Toronto Black Lives Matter Protesters Control Info with Social Media, Encryption
When the interviewer becomes the interviewee. Image: Author


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Toronto Black Lives Matter Protesters Control Info with Social Media, Encryption

A smartphone isn't biased.

The fire in front of the police station went out around 9 PM on Monday night, when temperatures dipped below zero. Fourteen hours later, a protester who asked to go by "Jasbina" filmed a Snapchat of another protester pointing to where the flames used to be.

At this protest, everything is documented online.

Protesters clean the fire area. Image: Author

Black Lives Matter demonstrators have been camped out on the concrete in front of Toronto police headquarters for three days after a police watchdog announced that the officer who shot and killed 45-year-old father and Somalian refugee Andrew Loku will face no charges.


"Before we had social media, the same shit would be happening to us, we'd still be getting beat up," said Jasbina. "But because there is Snapchat, Periscope, and Twitter, we can get the story out very quickly. Even now they're trying to say that it's over, but we're holding strong."

It's been a tense standoff, even before authorities wearing white jumpsuits quelled the flames the protesters were using to keep warm with a tar-like, foul-smelling black gunk and took down their tents. The protesters were wary of the police, of course—there have already been accusations of police violence—and also of members of the media, who dropped by for what some felt was driveby coverage. "A short interview and then editorializing," is how one demonstrator described what the mainstream press is after in a story like this.

Black gunk. Photo: Author

By contrast, the protesters have found a voice through Snapchats, Periscope feeds, and tweets, illustrating a trend that has emerged in Black Lives Matter protests around Canada and the US.

"If it wasn't for videos and hashtags and Periscope and Snapchat, black bodies would just be killed and there wouldn't be any accountability," said one organizer, who asked to be identified as "Pascale," voice hoarse and barely audible. "They can sit there and try and brush everything under the rug, but we have footage, and they're going to pay attention to us, and we're going to be here showing the world what they're doing to us."


Social media is "an opportunity for us to share what this fucking feels like, what this looks like, and for us to share our narrative," she said.

Image: Author

During a two-and-a-half hour visit to the encampment in front of police headquarters, I witnessed news media drop in to interview an organizer and then leave after mere minutes. One man with a camera at the encampment said he was there to cover the occupation "from the right," and told me he believes Black Lives Matter advocates for police killings. When I asked if he had witnessed anyone at the occupation say they'd like to murder police, he said no. When I asked what he would write if he never actually heard anything to back up his thesis, he said he would simply "write the facts." His website is filled with headlines like "The black lives matter movement shows us that they really have no concept of reality."

Any reporter can have a bias. A smartphone does not.

The protesters are also starting to use encryption to protect these tools that have become so crucial to the movement.

Jasbina finished describing to me how on Tuesday night she had to "talk a cop down, hand on the trigger"—he was "terrified," she said. Then she asked to communicate with me further on Signal, the popular and easy-to-use app that lets you communicate using encryption, so police and security agencies can't spy on your messages.

During a protest, even one in front of police headquarters, encrypting communications is just one more way to control what information gets to whom, and how.

"The thing is, when becoming more media savvy, people also need to understand that the state and the police are always trying to catch up,and you don't want to be incriminated for asking someone to come help," Jasbina said. "In cases when the state is coming after you, it's all you have, it's your word, and it's your privacy."

After the demonstrators finished carrying away what was left of the black "goo," as one organizer described it, and covering the ground with cat litter to soak up the remnants, more people were working together to erect a tent over a table of donated food. The police had already warned the group not to put up any structures, but this was their space now, and they weren't planning on going anywhere.

"Please let it be rain," Pascale said, as snowflakes began to fall where the fire used to be.

Image: Author