Thursday, December 29, 2011

Democracy Lessons in the Carpool Lane

I get to work via the casual carpool. For those who are unfamiliar with this Bay Area institution, it’s a way of traveling to work cheaply and usually fast. Riders line up near transbay bus stops, and drivers come by and pick up one or two passengers so they can go through the carpool lane – a carpool is defined as three or more, unless you have a two-seater. If there are more riders than cars, most drivers will gladly take a third passenger. Carpools used to go over the bridge toll-free, but now they pay $2.50 (the normal rush-hour toll is $6), so each rider pays $1. If the driver picks up three people, they make 50 cents on the deal. At my stop, it’s very changeable; some days there’s a long line of cars waiting for riders, others a long line of riders waiting for rides. Two or three times in the last year, I’ve ended up taking the bus. I’ve never heard of anyone being assaulted or harassed while riding the carpools.

The other day, I rode with a woman and a man, and as we made our way to the Bridge, they started talking about their kids. The guy’s kids were late elementary schoolers, and the woman’s were in middle and high school. The guy said he was lucky, that his kids liked school and didn’t mind doing their homework. The woman said two of hers were good students, but her oldest son – “Well, thank God there are garbage men jobs for people like him.”

Though of course there is nothing wrong with being a garbage man, and anyway it’s probably not nearly as easy to get those jobs as she thinks, I was upset that she was so dismissive of her son. It hit on something I’ve been thinking about a lot, how school so often seems to kill kids’ enthusiasm and curiosity instead of fostering it.

“There must be something,” I started to say and she cut me off.

“There’s nothing wrong with him. I thought he had ADHD, but I had him tested and he’s fine. He’s just lazy.”

Undeterred, I said, “What is he interested in?”

“You mean his hobbies?”


“Skateboarding,” she said. “He and his friends spend hours out in the street, practicing their tricks. He goes snowboarding every weekend in the winter. His father says he can’t get enough of it.”

“Well maybe he’ll be a snowboarding instructor,” I suggested.

“Could be,” she said. Her voice had softened.

The driver jumped in. “There’s a skate park near where I live,” he said. “The kids were always out there, cutting school. So this guy got an idea, and he started them making videos. He set up an editing studio and taught them how to edit. They ended up learning about story writing, computer skills. Hopefully, it made them realize that there were things they could learn in school that would help them.”

I had actually been thinking of that, because back when I lived in the City and skated to work, I would always pass skateboarders filming each other. They said they made a fair amount of money that way, and that was in the days before YouTube. But his mentioning the skate park gave me another idea.

“Is there a skate park near where you live?” I asked the woman. Since she had said the kids practiced on the street, I figured the answer was no, and it was. “Well why not suggest they try to make one,” I said.

“They could design a park,” the guy said. “They would have to learn math…”

“Math and design,” I said. “And teamwork, figuring out what they want as a group. But then they could really try to get it built. They’d need to do fundraising, find out about the permitting process and how to get approval from the city. They might need to do some lobbying, and probably community organizing to counter the inevitable opposition from the neighbors. They’d have to figure out how it was going to be run, would they need a nonprofit or some other kind of organization to run it. How would decisions be made about it, how would disputes over who could use it when be mediated, and how would it be maintained?”

I didn’t say but thought that they could run into things like gang injunctions and curfews, and need to make coalitions with the people fighting those.

“They’d probably want to read about how kids in other cities got parks built,” said the driver.
The woman seemed to like the idea, and said she would talk to her son about it. As we got out of the car, it occurred to me that this was probably the first time she ever thought of her son’s talents and interests as anything other than a waste of time. If the idea catches on, it could also be the first time her son thinks of school as anything other than a waste of time.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Occupy Next Year

What’s next for the Occupy movement?

That’s the question on everyone’s lips, which is a huge accomplishment in itself.

But it’s also a huge question with huge import.

Of course the only possible answer is that there isn’t one thing that’s next for the entire movement.  In fact, it’s not even one movement.  The movement in Des Moines or Walnut Creek looks very different, as the media love to point out, from Occupy Oakland, which I’m told is is very different from Occupy Wall Street.  It’s a movement of movements; some are slick, some homegrown; some are revolutionary and others reformist.

There are the signature encampments, and there are all the cool shoots that have sprouted off to the sides – like Occupella, which sings in BART stations and at actions, Aquapie, which was a raft floating on Lake Merritt for a while, Occupy Patriarchy, a website looking at feminism and gender issues in the movement, Occupy Media, Occupy Religion...

But there are certain tropes that have bound the movement together, and those continue to evolve in tandem.  Occupy Brooklyn has been reclaiming foreclosed homes for people to live in for some months, Mandela House is a squat in West Oakland taken by a group of people from Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Bernal Heights just had its first meeting to talk about defending homes in their San Francisco neighborhood from foreclosure by a variety of legal and extralegal means.  The Feminists and Queers Against Capitalism bloc in Oakland has been meeting to plan a building occupation for early next year.

Some people who want to take down Bank of America, because it’s a symbol of the entire catastrophic banking system, because it’s the worst of the worst, and because they think it’s the most vulnerable of the big banks.  Others want to focus on getting cities and universities and other institutions to move their money to local banks and credit unions – apparently Peralta Community College District, which runs the largest community college network in the country, just voted to do that. 

I hear a lot of discussion about how white and middle-class the movement is, and how it needs to be more representative of society, to become deeper in working class and poor communities, to recognize how limiting and exclusionary the 99% rhetoric actually is.  That instead of the 99% we should be talking about the bottom 25%.

Occupy the Castro held its first General Assembly (GAy) on Dec. 17.  Photo courtesy of Michael Petrelis
Occupy Education groups are planning a huge mobilization for March, to fight the trends of budget cuts and fee hikes which are making higher education inaccessible to so many.

Seasoned activists are organizing traditional nonviolent direct actions on a big scale, like January 20 in San Francisco, which aims to shut down “Wall Street West” in a way similar to the first days of the Iraq war in 2003, when an estimated 20,000 people participated in blockades and occupations in downtown San Francisco.

I think the best thing about this movement is it’s “Stop Right Where You Are” quality.  Like the Women’s Movement, like the student movement of the 1960s, it’s caused everyone who is dissatisfied with the current state of things to examine the conditions of their own lives.  As in the early months of the Second Gulf War, everyone is doing different things but many people are doing something.  A group of women from Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, who live in a senior apartment building in the Outer Mission, have adopted their local Bank of America and converge on it every other Thursday with lunch and walkers and lawn chairs and signs.  Bank of America apparently got so freaked out by the sight of so many gray-haired women on the public sidewalk in front of their bank, they locked their doors and called the police.

I do have a few observations of my own, to throw into the hopper.  My usual caveat – I could be dead wrong.  I haven’t been that involved in the movement on the day to day level.

-- Holding public space is important.

It’s far too early for this movement to leave the streets.

Eviction defense is something I’ve been interested in for years.  I’ve participated in a few actions with ACCE (Association of Californians for Community Empowerment, which took over from ACORN) and every one of them was at least temporarily successful in getting the banks to call off the sheriffs and agree to meet with the homeowners.  I’d like to see these actions expanded to include tenants being evicted by big landlords as well.  But these are actions best taken by smaller groups with clear leadership (hopefully from the people directly affected).  They are not the place for ultrademocratic process – if I were ever being evicted, I wouldn’t want a General Assembly of 300 random people deciding by thumbs up or twinkling whether I stay or go.  Ideally, as the idea spreads, people would do these types of defense with their neighbors and friends, in a decentralized way.

