Our Carceral State
French philosopher, Michel Foucault once famously argued that society operates as a vast prison. While Foucault’s concerns were with an individual’s freedom constrained in such a system, maybe a more direct analogy to our current situation is how our judiciary and police force is used to control and literally imprison a vast swath of our lower classes.
It is no secret that in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, much of the city’s income was derived from fines and court fees for minor traffic violations, essentially converting area police work from “public safety” officers to revenue collectors. These violations disproportionately fell on poorer individuals and minorities who may not have had the money to keep their hedges trimmed and their vehicles perfectly equipped. In effect, the tickets and citations amount to a regressive tax on members of our society least able to afford it.
In the wake of the Brown killing, Governor Jay Nixon signed a broad municipal court reform bill that capped court revenue and imposed new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill’s sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor. Good. The bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Eric Schmitt, said people have the right “not to be thrown in jail because you’re a couple of weeks … late on a fine for having a taillight out.” He called the current system in place in Ferguson, “taxation by citation.”
“Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops,” Nixon said.
This is all good, too, and certainly the caps on revenue collection by police is a step in the right direction, but in the larger scheme of things, I’m not nearly as sanguine as Governor Nixon is about “cops going back to being ‘cops.’”
…in Southern states groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same.
For one thing, the historical precedent that they might ‘go back’ toward isn’t exactly edifying, especially in Southern states where groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same; that is, ensuring the safe keeping of property for the wealthy. In the North, police officers often functioned as barriers between the wealthy elites and the immigrant “hordes.” The history of industrialization and unionization in this country is rife with struggles between union supporters and police officers or private firm surrogates operating in their wake (such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency –fun fact, at the height of its existence, the Pinkertons had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America).
We like to think of police officers as neutral arbiters of the law, itself a neutral amalgam of well thought out rules for living, but whether rounding up runaway slaves or busting union organizers, the police have historically found themselves on the side of property owners. What this means in contemporary America is a focus on things like illegal drug use and sale, vehicle violations, public disturbance rules, and zoning laws that disproportionately hit the poorest members of our society first and hardest. If we run back through just the most noteworthy police shootings in the last year (topping 1,000 according to an unofficial list compiled by the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/08/us/fatal-police-shooting-accounts.html?_r=0), most of the precipitating causes involved minor infractions, expired inspection stickers, broken signal lights, or tail lights, unpaid fines or alimony. Public service, protecting humans from harm to themselves or to others might be a nice ancillary outcome of a police officer doing his job, but it’s not the main event.
In fact, the idea that police are here to protect us is not much more than a happy slogan. In its landmark decision DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services,the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “the Constitution does not impose a duty on the state and local governments to protect the citizens from criminal harm.” The United States Supreme Court, in the 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales upheld that decision and extended it to include a state or municipality’s police force– codifying what many folks in poorer neighborhoods had long since suspected: neither the state nor the police have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm.
Strictly speaking, the police are law enforcement officers, they are present to make sure the laws as passed by city, county, and state legislators are followed. Towards that end they write tickets, and citations for breaking the law, make arrest and testify in court about their actions. This narrow interpretation of their duties is often clarified in training on the so called ‘public duty’ doctrine that provides that a “governmental entity owes a duty to the public in general, not to any one individual.”
Police are also warned—constantly—to look out for themselves. According to ex-Officer, Seth Stanton, writing in the Atlantic Magazine, “police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance.” Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. One slogan that is bandied about squad rooms sums up the mind set: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”
Police are trained to fear the public they are nominally intended to serve. During their training “they are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance.” Writes Stanton, “in most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”
“In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”
If you happen to peruse Police Magazine, you’ll find that the majority of the stories are about violence against police—and the weapons or tactics they can use to keep themselves safe. This month’s issue features a large photo of an Armalite AR-10 20-Inch Tactical Rifle that was initially designed for the US military. To drive home the point, Police magazine’s logo shows the O in policeman segregated by cross hairs, like a target.
Of course, in addition to the protect-thyself-first attitude, there’s also an underlying racial bias; probably because police officers fear blacks more than whites. In 2015, The Washington Post documented 990 fatal shootings by police, 93 of which involved people who were unarmed. “Black men accounted for about 40 percent of the unarmed people fatally shot by police and, when adjusted by population, were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.”
“The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors. “This just bolsters our confidence that there is some sort of implicit bias going on,” Nix said. “Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.”
The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black…
The report noted that officers may unconsciously develop biases over time. “In other words, the police — who are trained in the first place to be suspicious — become conditioned to view minorities with added suspicion,” according to the report.
So we have a fearful police force, over trained for self-protection with an underlying bias against minorities whose main job is not to protect citizens but to enforce legal codes that order society for the benefit of property owners (that will likely make a poor person’s life more difficult). Add to the brew, the over militarization of our police force (do we really need armored tanks on civilian streets?) and the fact that most police officer shootings are investigated by the police departments themselves and it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand how deeply dysfunctional the whole shebang is. I had one friend suggest that, given the stress our minority communities are under, it was surprising incidents like Dallas hadn’t happened more frequently.
But they haven’t– and perhaps that’s a testimony to what many police departments are coming to recognize—the necessity for retraining and community engagement. In fact, it’s a sad irony that the Dallas Police department has done an exceptional job in just this area. It’s obvious that Police Chief David Brown –whose own life is rife with personal tragedy—is dedicated to a community outreach program. Just hours before the killings began last Thursday night in Dallas, his officers took time to chat with protesters, even taking selfies with them.
“We saw police officers shaking hands and giving high fives and hugging people and being really in the moment with us,” demonstrator Sharay Santora said.
But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting. All of this should tell us that police forces in this country are as diverse as their leaders and the communities that they serve. Our own city, Richmond, Virginia, much like Dallas, has done excellent work in reaching out to the various communities here—including, surprisingly, the LGBT community. So it’s not hopeless, but no one solution will fit all the municipalities across the nation, and maybe one of the questions we should be asking is how well our expectations of police service match the reality? After all, as Chief Brown has noted, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve”
But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting
Many of our poor neighborhoods have a nearly round the clock police presence—from squad cars anyhow. Police appear, write up infractions, and arrest vagrants, keep an eye on shifty characters, “gangbangers” and the like. They do what they are trained to do. But the result isn’t a working society. The result, as I suggested in the beginning of this essay, is a carceral state.
