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Out of the ‘Minority Issues Box’: Americans Defend Rights of All Citizens against Police Violence


Across the US on Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters marched against the legal sanctioning of police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young black men. In New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Oakland people of all races and ages marched under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”

The ongoing protests have drawn in wide layers of society – especially youth from the millennial generation, together with privileged Yale law students and high school student groups. They have been protesting as citizens, not just in defense of the rights of African-Americans, but against the unjustified use of lethal force by increasingly militarized local police.

The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher described the scene in Manhattan as some 40,000 protesters flooded the streets: “The march was supposed to end at One Police Plaza but Foley Square, in front of it, was jam-packed – far more so than it was at the protest the night after the Garner non-indictment was announced. … Noticeable in the march was the presence of young people, from many infants to young white boys chanting, to young teenagers singing. … Noticeable too was a protest contingent as diverse as the city itself, with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian New Yorkers out in large numbers. This, too, was very different from Occupy Wall Street.

At the 10,000-strong “Justice for All” march in Washington, led by Al Sharpton and civil rights organizations in the National Action Network, “before the procession left its gathering place at Freedom Plaza … a group of young demonstrators mostly from Ferguson seized the stage. Opposed to Sharpton, who they view as a celebrity activist seeking to take over a movement they started, they said young advocates who did the heavy lifting should be at the forefront of the march.” However, they were excluded from the platform, where relatives of African-Americans killed by police called on Congress to reform the criminal justice system.

UPDATE: Alternet reports that when organizers at the Washington march tried to get the Ferguson protesters offstage, they were met with loud chants of “Let them speak!”  “Ultimately, they allowed Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis to speak. Elzie, who protested in Ferguson for more than 100 days, explained that young people started the movement and it needs to continue that way. She later told the press: ‘I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show’.”

The protests have created new leadership groups who have quickly developed tactics to control demonstrations. The day after the announcement that there would be no charges against the officer who killed Eric Garner with a choke-hold, protesters “had seemed to roam the streets, intermittently splitting apart and converging to shut down traffic on several important highways and bridges around the traffic-heavy island of Manhattan,” reported the Guardian. But the following night, December 4, brought out many younger protesters who were far more organized: “a coalition of groups led demonstrators. On the Brooklyn Bridge some organizers wore headsets and stopped marchers for photographers.”

They have developed the moral authority to challenge “black bloc” groups trying to hijack demonstrations in Berkeley and in New York. According to the Gothamist, as the December 4 march wound into Tribeca, “some black-clad protesters turned over trash cans and dragged bags of garbage into the street, before protester Steve Saporito chased them away. … ‘I don’t want upper-middle class white kids coming down here and causing mischief so their rich parents can come bail them out, and fuck up what’s going on here,’ Saporito explained.”

But leaders of left groups in California are reluctant to criticize the smashing of windows and looting of stores during marches in Berkeley over last weekend. Alternet reports: “On Saturday [December 6], Berkeley police rioted first, viciously attacking protesters. Some protesters, young men, then vandalized chain stores. A day later, hours after a protest began where hundreds of people marched peacefully, a dozen or so young white men led a second vandalism spree. Before the next night’s march, organizer Yvette Felarca [of the group ‘By Any Means Necessary’] defended their reactions as a legitimate expression of rage. ‘You can never replace the life of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but windows can always be replaced,’ she said, using a megaphone to address a campus plaza filled with marchers.”

However, “moments later, a young African-American woman [a student at U.C. Berkeley] took the megaphone to made the opposite point. ‘I want to say that this is a nonviolent protest. It is a peaceful protest,’ she said, also prompting cheers. ‘I was beaten on Saturday night and please respect that… If you see any agitators, if you see any anarchists wearing black masks, please pay attention to them and call them out. Because they will try to incite a riot’.”

Long-time Berkeley resident and activist Cynthia Morse, who is white, described the vandals as “skinny white kids … coming from all over the country; homeless; need something to do. They start to show up. And then there’s homegrown people who want to attack capitalism this way,” Morse said. “There’s also the very valid point that without the cops behaving the way they do, there probably would be very little of that. Nobody would come here to fight the cops if the cops weren’t attacking.”

Felarca appeared to equate vandalism in Berkeley with the riots in Ferguson. But there is a difference: in Ferguson rioting was a spontaneous outpouring of rage within the community, while in Berkeley it was planned destruction under the cover of other nonviolent demonstrators which attempted to substitute personal anger for the movement of the community. Black bloc tactics in effect only provide the police with a convenient cover for military-style suppression of protests, stifling the perception that they are attacking citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

Obama’s tepid response to the grand jury decisions has frustrated protest leaders, particularly the claim he made that he’s “never seen a civil-rights law or a healthcare bill or an immigration bill result because a car got burned.” At a town hall meeting in Washington, activist and hip-hop artist Jasiri X said: “Guess what, President Obama? It was over 100 days of peaceful protest, but we didn’t get a meeting with you then. But now, when Ferguson burns, when protests are happening all over the country, now all of a sudden we can get your attention. Now when it burns down you want to have a conversation about putting cameras on police. Well, guess what—it was a video camera that showed Eric Garner being choked by NYPD.”

While Obama was able to co-opt some of the populist rhetoric of OWS, he can only make anodyne statements about police violence because, as an “earnest moderate,” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is unable to defy state forces that maintain order, any more than he can prosecute CIA torturers. “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land,” Coates argues. There are things that cannot be said in public discourse, he explains, such as: “America does not really believe in nonviolence … so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law. … the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself.”

While there is a lot of truth in what he says, particularly in relation to institutional racism, the protests this weekend are a sign of how American society is changing. As the population becomes increasingly nonwhite and more white people acquire minority relatives through marriage, they become aware of how racism affects people they care about. A commentator in Talking Points Memo, who is white, writes about how his Latino cousin was killed by police. He says that the way the Ferguson community mobilized and the video of Eric Garner’s death “are searing these facts of injustice into the minds of a broad swath of people for the first time, much like my cousin’s murder did for me. These issues have broken out of the ‘minority issues’ box.”

There is a perceptible difference between these protests and Occupy Wall Street. While OWS was equally pluralistic and imaginative in its tactics, it was a more abstract campaign against the power of the financial oligarchy, and could only mobilize those who could afford to camp out and get arrested (thus excluding many people of color who couldn’t take such a risk). Today’s movement is more diverse, inclusive and is defending the rights of all citizens against uncontrolled state violence.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, black bloc, Eric Garner, Ferguson, Mike Brown, New York City protests, Obama, police violence

Take Note, Plutocrats: Populism is Not Just a Spectre – It’s Rule by the People, for the People.


A spectre is haunting the world’s plutocracy – the spectre of populism. According to Politico, “Economists, advisers to the wealthy and the wealthy themselves describe a deep-seated anxiety that the national – and even global – mood is turning against the super-rich in ways that ultimately could prove dangerous and hard to control.”

Their fears are well justified. The billionaire elite in the U.S. is virulently opposed to Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid, it is incensed by calls to increase the minimum wage, and through its proxies in Congress it has stopped an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Anything that retards its wholesale looting of society’s wealth is anathema to it, including the Obama administration’s attempts to alleviate the worst effects of the economic downturn.

The plutocrats can maintain their hold on power only through their ideological grip on a large section of the American public – and challenges to that grip make them increasingly nervous.

Venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who made his money from Hewlett-Packard defense contracts, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’.” He was echoed by real estate mogul Sam Zell: “The one percent are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” he said, adding that the one percent simply “work harder” than everyone else.

Juan Cole points out how their outlook and that of congressional Republicans is totally out of step with the U.S. public: “What is odd, and damning of the current American political system, is that the Republican Party’s major platform positions are roundly rejected by the American people. That is, they are ideologically a minority party. And yet they manage to win elections. … We are a center-left country and the majority of Americans takes the same stance as I on most controversial issues. It is the House of Representatives that is extreme, far more right wing than the country it says it represents.”

They are so far to the right that a Coca-Cola ad aired during the Superbowl featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages evoked howls of outrage from tea-party politicians who posted racist comments on Twitter.

Within the Republican party itself there are fractures over immigration that reveal tensions between this kind of xenophobic rhetoric and corporate interests; the party’s difficulties stem from its need to use racist messages to preserve a declining white electoral base that itself depends on state support, while advocating cuts in state spending that would benefit only the super-rich.

Popular resistance to cuts in education, healthcare, and benefits is what is worrying the plutocrats. Whether Republican or Democrat, the public is determined not to lose social security benefits or other entitlements, and the low-waged have embarked on a popular campaign to increase the minimum wage to a living wage.

This mood of resistance was reflected in Obama’s fifth State of the Union address. What was remarkable about it was the contrast between the grand themes of hope and change that characterized his election campaigns, and the limited nature of his proposals for executive action rather than legislation to address social issues. He maintained a difficult balancing act between corporate and public sentiment, acknowledging unsustainable inequality in America but advocating a neoliberal prescription for economic growth through the fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that can only lead to the loss of more jobs.

Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors clearly aimed to contain a vigorous movement within an electoral framework. However, his speech also serves to encourage a growing trend of lightning strikes and walkouts, inspired by the ideal of a $15 minimum that is closer to a living wage.Josh Eidelson has been reporting in Salon about the series of one-day strikes organized by the union-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign to force Obama’s hand on the issue. “As recently as this month, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who’ve rallied repeatedly with the strikers, told Salon the White House had been unresponsive to their pleas. ‘If we had never done this,’ said [Smithsonian McDonald’s worker] Alexis Vasquez, ‘we would have continued making $8.25 for the rest of our lives’. But the move announced today falls short of what Demos and Change to Win have urged. … Given that ‘the issues are still there,’ said Joseph Geevarghese [deputy director of the Change to Win union federation], including contractors’ alleged failure to follow the wage laws already on the books, ‘I think we’re going to see continued worker unrest going forward’.”

Obama’s plan for a “grand bargain” to rationalize state expenditure in which he could trade cuts in social security for token increased taxes on the rich was stymied by the grip of the tea-party Republicans on Congress. As the Washington Post reported, his address attempted to restore confidence in his presidency, as he faced “a tricky task: winning over a nation that has grown less trustful of his leadership after a year in which the federal government was partially shuttered for 16 days and the administration botched the rollout of Obama’s health-care law.”

Juan Cole assessed his presidency as politically passive, accepting the international role bequeathed him by the Bush administration and the Pentagon. “In the end, Obama seems to see himself as primarily a domestic president. That position is remarkable because the Tea Party Congress won’t actually let him do much domestically. … He says the right things about conventional uses of the military, but in his actions he is a Covert War hawk.” He said little about NSA spying apart from a throwaway statement about reform – and even that was forced on him by Edward Snowden’s revelations.

While Snowden is undoubtedly the person who changed the political dialog in 2013, this year’s heroes will be those like 22-year-old fast food worker Naquasia LeGrand who are fighting to change the lives of those at the cutting edge of poverty wages. She gave a spirited interview to comedian Stephen Colbert where she voiced the determination of the low-waged to get a better deal from the billionaires: “It’s not just me who is going through this. It’s all of us going through this. That’s what makes a union. Americans coming together to make a difference and have a voice together. … there is no reason why I should have a second job when these multi-billion dollar companies have the money to pay me in the work that I do.”

This is the kind of talk that has the plutocracy losing sleep at night. It is fueling more and more campaigns at the state level, such as in Oakland, CA, where a union-community coalition aims to put a measure on the ballot in November 2014 that would increase Oakland’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $12.25, with future increases tied to inflation, and at least five annual sick days for all workers.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, National Security Agency, Neoliberalism, Obama, Obamacare, populism, Republicans, Tea Party movement

Obamacare Crisis Week 2: Plutocrat Gangsters Hold America Hostage through Tea Party Posse


The US is entering its second week of a government shutdown. On the surface, life seems to be continuing as usual – at least, as far as the media is concerned.

Conservative Republicans, who are driving policy in Congress, are using the tactic of blocking government funding to delay the implementation of Obamacare. But their aim is to overturn established legislation that was passed in 2010. If the administration were to cave on this, it would have accepted the precedent that one chamber of Congress could enforce its will on government by holding funding hostage.

While Washington Democrats and Republicans maneuver for tactical advantage, the poor and near-poor are being punished. Government supplementary food programs, for example, have taken an immediate hit. Imara Jones pointed out on Democracy Now that the shutdown “comes on top of the dramatic cuts of sequestration. … mothers with young children… had gone to WIC sites and WIC programs in New York that were out of food. And that’s on day two…”

The shutdown is essentially a trial of strength between extremist billionaires and the executive branch. It’s not intended to achieve anything in itself, any more than Ted Cruz’s 21-hour monologue in Congress did. It is a ploy to put pressure on the Republican leadership and in turn on Obama through the coming debt ceiling negotiations to make bigger cuts in social spending and eventually eviscerate Social Security and Medicare.

Under Obama’s administration, the plutocracy has grown economically richer and politically more powerful, using unlimited access to new technology and media (thanks to the Supreme Court) to sway a disgruntled core of Tea Party supporters who have successfully elected extremist Republican candidates in gerrymandered constituencies. They in turn have been able to use weaknesses in the American political system to paralyze the government.

The New York Times reported on the plethora of well-funded conservative shell groups that have been campaigning against the health law, laundering political slush funds from the billionaire Koch brothers to create a sustained ideological onslaught on the idea of government-supported health care. The billionaires’ strategy has been to put pressure on Republican legislators through groups like “Heritage Action,” which has trained 6,000 paid “sentinels” to confront legislators around the country.

