Category Archives: Occupy Movement

Is the Anti-Police Violence Movement a New Chapter in the Black Freedom Struggle?

#BlackLivesMatter

Child at Portland, OR, protest against police brutality. (Photo credit: Michelle Fawcett)

by Arun Gupta Telesur December 30, 2014

It was inevitable there would a push back against the dynamic movement against police violence. It is unfortunate opponents are using the murder of two cops in Brooklyn on December 20 to try to suppress peaceful protests. Nonetheless, the reaction is also a necessary obstacle this new social movement has to navigate.

After Officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August, anti-police violence protests became a regular occurrence there. The militarized police response made Ferguson an international story as well as a magnet for more protests. The movement spread across the United States a few months later following the decision by grand juries not to indict Wilson or NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was filmed choking to death an unarmed Eric Garner on Staten Island in July.

It’s a remarkable movement for the scope of protests, range of participants, and militancy, with activists staging die-ins and blockading streets, bridges, schools, police departments, and shopping malls. The organizing is influenced by the low-wage workers movements that have mobilized many working-class African-Americans and Hispanics, particularly those in the fast-food, retail, and domestic work sectors. There are similarities to Occupy Wall Street movement, with savvy use of social media, such as the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, and relentless in-the-streets activism. Most important, it’s the latest chapter in the centuries-long Black freedom struggle in the United States and beyond.

A Movement Propelled by Frustration with Racism

It is no accident that the movement arose at this moment. It is propelled by frustration with institutional racism that remains pervasive and deadly, but which is evidenced more by cold statistics than burning crosses. It’s also a consequence of hopes raised by Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first African-American president.

That was a profound achievement, but Obama has offered little shelter from the economic storm that’s pummeled Black America during his tenure, whether from unemploymenthome foreclosures, or the destruction of Black wealth. The crisis has compounded the decimation of social welfare, the decline of organized labor, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex from Reagan to Clinton, as well as the recent attack on public-sector unions, often at the hands of Democrats.

The Obama years end the latest chapter of the Black freedom struggle that culminated in the dismantling of legal segregation during the sixties. The prominence of figures like Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Joycelyn Elders, and Colin Powell was hard to imagine fifty years ago, but the U.S. political system has proven incapable of creating the conditions where all African-Americans can act as full political and social agents.

This is why the bullets that killed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner bite so deep. The state-sanctioned killing of unarmed blacks by police and vigilantes underscores the reality that Black lives do matter less in America. Black life expectancy lags nearly four years behind that of whites, a result of a society where housing and schools, remain segregated, access to healthcare and medical care is unequalchildhood poverty is at epidemic levels, Blacks are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated, and white household median income is 68 percent greater than that of Blacks.

What these numbers can’t capture is how the social practices of racism have fused with market relations, making racism rational, effortless, and invisible. It’s the decision to buy a house in a good neighborhood, send the children to the right school, work with people who are deemed trustworthy, patronize a business that’s a known quantity. Market imperatives favor the most conservative course. Anything that is truly different is risky, suspicious, a danger, or a threat to the self or to property.

The notion Blacks are a threat is embedded so deep in the American psyche that a jury found it was not criminal for George Zimmerman to stalk and kill Trayvon Martin, a child, in his own neighborhood. Michael Brown died after Wilson challenged him for walking in a residential street, an utterly banal practice. Eric Garner was a threat to private enterprise and state revenue because sometimes he sold loose cigarettes, a policy allegedly decided at the highest level of the NYPD. Their deaths point to the basic unresolved contradiction in U.S. society: are Blacks citizens or are they a threat?

Garner’s death is one of many that have resulted from the NYPD’s obsession with “quality-of-life” violations, but it’s also a result of de Blasio’s confused politics. He won the mayoralty by harnessing the widespread anger against a stop-and-frisk policy akin to “loitering laws” used to control Blacks, Natives, and Mexicans during the Jim Crow era. In 2011, the NYPD recorded more than 685,000 stops and made more stops of young Black men than the entire population of young Black men in New York City. But de Blasio replaced stop and frisk with “broken-windows” policing by selecting Bill Bratton as police commissioner. In the nineties Bratton introduced broken windows in New York, claiming that policing minor quality-of-life infractions committed by graffiti artists, pot smokers, street vendors, “squeegee men,” and panhandlers would prevent more serious crimes. The evidence that stop and frisk or broken windows reduce crime is nonexistent.

Both policies work to regulate where and how black and brown people can exist in the public sphere. There is no lack of stories of Blacks being accosted by cops for making a purchase in a high-end store or walking in a white neighborhood. These stories can’t capture statistics like the 43,000 Blacks and Hispanics in New York City who were stopped, frisked and arrested in 2010 for low-level marijuana offenses. Untold numbers wound up with prison time and records, which devastate housing, employment and educational opportunities.

New York Mayor Tangles with a Vicious Police Union

De Blasio vowed to end this system when he ran for mayor, but he is in a bind. He’s tangling with a police union that was vicious even before Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down and he’s trying to placate a rank and file that in staging public disavowals of his authority are signaling they are the real power in the city not someone who won 73 percent of the vote, including 96 percent of African Americans and 87 percent of Hispanics.

The cop revolt has exposed the deep state that exists at the municipal level around the country. Police union head Patrick Lynch overplayed his hand by blasting de Blasio for having “blood on [his] hands.” But the mainstream media and politicians have rallied to the police, with thuggish comments coming not just from Republicans but Democrats like New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo who declared, “75,000 police officers and National Guardsmen statewide have [the police’s] back every step of the way.” But politicians like Cuomo know the pro-cop rhetoric plays well at home. The majority of whites, many Asians and Hispanics and more than a few Blacks fully support the unequal social order cops protect because they benefit from it. The danger for militants is they became angrier and isolate themselves rather than rethink how to build a more inclusive movement.

De Blasio knows his power comes not from the oppressed communities whose hopes he raised, but from the moneyed elite who filled his campaign coffers. They run New York, and they are whom the NYPD serve and protect above all. The police and their defenders want to protect their unaccountability and lack of meaningful oversight. The anti-protester reaction also reinforces the image of police under siege, stoking what philosopher Samir Chopra’s terms cops’ “deadly self-pity.” The push-back began before the killings with de Blasio calling for people protesting police violence to denounce violence. After the killings he showed contempt for popular democracy by attacking demonstrators for continuing to protest. Others, including Bratton, tried to link the cops’ deaths to the protests. The aim is to create a false equivalence, as exemplified by the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag.

Yet, there is no comparing the agents of state violence, who enjoy perks and prestige unavailable for nearly any other working-class vocation, to the subjects of that violence. Black trumps blue in terms of danger to one’s life. Reuters interviewed twenty-five current or former NYPD officers who are African-American males. All but one said that out of uniform they were subject to racial profiling or violence at the hands of their fellow officers.

While this new movement is perhaps the most widespread, diverse and radical in decades, it’s at a crossroads. The counterattack is not aimed at getting militants off the street but getting liberals and progressives who provide broader social support to stay at home. Like Occupy Wall Street, this movement has brought in legions of new activists and politicized areas of life that are usually not explicitly political, like shopping malls, sports games and holiday celebrations. Organizers have to consciously develop strategies that retain militancy while enabling widespread participation.

The NYPD Has Been on a Vendetta

The state hopes to divide “legitimate” and “illegitimate” protesters. The NYPD has been on a vendetta after protesters scuffled with two NYPD detectives on the Brooklyn Bridge, slapping organizers with felony charges. Chicago police are apparently spying on the phone conversations of protesters. In Portland, the police appear to be singling out known activists for arrests. The city of Bloomington, Minnesota, is looking to bankrupt and imprison organizers of a large die-in at the Mall of America, with the city attorney stating, “You want to get at the ringleaders” after detailing numerous charges against protesters as well as demands for “staggering” fines to cover policing costs.

