How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign

by Arun Gupta Counterpunch September 19, 2014

I’ve never been to a protest march that advertised in the New York City subway. That spent $220,000 on posters inviting Wall Street bankers to join a march to save the planet, according to one source. That claims you can change world history in an afternoon after walking the dog and eating brunch.

Welcome to the “People’s Climate March” set for Sunday, Sept. 21 in New York City. It’s timed to take place before world leaders hold a Climate Summit at the United Nations two days later. Organizers are billing it as the “biggest climate change demonstration ever” with similar marches around the world. The Nation describes the pre-organizing as following “a participatory, open-source model that recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests.” A leader of 350.org, one of the main organizing groups, explained, “Anyone can contribute, and many of our online organizing ‘hubs’ are led by volunteers who are often coordinating hundreds of other volunteers.”

I will join the march, as well as the Climate Convergence starting Friday, and most important the “Flood Wall Street” direct action on Monday, Sept. 22. I’ve had conversations with more than a dozen organizers including senior staff at the organizing groups. Many people are genuinely excited about the Sunday demonstration. The movement is radicalizing thousands of youth. Endorsers include some labor unions and many people-of-color community organizations that normally sit out environmental activism because the mainstream green movement has often done a poor job of talking about the impact on or solutions for workers and the Global South.

Nonetheless, to quote Han Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Environmental activist Anne Petermann and writer Quincy Saul describe how the People’s Climate March has no demands, no targets,and no enemy. Organizers admitted encouraging bankers to march was like saying Blackwater mercenaries should join an antiwar protest. There is no unity other than money. One veteran activist who was involved in Occupy Wall Street said it was made known there was plenty of money to hire her and others. There is no sense of history: decades of climate-justice activism are being erased by the incessant invocation of the “biggest climate change demonstration ever.” Investigative reporter Cory Morningstar has connected the dots between the organizing groups, 350.org and Avaaz, the global online activist outfit modeled on MoveOn, and institutions like the World Bank and Clinton Global Initiative. Morningstar claims the secret of Avaaz’s success is its “expertise in behavioral change.”

That is what I find most troubling. Having worked on Madison Avenue for nearly a decade, I can smell a P.R. and marketing campaign a mile away. That’s what the People’s Climate March looks to be. According to inside sources a push early on for a Seattle-style event—organizing thousands of people to nonviolently shut down the area around the United Nations—was thwarted by paid staff with the organizing groups.

One participant in the organizing meetings said, “In the beginning people were saying, ‘This is our Seattle,’” referring to the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial that was derailed by direct action. But the paid staff got the politics-free Climate March. Another source said, “You wouldn’t see Avaaz promoting an occupy-style action. The strategic decision was made to have a big march and get as many mainstream groups on board as possible.”

Nothing wrong with that. Not every tactic should be based on Occupy. But in an email about climate change that Avaaz sent out last December, which apparently raked in millions of dollars, it wrote, “It’s time for powerful, direct, non-violent action, to capture imagination, convey moral urgency, and inspire people to act. Think Occupy.”

Here’s what seems to be going on. Avaaz found a lucrative revenue stream by warning about climate catastrophe that can be solved with the click of a donate button. To convince people to donate it says we need Occupy-style actions. When the moment comes for such a protest, Avaaz and 350.org blocked it and then when it did get organized, they pushed it out of sight. If you go to People’s Climate March, you won’t find any mention of the Flood Wall Street action, which I fully support, but fear is being organized with too little time and resources. Nor have I seen it in an Avaaz email, nor has anyone else I’ve talked to. Bill McKibben of 350.org began promoting it this week, but that may be because there is discontent in the activist ranks about the march, which includes lots of Occupy Wall Street activists. One inside source said, “It’s a branding decision not to promote the Flood Wall Street action. These are not radical organizations.”

Branding. That’s how the climate crisis is going to be solved. We are in an era of postmodern social movements.

The image (not ideology) comes first and shapes the reality. The P.R. and marketing determines the tactics, the messaging, the organizing, and the strategy. Whether this can have a positive effect is a different question, and it’s why I encourage everyone to participate. The future is unknowable. But left to their own devices the organizers will lead the movement into the graveyard of the Democratic Party, just as happened with the movement against the Iraq War a decade ago. You remember that historic worldwide movement, right? It was so profound the New York Times dubbed global public opinion, “the second superpower.” Now Obama has launched an eighth war and there is no antiwar movement to speak of.

Sources say Avaaz and 350.org is footing most of the bill for the People’s Climate March with millions of dollars spent. Avaaz is said to have committed a dozen full-time staff, and hired dozens of other canvassers to collect petition signatures and hand out flyers. Nearly all of 350.org’s staff is working on climate marches around the country and there is an office in New York with thirty full-time workers organizing the march. That takes a lot of cheddar. While the grassroots are being mobilized, this is not a grassroots movement. That’s why it’s a mistake to condemn it. People are joining out of genuine concern and passion and hope for an equitable, sustainable world, but the control is top down and behind closed doors. Everyone I talked to described an undemocratic process. Even staffers were not sure who was making the decisions other than to tell me to follow the money. It’s also facile to say all groups are alike. Avaaz is more cautious than 350.org, and apparently the New York chapter of 350.org, which is more radical, is at odds with the national.

But when the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about P.R. and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator. The lack of politics is a political decision. One insider admitted despite all the overheated rhetoric about the future is on the line, “I don’t expect much out of this U.N. process.” The source added this is “a media moment, a mobilizing moment.” The goal is to have visuals of a diverse crowd, hence the old saw about a “family-friendly” march. Family friendly comes at a high cost, however. Everything is decided by the need for visuals, which means organizers will capitulate to anything the NYPD demands for fear of violence. The march is on a Sunday morning when the city is in hangover mode. The world leaders will not even be at the United Nations, and they are just the hired guns of the real climate criminals on Wall Street. The closest the march comes to the United Nations is almost a mile away. The march winds up on Eleventh Avenue, a no-man’s land far from subways. There is no closing rally or speakers.

An insider says the real goal was to create space for politicians: “If you can frame it as grandma and kids and immigrants and labor you could make it safer for politicians to come out and support. It’s all very liberal. I don’t have much faith in it.”

When I asked what the metrics for success for, the insider told me media coverage and long-term polling about public opinion. I was dumbfounded. That’s the exact same tools we would use in huge marketing campaigns. First we would estimate and tally media “impressions” across all digital, print, outdoor, and so on. Then a few months down the road we would conduct surveys to see if we changed the consumer’s opinion of the brand, their favorability, the qualities they associated with it, the likelihood they would try. That’s the same tools Avaaz is allegedly using.

Avaaz has pioneered clickbait activism. It gets people to sign petitions about dramatic but ultimately minor issues like, “Prevent the flogging of 15 year old rape victim in Maldives.” The operating method of Avaaz, which was established in 2007, is to create “actions” like these that generate emails for its fundraising operation. In other words, it’s a corporation with a business model to create products (the actions), that help it increase market share (emails), and ultimately revenue. The actions that get the most attention are ones that get the most petition signers, the most media coverage, and which help generate revenue.

Avaaz has turned social justice into a product to enhance the liberal do-gooding lifestyle, and it’s set its sights on the climate justice movement.

The more dramatic the emails the better the response. It’s like the supermarket. The bags and boxes don’t say, “Not bad,” or “kinda tasty.” They say “the cheesiest,” “the most delicious,” “an avalanche of flavor,” “utterly irresistible.” That’s why climate change polls so well for Avaaz. It’s really fucking dramatic. But it’s still not dramatic enough for marketing purposes.

One source said the December 2013 email from Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel about climate change was a goldmine. It was headlined, “24 Months to Save the World.” It begins, “This may be the most important email I’ve ever written to you,” and then says the climate crisis is “beyond our worst expectations” with storms and temperatures “off the charts.” Then comes the hook from Patel, “We CAN stop this, if we act very fast, and all together. And out of this extinction nightmare, we can pull one of the most inspiring futures for our children and grandchildren. A clean, green future in balance with the earth that gave birth to us.”

Telling people there is 24 months to save the world is odious, as is implying an online donation to Avaaz can save the planet.

The same overblown rhetoric is being used for the People’s Climate March: It’s the biggest ever. There is “unprecedented collaboration” with more than 1,400 “partner” groups in New York City. Everything comes down to this one day with the “future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history.”

Presumably the orderly marchers behind NYPD barricades will convince the governments of the world that will meet for the Climate Summit that won’t even meet for another two days that they need to pass UN Secretary­ General Ban Ki-­moon’s “ambitious global agreement to dramatically reduce global warming pollution.”

Moon is now joining the march. But it’s hard to find details, including on the Climate Summit website, as to what will actually be discussed there. The best account I could find is by Canadian journalist Nick Fillmore. He claims the main point will be a carbon pricing scheme. This is one of those corporate-designed scams that in the past has rewarded the worst polluters with the most credits to sell and creates perverse incentives to pollute, because then they can earn money to cut those emissions.

So we have a corporate-designed protest march to support a corporate-dominated world body to implement a corporate policy to counter climate change caused by the corporations of the world, which are located just a few miles away but which will never feel the wrath of the People’s Climate March.

Rather than moaning on the sidelines and venting on Facebook, radicals need to be in the streets. Join the marches and more important the direct actions. Radicals need to ask the difficult questions as to why for the second time in fifteen years has a militant uprising, first Seattle and then Occupy, given way to liberal cooptation. What good is your radical analysis if the NGO sector and Democratic Party fronts kept out-organizing you?

Naomi Klein says we need to end business as usual because climate change is going to change everything. She’s right. Unfortunately the organizers of the People’s Climate March didn’t get the memo. Because they are continuing on with business as usual that won’t change anything.

One prominent environmental organizer says that after the march ends, “The U.N. leaders are going to be in there Monday and Tuesday and do whatever the fuck they want. And everyone will go back to their lives, walking the dog and eating brunch.”

The future is unwritten. It’s not about what happens on Sunday. It’s what happens after that.

