I wrote this right after Aaron’s death in January, but never posted it. As friends gather in Boston today to call for Congress to pass Aaron’s Law and reform the laws he was charged under, I couldn’t be there, so thought I’d finally put this up instead. We miss you Aaron.
I met Aaron Swartz over lunch at an Indian buffet outside of DC in 2007, with my housemate Jackie, a co-worker from Capitol Hill, and the founders of the PCCC. We didn’t talk much, but I remember Jackie whispering to me “That guy created RSS feeds.” In 2010, when I was working at the Democratic National Committee, Aaron and Ben Wikler and other friends of people working with us came to help out in the weeks before the midterms, bringing an energy and brightness to an otherwise dreary election (Taren came for a few months to run our online phone banking program, and I was in awe of her badass brilliance). Aaron was always the smiling, floppy haired kid who was suggesting some idea we could try.
But this isn’t really a post about my experiences with Aaron—though we’d hung out a few times and I’d invited him to visit me at the 2012 Obama HQ in Chicago, giving him a tour and eating lunch with him in a windowless conference room—I had never had any of the long late night conversations or arguments with him that many of his friends talked about in the days after his death and at his funeral. I always just loved his energy and his gentle presence, loved seeing him and Taren so happy together at Rootscamp or a brunch I had with them and another friend in Brooklyn last fall.
I was flattered when Taren got in touch in December to tell me that she and Aaron were hiring someone to organize around his upcoming trial and said they both thought of me for the job—they were both people I looked up to and wanted to call friends and colleagues. After thinking it over more though, I realized I wasn’t ready to dive in as much as I thought was needed—going to Boston and New York, putting other plans on hold, jumping in full-fledged as I was trying to recover from the previous 14 insane months on the Obama campaign. I told Taren I probably shouldn’t. A week before Aaron’s death I emailed her, telling her I felt bad that we’d sort of left it hanging/not discussed things further, but that they should let me know if i could help in other ways. She sent me a nice note back, reassuring me that there were no hard feelings, that they found a guy for the job and he was doing great. I was relieved.
When I saw the news about Aaron on Facebook, I wanted the internet to be wrong. Or, I thought, maybe like on the last episode of Homeland, which I’d recently watched (spoiler alert), maybe Aaron, like Brody, had escaped to Canada and then who knows where, safe but never to be heard from again. Or maybe it was all a joke—Aaron, I thought, if this is a joke or some political stunt it’s the WORST ONE EVER, but if you come back and are actually alive I promise we won’t be mad at you.
I think every death changes the people who knew the person who left them—making them want to embody what that person did, be better people, love those around them a little bit more. But with Aaron it felt even more so.
One of the words of advice Aaron gave in a talk once was “Say yes to everything.” I had said no when I had the chance to help him, and I felt pretty shitty about it. I know I shouldn’t, really, that everyone has been feeling guilty and blaming ourselves for what we could have or should have done. We just had no idea how much he needed us.
I want to try and live with Aaron’s memory—to be curious, to learn, to dive in. Though I’ve always been lucky to have opportunities to work on social justice issues I’m passionate about, I’ve also wanted to have some kind of order to it. I want to devote myself, but also have time to re-group, to reflect, eat well, exercise, take walks, get sunlight. I don’t think those things are unimportant—but what Aaron did teach us is how to devote yourself to learning, to changing the world, to loving people. I want to live with those values he taught us—I just wish he could have learned from us too, learned to live with ambiguity, with stillness, with the ability to fight but also step back before making the choice he did.
We miss you Aaron. Thinking of everyone who’s keeping on the fight today.
Follow #AaronSwartz on Twitter.
Sign Demand Progress’s petition demanding justice for Aaron.