Solidarity with everyone taking action against ICE today! Borders and national citizenship are among the most egregious means of creating inequality. Borders don’t just tear apart families—they maintain a global apartheid. https://crimethinc.com/borders
As even the Russian state news service admits, the ongoing revolt in Nicaragua against Daniel Ortega’s government is coming largely from the left side of the political spectrum. While supporters of the authoritarian left exhort people to support “left” governments no matter what neoliberal policies they implement or how many people they slaughter, we believe that the declining fortunes of left governments throughout Latin America are not just the consequences of CIA conspiracies but a reaction to real shortcomings of the institutional left and of government itself. Doubtless, various capitalists and state actors have their own agendas for Nicaragua, and they hope to take advantage of the uprising to implement them. But ordinary people have legitimate reasons to rise up. We should identify the participants in the uprising who are pursuing goals complementary to our vision of a world without capitalism and the state, in order direct our solidarity towards them. Otherwise, as the Ortega government attempts to retain power by brute force, the revolt will likely be hijacked by right-wing and colonial interests.
While students were discussing what demands to make in the negotiations with Ortega, Dissensus Nicaragua published a translation of the CrimethInc. text “Why We Don’t Make Demands” in Spanish. The negotiations have broken down. Now the crisis is intensifying, with students continuing to occupy universities while the police continue killing people and Ortega refuses to back down. In the following report, our Nicaraguan correspondent outlines some of the tensions within the uprising and presents an eyewitness report from inside one of these occupied universities.
I am part of the affinity group that created sosnicaraguareporte.com, in Spanish. It includes a timelime and all sorts of information. It’s a good place for news. There is even a meme section!
As of this writing, over 100 people have been murdered by the state and the police in the uprising in Nicaragua. The majority have been students. On Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, May 30, there was a Mother’s Day march. This march broke all records for participation. The state police and Sandinista Youth attacked the march, killing 11 and injuring 79 all over Nicaragua.
We have not been able to discuss all the questions we would like to. Things are messy and changing constantly, and we are not the majority. Nevertheless, I will try to describe the situation.
We can see some tensions inside the movement. The most noticeable are the following:
The Private Sector vs. the Autovoncado Movements
The Autoconvocado movement (the coalition of student organizers and community organizers, independent from the Coalition of Students and Representatives in the dialogue) has been supporting a general strike as a way to escalate the situation and put more pressure on the government to negotiate and stop the killings. The private sector (which employs dozens of thousands of people and holds a lot of wealth and political power) has not advocated for a general strike, supposedly to avoid economic losses. As a consequence, for example, the city of Masaya organized autonomously and declared, independent of the private sector, that they would conduct a citywide general strike. That strike occurred and was violently repressed. Up to now, Masaya is the most dangerous and most affected city in Nicaragua, with over 10 people murdered by the police over last weekend.
Student Movements and the Student Coalition
There is very strong communication between the student movement and the Student Coalition that is representing the movement at the level of dialogue with the state. But many participants in the student movement feel that the Student Coalition is being very soft and diplomatic. The Coalition is a group of student organizers from multiple universities all over Nicaragua; they are the ones representing the movement in the negotiations with the state. The student organizers that form the coalition emerged from affinity groups that were created at the beginning of the student protests. I don’t know exactly how they got so much power—it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. These students were the first ones to present themselves as leaders.
So the power distribution is very vague and there are instances when they have been accused of selling out. The Student Coalition representatives are the ones who release the communiqués and plans of action, and the ones who talk to the press the most. Nevertheless, it is possible for student dissidents to claim that the Coalition does not represent them and to provide a different set of demands and methods.
There are also complaints that the Student Coalition does not offer space for anyone’s voices besides those of men when it comes to delegating the responsibilities.
The participant in the Student Coalition that comes closest to our perspective is probably Enrieth Martínez.
A lot of the power and decision-making process has been focused on students in Managua, since the capital has been the site of the major manifestations and occupied universities. But the cities that have been affected the most have been outside of Managua—cities that don’t have a university campus, where the residents are defending themselves through citywide barricades and something like a general strike. There is no effective communication among people in the different cities, since the strategy has been to block all major roads and transportation. At the table of the dialogue with the state, there are no representatives from the cities that are affected the most. Here is where several groups have advocated for self-governance and self-administration as a way to take the decision-making power out of Managua.
The first and most prominent critiques of the government and the state arose from feminists. Since the 1980s, feminists have critiqued the hierarchical and patriarchal aspects of the Sandinista Movement. In a famous speech by Daniel Ortega on International Women’s day at the peak of the Sandinista Revolution, Ortega said that the revolutionary duty of women was to give birth to the next generation of revolutionaries. This showed how the revolution viewed women and women’s participation in everything. It has been feminists who have critiqued the state as connected to machista and religious culture in Nicaragua and Latin America. It has been feminists who have denounced hierarchies in the family, in politics, in culture, and in the state. It has also been women who have constantly said that the war against the people did not start on April 19, it started way before, but it was carried out against rural women and indigenous people in Nicaragua.
On the Question of Capitalism
People need to understand that the Nicaraguan people are sacrificing economic stability for social justice. Nicaragua was perceived as safe, an economic paradise for investment, but this only came about through the centralization of political power. Like Vietnam and China, a single-party centralized government has been an incentive to draw private investors.
Nicaragua’s economic stability, which took 10 years to build, only benefitted the upper middle class and the upper class. This created a false sense of “progress,” “development,” and “stability,” all of which the government celebrated. In reality, most of the people worked in informal sectors and did not have access to jobs. In this sense, participants in the student movement are forced to start asking questions: “OK, now I have graduated from an Autonomous University, now what? Where am I going to work? And at what price?” The vast majority of college majors and programs were “pro-market majors” focusing on business administration, engineering, computer science, marketing, tourism, and the like.
The student movements will need to address capitalism and neoliberalism and start to see how their struggle intersects with the anti-capitalist movement outside of authoritarian governments. These conversations have not started yet.
I think a lot of people are disappointed in the lack of international support towards people in Nicaragua. Americans only cared about us as long as they could come to Nicaragua to vacation and enjoy cheap things. On an international level, many of those who support the Nicaraguan insurrection are not asking hard questions about their own governments and structures. Hopefully, we can find a way to make would-be allies start addressing these questions themselves. It’s true, we are seen as a “legitimate” movement that wants “democracy” (whatever that means). If we succeed, we will see how many countries will support our efforts to collectivize, autonomize, and decentralize.
Will the United States still support us after they realize our intention to go ever further left? Will a centrist government create the conditions for more radical politics to emerge? This is a long-term plan; the Ortegas will do the best they can to stay in power at whatever cost. They would prefer to stay in power in a destroyed country than give up power in a way that leaves the country stable.
I think the conversation regarding “politicians,” “elections,” “the state,” “political participation,” and “the police” are all up in the air. It’s an opportunity to create new local concepts. After everything that has been lost—entire towns burned to the ground and children executed in the street—we will not settle for less. Whatever government comes next will need to radically change what it means to do politics.
I think we are trying everything from every possible angle, and it will be the people who will decide what best fits their spiritual needs. We are attacking state power from every angle, some angles more “institutional,” “democratic,” and “legimitate” than others, but somehow these are all complementing each other.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if we are moving forwards or backwards. We just know what the government is doing everything, desperately to survive, and every single day, they lose more support. As the saying goes, El que no critica a su gobierno, no quiere a su madre! Those who don’t criticize their government don’t love their mothers.
Appendix: Inside an Occupied University in Managua
After a week of communicating with my contact inside the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (UNAN), I received a message from him: “I’ll be at the main entrance in 15 minutes. I can meet you there if you want to come inside, meet everybody, and see what we’ve been up to.”
For a week, I had been participating in a support system helping the occupation at UNAN from the outside. At first, my contact, Guadalupe (a pseudonym) had advised me not come inside for fear that infiltrators might recognize me and harass me outside. But as things seemed to have settled down, I was invited in.
With about 30,000 students, UNAN is the largest public university in Nicaragua. Students have been occupying it since May 8. Every major entry is blocked by two sets of barricades, starting blocks away from the main Portones (entry gate). Each porton is guarded by at least 15 students armed with morteros (mortors).
“Dress up as a medical student and bring a med kit, just in case anybody is watching. They are less likely to be suspicious if you enter as a ‘medic,’” Guadalupe told me.
I crossed the main Porton and met Guadalupe for the first time. “Second in command” in the occupation, he is also a part of the committee representing the students in the national dialogue. He is 23 years old and a student at UNAN. Guadalupe was part of the first protest organizers inside of UNAN. Currently he divides his time between working inside and outside of UNAN, inside as a coordinator and outside as a delegate of UNAN as part of a larger student coalition.
The organization inside of UNAN involve “leaders” from different portones and sectors (Medical, Food, Supply) that meet up and negotiate responsibilities and priorities. These leaderships emerged out of the first week of occupation and were agreed upon by all. Since each porton is semi-autonomous, it can operate as a closed circuit in case of an attack, without the necessity of a top-down decision-making process that would involve the entire University. Roles were distributed by voluntary association and based around shifts so that everybody can rest. Main roles are: Guarding the barricades, sorting through donations, food, cleaning, guarding the portones, medical attention, communications and coalition participation.
Its important to note that the organization inside the occupied Universities occurred spontaneously. They did not follow a pre-established or pre-rehearsed organizational model. This model of organizing was the most efficient, participatory and democratic. Remember that young Nicaraguans did not have an “occupy movement” o something similar that could have provided the blueprint of how to organize. The only political models that were practiced were through hierarchical political parties, and ONG’s leadership training.
Here are the rules inside the gates: everybody in the University uses pseudonyms; you are not allowed to take any photos or videos of anything; if you are texting, you have to do it with your phone facing the ground. In Nicaragua, it is very common for people to use nicknames, usually derived from physical cues like La Flaca (the skinny one), El Gordo (the fat one), El Negro (the black one), La Zorra (the Fox), El Chino (the Chinese one), El Chele (the light-skinned one), El Gringo (the gringo).
Guadalupe confirmed my identity and began to show me around the university campus. Most of the muchachos (“the boys”—a word that includes girls) were busy taking over UNI, the Engineering University, so UNAN was somewhat quiet. Later that day, the police and Sandinista Youth attacked UNI, injuring 30 students and killing one of them.
We approach the geology building, which has been turned into a medical center. “This is one of the newest buildings of this University and we are protecting it, because we plan on using these facilities in the future for our education.” I see rooms full of medical supplies, and a lot of students sleeping in the hallways in sleeping bags. “Those are the muchachos from the night shift at the barricades. They sleep here during the day. Not all of them are from UNAN—some of them are neighbors that are too afraid to go back home.”
The hallways are dark and quiet, but everything is clean and organized. There are cleaning crews; students know the rules, which rooms to go into and which not to go into. “We need to protect this building. It’s the geology building. We are protecting diamonds and meteors that are worth thousands of dollars, but we want to save them for future generations to learn and study.”
The entire university is protected. You don’t see graffiti on the walls. All the classrooms are locked. The restaurants inside of the university are also protected because the occupiers don’t want the occupation to affect the small business owners who need to keep a job.
