If you happened to be walking through Westlake Park on the afternoon of March 1, you may have missed the Seattle-area "Tech Employees for Diversity and Inclusion" protest. It was only a handful of people holding signs and chanting: "No hate, no fear, everyone is welcome here!"
On Facebook, 334 people said they were interested in the event, 74 marked themselves as "going," but there couldn't have been more than a couple dozen people who actually showed up. And compared to the Women's March, which drew 175,000 people in Seattle alone, and the immigration rights protests that had sprung up recently in response to the new administration, it was sort of a sorry sight.
"The problem with this industry," explains Raine Dargis, "is that there are too many introverts. We need extroverts to organize a protest." Dargis, one of the organizers (and a self-described introvert), is a software engineer at what she calls "a big company"—but she won't say its name.
The big tech companies, for their part, have been fighting Trump on the legal front over immigration and visas—two issues that affect their ability to hire skilled workers in the tech field. Apple, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google were among the 127 companies that filed court papers against Trump's executive order on immigration February 6. And tech companies like Microsoft are looking for ways to find exceptions to Trump's crackdown on H-1B visas. But oftentimes, tech employees themselves can't associate any political causes with the companies where they work (for instance, workers were asked not to wear any company logos to the protest).
Despite the disappointing turnout, Dargis says, the tech community—not the companies themselves, but the people who work there—is well-positioned to fight Trump, if they could ever get out from behind their computers. But maybe for them, the best way to fight Trump is from their keyboards.
In Seattle, a decidedly liberal-minded sanctuary city, resistance has come from many quarters, some of which have been people coding up a storm—making apps to connect immigrants with legal help, saving valuable data from being destroyed, and helping make sense of the latest onslaught of confusing, rapid-fire Trump news.
But can a community made up of the same people who brought you delivery drones and perfected the art of getting everything you need with a push of a button without ever having to leave your house deal with the messy realities of going beyond the screen to make things happen IRL? Can the tech community, with its privilege and disposable income, actually connect with grassroots movements to make the tools we need to help defeat Trump?
Among the waves of weary travelers making their way through Sea-Tac Airport on an early Saturday morning stands a well-dressed but unassuming man named Hussain Rachou. The look on his face ranges from excited to deeply anxious, as he switches between scanning who is coming up the escalators to checking his phone.
"My mother. My sister from Germany. Friend from Eugene," he says, almost flinching every time his phone alerts him to a new message, and then sighing when it's not the text he is expecting. "They all want to know what is happening."
Rachou is a Syrian refugee who is just minutes away from reuniting with his family—a wife and two sons, ages 8 and 9—after two years apart. By his side is lawyer Takao Yamada, who has been at the airport since 7 a.m. and is now digging through his contacts to find out what the delay is. He is reassuring Rachou that a more than two-hour wait for Syrian refugees coming out of customs with seven suitcases is, in fact, to be expected.
Since the days and weeks after the smoke cleared from the so-called "Muslim ban" protests at Sea-Tac, Yamada noticed that it was difficult to coordinate matching up lawyers with travelers who arrived at the airport and were at risk of being detained and sent back.
Even though it looks like this particular refugee story will have a happy ending, many don't. Which is why Yamada invented Airport Lawyer—an app where travelers or their families can submit contact and flight-arrival information ahead of time so on-site lawyers can be arranged. Yamada had been wanting to do something substantial for the struggle since election night—when he had been serving as election protection for the Clinton campaign, monitoring the polls as a legal field volunteer. When the polls closed, Yamada drove back to the hotel thinking Clinton had won. When he got to his room, alone, it was a different story. "Needless to say, I had a lot of time to think," he says.
He teamed up with the International Refugee Assistance Project and assembled a small group to help build the app over a weekend. Now Airport Lawyer is used in 30 airports across country, and he's working with Sea-Tac Airport to display more permanent signage.
For Yamada, who had members of his family put into Japanese internment camps, the struggle against Trump's immigration ban is personal. "Singling out people is very dangerous to me," he says.
In addition to being a lawyer, Yamada is an entrepreneur with a background in politics and policy work—he was the deputy campaign manager for Judge Mary Yu, once owned a restaurant in Philadelphia, and is the cofounder of a tech start-up that is creating a digital trading platform for the cannabis industry.
