We can’t build a movement out of strangers.
by Kira Kelley
One way to define security culture is: developing practices with our communities so that we do not subject ourselves or each other to risks without consent.
Some of these risks come from the corporate state, such as criminal charges and civil SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). Risks can also include the ways we inadvertently get in our own way. A well-meaning comrade with internalized oppressive behaviors can disrupt a movement just as well as a plant.
If you don’t want to read this whole blog, the most important takeaway can be summed up by this reflection that someone offered at a recent training: “the best thing we can be doing right now to keep each other safe is to be getting to know each other; to be building relationships of trust and care.”
Curiosity and compassion can feel frivolous or unfamiliar when state repression is everywhere and we are socialized to consider vulnerability as weakness. But just as the abolitionist adage “we keep us safe” reminds us that safety comes from community, not police, we must also reject police and prison logic as pathways to security in our movements. My heart breaks when I see security culture used as a pretext for shutting people out, separating the personal from the political, reading danger into our differences, disposing of each other for perceived imperfections, and generally undermining our own movements in the exact ways that security culture is supposed to guard against.
White supremacy culture, ableism, and toxic masculinity don’t need to hitch a ride on an undercover agent to infiltrate our movements. We do unpaid labor for the state when we divide ourselves with rigid but implicit rules predicated on the baseline assumption that we are all perilous to each other until proven otherwise.
The caveat to this is that inherent worth does not encompass inherent trustworthiness. Sharing secrets is not a sign of respect or a shortcut for closeness. Giving sensitive information to new members makes a group inaccessible to those who have a lower capacity to take risks or need time to build trust. Security culture involves a mix of gut feelings and earned trust, which can be powerful tools as long as we are mindful of the ways that anti-Blackness, xenophobia, racism, ableism, toxic masculinity, and transphobia can corrupt our gut and influence our willingness and entitlement to trust. White, wealthy, gender conforming, and/or “conventionally attractive” people are often conditioned to expect a certain level of immediate trust and to distrust people who they do not understand. For those of us with any of these identities, we improve our group’s security culture when we work to notice and then reject our impulses to be offended when we are not immediately met with warmth or familiarity in new relationships.
Instead of memorizing rules, robust security culture prioritizes critical thinking
I like to start with a “threat model.” With any given situation, I try to identify the most likely and/or most severe risks to people and goals. Once I identify those risks, I ask myself how I can mitigate their severity and likelihood, and how I can make sure people who are assuming these risks can give informed consent.
One reason I caution against a rigid application of memorized rules is that each project and every person has different security needs. Uniformity can backfire. Obviously, people planning a mass action will have vastly different security protocols than a small affinity group planning an action they don’t plan to take credit for. Similarly, people who are undocumented, on foodstamps, on parole or probation, or have precarious jobs they could be fired from based on political activity may need to be private about certain projects or people they are associated with. The group needs to tighten their practices to meet people with greater security culture needs where they are at.
EXAMPLE: If one person in a group needs to stay off of social media, this doesn’t mean “nobody should have social media!” Ask yourself: “Does this picture place my friend who is out on a “good behavior” bail condition at this action?” (ie because I’ve posted indirectly about this friend, because their car is in this photo, etc).
EXAMPLE: If one person has tighter tech security needs than the rest of the group, the rest of the group could text, email, and take electronic notes about the shared project so long as they are careful to avoid referencing that person in any electronic records.
We also want to adjust practices so that we are not encumbering ourselves to hide benign, already public, or otherwise protected information.
EXAMPLE: Jitsi is great for small group meetings when used on a secure server, because it is free and end to end encrypted. However, Jitsi is less accessible in other ways and harder to build relationships on, due to constant audio glitches and cameras not staying on. Zoom does not have the same reputation for security, but it is in fact also end to end encrypted. Zoom has distinct pros and cons. It has subtitle capability, is an easier platform for less tech savvy people, and allows for visual and nonverbal communication. However, Zoom supports Israel’s ongoing genocide and land theft in Palestine. Both Zoom and Jitsi lose encryption when a participant uses the dial-in feature.