Right now, if you are an Afro-American male, your odds of being in jail at some point in your life are 1 in 3. I doubt this is because 1 in 3 Afro-American males are genetically predisposed to periodic episodes of violence and criminal behavior. More likely, it has to do with the incredible dearth of job prospects made infinitely worse by a rap sheet and applying while black.
Police officers can’t solve that problem. They aren’t social workers or teachers or medical service personnel, as Brown correctly points out—but the nature of the system we have put in place allows all the problems of our society to flow downward to the cop on the beat whose one job is to enforce the law, but who we mistakenly believe can somehow catch all the detritus of a dysfunctional system and keep it working.
In Michel Foucault’s famous work, Discipline and Punishment, the ruling metaphor is society as a vast prison; a kind of panoptic nightmare—a word derived from Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon which was a prison designed so that every cell is view-able from a raised central location, like a watchtower plunked into the middle of a cell block. The point was to understand and react to the behavior of the individuals in the surrounding cells so as to control them. But even at this rudimentary level we are failing, for it’s obvious we don’t understand the individuals caught in our system and we aren’t really controlling behavior, we’re merely holding them in our prison cells precisely because we don’t know what else to do with them.
You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell.
Our criminal justice system is trying to repair something it simply isn’t equipped to mend. You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell. Perhaps if we, as a society, decided that the carceral state was a bad idea; if we decided, instead, to fund jobs programs and provide secure housing for those in need, if, indeed, we provided drug treatment programs instead of felony convictions we might resolve many problems before they become statistics. We can tinker with police community outreach, provide stricter guidelines for engagement and the use of force and institute better ways of policing the police (oh, please let us have a uniform standard for conduct and an external agencies that review police shooting across the nation), but in the end the panacea we are looking for won’t come from a guy or gal on the beat– with or without a gun. They will come from providing adequate resources to all our public workers, developing jobs programs and training for individuals from all walks of life, and from our own personal engagement with the community in which we live. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to the police to solve the problems of our deeply dysfunctional system. Rather, we should restructure the system so we don’t need the police—or not nearly as much. Maybe it’s time we all signed up.
I Was an Eighth Grade Communist (and Other Reasons to Vote for Bernie Sanders)
This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems. I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.
I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.
The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference. This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.
Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem? Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom. You understand?”
I nodded my head.
“Okay.” That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.
Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?
My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.
“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”
“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”
Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.
By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.
Do you want to be a welfare queen?
I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.
By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets. Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’ shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.
My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.
“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”
“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?
“Are you a communista?”
Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.
“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”
I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”
“They stole everything!”
“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”
“So you are a communista!”
“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”
“It’s the same.”
“No, they’re really different.”
And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union. In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”
“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.
That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe. Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.
The majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy. We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago. His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.
It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.
The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it is already grown up. It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes. He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class. But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”
So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win. We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?
Barney Fife Я Us
This just in: citizens of Gaza have tweeted advice to citizens of Ferguson, Missouri on how to deal with tear gas. The tweets included such sage advice as…
Don’t Keep much distance from the Police, if you’re close to them they can’t tear Gas. To #Ferguson from #Palestine
Solidarity with #Ferguson. Remember to not touch your face when tear gassed or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!
And one tweeter, Mariam Barghouti noted…
It feels so weird using my experience from #Palestine and Israeli oppression to give advice to #Ferguson. Much love and solidarity!
Indeed, it is weird, but when you consider that former Police Chief Tim Fitch studied Counter-Terrorism in Israel with the Israeli Defense Forces in April 2011, and that the weapons and tactics deployed in Ferguson in the last few days closely match weapons used in military occupations from Iraq to Afghanistan to Gaza, than it’s not so much weird as inevitable. In fact, many US veterans of those conflicts are tweeting that Ferguson police are ‘better armed’ than the initial invading troops for Operation Desert Storm.
To put this in context, Ferguson is a small town that spans just six square miles. It has a population of 21,203 people, and one ZIP code. Ferguson has about 40 robberies per year, a couple of homicides, almost no arson cases and a crime rate only a bit higher than the national average. Nevertheless, last night, Wednesday, August 13, some 70 SWAT officers showed up to ‘quell’ the unrest surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen killed by a Ferguson police officer. They arrived in full body armor with machine guns atop mine proofed personnel carriers trained on the crowds. Now, even I, unschooled in the most rudimentary of police work would know that this is not how you pacify a crowd or win hearts and minds. The opposite would seem to be the case: this is how you escalate a situation. Naturally, chaos ensued. An alderman was arrested, Washington Post and Huffington Post journalists were arrested. The Al Jazeera news team was harassed and tear gassed and after they fled, the police decided to ‘confiscate’ their equipment. Local citizens had to contend with rubber bullets and rounds of wooden pellets that “aren’t as lethal as live rounds”….always good to hear.
According the Riverfront Times, tear gas was so ubiquitous that reporters said they could not go from the police station on one side of the town to their cars on the other because of tear gas en route. Officers reportedly marched down streets ordering protesters to leave as they fired tear gas into the backyards and homes of individuals who stood on their own property with their hands up.
That a small town police force might be incompetent is not especially surprising—I always think of Barney Fife on these occasions. A periphrastic buffoon, Fife, played by the inimitable Don Knotts on the Andy Griffith show delivered a comic version of a small town police deputy so enthralled by the gadgetry of law enforcement that to give him live ammunition was to risk accidental death and mayhem. The sheriff of Mayberry wisely never allowed him to carry a loaded weapon. Like Fife, the police of Ferguson appear to be knuckle heads—they blew the situation in their hometown by over reacting. This morning the Governor of Missouri stepped in and said that the Ferguson police force would no longer be in charge of protecting Ferguson—which will come as some relief to those who have been ‘protected’ thus far. What is surprising, or sad, or just plain weird, is that we should be giving a small town police force enough military equipment to lay siege to their own township and a half dozen municipalities, besides. It’s like giving Barney Fife a bazooka, with sufficient live ammunition to level Detroit.
Unfortunately Ferguson is part of a nationwide trend where local police forces are supplied with surplus military equipment, a process that started back in the 90s when the ‘war on drugs’ was in its prime, and escalated dramatically after the 9/11 attacks. Now up to 4.3 billion dollars worth of military equipment is in the hands of our indomitable Barney Fifes. Among the gear transferred: tanks, aircraft, and machine guns, as well as 181 grenade launchers, for all those times when cops just have to launch a grenade at someone. And since they have all this equipment, our Barneys feel obligated to use it, too, otherwise, of course, all that deadly goodness is just going to waste. So now, fully outfitted ‘SWAT’ teams equipped with canons and grenade launchers and AR-15s and armored personnel carriers carry out such mundane tasks as serving warrants to skin flint husbands skipping out on alimony payments and so forth. Which might not be so bad, except when you’re walking around with half a million dollars worth of equipment whose sole function is to kill something, sometimes bad things occur.