Their campaign builds on a Republican ideological narrative that portrays government deficits as unsustainable. Traveling to Congressional Tea Party leader Steve King’s constituency in rural Iowa, NYT reporter James Stewart “was surprised to hear in nearly all my conversations that the issue for people in this part of Iowa is less Obamacare than it is government spending in general. ‘We have to sacrifice now so our children will not be drowning in our debt,’ [King supporter and glass factory owner] Mr. Geels said.” Many online comments on the article pointed out that the region survived on massive agricultural subsidies, and in the event of another agricultural crisis like the 1980s would be appealing desperately for government help.

The shutdown has made major corporations and Wall Street nervous, but they are no longer able to command influence in the Republican party. The Associated Press commented that “the partial closing of the government and the looming confrontation over the nation’s borrowing limit highlight the remarkable drop in the business community’s influence among House Republicans, who increasingly respond more to tea party conservatives than to the Chamber of Commerce.”

Ironically, big business torpedoed Republican moderates in 2010, helping hard-core conservatives gain election to the House. Corporations might want a rollback of environmental regulations and even further cuts in their taxes, and Wall Street may be in favor of cutting Social Security, but neither want to crash the economy to achieve these aims. However, moderate Republicans face billionaire-funded attacks and attempts to unseat them in primaries if they voice their opinions.

Although some have argued that tea party ideology signifies a descent into insanity, it is in line with overall Republican strategy. The New York Times comments that despite its flaws, Obamacare “could fundamentally change the relationship between working Americans and their government. This could pose an existential threat to the small-government credo that has defined the G.O.P. for four decades. … To conservative Republicans, losing a large slice of the middle class to the ranks of the Democratic Party could justify extreme measures.”

Harold Meyerson points out that the party holds the House with a minority popular vote, the result of gerrymandered districting after the 2010 census. Either Republicans can exert influence by embracing minority rights, he says, or they can maximize their power “by trying to disrupt the nation to the point that the majority will be compelled to support Republican positions.” The redistricting will ensure there are no electoral repercussions for their intransigence.

Republican-controlled states like Mississippi have voted to reject government-subsidized Medicaid expansion, one of the health act’s provisions, which would have had the effect of expanding health coverage in the state’s predominantly white rural counties, which voted consistently to put Republican lawmakers into office.

Poor whites who presently form the conservative Republican demographic would then get the most benefits from Obamacare while, it turns out, poor blacks who live in Republican-controlled states would get little. “The irony is that these states that are rejecting Medicaid expansion — many of them Southern — are the very places where the concentration of poverty and lack of health insurance are the most acute,” said Dr. H. Jack Geiger, a founder of the community health center model. “It is their populations that have the highest burden of illness and costs to the entire health care system.”

While conservatives claim public support for their tactics, opinion polls tell a different story. Josh Marshall sums them up: “The public opposes [the shutdown] by overwhelming margins (70%+). The public also blames the shutdown on House Republicans by a substantial though not overwhelming margins (the number who blame Obama, in the mid-30s, roughly matches the base of the GOP).”

A Kaiser poll found that most Americans, even fervent opponents of the health law, were substantially in favor when asked about its individual provisions. “A majority of Republicans feel favorable towards seven of the 11 provisions asked about in the March poll, with seven in ten or more favoring tax credits to small businesses, closing the Medicare ‘doughnut hole’, and the exchanges,” researchers found.

The propaganda campaign against the law has created a great deal of public confusion, but what has been hidden in the furor about the government shutdown is that the launch of Obamacare on Tuesday generated a huge volume of traffic to its websites – 7 million people in the first two days, an unexpected volume that caused delays and access problems. There is clearly a huge pent-up demand for information about affordable health care.

Americans are genuinely worried about health care and the future. As Juan Cole points out: “This is an America where unemployment is stubbornly high for the Millennials, where the top 1% are taking home 20% of the national income (twice the proportion of just a few decades ago), and where people are struggling.” Young adults stay living with their parents, because even if they can get a job, it’s low-waged. Many are still burdened by college debt. In a Washington Post poll, almost two-thirds of people express concerns about covering their family’s basic living expenses, compared with less than half four decades ago.

Ralph Nader asks why big business, the Republican establishment, and the executive branch have suddenly become powerless. “Who is in charge here?” he writes. “Our Constitution opens with the words ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Congress’ or ‘We the Corporations’.” It is time for the people to take sovereignty back into their own hands and disrupt the super-rich hostage-takers.

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Filed under debt limit impasse, Government shutdown, health care, Medicare, Obama, political analysis