Why I made a formal statement to the UCSD Police

26 Aug
Brett Stalbaum at UCSD Police Department

Brett Stalbaum at UCSD Police Department to out himself over virtual sit-ins 7/21/2010 (Image: Paula Poole)

Many people have heard about the criminal investigation of UC San Diego Professor Ricardo Dominguez related to his symbolic protest actions aka Virtual Sit-ins this past March 4th on the servers of the UC Office of the President (UCOP). Republished below is a report back from one of Dominguez’s frequent collaborators and fellow UCSD faculty Brett Stalbaum. This case is extremely important as a precedent setting conflict, bringing together the activism around the UC budget crisis, academic freedom, tenure, and the intersections of online and border activism.

To learn more about the “investigations” and support for Professor Ricardo Dominguez and Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g lab click here read and watch these news reports about the “investigations”:

How to help:

  • Donate to the legal fund supporting Dominguez here.
  • Sign the “Stop De-Tenuring of Ricardo Dominguez” petition here.

Reposted from Walkingtools.net:

“I hope you agree that our tradition
of view-point neutral application of
policies governing professional
conduct by faculty and staff is one
of the great strengths we rely on to
demonstrate our commitment to
the public good.”

University of California President Mark Yudof
(Response to UC MRG Core Members Letter of concern over the persecution of Professor Dominguez, April 20th 2010.)

In this post, I would like to highlight the issue of view-point neutral application of University of California Policy by both the University of California Office of the President and UCSD. On July 21st2010 I went to the UCSD Police Department to give a formal statement on the criminal investigation of Professor Ricardo Dominguez. Dominguez is being investigated for a Virtual Sit-in held on March 4th of this year, and yet apparently not (the Police seemed not to know of it) for a virtual sit-in held on March 19th-21st 2008. In fact, as noted elsewhere, UCSD Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Paul Drake actually promoted Dominguez for the latter, yet two years later is trying to fire him for the former, in spite of some very disturbing facts including that both virtual sit-in events involved the same servers (ucop.edu and bang.calit2.net.) First you love him then you hate him. What really is happening here?

The history of Virtual Sit-ins is something that Ricardo and I both know something about, having co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater and produced the original FloodNet Applet (along with Carmin Karasic and Stefan Wray) in 1998, and further having implemented many performances (peaceful online protests against President Bill Clinton, his administration and “his” Pentagon, as well as Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and others) in support of the Zapatista indigenous communities of Chiapas. In the interstice between then and now, Ricardo has remained one of the leading theorists and art practitioners of Electronic Civil Disobedience (a term he helped coin with the Critical Art Ensemble previous to our work with the Electronic Disturbance Theater.) Also in that time, I worked on other collaborations (C5 Corporation, paintersflat.net) where I developed a practice in location aware media in the arts. (GPS, mobile phones, code…) Our practice as active collaborators was rekindled in recent years working on an Artivist project titled the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which has been denounced by Republican Congressmen, and has generated troubling death threats from the public.

There was a reason I moved on from EDT for what has turned out to be close to a decade now. Simply stated: Virtual sit-ins occupy a gray area between (as Ricardo often says) affect in effect. Virtual sit-ins don’t hurt anything or anyone, yet they have some of the appearances of being a bot-net attack, the latter being unambiguously illegal. Our development of virtual sit-in technologies was always focused on playing in the gray spaces of the affective and appearance, specifically designed for purposes of 1) Artivism, and 2) conceptual art practice exploring the unique material and social dimensions of a new medium: the internet. Virtual sit-ins have never been effective in terms of damaging servers, and have been ridiculed by hackers as technically ineffective. But the only reason I quit developing new software myself (circa 2000) was that professional system admins – and no doubt many public relations consultants – were onto our game. (And, probably unimpressed with artivistic gestures such as causing the names of the people massacred at Acteal to appear in President Zedillo’s web server’s error logs.) With few exceptions – and at that mostly triggered by under-trained government bureaucrats – virtual-sit ins simply stopped garnering much of the kind of art, media, public and critical attention that we had previously been able to divert to Chiapas. And when my friend and C5 colleague Bruce Gardner gave me a GPS device to use in 2000, and shared some of his early computer code with me, I became interested in a practice exploring another new medium that for me, frankly, had very little political dimension.

Of course, I continued to participate deliberately and intentionally in Ricardo’s virtual-sit ins from time to time. Virtual sit-ins are based on a doctrine of radical transparency: they require that each participant in the action be aware that what they are doing is indeed civil disobedience that could have unknown – indeed still untested – legal consequences. But by participating with real names and legal identities, virtual sit-ins inverted the notion of an anonymous attack by effective cyber-vandals toward an affective form of harmless free speech and protest. We and the protesters who joined were speaking deliberately and intentionally in a new medium via our own bona fide legal persons. Indeed, the language “deliberate and intentional” recently became important to me, because during my interview with Detective Michael Britton and Corporal Garret Williams, the good Corporal informed me that it was in his non-legal opinion as a law enforcement officer that anyone deliberately and intentionally involved in a virtual sit-in is also potentially culpable for any related criminal charges. To be fair, both investigators seemed to open to honing their understanding of the case they are investigating. I provided both with copies of the Dominguez/Transborder Tool Academic Freedom Timeline and supporting documents including essays and book chapters from prominent scholars in both Art and internet security. I will make this claim: the historical record largely supports how I have characterized virtual sit-ins above.

