On Sunday, the grassroots organization Restore the Fourth rallied activists across the country for the second time this year to protest the National Security Agency’s dragnet-style surveillance programs and their violations of the Fourth Amendment. The protest was named 1984 Day, both a play on the date 8/4 and after George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel about oppression and surveillance.
Their first protest, which took place on the Fourth of July, was sparked after former NSA computer analyst Edward Snowden leaked top-secret NSA documents about the agency’s surveillance programs. Since then, polls have shown that few people believe there are adequate limits on NSA surveillance, Snowden has been granted asylum in Russia for one year, we’ve learned of the program XKeyscore, and it was revealed that members of Congress are getting much of their information about the aforementioned programs from the Guardian.
In San Francisco, protesters targeted Representative Nancy Pelosi for voting against the Amash Amendment, and heard from a variety of speakers, including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. In New York, activists marched from Bryant Park to Columbus Circle, stopping to protest at the AT&T building on 53rd and 11th, as well as the NYPD precinct on 54th and 8th. I asked a few protesters about their signs, many of which included quotes from 1984.
VICE: Do you feel like we’re living in Orwell’s narrative in some ways?
Ms. Leivowitz: I don’t think we’re actually quite there yet, but we’re really close. And if we don’t stop the turn we’re going to be there. We’re extremely close in a number of ways.
How do we "stop the turn"?
Marches like this, getting in touch with our people in Congress, protesting to the president. He’s gone over and above going after whistleblowers and is certainly on board with the spying. We need to make our voices heard in as many ways as possible.
Do you think there is any level of spying necessary for National Security?
When there is something that happens where authorities have a reason to believe that someone is up to something, they can get a warrant and spy on them. But this is being done without a warrant and without any reason to suspect that each and every American is doing wrong. And for petty things where they don’t even check into, they just see something that triggers an alert and go after people for no sense of a reason.
VICE: What are your thoughts on the NSA surveillance program recently leaked?
Vincent: If it's national security, it’s national security, but don’t do a big dragnet on everybody. It’s as if they’re treating people guilty until proven innocent, as opposed to looking for the individual people who are actually suspicious.
Is surveillance that could potentially target terrorists OK?
Yes, but “terrorist” must be strictly defined. Not just anybody can be called a terrorist and then immediately surveyed.
How do you feel about the government’s response to whistleblowers?
I believe the truth should be free. They say that the truth sets you free… not in this case.
VICE: What was your view of Obama before this came about?
Cynthia: I supported him in his first go around and was bitterly disappointed with him before the first year of his term was over. You know, you look at him, and he’s a lawyer, so he understands the constitution. He was saying all the right things, but when he got into office he did all of the wrong things. I feel like it’s my duty to speak out even louder because I spoke out against Bush. He’s doing things to the next extreme.
What about the notion of privacy in the modern age?
You know, they say roaches are more popular than Congress right now, but literally no one wants to do anything. There should be thousands of people out here. You know, it’s funny, I just had this argument with Brad Friedman, and he’s a journalist. He blames the mainstream media. I blame America, because in this day and age when everything is at your fingertips, what is alternative media? You guys do a great job, RT does a great job, there are so many other places to get your news, if you’re going to be a dunderhead and watch coverage of the royal baby for four hours, shame on you.
Isn’t that what the people want?
I think when people can’t afford their hamburger on a Friday night, that’s when you’re going to see people get involved. But for me, I’m a taxpayer, my taxes are going to drones, to these wars, I don’t understand how people don’t feel like its their duty to get out here and speak.
What do you think about Edward Snowden?
I think he’s a hero, and I think Bradley Manning’s a hero. Sometimes your conscience gets the better of you, and we need more men like that. Like this guy really needed this headache? To stay in this airport for how many months? Now he’s got a temporary stay with Russia. I don’t care why he did it; the American people need to know this stuff.
My husband and I didn’t agree on the Manning thing. My husband's a marine. I went down the first day they started the trial to the rally, and he had said to me, “I can’t support you.” And I said, "Whatever, I don't care, I don't need your support." Then he spent a night researching what Bradley Manning leaked. I was on the bus, and he texted me and said, “You’re right”.
VICE: What would you personally like to see happen?
