The revolution will not be iPhoned

Reverend Billy longs for the delirious freedom of the global wave of 2011 protests. But is digital technology leading us astray?

In March 2011, public-sector employees and protestors in Wisconsin, USA seized the state capitol building’s rotunda. It was a delirious outpouring of freedom, an island of original culture burning hot in the cold winter of super malls, corporate screens, and the union-busting right-wing politics of Governor Scott Walker.

I remember a grandmother from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a retired librarian. She stood on a chair, a little lady in spectacles, and she began recounting the story of her life – finally she could tell all! There was something about the setting in which she found herself, this place of power now reclaimed, that made her remember everything about herself and share it immediately.

We were there singing and exclaiming when a series of delivery guys showed up with pizzas. They came through the capitol building doors and started handing them out. The guys began to shout, ‘Egyptian pizza! Mushrooms and cheese topping from the Pyramids!’ The credit card charge came with a note of solidarity from Tahrir Square. The Arab Spring was in the house!

We yearn for the river of movements to flow into our radical present tense

And so began the year of 2011, with the Middle East freedom struggle segueing into the 2,600 tent cities of the Occupy Movement. It was marked by the dissolving of time, as in the case of the Wisconsin librarian’s spontaneous autobiography, and the collapse of space that we felt as the pizza was delivered from Tahrir Square.

We thought that we could hear the singing and marching coming from everywhere, from the freedom movements in the dim past, and from uprisings continents away, as if we were all together in one great room.

Since the so-called Arab Spring, something has happened that we must solve to go forward. There has been an attack on our memory. ACT UP – the LGBQT+ direct action group from the late 1980s – seems far in the past, its old photos in a box in the attic, next to the boxes labeled ‘Anti-globalization Movement’. Gezi Park and Hong Kong Democracy and the Rolezinho flashmobs in Brazilian malls and the defence of whales by the Sea Shepherd and the No 3rd Runway! campaign at Heathrow in London – these movements now seem to be on different planets. From where I’m sitting in New York that unified sensation of 2011 has been mostly lost.

We yearn for the river of movements to flow into our radical present tense. We want to know the justice of each movement that is the same in all the movements. We don’t want to labour in atomized campaigns, that famous symptom of the Left. We felt a kind of relief when key figures from Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock attended the Washington million-person event. Angela Davis spoke. Eagle Woman, also known as Kandi Mossett, was there with a 20 woman Lakota dance group.

But then we went home to our computers on Monday morning. Ironically, and perversely, the Information Age makes this disconnection of movements much worse. Why? It would seem otherwise. Any activist information can be put on the computer screen at the speed of light. Since 2011 we have seen any revolution we want in squares of light in the palms of our hands. But that strange distancing begins, and we are still staring…

It turns out that the religion of digital connectedness has with in it, like all fundamentalisms, a violent distortion of reality. The faith that we are supposed to share is that the speedy information of computers is always tending from virtual reality toward reality itself. But there is a contradiction here: using a computer is a disembodied practice.

For revolution this makes all the difference. We can only perform the ritual of securing that living memory of revolution with our physical body. I’m contrasting ‘living memory’, with pixelated information. We are guided in our physical risk, our dance and our interruption of power.

That is why Gil Scott-Heron said, ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ If Siri repeats his famous phrase, it doesn’t mean the same thing, but Apple repeats it till its meaningless. We can counter this with: the revolution will be ritualized, because every change-making movement if full of ancestor movements. Across the years, a river of marching-dancing-shouting-activists carries the radical news.

Just as brave souls in Tahrir Square energized the 2011 uprising in the wintry farming country of Wisconsin, activism crosses great distances by the revolutionary tradition of personal, physical risk. As Duke Ellington said, ‘It don't mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’

Header image: (c) Alice Donovan Rouse