Category Archives: Editorial

Finding Inspiration in Scars and Burnout

On the cusp of Occupy Wall Street’s one year anniversary, the media (both mainstream and professional leftist outlets) are asking the question: “Is the Occupy movement on the decline?” and deservedly so. The movement, while certainly not finished, has lost numbers and steam for the time being. Some journalists have even mentioned “activist burnout.”

What is missing from this coverage is a deeper portrait of just what burnout actually entails, and why it may play a role – though maybe not the defining role – in a political and social movement’s progress. People outside of activism read or watch reports of protests, but many don’t realize that there are complex people marching on those streets and organizing behind the scenes, that carry their own scars.

An Occupy Wall Street demonstrator arrested on March 17th, 2012. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Activists are a rare breed of people. They spend countless hours in organizing meetings. They risk arrest during marches, are brutalized by police, and a number of first-time activists struggle with psychological trauma as a result. They take time off of work to volunteer. Many live with economic hardship. And just as importantly, a question lingers with many: Are the sacrifices I’m making in terms of friendships outside the activist community, as well as family relationships, worth the effort?

After the Occupy National Gathering – in which I acted as a media organizer in the interest of full disclosure – I was exhausted and had nearly depleted my savings account. Most of us had been going full steam since September 17th. I decided I had to stop. Others with whom I closely worked, and who put in far more energy than myself, were emotionally and physically depleted. Hours upon hours of meetings, often stressful, plus self-doubt and more than a touch of paranoia thanks to “pre-arrests” and police harassment of organizers well documented across the country, took their toll: Marriages were on the verge of disintegrating, movement friendships were greatly strained, and some were approaching nervous breakdowns.

I decided to reach out to other activists and listen to some of their experiences. Several spoke of the uncertainty they felt about carrying on the struggle.

I exchanged emails with a longtime activist who I’ll call “Sam.”  Sam is a military veteran and Occupy Boston participant. They relate their struggle being queer in a socially and religiously conservative family, and how their activism strained that relationship:

When I came out to my Mormon parents as bisexual, the results were disastrous. They could have lived with it, I think, had I not been an activist. But the fact that I lived to see equality drove them to disown me.

Sam continued their fight for equality, facing instances of harassment by Christian fanatics for working to get a civil unions bill passed in their former state’s legislature, and later by law enforcement while participating in Occupy Boston. To make matters worse, Sam was sexually assaulted multiple times while on active duty. Then came the last straw:

In January, I left OB altogether during the now infamous “sex offender” proposal. As a rape survivor, sitting through the discussions at GA and hearing every rape apology in the book trotted out pushed me over the edge. I was in a deep depression, and began hearing voices and hallucinating from the stress of reliving every sexual assault. I finally sought psychiatric help, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and started comprehensive treatment. I’m doing much better now. I’ve backed away from OB completely. My activism is now limited to the occasional research crawl when others of our friends need some extra eyes. I’m taking care of myself, and trying to put my world back together into some semblance of functionality.

Sam concluded with:

Activism is not a “safe space.” It’s a world that will eat you alive, particularly if you have suffered some kind of trauma. And let’s face it, most of us in the activist community have. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be activists. If we’re not being targeted by law enforcement, we’re being hurt by one another.

Social and political activism has destroyed my relationship with my family of origin (and good riddance, I say). It’s destroyed two intimate relationships. It’s also brought me a new family, and new relationships.  My life has been threatened. My career was destroyed by it. I nearly killed myself due to mental illness greatly exacerbated by it.

And I can’t give it up. It’s too important to keep raising my voice, building community, helping others. I’m taking a break from the hard core stuff in order to get better and put myself back together, but I’ll be back.

Canadian environmental activist Tooker Gomberg.

My exchange with Sam led me to find another remarkable soul, which came in the form of a letter lifelong environmental activist Tooker Gomberg wrote to his therapist on Earth Day in 2002. His career as an activist included multiple acts of civil disobedience, including breaking into a NATO airbase in the Netherlands to prove the existence of nuclear weapons in that country, a stint in Edmonton’s city council, and a failed 2000 mayoral run in Toronto, Ontario. In March of 2004, Gomberg took his own life by jumping off of the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His widow discovered a suicide note. Authorities found his bike on the bridge, but his body was never recovered. His death was partially attributed to an adverse reaction to the anti-depressant Remerol. He was 49 years old.

Tooker’s 2002 letter is tragic yet remarkable. It provides a portrait of what committing one’s life to a cause can do absent any balance. The missive is also a potent warning to current and future activists. In full:

Dear Activist:

It’s another strange day for me. Things have been strange for 8 months or more. I used to be an activist. Now I don’t know what I am. Did you ever read the Kafka story about the guy who wakes up and he has turned into a cockroach?

My mind is in a fog – I can’t think very clearly. Making a sandwich takes a long time – I have to concentrate on every step along the way, and I am moving very slowly and deliberately. I feel like I am stunned, and spaced out most of the time. Today is Earth Day, but I feel I am on another planet.

I have been spending lots of time in bed, mostly sleeping, dozing, and dreaming.

It feels like my mind has melted down, though I am told that it comes back once the depression lifts. Whenever that is. For some people it seems to be months, for others years, and others never get out of it.

But I am writing to you about activism, not the frightening impacts of depression.

Amory Lovins, the great energy efficiency guru, once called me a Hyper-Activist. I guess that’s what I was. I lived, breathed, and focussed on activism. It kept me thinking, inspired, interested, and alive.

But it also allowed me to ignore other things in life that now, suddenly, I realize I never developed. This makes me sad and despondent.

I used to enjoy cooking, but stopped. I always liked kids, but never really thought about having kids of our own. Changing the world was more important, and having a kid would interfere with our life’s work of changing the world.

I didn’t develop my mind in a broad way, learning about music and art and theatre and poetry, for example. It was focussed on changing the world. I never really thought about a career – I was living my life, not worrying about the trappings and credentials of the boring, status quo world.

Maybe I was living in a bubble of naiveté, doing my own thing, unconcerned that my perspectives and actions were so different from “normal”. I never wanted to be normal, anyway. Normal got us into the mess we’re in.

So now I find myself, with my sliver of being smashed to smithereens after being assaulted by police in Quebec City, a security guard in City Hall, and various other security guards during the mayoralty race. And numerous arrests.

Or maybe it was the tear gas, and last summer’s smog. Maybe I pushed my brain too hard, and overstressed it with the run for Mayor of Toronto, or the passport burning, or 20 years of pushing against the juggernaut. And maybe Sept. 11 firmed up my worries into a real fear that working for change was really dangerous.

Or it could be a physiological response to too much coffee, stress, and smog. Maybe I’ve burned out my adrenal glands. Maybe my brain is poisoned from so much thinking about tragic ecological issues, pondering bad air, and getting frustrated at the slow rate of improvement and the rapid destruction of the living world. Could my brain have been damaged when I was close to dying with heat stroke in Vietnam in 1998?

I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don’t get me wrong – I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart. I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things, about people, about situations. Now that I’m in crisis, I don’t really have the language to connect with people. The silence is easier than trying to explain what I’m going through, or to relate to other people’s issues or problems.

So what advice can I offer? Stay rounded. Do the activism, but don’t overdo it. If you burn out, or tumble into depression, you’ll become no good to anyone, especially yourself. When you’re in this state, nothing seems worthwhile, and there’s nothing to look forward to.

It’s honourable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you’ll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.

I never really understood what burnout was. I knew that it affected active people, but somehow I thought I was immune to it. After all, I took breaks every now and then and went travelling. And all my work was done in partnership with Ange, the great love of my life.

But in the end, when burnout finally caught up to me, it was mega, and must have been the accumulation of decades of stress and avoidance. And now I find myself in a dark and confusing labyrinth trying to feel my way back to sanity and calm.

So beware. Take this warning seriously. If you start slipping into the hole of depression and you notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk with a friend about it. Don’t ignore it. The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution, and live to witness the next victory!


Why “Bank Sleep” Matters

The march from Independence Mall to the Philadelphia Stock Exchange begins. An Occupy Philadelphia affinity group has been holding this federally-enforced space for over two weeks now – without signing a permit – and sleeping outside a Wells Fargo regional headquarters directly across the street at night. The National Park Service would not allow them to sleep on the cement apron at the entrance to the Mall.

Occupy Independence Mall. Photo by Dustin Slaughter, Copyright 2012

Now Michael Mizner, a former Marine and Occupy Delaware transplant, carries a wind-battered tent up Market Street. Others carry sleeping bags and pull a wagon filled with supplies, including signs. This night march from the Mall consists of no more than 20.

This is Occupy Philadelphia adapting a tactic which initially was borne of necessity: unable to sleep at the Mall, the logical solution to avoid fines and possible federal charges was to sleep on public sidewalks, where “sleepful protest” is technically not illegal.

By the end of the occupation at Independence Mall, however, it was decided that outreach – which had suffered considerably during the Winter by some estimates – was going very well, but mainly consisted of interfacing with tourists. Moving into the heart of the city to begin continuous, small and mobile occupations on sidewalks outside the Stock Exchange, as well as banks throughout the financial district, seemed like a smart next step, in an effort to reach out to residents. It also fit nicely with the desire to refocus on messaging.

This “bank sleep” tactic appears to be taking off in other cities too – finding its genesis after the NYPD began evicting Occupy Wall Street protesters from Union Square on a nightly basis because of a park curfew. Once curfew rolled around, protesters would get pushed out of the park – so they took sidewalks outside of a nearby Bank of America. The idea then spread to the New York Stock Exchange. Occupiers in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Baltimore started their own too.

Could this be a tactical evolution for the Occupy movement as summer approaches?

“Occupy is built on memes,” says Mizner, repeatedly driving this point home to me as we march into Center City.

Memes, to paraphrase a Wikipedia definition, are cultural analogues like genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.

This makes sense. Bank Sleep is a tactic that easily transmits itself to groups in other cities, because it rekindles the idea of constant public visibility and pressure against “Too Big to Fail” banks, for example, which have been a cornerstone target of the movement and which continue to evade one of the movement’s foundational themes: economic justice.

The feeling among these Philadelphia “bank sleepers” that a loss of focus on core messaging occurred during the winter – as well as a lack of outreach during the winter – was instrumental in launching, rather autonomously, the Independence Mall occupation.

However more widely Bank Sleep is adopted – and whether it will even attract more movement participants in Philadelphia, many of whom are pursuing a multitude of projects ranging from reversing urban blight (Occupy Vacant Lots) to fighting Mayor Nutter’s ban on outdoor food service for the city’s homeless – one thing is certain: Bank Sleep is a much more sustainable form of occupation than the initial sprawling encampment which started in October at City Hall.

The encampment created immense logistical challenges – as well as physical and emotional tolls on the “diehards” who held the space until occupiers were evicted in late November. The influx of the city’s homeless population to the occupation at City Hall forced occupiers into the role of social service providers, despite many protesters having hardly been politically active to begin with, let alone equipped to deal with people struggling with addiction and other mental health issues.