Camps and general assemblies give everyone who wants to check it out a place to come.  As groups move indoors and become more about strategic campaigns and secret plans (even my affinity group decided not to put our January 20 target on the action website, because we don’t want the bank to be forewarned), they are likely to become smaller and narrower.  That isn’t always true – March 20, 2003, as I’ve already said, was massive, but that was a pretty special situation, because everyone wanted to respond to the breakout of war.  We didn’t have to do the work of letting people know when, what or why, just where and how.  I don’t even know where Mandela House is.  I went to the first open planning meeting for the Feminist & Queer Bloc Occupation, but it wasn’t the first meeting.  I came in feeling less invested than those who were in it from the start, who obviously will have more influence than the rest of us in decision-making.

This is the “old” way, the left sectarian or community organizing model.  What was bright and shiny (as well as sometimes infuriating) about Occupy was its open and transparent structure and process, the “horizontalism” and leaderlessness that the media and some Old Leftists loved to complain about.

-- Talking and listening to each other is important.

There’s still no hard and fast political unity in these movements.  People are very much into the talking and processing.  They still get hundreds of people coming to general assemblies, dozens coming to workshops on everything from “Capitalism 101” to the history of Haiti.  To cut that off and decide that we’re “doing” one thing or another (and not something else) would, again, lose people and would also lose the energy for creating political space.

At the same time, the movement needs to find opportunities to listen to people who it hasn't heard yet.  I was talking the other day to Richard Brown, former Black Panther and political prisoner.  He said something that surprised me:  "When the Panthers were just doing police monitoring, the community didn't really support us.  It was only when we started listening to the community that we really began to create the programs that served the people."  Of course listening to so many voices may sound like cacophony for a while, but themes will likely emerge that make sense and drive the movements in organic directions.

-- Specific campaigns need to be very carefully thought out.

I don’t quite understand what taking down Bank of America would accomplish, other than proving that we could.  Presumably if BofA goes down, Wells Fargo or Citibank or Chase is going to buy it up at the end, getting even richer and more powerful.  They’re not going to go, “Oh, these people are so powerful, we’d better start paying our fair share.”  If it’s a precursor to taking down all the banks, what’s our plan for that, and more, what’s our plan for after-the-fall?  Are we talking about nationalizing banks?  If so, why not cut to the chase (not to be confused with Chase) and start a campaign for nationalization.  If we’re talking about community control of the wealth, how is taking BofA down going to get us there?  And what about the jobs?  BofA has laid off a ton of workers, cut a lot more to part-time, but it’s still a huge employer – 300,000 employees worldwide.  And while they’re not unionized and not great office jobs, they’re better jobs than, say, working at WalMart or making robocalls to sell insurance, and a whole lot better than being unemployed.  How are we going to explain to the workers why we want them to lose their jobs?

Same goes for shutting down the Port of Oakland (to be fair, I haven’t heard anyone suggest making it the long-term target).  I get that the Port gets a lot of money from Oakland and doesn’t give back, that it spews a lot of toxic stuff into the air and water, that it’s a hub for weapons going to repressive regimes and imported crap going to WalMart, but it’s also a hub for some of the last remaining well-paid, unionized jobs in the area.  If we decide we want it out of Oakland, we had better have a good answer for the people who ask what’s going to happen to them when they lose those good jobs.

-- This is not a poor people’s movement nor a People of Color-led movement.

There are poor people in it.  There are people of color in leadership (oh, but it doesn’t have leaders …).  But those are not its roots.  Its roots are among college educated young folks who are 1) frustrated about not getting the jobs they studied for; 2) inspired by the movements of Egypt, Tunisia, Spain and Greece; and 3) pissed off about their college debt.  Its secondary roots are among people facing foreclosure or people who have been foreclosed, which means that they had homes to lose.  Its tertiary roots are among organized labor and professional (paid or unpaid) activists.  It never was and is not likely to be a movement largely composed of unemployed blue collar people, or women whose welfare has been cut off.

To suggest that it reach out to the groups that have been working with those populations is certainly a good idea.  In fact, at least in Oakland and San Francisco, the nonprofits that do that kind of community organizing have been quite connected to the Occupies.  To suggest that it turn itself over to those groups is not a good idea.  Those groups, after all, have been working for decades and failed to galvanize a mass movement like this one.  So have the international solidarity groups, who periodically point out that the 99% here is the 1% to the Global South.

Middle class white people in this country having a movement that’s empowering to them is not preventing working class or poor people, here or elsewhere, having their own movements.  It’s not as if there have been huge movements of poor people, people of color, feminists, queers, in this country being ignored for the last ten years.  The movements have not been there.  No doubt if we built one, we’d be ignored for longer than OWS was, but hopefully the example they set – not picking up and going home because the mainstream media ignored them -- would help to embolden and inspire us.

It doesn’t make sense to criticize the people in the movement(s) for being who they are, and not who they aren’t.  We’ve always known that effective community organizing has to come from within the affected communities, and this movement has shown that once again.  People who have been building small cadres for the last bunch of years should be able to take the energy of this movement to spring to the next level.  If they can’t, that’s not the failure of OWS, it’s their own failure.  If they come to OWS for solidarity and support and don’t get it, then that’s another story.  But that chapter remains to be written.

-- FWIW, my suggestion for the immediate future, in addition to the great things laid out above that are already happening, is this:

Keep having general assemblies and action councils but move them into indoor public spaces.  Take over the lobbies of banks, shopping malls, movie theaters, Whole Foods, for teach-ins, speakouts, meetings.  Post the locations on the websites.  If they lock the doors of the place we’ve picked, which would be a big inconvenience for a business that depends on being open to the public, pick another nearby and leave a few people outside with a banner to tell people where to go.  If you get inside, it gives them the dilemma of ignoring you, and then you get to have your meeting, or calling the cops which creates a spectacle.  And hopefully some of the customers in whatever place we’ve picked would decide to come check out the meeting and get involved.  It would be sort of a flash mob without the need for choreography and rehearsals.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

War Is Over? Nine Ongoing Legacies of the War in Iraq

A friend forwarded this email she received the other day.
From: Barack Obama
Date: Sun, Dec 18, 2011 at 12:19 PM
Subject: Iraq
Dear P,
Early this morning, the last of our troops left Iraq.
As we honor and reflect on the sacrifices that millions of men and women made for this war, I wanted to make sure you heard the news.
Bringing this war to a responsible end was a cause that sparked many Americans to get involved in the political process for the first time. Today's outcome is a reminder that we all have a stake in our country's future, and a say in the direction we choose.
Thank you.


We have not brought the war to a "responsible end."  A responsible end might mean making a payment schedule for massive reparations to the Iraqi people.  At the least, it would mean taking responsibility for repairing some of the damage we have done.  Here's a short list of what we accomplished in Iraq.

1. Refugees:
On the one hand, the government is proudly proclaiming the end of the war. On the other, the assessment of Iraq’s internal and external security situation remains bleak. Once the troop withdrawal – scheduled for December 31 – is complete, it’s anyone’s guess how safe Iraq will be for its own people. A report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concluded in July that “Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” and that it is “less safe… than 12 months ago.”
Since the war began in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the country, to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, and two million more have been internally displaced. Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government or military were among those groups targeted with harassment, violence, or murder – along with journalists, scholars, religious minorities, LGBTI people, and tens of thousands of others….

Human Rights First urges the U.S. government not to abandon the tens of thousands of vulnerable Iraqis displaced by the war, and to honor its commitments to refugee protection more broadly. Specifically, we urge the government to:
Wars do – ostensibly – have start dates and end dates. Refugee protection does not. The Iraqi refugee crisis will not be over on December 31. As President Obama affirmed in 2009 at Camp Lejeune, the United States has “a strategic interest – and a moral responsibility” – not to walk away.

