Category Archives: Controversy & Conversation

A Vicious Cycle of Corruption: Vigilantism, Power, and Morality in Cartel Land

After our November 1st Controversy ad Conversation screening of Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land, guest speaker Dr. Jake Dizard, Postdoctoral Fellow with the Mexico Security Initiative at UT’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, stated one of his major takeaways from the film: power corrupts and attracts. Dizard made this observation based on Cartel Land’s intimate and, at times, disturbing footage of the rise and fall (if not from power then certainly from grace) of José Manuel Mireles Valverde’s Michoacán-based anti-cartel vigilante group, Autodefensas. That watching Cartel Land, a film about (at least initially) victimized, fearful, and/or exasperated citizens striving to obtain and use whatever power they can to combat the activities of Mexican drug cartels, inspired Dizard to make this observation speaks to the film’s ability to highlight the moral ambiguities and failures of the vigilante enterprises it documents.

Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, a group of American vigilantes who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to catch drug traffickers, helps Cartel Land comment on these moral ambiguities and failures by claiming early on in the film that a clear dividing line exists “between…good and evil.” He indicates that he and his group are firmly on the side of good fighting the forces of evil in the form of Mexican drug cartels. As Dizard’s observation suggests, Cartel Land’s documentation of vigilante and drug cartel activity encourages its viewers to question the notion that good and evil are easily identifiable and discrete and to become skeptical of those who pursue or hold power while proclaiming good intentions.

Given that Mireles and other members of Autodefensas ostensibly strive to bring unlawful but moral justice to those law-breakers whom they consider truly immoral, they too would have considered themselves on the side of good. The film’s moving scenes of working class families in Michoacán mourning more than a dozen victims, including women and children, of cartel violence suggest that the members of Autodefensas had good reason to believe they were taking up arms against evil. Cartel Land not only documents the impact of cartel violence on survivors but also shows some grisly images of those victims, images which compelled some audience members to look away and, for those watching, reified the deadly violence carried out to protect or grow cartels’ financial interests. Thus, Cartel Land gives viewers reason to sympathize with, if not outright approve of, the citizens who arm themselves to regain control of and protect their communities. However, as we watch Autodefensas’s ranks swell and their power grow under Mireles’s charismatic leadership, we also see them invade homes to confiscate property, arrest and torture men whose affiliation with cartel activity is uncertain, and hear Mireles tell one of his men to “get everything you can out of [a suspected cartel member], and then put him in the ground.” That these men appear to steal, torture, and kill within the communities their group initially intended to protect eliminates any possibility of easily classifying their organization as morally “good.”

Despite his claim to goodness and his earnest desire to be seen as morally justified, Cartel Land reveals that Nailer’s Arizona Border Recon’s moral status is quite murky as well. Though one might argue that Nailer’s goal of hampering cross-border drug trafficking is morally justifiable, his organization functionally provides its members with an opportunity to arm themselves, hunt, threaten, and detain Mexican citizens who have illegally crossed the border with apparently very little oversight from U.S. Border Patrol. As Dizard pointed out in our discussion, this makes Arizona Border Recon an attractive organization for blatant racists such as one member whose involvement is motivated by the belief that we should not “put two races in the same nation, and expect them to get along.” Though Foley’s motivations have the semblance of moral justification, that moral justification is compromised to increase the organization’s power and resources.

These vigilante organizations’ failure or inability to control membership is perhaps one reason why Dizard’s observation that power corrupts and attracts applies well to them. We find out in the film that Autodefensas compromises its own values by secretly partnering with a drug cartel to obtain weapons and money, becoming blatantly corrupt and quite similar to the criminal organization from which it sought to protect local communities. Autodefensas’ success attracted those who sought to abuse its recently acquired power, and the organization slowly takes on the values and practices of a cartel.

By the film’s end Autodefensas has been made an official police force by the Mexican government even though its criminal tendencies and connections are an open secret, and while this legitimization of a corrupt police force may surprise many American viewers, it did not surprise Dizard. This decision to throw the ineffectual band-aid of legitimacy on a vigilante force too powerful to be stopped without significant military intervention is characteristic of, to use Dizard’s phrase, the Mexican governments’ ineptitude and indecisiveness. Ironically the government’s ineffectual legitimization of Autodefensas reveals part of the reason such a vigilante group was founded: the Mexican government cannot be relied upon to effectively protect or act in the best interest of its citizens. The Mexican government is another ostensibly “good” entity, one meant to ensure the safety of its people, with corrupt elements, and its ineffectuality allowed Autodefensas to obtain power and subsequently become corrupt itself.

