Saturday, October 29, 2011

Operation Richard J. or 68 Convention Take Two

All hell broke loose in Oakland, CA this Tuesday as police attempted to prevent Occupy Oakland protesters from reentering Ogawa Plaza.  The Mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, had earlier issued an order to police to remove the protesters due to the "unsanitary conditions" that existed in the Plaza.  Not content to barricade the Occupy Oakland group from the park, the police decided around 8:20pm Pacific Time to use tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds to drive protesters away from the park and prevent them from reoccupying the site. 

Here is a YouTube video that was posted as the events were unfolding.  I'm still stunned as I watch it now for the fifth time.

Many members of the Occupy Oakland movement were injured in this confrontation with the Oakland police.  Among them was a veteran of the Iraq war--Scott Olsen--whose skull was fractured (presumably by a tear gas canister). 

Like most people who watched these events unfold, I am still trying to make sense of all that happened.  Two observations occur to me now that I would like to share with my readers: 

First, this event feels like a turning point in the Occupy movement and perhaps might end up in retrospect being seen as the defining moment for Generation Y in the same way that the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago shaped the Boomer Generation.  As one woman mentioned on Twitter, it's events like these that turn ordinary people into revolutionaries.  How can one stand on the sideline while citizens are brutalized by those paid to protect them?

Second, what happened on Tuesday reflects the complete and utter uselessness of mainstream media.  As the police moved in with tear gas guns, all the live camera feeds at the Oakland TV stations went dark.  One station (CBS) took the cynical approach of showing an image of the capital building in Washington, D.C. as if to say "everything is alright."  Cheap Third World Dictators do that same thing. After the fact, these stations realized their gaffe, missing perhaps the most important news story of the year, and put reporters into the field on subsequent days.  But as the events unfolded it was only through social media such as Twitter that reliable news could be gathered one bit at a time. 

I found myself that night unexpectedly thrown by technology into the middle of history.  Checking my Twitter feed before going to bed, I saw a young woman's tweet (resent by one of my followers) that exclaimed "My God, they're teargassing us.  I'm fcking terrified."  I thought it was a joke until I found more and more tweets appearing saying much the same thing.  Then I followed a link in one of the tweets to YouTube and found the video above, along with hundreds of photos taken by camera phones, and haunting audio clips. 

Generally speaking, I find citizen journalism to be nearly as empty-headed as mainstream media.  For some reason we care more as a society about Lady Gaga's eating habits and unfortunate clothing choices than we do the issue of social inequality.  Here, however, citizen journalism worked.  Technology made it possible for ordinary people to tell the world what was really happening. 

What happens next remains a mystery.  Occupy Oakland has been relatively quiet in the days since Tuesday.  It seems that those in power are waiting for the weather to resolve the problem, thinking that practical concerns (i.e. frostbite) will end the protests better than police evictions.  My hope is that the movement does not lose steam but keeps up its steady pressure.  Already there actions are having significant effects.  Obama has started to make much of their language his own as he begins to campaign, whether it is meant sincerely or not is a different story, and banks such as Bank of America have started to back off their increases in fees and engage in an aggressive public relations campaign.  A few more careful pushes and lasting change is possible. 

Here's a song to close my post.  In honor of Mayor Quan who seems to have chosen as her subconscious mentor Richard J. Daley--the man for whom police "defended dis-order."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Tyrant on Ice

There's been so much worth writing about this week that I've been slow putting out my weekly blog post.  Protests by the 99% are spreading across the nation and the world.  Here in Chicago 175 were arrested for camping past curfew in Grant Park.  In Greece, an AP photo shows two very stylish young women (one carrying a Coach bag) running away from police armed with tear gas as riots again erupt in downtown Athens.  Perhaps the anarchist pooch Riot Dog will make a reappearance.  One can only hope.  Rural America hasn't been exempt from turmoil this week either as a private zoo was on the loose near Zanesville, OH.  Signs were put up along the road warning people to stay in their cars as "wild animals are on the loose." 

In fact, so much was happening in the past few days that the death on Thursday of Libya's former dictator Moammar Gaddafi nearly went unnoticed.  For well over a month the National Transitional Council has served as the internationally recognized ruler of Libya with Gaddafi presumed to have either fled the country or to be hiding near his hometown of Sirte.  Although the details remain sketchy, apparently Gaddafi was found in a sewer pipe outside of Sirte and dragged out by his captors.  Cell phone photos and videos don't show who killed him or how, but the image of his bloody and swollen corpse was rapidly sent out over the Internet.  Even as conservative a site as the BBC showed the dead leader on display.  The message was clear--the nearly 9 month war in Libya is over.

Viewing the photo of this dead tyrant I couldn't help but feel a sense of disgust and shame.  No matter how evil the person they deserve to be treated with some dignity, especially if we plan to claim moral superiority over them.  There is no dignity at all in having ones bloody corpse placed in a walk in freezer at the mall for curious spectators to gawk at.  Additionally, whoever killed Gaddafi denied the Libyan people and the world at large the opportunity to attain real justice rather than simply vent spectatorial indignation.  Unlike Saddam Hussein who was brought before his people to account for decades of repression, Gaddafi has been prematurely spared from a true accounting for his crimes. 