We left the building and approach one of the cooking and food collection sheds. The leader of this zone is called Aymara. She administrates the food in this section and keeps a tight record of all the food donations that come in. She distributes the food and supplies wherever they are needed the most.
What do you all do for food?
“We’re living off Gallo Pinto.” (Gallo Pinto—rice and beans—is the most popular Nicaraguan dish). “We don’t have a set time for breakfast. If the muchachos are hungry but don’t want to leave their post, we’ll send food their way. Every day, we must cook three meals for about 400 people.” The joke in Nicaragua is that we eat rice and beans for breakfast, beans with rice for lunch and Gallo Pinto for dinner.
Aymara also showed me a shed full of food, enough food for months, all of which has been donated by people all over Nicaragua. It is rationed out daily. Pointing to an immense pile of spoiled food, Aymara said “You see all that food? That’s all poisoned food. Sometimes people send us bananas with needles inside, or bread injected with rat poison. We need to double-check everything that we receive. That’s why we prioritize canned goods.”
“We also managed to jumpstart five university trucks and one tractor, which we use inside and outside of the university.”
This article does a good job describing the leadership of women inside and outside of the student movement. I studied with the author, Madeleine Caracas, and we both started out in the same organizing committee in early April.
Each porton operates semi-autonomously. Each zone has its own medical center, food center, and bomb-making center, each with a delegate in every porton. Every porton is always ready to defend itself. Two nights before my visit, an armed man on a motorcycle rapidly approached a barricade, shooting at the students. The students defended themselves with mortars and injured the motorcyclist, who destroyed his phone before the students moved him to a local hospital. He died on the way there.
This was a very confusing scenario. The man on the motorcycle underestimated the abilities of the students to defend themselves. Why would he attack the barricades by himself? Did he plan on shooting, perhaps killing, some students and then retreating? We don’t know.
Such attacks usually happen at night. Keep in mind that this university is the size of an entire neighborhood, with hundreds of buildings, classrooms, departments and soccer and basketball courts, with six different entryways. In order to add more protection at night, the barricades are moved further out of the university perimeter to create more of buffer zone.
Unlike UPOLI, UNAN does not have the support of the local community to protect them. In this sense, the students are more exposed. UNAN is neighbored by La Colonia Miguel Bonilla, which is an Orteguista neighborhood. This community was created in the 1980s during the Sandinista Revolution, and most of the houses are owned by the police, the military, and high-ranking military officials. This neighborhood was one of the military headquarters during the Somoza dictatorship, but was confiscated during the revolution and given to UNAN students for housing and to military, police, and civilians to live in. Therefore, most of the families that live inside of La Miguel Bonilla strongly support the Orteguista government as a “revolutionary government.” If you are political dissident in La Miguel Bonilla, you must keep a low profile; there have been many cases of harassment by the community towards anti-Ortega supporters. La Miguel Bonilla is also where a lot of UNAN administration officials live, the safe officials that perpetuate and institutionalize the Orteguista influence inside of the University.
The UNAN has a strong barricade in front of the entrance to La Miguel Bonilla, since a majority of the attacks have been organized inside of the neighborhood, which functions as a safe space for Orteguista forces.
What do you want to accomplish?
“We want to obtain university autonomy, a complete restructuring of UNEN [the chief Nicaraguan student union], and a complete restructuring of the internal administration of the University. Every day we spend in this university, we are sending a message to all of Nicaragua about how far we are willing to go to offer quality education for our generation and future generations.”
What does autonomy mean to you?
“It means professors not getting fired because they oppose decisions that the government has been making. It means giving access to scholarships to everybody, not just the Sandinista Youth. It means taking the Orteguista party out of the Universiy’s administration. It means studying things that matter. We need a student-centered education and not an Orteguista-centered education, and this is happening not just at the University level but also at the Primary and Secondary school education level.”
I noted Campus Security was still present in the University. I asked about their role in the university during the occupation. Guadalupe told me, “They work here because they are privately hired, so they don’t want to lose their jobs. They have helped us identity infiltrators and have been extra set of eyes and ears their own communities, to help the students. They’re on our side.”
For context, in Nicaragua, Campus Security is nothing like the police or “private security.” They do not carry weapons; they do not have the power to turn people in to the police. This job was created in the 1990s when so many revolutionaries were jobless. These jobs are done at a very low wage by very poor families, usually protecting empty lots.
What message do you have for students around the world?
“Hopefully we can inspire students to occupy their universities and start building the kind of university they want to study in.
“It’s also super important for Universities to have a good relationship with their neighborhood. That way you can involve the community in matters that affect the university and start building solidarity.”
The students I met and spoke with in UNAN seem to have developed an unbreakable bond based on solidarity that crosses gender and class backgrounds. They appear willing to die for each other and to protect the future they believe in. They have spent over three weeks building barricades, conspiring, living together, and protecting each other, forever changing what it means to be a student in Nicaragua.
What comes next? Will other forces intervene in Nicaragua to maintain and intensify neoliberalism? Or will the rebellion expand its scope and analysis to take on the forces beyond the Ortega regime?
We spoke with the world-famous hacker persona and self-proclaimed anarchist revolutionary Phineas Fisher about the politics behind their attacks on the surveillance industry, the ruling party in Turkey, and the Catalan police. Here follows a retrospective on the exploits of Phineas Fisher, followed by their remarks to us.
Text and interview by BlackBird.
Hacking is often depicted as something technical, a simple matter of attack and defense. Yet motivations are everything. The same technique that builds oppressive tools can be used as a weapon for emancipation. Hacking, in its purest form, is not about engineering: it is about leveraging power dynamics by short-circuiting technology. It is direct action for the new digital world we all live in.
