Home / Tech News / For Seattle’s cop-free protest zone, tech is both a revolutionary asset and disastrous liability

For Seattle’s cop-free protest zone, tech is both a revolutionary asset and disastrous liability

The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were sparks that reignited smoldering fury against authorities across the globe. One of the most watched locations has been Seattle, where protestors barricaded off a cop-free zone, drawing outsize attention and, in the process, forming a new case study in the uses of technology both to advance a cause and to drown it in disinformation.

From the actual recording of Floyd’s killing and the protests and riots that followed, to documenting the police’s brutal response and sudden withdrawal, to the establishment of and widespread commentary on an improvised community, technology has played a crucial role throughout. But to center things properly, it is how people are using technology, not the technology itself, that has become more important.

More than ever before, information truly is power, and imbalances in who holds that power have been both reinforced and challenged in the course of events here. It’s heartening to see live streaming and instant distribution of video lead to accountability, but it’s also sickening to see deliberate campaigns to manipulate and subvert reality — and I say reality because it’s what I’ve seen with my own eyes.

As a brief preamble, I should disclose some things.

First, I support the causes being advanced by protestors in Seattle. It would be useless to deny that I have taken sides here — partly because claims of objectivity are little more than a fig leaf for editorial decisions in matters of grave injustice and obvious abuses of power; but my presence at the protests has unavoidably been documented whether I like it or not, so there’s no sense in denying it.

Because second, I live on Capitol Hill, just blocks away from the zone. I’ve been eyewitness to important events, (with a built-in tech angle at that) and it would be irresponsible for me not to use the privilege of this platform to share aspects of them that have been only sporadically covered.

And third, these protests have been organized and led by people of color, and I am a white guy who, comparatively, has only barely taken part. On issues of race, policing, and inclusion I will defer to others better equipped to educate: writers like Ijeoma Oluo (whom we recently interviewed), researchers like Joy Buolamwini, and publications like Blavity.

With that out of the way, this article will focus on three topics: The collection and use of digital media on both sides of police clashes; the use of social media and battle of information versus disinformation in the cop-free zone; and the emergence of live streaming as an indispensable medium for this and future movements.

A matter of perspective

Image Credits: JASON REDMOND/AFP / Getty Images

The initial protests in Seattle in late May, which devolved in some locations into riots involving the despoliation and destruction of police cruisers (somehow left unattended and filled with weapons), are difficult to track because they were full of movement and chaos. But they were thoroughly, if haphazardly, documented by attendees with the presence of mind to record what they were seeing.

It’s telling that there has been little or no attempt at a counter-narrative from Seattle authorities when their officers were repeatedly (and continually as of this writing) filmed employing plainly excessive force against unarmed, often unresisting protestors, or indiscriminately firing tear gas, pepper spray, and flashbangs into crowds. One woman’s heart stopped three times after being struck by a blast ball that appeared to be deliberately aimed at her, while thousands watched.

Where, one wonders, is the exonerating footage from the police side showing the protestors being described as aggressive, or non-compliant, or whatever key words officers use to justify brutality during a melee of their own creation? And yet the police are at a loss. Presented with innumerable examples of bad behavior, the force seems to have decided day after day to stand fast and let it blow over.

But it’s hard to do that when you have something like a video going viral of a child who’s been maced: