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"The Latest Protest Tool: 'Texting'"

"The Latest Protest Tool: 'Texting'

Protesters Use the Technology To Find, or Avoid, Hotspots"

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — "Multiple reports of provocateurs setting trash fires in midtown," read one text message sent to 400-plus mobile phones this week through a service called Ruckus RNC 2004 Text Alerts.

For protesters navigating Manhattan during the Republican National Convention, text-message broadcasting services like this, sent to their cell phones, provided an up-to-the-minute guide to the action on the streets.Texting "tells you where the hot zones are, where people are getting arrested," said Greg Altman, 31, of New York City. "It tells you which stuff to avoid." When he got a message Tuesday that protesters were being beaten near Manhattan's Union Square, he stayed away.

Protesters weren't just employing the message services to look for trouble and stay out of it.

Frances Anderson, 33, who divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, picked the protests she would attend each day using text messaging. "It's like a personal assistant," she said.

The text messages have ranged from an offer of a sewing machine for a women's anti-war group called Code Pink, to an alert that protesters in row boats on a lake in Central Park might be arrested, to an update that protesters were allegedly beaten while handcuffed.

Text messages have called activists to spontaneous protests, including a Wednesday rally by the downtown pier where arrested protesters were being held and a rally against oil interests in Central Park. "Teleflip your friends," the message on the latter protest urged.

"I came here this morning after getting a text message," Gael Murphy, the 50-year-old co-founder of Code Pink said at the rally near the pier.

Text messaging is not as prevalent in the United States as it is in Europe and Asia and a number of protesters Tuesday said they had trouble sending messages.

Text messages have become an important organizing tool for spontaneous protests. Texting alerted thousands of people to anti-government protests in Spain following the Madrid bombings that killed 191 people in March. Massive protests in the Philippines in 2001, coordinated by text messaging, were credited with ousting President Joseph Estrada.

Ruckus RNC 2004 was among the text-messaging groups available on the commercial UPOC.com service, which is best known for text alerts of celebrity sightings. More popular with protesters was the TxtMob.com site, developed expressly for activists by techies with the Institute for Applied Autonomy.

Users register their mobile phone number and e-mail address with the site and can join many of the 200 groups (some are private), some of which have hundreds of users. Messages sent by users are "broadcast" through the TxtMob server.

TxtMob has 4,400 registered users, the site's administrator, who goes by the pseudonym John Henry, said in a phone interview. Users with several cell phone companies reported trouble receiving messages Tuesday and Wednesday. Henry wouldn't say what he thought caused the problem.

Reporters covering the protests were among TxtMob's more avid users, and Henry said he assumed police were also keeping up with its missives.

Tanya Mayo, 36, the national organizer of anti-war group Not in Our Name, said, "We've made some real advances in technology; so have the police. We have to assume that anything we have technologically is all accessible by the police."

The New York Police Department "is utilizing a variety of tools to monitor the activity of demonstrators in New York City," officer Chris Filippazzo said, reading from a department statement. "We are not releasing details of our tactics at this time."

Text messaging was far from the only technology protesters relied on during the convention.

Activists from Code Pink got nighttime voice mail alerts telling them where to go the next day. The women also used two-way radios to summon extra leaders when a rally at Fox News they had expected would attract 200 people attracted more than 1,000.

Ben Meyers, 34, of New York, said he watched the indymedia.org Web site Tuesday for minute-by-minute updates on what was happening where. The organization also offered a broadcast of marchers' mobile phone updates in conjunction with micro-radio station 103.9 in Brooklyn. Protesters with cable TV service could also watch a public access channel that was running nightly video of protests.

But texting was the demonstrations' most prevalent technology, and some protesters who lacked it felt uncool.

"I have to figure out that thing for the next protest, so I can do it," said Misha Rappaport, 56, of San Francisco, squinting at her cell phone across the West Side Highway from the pier where arrested protesters were being held.