The Amazing Life and Work of Aaron Swartz

This recording I did, but Democracy Now did it on a tripod and with better sound.  DeeDee Halleck

The entire memorial is archived at


Aaron Was a Criminal and So Are You

The prosecution of Aaron Swartz and his subsequent suicide is heartbreaking. Aaron’s life and work was an inspiring example of how the Internet can elevate humanity beyond the dregs of rote commerce and cheap thrills. Aaron's contributions to our society were not the shiny widgets of tech icons like Steve Jobs. Rather, they were ideas and technologies that enriched lives and empowered ordinary people. RSS, Reddit, and Creative Commons are all projects in which Aaron was a key participant; they are also free for anyone to use and represent the essence of the free (as in freedom) Internet movement.

Aaron SwartzIt was these very ideas that were the cause of Aaron's prosecution. The DOJ wanted to make an example of him precisely because he was effective at expressing and propagating hisdissenting views against the corporate control of our lives. If Aaron's fans, mourners, and supporters fail to see that what happened to him was not a fluke event, but instead was de rigueur, Aaron's death will be all the more tragic.

Make no mistake, Aaron was a criminal and, despite popular belief, there was no prosecutorial overreach. The US Attorney who oversaw his prosecution described her office's actions as “appropriate” and, according to the law, she wastelling the truth. The job of prosecutors is to bully and intimidate suspects, using the threat of some of the world's harshest sentencing laws into plea bargaining for a shorter sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt. This is American “justice;” our current system of severe sentencing and mandatory minimums gives prosecutors overwhelming power - power that was once in the hands of judges and juries - to the point that today less than 5% of criminal cases are resolved by a jury (3% in federal cases).

Prosecutorial discretion is not a mandate for prosecutors to apply fairness or common decency; it is simply the heuristic that determines who gets exposed to the system. There are no real restraints on our government’s ability to prosecute and jail. We have enough laws on the books and prosecutors and judges have enough discretion interpreting them, that anyone can be locked up for any reason or no reason. Take, for example, the case of Tarek Mehanna who, after refusing to become an FBI informant, was arrested, held for years in solitary confinement, and ultimately convicted as a “terrorist.” The substance of his crimes: sharing YouTube videos, and translating texts that were freely available on the Internet. Or look to Tim DeChrisopher or the Central Park Five; the list is unending and the point is clear: if prosecutors want to put you in jail, they can. It is also clear that there is no limit on our country's ability to incarcerate. The USA runs the largest penal system in world (our only competition in world history is the GULAG system of the USSR).

Thus, we are all criminals in waiting - a fact that is dramatic in the world of “cyber-crime,” where a typical Internet user is potentially liable for millions of dollars per day in copyright violations. The question then becomes, who is chosen for prosecution and why? If the feds just randomly prosecuted typical Internet users for violating “terms of service” agreements, which is what Aaron did, the popular backlash would be too great. So instead, they pick their targets carefully.

Minorities, the poor, and unpopular political factions are the traditional targets for prosecution and incarceration. If you are black and live in New York City, it is routine to be stopped by police and arrested for simply walking down the street in your neighborhood or even in the hallway of your own building. If you are Muslim, even a kindergartener, you are a threat and are subject to arbitrary police surveillance. If you are an animal rights activist, you are considered a “terrorist” even if you’re explicitly committed to non-violence. Conversely, if you are a rich, white banker, you can participate in the most egregious activity and never be jailed or even have to admit wrongdoing.

Internet freedom hacktivists have recently joined the ranks of Muslims, African Americans, the poor, and “eco-terrorists” as an acceptable target for the brutish American penal system. People like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Bradley Manning, and Andrew Auernheimer are increasingly being treated in the same way as people like Fred Hampton, Tarek Mehanna, and the SHAC Seven. This is happening because the corporate state has recognized that they possess democratic power and are a legitimate threat to the aims of the elite – remember Aaron Swartz was the crucial organizer in the successful fight against SOPA.

If we don’t want to see more people like Aaron martyred by our system, it is not enough to simply amend one (terrible) hacking law; the corporate state and its DOJ henchmen will just come back with another law. We have to recognize that Aaron was not alone. He is part of a long history of activists who’ve become too effective for the government to stand. In order to make a lasting change in this manifestly unjust “justice” system, we need to express the same outrage and dedicate the same time and resources toward abolishing all injustice that is done in our name. Reforming the incredibly broad Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is a start, but it cannot be the goal. Abolishing the CFAA, mandatory minimums, the drug war, and the war on “terror” with the aim of dismantling the military and prison-industrial complex is necessary. We must remove corporate influence and replacing it with democratic (not Democratic) control of government, the Internet, and other institutions. We need to incorporate long term goals into our short term campaigns. This is exactly what Aaron did so effectively with his short life; let's honor his legacy by picking up the pace.

