Posts tagged protest
Posts tagged protest
This week, unions won remarkable victories in Chicago and Quebec against the right-wing agenda of gutting public education. In Quebec, the right-wing provincial government had imposed a huge increase in university tuition, almost doubling it. This prompted student unions to organize massive months-long strikes which ultimately brought down the province government. In response to this pressure, the new Parti Québécois government immediately repealed the tuition increase.
In Chicago, the Democrat mayor Rahm Emanuel has been attacking public education and the Chicago Teachers Union since taking office, attempting to extract extra unpaid work from teachers, privatize schools, increase class sizes, strip schools of libraries, art and music programs and further expand standardized testing. After fruitless negotiations, 90% of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to strike. Enjoying massive public support, the strike was a success; the teachers forced major concessions from the mayor and his school board.
A surge of questions likely flows through people’s minds when they are handed a radical zine such as this one. The primary one: why? Why are you handing me this? Why should a student at the University of Michigan become involved? I am sure you have at least some inkling that things in this country are not as they should be. Even from just the occasional news story, it’s easy to see that our society is far from the “American Dream.” However, the wide array of societal problems can often seem alien to us here on campus. Here at Michigan, haven’t we “made it”? Aren’t we, “the leaders and the best” on our way to a bright future?
The short answer to these questions is no. Our futures, not just as students but as people, are threatened- to a degree perhaps unparalleled in the past 40 years. Both within the university and outside of it, young people face issues that challenge our right to a better future. However, while we face these great challenges we retain the right and responsibility to fight back.
To start with, let’s look at a few of the problems that confront us as students at Michigan. For many of us, a basic challenge is the ever-rising cost of tuition. Each year, the cost of being a Wolverine rises hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. In the past twenty years, in-state tuition has more than tripled (adjusted for inflation), moving education beyond the grasp of many and forcing most of us to take on crippling debt. To ensure that the University of Michigan, and college in general, remains affordable, something needs to be done to change this pattern of oppressive costs.
Another election season dawns, and yet again students like myself are urged to “make our voices heard” by selecting our preferred candidate. Many of us will undoubtedly be caught up in the fervor of rhetoric and promises, some perhaps even believing that this time things will be different. As a radical student activist it’s often difficult to view this bi-yearly charade as anything other than a perverse blend of distraction and manipulation. Seeing our fellow students fooled over and over again by the same shallow slogans and short-sighted policies, elections can be an exasperating process. However, we can hardly allow such a huge opportunity to engage with the general population to be routinely wasted. So the question then becomes how do we as radical students relate to elections, utilizing them for the cause of revolution without allowing them to corrupt our ideals?
First off, anyone who has examined the US political system can’t fail to notice its remarkable ability to represent the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the population in general. It is clear that our elections are bought, not won. With the demystification of Obama, an increasing number of students are awakening to this fact. Though they may still vote for Obama over any of the Republican field, many will do so more out of a lack of options than from any deep-seated belief in his abilities. As leftist students our alternative should not be a different face to vote for, or a begrudging support for the fabled “lesser of two evils,” but rather a move for political participation beyond voting.
I can still recall turning 18 and receiving a postcard from the government emblazoned with the slogan “your vote is your voice.” It struck me that the unacknowledged subtext of this was that I don’t have a voice outside of the ballot box. This is the ethos put forward by our society as a whole, that political participation means watching the news, choosing a candidate, and then disengaging until the next election cycle. This process is not democracy, but manufactured consent.
As we observe the one-year anniversaries of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, we hear more news everyday about the ongoing protests throughout the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States. For the past year and a half, we have been witness to a resurgence of revolutionary sentiment worldwide. It is not a movement of any individual group or nationality bent against localized injustices; it is a revolution of the immense majority against the worldwide rule of an extreme minority. Instead of seeing each battle against injustice as an isolated struggle, we are increasingly seeing the connections between them. Today, a link of solidarity exists between protesters all over the world in a way not felt in decades. We are waking to the fact that we are not fighting individual rulers or policies but a common system of oppression and degradation.
Solidarity. Together we are strong
After almost 4 months of occupation, consensus, and protesting; and after repeated instances of police brutality, tear gas, and over 5,000 arrests; America has a mass movement again. What began with a few hundred protesters in Zuccotti Park has become an uprising capable of changing the foundations of the American political system.
We have shut down ports, occupied Times Square, stood toe to toe with police officers and seen them—for the first time in living memory- back down. Where before our society seemed to drive relentlessly onward, independent of our wishes, we have now experienced the feeling of reaching out and seizing control, if only for a moment. We have learned a lesson from our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Africa and Europe who helped demonstrate the power of a people united against oppression. It seems that we had forgotten what we were capable of; 2011 has reminded us.
This is not to say that the fight is over. Indeed, this struggle has just begun. Occupy has suffered major setbacks in the form of coordinated government repression, evictions and arrests. The combination of winter and tear gas has forced them from the streets of most major cities, leading some to claim (or perhaps hope) that the movement is dying. Occupy is indeed in a difficult position, it has run into several limitations in its strategy, and needs to forge a new path if it is to continue to grow. Nonetheless, to think that Occupy will simply evaporate is a delusion of the 1%.
The slogan, “You cannot evict an idea,” that greeted the cops attempting to destroy Occupy camps illustrates both the key accomplishment of the movement and the reason it will not disappear in the cold of winter. No matter what the future holds, Occupy has already scored a terrific victory by breaking the taboo of opposing capitalism. A year ago, corporate news outlets and politicians were talking about austerity and the necessity of working class sacrifice. Today, as the American public increasingly begins to leave them behind, they have been forced to address issues of economic justice and social equality. Dramatic shifts like these cannot be undone at a stroke. But if we are to continue this transition, we must progress.
So where does Occupy go from here?
The three greatest strengths of Occupy are its broad message of economic justice, emphasis on radical democracy, and use of direct action. America, perhaps the wealthiest nation in history, is one of the most unequal industrial societies, with the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world. Society is polarized into two opposing groups: the minority—the capitalists—who control the wealth and rule the society, and the oppressed working majority. Occupy has brought this contradiction of wealth and poverty into the discussion and built a mass movement to oppose the ruling minority. Until the wealth of our society is distributed more equally among those who create it, economic justice will remain at the center of Occupy’s message.
Tactically, radical democracy and direct action are two sides of the same coin. Radical democracy creates a space where people participate directly in making group decisions, while direct action presents a method of enacting these decisions without relying on the bureaucracy of the 1%. Instead of electing a rich person to feign interest in their locality and betray them in Washington, the people opt to create a new democracy truly reflective of their wishes. After decades of attempting to reform a degrading and disempowering system from within, we are now largely refusing to engage with the “accepted channels” for change. This independence must be maintained as the movement moves forward. To endorse a political candidate and fall back into the sinkhole of the two party system is to return once more to the model of politics that has enforced the rule of the 1% for centuries.
While building upon these important ideals, we must also avoid fetishizing the individual practices that brought us here. Though the physical occupation of public spaces remains a great rallying point for the movement, it is the ideas of Occupy that have inspired millions. Our movement should judge its own tactics primarily on whether they serve to combat the hegemony of the 1%. If that means occupying a park, great, but we must be open to a variety of methods for reclaiming physical and mental space in our society. Additionally, in judging these tactics we must be willing and able to change them. If aspects of the consensus process begin to hamper the ability of the group to function effectively and democratically, we should feel free to modify them. This movement is about creating a truly democratic and economically just society, and we should not subordinate our goals to a particular process.
Finally, there has been talk about the need for Occupy to become more moderate, and engage with the traditional American system to become more relatable. This view, while somewhat understandable, is fundamentally flawed. The demand for moderation appears each time a radical movement emerges, the claim being that in order to gain broad acceptance the radicals must temper their goals and join the accepted political framework. For Occupy to do this would spell the end of the movement. Occupy already enjoys broad public support, becoming more ‘moderate’ and allying with aspects of the traditional political system will ultimately degrade this support. The American public already has a political party that claims to seek “change” and then sells them out to corporate interests. A key part of Occupy’s message is that the US political system has been made the servant of the 1% and no longer reflects the will of the people. To conform to and join this corrupt system in a vain attempt to gain its acceptance would negate a key element of the movement. We may fight individual battles for this or that reform, but the aim of the movement must remain a broad transformation of both the economic system and structure or our society.
Instead of seeking merely to improve the conditions of our exploitation, be it with a slightly higher wage or mildly less oppressive legislation, we should struggle to seize control of the economic and political processes which dominate our lives. While we can fight for larger cages, our ultimate aim is and must continue to be their abolition. In a few short months Occupy has cracked capitalism’s monopoly on legitimacy. As the new year dawns, time is on our side; we have at long last seen our chains, we now work to shatter them.
In the past few weeks we have gone from a generation of apathy the most serious threat to the power structure in the past 3 decades. America has, in many ways, stood up. There are now thousands of protesters in scores of cites both nationally and internationally placing their bodies in the path of the super rich and proclaiming an end to upper class cultural and political hegemony.
I went to New York as part of a delegation from Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) to the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference. While there I had the opportunity to participate in the October 15th Occupy Wall Street protest in Time Square and the general assembly held later that day in Washington Square Park. Both events served to illustrate the strength of the movement, its immense potential, as well as some of its limitations.
As per the Occupy Wall Street Facebook event, I and several of my comrades from SAFE arrived in Time Square on Saturday a little after 5. We were uncertain how many people would actually show up, and a little skeptical about our ability to have a block party in Time Square. But as we exited the subway station at 42nd street and turned the corner onto 7th Ave, we were met with crowds of chanting and sign waving protesters jammed up against police barricades.
We began working our way through the crowd chanting along until we made it into the center of the square. The Police, officially there to protect the flow of traffic, had barricaded all of the cross streets from 43rd through 47th, keeping only Broadway open to vehicles. Thousands of people pressed against the police barricades. In the center of the square a large group from Liberty Park were dancing and singing when we arrived, some holding aloft puppets, others gesticulating from a statue’s dais. As we moved through the crowd we ran into a group handing out copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Asking if we could help, we were granted 50 or so copies and we continued on our way handing them out to our fellow protesters.
After about a half hour, we were grouped together in a middle area of the crowd when we suddenly heard a loud noise from the front ranks of the protesters along the barricades. Pushing forward I arrived in time to see the main contingent of people from Liberty Park begin arriving along 46th street. Hundreds of people were now streaming into the square, filling it and pushing restlessly against the now vastly outnumbered police line. It seems, realizing their inferior numbers, the police began calling in reinforcements. From one cop every ten feet it became one every three. Mounted police were called in (their horses must have been exceedingly well trained to cope with the flashing lights of the billboards, the noise of the crowd and the claustrophobia of the situation.) followed by motorcycle cops and finally riot police with rings of plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts. The crowd became rowdier as more and more cops appeared, greeting each new wave with shouts of, “Who do you work for?” and, “We are the 99%.” Across the street from me, where the protesters from Liberty Plaza had initially arrived and where the people were most densely packed, the crowd began to push against the barriers. Police attempted to push back, beating the hands gripping the barricades and pulling individuals over the barriers, forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them in the center of the street. The barriers between the two groups began to break apart. Extra officers rushed to fill the hole in their lines swinging billy clubs at arms and shoulders with mounted police steering in to fill the gap, the horse’s hooves forcing the crowd back. The air was electric. The crowd on my side of the street on edge as people watched their fellows beaten and arrested. A young man standing on the side of a lamp post used the human megaphone, his words reverberating out through the crowd finishing with, “…We are here….to tell the world….that we don’t need….all of this,” he said gesturing around him at the opulent billboards. The crowd cheered.
Gradually the mood eased, the crowd somewhat cowed by the sheer quantity of police now in the streets. As the tense situation began to dissipate, a member of the Liberty Plaza group again used the human megaphone to announce that there would be a general assembly in Washington Square at 10pm.
