Author note: Promiscuous is an Anonymous hacker in my debut novel The Cause that will be published by Roundfire books on November 28th, 2014
In August of 2014 when I still worked for the NSA, I attended an artificial intelligence conference in St. Louis when riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri. Details were sketchy through the dubious media, but what I do remember was an unarmed black kid was shot and killed, and his body unceremoniously left on the pavement for four hours afterwards. I remember feeling infuriated with the ordeal, and I felt obliged to go there and join the protests. I left the University of Missouri after the day’s numerous seminars and giving my own lecture on neurosynaptic chips. A few days earlier, I had read a NY Times article on the militarization of the police, and I wondered how much of it was true. Perhaps this was in the back of my mind driving into Ferguson.
I arrived on West Florrisant Avenue as the sun finished reddening the sky. I parked the beige, mid-sized Buick rental car a few blocks away and put my phone in the glove box, leaving it behind even though I had taken out the battery before leaving. Then I walked up the street to where the rally was already underway. As the night crept over the indigo atmosphere, voices blaring from a loudspeaker grew stronger, commanding people to go back to their homes.
They had brought out the heavy machinery—SWAT buses and armored vehicles, MRAPs and paddy wagons. I stood alone watching a good twenty yards from the throng’s circumference as people yelled in the street. I stood there for an hour or so, more content to watch and observe before joining the crowd. After a while, a man split off from the crowd in jeans and a gasmask and approached me. He had a backpack slung over his shoulder and wore a flak jacket underneath his baggy Rams T-shirt, the aqua-blue ram’s horns roping around his chest like a coiled serpent as the humid breeze made his shirt flutter. He lifted his gasmask off his face and asked me my name.
“I’d rather not say,” I said. “Let’s start with yours.”
He stood a good head above me, thick forearms roped with veiny muscle. He was undercover, I thought, fishing through the crowd to mark down instigators. “Nice to meet you Des Des.”
“No, just Des.”
I nodded, giving him a little lopsided grin as if to declare how obvious he was.
“What are you here for?” he asked.
“I’d rather not say.”
“The AI conference probably.”
“Why do you think that?” I asked, taken aback.
He gazed up at the sky as a helicopter flew over. Its spotlights beamed over us as it hovered for a few seconds before dashing off. “You’re not a townie. You’re missing the accent. And you don’t see people holding their hands behind their back in such a pedantic manner around here.”
“You got all of that from the way I hold my hands?”
“That and you still have a nametag pinned to your shirt.”
He laughed as I peered down and saw my name scrawled in felt tip marker on a card within the plastic folds of my badge. I hurried to unpin it.
“So really, what are you doing here?”
“I was curious,” I said.
“You look like someone checking out lions in a zoo. There aren’t any cages out here if you haven’t noticed. Are you sure you should be hanging around this neighborhood?”
Still thinking him a cop, I said, “It looks to me like these people are just exercising their First Amendment rights. What’s wrong with that?”
He moved beside me on the sidewalk. We were side-to-side as he glared at the police line a hundred yards away. The crowd chorused the word Justice as a man yelled out,what do we want?
We stood there silent for a while listening:
“What do we want?”
“What do we want?”
“What do we want?”
“Hands up, y’all.”
Hands up, don’t shoot.
“Hands up, y’all.”
Hands up, don’t shoot.
“What do we want?”
“What do we want?”
Des pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and offered me one. A courteous gesture. It would have surprised him if I had taken one, but I didn’t. He lit up the cigarette and blew the smoke high up into the air. “So here we are. Both observing.”
“If I might be so bold to ask, what are you here for?”
He smiled, motioning with his cigarette. “I’m looking at their formation, how they move. The people here don’t stand a chance. They’re not expecting anything to happen, see. But wait. Something will go down.”
“What makes you so sure?”
He blew a smoke ring into the balmy, humid air. Somehow by the expression on his face, I knew he would ignore my question. He took another drag on his cigarette, gazed out into the crowd massed with their hands up in the air—men bare chested with bandanas, women with cutoff jeans and rolled-up short-sleeved shirts. “They could have a fighting chance with the right equipment and a few tactics.”
“What would you suggest?”
“Flank ‘em. They’re all facing north. They’ve got a naked ass. They’re mooning the south side.”
“Who exactly did you say you work for?”
“Would you care to share that information?”
He smiled at me with the predictable look of an emoticon, as if the whole question were a joke to him. “Prepper and Shooter. It’s one of those survivalist magazines. We’re going to put together a riot police survivor package. Sell it as a lot. We’re going to publish articles on how to beat this kind of shit.”
