by Matt Stannard
we are overdetermined
we are contextual
we are contingent
we are extratextual
we are other-constituted
we are already substituted
in celebration of recent hopeful events,
June 9, 2017
by Matt Stannard
we are overdetermined
we are contextual
we are contingent
we are extratextual
we are other-constituted
we are already substituted
in celebration of recent hopeful events,
June 9, 2017
by Ma’ikwe Ludwig
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
― Arundhati Roy
Today is an important day to listen for that breathing, which can be hard to hear over the justifiably angry buzz that just erupted thanks to President Trump’s pending decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
And well it should be buzzing: this is a terrible idea. Paris got us a half step down the road of doing what we need to do around climate . . . not nearly enough, but some tangible progress; pulling us out will be two steps backward as whatever delicate trust was built in that process is dashed on the rocks of Trump’s ego.
The buzz is heavy on depression and panic, both of which are completely understandable responses. Without a real change in how we think about the climate crisis, it does indeed look and feel like the final nail in our collective coffin.
I’ve been tracking climate issues since 1987, and at this point, I’m no longer surprised by the capacity for large governmental bodies to sink their heads in the sand while simultaneously blaming others. (Notably, those “others” are usually poor and brown-skinned. China has been the favorite scapegoat for the last decade, conveniently ignoring that their emissions and other pollution numbers include a significant amount of the manufacturing of the cheap and convenient crap we Americans seem to relish).
20 years ago, I started to pursue a completely different track on environmental and social issues alike: deeply grassroots organizing of the structures and habits of our lives, largely in the form of residential intentional communities. And in doing so, I’ve found a viable option that requires nothing of politicians, a tactic that seems more and more practical and needed every day.
What if Americans could get their consumption and emissions down to about 10% of our current average? The answer is that it would be huge. By my best estimates, 10% is about what we need to be doing if we want to be “sustainable”. On top of that, we also need to start massive carbon sequestration projects, such as tree planting and biochar initiatives.
At least one group of Americans are doing just that: residents of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri. I profile Dancing Rabbit and a number of other community projects in my new book, Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, which focuses on climate solutions that are already technologically viable and effective to reduce emissions, and that are available to all of us right now.
These communities hold potential keys to several of our worst problems: not only climate disruption, but also social isolation, massive income inequalities and other social injustices can be worked on in these deliberate pockets of social, economic and ecological experimentation. The ability to live on less (less dollars, less stuff and less stress) is one of the primary benefits of collectively self-determined, cooperation-based communities.
The pockets of creative solution making are literally everywhere. The Communities Directory lists over 1,300 intentional communities, most of them in North America. Not all of them have incredible carbon stats, but all of them that have been studied have notably better carbon stats. Like the Paris talks, they represent significant steps in the direction we need to go in, even if their potential is not yet fully realized. Unlike the Paris talks, they don’t just evaporate at the whim of politicians.
So to my friends out there who are feeling the cold creeping of increasingly likely disaster, I say this: take heart, and take things into your own hands. Let’s stop waiting for politicians who are deeply in debt to the fossil fuel industry and who can’t think outside of the capitalism box to suddenly see the light. Instead, let’s do this together.
Ma’ikwe Ludwig is a long-time sustainability and cultural change advocate, focused on intentional communities, and the intersection of economic and ecological justice. She is currently executive director at Commonomics USA and previously served in that role at the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.
How can it be said that anyone deserves their poverty?
What we call “character flaws” are the result of a complex combination of environmental, neurological and cultural factors, plus whatever agency we actually have in dealing with those. To say that anyone deserves poverty isn’t just an unwarranted moral judgment nobody has the right to make, but also an unscientific judgment that misunderstands how humans function.
And, the decisions made by powerful financial actors contextualize where a person making “bad choices” will ultimately land. For example, absent the LIBOR banking scandal, tens of thousands of home foreclosures in Baltimore would not have occurred, even though in the micro-political universe of those individual foreclosures, one could assign any number of individual causal chains as the “reasons” for the foreclosures (X didn’t work hard enough; Y had a drinking problem, etc.).
Even if you say “well, that person had a bad rap in life and they nevertheless overcame their bad luck,” whether X overcomes that bad luck is determined by the very same combination of internal and external factors that landed X in a bad situation in the first place.
Perhaps “economic determinism” (if it’s wholistic; dialectical if you will) is the most compassionate, ethically respectful, and epistemologically justified paradigm there is. Understanding the interplay of these factors can help us build systems that will maximize agency and collectively plan ways to account for all the external factors.
Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA.
With the number of circus acts and sideshows associated with the incoming presidential administration, it’s easy for even significant events to slip through the cracks. But the Real Estate Tycoon’s silly spectacle of cutting a corporate welfare deal with the Carrier company to relocate only 1000 jobs instead of 2000 has titillated the New York Times and also generated a slew of criticism (of varying levels of coherence) from free marketers. Bernie Sanders’s analysis is far more useful–he rightly points out that these kinds of deals incentivize bad behavior by corporations–but I’m even more interested in how the workers themselves are empowered or disempowered by bourgeois political posturing.
So it was refreshing to see the Institute for Public Accuracy digging deeper and finding critical voices speaking about the way workers are always used as props in the framing of these stunts and stories.
“Firms like Carrier in effect use jobs as a hostage to get a ransom payment from the government,” Morton Marcus, a retired Indiana University economist, told IPA. Marcus goes on to explain that this framework is what allows corporations to offer public goods to policymakers that can have negative long-term consequences.
It happens all the time. A firm says they’re interested in building a new factory, in expanding. They ask: what can you do for us? So, the local government gives them tax relief, gives them other incentives — building roads, sewers, water system for the firm. Governments used to ease the tax burden on their own citizens by taxing firms, but this tax ‘relief’ for firms is being done in the name of jobs. So, a firm leaves a polluting residue, contaminates the water supply, with the locals, decades from now, forced to deal with the consequences.
Tim Lewandowski of Workers’ Project, Inc. in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says workers are never actually involved in these discussions, guaranteeing that their interests (which correspond to most community members’ interests) are never truly represented.
Here in Indiana, Mike Pence made a living attacking workers. But doesn’t matter if it’s a big ‘trade deal’ or a local tax abatement — any kind of economic development involves a government entity and corporation, supposedly working to save jobs. That’s going on all the time. Yet, workers are always excluded from those discussions, at best they’re theatrical props. But if workers aren’t involved in really making the deal, it ends up being more show than go. A big part of the problem is that deals like this are all self-reporting — something Donald Trump is familiar with. They can say they’re going to have X number of jobs at such-and-such a wage, but who’s checking? We almost have a Soviet system, where it’s a handshake and a fantasy economy, simply for photo-ops.
In politically bargaining these particular jobs, both the corporations and the strongman-showman-president-elect are benefitting from the work the workers already did in winning the benefits associated with the jobs. Lewandowski explains: “The jobs Carrier has been threatening to move are good jobs and they’re good jobs because the workers bargained for those jobs for years and made them good. We’re actually drowning in jobs — if you want to work lousy hours, for lousy pay and be disrespected.”
Imagine a world where elected officials had to bargain with the workers themselves.
By the way, the Institute for Public Accuracy is amazing for the depth they open up in their press releases. Support them here–it’s tax-deductable.
OAKLAND, CA – Tonight Oakland City Council unanimously passed Councilmember Kaplan’s Resolution calling for the City Administrator to look into the process of establishing a public bank for the City of Oakland.
The Resolution, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Kaplan, Kalb, and Guillen, directs the City Administrator to look into the scope and cost of conducting a feasibility study for public banking in Oakland and possibly the larger region. It also directs City Staff to solicit input from community stakeholders about the feasibility study, including suggestions of potential contractors and funding sources; and makes it clear that the study should cover the legality and feasibility of banking the cannabis industry.
The Resolution generated support from Councilmembers and community members alike. Matt Hummel, Chair of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission, reported that the commission fully supports the idea of a public bank for Oakland because of its potential benefits for the cannabis industry. Oakland activist Susan Harman said: “As Councilmember Kaplan recently returned from Standing Rock, it is important to note that Chase is one of the funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is just another reason why Oakland should create a public bank – so the City can divest from its relationship with Chase.”
“I was thrilled to see the outpouring of support for public banking,” Councilmember Kaplan says. “Creating our own institutions is a beautiful example of how we can strengthen our community at the local level, and continue to build a more just and inclusive society, even in the face of troubling signs at the Federal level.”
The Oakland City Council also voted to reaffirm that Oakland will remain a Sanctuary City for immigrants, despite President-elect Donald Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to cities that do so. The Resolution prohibits the Oakland Police Department from enforcing Federal civil immigration laws and from using city monies, resources or personnel to investigate, question, detect or apprehend persons whose only violation is or may be a civil violation of immigration law.
The resolution also urges California to become a Sanctuary State.
“I am proud to be part of a City that stands up for justice for all,” Kaplan says, “especially now that the rights of so many are under attack.” Councilmember Kaplan also urged California Assemblymember Rob Bonta to take similar steps at the state level and ask California to identify itself as a Sanctuary State.
Kaplan added, “The most repeated teaching in the Bible is ‘Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ – we have a moral responsibility to protect everyone in our community, including those who are targeted for attack and discrimination.”
Source: Sheng Thao, Chief of Staff for Councilmember At-Large Kaplan
by Matt Stannard
“What is the robbing of a bank,” Bertolt Brecht’s character Macheath asks in Threepenny Opera, compared “to the founding of a bank?” What harm can an individual bank robber do, compared to what a bank–particularly a large one–can do?
