“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine”

I believe that we are coming to a crossroads as a nation.

Since 9/11, we’ve been traveling down a road bristling with guns, military technology, paranoia and fear.  Though most of our aggressive energy has been aimed outside our borders, there has also been a steady preparation for mass violence within the U.S. as well.  In the decade since 9/11, our national police forces have been armed with military hardware, and have trained extensively in riot control, with the results that we saw for the first time during the recent Occupy protests.

In the peaceful town of Fargo, North Dakota, report Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Every city squad car is equipped today with a military-style assault rifle, and officers can don Kevlar helmets able to withstand incoming fire from battlefield-grade ammunition. And for that epic confrontation—if it ever occurs—officers can now summon a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret.”

Billions of federal tax dollars have been spent nationwide on this kind of military hardware for police, in the name of Homeland Security.

Security from what?  Security for whom?

Short of an all-out military invasion by a foreign force, which seems hugely unlikely, these weapons can only be meant to confront an insurgency within our own borders.

Are we thinking about a civil war, then?

Are these police being armed and trained to protect the interests of the 1% against the raging anger of the 99%?

A year ago it would not have occurred to me to ask these questions.  But obviously the Homeland Security crowd was already thinking ahead and planning for a time when such armor and weapons would be necessary to “maintain security” and “uphold law and order” on the home front.

Yes, they must have been aware, even as they were cashing in on our ignorance, that there would come a time when no more could be squeezed from the bottom two-thirds of American society.  When there would be so many homeless, so many poor, so many disenfranchised, that these people would feel they had no other recourse than violence, and nothing left to lose.


A new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that “more than 1.6 million children – or one in 45 children – are homeless annually in America. This represents an increase of 38% during the years impacted by the economic recession.”

I’m sorry, but that is just unacceptable in this country, which likes to think of itself as the wealthiest and most enlightened society on earth.

When you add up all the trials and tribulations being visited on the poor in this country–and “the poor” is a vast category that gets bigger day by day–and you weigh billions in Homeland Security anti-terrorism outfits for police against dwindling food and shelter for children–well, something just isn’t right here.  There’s something rotten in the state of America.

And yes, we are at a crossroads.

It may seem to some that I am over-reacting, but this is the way it feels to me: if we continue following along docilely on this daisy path that we’ve been led down by the architects of corporate capitalism, we are like the Jews of Germany in 1940, peacefully gathering our belongings and getting on that train to Auschwitz, or marching cooperatively out to the forest to be mowed down by machine guns into the mass grave.

We know enough now to know that the powers that be do not have our best interests at heart.

We’ve been sickened by their chemicals, and our health care system seems geared to treat sickness (at a profit) rather than to promote wellness.  Our oceans, air, soils and drinking water have been contaminated and rendered toxic. Our taxes have been used for guns and landmines instead of schools and social welfare.  Those who have gotten rich in this system have done so on the backs of the poor and those who cannot defend themselves: the natural world above all.

Are we going to continue down this path?

Or are we going to gather our courage at this crossroads, and strike off in a new direction?

A lot of people are asking this question now.  Over on the New Clear Vision blog, Charles Imboden suggests that the Occupy movement has ignited a renewed “commitment to direct democracy and shunning of ‘representative,’ republican forms of decision-making (so often susceptible to corruption and corporate influence) [which] can be further strengthened as the foundation of the egalitarian, ecological society.”

As one of my readers commented today, what would happen if they held an election and we just didn’t show up?

I don’t know if there is a way to cut ourselves loose from the federal government and its taxpayer-supported state terror apparatus.  Thoreau tried, back in the 19th century, and was promptly thrown in jail.

His letter from prison is worth re-reading today.

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice …is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.

As we gear up for next year’s Presidential elections, we must take these wise words of Thoreau’s to heart.

But we must also be aware, as Thoreau certainly was, that there are other paths to take, outside of the machine.

We stand at a crossroads.  Each of us must make up our own minds, in our own time.

How much longer will we continue to docilely feed the machine our tax dollars, and march peacefully where they lead us?

Is Anybody Listening?

Just curious: why is it that today’s NY Times front page features social protest in Egypt, Yemen and Hamas, but nothing about California?

Way below the digital “fold,” in small print, there’s a piece with the bland headline “From Crowd Control to Mocking Images,” but it’s more about pepper spray itself than about the serious issues raised by the UC Davis incident.

The opinion pages are similarly focused on Egypt and Israel–nothing on the Occupy movement.

Somehow it reminds me of the classic situation where a kid is trying to get her parents’ attention, and Dad is buried behind his newspaper, Mom is talking away on the phone, and NOBODY IS LISTENING!

What does that kid have to do to get the adults’ attention?

