As cars streamed through the busy intersection, and pedestrians frequented the storefront at a nearby cafe, a small but impassioned group at Bidwell Park created signs from flattened pizza boxes, scrawling phrases such as “Freedom is slavery” and “Ignorance is strength.”
The phrases are oft-recited refrains plucked from George Orwell’s book “1984,” which cautions readers of a slippery descent into tyranny when the powers that be are permitted to operate relatively unchecked. For the 10 or so people who gathered Saturday afternoon to protest the NSA’s sweeping collection of telephone metadata, the world set forth by Orwell in his dystopian imagining of a surveillance state in the then-not-so-distant future is not completely unlike the world today.
“This 1984 protest really strikes the heart of it,” said Michael O’Brien, 32. “We live in an Orwellian society.”
O’Brien stopped by Bidwell Park to lend his support for Buffalo’s rendering of the 1984 Day rally, which was part of a nationwide movement coordinated by grass-roots organization Restore The Fourth.
Sparked by classified documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that detailed the NSA’s collection of Americans’ telephone data for terrorism investigations, organizers in about 20 cities across the United States planned individual 1984 Day rallies, claiming the NSA’s data collection violates Fourth Amendment rights. Similar Restore The Fourth rallies took place last month.
Critics decry the collection process as an unwarranted intrusion into the lives of everyday people, but supporters of the data collection cite the program’s success in helping upend terrorists plots, including the spoiled 2009 Times Square bombing.
Saturday, the group at Buffalo’s gathering was small, but that didn’t deter them from voicing opposition to the NSA’s tactics. They also talked with passers-by who curiously approached the group’s setup, which was at the edge of the park, facing Elmwood Avenue.
Will Watkins, 22, said he’s been writing letters to lawmakers criticizing the program and advises other citizens “to do your part.”
“If you’re not in control of deciding what’s wrong, then you do have something to fear,” Watkins said.
In July, all four House members representing voting districts in Western New York opposed an amendment forged by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., that would have restricted from whom the NSA could gather phone data. The amendment was defeated, 217-205 – a narrower margin than Matt Eagan, event organizer for Buffalo’s 1984 Day, anticipated.
“It was a big boost for us because it was not expected to be close,” said Eagan, who is working to help localize the national Restore The Fourth movement after learning about it online. Future plans include hosting seminars that help protect users from NSA data collection, Eagan said.
It’s Eagan’s hope that the rallies and public outcry will amount to requiring the NSA to obtain warrants in order to access phone data. If more information were released regarding the NSA’s practices and the populous more informed about the data collection’s scope, Eagan is confident more people would mobilize in protest.
Though Saturday’s rally was small, Eagan has hopes it will help build into something larger.
“It’s new people, and it means the message is still being put out there,” Eagan said.