2. The Human Cost

  • Number of Iraqis who died of violence 2003-2011: 150,000 to 400,000.
  • Orphans in Iraq: 4.5 million.
  • Orphans living in the streets: 600,000.
  • Percentage of Iraqis who lived in slum conditions in 2000: 17
  • Percentage of Iraqis who live in slum conditions in 2011: 50
  • Number of the 30 million Iraqis living below the poverty line: 7 million.
Conventional wisdom in American politics focuses only on American costs in the war in Iraq: the casualties to U.S. soldiers, the financial costs, and sometimes the strategic costs. But the human cost to the Iraqis themselves are nearly ignored in political discourse, the news media, and intellectual circles. This site is a corrective to those oversights. We present empirical reports, studies, and other accounts that convey and assess the consequences of war for the people of Iraq.
Human trafficking reports fault Iraqi state: Among the consequences of war is the corrosion of social and institutional barriers to crime, and none is sadder than the rise of human trafficking. Iraq is apparently undergoing a spell of increasing trafficking, or at least more noticeable violations of sexual and labor trafficking….
New Analysis: Iraq Body Count missing 60-80% of fatalities: Iraq Body count records only about 20 percent of the fatalities listed in the U.S. military "after action" reports. This suggests that actual, violent deaths of Iraq civilians is likely to be close to 400,000 at a minimum.

3. Women’s Rights:
In October 2002, Saddam Hussein released criminals from Iraqi prisons. This, and the soon-to-follow 2003 US-led assault on Baghdad, created conditions for bloodletting, for a sharp increase in organized-crime trafficking in drugs, stolen cars, and women and girls; and for the ascendancy of armed Islamist conservatism. Saddam’s tightly controlled violence and reign of terror was replaced by unpredictable, widespread violence against Iraqi women. The immediate consequences for women: hijabs worn by Muslim and Christian women alike (and abayas in some regions) to avoid being harassed and beaten in public; an epidemic of women killed in the city of Basra by fundamentalist men who leave them in the street as a lesson to other women; increased rape, including of women in detention; abduction into prostitution; and a dramatic rise in “honor” killings, the murder of women and girls by male family members to restore family honor. Muta’a – Sharia law-permitted exploitation of women by men in so-called temporary marriages, which serve as fronts for prostitution – rose after the war began with men targeting desperate, penniless widows and the Shia militia targeting single girls….

The United States owes reparations to the people of Iraq for this unsanctioned war of aggression, most of all to the women and girls who have lost their future. An international agency such as the UNIFEM-Iraq office, in consultation with Iraqi feminist organizations, could assess the cost of war reparations to Iraqi women and girls. Funding would come annually from the U.S. defense budget beginning in 2011, for eight years – the length of the Iraq War. It could be dispensed through a board comprised of Iraqi NGOs working for girls’ and women’s freedoms, including education and job training; health care and widows’ pensions; shelters for sexually exploited women and girls; the promotion of secular law and women’s equality; training of judges, police, and media in preventing violence against women; and high profile law enforcement against sexual exploitation. All for the cost of a handful of Predator drones per year.

4. Cost of War to U.S. People

Most of these stats are old:
  • Lost & Unaccounted for in Iraq - $9 billion of US taxpayers' money and $549.7 milion in spare parts shipped in 2004 to US contractors. Also, per ABC News, 190,000 guns, including 110,000 AK-47 rifles.
  • Lost and Reported Stolen - $6.6 billion of U.S. taxpayers' money earmarked for Iraq reconstruction, reported on June 14, 2011 by Special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction Stuart Bowen who called it "the largest theft of funds in national history." (Source - CBS News) Last known holder of the $6.6 billion lost: the U.S. government.
  • Missing - $1 billion in tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces. (Per CBS News on Dec 6, 2007.)
  • Mismanaged & Wasted in Iraq - $10 billion, per Feb 2007 Congressional hearings
  • Halliburton Overcharges Classified by the Pentagon as Unreasonable and Unsupported - $1.4 billion  

5. Loss of Infrastructure
Electricity: Supply and Demand: Iraq’s electricity supply on the grid and estimated demand both reached record levels in July. Total supply averaged 175,580 megawatt-hours (MWh) per day, or 7,316 megawatts (MW). Each of the two components of current supply, power-plant production within Iraq and electricity imports from Iran, also achieved all-time highs. Demand, however, was almost twice the available supply— 336,900MWh per day, or 14,038MW— resulting in a 6,722MW supply-demand gap, the largest monthly shortfall to date….

Water and Sanitation: The GOI, UNICEF, and the European Union this quarter released the findings of a survey assessing the conditions of water and sanitation services in Iraq’s 18 provinces. The survey found that 79% of the population has access to the drinking water distribution network, leaving one in five Iraqis without access to safe drinking water. Access is worse in rural areas, where two in five Iraqis do not have access to drinking water networks. The survey also found that 17% of the population does not have access to adequate sanitation services.

6. Declining Literacy: 
“One in five Iraqis between the ages of 10 and 49 cannot read or write a simple statement related to daily life. While Iraq boasted a record low illiteracy rate for the Middle East in the 1980s, illiteracy jumped to at least 20% in 2010. Moreover, illiteracy among women in Iraq, at 24%, is more than double that of men (11%). As the Iraq Liaison for the international NGO Mercy Corps pointed out, "there are some locations-particularly rural locations-where the illiteracy rates are actually much higher. Illiteracy rates among women in some communities can be as high as 40-50%."…

UNESCO estimated that primary schools had nearly a 100% gross enrollment attendance rate in the 1980s and much of the 1990s.”
Source:  Sept. 28, 2010 Report, NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq 
  • Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Education show that even before the escalation of sectarian violence in February 2006, one in six children did not attend primary school. Since the upsurge, that number is one in three.
  • Only one in five students at primary and secondary schools countrywide are girls. In the southern provinces, the ratio of girls attending school has dropped from two girls to three boys to one to four.
  • 92 percent of Iraqi children experience problems learning, primarily attributed to the overall climate of fear.
  • Many Iraqi refugee children have missed up to three years of school as a result of displacement and violence.
  • As of November 2007, 340,000 Iraqi school-age refugees in Syria are not in school.
  • Already overcrowded schools in Damascus now have up to 60 students per class. 
Source:  Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children
In spite of an Iraq war that began in 2003 and nearly constant news coverage, six in ten (63%) of those [Americans between the ages of 18-24] tested could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. (Ten percent said Sudan was in Europe and 43% could not find New York on a map of the United States.)

7. Sectarian and religious violence in Iraq
The sectarian violence that has swept across Iraq following last month's terrorist bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara is yet another example of the tragic consequences of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Until the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation, Iraq had maintained a long-standing history of secularism and a strong national identity among its Arab population despite its sectarian differences.

Top analysts in the CIA and State Department, as well as large numbers of Middle East experts, warned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could result in a violent ethnic and sectarian conflict. Even some of the war's intellectual architects acknowledged as much: In a 1997 paper, prior to becoming major figures in the Bush foreign policy team, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith predicted that a post-Saddam Iraq would likely be "ripped apart" by sectarianism and other cleavages but called on the United States to "expedite" such a collapse anyway.

One of the long-standing goals of such neoconservative intellectuals has been to see the Middle East broken up into smaller ethnic or sectarian mini-states, which would include not only large stateless nationalities like the Kurds, but Maronite Christians, Druze, Arab Shi'ites, and others.

8. PTSD, Suicide and Unemployment in Iraq War Veterans
The number of suicides reported by the Army has risen to the highest level since record-keeping began three decades ago. Last year, there were 192 among active-duty soldiers and soldiers on inactive reserve status, twice as many as in 2003, when the war began. (Five more suspected suicides are still being investigated.) This year’s figure is likely to be even higher: from January to mid-July, 129 suicides were confirmed or suspected, more than the number of American soldiers who died in combat during the same period.
Source:  8/1/2009
“One in five service members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, but little more than half of them have sought mental health treatment, according to an independent study of United States troops.”

