Saturday, March 24, 2012
I stopped by New York's Union Square on Monday night to see a new incipient occupation run by some OWS folks. I had some mixed feelings about the small encampment, but the bricks next to the encampment were filed with lovely chalk graffitti, "We Are The People I Have Been Waiting For". Just about sums it up.
"People Have The Power," of course. One of those clichés that, well, if people really listened to, things would be a whole lot different.
Every night this week Union Square became the scene for a confrontation between cops who vastly outnumbered the number of people wanting to stay in the square, with some moments of grotesque brutality. There was a scene of an activist having a seizure while handcuffed on the ground while the cops stood around doing nothing. Midweek the same space was the scene of a few thousands-people strong rally of support for Trayvon Martin called the Million Hoodie March. By the end of the week the city installed sadly hilarious new signs around the park with a long list of "don'ts," each one accompanied by an icon, that ended with "no unpermitted rallies allowed." Pardon my french, but fuck you Bloomberg.
There's so much more to the Occupy movement right now than this bit of daily theater between demonstrators and cops. Neighborhood assemblies including the one I participate in are building up across the city, and daily actions and meetings display deeper concerns and visions than does this battle for public space. But Spring is here, and the voices shouting for justice are still being heard, and that is very good news indeed.
Monday, March 19, 2012
"This is America and the killing of Black people is just not considered a crime.
After 1955, the sweet face of Emmett Till, tortured to death in Mississippi by angry white men, haunted anyone with a conscience. Now we have the face of Trayvon Martin to remember. This is America, and that much has not changed.
And we have to deal with the fact that his killer was not even arrested. Not even arrested....
This is America, and whole sections of people are assumed to be criminal. It is called profiling — but it is really the ingrained standards inherited from slavery, Jim Crow and a whole structure of white supremacy. This is America, and armed white men are presumed to be innocent, justified and not a danger to their community. That too is a racial profiling — that envelops the militant racist like a protecting shield.
This is America. And when Black boys are murdered by angry white men, the authorities treat it as a tragic accident, not a crime."
— Kasama's Mike Ely
Sunday, March 18, 2012
I'm absolutely thrilled to report working with my local Occupy group, Occupy Sunset Park, to produce three new posters for our ongoing May Day campaign in Arabic! Sunset Park is a remarkably diverse community, a microcosm of Brooklyn itself. It started out as a community built for immigrants from Northern Europe, developed largely in the early years of the twentieth century. But it has remained a entryway for newer immigrants. Today the neighborhood's largest groups are people from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and from Mexico and Central and South America, and people from various regions of China. While next-door Bay Ridge has larger Arab and South Asian Muslim communities, our neighborhood is home to many Arabic-speaking people as well. Hopefully Chinese=language posters are on the horizon.
The poster above is a translation of one of our English-language posters, reading roughly "We Are Many (99%) They Are Few (1%)." In the next month these posters will be put up around the neighborhood. They're already being shared all over facebook. Closer to May Day itself we'll produce new posters with a specific call for action on that day.
Another of our new Arabic-language posters is tailored to speak directly to another part of the community being targeted for repression by the NYPD.
This one reads, "Are You Only Innocent Until Proven Muslim?"
I'm proud that my fellow Sunset Park occupiers understand how important it is to build bridges to everybody in our community. It truly is a movement about fighting together for our common interests, common interests that can be achieved only if we do, in fact, stick together.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
"Dr. Winslow seems to think that the first dollar is a male dollar, and the second a female dollar, and that when the man puts them into the bank together they reproduce nickels and dimes, which by and by grow up to be dollars as big as their daddy! He doesn't understand that the thing he calls interest is wealth produced by another man and which the other man had taken from him!" — a socialist organizer at a debate, in a scene from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, 1906
I just read Upton Sinclair's classic early twentieth-century novel The Jungle. After reading excerpts long ago in school, I picked up the book from a stack of paperbacks being discarded. I soon discovered that there was somewhat recently issued a version of The Jungle that restored the novel to its original longer form as published in a number of socialist publications at the time. The author had shortened and edited the novel at the behest of his commercial publisher, and proceeded to make quite a name for himself and his work; I wound up reading the longer, long-ignored work, "The Uncensored Original Edition."