For example, this April, a SWAT team badly burned a toddler when they dropped a flash grenade into his crib while searching for a relative they thought might be carrying drugs. And in 2010, a SWAT team shot and killed a 7-year-old girl when they accidentally raided the wrong house. Even when innocent humans don’t die, it’s common for police in these raids to shoot pet dogs on sight. So despite the millions of dollars of equipment, we are not getting any safer. On the contrary, an ACLU report released this summer – examining just 800 incidents of the estimated 45,000 annual Swat team deployments in America– found the opposite: seven people were killed and dozens were injured– and 61% of people impacted by drug-case Swat raids were minorities.
Kara Dansky, the chief author of the ACLU report, said that “the unnecessary use of paramilitary policing tactics tends to escalate the risk of violence to both civilians and officers.” But there is no central tracking system of the military equipment going out to local police departments – just as there is no oversight on how the equipment is used, or any reporting requirements other than hitting drug-enforcement numbers that bring in more cash—to pay for more weapons, of course.
To add to the mix, since 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged further militarization of police through federal funds for “terrorism prevention.” The armored vehicles, assault weapons, and body armor borne by the police in Ferguson are the fruit of turning police into soldiers. According to the ACLU, police training material encourages departments to “build the right mind-set in your troops” in order to thwart “terrorist plans to massacre our schoolchildren.” According to a Mother Jones report, it is possible that, since 9/11, police militarization has massacred more American schoolchildren than any al-Qaida terrorist.
There’s been almost no public debate on police militarization: it was part of our overreaction to 9/11 which has whittled away our civil liberties, started two unnecessary wars overseas, while transforming our own neighborhoods into war zones. In many ways, our reaction to those attacks have done more to destroy ‘our way of life’ than any destructive fantasy Osama bin Laden might have dreamed. The result? Well, I’d say, imagine Mayberry RFD with Barney Fife in charge, but you don’t have to imagine– just watch what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri.
The saying goes that bad ideas make good stories. This story has all the makings, albeit a little stereotyped. The vainglorious steel jawed Mayor championing a backroom deal that only developers and his various flunkies could love; the milquetoast City Council, dithering around the clock, headed by the ever lovable Charles Samuels (who will absolutely have to be played by Matthew Broderick or a younger acolyte); the supporters of the Mayor’s plan headed by the craggy Kathy Graziano, the wildly inarticulate Ms. Mosby and the stoically factual Ms. Newbile. The loyal opposition will be led by the feisty Mr. Agelasto and down home sweetheart, Ms. Trammel. Dithering between these teams are two somewhat timorous white men, Mr. Hilbert and Mr. Baliles, whose vote will swing the ultimate outcome. But like any good story, this one comes in layers. We need a little background before we get to the high drama of votes and buildings and …. Baseball!
So to begin…
Time: early 2013. Place: parking lot near Weiman’s Bakery, Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Va.
Two men in shadows gesturing toward a vacant lot. Let’s call one Hal and the other one Happy.
Happy: “How ya doing, Hal? Hope it wasn’t too bad inside?”
Hal: “It was rough. Jail is no place for the faint of heart. So who’s the jerk sending out this letter?”
Hal: “You don’t know the name?”
Happy: “No, it’s ‘anonymous’ like I said. But he’s nailed some numbers down. Close to half a million going to City Council from what he says.”
Hal: “How’d he know that?”
Happy pauses…. “So you do know about this?”
Hal: “Would I tell you if I did?”
Happy: (thoughtful) “No. I guess you wouldn’t. Look, Hal, I can make this happen. But this place is sensitive. You want to open up the Boulevard for development, get the Diamond built down here in the bottom. Not a bad plan, but you gotta give me something –or the black community is going to scream bloody murder.”
Hal: “Scream. Why would they scream? It’s a great idea. Best idea I’ve had since The 6th Street Market Place!”
Happy: “Why would they scream? Geez, Hal, No wonder they put you away. Because this is like the Slave Trade Central for the U.S. of A. 200 years ago, right where you are standing, black folks fresh from Mali stood on auction blocks. This place screams history. I mean screams….you know? Mothers torn from their children, husbands from wives, sisters from brothers. It won’t go so well you try to bury that with baseball.”
Hal: (glum) “So what can I do?”
Happy: “Give me something. Give them something. Give them history!”
Hal: “You want I give them history? Okay, I’m happy to give them history. Only how?”
Happy: “There’s this lady, a Delegate for the state. I’ll tell you her name later. She’s been pushing for a Slave Museum. For years she’s been working this thing. Bugging me to death about it. You give her that, she’ll deliver the black community for us.”
Hal: “She got that kind of mojo?”
Happy: “Indubitably. She’s very persuasive. And loud. And vigorous, too.”
Hal: (hesitating) “But …you mean…like…CASH? That could be a lot of cash, wouldn’t it?”
Happy: “Chump change, 14 million; but the deal won’t happen without it.
Hal: “I don’t know. 14 million’s not so chumpy in my neighborhood. Actual cash for a museum is tough. What about a promissory note? You know, we will most definitely promise her some cash. I can totally get some people behind that.”
Happy: “Good thinking. I like that. “
Hal: “So we promise the nice Delegate lady some cash in the future from as yet to be named ‘corporate’ sources for her slave museum, while we get cash from the city right now for my projects at the Boulevard and the bottom? I like the way your mind works Happy!”
Happy: “Right. Now all we have to do is sell it!”
Time: Later 2013. Place: Parking lot near Weiman’s Bakery, Shockoe Bottom, Richmond, Va. Only this time the parking lot is not abandoned, hundreds of people mill around.
Hal nods with approval: “Nice turn out, Happy. How’d you do that? You are one helluva sales guy, I must say.”
Happy: “I will tell you, Hal. What I did was, I found myself a 501(c) 3 called Venture Richmond. Then I got myself made President. I asked all the business owners who might have an interest in Boulevard money or Bottom money to join us in support. It’s funny how persuasive money can be!“
Hal: “You are very enterprising for a politician, Happy. I like the way your mind works.”