That was back in October, however, and Spring has arrived with warm winds and renewed spirits.

Photo by Timothy Kyle (@firstnightfree). Copyright 2012

The small march arrives at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange – purchased, incidentally, by NASDAQ in 2008, linking it ever closer to Wall Street. An occupier – clad in a dinosaur costume which doubles as pajamas – mic checks:

“Inside this building is the regional office for Goldman Sachs!”

The assembled crowd repeats this fact.

“You have THEM to thank for rising gas prices, due in part to commodities speculation!”

Across the street from the Exchange is a Bank of America branch. Some occupiers want to take the sidewalk there. Others want the sidewalk outside the Exchange. It is eventually agreed upon that bigger numbers in one location is preferable. A coin is flipped.

Bank of America.

I ask Mizner what he thinks of their new home.

“It’s perfect.”

The crew here begin making signs to greet morning pedestrians, before turning in for the night. One sign reads: “Bank of America was Sued $410 million for Overdraft Fees.”

A short while later, a woman and her child walk by, initially somewhat weary of this unusual sight. She takes note of the sign and suddenly gives the group a thumbs up.

“Keep it up!” she says. “I hate those damned overdraft fees!”


The Captain, the Commissioner, and the Brotherhood

Retired Captain Ray Lewis at Philadelphia City Hall, 16 February 2012. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

Retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis is in town for a day-long event focusing on First Amendment issues, including corporate consolidation of the media, organized by Occupy Philadelphia. One reason for his visit?

“I will not idly stand by while law enforcement is administered only to the poor and disenfranchised while the rich flaunt their immunity,” he says, standing next to a monument with the First Amendment etched in stone.

It’s on this blisteringly-cold afternoon when reports of veiled threats from the Philadelphia police department begin to trickle in: Lewis may be arrested for wearing his uniform if he leaves Independence Mall and marches through Center City.

Lewis decides “to call the city’s bluff.” Leaving the temporary encampment at the Mall, he begins walking with a small group towards that afternoon’s target – the towering Comcast Center, a corporation which refuses to include Al-Jazeera English (despite the 24-hour news channel winning multiple awards) – into their programming, instead planning to add a new P-Diddy music channel to their lineup.

I catch up with him as he heads up Market Street. He has a firm handshake and a hard, yet calm gaze when he’s not wearing his sunglasses. An elderly Asian woman pokes her head out of a storefront to watch this tall uniformed man carrying a protest sign.

It is this power – albeit a different power that one in a police uniform usually wields – that likely has the city’s police commissioner angry at the outspoken retired officer, while giving fuel to a somewhat subdued peoples’ movement during the winter.

“It’s like a river. I don’t know where it’s headed, but I’m going to remain on the raft,” Lewis says of the Occupy movement, for which he was arrested in Lower Manhattan during an act of civil disobedience.

Downplaying his arrest, he said he was inspired by “those kids willing to sacrifice their comfort,” to rail against corporate America, which is the principal benefactor of his ire.

Lewis feels that civil disobedience is necessary because it “draws attention” to grievances easily glossed over by mere picketing.

It was indeed civil disobedience which, Lewis asserts, allowed Commissioner Ramsey to achieve the position as Philadelphia’s top cop – because of the civil rights movement. It is also civil disobedience that Ramsey essentially accuses the former captain of committing by demonstrating in uniform.

There is one problem with that accusation, however.

In a press release included in a packet Lewis assembled for curious onlookers – as well as the media – he cites the statute which Ramsey is accusing him of violating:

Section #4912 Impersonating a Public Servant – Falsely pretending to hold a position in the public service with intent to induce another to submit to such a pretended official authority or otherwise to act in reliance upon that pretense to his prejudice.

Lewis also includes in the press release that, after contacting the Philadelphia police department’s Attorney Armando Brigandi on November 10th, 2011 about his intention to protest in uniform, Brigandi “fully concurred that Section #4912 did NOT pertain to my intended action, nor would I be violating any other laws,” so long as Lewis “did not express an articulable intent and act of having legal law enforcement power.”

Lewis isn’t just being threatened by Ramsey, however.

The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police’s board of directors voted unanimously on a motion to potentially take away Lewis’ pension.

FOP President John McNesby. Photo from Philly.com

FOP President John McNesby has publicly stated: “I champion him for going up there and pleading his case, but he shouldn’t have done it in a police uniform. When he put the freaking uniform on is when he crossed the fucking line.”

McNesby goes on to say that if were up to him, Lewis “would be booted from the FOP and lose his retirement benefits.”

These are the same police administrators who allowed Tyrone Wiggins, an officer convicted of raping a 13 year old girl, to keep his pension until August of 2011 – 9 years.

After the protesters – including Lewis – return to Independence Mall by day’s end, the Philadelphia Police Department issues a new statement: They will be taking a “hands-off” approach to Ray Lewis and his uniform. It’s certainly a radically different stance than the one issued by Commissioner Ramsey before Lewis returned to Philadelphia, which said the department was “prepared to take any and all necessary actions” to protect the Philadelphia police insignia.

In a city where police administrators pick and choose which officers receive threats and punishments, and where figures in the Nutter administration may have waded into ethically murky waters in dealing with early Occupy Philadelphia for the sake of political expediency, sometimes it takes one person to just step off the curb, and call their bluff.


