Beyond “Where were you before?”

In the wake of a tragedy, those who are closest to its source often look with disbelief at the masses of people who suddenly care and, in their own attempts to process grief or anger ask something akin to: Where were you before?

That sentiment showed up a couple times in my Twitter feed in the hours ensuing Aaron Swartz’s suicide and the subsequent media spotlight on both him and the trial whose pressures many believe contributed to his death. It’s a completely understandable sentiment, but I want to propose a different take.

For many (many, many) years, the prison-industrial complex has been ravaging American society. The prosecutorial overreach in Swartz’s case (more on that can be found on Unhandled Exception) was not an isolated incident in this context. You can find the same overreach that existed in Swartz’s trial in every zero tolerance policy in schools, you can find it in our skyrocketing prison population in general — and it should make you enraged because the punitive parts of our system do not punish equally.

If you are HSBC and you have been involved in money laundering, you pay a fine; if you are a six-year-old who brings a camping utensil to school, you get suspended; if you are a poor 13-year-old who is late to school, you have to go to court with your family and face a $350 fine.

We can all be asked “where were you?” when we discover or become involved in something we didn’t know before, but that isn’t the answer that will bridge movements and make the people who oppose an inequitable system stronger. The real answer is “Welcome.”

Welcome to this part of the fight against violations of individual liberty, welcome to this part of the fight against commercialization of knowledge. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

The real question is: “What do you know that we don’t know?” There is a great deal that people who have been involved with schools know that the Electronic Frontier Foundation doesn’t know, and vice versa. The same goes for people working on issues in the prison system.

Those of us who harassed our legislators over SOPA and talk the ears off our non-techie friends about speech, privacy, and consumer rights in a technologically-mediated world are situated in one corner of a much larger battle with a much larger system. We have natural allies in education activists who work to mobilize against the school to prison pipeline and the increasingly prison-like schools (replete with police, metal detectors, fines, etc.), among others. It seems that the tragedies the U.S. has seen in the last couple of months — the Newtown school shooting and the ensuing talk of armed teachers in schools or a national database of mentally ill people, and the increasingly visible and serious problems inherent in Swartz’s trial and others like it — are intertwined.

We should take a look at each other’s information, see what we share, and say “Welcome. What can I learn from you?”

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