“Come, brother, come, sister, look at this software!”: Activism and Play

Last Thursday night, I spent a couple of hours walking the streets of Bangalore with a strange assortment of others, shouting out Kannada variants of “Software! SOFTWAAARE! Get your software!” We had a push-cart, like the vegetable sellers here use, a heap of handwritten signs offering “Free software USB stick, only Rs 250!”, and a whole stack of Ubuntu, Gnu/Linux, and Debian stickers in English and Kannada that Omshivaprakash of Linuxaayana bought down.
Around 16 people, walking and pushing bikes and a cart.
On the way to MG Road...

The idea came out of a kitchen conversation that Dinesh, Murali, and I had a while ago, as a fun way of combining two things we’re all excited about: bicycles and free and open source software (FOSS).

Some of the people who came were excited about bicycles. Others have been using and promoting FOSS for a long time, while some had only just heard about it. A few, like one or two of the people from Servelots who came, support FOSS but also wanted to see “one of these crazy things that Dinesh is always doing.” The guys from the Agnii performance troupe don’t use FOSS but are learning about it, and support the general idea (you can watch a great introduction to them here, or check out Saravana’s YouTube channel).

The same group of people, now on a crowded street
On MG Road

A few of those who came said they think of themselves as activists, but most don’t. About half hadn’t been to a protest, or similar event, in the last six months. When I asked people how they’d categorise the event, most said it wasn’t a protest, but was about “awareness raising”. The police seemed to agree: you need a permit for protests here, but as soon as they asked what it was all about and someone said “free software!” they obligingly let us go on, and even stopped traffic to let us cross roads.

I don’t think that all activism need be like this. But sometimes having events that aren’t overtly political and which use novel and playful forms can be a good way of getting people involved who wouldn’t usually think of themselves as activists, and who wouldn’t usually go to protests.

Street vendors sitting with protest signs.
Street vendors' protest

This event wasn’t without problems. We started off at the street vendors’ protest that I mentioned in a previous post, the idea being to briefly give support their protest before moving on. This had been agreed to beforehand with some of the protest organisers, and while we were there the response from the street vendors seemed to be positive. However, Zainab Bawa pointed out that there was concern among some of the street vendors that we were diluting the focus on their issues. (There’s far more to be said here about the processes used to negotiate among different groups when planning and running activist events, but I’ll leave that for another post!)

There were two questions that I asked people at the end of the protest: “what do you think we achieved?” and “would you come to something like this again?” Everyone that I spoke to was happy that they’d got people thinking about free software in one way or another: by introducing the term, by handing out stickers that people might investigate later, or by having longer conversations with people on the street. A few people also mentioned being pleased about being able to give support to the street vendors’ protest, or about being able to promote bicycling.

Almost everyone said that they’d come to a similar event again. One woman said, “Yes, I’d come, but only if it’s something crazy like this!”

Photos once again courtesy of the talented Dipti Desai.

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