Banks can do more damage than other big institutions, because financial asymmetry is the core of private banking. Banking for profit makes no sense without it. And because financial asymmetry results in awful consequences for the weaker party, successful banking for profit requires legal asymmetry too. Boilerplate and adhesion contracts can be effective tools for securing that asymmetry.
But history tells us that asymmetry only gets you so far. That’s why, in spite of Wells Fargo having had some early initial success using an arbitration clause to defer the legal consequences of unambiguous fraud, I’m predicting that the ploy has run its course–that not only will courts stop buying it, but that its continued deployment, successful or not, will sink the bank’s effort to clean up its public image.
If you aren’t abreast of this: Wells Fargo was recently caught having opened 2 million fake accounts in their customers’ names. The bank was fined a paltry $185 million, fired 5,300 of its employees, and tossed $5 million back to its customers. Now the bank wants a federal court to dismiss a class-action lawsuit by customers so defrauded, and their motion argues that customers gave up the right to sue for anything when agreeing to the arbitration clause contained in the bank’s complex and dickish customer agreements. In other words, Wells Fargo argues that when customers signed up for their non-fraudulent accounts, they gave up the right to sue for things like having their signatures forged in the opening of fraudulent accounts. What’s more, that argument has already worked for the bank: Among other instances, last year Wells Fargo got Ninth Circuit Court Judge Vince Chhabria to buy it in September 2015, also in a case arising from the bank opening up additional accounts for customers without permission (after this year’s settlement over the 2 million fraudulent accounts, that case was reopened and joined with a similar suit being filed in that district).
Michael Hiltzik’s LA Times piece is the best reading on this absurd, semi-successful legal strategy. I like the article because Hiltzik is sensitive to both the ethics and optics of Wells Fargo’s incredibly condescending attitude towards its customers:.
Nothing demonstrates that more than the bank’s insistence on forcing the victims of its vast fake-account scam into binding arbitration, a system in which customers are at an overwhelming disadvantage . . . the San Francisco-based bank has succeeded in getting several judges to toss fraud lawsuits over the bogus accounts by asserting that, even though the accounts are fake, they stem from legitimate accounts the victims opened, in which they agreed to submit any future disputes with the bank to an arbitrator . . . [to get] a flavor of just how abusive the Wells Fargo arbitration strategy is . . . [California resident Shahriar] Jabbari had opened savings and checking accounts with the bank in 2011, but within two years discovered that he had seven more that he hadn’t authorized. Soon enough, he was getting dunning notices from collection agencies for unpaid fees on those accounts, some of which had been opened with manifestly forged signatures or even no signatures at all. [Kaylee] Heffelfinger’s experience was similar. She opened a checking and a savings account with Wells Fargo in March 2012, the lawsuit says. Wells employees started opening bogus accounts in her name even before that, starting in January. She ended up with seven accounts, some opened with forged signatures and fake Social Security numbers. Wells Fargo demanded in its defense that the case go to arbitration, noting that its arbitration clause was exceedingly broad: Anyone who became a Wells Fargo customer was agreeing to boilerplate in their customer agreements that covered any dispute with the bank whatsoever, including “claims based on broken promises or contracts, torts, or other wrongful actions.”
Wells Fargo’s legal argument isolates the singular decision to open an initial account (which requires agreeing to arbitration) and goes on to argue that the fraudulent opening of an additional account is covered by the same arbitration clause. It’s pretty outrageous that any court anywhere has allowed this to happen, deferring to a membrane of an argument that carries such awful policy implications and whose outcome can only be inequity to any individual plaintiff. The continued use of the already abusive tactic of forced arbitration to dodge fraudulent behavior threatens to unravel the entire shaky regime of forced arbitration altogether, either via regulatory changes or a quick dip in its litigatory success rate. Even if such regulations spark lengthy court battles of their own, that’s money the banks have to spend on legal fees while their public ethos sinks to lower lows.
That’s why I think Zane Christensen, the Utah attorney representing plaintiffs in the class action at federal court in Utah, is correct in asserting that the tactic has run its course and that courts will soon see the horrendous implications of allowing it. If judges have gone along with it thus far, they’ve done so for two reasons: (1) a desire for “judicial economy” that often overrides concerns for justice, and (2) the classism of many judges, their unwillingness or inability to see the asymmetry between big banks and ordinary people as a question of equity under law. Irrespective of that, I think the jig is up.
I could be wrong. It may be that nothing can truly convince these particular business entities to behave. After all, banks still racially redline certain areas (Wells Fargo has to pay $2.5 million to 1000 African-American and Latino residents in Baltimore for doing so in 2012), making mortgages and automobile loans inaccessible or abusively expensive to people of color. One bank has even been caught reverse redlining–disproportionately giving people of color increased access to their s***ty deals in order to charge them higher interest rates and fees. Perhaps, like the President-Elect, big private banks will just keep running around doing really repugnant, often racist, always classist things, everybody gets outraged, but nobody’s able to stop them.