The final scene of Cartel Land  (which I opt not to spoil here) left those of us watching in the meeting room of the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library with the impression that the events it documents reveal a cycle of corruption frequently, if not inevitably, driven by individuals’ and organizations’ attempts to obtain political, economic, and social power. It is perhaps through its portrayal of the persistence of this cycle of corruption and violence that the film makes its most persuasive critique of Nailer’s conception of vigilantes as “good” fighting “evil”. That neither of the film’s vigilante groups make any lasting progress in their fight against evil suggests that arming citizens to allow them to pursue potentially swift, indiscriminate (or racially motivated), and violent “justice” is more likely to drive the cycle of corruption and violence forward than break it.

Militarization, “Superior Violence,” and U.S. Law Enforcement in Do Not Resist

Early on in the community discussion of the Controversy and Conversation screening of Craig Atkinson’s documentary, Do Not Resist, Gabriel Solis, Executive Director of the Texas After Violence Project, asked our group two questions central to the film’s exploration of police violence and militarization and the ongoing national discourse regarding incidents and victims of police violence and the protests they inspire: What is the role of police? What should policing mean? Having watched Atkinson’s stirring footage of the conflict between protestors and heavily armed and armored police during the Ferguson, MO protest of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, police training exercises and seminars, and SWAT “no-knock” warrant searches, the community members gathered at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library had just been presented a disturbing albeit limited sense of the role that police actually do play in contemporary American society. While our group did not (and perhaps could not hope to) arrive at a single, clear answer to Mr. Solis’s questions, many participants’ comments indicated that, regardless of what policing should mean, it should not mean what it does in the U.S. today.

Where public discourse regarding policing in the U.S. has recently tended to focus on the injustice of officers’ acts of violence against unarmed people of color and the U.S. justice system’s response (or lack of response) to those officers’ acts of violence, Do Not Resistseeks to shed light on the training, ideology, and equipment that inform and enable police violence. Perhaps the film’s central thrust is its exploration of the growing militarization of U.S. police (which is clearly on display in the footage of the Ferguson protests) through access to military grade equipment including firearms, assault vehicles, and surveillance technology. Atkinson examines the U.S. government’s 1033 program, which allows the Department of Defense to make the unreasonable amount of underused and excess military equipment (including a wide variety of non-combat equipment) being housed in large DoD storage facilities available to local law enforcement. Atkinson shows that equipment made to wage war, such as the MRAP, a large armored vehicle, and M16 assault rifles, has become both more available and, in the eyes of some law enforcement personnel, more necessary than ever to effectively subdue and/or eliminate violent civilians with increasingly lethal weapons.

The importance and escalation of violence in U.S. policing implied by this militarization is verbalized during a law enforcement training seminar led by Dave Grossman, a retired military officer. In demand as a speaker for police departments across the U.S., Grossman tells his audience that law enforcement must fight violence with “Superior violence. Righteous violence…Violence is your tool…You are men and women of violence,” indicating that a capacity for “superior” violence is necessarily a defining quality of U.S. law enforcement. As one community member at the screening pointed out, Grossman goes on to create a narrative for law enforcement officers in which violent action and skilled police work make them the “man of the city,” a contemporary heroic archetype which he nationalistically mythologizes by comparing it to the legendary frontiersman of the American West.

Grossman goes on to affirm the necessity of police violence by stating a truth he is certain his audience already knows: monsters are real and they are an imminent threat to society. Atkinson follows the footage of this discussion of monsters by showing Grossman giving an idealized description of the law enforcer looking out over his city and taking satisfaction in knowing that his actions have improved the lives of others. This description suggests that protecting and serving one’s community remains an essential aspect of Grossman’s conception of policing. However, Grossman’s insistence on the existence of monsters asks law enforcement to see certain humans, certain community members, as terribly inhuman and deserving of superior violence rather than protection and service. This dehumanization of criminals and those suspected of committing a crime makes violent action by police easier to justify and carry out by suggesting that these violent acts do not damage or terminate human lives but subhuman, animalistic lives. Of course, even the most violent of criminals, let alone those wrongfully suspected of committing a crime, are entirely and undeniably human. Therefore, if police officers are to find a sense of purpose or satisfaction in improving others’ lives, then they must also acknowledge that their use of militarized violence is counterproductive to this aim in that it destroys lives and can cause as much or more damage than it prevents.