Airport Lawyer, Yamada says, is a "crisis agnostic tool"—perfect for the resistance because it was built quickly and is easy to replicate over and over in different situations—things the tech industry does well and can use as ammunition against Trump.
"Tech workers will be building the weapons we're going to use to fight this administration," he says, "and being able to marshal that force is something that I think the start-up community can do really effectively." But one challenge, Yamada says, is tech's penchant for perfectionism.
"Engineers and developers want to build really great things. But sometimes we don't need really great things," he says. "Sometimes we need really simple, shitty things that are going to work."
Yamada is turning his attention to other projects as well—creating "tools that will help turn interest into action through technology," like Democratizer, an app that helps activists find protests and actions around issues like civil rights, women's rights, and the environment. These tools, he says, maximize the impact that the tech community can wield in the opposition landscape.
"Take the dozen people who helped make Airport Lawyer in 48 hours—they'll make no difference at a protest. Not to say they shouldn't go. They should, everybody should," Yamada says. "But the impact those people had by using their tech skills in a politically-oriented way wildly maximized the impact they have. And I think that should be an aspirational goal for everyone."
It's a Saturday afternoon, and all the orange seats in the "Active Learning Classroom" at Odegaard Library are filled with people staring at laptops. There's some low-level chatter and the sound of the quiet hum of computers as application engineers, web developers, scientists, librarians, and "regular" people sit at round tables and try to save data sets from disappearing under the trigger fingers of a climate-change-denying Trump administration.
The Data Refuge Project—a nationwide collaborative effort in tandem with the Internet Archive, an online archive of more than 286 billion web pages, seeks to preserve and protect federal data and government information that supports environmental research. The project has generated large data-saving events like this one in satellite cities across the country.
Seattle co-organizer Will Smith is stunned at the turnout. "I figured it would be like nerds only," he jokes, "but you know, right on." Smith describes himself as a "hobbyist," not a programmer. "I just do this shit at home."
Smith, who also moonlights as the sound guy for experimental hiphop duo Shabazz Palaces, informs me that there's more to the layout of this room than meets the eye—from end to end, it operates like a well-oiled, online-data-preserving machine.
There are the "seeders"—tables populated by "interested citizens that are not particularly programming-centric," Smith explains, who nominate websites to download from government servers in order to back up elsewhere. At a nearby table, "harvesters" do the actual downloading and repackaging of the data found by the seeders—adding custom metadata to organize the information. Finally, "checkers" and "baggers" look at what that the harvesters have grabbed, making sure that the data set is complete.
By the end of the day, they will have pored over hundreds of websites from all over the world, and thousands of gigs of data will have been cataloged, saved, and backed up on an independent server and stored with the Internet Archive.
"I believe that data is a public good," says co-organizer Mary Gifford. Gifford moved to Seattle last year—she works in the private sector as the vice president of content and strategic partnerships for Silicon Valley start-up Tribal Planet ("Such a start-up title!" she laughs)—but prior to that was at the United Nations doing climate-change work.
She admits she's "not really the activist type," but after reading about how the Trump administration instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to take down the climate-change page from its website, she felt that "there are certain things that you need to stand up for."
"Regardless of your politics," she continues, "there's data that could be crucial for other things further on that we don't even know about. To me, it's the equivalent of modern-day book burning, really."
Gifford also volunteers her time with Data for Good, a Seattle group that connects hundreds of data scientist volunteers to issues in Seattle that could use some good old-fashioned data (like finding collision risk factors at key intersections in Seattle, for example). Along with Data for Democracy, which recently hosted a hackathon at Ada's Technical Books on 15th Avenue in partnership with the National Immigration Law Center, there are more than enough nerds in this town to get something done when it comes to fighting Trump.
"I think it shows tremendous promise," she says. "If you had the skills to develop a bunch of tools that would sell sneakers online, why wouldn't you use those skills for other things, too—right?"
Specifically, programmers are using their skills today to work on saving records of experiments—tables charting sea level rise, tidal information from measurement stations, and more. For the last few hours, Will Weatherford, a software engineer who specializes in using the Python programming language, and Dylan Hutchison, a computer-science graduate student at the University of Washington, have been writing simple Python scripts to mass-archive data sets from places like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NASA, and the EPA.