In the shadows of the techno-empire, the hacking scene became a target for cooptation and infiltration. But the underground cannot be eradicated: from time to time, a new action breaks through the surface. Some of the hackers we admire are coders who produce tools for online privacy and anonymity. Other crews create and distribute alternative media. And then there are those who hack back.
The Lost Hacker Circles
It is no secret, for anyone paying attention, that for a long time the hacker underground was also taking sides in the ongoing war. Yet the effervescence that characterized the underground DIY scene of the past few decades has died down, or at least receded to less visible places.
Pessimists mourned the death of hacker communities in a proliferation of individual desertions. It is true that the techno-military complex succeeded in swelling the ranks of the mercenaries: there is a price at which a particular mindset can be bought, whether with money, success, the feeling of power, or the excitement of playing with fancy toys while chasing what state propaganda labels “the enemy.”
The underground sought to multiply zones of opacity and resistance, while public perception shifted towards normalizing the relationship between the hacker attitude and technology. Hackers were no longer seen as rebel teenagers producing chaos in a casual game (as depicted by movies from the eighties or nineties like War Games or Hackers), but as a highly specialized unit of the military occupation forces—or else as their comic-book-level villain counterparts. In the most depoliticized version, the term “hacker” is understood as just another name for the capitalist entrepreneur, a myth you can find in the “hackerspaces” of any gentrified city.
The surveillance industry was so proud of its business that it did not bother concealing it. Representatives of the armed forces and vendors of spy programs showed up regularly at hacker community events, openly recruiting talent. Commercial videos pitching “offensive security” tactics circulated openly, selling products to intelligence agencies, corporations, and governments.
It’s an old story: states buy legitimacy in the eyes of the public by portraying themselves as fighting the kinds of crime very few dare to discuss—child pornography, human trafficking, international terrorism. But as soon as they have the surveillance weapons in their arsenals, they direct these weapons against the entire population.
In the middle of this ongoing cooptation of the hacker world, the surveillance complex experienced an important yet invisible blow. An individual—or perhaps a group—fought back by hacking spyware companies and publishing the contents of their secret vaults. When you’re fighting an industry that depends on secrecy, publicly disclosing their internal communications and tools can be a very effective strategy.
The GammaGroup Hack
In August 2014, a hack took place against “GammaGroup,” an Anglo-German vendor of spy programs. A dump of 40Gb of information followed. After this hack, there were no more secrets about GammaGroup: everything was made public, including their clients, product catalog, price lists, and the programs themselves, along with their training manuals.
The star product of the company, a program named “FinFisher,” had been sold to more than 30 government agencies and police forces to spy on journalists, activists, and dissidents. The company had been infecting dissidents in Bahrain and Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring. They usually used social engineering to trick their targets into installing the software.
A targeted dissident would click on a document attached to an email, or open a link that would install the spyware. From there on, the clients who bought the spyware from the company would have control over the infected computer or cellphone, monitoring microphones, voice and Skype calls, messages, and emails, not to mention continuous location tracking.
Immediately after the hack, someone began tweeting from an account posing as the Gamma PR. The info dump was not enough: a hacker going by PhineasFisher released an old-school text file containing a tutorial with the details of the attack on Gamma:
“I’m not writing this to brag about what an 31337 h4x0r I am and what m4d sk1llz it took to 0wn Gamma. I’m writing this to demystify hacking, to show how simple it is, and to hopefully inform and inspire you to go out and hack shit… I wanted to show that the Gamma Group hack really was nothing fancy, and that you do have the ability to go out and take similar action.”
The name of that phile was “HackBack—A DIY Guide for those without the patience to wait for whistleblowers.” For a gravely wounded hacker community, in which the original solidarity, freedom, and open exchange of information was losing ground against the commodification of knowledge by the market and the empire, this action was a breath of fresh air. And—perhaps—the beginning of a movement.
“You want more. You have to hack your target. You have to overcome encryption and capture relevant data, being stealth [sic] and untraceable. Exactly what we do.”
You can hear these words in the commercial for a product called “Da Vinci,” a “remote control system” that was sold worldwide by an Italian company named “Hacking Team.”
A company so shamelessly called “Hacking Team” is what results when a local police department approaches two hackers of a mercenary mindset with a request for collaboration. The cybercrime unit of Milan’s police force decided that passive monitoring was not enough for their purposes; to fulfill their offensive needs, they asked Alor and Naga, two famous Italian hackers, for help modifying a well-known hacking tool that they had originally authored.
Who their clients were and how they managed to infect and spy on their victims remained a secret until July 5, 2015. That day, the twitter account for the company announced: “As we have nothing to hide, we are publishing all our e-mails, files, and source code,” providing links to more than 400 Gigabytes of data. As usual, the company initially claimed that the leak was comprised of false information, but forging such a tremendous amount of data would be an almost impossible feat.
The ones who suspected that the attack had a familiar signature were not wrong: the sarcastic nickname of Phineas Fisher was once again behind the disclosure.
By publishing all the internal information—and, later, another tutorial exploring technical details and political motivations—Phineas Fisher offered the world undeniable evidence about the operations of the 70 customers of Hacking Team. Most of these customers were military, police forces, and federal and provincial governments; the total revenue added up to over 40 million Euros. You can read the full list of customers here.