While much of the discussion following the screening of Do Not Resist focused on what policing should and should not mean and was composed of community member critiques of U.S. law enforcement in a vein similar to the one I have given above, it was concluded by responses to two more questions asked by Mr. Solis: What does justice look like for an officer who kills an unarmed person? What does justice look like for police violence victims’ families? Responses to these questions pondered whether life imprisonment or the death penalty should be considered a just response to the killing of an unarmed citizen by a police officer or to the killing of a police officer by a citizen. Mr. Solis, whose work with Texas After Violence involves regularly interviewing the families and friends of victims of police and criminal violence, sees neither of these responses as just. Having heard many stories of how police and criminal violence has destroyed lives, Mr. Solis saw the death penalty and life imprisonment (at least in the current U.S. prison system) as additional ways of disposing of human lives. He instead advocates for a more recuperative form of justice that holds people accountable without disposing of them. Do Not Resist’s portrayal of U.S. law enforcement suggests that we are far away from having a criminal justice system that does all it can to hold those convicted of crimes accountable while respecting their humanity and providing them with real opportunities to change, grow, and perhaps even become reintegrated into society; that such a reconceptualization of American policing and justice was articulated in our Controversy and Conversation discussion seemed to mark a small step towards its realization.

On the Surveillance of Ordinary People

By Amanda Jackson-Spitzer

Killswitch is a fascinating documentary about several slippery subjects. The fight for the internet, for example. The control of information, for another. Copyright law. Security. Civil liberty. Digital liberty. Privacy. Net neutrality. Authoritarianism. You’d be forgiven for asking what relevance any of this has to your experience. So let’s break it down.

Killswitch is about justice. About doing the right thing. About what it means to do the right thing in a society where the rule of law is repressive and openly corrupt. About what it means to be a criminal when that society’s laws are written to make everyone a criminal, when the state cherry-picks which criminals to prosecute. And it’s about what it means to be a criminal when not breaking the law would be the bigger crime.

The film follows the stories of Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz, juxtaposing the pair as hero and martyr, respectively, of the hacktivist movement.

Aaron Swartz was a hacktivist wunderkind who helped to create RSS, Reddit, Demand Progress, and Creative Commons. He was, by all accounts, a deeply compassionate individual as well, constantly challenging himself and everyone around him to reconceive fundamental notions about the way the world worked so as to innovate solutions for social justice problems.

Some of Swartz’s actions, such as creating Demand Progress, were more practical in nature; others were more symbolic. It was in the latter spirit, one of principled symbolism, that Swartz used the MIT campus one day to download academic articles en masse from the digital library JSTOR.

Most academic journal articles at the time were accessible only through academic databases that enact cost-prohibitive paywalls. The high cost of obtaining access to these databases tended to preclude subscriptions from entities other than well-endowed universities, libraries, museums, and similar research institutions. Therefore, people who did not have access to excellent research facilities did not have access to the articles, stifling their ability to understand academic subjects in depth or detail. In addition, comprehensive academic knowledge of a subject is a necessary prerequisite for conducting original research. As a consequence, most people on the planet were barred from academic research.

In downloading articles from JSTOR, Aaron Swartz intended to bring national attention to his belief that everyone should have open access to research. Instead, he incurred the attention of the U.S. Secret Service, a federal grand jury, and a bevy of surprisingly fervid federal prosecutors. When the dust cleared, Swartz had been charged with thirteen felonies with a maximum penalty of fifty years in prison and one million dollars in fines, in what was almost certainly an instance of prosecutorial overcharging. The prosecution offered to recommend a six month prison sentence in a low security facility if Swartz pled guilty. This offer strongly suggests that the prosecutors did not actually consider Swartz’s actions to be that much of a big deal, and were using the threat of the maximal penalty as a bargaining chip. But the legal system may have lost sight of the distinction between a bargaining chip and a bludgeon, because Aaron Swartz lost hope and killed himself before the year was through.

Aaron Swartz’s suicide, and the prosecutorial overreach that inspired it, have powerfully dissuaded U.S. hackers from engaging in potentially contentious socially minded research and engineering ever since. This chilling effect, while broad and pervasive among our nation’s tech circles, is perhaps unsurprisingly strongest for the topic of open access to research itself. MIT actually hosted a symposium last year on the topic of forbidden research, and open access to academic articles was one of the featured forbidden topics.