Hopefully, this will mark a new stage in the Black freedom struggle, one that goes beyond Black and white and sloganeering. Native people within the reservation system live under the harshest conditions, but the violence is more a product of federal than local police forces. For Hispanics, the social geography of policing includes the immigration detention system. While there is crossover organizing between Hispanics and Blacks in low-wage worker movements, the unions involved are reluctant to prioritize contentious issues outside the workplace like police violence. Additionally, many Blacks are cool to immigration reform because of perceived competition for jobs, and 62 percent of African-Americans say there is “strong conflict” between immigrants and the native born. Plus, fetishizing a group as inherently revolutionary ignores the reality that Black anger stems more from not having access to the social advantages whites enjoy rather than a desire to overthrow the system. One poll from 2010 found 81 percent of Blacks described themselves as “extremely proud” or “very proud” to be an American, only five points lower than whites.

New York Police Would Remain a Racist Institution

The movement also needs to progress beyond racial reductionism. While it is rooted in history of state violence against Blacks, Native people and Hispanics, racial identity doesn’t confer an advantage in organizing. Succumbing to slogans that “Black or Brown people must lead the struggle” opens the door for opportunists. Organizers need to be immersed in existing struggles, but identity matters less than knowing how to organize and build unity without abandoning key principles or goals. Already a few groups with little connection to the anti-police violence struggle are positioning themselves as mediators between City Hall and the streets. Some other organizations now in the spotlight are more about personal power than collective transformation. Racial reductionism is also used against the left. Defenders of the NYPD point out it is only 51 percent white, but in its present form it would remain a racist institution if it were 100 percent people of color.

The anti-police brutality movement looks to have staying power if for no other reason than inequality and segregation will continue to intensify in the United States and the police will enforce that order. But to be successful it will have to shift from a focus on the police to the social system that demands the violence the police mete out.

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Filed under Anti-Police Brutality, Occupy Movement, Protest, Race

Spaces of Hope: Radical Movements Need Radical Spaces

checafemural.jpg_1718483346

One of the murals on the Ché Café in San Diego (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To build radical movements, you need radical spaces, argues Arun Gupta, who looks at the important roles San Diego’s Ché Café and Brooklyn’s Mayday Space play in their communities.

by Arun Gupta Telesur December 2, 2014

Standing outside the Ché Café, wedged in a hillside on the University of California San Diego campus, David Morales says “the radicals there terrified me” the first time he visited in 1987.

Just 18 years old, Morales was bewildered by the political and music scene there. It was alien to his experience growing up in conservative San Diego, a major port for the U.S. navy sandwiched between the massive Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to the north and the militarized border with Mexico to the south.

Morales quickly warmed to the “incredible mix of cultural expression from students and youth,” and fell in love with the Ché Café’s eclectic music shows that spanned reggae to punk rock. He met his future wife at the shed-like cafe and it is a place infused with their familiy’s memories.

After graduating from UCSD in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, the 45-year-old Morales’ focus shifted to his family, and he would only “show up now and then to an event” at the space.

Now he’s a fixture once more at the Ché Café, along with other old-timers and a slew of youths, because the UCSD administration is on the verge of booting out the collective, which has been running the cafe for 34 years.

Claiming there are safety concerns about the condition of the buildings, the administration is close to securing a five-day notice to vacate, after months of maneuvering to squeeze both funding and student support.

Café supporters dispute the claims, pointing out that in April the university’s own facility inspector concluded that that the space “is looking good in terms of safety” other than one minor item of concern next to the main building.

Monty Kroopkin, who started at UCSD in 1970, is the in-house expert on the collective’s decades-long battles with the administration. He says the three-building facility was established in 1966 and originally known as the Coffee House Express, or C.H.E. for short. In 1979, after the administration tried to turn it into a faculty club, the students gained control and established the Ché Café, changing the meaning of the acronym to “Cheap Healthy Eats.”

Since then, the collective has been fending off attempts by the administration to shut the cafe. UCSD officials have invoked health and safety issues repeatedly, going so far as to change the cafe’s locks in 2000, before supporters occupied it, forcing the administration to back down. That’s why Kroopkin, Morales and others are concerned about the looming eviction order, but are not yet hitting the panic button.

The threat of closure has generated an influx of supporters. Ché Café recently delivered a petition with 14,000 signatures asking the administration to halt the eviction and negotiate a new lease.

While the administration claims the facility is used mainly by outsiders (which is true of the high-profile and independently-operated La Jolla Playhouse on the UCSD campus), students occupied an academic hall on November 24 in support of the Ché Café. They were also opposing planned tuition increases of 28 percent over in the next five in the entire University of California system.

The Ché collective is growing, and members meet regularly to formulate responses to the administration’s moves.

When I popped by on a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-November, they were discussing a university decree that they halt the cafe’s programming; its cultural lifeblood and business model. Before the meeting a handful of us gathered outside, as Morales’ youngest daughter and two friends raced around the patio, past a stenciled painting of an AK-47 emblazoned with the slogan, “No Gods No Masters.”

To those who’ve found a home in the Ché Café, it represents radical possibilities. In 2003 Trevor Stutzman found in the Ché an all-age venue steeped in San Diego’s “rich music history.” He says at age 15 he was “exposed to a real alternative, a non-hierarchical worker collective. It affects you the rest of your life and how you see the world.”

While Stutzman attended college elsewhere, he has been a regular at the cafe that is “a bridge between the community and university.” The others nod in agreement. Kroopkin adds that the cafe’s existence raises the question, “Is the university’s role to serve its ‘clientele’ or is it to serve the broader community?”

The single-story wooden buildings are splashed with radical-history murals by painters like Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero, whose works are also found in San Diego’s famed (and contested) Chicano Park.

Morales guides me through the eucalyptus grove on the far reaches of the cafe grounds.He reminisces that it’s a place where he’s “watched owls make love,” to the organic vegetable garden in back. It’s also the place he and his wife buried our eldest son’s placenta.

There I meet Jeanine Webb, studying toward a doctorate in poetics at UCSD, who has been a collective member for three months.

Webb laments, “There are so few radical spaces left on University of California campuses.” She argues the administration’s plan is to remove “student spaces that provide a place where free thought and culture can exist because they don’t support the neoliberal profit motive and have ‘uncontrollable’ aspects inherent to them.”

Kroopkin says over the years the university has been hostile to the Ché Café and the three other student-run cooperatives on campus: the General Store Co-op, Groundwork Books, and the Food Co-op. He explains that they are the only student-run and cooperatively-organized entities at the university with their own revenue streams, bank accounts, payroll and insurance. “They are legally autonomous,” Kroopkin says. “Not even the UCSD student government is autonomous, unlike the UCLA or Berkeley bodies.”

That is the heart of the conflict, says Webb. Spaces like the Ché Café do not fit into the corporate university, which is why she says the administration wants to “sanitize” them.

It’s hard to disagree. What’s happening in the University of California system and the Ché Café is a microcosm of U.S. society.

Radical spaces

Over time, as the market has extended its tendrils into all parts of daily life, radical spaces have disappeared in much of U.S. society.

In the late 19th century, agrarian grange halls and entire utopian communities were commonplace. Decades later, labor temples, radical coffeehouses, theaters, publishers, bars and bookstores had their heyday along with socialist and communist halls and camps.

While you can still find radical spaces in many college campuses, union halls and cultural spaces, they are all under siege, save perhaps those hosted by progressive religious outfits.

Radical spaces in workplaces, public squares, churches, schools, and neighborhoods are breeding grounds for social movements of every stripe.

Factories have been a primary site of struggle since the industrial era began. Karl Marx argued capitalists would be their undoing, by bringing together laborers under one roof they would realize their common interests as a working class and overthrown the capitalist system.

While that prediction of solely a worker-led revolution seems unlikely to come to pass in an era when production has been outsourced through technology and fragmented around the globe, movements are unmoored without space to incubate, grow and survive.

Occupy Wall Street would never have existed without holding common space in dozens of cities, and it never recovered once it lost those spaces no matter how much activists told themselves, “You can’t evict an idea.”