But I think I’m right. There’s a lot of political anger floating freely about these days–residual frustration from the elections and a growing sense that materially powerful entities truly can get away with anything–and I wouldn’t want to be a big bank right now. With sufficient financial clout, cities can even step in where the feds refuse to go. Los Angeles just dumped Wells Fargo over consumer abuse. The L.A. city council also asked “the city attorney’s office to draft an ordinance that would amend the city’s responsible banking ordinance to include more protections for whistle-blowers who report suspected illegal bank activity to authorities.” That’s a big deal because, although Santa Cruz County’s decision last year to dump five criminal banks carried a lot of symbolic value, L.A. carries considerably more financial weight. It’s even more important because if enough cities and counties got together, they really could disempower big banks–culminating, as Saqib Bhatti of the Roosevelt Institute hopes, in the creation of municipal public banks, providing even further incentive for private financial institutions to actually change their terms and practices.
If I’m wrong, and Wells Fargo continues to prevail by arguing that fraud is covered by a boilerplate arbitration clause, I promise to open an account there in your name.
Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and previously served on the Public Banking Institute’s board of directors.
by Matt Stannard
1. Because capitalism. The election of America’s most prominently parasitic and malicious real estate capitalist to Chief Executive says “this is what happens, Larry.” An economic system based on predatory finance, making money through exploitation of labor, extraction of the planet, and the financial leverage of money itself, gets us mass immiseration, deep cultural divisions, irrationality-as-ideology, fake populism, incipient fascism. The 2016 election was an indictment of extract-and-exploit capitalism, not a vindication of it. Breathe deeply knowing that. Keep talking about it. More and more people will want to talk about it.
2. These Herberts won’t solve anything. The new (deeply incompetent and crony-driven) administration will push poorly-planned, graft-heavy infrastructure and other mega projects. It will continue to promise to bring back coal jobs and manufacturing jobs. All of the administration’s economic initiatives will likely be ecologically indefensible and not truly beneficial to the local economies they’ll purport to target. We have to keep emphasizing public and community finance, local protection of the commons, and the economic viability of cooperative communities.
3. Local politics matters now more than ever. We already know how fossil fuel giants manifest their politics via controlling state legislatures, and pro-carbon state-level politicians came out ahead in the 2016 elections. ALEC-like entities will continue to influence state and local governments. But this is also where we have the greatest chance of resisting bad policies and carving out exceptional, even revolutionary, communities. We must run for local offices and support legal efforts to increase municipal autonomy.
4. We are transpartisan. Democrats are demoralized, but many are eager to build a tycoon-proof society. Some Republicans are bright enough to see the reality of what they have created, ready to reject hate politics, and amenable to the localist component of our vision. Greens, Socialists, and others are still struggling for national relevance but have always had valuable knowledge of and commitment to cooperative economics (and those groups have run some great local campaigns that align with our values). A hell of a lot of people are unaffiliated and/or didn’t vote. Economic cooperation must be politically ecumenical in precisely the ways that bourgeois, corporate media-driven politics can never be.
5. Materiality intersects. We need to work on class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, indigenous rights, and other oppression points in our unique way: emphasizing the material components of identity-based oppression where activists inhabiting the conventional political economy cannot. While others are arguing about whether poor whites are more white than poor or more poor than white, let us create spaces where economic insecurity no longer sparks, exacerbates, or obfuscates identity-based prejudices. There will still be bigotry, but we can make it easier to fight it.
6. We are building the alternative. We have to keep building, building, building. Keep creating and converting worker-owned cooperatives. Keep creating and strengthening eco-villages, income-sharing communities, and community land trusts. Keep reminding cities and states that public banks offer independence from a federal government owned by Wall Street. Keep fighting every attempt to privatize the commons. Keep building cooperative culture, local currencies and time exchanges, strong social service networks and resource-sharing programs. Every time we demonstrate that cooperation works, the forces that gave us President-elect Trump lose. A cooperative economy is a material base against exploitation and fascism. Whatever the importance of other activism, this is the importance of ours.
Image: Union Cab workers in Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: NW Labor Press
by Matt Stannard
The brutal repression of indigenous and allied protesters at Standing Rock has shocked the conscience of fair-minded Americans, particularly those advocating economic and ecological reform. Although the protesters had in some cases been encroaching on “company land,” they had done so peacefully, and their chief modes of political action have been prayer and nonviolent civil disobedience. The crackdowns of the last few weeks have seen attack dogs and rubber bullets causing bloody injuries to protesters, detention and malicious prosecutions, and other dehumanizing behavior from the cops and soldiers deployed there by North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple.
For those of us in the public banking movement, used to holding up the Bank of North Dakota (the nation’s only public bank) as an example of how promising public banks are, the recent news that Dalrymple and an emergency spending panel voted to add $4 million in additional credit onto a $10 million line from BND, to fund law enforcement expenses at Standing Rock, is troubling. It means BND is using its heralded public power over fractional reserve banking to pay for those rubber bullets and a host of logistical expenses involved in arresting and evicting protesters the federal government has refused to evict, citing free speech concerns.