Happy: “See that man, there? He owns the Exxon just up the street from the stadium. When he found out he might have to sell in order to sacrifice for the betterment of the city he was quite overjoyed. So all of these folks are helping me now. And I thought to myself, how do I get a great crowd for this announcement? And it occurred to me. Why, Happy, just ask all these various businesses who are happy to profit from money on the Boulevard or the Bottom to show up. And lo, they all have. It is almost a miracle. …Hal, did I ever tell you I am a preacher as well as a dedicated public servant?”
Hal: “Well no, Happy, I didn’t know that. But it’s obvious that The Lord is on your side. Not to mention the Chamber of Commerce.”
Happy: ”Indeed He is, Happy. Look, see all the happy logos saying “Loving RVA”—that’s Venture Richmond , getting my message out!”
Hal: “Very nice, but um, Happy who are those folks?”
Hal points to rows and rows of people lining the street around the Venture Richmond people. Happy frowns.
Happy: “They are uninvited, is what they are. Round them up and shoot them!”
Hal: “I don’t think you can do that, Happy.”
Happy: “Why not. I’m the Mayor!”
Hal: “I’m a multimillion dollar felon and developer. But you saw what happened to me with just a little bribing action. You can’t count on a Democracy to protect your excesses is what I’m saying.”
Happy: “Good point. Maybe I’ll just back them into the street.”
Hal: “Much better idea.”
Happy (looking concerned, watching the crowd of protestors growing): “Say did you get a sticker, Hal? Get yourself a Loving RVA sticker. Over there at that table. That sticker will symbolize your empathy for this baseball in the bottom project. It will also give the press the idea that some folks actually support our thing.”
Hal (also looking concerned): “Our thing….Yeah, you know, Happy, there are a lot of signs out there. “
Happy: “No worries. We got the businesses, we got our Delegate. We got me! What more could you ask for?!”
Hal: “Community support?”
Happy: “Community? What? You don’t call this a community?”
Hal: “I don’t think the people with the stickers live here, do they?”
Happy: “What makes you say that?”
Hal: “They look a little lost.”
Happy: “Hmmm, next time I’ll do an orientation day before we ship them in.”
Hal: “And –wow look at that sign—‘Happy Mayor is Selling Our City!’”
Happy: “That’s disgraceful. No respect. And me, a man of God.”
Hal: “Maybe you should have paid them more?”
Hal and Happy watching a video of the City Council meeting where the room is packed and folks who couldn’t make it inside are required to wait in an overflow room. Fire Marshals are forced to roam around the room making sure there’s an exit corridor. People with red shirts and letters spell out the phrase, “No Stadium in Shockoe Bottom.” A banner near the back reads, “Happy Mayor Has Sold Out Our City” Other placards and signs simply read: “No Stadium in Shockoe Bottom.”
Happy: “Have you ever seen such nattering nabobs of negativism?”
Hal: “Never! And I didn’t even vote for Agnew!”
Happy: “They just don’t believe we can do it! They keep worrying about parking spaces, traffic congestion, historical desecration and revenue generation. Like we haven’t thought of those things. We did a report!”
Hal: “Well, it is a few years old. And it leaves out a few things. And it doesn’t really talk about my Boulevard stuff at all.”
Happy: “Too much detail might confuse people.”
Happy: “Listen, now they’re suggesting baseball has nothing to do with the history of the bottom and that baseball stadiums make poor investments. Oh, no, Hal, they’re citing numbers. ….wow…I didn’t realize baseball stadiums were such lousy investments. And aesthetically they say it will be monstrous. And that map we originally used for our layout was wrong. The Richmond Times Dispatch just reported that the stadium actually will be built on at least one historical slave jail …And listen, someone else is saying stadiums hurt local business. Hurts ’em! Baseball patrons take all the parking. Regular customers of the neighborhood avoid the area on game days. Waiters and bartenders don’t like to work during games. And the people who go to games eat and drink at the stadium and then run back to the counties they came from… Ouch, citing numbers, too….I’m not feeling it, Hal…”
Hal: “Don’t worry. I have a good eye on these things. They don’t know what they’re talking about. I have confidence. I am a confident kind of man.”
Happy: “A confidence man?”
Hal: “I don’t think you should phrase it that way. Just get your Venture Richmond guys to talk loud. Talk proud. Say things like ‘bold’ and ‘progress’ a lot. Talk about how the naysayers are a bunch of crybabies and whiners who don’t want ANY development in the bottom. Do what that council lady did, compare your previous failures to Nelson Mandela being imprisoned. Stroke of genius that lady has. Don’t worry about the details. If you get asked any questions, just flash that smile. You got a winning smile, Happy!”
Crowd begins to chant, “No Baseball in the Bottom!”
Hal: “And maybe a prayer… a prayer might be good.”
(…to be continued)
Naturally, the above is fictitious, and any resemblance to individuals living today is purely coincidental, but like any good story (based on a really bad idea) there are elements of truth throughout.
According to City Council President Charles Samuels at the February 24th City Council meeting, a vote on the stadium question could come as soon as June.
If you want to help activists trying to stop baseball in the bottom, here’s a handy link:
If you’re interested in learning more as this story unwinds, here are some resources and local articles.
There’s a certain perverse pleasure in waiting to see what disastrous policy initiatives Republicans can develop, like watching a Jerry Lewis movie. You enjoy the unwinding disasters, almost in disbelief, just waiting to see how bad it can get. Attempting to repeal Obamacare for the 50th time, for example, when we come in dead last for healthcare outcomes among all developed nations…. That’s something, really. It requires a kind of supreme lack of imagination. We endure the worst rates of heart disease, lung disease, obesity, and diabetes among all the developed nations on Earth. We are last in positive outcomes, but we spend the most–outstripping all rivals in flushing money down the insurance toilet without any actual return on investment (or ROI, as the smart MBA kids like to say). So the natural conclusion for the conservative movement is to repeal anything that would correct that situation, right? All this might suggest that the right doesn’t actually care about outcomes, or maybe it’s some unfathomably clever political ploy. Like how, every six months or so, they actively seek to plunge our economy back into an ice bath by holding the debt ceiling hostage. Or again, maybe it’s just the right gone wild in their usual productive cycle of ginning fake outrage over fake scandals (Benghazi! IRS!) and destroying any attempt at a sane economic policy which, I have to admit, is par for the course. After all, our band of antediluvian brothers’ idea of economic progress is to repeal the minimum wage.
