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What does “vote” merch even mean in 2020?



In the summer of 2018, rocked by the Trump presidency, Alexandra Posen and Dahna Goldstein formed Resistance by Design, a project that would combine art and political activism. By September, they had released their first design: The “HERWAVE 2018” silk scarf, which bore an illustration of every woman running for Congress in the midterm elections, their portraits drawn in a bout of “creative fury” by Posen, an artist and the former creative director of her brother Zac Posen’s fashion brand. Sheer and painterly, with a blue-gray border, the scarf is detailed and delicate. You could spend a long time poring over it, identifying each candidate.

This spring, Resistance by Design created another politically charged garment with a very different look: a face mask that said, in thick, uneven capital letters, “VOTE.” Posen drew the design a few weeks into stay-at-home orders in New York, where she lives. The mask’s stark, unsubtle message was an expression of her shock at the moment we were living through, and her despair over what she felt was an acute lack of leadership in a moment of crisis.

“The urgency and terrifyingness of Covid, I think, did not call for a heady expression,” says Posen. “It called for a yelp. It called for a mandate.”

Resistance by Design put that face mask into production — with a portion of proceeds going to organizations like Emily’s List, She Should Run, and NARAL Pro-Choice America — and now people are wearing it all over the country, on the street and on social media. Goldstein and Posen wouldn’t share how many masks they’ve sold in total, but Goldstein noted that in the 24 hours after Hillary Clinton tweeted a photo of herself in the mask, they got 3,000 orders. (Kendall Jenner, Kerry Washington, and Megan Rapinoe have all worn the mask, too.) Resistance by Design now sells “vote” tank tops, totes, hats, and towels as well, and Goldstein and Posen created a purple version of their mask in collaboration with Stacey Abrams and her voting rights organization, Fair Fight.

With a few weeks until the 2020 presidential election, “vote” merchandise is everywhere. You can buy a “vote” tee from Madewell, a “vote” hoodie from Levi’s, or a pair of over-the-knee Stuart Weitzman boots with the word “vote” running down the calf in interlocking letters. Theoretically, you could get yourself a Christian Siriano “vote” gown or a Louis Vuitton “vote” sweater, both of which recently appeared on the runway for spring/summer 2021.

As far as messaging through fashion goes, the meaning of a “vote” mask or T-shirt is pretty self-evident. It means you should vote. And for many people, encouraging civic engagement is the most basic objective of putting the word “vote” on their body.

“It takes multiple pings, little reminders, to get through to people, so I kind of feel like me and other people wearing ‘vote’ masks, bandanas, and T-shirts are just one extra little ping,” says Justine Larbalestier, a novelist who lives in New York. “Maybe someone will look at it and say, ‘Oh fuck, have I registered?’ It’s just reiterating the message.”

Larbalestier is originally from Australia, and when she became a US citizen 10 years ago, she missed two elections because the voter registration process was so confusing. “It still shocks me to my core that voting is so hard here,” she says.

But while “vote” merchandise enjoyed a similar rush of popularity in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the Covid-19 pandemic has given it additional layers of meaning. At a time when in-person efforts to raise awareness about the election are limited by social distancing, it’s a way to safely express that message to the world at large.

“We can’t knock on doors, which I’ve done every election cycle,” says Erin Allweiss, who has been wearing a Resistance by Design mask on the street in Brooklyn. “A ‘vote’ mask is a reminder that there’s an election coming up. It’s the yard sign on our faces, encouraging people to participate.”

Face masks, in particular, add a new pointedness to the message to vote.

“The fact that we have to wear face masks means that something is wrong, so it’s a great place to put a message about how to make things right,” says Adelle McElveen, who bought a purple Resistance by Design mask after discovering it on the Fair Fight website.

Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph wears a “vote” mask while meeting vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (not pictured).
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Wearing a “vote” mask on the streets of New York has been a “very interactive experience,” McElveen says. People often tell her they love her mask, ask where she got it, and give her a thumbs-up. One older man called out to her, “Yes, I’m voting!” That positivity feels great, she says.

“I want to normalize getting involved and caring and taking action,” says McElveen, who has worked on a number of political campaigns. But, she clarifies, voting is just the beginning of that work — and wearing “vote” merchandise isn’t enough.

“It’s not voting once every four years or every two years. We have to keep engaged with our elected officials, we have to educate ourselves, and we have to be active participants in democracy,” McElveen says. “If we don’t, budgets, policies, and priorities are going to be made that affect us and we won’t have had our say.”