The sound canons started a high pitched whine, sporadic at first, the loud chirping of a pterodactyl. We watched the police line inch forward. Des reached in his backpack and pulled out a pair of shooting earmuffs. Inside the bag, I caught a glimpse of what looked like an Uzi and several machine gun clips. He shrugged his shoulders putting on the earmuffs, as if to say, sorry I’ve only got one. The sound intensified, the people in front of us now silenced, arms winged out holding their ears. I cupped my ears as well, but the sound seeped through. Des yelled, but his drowned-out voice was overpowered by the whelping of high-pitched, blaring car alarm sounds coming from the LRADs. He motioned with his finger, drawing a slow arc in the sky, then put on his gasmask.
He grabbed my arm, and I almost yanked it away, my heart pounding wildly as I thought I was being arrested. I wanted to flee, and he seemed to anticipate this, tightening his grip as a smoke bomb landed a few feet away. My exposed ears absorbed the full brunt from the sound canons, but over it I could hear shots and shouts of pain. Des had my arm, leading me away in a brisk walk, calm and sanguine, as if this were an every-day occurrence. The sound canons stopped. We walked, and I tripped, but Des stepped underneath my arm to support me. My legs shook and my throat went dry. As I struggled to find my feet, I couldn’t help but look back into the fray to see what was behind me. A canister of tear gas flew overhead. The memory I have now was feeling like Lot’s wife, staring into the dusty cloud of Sodom, people darting out of the plume of smoke, shots cracking in the thick night air, me with a body about to turn to salt. Fire ran up my throat and my eyes watered. More people fled past. More rifle shots. More people screaming in pain. “They’re fucking shooting at us,” one panic-stricken man yelled running past. “Motherfuckers are shooting into the fucking neighborhoods.”
We stopped down a side street, angled so we could still see all of the action. Des had clearly picked the spot, methodical in his every action. I wouldn’t understand his role in the Minutemen until several years later, but I was glad he was with me then.
“So what do you think?” he asked, replacing his gasmask for a pair of night goggles out of his backpack and crouching over on a knee to look through them.
A tank had run over me. I gasped for air, dizzy and disorientated. My soaked shirt glistened with sweat. My nose was running and my head throbbed. Perhaps my eardrums had burst. I fingered my temples and imagined a spliced cerebral cortex inside my head split like an egg. Des observed the police pushing forward with the heavy machinery, the forward line now attacking just as Des had predicted. Riot squads had shot 38 MM riot smoke projectiles, tear gas, and rubber bullets into a retreating crowd. Now they were hunting them in side streets and neighborhoods.
I continued to labor for breath. “How did you know it was going to go down like that?”
“How do you know a computer will do what you tell it to do? Are the ones and zeroes so easily predictable? Look out there.” He cupped my forehead between his hands and directed my gaze to the SWAT guys emerging from the cloud. Gas-masked riot police with polycarbonate shields moved through the billowing smoke. “It’s black versus white, but is that all it is? Look closely. Do you see randomness in police action, or a well thought out plan? You don’t write code without a design, do you? Look at their equipment, how they’re armed. They didn’t raid the Army surplus store yesterday.”
He let go, and I looked at him with a blank expression. My head ached, and my eardrums rung as I attempted to orientate myself. My heart beat spastically in my chest. People were running in all directions, like a nest of disturbed ants after a foot stomps the nest.
“Which bit are you—” and then he said my real name, not the name I had pinned to my shirt. “A zero or a one? Are you on or off? What are you doing out here if you don’t care? For someone who built Stuxnet, you’re smart enough to see what’s going on here. It’s much more than just race. So what is it?”
He backed away in a little lope as I tried to absorb the shock of how much he knew about me. “I’m a friend, Promiscuous. We want to let you know we respect your work. Ask yourself if you’re where you want to be. Certainly it can’t be with the NSA. You can’t play both sides of the spectrum and you know it.”
The next day, locals rallied, incensed by the over reactive police response. Over the next days—more protests, more violence, until the National Guard would move in. The President was on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard at the time, yelling fore and three-putting on a crew-cut green. Where was the President? I thought. Where is the leadership?
Rule of law had devolved, the police reacting militaristically to a peaceful protest. Noise was trapped inside the channels of communication, the public voice snuffed out by an authoritarian force. But the incident was the beginning of a much larger problem only a few were discussing at the time. The false economy was being felt, the blacks the most disenfranchised. George Gilder’s WSJ interview where he predicted America becoming both police state and social state was eerily prophetic. America’s heart palpitated in the darkness, the President asleep while the NSA boosted data collection activities to maximum, eyeing instigators, building profiles by sniffing Twitter accounts, digging into Facebook profiles, worming into mobile phones and listening in directly on West Florrisant Avenue. They sucked in each heartbeat into a mosaic of what was to come. Government growth a vine, its tendrils spreading into the cracks deep within the heartland.
Read Chapter 1 of “The Cause” here where a riot takes place in L.A. in 2022. Has anything been learned eight years into the future? Thanks for reading, and let’s hope a lesson is being learned in Ferguson. It’s time to take the country back.
You can visit Roderick Vincent's blog here: http://roderickvincent.wordpress.com/