January 27, 2009

The Walmart Virus Map

Steve Carlson from the Iraq Moratorium's national core group crashed with me while he was in town to attend his first UFPJ steering committee meeting. During his stay he told me about his part in a near picture-perfect campaign that recently kept a Walmart from being built in Spooner, WI .

I showed Steve my current favorite bit of data visualization:

Metastasization, much?

I posted a comment on the FlowingData site (where there's a better version of the visualization that, alas, I can't figure out how to embed) for the guy who did it, Nathan Yau. I wrote, wistfully

Wouldn’t it be cool to map in all the places where community opposition has blocked Walmart’s expansion plans (a couple of hundred so far, I understand)? It’d be nice to watch how the spreading infection sparks the development of anti-bodies in the country…

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January 26, 2009

Fire on the Mountain

Well, at the risk of offending all the Deadheads and Marshall Tucker fans (who would, presumably, be Tuckerfu... nah, never mind) who are loyal FotM readers, here is the first song with the "Fire on the Mountain" title that really belongs on this site.

It's by a young Nigerian woman who was born in Paris. This is from Asa's first US release. There's an "official" video, but my preference for live performance made this the pick.

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January 24, 2009

Eight Points on Gaza

1. Who won? In an immediate military sense, Israel. What do you expect? The Israeli Defense Forces made 2,500 plus F-16 and 'copter air sorties against a densely populated urban area where the only opposing armed forces possessed no anti-aircraft guns, no surface to air missiles and no planes. It is estimated that repairing the damage suffered by the already desperate inhabitants of this colossal open air prison, the ones who survived, will run over $2 billion. 80% of the agricultural infrastructure of Gaza is reported to have been been destroyed.

Beyond the horrific destruction visited to the Palestinian people, though, the Israelis appear to have picked up a stone only to drop it on their own feet. They will have an uphill slog in the battle for summation, with direct political consequences in increased isolation as sympathy and even material support from people around the world flow to Gaza.

2. Despite careful timing--to take advantage of reduced attention to news during the Christian holiday season and to finish before administration change in the US--Israeli aggression caught world attention. Some analysts have pointed out that Israel dominated the "war of words," banning foreign journalists from Gaza and working to see that discourse was laced with terms like terrorism, Islamic fundamentalists, security and the like. However, it decisively lost "the war of images" as photos and video provided by the Palestinian news agency Ramattan appeared on al-Jazeera and other news outlets, even CNN. This showed the people of the world the carnage, and the agony of those still living, and it documented IDF attacks on homes, schools, hospitals, mosques and UN facilities.

3. At the level of international government, Israel pretty much got a free ride at first, due in part to splits among Palestinians and between Arab states, and in part to US intransigence in blocking meaningful action in the UN Security Council. But while governments started out largely sitting on their hands, an unprecedented outpouring of mass anger and protest in country after country forced institutions like the news media and the international Red Cross and then governments to speak up in criticism of Israel. (Still, only Venezuela and Bolivia broke ties with Israel over the attack).

Three choice examples of the popular struggle, from Europe alone:
Norway, where over 85 pro-Palestinian protests and broader peace marches took place in 59 towns (in a country of 4.5 million!), saw the most intense rioting in recent memory in central Oslo as police tried to repress militant young protestors. (See the nifty interactive map--in English--from Frontlinjer magazine here.)

In the United Kingdom, even after the truce/ceasefire, students at sixteen (16, count 'em, 16) universities seized campus buildings around a series of anti-Israel and pro-Palestine demands. Most are still on. Students at the London School of Economics and Oxford report victories in negotiations with administrators.

In Greece, a January 9 news story from Reuters sent Greek activists and bloggers into research mode. They were able to identify a contracted shipment of GBU-39 bunker buster bombs scheduled to go from Sunny Point, NC through the port of Astakos en route to Israel. They started organizing for an embargo of US and Israeli shipping including outreach to dockworkers. By the 16th, one week later, the contract was cancelled!