This financing is part of one of BND’s core functions: providing emergency loans. A more positive deployment of that function happened in 1997, when BND provided emergency loans for the Grand Forks flood, at a time when communities desperately needed loans before receiving slow-moving FEMA reimbursements. Unlike the need to abuse peaceful protesters, the flood was a real public emergency–the flooding caused structure fires and destroyed dozens of buildings via fire or water. Property losses in Grand Forks topped $3.5 billion. There were 50,000 evacuees. BND provided over $70 million in funds for relief.
The Bank of North Dakota was conceived a century ago in the molding of distinctly American, agrarian-socialist populism. North Dakota farmers were in trouble, getting cheated by the big banks and big grain companies headquartered in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Those entities knew they had farmers at their mercy, and so all the interest rates were double-digit, all the loan terms were unfavorable (and less favorable to those who relied on them the most), and as the grain companies operated every grain elevator along the railroad route; those companies offered farmers destructively low prices, often cheating on tonnage because the farmers had nowhere else to go.
In 1915, led by a struggling farmer named A.C. Townley, a group of North Dakotans formed the Nonpartisan League to push back against those powerful grain and banking interests. The NPL ended up taking political power in the state, creating both the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator. Today, those two public utilities are the only institutions of their kind under any state government in the U.S. They’ve long outlived the NPL, whose inexperienced political leaders were subject to constant attacks and red-baiting from big business interests, exacerbating NPL infighting and corruption, culminating in the recall of Governor Lynn Frazier, alongside whom the state legislature had created one of the most progressive state agendas in American history.
Since then, for understandable reasons, BND has been militantly apolitical. BND President and CEO Eric Hardmeyer has explicitly repudiated arguments that the BND ought to be a model, despite his effective touting of its successes. The Bank exists to help the state and its businesses function well and to maintain liquidity and economic stability. BND created the infrastructure for North Dakota’s oil boom, and if the state were to commit to a truly proactive transition to renewable and clean energy (it has taken baby steps), the BND would make it happen financially–with an efficiency that would put the rest of the country to shame.
But in the present political reality, cops and soldiers are brutally cracking down on Standing Rock protesters, and BND is funding it, and that makes BND not truly apolitical, but a facilitator of injustice. Public banks are tools, not sources of virtue in themselves. In the hands of bad policymakers, they can prop up bad policies.
So what do we do with this unfortunate knowledge, besides continuing to support the Standing Rock protesters, calling the governor regularly (if you do, please mention that using BND to finance repression is shameful), and pushing for a just and sustainable transition to clean energy (including economic support for energy sector workers and their families)? What do these unfortunate events teach us about our movement?
First, the awful actions in North Dakota don’t undermine the idea of public banking. If anything, they’re more evidence against private ownership and shareholding in both fossil fuels and the financial sector. In financing those rubber bullets and smoke bombs, BND is paying the security costs of private corporations, subsidizing the worst of big oil capitalism. But as my colleague, Ira Dember, pointed out to me yesterday, North Dakota is rich in wind and is building wind farms. That four million dollars could have been better lent to develop additional wind resources and technology, and to train workers to transition from oil fields to wind farms and more. That depends on a larger movement, which I’ll talk more about below.
Second, the actions illustrate the folly of pushing for state and local control without accompanying universal human and environmental rights. Economic and environmental justice advocates have long promoted local autonomy as a bulwark against big corporations and their puppets in national and state government. But local governments (often pushed by state legislators and governors) can do violence to indigenous communities just as they have enforced segregation and lynchings in the South. Human rights and environmental protection must be encoded in national and international norms and these norms need to have a complimentary and non-oppressive relationship with local communities. That makes our coalition-building and policy-making tasks bigger and more challenging. It makes allies and communication more important, and demands clarity about various movements’ and organizations’ ethical frameworks.
Third, you can’t keep people you disagree with ideologically out of single-issue movements. Sometimes this can be frustrating: There are all sorts of people in the public banking movement, including a few supporters who aren’t committed to ending fossil fuel consumption, and even weirder and more disturbing, a tiny handful of extremists who want to take down big private banks because they associate banking with Jews. Thankfully, those toxic forces don’t show up in any significant numbers (and the Public Banking Institute has explicitly repudiated them). While the movement is primarily white and bourgeois, there are powerful non-white, non-bourgeois voices in it, and its alignment with the New Economy Coalition and other economic justice coalitions helps considerably. It matters who you do your activist business with.
Finally, whatever your own organization’s commitment to justice, the policies and institution your movement creates, if it is lucky enough to create them, will only be as socially positive and ethically correct as the people working inside of them, and the communities overseeing them. Public banks can fund a post-carbon, sustainable energy transition–but only if people successfully demand a post-carbon, sustainable energy transition. Public banks can create safe and prosperous communities for all, but only if that’s what communities are already committed to.
