Thursday, March 27, 2003
Anti-war protesters use technology to organise, publicise and evade
SAN JOSE, California (AP) - As bombs blasted Baghdad last week, dozens of cell phones in China buzzed with messages about where to stage an anti-war protest.
In Cairo, activists tapped out text messages to summon 5,000 demonstrators to a central square.
And in San Francisco, technophiles beamed live footage from protests to anti-war Web sites.
Throughout the world, technology is allowing activists to stage spontaneous rallies in reaction to the war.
Prohibitively expensive only a few years ago, gadgets ranging from the cell phone to the mini digital video camera have made it easier to organize protests from Brussels to Manila.
Instead of relying on posters taped to telephone poles or slapped onto university walls, activists have crafted sophisticated Web sites with maps, weather and traffic updates and news on police crackdowns.
Before the invasion of Iraq began, the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center solicited volunteers to stage sit-ins in particular intersections.
When sit-ins sparked police confrontations, the group published live video on its Web site.
Such tactics enabled the activists to shut down much of downtown San Francisco - proof that new technologies have revolutionized civil disobedience, said Pam Fielding, co-author of "The Net Effect: How Cyberadvocacy is Changing the Political Landscape.''
On the eve of a "No Business As Usual'' anti-war protest planned for midtown Manhattan on Thursday morning by an ad-hoc coalition of activist groups, e-mails sped across the Internet seeking participants.
At the organizers' Web site, anyone could download flyers for printing that announced the intention to stop morning rush hour traffic through "decentralized autonomous direct action.''
While New York activists might opt for e-mail and voice phone calls, regional nuances remain in leveraging technology against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
In Asia and Europe, mobile phone text messages, also called short message service or SMS, are a powerful activist tool.
The morning after the first U.S. air strikes in Baghdad, Ashraf el-Bayoumi and other organizers urged anti-war activists by text message to converge on downtown Cairo.
It's a familiar way of communicating for them, he said. "We have been trying to use this technology for three years.''
Two days later, officials in Frankfurt, Germany, home of the U.S. military's Rhein-Main Air Base, decided after initially wavering to allow a protest. Within hours, 2,000 protesters converged near the base.
In Denmark, demonstrators have used cell phones while riding bicycles to reconnoiter and update each other on police movements.
"The way they communicate internally sounds sometimes as if they are at war,'' said Flemming Steen Munch, a Copenhagen police spokesman.
American activists have yet to adopt text messaging in large numbers. Incompatibility among U.S. cellular networks has stalled the technology, and many find the dial pad a cumbersome, thumb-tying experience.
But they have put a new twist in virtual protest. Last month, 400,000 protesters who conspired online made fixed line telephones their tools.
They clogged the White House and U.S. Senate's switchboards, preventing occupants from making outbound calls.
On the streets of San Francisco, 52-year-old Web designer John Parulis lugged more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of technology in his backpack the day after the war started.
He transformed himself into a mobile streaming video link to the Internet.
Connected through a wireless Internet access point, or WiFi, at a coffee shop, Parulis beamed protest footage to the Web from his Sony digital video camera.
"People are increasingly looking to the Internet for their news,'' Parulis said.
"There's a perception, and it's based on a lot of truth, that the mainstream media has a bias of corporate values.''
Technology has even given a voice to activists in countries without a tradition of free expression.
In Qatar, where U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks directs the war in Iraq, locals have used SMS to unleash anti-American protests and a boycott of American and British products.
In Beijing, a British expatriate set up a Web-based bulletin board and organized an anti-war rally last Friday in a downtown park.
Other expatriates spread the word via mobile phone messages.
But technology can be notoriously fallible.
On Feb. 15, cell phones jammed in downtown Stockholm after 35,000 protesters overloaded the network with multiple short messages and quick calls.
"Not a single phone worked,'' said Christina Hagner of Stockholm-based Network Against War. The group had to settle for walkie-talkies and word of mouth. - AP
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