After another half hour in Time square, I left and headed over to Washington Square, the time now roughly 9:15. Along the way I met many people headed from one protest to the other, heard stories of police assaults, their friends who had been imprisoned, and of the Citi-Bank protesters jailed for attempting to withdraw funds. I arrived in Washington Square to find roughly two thousand people filling a low concrete amphitheater in the middle of the park. At their center was full a mass of dancing protesters, a drum circle and a particularly strong winded trumpet player. At ten a group of people mounted a small raised section in the center of the area and yelled, “Mic Check” and announced through the human megaphone that they would be facilitating the general assembly. The meeting progressed from congratulations on cleaning and defending Liberty Plaza the past Friday, to a discussion of whether to occupy Washington Square. The crowd became a mix of those who wished to stay and those who didn’t think the time was right. Individuals raised their hands and were added to the list to speak. Some called for the movement to grow, to seize the park, saying that students from the surrounding NYU campus would support us. Others cautioned the crowd to go through proper legal channels and obtain a permit, or to come back when the time was more ripe for a fresh occupation.
Throughout each of the speakers, the crowd raised its hands in support (wiggling fingers) and dislike (waggling hands) providing instantaneous feedback to each burst of the human megaphone. Throughout each speaker the crowd listened attentively, digesting and responding to the ideas presented. The decision to stay or not was discussed at length, its supporters gradually losing steam as questions of how many of those present would actually be willing to stay came to light. At 11:30 the police began to surround the park, positioning busses at every entrance and mounted police at the south gate. They announced that they would be enforcing the park’s curfew and that any people left in the park after that time would be subject to arrest. The turning point had been passed, too many people had left to hold the park against mass arrests, the choice now being between leaving and being arrested. I discussed the issue with some of the people I had met, and ultimately we decided that it was not worth getting arrested simply to get arrested. We helped haul food that the Occupiers had brought from Liberty Plaza outside the park and into a waiting vehicle. Ultimately at twelve o’clock only roughly 30 people resolutely remained behind to be arrested by the advancing riot police.
As we moved away from the park we met groups of protesters chanting and striding in all different directions, discussing politics, and the relative location of police squads, far from the empty dialogue previously associated with our generation. Though I was at times frustrated by some of the more contradictory elements of the crowd’s message, the central goal remained clear, we were there to resist a system that no longer represents the interests of those it governs. The evening and the movement are best summed up by one of the speakers from the General Assembly in Washington Square, “We should stop calling this an occupation…and call it what it really is…a revolution!.”
It has been one year since 50,000 UK students converged on Central London for a demonstration against rising fees and funding cuts. The November 10th 2010 demonstration was a defining moment for a nascent student movement that has since led the way for resistance to the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition government.
Last week Wednesday, the students returned to central London 10,000 deep and took the Occupy London encampment at St. Paul’s Cathedral as their base camp. The low turnout was attributed to the failure of the National Union of Students (NUS) to officially back the demonstration – it did in 2010 – and police intimidation.
Fresh off the London uprisings in August, new London Met chief, Bernard Howard-Hogan introduced ‘total policing, which included the authorization to use rubber bullets on demonstrators (announced the day prior to the demonstration) and the mailing of threatening letters to organizers and participants.
On the same day, the national electrician’s union held a day of action in response to a 35% cut in wages. The electricians marched from worksite to worksite calling on fellow workers to join them – successfully shutting down a major rail project. When the electricians tried to join the students the London Met surged ahead to kettle them off with horses and swinging batons. The officers searched the electricians and collected their names and addresses under the authority of controversial section 60 of the Public Order Act.
However, a few electricians that slipped passed the shamelessly oppressive British state authorities joined the students at St. Paul to join in chants of ‘We are the 99%’ and ‘Students and Workers Unite and Fight’
This show of unity between workers and students is significant as trade unions and students gear up for the public sector general strike on November 30th. This is the second general strike in the UK this year – 1 million workers walked out of their jobs across on the country on June 30th this year. Organizers anticipate that 2.5 million students and workers to participate this time around.
To say that students set the tone for trade unions and working people across the UK is hardly an exaggeration. After the November 10 2010 demonstration, student organizers of the Education Activist Network and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts held rally after rally during the winter months – each time turning out more than the last, each facing more police oppression, each time calling on workers to join them.
Then, on March 26 of this year, the trade unions responded and the largest crowd since the anti-Iraq War protest of 2003 took to the streets in numbers exceeding 500,000.