How to Radicalize a Moderate: The story of a former OP City Liaison

Dylan Hewitt and Monica Hartlove, both of Philadelphia, participate in the Occupy Philadelphia protest in front of City Hall on October 7, 2011. Photo by Metro Philadelphia.

Editor’s note: This account is a strong example of why systems of control often times backfire. It also exposes the truth that governments often use the law to their advantage, as the author’s experiences dealing directly with the city illustrate. The allegations made in this piece can be independently corroborated. You can follow Julia Alford-Fowler on Twitter: @jalfordfowler. – D.S.

In the mind of most American citizens, local government officials exist (at least the majority of the time) to serve and answer to the people who elected them. It is within this system of accountability that we rely upon to make sure our best interests are being served. While I had a healthy amount of skepticism, this was my held view until the fall of 2011. I believed that the Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, and his staff were in office to protect their citizens, myself included, and that the problems of this country were for the most part the result of unchecked corporate greed on Wall Street, amid a variety of other issues.

What follows is an account of how my thinking was transformed from this moderate view of a trust in those in power into one in which my faith in our government and specifically, those who govern, was destroyed. For me, the Occupy Movement started with a purpose of giving a voice to the voiceless and a way for all of us who were angry at the state of our country to come together and create real change. I believed that this could be accomplished through dialogue and negotiations. Over the course of the two month encampment in front of City Hall in Philadelphia, I saw the necessity of the people’s voice to override the restrictions set to us by our lawmakers. I saw first hand that these lawmakers who were put into office through corporate dollars often do not serve the people who cast the ballots, but instead work to protect the interests of those who funded their campaigns. I began to ask myself the following: What makes free speech free? Is it something that falls within guidelines dictated by the government (as in such guidelines as “time, place and manner”) or is it citizens finding their voices and expressing them how they see fit, especially if they are not causing harm to another person?

At 7:00 am on October 6th, I stepped onto Dilworth Plaza full of hope, love and passion. What was sweeping our country had inspired me to throw myself head first into something I had never tried before – activism. What had happened with the NYPD at Occupy Wall Street disgusted me, but that was New York and as far as I could tell, Philadelphia was going to be different. I had already been told that the city was looking forward to working with us, that they were excited about this showcase of democracy at the footsteps of City Hall and that they wanted to present Philadelphia to the rest of the country as “The Cradle of Liberty.” All they wanted in return was a small group of people to act as liaisons with them and for us to apply for a permit. Over the course of the day, a small group of people decided that I would start out being that “liaison”.

Richard Negrin, Deputy Mayor and Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia. Photo from his personal Twitter account.

By 6:00 pm that day, I was sitting in the office of Richard Negrin, Deputy Mayor and Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia. During our conversation he said one thing in particular which struck me as unusual, but in the flurry of activity, I pushed it aside: If we get a few weeks into this and we need to boost publicity for the movement, they could help us stage an arrest.

A top-ranking city official just told me that they would be willing to set up a situation wherein 10 or so people lie down in the street and they would very politely cuff them and haul them away to jail.

In a later meeting with our small team of city liaisons, he repeated this statement and was echoed by Everett Gillison, Deputy Mayor of Public Safety and now Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff. Gillison confirmed this tactic, saying that it was something that they had done in the past and we simply needed to let them know how many people, at what time, and they would work with us to coordinate these arrests.

I should note that we never took the administration up on their offer.

Over the next two weeks I began to see a pattern in which the city was happy to have us there as long as they were able to subtly control our actions. When it came to the permit, the city was anxious for us to sign this piece of paper that would change our camp from a space that was a reclamation of public property for use by and service to the people of Philadelphia, to them granting us permission to be there under their oversight and control. Supposedly open-ended, once signed we could have access to electricity and protection from “other groups” trying to take over the space. At one point, Negrin called to warn me that we should sign immediately because the Tea Party had applied for a permit and they could only hold them off for so long. After checking around, I discovered that no one in the administration could confirm that this was the case. Once the permit was signed, we were given a long list of complaints from the city that we had to fix about the camp, which then dominated three weeks of daily General Assemblies. The pattern continued to build. As soon as we resolved one issue, the city would present us with another one, each of which would dominate endless hours of our time.

In regards to the “city liaison working group”, the General Assembly eventually voted to dissolve the working group and grant the role of communicating with the city on our behalf to the Legal Collective, which I then joined.

After the first and only meeting with the mayor and his staff, the General Assembly decided to answer the Mayor Nutter’s request for weekly meetings with a simple answer: No. We made clear that Occupy Philadelphia did not intend to cut off communication, and that continued emails and letters would be exchanged with the administration. I saw this as our group making the statement that we were going to protest on our terms, not theirs. I believed that as people of the United States, it is our right to do so. The government is supposed to be for the people and by the people. We would no longer tolerate a country in which our government’s voice is more important than that of the people who elected them. Additionally, we were demanding that all communications with the city be documented in order to protect our rights. As any meeting with the city in person was not allowed to be recorded, we refused to participate.

What happens when citizens decide they are no longer going to allow the suppression of their voices by the government? Shortly after we notified the Mayor’s office of our decision, on November 12th, there was a sexual assault at the camp. The following day, Mayor Nutter held a press conference which he used as a platform to attack Occupy Philly. He mentioned the assault in passing for only one sentence. During the conference he made the following statement, “Many of the people that we talked to in the beginning of this event and activity are now gone. They are no longer on the site.” The Mayor of Philadelphia blatantly lied. All of the people that the city had worked with from day one, myself included, were still there. The only thing that had changed was that we were no longer allowing ourselves to be controlled by a system that served to protect the status quo. Incidentally, this press conference was held less than a week after the Mayor’s reelection bid was secured.

