Sunday, January 29, 2012

Repression Against Occupy Movement Continues

Watch this video that ends with firey explosions, loud bangs, military-looking cops and running protesters. Yemen? Syria? Egypt? Greece? Nope. Oakland, California, on Saturday. Several hundred people have been arrested.

There's a great account of what happened on Kasama: "For their first attempt at a kettle, the cops charged the group with police lines from the front and back. They ran towards us aggressively. Us being 1000+ peaceful marching protesters. The group was forced to move up a side street. The police moved quickly to surround the entire area; they formed a line on every street that the side street connected to. Police state status: very efficient. They kettled almost the entire protest in the park near the Fox theater. AFTERWARDS, as in after they surrounded everyone, they declared it to be an unlawful assembly BUT OFFERED NO EXIT ROUTE. Gas was used, could of been tear or smoke gas. The crowd then broke down a fence that was on one side of the kettle, and 1000 people ran across a field escaping a police kettle and embarrassing the entire police force. It was literally a massive jailbreak from a kettle. The group re-took Telegraph ave. and left the police way behind." Read the whole account.

I'm writing this while watching a livestream of a tense Sunday night solidarity march in New York's East Village that is being occasionally harassed by NYC cops.

It's amazing how the internet and social media has helped keep everything immediate and visible. The whole world is watching this unfold...we can see exactly what the forces of repression are up to.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The State of Obama

What a difference a year makes, but I just can't join the chorus of finding anything President Obama said last night in his third State of the Union address interesting or acceptable. Why pretend you're happy with crumbs when you can see that there's a whole cake there for the taking?

After listening to Rmoney, Swingrich, the hateful Rick Santorum and the kooky racist Ron Paul for several weeks, of course at first one is struck hearing Obama's intelligent, measured words by a sense of relief. He's trying to connect with people, and mostly in a positive way. The dogwhistle of blaming poor people or black people or immigrants or gays (yes, Rick Santorum, that would be you) for the nation's woes is gone. The intentional lies are notably absent, or at least prettier. He invokes fairness. He brings up eminently reasonable proposals. He doesn't sound like a carnival barker (hi Newt!), and his emotional range usually seems genuine instead of learned in front of a mirror while listening to Ronald Reagan tapes (hi Mittens!).

But we are so numbed by the extreme-right horror show on the Republican side of the aisle that I think it's too easy to be distracted by our wishful thinking into missing what is actually going on.

Last night President Obama beat the same war drums we're used to from Republicans. That line about "all options being on the table" regarding Iran — recently echoed, by the way, by liberal darling Elizabeth Warren — is an actual threat to pre-emptively attack a foreign sovereign state. It's based on stale warmed-over hype recipes from the Bush era about Iraq. And speaking of George W. Bush, even that warmongering mass murderer called for a democratic Palestinian state in his last State of the Union address. Last night Obama mentioned only the American commitment to Israel, the country currently engaged in massive ethnic cleansing against Palestinians in both the Occupied Territories and Israel proper. Obama is actually war mongering. He is actually engaged in covert wars and assassinations. How could it get worse than that?

Obama doesn't brag about the policies of repression and the stifling of dissent that his government is deeply pursuing. But the fact that he didn't mention them in his speech doesn't mean they're not happening. We cannot just look away and pretend that these things could be worse. They're already about as worse as they can be. He signed the NDAA that potentially guts due process. He had a teen-aged American citizen assassinated along with his more notorious American citizen father. His law enforcement agents have waged campaigns of harassment against peace and international solidarity activists. Many believe the fall's national campaign of repression against Occupy encampments was coordinated from the very top halls of so-called law enforcement. When he uses the nebulous term "immigration reform," what he really means is deporting more of our neighbors.

To those of us who wished for real national healthcare in this country, in his speech last night Obama bragged about his health insurance reform being kept in the private profit-making sphere. We can't keep telling ourselves that we had to give up the so-called public option only because of congressional horse-wrangling over votes: the truth is we didn't get it because Obama didn't want it. He's not lying to us: we're lying to ourselves.