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Filed under Climate Change, Politics, Protest

The Danger of America’s Police is the Mindset, Not Military Weapons

Police impunity in the U.S. is the norm. A study found that 99.8% of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted. 

by Arun Gupta Telesur August 24, 2014

The Aug. 9 killing of a defenseless 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was depressingly familiar. Nearly a hundred unarmed black people are killed by cops every year in the United States. Few stir the national conscience despite the often shady circumstances of their deaths. Police impunity is the norm, with one study finding 99.8 percent of 1,500 officers involved in killing civilians were never convicted of criminal charges.

Dorian Johnson, the primary witness to the shooting, claims Officer Wilson gunned down a wounded Brown who had his hands raised in surrender. Brown’s corpse was left on the street for four hours. Blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, have long decried systematic violence at the hands of a virtually all-white police force. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, has shifted from 74 percent white to 63 percent African-American since 1990, and has been pummeled by the housing and economic downturn for nearly a decade.

Brown’s killing catalyzed these long-simmering grievances into protests. But few were prepared for what came next. Ferguson police outfitted with armored vehicles, sonic weapons, sniper rifles, body armor, and grenade launchers swarmed the streets, firing tear gas, flash-bang grenades, pepper spray balls, and rubber and wooden bullets at civilians. “The police response has shocked America,” wrote the New York Times. Police in full battle rattle leveling automatic rifles at protesters with their hands held up were likened to the streets of Baghdad. After reporters were attacked and arrested, the Washington Post equipped its staff with blue bulletproof vests emblazoned with “PRESS,” the same gear used on Middle East battlefields. One British paper dispatched its Afghanistan war correspondent to Ferguson to cover the violence.

One welcome surprise was that outrage among Ferguson residents continued for two weeks. It’s rare to see sustained defiant protest in the United States. They were fed up with a level of police brutality that is so casual it’s shocking. One cop, in full view of video cameras, pointed a rifle at unarmed protesters and yelled, “I will fucking kill you.”

Images like that led to an outcry to demilitarize the police. Washington has created a grab bag of military aid through the “1033 program,” the Law Enforcement Support Office, and Department of Homeland Security grants, enabling local enforcement agencies to snatch up drones, mine-resistant vehicles, battle gear, and chemical weapons. Much of this came into effect after the September 11 attacks, but some of it pre-dates the attacks, and ending it is not so simple.

Junking surplus military equipment won’t alter the social attitudes that give police so much latitude they are effectively the law. The war on drugs and war on crime attitudes have created a disdain for civil liberties in America, especially the rights of the accused and by extension entire communities. Civil liberties deteriorated even further after September 11. In an atmosphere where the public has been stampeded into trading freedom for security, police violence and lack of accountability flourishes with or without military equipment.

After Brown’s death it was apparent police were violating constitutional rights: freedom of the press, the use of unreasonable force, the right to assemble, and equal protection. Cops from Ferguson and surrounding communities told protesters when, where, and how they could demonstrate, arresting many engaged in peaceful activity. At least 11 journalists were arrested. Police threatened and attacked journalists and protesters who were filming interactions. And there is a documented pattern of Ferguson police using profiling, stopping, and arresting African-Americans.

Given the systematic crimes by Ferguson police, Missouri State Gov. Jay Nixon was complicit in their lawlessness by not replacing them immediately. Nixon dragged his heels and employed half measures, such as bringing in a state police commander with limited powers and deploying National Guard troops to protect the police 10 days after the police violence began. But at no point were local police ordered off the streets. President Obama whose oath of office is to uphold the Constitution laid low before finally dispatching Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson.

Elected officials vacillate because they are afraid to challenge the social power of police. It is a truism that for the police to function the public has to allow itself to be policed. But this truth is startling to many, and what is happening in Ferguson is a rebellion against this order. Most Americans support the police in their explicit function to protect property and implicit function to protect a social order based on racial and class hierarchies. This is not an abstraction. A crowd-funding webpage for Darren Wilson raked in nearly a quarter-million dollars in donations in under a week and was rife with incendiary comments. (A new fundraising site for Wilson was set up with the support of the Ferguson Police Department and netted another ninety thousand dollars in two days.)

One individual who donated a hundred dollars wrote, “I thank all Police, you are the ‘Thin Blue Line’ protecting normal Americans from aggressive and entitled primitive savages.” That sentence succinctly if inadvertently sums up the reactionary view of American history. Only state violence keeps civilization safe. “Entitled primitive savages” crams together three racial stereotypes: the welfare queen, backwards Africans, and uncivilized natives. “Normal” Americans are undoubtedly white as other comments made clear. Brown was a “thing,” a “thug,” and “a waste of good ammo.” “Blacks [use] every excuse in the book to loot and riot.” One person exhorted, “Wake up White America.” Another said, “All self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity.”

The racially charged aggression reveals the hollowness of the age of Obama. In 2008 Obama presented himself as an avatar of a post-racial America. The more he succeeded, the more it proved America had triumphed over its racist legacy. Liberals embraced this fantasy because through Obama they could see themselves as good, just, and free of bias. But the post-racial ideology made Obama impotent to confront the structural racism that still exists in America. White liberals are no less complicit than white conservatives in supporting and benefiting from the economic and social power they gain from segregated housing, educational and employment. If anything, conservatives more readily acknowledge the role of police is to enforce this order. The two times Obama did speak out about state-sanctioned violence against Blacks, the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for breaking into his own home and the stalking and killing of an unarmed Trayvon Martin by a vigilante, Obama was met with derision by the right and silence by most liberals.

Obama learned his lesson. He had nothing to gain from confronting racism because his power was based on denying, and not confronting, how America is fractured by race and class. If he had successfully challenged it in his first presidential run, which is no mean feat, that would have brought together an organized social base to counter the white reactionary response to Ferguson. Instead, Obama vacationed in silence on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer redoubt for America’s elite, and took five days to issue a statement that was “tone deaf and disappointing.

For Obama to state the obvious—that the police are the architects of the violence in Ferguson, that they act like an occupying army towards the Blacks there, and that unreconstructed racism is alive and well—would provoke a huge backlash among many whites, and a fair number of Asians and Latinos as well.

To reduce the issue of police violence in America to the equipment they use can easily backfire. While it will be a real struggle to shelve the armored vehicles, body armor, machine guns, and chemical weapons that’s a small part of the battle. Removing all the military gear is not going to magically transform the police into officer friendly in a fifties patrol car. The racist policing and profiling won’t end, nor will the wide license society, the courts, and the media give them.

I’ve watched the NYPD in action for 25 years. They rarely rely on military weapons, though they probably have every one imaginable. The New York police brass is savvy. Using tanks, which they once did in 1995 as a show of force against squatters, looks bad for tourism. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, or other “less-lethal” weapons is a no-no given how many bankers and executives might get hit. As observers of Occupy Wall Street witnessed the police used good old-fashioned fists and clubs to bash demonstrators. I talked to one reporter who caught sight of cops bloodying handcuffed activists in the back of a police van during an Occupy protest.

But the most devastating weapon the NYPD has is a policy: stop and frisk. Since 2002 the NYPD has been under court order to collect, compile, and make public data regarding stop-and-frisks. By its own data, the NYPD has violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino males. They are stopped disproportionately compared to whites by every measure: if there is a warrant against them, they have a weapon or contraband, have committed a crime, or are in a high-crime area. The only way to explain the vast disparity is the policy is racist. Stop and frisk assumed Black and Latino males were criminal suspects based solely on their race. In 2010, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly allegedly told New York State elected officials outright that the police deliberately targeted young Black and Latino men because “he wanted to instill fear in them, every time they leave their home they could be stopped by the police.”

During the last decade a movement came together in New York to stop the racist policing that has destroyed tens of thousands of lives by sending innocent men to prison or for nothing more than possessing a little marijuana. More court orders were handed down. Many media outlets called for an end to stop and frisk, and Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty in 2013 by making the policy a campaign issue. Once victorious, however, de Blasio angered many supporters by rehiring Bill Bratton as NYPD Commissioner, who instituted the dubious “broken windows” policing in the 1990s. Stop and frisk appears to have dropped by 90 percent from its peak of 685,000 stops in 2011. But Black and Latino males are still being disproportionately targeted. Moreover, Bratton’s focus on infractions like pan handling, pot smoking, graffiti, and subway fare jumpers deliberately targets minorities as well. In three overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Brooklyn, more than 50,000 summons were issued for biking on sidewalks between 2001 and 2013. I never have to worry about that in Manhattan, where I live. Bikers on sidewalks—of which there are many—in the tony white neighborhoods of Tribeca and the Finance District received only 325 tickets during the same period. Making this “crime” central to policing will mean many more young men of color will go directly to jail.

Once snared in the criminal justice system, Black and Latino men have fewer resources to prove their innocence and are less likely to receive leniency. Tickets often snowball into arrest warrants, jail time and permanent criminal records that diminish employment, education, and housing opportunities. Even if stop and frisk has ended, one racist policing practice has been replaced with another. Bratton’s policy of sending police to look for minor nuisance and imposing quotas on them for arrests, as the NYPD reportedly does, guarantees needless and hostile encounters. On Staten Island, police targeted Eric Garner on July 17 because he was involved in breaking up a fight. At every point the cops escalated the confrontation and eventually piled on him, choking the 43-year-old father of six to death.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says, “We need an end to the kind of philosophy of policing that says it’s OK to engage in preventive, detention-like tactics.”

That’s what really at stake in demilitarizing the police. Undoubtedly military weapons enables greater violence against the public, just as a huge standing army enables U.S. wars abroad. But it was the post-9/11 mindset of preventive war that set all the tanks, planes, and missiles in motion.

The mindset needs to change, one that says police should have latitude and no oversight because whenever “excesses” happen like the killing of Michael Brown occur (or Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and thousands of others), the preventive policing still serves the greater cause of keeping the peace of the existing social order.

Take away the military weapons from Ferguson police and they will still be an occupying army to the Black community there. Many Americans want to keep it that way. They have the mindset Blacks and Latinos are a threat and need to be contained. That’s what enables the police to take to the streets with military weapons and gear. Ending this mentality is what will stop out-of-control police forces, not taking away their toys.

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Filed under Anti-Police Brutality, Race

The Return of Frankenstein

The sectarian narrative whitewashes the U.S. role in the conflict in Iraq.

by Arun Gupta Telesur July 26, 2014

Al Qaeda was America’s Frankenstein. The U.S. foreign policy establishment helped bring it to life to fight the Soviet Union after its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It turned on its creator, culminating in the September 11 attacks, and has largely been vanquished.

