If you’re a woman on the Internet, harassment comes with the territory. There have been jerky dudes since time immemorial, after all. But with the advent of America’s militarized cops, sociopathic misogynists have a new, deadly force-multiplier in their war on women.
“Obnoxious” is the online name of British Columbia teenager who spent years destroying the lives of women who had the audacity to create popular, lucrative channels on Twitch in which they streamed their amazing video-game play.
Obnoxious would get their IP addresses, dox them, DDoS them, try to blackmail them into befriending him and then to performing on-camera sex-acts for him, he would order pizzas and other crap to their homes, and then he would swat them.
“Swatting” is when you call someone’s local police force and pretend that you are a crazed gunman/bomber in their house, so that the cops show up locked and loaded, fingers on the trigger. At best, you terrorize your victim and her family; at worse, you get the police to murder one or more of them.
Jerks and people with emotional problems have used bomb threats and similar methods for decades. I went to a school where one kid — who was already in and out of residential psychiatric facilities — would routinely call in bomb threats. The precautionary principle applied — we’d go stand on the lawn and the cops would search the building — but there was none of today’s auto-immune disorder, no MRAPs parked on the lawn and cops in Afghanistan-surplus military gear hup-hupping through hallways with their fingers on the triggers.
Shutting down “Obnoxious” proved to be nearly impossible. The jurisdictional problems of getting Canadian cops to care about crimes in America, combined with American cops’ ignorance of “cyber” and tendency to blame the victims (a cop told one survivor of repeat swattings was told to stop playing games and “just pick up a book” to avoid more trouble), combined with the diffused nature of the crimes meant that Obnoxious operated with near-total impunity as he attacked more and more women.
Swatting is a 21st century crime, but not just because the Internet lets assholes place anonymous calls to distant police stations. The pipeline of weapons from the US military to US police forces makes a small number of companies very rich, and their wealth gives them the power to lobby for more arms sales. The militarization of American police makes everything bad about police forces much, much worse, frominstitutional racism to a culture of cover-ups and opacity. The New York Times Magazine’s story on Obnoxious and swatting is an excellent piece and it focuses rightly on the systemic misogyny that plagues women online, but it lacks sufficient depth on this question: why are America’s cops so well-armed and short-fused? Who benefits from turning cops into patsies for distant sociopaths?
Obnoxious often sent a text to his target telling her that the SWAT team was on its way — too late to stop it — just so she would know it was him. Sometimes victims received phone calls from the police before the SWAT team arrived. A Canadian Twitch streamer named Maple Ong got a call one night in January 2014, telling her to leave her house with her hands up, along with her panicked father and younger brother, so the police could search it for bombs that Obnoxious had told them were placed there. Allison Henderson, a 26-year-old artist and streamer who lived with two other streamers in Costa Mesa, Calif., received a phone call one night from a woman with the Police Department, asking her how many people were in her apartment and what she was wearing. Allison and her roommates had recently been DDoSed and harassed by Obnoxious. The policewoman told Allison to step outside with her hands above her head.
‘‘I held my breath and slowly opened the door to the sight of rifles pointed at me from every direction,’’ she says. ‘‘It was the most terrifying experience of my life.’’ When officers questioned her, she couldn’t make them understand. ‘‘They were completely lost on the idea of a stranger harassing us over the Internet,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a feeling like you’re drowning, and the person doesn’t understand what water is.’’
A few months after Obnoxious swatted Janet and her family, he swatted them again. The officers who showed up this time seemed irritated at Janet, ‘‘like it was my fault that I got swatted, because I do what I do, because I play video games.’’ She says one told her, ‘‘Just pick up a book.’’ The officers who responded to these calls did a professional job — in the sense that they assessed the situation, de-escalated it and didn’t fire their weapons. At the same time, they misjudged what they were seeing. They didn’t grasp that each swatting was merely a spike in a long-running pattern of abuse that would continue when they drove away. ‘‘You don’t want to dwell on it,’’ says K., the Florida streamer. ‘‘You just want to go back to doing what you love. But it isn’t that simple. Because everything’s changed. As he was attacking us, we couldn’t be the same anymore.’’ Some of Obnoxious’s swatting victims took long breaks from streaming, even though it was a major social outlet and an income source for them. ‘‘I just wanted to be alone,’’ says Alexa Walk, who was swatted by Obnoxious at her apartment in North Carolina. ‘‘I didn’t want people to see me upset.’’