Yet, there are moments when even a cynic must pause. Ten years ago, for example, would anyone have wagered that our Supreme Court would gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act, invalidating section four and opening the way for conservatives to pass some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country? Within 2 hours of that court decision, Texas arranged a voter ID law and redistricting map both of which were blocked in previous years for their discriminatory tendencies against blacks and Latinos. It’s not like this should have come as a surprise, either. The Texas Republican Party’s 2012 platform specifically called for the repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The only people who didn’t see it coming, apparently, were the five Justices who concurred in the decision to gut the act. One must conclude they were willfully blind to reality, or criminally stupid, or, more likely, they were perfectly aware of the outcome, and that’s precisely why they formed their decision.
This brings us to an interesting question. Suppose the recent antics of the right aren’t just gross stupidity, poor analysis, or general loss of contact with reality? But, rather– it’s opposite. Suppose it is simply this: the right is actively seeking to disenfranchise millions of citizens to retain political power, keep sick people from adequate health care to ensure continued profits for a dysfunctional healthcare system, and weaken the middle class and labor movements so that big business–their primary constituent–can avail themselves of cheap labor in perpetuity.
If the latter is true, then maybe the activists in North Carolina have it right. The Reverend Barber and the NAACP have developed a sustained protest dubbed “Moral Monday” in reaction to anti-abortion legislation, voter suppression laws and cuts in public school teacher pay the conservatives of their state have enacted. Thousands have showed up at the North Carolina state house throughout the summer. Five thousand activists alone showed up in Asheville, North Carolina on Monday, August 5th. Close to a thousand have been arrested over the course of the summer in acts of civil disobedience.
“This is no momentary hyperventilation and liberal screaming match,” Reverend Barber told AP. “This is a movement.”
Indeed, it is. And with the racists-gone-wild antics of the right in Arizona, singing “Bye Bye Black Sheep,” outside one of President Obama’s speeches and carrying signs reading, “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!”, maybe it’s time to consider a nation wide “Moral Monday.”
After all, if the right isn’t entirely divorced from reality, their motives aren’t hard to decipher. Why gut the middle class economy, destroy any attempt at healthcare policy, restrict women’s rights, mock a black President and– a local note– plant a Confederate Flag just south of Richmond, Virginia (home of the ex-Confederacy, where millions of slaves were brought to be auctioned off to the highest bidder a little over 150 years ago) unless that is exactly what you’re seeking? To turn the clock back to that sunny time when blacks slaved like raisins in the sun, and poor whites were tenant farmers eking out a hard life’s wage, half of which went to pay their landlord? Sans any government protection, much less ‘healthcare’….This, after all, is the essence of the Confederacy, and, at bottom, the essence of the right-wing laissez faire economic model. It would not be the first time in human history that we’ve taken a step or two back.
Some folks might say I am exaggerating, because outside of a government predicated on a wealthy elite’s supremacy, the destruction of the middle class, the elimination of social services and the return of institutions that look and act like slavery or tenant farming, would the right-wing agenda really be all that bad?
I’m glad you asked, because even if we were to accept the feudal living arrangements the far right’s economic agenda promises, there is one other area where they would actually prove worse. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 30 Texas towns are about to run out of water due to global warming induced droughts, and– wait for it — fracking. Why? Because fracking uses water humans need to survive. The oil and gas industries are draining Texas of water in order to break up the earth so that oil may be extracted to produce gas that runs cars that lead to global warming which further exacerbates the lack of water … that humans need to survive.
The oil and gas industries consider the cost of this degradation–that is, the draining of Texas’ aquifers so that humans have nothing to drink–an ‘externality’ (another word those smart MBA kids love); and to the extent that they think about them at all, most of the humans in Texas are probably also considered externalities, as are their children and their children’s children, etc… Except the fetuses, naturally. That’s just the way the far right rolls.
We could put this another way, of course. We could talk about the human cost of such a far right economic model that reduces humans to a plus or minus on a ledger sheet. We could suggest that, as humans, strictly speaking, we cannot drink oil, and we cannot eat money.
Barnhart, Texas has already run dry. Moral Monday, anyone?
To Istanbul, with Love
Despite four days worth of intensely concentrated buzz on social media, the Turkish uprising from Gezi park and surrounding Istanbul barely rated a mention in the US mass media market. By Saturday evening, there were more than 200 active demonstrations across 67 Turkish cities, but that only warranted a short flicker on the front of CNN’s website at around 11 o’clock Saturday night, and that was the end of it. The protests were swallowed in the great maw of distraction and neglect that often greets news events on this side of the Atlantic, even if they’re happening here. The Monsanto protests over Memorial Day weekend were equally ignored, for example, despite a great deal of colorful activity. After all, how many demonstrations have bee “die-ins” in the middle of DC, complete with yellow and black striped youth folding over themselves in mock convulsive deaths? How many protests are international in scope, touching over 400 cities in 52 countries across the world? Not to be outdone, the US media equally ignored the Blockupy protests against the ECB in Frankfurt over neoliberal austerity measures, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens converging on one of the oldest cities in the world to defy a ruling party that has tried to turn the last green area of Istanbul into a shopping mall. All three of these events have somehow avoided the attentions of our ever hungry mass media market. All three of these events are also connected in another way: they are all, at bottom, protests against a neoliberal economic order whose ‘free market’ orthodoxy ignores the will of the people.
In their effort to disregard the obvious, the Turkish media has outdone even US media’s best efforts. Turkey’s version of CNN displayed cooking shows and happy penguins while the streets of Istanbul were filled with tear gas and water cannons. The US might be forgiven for not covering the Turkish uprising with as much interest as the protests against the WTO in Seattle, but Turkey can hardly escape blame. Reports of 3G networks being blocked and internet access throttled to a crawl, coupled with a vicious police presence that has killed two and injured thousands– many deliberately—bring to mind the worst acts of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. So much has been used in the way of tear gas and a strange ‘orange’ gas that activists have a new nickname for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan: Chemical Tayyip. In fact, there are reports that the police have used so much tear gas that Istanbul’s police force has had to ship in more from the nearby city of Bursa. As of Sunday evening, June 2nd, the situation escalated and there were reports of live ammunition being fired against activists in Antioch.
The catalyst for the events was a new mall to be built in Gezsi park, one of the last green spaces in Taksim square in the center of Istanbul. But even after days of rioting, Prime Minister Erdogan of the ruling pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), stressed that he would not seek “permission from marauders” to implement the building plans for Taksim. He called the protesters “ideological” and suggested that they were manipulated by the opposition “unable to beat [the government] at the ballot box.”
But that’s more wishful thinking than the full story. As Jason Cassano reports at Jadaliyya.com, Erdogan’s plan for Taksim Square’s redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn the party has taken. According to Cassano, this protest is the latest manifestation of a movement that has been stirring for some time now.
“The shopping mall is only one component of a plan to entirely redesign Taksim Square into a more car-friendly, tourist-accommodating, and sanitized urban center. Mass protests have also taken place recently to stop the closure of the landmark Emek Cinema, located on I.stiklal Avenue off Taksim Square, which is also being converted into (no surprise) a shopping mall.”
The initial seventy or so folks who camped out at Gezi park called themselves a ‘Right to the City’ movement—and what they are, in the best sense of the word, is a Democratic movement to ensure that the people who live in the city and are affected by the machinations of the ruling party, have their voices heard.
“Istanbul’s city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Sulukule, Tarlaba, Tophane, and Fener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma (gypsies). The goal of this so-called urban renewal is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—clean up the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.”
“In short, it will be reduced to a photo-op for tourists who pass through for five minutes and then continue on with their tax-free shopping.”
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy the Hood in the US could talk in great length about such plans, and how devastating they are to the communities involved.
In addition, the AKP has implemented recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol and certain other Islamic rules regarding dress and even lipstick that stewardesses might wear. Although onerous, it’s only part of what defines the fight in Turkey. In fact, Friday, the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) tried to co-opt the uprising by turning the movement into a symbol of culture wars between a secular youth and an older Islamist generation. But when “CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came to Gezi Park to speak, protesters sang over him, preventing him from being heard.”
But if it’s not a bunch of environmentalists, and not a secular versus religious/traditionalist struggle, what is it?
The struggle in Turkey is not only about environmentalists concerned with the green space or the manifestation of secular vs. religious tensions, it’s about people of a region controlling the destiny of their public spaces, their commons—controlling if there will, in fact, be any public spaces left, or if every last inch of societal space will be given over to private profit. It’s Occupy Wall Street coming to Istanbul, with love.
Let’s hope Istanbul’s ‘Right To The City’ movement–and the hundreds of thousands of activists that have joined them– holds tough and, in the process of struggling to save Gezi park, they start to transform the way such decisions about urban blight and renewal get made: not just in Turkey, but all around the world.
Spare a penny for the old guy?
Spare a penny for the old guy?
That disarming phrase has a marvelous arc of history behind it. Today, November 5th, marks Guy Fawkes night, a British celebration of a failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James the 1st of England and his Parliament. Traditionally, children made an effigy of “Gunpowder Plot” conspirator Guy Fawkes and paraded him down streets, asking passers-by to “spare a penny for the Guy.” They would then use the money to buy fireworks and burn the effigy on a bonfire.
Guy Fawkes –or Guido as he signed his tortured confession—was a recusant Catholic in protestant England. Outside of a rather macabre children’s rhyme (repeated below), there doesn’t seem much about a failed attempt by a dozen or so parochial Catholics to overthrow predominately Protestant England that would capture the modern imagination. Yet, V for Vendetta, a graphic comic strip of the events surrounding Guy Fawkes, breathed new life into the story in the 1990s. Drawing from the legend of Guy Fawkes, who was tortured and ultimately confessed to the gunpowder plot, writer Allan Lloyd re-introduced the rebel as a contemporary figure trapped in a post-apocalyptic London. The hero preserves his anonymity by wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as he carries out acts of ‘terror’ against a totalitarian state. In 2005, the comic strip made it to film which caught the popular imagination.
The hacktivist group, Anonymous, went on to adopt a version of the Guy Fawkes mask used in V for its effort to protest the Church of Scientology in what they referred to as “Project Chanology” (a response to the Church of Scientology’s attempts to remove material from a highly publicized interview with Scientologist Tom Cruise from the Internet in January 2008—an act Anonymous considered internet censorship). They used the mask to preserve their anonymity so that the Church of Scientology would be unable to retaliate against them individually.
But the mask, and the legend of Guy Fawkes traveled well beyond Project Chanology. On 23 May 2009, protesters dressed up as V and set off a fake barrel of gunpowder outside Parliament while protesting over the issue of British MPs’ expenses. Two years later, it inspired some of the Egyptian youth before and during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
During Occupy Wall Street – at least partially organized by Anonymous – and other ongoing Occupy protests, the mask appeared internationally. It became a symbol of popular revolution and the adoption by Anonymous caught fire. According to Time, the mask has become the top-selling mask on Amazon.com, selling hundreds of thousands a year. Artist David Lloyd who provided illustrations for the original comic book said: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.”
One of the more memorable moments in the film V for Vendetta was the recitation of the traditional children’s rhyme:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Indeed, it hasn’t. In fact, it seems a failed gun powder plot over 500 years ago has reverberated through the centuries touching the imagination of the internet generation, mobilizing viewers at a visceral level to reject political apathy and to enact a politics of resistance against any state that would seek to silence dissent. Unlikely as it sounds, the story of Guy Fawkes has touched us all. So spare a penny for the old Guy… He deserves it.
Occupy’s Second Coming – by Jack Johnson
The great writers of the nineteenth century had neither religion nor politics nor aesthetic principles in common. But what they did have in common was a climate of ethical judgment, a moral climate. They shared certain values, they were humanist. If you read a nineteenth century novel today, Dostoevsky or Dreiser, Dickens or Twain, it is recognizable as a novel from the 19th century because of this moral climate. The core question that is asked is not are the characters successful or witty, but are they right? Writers of that period saw the individual struggling to find the correct balance between their independence and individual beliefs and the needs of the collective. There are only a handful of 20th century writers that have carried on this discourse and too many of them are given over to despair. The post-modernists of the 70s and 80s saw almost any political action as futile, compromised, or something of a joke. Some –too many –took ironic delight in pointing out the obvious difficulties. And rather than enlighten, they left one feeling bleak and hopeless. Meanwhile, in the real world, small wars and large wars continued. Corporations were stripped of their essential community based purpose, and instead were turned into the raw machines of profit. Yet, despite this sea change, our writers seemed stuck in a kind of identity crisis, a second gear, neither willing or able to tackle political issues of the day. Our popular culture essentially gave up on political man. News shows only pretended to objectively cover politics, and then only covered scandal. People forgot what it was to be politically or ethically engaged. During this same period, roughly from the late 1970s to 2012, our industrial base was eviscerated, our addiction to oil became deadly, and the American middle class saw their healthcare costs sky-rocket, their pensions raided, and their educational institutions privatized for the profit of a few. None of this is a coincidence.
