Disclaimer: As an older organizer who rarely participates in online activism, several friends asked me about my decision to participate in yesterday’s facebook “check in” at Standing Rock. I have no special authority on this topic, nor am I disparaging anyone else’s choice: this is really a response to several conversations, instead of writing four long emails to explain why I took the action I did.
My first reaction when I saw the call to “check in” was skepticism that this tactic could subvert online surveillance of activists. Like many corporate campaigners, I disabled location tracking for most apps long ago because social media surveillance is not a new tactic for law enforcement and the same types of private security companies who are perpetrating harassment and violence against the water protectors in ND.
But even without a clear source for the ask or an easy way to measure the impact, I couldn’t see the harm in participating in a gesture of solidarity to raise visibility and galvanize the movement. After months of donating, divesting, demonstrating, reading, listening, speaking out and showing up, I still wake up every morning in a warm bed, not a cold campsite or a fenced-in cage. In my journey to decolonize my own mind, perfectionism has been one of the hardest ideals to unlearn: letting go of the idea of a “right” way of doing “enough.” Of course, I want to be responsible for any harms my actions may cause – intentional or not – but beyond that, the worst choice for me is silence and inaction.
Often, I don’t take online actions because the time and energy it takes this old dog to think through new tricks can feel disproportionate to the value, and face-to-face organizing can be a better use of my time. But I keep returning to these potent paragraphs by Ricardo Levins Morales who wrote, “there are things in life we don’t get to do right.” For me, this was such a moment: it wasn’t a perfect action but it seemed potentially helpful, with little potential for harm, so I chose to act by checking in, although I linked to additional readings and action steps, rather than the copy/paste explanation about subverting law enforcement.
Since the Sacred Stone facebook page could not confirm who started the tactic, it’s impossible to know if their intentions were sincere solidarity or attention-seeking, half-baked or deeply thought out. But I’ve been around long enough to know that when any mobilization builds power, detractors always step forward to criticize the tactics, if not the goals, of the participants. Before long, I began to see the comments questioning the efficacy of the check-in, even calling it a “hoax” based on a Snopes designation as “unverified” because Sheriff’s spokespeople denied using check-ins for surveillance, and no source for the action could be verified. The word may apply, but if so this felt to me like the best sort of hoax.
I’m the last person to judge those who do or don’t participate in a given tactic. Most of my organizing is never reflected on social media because I overthink the performativity of those spaces, and my best contributions are made in face-to-face work. The speed with which online actions are shared often precludes depth and accountability, and an action about Standing Rock which may not have originated there is politically questionable, to say the least. I’m not sure if checking in was a good or bad choice, but for some, the action may have served as a step towards becoming active accomplices with the movement for indigenous sovereignty.
I’d rather spend my energy planning the next action instead of agonizing over the last one. But most organizers will agree that when thousands upon thousands of people take action to publicly stand in support of your movement, that is a moment of strength and opportunity. As Dallas Goldtooth reflected on the check-ins, while this tactic is “not the gamechanger you may think it is,” it keeps folks engaged, keeps the movement fresh, and “helps show the racist arses at Morton County police department that we are more than just some rabble rousers in a field… we are a fucking global movement of pipeline fighters. So check in and come see the view.”
I have no interest in policing anyone else’s tactics, but I have made the mistake of being overly skeptical in the past, and being on the “other side” of this one felt like progress for me, personally. It’s easy to point out the flaws in any strategy, but for me it’s harder to let go of being “right” and trust in the collective power of movements. I do wish people would fact-check more before rushing to share the latest viral meme, and I will always prioritize organizing over easy gestures like changing a profile picture, or checking in. No one believes that a single facebook action is “enough,” but the speed with which this idea took hold proves that people are hungry for new tactics and ways to help. People of conscience around the world are invested in this struggle and seeking ways to stand together: and we can only find those ways by focusing on our goals, not on judging the “authenticity” of our friends’ harmless tactics.
Anyone who has been building this movement, who has spent more energy seeking liberation than debunking others’ tactics, has every right to critique the check-in and push us all to do more. But as a reformed naysayer, if that’s all you’re bringing, I urge you to try harder. As Kelly Hayes recently wrote, “Being an organizer is about understanding that, whenever possible, lateral critiques should be aimed at helping everyone – including you – to do better, rather than honing the membership of your clubhouse.” The facebook check-in is easy to critique, and I have total respect for the choice not to participate, but if you want to tell me why my choice was wrong, please also bring me a new idea of how we are going to win this fight. Because while I’m working on my perfectionism, I still know that everything I can do is not nearly enough. Let’s do this.