Taking over public space enables everyday life to be reimagined. After Occupy took root in the fall of 2011, I would stand on the steps overlooking Zuccotti Park, just a stone’s throw from the New York Stock Exchange, and watch as hundreds of people clumped in knots exchanged ideas, food, books, technology, art, media, medical care, counseling, clothing, shelter, emotions and more. Not one exchange was mediated by money, which was in sharp contrast to the fevered consumption all around in Manhattan.

Different political and social forms were fermenting, especially ones where the market held far less sway than is normal in daily life.

As powerful and widespread as the protests have been against the failure to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed Black teen Michael Brown, outbursts in the street can’t replace spaces where community and trust is built, leadership and organization developed, and vision and strategy debated and implemented.

The reason so many radical spaces have closed down is the same reason Ché Café is imperiled: money.

Recently one of the most storied alternative spaces in the country, New York City’s Brecht Forum, shut down. A popular education institute and theater, the Brecht cited financial difficulties as the reason for packing it in after nearly 40 years, but some sources within the organization indicated there was a political decision to turn down substantial funding that could have saved it because it would have likely meant shifting its organizational form or vision.

An activist space in Brooklyn known as The Commons is filling some of the needs met by a radical space, by providing classes in leftist history and politics. Its funding model is based on the investing savvy of its politically-minded owner, who purchased the building years ago in a depressed area that has gentrified, like much of the city. There’s nothing wrong with politically-minded philanthropy as the radical left needs all the help it can get.

Another space taking shape elsewhere in Brooklyn aims to be a comprehensive community resource while adapting to market realities. Ana Nogueira and McNair Scott are the principals behind the Mayday Community Space. I worked with the two for years at the New York City Indymedia Center, which got off to a roaring start in 2000, when a left-leaning hactivist donated a midtown office space to the group of media makers.

Noguiera is a former producer at Democracy Now!, and half of the team that made the award-winning film about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Roadmap to Apartheid. She says her inspiration for Mayday comes from one of her formative experiences as a teenager, “seeing a show at the Wetlands Preserve and discovering a whole world of environmental activism.” During its 12-year run, Wetlands was located in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan and fused live concerts with environmental activism, but was steamrollered by gentrification in 2001.

Nogueira says she hopes Mayday Space “plays a similar role, drawing people to music shows and introducing them to movements,” while facilitating “affordable space for people to use in a city where rents are super high.”

To do that they’ve formed two separate entities: a for-profit bar, “where you come in, put down money, and get a drink,” and a separate nonprofit community space. The bar has investors who will receive a share of profits. Nogueira says up to 25 percent of the profits will go “to front-line activist groups who need quick infusions of cash.” She explains it’s meant for groups that don’t have the time to apply for grants, offering as possibilities they batted around a protest called on short notice or support needed after a nonviolent direct action.

“Our investors support this vision and mission of sustaining a community space in Bushwick and a rapid-response activist fund,” Nogueira says. The bar will also subsidize the community space. It got a test run this summer before the People’s Climate March after Avaaz and 350.org paid Mayday’s landlord $20,000 for three months use of the space.

Nogueira says, “It was amazing to see the place come to life. We couldn’t have picked a better inaugural event. People from across the city saw there was a space that could be a resource and it introduced us to the Bushwick community where we’re located. It introduced the space to movements we want to be connected to, and they got to see what the space could be. And it was a dry run on how to manage a dozen volunteers, create a safe space for everyone, and keep it open for 20 hours a day.”

They already have a well-known tenant in the form of Make The Road, an immigrant-focused workers center that has successfully agitated for workplace rights and against wage theft in many cases. Nogueira says, “Make The Road is going to host workshops on adult literacy, English classes, and citizenship education in the Mayday Space. We are going to complement that with Spanish classes, tenants’ rights workshops, and legal workshops such as workplace rights and know your rights workshops.”

The five-member Mayday collective is serious about serving the community, mainly comprised of low-income Puerto Rican and Mexican families. Tenants’ rights is one of the best tools to slow down the maelstrom of gentrification that’s been unleashed on Bushwick by the HBO show, Girls, which is set there.

Nogueira says local groups planning to do workshops in the space include Bushwick Copwatch and Families Against Police Violence. Other projects in the works include starting a rooftop farm with youth in the community and cooking classes

Nogueira says the project holds unknown potential, “We hope it will facilitate movement building across issues and be a neutral ground to meet where people can cross pollinate. We’ve seen that happen already through the climate organizing where people also ended up discussing police brutality, what’s happening in Ferguson, and NSA spying.”

That’s precisely the kind of role Ché Café has played through its history, says Monty Kroopkin. Its crowning achievement was serving as an organizing hub for the student campaign in the eighties that pressured the University of California to divest more than $3 billion of investments from companies doing business in South Africa. Nelson Mandela singled out the UC students’ role in helping topple apartheid when he visited Berkley, California, in 1990 after gianing freedom.

No one knows what the future holds for spaces like the Ché Café and Mayday, but their mere existence is a beacon of hope for new movements and activists alike.

To support the Ché Café and for the latest updates, go to checafe.ucsd.edu.The Mayday Space is holding a fundraising campaign to help them open successfully next year.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Occupy Movement, Political Organizing, Public Space

Make New York City Ungovernable: Lessons from the Anti-Apartheid Struggle in the Age of Bill de Blasio

If liberals drew the unambiguous conclusion that real power lies in the markets, with the corporate-owned media, and think tanks and universities endowed by the wealthy, then they would be calling for massive street protests to counter the full-court press Wall Street is placing on new Mayor Bill de Blasio, says Gupta.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

by Arun Gupta truth-out.org December 31, 2013

Saints make the worst role models. How precisely can one emulate Nelson Mandela, a “supernatural human” who moved mountains of injustice, except by becoming him, which is impossible because he was a saint?

Saints stand above history, making choices based on internal moral struggles and exhibiting unimpeachable fortitude, faith and grace. This implies events were ordained and could not have been otherwise. We are afraid to see Mandela as captive of history because it may tarnish his memory. But that’s a mistake. The bitter history of post-liberation South Africa does not diminish the heroic and costly struggle to end apartheid.

The Afrikaner elite negotiated the end of apartheid after mass movements made South Africa ungovernable in the ’80s, and its military was defeated in a regional war. Mandela and the ANC (African National Conress) made a fatal miscalculation, however. They decided that political liberation for all people meant economic liberalization for corporations that propped up and profited off the racist system.

Consequently, argues political analyst and author Patrick Bond, “South Africa’s democratization was profoundly compromised by an intra-elite economic deal that, for most people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

In short, racial apartheid was replaced with class apartheid. In 1993 a transitional government that included the ANC endorsed an IMF (International Monetary Fund) structural adjustment package. The roots of this policy were planted a decade earlier when leaders of the United Democratic Front, which coordinated the antiapartheid resistance, gambled that democratic rights should be secured before economic rights. Critics presciently argued that socialism delayed would be socialism denied. Because the defeat of liberation forces by capital happened rapidly in South Africa under a revered leader like Mandela and with the majority thirsting for economic and social justice, there are important lessons for our time. South Africa’s shift to class apartheid parallels US history in which Jim Crow was dismantled but eventually replaced by Reaganomics class warfare.

One lesson is to keep up the street heat. After being elected in 2008, Obama ditched progressive rhetoric for austerity policies: protecting banks, dithering on the home foreclosure crisis, calling for Social Security and Medicaid cuts and deficit reduction. It was only thanks to Occupy Wall Street that the national debate was flipped from austerity to economic inequality. Occupy has faded but its impact is still felt in low-wage worker organizing, minimum-wage initiatives, climate-justice organizing, and the elections of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council and Bill de Blasio, who will be inaugurated on January 1, 2014, as the 109th mayor of New York City.