Scott McGill: Absolute first step: it would be ideal if there could be legislation in place to make sure there is actual oversight with adversarial court hearings that actually means there’s somebody arguing on behalf of privacy rather than just security. That would be a good first step. It doesn’t matter so long as it’s transparent, there’s accountability and decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, away from where any of us can actually understand why a decision was made or that a decision was made.
Are you willing to trade civil liberties for national security?
I’m personally not, but I’m more open to the conversation. I’m personally not because I believe that the odds of a terrorist attack being the end of me versus a car accident. It's just a numbers game at that point, and I personally don’t think it’s worth trading the liberties for the security. Ben Franklin's quote [“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one”] rings true to me. But a lot of people have different opinions on it, so we need to get to the point where we can have that conversation in public rather than right now where it's all in secret.
The forefathers purposefully wrote the Constitution where time wouldn’t be a factor in its validity. Do you think there are parts of the Constitution that might just simply be outdated?
I don’t think the Constitution necessarily means that there can’t be these kinds of programs, but the Constitution guarantees that there will be actual specific warrants. And right now we don’t have that so it's very difficult. We're so far away from the Constitution simply because, in no other court could you offer a warrant for 10 million people. That doesn’t exist. There’s no warrant for 10 million people except in FISA courts.
VICE: How did you end up here?
Zachary Jospeh: I just showed up today walking through Central Park, seeing the signs about NSA, spying, and so on and so forth. I’m aware of what’s going on with Snowden leaking the documents, with information about the government spying on everybody.
Do you feel like it violates your constitutional rights?
Yes, technically it does, but it’s not anything new.
Do you think there is anything Americans can do? Do you think protests like this are useful?
Yeah, it’s definitely useful. The more people that pay more attention to it the better.
VICE: How was the turnout today compared to last time?
Ben Doernberg: I think there were more people last time, about 800. This time I’d say we had about 400. Still, you know, I think it’s been an extra month since all this has come out, and we didn’t have quite as much time to plan this time around. So honestly I’m still really encouraged, you know, if you had tried to get a rally together three months ago, of people against Fourth Amendment violations you might have had eight people. So, I think this is a sign people are still upset and things are still headed in the right direction.
Can you talk about XKeyScore?
XKeyscore is a new program that collects all internet activity and just stores it for a set amount of time. We don’t know if that’s three days, or a week, or a month, but the NSA is building this massive storage facility in Bluffingdale, Utah. If they can store all of your internet activity, all of your searches for a week, two years from now they might be able to store it for a month or a year. And I just don’t see anyway that that’s constitutional. They’re collecting your information without a warrant, without probable cause to prove you did anything wrong. So, it's unconstitutional and illegal. Members of Congress and other people have been very clear saying, “Look, no one is reading your emails, no ones got the content, its just metadata." Well, now it looks like that’s not true either.
I read today that Congress has been denied access to basic information about these programs and is unable to conduct any oversight.
It just goes to show that even though there’s a dispute over the validity about this type of surveillance, and that there are three independent branches of the federal government. Nothing is changing. It’s like well, the judiciary court is a secret court where there’s no representative of civil liberties, most of Congress doesn't even know about it, and clearly the executive branch... You know Obama came in as this candidate of transparency. Now, we clearly can’t trust him to defend our civil liberties.
Why the 1984 reference?
This was August 4 (8/4), so we called it 1984 Day because we wanted to bring attention to the fact that everyone is talking about, how are these programs working right now? But that’s missing the big picture, which is we’ve built the infrastructure for a surveillance state—and this sounds like a conspiracy-theorist-type thing to say—but if the NSA flipped a few buttons tomorrow they could just write down every single phone call, every single email, so the infrastructure is being built for Big Brother. We can’t rely on politicians who have lied to us, the NSA—which has also lied to us—to responsibly use that power. No government agency in history when given that kind of power has used it for the good of the people. Then you have a former Stasi colonel saying he would have loved to have these kinds of systems when he was working for the Stasi.
What’s next for Restore the Fourth?
Starting on August 5, which is when the Congressional recess begins, we’re going to be meeting with every member of Congress, every senator, and district-by-district, vote-by-vote turning things around. And I think we’re really close, and I think we’re going to do it. We’ll be setting up official meetings, going to town halls, there will be civil disobedience actions. We’re going to make sure that if members of Congress thought they weren’t going to have to answer for these votes, they will. And they’re going to have to answer in a big way.