Public banking advocates, in particular, ought to emphasize the ways public control of state and municipal finance can fund new structures of work and production that neither exploit nor extract. That has always been the most powerful argument for public banks: that they can produce justice because as community-controlled entities, we can make them just.
Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and was formerly on the Public Banking Institute’s board of directors, but the views expressed in this post are entirely personal.
by Matt Stannard
Between the end of the primaries and last week, we hadn’t heard much more about physical assaults at the Real Estate Tycoon’s political rallies. But then at one event, video captured a man grabbing a male protester and slapping a female one; at another, police have charged a man with assaulting a 69 year-old woman. Video at another event shows a private security guard working for team Tycoon yelling an obscenity straight into a man’s face, while a video released just prior to these events shows a montage of racist and sexist emotives throughout several events. I’m guessing there are many similar events not captured on video.
As a former legal and resource advocate for domestic violence victims, and a survivor of abuse, these events viscerally disturb me. Even thinking about these things happening to people fills me with a philosophical disgust. Those triggery feelings don’t come from the rough physical contact itself; in sporting or other contexts hard contact doesn’t bother me. It’s that the acts are violative, filled with invasive claims to power, non-consensual and micro-politically oppressive (like the Tycoon’s politics). I’m not trying to describe those feelings as theoretical categories, either. The acts are trauma-inducing to their victims and to hypersensitive observers like me. I also understand that they are utilized as media spectacle, of which I’ll say a little more below.
I’ve felt frustrated trying to articulate these feelings publicly, both because they draw attention to my hypersensitivity over abuse and because this horrified rejection of the Tycoon (and an accompanying concern with stopping the movement he represents) doesn’t lead me to the Democratic Party or compel me to vote for its presidential candidate. That inevitably awkward discussion aside, I’m not comfortable placing my trauma-stress near any of the three dominant political orientations towards the Republican nominee and his followers’ fits of violence.
Those three categories of response are: 1. Republican critics of the Tycoon. They see the violence as an unfortunate and tangential distraction. 2. Democrats. They see the violence as indicative of a temperament unfit to lead. 3. Lefty “half-apologists” for the Tycoon. They see the violence as an inconsequential spectacle and a manifestation of the systemic violence propped up by both parties.
Intellectually, I am closest to #3, but only with the second of its two holdings. That is, the media may make a spectacle of people getting punched in the face, but it’s not inconsequential and it’s real to its victims and those around it. The problem with proponents of #3 (and they’re a solid presence on the left blogosphere) is that they seem to understand violence systemically but not interpersonally, leading to poor rhetorical interaction with good people who are sincerely and unapologetically voting to stop it; people for whom the horror of bloody masculinist violence perpetrated by a wealthy white male narcissist (and alleged rapist) is indeed enough to compel them to vote for the candidate they deem most likely to defeat him.
I can’t bring myself to blame anyone for making that calculation, and this is a very good illustration of making one decision while not faulting people for making a different one. The substantially lower risk of having someone beat the hell out of you at a Democratic event than a Republican event is real, and there are political reasons for that difference that add to an egalitarian critique of systemic violence. Dismissing a priori the fear of brutality, or simply telling the people who are afraid to toughen up, is to put theory over person and practice. Genuine transformative thinking requires that we understand why, in this unstable and unhinged world, when mechanisms of emancipation are so elusive and inconvenient, many people will vote on which candidate seems less like an abusive predator.
I agree that the order propped up by Clintonian neoliberalism contains (both possesses and hides) equivalent interpersonal violence. I understand the ways liberal politics both depends on and masks systemic and specific violence. And I think it’s possible to understand that, and commit to fight against it, and reject lesser-evilism and vote for the candidates you want to vote for, all while acknowledging the unique horror of the Real Estate Tycoon’s incipient fascist politics. I think it’s possible to say “I share your concern and fear, and it leads me to a different response.” All it takes is some sensitivity, respect for nuance, and willingness to sit out pointless social media arguments that you probably should have avoided in the first place. Stop blaming Democratic voters for being really, really afraid, and start building the alternative we keep insisting must be built. Those actions will build the movement. Acting insensitive and throwing macho bullshit around won’t.
An update, and interviews with some inmates, on tomorrow’s prison protest events.
Tomorrow, September 9, inmates in prisons from California to Alabama will rise in protest and civil disobedience against the inhumane conditions, underpaid labor, and socioeconomic oppression of the American prison system. Activists in states from Washington to New York, Michigan to Texas, will gather in solidarity with those prisoners. As I wrote in an article published yesterday at Occupy.com, this is a strike against American corporate capitalism itself, because the prison is the “ideological muscularity” of economic injustice. Punitive incarceration (as opposed to the detention of unstable and dangerous individuals) is a policy farce, which even intelligent conservative legal theorists are hesitant to defend. But what happens in American prisons is even worse–American policymakers have accepted the inevitability of micro-violence, an entire paradigm of inmates’ loss of agency over their bodies, behind prison walls. Even most of the international human rights community reluctantly accepts the inevitability of compulsory labor as part of imprisonment. But radical egalitarian thinking does not, and the politics of 2015-2016 have brought egalitarianism onto a bigger stage.