In his speech he parroted the same ridiculous small government/tax-cutting rhetorical nonsense the Republicans play. He is absolutely pandering to Republicans. And while it could be argued that mere pandering is harmless, remember how just this last year his administration abandoned environmental protections and advances in contraception. Over and over we tell ourselves that Obama is pandering to the right when it's actually the left that is being pandered and condescended to. And oh yes, that payroll tax holiday he keeps waving about: that is the death of Social Security as we know it. We won't find that out till later, of course.

He can claim that he wants "fairness" but I'm not seeing it. The deck is still stacked in favor of what we euphemistically call "Wall Street." And let's be clear: this is not because Obama is a bad person as the Republicans would have it, but because he is a creature of the 1%. He is acting in his own interests, and in the interests of his friends and colleagues. You and I are not included in that list, no matter how many folksy e-mail appeals to wish Joe, Jill & Michelle a happy birthday that you receive from the Obama reelection campaign. It's really time to stop projecting values on Obama that he just doesn't have.

Almost two weeks ago my local Brooklyn occupy group, Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park, had a wildly successful event for Martin Luther King's birthday (I promise a full report soon). I gave a short presentation toward the end of the program. These are from my notes for my remarks:

"2012 is an election year, and somebody is going to promise you that your life will be better if you vote for them. You're free to vote for whoever you like, but my guess is that you're going to be disappointed. Because democracy, the people exercising the right to live and work together fairly and justly, is not really about elections.
History does not remember Dr. King running for office. History does not record who Dr. King voted for. What History remembers is Dr. King leading the people to go out in the street to take what belongs to them. Dr. King showed us the links between big issues like racism and injustice, enforced poverty and the outrages of war. But he also showed us the importance of coming together right here in our own communities to fight for what is right. If you're waiting for a politician to save you you're going to be waiting a very long time. This is up to us."

Again and again we are disappointed in who we vote for. Hell, I argued for supporting Obama last time around even as I suspected this disappointment would return. For three years now I've also watched self-identified progressives struggle with Obama. Over many issues in the last three years anger welled up against him from the left. I am embarrassed that at times I argued against that anger. And yet now as the likes of Rmoney and Swingrich gather like bathroom mildew, these progressives return to the circle of wagons around Obama.

We think it will be worse under the Republicans than under Obama. But is that really true? What if the worse is already true. When Obama is looking to compare himself to... Teddy Roosevelt, this is a sign that we should heed. For people who think of themselves as 21st-century progressives that is called aiming very very low. I read a bitter comment on a blog today: Obama supporters "would defend Hitler, if he had only been a Democrat: 'He only killed 6 million Jews... hell look how many he left alive!'" A little harsh perhaps, but it makes a certain point. Where does the constant need to apologetically find Obama's silver lining come from? Weakness, I think.

I'm actually not at the point of telling anyone not to vote. I guess in some ways I still hold the position that since elections will have one of two winners, it's not more harmful voting for a lesser evil than wasting a dollar on a lottery ticket, in the off chance it winds up making a slight difference. But I am more and more convinced that as long as we devote our energy to a game that is designed to disappoint us, we will get only what we're asking for. Asking for a lesser evil is still asking for evil. Why not ask for something one actually wants? Excuse me, why not take what one is actually entitled to! In 2008 this seemed like an abstraction. In 2012, with the sea change in consciousness called Occupy Wall Street, it doesn't seem like an unimaginable goal to make the elections irrelevant. Maybe, just maybe, we're no longer weak.

I'm not going to spend the months between now and November fretting about the election. I'm going to spend it trying to organize my community, trying to spread the possibilities of the Occupy movement. Obama's not going to save us. We're going to save ourselves.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Republican Candidates Threaten Cuba

I watched about half of tonight's Republican Presidential debate in Florida. I'm struck by how little these people actually talk about. The debates have been a really bad long-running reality show where they basically accuse each other of all manner of horrible things. They don't discuss their plans, they don't discuss the reasons things are the way they are, they don't discuss any real facts or issues. Except they do make a lot of threats and insinuations. Against each other. Against President Obama. Against black people. Against gay people. Against immigrants.