And then there is this message from Laurence Lessig's blog:

A Time for Silence  January 19, 2013

A week ago today, Aaron gave up. And since I received the call late Friday night telling me that, like so many others who were close to him, I have not rested. Not slept, really. Not connected with my kids, at all. Not held my wife except to comfort her tears, or for her to comfort mine. 

Instead of rest, I have been frantically trying to explain, to connect, and to make sense of all of this. Endless emails responding to incredible kindness, phone call after phone call with reporters and friends, and the only solace I know: writing. 

But none of that has made this better. Indeed, with every exchange, it only gets worse. I understand it less. I am angry more. I think of yet another, “If only I had …”

I need to step back from this for now. I am grateful for your kind emails. I am sorry if I can’t answer them. To the scores of people who write to tell me they were wronged by US Attorney Ortiz, I am sorry, that is not my fight. To the press — especially the press wanting “just five minutes” — I apologize. This isn’t a “just five minutes” story, at least from me. 

There have been a handful of smiles this past week. My three year old, Tess, putting her arms around my neck, holding me as tight as she possibly could, promising me “the doctors will put him back together, papa, they will.” A screenwriter friend, grabbing me after a talk in New York, and pulling me into an argument about his next great film. And best of all, the astonishingly beautiful letter from MIT’s president, acknowledging — amazingly — at least the possibility of responsibility, and appointing the very best soul on that side of Cambridge to review and guide that great if flawed institution’s review. 

But these smiles have been drowned by endless sadness, and even greater disappointment — and none more pronounced than the utterly profound disappointment in our government, Carmen Ortiz in particular.

I hate my perpetual optimism about our government. Aaron was buried on the tenth anniversary of the time that optimism bit me hardest — Eldred v. Ashcroft. But how many other examples are there, and why don’t I ever learn? The dumbest-fucking-naive-allegedly-smart person you will ever know: that guy thought this tragedy would at least shake for one second the facade of certainty that is our government, and allow at least a tiny light of recognition to shine through, and in that tiny ray, maybe a question, a pause, a moment of “ok, we need to look at this carefully.” I wasn’t dumb enough to believe that Ortiz could achieve the grace of Reif. But the single gift I wanted was at least a clumsy, hesitating, “we’re going to look at this carefully, and think about whether mistakes might have been made.”

But oh Lucy, you’ve done it again.

Ortiz’s statement is a template for all that is awful in what we as a political culture have become. And it pushes me — me, the most conventional, wanting-to-believe-in-all-things-patriotic, former teenage Republican from the home of Little League baseball — to a place far more radical than I ever want to be. Ortiz wrote:

As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz,

Yes, Ms. Ortiz, you obviously can “only imagine.” Because if you felt it, as obviously as Reif did, it would move you first to listen, and then to think. You’re so keen to prove that you understand this case better than your press releases about Aaron’s “crime” (those issued when Aaron still drew breath) made it seem (“the prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain”). But if your prosecutors recognized this, then this is the question to answer:

Why was he being charged with 13 felonies?

His motive was political — obviously. His harm was exactly none — as JSTOR effectively acknowledged. But he deserved, your “career prosecutors” believed, to be deprived of his rights as a citizen (aka, a “felon,” no longer entitled to the political rights he fought to perfect) because of what he did. 

Yet here’s the thing to remember on MLK weekend (even though my saying this violates a rule I believe in firmly, a kind of inverse to Godwin’s law, because though I believe these two great souls were motivated by exactly the same kind of justice, King’s cause was greater): How many felonies was Martin Luther King, Jr., convicted of? King, whose motives were political too, but who, unlike Aaron, triggered actions which caused real harm. What’s that number? 


And how many was he even charged with in the whole of his career?

Two. Two bogus charges (perjury and tax evasion) from Alabama, which an all-white jury acquitted him of.

This is a measure of who we have become. And we don’t even notice it. We can’t even see the extremism that we have allowed to creep into our law. And we treat as decent a government official who invokes her family while defending behavior which in part at least drove this boy to his death.

I still dream. It is something that Darrell Issa and Zoe Lofgren are thinking along the same lines. On this anniversary of the success of the campaign to stop SOPA — a campaign which Aaron helped architect — maybe I’m right to be hopeful that even this Congress might do something. We’ll see. Maybe they’ll surprise us. Maybe.

But for now, I need to step away. I apologize for the silence. I am sorry for the replies I will not give. Aaron was wrong about very few things, but he was wrong to take his life. I have to return to mine, and to the amazingly beautiful creatures who are trying to pull me back. 

I will always love you, sweet boy. Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.