The mayor’s main complaint against Occupy Philadelphia? Sanitation. How many times have you walked through the subway and it smelled of urine? Or walked through your neighborhood and stepped around broken glass? Where is the press conference condemning these issues?

Luckily for the city, they found a new pawn in the form of a recently established group, Reasonable Solutions. In reaction to the General Assembly’s earlier decision to resist eviction, the leaders of this group set up a meeting with city officials and applied for a permit for Thomas Paine Plaza, located directly across from Dilworth Plaza. When the city handed one proposed permit to them and one to Occupy Philadelphia, it was entirely restrictive. It allowed for a single canopy tent and was limited to the hours of 9am to 7pm. In effect, it negated the purpose of our protest – no occupation. While Occupy Philadelphia submitted an appeal, Reasonable Solutions did nothing. Shortly after we were notified that our appeal had been denied, the city held a press conference to showcase Reasonable Solutions signing the new permit. This gave the city every excuse to evict us without any further negotiation. Because a group that vaguely resembled Occupy Philadelphia had been willing to sign this permit, the Mayor could now say that they had done their due diligence, and to the common observer, they had.

Within a week, the city had us evicted. Late on the night of November 29th, roughly 400 riot cops, countless bicycle cops and what I counted as eight mounted officers on horses, all assembled to challenge approximately 100 protesters. At this time there was evidence that the evictions were being coordinated by both a series of nationwide conference calls between Mayors and later calls between Police Chiefs that were set up by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). The fact that this show of force to evict our camp was beyond excessive should come as no surprise given that our police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, is the President of the Board of Directors of PERF.

Protesters marching from City Hall after eviction. Photo by Dustin Slaughter

After we left the plaza following the final dispersal order, there was a group of 50 or so protesters (i.e. residents of Philadelphia) on the street and the sidewalk in front of Dilworth Plaza. At one point I turned to see the mounted police charging into the crowd, trampling the foot of a member of our media team. This incident was so shocking that my husband, who had been watching via livestream, called and pleaded with me to return home. Later, I sent the following tweet to Richard Negrin and Mayor Nutter:

Richard Negrin’s reply?

This video clearly shows the officers first moving people onto the sidewalk and then, once they are on the sidewalk, charging into the crowd and overtaking the sidewalk. Once I returned home I watched the rest of the events unfold via livestream and the ABC livefeed. What follows is the first hand account from friends who were on the scene: After this incident, the evicted protesters kept marching through the streets with chants of “You can’t evict an idea!”. As the march was beginning to wind down, the police kettled in half of the crowd, abused several of the marchers, including an African-American male who was punched in the kidney multiple times. Even if the kettled marchers were given a dispersal order, which they were not, they had no means of leaving. Instead they were told to get on the sidewalk or they would be arrested. They got on the sidewalk and were subsequently arrested.

When I started working with the city, I saw a purpose to it. I saw a chance to create dialogue between people that normally wouldn’t talk to each other and through these conversations we could create real change. Unfortunately, the conversations were short lived. Our General Assemblies were more often than not dominated with discussions about how to respond to the city and how to keep the tenuous relationship peaceful. We were acting out of fear, fear that what had been brought down on the heads of our compatriots in other cities would be brought down on ours. We forgot the golden rule of democracy, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

From the beginning I made it my maxim that I would work with the city until they harmed my people. Early in the morning of November 30th, they harmed my people. I awoke to the fact that this sort of abuse of power had been occurring throughout this city, country and world for centuries and I was just beginning to join a fight that was vital, powerful, terrifying and righteous. While I may never understand what it is to risk my life in Syria, or to be threatened by police in the poorest neighborhoods in this country because of my skin color, I now see the danger of any government which has more power than that of its people. There is an inherent necessity for all of us to rise up, stand together, and make our voices heard through action.


Is It Time to Occupy Big Media?


“Between the public sector and the private sector, we have wreaked untold havoc on the media environment.”

These aren’t the words of a progressive media advocate such as University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney or The Nation’s John Nichols, but of ex-FCC commissioner Michael Copps in January. In an interview on Democracy Now!, Copps attributes his claim to “the abdication of public interest responsibility by the FCC” over the last 30 years and their failure to enforce public interest guidelines and a stronger focus on news.

Here’s another example of how the FCC has failed in their responsibility to the public good: In 1995, the FCC forbade companies ownership of more than 40 stations. Clear Channel Communications now owns over 1,500. This rate of consolidation clearly shows no sign of slowing.

The closing of news rooms and the number of reporters on the street instead of the beat goes on as the corporate state continues its relentless and undemocratic consolidation of America’s media landscape. Layoffs continue despite a number of companies like McClatchy posting a 21% profit margin, according to the book The Death and Life of American Journalism. McClatchy fired a third of their newsroom staff in 2008.

Rupert Murdoch. Photo: BornRich.com

“25 or 30 years ago, only 50 companies controlled more than half of what we see and hear every single day. Now, that 50 – which was alarming enough – has shrunk to six or even five,” says Johnathan Lawson, the co-founder of Reclaim the Media. Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp owns the top newspaper on three continents: The Wall Street Journal, The Sun, and The Australian. According to a 2008 GAO report, the company was operating over 150 subsidiaries in off-shore tax havens. How much of those subsidiary holdings could have gone to funding NPR, or towards community initiatives to help expand minority media in communities?