EXAMPLE: A “camp name” provides an alternate persona, disconnected from someone’s everyday or legal persona, that minimizes exposure to legal risk when adopted temporarily. But overusing this tactic confuses comrades more easily than the government agents with infinite time, money, and data to research us. By using a rotating camp name as your default persona, you become harder for movement folks to build familiarity with, to vouch for in new spaces, or to hold accountable for harms you’ve committed under different names. Plus, camp names lose all value as soon as you connect them to your legal or everyday persona, such as by using a camp name when discussing your open court case, or updating your camp name on Signal every few days next to your easily traceable phone number. Ultimately, we take the biggest risk of all by making it more difficult to get to know the people we organize with. It is unsafe to take serious legal and/or physical risks with someone you know only as Pumpkin Emogi. Big group organizing threads are best suited for lawful conversations about non-arrestable activity. Being open about who we are makes those threads safer for everyone.
This is not to say that we should all be using Zoom, not Jitsi, or that camp names are pointless. But we can do better than to abandon critical thinking in favor of oversimplified rules like “Jitsi is more secure” or “camp names keep us safe.” The rituals we perform to assuage our fear have consequences, which we put ourselves in danger by ignoring.
Connecting authentically outside of our inner circles is how our movements grow
When evaluating the efficacy of security culture practices, a pivotal and often overlooked factor is how they affect our opportunities to connect and build relationships.
To the extent that you can be open about who you are, what you are doing, or what groups you are a part of, consider taking advantage of that privilege. When we disguise ourselves in a group because we are afraid that others in the group are misrepresenting their own identities and motives, we sacrifice the relationship-based security that benefits everyone in favor of achieving a false sense of personal safety.
We can reject this individualism by discerning what information is risky to share and what information is benign or already compromised. Risky information to share includes anything unlawful, (or that someone could argue is unlawful, because cops like to arrest people first and make reasons up later). Unless you are confident that everything you are saying is already out in the open, avoid discussing or questioning others about activities that you have not been arrested for but could have been, your involvement with other people’s past unlawful activity, or future risky actions in any stage of planning. Sharing this information should be on a strict “need to know” basis.
One way to evaluate which people and what information fall under the “need to know” category of information about unlawful activities is to think about the concept of informed consent. If someone is driving with a revoked license, they may not want to shout from the rooftops that they are breaking the law every time they drive. But, good security culture means they disclose their revoked license to potential passengers to ensure that people are consenting to the risk of an extensive police interaction by accepting a ride.
I often see the “need to know” principle being overextended in ways that backfire, such as when people have not thought through “what information is sensitive and what information isn’t” so they err on the side of sharing nothing. But, the myriad of conflicts that inevitably arise in movement spaces can much more easily destabilize relationships that lack a baseline of connection. Erring on the side of caution, especially with information that implicates other people, is certainly a good thing. And also, we can’t build a movement out of strangers.
Vetting and vouching can be efficient ways to expand circles of trust. Vetting is researching someone that you do not know, to learn more about them than just what they have already revealed to you. Vouching for someone is when people extend their trust for you over a person who you promise is also trustworthy.
I try to be really specific about the basis and extent of my vouch. “I have known this person since we were children, they are deeply kind, and I would bet my life they are not a narc” is a different vouch than “I met this person six months ago, I like them a lot, I do not know much about their past but over the course of regular meetings I have realized that our politics are aligned and I have not seen any red flags.”
Specificity is also key when sharing concerns. Calling someone “untrustworthy” does not give other people the information they might need to decide the safe extent of their own contact, and instead invites people to make assumptions, spread rumors, and kick people out of a community altogether. If someone has a pattern of getting activated and escalating with police in a way that violates action agreements, I would not say “oh, they are dangerous.” I would say exactly what their pattern of harm is and suggest that they be invited to hold off-site action roles unless and until they can change that pattern.
Concerns might be more serious, too, such as that someone is undercover and reporting back to state or federal law enforcement. If you think someone is a narc, carefully trying to confirm or disprove your suspicions is key to avoid snitchjacketing (accusing someone of being an undercover without having proof).