4. In the United States, the astonishing power of the Israel lobby once again gave it unchallenged sway in the media and government. The Senate passed by unanimous voice vote and the House with a total of 5 courageous Nays (Dennis Kucinich, Gwen Moore, Maxine Waters, Nick Rahall and Ron Paul) a resolution hailing the aggression and blaming Hamas for all the Palestinian deaths. Candidate Obama last July signaled his stance, saying, "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." (No one in the media asked him about whether he had stolen his house at gunpoint and was keeping the former residents and their children in a concentration camp in his back yard.)

Considering the propaganda barrage and the "conventional wisdom" in the very air we breathe here, the fact that Americans generally (according to a Rasmussen poll) "are closely divided over whether the Jewish state should be taking military action against militants in the Gaza Strip" (44-41%, with 15% undecided) and that non-Republicans oppose it solidly is a remarkable development

5. A more advanced pro-justice and anti-imperialist sentiment was reflected in the high tide of demonstrations here in the US. During the fighting there were almost daily protests in NYC, the Bay Area, Boston and other cities. Even more important was the eruption of demonstrations in places that hadn't seen actions on this scale before, or at all--Lexington, KY, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Charlotte, NC, Fayetteville, AR, Sioux Falls, SD and dozens more. Additionally, progressives made good use of the blogosphere to circulate material exposing the criminal character of Israel's aggression, and explain the background to the crisis in Israel's longstanding violation of international law and humanity.

6. The core of the protests in places like NYC and the Bay Area was young Palestinians, whose rage was tempered by determination and discipline. They turned out day after day and developed powerful organizing and mobilization networks. Importantly, their principle allies were anti-Zionist Jews, full of anguish at the crimes being committed in the name of the Jewish people and at the blind support of Israel by many of their loved ones. I am not talking here about the mediagenic black-hatted Hasidim of the Neturei Karta, but young and middle-aged Americans of Jewish descent, largely pretty secular, who were brought up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Their numbers are now being augmented by a trickle of rabbis and other more religious Jews who find they cannot stomach what they see.

It is also heartening that the anti-war movement, which is at a difficult and critical juncture in the fight to end the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, refocused on Gaza. Especially noteworthy was the role of the big United for Peace and Justice coalition, which has caught flak for downplaying Palestine on occasion. In addition to protest demos and vigils, UFPJ mobilized member groups to call local talk radio shows and write letters to the editor at local papers, a key step in countering the hegemonic position of pro-Israel views in the mass media.

7. There are many problems in building support for the Palestinian cause and ending US backing. The biggest problem, if you ask me, isn't the strong support for Israel by many American Jews and Christian fundamentalists. It's not even the incredibly well-financed and organized Israel lobby. It is the view, held very broadly in this country, that: "All those people are crazy. They're religious maniacs. They've been killing each other for thousands of years and nothing anybody can do is going to stop them." This thinking will take time and effort to uproot.

On the positive side, there is evidence that the Israel lobby is overplaying its hand. When President Obama chose George Mitchell (main US negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process) as Mideast envoy, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League expressed concern: "“Sen. Mitchell is fair. He’s been meticulously even-handed, But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been ‘even handed, it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical U.S. support.” Taking a stand against fairness probably isn't the best way to argue your case in the public eye, especially when you are increasingly perceived as an amoral bully.

8. The increased exposure of Israel's crimes, the spread of protest in the US and internationally, and the high level of anger we are seeing may make a big leap in the Palestine solidarity movement possible. It has in recent years been made up of a determined and single-minded crew spread among many small and locally-based organizations, best able to respond and mobilize sympathizers when a real crisis like the attack on Gaza erupts. Now, I think there is a possibility of a leap to the level achieved by, say, the anti-apartheid movement in the '80s, a solidarity movement capable of sustained high-visibility campaigns which can show the reality behind Israel's expensive PR efforts and deal material blows to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The Palestinian movement in this country has emphasized the importance of building such a campaign around BDS--boycotts, divestment and sanctions. As with South Africa, the threat of political isolation and economic hardship can put fear in the hearts of even the most brutal oppressors. In working to swing public sentiment to our side, our biggest target is also our one of our strongest arguments--the $4 billion dollars annually the US pumps to Israel in aid, loan guarantees, "joint projects," etc., including financing 20% of Israel's entire military budget. Why should Israel, a relatively prosperous state, get over 20% of the entire US foreign aid budget when it uses the money to maintain the occupation, steal more Palestinian land, and wage war on those it oppresses?

