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Solace and Solitude: Retiring from Activism

Activism isn’t a sprint, nor is it a marathon. It is a relay race, and it is my time to pass the baton.

Years ago, when I first transitioned, I made a conscious choice to live transparently, under my real name, and to use my personhood and my voice to speak out against the things that I found wrong in the world. My voice wasn’t worth much then. I was a small town girl, a newly-out trans woman, with few friends in the city I had called home for more than half a decade. It was my wife who suggested I join a Slack group for LGBTQ people in tech; it would be here I would find words to describe the shape of my changing politics, and friends who would mentor me, teach me, and most of all, respect me for the person I really was. Having strong opinions about Things That Matter was as much a coming out as transitioning was; for too long, I had lived seeking approval that would never come from conservative people in my life who didn’t respect me before transition and who would respect me even less after.

When I began talking about social values, I stayed as close to my lane as I could. I wanted to write about the many ills of the tech industry: the relentless shortcuts in ethics and quality that were plaguing the products we were creating, the sexist and racist toxicity of our workplaces, and the deleterious and gentrifying impact our high salaries had on urban communities throughout the United States. While I was always against fascism, I didn’t really seek out fascists to oppose, but it was not long before I stumbled upon them anyways.

One of my first public acts of activism involved a data breach of around 70,000 OkCupid users. These users’ question responses were unethically scraped for a pseudo-scientific study by a known neo-reactionary self-proclaimed psychologist. The data were hosted on the Open Science Framework, a service created by the Center for Open Science, in my home city of Charlottesville, Virginia. This was in 2016, more than year before Charlottesville became a household name for entirely different reasons involving the far right. Ironically, I first encountered the leak while at a women-in-tech meetup hosted by COS. I blogged about the issue then, in a post that I have recently recovered. I should have seen then the storm that would be coming, inter alia: the Lambdaconf debacle and the second “SJW list”; Donald Trump’s election; and the James Damore drama.

I got a verified checkmark for the Twitter thread I wrote about the quality standards, or lack thereof, of voting machine software. I went semi-viral for a tweet pointing out a press release by Lenco, the creator of the Bearcat armored vehicle, describing the platform as a “weapon” to be “unleashed on the streets of East Baton Rouge” during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Early in Trump’s administration, I went viral for pointing out the anomalous lack of nominees for key State Department positions. In all of these cases, I combined my professional knowledge with a penchant for open source research to find data sitting in public, and using that to shape the way we saw current events. For the next five years, this was the primary skillset that I employed to fight against increasingly violent forces of white supremacy.

The end of 2016 was a terrifying time. Nobody really knew what was coming with the Donald Trump administration. All I knew was that my name was on a hitlist, created with the full knowledge and assent of someone with White House access. I worked remote at the time, and figured it would be a good time to explore the scenery overseas. The day before Trump’s inauguration, I embarked on a monthlong trip to Prague, wherein I immersed myself in the history of a city that has seen empires come and go. It was during this trip that I resolved to focus my activism into a more local context. I returned to the United States to have surgery, and while I was still recovering, the first trip I made outside my house was to attend a vigil for Sage Smith, a Black transgender woman who had gone missing years prior. This was March of 2017, and Charlottesville had not yet transitioned from a city to a Moment.

All politics is local, as the saying goes, and I resolved to invest myself in contributing to local movements addressing local issues, instead of worrying about national and world politics that I had no ability whatsoever to change. It was only dark serendipity that my locality happened to be the first place that Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer chose for their first neo-Nazi tiki torch rally. I was in Berlin at the time. It was my first time in the city; I resolved to use the chance to understand more about how Berliners handle Nazis, past and present. I went to demos, I saw how they were organized. I was particularly impressed by the way groups like Berlin Gegen Nazis used public messaging and advertising to raise awareness of anti-Nazi campaigns. Mainstream antifascism is not something I had seen before in the US. When I returned to Charlottesville, I knew that I was going to have to bring those learnings home.

The Summer of 2017 in Charlottesville was a contentious time. Shortly after I returned home, local activists were disrupting Jason Kessler and his friends dining on the Downtown Mall. I stumbled upon the event; it was there that I discovered that many of the people I met at Sage Smith’s vigil were some of the same activists shouting Jason Kessler out of town. When that same group held an anti-fascist march from UVA to Downtown shortly after, they announced that Charlottesville would be home to at least two more white supremacist rallies that summer: the July 8 KKK rally, and the August 12 Unite the Right rally. My intentions to keep my activism local were taking on the qualities of a Greek tragedy.

I never cared much about my follower count, at least not since I hit one thousand. But what I learned from the OkCupid and Lambdaconf incidents was that the left, generally speaking, did not have the same social media game that the right did. The left had poor weapons to counter the propaganda machine that the neo-Nazis and white supremacists had firing on all cylinders. I also knew that Charlottesville’s leftist community didn’t really have a loud enough voice to counter the narrative that Kessler and crew were spreading. I watched GamerGate unfold a few years prior. I was certain that the local activist community would be eviscerated by the online mob.

I had two weapons that I could bring to the fight that summer: a verified Twitter account and first-hand experience in the activist-media dynamic. I resolved to contribute what I could: I offered myself up as a lightning rod, someone who could draw the ire of the far right, keeping the heat off of local activists. All the while, I would build and foster relationships with journalists and media, helping them understand the situation on the ground, and doing what I could to shape the narrative about how that summer would unfold. If I am to be accused of seeking attention, the attention I sought was only to shift the rage away from those in more meaningful, yet more vulnerable, positions. I did this with the knowledge and support of my affinity group, to which I was accountable and which was accountable to me.

In many ways, this was a total success. I have been the main target of everything from harassment campaigns to lawsuits to FBI investigations to at least one international attempt on my life. And while I could not totally shield my community from this wrath, I feel proud to know that many of those who contributed so much to our summer of resistance are still unknown to those who would wish to harm them.

But of course this has a cost. There is only so much hate that one can receive before one is poisoned by it. There is only so much room for trauma in a soul that longs for freedom. I have given so much for this fight. Relationships have suffered. Money has been lost. Pain has been endured. But the only unrecoverable asset I have lost is time.

The time I have spent on activism in the years that have passed since Charlottesville became a Moment, and not a city, has all been to fill a need. When I started First Vigil, it was intended to be a resource for journalists and activists to improve their coverage of the far right. Chris Cantwell will now spend a few years in prison. I have uncovered crucial lies that are likely to decimate the now-defunct Alt Right in an upcoming civil lawsuit. I have exposed at least a dozen neo-Nazis, making communities around the country safer. I am immensely proud of what I have done with this time.

But all of this work takes upkeep, which itself costs more time. I did not seek a profile in The Guardian or in Die Tageszeitung. I don’t solicit journalists to offer quotes. I don’t ask to give seminars or sit on panels. These things cost me time. And I have given my time because there has not been, in my opinion, enough people publicly doing the work I felt was important.

But that has now changed. Media coverage of the far right has much to improve. But the people with the skills to cover it are growing in both prominence and number. While very few antifascist organizations were in the Nazi-exposing business years ago, there are now many more people doing this work. Simply put, the work I feel is most important is being done by many more people with much more skill than I ever had. Maybe it was always that way and I just didn’t see it. Or maybe I had some small hand in creating the ecosystem where that labor has value.

I find myself with less time now. I find myself getting older. For the first time in years, I have real space to grow in my job. I am determined to speak fluent German. I want to spend more time with my wife, Christine. And I still have so much of the world left to see. My muscles don’t ache any less, my headaches don’t go away any quicker. I have spent too many nights staring at images of tiki torches, reliving the worst trauma of my life over and over and over again.

I watched those images play out on TV, in movies, in Joe Biden’s campaign ads. Charlottesville became a Moment, and for that dark serendipity I described earlier, I became part of that Moment, too. I see now that the work I did left a small but permanent dent in the Universe, and that while history can forget my name, the impact of my actions is indelible. I can withdraw now to invest what remains of my time into those things that I find valuable for myself. I have lost too much of it over these years.

I move on with no regrets over the time I have spent. There have been moments of doubt, namely those moments when I have felt that my community did not live up to its end of the bargain. Still today, I sit and watch as Jason Kessler and others spread lies and hate about me, with few speaking out against it. I watch as transphobia runs rampant with a frighteningly low level of opposition. The small amount money I have made doing this work, either through speaking engagements or other donations, represents significantly less than minimum wage. These moments have been filled with a deafening solitude. I wish I had demanded more commitment to protect my own time and spirit.

But if the best moment to make that time was five years ago, the second best time is now. And so I will be stepping back from all personal activism. I will be declining all media and speaking requests for the foreseeable future, except those that pertain to my job. I will be handing over the data from First Vigil to an institution of repute, who can handle it with the care it deserves. I resolve to be kinder, to myself and others. I no longer need to be the lightning rod, and I no longer need to curate the public persona which is so different from who I truly am. I will continue my longer-form projects, namely writing and advising research groups. I will still comment on public matters, but only out of personal interest and not out of a sense of moral duty. I will forever be antifascist, and I will never be able to quit the parts of me that are hated. But I have done my tours of duty in this culture war and it is time for me to retire.

I don’t know what is next. I just know that I deserve to find out. It has been the honor of a lifetime to have been given this opportunity, and I hope I made a few of you proud with what I did with it.

In solidarity forever,

Emily

Author

EG

Emily is a data scientist and activist. The opinions shared herein are her own.