When The Bullies Are Grown-Ups

Aaron Swartz (ragesoss/flickr)

Aaron Swartz (ragesoss/flickr)

Last night, our school principal briefed our Parent Teacher Organization on the program that will teach our children about bullying: Not to do it, to speak up if they see it happening and to be sure to tell an adult about it.

Tell an adult? With computer prodigy Aaron Swartz’s suicide still echoing in my mind, I wondered: But what if the bully is an adult? Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig says that Swartz was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate tells WBUR’s David Boeri in his report today that the government “terrorized this young man.” Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate, writes similarly that Swartz “was on the receiving end of blatant prosecutorial intimidation.”

Bazelon has a deep background in the legal world and is about to publish a book on bullying,  “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character.” So I asked if her research might shed any light on legal bullying. Does the current thinking on bullying among kids address what to do in a case like Swartz’s?

Her reply:

When it’s a prosecutor who is acting like a bully, schoolyard lessons aren’t really relevant. The power imbalance isn’t psychological or based on social status — it’s real, backed by the threat of prison or other criminal punishment. And it’s not something a defendant has any control over.

I do think there’s a lesson, though, about the role of the passive bystander —- and especially, bystanders, plural. Individual members of the public can’t change prosecutorial practices. But collectively, we can demand changes. Prosecutors work for the government—which means they work for us.

Those collective demands for changes seem to have begun. The Boston Herald reports on a petition to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz:

A citizens’ petition at Whitehouse.gov launched Saturday demanding the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz over the prosecution of Aaron Swartz is gaining steam, with more than 26,000 signatures as of this morning — exceeding the 25,000 threshold needed to generate an official response from the White House under the Obama administration’s stated terms.

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  • Tom

    Bravo Carey: Here some more details about Swartz’s work;


    Aaron Swartz’s politics weren’t just about free technology: they were about freeing humanity

    In a guest editorial on Naked Capitalism, Matt Stoller reminds us that Aaron Swartz’s politics weren’t just about digital freedom: he saw free software and open networks as instrumental to eliminating corruption and corporatism in wider society.

    In 2009, I was working in Rep. Alan Grayson’s office as a policy advisor. We were engaged in fights around the health care bill that eventually became Obamacare, as well as a much narrower but significant fight on auditing the Federal Reserve that eventually became a provision in Dodd-Frank. Aaron came into our office to intern for a few weeks to learn about Congress and how bills were put together. He worked with me on organizing the campaign within the Financial Services Committee to pass the amendment sponsored by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson on transparency at the Fed. He helped with the website NamesOfTheDead.com, a site dedicated to publicizing the 44,000 Americans that die every year because they don’t have health insurance. Aaron learned about Congress by just spending time there, which seems like an obvious thing to do. Many activists prefer to keep their distance from policymakers, because they are afraid of the complexity of the system and believe that it is inherently corrupting. Aaron, as with much of his endeavors, simply let his curiosity, which he saw as synonymous with brilliance, drive him.

    Aaron also spent a lot of time learning how advocacy and electoral politics works from outside of Congress. He helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that sought to replace existing political consulting machinery in the Democratic Party. At the PCCC, he worked on stopping Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation (the email Aaron wrote called him “Bailout Ben”), auditing the Fed and passing health care reform. I remember he sent me this video of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, on Reddit, offering his support to Grayson’s provision. A very small piece of the victory on Fed openness belongs to Aaron.

    By the time I met and became friends with Aaron, he had already helped create RSS and co-founded and sold Reddit. He didn’t have to act with intellectual humility when confronting the political system, but he did. Rather than approach politics as so many successful entrepreneurs do, which is to say, try to meet top politicians and befriend them, Aaron sought to understand the system itself. He read political blogs, what I can only presume are gobs of history books (like Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule, one of the most important books on politics that almost no one under 40 has read), and began talking to organizers and political advocates. He wanted, first and foremost, to know. He learned about elections, political advertising, the data behind voting, and grassroots organizing. He began understanding policy, by learning about Congressional process, its intersection with politics, and how staff and influence networks work on the Hill and through agencies. He analyzed money. He analyzed corruption. Read more at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/aaron-swartzs-politics.html#kfgiaaCSrsDsAWCi.99