The assault on our airwaves first began in earnest in 1980, when “the FCC did away with public interest guidelines for broadcast television licenses, and the renewal period went from three to eight years,” according to Copps. Now all a broadcaster has to do is “mail in a postcard” and their license is renewed, because the FCC – against the very reason it was created – has watered down attempts to ensure that the public’s airwaves are by-and-large for the public good.

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Photo: Politico.com

Michael Powell (son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell), who was the head of the FCC in 2003, attempted to eliminate 30 year-old rules that prohibited any television network from reaching more than 35% of the national population. These rules were, in part, created to prevent the homogenization of news and to ensure that there was an attempt at quality local coverage. Predictably, the broadcast industry spent $249 million attempting to convince the federal government to allow new rules which would expand that limit to 45% of the public. And they won.

Fast forward to 2006: the FCC passed rules “which allowed broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership in the top 20 markets,” as Katy Bachman wrote in AdWeek. “The last thing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski [who became the FCC head in 2009] wants to talk about are the media ownership rules.”

A media system dominated by such a narrow coterie of owners has a direct impact on the quality of news presented to the public – affecting a diversity of viewpoints as well as the depth of coverage on issues such as corporate greed, poverty, corruption, racism, climate change and a host of other topics that an electorate needs to know in order to make educated decisions which directly affect their lives.

One major casualty of corporate domination of news is investigative journalism. Be it in print or in broadcast news, this time-intensive and not always profitable aspect of news is crucial to a healthy democracy. One need only look, for instance, at the media debacle of the Iraq War to see how the corporate state perverts information consumed by Americans. The first Gulf War was a huge boon for corporations like GE, which turned nightly news into “a media hardware show,” as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! stated. GE had a significant stake in the production of parts for many of the weapons in the Persian Gulf war.

The shrinking of diverse views on war was evidenced by the firing of MSNBC host Phil Donahue in February of 2003. He approached the invasion from a critical perspective and maintained the highest rated show on that network. The killing off of diversity is also a perfect example of how corporate media perpetuates the concept of “just” wars to increase profits, as GE’s role in the Persian Gulf war and the reporting on that war and Operation Iraqi Freedom demonstrate.

Picture: GunStreetGirl.tumblr.com

Media consolidation also plays a profound role in how our society prioritizes values, from self-esteem to consumerism. “It gives them [corporate media] a great deal of influence over how our culture thinks about itself,” points out author and activist Anne Elizabeth Moore.  The deluge of advertising, for instance, which takes up a lot of broadcasting and radio, certainly has an impact on shopping habits as well as more serious issues like body-image.

Enter Occupy Wall Street. The movement has set its sights on corporations and the elite who continue without apology to commodify health care, public education, and other vital necessities, and has subsequently kicked issues like income inequality and corporate greed back into the national conversation. Some even argue that President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech carried a hint of the spirit of the movement, which isn’t surprising in an election year.

How would corporate media respond to civil disobedience in their lobbies? What would happen if a group of protesters went to a news station and demanded a revoking of that outlet’s license? This is what happened in the WLBT case, when civil rights activists challenged a racist broadcaster and ultimately forced a judge to pull the station’s license for not serving the public interest.

If the people are going to stand up to big banks and corporations for wrecking our economy and destroying our environment, the theft of our airwaves and newspapers must not be ignored.  As each occupation tackles issues local to their cities and towns – such as police brutality in minority communities – directly challenging broadcasters and newspapers through sit-ins or other creative tactics to cover issues that aren’t properly covered by major media could be a good start. But that would just be the beginning.

One Occupy Philadelphia protester sums it up best:

“It’s bullshit that our country’s main source of news is owned by a few large corporations that have a GLARING conflict of interest in providing us with accurate, honest information.  They have an agenda both in downsizing news rooms as well as promoting certain political views.  It’s time for us to hold them to account and demand a true separation of corporation and government, both in the running of and in the reporting of.”


Al-Jazeera English’s Danny Schechter: “A Happy ‘News’ Year”

OWS protesters attempt to enter Zuccotti Park on New Year's Eve 2011 in Lower Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Newsone.com

Editor’s note: As editorial writer Danny Schecter (@Dissectorvents) points out in the following opinion piece, New Year’s Eve in New York City’s Time Square was a surreal spectacle. While Lady Gaga kissed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “the NYPD, a force he [Bloomberg] recently had the temerity to call his ‘private army’, pepper sprayed an attempt by Occupy Wall Street to regain the park [Zuccotti Park] they had been forcibly ousted from a few miles downtown.”

He goes on to note:

“”Happy New Year” has become a mantra of good cheer and smiles all around but it’s a sentiment that’s strangely disconnected from any deeper reality.

Would so many millions be cheering if they had any inkling of what lies ahead, as one really bad year foreshadows one that may be even worse?”

Indeed. In a society that has been warped by celebrity culture, and that has swallowed what Benjamin DeMott calls “junk politics”, the only thing the masses can do is watch an oligarch kiss a media-created fantasy like Lady Gaga during a thoroughly-commercialized event in Times Square, while the country plunges head-first into what many are predicting to be a very bleak year.

Meanwhile, the 68 Occupy Wall Street protesters who know perfectly well that this country is living in an illusion are brutally arrested and will continue to be villified by many in the media who either choose to ignore what the Occupy movement represents or truly cannot fathom what it means.

Schecter’s piece is republished here under Al-Jazeera’s Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License agreement.

New York, NY – Who doesn’t love fireworks, especially on New Year’s Eve, when it’s out with old and in with the new?

Who knows how much all these crowd-pleasing explosives cost as they ricochet from loud celebrations all over the globe?