That students in the UK are leading the reaction to the austerity measures of the coalition government is not surprising. From the 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 academic year, students faced a 9000 USD increase in tuition, in addition to the capping of the number of undergraduates admitted. With the release of the Browne report in 2010 and the more recent HE White Paper it is certain that the current government seeks to dismantle the once affordable system of public education.
The students of the UK have rightly called this strategy the Americanization of British Higher Education. The introduction of student loans, for-profit institutions, frivolous capital investment projects and the division of places of learning into first and second tier institutions – the former which only the rich can afford to attend – is precisely the path that American higher education have taken over the last three decades.
American observers of the European student often remark with bafflement that the latter responds with such vehemence to ‘modest’ increases in tuition. This is almost always accompanied by an air of condescension as the American observer explains that the choice of a degree is like a choice of a cell phone and the European student must wakeup to the reality of market forces driving higher education.
They claim that debt is inevitable, education is not free.
Michigan students from the Class of 2010 graduated with an average of $27,828 in student debt, and promptly entered a job market with the highest post college unemployment in decades. The debt ceiling deal saw major cuts to education and an unfavorable restricting of loan repayment.
The President told American students he ‘heard them’ when the issue of debilitating student debt was raised by the occupy movement, but he then proceeded to pass off the extension of old and ineffectual policies as bold reform.
Sorry, Mr. President, we’ll stay in the streets.
The students of the UK (and now Italy, Chile, Puerto Rico and now Canada) have shown us another way. What began as a string of wildcat occupations at the Universities of Sussex and Middlesex in the spring of 2010 has since grown into a full-scale student and worker rebellion.
It is time for the American student to consider that, along with another world, another education is possible – one that is meaningful, critical, and free.
Since the last issue of The Harbinger, the Occupy Wall Street movement has become a national issue. In every major metropolitan area, a “sister occupation” has taken hold in some fashion. The setup of each of the protests is roughly the same: a core group of protesters sets up a visible camp in a public space to provide a constant presence that “occupies,” or reclaims the location for the use of the majority. Larger general assemblies and demonstrations are held on weekends or after work when employed supporters have time to participate. Though there have been severe cases of police brutality in such locations as Boston, on the whole, most of the Occupations, especially those in smaller cities, have had good relations with the police. However, in recent weeks more and more occupations are coming under larger and more violent police intimidation.
At the beginning of the protests, the Occupy Wall Street crowd was made primarily of anti-capitalists, libertarians, and the usual protesters that appear at anti-establishment gatherings. However, due to the severity of the Global Recession, other citizens have joined in the protests: not just young anarchists, but middle aged union men, Democrat white collar professionals, and progressive parents. Despite the fact that this is a socialist zine that you’re reading, it is important not to think of the protesters as a bunch of maniacal, radical leftists as the corporate media often tries to portray them: there are many progressives, liberals, libertarians and even conservatives who have joined the movement, and the socialists and anarchists are but one part of a disaffected populace that wants change.
All Occupy groups are based on direct democracy, where there are as few representatives as possible and everyone has a direct say in the proceedings. These groups draw from Anarchist consensus methods created to ensure that the majority of a group could not drown out a minority, with each protest determining the rules on their own rather than from some central source. However, most protests do share a number of common characteristics, including particular hand symbols and the now famous “Human Microphone.” The use of hand symbols is so that everyone in the group can hear the current speaker but still respond or object to what they are saying. The “Human Microphone,” though, is a recent development: after the NYPD forbade megaphones at the protest, the Occupiers there developed a system in which the people closest to the speaker would repeat what they said, and would then be repeated again further out. Rather than create a ‘cult-like’ mentality, the Human Microphone allows people as a whole to fully control what is said at any meeting: you don’t repeat what the speaker is saying if you don’t like it, and it makes the listener active in the speech itself.
On the whole, there are four major issues that have given rise to the protests. Though all are interconnected and must be solved as a group, each is best understood on its own first.
1.Government is controlled by the rich (the 1% in the OWS vernacular) who use lobbyists, legal bribers, etc. to dictate US law and policy. This makes our laws favor the elite and their profits more than the vast majority.