As Christopher Hedges points out, “We have been, like nations on the periphery of empire, colonized. We are controlled by tiny corporate entities that have no loyalty to the nation and indeed in the language of traditional patriotism are traitors. They strip us of our resources, keep us politically passive and enrich themselves at our expense. The mechanisms of control are familiar to those whom the Martinique-born French psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” including African-Americans. The colonized are denied job security. Incomes are reduced to subsistence level. The poor are plunged into desperation. Mass movements, such as labor unions, are dismantled. The school system is degraded so only the elites have access to a superior education. Laws are written to legalize corporate plunder and abuse, as well as criminalize dissent. And the ensuing fear and instability—keenly felt this past weekend by the more than 200,000 Americans who lost their unemployment benefits—ensure political passivity by diverting all personal energy toward survival. It is an old, old game.”
Hedges goes on to note that what fosters revolution is not misery, alone, but the gap between what people expect from their lives and what is offered. As if in response to this syllogism, on September 17th of last year, activists and students descended on Wall Street and said, essentially, the gig is up. The scam must stop. The financialization of the world is killing our Earth. The Occupy Wall Street crowd did not operate in a vacuum. They were following The Arab Spring and the European Indignados. In fact, Spaniards from Puerta del Sol marched with us on Wall Street in those beginning days. And, on cue, it would seem, the Indignados in Spain have returned. They have reoccupied the Puerta del Sol as part of a global day of action to commemorate the first anniversary of the 15-M (May 15) movement. Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards amassed in the square, some dancing joyfully, others debating the replacements for capitalism. According to an article on roarmag.org, a message circulating on Twitter yesterday perfectly caught the mood in Madrid:
“This is not an anniversary — it’s a tradition!”
In a few more months, the United States will have its own anniversary. In advance of that, Noam Chomsky, MIT linguist and political activist, outlines the reasons Occupy should make a come back, and, seeing the challenges ahead, he offers a warning as well:” Unless the spirit of the last year continues to grow and becomes a major force in the social and political world, the chances for a decent future are not very high. ”
Read more below…
Chomsky: Do We Have the Makings of a Real Revolution?
May Day. We’ve been here before.
Last year on this day, Occupy called for a General Strike and created a series of posters surrounding the event. Although no general strike has been called this year, there are events being held across the nation–and across the world– in honor of the Haymarket Riots and in protest against the austerity measures that continue to cripple the world economy.
From Spain to Greece activists are taking to the streets. Thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, snaking up the Gran Via central shopping street, waving flags and carrying placards reading “austerity ruins and kills” and “reforms are robbery”.
Trains and ferries were canceled in Greece, and bank and hospital staff walked off the job after the main public and private sector unions there called a 24-hour strike, the latest in a string of protests in a country in its sixth year of recession.
Tens of thousands marched in Italy’s major cities to demand government action to tackle unemployment – at 11.5 percent overall and 40 percent among the young – and an end to austerity and tax evasion. Most marches were peaceful, but demonstrators in Turin threw hollowed eggs filled with black paint at police.
In New York City and LA, Occupy has called for a much needed ‘celebration’ from the work day. Below is a little history on the origins of May Day and some clever posters put together to celebrate last year’s General Strike.
Occupy’s May Day Strike! – by Jack Johnson
We’ve been here before. About 126 years ago, thousands of workers and their families were marching through the streets of Chicago on May 1st, 1886. It was a Saturday. Everyone left work, because in those days people had to work on Saturday. They were working a ten- and twelve-hour day. Most of these people were immigrants, and they were fighting for an 8 hour work day rallying in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. It was near the end of a fairly successful rally, when about 176 police showed up, uninvited.
Yes, we’ve been here before.
The police captain had actually disobeyed the orders of the mayor, who said, “The rally is peaceful. There’s no need to disperse it.” The police captain acted on his own, marched right up to the crowd and said, “You must disperse,” and the speaker said, “But we are peaceful.” And he said, “You must disperse anyway.” And as the speaker was coming down from the wagon, someone — and to this day, we don’t know who it was — threw a bomb that landed into the ranks of the police. One officer was killed immediately. Six others later died.
The police were panicked, of course, almost hysterical. They’d never expected anything like this, began firing, probably shot each other, shot people in the crowd, and in the end, seven police died and at least three of the demonstrators. Many, many people were wounded, and later seven anarchists were fingered for trial, although no conclusive evidence was brought to bear. May Day became a global labor holiday in honor of the “Haymarket Martyrs” who were tried by a judge so prejudiced against them that their execution has often been referred to as “judicial murder.” More importantly, May 1 became a traditional day across the world to honor workers rights.
Occupy’s call for a General Strike this May 1st is the latest in a long series of actions against a system designed to marginalize workers and the poor. As they put it on their website:
“The General Strike is a demand for good jobs and good pay for everyone on the planet–citizens of the country they work in or not. Outsourcing will no longer be tolerated by the so called “job creators” for cheap labor. All human beings deserve a living wage. Education, Housing and Healthcare are human rights NOT ‘entitlements’.”
That might sound a little far fetched to our contemporary ears, but so did the idea of an 8 hour work day and time off for weekends to those who started protesting some 126 years ago.
Below are some of the more creative posters Occupy has produced in their effort to agitate for a General Strike on May 1st, 2012 with some observations and historical notes.
(click posters to open)
1) In the 1700s, sailors would sometimes strike or lower their ship’s sails as a symbol of their refusal to go to sea. From this refusal to acquiesce with the requirements of the work day we get the term ‘strike’ and this poster playfully toys with both meanings. In 1888, young girls in London were forced to dip matches in dangerous white phosphorous for 14 hours at a stretch. After one of their numbers was unjustly fired, they went on strike. Thus the match blossoming with the starry night flame indicates both the match girl’s strike of 1888 and the underlying flame that occurs when a match is struck. Floating in the upper darkness of the poster are two cats. A general strike—which is what is being called for—is also sometimes termed a wild cat strike because it is not authorized by a union and hence is ‘wild’. Anarchists and IWW affiliates will often use cats or sabot-cats in their graphics as well. The woman is likely either Hispanic or Afro American; both races (and gender) have been roundly abused by a system that would rather produce matches than well rounded humans.