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January 22, 2009

With POP at the Inauguration

"The honeymoon is over, there is no honeymoon; study this man's history and don't tell me you didn't know. We need to continue to speak truth to power, fight the power and remain grassroots!"

"Yes, we must hold Obama accountable, but let's remember that the new President is about what we're about, Justice."

"We're about one agenda, Justice. We have many different viewpoints among us and I respect that whether I agree or disagree. We're about unity, but we must understand and remember what government he's in charge of, what country he's leading, and we need to be wary."

While a recent CNN poll suggests that more than 66% of African Americans believe that the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for this country has been fulfilled, this "great unity" was not evident at a recent meeting of the People's Organization for Progress, a grassroots African-American community-based organization that ran seven buses to the inauguration in order to celebrate the election of Barack Hussein Obama.

The view promoted by CNN's poll is significantly different than fewer than 12 months ago. In less than a year, more than two-thirds of Black people in this country have apparently come to this conclusion. Put another way, this is like less than 13 million people uniting around a farfetched belief one day gaining more 15 million additional adherents almost overnight. What accounts for this weird conversion experience? It is hard not to conclude that this is completely based on last November's presidential election.

Last November, as the presidential election drew nearer, the People's Organization for Progress found itself in a bit of a quandary. POP is an African-American led, Black majority grassroots organization with more than a quarter-of-a-century history of struggle in Newark, NJ. POP has organized for community empowerment: for better schools, protecting healthcare, for peace in the streets, against police abuse, for reparations for the descendants of African slaves, etc. While the organization's legacy includes struggles such as major voter-registration campaigns, organizing a fuel oil cooperative, and a municipal campaign for a civilian police review board in its early days, more recently POP made history in anti-police brutality campaigns, particularly obtaining convictions of five Orange, NJ cops in the murder of Earl Faison while in custody, as well as many other instances of police abuse.

While the these campaigns defined the People's Organization for Progress in the news media as an "anti-police" organization, POP's depth is more event in the range of issues it takes up, such as "peace in the streets" (minimizing the negative impact of street gangs), multiple campaign against closing public hospitals, for reparations, and organizing as well as leading the largest anti-Iraq War coalition in the state, with more than 150 grassroots, community, religious, veterans organizations and peace group participating. In fact, building this coalition has played a role in POP expanding beyond it's original base in Newark and Essex County, N.J.

POP was in an odd position. There was massive demand to support Senator Obama's candidacy, at the same time as a significant minority of members were involved in Black activist Cynthia McKinney's militantly populist campaign. To make matters more complicated, the bylaws and constitution of the People's Organization for Progress expressly forbids endorsing candidates to elected office. In the end, POP voted in this single instance to suspend the rule against endorsements. After the election, the demand for celebration took many forms. Who can ignore the dancing in the streets, not just in Brooklyn, Raleigh-Durham and L.A., but world-wide? POP decided to run affordable buses to D.C. on Inauguration Day. Because our $40 bus tickets stood out in sharp contrast to the $80 and more everyone else was charging, we had people signing up from as far away as the Bronx to take buses out of Newark.

But POP's internal debate continues. At a recent weekly General Assembly meeting, a broad range of views continued to be heard:
"This is an African man, with a Black family. He has a wife and a mother-in-law that we know will call him out when he does wrong. Not one, not two, he has four Black women in the White House to keep him on the straight and narrow."

"As a people, we need to be elated. We've come from chattel slavery to Jim Crow, to the White House!"

"Since the beginning I've been an Obama fan!"

"I don't know how people can say these things. This is our moment! You don't here the whites criticizing their own for their shortcomings. We need to be less self-destructive…"

"I'm a teacher, and I was very interested in my students views after the inauguration; a few of them connected to 'Bush is gone,' and I understood. A few of them connected to Rev. Lowery and I found that interesting…"

In the end, from the viewpoint suggesting that any negative statements about President Obama are part of a racist plot, to those members who believe that the most limited support is evidence of having "drank the Kool-Aid", POP reflect the diversity of our movement. But clearly, "orthodox leftists" are out of touch when we believe that the grassroots enthusiasm about Obama is just another case of going for the okey-doke, of being bamboozled by "Black Faces in High Places."