The 99% Mayor, de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” has resonated across the country because most Americans are locked out of gilded communities zoned by race and class. De Blasio is no Mandela, but his candidacy was propelled by low-wage worker movements, the grassroots coalition against stop-and-frisk policing, and anger over economic inequality. Rather than lead the charge against this soft apartheid, however, de Blasio will be another liberal enforcer for the 1%. Once victory was in hand, De Blasio moved to appease the markets by calling himself a fiscal conservative, tapping stop-and-frisk architect Bill Bratton as police chief and a Goldman Sachs exec to fight inequality, and signaling that mega-real-estate projects would be approved, if with less public aid. He and his officials will now move in a world of boardrooms, penthouses, Michelin-starred restaurants, and galas where they will hear the woes of the oligarchy. At least he won’t be as cartoonish as Bloomberg, who fantasized about every Russian billionaire moving to the city, police profiling minorities more, and poor neighborhoods hosting waste incinerators. But his policy-making will involve horse-trading with liberal bigwigs and union leaders who will agree to toss crumbs to millions of struggling New Yorkers and call it progress.

There is another option: Strive to make the city ungovernable.

Let me explain. What made Occupy potent was that it was a continuous, populist protest that rattled Wall Street and paved the way for de Blasio. His victory has raised hopes, but he will not address inequality unless movements from below disrupt the status quo, like the anti-apartheid movement did in South Africa. If movements can learn from Occupy’s failures and organize strategic protests and strikes that mobilize the public to confront de Blasio’s proposals as inadequate, which they will be, then there’s a chance to redistribute some wealth and power in meaningful ways to the 99%.

Learning From South Africa

The modern history of the antiapartheid movement begins with the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. The killing of 69 peaceful anti-pass law protestors and subsequent repression left the public traumatized and led to the jailing of Mandela and other leaders, the banning of the ANC, and its turn to armed struggle. Organized resistance did not resurface until 1973 when about 100,000 workers in Durban went on strike, reviving politicized trade unionism. The 1976 Soweto Uprising by students opposing Afrikaner-language education baptized a new generation with “bullets and tear gas.” This was the coming of age for the Black Consciousness movement (influenced by Amílcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and the Black Panthers), which promoted an ideology of racial assertiveness and psychological liberation over racial inferiority. Anthony Marx points out in Lessons of Struggle that Black Consciousness was the main game in town as young activists saw the ANC and other foreign-based groups as “not only irrelevant, but wasteful.” (Much of the analysis that follows is based on Marx’s excellent history of South Africa’s internal resistance from 1960 to 1990.)

Despite months of organizing, a quarter-million students joining walkouts, and workers’ sympathy strikes, the state crushed the uprising, leaving hundreds dead and thousands jailed and tortured. The Black Consciousness movement’s emphasis on ideas as prior to physical liberation appealed mainly to students, especially those in universities, instead of the black working class it needed to win over. This limited organizational development and the chance to keep up the momentum from Soweto. The breadth of the uprising also showed the movement had achieved its aim of changing consciousness. This spurred a turn in the movement overall from a racial analysis to class and nonracial organizing. Additionally, events in mid-70s South Africa were influenced by liberation struggles that freed Angola and Mozambique from racist European rule similar to apartheid. Many youth gravitated to ANC politics after serving time in prison with senior leaders. Thousands of others fled the country and were recruited by the ANC, which alone had the resources, discipline, and organization to house, educate and train, allowing it to rebuild its internal network and popular stature.

Obviously there are huge differences with the here and now, but there are intriguing similarities as well. For example, Occupy Wall Street was also influenced by international events, such as the Arab Spring, learned the hard way that the movement behind the ideas can crumble, and succeeded in changing consciousness by popularizing the terms 99% and 1%. But after the state counterattacked in late 2011, Occupy groups failed to develop strategies beyond attempted re-occupations, solidarity campaigns and service work. Additionally, while Occupy’s power lay in its elegantly simple class critique, internal fissures erupted across the country between radical and liberals and over identity politics. The former led to splits over whether to work within the political system or build utopian models outside of it. Debates over identity politics often led to internal struggles that alienated many participants. These self-inflicted blows were compounded by Occupy’s disregard for strategy or even organization. Not surprisingly, liberal outfits, unions, community groups and workers centers picked up the banner of inequality. One exception is climate-justice organizing, which has attracted post-Occupy activists to its radical grassroots bent. But it’s also sundered by a class analysis, similar to what happened in South Africa. Radicals argue for an anti-capitalist strategy as it’s the main culprit in global warming, while those who call themselves realists contend system change is a luxury as the collapse of civilization is nigh, so we should pursue green solutions compatible with capitalism.

Marx notes Black Consciousness adopted a class analysis after Soweto to provide common values of resistance, and it could help build mass organization by overcoming an individualistic approach to fighting oppression. Many Occupiers went the other way, from collective politics to individualism by fixating on the abstractions of identity – fighting “privilege” – rather than the material effects of oppression linked to identity. Consequently, Occupy, as a movement, missed an opportunity to organize low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color and female. Just like the ANC attracted youth after the anarchic Soweto Uprising was quashed, unions have used their resources and organizational structure to attract Occupy activists looking to continue the fight against the 1%. Members of socialist and anarchist organizations have joined the campaigns as well, enabling them to collectively analyze strategies and debate and implement plans to radicalize the low-wage worker movement. But Occupiers rarely join as part of a group engaging in collective strategizing. Additionally, liberals and unions use dumbed-down class analysis for partisan or instrumental ends, instead of wielding class as a strategic tool to forge different social relations. During the 2012 election, they stole Occupy’s thunder by tarring Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percenter, playing a big role in the re-election of Obama, who has dutifully managed the interests of the 1%.

In South Africa, movements learn from history and their mistakes. When a brutal crackdown in the mid-’80s cooled mass rebellion that was destabilizing South Africa, activists did not blame the state. They took repression as a given, and instead criticized the United Democratic Front for what they saw as a lack of militancy. With Occupy, however, many still cling to the myth that police ended the movement despite copious evidence it disintegrated because of internal conflicts and strategic missteps like futile re-occupations. More recently, South Africa’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers, announced it was cutting funding to the ANC and would not back it in the 2014 elections. Outlining a strategy that would be unimaginable coming from an American labor leader, NUMSA plans to form a “new United Front that will coordinate struggles in the workplace and in communities, in a way similar to the United Democratic Front of the 1980s,” and launch a new labor party by 2015.

The South Africa of today was forged in the 1980s. Compromises made by the UDF, such as delaying economic restructuring and enforcing top-down leadership and the dominance of the ANC, left the liberation movement ill-prepared to counter the coming neoliberal regime. The ANC lost nerve on the international stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ronnie Kasrils, a storied leader of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party, is one of many who argues signing on to the IMF’s neoliberal program was a “Faustian Pact.” Kasrils says “the balance of power was with the ANC, and conditions were favorable for more radical change at the negotiating table than we ultimately accepted.”

The 99% Mayor in 1% Clothing

Under de Blasio, modest reforms are possible including strengthening a flawed paid sick leave act, boosting the minimum wage for those employed in city-subsidized projects and extending it to more than 600 workers a year covered by a 2012 bill, and creating a municipal ID to help undocumented immigrants access services. But this is tinkering at the edges, and wish lists are barely more ambitious. The Nation calls for implementing de Blasio’s proposal to tax the wealthy to fund universal pre-K. It’s a fine idea, which requires the approval of the state legislature, but it won’t begin to “reverse” the dramatic widening of the income gap, unless one has a timeline of 20 years to evaluate results.

Tellingly, de Blasio has steered clear of proposals to redistribute wealth downward instead of up. He’s been silent on the plan by his primary opponent, City Comptroller John Liu, to increase the citywide minimum wage to $11.50 an hour, raise $15 billion in new revenue through progressive fiscal and tax policy, and build 100,000 units of affordable housing in four years. De Blasio’s strategy is to be a better manager of neoliberalism to generate a little more tax revenue that can be spread around. He will replay the Obama era on a smaller stage. As soon as he surrenders to the rich and powerful, his liberal defenders will attack critics for being naïve about the power of the markets and the reality of governing a city with 448,000 government employees and a budget of $50 billion, which is greater than the GDP of 110 nations. However, the argument that his hands are tied contradicts declarations that “just about everything [is] at stake in de Blasio’s mayoralty.”

