"Quality of life" ties many of these concepts together.

Our goal is to identify and connect movements. Go to different meetings. Keep talking about these issues; keep bringing them up. Respect the viewpoints of different groups.


Resisting Technology Privatization and Surveillance: Roles for Scholar Activists

Scientists and technologists choose what they wish to develop. No technology can be used only for good, and no technology can be used only for bad. But some technologies are more easily aligned with certain goals. For example, encryption aligns well with privacy. Teachers need to address the ethical aspects of technology. There are also differences between a technology and its use. "Pfizer" and "vaccine" are not the same thing.

Publishing can spread information, or it can spread propaganda. In the past, it took effort to record and preserve information. Digital technology makes this much easier to do.

Technology can provide a counterpoint to the concentration of wealth and power.

Technology for end to end encryption exists. Further adoption is mostly a matter of deployment.

Copyright and patents are an impediment to social work, and an impediment to progress.

People make false distinctions between government and corporate surveillance. The Snowden revelations showed collaboration between the government and corporations. The government piggybacked on what the corporations were doing.

We live in a world where you can't undo your connection to the network. You need the ability to trust organizations that have your data.

Is targeted surveillance better than untargeted surveillance? This depends on who is targeted, and how the targeting is done. Mass surveillance is targeted surveillance where the target is everyone.

Self-defense tools aren't readily available to many marginalized communities. What does is mean for a community to be surveilled, and what would the community see as solutions?

Social service recipients are often a test bed for new surveillance technologies.

http://mexicoleaks.mx was created by five journalistic entities and NGOs. It's an encryption system for whistleblowers. We produce stories (aka "leaks") on a regular basis. We also provide digital security training. We want to put leaking technologies in the hands of the general public, and we want to teach people to use these tools.

We spend $500 billion/year on academic research. Much of this research is published in commercial journals, who restrict access to academic papers. 85% of research is wasted because it's not published in an accessible way. Private industry gives money to researchers and publishers; this influence what research is done, and what research is published.

The right to read is the right to mine. If I'm able to read research papers, I should be able to download them, and analyze the papers with a computer program.

Academic publishing is in very bad shape. Bad enough that any fixes will likely have to come from outside the industry. Read your author agreements and retain your rights. They're deeply embedded in the academic industrial complex.

As the creator of a work, you have all rights. Don't let a publisher take them away. If possible, publish in an open access journal, and make sure your work is accessible to other. Write for a broad community. Advocate, organize, teach.

See http://contentmine.org and http://openaccessnetwork.org.

As scholars, one of your goals should be to ensure research is open and available, so that others can take advantage of it.