This info dump confirmed that there were very good reasons for the global demand for privacy and anonymity. Alongside the Snowden revelations, the ability to peek into HackingTeam’s dirty secrets gave us an idea of the magnitude of the campaign of targeted surveillance being carried out by governments and corporations. We know today that there are many other unscrupulous firms profiting from illegal spy operations—such as the Israel-based NSO Group, recently involved in targeted infection of the devices of journalists investigating the Iguala massacre in Mexico, which used base tricks to lure their victims into compromising their own devices.
This anonymous unmasking of HackingTeam was a brilliant operation with global repercussions.
A business like Hacking Team depends on secrecy. To infect their targets, in many of the cases something called a “zero day”1 is used. A zero day is a vulnerability in a computer program that has not been publicly disclosed yet, which can be exploited by anyone who knows about it to attack computer programs, data, or networks, in many cases offering complete remote control over them. Recently, surveillance capitalism has created a net of companies that act as brokers, buying these vulnerabilities in black and gray markets. The price for a single zero day can range from $10k to $300k or even $1 million.
Spyware companies like Hacking Team “weaponize” these vulnerabilities, gluing several of them together and selling licenses to the forces of repression so they can simply “click and spy,” with the added possibility of custom developments for penetrating the systems that belong to chosen victims.
The window of opportunity to take advantage of these “zero days” gets shorter over time. The more you use the knowledge of an unknown vulnerability, the higher the chances that someone will notice the attack and start investigating the holes that allowed it, and the higher the likelihood that other groups will find the same holes. The opportunity to use the vulnerabilities ends when the software in the user’s device is patched to fix the errors: this is why it is so important to keep our devices up to date. However, there are cases in which the manufacturers of our devices make the update procedure difficult or even impossible.
Vulnerability brokers and spyware vendors make it possible for technically incompetent people to infect, spy, and exfiltrate data from their targets just by filling forms and clicking around a web application. We saw this when we were able to dissect software like XKeyscore or Hacking Team’s Galileo suite.
The irony is that selling dumb-proof spy tools to the cops can give you a false sense of security. Phineas found that the compromised systems were using absolutely lame passwords such as “P4ssword,” “wolverine,” or “universo.” No one is free from the basic rules of operational security!
Hack the Planet! Erdogan and Rojava
Another advantage of cyberspace is that you do not have to travel to attack a target on the other side of the world. You do not even have to get out of bed, although often that is a good idea in order to keep a balanced mind.
“I hacked AKP,” Phineas announced in 2016 after having breached the servers of the ruling Turkish party. A dump of more than 100GB of AKP files and emails was passed on to the revolutionary forces in Kurdistan. Phineas had to hurry because Wikileaks published the information before he even finished downloading all the data.
Information is not the only thing that arrived in Kurdistan thanks to hacking actions: Phineas also exploited a vulnerability in the security systems of an undisclosed bank and sent 10,000 euros in bitcoin to Rojava Plan, a group coordinating international solidarity with the autonomous region of Rojava.
Mossos and Scapegoats
In May 2016, after watching the documentary “Ciutat Morta,” Phineas thought about trying a simple attack on the Catalan Police Forces. Ciutat Morta is a film about the 4F case, a famous case in the history of the Spanish state in which repressive forces tortured and imprisoned several young people from South America as an act of revenge after a policeman was put into a coma by the impact of a stone following a police charge in downtown Barcelona.
As a result of this new hacking action, using a well-known vulnerability, Phineas defaced the website of the union of the Catalan police with an ironic manifesto declaring that the organization “was refounded as a union in favor of human rights.” A data dump with personal details of some 5000 police accounts appeared, along with a 40-minute video tutorial on the techniques used in the hack.
Shortly afterwards, the police carried out several raids on social centers and hacklabs in Barcelona, then claimed to have caught the famous hacker. Only hours later, journalists reported that the same person had contacted them to say that “he was alive and well” and that the police forces had only imprisoned a scapegoat who happened to have retweeted the info in the dumps.
But Who Is This Phineas Phisher, Really?
One of the most interesting consequences of the Phineas Fisher actions is the look you see in the eyes of your fellow hackers when you discuss the topic with them. Chileans will tell you that Phineas is obviously a Latino. Squatters in Barcelona swear that the tone is familiar. Italians will do the same. US-Americans think she or he speaks like one of them. And then there is the commonsense assumption that, like any good hacker, Phineas must be Russian—one of those Russians who speaks surprisingly good Spanish.
There is indeed something familiar in the actions of this ghost: a deep sense of justice and internationalism, and the feeling that his actions will continue to remain under the radar, because—just as inthe past—nobody could believe that a person living an otherwise ordinary life could be the mind behind such deeds.
The truth is, no one cares—except for the cops, who are having a hard time identifying this persona despite all their adversarial modeling paraphernalia and stylistic analysis tools. We don’t care about the identity of the person who does these things. It doesn’t matter, in the end: when that identity is burned, a new one will appear. Once you ditch the cult of personality, you suddenly gain a lot of freedom.
What we do care about is that, whoever it is, it is one of us, and his actions help us to realize our power.
These direct actions show that, while a lot of effort and dedication might sometimes be needed to cultivate a concrete skillset, most of the time nothing extraordinary is strictly needed. Perhaps you are not particularly technically inclined, but you might be good with people: often, that is the only thing that is needed to pull off an awesome hack. Or you might not come from a technical background, but a determined and playful perseverance can achieve more than any formal training when it comes to making a breach in the realm of cubicle bureaucrats that only care about enforcing policy.
Security is not an absolute quality; there will never be an absolute power in cyberspace. Quoting Phineas: “That’s the beauty and asymmetry of hacking: with 100 hours of work, one person can undo years of work by a multi-million dollar company. Hacking gives the underdog a chance to fight and win.”