“On Veterans Day in America, it’s sobering to realize just how badly the job market has turned against the men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their rate of unemployment was 12.1 percent in October, vs. 9 percent for the U.S. overall. But that only scratches the surface of the employment picture for vets.
“Dig deeper into the pages of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data and it becomes apparent that while the job market is slowly improving for most Americans, it’s moving in the opposite direction for Gulf War II vets (defined by the BLS as those on active duty since 2001). The youngest of veterans, aged 18 to 24, had a 30.4 percent jobless rate in October, way up from 18.4 percent a year earlier. Non-veterans of the same age improved, to 15.3 percent from 16.9 percent. For some groups, the numbers can look a good deal worse: for black veterans aged 18-24, the unemployment rate is a striking 48 percent.”

9. Sexual violence at home and abroad
“Iraqi female detainees have been illegally detained, raped and sexually violated by United States military personnel. Women who stay at home in traditional roles are more likely to be imprisoned as bargaining chips by US troops seeking to pressurize male relatives, according to the New Statesmen (UK) . In December 2003, a woman prisoner, “Noor”, smuggled out a note stating that US guards at Abu Ghraib had been raping women detainees and forcing them to strip naked. Several of the women were now pregnant. … Among the 1,800 digital photographs taken by US guards inside Abu Ghraib there were… images of naked male and female detainees; a male Military Police guard “having sex” with a female detainee; and naked female detainees. The Bush administration has refused to release photographs of Iraqi women prisoners at Abu Ghraib, including those of women forced at gunpoint to bare their breasts (although these have been shown to Congress). UK Member of Parliament Ann Clwyd (L) has confirmed a report of an Iraqi woman in her 70s who had been harnessed and ridden like a donkey at Abu Ghraib.”
“As the war in Afghanistan passes its ten-year mark, sexual assault runs rampant within the ranks, with an estimated one in three female service members raped during their service, according to at least one peer-reviewed study. This is in a military where women comprise more 11 per cent of active duty service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and more than 15 per cent of the total military, with at least 200,000 active duty women currently serving. This epidemic also affects men: 60 per cent of women serving in the National Guard and Reserve, along with 27 per cent of men, are estimated to have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Perpetrators rely on a chain of command that appears to offer virtual impunity for sexual assaults committed against lower-ranking service members.” 
“What does it tell us that female soldiers deployed overseas stop drinking water after 7 p.m. to reduce the odds of being raped if they have to use the bathroom at night? Or that a soldier who was assaulted when she went out for a cigarette was afraid to report it for fear she would be demoted — for having gone out without her weapon? Or that, as Representative Jane Harman puts it, "a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire."
“MADRE, a global women's rights organization, is accusing Iraqi government security forces of sexually assaulting women to break up pro-democracy protests and demanding that officials intervene to protect the peaceful demonstrators.
MADRE's partner group, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), reported that activists were beaten, violently groped, and sexually assaulted by thousands of men who were bussed into Baghdad's Tehrir Square on June 10.…According to MADRE's press release, they believe that the attackers "were organized by Iraq’s official security forces and were un-uniformed to keep them from being held accountable." Some of the assailants were even carrying police identification cards.”
“A University of Vermont fraternity has been suspended and could face further discipline after it circulated a survey asking members to name the person they'd like to rape, and the frat's national organization said he was shocked by the local chapter's behavior.”

Why 9?  'Cause I thought I had ten but counted wrong.  And it's enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Any Port in a Movement: Pondering the Shutdown

We shut down the Port of Oakland on Monday.  Activists in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Portland, Longview and San Diego also shut down their ports, or parts of them, for some or all of the day.  Activists in Houston did a solidarity action at their port and were tented – the fire department brought a big red tent to throw over them before – well, who actually knows what they did under there?  They said they did it in case they threw up sparks while cutting the blockaders out of their lockboxes.  Some people pointed out that sparks inside a tent didn’t seem very safe.

Thanks to Darin Bauer and Indybay for photo
As far as I know, no workers crossed the Occupy picket lines, but that didn’t necessarily mean they supported the action.  If you can believe any of their words, the leadership certainly did not, and a lot of the rank and file weren’t too thrilled either.  The San Francisco Chronicle quoted truckers in Oakland complaining about lost wages, while both ILWU international president Robert McEllrath and Longview local president Dan Coffman, whose speech at Occupy Oakland partially inspired the West Coast Port Shutdown, said in the media that Occupy should leave their struggle to them.

Oakland union leaders held a press conference last Friday to defend the organizers of the day-long shutdown against charges of carpetbagging.  Betty Olson Jones, president of the California Teachers Association, was eloquent in explaining why the port deserved to be targeted, that they get tons of revenue from the City and give next to nothing back.  Clarence Thomas, former president of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco, said that Occupy had reinvigorated the labor movement, and the labor movement should support Occupy.  A group of truckers took the opportunity to release an Open Letter which reads in part:

An Open Letter from America’s Port Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports 
We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.
Today’s demonstrations will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?
For sure, the energy in Oakland was jubilant on Monday night when the 5,000 or so of us out at the Port got the news that the Port – which had confidently asserted that they would not shut down – had decided not to call in the 6:00 pm shift at all.  When organizers decided to push their luck by extending the strike to the 3:00 a.m. shift, few of us were up for staying out there, many of us having been out there at 5:30 Monday morning, worked all day and then gone back out at 5:00 p.m.

The best thing about the day, according to most of my friends who went, was that it proved the power of Occupy.  It also showed that it might not be as easy to marginalize and fragment the movement as the 1%, including the mainstream media, believed.  Most of the actions took place without the heavy police violence I had feared, given the rhetoric of city officials and the fact that the action had at best only lukewarm backing from labor.

Certainly the argument put forth by people like Ellis Goldberg, an Occupy activist from the Bay Area suburbs quoted in the Chronicle article, that “99% actions are nonconfrontational” are ridiculous.  If this movement had been primarily nonconfrontational, no one would be talking about it.  Occupy/Decolonize, like every successful movement before it, will win by creating what social movement theorist Bill Moyer calls “dilemma demonstrations” or “sociodrama demonstrations.”

The success of nonviolent action campaigns is based on sociodrama demonstrations. Sociodrama demonstrations are simple demonstrations that:
-- are dramatic and exciting;
-- enable demonstrators to put themselves into the key points where the powerholders carry out their policies;
-- clearly reveal the values violations by the powerholders;
-- show the movement supporting and representing the values, symbols, myths, and traditions of the society; and
-- are repeatable in local communities across the country.
These are dilemma demonstrations in which the powerholders lose regardless of their reaction. If they ignore the demonstrators, the policies are prevented from being carried out. If, on the other hand, the demonstrators are harassed or arrested, it puts public sympathy on the side of the demonstrators and against the powerholders.
Protesting the WTO in Seattle, read my article
The argument that the movement is hurting the very people it was meant to support – repeated to the point of monotony by the mainstream media in the lead-up to and immediately after the port shutdown –has been used to against every successful movement I can think of.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was costing Southern Blacks jobs because they couldn’t walk to work; the civil rights movement in the North was boycotting and picketing businesses where Blacks worked.  The Free Speech Movement was keeping students from getting the education they came to college for, and poorer students couldn’t afford to miss classes.  We were told that divestment from South Africa would hurt Black South Africans the most and an ANC victory would result in a blood bath.  Those of us who shut down the WTO Ministerial in Seattle did not “understand the benefits of free trade to developing nations.” 

When Stop AIDS Now Or Else briefly disrupted the opening night at the opera in 1989, a local gay paper quoted a gay man with AIDS as saying it was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

So the fact that labor in general and some dockworker unions in particular were unhappy about the port shutdown does not necessarily mean it wasn’t the right tactic at this time.  But it’s not something to be dismissed out of hand either.  During the weeks leading up to the shutdown, I tried to get clear in my own mind both the political purposes of the shutdown and who was really supporting and opposing it.

 As for the first, the objectives seemed all over the place.  It was in solidarity with truckers in Long Beach who were fired for wearing union t-shirts, and with dockworkers in Longview, Washington, who sabotaged trains a few months ago as part of their struggle to keep their union.  It was to interfere with the flow of commerce, dealing a mighty blow to the biggest corporations in the country.  It was to stop business as usual.  It was to protest reliance on imported goods, which means export of manufacturing jobs, and the pollution of the waters by carriers like Cosco Busan, which spilled 53,569 gallons of oil into the Bay four years ago.  It was to protest the role of the port itself in bankrupting Oakland.  It was to punish the police for repressing the Occupy movement around the country.

All good reasons, and I’ve done plenty of actions that had multiple goals.  That’s often a plus in selling an action ‑ something for everyone.  But except for the labor issues specific to the docks and the bad citizenship of the port itself, I think there are better targets for most of those issues.

For the second question, who was supporting it, I asked friends who are members of the longshore unions and a lawyer who represents the Longview workers, among other maritime unions on the West Coast.  The response that I got from pretty much everyone I asked was that the workers they knew basically didn’t think this was the right action at the right time.  Now these are not anti-activist people.  They’re people who have been out in the middle of the night, defending camps and helping to get people out of jail.  But when I brought up concerns at meetings or on lists, I was told that only bureaucrats were opposing the strike, all the rank and file were excited about it.  I felt that a certain orthodoxy had set in, where to question the strategic wisdom of this action was to be opposed to militancy.

So I asked myself, have I become unmilitant in my middle age?  I sure never thought that would happen.  But I am unwilling to support something just because it’s militant.  I know people who have done that and ended up participating in actions they later regretted.  Some of them spent years in prison for actions they later concluded were well-intentioned but not the right tactic at the right time.

For sure, the attacks on the shutdown made me want to participate and defend it.  The port placed full-page ads in the Oakland Tribune and the New York Times denouncing the shutdown and pretending to speak for labor and the community.  The faux folksy tone made my skin crawl.  The threats of Mayor Quan and others to keep the port open at all costs – invoking the specter of April 2003, when police responded to a protest at the docks by shooting people with wooden dowels and rubber-coated bullets, and the relentless efforts of the media to portray labor as more united against the action than it was, to beat the drum of the good versus bad Occupiers infuriated me and made me want to block the port for a week.

But the fact that the authorities don’t want us to do something isn’t necessarily a reason to do it.

The other problem with this West Coast shutdown coming so soon after November 2 is how do we escalate from here?  Are people going to be willing to go back to blockading banks (I hope so, since we’re organizing a shutdown of the San Francisco financial district for January 20) or holding neighborhood councils or squatting foreclosed homes?  Maybe.  Certainly I can think of some very cool actions which would be escalations of a different sort, and I’m sure people have much better ideas than I do.  Personally, I’ll be happy if whatever those ideas are, they don’t involve getting up at 4:30 in the morning.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The People United: Not Just a Meaningless Chant

When police raided OccupySF’s camp at Justin Hermann Plaza on Tuesday night, they used the well-rehearsed line that “the park had become a health and safety hazard.” Reporters made much of the fact that it would take “a long time” for Public Works to repair the damage to this beautiful park, notwithstanding that just six weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Urban Design Critic, John King, wrote “Whatever you think of the politics, and whatever happens in the days to come, give Occupy San Francisco credit for this: It has activated a park that sat dormant for 10 years.”

The businesses that complained about the camp literally have their heads up their whatevers, because I work right next door and can tell you that no one comes down to this edge of downtown to shop. People come through on their way to the baseball stadium or to the ferry or Fisherman's Wharf, or they work here. They're not going to stay away because of 100 or 200 people camped out in an unused bocce ball court nearby. And then there's the fact that thousands of people have come to the Saturday demonstrations organized by OccupySF and they all want to get lunch before or dinner, drinks or coffee after, or they happen to see some street art they like in the plaza, and then there are the hundreds and hundreds of cops eating lunch in the sandwich places - my coworker says they are in the place he goes for lunch every day. So I am positive that the net result on most businesses in the area has been positive or neutral, just as the survey done by a businessman in the neighborhood of Occupy Oakland found was the case there.

And as we could have told them, the 1:00 am raid on the camp, done with the violence and shock tactics that have characterized these pre-dawn attacks around the country, has already resulted in much more disruption and cost, not to mention bad PR for the City, than the camp ever did. A noon rally spontaneously moved into Market Street, where it remained for hours, blocking the F line streetcar and #14 bus, which originate there. I stayed at the rally for about half an hour and then went to Justin Hermann to get a tamale for lunch. I talked to Alicia, originally from Cuernavaca, living in Berkeley for ten years, who started her lunch cart there two months ago, just at the same time that OccupySF came to the plaza. She said that Occupy had not been good for her business, because “They would always ask for free food, and I couldn’t say no, because they were hungry.” But she said she supported the camp and was sorry to see it go. “They are doing it for all of us,” she said.

About 20 cops on horseback were guarding the closed park. There was a mobile command center – something I never saw before, like a huge trailer, and at least twenty cars and as many motorcycles parked in front of my office. Two lines of riot cops that I could see, and I’m sure many more that I couldn’t, lurked a block away from the demonstration, waiting for orders to charge. I guess they waited all day, then followed the march that left in the late afternoon.

I missed the march because I had to work, but went back to the Plaza for the GA at 6:00. By the time I got there, hundreds of riot cops had amassed, helicopters were buzzing overhead and television crews were hauling their gear into the plaza. I saw Buff, a member of my new affinity-group-in-formation. Great, I would have someone to hang with. Someone said the cops had given a dispersal order, although no one in the plaza heard it. David got on the bullhorn and told people it seemed like maybe the cops were getting ready to give a dispersal order, and people who couldn’t be arrested might want to move to the perimeter, while those who could risk arrest should move in and link arms so we looked unified. Buff called his wife, Cindy, to tell her he was probably getting arrested, and decided to go to the bathroom one more time. Seconds after he left, the cops moved in and surrounded those of us still in the plaza, just about 75 of the 300 or so people there. I looked around and didn’t see anyone I knew very well, so I sat down with some young people and introduced myself. One of them said she had never been arrested before, and hadn’t imagined she would be doing it now. I asked how she felt about that. She said, “I’m trying to avoid making decisions out of fear, so I feel good about it.”

We started out linking arms in two tight rows, behind one small symbolic tent that had been put up in the middle of the bocce ball courts. Every ten minutes or so, the cops would close in about five feet, and we would move the tent a little closer to us. After a while, we stopped linking arms and started milling about. Two guys were grabbed from outside the perimeter and dragged inside the police lines; no one seemed to know what their “crime” was. One, a white guy, was okay, but the other, who was Black, was lying twisted face down in the dirt, his hands cuffed behind him with metal cuffs. The cops wouldn’t let anyone get close enough to him to ask if he was okay, or what he needed. We said it seemed like he needed an ambulance – we couldn’t even tell if he was conscious. They said they had called one. They put plastic cuffs on the white guy and left him sitting by himself. He said he was thirsty. I found a bottle of water someone had left lying around and carefully poured water into his mouth. A few minutes later, they brought another guy in handcuffs to sit by the white guy and then a woman.

Meanwhile more and more people had been showing up to support the camp, having gotten text alerts and phone calls from friends. They linked arms in a giant circle outside of the two police lines. I saw Buff, linking arms with my friend Sasha, just back from putting up a giant banner (pictured) over the Rainbow Tunnel, between San Francisco and Marin. Now obviously, the police could have beaten their way out, they could have used tear gas or pepper spray to disperse the crowd, or they could have just arrested everyone, but they obviously didn’t want to do any of those things. They had hoped that most people would leave and they would be able to arrest a few die-hards, like they had done in the morning (70 people were arrested then), and that would be that.

Half an hour later, there was a row of five arrestees sitting on the curb, and the injured guy was still lying face down in the dirt; the ambulance had not shown up. We started yelling to the media that there was an injured guy being denied medical care, Cat talked about it on the bullhorn, and eventually they let an RN from the crowd go and talk to the guy. She seemed to think he would be okay. Then the paramedics came and worked on him for a while before they took him away on a stretcher.

