The Shot Heard Round the World: Zoombombing in the Era of MAGA/Covid

I would describe the bombers as “fraternity boys,” and I’m not saying this to perpetuate unsubstantiated stereotypes. I’ve been in higher education for just over 20 years, and I’ve seen some deplorable behaviors from fraternities at my university. I remember when the president of Sigma Nu, who was also the president of student government, made a pornographic film in the fraternity house (starring himself and a handful of professionals). When we still had a “fraternity row” adjacent to the football stadium, a black man, who was unsuspectingly walking down said street, was jumped and beaten by several fraternity members who were later charged with a hate crime. I’ve lived through dozens of themed Halloween parties, from “pimps and hoes” to “cowboys and Indians.”

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the pervasive racism and sexism in our society.

When my friend, Chris Garcia, started attending my Catholic school in St. Joseph, Missouri in first grade, I remember Allen Jackson beating him up on the playground while shouting racial slurs. Allen had been my best friend in Kindergarten. (Allen had shown me his genitals in my backyard and taught me how to use my middle finger as a gesture of disapproval and rebellion.) Chris was well-read and quiet and the kindest boy I’d ever met, and he soon became my new best friend. Allen was never expelled, his violent behaviors never admonished let alone quashed, so it seemed clear to me which side society was on.

In other words, I’ve always been angry.

So these boys bursting onto the screen in the middle of a poetry reading and pressing their asses against the camera didn’t shock me. The pornographic images, the close-ups of vaginas – all of them bright pink against the backgrounds of our quiet, dimly lit quarantine rooms – none of it was shocking. But what really clued me in to what’s going on in America during this pandemic is what they were saying as they were exposing themselves in front of the camera.

When a woman was reading, they burst onto our screen shouting hey you fucking fat bitch, you fucking whore, and when a person of color was reading, they burst in again shouting racial slurs involving the word nigger. There were only one or two boys visible on the screen, but you could hear others chanting epithets and cackling in the background.

What I remember most was the marked increase in decibel level. I had to shout into my laptop to tell people to exit the room. As I had warned people before the reading began, if someone bombed the room, I would have no control over their camera, no ability to stop their feed. We had discussed it casually, but none of us were really prepared. And it was just so fucking loud.

It was clear to me that they had wanted it to sound like a literal bomb. Thus, zoombombing isn’t just about the prank or the porn—it’s psychological warfare.

In the era of MAGA/Covid, these “frat boy pranks” have quickly become “the shot heard round the world,” an untraceable enemy that we have no real way of combatting. So we increase our security settings and hope for the best. We move forward with our classes and meetings and poetry readings because that’s what some people do in a time of crisis—stitch ourselves into each other’s lives and homes for the sake of commiseration and support. We do it for the love of humanity (and ourselves), for our desperate need to survive and preserve our shared ideologies.

We’re not thinking about inflicting harm on others because why would that be an impetus for survival? We reserve our energy for righteous things, so instead of instigating fights with our enemies, we bind ourselves to the communities and beliefs that we want “the new society” to espouse.

I wonder if non-violent, egalitarian-community-building will ever be the solution. I grow less hopeful by the day.

After the second bomb, I reconvened with a few of the poets in a newly secured room and declared that I hadn’t been traumatized by their aggressive mooning and flashing, and I think I believed it at the time (despite being a survivor of sexual assault). But after a night of lucid dreaming, after awakening so many times to feelings of vulnerability and violation and disgust, unable to purge the flashes of images and the hideous sounds from my mind, I worry if others are experiencing the same. I wonder how traumatized we really are, and how the trauma might compound over the coming weeks, months, years.

I’m not sure if there’s a revolution on the horizon, but the civil war is already underway.

Team MAGA says “daily prayers” for who the man they refer to as “the greatest leader this country has ever seen” (a quote from a facebook comment), and 48% of them really believe this, at least that’s what the numbers suggest. And these are the people we’d have to build “the new society” with.

As another discombobulating week of the quarantine begins, we stare into our meeting-room-screens and are faced with the daunting task of re-imagining “the American collective,” what has rapidly degraded into the new us vs. them, a binary opposition that the formerly colonized have warned us against for decades. But there’s no denying the polarizing nature of this crossroads, or the ethical and humanitarian fallacies of the them—the science deniers; the grandmothers who turn a blind ear to the “pussy grabbing;” the fundamentalist Christians who preach equality among “God’s children” and simultaneously support ICE facilities and the dehumanization of immigrants, the deaths in the desert and the wall at the border; the career Republicans who see the devastation in their communities but are too afraid of losing their campaign dollars.

How could we possibly revolutionize their way of thinking? How could we possibly convince them that what they’re doing is annihilating their own humanity (and ours)?

The answer is we can’t.

And though we shouldn’t discount the effectiveness of weaponizing words, maybe we need to start conserving our energy, eliminating the time we spend maintaining our futile role as the moral compasses and policers of social media.

Maybe it’s time to circle our wagons, to secure our revolutionary ideas and books and zines, comb them again and again for answers. Surely the radical histories written by women and people of color, anyone who has been systematically disenfranchised, generation after generation, have something left to teach us.

If nothing else, we can follow in the footsteps of the riot grrrrl movement of the 90s, i.e. “take control of the means of subcultural production,” make things (DIY-style) that house ideas and potential solutions, distribute them as far as our anger can fuel us, as far as our hope can reach.

RD is the daughter of a Marine and a second-generation Italian-American. She is the founding editor of TRR.