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January 20, 2009

The Road Ahead As Obama Takes Office: A Green Light, A Roadblock, And A Bridge That Isn’t There

[UPDATED: Now with key links.]

With Barack Hussein Obama making history today as he takes the oath of office and a wave of optimism engulfing the country, it is a good time to review what faces us on the road ahead. (The “us” I refer to includes Reds, revolutionaries, socialists, activists, progressives, and all the rest of us who (a) believe a better world is possible and (b) know that work and struggle is the only way to get there.)

Let’s just stipulate one thing from the start. President Obama will be heading up what Karl Marx called the “executive committee for administering the affairs of the whole bourgeois class,” the modern state. He would not be where he is today if he weren’t seen as suited to the job by those whose affairs he will be administering.

But it is also undeniable that there are major differences between Obama and the last crew entrusted with that job. Things after today will be different in very important ways from what they have been over the last eight years. I want to flag three features of the road we are heading down over the coming months.

  • First, there is a green light for struggle to advance on many fronts.
  • Second, the anti-war movement, by contrast, faces a huge roadblock to moving forward.
  • Third, as far as the economy goes, the bridge is collapsing and we are on it.

A Green Light for Struggle

Since November 4, there has been a dramatic uptick in popular struggle in this country. The election of Barack Obama, and the massive mobilization of people from all parts of the US and all sectors of society that made it possible, have created a vastly different terrain of battle than that of the last 8 years. Last month, I heard “Si Se Puede” and even “Yes We Can” chants rising from within a crowd of hundreds of SDSers and other serious young militants mobilized to defend college students who were carrying out an occupation (overall successful) of the New School in NYC.

The emotional highlight of the last few months has been the victory won by another occupation. Union workers at the about-to-close Republic Windows & Doors plant in Chicago seized control of their factory and won nationwide sympathy, including a statement by President-elect Obama affirming the righteousness of their cause and ignoring the illegality of their tactics. When they won their demands, the UE members left the plant chanting, yep, “Si Se Puede” and “Yes We Can.”

Now a wave of protest against the police murder of a young Black man, erupting at times into outright rebellion, has shaken Oakland, CA. Police departments across the country are reviewing their “deadly force” policies and training--and updating their riot preparedness plans.

Any one of these can be dismissed by the cynical as an isolated particular. Let me instead suggest a look at the broadest protest movement which has broken out since the election--the battle which followed the passage of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. This ballot initiative, a little gem of rancid bigotry, not only denied same-sex couples the right to wed, but even officially “un-married” tens of thousands of lesbian and gay Californians. It was hands-down the biggest bummer of Election Night, 2008.

But look at what has ensued!

First, there were a couple of weeks of near-spontaneous demonstrations, pulled together by email, instant message and Twitter. Often thousands strong, they reached all 50 states. Many protesters quickly--and correctly--identified and focused on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) as the main target. Rallies took place in front of Mormon temples not only across California and in other modern-day Sodoms like NYC but even at LDS Central in Salt Lake City.

The effect has been profound. The demonstrations gave rise to an incredible cultural flowering in defense of gay marriage, from the movie-star-laden YouTube micro-musical “Prop 8: The Musical” (starring Jack Black as Jesus) to the tongue-in-cheek petition drive launched in Princeton, NJ for an initiative forbidding Princeton freshmen to walk on town and campus sidewalks.

Major media outlets and think tanks undertook investigations which showed that, just as protesters charged, LDS money and machinations were at the center of the Prop 8 campaign. Boycotts of tourism in Utah and of Mormon firms, as well as other businesses run by Prop 8 backers, are underway. Members have quit the church or spoken out publicly against its embrace of bias.