If you have concerns about someone, listen to your gut. Ask yourself why exactly you are uneasy. Warning signs that a person is an undercover include when a person: has unexplained access to a lot of money and expensive or hard-to-obtain things, is new to movement strategy but pushy about doing risky/illegal actions, or has an inconsistent or gap-filled backstory. Some flags depend on whether someone is a former activist who got flipped or a long-time government agent posing as an activist. For example, people informing pursuant to cooperating plea deals (i.e., got serious charges that they resolved by agreeing to become a snitch) may be more likely than FBI agents to have family members and close friends in the movement.
Importantly, some of these signs can also be benign byproducts of that person’s own security culture or unique safety needs–for example, while federal agents often choose new names for themselves and generally don’t involve family members in their cover story, queer and trans people may also not have contact with their families of origin and may also want privacy about what’s on their drivers license or what name they may once have been called. There is no one right way to go about identifying or responding to infiltrators, but communication and relationship building are always good places to start.
Clear communication is foundational to strong security culture
Security culture practices should be explicit (e.g., “new people need two vouches to join this Signal thread; we do not talk about these things around phones; this person consents to being on social media but this person doesn’t”). This is useful for several reasons: explicit practices (1) are easier to discuss, refine, and abandon if needed; (2) allow for greater accountability when violated; and (3) make movements more accessible to people who aren’t in the “in crowd,” or whose neurodiversities make implicit conversation harder to discern. Practices should also be applied universally. Informants try to take advantage of double standards and exceptions for people who are in this “in crowd,” which is why informants so often date or hook up with the people they are surveilling.
Communication is important both when we talk to each other, and about each other. In a dream world scenario, we have deep relationships of trust and care so that exchanging feedback is easy. In real life, feedback is SO FREAKING HARD. This means being gentle with ourselves and each other for daring to engage in a practice that white supremacy and toxic masculinity program us to avoid.
These same cultural forces tell us that our worth is contingent on being perfect, being productive, being an expert, and so on: that we have to prove we are indispensable, otherwise someone will realize we have flaws and dispose of us. When we are up against systems as seemingly omnipotent as racial capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism, and our progress is intangible and impossible to quantify, one of the easiest ways to feel powerful is to point out others’ mistakes to show everyone that we are useful or more knowledgeable than someone else. The goal of giving feedback should never be to build our individual social power over others in the group. “Why am I doing this” is a question only you can answer, as the person giving feedback.
Instituting norms in which we offer feedback from a place of humility and good faith also strengthens the corresponding obligation that we all have, especially those of us in positions of relative power or privilege, to embrace feedback regardless of its delivery and to engage fully with the substance without first critiquing the process or presuming a motive.
Modeling the giving and receiving of feedback, handling mistakes while remaining grounded in shared values, and learning how to be better together builds security in a group. It sets the tone that owning up to our mistakes is a better option than trying to hide them. If you own up to a mistake out of a shared desire to keep the group safe rather than act from a fear of being canceled, you’re much more likely to notify the group of your mistake and help make plans for the necessary damage control. Owning up to mistakes is terrifying, but we make this easier for everyone when we show a commitment to hold firmly to shared values, to replace ego-based motivations with the assuredness of inherent worth, and to see conflict as opportunities to grow through struggle rather than to vie for or maintain individual power.
We cannot derive security from the repressive matrix our movements are formed in and fighting against. We cannot shake off the racial capitalist, settler colonial, cis hetero patriarchal empire by replicating its culture within ourselves.
Security comes from our culture, not from our adherence to a rigid set of norms or rules. This requires us to commit to the dynamic process of unlearning the dominant culture and growing a new one up from under it.
Creating nurturance culture to override a backdrop of fear, control, and scarcity, can work literal magic in any movement space. By sharing more appreciations for everyone, lifting up the labor that society teaches us to take for granted, sharing excitement grounded in connection, loving ourselves and each other through our mistakes, and embracing accountability, we redirect the pressures on our group that coerce us to punch sideways rather than up.
Thank you for engaging with this. The downside to a blog is that it’s more of a rant than a conversation, so please consider this only as a starting point! Now is as good of a time as ever to get with your affinity group to talk through this–after intentionally weighing the pros and cons of virtual meeting platforms, the feasibility of meeting in person, and COVID-19 safety concerns! 😉