David announced that the police had offered a deal, and those of us inside the lines should gather around so we could meet about it. They wanted us to accept an “admonishment,” basically a warning to stay away from the park, and we would be able to leave without being arrested. We discussed it at length, even though no one really wanted to accept. We agreed that people who wanted to accept the admonishments – people who hadn’t planned to get arrested and maybe had reasons why it would be a bad idea – should be allowed to do so, including the five people who had already been arrested, and the rest of us would continue with our GA and exercise our First Amendment rights to assemble in a public park. The cops said that the five arrestees could only be released if we all took the deal. At first it seemed like we might have an issue, because a couple of those folks really wanted to take it, and most of us really didn’t, but after further discussion, they all said they were willing to go with whatever the group agreed. We made our announcement to the folks outside and asked the police to back up and let anyone who wanted to participate in the GA do so together.

Eric Mar, a San Francisco Supervisor who is supposed to be a leftist, got on the bullhorn from outside and thanked the police chief and captain for being so nice and being willing to negotiate. Many people booed. I heard a commotion and saw people surging toward the police line on the other side of the park. I went to see what had happened. About six cops were huddled around of a figure I couldn’t really make out but I saw two shoes sticking out from under the tangle of police legs. They were basically sitting on this guy, one on his neck, one on his stomach, two on his legs.

“Can he breathe?” I asked one of the cops standing nearby. He nodded, and mouthed, “He can breathe.”

“How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged.

“What did he do anyway?” I asked. He didn’t know.

Marcus, in the trademark bright green hat that identifies legal observers, came over and asked the lieutenant, “What are you charging him with?” The lieutenant said that the guy had thrown something, which turned out to be a tent, over their heads and it hit an officer in the head. I swear, his lips twitched as he said it. The guy I had talked to looked at me and said, “See?” Okay, I thought, can you say "Ill-Thought-Out"?

I heard a cheer and turned around. The cops were marching out, single file, row by row. Seems they had decided to accept our counterproposal after all. Marcus and I watched in amazement as someone took the cuffs off the guy they had been sitting on and sent him on his way with a pat on the shoulder. I literally never saw anything like it here. In Palestine, that kind of thing would happen a lot, the army would grab someone at a demonstration, the community would confront them and negotiate and eventually they would release the person. But here, I always thought once you’re in cuffs, you’re going into the system. The poor guy who got taken away in the ambulance may be the only one still facing charges from last night.

One of my least favorite chants has always been “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” It seems like a total lie. In 1983, a comedian named Fran Peavey did a routine at one of our talent shows during the two-week jail-a-thon in Santa Rita, and said she had come up with a chant for the eighties: The People United Will Sometimes Win and Sometimes Lose. “The problem,” another friend recently suggested, “is that the people never are united.”

Last night, I felt like I believed it for the first time: if we are united, we cannot be defeated.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dreaming of My Dream Job

I was having lunch with a friend yesterday and he said he was going to look for a new job.  Like me, he works at a law firm, and like me, his long-time employer went bust a few years ago and he followed some of the attorneys to a new firm.  I asked what he didn’t like about the job and he gave a few examples, but, he acknowledged, “I might just be tired of working.”

Thanks to erix for the photo
He and I have both been doing clerical work at law firms for over 20 years.  As 99% jobs go, they’re great.  Good money, good (though worsening) benefits, not too much micromanagement from supervisors, casual Fridays, computer access.  But it’s unstimulating and a little depressing to think that we’re going to be doing it five days a week, 48 weeks a year or so, for probably another 18-20 years, assuming the economy doesn’t totally collapse before that.

A few months ago, I started thinking maybe I could do radio full-time.  I’ve been doing it almost weekly for more than five years, I’ve done a bunch of pretty good pieces and shows, and I love it.  I started looking online and there were actually some jobs at community stations advertised, and I thought I might apply for one.  It was in Seattle, at the University radio station.  As I started thinking about what to put (and not put) on my resume, I thought, Okay, this job only requires 2 years’ experience, so presumably it pays almost nothing.  I’m sure they are expecting to hire someone a few years out of college.  It’s an editorial job, working with the senior news editor.  Do I really want to spend my days arguing with a senior editor half my age – or less – about why what I think is important should go on the air, for probably half as much money as I make now?  Do I want to deal with the very likely possibility of not getting an interview, or even a rejection letter, for this job I’m way overqualified for?  No.  And while I love my Seattle and my friends there, do I want to move 800 miles from the community I’ve spent the last thirty years building?

I didn’t send the resume.

In general, when someone asks me how long I expect to be at my job, I say I expect to get carried out of there in a box, or dragged out in cuffs.  I’m not sure which scenario is more appealing.
But the conversation with my friend made me start thinking: there must be a job out there that would make me bound out of bed every day eager to get to work, like how I felt at Hedgebrook or my recent self-made writing retreat.  What would it be?  Here are few people I think have my dream jobs, so I guess all I have to do is wait for one of them to quit or retire:

Calvin Trillin, Deadline Poet for the Nation.  He gets to write one two-line poem a week.  Here’s one of his latest, coincidentally about his dream job:

One job’s a job I never would forgo.
That job, of course, is being CEO.
According to the customs now prevailing,
It pays a lot—and pays you more for failing.
It must be nice to have a job wherein
You cannot lose, for if you lose you win.

(Okay, Trillin fans, don’t get on my case.  I know he also writes books and New Yorker articles, including a recent interesting retrospective on the first Freedom Ride, which he covered in 1963). 

Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air.  Not only does she get to talk to all the coolest people, but she has a whole team of producers helping her get them and figure out what to ask, and then everyone talks about how brilliant she is (which she is).

Noam Chomsky.  Admittedly, the guy’s paid his dues.  But hey, now he gets to spend all his time giving political opinions in a monotone, and people actually listen.  In the same vein, Arundati Roy gets to travel the globe fomenting revolution.

Admissions officer for the Tipple Business School at the University of Iowa.  What?  Not only do I know nothing about and have no interest in the business, but when I was a TA in Political Science at Cal, lo those many years ago, the business students always wrote the deadliest dullest essays.  So who would want to read thousands of them?  But get this:  Tipple applicants now tweet their essays!  So as an admissions judge, you get to grant or dash someone’s hopes for their future in just 140 characters.  The top tweet was a haiku.  There are also, apparently, numerous Twitter scholarships available, many of which go unclaimed.  Whose Tweets?  Our Tweets!

Herman Cain.  Someone is obviously paying that man a lot of money to say outrageous things while pretending to run for president.

If you have a dream job and I didn’t mention it, please say so in a comment on my blog.  (If you have trouble posting under an ID, you should be able to post anonymously.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Whose Rainbow? My Week of Occupying Everything

This was going to be my week off from Occupying, but it didn’t work out that way.

Photo courtesy Steve Rhoads via flickr
Late Sunday/early Monday I got the text message that Occupy Oakland was being evicted.  I rushed down there, even though I knew it would probably be hours before the raid, which it was.  So I went to work Monday with a scant two hours of sleep.  Tuesday night I rushed over to Cal after work to catch the end of their Day of Action, Robert Reich giving the Mario Savio Lecture to an assembled 5,000 or so people crammed into Sproul Plaza.  Wednesday I spent my lunch hour marching around the San Francisco Financial District with a spirited student-led demonstration demanding that California refund public education; Thursday at lunch I responded to an alert to go to a protest in support of Pancho Ramos Stierle, who was arrested at Occupy Oakland and turned over the Immigration; that one, as far as I could tell, did not happen, but at least the cops seemed as confused as I was.
Thursday night we heard that Occupy SF was expecting a raid, so I went over after work, decided I needed warmer clothes so went home, changed, ate dinner and drove back to the City, just in time to get the text saying they didn’t expect a raid after all.  Stayed an hour and left.