But the idea of open access did not die with Aaron Swartz. Outside of our nation’s borders, open access is thriving through Alexandra Elbakyan’s brainchild SciHub, where curious people all over the world have open access to more than 55 million (largely pirated) scientific papers.

Killswitch also tells the story of Edward Snowden. If John Oliver is correct, no one knows who Edward Snowden is or what he’s done, so let’s recap here.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligent Agency (CIA), and office of the President decided to go rogue. They stopped following the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which protects U.S. citizens from unwarranted search and seizure), stopped engaging in pre-existing systems of federal checks and balances, and started illegally spying on millions of ordinary people here and in other countries. The rough idea of the surveillance system had been created by October 12, 2001. In mid-October of 2001, the NSA clandestinely asked the major telecom companies to hand over customer data, and by late October, the companies had begun to comply. From the beginning, the new mass surveillance program was deployed in a way designed to stop reasonable oversight. This was done primarily through not letting the agencies in charge of oversight know of the program’s existence. The vast majority of federal government officials were kept ignorant of the program. It took more than a year after its enactment for the NSA’s Inspector General to be informed of its existence. Only four members of Congress were briefed. In addition, there is actually a federal court, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), that is supposed to oversee federal spying programs. Only one judge out of eleven was briefed. In 2005, The New York Times first broke news of the mass surveillance program to the world. This was the first time most of the federal government had heard of the program. It wasn’t until after The Times’ revelations that the majority of the FISC court was finally informed of the program’s existence. (Amazingly, two of the FISC judges were still left in the dark for some years after.)

Given this (indicative but incomplete) formative history of how the government handled disclosures regarding its domestic spying program, it makes intuitive sense that someone who really wanted the world to know all the juicy details of the government’s wrongdoings would bypass an internal federal process and instead share the story directly with the world. Which is exactly what Edward Snowden did.

Snowden worked for the CIA and contracted for the federal government through Booz Allen Hamilton. Initially deeply idealistic, he became disillusioned by the realities of mass surveillance.

The NSA’s spying program was illegal, unethical, and bizarrely comprehensive. The NSA spied on ordinary people’s phone calls, emails, social networking, Google searches, XBox Live games and World of Warcraft campaigns, and dirty pictures sent to lovers. And not just other people’s. (Remember, this was personal. They spied on your phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, online games, and dirty pictures.) If the dirty pictures were attractive enough, NSA employees would regularly share them around the office; to do so was considered a normal perk of the job. (NSA employees would on occasion use their spying abilities to stalk ex-girlfriends, a practice known as LOVEINT. Unlike the sharing of ordinary people’s naked photos, this practice was not sanctioned by the agency.) Strangely enough, the NSA also spied on charities, including UNICEF.

US Intelligence Budget

If all of this weren’t enough, the domestic spying program was also wildly ineffectual. There was and is no evidence whatsoever that mass surveillance has ever stopped a terrorist attack.

Even though the government came to recognize that there was no point to mass surveillance, they refused to stop. As Snowden later said to the Guardian,

“The White House investigated those programs [which allowed mass surveillance] on two separate occasions and on both occasions found that they had no value at all, and yet, while those panels recommended that they be terminated, when it actually came to the White House suggesting action to legislators, the legislators said: ‘Well, let’s not end these programs. Even though they’ve operated for 10 years and never stopped any imminent terrorist attacks, let’s keep them going.’”

Edward Snowden had a harder and harder time sleeping at night. He wore an EFF sweatshirt every day to the office. He kept a copy of the U.S. Constitution on his desk, and was quick to cite it to show that specifics of the NSA’s mandates were unlawful. He would regularly challenge coworkers who stole strangers’ sexy photos and shared them around the office. But when he found out the government was developing an automated warfare program, he couldn’t take it anymore.

There was no official legal resource for Snowden. He was a contractor, which meant that any normal whistleblowing protections for government employees did not apply to him. Furthermore, the government’s track record suggested that those in power would not be punished and the agency’s practices would not be changed. In Snowden’s words,

“the officials who authorised these programs knew it was a problem, they knew they didn’t have any statutory authorisation for these programs. But instead the government assumed upon itself, in secret, new executive powers without any public awareness or any public consent and used them against the citizenry of its own country to increase its own power, to increase its own awareness…we now have an institution that has become so powerful it feels comfortable granting itself new authorities, without the involvement of the country, without the involvement of the public, without the full involvement of all of our elected representatives and without the full involvement of open courts, and that’s a terrifying thing.”