I really want to be clear on a particular point: Detective Britton and Corporal Williams were exceptionally professional in their interview of me, both are sincere and committed members of our UCSD community. There is no “but” to add here about the peace officers involved. Although, as I was in a police interview room with a pen and forms on which to hand write my statement and sign and date, my hindquarters seated across a strangely small interrogation table from these two smartly dressed law enforcement professionals, one in plain clothes one is his blues, all the time finding myself thirsty and strangely wishing they would bring me a Big Mac or tape my hand to a lie detector, it was nevertheless a good experience. I at this time really wish I had done as I deeply wanted to do at that time: to ask them who their favorite characters were in the greatest television series of all time, The Wire. It simply seemed out of place under the circumstances.

The character of my afternoon aside, the key point that I want to inform on at this time is this: I inquired if I was a target of the Dominguez investigation. There was no answer to this. On the record, in a written statement to the UCSD Police, I informed them that I too was involved in both the March 19th-21st 2008 and March 4th 2010 virtual sit-in as a participant, and that my position as one of the people who originally developed ECD with Dominguez is that if he is charged with any crime, then prima facie I should be too. I asked again if I was a target of the investigation, and again no answer was forthcoming. Detective Britton did inform me that as a courtesy, I will be informed if I become a target of the investigation, if and when they are ready to reveal that fact to me.

Why I did this? Partially it is personal commitment to the integrity of the work Ricardo and I have been involved in in the past, partially it is a more general commitment to a colleague in a way that (demonstrably) I know all our Visual Arts colleagues share, part of it is certainly related to my long friendship with Ric and a strong sense of solidarity I feel with him, and partially it is because I hold that the circumstances of this investigation (well, investigations, in referring to UCOP/UCSD’s efforts to detenure Dominguez as well as press criminal charges), are highly suspicious, if not fishy in a potentially corrupt way.

SVCAA Paul Drake is the individual who is 1) pressing employment actions against Professor Dominguez and 2) the person who by all appearances notified the UCSD Police in the first place (though possibly it was someone else), and 3) did actually promote Ricardo to tenure for his ECD work including the March 19th-21st 2008 virtual sit-in, which is actually on Dominguez’s bio-bibliography, the very document among others Drake signed off on when he promoted him. After March 4th 2010, when exactly the same kind of virtual-sit in involving exactly the same two servers occured, Drake initiated an investigation going toward revoking the very tenure that was granted for exactly the same work previously. Paul, what changed your mind? Was it the controversy over the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a more recent project of Dominguez, myself and others? Was there pressure from UCOP to fire Dominguez for any other reason? Or, had you not been in the habit of actually reviewing tenure files in recent years, and were thus were “signature stamp” unaware of the work you had promoted Dominguez for when you took the complaint from AVC Elazar Harel (Assistant Vice Chancellor for Administrative Computing and Telecommunications at UCSD) after March 4th? Is any of this related to Elazar’s sudden and unexpected transfer to UCSF? (True. I had a committee meeting with him that was canceled suddenly!) Can you, Paul Drake, present a principled explanation of the chain of events to replace our circumstantial speculations? I don’t disclude the possibility that there is a better explanation for your actions than circumstances would indicate. In any case it would seem that you owe Dominguez and perhaps the rest of us (including yourself, given the recent tarnish to your reputation) the basic human decency of explaining your actions. If not now then at some point.

Two more notes about my statement to the UCSD Police. Myself and others have many times already outed ourselves regarding our involvement in the above virtual-sit ins. I personally have done this in multiple emails to my department chair Grant Kester (who is a great and principled player in supporting Dominguez), my Dean Seth Lerer (who maintains a neutral position), Paul Drake, AVC Stephanie Burke who was charged by Drake with carrying out the investigation (the latter I have informed of my involvement by phone as well), UCSD Chancellor Fox who has simply not spoken to the issue, and the President of the University of California Mark Yudof (quoted above) himself. I do continue, in light of the known facts, to wonder what the President’s or the UC’s commitment to “view-point neutral application of policies governing professional conduct by faculty and staff” actually means. In any case, one would hope that Paul Drake or whoever instigated the criminal investigation would by now have been informed of the people who have outed themselves, particularly myself, and properly in turn that those responsible would have passed a report onto the UCSD Police Department for further investigation. It has been many months now, after all. If this is not the case, then ever more serious questions will be raised about whether the President’s words have any meaning, whether SVCAA Drake’s actions are honorable, or if these are just keystone-cops style “back cover” for an outrageous attempt to rid the UC of a faculty member deemed politically inconvenient. (Or dare I ask, is this all just a comedy of errors?)

My dear administrators, I posit that at a minimum, in order for you to save face, you must take action. You either need to settle this and explain what happened (an apology done well could go a long way), or you are honor bound by your commitment to “view-point neutral application of policies governing professional conduct by faculty and staff” to come after me with charges just as you did with with Professor Dominguez. I will make a copy of my police report available at this site as soon as it is available.

Transparently yours,

Brett Stalbaum
Lecturer with Security of Employment
Department of Visual Arts
University of California, San Diego

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