On the political front, Obama has felt the heat, especially after his inaugural invitation to Prop 8 supporter Rev. Rick Warren triggered a spasm of revulsion even among his loyalists. One response to the pressure has been his unexpected and unequivocal pledge to move rapidly to end the Armed Force’s homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

To grasp the new mood of struggle, try and imagine the scene if Proposition 8 had passed during the grim 2000 or 2004 elections. The anger would have been swamped in the overall angst and depression. The flowering of protest and culture would never have taken place. Most important, we would not have the current mood, the overwhelming optimism that the passage of Prop 8 is just a bump in the road which will soon be behind us.

A Roadblock for the Anti-War Movement

The exception to this generally very favorable climate for struggle is unfortunately a crucial one: the wars of aggression the US government is locked into in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The anti-war movement has been the single most powerful opposition force in this country during the last six and a half years. The fact that 70% plus of the American people want the war over with, and pronto, owes much to the tireless and thankless work of tens of thousands of anti-war activists. In fact, the coalescing of broad popular sentiment against the war was perhaps the single most important factor in the Democratic Party’s 2006 victories and 2008 landslide.

The problem facing the anti-war movement now is a grimly ironic one. Despite its enormous contributions to the changed political atmosphere in this country, the movement’s demands --Stop the War! Bring The Troops Home Now!--seem today most unlikely to be met by the Obama administration.

The brutal underlying contradiction remains what it has been since the invasion of Iraq--the US ruling class cannot afford to stay in Iraq and they cannot afford to leave. To stay is to extend an insanely costly occupation indefinitely, in the face of popular hatred, with chaos always around the corner and the sketchiest prospects for a stable hegemony. To leave is to give up the prospect of a US hand on the world’s second largest oil spigot and to accept a drastic defeat for US military power and geostrategy.

We are left with two unknowns about Obama’s intentions regarding these wars, and one known.

Unknown #1 is how far he will go toward pulling out of Iraq. Obama’s goal, in practice, appears to be to finesse the contradiction, by pulling out a majority of the US troops and reducing the combat role of the tens of thousands who will remain. This risks further undercutting US ability to dictate what happens in Iraq, while leaving US troops, bases and other assets more vulnerable to insurgent attack or the re-eruption of civil war between Iraqi forces.

Unknown #2 is how far he will go in honoring his pledge to win in Afghanistan. The pledge was made, and repeated incessantly, to make Obama look tough and highlight the Bush administration’s failure to hunt down al-Qaeda’s leadership. Still, Afghanistan doesn’t have the same strategic importance to the US as Iraq and there are excuses aplenty to step back--corruption in Kabul, NATO allies pulling out, the need to conserve funds and rebuild the military.

The thing which we do know is a simple fact of political life: whatever his intentions, inside of six months, these wars will be Obama’s wars, not Bush’s wars.

It is remotely possible that he will actively try to end them both, but there has been no sign of this since Election Day. Appointees of his in the State Department,the national security apparatus and the military are all publicly saying that a too-rapid withdrawal from Iraq is risky and impractical. Continuing the occupation of Iraq or even dragging out its end will continue the bleeding, actual and economic, there and here.

Moving to double down in Afghanistan threatens major catastrophe. There are reasons that Afghanistan is called the Graveyard of Empires--25 centuries worth of reasons.

All of this leaves the anti-war movement off balance, with hard choices before it.

Should the anti-war movement attack Obama now, or not? There are some in the liberal wing of the movement who, in a touching combination of wishful thinking and denial, want to give him a long honeymoon as a chance to follow through on his promises. Most activists are far more skeptical.

Very sensibly, though, most are also reluctant to launch an all-out assault on him and risk alienating the great swaths of his ardent supporters who so far still believe that he will bring the occupation of Iraq to a close, who will keep believing it so long as troop levels are falling, and who don’t know much about Afghanistan.

With Iraq less and less visible on the country’s radar--none of the Big Three teevee networks even has a Baghdad correspondent any more--some argue that we should seek to end the war indirectly by directing our main attack on the bloated military budget. I think this is a mistake and plays into the hands of those, including those in the new administration, who want Iraq off the radar. People need reminding that there are still 142,000 US troops in Iraq, not help forgetting it.

In my view, the best option is to keep on keepin’ on--continue to protest, step up outreach to our friends and neighbors and rattle the cages of elected officials, especially when appropriation-for-occupation time rolls around again. As Iraq becomes Obama’s war, Obama will increasingly be the one the people hold responsible for its continuation. Even if he should actually begin substantial troop reductions, as promised, that doesn’t oblige the movement to drop the demand that all the troops be brought home. Now.