"You could say," Hutchinson muses, "that this is a form of nonviolent resistance. So if the policy is to revoke information related to climate change, then we resist that policy by making that information perpetually available, so that we can continue to study and act on climate change."
While it's maybe not as flashy as taking to the streets in a roar of mass civil unrest in pink pussy hats, Hutchinson insists writing Python scripts on a Saturday in a library is an equally valuable use of their time—and skills.
"There are many venues of activism," he says, "and they don't just have to be the visible 'Let's get out on the streets with signs and have sit-ins' kinds of actions."
"This is kind of a sit-in," Weatherford jokes. "We've been sitting here for a really long time."
Every day since Trump took office, Matt Kiser has woken up at six in the morning. He grabs a coffee and scans thousands of news sources on the administration's latest exploits. It sounds like a shitty way to start the day. But Kiser is dedicated to the cause—aggregating news for his website, whatthefuckjusthappenedtoday.com and corresponding daily newsletter (now at more than 80,000 subscribers).
What the Fuck Just Happened Today (WTFJHT) tells you exactly that—it's a daily aggregated record "logging the shock and awe" of every executive order, weird POTUS tweet, ongoing Russian intrigue, and controversy surrounding the state of national politics.
The website boasts a clean, navigable design (days are listed in the header) packed with easily digestible information. Each day starts off with a short title (Day 71: Tumultuous; Day 22: Denials; Day 4: The Upside Down) and lists news items broken down as bullet points, with the occasional embedded tweet or quote. Kiser set up the blog so that it is open-source and hosted on GitHub, so that others could make CSS tweaks and pull requests to edit the content.
"I thought it would be a really interesting idea to take a blog, but treat it the way software development works, make it really agile, use version control, and open it up to collaborate with other developers on the project," he explains.
A former "super-political skate punk kid," Kiser was active in the mid-2000s during the Bush years, but, like many leftist-progressive types, grew a little complacent and took a back seat during Obama's term. After trying to become a music journalist in New York City, Kiser focused on reinventing his career instead, moving out to Seattle and taking coding classes at General Assembly. But Trump's election was a wake-up call, and an opportunity to use his newly developed coding skills.
"I guess I find it funny that the flash point for this project had to be the outcome of the election. But I think that also speaks to the environment we're in right now, culturally," he said.
Which is the reason he invented WTFJHT—to keep up with the "daily atrocities" coming out of the White House and Congress—and the feeling of confusion that comes with how to stay informed amid all the chaos.
"Like, US national politics suck right now, the guy in the White House sucks right now. I'm upset, and I can't even keep up with what the fuck is going on! And I'm kind of a news junkie. So how could anyone else possibly keep up with this if they're a 'normal' person?" he says.
Kiser's original plan was to document Trump's first 100 days in office, as a kind of personal challenge to himself. "I mean, it was definitely supposed to just be a side project," Kiser says. But as of last week, it's become more than that—Kiser just quit his position as a project manager at a tech start-up to manage WTFJHT full-time.
In his efforts to help people not be so overwhelmed, Kiser admits, he feels... overwhelmed. Not only by the demands of keeping up with WTJFHT's growth, but with the surfeit of civic-engagement-friendly tech products created since the election, that, ironically, are meant to make it easier for the average person to get involved.
"There are like a million uncoordinated projects running around. There are so many daily-action-app-text-message-e-mail-website-blogs going around, and all those spreadsheets. Have you seen all the spreadsheets?" he asks, exasperated.
Of course, any decent tech resistance staying true to its open-source roots is going to be decentralized—relying on online forums and Slack message boards to plan actions and brainstorm prototypes among large groups of people living in different places. On one hand, you could say it's a plus—giving the movement a flexible, resilient edge (if one system goes down, there are others to quickly take its place), making it not reliant on place and time (like a protest), and giving individuals the power that comes with a sense of anonymity.
Who better than hackers and tech people, for example, to teach us how to wipe our phones before getting searched by a customs agent, or how to set up our VPN networks when the corporate powers that be come calling after Congress votes to sell our private online information to the highest bidder?
But the fragmentation of a base always comes with a price—in this case, it's the silos that come with trying to build savvy tech solutions in a bubble.