Supporters assume de Blasio can wrest concessions from the rich without any leverage over them. He won’t challenge the class apartheid suffocating most New Yorkers. He won’t be a reverse Bloomberg, re-engineering the city to make it the playground of workers instead of the gilded elite. Even if the overt racial profiling is rolled back, it will be replaced with class profiling of the homeless, panhandlers and street vendors that is defined by race, which is what Bratton did as Los Angeles police chief a decade ago. If de Blasio installs Bratton with minimal opposition progressives will embolden him to pursue Wall Street’s agenda, which is why it’s positive that opposition has emerged to Bratton, led by parents whose children were killed by the NYPD during his previous tenure as police chief.

Without organized opposition, De Blasio’s policies will not alter the 46 percent of city residents in or on the cusp of poverty or alleviate the extreme housing crisis that ranges from hedge funds and investors buying 70 percent of homes in Brooklyn to extended families of a dozen or more stuffed into two-bedroom apartments in my tenement building to the Lower Manhattan “human kennel,” where men pay $300 a month to live in squalid “chicken-wire cages” smaller than a jail cell. Any more social welfare is welcome, of course, but if de Blasio won’t commit to even an $11.50 an hour minimum wage, how will he address inequality? The wealth divide in the city is so extreme a household with two full-time workers earning $15 an hour would find its entire pre-tax income consumed by the average rent of $3,800 in Manhattan. And Brooklyn’s not far behind, with an average rent of more than $3,000.

If liberals drew the unambiguous conclusion from their arguments that real power lies in the markets, with the corporate-owned media, with think tanks and universities endowed by the wealthy, then they would be calling for massive street protests to counter the full-court press Wall Street is placing on de Blasio.

Now, nurturing an uprising is far from simple or even likely, but we do live an era where they are increasingly common because the political center is so slavishly devoted to capital. In the United States alone, since 1999, there’s been the global justice movement, the anti-Iraq War movement, the immigrant May Day general strike and Occupy Wall Street. If there are any illusions, it’s among the liberals who expect dramatic change from a de Blasio administration while they tell the left and workers to be quiet.

They would do well to remember the words of O.R. Tiro, who was killed by a letter bomb in 1974, two years after telling his fellow South African university students, “The price of freedom is blood, toil and tears . . . History has taught us that a group in power has never voluntarily relinquished its position. It has always been forced to do so.”

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How Barrett Brown shone light on the murky world of security contractors

Barrett Brown, former Anonymous spokesperson

Barrett Brown, former Anonymous spokesperson

Brown is not a household name like Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning. But after helping expose a dirty tricks plot, he faces jail

By Arun Gupta, guardian.co.uk, Monday 24 June 2013

Any attempt to rein in the vast US surveillance apparatus exposed by Edward Snowden‘s whistleblowing will be for naught unless government and corporations alike are subject to greater oversight. The case of journalist and activist Barrett Brown is a case in point.

Brown made a splash in February 2011 by helping to uncover “Team Themis”, a project by intelligence contractors retained by Bank of America to demolish the hacker society known as Anonymous and silence sympathetic journalists like Glenn Greenwald (now with the Guardian, though then with Salon). The campaign reportedly involved a menagerie of contractors: Booz Allen Hamilton, a billion-dollar intelligence industry player and Snowden’s former employer; Palantir, a PayPal-inspired and -funded outfit that sells “data-mining and analysis software that maps out human social networks for counterintelligence purposes”; and HBGary Federal, an aspirant consultancy in the intelligence sector.

The Team Themis story began in late 2010, when Julian Assange warned WikiLeaks would release documents outlining an “ecosystem of corruption [that] could take down a bank or two.” Anticipating that it might be in Assange’s sights, Bank of America went into damage-control mode and, as the New York Times reported, assembled “a team of 15 to 20 top Bank of America officials … scouring thousands of documents in the event that they become public.” To oversee the review, Bank of American brought in Booz Allen Hamilton.

Days later, Bank of America retained the well-connected law firm of Hunton & Williams, which was reportedly recommended by the Department of Justice. Hunton & Williams promptly emailed HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico; they, in turn, “proposed various schemes to attack” WikiLeaks and Greenwald. In fact, Hunton & Williams had first contacted the three tech firms in October 2010, at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce to find out if it was being attacked by labor union-backed campaigners.

The final cast member, Aaron Barr, then CEO of HBGary Federal, started creating personal dossiers on Hunton & Williams employees to display his prowess as a social media ninja – his way of convincing the law firm that he could train them in the perils of social media. Barr was anxious to generate income for his struggling subsidiary.

According to the Team Themis proposal, its partners suggested creating false documents and fake personas to damage progressive organizations such as “ThinkProgress, the labor coalition called Change to Win, the SEIU, US Chamber Watch, and StopTheChamber.com”. According to reporting by Wired, the three companies hoped to bill the Chamber of Commerce for $2m a month. But while (as leaked emails showed) the parties in the plan went back and forth over how to apportion the spoils, nothing was forthcoming.

Then Hunton & Williams submitted the Bank of America proposal, and HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico swung into action. On 2 December, just three days after Assange’s warning, Aaron Barr crafted the plan to launch “cyber attacks” on WikiLeaks.

The tech companies’ emails – which Anonymous hacked and Barrett Brown helped publicize – listed planned tactics:

“Feed[ing] the fuel between the feuding groups. Disinformation. Create messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization. Submit fake documents and then call out the error.”

They also proposed “cyber attacks”, using social media “to profile and identify risky behavior of employees”, and “get people to understand that if they support the organization we will come after them”, implying threats. There was also email chatter about attacking journalists with “a liberal bent”, specifically naming Greenwald. Some aspects of the Team Themis proposal were reminiscent of a leaked 2008 Pentagon counterintelligence plan against WikiLeaks.

In early January, email messages from HBGary Federal show plans for a meeting with Booz Allen Hamilton, apparently regarding Barr’s plans against WikiLeaks and Anonymous. At this point, no one was buying Barr’s scheme – even as he bragged to the Financial Times, on 4 February 2012, that he had used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to identify the “leaders” of Anonymous.

Barr believed that had piqued the interest of the “FBI, the Director of National Intelligence, and the US military”. In fact, it had merely made him a marked man: two days later, as Wired reported, Anonymous “took down [HBGary Federal’s] website, stole his emails, deleted the company’s backup data, trashed Barr’s Twitter account and remotely wiped his iPad.” For his part, Brown created Project PM, “a crowd-sourced wiki focused on government intelligence contractors” to delve through the tens of thousands of emails taken from HBGary Federal’s servers.

A critical element in the story concerns the fact that, according to one of the leaked emails, the companies were hoping that “if they can show that WikiLeaks is hosting data in certain countries it will make prosecution easier.” The hacked emails also revealed, Forbes reported, that Barr was hoping to sell the information on Anonymous members to the FBI. The fact that Barr was stoking interest among security agencies with a dossier of supposed Anonymous members containing incorrect names meant that innocent people might have been jailed if he had succeeded in his scheme.

Barr resigned and HBGary Federal was subsequently shuttered. But the story doesn’t end there. In July 2011, the Anonymous-linked “AntiSec” raided Booz Allen Hamilton and made off with 90,000 emails. One allegation that emerged from the cache was that BAH had been working with HBGary Federal “to develop software that would allow for the creation of multiple fake social media profiles to infiltrate discussion groups and manipulate opinion on the sites and discredit people, as well as to match personas online with offline identities.”

Within days of the Team Themis scandal, Palantir issued a statement announcing that it was cutting ties with HBGary Federal and issued an apology to Greenwald. Its reputation was at stake: in 2011, it scored $250m in sales and its customers included the CIA, FBI, US Special Operations Command, army, marines, air force, LAPD and NYPD. Tim Shorrock, an intelligence industry analyst, believes that with an immigration bill working its way through Congress that will provide billions of dollars for border enforcement, Palantir is also well-positioned to win new clients like ICE and the DEA. Along with Booz Allen Hamilton, Palantir is reportedly being paid by the government to mine social media for “terrorists”.

They are just a few of the nearly 2,000 private companies involved in the US counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence apparatus. Even as HBGary Federal has disappeared, the privatized surveillance state continues to expand. The privatized intelligence budget alone is estimated at $56bn.