UN inspectors have vowed to look into the manner of Gaddafi's death and the National Transitional Council has pledged to do the same.  The results at this point won't matter much.  Libya will move forward into an uncertain future and Gaddafi will become another footnote in North Africa's long narrative of petty tyrants.  It's a shame Reagan isn't alive.  He might have had something pithy to say.  More than likely, he'd be in line with the spectators gawking at the dead body of this small and pitiful man. 

Rest in peace Gaddafi.  You're dead now.  And I hope this proves a useful lesson to you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Washington Circa 1894--Remembering Jacob Coxey

Many of my friends have asked me recently "what do you think about occupy Wall Street?"  In answer to their question I've typically replied that I am cautiously optimistic that these protests on behalf of the 99%, which seem to spread a little more every day, will lead to changes in our nation's financial policies and towards greater job growth. 

I've also heard a lot of my friends and colleagues draw comparisons between these protests and the 1960s movements for Civil Rights.  But a more appropriate analogy seems to me that of Jacob Coxey's "Industrial Army." 

If you think things are bad now, you should have been alive in 1893.  For blue collar employees, unemployment in some parts of the United States reached a whopping 25%.  Jacob Coxey, a populist political figure from Ohio, organized about 100 unemployed men to take part in a march on Washington, D.C.  They would walk, hitchhike, or travel by any other means available on their way to the capital to protest the need for the Federal Government to create jobs and stop the uncontrollable profiteering of those on Wall Street. 

The number of marchers ebbed and flowed throughout the protest and their message was so diffuse that most newspapers labelled them an army of hobos out looking for a handout.  It didn't help that a man named "General" Charles T. Kelley started his own march from the west coast, which gradually developed into precisely what the newspapers claimed.  Both Washington, D.C. and Wall Street ignored these groups.  It wasn't until the Pullman Strike of 1894 that worker protests garnered some attention. 

Beginning in Chicago, the Pullman strike gradually shut down railroad traffic in the entire western United States.  President Cleveland, pressured to do something about it, sent the U.S. army to Chicago to put down the strike.  With commerce affected, suddenly those in power were paying attention. 

So what's the lesson we take from this in 2011?  Money really does talk.  Find a way to stop its flow and you'll get the attention of those in power.  If Occupy Wall Street remains a small group of vocal protesters who are "mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more," bank executives will continue to walk over them on their way to work.  All the while muttering how great the First Amendment is.  Take your money out of their banks.  Stop buying goods from disreputable companies.  In fact, stop working at all in large enough numbers.  Then see what happens. 

I admire Gandhi, but his concept of peaceful protest doesn't work in all times and places.  What's needed here is some good old fashioned Gilded Age conflict.  Then we'll see some lasting financial reforms. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gotta Revolution?

You don't need me to tell you that things are getting bad in the United States.  More and more families are falling behind on their bills and the smell of desperation is filling the air.  Forced from their homes by foreclosures and job losses, tent cities (called Obamavilles by one smart-alleck commentator) have begun to spring up in states as far apart as Florida, Nevada, Michigan, and New Jersey.  Protests against the financial industry by a group referring to itself as the 99% have also started to spread from Wall Street to other major cities in the country, including Chicago.  On Tuesday evening I witnessed about 35-40 protesters marching from Chicago's Federal Reserve Bank to the campaign headquarters of President Barack Obama in the Aon Center. 

Americans are seriously pissed off.  Men and women who have worked hard all their lives to achieve a comfortable middle class life with a modest house, car, a few kids, and some nice electronic toys are waking up to the fact that sometimes doing the right thing doesn't do any good.  Class lines that once were lightly sketched onto the fabric of the nation are now hardening into thick and rigid lines. Increasingly credit score is destiny and few are those who can boast 650 (average) let alone 700. 

Where will all this frustration eventually lead?  History tells us that such unrest can go in a number of directions.  One is towards violent revolution of the kind that transformed France in the 18th century and Russia in the 20th.  The other is to the edge of cataclysm leading to reform.  This restless energy is what gave us the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It's too early yet to know which path our nation will take.  One major cause for concern, however, is the large number of young men and women amongst the ranks of the disenfranchised.  A visit to the site "We are the 99 Percent" <> shows a disturbingly high percentage of young college educated people among the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed. 

A nation that cannot find gainful employment for its future generation is in serious trouble.  Washington, D.C. has shown itself incapable of making any meaningful contributions to this problem.  Bankers and large businesses, most of which are international corporations, have shown themselves largely indifferent to events on the streets.  After all, if things go bad here they can simply pick up their money and go somewhere else.  So what's to be done?

Beats me.  But I'm keeping my eyes and ears to the streets.  We live in very interesting times and they're only going to get more colorful.