Yesterday, I marched around Oakland for hours with a few thousand others, marched right past my own house twice, fought the temptation to duck out and go curl up in front of the heater with my cat and a cup of tea.  Good rally at one of the five schools slated for closure at the end of this year, although a friend pointed out that a big majority of teachers and parent activists are women and all the ones who spoke were men.

Photo courtesy Bradley Stuart and Indybay
Then we marched back to 19th and Telegraph where we knocked down a hastily erected fence around the big empty lot and park and established a new, beautiful Occupy Oakland camp.  They set up the sound system and played dance music and chanted "Evict us and we multiply/Hella Hella Occupy."  It started to pour.  By the time I got home, I was so stiff I could barely move.  I changed into dry clothes, put dinner in the oven and curled up with a book about the Free Speech Movement.  People who are constantly criticizing the Occupy movement’s ultrademocratic process as producing a garbled message, should check out this book.  People like Cal Student Advisor Faye Lawson, who allegedly participated in FSM and was onKCBS radio saying, 
“Mario spoke with one voice, and he listened…. I think this movement needs direction. They need a speaker and they need to come together as a cohesive group with one voice and one mission…Then they can negotiate what they want on the table, what they want from us.”
Here’s a quote from FSM Steering Committee member Patti Iiyama, about the day that the students surrounded the police car on Sproul Plaza in 1964, when Savio and a few other “leaders” made an agreement with the administration to abandon the sit-in:
“Our first reaction was ‘My God! He had no right to make that agreement without coming back and taking a vote of everybody sitting around the car,’ because here we were willing to get our heads bashed in, and Mario and several other people had signed this agreement.”
And here’s FSM Executive Committee member, Andy Wells, talking about events a couple months later (this is in the chapter entitled “Internal Combustion”):

“We felt [the Steering Committee] were moving too fast without consulting the student body and there wasn’t enough communication between the Executive Committee and the Steering Committee.  We felt that though we agreed with a lot of the proposals, the Steering Committee was very skilled in parliamentary maneuverings and it seemed that an awful lot of railroading was going on.  … It seemed like a lot of secrecy was going on…Jack Weinberg and Mario and particularly Steve Weissman …defeated some proposals that we thought were pretty sound.”
This is not to say that the FSM was any more screwed up than many other groups, or that Occupy does everything right.  It’s not to dispute that “horizontal” groups are always more democratic than groups with clearly defined leadership, or that consensus can’t be manipulated just as much as Robert’s Rules of Order (which my friends who have experience in labor unions call Robot’s Rules) can.  In my considerable experience with groups that are “horizontal” or practice “pure democracy,” there’s always covert leadership, and a lot of times it’s self-appointed by those who have endless hours to spend in meetings, without the accountability that can come from elections, and with no ability to correct for things like the disproportionate influence of white men.  A friend who has been heavily involved in Occupy Oakland, and comes out to every march and camp defense, referred to the Oakland General Assembly as a “dudefest.”

My opinion is that every popular movement embodies both a real human drive for democracy and the limitations of most forms of democracy.  Except in very small groups where everyone knows each other very well and are completely on the same page politically, it can be painfully slow to make decisions by consensus.  If you try to short-cut it by using majority or supermajority vote, people end up feeling disempowered and if they end up on the wrong side of the vote more than a couple times, they are likely to walk away.  But people who can’t stick out the long process of reaching consensus are equally likely to walk away.

A lot of groups I’ve been in recently have adapted something I call faux-consensus, where decisions are officially made by “consensus” but we also have an agreement to keep meetings short, so everything that doesn’t reach consensus easily is either tabled or resolved in some technocratic way, like being turned over to a “working group” or relegated to a Parking Lot (a piece of butcher paper for things you’re not actually going to deal with in the meeting).  So that gives the impression of everyone’s concerns being addressed, but really it’s just a way of shoving aside what the organizers of the meeting, who made the agenda, didn’t think was important.  What is really going on is that the important decisions have been made before anyone walked into the meeting and the only real role for people who come to it is to take on a few discrete tasks that the organizers don’t feel they need to control and recruit others for the action.

Okay, that was a long digression into something that’s been on my mind a lot – this rabid obsession with trashing the leaderlessness of the Occupy movement (though one article I read recently called it “leaderfull” which I think is both accurate and lovely).  But back to the chronology of my break from Occupying:

At midnight, I put down the FSM book, having just gotten to the part where the negotiations with the administration fell apart and the students were setting up their illegal tables again on Sproul Plaza (hilarious to me, because those tables have been a fixture of the campus since I started school there in 1980, and the order of things has hardly come crashing down).  I watched a rerun of “Grey’s Anatomy.”  At 1:00 am I turned off the TV and was about to go to bed when I got a text message – “OccupySF call for support; come defend 101 market; cops in riot gear NOW staging a few blocks away.”  I grabbed my car keys, though I knew there was a good chance it would be over by the time I got there, which it more or less was.  The cops were blocking access to the Market Street encampment, and even though my work ID got me close, I couldn’t really see.  My friend David and I walked around with a couple heavy “Make the Banks Pay” banners, in hopes of injecting a little on-point messaging into an otherwise pretty unfocused scene.  I stayed about an hour, long enough to get wet and cold again.

I got home around 3:00 and went to sleep.  At 8:06, I got another text:  “Riot cops at Occupy Oakland  GET HERE NOW!!! 20 minute warning for raid.”  I dressed and drove the few blocks to the new camp.  It wasn’t raining so I didn’t take my rain jacket.  Nearly all the tents, art, equipment was gone from the space by the time I got there.  A line of riot cops was standing at the edge of the park, and every five minutes they would move about ten yards closer to the people who were frantically disassembling tents.  It started to rain again.  At the end, with the cops encroaching, I helped carry out the last two improvised tents.  We didn’t have time to take them apart, so one person took each pole as if it were a chupah, a Jewish wedding canopy.  As the cops pressed us the last few yards out of the park, supporters showed up with coffee and oatmeal for the campers, who drank and ate it in the street under a rainbow.

They chanted “Whose rainbow?  Our rainbow.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is There a Disinformation Campaign Against #Occupy?

Two weeks ago, I predicted that the government was going to use some form of COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) to destroy the Occupy/99% movement. At that time, I focused on the possibility of infiltration in order to create dissension within the groups. That is still very likely as the movement moves to its next phase, whatever that turns out to be now that controlled demolition has been employed around the country to remove encampments. But there is another form of COINTELPRO, which is even easier for the elites to launch, and that’s disinformation.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about disinformation:

Disinformation (a translation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya) is intentionally false or inaccurate information that is spread deliberately….Disinformation should not be confused with misinformation, information that is unintentionally false….A common disinformation tactic is to mix some truth and observation with false conclusions and lies, or to reveal part of the truth while presenting it as the whole….
UC and SF State Students join OccupySF at Bank of America
D. Boyer, Indybay
We are already seeing a pattern of this with regard to the Occupy encampments. While I cannot say for sure that it’s a nationally coordinated strategy, we know that the physical attacks on the camps were coordinated by Homeland Security, and there is a suspicious sameness in the allegations made to criminalize and marginalize the Occupy groups in cities across the country.

New York: “The park was becoming a place where people came not to protest but rather to break laws, and in some cases to harm others,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a nationally released statement.

University of California: “The University of California regents have canceled this week’s meeting in San Francisco, citing a ‘real danger of significant violence and vandalism.’ UC leaders said Monday that university police told them 'rogue elements intent on violence and confrontation with UC public safety officers were planning to attach themselves to peaceful demonstrations expected to occur at the meeting'....”

DC: “’The one-month-old Occupy D.C. movement has grown ‘increasingly confrontational and violent,’ the District’s police chief said…”

San Francisco: “Managers at the Ferry Building…blamed a rash of shoplifting, vandalism and muggings at the Embarcadero marketplace on Occupy campers they said had run amok.”