Given the revelations about domestic surveillance, Brown could speak volumes about the nexus between corporations and the state – except that he’s been cooling his heels in a jail outside Dallas, Texas, for 290 days, awaiting two separate trials that could put him on ice for more than 100 years. The US government has slapped Brown with 17 counts that include identity theft, stealing thousands of credit card numbers, concealing evidence, and “internet threats”.

Ahmed Ghappour, attorney for Brown, calls the charges “prosecutorial overreach”, and maintains most are related to legitimate journalistic practices, such as cutting-and-pasting a link and refusing to give the FBI access to his sources on a laptop, “a modern-day notebook”. In contrast to the FBI’s aggressive pursuit of Brown, no probe of the Team Themis project was launched – despite a call from 17 US House representatives to investigate a possible conspiracy to violate federal laws, including forgery, mail and wire fraud, and fraud and related activity in connection with computers. Ghappour asks:

“What length will the government go to prosecute journalists reporting on intelligence contractors? Brown was one of the first to report on the plan to take down Glenn Greenwald.

“It was clear Booz Allen Hamilton [whistleblower Edward Snowden’s former employer] was consulting with the NSA, at least supporting their mass-surveillance program, and this was one of the leads Barrett was chasing at the time of the arrest.”

Team Themis also demonstrates that HBGary Federal tried to ramp up official fear of leakers and freedom of information activists for commercial ends. And it’s hardly the only one. Recent episodes involve Wall Street banks encouraging police forces to target Occupy Wall Street activists, private security firms earning money by hyping threats of environmental activists, and chemical companies plotting to intimidate scientists and public officials. Because corporations lack public oversight, privatizing critical public functions allows government to conduct dirty tricks with less scrutiny, while businesses can warp the very fabric of society by manufacturing threats in order to boost revenues and profits. As Ghappour asks again:

“Who’s policing the corporations? Who’s holding them accountable to the same standards as our government? And we need to question those standards given incidents like the Obama administration seizing the phone records of the AP.”

On Christmas day 2011, the intelligence-analysis firm Stratfor, which Anonymous accused of running a wide-ranging spying operationwas hacked. Brown was the one who alerted the mainstream media to the hack: among the millions of files released were thousands of credit-card names and numbers. Like many, Brown posted a link to the files; it was this that the government would seize on to indict Brown for credit-card theft. According to Ghappour:

“That link was accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. That link was shared hundreds or even thousands of times that day but Barrett was the only one that was indicted.”

On 6 March 2012, the FBI raided Brown, looking for among other things “records related to HBGary [Federal]”. Under growing pressure, Brown posted a YouTube rant in September 2012, in which he spoke of his opiate use and made reference to the Zetas, a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. Speaking to his computer screen, Brown warned that “any armed officials of the US government, particularly the FBI, will be regarded as potential Zeta assassin squads and … I will shoot all of them and kill them.” Clearly, Brown felt persecuted, but it was an ill-advised statement, which has led to jail without bail for nine months and a harsh list of indictments.

Ghappour asserts there is a logic why the government is keen to prosecute private contractor whistleblowers and activist journalists like Brown:

“The problem is you have companies doing very sensitive intelligence work for the government. It follows that the enemies of those companies are your own [enemies]. And it would be in their interest to silence or prosecute journalists investigating those companies.”

Because of his role as a muckraking reporter, Brown has attracted defenders like Glenn Greenwald and Rolling Stones’ Michael Hastings, who died last week in a car accident. Yet, perhaps because he wasn’t as high-profile as Bradley Manning or as unassailable as Aaron Swartz, Brown hasn’t attracted the type of support that can effectively pressure the government. But with the light thrown on the privatised national security state by the leaks from former BAH contractor for the NSA Edward Snowden, there is renewed interest in Brown’s plight and the campaign for justice in his case.

 

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Moshed in the Pit of Capitalism

by Arun Gupta, truth-out.org, op-ed, June 16, 2013

Delighted attendee Gupta opines that while the Coachella music and arts festival “may be the zenith of hipster culture” – with extraordinary food choices, music, flamboyancy and release, drugs and friendliness – “It’s all Walmart economy.”

Fans listen to a set by Nicky Romero at the Sahara Tent during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 12, 2013. (Photo: Chad Batka / The New York Times).

Fans listen to a set by Nicky Romero at the Sahara Tent during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 12, 2013. (Photo: Chad Batka / The New York Times).

Within 20 minutes I had been clocked in the face, pummeled by flying bodies and stripped of clothing. It was the best mosh pit of the day, and I wanted more. Hundreds thick of body or reckless by nature were circulating in a blender of whirling arms and legs propelled by the freneticism of The Descendents. It was exhilarating not knowing if I would be the bat or ball next. There was little risk of death or injury that led the Smashing Pumpkins and Fugazi to ban moshing at their concerts. When I fell down, hands pulled me up, backslaps were exchanged, and the good times rolled.

Bill, my companion at Coachella, remarked as another surfer was catapulted on top of the crowd, “It’s a great way to let out your social aggression.” I grinned in agreement as we dove into a wave of slam dancers surging and crashing.

After scoring a free ticket to the three-day Southern California music-and-arts festival, I cruised to the desert town of Indio with scant knowledge of the 175 acts rotating through eight venues, hoping I wouldn’t be bored. As I entered the 2.4 million-square-foot polo grounds, my anxiety vanished because it was an ADD delight. I wandered from one act to the next, people-watched, self-medicated, and tripped out on colossal mechanical insects and wind-sculpted balloon chains painting the sky.

Star power like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick Cave attracted a record 90,000 pilgrims each of two weekends in April, but the real draw was the crowd itself. In the digital age, unlimited music is on tap anytime, anywhere, and music-discovery services have reduced the search for the new from prowling obscure clubs and rifling stacks of unknown albums to opening a browser. It’s the shared live experience and the chance to star in your own social media firmament – by posting obsessively to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr – that’s elevated Coachella to the Superbowl of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

It’s revived the music-festival genre, along with events like Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo, for fans who treat concerts like iPods, shuffling from one act and genre to the next. Today’s festivals are far removed from the first rock concerts of the ’60s that were “beachheads of a new, ecstatic culture meant to replace the old repressive one,” notes Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets.

Now in its 15th year, Coachella is the highest-grossing festival in the world. For the region it’s a quarter-billion-dollar revenue generator, which outstrips Jamaica’s GDP on an annual basis. Tickets run up to $800, luxury Safari tents top out at $6,500, and everything costs: parking, water, showers, even charging phones. The dominant tribe is money-flush youth with the will to endure three sleepless days of being mashed in a delicious sound taco of Indie rock.

But Coachella is also the modern incarnation of medieval carnivals that revealed “another way of life that stood in stark contrast to the austerity and fixed hierarchy of the official order,” notes Al Sandine in The Taming of the American Crowd. We may imagine festivals like the original May Day, that celebrated the return of spring, to be as timeless as nature, but they are inventions, like Labor Day, Independence Day and Armistice Day.

Late 18th century French revolutionaries “invented a series of public events intended to furnish the novel and exciting world that had fallen into their hands with a revolutionary culture,” writes Sandine. These were solemn affairs with “maidens dressed in white” and ceremonies “marking brotherhood between rival villages,” but the desire for carnival could not be suppressed. On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the orderly military parade in Paris turned into a days-long celebration with “parties, dances and parodies.” In the town of Saint-Andéol, Sandine quotes a contemporary describing a “love-feast,” where ” ‘wine flowed in the streets, the tables were spread, provisions placed in common,’ and people joined hands in an enormous dance extending outward ‘into the fields [and] across the mountains.’ ”

Libidinous festivals still exist in the global south, such as Rio’s Carnival and India’s Holi. Our public parties, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, are associated with frat-boy culture or are sanitized like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Libertine exceptions remain, such as Mardi Gras, Pride and Burning Man, but they have survived by adapting to the market. Radical noncorporate celebrations such as Rainbow Gatherings and Critical Mass tend to be squashed.

