“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
In a forgotten cemetery on the edge of Texas in the Rio Grande delta, Olga Webber-Vasques says she’s proud of her family’s legacy – even if she only just learned the full story.
Turns out her great-great-grandparents, who are buried here,were agents in the little-known underground railroad that led through South Texas to Mexico during the 1800s. Thousands of enslaved people fled plantations to make their way to the Rio Grande, which became a river of deliverance.
“I don’t know why there wasn’t anything that we would’ve known as we were growing up. It amazes me to learn the underground deal, I had no idea at all,” says Webber-Vasques, 70, who recently learned the story of her forebearer, John Ferdinand Webber, from her daughter-in-law who has researched family history.
“I’m very proud to be a Webber,” she says.
The flight of runaway slaves to Mexico is a chapter of history that is often overlooked or ignored. As the U.S. Treasury ponders putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill to commemorate her role in the northbound underground railroad, there is new attention to this southbound route.
Alice Baumgartner, a historian at the University of Southern California,is at the forefront of a burst of recent scholarship. A number of researchers are expanding knowledge of the important role that Mexico played in providing a refuge for enslaved people.
Alice L. Baumgartner, historian at the University of Southern California, is the author of a ground-breaking new book, South to Freedom, Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War.Paul Luke
“This history is to me most surprising because it shows us the side of Mexico as a place that actually was contributing to global debates about slavery and freedom,” Baumgartner says.
From the 1830s up to emancipation, she estimates 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved people fled south and crossed over to free Mexican soil. That is far fewer than the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 enslaved persons who crossed the Mason-Dixon line to reach free northern states and Canada.
But from the vantage of an East Texas plantation, liberty was a lot closer in Mexico.
Enslaved sailors and stowaways from New Orleans and Galveston jumped ship in Mexican ports. Slaves drove wagons of cotton to market in Brownsville, Texas, and then slipped across the muddy river to Matamoros, Mexico. But their main mode of transportation was on horseback traversing the vast, feral stretches of South Texas down to the border.
“Sometimes someone would come ‘long and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that,” said former slave Felix Haywood, interviewed in 1937 for the federal Slave Narrative Project.
Haywood was 92 at the time, blind, white-haired and weather-beaten. He was born into slavery and as a young man tended cattle and sheep for ranchers around San Antonio, Texas.
Former slave Felix Haywood, 92 years old when he was photographed in San Antonio in 1937, told an interviewer, “All we had to do was walk, but walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande.”Library of Congress
“There wasn’t no reason to run up north,” he continued in the interview. “All we had to do was to walk, but walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico, you could be free. They didn’t care what color you was — black, white, yellow or blue. Hundreds of slaves did go to Mexico and got on all right.”
Pathways to get to the Rio Grande
While the northbound underground railroad depended on a network of people who sheltered and aided fugitive slaves, the southern route was more informal.
“We didn’t have a conductor like a Harriet Tubman, and we didn’t have a certain station like they did in Philadelphia where they could live and make some money,” says Roseann Bacha-Garza, a borderlands historian at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, one of the few experts on the southern route to freedom.
“What we did have down here were pathways that people could follow to get to the Rio Grande.”
There were, however, abolitionists on the border who could be counted on to help Black people escape the southwestern extreme of the slave South.
In the Webber Cemetery lie the remains of John Webber and his wife, Silvia Hector. It’s situated just north of the twisting Rio Grande, near the town of Donna, Texas.
Webber was a white settler new to Texas who fell in love with Hector, an enslaved woman. They had three children together, and he bought their freedom from his business partner. They homesteaded in the hamlet that now bears his name — Webberville, east of Austin.
But Texas was still a slave state. And the suffocating racial codes of antebellum Texas eventually drove the family away. They moved to the Rio Grande Valley where they bought a ranch just downstream from another interracial, abolitionist family — Nathaniel Jackson and his African American wife, Matilda Hicks.
Both the Webbers and the Jacksons were well-known in the clandestine grapevine of runaways.
“They knew they were sympathetic to their cause,” Bacha-Garza says. “The families had their own licensed ferry landings on their properties, which made it very easy for them to shepherd these runaway slaves across the river into free Mexico.”
The breakneck flight from an East Texas cotton plantation to the border was a perilous journey. They had to survive the Nueces Strip, the 160-mile expanse between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. It’s the same treacherous ranchland where today immigration agents find the scattered bones of unauthorized migrants who perished on the trek north.
“It’s a dry, parched landscape; there’s not many trees. No matter what time of year, it is hot, hot, hot,” Bacha-Garza says. “No running streams, snakes, scorpions. It was not an easy trip, but it was a doable trip.”
Back then, the borderlands were different from the rest of slave-holding Texas. A white man, his Black wife, and their children could live in peace.
“Along the river, you don’t see the deeply ingrained racism because the river has been home to a mixture of people — mestizos, mulattoes,” says Francisco Guajardo, CEO of the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg. “The river is a place of tolerance, believe it or not. The racial codes were not enforced down here because there was nobody to enforce them.”
Most fugitive slaves in Texas did run south — a fact known, in part, through the painstaking work being done by the Texas Runaway Slave Project, housed at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Researchers looked through nearly 19,000 Texas newspapers from the 1840s through the 1860s.
“And it’s from this research that we’ve been able to find so much about runaway slaves escaping to Mexico,” says project director Kyle Ainsworth.
He pulls up on his computer and reads an item in the Galveston Weekly Newsfrom May 11, 1858. “$25 reward. Ran away on 19th of April from W.T. Stevens’ plantation … a Mulatto Boy, named Tom, about 28 years old … Was raised in Milam County, Texas … and he is supposed to be there or on his way to Mexico.”
Researchers are learning about the flight of enslaved persons to Mexico by unearthing notices like this that appeared in the Galveston Weekly News in 1858.East Texas Digital Archives/Stephen F. Austin State University
Mexico began to gradually abolish slavery soon after it declared independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexican congress fully outlawed slavery in 1837, well before the United States did so with the 13th amendment.
Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and eventually joined the U.S. as a slave state. Mexico lost again in the U.S.-Mexican War, and the Rio Grande became the southern boundary of the United States.
Baumgartner says Mexico’s abolition of slavery exerted a gravitational pull on enslaved people in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi as King Cotton was expanding.
So, while Mexico lost huge expanses of its territory in the wars, she says its anti-slavery position gave it a sort of “moral capital.”
“Mexico was much less powerful than the United States, but anti-slavery gave it a way to find victory in defeat. The United States being this aggressive, slave-holding conquering nation and Mexico as this country that could actually stand upright before the civilized world for its antislavery positions.”
Mexico did have a system of forced labor even after it abolished slavery. Hacienda owners depended on debt peonage to keep their workers in bondage, and some considered that a form of slavery.
But many Mexicans were sympathetic to fugitive slaves from Texas and the United States, according to Maria Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.
In fact, Mexicans would often put up a fight against vigilantes and bounty-hunters from Texas looking for escaped slaves who had crossed over the river to free Mexican soil.
“Mexican authorities at times would help the now free men and women in Mexico from being taken and returned back to the United States,” says Hammack, who is writing her dissertation on the Webber family and how fugitive slaves gained freedom in Mexico.
Moreover, Mexican laborers working in Texas befriended slaves and acted as guides to help them escape south. This happened so often that enslavers came to distrust any Mexican.
“Under Texas law, Mexicans and enslaved persons were not allowed to be found together or to collaborate or even speak to each other,” Hammack says.
She says when she was growing up in Los Mochis in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, she never learned about the outsized role that her country played in Texas slavery.
“I didn’t know that Mexico was a safe haven for individuals to find freedom in the 19th century.”
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Texas changed the way students learn about the Civil War. They’re now taught that slavery did play a central role in the war.
But slaveholding was also a driving force in the Texas Revolution, and historians note that is still downplayed in celebrations of Texas Independence Day. On Tuesday, the state marks 185 years since declaring independence from Mexico.
Historians point out that some enslaved persons saw Mexican troops as their liberators and that slaves fled to the ranks of the retreating Mexican army, hoping to make it to free Mexico, after the decisive Battle of San Jacinto, near present-day Houston.
Educators in Texas may be eager to include the southbound underground railroad into their classrooms, if Alaine Hutson is a barometer. She’s a history professor at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black college in Austin.
While Hutson says she knew Mexico had outlawed slavery before the U.S. did, she did not know the full history of the southbound route to freedom.
She says this new material fits into a theme she always emphasizes with her students — that African Americans throughout history have been architects of their own liberation, like the former slave turned abolitionist Silvia Webber.
“African Americans during slavery, after slavery, during reconstruction, during Jim Crow, and after Jim Crow, and some would say into the new Jim Crow, have always tried to decide as much about our fate as possible,” Hutson says.
“And so it was nice to see that African Americans in Texas had the opportunity to help people get away to Mexico. And so Silvia and her family were doing that here in Texas.”
Hutson began teaching this history to her African American studies class at Huston-Tillotson this year. During a recent Zoom class, she asked her students to reflect on it.
“The thing that really caught my eye was that African Americans were going to another country and actually treated better, knowing we had freedoms in Mexico that we didn’t have in the United States,” says Duntavian Thomas, a 24-year-old kinesiology major from Nacogdoches. “As soon as African Americans touched down on Mexican soil, we were free.”
CPAC organizers begged attendees to wear masks — and got booed.
One of the most enduring clips from the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference was Mick Mulvaney dismissing the coronavirus pandemic as a media-driven “attempt to bring down the president.” More than 500,000 deaths and a year later, the first two full days of CPAC 2021 in Orlando, Florida, illustrated how little conservatives have learned.
Throughout the day on Friday, speakers characterized the coronavirus — which continues to claim more than 2,000 lives each day in the US — as something that only liberal wimps worry about or, more nefariously, as little more than a pretext Democratic public officials have used to shut down businesses and schools.
This type of rhetoric might seem absurd to people who take science and public health seriously, but it doesn’t to CPAC attendees.
One of the most memorable scenes from Friday’s festivities came early on, when event officials had to take to the stage and beg people to respect “private property rights” and “the rule of law” by wearing masks while walking around the hotel where the conference is being held. Unhappy attendees responded by booing and yelling “freedom!”
CPAC officials have to remind attendees to please, for the love of God, comply with the hotel’s rules and wear a mask. Unhappy people in the audience yell “freedom!” pic.twitter.com/hvoTPLKQ9J— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021
People could be excused for experiencing some cognitive dissonance. The speakers who came before and after that incident demonstrated that enduring a year-long pandemic hasn’t motivated conservatives to take basic public health practices more seriously.
This was perhaps most evident on Saturday, when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, gave the headlining speech. Despite the fact that more than 1 in 500 South Dakotans has died from Covid-19 — a mortality rate that places the state among the 10 hardest-hit — Noem took a victory lap and portrayed public health responses to the pandemic as largely unnecessary.
“Let me be clear — Covid didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy,” she said, before taking a direct shot at trusted public health experts.
Noem’s comments encapsulated the tone with which the coronavirus is being talked about at CPAC. Though America’s disastrous response to the pandemic was the responsibility of a Republican president, Noem and other speakers have pointed at the fact that blue states like New York and Massachusetts are among the highest in per capita deaths to discredit public health science and make it seem as though Trump’s bungling was actually a success story. Unfortunately, contrary to what Noem claims, it was not.
“This is just dumb”
Notably, a trio of Republican senators was among the worst offenders when it came to spreading Covid-19 misinformation on Friday.
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) got the morning going by bragging not only about going to church “during a time of Covid” but also about singing during the service.
