Two years ago, in June 2011, I reached out to my friend Ben Margetts to find out who I should connect with in Boston when I was there for my Churchill fellowship studying social movements. He introduced me to his friend Aaron Swartz and we arranged to meet for a coffee at Cafe Pamplona in Harvard Square.
I still remember the afternoon as vividly as yesterday. It was a hot – really hot – summer’s day. And windy. Tornados were ripping through nearby towns in Massachusetts and New England. My hair was completely messed up from the wind when I finally found the café, after getting lost and asking a bunch of people for directions.
When I got to the café on the corner I saw a shaggy-haired guy on a laptop. He looked up and smiled at me, and I knew it must be Aaron. He had a really sweet smile; so gentle, so cheeky.For the next two hours Aaron and I talked about politics, activism, online organising, democracy, citizen journalism, and life. I liked him immediately: he was incredibly smart, opinionated, and witty. He knew an enormous amount about a lot of things, but he always wanted to learn more. He also knew a lot of people, and was incredibly generous in introducing me to some of his friends who offered both a place to stay and insightful analysis around the questions I had come to the United States to ask about movements.
I wish I had a photo of that day. He was happy. We were both happy. We talked about big, bold ideas and I summarised part of it on my blog at the time. We talked about changing systems on a big, big scale. I remember wishing there were more technologists like him in Australia. More people like anywhere, actually.
The second last time I talked to him was in another café, this time in New York city a few blocks from the Avaaz office. It was raining outside. Simon and Aaron and I were talking about what it would take to turn our current model of online organising on its head. We talked about what tools we could use to replicate bread-and-butter community organising (the kind of campaigns I was involved with in high school) in the online space. He was energised by the challenge; and excited; and the three of us talked for a long time.
The last time I saw him was the morning of my flight back to Australia, at Ben Wikler’s house in Brooklyn. We recorded a session for Ben’s radio show, The Flaming Sword of Justice. Aaron did the technology for it. We ate too many bagels. We laughed a lot. We stayed longer than we should; long enough I was worried we’d miss our flight. You can listen to it here.
Both of the last times I saw Aaron, he didn’t want to talk about what the US Prosecutor’s office was doing to him. Which was understandable, I guess. What can you say when the most powerful government in the world has turned against you with the full weight of the law for doing something so simple as liberating knowledge that legally should have been liberated anyway?
I couldn’t believe the reaction of the US Attorney’s office to what Aaron had done. They were clearly over-reaching. It was so obviously ridiculous; unfair to the extreme. He hadn’t profited. There were no victims. So what kind of “crime” could any reasonable person think he’d committed?
If it hadn’t been for another American friend and activist, Tim DeChristopher, being given a gaol sentence for making false bids at an oil and gas auction, I wouldn’t have thought Aaron had any real chance of actually going to prison. But he clearly did. And the impact that facing a prison sentence like that would have on anyone’s psychological state would have been crushing and devastating.
Aaron was irreplaceable. His loss is enormous for his friends and family. His loss is enormous for the world. He had an incisive analysis of the movement, the problems we were facing, and millions of ideas as to how to fix it. And he didn’t just have ideas – he made them happen. On a world-changing scale. With panache and more than a touch of genius.
I can only imagine what else he would have made happen if he was still here. I can only imagine what he would have been like as an old man. My heart is bleeding for his family, for Taren, and for his close friends. I am so angry at the way the US Attorney’s office treated him. And I am determined that his legacy will live on as we fight even harder for a more just world.
You can post your tributes and memories of Aaron, and make a donation in his memory, at http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com/.