“Vote” merchandise certainly runs the risk of coming off as slacktivism, an easy and vague way to signal responsible citizenship. It doesn’t help that during this election cycle, a stampede of corporations like Uber and Nike have been using encouragements to vote as a method of marketing their own businesses, largely without coming out for one candidate or another. “The messages end up mealymouthed — these companies are willing to gesture at the maintenance of a minimally functional democracy, but are not willing to say it with their chests,” writes the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull.

The question of whether “vote” merchandise is carefully neutral or inherently partisan depends on who’s making it and who you ask. Because Resistance by Design has been clear about its political values, Goldstein and Posen feel that these views are embedded in their mask design: When they say “vote,” they do not mean for Trump. And in the sense that Trump has attacked the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and has not committed to a peaceful transition if he loses the election — in the face of voter suppression, particularly of Black voters — the word “vote” can read as full-throated defiance of a president actively seeking to undermine the democratic process.

Still, some people who wear “vote” merchandise like it precisely because it doesn’t state a preference for one candidate over another. Yumi Escalante and Michelle Virshup, federal employees based in the Washington, DC, region, have been wearing “vote” masks as a way to remind people to turn out on November 3 while complying with the Hatch Act’s rules against wearing a candidate’s clothing while on duty or expressing a partisan stance on social media.

“I happen to live in a Black community, so when I’m wearing my ‘vote’ mask out, with the people who are able to see me, I’m encouraging them to vote,” says Escalante. “It’s not just a national election — we have our local and county elections. It’s personal. It’s about our home.”

Virshup has gone all out with her “vote” gear: Birdies flats, Madewell T-shirt, Resistance by Design mask. After Christian Siriano’s fashion week show, she ordered his $35 “vote” print masks for herself, her mom, and her sister. Virshup finds that in addition to following her employer’s rules, posting photos of herself in neutral “vote” merch creates a more open platform for having conversations about the election with members of her extended family who have different political views. It’s easy to dismiss someone who’s going all out for a candidate you already dislike; it’s much harder to wave away someone who is simply promoting voting.

Christina Pham, a video game producer based in Los Angeles, is open about her hope that Trump will lose the election, but says that she prefers the candidate-free mask from Resistance by Design because she’s “not super jazzed” about Biden. (“I totally would have worn a Bernie mask,” she notes.) Besides, she says, she can recycle a “vote” mask for future elections.

Rebecca Lowman, an actor, audiobook narrator, and director, and Rebecca Asher, a director for TV shows like The Good Place and Grace and Frankie, started making “vote” T-shirts under the brand name Sunlight at home in LA this summer. While Lowman has been able to continue working from her home studio during the pandemic, Asher’s work slowed to a dribble as productions halted. To fill her time, she started taking photography classes, which inspired Lowman to cut out a “vote” stencil and print it on a shirt using cyanotype processing.

They devised a simple operation on Instagram: If people sent them a receipt for a donation to one of the seven voting accessibility organizations listed on their LinkTree, they would send them a T-shirt as a reward. Thus far, people have donated more than $13,000 — in increments as small as $1 and as large as $1,000 — and Lowman and Asher have produced nearly 370 shirts. They’ve had a few repeat customers, some of whom worry that they’re breaking the rules by submitting a donation for a second shirt.

“All the people we’ve sent shirts to are sending the nicest emails,” says Asher. “I guess it’s a form of connection, too, at this time when you’re not really engaging with people as usual.”

Though Asher and Lowman aren’t shy about their political alignments — pointing out that many of the organizations in their LinkTree go through ActBlue, the Democratic and progressive fundraising platform — they’ve made shirts for Republicans as well as avowed Democrats. For a friend’s mother, who does voter outreach in her community, they made a custom “vote” shirt from a baseball tee with red sleeves.

“We clearly have a preference for who wins this election, but we also do want as many people to vote as possible,” says Asher. “Everybody should be voting.”

“There’s a legitimacy when everyone votes,” says Lowman.

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Nigeria’s SARS: A brief history of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad



In April last year, Kofi Bartels, a 34-year-old radio journalist in Nigeria’s Rivers State, was filming three police officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) beating another man when they and three of their colleagues turned their attention to him.

In a series of tweets, he described being beaten and arrested: “They took turns to slap, punch and kick me while I was struggling with a swollen knee. At least six officers, one at a time.”

Philomena Celestine, 25, has also seen SARS brutality up close. In 2018, she was travelling home from her university graduation ceremony with her family in Edo State, when their car was pulled over by SARS officers and her two brothers taken out.