Because unplanned festivals are rare, they can be wildly popular. Tens of thousands joined Occupy Wall Street as it was a spontaneous outburst of history and living theater. Democratic, free, participatory, dangerous, unpredictable and open to all, Occupy was unlike the gated festivals that have colonized public space with pacified crowds.

While the elite used to fear the frenzy of the crowd, mega-festivals profit from assimilating the defiance and aggression of rock music. Coachella has successfully enclosed the ancient dance of joy and aggression around a bonfire. Bottling youthful rebellion draws devotees from Sydney, London, Tijuana and Hollywood for nostalgia and novelty, eros and excess. And it’s filling a primal need for mass, spontaneous revelry that’s largely disappeared from America.

Rob, 24, an expressionist artist who jetted in from New Zealand, said, “It’s the best music festival in the world.” Jane, a schoolteacher from Burbank had been dying to attend because her friends deemed it “epic.” “Was it epic?” I asked. “It was epic,” she replied with a delirious grin. “Teddy Bear,” a 20-something bro outfitted in more digital media than clothing, wondered how to optimally balance his intake of Acid, Mollies, and Sassafras with alcohol.

Cynics sneer at the vapid self-indulgence. Desperate-to-be-cool attendees gush about fake bands. Lindsay Lohan delayed her court-ordered rehab to after the festival, a smart move for the Adderall and Xanax-popping train wreck as drugs are cheaper and easier to score than food. There’s little nostalgia for rock’s muddy, tie-dye, bad-trip roots. Today’s hippie chicks buy fake flower headbands; music stars outsource their beats; and the 40,000 campers herded into the tent Serengeti eye the air-conditioned VIP quarters with envy.

But criticizing the base desire misses the point. Excess is the goal, and everyone is participant and spectator in the swirl of drugs, performance, fashion, art and above all, flesh. It could overwhelm, like the two sweaty groundskeepers who stood frozen with beer in hands as a flood of pecs and boobs, abs and butts coursed around them. One of the most popular spots was where the water guns were spraying overheated crowds dancing to DJ sets behind the motor-home-sized psychedelic snail oozing a foamy mucilaginous trail. Under the cooling jets, hundreds gyrated in slippery polyamorous frottage like wriggling spermatozoa building to a crescendo.

Without sex and drugs, attendance would probably dwindle to that of a minor-league baseball game. But there’s more to it than that. By feeding the need for human connection, Coachella’s revived the festival scene. The promise of an interconnected world on demand has turned out to be two-dimensional and alienating. Iron-fisted policing has scared most Americans away from political crowds. Shared intimacy is elusive – even though every form is on sale from baby making to funeral mourning. That leaves bars, shopping and sports, all of which lack genuine community.

Coachella is so immersive, it feels like its own universe, which makes it hard to imagine another way of life beyond its utopian consumerism, sustained by austerity. We were all atomized consumers whizzing in a giant particle accelerator to explosive energies, unable to escape the electromagnetic spectacle. If Coachella is a universe, the dark energy holding it together is the free market.

There’s little space for politics. Reggae and dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry chanted, “I am a Black Man” and “Burn IMF.” Flea declared, “We don’t like guns, and we don’t like drones,” and the Sparks crooned the biting crowd-mocker, “I am a Suburban Homeboy.” The words felt out of place because political music is a product of social struggle by the poor, peasants and workers, not West LA stoners.

Moments did defy cynicism. For her finale, a white-clad Janelle Monáe paddled across a sea of hands. She hypnotically drew us in with our eyes and hands reaching skyward to form the surf to buoy her. After Monáe passed overheard, not before timidly clasping my left hand – which I eventually washed – the crowd returned to earth. With faces aglow, we hungered to share the joy. But the fire dimmed when I caught the eye of a stranger rather than a friend. Like a good drug it was transcendent, but not transformative. Collectively we created a fond memory, but we couldn’t connect to each other.

Coachella may be the zenith of hipster culture – food choices included Kogi BBQ, wood-fired pizza, espresso bars and a farmer’s market – but it’s all Walmart economy. Its sustainability program encourages carpooling, not to save the planet, but to help it pare parking and personnel costs. It extracts unpaid labor from concertgoers by providing a free bottle of water for every 10 empties turned in. The youth who worked the water stands pleaded for tips, explaining they were unpaid, apart from free admission. Two leathernecks from Camp Pendleton, who had ditched their security guard posts, also claimed they were unpaid, with their Marine Corps battalion receiving their wages. Other guards said they were paid less than $10 an hour to work fully clothed in 100-degree weather and dust and pollen so intense that many people acquired “Coachella cough.”

Coachella Valley is one of the “poorest, densest areas” in the country, with farmworker families contending with “arsenic-tainted water, frequent blackouts and raw sewage that backs up into the shower.” Latinos at the festival were more likely to be low-wage manual laborers than well-heeled partiers at the Rose Garden bar. The workers are hired through layers of subcontractors, notorious for skimping on benefits while violating labor rights.

On Monday, a few dozen workers cleaned one of the vast fields that had corralled tens of thousands of partiers. Ron, a security guard who works the festival circuit, gave me a glimpse of the underbelly. He indicated the official attitude toward drug use was “I know nothing!” While festival workers diligently advised, “Make sure to stay hydrated,” there was no attempt to curb the pervasive and open drug use. Ron claimed one camper, arrested after stabbing a man in the groin and neck after finding him with his girlfriend in his tent, was found with 5,000 doses of ecstasy to sell. “What about sexual assaults?” I asked. “That’s not a problem,” Ron said. “But some of these girls are asking for it.” He paused. “I mean, no one’s asking to get raped, but have you seen the way they dress?” Security’s main concern was jumpers hurdling fences to get in for free and busting rings peddling counterfeit wristbands. Ron said violence was minimal compared to Stagecoach, the country music festival the following week. He explained many guys would get hammered drinking all day and then “wail on each other.” Unlike Coachella, Stagecoach’s web site is blaring with warnings about excess drinking, violence and public sex.

At that point, Ron’s partner dragged him away. A backhoe had struck a water main and a geyser was turning the road into a lake. A gaggle of workers exited the cleaned field; the only remaining evidence of Coachella was rows of thousands of square patches of grass yellowed by tents. The workers grabbed a patch of shade, and each one foraged through a clear plastic bag, examining hauls of T-shirts left behind. After a few minutes they were rounded up to clear the next field. One worker was absorbed in examining his stash – nearly as big as himself. He looked up, grabbed his bag and struggled to run after his crew as they disappeared in the distance.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

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Cleveland anarchist bomb plot aided and abetted by the FBI

Rather than target real risks of domestic terror, like neo-Nazis, the FBI entrapment machine demonises anarchists and Muslims
 

FBI mugshot of Connor Stevens, one of five men arrested earlier this year for plotting to blow up a bridge near Cleveland, Ohio. Photograph: FBI/AP

by Arun Gupta, The Guardian, November 28 2012

On 20 November, district court Judge David D Dowd Jr sentenced three anarchists with the Occupy Cleveland movement to prison terms ranging from 8 to 11.5 years for attempting to bomb a highway bridge last spring. US Attorney Steven Dettelbach trumpeted the successful prosecution:

“These defendants were found to have engaged in terrorist activities … These sentences should send a message that when individuals decide to endanger the safety of our community, they will be held to account.”

Dettelbach, however, was trying to spin the judge’s ruling that, in fact, rebuked the government. Dowd handed down far shorter sentences than the prosecutor sought, reportedly saying that the proposed prison terms were “grotesque” and “doesn’t make any sense whatsoever”. The prosecution had asked for sentences of 30, 25 and 19 years, respectively, for Douglas Wright, 27, Brandon Baxter, 20, and Connor Stevens, 20, in the failed plot to use plastic explosives to topple the Route 82 bridge spanning Ohio‘s Cuyahoga Valley National Park on 30 April 2012.