The actions of a humble but motivated hacker can go further than the big, inflated egos of the cyber-security industry, or the academics who do not dare to act outside of the box. It’s not always the big hacks that change reality: someone who learns how to stay anonymous, someone who is not afraid and keeps the discipline needed not to leak personal details already has a huge advantage. Not having an ego to feed is also crucial in the business of keeping one’s personal freedom.
Eventually, Phineas Fisher went silent. “I killed the accounts because I had nothing else to say.” And probably it was enough. Sometimes a little action is all that is needed to shift the collective mood, to render us aware of our own power.
Epilogue: Silent Years of Expropriation to Come
Phineas Fisher is dead. It was more than a name: the tip of an underground network of practices and desires. It was not one, but several actions. Cybernetic guerrilla: hit and hide.
However, as anyone who wrote to the hackback email can report, Phineas is still enjoying freedom these days. Engaging in charming conversation, he or she will demonstrate that state does not have absolute control. As he likes to repeat: it is still possible to attack the system and get away with it.
Phineas has kept himself busy. He enjoys talking from the shadows about his new occupation. As he told us:
“Expropriation has some material effects, but it really is an ideological weapon. The rules of this system are not immutable facts, but rules imposed by a minority, and rules that we can question, change, and even break. When someone robs a bank, the State spends huge resources investigating it, not because it makes any economical sense to spend 100k while investigating a 3k robbery, but they spend it because it protects the shared illusion of private property. They try to wipe out that rebel spirit that plays outside of their rules.”
“You don’t need computer science studies to be able to participate in what the former NSA chief Keith Alexander refers to as responsible for the greatest transfer of wealth in the world’s history. In this big project, most of the work is not done by hackers, but by lay people, those who know how to find addresses where to receive post and parcels, how to use a fake ID in a convincing way, and how to use a burner phone. Those are all the skills you need to open a cellphone contract, open bank accounts and ask for loans, make online purchases and receive them. Everyone can learn how to use the Tor Browser and bitcoin, and participate in the darknet markets. Mafia and organized crime acknowledged this change, but anarchists open to illegalism and expropiation did not yet realize that we are not in the pre-internet world anymore, and that there are better tactics than robbing a bank with a gun. We are living an unique moment in history, and we have a great opportunity.”
Indeed we do. Long life to hacking, and to all silent expropriations to come.
To learn more about software vulnerabilities and government cyberwar, watch the documentary Zero Days about the “Stuxnet” affair. ↩
What is an anarchist game? Is it a game that promotes anarchist values? A game that depicts anarchist activities? A game that subverts and destabilizes power structures? What can gaming theory teach anarchists—and what can anarchists teach through games? To explore these and other questions, we conducted the following interview with TL, game designer and artist of Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game.
—Why do you think creative activity is important for anarchists?
Creative resistance is one of the essential elements of a thriving anarchist movement. Play and imagination allow for the kind of experimentation that can reveal cracks in the systems of control. Anarchists need to be able to imagine other worlds and other forms of life in order to position their activities in opposition to this one. When creativity is allowed to flourish in anarchist spaces, it’s easier to neutralize stifling and toxic modes of social organization.
—Is Bloc by Bloc just a form of entertainment? Or are there other dimensions to the project and what you hope it will accomplish in the world?
Bloc by Bloc is a tabletop game that simulates the urban rebellions that we have seen in cities around the world over the past 10 or 15 years. The goal of this project is to produce a fun and educational gaming experience. I don’t want to pretend this is anything more than that. That’s one of the reasons the graphics in Bloc by Bloc are playful, reminiscent of colorful cartoons. It’s important that we don’t take the project too seriously or overstate its political impact. That would be misleading and disrespectful to everyone who has been out there in the streets in real struggles that have real consequences.
But games can be powerful tools for exploring complex ideas. That’s one of the main reasons I continue to work in this medium.
When we play games, we create stories out of the interaction between players, game mechanics, and components. The best games craft rich and emergent stories that change each time we play them. These stories mirror archetypical narratives that we find throughout society. This is why games can feel so meaningful: they create a temporary space in which we can safely explore the stories that define our lives. This space is referred to as “the magic circle.”
Bloc by Bloc creates a magic circle in which players can explore stories of contemporary revolt and resistance. It’s a response and a challenge to the ubiquitous narratives of colonization, industrialization, statecraft, authoritarian hero-worship, and chauvinist violence that dominate much of tabletop gaming—and digital gaming even more so. In this way, it can be understood as an anarchist intervention in the world of gaming.
—Does Bloc by Bloc have antecedents? What were your points of reference when you were designing it?
A group of us first started brainstorming ideas for an insurrection board game in the summer of 2010. None of us were experienced gamers; we had very little to draw on in terms of antecedents. Our points of reference were the struggles and insurrections we had been following very closely. The uprising initiated by a teachers strike in Oaxaca, Mexico during the second half of 2006 had a major impact on these early conversations that would eventually shape the contours of what we now call Bloc by Bloc. The youth revolt that spread across all of Greece following the police murder of the young anarchist Alexis Grigoropolous in the Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens in December 2008 was another point of inspiration. Here in Oakland, the protests and riots in response to a white police officer killing a young Black man named Oscar Grant in January 2009 gave us firsthand experience with some of the ways these moments can unfold.