Tonight they threatened Iran, and, it being a debate in Florida, they threatened Cuba. There was something so visceral in their attempt to outdo each other in their bloodthirsty desire to return the laws of organized crime and plantation rule to Cuba. Well, except for poor Ron Paul, who said the U.S. should leave Cuba alone. Though today I also watched a video clip of him speaking in front of a Confederate flag in 2003 denying that the Civil War was fought over slavery which pretty much cancels out anything he says about anything else at all. The new Republican frontrunner Newt Swingrich basically said the CIA should be going to Cuba to overthrow its government. Which we presume the US has already been trying to do for over fifty years.

The government established by the Cuban Revolution in 1959 has made its share of mistakes, sure. But there is something about what Cuba has managed to do through the course of its revolution that really is meaningful, and that has to do with values and priorities. These start with healthcare and education. It really shouldn't be a surprise that someone like Gingrich, who thinks poor children should be earning their keep cleaning out bathrooms, sees the Cuban reality as a threat. American politicians have never actually cared about democracy in Cuba; they certainly didn't care about democracy when Batista was in power. What they care about is returning the rule of capitalist property relations and US dominance to a country that has dared to reject those things so close to our shores.

There's lots that could be said about the horrible things these candidates keep saying: their bigotries and their swaggering lies, their love of ruthless financial exploitation. Their charade is going to go on for a while, and I for one am not convinced that Gingrich won't be the last man standing.

It's often hard to know where to start when considering just how awful all these politicians are — from both parties. But here's another thing to add to the list. When they talk about attacking Cuba, they're talking about attacking the right of any and every social movement to break free from the clutches of corporate America.

There's only one response for the 99%: Defend Cuba!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Barbarians R Us

International solidarity campaigns have long been an activist staple. Citizens of countries who think themselves above barbarism appeal to the sensibilities of people who share their values and campaign against some ugly outrage on a foreign shore. While international solidarity campaigns have applied pressure to many just causes over the years, it's safe to say that most international solidarity campaign are of course the product of a web of complex ulterior motives usually rooted in geo-political reality. I remember the massive campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, "Save Soviet Jewry," which conveniently married the Zionist and anti-Communist agendas under a little righteously humanitarian umbrella. And as actually righteous as I believe the world campaign against South African Apartheid in that same period was, there's little doubt about the role the Cold War played in that struggle since the "West" largely supported South African racism and the pro-Communist world largely opposed it.

Which brings us to this fascinating postcard from the Soviet Union, vintage 1931. With its mailing instructions printed in eight Soviet languages, this postcard mobilizes international solidarity around the murderous reality in a particularly backward, barbarian corner of the world... the American South: "долой суд линча! да здравствуют негритянские рабочие!" "Down with Lynching! Long Live the Negro Workers!" The accompanying illustration shows a mob of root-tooting gun-waving, club-wielding, stetson-wearing, flag-waving yahoos stringing up a black man on a gallows.

It's funny how in retrospect that pre-war period is remembered as a succession of outrages about which international solidarity was mobilized: the Nazification of Germany and criminalization of the Jews, the Japanese attack on China, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the civil war in Spain. In 1931, it seems, the barbarians were right here at home.

Why do you think there was such massive African-American migration to northern cities in the first half of this century? Here's the answer: Because the American South was the Darfur of its day. On this day of the 2012 South Carolina primary where Republican dog-whistle racism is rising to audible levels (some would say "air-raid siren levels") it's worth remembering the not-so distant past even as it conflicts with our own carefully cultivated image as a liberal-minded bastion of civilization.

Related reading: Charles Blow today in the New York Times. Chauncey DeVega at We Are Respectable Negroes.

Click on the image of this postcard to see it larger.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Election...Eighty Years Ago

I stumbled across this photo on the internet a little while back. It's election graffiti from the 1932 German elections: it reads "Wählt Thälmann," or "Vote for Ernst Thaelmann," the candidate of the KPD, the German Communist Party, that in the years following was ruthlessly crushed. Here's the amazing thing about this photo: it was taken in Marburg, Germany, in 2008. Which means not only did it survive the 1932 elections (the KPD did not win a majority, as we know), it survived the rise of the Nazis, the brutality of WWII, and all the attempts since the war to control the narratives of history.