Something outrageous. And even then, the focus will most likely be more on returning things to the status quo as fast as possible, rather than on talking through the issues deeply and seriously considering change.

That seems to be the posture of the UC system officials, who are in the current hot seat of the Occupy movement.  They want this whole mess to just go away, so that students will return to their classrooms and dorm rooms and keep paying their ever-higher tuition to earn degrees for jobs that don’t exist.

Things turned violent in the Middle East when people had enough of leaders who refused to listen.  There, soldiers and tanks were called in against civilians.  Here, we have armed riot police called in against students who were doing nothing more challenging than sitting cross-legged in a quad.

 Imagine what could happen here if protesters stopped being so polite and nonviolent and began demanding attention in a no-nonsense way.

How far would our leaders–from university chancellors to mayors to governors and the politicians in Washington DC–go in choosing to repress and stifle dissent rather than listening and engaging in thoughtful dialogue about the best way forward for all?

A couple of decades ago, when people took to the streets to protest working conditions and lack of freedom in Latin America, the U.S. demonized “the Communists” and sent military aid to the dictators to maintain order in the banana republics.  The civil wars there claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

It is impossible to blame “the Communists” this time, and the unrest is not far away in some other country, it’s right here in our own heartland.

It’s our own sons and daughters who are feeling the crack of the police baton, the burn of the chemical sprays.

What are we going to do about it?

First of all, we’d better start listening.

Help Wanted: Obama the Community Organizer, Please Come Back!

Here’s another video of unwarranted police brutality against peaceful protesters, this time in Oakland CA, that’s sure to go viral on the Web today:

How do you think the NY Times is covering this story? Not surprisingly, the Times presents the story largely from the establishment point of view, focusing on how cities are “losing patience” with the Occupy movement, with “officials…grappling with growing concerns about crime, sanitation and homelessness at the encampments.”

Well yes, we do need to be worrying about “crime, sanitation and homelessness.”  But not especially at the Occupy encampments.

The Occupy Wall Street folks have shown themselves able to handle these issues very well themselves, without any help from city officials or police, and we can expect that their example will be followed by other protesters across the country.

However, there are other, far more serious instances of crime, sanitation and homelessness on which city officials should be focusing.

For instance, the criminal behavior of the major American banks, which, as Nick Kristof observed in his column yesterday on American crony capitalism, “privatize profits while socializing risk.”

Or the criminal behavior of the U.S. military establishment, which, in a heinous disregard for the health of U.S. Marines and their families, ignored the fact that the water at Camp Lejeune was highly unsanitary–in fact, totally toxic–for years, until the undeniable incidence of cancer and birth defects, including the biggest cluster of male breast cancer victims in the nation, forced officials there to acknowledge the problem.

Then there’s the issue of homelessness.  Not the kind represented by the tents and sleeping bags that have sprung up in cities and towns across the country in a deliberate effort to draw attention to soaring American inequality.

No, what officials should be concerned about is actual homelessness caused by record numbers of home foreclosures by the very banks that manufactured this crisis to begin with.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that President Obama has lately snapped out of the zombified sleepwalking he’s been stuck in for the past year or so.

The Occupy movement can and should claim the credit for waking him up and giving him the inspiration and courage to start fighting back again. These young people may be his salvation in the next election, too, if he can break the chains that have bound him to Wall Street and take up a more populist stance.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 there were 26.1 million Americans ages 18-23.  A good portion of those–say, 90% or so–have every right to be upset with the dismal state of the economy they’re about to enter as working adults.

Many of them have crushing student loans, and come from families that have been struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments in a flat-lining middle-class economic environment.

And seriously, do you know ANYONE who has not been touched by cancer at least indirectly, having to watch friends, neighbors and family members fight the good fight against this manufactured scourge?

Do you know anyone who doesn’t think we in the 99% need access to affordable health care, and better governmental protection from toxic chemicals in our food, water and air?

President Obama needs to get back to his community organizer roots, and come out as the man we thought we were electing, the defender of the 99%.

We need to hear from the youthful idealist Obama who worked so hard to improve conditions in Chicago’s ghettos.  I know he’s in there somewhere.

Maybe these young people in the nation’s streets, standing firm against the onslaught of the riot police, will rekindle the fire that’s been all but extinguished in the White House lately.

In this wet, gloomy autumn, there’s nothing we need more.

Don’t Pepper-Spray Our Dreams

New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has totally missed the mark in her coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Where I see a vibrant grassroots movement unfolding organically, she sees a disorganized group, marred by a “lack of cohesion” and an “intellectual vaccuum.”

Where I see a clever use of street theater to get across messages that might be too threatening to convey in a more direct, hard-driving tone, she sees an “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.”