“I even dared to sing in church, contrary to California doctrine,” he said.
But it has nothing to do with “California doctrine,” whatever that is. Singing in church was linked with superspreader events in the early days of the pandemic last spring, so public health experts recommended against it, and some states banned it (until a Supreme Court ruling in November found such bans to be unconstitutional). It’s not safe, unless you’ve already been vaccinated — which Lankford has been, but most Americans still have not.
Lankford’s comment set the tone. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) began his speech by cracking a joke about his decision to travel to Mexico for a family vacation last week while millions of his constituents languished without power. He then pretended to not understand why it’s important to wear masks during a pandemic, describing it as “strange” that restaurant-goers are required to wear masks in many states unless they are eating or drinking.
“You walk in, you gotta put your mask on — sadly, I’ve got two — you walk in, you gotta put your mask on. You sit down, you can take your mask off. See, apparently, the virus is actually connected to elevation,” Cruz quipped, adding later: “This is just dumb.”
Later, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) mocked Maryland officials for state public health guidelines that ended up prohibiting CPAC from having the conference in its usual location just outside Washington, DC.
“Even though cases are plummeting and vaccination rates are surging, we are still banned from getting anywhere near our nation’s capital,” Cotton said, as if the fact that daily new cases and deaths are down from where they were two months ago is a good reason to immediately drop all public health guidelines.
In hindsight, CPAC 2020 was one of the earliest indicators that Republicans would politicize public health responses to the coronavirus pandemic by framing any measure that closed businesses or schools as an impingement on their personal freedoms. That mentality went on to infuse a reelection campaign in which Trump spread disease and misinformation across the country at rallies that made a mockery of basic public health measures.
But even after Trump’s defeat, conservatives’ approach to the coronavirus pandemic remains unchanged.
It’s still Trump’s party in more ways than one
Beyond making a mockery of the coronavirus, another big theme from Friday was speakers pushing the same lies about the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection.
Wayne Dupree, a conspiracy theorist who once claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag, used a panel discussion to try to blame antifa and Black Lives Matter for an insurrection that was perpetrated by Trump supporters. Later, a panel discussion devoted to “How Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence” of election fraud had to be interrupted on Right Side Broadcasting’s CPAC stream so hosts could distance themselves from the panelists’ claims. (Voting machine companies have filed and threatened billion-dollar lawsuits against individuals and media organizations that have falsely claimed machines were rigged against Trump.)
Wow. Right Side Broadcasting cut away from the big lie CPAC panel discussion so hosts could read a disclaimer protecting the network from legal liability. pic.twitter.com/Gd170VZUHC— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 26, 2021
The big takeaway from all this is that conservatives haven’t even tried to learn lessons or make adjustments following an election cycle in which they lost control of the White House and the Senate.
Like it was last year, CPAC 2021 is a cultish celebration of Donald Trump that will be headlined Sunday with a speech by the former president — an embodiment of a movement that stands for little more than owning the libs.
A handful of pharmaceutical companies use patent laws to limit supply when the world most needs their drugs
Back in December, a coalition of human rights groups known as the People’s Vaccine Alliance revealed that at least nine out of ten people in 67 low-income countries are likely to go unvaccinated against the novel coronavirus throughout 2021. The obvious explanation is that wealthy countries have been hoarding the eight most promising vaccines for themselves: Rich countries with only 14% of the world’s population have so far brought up 53% of those vaccines, including nearly all of the mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.
But how are the rich countries able to do this? The answer has a lot to do with how multinational pharmaceutical companies use patents to create a system of unearned economic rents — that is, one in which a handful of large pharmaceutical companies monopolize access to drugs and garner massive profits as a result. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this issue has raised the ire of humanitarians, who pointed out that it led to skyrocketing prices for insulin in countries like the United States and has allowed these companies to price-gouge poorer nations. Historians often cite 1994 as a turning point year in terms of this problem, since that was when the World Trade Organization (WTO) required member nations to extend patents to the products created through specific processes of manufacture and synthesis.
“Patent protection increases prices and reduces access to medicines, diagnostics, vaccines, medical devices and PPE [personal protective equipment],” Susan K. Sell, a political scientist at Australian National University, wrote for the scholarly journal “Development” in November. “Strategic behaviour aimed at blocking generic competition contributes to rising drug prices. Pharma firms routinely engage in ‘evergreening’ to extend patent protection terms. A firm may have a popular drug with an about-to-expire patent, and then offer a ‘new’ formulation—from a tablet to a gel cap—of the same drug and obtain another 20 years of protection.”
Sell noted that these practices disproportionately impact people in less affluent countries, citing as one example how during the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 1990s and early 2000s “an estimated 12 million infected Africans were left to die, ‘waiting for enough life-saving drugs to reach the continent'” even as patients in wealthier nations saw their death rates from HIV/AIDS plummet.
The problem has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.Advertisement:
“With the arrival of COVID-19, it is now painfully obvious that such monopolization comes at the cost of human lives,” economists Joseph Stiglitz, Arjun Jayadev and Achal Prabhala wrote for Columbia Business School’s monthly newsletter Chazen Global Insights. “Monopoly control over the technology used in testing for the virus has hampered the rapid rollout of more testing kits, just as 3M’s 441 patents mentioning ‘respirator’ or ‘N95’ have made it more difficult for new producers to manufacture medical-grade face masks at scale.”
They added, “Worse, multiple patents are in force in most of the world for three of the most promising treatments for COVID-19 – remdesivir, favipiravir, and lopinavir/ritonavir. Already, these patents are preventing competition and threatening both the affordability and the supply of new drugs.”
A group of scientists writing for the scholarly journal “Nature Biotechnology” had a similar observation in October, writing that “during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we and others have observed instances in which IPR [intellectual property rights] restrictions, and even fear and uncertainty around IPR, have hindered effective research on vaccines and therapies, as well as the development, manufacturing and distribution of ventilators, testing kits, protective equipment and other medical supplies (referred to as ‘crisis-critical products’).”