Based on these recent historical events, we stitched together the general framework for the game. We knew that all the players would need to be factions of the insurrection and that the game would somehow play the role of the state. We also decided that the game would be a race against time until the military or some kind of federal force intervened to reestablish order. And finally, we came up with a list of actions that players should be able to take: barricading, looting, occupying, and clashing with police. This laid the foundation for the game; all of these ideas are central to Bloc by Bloc 8 years later. Probably due to our limited knowledge of game mechanics and theories of gaming, we didn’t get very far in the actual game development process back in 2010. “The Insurrection Game,” as we called it at the time, sat on the shelf for years. It wasn’t until after another round of even larger uprisings around the world between 2011 and 2014 in places like Cairo, Istanbul, and Ferguson that I felt motivated to circle back to the project. I studied some contemporary tabletop games like Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Forbidden Desert, and Dead of Winter, and I read up on theories and approaches to game design.
In early 2015, we began playtesting the first working prototypes of Bloc by Bloc. At first, the game was unplayable. But the iterative process was in motion.
Since then, I have learned more about the history of subversive and anti-authoritarian tabletop games out there in the world. Suffragetto is a game from 1909 that simulates women’s suffrage protestors clashing with police. What we now know as the game Monopoly was originally a game called The Landlord’s Game that critiqued real estate speculation and finance capitalism. Class Struggle*,Chicago Chicago, and Mai 68 Le jeu are a few other titles from the 1970s and ’80s that attempted to simulate popular uprisings. A few years ago, some Italian comrades created a game called Riot that features anarchists, autonomists, police, and nationalists fighting each other in the streets. It’s interesting to note that most of these games assume that one player needs to take on the role of the police. This is something we knew from the very start we would not be including in the framework for Bloc by Bloc.
—What are the advantages of the tabletop game format for telling these stories, as opposed to, say, a novel, a film, a video game, an oral history?
Creating Bloc by Bloc allowed us to explore social upheaval through the lens of systems thinking. A game is a great way to simulate the cybernetic forms of control exercised by institutionalized power. And it allows players to experiment with emergent forms of cooperative strategy to liberate themselves from these oppressive systems. There really isn’t another medium out there that enables this sort of emergent systems approach to telling these stories.
Another important way that tabletop games are great for telling these stories is that they are inherently social. There’s something powerful about exploring the dynamics that shape social insurrections through discussion, play coordination, and conflict with others face to face around a table.
However, this format also comes with drawbacks. A game is itself a sort of cybernetic system made up of various positive and negative feedback loops. The necessity of creating a stable gaming system that functions as a fun game makes it impossible to fully simulate real world events, which are defined by their chaotic and ever-changing nature.
—Tell us about some of the specific components and dynamics of the game, and how you crafted them to convey strategic lessons about real life.
One of the most important changes in the second edition of the game is an improved semi-cooperative mode. In Bloc by Bloc, each player has a secret agenda card. The majority of these cards are social agendas. Players with social agendas are in solidarity with each other and must work together to defeat the state and win the game cooperatively. However, there are also vanguardist and nihilist agenda cards. Players with these cards have to secretly undermine the social insurrection; they are playing to win the game alone.
It’s possible to remove the vanguardist and nihilist cards and play the game in fully cooperative mode. This is probably the best way to play your first game; it’s how most people chose to play the first edition. But that’s not the experience we originally set out to create with Bloc by Bloc. A simulation of urban insurrection should include the internal tensions that one always experiences within social movements and uprisings. This semi-cooperative experience also creates a more dynamic play space that allows for deeper strategy. And it prevents the problematic behavior of alpha players who dictate what other players should do on their turns. This tends to happen in almost all fully cooperative games. Ironically, by introducing an element of uncertainty and suspicion among players, you protect their individual agency.
Another mechanic in the game that people are often surprised by is how movement works. Most games force you to move your pieces one space at a time or to count the number of spaces you are able to move. In Bloc by Bloc, movement is restricted by access, not distance. If there is an open pathway using roads, highways, and metro stations, you can move your blocs as far as you want with one action. Even the largest cities in the world can still be crossed in a few hours as long as the corridors of movement are open. As the game deploys police and they move throughout the city, this access becomes increasingly restricted. This is a reflection of how we are able to move within contemporary cities. Zones of exclusivity and institutional power are not protected from popular uprisings by their distance from those who have the potential to rise up. They are protected by security forces and systems of control that limit access and control space.
Just about every mechanic in Bloc by Bloc can be understood as the intersection between some kind of strategic lesson and the necessity of balancing the game to create a stable system full of emergent potential. It’s possible to read into each of these mechanics and draw conclusions about real world insurrections. But at some point, remember, this is just a game! A PDF of the Bloc by Bloc 2nd edition rulebook is available online for anyone interested in taking a closer look at the game’s mechanics.
—How do your values shape how you approach game design? Is there an ideological dimension to this project?
I try very hard to avoid taking a dogmatic approach to this work. Games are a great way of letting people explore interconnected ideas and systems without being overly didactic. However, I’m sure it’s apparent to everyone that this project is grounded in political ideas.
I would say that the game development process for Bloc by Bloc was guided by a specific ethical framework. A crucial part of that framework is that it centers those who struggle under capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the state as the protagonists. I refer to these protagonists of resistance as “social antagonists.” The blocs are those who organize themselves to rise up from below. This isn’t a game that places the conquerors or the powerful at the center of the narrative.
Another important element of this framework is an understanding of the importance of social insurrection. If we take a moment to reflect on the past two decades, we see an impressive array of uprisings and rebellions around the world. Social insurrection is a defining feature of our time. It is a crucial form of resistance and joy in a diverse array of cities in these first decades of the 21st century. Insurrections sustain social movements and they have reshaped the political map. But they also bring with them the potential for severe repression and reactionary backlash. So it’s important to not romanticize these moments of conflict and to understand their consequences.