The Jungle is the story of an extended Lithuanian family immigrating to the United States to find work in the meatpacking plants of robber-baron era Chicago. The book is usually remembered as an exposé of the harsh working conditions and disgusting, dangerous food-handling operations then prevalent. If you think e-coli on spinach is a big deal, you ain't seen nothing yet compared to what is detailed in Sinclair's accessible, engaging read. But what I discovered is that The Jungle is misremembered, perhaps by nature of its shortening, as quite a different book than it actually is. Because while The Jungle is indeed an exposé and a heart-breaking story of a family's suffering, the book is actually a book about socialism and how one downtrodden worker comes to understand not only why he is downtrodden but how he finds hope in building solidarity with his kind for a new, revolutionary world.
The Jungle is no doubt dated. Its writer displays all too much of the extreme racism and misogyny of white America ca the turn of that century. But its vision of socialism is simple, clear and very inspiring. The pre-World War I American socialism it depicts is ascendant, and not yet confronted by the complexities of the post-WWI revolutionary era. But it is an amazing book.
Setting aside for a moment the tragedy that over a hundred years after its writing the same problems persist with the same vital arguments remain valid, The Jungle is an amazingly relevant read. Check out this passage reporting the fury of the book's hero, Jurgis Rudkus, upon discovering that nothing under capitalism is as it seems:
"The store-keepers plastered up their windows with all sorts of lies to entice you; the very fences by the wayside, the lamp-posts and telegraph-poles were pasted over with beastly lies. The great corporation which employed you lied to you, and lied to the whole country — from top to bottom, it was nothing but one gigantic lie. The whole country was a lie; its freedom was a lie, a snare for pauper workingman; its prosperity was a lie of rich employers, its justice was a lie of grafting politicians."
The book concludes with a rousing explication of socialist ideals, including a thinly disguised speech by iconic socialist leader Eugene Debs. Reading this section I wanted to jump up and down with excitement at how clearly and inspiringly the case for socialism is made. And not the dumbed down, prettified vision of socialism we've come to associate with the welfare states of Europe, either: this is socialism as an egalitarian society where the bosses and their state have been overthrown, and where economic justice rules and oppression is finally overcome.
It was a revelatory read, and a reminder that the ground being tread by today's social justice movements has been tread before.
Saturday, March 10, 2012
Something stinks on the internet.
Yesterday the video "Kony 2012" produced by the organization "Invisible Children" reached a bizarre critical mass on the internet. It was inescapable on facebook: if you're like me, seemingly all your friends who have a social conscience shared it earnestly with heartfelt calls to spread its message. It gathered millions and millions of pageviews overnight.
Kony 2012 is slick. It's got extraordinary production values for an internet meme sensation.
It's got a narrator who is likable and earnest. It's got a beautiful little blonde toddler who makes just the right faces when confronted by the illogical and outrageous monstrosity of adults doing horrible things for seemingly inexplicable reasons. It's got a beautiful young Ugandan boy whose ready smile belies a past haunted by horror. It's got a vision of people working together to do the right thing, of people power transcending political boundaries. It's got a nightmarish and uncomplicated villain.
It also has a message of mobilizing popular support behind American military intervention across a swath of Central Africa. It's got rightwing pig Senator James Inhofe ("he wanted to assure people that lifting the ban on gays in the military has not led to the legalization of bestiality..."). It's got religious fundamentalist backers. It's got a dubious financial record as a charitable institution. It's got a hypothetically sinister role in the new cold war between the U.S. and China over Africa's resources.
After reading various pros and cons over Kony 2012, I finally watched the video. I found it creepy and disturbing. It is slickly manipulative, leading the viewer through an argument full of flawed logic, questionable assertions and sleights of hand, referencing just enough plausibility to make its emotional resonance seem legitimate. It even uses some of the messaging of the Occupy movement, almost as if its makers are hoping to siphon off the energy from the social justice cause du jour to their absolutely manufactured crusade.
