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COMMUNITIES/ The Everyday Peacemakers on our Streets

June Sat 29, 2013

ResPublica ResPublica

Our collective breath was taken away by the bravery of the women who guarded Lee Rigby’s body, the soldier murdered in Woolwich on 22nd May, especially Ingrid Loyau-Kennett who engaged directly with the killers, bloody weapons still held tight in their hands. Her immediate response to get off her bus, to talk and listen to the killers, with the sole aim of keeping them calm and away from the gathering crowd of onlookers until the police arrived may well have prevented further bloodshed.

Communities everywhere are the original first responders in any crisis, before the emergency services, before the army arrive – in those places where official responders exist, are not parties to conflict, and can get there in time. And communication technologies are the tools of those communities of first responders. From the #riotwombles of London organising the post-riot community clean-up to bloggers in Kenya, the ‘Peace Provocateurs’ of Ambon to the violence interrupters of Chicago, communities are increasingly organising rapid responses to violence with their own means of broadcasting and sharing.

In perhaps the most well-documented case of citizens taking action in the face of escalating violence, a group of Kenyan bloggers responded within days to the post-election violence of January 2008, by developing a platform to connect real-time reports of incidents via SMS and online to an open and live map. That collective and spontaneous response to help fellow citizens in the midst of a media blackout and widespread panic, has evolved into a disruptive and inspiring non-profit technology company – Ushahidi, continuously developing their tools for use by everyone and anyone, whether for tracking violence, harassment, election corruption or tasty burgers.

Ushahidi in turn is now used by brave individuals working together on the SyriaTracker project, submitting, collecting and verifying as far as possible, eyewitness reports of violence, death and torture, in a place where little information is allowed to leak out, and disinformation a currency of the conflict. In the face of freelancing fighters, external forces pressing in from Russian arms to Hezbollah to funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, individuals have emerged both within and outside Syria who are trying to bring a clearer picture to the wider world of what is happening there.

In Coventry, Rami Abdul Rahman has become a one-man reporting band (aka the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), spending his days processing reports, information from his network of contacts inside Syria to document casualties, and becoming a source that has proved vital to mainstream news media. In the first months of protest in Syria in 2011, Rami Nakhla was based in Beirut, and played a crucial role as curator of citizen reports through Skype, tweets and videos until threats to his life from pro-government agents forced him to flee Lebanon.

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