The prosecution was banking on decades-long sentences after negotiating a minimum of nearly 16 years for co-defendant Anthony Hayne, 35, in exchange for his testimony against his four associates.Hayne, who pled guilty 25 July on three charges, was told he would serve half the time of the other defendants. Dowd’s decision sent Hayne’s lawyer scrambling the same day to withdraw the guilty plea, with sentencing now set for 30 November. (The fifth man caught in the plot, Joshua Stafford, 23, is being evaluated for mental competency.)

After Hayne agreed to testify, Wright, Baxter and Stevens accepted guilty pleas 5 September, gambling that Dowd would reduce their sentences based on mitigating factors. But this nixed the defense plan to argue entrapment, detailing how Shaquille Azir, a paid FBI informant with a 20-year criminal record, facilitated every step in the plot.

Azir molded the five’s childish bravado and drunken fantasies into terrorism. He played father figure to the lost men, providing them with jobs, housing, beer and drugs. Every time the scheme threatened tocollapse into gutterpunk chaos, he kept it on track.

FBI tapes reveal Azir led the brainstorming of targets, showed them bridges to case out, pushed them to buy C-4 military-grade explosives, provided the contact for weapons, gave them money for the explosives and demanded they develop a plan because “we on the hook” for the weapons. At one point, Azir burst out in frustration at their ineptitude: “every time we meet, we leave saying, we’re doing some research. And then get back together and go back to square one.”

This case could have put on trial the post-September 11 strategy of“preventative prosecution”, in which the FBI dispatches provocateurs to infiltrate targeted religious and political groups to see what they can stir up. The targeting is not based on who are the main domestic terrorist threats, such as neo-Nazis preparing to start a race war, and violent anti-abortion fanatics. The threat assessment singles out the already-demonized, such as Muslims. Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and co-founder of Educators for Civil Liberties, says:

“There’s a tremendous amount of violent Christian religious speech in our airwaves and that’s considered protected. It sounds very different to the government if the speaker is a Muslim.”

Similarly, anarchists are inherently suspect. A recent FBI document calls anarchists “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their activities”, warning they were engaged in “experimentation with new tactics, weapons … leading up to 2012 conventions”. This tone pervades the government case against Wright, Baxter and Stevens. It claims the “brothers-in-arms” were united in “hatred of the government, and shared anarchist background” and had already decided “to carry out an attack that would, in their minds, lead to a larger civil war”.

Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior attorney specializing in national security at the Center for Constitutional Rights, claims standard operating procedure in terror cases “starts with surveillance and profiling on the basis of religion, politics and national origin”. She notes parallels between the Cleveland anarchists and the “Newburgh Four”, named for the upstate New York town in which the plot was hatched. The Guardian reported they were convicted in 2010 “of an Islamic terrorist plot to blow up Jewish synagogues and shoot down military jets with missiles”, and described them as “beset by drug, criminal and mental health issues”. Kebriaei says the four men “are from the poorest community in New York, and the government was exploiting their needs”.

The Cleveland anarchists are cut from the same cloth. Lea Tolls, 47, a self-described “Occu-mom”, says, “Except for [Stevens] they were destitute. They are angry, some have mental illnesses, and there is alcoholism and abuse in their families.” The FBI dispatched Azir to an Occupy Cleveland event on 21 October 2011, “based on an initial report of potential criminal activity and threats involving anarchists”. Terry Gilbert, Stevens’ defense attorney, questions why the feds would send “a plant into a peaceful demonstration with a very ambiguous claim of criminal behavior. Once you get an informant in there, they have every motive to get a case. They are trying to make money or are working off a criminal case.”

This profile fits Azir to a T: he has filed nine bankruptcy petitions in 12 years and was indicted twice during the investigation for passing bad checks. It also fits the FBI plant in the Newburgh case, Shahed Hussain, a convicted fraudster who became an FBI asset in return for Etch-a-Sketching away his legal problems and for $100,000 in expenses and wages.

In a memo dated 14 November, Judge Dowd undercut the rationale for the investigation. The FBI’s first report from Azir stated that Doug Wright and a group of white males at the Occupy Cleveland event “were expressing displeasure at the crowd’s unwillingness to act violently”. In actuality, Dowd found that Baxter and Wright “joined the others in the nonviolent approach”.

Dowd also rejected the Bureau’s description of Wright as being in the“planning phase” to topple a bank sign from a 947-foot-tall skyscraper in downtown Cleveland, finding that he was merely expressing his “fascination with the idea of pulling pranks by using spray paint, stink bombs and smoke bombs which he heard about in the Anarchist’s Cookbook”. Dowd noted as well that Azir “facilitated the criminal conduct of the defendants”.

The Newburgh defense counsel, like the Cleveland attorneys, determined that entrapment offered the best chance of acquitting their clients. If they succeed, it will be the first time since 9/11 that entrapment has beaten a terror rap. Kebriaei says:

“Legally, entrapment is a very narrow and very difficult defense. It is very difficult for anyone to succeed in front of a jury if you’re accused of terrorism in this country.”

Entrapment turns on the question: were the accused predisposed toward violence? That’s why the government wants to equate Islam with terror and anarchism with anti-state violence: once the ideas are planted in the public’s mind, it can wave the red flags and prejudice the whole case. Theoharis says:

“Judges are not willing to challenge the government because if you take a bold stand that can mean you’re not going to move up.”

District court Judge Colleen McMahon blasted the government’s conduct in the Newburgh Four, saying:

“Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope.”

But, says Theoharis, the judge “wasn’t actually willing to do anything courageous”. Dowd didn’t go out on a limb either, applying terrorism enhancement charges in a pre-sentence hearing, though Gilbert says he interprets this as a tactical move. “Dowd wanted to craft a reasonable sentence that gave the government less opportunity to challenge it on appeal.”

The result, however is that the FBI continues to run rampant. To stop entrapment, says Kebriaei:

“The first step is more scrutiny of the process and how these convictions are coming about. Exposing these cases may effect prosecutorial and police practices in terms of targeting people.”

The Newburgh and Cleveland cases may eventually turn out to be a nail in the coffin of the FBI’s entrapment strategy. But it comes at the cost of nine men losing decades of their lives and nine devastated families. There are hundreds more cases like these ones, and no one knows how many still to come.

• For information on how to contact Brandon Baxter, Joshua Stafford, Connor Stevens and Douglas Wright, see cleveland4solidarity.org. For the Newburgh Four, see projectsalam.org

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We are back on the road for our fourth cross-country reporting tour!

After celebrating the first anniversary of the Occupy movement in New York City, we are back on the road for our fourth cross-country Occupy tour!

It’s been exactly one year since we went on the road.  Visiting the Occupy movement while it was blossoming around the country last fall was like traveling from peak to peak.  Now we are picking our way through the valleys, in the shadow of the elections.

But the stories of the 99% are more important ever. The grave conditions that drove thousands of Americans from every walk of life into the streets this past year will persist as political leaders have shown no interest in addressing the roots of the economic crisis.

The mainstream media doesn’t care.  Independent media doesn’t have the funding.  We are some of the few independent journalists out there who are finding the issues that concern Americans from all walks of life and telling them to millions in outlets such as Truthout, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Nation, Alternet, Salon and Z.

We are also working on a book and film about the movement this winter, and are continuing to help other independent journalists and filmmakers by assisting a dozen occupied newspapers around the country and promoting the work of artists through events such as Occupy the Film Festival.

But we can’t do it without your help.  We are not backed by corporate dollars. In order to continue our work, we are seeking to raise $8,000 on our WePay site.  We are nearly halfway to our fundraising goal.  Won’t you help us with a contribution today?

The Occupy movement is delving deep into campaigns around student debt, financial regulation and getting money out of politics; immigrant rights and labor organizing; the building of worker collectives and collective farms; and the socially destructive process of home foreclosures and the ecologically destructive practice of oil, coal and natural gas extraction. It is more important than ever that independent media tell the stories of the powerful currents reshaping America and how people across the country are actively building a more just, democratic and sustainable future from the bottom up against tremendous odds.

Please donate today at https://www.wepay.com/occupyusatoday.  Anything helps: $5 or $50, every penny goes to help us complete our work on the Occupy movement and the issues of the 99% this historic year.

We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

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