“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.

Being present in public space

There’s a line from one of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books about homeless people that sticks in my mind: all that anyone wants from them is their absence. But everyone has to be somewhere.

In cities throughout the world, there are struggles going on over who gets to be present in public spaces, and what public spaces will be used for. Some governments, and some sections of the population, are trying to tidy away those who don’t fit in with their ideas of public space: the homeless, the poor, teenagers, the mentally ill.

Bangalore is no exception: the construction of the Metro is reshaping the city, parks are being taken over for government buildings, trees are being cut down. In July last year, 350 of the street vendors at Bangalore’s City Corporation Offices (BBMP) were evicted from the area they’d been working in for decades. As this article in The Hindu points out, this happened out of the blue, and with very little transparency.

In Perth, the state government wants to remove homeless people from the central business district during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in October. The attitude of the Police Minister, Rob Johnson, was made clear in Prior and Emerson’s article in The West:

“Asked in Parliament by Labor MP Bill Johnston about arrangements for displaced people, the minister said it was a stupid question.

“I will get a tent and a cushion,” Mr Johnson said. “Where do you live? We’ll send them around to your house if you are really concerned.””

It’s not surprising that this has happened. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. The question is what we do about it. In Bangalore activists are doing their best to raise attention about the evictions, and to get some security for street vendors (read more in their press release).

I’m curious about what will happen in Perth. Opposition to CHOGM is already planned, but I wonder how many people will be insisting that Perth’s CBD is not only a space for shoppers or the be-suited hoardes. I hope that even those who don’t know or care about CHOGM will make some effort to preserve the openness of Perth’s public space.