The events have been in planning and promotion stages for several weeks now, but apart from a fine article in The Nation that also ran yesterday, national media coverage has been lacking. The protest at Standing Rock — a stand by Native Americans and allies against the economic interests that run over indigenous land — have also overshadowed other activist news, and it’s worth noting that the protests there are connected with prison resistance at the deepest levels. The extraction-exploitation economy uses the cheapest human labor it can find, and fights to dig energy out from all land, no matter how sacred to those connected to that land. Dig stuff up, throw people in prison, keep planet and people in a state of dependence and desperation.
The authenticity of the prison fight, and the discomforting intimacy of its demands, make it easy to pass over in our daily quest for a smooth ride from dawn to dark. But that doesn’t fully explain the pervasive public indifference to the inhumane conditions of our prisons, or to the hollowing out and economic disenfranchisement of the incarcerated, effects that, even if they were ethically defensible, would still be pragmatically counterproductive.
That indifference was on my mind as I wrote both of my Occupy.com articles on the September 9 events, and activist Ben Turk provided his perspectives on public indifference for yesterday’s article. “The state has done a good job of convincing us to reduce prisoners to whatever crime they were convicted of,” he said, “regardless of all the circumstances and unreliability of the criminal legal system.”
Someone forwarded the same questions I asked Ben Turk to two incarcerated people with deep involvement in prison demonstrations and, last night, through an intermediary, I received answers best presented in their entirety.
From the Ohio State Penitentiary, I heard from Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a prison Imam and organizer on death row, a sentence related to the death of a police officer in the 1993 uprising at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.
Matt Stannard: I think it’s a fair question to ask: What is it about prisoner resistance that causes such dissonance and reactance in the public? Many people I know have friends or family members that have been in prison. But, despite the numbers, prisoners are really at the bottom of the heap for the political priorities of even “progressive-minded” people. What are your thoughts on that?
Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan: There are several factors contributing to this “dissonance and reactance.” One of them being the overexposure of violence, crimes and wars by the national media. It is an undeniable reality that a large percentage of what the public internalizes emanates from the national media who routinely portrays prisoners, their rights, and their ongoing resistance against mass incarceration, prison slavery, and super economic exploitation, in a negative light. When one actually analyzes the colossal negative exposure that are given to prisoners by the national media, it is amazing that prisoners’ rights and their resistance stand even on the bottom of the heap when it comes to the political priorities of “progressive-minded” people.
My personal observation has confirmed that the media, especially mainstream media, devotes a considerable amount of time demonizing prisoners and characterizing them as uncaring, unsympathetic, and incorrigible monsters that deserve to be in prison for the crimes they are suspected of committing against society as well as their fellow citizens. No coverage at all is given to those innocent souls lingering in prison, and very little coverage is given to those whom were wrongfully imprisoned and whom are catching hell trying to put their nightmarish experiences behind them. I submit that if the media were to give some fair coverage as to what causes most people to commit crimes and violence in the first place, then more people would become sympathetic toward prisoners’ rights and resistance. I also submit that if society were to remove the causes to crimes–unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, drug, alcohol, and unlimited access to guns–then there would be no mass effects, viz., robbery, rape, murder, burglary, assault, property crimes, to name a few. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, robbery, rape, murder, burglary, and violence are the most often committed crimes in the United States, and this writer is certain that many of your friends and their families have been either the victims or the secondary victims of these crimes. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the people in society have become detached and desensitized toward prisoners’ rights, their resistance, and their struggles. This detachment and desensitization will only change when the people in society come into the realization that prisoners’ struggles and their struggles are actually one and the same, and that the same government that is oppressing and economically exploiting those in prison is the same government that is oppressing and economically exploiting those in society. Therefore, we should not allow our common enemy to divide and conquer us, nor to pit one group against another.
MS: How would you characterize the significance/importance of the September 9th events? Like, at the risk of sounding shallow, what would be a “win” for the cause in the context of these events?
ISAH: Events on September 9th will be extremely significant in pushing our fight to revolutionize the prison-industrial complex, and to put their corporate friends on notice that we will no longer passively accept their super economic exploitation of either us or our hardworking families. Our objective is to level the playing field by creating both the circumstances and conditions where the prisoncrats will have to compensate us for our labor and afford us the same benefits and protections as traditional workers. Moreover, our objective is to ultimately eliminate prison slavery. We are American citizens, not her slaves, and we are rising up as one and refusing to be treated as such. We will go forward in the spirit of our ancestors, as well as their allies, who fought too hard and too long in this country for their descendants to still be treated as slaves in the 21st Century.