"So I'm a tech person, and I'm good at this thing, and I want to do something, so I decide I'm going to make a web app or whatever, or get some data, or build this experience. And I think what's missing is a connection back to people. What do people actually want? What's the problem we are actually solving?" Kiser asks.
Takao Yamato also agrees, saying engineers need to connect with activists to build accurate "user stories" around their immediate needs.
"I think the tech and the start-up community will be most effective within the activist community," he says. "Smaller organizations, which have really narrowly tailored needs that can be met by tools built in a weekend that can dramatically change their work."
It's clear that the tech resistance, whatever it is, needs to put down roots with the grassroots communities leading the charge against Trump or all those well-intentioned civic good projects will go the way of Apple's G4 cube, Ello (remember them?), or Microsoft's doomed media player, Zune.
"I think it's a really big miss on our part," Kiser says. "We should be aligning people who want to build digital products with people who have real experience organizing communities. And it's like, how do you find them? Where are all the organizers for all of this?"
One of those organizers may be Tiffany Chan. She's young, motivated, and eager to build bridges between the tech world and many of the communities she supports as a grassroots community organizer. Chan has recently joined the leadership team at Open Seattle—another group, like Data for Good, that builds technology-focused projects and "prototype solutions" for local civic issues.
The Open Seattle meetings take place at Socrata, a company that provides cloud-based data visualization and analysis tools for working with government data. The well-lit, carpeted hallways are lined with top-notch Mac desktops and busy-looking whiteboards. The space has the slick hipster playfulness of your typical tech company; in the lounge, there's a full kitchen, a fancy coffee maker, an entire shelf with an almost obscene variety of hot sauces, and a basket full of rubber duckies and other toys set up on a long stainless-steel table.
Chan was invited to join Open Seattle through her environmental and racial-justice work—she liked the concept of civic engagement, so she went to a meeting.
"And for me," she says, "I was just wondering like, who was in the room? Because as a community organizer, one of the things you always look out for is 'What is being asked? What's the goal?' I saw a lot of tech people, and their intent was good. I heard a pitch about homelessness, which was cool, but there wasn't really anybody from the homeless community there. I didn't really see any direct connection to the people they were trying to help."
It solidified Chan's resolve to connect eager-to-help tech workers with the communities they live in—and, ironically, push out of town when they gentrify a neighborhood. But Chan insists it's important to "take into account the individual actions, but also the institutional, systemic ones." For example, she says, she drives a car sometimes, but she opposes the oil industry.
"The reality is that we live in a system that's oppressive. So finding ways to collaborate together, to ally, I feel like that's my approach to dismantling it," Chan explains. "And I believe there's room for everybody in the movement."
As a lifelong resident of Beacon Hill, Chan has seen that gentrification firsthand. "But so far," she says, "we still know all of our neighbors, luckily." When she was a teenager, Chan was bused to Roosevelt High School in the North End as part of an exchange program. She volunteered at the Woodland Park Zoo and started hearing about environmentalism and sustainability, "which just created a different perspective and lens for looking at things."
She got involved in environmental-justice work, first at the zoo and then for Earth Corps. Right now, she's working with Facebook to organize a hackathon for the environment on April 28. In her work, she wants to invite tech workers to collaborate, while also making sure they confront their privilege. At Open Seattle, for example, she brought in food from businesses owned by people of color to replace the usual boxes of pizza.
"Because one thing I find in the tech community is that certain things are always just kind of done, like little magical elves or owls come in, and the free sodas are always stocked and the floors are always magically clean," she says. "And I was like, 'Yeah, those are people doing that work for you.' And I think with grassroots organizing, it's always us doing that work. We don't have free food all the time."
Chan has had a lot of "tough conversations" about race and privilege, and her advice for tech workers who want to help is simple: Show up. "Not only do we then have the emotions and the passion behind the movement, but also the data and the information to make our arguments and actions more objective." Resistance-minded tech products, Chan says, should be designed around real-life experiences. "I think pairing those two things makes our movement to resist the Trump era that much stronger."
The March for Science on Saturday, April 22, was a chance to do just that: In Seattle, thousands of scientists, techies, and concerned citizens showed up to protest the Trump administration's growing siege on the EPA, its refusal to acknowledge climate-change data, and the funding cuts for research programs.
"You know things are serious," one sign said, "when the introverts arrive."