2.Banks and corporations use these favorable laws to recklessly gamble money and give executives huge bonuses, while shunting all risk onto the populace. We see nothing of these larger profits (adjusted for inflation, average wages have remained relatively flat over the last 25 years– and not just for the working class).
3.This disconnect from both political and economic self-determination has made the USA a country where the voice of the working class and middle class does not matter to the socioeconomic elite– in effect, we have become an elective oligarchy. To prevent the people from realizing this, they use corporate media to divide people on petty social issues and partisan politics. There is a growing feeling of malaise and disconnection from society as a whole in the majority because of this.
4.Also, high unemployment fits in there somewhere.
The Occupy movement is, essentially, a rediscovery of each other as political entities outside of corporate or party-authorized social gatherings. As a whole, the majority of the country – the 99% – must find a solution to these problems not dictated to us by the ones who benefit from this status quo.
As there are several hundred Occupy demonstrations in the United States alone, a summary of the last month will inevitably be incomplete. However, we will attempt to give a list of notable events and overall trends in the various movements.
New York: On October 2, 700 people were arrested for traffic violations while marching across the Brooklyn Bridge. Many of the protesters maintain that they were deliberately redirected towards the bridge by the NYPD, while other observers say there was a communication failure on both sides of the police action. On October 15, 23 people who were closing accounts at CitiBank as a group were detained by the police. There have been unconfirmed reports that there were undercover police who acted as instigators in the incident. On October 16, appx. 6,000 demonstrators marched through Times Square.
East Coast: On October 10th, Occupy Boston was deliberately crushed by the city. In a stunning display of police action, the first to be arrested after beatings there were US Veterans. The entire camp was thrown into garbage trucks afterwards. A jar filled with toxic chemicals was thrown into the Occupy Portland (Maine) camp at 4 AM on October 23, though nobody was harmed. The thrower has not been found. On October 24, state and local police refused to do a crackdown on Occupy Albany ordered by Governor Cuomo (D) and the Mayor of Albany. Philadelphia has had one of the more peaceful relationships between the protesters and the police. On November 15th, after a week of national police crackdowns, the Occupy New York camp was raided. in the early hours of the morning police shut down the subways and Brooklyn bridge, gave the protesters 20 minutes to clear out, and then marched into the camp. Protesters have since relocated to Foley park, and remain adamant commitment to the movement.
Midwest: Despite some repression by police, Chicago was the first of the protests to successfully march in the financial district. Cincinnati’s occupation initially had major difficulties as there were no publicly owned parks to set up tents in.
West Coast: Occupy LA has had one of the most friendly police presences in the country: however, ABC news created a false alarm that clouded October 26. On October 25, Oakland was the first protest to be attacked with rubber bullets, tear gas, and flash/bang grenades. A recent veteran was severely injured in the attacks. The first general, city-wide strike in the United States since 1937 was held in Oakland in response to the police brutality, and in the evening a foreclosed community center was occupied by more radical elements of the protests. They were then attacked by the police. Another veteran was harmed in Oakland by State troopers this week as well. Oakland has been given widespread international attention too: a solidarity protest was held at the American Embassy in Egypt, among many others.
South and Southwest: Despite being in the heart of conservative territory, there have been several successful Occupation movements in Texas as well as Arizona. Occupy Atlanta, GA has had a continuous, large, presence since near the beginning of the movement, but is now under threat of expulsion. On November 6 their assembly went to neighborhoods to prevent foreclosures from happening. Occupy Nashville was attacked by SWAT teams on October 28. A curfew law was created by the state legislature that was enforced only on the protesters despite applying to all social gatherings, and judges in the State Courts of Tennessee have suspended it for now.
Police have increasingly begun to crack down on protests nationwide, claiming that the settlements are anything from dangerous to unsanitary. The real reason is all too clear, as it has grown, the occupy movement has become a credible threat to the power structure. Now we begin to see more clearly the true nature of the American state, suppressing peaceful protesters to protect the interests of an elite minority. The American government has learned nothing from the Arab spring, and think that they can simply force us back into obedience, but we know that their is no suppressing an idea who’s time has come. For every camp they destroy, let 3 more spring up; for every protester arrested let 10 stand up to take their place. Our time is now.