2) Time is money wasn’t always the case. There was a time, well before the advent of industrialization and what we have come to call ‘time discipline’ when biology and nature ruled our internal clocks. If you were a hunter or early farmer, the shifting of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun was your only ‘clock’. In fact, time in hours and even minutes has become the single most used measurement for tying labor to value (justly or unjustly). With background colors reminiscent of a naval signal flag (an inverted man overboard, perhaps?), this poster features a brilliant sun eclipsing a clock, telling the world that for at least one day, the tyranny of time discipline will be thrown off. Says Jess Goldstein of Occuprint: “To me, this really sums up the spirit of a general strike; it’s a call to realize that we, collectively, can and should be in control of our time.” The poster’s words echo the famous street call and response….: whose time? our time! Whose street? our street! Of course, only time will tell.
3) The Guy Fawkes mask, celebrated in the movie V for Vendetta, and becoming a near universal symbol of rebellion, has also been closely associated with the hacking collective known as Anonymous. Both Ad Busters (the Canadian anti-advertisement collective) and Anonymous have been the moving spirit if not direct organizers of the original Occupy Wall Street. The poster artfully uses an old arcade video game metaphor to shout out the relevance of computers to the Occupy movement. The words, Hack The Day, are a reminder of Hacks twofold meaning in both the virtual and wider world. Commonly, a hacker is someone who breaks into or disrupts normal operations—fitting perfectly with a call for a General strike. But perhaps, more importantly, a hack is also a provisional solution to a systemic problem. One thing we’ve seen over and over again at the Occupy sites is the brilliant and provisional nature of their solutions to restrictions imposed by a mostly antagonistic environment. Fittingly, the Wall Street Bull looks as though it is being levitated or is under attack by a Guy Fawkes mask.
4) Flowers jamming the cogs of a machine represent one approach to a general strike, taking time away from ‘productive work’ that profits others to simply grow on our own. This self oriented activity has another consequence—it fouls the smooth working of a system that depends on our devotion to its functioning. It’s also reminiscent of Mario Savio’s famous 1964 speech at The University of California’s Sproul Hall: “And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
To extend the metaphor in the image, our bodies are those flowers.
5) One of the more fun (and subversive) posters, this one was developed by the Institute for Experimental Freedom (the small publishing collective who put out the brash but fun-filled insurrectionary text “Politics Is not a Banana.”) asks us to replace the main image with some sort of “riot graphic” while using the appropriate, hip font (Haas Grotesk). At first blush, a kind of meta joke, it’s also got a point: everything about this strike and Occupy is essentially do it yourself. That’s not just an accident, it’s by design. Part of the rationale comes from a deep historical awareness of how other movements have been co-opted in the past; the symbols and fashion of a movement become commoditized, while the underlying reality and message is diminished or crushed. Ad Busters, among others, is especially sensitive to the phenomena. This poster seems to be going on the offensive. Note the Coca Cola style font and bottle cap design that surrounds the General Strike notice. It would be interesting if a set of images could retool major corporate ‘brands’ with subversive messaging. A Pepsi shaped bottle with a General Strike Message in it, the Wal-Mart smiley face, announcing the next round of boycotts against that behemoth. None of this would be exactly ‘legal’ of course, but maybe that’s the point.
6) Intentionally or not, the refrain, Let’s go fly a kite, belongs to a song that forms the climax to Disney’s Mary Poppins. For those who haven’t seen the movie in a while (has anyone not seen it?) Flying a kite becomes the ultimate resolution of the family tensions that bind the banker (Mary Poppins’ employer) to his family while rejecting his work life. That particular plot is an old cliché, but, as with most clichés, there’s more than a germ of truth to it. The song and characters in the movie, like the kites, offer wonderful overtones of an existence not tethered by work day concerns—liberated, floating and free. Flying a kite is just one possibility of things that can be done once the carefully enumerated list of modern distractions are abandoned: No work, no school, no housework, no service, no banking, no shopping, no data. For those who haven’t seen the movie or this clip, enjoy: Let’s Go Fly a Kite!
7) In the popular idiom, a general strike is as old as the hills, or at least as old as the hills of Rome. According to H.G. Wells, the first general strike properly took place in Rome by the lowly plebeians. The plebeians “saw with indignation their friends, who had often served the state bravely in the legions, thrown into chains and reduced to slavery at the demand of patrician creditors.” For veterans of the Iraqi or Afghanistan wars this might sound eerily familiar. In the U.S., one of the first general strikes was the infamous Railroad Strike of 1877. This was, in infancy, the beginning of a nascent labor movement showing its muscle across the nation, culminating ultimately in the May 1, Haymarket strikes and riots that led to the weekend, child labor laws, and the 8 hour day. The typeface is just a reminder how far things have come, and sadly, how far we still have to go. What this poster delivers in simple type face is almost as important as the message itself: We’ve been here before.
Secret Laws and Hedges vs. Obama
To grasp the implications of the secret laws and overreach we’re dealing with in Hedges vs. Obama, start here:
The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say)
By James Bamford
March 15, 2012
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
“When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” ~ Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, Senate Intelligence Committee
The refusal of government to define ill-defined terms in public law constitutes secret interpretations of the law – secret laws. The ACLU:
Our FOIA request was an effort to uncover more information about the way that the Justice Department has interpreted the statute, and the way that the FBI is using it. Because the Justice Department hasn’t produced any records in response to our request, we filed suit in October, 10 years to the day after President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. We’ll file our opening brief in that case later this month. (3/15/2012)
Regarding that ACLU lawsuit and another filed by the New York Times, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall stated in a recent letter to Eric Holder, the chief attorney for an administration that promised us it would be the “most open and transparent in history”:
It is a matter of public record that section 215, which is a public statute, has been the subject of secret legal interpretations. The existence of these interpretations, which are contained in classified opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or “FISA Court”) has been acknowledged on multiple occasions by the Justice Department and other executive branch officials.
We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.
The “FBI is using Section 215 much more aggressively. It’s using it more often. And statements by Obama administration officials raise the distinct possibility that the government is using the provision to support entire surveillance programs.
As Wyden and Udall say, the secrecy surrounding the government’s use of new surveillance powers is unwarranted and fundamentally antidemocratic. The public should know, at least in general terms, how the government interprets its surveillance authority and how that authority is being used.”
Yesterday, Naomi Wolf posted her notes from the first of the NDAA hearings in the Hedges vs. Obama case. The transcript excerpts speak for themselves.
When our judges, journalists, peaceful protesters and fiction writers are subject to the questionable doublespeak from a lawyer representing our president in a dire case involving our individual liberty, the people’s job as the guardians of freedom requires attention. This was not easy to read:
NDAA hearing notes ~ Naomi Wolf
March 30, 2012
To me, secret laws are like drawing a line in the sand in front of a walking blind man. The expectation can only be that he will cross the line.