“My four-year-old niece was in the vehicle but they cocked their guns at our car and drove my brothers into the bush where they harassed them for over 30 minutes, and accused them of being cybercriminals. They could see my graduation gown but that did not deter them. My sister was trembling and crying in fear,” Celestine recalled.

These accounts are just two of many that sparked protests against the unit across Nigeria. It has been accused of harassing and physically abusing thousands of civilians since it was created in 1992. The #EndSARS protests resulted in the Nigerian government announcing earlier this month that it would disband the unit.

But this is the fourth time in as many years that the government has promised to disband or reform the unit that citizens say has terrorised them for decades.

And the problem of police brutality goes beyond SARS, the protesters say. According to Amnesty International, the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) is responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings and enforced disappearances each year.

A demonstrator paints ‘End Sars’ on a street during a protest demanding police reform in Lagos, Nigeria on October 20 [Seun Sanni/Reuters]


The Nigeria Police was first established in 1820 but it was over a century later – in 1930 – that the northern and southern police forces merged into the first national police force; called the Nigeria Police Force.

In 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was formed to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes.

Before that, anti-robbery was the responsibility of the Nigerian Police Force generally although, from 1984, anti-robbery units existed separately as part of different states’ criminal investigation departments.

Other special units, which went by different names at different times, included the intelligence response team, special tactical squad, counterterrorism unit and force intelligence unit, formed to tackle rising violent crime following the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970.

By the early 1990s, armed robbers and bandits were terrorising Lagos and southern Nigeria.

Police officer Simeon Danladi Midenda was in charge of the anti-robbery unit of the criminal investigation department in Benin, southern Nigeria, at the time. He had some success in combatting armed robbery, earning a recommendation from the then inspector general of police.

With crime on the rise in Lagos, Midenda was transferred there and tasked with uniting the three existing anti-robbery squads operating in the former federal capital into one unit in a bid to break the stronghold of armed gangs. As the new sheriff in town, equipped with 15 officers and two station wagons, Midenda formed an amalgamated unit and named it the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992.

In the early days of the unit, combat-ready SARS officers operated undercover in plain clothes and plain vehicles without any security or government insignia and did not carry arms in public. Their main job was to monitor radio communications and facilitate successful arrests of criminals and armed robbers such as Chukwudi Onuamadike – best known as “Evans” –  who was arrested in 2017 after the police spent five years tracking him and placed a 30 million naira ($80,000) reward on his head.

A woman reacts as Nigerians take part in a protest against alleged violence, extortion and harassment by Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), in Lagos, Nigeria on October 11 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Extorting money in broad daylight

For 10 years, SARS only operated in Lagos, but by 2002, it had spread to all 36 states of the federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. It was counted as one of the 14 units under the Nigerian Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department. Its mandate included arrest, investigation and prosecution of suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers, hired assassins and other suspected violent criminals.

Emboldened by its new powers, the unit moved on from its main function of carrying out covert operations and began to set up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens. Officers remained in plain clothes but started to carry arms in public.

Over time, the unit has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion.

SARS officers then allegedly moved on to targeting and detaining young men for cybercrime or being “online fraudsters”, simply on the evidence of their owning a laptop or smartphone, and then demanding excessive bail fees to let them go.

In 2016, Amnesty International documented its own visit to one of the SARS detention centres in Abuja, situated in a disused abattoir. There, it found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells and being regularly subjected to methods of torture including hanging, starvations, beatings, shootings and mock executions.

Now, Nigerians say they have had enough. Since 2017, protests have been building momentum across Nigeria, stemming from online advocacy to street protests. The anger about the unit’s activities culminated in a nationwide protest on the streets of 21 states this month after a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Delta State.

A demonstrator wearing a blindfold with an inscription “End Sars”, gestures during protests in Lagos, Nigeria on October 17 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Amid the ongoing protests, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the unit would be disbanded. But this has not quelled the protests as young people continue to occupy the streets in large numbers demanding the immediate release of arrested protesters, justice for victims of police brutality, the prosecution of accused officers as well as a general salary increase for the police force to reduce corruption.

Young protesters say they have heard it all before. This is not the first time the government had disbanded SARS and promised reforms.

In 2006 and 2008, presidential committees proposed recommendations for reforming the Nigeria Police.

In 2009, the Nigerian minister of justice and attorney general of the federation convened a National Committee on Torture to examine allegations of torture and unlawful killings but made little headway. In October 2010, the then Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, allocated 71 billion naira ($196m) for police reforms.