And who cares? Many partygoers got too drunk to think about it.

Here, in New York, the great ball drop in Times Square has blown up into a major spectacle with celebrities galore that is followed by entertainment specials on every network.

We had Lady Gaga kissing Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the NYPD, a force he recently had the temerity to call his “private army”, pepper sprayed an attempt by Occupy Wall to regain the Park they had been forcibly ousted from a few miles downtown.

Sixty-eight activists became the first arrestees of 2012.

Mayor Bloomberg and Lady Gaga kiss in Times Square to bring in 2012. Photo courtesy of Mamapop.com

“Happy New Year” has become a mantra of good cheer and smiles all around but it’s a sentiment that’s strangely disconnected from any deeper reality.

Would so many millions be cheering if they had any inkling of what lies ahead, as one really bad year foreshadows one that may be even worse?

The hunger for happiness and the ability to deny reality is pervasive, and permeates borders everywhere.

Somehow there are those who know how truly absurd it is to celebrate when your life is about to turn for the worse. But, even if many did know, would they know what to do?

As Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes, “Could there be a single phrase that explains the woes of our time, this dismal age of political miscalculations and deceptions, of reckless and disastrous wars, of financial boom and bust and downright criminality?”

Maybe there is, and we owe it to Fintan O’Toole. That trenchant Irish commentator is a biographer and theatre critic, and a critic also of his country’s crimes and follies, as in his gripping book, Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger.

He reminds us of the famous saying by Donald H Rumsfeld, the former United States secretary of defence, that “There are known knowns… there are known unknowns… there are also unknown unknowns”.

But the Irish problem, says O’Toole, was none of the above. It was “unknown knowns”.

Given the degraded state of American media, we can’t assume that a TV-addicted audience of young people can know how bad it is or will become.

These partying crowds would have to wait a day to hear the BBC predict the downturn that awaits Europeans:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe was experiencing its “most severe test in decades…

France’s President Sarkozy said the crisis was not finished, while Italy’s president called for more sacrifices.

Growth in Europe has stalled as the debt crisis has forced governments to slash spending.

Protesters across Europe strike and demonstrate against severe austerity measures. Photo courtesy of SFGate.com

The leaders’ New Year messages came as leading economists polled by the BBC said they expected a return to recession in Europe in the first half of 2012.

Liberal economists like Paul Krugman at the New York Times have dismissed any talk of recession. He says the right word to use is depression. Politicians who believe that it takes confidence to promote a recovery want to stay positive, even though critics call this confidence-hype a “con game”.

“These realities will only be more obvious when gas goes to $5 a gallon… when more students drop out because they can’t afford the loans or tuition.”

Attorney Max Gardener, who runs popular “boot camps” for bankruptcy and foreclosure defence lawyers, knows the personal details of the avalanche of distress among the Middle class. He is skilled at fighting back, but is not optimistic in his New Year’s predictions, which include:

The unemployment rate will not drop below 7.00 per cent at any point during the year and will be above 8.00 per cent for at least half of the year. With our educational system in disarray, and technical skills at an all-time low among US workers, the fact of the matter is that all of the good jobs are in China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, Thailand and Argentina.
One of the top 10 United States banks will fail or be forced into a takeover by the end of the year. My best guess is Bank of America. BOA will be forced into liquidation under the too big to fail provisions of the Dodd Frank Act. The FHFA as conservator of BOA may impose the Chapter 13 principal reduction programme for all loans and serviced by the Bank.
The number of homes in foreclosure will double or triple from 2011 levels and home values will drop by another 15 per cent to 20 per cent by the end of year. I do not expect to see any real recovery in the housing market until at least 2022.

Ok, maybe this is all boring stuff that glazes over most minds. It’s certainly not as much fun as reading about Hollywood scandals.

These realities will only be more obvious when gas goes to $5 a gallon, when more cities plunge into darkness to save money on electricity, or when more students drop out because they can’t afford the loans or tuition.

As the Movie Biz is reporting one of its worst years, food prices are rising although some of this is invisible because of new packaging techniques that permit selling fewer of a product for more.

It is no wonder then that politicians don’t want to sound like bad news bears and talk about any of this because they know they can’t do anything. Politicians can’t tell markets what to do.

They prefer to demonise Iran perhaps in the hope that a new war will divert public attention and get keep the military-industrial complex generating new jobs. They are always on the prowl for new threats to exploit.

President Obama has now written off the possibility of doing anything new while planning to wage war on the Republican Congress as his campaign focus. The Republicans, meanwhile, are still battling each other, determined to prevent the rich from paying a fairer share of taxes.

As the New Year comes in with a bang, we are seeing our politics recede with a whimper, with signs of paralysis and stalemate all around. Even Lady Gaga can’t help us now.

News Dissector Danny Schechter is a blogger, author and filmmaker. His latest DVD is Plunder: the Crime of Our Time. He also hosts News Dissector Radio on ProgressiveRadioNetwork.com. Comments to Dissector@mediachannel.org


The Commodification of America

Artwork by Banksy. Photo by Chris Muniz.

Editor’s note: Guest writer John T. Marohn (@johntmarohn) was kind enough to allow the Project to republish this excellent piece on the commodification of America, wherein he asks the crucial question: “Is America for sale?”

Mr. Marohn is a retired college teacher, a freelance writer, novelist, poet, socio-political commentator, international film critic, and recovering alcoholic. John currently lives in Buffalo, New York. Please visit his website: Against the Grain.

