At the Restore the Fourth Rally in Chicago, All Eyes Were on the Future of Privacy

Will yesterday’s noise actually do anything, or will the protests fizzle out like the Occupy movement?

Jul 5 2013, 9:10pm
Photos by DJ Pangburn

One could pick up the trail of Chicago’s Restore the Fourth rally by following the “Fuck NSA” graffiti scrawled on Metra rail support beams, sidewalks, and building walls—breadcrumbs leading to the group’s second location, Millennium Park. There you would find the protesters, signs in hand, weaving amongst a sea of 4th of July revelers and tourists, all gazing slack-jawed at Anish Kapoor’s Flight of the Navigator-esque Cloud Gate, where children throw tantrums and lick melting ice cream cones. Here, the Restore the Fourth protesters attempted to engage American citizens and Chicago’s international visitors. It was here that they attempted to break the masses out of the collective hallucination.

After this bit of civilian interaction, ralliers eventually coalesced under the arching metal beams of Jay Pritzker Pavilion. From there, they marched on the street, under the ever watchful eye of police, toward Buckingham Fountain for a second set of speeches. Cars, pedestrians, and wandering tourists were treated to posters depicting Barack Obama as Big Brother. Or to a poster with the Randian hero rallying cry “Who Is John Galt?” Chants of “You don’t have a warrant,” and “Hey, hey, ho ho... the NSA has got to go!” fill the air.

Similar scenes were repeated all across America, as thousands of Americans took a break from BBQs, beer in backyards and fireworks to protest the NSA’s Prism program in a nationwide movement known as “Restore the Fourth.” In solidarity with the boots on the ground, a coalition of 30,000 websites known as the Internet Defense League displayed anti-NSA messages known as the “Cat Signal” and ran TV ads in what is now being called the largest online protest since SOPA.

Unlike the defeat of the yet-to-be-implemented bill SOPA, Prism is already in place and has been collecting our metadata for years. Will yesterday’s noise actually do anything, or will the protests fizzle out like the Occupy movement?  

Restore the Fourth is in reference to the Fourth Amendment​, which organizers argue Prism violates. As Tiffiniy Cheng of the Internet Defense League and Fight for the Future said in a press release, “The NSA programs that have been exposed are blatantly unconstitutional, and have a detrimental effect on free speech and freedom of press worldwide. You can’t disregard people’s privacy, invade their personal lives on a daily basis, and not expect them to fight back.”

And fight back they did, in cities like New York, Miami, San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and even Birmingham, Alabama. News outlets big and small covered the protests, even if they were “tame affairs” with only a couple hundred—or in some cases just a few dozen—attending. AdAge’s Simon Dumenco asked on July 3rd if the protests would “rock the media (and you)” and by all accounts they did. All very impressive for a protest movement that got its start on reddit, but will Restore the Fourth actually restore the fourth amendment?

Reddit GM Erik Martin, who attended the New York City protest, said in a phone interview the most important thing was that it “increased awareness about.. the NSA scandal and surveillance issues,” adding “no one expects this to be changed overnight.” Martin noted there were more people at the protest than at the SOPA ones, and the fact that this was some people’s first protest, “that alone is powerful.”    

We also spoke with two of Chicago's Restore the Fourth rally organizers, Billy Joe Mills and Shweta Moorthy, over the phone.

“In some ways the rally was an attempt to wake people up, but also to just start conversations with normal people,” said Mills. “I had a lot of conversations with soccer moms, who knew what was going on, but never had an idea about what the NSA was before Edward Snowden's disclosures.” Mills spoke to one mother in particular who, when asked if she knew what the protesters were rallying against, said, “You’re protesting Big Brother,” and expressed the opinion that she didn't like the government's actions at all.

“Also, there were a lot of kids at Millennium Park, and they were all really curious about the signs and the hundreds of people roaming round,” said Shweta. “And that was a really pleasant and positive side effect of being at that particular stage.”

Mills and Moorthy said that the fact the rally was held in the city that incubated President Obama's political career was definitely on their minds.

“I don't think that Obama is actively evil, but I think that he is morally weak,” observed Mills. “He might hold similar views on this issue, but I don't think that he holds them strongly or dearly enough for him to use this political capital to battle against rather entrenched interests in both the surveillance state and the war powers of the presidency.”

Like the other Restore the Fourth groups across the nation, the Chicago group is planning on creating a lasting organization that can effectively lobby Illinois politicians.

“I already spoke with Senator Mark Kirk, one of the four Republican Senators to sign a letter to James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence,” said Billy. “And we're trying to set up meetings with him and Dick Durbin, as well as Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who is important because he on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”

“We really want to make the Chicago Restore the fourth a permanent fixture in terms of lobbying congressman, writing op-eds, and try to get colleges to set up organizations on campus and get their newspapers talking about [NSA surveillance],” said Billy.

“We want a multi-pronged approached to this issue,” added Moorthy. “We want to continue with the public outreach, and keep the conversation going. We want to make sure the issue doesn’t die.”

What distinguishes the Restore the Fourth movement from Occupy, and therefore increases the chance of something actually being done, are clear-cut and relatively feasible demands, the first being:

Enact reform this Congress to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court.

Concerned citizens are asked to put pressure on their elected officials either through phone calls or letters to speak out against the NSA’s surveillance.

The NSA, meanwhile, issued a statement before the protests void of any mention of the Fourth Amendment:

“The Fourth of July reminds us as Americans of the freedoms and rights all citizens of our country are guaranteed by our Constitution. Among those is freedom of speech, often exercised in protests of various kinds. NSA does not object to any lawful, peaceful protest. NSA and its employees work diligently and lawfully every day, around the clock, to protect the nation and its people.”