That’s far from the end of the story, however. The ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has consolidated control over nearly half of Iraq and much of Syria, indicates that U.S. policy has created a new Frankenstein. Washington was shocked when Iraq’s army in the North disintegrated when ISIL seized the city of Mosul in June. But the White House had a convenient excuse as to why the Iraqi state on the brink of collapse: sectarianism.

American politicians and pundits fingered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the villain. The story goes that Maliki, after being re-elected in 2010, intensified sectarian policies of punishing Sunni Arabs who opposed his rule, violently squashing protests, and targeting senior Sunni political figures.

There is truth to these claims. Under Maliki, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, was sentenced to death in 2012 by hanging for allegedly running death squads. Last year, Maliki repeatedly ordered security forces to attack sit-ins by Sunni Arabs discontent with being shut out of political influence, jobs, and economic aid, killing dozens of protesters.

However, the sectarian narrative whitewashes the U.S. role in the conflict. Sectarianism is premised on the idea that internal forces springing from ancient religious and ethnic divisions account for the strife. The United States is cast as a bystander, bumbling and misguided at worst, a well-intentioned if exasperated referee at best.

In reality, sectarianism in Iraq is a cover for conflicts over who controls the state, security forces, patronage, jobs, and the oil industry. More important, the U.S. occupation in Iraq weaponized sectarianism. During the first year of the occupation, the American-formed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Pentagon imposed political and military policies to punish the Sunni Arab population, which it viewed as bulwarks of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his Ba’ath party. Since then, as revolts and more wars have convulsed the Middle East, the United States and allies such as Israel, the Egyptian military, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have regionalized the sectarian divide as a strategy to weaken Iran and its allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Thus, sectarianism is not endemic to Iraqi society or the Muslim world but a result of carefully crafted decisions by states designed to pursue geopolitical interests.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it brought along the Iraq Governing Council as a fig leaf for the occupation. Composed of two Kurdish parties, former Ba’athists, and secular and religious Shi’a parties, it had little legitimacy or experience governing. It had little power under the CPA, which focused on dismantling the state. In May 2003 CPA Procounsel Paul Bremer, a protégé of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ordered a “de-Ba’athification” program, throwing 30,000 government employees out of work. Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military and security services, tried to eliminate their pensions, and put in motion a plan to privatize state-owned enterprises, which employed thousands more. The orders turned half-a-million Iraqis and their families into opponents of the U.S. occupation. The CPA alienated pretty much everyone else by firing civil-service employees and spending valuable time vetting those remaining in ministries that ran health, sanitation, electricity and the like, leaving it unable to restore needed public services.

At the same time, U.S. forces rolled into regions north and west of Baghdad, which saw little fighting during the three-week invasion, but where Sunni Arabs, Ba’ath party members, and senior military personnel were concentrated. Sending heavily armed American youth with no knowledge of language, culture, or customs ensured deadly encounters, such as the April 2003 killing of more than a dozen protesters in separate incidents in Fallujah, a city that became infamous for resistance to the U.S. occupation.

But the resistance was never limited to Sunni Arabs (most Kurds are also Sunni). Millions of Shi’a in Baghdad also felt the sting of the military occupation and a vindictive and indifferent CPA. Plus, Iraqis had no choice in their leaders. Only the two Kurdish parties had any real support, but that was limited to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan where they ruled with an iron fist. Otherwise, the politicians who rode in on U.S. tanks were seen as interlopers who enjoyed a cushy life in exile while the average Iraqi suffered decades of war, sanctions, cruelty, deprivation and bombings, much of it attributable to the United States.

The U.S. occupation was remarkable in its ability to alienate Iraqis, with armed resistance flowering in mere weeks. U.S. forces came down hard on Sunni Arabs with deadly checkpoints and curfews, villages layered in razor wires and patrols with shoot-to-kill orders. This was complemented by “cordon-and-sweep” operations, house raids, and mass imprisonment and torture in prisons like Abu Ghraib. In 2004, Bremer sparked a revolt by poor urban Shi’a after he cracked down on followers of the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

April 2004 was the high point of the national resistance, with twin Sunni-Shi’a uprisings that tipped Iraq into chaos. U.S. forces hung on by bombing civilians in Fallujah and Baghdad, but Washington needed a plan B, and it found an answer in a dirty war. When the CPA passed the baton to Ayad Allawi, a former associate of Saddam Hussein, in June 2004, the CIA had already conferred with Allawi on setting up paramilitary units such as the Special Police Commandos to fight the insurgency. The idea was ex-Ba’athists would be best at hunting former Ba’athists among the guerrillas. It allowed the Pentagon to distance itself from extrajudicial killings and torture, especially after Abu Ghraib was revealed to be a poorly supervised dungeon of horrors.

In January 2005 the parties that made up the Iraqi Governing Council grabbed the lion’s share of parliamentary seats in U.S.-organized national elections. Nearly all Sunni Arabs boycotted the poll because of the intensity of the military repression that culminated in the destruction of Fallujah in November 2004. Because of the intensity of the Iraqi resistance, both military and civil, the United States was unable to privatize Iraq’s oil industry. At the same time the winning parties lacked national appeal or a vision for Iraq. They fell back on mobilizing ethnic, religious, kinship, and patronage networks on the outside and horse trading on the outside to secure state power and resources. One consequence is the Shi’a parties that came into office in 2005 leveraged the security forces, especially the death squads, to solidify their support.

The United States created a state that thrived on sectarian strife and corruption, closing space for a broader national opposition as individuals sought safety along communal lines as the sectarian violence intensified. But the fundamental battle was still over resources. Individuals often benefited with new homes or jobs violently seized from rivals. The parties and politicians licked their chops in grasping for the oil industry. The tens of billions of dollars in annual oil revenue is a huge pot of money to buy political support, finance militias, funnel to business allies, dispense to favored communities, or just to loot for personal gain.

The Pentagon finally switched course in 2007 with its much-vaunted “surge” strategy, a point at which nearly 100 U.S. troops were dying monthly and the country was roiled in a civil war that saw at least 3,000 Iraqis being killed a month. More troops were dispatched to Iraq, but the tactic that made the biggest difference was putting legions of unemployed Sunnis on the U.S. payroll, providing salaries to stop fighting while backing away from blanket repression of Sunni Arabs. This also allowed the U.S. to turn the screws on Sadr’s armed followers, known as the Mahdi Army, because they were isolated in the political sphere and from most other resistance groups.

U.S. policy resulted in a weak state, corrupt and authoritarian parties, and ill-trained and vicious security forces. Despite the 2011 pull-out of nearly all U.S. forces, it left behind the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, believed to harbor hundreds of CIA and intelligence staff, along with thousands of military contractors. Washington also kept providing arms, training, and support to Iraqi forces, making it the dominant power in Iraq.

Iraqi scholar Sabah Alnasseri notes this fragmented state is not accidental or incidental to U.S. interests, but is the desired outcome even if events sometimes spin out of control, as with ISIL. Iraq has been downsized from being a threat to Israel and the most powerful state in the Arab world on the eve of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Its oil industry is within the U.S. sphere of influence and Iraq’s production is the highest it’s been in decades, with 2.5 million barrels a day exported in June. That some oil fields are being developed by Chinese or Russian companies is irrelevant. What matters is U.S. dominance, which holds sway over a former pillar of OPEC. The current strife in Iraq has created a soft partition between the Sunni West, Kurdish forces in the North, and Shi’a groups in the South, where the vast majority of oil production is taking place under relative security. The conflict also gives the Obama administration an excuse to intervene more in Iraq’s internal affairs while making the state even more dependent on U.S. power.

U.S. policies have devastated the people of Iraq and Syria, and they could backfire just like Al Qaeda did. Iraq is a battlefield of conflicting U.S. interests. It backed Shi’a forces against Sunni Arabs, bringing to power a government that tilts toward Iran even as it fights Iran’s allies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. ISIL is an offshoot of Al Qaeda and earlier permutations in Iraq that fought the Americans. By the end of last decade Al Qaeda had alienated many Sunnis in Iraq. Syria gave it a new lease on life where it morphed into ISIL and took root as a chief opponent of the Assad regime, which is allied with Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, a populist Shi’a movement that has fought multiple wars with Israel over the last 30 years.

Iraq is raking in close to US$2 billion a week in oil exports, but little is flowing to Sunni areas in Western Iraq that are bereft of proper farming conditions or a developed energy industry. ISIL has cashed in not with religion, but with Sunni discontent on being shut out of jobs, aid, and state power by Maliki and his allies, and then killed when they protested. Maliki plays the sectarian card because it attracts U.S. attention and military support and allows him to demonize his opponents. But even as a propaganda ploy it’s wearing thin as Maliki is now accusing the secular Kurds of allying with ISIL despite open conflict between the two.

U.S. and Israeli policy toward Syria is a cynical balance of wanting to weaken Assad by aiding the armed opposition to his brutal rule but not trying to strike a decisive blow as that would bring unknown forces to power or resolve the conflict through diplomatic or political means as that would leave Assad in power, representing a victory for Hizbullah and Iran. Rebel sources in Syria claimed in September 2013 they were receiving arms such as anti-tank weapons from the United States that were financed by the Saudis. The armed opposition in Syria consists of a staggering 1,500 groups, however, and most fighters are with Islamist or Jihadi forces such as ISIL or the recognized Al Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front. ISIL claimed last year that it was buying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons from rebels that Washington is allegedly arming.

The situation is similar to the Afghanistan War. There have been rumors for decades that the CIA backed Al Qaeda in the 1980s. There is not definitive proof that Osama bin Laden was a CIA asset, but the United States did turn the region into a petri dish for violent religious fanatics known as the Mujahideen. Some 12,500 foreign fighters “were trained in bomb-making, sabotage and urban guerrilla warfare in Afghan camps the CIA helped to set up.” The United States paid little concern to its monstrous creation as long as it was tangling with the Soviet Union. It’s nearly as blasé about fundamentalists at war with Assad’s Syria. The United States and its allies, especially the Saudis, flooded both conflicts with guns and cash, guaranteeing Syria would also become a lightning rod for Islamist forces.