I've written before about those 1932 elections and about Ernst Thaelmann. The last time in fact, I pondered whether this era of elections, marked by a rise of the extreme right, would be the undoing of today's civil society. Interestingly, I failed to see the possibility of the return of a mass leftwing, popular movement. I saw the main hope, inadequate as it is, as defensive voting for Democrats. I find it worthy of note that while the mainstream of the Republican party has indeed drifted right, that the people out in the streets are no longer the teabaggers of the right but the Occupy movement of the left.

Which changes everything.

Big things are being planned for May Day, even. And frankly, despite the horrible words spouted by those horrible people on the daises of the Republican debates, and despite the transparent posturing of President Obama, they all seem a little bit irrelevant to the possibilities for the future. Not that one of them won't probably win come November, but that no longer engenders such a sense of foreboding hopelessness.

This election graffiti has survived eighty years, telling all sorts of stories about the way things were. While some of those stories are sad, with tragic endings, it occurs to me that the current story is still being told.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Without Comment: 1% vs. 99%

"MATT LAUER: When you said that we already have a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy, I’m curious about the word ‘envy.’ Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?
MITT ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus one percent — and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent — you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. The American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.
LAUER: Yeah but envy? Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as ‘envy,’ though?
ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the president has made it part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail."

— from a televised Today Show interview with Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney this morning.

"I personally don’t want to have anything to do with people lobbying or running for office right now, nor do I want to focus all of my time winning small policy changes, and I don’t think that’s the role of Occupy Wall Street. But I sure as hell hope the people whose terrain that is do go and do it. I hope that they can recognize that what’s happening now is the creation of a climate where it’s possible for them to push left and win more. I’m not going to be happy with all the compromises those people have to make, and I don’t think we’re going to survive on reforms alone, but we need that too. If we want a real, meaningful social transformation, we need to win things along the way, because that’s how we provides people the foundations on top of which they can continue to struggle for the long haul, and it’s how we grow to become a critical mass that can ultimately make a fundamental break with this system.

And in the meantime, our role as Occupy Wall Street should be to dream bigger than that. I think it’s our job to look far ahead, to assert vision, to create alternatives and to intervene in the political and economic processes that govern people’s lives....

I think there is more possibility right now than I could have ever imagined. I think in the not-so-distant future, we can win a lot of things that actually improve people’s lives, we can continue to change the political landscape, and we can grow into a mass movement with the strength to propose another kind of world and also fight for it. I think we’re only in the beginning of that, and I think there is a ton of potential. And I also see that kind of possibility in the long term. I think we can win a truly free society. I think it’s totally possible to have a political and economic system that we have a genuine say in, that we democratically control, that we participate in, that is equitable and liberating, where we have autonomy for ourselves and our communities and our families, but are also in solidarity with one another. I think it’s possible, and necessary. That’s kind of the amazing thing about this moment and this movement, I guess. Right now, sitting here, I can’t even imagine the limits of possibility."

— Occupy Wall Street activist Yotam Marom interviewed by Naomi Klein

Monday, January 09, 2012

Liberate the Neighborhood!

The Occupy group in my Brooklyn neighborhood is holding a community speak-out to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday this upcoming January 16. It's exciting to be doing organizing again (although it's also time-consuming, responsible for the shortness of recent posts here). The event, called Unity Day, should be pretty interesting: one of our speakers is going to be Felipe Luciano, a founder of the mythic Young Lords Party and a member of the seminal pre-rap political poetry ensemble The Last Poets. There's going to be live music, an open mic, some video, a speaker from OWS, and others. It's being held at the Trinity Lutheran Church, a neighborhood church that has been graciously donating space and resources to the Occupy movement. OSP hasn't actually occupied anything yet, but who knows what the future has in store!

One of the cool things for me is that I'm getting to exercise my graphic design skills for something I actually like rather than for work. I'm proud of the poster I designed, above. There's also a version in Spanish I'll put up here later. Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Rise & Root

This image, Rise & Root, is from The Hermitage blog, which I know nothing about, via my blog friend Annie of This & That with Artichoke Annie. Something about it really speaks to me even though as vaguely political images go it's earthier and less specific than my usual idea of good propaganda. But who hasn't pondered the magic of majestic trees rising above, their equally majestic root systems remaining secret and unseen below? As Annie says, "perhaps [it's] a symbol that this new year 2012 will be one of change, perhaps a year where fights will be won, a year where growth in the humaneness of humankind will be seen."

There's bound to be lots of ugliness this year, but this mandala-like artwork speaks to the possibilities that have been revealed for changing that ugliness. I've been continuing to work with my local Brooklyn "Occupy" chapter — a longer report here soon, I promise — and the one thing that keeps sticking with me is how what can easily be dismissed as the same old community activism is actually something profoundly deeper, like the roots on these trees, something much more sophisticated than the political activism I have witnessed before. In rejecting easy ideology in favor of a profoundly revolutionary sense of autonomous optimism and determination, the movement being created is something more organic and more radical than anything that has taken root in years. I'm meeting young people with a sophisticated grasp of, well, class warfare in a way that disarms many of the ideological arguments I've seen the left waste its time on for decades.

So yes, against blandness and conformity...otherness, black earth and imagination.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

"How To Survive a Plague" Going to Sundance!

My friend David France's documentary "How To Survive a Plague" is being premiered at Sundance film festival this month! In the interview above, David talks a little about why he wanted to tell this story, and how difficult it was to document a not-so-long-ago time that in many ways already feels like ancient history.

I've seen a rough cut of the film and it's really terrific. It's also really relevant: because while it tells the story of a handful of heroes trying to fight AIDS on the streets, in the halls of government and in the nation's science labs, what it really tells is a story of activism. Activism that happened, in fact, to change the world. It's fascinating to see footage of political protests in the 1980s at some of the same locations of today's Occupy Wall Street actions. When this film makes it to general distribution, as it is bound to do, it's going to be a must-see not only for people who lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis, but for activists of the present looking for inspiration.

Read about it at the Sundance website. The film has a "like" page on Facebook. Good luck, David!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Anti-Americana: Peace President

Since on New Year's Eve he signed the despicable and dangerous NDAA, or National Defense Authorization Act, let's dedicate the first post of 2012 to President Obama, elected three years ago on a largely anti-war, reform platform. With his signing of NDAA — see previous posts here — Obama has in quite a real way significantly eroded the rights of American citizens to due process. He's proved that his definition of "peace" is not particularly cognizant with the one in the dictionary.

This poster is from the Cuban OSPAAAL, the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, an organization with a long tradition of brilliant graphic design. While this poster isn't artistically their best, their anti-imperialist message remains sharply on point. President Obama is shown winning the Nobel Peace Prize as a warlike American eagle swoops down from behind. Captioned at the sides are the scenes of the President's "peaceful" actvities: Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East, Honduras, Terrorism, Yemen, the blockade against Cuba, military bases in Colombia, and Pakistan. The poster pre-dates Libya, probably produced in 2009 or 2010.

I must note that this blog marked the awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama, indeed his very election, with a sense of hope. To my credit I think by the time of his actual prize acceptance speech my critique was developing. At some point this year I'm sure I will sum up my own trajectory and thinking about how all that worked out. I think it's important to take responsibility for positions I have argued in the past, and where necessary, to revisit them with a proper sense of self criticism. Let's just say that Obama has been a tremendous disappointment to those who gave him their support, even those of us who offered that support with a critical eye. This disappointment was also entirely predictable, and looking at what happened in the past four years will be important as this year's election season heats up. The question needs to be answered whether voting defensively for Obama last time around did anybody any good. It certainly didn't help an awful lot of innocent people killed by predator drones on his orders. Stay tuned.

For more examples of Anti-Americana, the regular Cahokian feature on worldwide anti-American propaganda art, click here.