Snowden’s conscience gnawed at him. Domestic spying wasn’t affecting terrorists. It was affecting ordinary people. He said,

“When you’re an NSA analyst and you’re looking for raw signals intelligence, what you realise is that the majority of the communications in our databases are not the communications of targets, they’re the communications of ordinary people, of your neighbours, of your neighbours’ friends, of your relations, of the person who runs the register at the store. They’re the most deep and intense and intimate and damaging private moments of their lives, and we’re seizing [them] without any authorisation, without any reason, records of all of their activities – their cell phone locations, their purchase records, their private text messages, their phone calls, the content of those calls in certain circumstances, transaction histories – and from this we can create a perfect, or nearly perfect, record of each individual’s activity, and those activities are increasingly becoming permanent records.”

He needed to let the world know about the abuses of power taking place. So he stole somewhere between 50,000-200,000 incriminating documents from work, gave the documents to multiple journalists, and fled the country.

Federal prosecutors indicted Snowden on multiple counts of treason. Snowden declined to return to the U.S. to stand trial on the grounds that the trial would be conducted privately, depriving him of the opportunity to continue to inform the American public.

In addition, the U.S. government condemned Snowden’s actions as both traitorous and detrimental to national security–in specific, to the ability of the surveillance state to combat acts of terrorism. As the surveillance state was known to be useless in combating acts of terrorism, it is hard to understand how Snowden’s revelations could have hindered it further. Nevertheless, as Snowden pointed out to the Guardian,

“when we’re talking about things like terrorist cells, nuclear proliferators – these are organised cells. These are things an individual cannot do on their own. So if they abstain from communicating, we’ve already won. If we’ve basically talked the terrorists out of using our modern communications networks, we have benefited in terms of security – we haven’t lost.”

Since finding temporary harbor in Russia, Snowden has worked assiduously to educate the world about mass surveillance. (Journalists suspect he has also used his name as a shield to leak other whistleblowers’ secrets–in doing so protecting the identities and lives of other whistleblowers who are still working for the government.)

Snowden’s efforts have met with measured success. Supposedly, the government has partially disbanded its domestic spying program, in part because of public knowledge of the program’s existence and in part because the program just doesn’t work.

But the Trump administration wants to bring it all back. Forever. And the Trump administration, you may have noticed, is qualitatively different from the Obama administration.

You should watch Killswitch. And when you’re done?

You should protest the total reinstatement of the surveillance state.

Because justice is not static. Justice depends on you. Justice is historical. It is malleable. Justice is what you make of it. In your society. In your place. In your time. And right now, the meaning of what is right, the meaning of what should be lawful, depends on you.

Watch Killswitch. Take action. Defend the internet. And defend yourself.

The Humanities Institute, in partnership with the Austin Public Library, will be screening the award-winning Killswitch—the story of two young hactivists, Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden, who symbolize the disruptive and dynamic nature of the Internet—on October 5, 2017 at 6:30pm at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. Kevin Welch President of the Electronic Frontier Foundation-Austin and Philip Doty, Associate Professor in the UT-Austin School of Information and Associate Director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute will be present for a brief discussion and Q&A following the film. This event is free and open to the public.

Amanda Jackson-Spitzer

Amanda Jackson-Spitzer is a master’s candidate in Learning Technologies at the University of Texas-Austin and the head blogger for EFF-Austin. EFF-Austin is an Austin-based digital civil liberties organization and a proud member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Electronic Frontier Alliance (EFA).

A Story of Resistance and the Evolving Questions of the Keystone XL Pipeline Fight

By John Fiege

I shot most of Above All Else in 2012 during President Obama’s second campaign for president. Over the past five years I have continually asked myself what the film reveals about the world and the process of social change. My answers to those questions change over time, reminding me of why it is important that a film pose significant questions rather than merely search for answers.

The story of David Daniel and the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline in East Texas continues to frame significant questions and illuminate key issues undergirding environmental destruction, climate change, social justice, and the process of change in general.

Continue reading A Story of Resistance and the Evolving Questions of the Keystone XL Pipeline Fight