The Saudis want to pummel Assad’s regime as a way to inflict a blow on Iran, which sees itself as the leader of oppressed Shi’a brethren. There is a small Shi’a population in the Eastern Province of the Arabian Peninsula, which holds enormous oil reserves. The Shi’a in Saudi Arabia are marginalized, and following the 1979 Iranian Revolution they pushed for fairer distribution of oil wealth. In 2011 the Saudis led other Gulf States in an invasion of nearby Bahrain to support the royal family and quash a peaceful pro-democracy movement among the majority Shia’s there. Since that time, Shi’a in Saudi Arabia have been agitating for reforms and sometimes using violence to counter state repression. One Shi’a in the Eastern Province told a reporter, “You are now standing on top of oilfields that feed the whole world. But we see nothing of it. Poverty, hunger, no honor, no political freedom, we have nothing.”

It’s unlikely the Saudi state is funding ISIL, which are at odds. But the Saudis are reportedly funding its rivals in Syria, such as the Army of Islam. The naked pursuit of territorial, economic, and military interests has regionalized the conflict that has little to do with sectarianism. That the region is dividing into two camps is a twisted victory of sorts for the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The silence of much of the Arab world on Israel’s horrific assault on Gaza stems from the isolation of Iran and the destabilization of Syria. The counter-revolution in Egypt has been especially detrimental to Gaza, with the Egyptian military dictatorship closing the borders with Gaza and lining up with Tel Aviv and Washington in punishing Hamas for Israeli aggression.

Politicians and generals may think they can control the monsters they’ve spawned. But unlike Al Qaeda, which needed a patron in the form of the Taliban, ISIL is building its own state in a region of utmost importance to Empire, not a backwater like Afghanistan. It’s increasingly inevitable that Frankenstein will return. Thanks to U.S. policies, they are more fanatical, better financed and more powerful than ever.

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How Seattle Passed the Highest Minimum Wage In America

by Arun Gupta VICE June 4, 2014

The bill signed into law by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 is historic. It will more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 — something no local government has ever done.

An estimated 46 percent of Seattle’s 100,000 workers who make under $15 an hour will earn that by 2018. The measure could pump $3 billion into the local economy over the next decade, cutting poverty by 30 percent. It is already resonating, as $15-an-hour campaigns are underway in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just endorsed a plan that could raise the minimum wage in New York City to $13 an hour.

Seattle’s new law has downsides, however, including a seven-year timeline, a lower training wage aimed at teenagers, weak enforcement provisions that encourage wage theft, and allowances for businesses with fewer than 500 employees to count tips and healthcare benefits reflected on pay stubs as wages up to $3 an hour.

But workers elsewhere who flip burgers, fold sweaters, and pull shots of espresso for a living wonder if the victory in Seattle can be replicated. That depends on understanding how it was won. There was no guarantee a year ago that the “$15 an hour” slogan would become law.

The driving force was Kshama Sawant, an avowed socialist who voters elected to the City Council last November on a platform to raise the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy. She and her political party, Socialist Alternative, mobilized pressure for a wage bill. They fought opponents for months, parrying attempts to block the increase.

Given the obstacles they faced, a bill might have never materialized. Seattle is home to corporate titans like Starbucks and Amazon that have built their profit models on poverty-wage jobs, and during Sawant’s campaign the Seattle Times dismissed her as “too hard-left for Seattle.”

She and her partners made the most of a limited hand nevertheless. Sawant pursued a broad platform, but Socialist Alternative soon realized that $15 an hour should be the banner issue because of the amount of support it generated. The momentum became unstoppable after local newsweekly The Stranger gave Sawant a full-throated endorsement in September. Murray, who was running for mayor at the time, quickly endorsed the measure as well.

After taking office, Murray appointed a business-heavy Income Inequality Advisory Committee to devise a proposal. Sawant and Socialist Alternative countered by establishing 15 Now, a group that organized public marches and rallies, set up chapters in 11 neighborhoods, and canvassed widely.

Meanwhile, some Seattle restaurant owners pushed their staffs to oppose the $15-an-hour increase. Jess Spear, 15 Now’s organizing director, told VICE News that two prominent restaurateurs told their staff that prices would increase and that they would lose tips and even their jobs.

A group composed of servers and bartenders called Tips ARE Wages threatened to turn a key group of workers against the proposal. But Spear said that 15 Now met with the group and won them to their side after leaked documents revealed that restaurant owners were orchestrating the anti-$15 campaign.

But rallies and meetings are little match for billion-dollar corporations, which put small-business owners out front, moaning that jobs and business would be lost if $15 an hour became law. In March, Sawant and 15 Now made a strategic retreat by conceding that small businesses should have a longer phase-in period for the increase. At the same time, they deftly argued that businesses like McDonald’s, which amassed $5.5 billion in profit last year, could afford a much quicker timetable.

Meanwhile, 15 Now launched a ballot initiative to remind councilmembers that if they failed to pass a strong bill, voters could decide the issue for themselves. On April 26 it held a national conference in Seattle where attendees approved a plan that established a $15 an hour increase by 2017, with no tip credit or training wage. The conference was timed to anticipate the unveiling of Murray’s proposal on May 1. The Stranger noted that Murray’s plan was “so complicated reporters can’t understand it,” but it did take the wind out of 15 Now’s sails because it gave the impression that the battle had been won.

Labor leaders quickly closed ranks behind Murray.

“It’s a very delicately constructed deal and my advice to council would be to change nothing,” David Rolf, the president of the 40,000-member Service Employees International Union 775, told me in early May. He said that a ballot initiative would result if the measure were watered down — but that’s exactly what happened. The bill introduced on May 15 was weakened with a training wage, the tip/healthcare allowance, a three-month delay, and slap-on-the-wrist enforcement measures. Rolf still reversed course. “We fully support the ordinance,” he later said.

Socialist Alternative’s leaders privately conceded that they couldn’t win a ballot initiative without full support from organized labor, but they pushed one forward anyway to keep up the pressure on the council as it considered the ordinance. The City Council approved the bill on Monday afternoon, sending it to Murray’s desk for his signature.

Though the push for a $15 minimum wage is expected to go national, it’s unclear whether 15 Now will find similar success in other big cities. Sawant was aided by unusual factors like a non-partisan election and The Stranger’s backing. Even so, the proposal’s success in Seattle demonstrates a new model of grassroots resourcefulness that has the potential to widely advance a pivotal social agenda.

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Learning from a Socialist in Seattle

A city councilwoman’s nuanced minimum wage battle has national potential

by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera May 21, 2014

When Kshama Sawant ran for a Seattle City Council seat in 2013, she campaigned as a candidate of the Socialist Alternative party on a platform of a $15 minimum hourly wage. Many observers scoffed that her politics and wage demand made the likelihood of victory scant. Sawant went on to win her seat — and on May 5, it was her turn to scoff.

When Sawant and her fellow Seattle council members were reviewing Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all private-sector workers, she wanted to give credit where it was due. Sawant told the hundreds packed into the council chambers that the plan materialized not because “business and politicians came from on high and delivered this but because workers demanded this.” Her supporters wore red T-shirts reading “15 Now.”

Just a slogan a year ago, it is now a plan of action in the nation’s 12th-biggest economic engine (PDF). On May 15, Murray unveiled a bill to make a $15 hourly minimum wage a reality. If it is passed, Seattle’s private-sector workers will eventually earn more than double the current federal minimum wage; an estimated 102,000 workers currently making less than $15 an hour will see their incomes jump in 2015, and many households will be lifted out of poverty.

Sawant and her party, instrumental in putting the issue on Seattle’s agenda, are now engaging in realpolitik, decrying the bill’s limits even as they call it a victory for the movement. Philip Locker, Sawant’s campaign manager, pointed to “serious weaknesses as a result of the political establishment catering to business” — such as allowing companies with billion-dollar annual profits such as Starbucks three to four years before they must start paying $15 an hour. But he maintained the movement “forced business to accept the highest minimum wage in the country.”

Sawant’s ascendancy has shown that being a socialist is no longer a liability in running for public office. More important, the $15-an-hour campaign has nurtured a model of grass-roots democracy that challenges the corporate-controlled political process. Observers expect the bill to pass by the end of May. If it passes, the win — though imperfect — will validate Socialist Alternative’s approach, swell its ranks and crack open more space for socialist politics in the United States.

A wage plan weakened

Grass-roots pressure for a wage bill gained momentum once Sawant helped found 15 Now in January. The organization established 11 neighborhood action groups throughout the city that mass-distributed leaflets, organized rallies and engaged citizens in one-on-one conversations. The efforts included quick parries to Big Business arguments about the harmful effects of raising the wage. Such tactics, says Locker, “transformed the political climate.”

The skirmishing continues as Sawant and 15 Now try to close pro-business loopholes in the bill.

Murray’s proposal gives large businesses, defined as more than 500 employees, up to four years before they must begin to pay $15 an hour. Smaller businesses have until 2021 to hit $15 an hour and an 11-year window to pay some wages in tips and health care credits under a guaranteed minimum compensation clause. Because the wage schedules are complex, with four categories and annual timetables determined by the size of business, benefits and cost-of-living adjustments, the bill creates an enforcement nightmare.

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

As the plan was hammered into a bill, it was weakened further. Franchises of fast food giants such as McDonald’s, Subway and KFC may now qualify as small businesses. There is a subminimum training wage for learners, apprentices, messengers and the disabled — a legal trick that allows fast food chains to hire and fire teenagers in an industry with 90 percent annual turnover in its workforce. The bill also encourages wage theft: Businesses need pay back wages only the first time they are caught underpaying workers and a $250 fine for the second violation.

At the May 5 hearing, Sawant read an email from a Domino’s Pizza driver lamenting the lengthy implementation timeline. He wrote, “We need an immediate hike to at least $12 hourly … Most of us are one paycheck away from financial tragedy. Living paycheck to pawn shop is no way to live when you’re working full time.”

To counter the effects of Big Business on the bill, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now are returning to grass-roots politics. On May 15, they announced they would seek to place a ballot before Seattle voters in the fall to amend the city charter. If approved, the measure, which would trump the city council’s, would raise the wages of all workers to $15 an hour more quickly. There would be no subminimum training wage and no tip or health care credit window, and all for-profit companies with more than 250 employees would have to pay $15 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2015.

Presaging a national shift?

Sawant and her party must tread carefully with what they consider an imperfect bill, not least because organized labor, a powerful force in Seattle, supports the bill and has ties to the rival Democratic Party.

David Rolf, who co-chaired the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which drafted the initial plan, and is the president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW, told me he stood by the “delicately constructed” deal but would support a ballot initiative if the current bill were “watered down further.” However, even after the latest changes — the training wage, weakened enforcement and loophole for franchises — Rolf responded in an email, “We fully support the ordinance submitted by Mayor Murray to the city council and encourage the council to pass the ordinance as is.”

Beyond the dance with labor, Sawant and the 15 Now movement are aware that outside parties that specialize in fighting pro-worker measures — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform — could easily rumble into Seattle or the state capital, Olympia, with bundles of cash to try to overturn the measure.

Despite the flaws, Sawant offered her support for a bill that she said represented “a phenomenal shift that has happened in the city,” one that “shows leadership for the rest of the country.”

Already, politicians in Chicago and Portland are running for city posts on $15-an-hour platforms with grass-roots backing. In New York state, a socialist on the Green Party ticket is running for lieutenant governor. On May 16, Jess Spear, a member of Socialist Alternative and a climate scientist, filed to run in November’s election against Democrat Frank Chopp, speaker of the Washington state House. Said Sawant, “We want many more left challenges to the Democratic Party.”

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

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Fight For 15 Confidential

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On August 29, fast-food workers and supporters gather outside a Los Angeles McDonald’s to take part in a nationwide strike. (Photo courtesy of Frederic J. Brown)

How did the biggest-ever mobilization of fast-food workers come about, and what is its endgame?

by Arun Gupta In These Times November 11, 2013

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-backed campaign to organize fast-food workers nationwide is on a roll. It’s entering its second year in the public eye, having staged four one-day strikes, culminating in a 60-city walkout on August 29. It’s a bold move by one of the nation’s largest unions to organize an unorganized private-sector workforce numbering in the millions.

The movement has no official name, though each city-level campaign has one: Fast Food Forward in New York, Raise Up MKE in Milwaukee, We Can’t Survive on $7.35 in St. Louis, Stand Up KC in Kansas City, and, in Chicago, Fight for 15 (which refers to a $15 minimum wage and has become the name most commonly used for the national campaign). The campaign has revived the use of the strike to build worker solidarity and employs a strategy of minority unionism, which aims to build a core of militant workers who can sidestep labor law that nowadays hinders worker organizing more than abuses by management. Most importantly, the fast-food organizing campaign has set in motion thousands of working poor, mainly African Americans and Latinos, who are acting collectively to better their lives. The campaign is generating excitement that a popular movement can finally go on the offensive against corporate power.

As the fast-food organizing campaign continues to build, Marco (not his real name), an SEIU organizer in the Midwest, says, “Workers are getting empowered, standing up to their bosses, and they’re not taking shit anymore. If managers do try to clamp down, they’re going to have 60 people march into their shop and disrupt their business. The creation of solidarity that’s happening is exciting.”

Why fast food, and why now? Simply put, it’s where a dying labor movement sees the most opportunity. Private-sector union density has plunged from its peak of 35 percent in the 1950s to only 6.6 percent now. One of the key factors in labor’s decline has been the growth of the non-unionized service sector, where low wages have become the norm and workers who try to organize often face retaliation. Workers in the fast-food industry, which employs more than 4 million Americans, earned an average of $8.72 an hour in 2010.

The fast-food organizing campaign is one of many efforts to organize the low-wage sector, along with OUR Walmart, warehouse worker and university adjunct campaigns, and the spread of worker centers. But it’s the one that has generated considerable media buzz and excitement among organized labor and progressives.

SEIU says its role has been more servant than shepherd. “It’s really a privilege for us to support” fast-food workers, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told Salon’s Josh Eidelson in August. Henry portrayed the campaign as a surprise: “We don’t yet understand the scale of it,” she said, adding that she was “amazed at the degree to which it spread.”

So what exactly did set the movement off? And could its development serve as a model for future campaigns? To discover exactly how Fight for 15 began and grew and whether we can expect similar upsurges among other groups of workers, In These Times talked to 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, reporters, historians, union officials and media strategists. All of the more than 20 organizers and workers who discussed their involvement requested to speak on background or be identified by pseudonyms, expressing fear of damaging either job prospects or relationships with others involved in the campaign. Based on these interviews and hundreds of pages of internal documents from the campaign, In These Times can offer the most detailed examination to date of how Fight for 15 originated, what its goals are, where it might be headed and who is making the decisions.

Nearly all of the low-wage workers and organizers involved in the campaign who spoke with In These Times expressed concerns about the campaign’s direction. They made clear they do support Fight for 15—often enthusiastically—for providing space for workers to build relationships, share knowledge and, in some cases, embark on shop-floor organizing. But many questioned whether Fight for 15 is fundamentally a worker organizing campaign or a “march on the media,” and many believe the endgame will be determined by an SEIU leadership that is not in contact with the daily realities of the campaign.

How the fight began

The tale being told in the media is one of a spontaneous, worker-led uprising. In New York and Chicago, the story goes, the movement was born in early 2012 after advocacy groups organizing in low-income communities kept hearing complaints about the difficulty of surviving on fast-food industry wages. According to Bloomberg News, “The advocacy group New York Communities for Change” (NYCC)—an offshoot of the now-defunct ACORN—“originally was trying to halt planned school closings in low-income neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Organizers shifted focus after hearing fast-food jobs were keeping local residents poor.”

The official story in Chicago is virtually the same as in New York. In April, Salon reported that Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a local organizing group also formerly affiliated with ACORN, said the Chicago-based group “took a leadership role in organizing fast-food workers after discovering on door-to-door canvasses about [bus] fare hikes that ‘people were more concerned with their jobs.’”

But three former organizers in Chicago who joined the campaign in late 2011, and two former organizers with NYCC who began petitioning in March 2012, all dispute this story. All say that from the get-go, the stated goal was to organize low-wage or fast-food workers. All say they were told within weeks or months that SEIU was funding the organizing, and all say that it became increasingly clear that SEIU was directing the campaign.

Sidney (not his real name) says that when Action Now hired him in November 2011, it was to join a campaign to raise the minimum wage. For the first few weeks, organizers armed with postcards calling for a $10-an-hour state minimum wage prowled fast-food and retail joints in the Loop in downtown Chicago and gathered names, phone numbers, emails and home addresses to meet daily quotas. But when managers started kicking the organizers out of establishments because they were talking to workers about low wages, Action Now changed tactics, according to Sidney and Maria (not her real name). Maria, who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says she and other organizers “started to brainstorm what can attract people’s attention … and everybody said, ‘Well you know a lot of these workers take public transportation.’ So we made it about public transportation and stopping the fare hikes.” There was some media speculation around hikes at the time, but no specific proposal on the table. According to Sidney, he and Action Now organizers came up with “a scenario where the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] was raising the prices. … From then on, we started going around to the same establishments in the Loop and telling them the CTA was going to raise the prices two, three bucks.” The tactic worked, the organizers say: The petition met with less opposition from managers than the minimum-wage postcards.

Brooke (not his real name), who was hired by Action Now in December 2011, says that despite close supervision, organizing leaders denied they were in charge: “I was told, ‘It’s all about the workers. We have to leave it up to the workers.’ Then [SEIU leadership] tells the media, ‘It’s spontaneous; the workers came to us.’ It’s duplicitous. It’s to get people to stop asking questions.”

Maria, Brooke and Sidney say they soon learned that SEIU was bankrolling the project. Sidney says that early in the campaign, Action Now leaders were meeting with SEIU officials and saying they were trying to secure money. In December 2011, SEIU’s Washington, D.C. headquarters disbursed about $36,000 to Action Now for “Support for Organizing.” Sidney says that in January, Action Now leaders told them, “SEIU is funding this, they’re happy with the work you guys are doing, so we’re going to continue for at least six months.” On January 19, 2012, SEIU headquarters contributed $191,797 to Action Now, the first in a series of donations that would total more than $3 million by year’s end.

An SEIU staffer with knowledge of union politics in Chicago explains, “Action Now here is very closely connected to the largest SEIU local in the region—SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana. They have a history of cooperative, overlapping campaigns.” Starting in its first full year of operation in 2008, Action Now has received $100,000 or more annually from the healthcare local.

As for who’s calling the shots, Carter Wright, a communications organizer with SEIU, describes a bottom-up process of a movement that “emerged after organizers in those groups found that there were way too many fast-food workers making way too little money in the areas they were canvassing. They worked with SEIU to develop a campaign to build a movement so those workers could fight for better pay.” He notes. “Members of SEIU have supported groups like NYCC, Action Now and their predecessors for a long time.”

In contrast, all three Chicago organizers say that by February, SEIU personnel were coming to their offices specifically to train them in union organizing. In other words, while SEIU maintains that Fight for 15 is a bottom-up project, the organizers who did the legwork concluded that SEIU funded and directed it from early on.

Full steam ahead

By early April 2012, organizers had gathered 20,000 contacts. Then, on June 6, the day after the anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker handily won a recall election, a supervisor walked into the Action Now office and told them it was full steam ahead with the fast-food campaign. In the previous week, SEIU headquarters had transferred more than $300,000 to Action Now. Brooke says organizers were given a rap sheet (also obtained by In These Times) and told to call petition signers and say, “We were successful in stopping the fare raise. When we were talking to you and other workers downtown we found a lot of other workers were talking about wages or lack of healthcare or lack of respect of managers. Do you have any problems like that? Would you like to meet and talk about it?”

Because of delays, the lists had grown stale. “It was hard to track down workers and talk to them, and when we did there was a lot of hesitation and fear,” Brooke says. “A lot of workers didn’t even remember signing the petition.”

In July, the first citywide meeting was held. After nearly eight months of work by more than a dozen organizers, at least $1.7 million spent by SEIU, and 20,000 contacts, Brooke says the meeting brought together “about six workers, who were all very afraid.”

Meanwhile, in New York City, SEIU headquarters started pouring money into NYCC in February 2012, outlaying more than $2.5 million by year’s end. Chris (not his real name) was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and was dispatched to Manhattan to gather a daily quota of signatures on low-income-housing petitions. Similarly, another organizer, Carlos (not his real name), also says he was hired by NYCC in early 2012 to organize fast-food workers and spent months gathering names on petitions in favor of low-income housing and against police “stop and frisks.” Both were told SEIU was paying the bills behind the scenes. Carlos believes that “[SEIU’s] name has a lot of baggage, so they don’t want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort.”

In the summer, when organizers shifted to phoning workers about unionizing, Chris says he conducted a dozen one-on-one meetings with workers and “typically most workers were fearful. Most of them were not happy with their work situation, but they did not want to lose what they had.” He recalls that the first meeting in lower Manhattan in late August 2012 attracted about 30 workers, and at least two more meetings drew similar crowds before Nov. 29, 2012—the campaign’s first big strike.

Who’s calling the shots?

By early 2013, the second year of the organizing effort, the Chicago campaign was finally gaining momentum. Sam (not his real name), a cashier at a health-food store who was part of an informal committee organizing at two stores in his chain, says the Chicago Teachers Union strike in September 2012 opened space to discuss work-related issues with his coworkers, as did a strike the next month by warehouse workers just west of Chicago and the nationwide Black Friday strikes at Wal-Mart stores staged by the United Food and Commercial Workers-backed OUR Walmart campaign. These events, says Sam, “dramatically transformed” his conversations with coworkers from “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get something going?” to “If it could happen at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, then it could happen here.”

Looking for assistance in early 2013, Sam and co-organizers started attending meetings of the Worker Organizing Committee of Chicago, which was formed in November 2012 to lead the Fight for 15 campaign.

Sam and his co-worker Jason (not his real name) say they initially found some tactics off-putting. The decision to stage the first low-wage worker walkout in Chicago on April 24, was made a few weeks in advance, at a meeting where New York workers were flown in to talk to the Chicago workers. After a rousing description of the New Yorkers’ experience walking off their jobs, Jason says, the Fight for 15 organizers asked, “‘Who wants to go on strike?’ Everyone cheered, and of course we want to go on strike after you just hear what they said. They called it a strike vote, but it wasn’t a vote in any meaningful way. They didn’t count [votes]; they didn’t say who is opposed to going on strike; there was no discussion.”

Sam says, “If it’s been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.” Marco describes a similar process in his city: “The organizers say, ‘All the other cities have decided to go on strike on this date, do you want to join them?’ And the workers are like, ‘Yeah!’ Do I think it’s ideal? No. But do I have any better ideas? No, and that’s the problem.”

The decision to conduct a nationwide strike on August 29 was made in a similar manner, at an SEIU-led convention in Detroit on August 15 to 16 that brought together about 700 low-wage workers, organizers and staff from around the country. Sam says that on the second day, an SEIU organizer got in front of the crowd and said,“We have this idea to do a national day of action, Chicago, what say you?” According to Sam, someone preselected by SEIU stood up and replied, “We in Chicago are ready to do a national day of action.” Sam says the process was repeated with the other cities.“There had been no discussion on it previously in any meaningful sense. The first time most people [from Chicago] had heard about it was on the bus to Detroit.” Two other workers confirm they had little say in the decision other than being asked to rubberstamp a prepared statement when they showed up in Detroit.

Media frenzy

By the spring, strikes were staged in a different city every week, rolling through New York, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Flint, Mich., and generating a national media buzz.

To help get out the word, SEIU is employing several communications consultants. Journalist Peter Rugh, who has been tracking the fast-food campaign since 2012, says that according to employees of New York-based company Purpose, which specializes in “21st-century movements,” the firm is helping with branding. In Washington, D.C., SEIU worked with M+R Strategic Services to coordinate an extensive social media effort around a May 2013 fast-food and low-wage worker strike.

Nationwide, sources say, SEIU has retained the aid of BerlinRosen. The communications firm declined to comment on the record, but Charles (not his real name), a Detroit organizer with knowledge of SEIU strategy, says his impression is that BerlinRosen is “helping in every spot” around the nation, and its work included “local communications, teamwork … advising on communication strategy, generating coverage.” He adds that, in addition to “showing strength to the workers [and] getting the community behind it,” the purpose of the campaign is generating a media buzz. In 2012, combined payments to BerlinRosen from SEIU Healthcare Illinois/Indiana and SEIU headquarters soared to $1.2 million, doubling from 2011 and tripling from 2010.

Why SEIU’s role is problematic

A few SEIU organizers voiced concerns to In These Times that airing criticisms of Fight for 15 would aid right-wing and anti-union forces trying to undermine the campaign. That may be true. But the criticisms are coming from workers and field organizers across the country who say they’re concerned that the top-down organizing may benefit SEIU leaders at the expense of the workers.

For instance, some workers say that while they welcome the spotlight, the glare can be damaging. Media generates public support, but also more pressure on organizers to turn out workers for high-profile actions. Some organizers worry that a lack of time for proper back-up or training may put workers at risk of employer retaliation.

In many instances, the fast-food campaign has vigorously defended workers against retaliatory firings by picketing the employer or filing unfair labor practices. But Jason criticizes Fight for 15 in Chicago for mounting strong defenses after a firing, but not helping workers develop skills to prevent retaliation in the first place. “The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it’s easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.” He believes that in general, the media emphasis undercuts shop floor organizing.

In Marco’s eyes, an SEIU action at a recent fast-food corporation shareholder meeting revealed another way that the media focus can disempower workers. He says, “I don’t like the fact that these people, the workers, are being used like pawns. Shuffle them in, shuffle them out, tell them what to say, what makes the best story for the media.”

Workers say developing solidarity and organizing and leadership skills would be more effective, as they would be able to act quickly when bosses retaliate at the job. “You can’t just call the union office and wait for someone to do something,” Jason says. “You have to be able to respond immediately and in a way that actually has power at work, and you have to have networks built with your coworkers to be able to do that.”

Chicago is one city where worker-led organizing is thriving. Sam says, “At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers.” Following the April 24 strike, workers demanded a greater say in meetings. The next decision to strike, in mid-July, was a vote with a 30-minute discussion and a count of those for, against and abstaining. It passed overwhelmingly. “It represented a very big step forward in terms of the actual practices within the union,” says Jason. Now, up to 200 workers attend meetings in Chicago every other week. They have been given resources to publish a newsletter for workers to help “tighten organization between the stores.” There’s a women’s caucus where women can strategize about “sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don’t want them to be involved,” and workers can also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.

Outside of Chicago, however, there’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.

Victor (not his real name) in Seattle says the campaign is faltering because workers are “babied at the meetings.” He says the process involves workers getting “amped-up” and “rubber-stamping some decisions that are already made,” which wears thin after the first meeting.

While optimistic about the campaign, one long-time SEIU staffer expresses reservations as well. “SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative ‘media moment’ approach that ignores the voices and the democracy/development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry.”

That retreat is a reference to SEIU’s troubled history, especially under the 1996-2010 presidency of Andy Stern. Many workers are wary of SEIU’s track record of “coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders,” as In These Times staff writer David Moberg wrote in July 2012. Workers also fret about SEIU’s tendency to sign neutrality pacts that “surrendered basic worker rights” in return for new members, Moberg noted.

The endgame

Sam speculates that when SEIU sees “a win, they’re going to focus on it narrowly.” He says, “Then the concern becomes: What about all the other workers who are now mobilized, who have organized themselves, but don’t necessarily fit into SEIU’s focus for a win?”

And what will that win be?

SEIU appears to be pursuing several strategies simultaneously. Campaigns in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have pushed for living-wage ordinances. SEIU seems also to be interested in supporting fast-food worker centers—workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions. Two sources say SEIU is helping to start a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle and is considering supporting ROC chapters in other cities.

But conversations with various SEIU sources—as well as statements from the leadership and developments in fast-food organizing around the country—indicate SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan in the works, centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members.

The first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald’s: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. At the same time, McDonald’s takes pains to spell out in contracts that it has “no implied employment relationship” with a franchisee or their workers. SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.

Second, SEIU is pouring resources into compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: “If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us.” In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.

The third planned step, organizers say, is for SEIU to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting “neutrality agreements” that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Fourth, SEIU plans to mount an international campaign by enlisting unions in other countries to pressure fast-food chains with global operations.

Though several SEIU insiders confirmed on background that this is SEIU’s overarching plan, SEIU spokesperson Carter Wright would not do so, saying that “community organizations that are part of the coalition and workers continue to brainstorm and expect to experiment with a variety of actions and strategies.”

But in the interview with Salon in August, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and her assistant Scott Courtney hinted this is the path being pursued, saying that options include a “political or legal challenge” to the fast food industry’s franchising.

2014 or Bust

The coming year could make or break Fight for 15. According to one SEIU official, “The money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren’t paying dues; they’re not financing this right now. Definitely over the next two years we’re going to have to take a look at this and see where we’re going.”

Despite the uneasiness some organizers have about SEIU’s role, others doubt that a truly spontaneous, worker-led uprising would have been possible without SEIU leadership.

“Without SEIU this shit would not have happened,” Marco says. “Fast-food workers are not going to self-organize. They’ve been so beat down for so long by circumstances and an anti-labor environment. You look at the Civil Rights Movement—a lot of that was top-down, orchestrated movement.”

But this attitude can also foster paternalism. Speaking in September, Jason says some organizers “really do think we’re stupid and we need to have our hands held and things like that.”

Still, Sam credits SEIU for “pushing people out into the struggle. It’s very easy to be critical of an organization like SEIU for its behind-closed-doors activities and top-down organizing,” he says.“This is an instance when the labor bureaucracy is encouraging people to demonstrate, to go on strike, to take action in the workplace. And I’m excited about that.”

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Bitcoin Activism: How Michelle Malkin And Suey Park Found Common Cause In Hashtag Movements

by Arun K. Gupta Huffington Post April 17, 2014

Suey Park is the Bitcoin of activism. Her hashtag movements are a digital phenomenon. Her value is determined by how much others buy into her. The lack of institutional backing allows her to disrupt the status quo. And just like digital currencies, hashtag activism is vulnerable to shadowy intrigues and corrupting influences.

When Park sent out a 115-character tweet at 7:55 p.m. on March 27, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it,” she ignited a media firestorm. She was playing on a skit by The Colbert Report mocking the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, accusing the faux news show of racism.

The #CancelColbert was all spectacle with colorful characters, outrageous conduct, and lessons in the power and peril of new media. Pundits needed only to generate a new round of controversy to propel the outrage machine, thereby allowing them to ruminate on three of their favorite topics at once: the news, television and Twitter. Park was engulfed by controversy and vitriol, and many people flocked to defend her, supporting her position that the media mocks Asians because they are an easy target and opposing the loathsome death and rape threats aimed at Park.

Park, a 23-year-old “activist and writer,” became a Twitter star in December 2013 with #NotYourAsianSidekick, which encouraged Asian-American youth to use social media to tell empowering stories and challenge stifling stereotypes. Park rapidly built a powerful following, but the site also facilitated the aggression against her. The ability to mask oneself on Twitter has spawned a bestiary of trolls, hackers,doppelgangers, bots, pranksters, and real-life sociopaths who punch down outspoken women of color because that’s how America works.

The openness of platforms like Bitcoin and Twitter is also their weakness, allowing dark recesses to be carved out for malevolent ends. Digital money entices crooks who pilfer strings of code that comprise the currency as a path to fabulous riches, while social media attracts those looking for a shortcut to power and prestige. It’s what led Park into the orbit of Michelle Malkin, the radical right’s Asian sidekick.

Hashtag activism is ancient history for the web, but Malkin, a new-media controversialist, has adopted Park’s language, tactics, and social media skills, and it appears she is influencing Park to target “liberal racists.” Malkin hybridized hashtag activism with reactionary politics by creating #MyRightWingBiracialFamily in January 2014. Accusing MSNBC of racism, her campaign swiftly went viral and elicited an apology from the news network. Evidence shows Malkin came into contact with Park at this point. So when Park started #CancelColbert, Malkin charged in with her huge network and ample resources primed to skewer liberal racism.

Park did not respond to requests for an interview, but sources in contact with Park say she opposes Malkin’s extremism. Malkin’s writings are published on a white supremacist website, and she minimizes torture at Guantanamo, is anti-gay, deals in Orientalist stereotypes of Muslims, and cuts down women based on their appearance. Her book on internment was so flawed the Historians’ Committee for Fairness denounced it as “a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness.”

Less than two hours after Park initiated #CancelColbert, Malkin enthusiastically backed it. Park was immediately bombarded with tweets warning of the dangers of allying with Malkin, but she said very little despite Malkin writing an Islamophobic defense of Park that used #CancelColbert to argue liberals were the real racists, not conservatives. Park has also been silent about the fact Malkin wrote a book justifying the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, called Asian campaign donors to Hillary Clinton “limited-English-proficient and smellier than stinky tofu,” and once dismissed campaigns against anti-Asian racism as “self-pitying and grievance-mongering.”

Park has become a sensation with just 23,000 Twitter followers, a scattering compared with Malkin’s 693,000 fans. What sets Park apart is her savvy use of Twitter, flowing from her metaphysical vision that “Digital lives will shape history.” Park and her followers float in digital ether where avatars, buzzwords and representations are terra firma. It’s similar to Bitcoin enthusiasts who proselytize that monetary algorithms, online wallets and virtual keys will reshape the global economy, but fall prey to classic con-man scams. It’s a shame because Park is right that liberal racism is real. Democrats are as complicit as the right in locking up brown people at home and blowing up brown people abroad. But when a young anti-racist activist who writes about “imperial timelines,” anti-capitalism and decolonization finds herself in cahoots with an extremist like Malkin, it reveals Twitter is more useful for political manipulation than collective revolution.

EARLY WARNINGS

The #NotYourAsianSidekick landed Park on The Guardian’s list of “Top 30 young people in digital media.” One detail left out of the story is that the movement was shepherded collectively by Park and by co-creator and feminist Juliet Shen, facilitators for specific topics, and organizations like 18 Million Rising. In January, Park took sole credit in a bit of humblebragging, writing, “The viral success of #NotYourAsianSidekick after I first tweeted the tag on December 15, 2013, wasn’t about me, but all of us.” By February, Shen and 18 Million Rising had fallen out with Park.

Park’s next triumph came on Jan. 14 when she scorched the CBS sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” accusing it of yellowface in an episode satirizing Kung Fu movies.Tweeting “My race is not a costume,”with the hashtag #HowIMetYourRacism, Park elicited an apology from the show’s co-creator after the controversy was covered by CNN, Time magazine, and Cosmopolitan.

It seems Malkin was watching. Sounding like an activist immersed in cultural theory, Malkin tweeted on Jan. 20, “Great thing about Twitter is that it allows those excluded from official MSM narratives to break down the barriers.”

Then, on Jan. 29, Malkin came into her own as a hashtag activist. MSNBC tweaked the right by tweeting, “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family. http://on.msnbc.com/1dPgQEU.”

A first responder in fabricating outrage, Malkin linked the Cheerios tweet to an incident a month earlier when an MSNBC panel belittled Mitt Romney’s extended family, which includes an adopted black grandchild. Then Malkin tweeted, “Hey @msnbc jerks: This is #MyRightwingBiracialFamily. We love #cheerios. Enough with your race card crap==> pic.twitter.com/DZikmrD0PK.” The crowds went wild, retweeting the hashtag and accompanying photo of Malkin’s two biracial children more than 500 times.

Two minutes later Malkin exhorted her followers to make it a movement, tweeting “Counter the Left’s evil narrative. Use social media to expose & crush it. Flood @msnbc w/YOUR pics ==> #MyRightWingBiracialFamily.”

As more than 100 photos of right-wing biracial families poured in, Malkin gushed, “Gorgeous!”, “BEAUTIFUL!”, “LOVE!!!” She played empowerment coach and bare-knuckled brawler, tweeting, “‘Rightwing’ families responded to @msnbc w/love, pride & joy. This, ultimately, is how we will end poisonous, libelous race-card smears.” Her fans played victims of a bigoted liberal media and basked in the Instagram glow of diversity, family and tolerance.

Twitchy, a Twitter aggregation and curation website founded by Malkin in March 2012 (and sold to a Christian media company last December), churned out posts to keep the outrage fresh. The next day, Jan. 30, Twitchy crowed, “Michelle Malkin leads crushing social media win against MSNBC smear,” after the news network apologized and reportedly fired the tweeter responsible.

What’s this have to do with Suey Park? Well, on Jan. 30, Park weighed in on a Twitter discussion that included Malkin. After Park derided another woman as “hysterical,” “unreasonable,” and “immature,” she declared Malkin was “reasonable.”

Why would Park call Malkin reasonable given her noxious politics?

Perhaps Park was enthused by Malkin’s victorious hashtag campaign that mimicked her own, celebrating diversity against racist media depictions. Given the fact they were familiar with each other, it’s distinctly possible they were talking in the internet’s dark alleys, and Malkin was trying to convince Park they had the same enemy. Park’s fixation on the digital world over the material may have led her to conclude that Twitter Malkin was reasonable.

On March 17, Park published a hashtag manifesto with her frequent collaborator, Eunsong Kim, a PhD candidate in literature. The two imagine Twitter as the new vanguard party uniting revolutionaries. Twitter is subversive, a tool to “defy the limitations of time and space,” a means to build intentional communities, and “part of a collective struggle … to end capitalism and abandon the replication of oppressive exclusionary tactics within ethnic confines.” This reveals a disconnect with reality. That the revolution is riding in on a $25 billion company gentrifying a patch of earth called the Bay Area and displacing people of color in the process goes unmentioned in the manifesto. If you can think Twitter is making a revolution possible, then you can believe Malkin is on your side.

A few days later, on Feb. 2, Park smacked “Saturday Night Live” with charges of yellowface. Her complaints were retweeted only by a few dozen people, but Jeff Yang, whom one source said was a mentor of Park, criticized SNL as well in his Wall Street Journal column and linked it to the “How I Met Your Mother” episode.

In neither episode did Park raise the issue of liberal racism. Certainly Colbert, with his bloviating right-wing alter ego, delights liberals and displeases conservatives. But one can easily make the argument that Park’s initial campaigns exposed the racism of liberal Hollywood as well. It was with #CancelColbert that liberal racism suddenly became Park’s target.

THE STORM

The supercells of Park and Malkin collided the night of Thursday, March 27, 2014, generating a perfect media storm. Park fired off at least three tweets in four minutes. The first was a “Fuck you” Colbert. The second was the infamous “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation,” which was retweeted a respectable 144 times, a mild breeze compared to a Twittersphere hurricane like Justin Bieber, whose feckless grunts are retweeted 100,000 times or more. In the third tweet, Park accused white liberals of being “just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines.” Presumably she meant as complicit as conservatives.

In the next two hours, Park rained directives, exhortations, jargon, and rebukes on her followers while skirmishing with others on the side. Park was Asian-America: “there are 19 million of us,” “We are waiting for an apology and explanation,” and “we aren’t amused.”

Park commanded, “White people–please keep #CancelColbert trending until there’s an apology. This is NOT the burden of people of color. Fix it. Do something,” ordered those who aren’t “structurally subordinated [to] please shut up and help #CancelColbert,” and sneered, “Still waiting for white allies to make themselves useful, but they probably enjoy the show too much.” (She changed her opinion about the utility of white people the following week, telling Salon, “I don’t want them on our side.”)

Park later claimed #CancelColbert was a provocative way to expose liberal racism, but that night she chided, “White people … I know y’all are used to having structural power, but losing one show isn’t oppression #CancelColbert.” Additionally, the headline for her and Eunsong Kim’s article for Time magazine read, “We Want to #CancelColbert.”

An hour into the campaign, at 8:52 p.m., Twitchy swung into action. In February, I felt the heat from a Twitchy-led mob, including a thinly veiled death threat, after sarcastically tweeting that Republicans were guilty of economic terrorism by threatening to cut aid to a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee if workers there unionized. But for #CancelColbert, Twitchy became as earnest as an Occupy Wall Street general assembly, curating Tweets about racist “othering,” transphobia, fat shaming, cis privilege, bullying, and triggering. Garnering more than 1,200 mentions on Facebook and Twitter, the Twitchy post praised Park’s persistence, framed the issue as one of liberal racism, and noted the campaign was going viral fast.

MALKIN IT FOR ALL IT’S WORTH

At 9:34 p.m. Park announced the first victory. The Colbert Report deleted the original offending tweet that had gone out at 6:02 p.m.: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Malkin piled on seven minutes later by tweeting, “Coward just deleted the tweet!” She also referred to the tweet from Twitchy the previous hour.

By 9:44 p.m. the tweets were flying furiously. Park tweeted, “I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin retweeted it instantly, “Co-sign! RT @suey_park I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin was retweeted 152 times, nosing past the first Cancel Colbert tweet.

Also at 9:44 p.m. Malkin tweeted at Park, “@suey_park I know we don’t agree on much, but you are TENACIOUS & I respect that greatly. Hats off to you. #cancelcolbert.” Given their contact in January, the tweets suggest the two had been in communication. At minimum the two were now joined in battle against the specter of liberal racism. Park does not comment on Malkin, but she retweeted or favorited all three of her tweets.

Others alerted Park she was making common cause with someone who commits every political sin Park preaches against. At 9:48 p.m. on March 27, only four minutes after Malkin backed Park, noted anti-racist and feminist blogger Mia McKenzie, aka Black Girl Dangerous, expressed her displeasure, tweeting “@suey_park ew michelle malkin, though? ew.” Park didn’t respond, but she favorited this tweet soon after.

At 9:54 p.m., two hours after #CancelColbert was born, Malkin explained the goal was not to cancel Colbert, it was to “#ExposeColbert & it’s working very effectively. Luv the smell of hypocrisy toast.” Park favorited the tweet.

Cancel Colbert rapidly went stratospheric. At 10:33 p.m. Park tweeted, “Fun! We are the #1 trending hashtag in the US right now … Keep it up! Park’s mood understandably soured a few hours later as Twitter interactions hit 200 per minute, many of them oozing racist and sexist vitriol, including rape and death threats.

The next morning Twitchy published another post defending Park that made it seem as if she and Malkin were united on the issue. At no point did Park publicly distance herself from Malkin, reject her politics, or at least express concern that Malkin’s vicious real-world racism might harm the campaign to address racism in the fictional world. Park’s only comment the night of March 27 to Malkin was to declare, “I’m Christian, too,” at 8:56 p.m.

While Malkin and Twitchy supported Park, Park concluded that Colbert fans were behind the torrent of abuse directed at her. Park tweeted that night to Colbert’s personal account, “Dear @StephenAtHome–your years of satire have failed when your fans send rape/death threats to an asian woman for critiquing your work.” From the Twitter feeds of abusers calling her “chink” and “rice nigger,” nearly all look to be rightwing trolls.

LEFT-RIGHT INTERSECTIONALITY

By March 28, #CancelColbert burned through the media. Park’s article in Time indicated that Cancel Colbert was the goal. But in an interview with The New Yorker the same day, Park sounded like Malkin, saying she didn’t really want to cancel Colbert, despite the hashtag. Park said of Colbert’s sketch, “That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.” Malkin completed the Freaky Friday switch, sounding like Park when she tweeted that afternoon, “For all you CLWM’s [clueless white males] lecturing brown & yellow women about how we don’t get the ‘satire’ …”

Park obviously is not responsible for Malkin trying to co-opt her message. But given the number of times she retweets or favorites Malkin, and acknowledges criticism but is silent about it, this suggests she is keeping quiet about Malkin’s politics so as to benefit from her support.

Three anti-racist feminists who have been in touch with Park say “she might be in over her head” in tangoing with Malkin. Juliet Shen, who calls Park a “former friend,” says she was “shocked” to see Malkin and Park “were talking to each other, and in a way supporting each other.” Another source says Malkin “doesn’t support Park, she is just eager to use her to slam liberals.”

Shen thinks Malkin is using Park to “change people’s opinions about her, and in that way help loop Asian-Americans into right-wing politics.” She suggests both Park and Malkin may be “using each other for an opportunity to get more visibility in communities neither of them had a lot of presence in.”

Shen says, “It is confusing to see why Park wouldn’t denounce Malkin of all people,” especially when Park is quick to fling around insults such as “anti-blackness, racism, sexism, homophobia [against]other organizers in the Asian-American community.” She says Park might be afraid “if she did publicly criticize Malkin, she has this huge following that could easily turn on Suey.”

One source who asked Park about Malkin’s support for Cancel Colbert claimed Park expressed her distaste for Malkin but then did not respond when asked if she would repudiate Malkin publicly.

Park’s first comment about Malkin came on March 30. The previous day Jeff Yang slammed #CancelColbert and the limits of Twitter as a social justice tool in the Wall Street Journal. Park broke with Yang that evening, calling him “a gaslighting self-promoting patriarch.” Shen wrote in a blog post that it’s common practice among Park’s followers to accuse others of gaslighting, that is, trying to deliberately twist someone’s memory. At 3:42 a.m. Park tweeted at Yang, “@michellemalkin has been a better friend than you.”

On April 1, Malkin threw down in support of Park, making no bones of her intention to use Park to sanitize right-wing racism.
“Question: Who are the most prominent, public purveyors of Asian stereotypes and ethnic language-mocking in America?
“The right answer is liberal Hollywood and Democrats.
“The wrong and slanderous answer is conservatives…”

After denigrating Colbert as an “illegal alien amnesty lobbyist,” Malkin applauded Park for leading a group of “diehard liberals” to “tenaciously” question Colbert and his defenders as “race-baiting liberals who hid behind their self-professed progressivism.” Malkin also took the opportunity to bash Muslims and defend her internment book.

Finally on April 1 Park offered some ambiguous criticism, tweeting, “Michelle Malkin cosigning my work means my message sucks, but white supremacists threatening rape cosigning Angry Asian Man means…what?”

DIGITAL DESTRUCTION

Just as Park has shied away from criticizing a demagogue who boosted her, Park’s defenders have ignored how she and her supporters engage in abusive behavior, outrageous claims, and odious alliances. This is not equivalent to the threats of violence directed at Park, who has shown real courage to face down internet predators.

But Park and her followers use the digital medium as a cudgel to silence opposition and to erase histories, which serves to promote her brand. Park says the revolution involves building bridges “across difference in our Twitter neighborhoods” to understand “how slavery, genocide, and orientalism are the three pillars of white supremacy.” Twitter’s 140-character limit, however, also selects for cliques that build gated ideologies out of code words. The medium is hostile to analyzing the quality of an idea, the logic of an argument, or the nuance of history.

If you are an ally, your social genotype takes precedence as long as you can correctly assemble the jargon: decolonial, intersectional, queer, anti-racist, imperial timelines, trans, white supremacy, heteropatriarchical. If you are a critic, which is a polite term for enemy, then your phenotype is all that matters.

Thus, if you are an Asian-American man Park disagrees with, that’s because “Asian men [throw] women of color under the bus.” If you are an Asian woman critic, you sound like “a white feminist.” If you are a white feminist, that really means “White (Supremacy) Feminism.” And if you are a hetero cis white male, nothing more needs be said.

There is no institutional memory on Twitter, just a stream of directives and pronouncements that wash away the past. If Twitter is the revolution, then Park can actually believe “my tweet” of #NotYourAsianSidekick was “the point of origin for Asian American feminism.” That’s right. Suey Park invented Asian-American feminism. Additionally, Park can simultaneously speak for 19 million Asian Americans, tell them to “decenter” their identity, and berate them for “gaslighting,” “sidekicking” whites, and ignoring their internalized racism.

Her enablers include the swarm of leftists on Twitter so intoxicated by identity politic buzzwords they couldn’t walk the line between defending someone against vile threats, and challenging the conduct and ideas of Park and her supporters. The media is even more complicit as it made her into a national figure, but is so incurious about Asian-America that Park can act as its voice and the founder of Asian-American feminism without raising an eyebrow.

Then there’s the matter of how #CancelColbert “Drowned out the Native Voice,” as Indian Country Today Media Network bluntly stated. Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler criticized Park for shifting discussion away from the Redskins name, and for not promoting hashtags to protest racist sports team names. Keeler claims, “We kept Suey Park in the loop regarding our hashtag #Not4Sale, she was just not moved to act on it.” Native activist Jennie Stockle, who works with Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, wrote: “… like a tornado, Suey Park’s tweet calling to cancel Colbert Report came through and pushed all of our efforts into a storm shelter.”

Park admitted the adverse effect of #CancelColbert the next day, “The almighty@andrea366 has reminded me of an important point–can’t ignore anti-Native racism–let’s address issues simultaneously.”

Ironically, Park is right that digital lives do bleed into reality, just as drug traffickers and the IRS alike realize Bitcoin is more than fictitious capital. Park and her allies sparked a national controversy and sent the media all atwitter. They proved a point that Asians are an easy punchline for television comedy, even as their claim Asian-Americans is one monolithic marginalized community is as fictional as the shows they critique.

But in the offline world, says Shen, they’ve “burned bridges, hurt many people in our community, and by throwing buzzwords around they’ve diminished real organizing against sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry.”

Shen adds Park’s appropriation of grand roles and achievements shows a lack of “recognition for those who’ve done so much before us. … This is not the origin for Asian-American feminism. This is one blip in the long timeline of fighting for racial, sexual and gender justice.”

The only one who gained from the dust-up is Colbert with more attention and a show’s worth of material. Park built a national platform out of hashtags, but her standing has likely peaked. After Colbert was tapped for the coveted spot of host on “The Late Show,” Park and Kim took to Time magazine once more to vow they’re not going to stop “until it ends.” It, presumably, is how the “entertainment industry has perfected the development of white, cis, straight, male characters,” and marginalized “other voices.” It’s a worthy goal, but they are trying to empty an ocean with a thimble by using Twitter to change historical consciousness.

Bitcoin paved the way for a slew of digital currencies, and #CancelColbert will inspire others to replicate Park. There will be more hashtag activists inventing history 140 characters at time, erasing allies and achievements, positioning themselves at the head of movements and communities, and influencing national conversations. Lurking in Twitter’s shadows will be other opportunists like Malkin ready to divert that energy for twisted ends. But 140-character harangues in the dark won’t change anything. Real change happens in the real world.

Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the order in which Suey Park and Michelle Malkin were tweeting or retweeting each other in one exchange.

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