Day For Night’s opening summit was a unique way to kick off an arts and music festival. It helped festival attendees get into a mindset no other festival could create by bringing in world class artists and activists to talk about their passions and projects. The summit was curated by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Art’s and moderated by Hyperallergic’s editor-in-chief, Hrag Vartanian. One of those speakers was Chelsea Manning, one of the most infamous leakers of federal data. Manning’s talk during Day For Night’s opening summit gave insight into her life outside of prison, being a transgender woman in America, and her fears of a police state.
Manning was a former intelligence officer for the U.S. Army and was convicted of leaking classified military documents to WikiLeaks. Critics argue that she leaked information that put soldiers lives in danger, but she argues otherwise. She was convicted under the Espionage Act and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was kept in solitary confinement for almost a year. Her sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama, and she was released from prison in May 2017 after serving only seven years of her original sentence.
Manning wasted no time and went straight into her thoughts on online surveillance and the information bubbles created by targeted content. She argues that data collected by advertisers through online and social media use is a form of surveillance and a violation of our everyday privacy.
“Everything that we do in our lives are driven by the collection of data, and any form of data collection is a form of surveillance,” said Manning. “It’s not just limited to cameras, or the collection of intercepted communication, or phone calls, or phone records — the edgy stuff that gets talked about by the media.”
One of her biggest concerns is that information bubbles and feedback loops are what’s tearing our country apart. No one can get along because everyone has been fed information that fits their world view.
“The feedback loop is where our data driven lives and data driven society have created fault lines. You see them on television and you see them everywhere you look,” she said. “From my own experience being a part of the military and actually doing this stuff is that we want everything. We learn so much about you, or whoever it is we’re paying attention to, that we know more about you than yourself. And we can use that, and that’s dangerous — especially if we’re nefarious.”
But the talk wasn’t solely about data collection and espionage. She touched on her time on prison and the effects imprisonment had on her life. She also touched on mass incarceration and the expanding population of American prisons.
“We’re not just in the police state. We’re also in the prison state,” said Manning. “If you’re in the wrong neighborhoods in this country, it looks the same as a military occupation in a foreign country.”
She then spoke about what we can do as citizens to fight back against surveillance and espionage. Manning assured the audience that the only way to fix any of these problems is to set apart all of our differences and work together.
I enjoyed Maning’s time on stage, but I felt like the talk really kicked off when Nadya Tolokonnikova joined her.
Tolokonnikova is a Russian artist, musician, and activist who gained international recognition for her band Pussy Riot and for her protests against the Kremlin. She was incarcerated by the Russian government for those protests but was eventually released in 2013.
It was amazing to see the two up there seeing as the two could have easily spent the rest of their lives in prison.
“I was actually stoked when I talked with you on the phone and I found out so many similarities between our experiences,” said Tolokonnikova. “[Spending time] in jails that belong to bigger empires. It looks like empires that use the same methods to work with people who criticizing.”
Manning and Tolokonnikova then spoke about the possibilities of prison reform. Tolokonnikova suggested that every cop, lawyer, and judge should spend time in prison to make them understand the realities of life in jail.
Mannings talk was concluded with a hug between her and Tolokonnikova. The two concluded that there is a lot to be done to fight against oppressive governments, but the fight starts by working together.