Individuals who have an amateur radio license often exercise their radio skills by volunteering for community communications service. I volunteered to work at Camarillo’s annual air show where I walked around the grounds with my handheld radio and tried to help answer questions from attendees and alert show organizers of problems when I saw them. I also volunteered at a parade and helped the manager queue floats and rolling exhibits, updating the announcers a mile away if there were discrepancies with the written program. Next week, I volunteer at a half marathon where I’ll ride behind the runners and report on their progress. While these kinds of volunteer activites are enjoyable and have value, I’ve been thinking about other creative ways to use communications skills in the service of the public good, and I been wondering about social justice efforts.
Americans poured into the streets when George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department at the time. Protests erupted in many major cities, and many minor cities and towns. Sadly, many protests were marred by police brutality and rights violations. Paramilitary police departments leveraged less-than-lethal technology against women and men in the streets while journalists risked their safety to document the violence that was often escalated by police (a.k.a. peace) officers. What role amateur radio played in those protests? I never heard it mentioned. How could a team of amateur radio operators could help protect the rights of Americans and make protests more visible to the public?
My county is home to a couple very active amateur radio clubs, and its through them that I learn of volunteer opportunities to use my radio skills. What I didn’t know until I got more involved this year is that the people who are most active in these volunteer events (and who help identify and organize the volunteer efforts) are individuals who belong to the Auxilliary Communication Service (ACS) or the Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES). The latter is a national volunteer effort under the umbrella of the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), a professional organization for amateur radio. The former, in California, is an organ of the California Office of Emergency Services. Its members can be activated regionally by the Governor or the Governor’s designees to support a government response to public emergencies. In Ventura County, I think this means that ACS coordinates and reports to the Ventura County Sheriff’s department. Which makes for some awkwardness when you start trying to think of ways radio amateurs or their clubs can support social justice; that goal seems to conflict with the goals of law enforcement these days.
Leaders of ACS/ARES see volunteering to provide radio communications at events as a way for people to keep their skills sharp and to learn new things about working on a communication team. This way when ACS is activated by the California OES, the volunteer members of ACS are relatively ready to support the mission of emergency response. Since I’ve never supported an OES activation of ACS/ARES, I can only infer from what I’ve seen that the skills used in supporting parades and marathons in transferable to supporting responses to wild fires and earthquakes. It would be reasonable to assume that the skills would also transfer to supporting social justice events, or vice versa, right?
This piece is getting a little long already, so I’ll bring this to a close after I mention the next thing that merits some thought: what can amateur radio operators offer to social justice activities? What could an individual do? What could a team of operators do? What could be done if the team had access to technology like a portable repeater and an Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS). The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (47 CFR Part 97) lays out limits for amateur radio. One can’t get paid for using amateur radio frequencies, and one can’t use amateur radio frequencies to break the law. Social justice efforts fit nicely in that pocket, and it’s worth brainstorming on how radio can be used for this important type of good.
Once I have time to think about this some more, I’ll write about it. In the meantime, share your thoughts with me by email or at-me on twitter at @jasonemiller.