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In New York on Saturday, a public memorial was held for Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last week. Among the remembrances of Aaron's genius, his commitment to progressive causes, his idealistic beliefs of making this a better world, there was also an action plan laid out by his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman:
"Aaron was targeted by the FBI," said ThoughtWorks chairman Roy Singham, Swartz's employer before his death. "After PACER, they targeted him. He was strip-searched. Let's not pretend this wasn't political," he argued before being interrupted by applause.
Swartz's partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman framed her call to action in terms of Swartz's beliefs: "Aaron believed there was no shame in failure. There is deep, deep shame in caring more about believing you're changing the world than actually changing the world."Stinebrickner-Kauffman, also an activist, named five targets for action:
- Hold the Massachusetts US Attorney's office accountable for its actions in prosecuting Aaron;
- Press MIT to ensure that it would "never be complicit in an event like this again";
- "All academic research for all time should be made free and open and available to anybody in the world";
- Pass and strengthen "Aaron's Law," an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would narrow prosecutorial discretion for computer crimes;
- Advocate for fundamental reform of the criminal justice system.
"His last two years were not easy. His death was not easy," Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. Still, she urged the audience to "think big and think tiny… 'The revolution will be A/B tested,'" referencing three of Swartz's favorite maxims. "Look up and not down."
There is no justice in criminal justice when Aaron faced more time in prison than we give rapists and other violent criminals. While we can't know everything that was going through his mind at the time he decided to hang himself, we do know that just two days prior to his death, the US Attorneys involved in his case (Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann) refused to entertain a plea deal by his attorney, saying that Swartz would have to plead guilty to each count and vowing to "aggressively pursue" his prosecution.
The US has become a society in which political and financial elites systematically evade accountability for their bad acts, no matter how destructive. Those who torture, illegally eavesdrop, commit systemic financial fraud, even launder money for designated terrorists and drug dealers are all protected from criminal liability, while those who are powerless - or especially, as in Swartz's case, those who challenge power - are mercilessly punished for trivial transgressions. All one has to do to see that this is true is to contrast the incredible leniency given by Ortiz's office to large companies and executives accused of serious crimes with the indescribably excessive pursuit of Swartz.
This immunity for people with power needs to stop. The power of prosecutors is particularly potent, and abuse of that power is consequently devastating. Prosecutorial abuse is widespread in the US, and it's vital that a strong message be sent that it is not acceptable. Swartz's family strongly believes - with convincing rationale - that the abuse of this power by Ortiz and Heymann played a key role in the death of their 26-year-old son. It would be unconscionable to decide that this should be simply forgotten.