Tarek and John are Free: It’s not Your Daughter’s Facebook

October 6, 2013

Tarek Loubani and John Greyson were freed, last night, from prison in Cairo after spending 51 days in dire circumstances although never being officially charged with anything.

My friend and colleague and comrade in this struggle, Catherine Lord, sent me this exultant picture of our fellow friend and core activist in this struggle, Sarah Schulman

My friend and colleague and comrade in this struggle, Catherine Lord, sent me this exultant picture of our fellow friend and core activist in this struggle, Sarah Schulman

No matter how you count it, a lot of people contributed to this daunting, humbling, and ultimately victorious effort (and are now sharing the above-depicted relief and joy): hundreds of thousands of people helped (149,702 signed the Change.org petition), multitudes marched, protested, made buttons and artwork, hundreds worked tirelessly behind the scenes to locate or create press …

I could go on and on. And there’s good reason to do so: change occurs when people make it, piece by piece, little and big, and it’s not just crucial to name this to thank them (although that is important, and I’m doing a bit of that here), but to understand how successful organizing works. Here’s my friend and comrade, Matias Viegener, on our local TV station. It took many of us many days to get this small, and almost silly end result. (At the time, we wondered if it was worth it; my sister, Antonia, contributed a lot towards what ended up being seen as only this one segment)

It truly was a family, and also a community affair. A core group of Canadians (the Canadian “A team,” led by friend and fellow professor, Justin Podur, sister Cecelia Greyson, other family members and close friends, like Elle Flanders) was joined by scores of Canadian and international friends, colleagues, activists, and comrades. Very few of us had ever worked on a political campaign of this sort—life and death, international intrigue (although one of the behind the scenes projects was to get in contact with people who had; many of us contacted friends, and friends of friends, who worked at the State Department, consulates around the world, Amnesty International; man, you wouldn’t imagine the kinds of conversations film critic, B. Ruby Rich was having off the record). However, most of us who lent a hand, big or small, knew of either John or Tarek through earlier shared projects of activism and cultural politics (John programmed my first AIDS activist video into his seminal collection, Video Against AIDS, made in 1989 for Video Data Bank). With hind sight (given that it worked), it was stunning, and deeply moving, and just plain awe-inspiring, really, each day to see the collective knowledge, skills, and power of this diverse, eclectic, and ragamuffin group go at it, wherever we were, however we could:

These images are from the "See Our Support Section at tarekandjohn.com

These images are from the “See Our Support Section” at tarekandjohn.com

screen-shot-2013-09-14-at-9-02-08-pm ftaj_unicorn btdihwvcmaar_z8 ftaj_almirindah

But to be honest, there was also something deeply painful, knowing each day, and after every act by which we used all of our highly dispersed and cunningly eccentric cultural capital (and its associated real-world political power) that there were so many others in that very prison, or elsewhere in another prison, who do not and will not ever have such powerful, connected, capable friends and allies; their crimes no more real, their imprisonment no less unjust

Their less heard stories, and unknown humiliations, will always haunt my memories of these many days and actions.

After much celebration, and its associated sadness, fear, and introspection, I’ll also continue to think about how both my queer/ documentary/activist/scholarly film community and our use of social media played an impotant, complex, and contributing role to this highly successful effort, given that this is something I study, engage in, and often criticize. This is where my subtitle comes in. In the last days of the effort, I was working closely with Jonathan Kahana, Shannon Kelley (from the UCLA Film Archive), and many other film profs, curators, programmers (like Jenni Olson and KP Pepe), to organize a Day of International Screenings for John and Tarek. We decided to organize on Facebook (because it was there, and easy, and so many of us had met on it, even though I have quite recently written about the most progressive act being LEAVING Facebook and other corporate-owned platforms that we get for free but that limit our abilities in their very structures). Within a day of setting up a Group we had over 100 members, and Matt Soar, Communications Prof. at Concordia College (who I met in real-time during this effort online) had designed the poster below for our effort (Chris Durrant, Out Twin Cities Film Festival Director, made the first effort within just a few short hours of the group’s formation):

GreysonScreeningsOct5

I felt both really humbled and really frustrated working on this effort via Facebook. Online, via Facebook, we moved this idea so quickly, so many people came on board, the poster got made in what felt like minutes, and yet, this self-same platform has written into its core structures, and accepted uses, that some significant majority of the people who joined did so to “like” the group. Hear me, these friends were doing nothing wrong by joining; they were following Facebook’s logic of seeing, spreading, liking, and knowing. But this made me prickle because I found it harder to use Facebook towards the deeper, harder, more intense and labor-intensive norms of the very social justice organizing that had brought me and others to John, Tarek, and each other, and that were what was most needed for the effort I was working on. To make global screenings occur within about 10 days, what we most needed was for people to DO THINGS IN THE WORLD (find a room, get a copy of a film by John, invite a speaker, get bodies to that room). Just as was true for the Arab Spring, social media connected us, spread the word, and gave us an instantaneous and satisfying feeling of support and community, but good old fashioned community built from deep relationships formed and cemented in real places and over long term efforts was what finally supplied the muscle, the meaning, and the deep, take away truth of this awesome effort: Tarek and John are free because we (like they) can make the change we need by working with each other every day, in the places we live, and work, and love. How we can sustain this work, how we can again make local connections move nations, how we can use dominant/corporate social media forms as well as our own networks and technologies to make the world we want, these will be the questions I will continue to ask after this much-deserved party ends.

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