“Business — that’s easily defined: it’s other people’s money.”
– Peter Drucker

“The social responsibility of Business is to increase profits.”
– Milton Friedman

“First amendment never shows why freedom of speech…did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form.”
– Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission

There it is folks. The American way: Profits. Corporate free speech. Other people’s money.

There is little doubt that America has become the global symbol for upward mobility, profits, and economic success. But we have also become the global capital of commodification in all of its forms, including prisons, education, health care, and, more cruelly, in our political arenas.

There are few institutional venues in the United States that aren’t, in some way, touched—some would say tainted—by the profit motive. Politicians curry favor with the wealthy who contribute to their campaigns. The health care system continues to be driven by ever increasing profits. The national defense budget has become so entrenched with defense contracts that it would be safe to say that United States Defense is an industry in and of itself.

And some of the top universities are run as corporations with heavy endowments, investments in the stock market, and huge government grants. Not to mention the sports industry that dominates the budgets of many very wealthy universities and colleges throughout the United States.

Who would have thought that we could have moved from an innocent laissez-faire economic model that still works well in the small local merchant world to a sprawling octopus of big-business and global corporatism running through every artery of our society.

Is America really for sale? It seems so.

I live in a small urban area in Western New York. Almost every day, I stop at one particular intersection that has a long wait at the traffic signal (there are at least six or seven traffic lanes the traffic light has to accommodate). If I’m in the south lane of traffic, I get a chance to see one billboard, conveniently placed on top of a two-story building.

It is always an ad about a particular hospital. The latest ad makes the claim that the hospital successfully treated more strokes than any other hospital. I wasn’t sure whether the hospital meant that stat to apply to the whole world, in Western New York, in the state, or throughout the United States.

I was not comforted by the fact that the hospital is scheduled to close within a year. I could only assume that, before the hospital goes down, it wanted to make one last foxhole effort to redeem itself from anonymity.

I also suppose that if I felt a stroke coming on, I would quickly flash back to my intersection stop, the billboard sign would pop up in my Pavlovian mind’s eye, I would call 911 and have the ambulance take me to the hospital’s emergency room. Ah, the power of advertising.

It is impossible to escape ads on television. The pharmaceutical and health-care industries are two of the many blatant users of the television ad industry. Marketing, of course, is the name of the game.

Image courtesy of semissourian.com

And marketing is not so much about “actual” competence as it is about the “image” of competence. Americans are supposed to believe, in theory anyway, that if an ad, especially a big billboard ad, says a health-care provider is good, then it must be true.

My point here is that the commodification of the health care industry is not just about health insurance premiums, deductibles, copays (all business terms, by the way); it is also engaged in the pro-active marketing industry.

And the commodification of health insurance is so widespread that Americans begin to believe that the privatization model is the only model that has any credibility. It becomes extremely anxious about even discussing Medicare-for-all paradigm because the health insurance industry controls the narratives in employer-sponsored health insurance policies, in the group plans strategy, in television and other media advertising, and in the lobbying halls of Congress.

More tragically, the health insurance industry completely dominates the “language” of health insurance with all the business panoply of words that have crept into the American vocabulary—premiums, deductibles, plans, copays. One can easily say, that the health insurance industry, through its control of the health insurance language, has made it almost impossible to think outside the box.

Americans have bought the insurance model for health care, not just because it is necessarily better model, but because, in theory, it is supposed to “insure” the patient that they won’t be saddled with a financial medical burden. That is the purpose of insurance: to protect a consumer from financial ruin by having an insurance plan. And the insurer hopes that not everyone in the plan needs to cash in at the same time.

However, “insurance” is a business. Businesses need to make a profit. Profits cannot take a back seat to expensive medical procedures that have the potential to put them out of business. So, you can be sure, a profit-driven company is going to do everything it can to scrutinize, stop, or delay a payment to a doctor or a hospital, especially if a procedure does not appear to be “cost-effective.”

Insurance, as Americans have come to know, is definitely a business. It is very much like having a debit card. A customer puts money into the premium. The premium is stored with other customer premiums. And the insurer holding those premiums pays a doctor or a hospital from those premiums after reviewing the doctor or hospital’s bill for a procedure, an office visit, an operation, or a test.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Now credit, on the other hand, is another model that a consumer can use to pay off a medical bill with a credit card, if they don’t have the cash or their insurance deductible is too high, or they don’t have any insurance. Of course, a credit card is also a very expensive way to pay off a medical bill because of the monthly interest charges

Credit, the more sophisticated capitalist term for money that’s available to borrow, has also crept into the higher ed business. Students generally take out loans from the federal government or a bank. The total amount of those loans has begun to rise in the US and graduating students are now confronted with a jobless work environment and a student loan to pay off.

What about politics? Well, the evidence, to most Americans is pretty well known. Lobbyists spend an awful lot of money in Washington to plead their cases. And the corporate world has now won a victory with the Citizens United case which allows corporations, unions,and non-profit political fronts to pour unrestricted amounts of money into media advertising. This, of course, is a variation of buying influence. After all, campaign money is not just about supporting a candidate; it is also a way of trying to convince a candidate to vote a particular way.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Occupy Wall Street protests are all about a capitalist/corporate/business-model system that is out of control. When politicians can be bought, when health care has become a very expensive business, when our college education system has become burdened with rising student debt, when some of our prisons can be owned by shareholders, when the business model of running a country has seeped into the country’s pores, on all levels, this younger, very articulate group of protesters are beginning to see how deep and wide the cracks in capitalism really are.

Let us hope that we can find alternative ways to vote on public policy in America, to educate our youth, and to give reasonable health care.