Despite the best efforts of authorities the “Arab Spring” has rolled into a People’s Summer. Since the first cracks appeared in the Middle Eastern patchwork of autocratic regimes last December, the people have reinvented the region in a way not thought possible just a year ago. Two governments (Egypt and Tunisia) have fallen, a third (Libya) is desperately fighting a losing battle for supremacy against NATO backed rebels, and eleven other regimes are facing sharp resistance from popular demonstrators.
But how has the US responded to this dramatic shift? Far from the soaring rhetoric about freedom and democracy that usually accompanies any US foreign policy, the American government’s approach has been cautious and conservative. The US government’s response to the Arab Spring casts in sharp relief the difference between their supposed ideals and the imperialist attitude which pervades their actions.
The Obama administration has waited an exceedingly long time before making statements of support for any of the protesters. Tunisia’s Dictator Ben Alli, an ally in the “War on Terror,” received US support right up until his overthrow. When asked who the US supported in the Tunisian uprising Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke volumes with her statement of, “We can’t take sides.” It was only after the overthrow of Ben Alli had become a fact that the United States voiced open support for the revolutionaries. Similarly in Egypt, a state long on the US payroll (receiving 1.3 billion in military aid annually) the American government was continuing to call for a Mubarak led reform process just five days before Mubarak finally bowed to the will of protesters and began talking of leaving office.
As the protests expanded to touch almost every country in the Middle East the United States’ cynical tactics came into ever greater prominence. Gaddafi’s Libya, another US ally in the “War on Terror” under President Bush, had recently fallen out of favor in Washington for demanding a greater share of oil profits from US corporations. After just 8 days of revolt Obama condemned State violence in Libya saying, “The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable.” The US has since led a NATO backed intervention on the side of rebel forces. Similarly Syria, a long time enemy of US/Israeli interests in the region and ally of Iran, has faced firm rhetoric and sanctions. Though initially calling for a movement for reform under President Bashar al-Assad, Washington has recently accepted that a lack of popular support has made the Assad’s family’s decades-long rule untenable. In mid August the US joined other world governments in finally condemning the regime and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to resign.
However while taking these tougher stances on Libya and Syria, and reluctantly endorsing the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions after the fact, the US government has also made several key omissions to it’s democracy loving agenda. Most notably in Saudi Arabia, one of the regions most oppressive governments and also a key US ally with massive oil reserves. The Saudis were carefully ignored in Obama’s March 19th speech about the Arab Spring, as were Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (each countries that have supported US hegemony in the region). This policy of selective blindness when it comes to repression has continued up to the present. Each of these countries has faced its own political pressures calling for reform, and have engaged in similar repression seen elsewhere in the region. While Libya’s crack down was “outrageous and unacceptable” Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain, crushing pro-democracy protesters, was largely ignored. As the US condemned Syria’s killing of protesters, Jordan’s killings have been hardly reported.
At some points hailing the democratic spirit of the people, at others calling for patience and faith in despotic regimes with a history of decades of repression, Washington’s position on the Arab spring seems at times contradictory and illogical. In reality what we see today is an imperial power grappling with an empire gone awry. When reality finally forces them to accept that their loyal allies have been overthrown, the US has tried to appear supportive of the revolutionaries. A great example is in Libya, where the the US and its allies have for all intensive purposes chosen the new ruling faction, the National Transitional Council of Libya (TNC). Western powers have dealt exclusively with the TNC and recognized them as the legitimate rulers of Libya, all despite the lack of any real signal that the Libyan people actually endorse their policies. In return the TNC has publicly promised to reward those countries that assisted it, presumably with the oil contracts and strategic military bases that western powers are now cueing up for. By championing pro western elements of the popular forces the US hopes to maintain their hegemony in the region. Indeed, key elements in several of the revolutionary states remain on US payroll, including the Egyptian Military. But while the US attempts to shore up its faltering empire something has fundamentally changed in the consciousness of the people.
Dictators that the US has supported for decades are now deposed, and the US and its ally Israel are beginning to find the very people they have for decades helped to oppress attempting to seize power. US domination of the Middle East can not survive an election, as the people of Egypt and Tunisia are making increasingly clear with their overtures towards Palestine and rejections of IMF neo-liberal loans . And so the US is trapped by its own rhetoric: attempting to appear to be the champion of liberty it claims to be, while at every turn trying to roll back the democratic tide that has swept over millions.