Another problem with the Big Pharma monopoly, and how it uses that to abuse patent laws, is that it allows the companies to create conditions that hinder the advancement of medical knowledge so that they can financially benefit.
“What we see is scarcity and I think, to some extent, artificial scarcity, like scarcity that is not really a result of scientific or engineering problems but is instead a result of law and policy choices,” Christopher Morten, deputy director of the Technology Law and Policy Clinic at NYU School of Law, told Salon. He said that pharmaceutical corporations can decide that they need to “make it difficult for companies to share or to gain access to each other’s know-how, each other’s knowledge, and law and policy choices that have made it I think too easy for companies to horde all their knowledge or their technology and thwart competitors from a manufacturing vaccines on scale.”
James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a non-governmental organization founded by Ralph Nader that studies the effects of intellectual property on various areas of political and social life, told Salon that Americans have a moral obligation to care about people struggling in less affluent countries. Even if they don’t, however, there is also an element of self-interest involved. He pointed to how, for instance, a South African mutant strain of the novel coronavirus is in the United States.
“The fact that virus is out there, it means it can end up here,” Love explained. “And so the longer people are unvaccinated or the virus is out there and not contained,” the more it puts everyone in the world at risk. “The longer you wait to vaccinate people, the more risk that you run that the existing vaccines won’t even work” or that you won’t how long immunity will last with the existing vaccines.
“You have a lot of unknowns out there, and there are a lot of pretty compelling reasons that it’s not a good idea to just ignore the rest of the world situation,” Love observed.
At its core, the problem with the international patent system can be laid at the feet of capitalism itself.
“That’s what’s in the patent legislation,” Dr. Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Salon. “You have the following the right either to deny anyone and everyone access to what you’ve patented or to give them access in exchange for being given a cut of whatever they use the patent for a fee, a commission, whatever word you want to use, doesn’t really matter.”
He later added that this patent system is one “which any honest economist will admit [that] the criticisms that arose periodically in every capitalist country, including the U S criticism of monopoly prices, bitter criticisms by people who know very well, that they’re paying way above what they ought to.”
Kaity Assaf and Manuela Lopez Restrepo contributed research for this article.
By Hannah S. Ostroff SMITHSONIANMAG.COM FEBRUARY 26, 2021
The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers service and tips for genealogy efforts
By Hannah S. Ostroffsmithsonianmag.com February 26, 2021
One afternoon at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a visitor was reading out loud the names of family members he discovered in a historical record. On the other side of the museum’s Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center, another visitor’s ears perked up. She knew those names. She didn’t know the person reading them, but she knew those names. They were also from her family tree.
That day, at a museum that presents 400 years of African American history, two strangers became relatives.
The center opened with the museum in 2016 to help visitors begin their family-history journey and to learn the basics of researching African American genealogy. Through one-on-one sessions and other programs, its genealogy specialists show people how to use online databases and other resources.
All services are free and open to anyone at any stage of their research process—not just scholars or genealogy experts. Before sessions moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff met with 10 to 60 people a day in person.
Candis was an enslaved woman whose name I’d previously discovered attached to the marriage license for her son, my great grandfather Oscar Bunch. In a breakthrough at the Archives, I found mention of her death in 1870 as a 40-year-old freed woman in Wake County, North Carolina.— Lonnie G. Bunch III (@SmithsonianSec) February 26, 2021
The center, located on the second floor, helps visitors understand how their own personal history connects to the broader story they see in the museum galleries. “It’s a way of making the history and the past tangible for a lot of people,” says Hannah Scruggs, a genealogy reference assistant at the museum.
Seeing family members’ names in historical records can evoke a powerful response from visitors, and many have had emotional reactions to what they learn in the center.
Although researching African American genealogy can be challenging—for example, the U.S. Census did not record enslaved people by name, so the 1870 census was the first to include identifying information on many African Americans—the center works to correct the misconception that there are no records to trace.
The staff offers this advice for anyone starting their research:
Start with what you know. Pick the branch of your family you know the most about, because you’ll be more likely to find records and go back farther in time to see how records connect. You may be inclined to start with the gaps in family history, but that can make the process more difficult and frustrating. Talk to your family before you get started to gather as much information as you can before diving in.
Be flexible with spellings, dates and locations. Don’t count out records that might have a family name with a letter off or a year that doesn’t match with the family memory. Data may have been recorded incorrectly, or details may have shifted when told over multiple generations.
Learn about communities, not just individuals. You can understand quite a bit from researching the context of the period and area where your family lived—whether through church documents or local news bulletins—to offer clues and paint a bigger picture.
Try to get as much information from as many sources as possible. In addition to family-history databases online, you can do research in newspapers, court records, and the Freedmen’s Bureau records, which contain details about hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved people as they transitioned to freedom and citizenship after the Civil War. (Volunteers with the Smithsonian Transcription Center are currently working to make these records more accessible and searchable online.)
Consider print as well as digital. The internet is a powerful tool, but it’s wise to keep paper copies in addition to computer files. Formats might change in the future, and it can be helpful for sharing research across different age groups and technology comfort levels.
Explore free options for research. Ask your public library what resources are available—many now have options you can access from home.
Don’t get discouraged. “Come with a very open mind as to what you might see,” said Lisa Crawley, genealogy reference assistant for the center.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has moved to virtual appointments. It also does outreach with organizations and community groups and hosts monthly public programs online. You don’t have to be in Washington, D.C., to participate, and the staff has seen an increase in attendance from across the country.
Tech giants like Google and Facebook appear to be aiding and abetting a vicious government campaign against Indian climate activists.
The bank of cameras that camped outside Delhi’s sprawling Tihar jail was the sort of media frenzy you would expect to await a prime minister caught in an embezzlement scandal, or perhaps a Bollywood star caught in the wrong bed. Instead, the cameras were waiting for Disha Ravi, a nature-loving 22-year-old vegan climate activist who against all odds has found herself ensnared in an Orwellian legal saga that includes accusations of sedition, incitement, and involvement in an international conspiracy whose elements include (but are not limited to): Indian farmers in revolt, the global pop star Rihanna, supposed plots against yoga and chai, Sikh separatism, and Greta Thunberg.
If you think that sounds far-fetched, well, so did the judge who released Ravi after nine days in jail under police interrogation. Judge Dharmender Rana was supposed to rule on whether Ravi, one of the founders of the Indian chapter of Fridays For Future, the youth climate group started by Thunberg, should continue to be denied bail. He ruled that there was no reason for bail to be denied, which cleared the way for Ravi’s return to her home in Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore) that night.
But the judge also felt the need to go much further, to issue a scathing 18-page ruling on the underlying case that has gripped Indian media for weeks, issuing his own personal verdict on the various explanations provided by the Delhi police for why Ravi had been apprehended in the first place. The police’s evidence against the young climate activist is, he wrote, “scanty and sketchy,” and there is not “even an iota” of proof to support the claims of sedition, incitement, or conspiracy that have been leveled against her and at least two other young activists.
Though the international conspiracy case appears to be falling apart, Ravi’s arrest has spotlighted a different kind of collusion, this one between the increasingly oppressive and anti-democratic Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Silicon Valley companies whose tools and platforms have become the primary means for government forces to incite hatred against vulnerable minorities and critics — and for police to ensnare peaceful activists like Ravi in a high-tech digital web.
The case against Ravi and her “co-conspirators” hinges entirely on routine uses of well-known digital tools: WhatsApp groups, a collectively edited Google Doc, a private Zoom meeting, and several high-profile tweets, all of which have been weaponized into key pieces of alleged evidence in a state-sponsored and media-amplified activist hunt. At the same time, these very tools have been used in a coordinated pro-government messaging campaign to turn public sentiment against the young activists and the movement of farmers they came together to support, often in clear violation of the guardrails social media companies claim to have erected to prevent violent incitement on their platforms.
In a nation where online hatred has tipped with chilling frequency into real-world pogroms targeting women and minorities, human rights advocates are warning that India is on the knife edge of terrible violence, perhaps even the kind of genocidal bloodshed that social media aided and abetted against the Rohingya in Myanmar.“The silence of these companies speaks volumes. They have to take a stand, and they have to do it now.”
Through it all, the giants of Silicon Valley have stayed conspicuously silent, their famed devotion to free expression, as well as their newfound commitment to battling hate speech and conspiracy theories, is, in India, nowhere to be found. In its place is a growing and chilling complicity with Modi’s information war, a collaboration that is poised to be locked in under a draconian new digital media law that will make it illegal for tech companies to refuse to cooperate with government requests to take down offending material or to breach the privacy of tech users. Complicity in human rights abuses, it seems, is the price of retaining access to the largest market of digital media users outside China.
After some early resistance from the company, Twitter accounts critical of the Modi government have disappeared in the hundreds without explanation; government officials engaging in bald incitement and overt hate speech on Twitter and Facebook have been permitted to continue in clear violation of the companies’ policies; and Delhi police boast that they are getting plenty of helpful cooperation from Google as they dig through the private communications of peaceful climate activists like Ravi.
“The silence of these companies speaks volumes,” a digital rights activist told me, requesting anonymity out of fear of retribution. “They have to take a stand, and they have to do it now.”
Referred to in the Indian press variously as the “toolkit case,” the “Greta toolkit,” and the “toolkit conspiracy,” the police’s ongoing investigation of Ravi, along with fellow activists Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk, centers on the contents of a social media guide that Thunberg tweeted to her nearly 5 million followers in early February. When Ravi was arrested, the Delhi police declaredthat she “is an Editor of the Toolkit Google Doc & key conspirator in document’s formulation & dissemination. She started WhatsApp Group & collaborated to make the Toolkit doc. She worked closely with them to draft the Doc.”
The kit was nothing more than a Google Doc put together by an ad hoc collection of activists in India and the diaspora designed to generate support for the movement of farmers that has been staging enormous and relentlessprotests for months.
The farmers oppose a set of new agricultural laws that Modi’s government rushed through under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic. At the heart of the protests is the belief that by doing away with longtime price protections for crops and opening up the agricultural sector to more private investment, small farmers will face a “death warrant,” and India’s fertile lands will fall into the hands of a few large corporate players.
Many nonfarmers have looked for ways to help, both in India and in the global South Asian diaspora, as well as more broadly. The youth-led climate movement felt a particular responsibility to step up. As Ravi said in court, she supports the farmers “because they are our future, and we all need to eat.” And she has also pointed to a climate connection. Drought, heat waves, and flooding have all grown more intense in recent years, and India’s farmers are on the front lines of these climate impacts, often losing their crops and livelihoods, experiences Ravi knows about firsthand from witnessing her farmer grandparents struggle with weather extremes.
Much like countless such documents of the digital organizing age, the toolkit at the center of this controversy contains a buffet of familiar suggestions for how people can express their solidarity with India’s farmers, mainly on social media. “Tweet your support to the Indian Farmers. Use hashtag #FarmersProtest #StandWithFarmers”; take a picture or a video of yourself saying you support the farmers; sign a petition; write to your representative; participate in a “tweetstorm” or “digital strike”; attend one of the protests in person, whether inside India or at an Indian embassy in your country; learn more by attending a Zoom information session. An early version of the document (soon deleted) talked about challenging India’s peace-and-love, or “yoga & chai,” public image.By arresting and imprisoning Ravi for an alleged role as an editor of the toolkit, she is in essence being criminalized for making India look bad in front of the world.
Pretty much every major activist campaign generates clicktivist how-to guides exactly like this one. Most mid-sized nongovernmental organizations have someone whose job it is to draft such documents and send them to potential supporters and “influencers.” If they are illegal, then contemporary activism itself is illegal. By arresting and imprisoning Ravi for an alleged role as an editor of the toolkit, she is in essence being criminalized for making India look bad in front of the world. Under that definition, all international human rights work would need to be shut down, since that work rarely presents governments in a flattering light.
This point was made forcefully by the judge who ruled on Ravi’s bail: “Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic Nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies,” he wrote. As for sharing the toolkit with Thunberg, “the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience.”
This seems obvious. Yet somehow this most benign of documents has been latched onto by multiple government officials as something far more nefarious. General VK Singh, Modi’s minister of state for road transport and highways, wrote in a Facebook post that the toolkit “revealed the real designs of a conspiracy at an international level against India. Need to investigate the parties which are pulling the strings of this evil machinery. Instructions were laid out clearly as to the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘what’. Conspiracies at this scale often get exposed.”
The Delhi police quickly took its cue and set out to find evidence of this international conspiracy to “defame the country” and undermine the government, using a draconian colonial-era sedition law. But it didn’t stop there. The toolkit also stands accused of being part of a secret plot to break India apart and form a Sikh state called Khalistan (more sedition), because a Vancouver-based Indo-Canadian who helped put it together has expressed some sympathy for the idea of an independent Sikh homeland (not a crime and nowhere mentioned in the toolkit). And remarkably, for one Google Doc that the police claim was mainly written in Canada, this same toolkit stands accused of inciting and possibly plotting violence at a large farmers’ “tractor rally” in Delhi on January 26.
For weeks, these claims have gone viral online, much of it under coordinated hashtag campaigns spearheaded by India’s Ministry of External Affairs and faithfully echoed by top Bollywood and cricket stars. Anil Vij, a government minister in the state of Haryana, tweeted in Hindi that “Whoever has seeds of anti-nationalism in their mind has to be destroyed from the roots, be it #Disha_Ravi or anyone else.” Challenged as an obvious example of hate speech by a powerful figure, Twitter claimed that the post did not violate its policies and left it up.
Indian print and broadcast media has relentlessly echoed the preposterous charges of sedition, with well over 100 stories about Ravi and the toolkit appearing in the Times of India alone. Television news shows have run crime-stopper-style exposés of the international toolkit “conspiracy.” Not surprisingly, the rage has spilled out into the streets, with photos of Thunberg and Rihanna (who also tweeted in support of the farmers) burned at nationalist rallies.
Modi himself has even weighed in, speaking of enemies who have “stooped so low that they are not sparing even Indian tea” — widely taken as a reference to the deleted “yoga & chai” line.
And then, earlier this week, the whole frothy mess seem to fall flat. Rana, in his order releasing Ravi, wrote that “perusal of the said ‘Toolkit’ reveals that any call for any kind of violence is conspicuously absent.” The claim that the kit was a secessionist plot was also entirely unproven, he wrote, an elaborate guilt-by-association inference.
As for the charge that disseminating critical information about India’s treatment of farmers and human rights defenders to prominent activists like Thunberg constitutes “sedition,” the judge was particularly harsh. “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.”
The case is ongoing, but the ruling represents a major blow to the government and a vindication for the farmer’s movement and the solidarity campaigns supporting them. However, it is hardly a victory. Even if the toolkit case loses steam as a result of the judge’s slap-down, it is just one of hundreds of campaigns that the Indian government is waging to hunt down activists, organizers, and journalists. Labor organizer Nodeep Kaur, one year older than Ravi, was also jailed for her support of the farmers. Just released on bail, Kaur claimed in court that she had been badly beaten while in police custody. Meanwhile, hundreds of farmers remain behind bars and some of those arrested have disappeared.The real threat that the toolkit represented to Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was always, at root, about the power of the farmers’ movement.
The real threat that the toolkit represented to Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, was always, at root, about the power of the farmers’ movement. Modi’s political project represents a powerful merger of unleashed Hindu chauvinism with highly concentrated corporate power. The farmers challenge that dual project, both in their insistence that food should stay outside market logics and in the movement’s proven ability to build power across the religious, ethnic, and geographic divisions that are the lifeblood of Modi’s rise to power.
Ravinder Kaur, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and the author of “Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India,” writes that the farmers are “perhaps the largest mass mobilisation in post-colonial India’s history, one that spans rural and urban populations, and conjoins the revolt against deregulated capitalism to the struggle for civil liberties.” For Modi’s powerful merger of transnational capital with a hypernationalistic state, “the anti-farm law mobilisation poses the most sustained and direct challenge to this alliance yet.”
Protests by farmers in and around Delhi have been met with water cannons, tear gas, and mass arrests. But they keep coming, too big to defeat with force alone. That is why the Modi government has been so determined to find ways to undermine the movement and suppress its message, repeatedly blocking the internet ahead of protests and successfully pressuring Twitter to cancel over a thousand pro-farmer accounts. It is also why Modi has sought to muddy the waters with tales of devious toolkits and international conspiracies.
An open letter signed by dozens of Indian environmental activists after Ravi’s arrest made this point: “[T]he current actions of the Central Government are diversionary tactics to distract people from real issues like the ever-rising cost of fuel and essential items, the widespread unemployment and distress caused due to the lockdown without a plan, and the alarming state of the environment.”The Modi government is attempting to drag the public debate away from terrain where it is obviously weak and move it to the ground on which every ethnonationalist project thrives.
It is this quest for a political diversion, in other words, that helps explain how a simple solidarity campaign has been recast as a secret plot to break India apart and incite violence from abroad. The Modi government is attempting to drag the public debate away from terrain where it is glaringly weak — meeting people’s basic needs during an economic crisis and pandemic — and move it to the ground on which every ethnonationalist project thrives: us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, patriots versus seditious traitors.
In this familiar maneuver, Ravi and the broader youth climate movement were simply collateral damage.
Yet the damage done is considerable, and not only because the interrogations are ongoing and Ravi’s return to jail remains distinctly possible. As the joint letter from Indian environmental advocates states, her arrest and imprisonment have already served a purpose: “The Government’s heavy-handedness are clearly focused on terrorising and traumatising these brave young people for speaking truth to power, and amounts to teaching them a lesson.”
The still wider damage is in the chill the entire toolkit controversy has placed over political dissent in India — with the silent complicity of the tech companies that once touted their powers to open up closed societies and spread democracy around the world. As one headline put it, “Disha Ravi arrest puts privacy of all Google India users in doubt.”
Indeed, public debate has been so deeply compromised that many activists in India are going underground, deleting their own social media accounts to protect themselves. Even digital rights advocates are wary of being quoted on the record. Asking not to be named, a legal researcher described a dangerous convergence between a government adept at information war and social media companies built on maximizing engagement to mine their users’ data: “All of this stems from a stronger weaponization of social media platforms by the status quo, something that was not present earlier. This is further aggravated by the tendency of these companies to prioritise more viral, extremist content, which allows them to monetise user attention, ultimately benefitting their profit motives.”
Since her arrest, the entrails of Ravi’s private digital life have been laid out for all to see, picked over by a voracious and salacious national media. Televised panels and newspapers obsessed over her private text messages to Thunberg as well as other communications among activists who were doing nothing but editing an online pamphlet. Police, meanwhile, have repeatedly insisted that Ravi’s decision to delete a WhatsApp group was proof that she had committed a crime, rather than a rational response to government attempts to turn peaceful digital organizing into a weapon directed at young activists.
Ravi’s lawyers have asked the court to order the police to stop leaking her private communications to the press — information they seemingly have as result of seized phones and computers. Wanting still more private information for their investigation, the Delhi police have also made demands of several major tech companies. They have asked Zoom to disclose the list of attendees of a private activist meeting which they say relates to the toolkit; police have made several requests to Google for information about how the toolkit was posted and shared. And according to news reports, police have asked Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Twitter for toolkit-related information as well. It is unclear which companies have complied and to what extent. The police have touted Google’s cooperation publicly, but Google and Facebook did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment. Zoom and Twitter referred to their corporate policies, which state that they will comply with relevant national laws.
The entrails of Ravi’s private digital life have been laid out for all to see, picked over by a voracious and salacious national media.
Which may be why the Modi government has chosen this moment to introduce a new set of regulations that would give it levels of control over digital media so draconian they come close to China’s great firewall. On February 24, the day after Ravi’s release from jail, Reuters reported on the Modi government’s planned “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code.” The new rules will require media companies to take down content that affects “the sovereignty and integrity of India” within 36 hours of a government order — a definition so broad that it could easily include slights against yoga and chai. The new code also states that digital media companies must cooperate with government and police requests for information about their users within 72 hours. That includes requests to trace down the originating source of “mischievous information” on platforms and perhaps even encrypted messaging apps.
The new code is being introduced in the name of protecting India’s diverse society and blocking vulgar content. “A publisher shall take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices, or views of any racial or religious group,” the draft rules state.
In practice, however, the BJP has one of the most sophisticated troll armies on the planet, and its own politicians have been the most vociferous and aggressive promotors of hate speech directed at vulnerable minorities and critics of all kinds. To cite just one example of many, several BJP politicians actively participated in a misinformation campaign claiming that Muslims were deliberately spreading Covid-19 as part of a “Corona Jihad.” What a code like this would do is enshrine in law the double digital vulnerability experienced by Ravi and other activists: They would be unprotected from online mobs revved up by a Hindu nationalist state, and they would be unprotected from that same state when it sought to invade their digital privacy for any reason it chose.The “lethal” new code is “aimed at killing the independence of India’s digital news media. This attempt to arm bureaucrats with the power to tell the media what can and can’t be published has no basis in law.”
Apar Gupta, executive director of the digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, expressed particular concern about parts of the new code that may allow government officials to track down the originators of messages on platforms like WhatsApp. This, he told the Associated Press, “undermines user rights and can lead to self-censorship if users fear that their conversations are no longer private.”
Harsha Walia, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and author of “Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism,” puts the dire situation in India like this: “The latest proposed regulations requiring social media companies to assist Indian law enforcement is yet another outrageous and undemocratic attempt by the fascist Hindutva Modi government to suppress dissent, solidify the surveillance state, and escalate state violence.” She told me that this latest move by the Modi government needs to be understood as part of much broader pattern of sophisticated information warfare waged by the Indian state. “Three weeks ago, the Indian government shut down the internet in parts of Delhi to suppress information about the farmers protest; social media accounts of journalists and activists at the farmers protest and in the Sikh diaspora were suspended; and Big Tech cooperated with Indian police in a number of baseless but chilling sedition cases. In the past four years, the Indian government has ordered over 400 internet shutdowns, and the Indian occupation of Kashmir is marked by a prolonged communications siege.”
The new code, which will impact all digital media, including streaming and news sites, is set to take effect within the next three months. A few digital media producers in India are pushing back. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, tweeted last Thursday that the “lethal” new code is “aimed at killing the independence of India’s digital news media. This attempt to arm bureaucrats with the power to tell the media what can and can’t be published has no basis in law.”
Do not expect portraits of courage from Silicon Valley, however. Many U.S. tech executives regret early decisions, made under public and worker pressure, to refuse to cooperate with China’s apparatus of mass surveillance and censorship — an ethical choice, but one that cost companies like Google access to a staggeringly large, lucrative market. These companies appear unwilling to make the same kind of calculation again. As the Wall Street Journal reported last August, “India has more Facebook and WhatsApp users than any other country, and Facebook has chosen it as the market in which to introduce payments, encryption and initiatives to tie its products together in new waysthat [CEO Mark] Zuckerberg has said will occupy Facebook for the next decade.”
For tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Zoom, India under Modi has turned into a harsh moment of truth. In North America and Europe, these companies are going to great lengths to show that they can be trusted to regulate hate speech and harmful conspiracies on their platforms while protecting the freedom to speak, debate, and disagree that is integral to any healthy society. But in India, where helping governments hunt and imprison peaceful activists and amplify hate appears to be the price of access to a huge and growing market, “all of those arguments have gone out the window,” one activist told me. And for a simple reason: “They are profiting from this harm.”
Naomi Klein’s latest book is “How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other,” just published by Simon & Schuster.
Five years after they took Uber to court, two ex-drivers on Friday won a legal battle against the ride-hailing firm.
Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar were part of a small group of drivers who brought the original case against Uber in 2015. Aslam and his colleague Farrar, president and general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) respectively, claimed Uber was breaking UK employment law by failing to offer basic worker rights, such as holiday pay and national minimum wage. They won the case.
Uber disputed the claims, saying it acted like other traditional minicab firms and counted its drivers as self-employed contractors. At the time, this meant drivers had minimal protections, including no sick pay and Uber could avoid the costs of paying minimum wage. In 2017, Uber appealed the original ruling and lost.
Uber then appealed the case in the UK’s Supreme Court and the process dragged on into February 2021. Again, the company lost, marking the end of its legal road. The outcome could threaten Uber’s business model in the UK — one of its biggest markets — if it is forced to cough up back pay for thousands of drivers who may bring cases, and if it must pay higher taxes.
The dispute will go back to an employment tribunal, which will decide how much the 25 drivers who brought the case five years ago will be awarded. Aslam believes he’s entitled to between £10,000 and £12,000.
“I was delighted,” he told Insider. “It means a lot. I didn’t just do it for myself, I did it for the workers and drivers. I’m just a driver who spoke up for injustice.”
Aslam, who is based in the UK, worked for Uber between 2013 and 2017. Once, during his time at the company, he says Uber “deactivated” him for organizing a campaign against the company’s treatment of drivers. This meant the company didn’t allow him to access the app to pick up passengers, he said.
“I’m not anti-Uber and I’m not there to shut Uber down. But the law is there for a reason,” he added. Uber did not respond when Insider asked it to comment on Aslam’s claims of deactivation.
Uber’s business model
When Aslam first started working at Uber, he said it was good. He earned £50 an hour, got a £10 bonus for each ride, and the fares were higher. Plus, the company “put the drivers first.”
As he continued working for the company, however, the fares got cheaper and the bonuses stopped, he says. After the launch of UberPool, a service launched in 2015 that allows people to split ride costs with another person who is travelling in the same direction, drivers were earning even less, according to Aslam.
Back in 2016, CNN also reported that drivers said UberPool meant more work, but not necessarily more pay. Aslam said drivers have realised that Uber is “hiding behind technology to control workers.”
According to Aslam, Uber’s business model involves mass recruiting and flooding the streets with drivers and cars, while keeping fares cheap to attract customers. This has long been a criticism of Uber and its business model — that the firm, initially funded by huge amounts of private capital, could afford to keep cab fares artificially low at the expense of drivers and the competition.
Although Aslam thinks businesses such as Uber should exist, he said they “rely on exploiting people and they go for a mass scaling model and I think it’s wrong.” He believes the customer should take some responsibility in the pricing as there’s a human cost involved: “There’s someone behind that wheel and they need to have rights.”
The case still isn’t over
“The devil is in the details now,” Farrar told Insider. He said Uber is being defiant about committing to implement the ruling.
After the recent ruling, Uber was quick to point out that it only applied to the group of 25 drivers who brought the case in 2016. It also said the ruling was specific to how Uber’s business operated when the drivers initially filed a lawsuit, and that the business has since changed.
“Uber is trying to spin a line to drivers that this ruling only applies to the original claimants and not to all drivers,” said Farrar, who worked for Uber between 2015 and 2016. “Not only is it untrue but it’s demonstrably contrary to the spirit of the ruling.”
He hopes Uber is just going through “a stage of emotional grief and denial” and that it will accept the ruling. But if not, he said the government and regulator Transport for London (TfL) needs to step in.
Claims against Uber are already piling up
If the government doesn’t enforce the law and TfL doesn’t step in, Farrar said he and other drivers would have to “pile up litigation” against Uber.
Indeed, thousands of claimants are already making claims against the firm. Nigel Mackay, a partner at Leigh Day Solicitors, said his company currently has 3,500 clients with claims against Uber.
Farrar, who formed an organization called Worker Info Exchange to help app workers like Uber drivers access their data from companies they work for, said these types of claims could become extremely expensive for the taxi app company. He believes there’ll be a cottage industry of lawyers making continuous claims against Uber “because it’s an easy win.”
He added: “It’s embarrassing that the poorest people on minimum wage have to go to the Supreme Court against one of the most powerful companies on Earth.”
Although Uber did not respond to Insider’s request for comment, the company sent a press release shortly after the ruling, featuring a statement from Jamie Heywood, Uber’s regional general manager for northern and eastern Europe.
It said: “We respect the court’s decision which focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016. Since then we have made some significant changes to our business, guided by drivers every step of the way. These include giving even more control over how they earn and providing new protections like free insurance in case of sickness or injury. We are committed to doing more and will now consult with every active driver across the UK to understand the changes they want to see.”
Axel Springer, Insider Inc.’s parent company, is an investor in Uber.
Do you drive for Uber or Lyft? We want to hear from you. Get in touch with email@example.com
Your morning cheat sheet to get you caught up on what you need to know in tech. Sign up to 10 Things in Tech You Need to Know Today.