Of course the warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (no longer actually in Uganda) are thoroughly unsavory characters. But it is not possible to look at Kony's anarchic warlordism — or at civil unrest across Africa general — in isolation from the story of classic colonialism, imperialism, and today's neocolonialism. Africa's vast natural resources are the battleground of the future. Western humanitarian intervention in Africa is always more complicated than it looks; it is never a simple story of saving lives.
Like many countries in Africa, Uganda is the playground of American evangelical fundamentalists. Using charitable assistance as a kind of Trojan horse, this right-wing political movement has insinuated itself in local culture. It's responsible for the rise of legal repression and brutality against gay, lesbian and transgendered Africans in several countries. The Ugandan parliamentary bill that has been on the verge of passing for a couple years now that promises the death penalty for homosexuality is the documented brainchild of American Christian fundamentalists working with local right-wingers. This movement is similarly responsible for harnessing AIDS prevention and family planning to conservative Christian ideology. It strikes me as highly unlikely that the ever-so-likeable "Invisible Children" of Kony 2012 are not utterly intertwined with these modern missionaries of hate.
There's much about the video that just seems questionable. Like how self-referential it is, suggesting somehow that the video had impact before it was even made. It's classic propaganda designed to tug the heartstrings and deflect scrutiny from its assertions. But it also strikes me as tragically familiar, hence my choice of illustrations for this essay. "The White Man's Burden" is the deeply racist notion, from the height of the colonialist era, that civilized white people had the duty to rescue the black and yellow "savages" from their state of barbarism and bring them to civilization. From Rudyard Kipling's poem:
"Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought."
It's amazing that this video seems to successfully convince millions of do-gooders, many of whom you would think would know better, that if only American military forces were tromping across the African countryside that things would actually get better for long-suffering Ugandans! White people, Americans and Europeans all, need to stop meddling in Africa. The real truth must be told: seemingly senseless civil conflicts like the one around Joseph Kony are the rotten fruit of neocolonialism. All these private armies have their origins in the halls of America and Africa's former colonial masters. Kony's brutality dwarfs before the ruthlessness of direct American meddling around the world and the shockwaves it unleashes.
One can look at a nightmare like Somalia and make valid criticisms of local and regional factions and forces. But if you step back and take a long enough view, you realize that what happened to Somalia was that it got in the way of the cold war. Somalia is like it is today because of neocolonialism, tossed aside like a dried husk when the cold war ended.
Honestly I never heard of the Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign before this week. Some people I know claim to have heard of it before. But I smell a big fat rat. People who should know better are being had by this video. I predict that when the truth comes out about this "spontaneous viral explosion" of concern over Kony and Uganda it won't be pretty. Its oh-so-innocent call for military intervention in Africa will prove to be no accident. And it's cast of concerned "bipartisan" government figures will prove to be a gallery of rogues. Beware.
The main enemy is at home.
(Highly offensive racist cartoon "The White Man's Burden" above from the mainstream New York World of 1899 courtesy of YesterYear Once More blog). If you're living in a tree and haven't seen the original Kony 2012 video, here it is:
UPDATE: My friend Jon reminds me of Mark Twain's bitter 1901 essay "To The Person Sitting in Darkness." A kind of reply to "The White Man's Burden," it's a must read and totally relevant to the Kony 2012 phenomenon. Read it here.
Thursday, March 08, 2012
In getting used to the idea that women's rights to control their own bodies, including the right to have abortions, would remain a social battleground, I can't say I ever really expected the field of battle would actually shift backwards. But so it has done, and now it seems that even women's right to contraception is under attack. At the extreme end may be the putrid neanderthal spokesasshole Rush Limbaugh and his verbal assault on Ms. Susan Fluke, suggesting she was a "slut and prostitute" and out to get the government to support her licentious lifestyle, but at the other end are all manner of politicians including both Republicans and Democrats who think that it's high time that society controls women's genital organs. Apparently the small government types have problems with regulation of pollution and corruption but no problem at all with regulation of women's bodies. That they yearn for a time when women were nothing but baby machines says so much about their general worldviews.