By Ian Matchett
In March of this year, Governor Rick Snyder signed a law granting expanded powers to emergency managers to take control of city governments and school districts in financial distress.Weeks later, Benton Harbor, a small, predominantly African-American city in Southwest Michigan, was the first city to be taken over under the new law. In April, at the Benton Harbor City Commission’s first meeting after appointment of Emergency Financial Manager Joe Harris, the terms were laid out starkly: Elected city officials are powerless except to call meetings to order, adjourn them, and approve meeting minutes. The Emergency Financial Manager, meanwhile, is empowered to remove elected officials from office at will, disburse all government funding without oversight, sell off government property, and modify or terminate any contract. With this pronouncement, the much-vaunted American ideal of representative democracy was declared null and void in Benton Harbor.
The story attracted national attention, including coverage on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show. The following week, on April 27, 200 people marched through the streets of Benton Harbor demanding repeal of the Emergency Financial Manager law and a restoration of demcratic rights to Benton Harbor’s citizens.
2 months later, on June 18, the people of Benton Harbor came out in the streets again to commemorate 8 years of government repression and popular resistance. June 16 marked the 8 year anniversary of the Benton Harbor uprising of 2003, in which the US Army was brought in to repress a community outraged by the killing of a youngBlack man, Terrance Shurn, in a police chase. The Terrance “T-Shirt” Shurn Memorial Rally featured live music by several local musicians and speeches by activists including Fred Hampton, Jr., son of the slain Black Panther leader and chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee.
The rally was emceed by Rev. Edward Pinkney, who also shared a poem he wrote in honor of Shurn and the people of Benton Harbor. For over a decade, Rev. Pinkney has been a tireless fighter for social and economic justice in Benton Harbor. In 1999, he founded the Black Autonomy Network Community Organization (BANCO), a grassroots community organization that monitored the corrupt political and judicial system in Berrien County and advocated for the oppressed.
A month after the uprising of 2003, Rev. Pinkney and BANCO led a nonviolent march of over 200 citizens demanding justice and an end to police brutality in Benton Harbor. In 2005, BANCO organized a recall election against City Commissioner Glenn Yarbrough, who had acted as a mouthpiece for the interests of the Whirlpool Corporation headquartered in the affluent neighboring town of St. Joseph. After the recall election succeeded by a vote of 297 to 246, the local powers that be promptly overturned the people’s will claiming electoral fraud. Rev. Pinkney was arrested and promptly charged with four felony counts and one misdemeanor; after the first trial resulted in a hung jury, Rev. Pinkney was retried in 2007 and convicted by an all white jury (Benton Harbor’s population is 94% Black).
The corporate assault on the people of Benton Harbor continued while Rev. Pinkney was shuffled from one prison to another throughout Michigan. Real estate company Cornerstone Alliance, a subsidiary of Whirlpool, used its influence to annex Benton Harbor land to turn into a playground for the wealthy. Meanwhile, fear of reprisal kept most citizens of Benton Harbor silent. Cornerstone and Whirlpool stirred Benton Harbor’s citizens to action again when a plan was announced to steal Jean Klock Park and use the land to build a private golf course and country club. Jean Klock Park had special significance for the people of Benton Harbor; in 1917 John and Carrie Klock willed the lakeside park to the people of Benton Harbor, writing ““It is our wish that the lakefront always be preserved in its natural state and be a playground for the children and a bathing beach for all the people.” In 2010, the opening of the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Club was met with a vocal protest by over 100 chanting “Jack Nicklaus go home!” and “Jean Klock Park was deeded to the people!”
The passage of the Emergency Financial Manager law dealt one more harsh blow to the people of Benton Harbor. But with this defeat are planted the seeds of a new revolt – Benton Harbor’s citizens are no longer afraid, because they now have nothing left to lose. After years of being ruled by repressive tactics, the uprising of 2003 remains a powerful memory in the people’s consciousness.
 “August 10 Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course demonstration” http://bhbanco.blogspot.com/2010_08_01_arc hive.html