In 2016, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force announced broad reforms to correct SARS units’ use of excessive force and failure to follow due process.

A demonstrator paints ‘End Sars’ on a street during a protest in Lagos on October 20 [Seun Sanni/Reuters]

A climate of fear

Historically, police officers who are alleged to have unlawfully killed Nigerians have faced few or no repercussions. For years, Amnesty International has reported cases of unlawful killings and police brutality by law enforcement agencies in Nigeria.

Reports of human rights violations committed by SARS have continued to mount, despite repeated promises of reform and accountability by the Nigerian government. The police authorities created a Complaint Response Unit (CRU) in November 2015, through which the police could process complaints from the public. To date, no SARS officer has been found responsible for torture, ill-treatment of detainees or unlawful killing.

The following year – 2016 – Amnesty International documented 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS with victims usually young men between the ages of 18 and 35 arrested during street raids on groups of people doing things such as watching a football match or drinking at pubs. Research by CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian non-profit organisation which promotes public safety and access to justice, found that the Nigeria Police Force lacked an effective database on complaints and discipline management.

In March 2017, SARS arrested 23-year-old Miracle Ifeanyichukwu Okpara and detained him in Anambra State, eastern Nigeria, on a charge of having stolen a laptop. Amnesty International reported that he was tortured and hardly given any food during 40 days of detention before he was taken to court and charged with armed robbery. The court discharged the case for lack of evidence.

Finally, in 2017, Nigerians launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #EndSARS to document abuse and extortion by SARS officers and demanded the total overhaul or disbandment of the unit.

Promises from government flowed in again. In December 2017, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force announced plans to reorganise SARS units. In August 2018, Nigeria’s vice-president and then acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, ordered the overhaul of SARS but allegations of abuse by SARS agents continued throughout the year.

A cake in the shape of a man with the inscription ‘End Sars’ is pictured during a protest in Lagos on October 17 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Socrates Mbamalu, a 28-year-old writer and journalist living in Lagos, described how he has been living in a climate of fear following multiple encounters with SARS officers. Mbamalu told Al Jazeera that SARS officers targeted him in the street and searched his backpack while he was studying in Ife, Osun State. He does not know why he was targeted – only that he is a young man who was carrying a backpack.

“They searched my backpack and saw my laptop which they accused me of stealing and demanded a receipt,” he explained. “They threatened to arrest and detain me, and searched my pockets, stealing my 1,000 naira ($3). In another instance, they detained me overnight in a smelly police station with dozens of others after they just picked us up on the street while walking at night. I still get traumatised whenever I encounter the police today,” he said.

Since protests began, young protesters have also been targeted by SARS. Judith Caleb, a 28-year-old blogger and one of the activists organising the protests in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, told Al Jazeera that the protest aimed to join in the fight to stop police brutality in the country and ensure accountability and justice for victims.

“In 2015, SARS killed one of our friends, Richard, a university student here in Kaduna. They accused him of buying a stolen phone, detained and tortured him until he died,” she said. “That is why we are out protesting. The police arrived here as early as 6am to stop the protest. They shot into the air to disperse us and arrested three people. But we were determined to continue with our peaceful protest. It is our right.”

Police use water cannon to disperse protesters in Abuja on October 11 [Abraham Achirga/Reuters]

‘I was saying my last prayers’

While demonstrations across Nigeria have remained peaceful, security forces have responded with more brutality. The police have shot tear gas, water cannon and live rounds at protesters across the country. Armed men have also disrupted rallies and attacked protesters, forcing the organisers to hire private security to repel the attacks.

Jimoh Isiaq, a 20-year-old university student, was shot dead on October 11, 2020, during an #EndSARS protest in Oyo State, southwestern Nigeria. Isiaq was killed when a police team monitoring the protest allegedly opened fire at demonstrators with live bullets.

On October 12, police officers in Lagos allegedly opened fire to disperse protesters, killing 55-year-old Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, and arresting dozens of protesters. On October 16, police teargassed and used water cannon on a group of protesters in Abuja. Police officers attacked journalist Gimba Kakanda, injuring him, smashing his phone and slashing the tyres of his car. In a piece for Time about his experience, Kakanda wrote: “I was saying my last prayers. I really thought my life was going to end.”

Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, has decried the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters and said that it makes claims of any commitment to ending violations of human rights by the Nigerian police redundant.

People protest in Lagos on October 11, 2020 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

The #EndSARS movement is the biggest social protest the country has seen since the Occupy Nigeria movement of January 2012. It has attracted attention all over the world, with celebrities such as musician Kanye West, footballer Odion Ighalo, actor John Boyega and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey among a list of people to have voiced support for the protests.

Young citizens mostly in their 20s on the streets say they are tired of the promises of reforms and are expressing their anger at continuously being dehumanised and treated unjustly.

“The Nigerian police motto, ‘Police is your Friend’, has become a mockery,” said 22-year-old protester Maryam Ahmed.

For the #EndSARS protesters, restructuring the unit, changing its name and redeploying its officers to other units is not enough; reform must translate into accountability and justice.

“We are determined to continue these protests until justice is served,” Judith Caleb said as she arranged her placards, ready for another day of protest, hoping to fix a broken system, and along with her fellow citizens, begin to heal from the trauma.


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‘Amplifiers for idiots’: Former Google CEO slams social media



Eric Schmidt says more regulation may be needed for social media, but US antitrust suit against Google is misplaced.

Former Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said the “excesses” of social media are likely to result in greater regulation of internet platforms in the coming years.

Schmidt, who left the board of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. in 2019 but is still one of its largest shareholders, said the antitrust lawsuit the U.S. government filed against the company on Tuesday was misplaced, but that more regulation may be in order for social networks in general.

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google [Bloomberg]

“The context of social networks serving as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we intended,” Schmidt said at a virtual conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “Unless the industry gets its act together in a really clever way, there will be regulation.”

Google’s YouTube has tried to decrease the spread of misinformation and lies about Covid-19 and U.S. politics over the last year, with mixed results. Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have also been under fire in recent years for allowing racist and discriminatory messages to spread online.

Schmidt also argued Google’s massive search business — the target of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust suit — continues to be so successful because people choose it over competitors, not because it uses its size to block smaller rivals.

“I would be careful about these dominance arguments. I just don’t agree with them,” Schmidt said. “Google’s market share is not 100%.”


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US officials say Russia, Iran have obtained voter information



Intelligence officials link Iran to threatening emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states.

The United States’ top intelligence official has accused Russia and Iran of obtaining US voter information and making moves to influence public opinion ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

John Ratcliffe, director of National Intelligence, made the announcement at a hastily arranged news conference on Wednesday that also included FBI Director Chris Wray.

The announcement two weeks before the November 3 election showed the level of alarm among top US officials that foreign actors were seeking to undermine Americans’ confidence in the integrity of the vote and spread misinformation in an attempt to sway its outcome.

“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said during the news conference.

Most of that voter registration is public, but Ratcliffe said that government officials “have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage”

Ratcliffe was referring to emails sent on Wednesday and designed to look like they came from the pro-Trump Proud Boys group, government sources told the Reuters news agency. A number of voters in Florida and other key states in the election battle between the Republican president and Democrat Joe Biden said they had received the messages.

[embedded content]

“You will vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you,” the emails said. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for.”

“I would take this seriously if I were you,” the message ends, adding the voter’s address.

‘Desperate attempts’

In addition to the threatening emails, Ratcliffe said Iran also distributed a video that falsely suggested voters could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas.

“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” Ratcliffe said, adding that Russia and Iran seek to “to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine confidence in American democracy”.

The top national security official did not explain how the Russians and Iranians had obtained the voter information or how the Russians might be using it.

US intelligence agencies previously warned that Iran might interfere to hurt Trump while Russia was trying to help him in the election. Outside experts said that if Ratcliffe was correct, Iran would be trying to make Trump look bad by calling attention to support and threats by the sometimes violent Proud Boys group.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied Iran had sought to meddle in the US election.

“Iran has no interest in interfering in the US election and no preference for the outcome,” spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.

[embedded content]

US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who received a classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on election security, said he disagreed with Ratcliffe that Iran was specifically trying to hurt Trump.

“It was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case and Russia in many more cases is to basically undermine confidence in our elections. This action I do not believe was aimed … at discrediting President Trump,” Schumer told broadcaster MSNBC in an interview.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has directed government agencies “to proactively monitor and thwart any attempts to interfere in US elections, and because of the great work of our law enforcement agencies we have stopped an attempt by America’s adversaries to undermine our elections”.

Wray, the FBI director, meanwhile stressed that US election systems remained safe.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” he told reporters.

“We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our infrastructure and today that infrastructure remains resilient – you should be confident that your vote counts.”


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