I counter this 1950s style assault on women with a classic propaganda image from the other 1950s, the era of Soviet/Chinese solidarity against the American-led Cold War. Against a field of multilingual banners labelled "Peace," a Chinese and Russian woman gaze determinedly and resolutely against all odds. One boldly grasps a red banner, and yet almost tenderly they grasp hands between them. While certainly representing a different shade of stereotype, these women know that even peace is something that might require a battle to defend. And there remains so very very much to defend.
Happy International Working Women's Day. Stand shoulder to shoulder with your sisters.
Monday, March 05, 2012
Working-class communities, especially communities of color, are under siege in New York City. The good-guys: hard working people just trying to survive. The bad-guys: The New York Police Department. The insulting and humiliating harassment known as stop and frisk, overwhelming a tool of racial profiling, up. Police assassinations of innocent people, up. Police spying and harassment of apolitical Muslim community organizations and activities, up.
Above is one of a series of posters my neighborhood Occupy group has developed to start a dialogue to build support for action on May Day. This one calls out the policy of stop and frisk: "It's 10:00 P.M.... How many times have your kids been stopped and frisked today? Take action on May Day!"
Middle-class white people grow up being taught that the police are their friends: Officers Friendly, helping to maintain the peace, keep people safe, and preserve order. This is an illusion made plausible because the police, especially in New York City, really is an institution built on a foundation of racism. It looks very very different to people outside that white middle-class bubble. Regardless of the number of African-Americans or latinos recruited to the force, it's evident that the nature of the NYPD is utterly bound not to protect all citizens equally but to protect the privileges of wealth and power.
Check out this absolutely incredible statistic from the New York Civil Liberties Union: "In 2011, 684,330 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.
603,268 were totally innocent (88 percent)
402,308 were black (59 percent)
176,165 were Latino (26 percent)
62,033 were white (9 percent)"
And further: "In 2006, 21.5 blacks were stopped for each arrest of a black person as opposed to only 18.2 whites stopped for each white arrest....Cops found guns, drugs, or stolen property on whites about twice as often as they did on black suspect...Police used force – i.e. handcuffing, frisking, drawing weapon, restraining – about 50 percent more often on blacks than on whites in 2006."
"Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports." And yet, this is an actual premeditated NYPD policy, claiming "Stops save lives."
Apparently the life of Ramarley Graham didn't count. 18 years old, Graham was chased by the police after allegedly being observed buying a little weed. He ran into his house; the cops broke down the doors after him, and then assassinated him in his bathroom in cold blood. He was unarmed. The cops then aggressively questioned the dead young man's grandmother for seven hours. Graham's brother later said, "They think the badge they carry on their chest is a license to kill people." With absolute legal impunity, one might add. Ramarly Graham joins the ranks of police murder victims like Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo.
Recently exposed was a massive program of spying on New York's Muslim community by the NYPD. Islamic Centers, mosques, community organizations, student groups, social clubs, student group hiking trips, social and electronic media groups: all have been subjected to heavy infiltration and surveillance. Apparently the NYPD views all Muslim New Yorkers as potential terrorists.
In diverse communities like my Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the cops do not feel like friends. These activities are not suppressing crime, they're treating all citizens like criminals. They suggest that poor people and immigrant people are not welcome to participate in civil discourse, not entitled to live safely free of illegal harassment.
Michael Bloomberg's New York City is a place where wealthy real estate interests are given huge privileges over regular people. If they want your home for one of their projects they know they can just kick you out with no recourse. The connections between such class privilege and the establishment of corrupt banks and financial institutions that made Occupy Wall Street resonate so clearly on the national consciousness is crystal clear. But it's also clear that this is not just about banking and finance, it's about what being beholden to those interests does to a city, does to all of the people who live in it.
So by calling out the racist harassment inflicted on the city's population by its police force, social justice activists now including Occupy Sunset Park and other Occupy assemblies, join voices with suffering communities and engage the political struggle for creating a city — a world? — where we, together, reject the legacies of false democracy and violent repression.