From Fox News: “A rash of reports of sexual assaults at Occupy Wall Street protests across the country has both police and activists raising red flags…The most serious incident was reported in downtown Portland last night – cops responded to calls of a Molotov cocktail being set off near the city’s World Trade Center…At the site of the Occupy San Diego camp, street cart vendors were forced to close up shop when protesters, angry that they stopped receiving free food, ransacked and vandalized the carts.”

In some cases, incidents near Occupy camps are immediately linked to the protests, where no evidence exists that there’s a connection. In Oakland, a man was tragically killed in a fight near the plaza where the camp was located. The police – who had been calling for the camp’s destruction since it went up – mentioned in an open letter begging the protesters to leave the Plaza that “This is the 101st homicide in the city this year,” implying that the month-old encampment was somehow responsible for eleven months’ worth of murders. At Cal Berkeley, a freak incident in which an allegedly armed student was shot and killed by police at the business school was immediately linked by the media and the college administration to Occupy-themed protests that were happening on campus that day. The local CBS radio station reported:

It was the first on-campus shooting since 1992. In that earlier incident, an Oakland police officer fatally shot a machete-wielding activist from nearby People’s Park who had broken into the former chancellor’s mansion….The shooting occurred as anti-Wall Street activists were preparing another attempt to establish an Occupy Cal camp after a failed effort last week led to dozens of arrests.”
By mentioning Wall Street, and using the word “activist” in both contexts, the story manages to imply that the shooting at the business school was an anti-business protest. In fact, unlike the woman who allegedly broke into the ex-chancellor’s house, who was involved in the movement to stop the college from turning People’s Park into a volleyball court by the college, no evidence has been offered that the student killed on Tuesday had any connection to Occupy Cal. He was taking classes at the business school.

Disinformation: “mixing truth with false conclusions and lies.” There is some truth in many of the accusations. There has in fact been sexual assault and sexual harassment at Occupy camps. There’s also been racial and anti-queer harassment. The camps have set up mechanisms to deal with these, some better than others, but that doesn’t differentiate them from pretty much any other place in the country where people live. If the police raided every work place where sexual harassment, up to and including assault, was taking place, it’s hard to believe there would be a public or private office left open.

The disinformation has been combined with a government tool that is even more common in our “democracy”: criminalizing dissent. Now in a lot of countries, governments simply outlaw protest, either entirely or in certain circumstances. Here, it’s generally more complicated than that. We have freedom to dissent, as long as our expressions of dissent have no possibility of influencing anyone. The people in charge say, “You don’t need to make trouble; you don’t need to sit in at lunch counters, you can picket, you can vote, you can write to your Congresspeople. If you don’t get what you want, obviously it’s because not enough people agreed with you.” When two-thirds of the people opposed the ongoing Iraq war, Cheney said he didn’t make policy by opinion polls. When at least 70% of the people (including 61% of millionaires) want to raise taxes on the 1% instead of cutting funding for schools and social services, government spokespeople say we should have protests in places that don’t create inconvenience. And if you insist on being where they don’t want you to be, you’re the problem – you’re a criminal.

It’s like in the old Malvina Reynolds song: “It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to jail/There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail.” She wrote that in 1964.

The media collude in this by only covering most protest if it’s a crime story. Two years ago, when asked why they continually ignored large demonstrations against the Iraq War, the Washington Post responded that they do not cover rallies. They were covering the Tea Party non-stop, but theoretically, they were not covering the Tea Party’s rallies, they were covering the threat they posed to political officials. Except that they covered the threat by interviewing its spokespeople at length. More than two weeks after Occupy Wall Street had set up in Zuccatti Park, the New York Times said they were not covering it because it wasn’t very big and had no famous people involved. This was after several thousand people had participated in marches and General Assemblies, and Michael Moore, Roseanne Barr and Eve Ensler had all visited the camp.

The only way for left-wing protests to get coverage, and it’s not a sure bet itself, is if there are arrests, which is why so many of our actions involve orchestrated civil disobedience. But then, much of the time the story is that we were arrested, so we’re obviously criminals.

While there was a brief moment when the media was having a little love-fest with the 99% Movement, it has mostly passed. Now actions of police and others against protesters are reported as evidence of our criminality, while standard civil disobedience tactics are branded “violent.”

One of the bases for DC police chief Cathy Lanier labeling the occupation “increasingly violent” was that at a demonstration on Friday night, “four protesters were hit by a vehicle….She described the group as peaceful last week but distributed videos Monday showing some protesters blocking the doors of the convention center and pounding on windows.”

On a march in San Francisco last Saturday, which I was involved in organizing, police attempted to force us onto the sidewalk by riding motorcycles into protesters, shoving us and grabbing at our banners. The march was calling attention to the military tribunals that Egyptian democracy activists are facing, now that the army, which helped to oust Mubarak, has consolidated its power. The only media story about it – which was picked up by pretty much every newspaper in the country and even by progressive radio station KPFA – was that police claimed their officers were attacked in two separate incidents, one involving an Xacto knife.

We are pretty sure these incidents didn’t happen (we have video, which doesn’t show them), but our police liaison did say that an officer in charge told him a cop might have been cut by a something attached to a banner. That’s possible, since the banner poles were wooden and the cops were grabbing at them, but it’s quite different from what they later reported, “a woman came from the crowd, slashed an officer's hand with a pen knife or razor blade, then disappeared before he realized he'd been cut.” In every previous Saturday march since OccupySF began, we have marched in the street and the police made no effort to stop us. But this week, they changed their tactics and suddenly we are criminals.

At UC Berkeley last Wednesday, when police badly beat students for trying to set up a tent – on their own campus, which they’re paying handsomely to attend, BTW, the police captain explained that “linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.” The chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, famously repeated that claim in a statement which made it all the way to Stephen Colbert’s show. Obviously Birgeneau either has never seen pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. linking arms with Dr. Ralph Bunche on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or he assumes that all the guys we name holidays and streets after were violent criminals – which, of course, might not be so far from the truth.

So if Homeland Security, under Obama, is now coordinating a disinformation campaign to discredit the Occupy movement, after Nancy Pelosi and the president himself expressed support for its goals a few weeks ago, why? Of course I don’t know, but I do have a theory.

-- The Obama administration needs these protests to be over before the Day After Thanksgiving (I refuse to use the term “Black” Friday). Given the fragile state of the economy, nothing can be allowed to interfere with the almighty shopping season. Mayors and city officials too are afraid of the possible impact that unsightly and bad-smelling camps rife with homeless people and anti-capitalists might have on those all-important retail numbers. They had planned to be well done with this movement by now, having started the raids long ago, but the backlash over Shock and Awe in Oakland delayed them by several weeks. So now they need the camps to be gone, and they need help speeding it up. In San Francisco, for instance, Mayor Ed Lee was more or less forced to endorse the camp, which has the advantage, we were told, of not being in an “inconvenient” – read central – location, because his public works people were saying that it wasn’t a problem, that the campers were being very cooperative with them, and the local papers were actually saying that it was “bringing back a blighted park.” But that was a week ago, when he had barely squeaked out an election he was never supposed to be in. Now, it seems he’s being pressured by someone, or perhaps many people, to get with the program and he needs a justification to reverse course.

-- The Democrats are worried about their legislative agenda. They sort of liked the movement at first, because it gave them some leverage, and that actually seemed to pay off for them – they got a few things done in the last weeks. But now the debt super-committee is about to come back with its recommendations to slash and/or privatize Medicare and Social Security; the jobs bill is weak and going to get weaker; they are not going to deliver on any of their fine rhetoric about taxing the 1%, and they DO NOT want highly energized, mobilized crowds in every city ready to go marching through the streets. They may not dare to tell Homeland Security to go round up all the activists and put us in a stadium somewhere until future notice, but they’re going to do the next best thing – shove the protesters out of sight, and smear the hell out of any who won’t go quietly.

And in that effort, Disinformation is their friend.