I’ve learned early in life that nothing beats a failure, or a loser, but a person who doesn’t try. We emphatically understand that this movement to eliminate prison slavery is going to be a protracted struggle; therefore, an initial “win” will be to simply stand up to this oppressive government. But, the ultimate “win” will come when we succeed in abolishing prison slavery and mass incarceration. We will accept nothing less. These two issues are nonnegotiable. So come what may and let the wind blow wherever, for we are in this struggle for the long haul. And, that’s real talk!
I also received a message from Greg Curry, also on death row over the deaths in the ’93 Ohio uprising (as the Ohio ACLU points out, Hasan, Curry and others continue to declare their innocence and are denied face-to-face contact with media in retaliation for their argumentativeness). Curry’s message was obviously conveyed via text message, and I’ll post it that way.
I think society, in general, feel if your in prison u get what treatment u get and rumor is we have cable TV !!!microwaves etc. society also feel if we innocent the system will straighten it all out!!! so basically no one wants to see the sausage made. also every oppressed community know A GUY that BELONGS in prison, so each of us viewed through that lens, help explain why its such a disconnect . one other key point is ACTIVIST, MOSTLY, don’t take the time to get to know the prisoner they aim to help. if r children had play dates, or we married, or got matching tattoo s !(smile) then ur working from awhole other sphere! ALSO PERHAPS its time to call out the AS CALLED PROGRESSIVE, the NAACP, etc. the sameway we would call out TRUMP at a local fish fry. all should b held accountable. people and places raise funds off their so called help to prisoners. . no one should b afraid to .MEASURE THE MOVEMENT. in regards to that, by this being a .multi state prisoner driven effort it has already been successful!! the fruit of the labor may not of been tasted as of yet but this is the start of endless possibilities!!!! FREEDOm FIRST, GREG. p.s. evidence on .y case is at GREG CURRY.ORG. … one other thing for .matt… you ask what the win would look like, I should mention what the LOSE look like.. that is to say more of the same abuses, free labor forced compliance, and hopelessness amongst prisoners. that losing has a foul smell to it ,in a losers eyes there is a absence of LIFE. we NEED some VICTORY!!! GREG
If protest involves a “rhetoric of confrontation” by the powerless, which forces us to examine both our own privilege and the massive excavation of planet and living beings necessary to maintain even higher levels of privilege, and does so at the risk of great discomfort, the prison uprisings are exemplary to this. They will make many of us uncomfortable.
With great reverence and respect for those who are risking their necks behind prison walls, I conclude this by urging everyone reading to do something, confronting your discomfort and awkwardness, if you have it, and help these actions and these incarcerated human beings tomorrow. The Prisoner Resistance list provides the following possibile actions, most of which are explicitly for non-prisoners:
1. IWOC hotline: prisoners facing retaliation for strike activities can call the IWOC hotline collect anytime of the day or night at 816-866-3808. Send that number to your inside contacts, or call it yourself if you hear from someone needing help. You can also email IWOC at email@example.com.
2. The National Lawyer’s Guild has offered to file an individual “notice of claim” on behalf of each prisoner against abusive and retaliatory prisons and guards. Filing a notice of claim tells the prison that a suit could be filed and puts them on notice that abuse has happened. *It is not the actual suit*, but it gives violated prisoners time to find local lawyers. Please send details to firstname.lastname@example.org and to email@example.com. Prisoners can also reach out directly to: NLG Mass Defense, 132 Nassau Street, Rm. 922, New York, NY 10038
3. Constant pressure! IWOC has set up a phone zap system to make it easy to make all the needed anti-repression and support phone calls, and to get reminders. Please commit to spending 30 minutes every couple of days to making calls. Visit https://goo.gl/forms/v3kTjt00s6ybO2Of1 to get started.
4. Donate! Support all the great work IWOC is doing, and make sure that Sep 9 is just the beginning of a new chapter of ongoing prisoner struggles by chipping in here: https://rally.org/endprisonslavery
5. Solidarity Actions! Join the over 50 actions across the country! March, rally, organize a mass call in or letter writing campaign, drop a banner, plan support, get inspired by all the amazing plans compiled by ItsGoingDown.org here: https://itsgoingdown.org/spreading-strike-solidarity-actio…/
6. Educate! Learn more about the strike, and tell others, share it on social media through #EndPrisonSlavery, #PrisonStrike, and prisonstrike.com. Find tons of articles and information at SupportPrisonerResistance.net, where people can also endorse the strike, join this mailing list, and find organizer contacts in your area.
7. Volunteer! There are dozens of easy, but time-consuming tasks involved in maintaining this support infrastructure. If you have any interest in helping out with checking emails, maintaining websites, transcribing letters, handling media people, answering calls or mail, please please please reply to this email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll plug you in. Thank you.
Everyone reading this can at least do one of these things. Do it and see how it feels–that stretching of yourself into solidarity.
Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA.