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Give me liberty: 'Restore the Fourth' rallies take online protests over NSA spying to the streets

Can a hashtag become a real-world movement?

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Gallery Photo: Restore the Fourth
Gallery Photo: Restore the Fourth

As the constant drip of new revelations about NSA surveillance programs continues to stoke outrage online, the nationwide Restore the Fourth rally seems to be the first major, physical example of the ongoing backlash. The event, which took place on July 4th in over 100 cities, is being called the internet’s biggest rally since SOPA, the bill that threatened to cripple and control the open web in early 2012. But does Restore the Fourth have what it takes to become a full-fledged social movement? The Verge went to rallies in New York and San Francisco to see.

“They say wiretap / We say fight back”; “Keep your mitts off our bits”; “Hey, hey, NSA / Stop your spying, go away”; “Stop the surveillance / Restore the Fourth Amendment.” The day’s most common chants show how both events — which were peaceful — avoided some of the mixed-messaging pitfalls that caused problems for previous movements like Occupy or the WTO protests in the late 90s. Protest signs featured a smattering of internet memes accompanying more straightforward populist outrage: “Stop all the Downloadin”; “I was born in 1984 / I refuse to die in 1984”; and “Obama: I am disappoint.”

Around 800 demonstrators turned up for the New York rally according to organizers and police at the scene, though later reports put the number somewhere closer to 500. San Francisco’s protest was smaller, with over 300 young but earnest demonstrators. Carrying signs and wearing cardboard surveillance camera hats, the New York group gathered in Union Square at noon and marched down Broadway toward Federal Hall, the birthplace of the Bill of Rights. San Francisco’s protesters began at the offices of US Senator and NSA defender Dianne Feinstein, marched to the Embarcadero, and finally arrived at AT&T’s switching facility on Folsom Steet, where the company had installed routing equipment to facilitate NSA spying on the backbone of the internet.

"Hey, hey, NSA / Stop your spying, go away."

Both protests were remarkably on-message, with speakers and demonstrators alike citing the same demands: investigate the indiscriminate collection of data from innocent citizens, repeal the secret laws which permit dragnet surveillance without individual oversight, and remove Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and other officials from office for lying to Congress about the scope of the NSA’s domestic spying programs.

In a lot of ways, the rally did bear some resemblance to the protests that brought down the much-maligned, Hollywood-sponsored SOPA copyright bill last year, and involved many of the same cheerleaders, including progressive groups like Fight For The Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Reddit-born Internet Defense League. The cause also gained support from Web architect Tim Berners-Lee, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and more than 550,000 others who signed online petitions at the website

The marches focused primarily on electronic privacy in light of the ongoing NSA spying scandal, but at the New York event there was also talk of uniting with groups fighting back against other Fourth Amendment abuses, like the NYPD’s widely-hated “Stop-and-Frisk” program, which is coming under fire in city courtrooms for pressuring police officers to target minorities with suspicionless searches.

“We’re going to be trying to bring together a broad coalition of everyone who has these Fourth Amendment concerns,” said Ben Doernberg, one of the New York rally’s lead organizers. "What I think we’re seeing now is the next evolution of what happened with SOPA." No arrests were reported, and organizers said the NYPD was “extremely cooperative." It was the same in San Francisco, with demonstrators thanking the SFPD for its help and organizers telling the crowd not to engage in "civil disobedience."

"What I think we’re seeing now is the next evolution of what happened with SOPA."

Can #restorethe4th become more than just a hashtag? A recent Pew poll shows that 56 percent of Americans are okay with their phone records being collected, if it helps investigate terrorist threats. But Doernberg thinks most people are actually on their side, even if they don’t know it yet. "I don’t think anyone’s really for these policies," he said of the NSA programs, clearly exhausted from trying to keep things in order during the two-hour march. "There are people who are resigned to them, and there are people who hate them. That’s not very strong support for a policy, so I think you will start to see change, honestly."

Restore the Fourth doesn’t really feel like a “movement” just yet, based on the turnout in both cities. In New York, organizers say the next event is already being planned for August 4th. For now, Restore the Fourth is an early physical outgrowth for the growing anxieties over a dangerous and invisible surveillance state, and it often felt like people at these protests were spending as much time learning how to protest as they were actually doing it. But that’s how organization works at this early stage: if you don’t preach to the choir, you’ll never get anyone to sing.

Additional reporting by Dieter Bohn

Restore the Fourth protest photos


NYC: Activists teamed up with the Occupy Illuminator to project messages in the days before the rally (Photo: Kyle Depew)