It’s also important not to fetishize the violence involved in these uprisings. Destruction and popular expropriation are necessary parts of sustained insurrection. But the success of these uprisings is not determined by their ability to destroy or kill. Urban insurrection is most effective when it transforms social relationships across a whole city and repurposes urban space. We can see this most clearly when an insurrection is an expression of everyday resistance and organizing. This creates the social fabric from which an insurrection can draw the power to reshape entire cities and societies.
—Is this an anarchist game?
I think that’s debatable. Bloc by Bloc is a game for gamers more than it is a game for anarchists. We’ve always wanted this project to stand on its own as a game that people can enjoy even if they’re unfamiliar with or uneasy about the theme. As I said before, it’s an intervention in the world of gaming in that it challenges the usual narratives of oppression and exploitation.
There are a few other ways that it differs from most games. We have attempted to manufacture the game in a relatively ethical fashion here in the US. The vast majority of games are manufactured in China to take advantage of cheaper labor. And all of the files one needs to create DIY printed copies of Bloc by Bloc 2nd edition will be released online for free, as we did with the first edition. But overall, Bloc by Bloc doesn’t attempt to break out of the specific form set by the standards of contemporary tabletop gaming.
The question of what an anarchist game could look like is very interesting. Maybe Bloc by Bloc is a step in this direction. But a truly anarchist game would likely take place in the everyday terrain of our lives. It would craft a magic circle that empowers the participants to subvert real forms of control and domination. And it would be easily replicable, even for those with limited resources. Maybe anarchists and other social antagonists already play games of this sort all the time without specifically referring to them as games?
My hope is that this project can be part of a much larger creative process that utilizes play and imagination to unleash our collective potential to fight back and reshape the world.
For more information on Bloc by Bloc, please visit the Kickstarter page for the 2nd edition.
For gamers’ perspectives on the themes of colonialism and domination in Settlers of Catan, check out:
This June, CrimethInc. operatives will be traveling throughout Sweden and Finland presenting on our book, From Democracy to Freedom, and comparing notes with Scandinavian anarchists, anti-fascists, and rebels about resistance to tyranny around the world. We will be visiting the book fairs in Stockholm and Malmö and nearly a dozen other towns. Please join us at one of these events!
We will be presenting on From Democracy to Freedom at Stockholm’s day-long Anarchist Book Fair alongside many other speakers and publishers.
Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.
And yet it was democracy that brought Donald Trump to power, not to mention Adolf Hitler.
What is democracy, precisely? How can we defend ourselves against democratically-elected tyrants? Is there a difference between government and self-determination, and are there other ways to describe what we are doing together when we make decisions? Drawing on From Democracy to Freedom, the latest book from the CrimethInc. collective, we will explore these questions and more. Join us for a lively discussion!
June 4: Turku, Finland
Anarchist Resistance in the Trump Era // Trumpin aikakauden aktivismi Yhdysvalloissa
How did Trump come to power, and what does his rise tell us about this era? What strategies are anarchists in the USA using to counter Trump’s agenda and the rise of grassroots nationalism?
Framing Trump’s Presidency in a global context, we will discuss the new conditions for social struggle and explore the approaches to self-organization and self-defense that anarchists have employed in the United States since the end of 2016.
Miten Trump pääsi valtaan ja mitä se kertoo aikakaudesta, johon olemme matkalla? Mitä strategioita anarkistit Yhdysvalloissa käyttävät torjuakseen Trumpin agendaa ja ruohonjuuritason nationalismin nousua? Pohdimme valtakautta globaalissa kontekstissa ja keskustelemme uusista olosuhteista yhteiskunnalliselle kamppailulle, sekä tutkailemme itseorganisoinnin ja itsepuolustuksen tapoja, joita anarkistit ovat Yhdysvalloissa hyödyntäneet vuodesta 2016 lähtien.
June 5: Helsinki, Finland
Anarchist Resistance in the Trump Era // Anarkistinen vastarinta Trumpin aikakaudella
Demokratiasta vapauteen – Valtiovallan ja itsemääräämisoikeuden eroista
Demokratiasta on tullut aikamme universaalein poliittinen ideaali. George Bush vetosi siihen oikeuttaessaan hyökkäystä Irakiin, Obama onnitteli Tahrir aukion kapinallisia sen tuomisesta Egyptiin ja Occupy Wall Street julisti löytäneensä sen puhtaimman muodon.
Käytännössä jokainen hallitus ja kansanliike kutsuu itseään demokraattiseksi aina Pohjois Korean Demokraattisesta Kansantasavallasta Rojavan autonomiseen alueeseen.
Mutta mitä demokratia tarkkaan ottaen on? Onko olemassa jokin yhdistävä tekijä näiden erilaisten demokraattisuuden ilmausten välillä? Ja pystyykö yksikään niistä täyttämään lupauksensa? Tällä luennolla lähestytään demokratian käsitystä kriittisestä näkökulmasta, ja tarkastellaan kuinka demokraattiset diskurssit ovat palvelleet viimeaikaisia yhteiskunnallisia liikkeitä Yhdysvalloissa, Espanjassa, Kreikassa, Bosniassa, Sloveniassa ja muualla ympäri maailmaa. Luennolla pohditaan myös sitä, mitä tarkoittaisi, jos vapautta tavoiteltaisiin pikemmin suoraan kuin demokraattisen hallinnon kautta.
Luento pohjautuu Crimethincin kirjaan, joka on syntynyt vuosien kansainvälisen keskustelun tuloksena, jossa on ollut mukana eri yhteiskunnallisiin liikkeisiin ympäri maailman osallistuneita henkilöitä. Sen ytimessä on kysymys siitä, mitä me oikeastaan olemme tekemässä, kun teemme päätöksiä yhdessä.