Where she sees the cause of the protesters as “impossible to decipher” because of the “diffuse and leaderless” nature of this movement, I see the cause as rather starkly clear, if expressed in a multitude of colorful ways by the individual protesters.

It’s summed up in the movement’s use of the concept of 99% to identify themselves. Last week there were protesters who wore placards saying “I am Troy Davis.”  This week, almost all Americans could don similar placards proclaiming: “I am one of the 99%”–that is, the majority of citizens who are receiving almost nothing in the way of benefits from the vast wealth generated by Wall Street.

Even the disdainful Ginia Bellafante noted the growing economic inequality of America in her article on the protest:

Last week, she said, “The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.”

Well look again, Ms. Bellafante and you Wall Street billionaires. The revolution is at your doorstep.  It may be young, motley and impulsive, but have’t revolutions always been started by the young, idealistic and passionate of any society?

They may not be arguing from any one intellectual vantage point, but they don’t need to be quoting Marx or Dewey or John Maynard Keynes to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem in our society: that the rich own our political system, and they are more interested in personal gain than in a healthy society where young people who work hard will know that they can look forward to a secure future.

We’ve seen the same kinds of protests from young people living under dictatorships in the Middle East; and in London; and now in New York and other American cities.  They all want the same thing: a social system that prioritizes the well-being of ordinary people over the need of the wealthy elite to accumulate ever more billions in personal property.

Is this too much to ask?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not “communism,” either. It’s what used to be called the American Dream, a dream that has faded for too many of us as cost of living has soared, wages have stagnated, housing values have fallen, and jobs have disappeared.

In today’s harsh world, idealist visions are often met with pepper spray.

That’s no way to treat the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

Mayor Bloomberg, you should be ashamed.

Occupy Wall Street: Time to Tell Bloomberg to Call Off the Goon Squad

Finally, the alternative media is coming alive!  Alternet is leaping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon, and urging its readers to do the same.

Arun Gupta issues “a clarion call to join the protests,” and a longer story by Sarah Jaffe shows how the heavy-handed police techniques and lack of attention from the press have not dampened the protesters’ determination, and if anything have drawn more people to the cause.

Truthout.org doesn’t have the protest on the front page, but they did reproduce a very disturbing video from msnbc, with anchor Lawrence O’Donnell, certainly no radical, standing up for the protesters in the strongest terms.

It’s the people wearing the badges that are the troublemakers, O’Donnell says, accusing the police of “unprovoked police brutality.”  The provocation, he observes, was having a video camera running.

There is NOTHING illegal in recording a peaceful protest.

Americans, we have to stand up for our freedom of speech.

It’s time to tell Mayor Bloomberg, a Wall Street type if there ever was one, that this is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE.

If you want to send the Mayor a letter, this is how.  And protesters, maybe it’s time to send a contingent over to the new Tammany Hall.

Occupy Wall Street, Day 10: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world

One of Wangari Maathai’s most powerful political actions was when she and a group of women occupied Uhuru (Freedom) Park in downtown Nairobi, to protest government plans to turn the tree-lined public park into a giant private office complex.

At first it was just twenty women with hand-painted signs, sitting down together in the center of the park in protest.  But as word spread, the protest grew, until soon hundreds of people, men and women, were sitting down in the park with Wangari, demanding the right to hold on to one of the last remaining green spaces in their city.

And you know what?  They won!

I’m thinking of that story tonight as I watch the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Plaza Park, NYC.  Protesters have been sitting down there for the past ten days, and despite nasty police pressure and arrests, they are not moving–and the crowd is growing.

Their demands are simple: they want the Masters of the Universe who run Wall Street, and through Wall Street, the world, to pay attention to the ordinary folks at the bottom of the heap.

There are all kinds of people down in Liberty Park–students, housewives, journalists, activists, the unemployed.  What they have in common is a deep and abiding belief that the corporate capitalist system symbolized by Wall Street is not serving Americans well–other than the narrow top layer of financiers and their creatures, the politicians and corporate business types.

I am disappointed to see that my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, has treated the protest like a minor disturbance, not worthy of front-page attention.  Of course, the Times can’t risk angering its corporate advertisers and sponsors…so they have to tread carefully.

But it’s surprising to see that even more progressive publications like The Nation, the Huffington Post and Moveon.org are also largely ignoring the significance of this protest.

Maybe it’s because there’s no one famous in charge–although some celebs have started dropping by and addressing the crowd now, including Michael Moore, Cornel West and Susan Sarandon.

The truth is that this is a REAL grassroots protest movement.  There is no charismatic leader calling the shots and getting the glory. There is no fancy media kit or PR person fielding questions.

There’s just “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” seeking by their persistent accusatory presence to change the world.  As Margaret Mead said, we shouldn’t doubt their ability to do just that.

More than that–we should get out there and join them!

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