Should we raise the profile of Afghanistan in anti-war work? The anti-war movement is playing catch-up, in a sense, after keeping its focus rather strictly on Iraq. But with the situation changing rapidly, the occupation’s outlook “grim” (according to the latest national Security estimate) and the promise of the US force there being doubled, to 60,000+ this year, we have no choice. And any step by Obama to escalate the US occupation of Afghanistan or to maintain the deadly status quo there should be opposed directly, with all the vigor possible, as education around that occupation is stepped up.

No Detour Past the Collapse of the Economy

I’ve had a little trouble with my roadway metaphors for this one. I thought about the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis (with overtones of The Bridge To Nowhere), Given all the rebuild-the-infrastructure talk, it seemed a natural.

But what the new administration is facing today is a collapsed global financial system and a rapidly crumbling global economy.

In other words, the actual fact is that we are, all of us, sitting on that metaphorical bridge right now while it comes apart beneath us. Furthermore, it is unclear where a rebuilt bridge might (or should) wind up anchored.

The first effort at shoring up the bridge was a failure on an epic scale. Trillions have been spent to bail out the banks and get credit flowing again. Instead, Citibank and Bank of America have just followed AIG back to Uncle Sam’s free money window for seconds. Globally, whole countries are insolvent or facing bankruptcy.

The most intriguing thing about the Obama administration during the transition months was his immediate post-election pledge to create 2 million new jobs (by late December bumped up to 3 million) by 2010. How? “We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels; fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

This is interesting indeed. It suggests that some in the new administration have concluded what most economists and commentators are still eager to deny, at least in public: we are in a depression! That’s the only reason to contemplate adopting a massive industrial policy/public works program like this.

But if the US (along with the rest of the world) is already the early stages of a full-fledged depression, this is desperately insufficient. Employers are sloughing off between half a million and a million jobs every month these days. 3,000,000 jobs won’t stop the hemorraging, let alone reverse the trend. It does, however, set the precedent for further government jobs programs.

However, the other major steps the new administration has announced to deal with the economic meltdown will only deepen it, and place the burden on working people, now and for generations to come.

First, Obama’s people pledge to continue the doomed effort to rescue the banks by throwing more money at them, although this time trying to figure out how to make them start lending. This just won’t work. The reason the banks need more money is to avoid having to admit that they have gone broke. (All of the UK’s banks are “technically insolvent,” the Royal Bank of Scotland reported yesterday.) They are holding, and hiding, so much “bad paper”--unsaleable toxic assets like CDOs and other fancy speculative instruments--that they need to hoard cash. They certainly won’t loan it to other banks they suspect or know are in the same boat, or to consumers who are themselves already up to their ears in debt and at risk of layoff, or to businesses which depend on the spending of those consumers.

Second, Obama’s appointees are trying to jack up consumer spending as the only fast way to break the meltdown’s downward spiral. Any cut or rebate for regular taxpayers (even with its impact boosted by crude oil prices now less than a quarter what they were only months ago) is likely to be used to pay down debt or hoarded as a shield against bad times, not pumped into reviving the cycle of compulsive purchases of unneeded stuff that fueled the credit bubble in the first place.

Third, all of this can only be funded by trillion dollar deficits “for years to come”, as Obama put it. This amounts to putting off the day of reckoning into the future, when all the IOUs the Treasury issues now to finance this “rescue” of the economy have to be paid off by our children and our children’s children. And that’s assuming that buyers can even be found for all the debt the new president is talking about issuing. If you are an investor from China or the United Arab Emirates or the US, for that matter, how enticing does this proposition sound: Loan us trillions so we can throw it at banks which will hoard it to keep staggering around a little bit longer before going belly up?

Obviously government policies can make an enormous difference in how deep the depression goes, how long it lasts and who bears the burden. What it cannot do is bypass the depression.

Look at the last two months. Broke consumers, many with credit cards canceled or limits reduced, sat on their wallets during the holiday shopping seasons. Sales dropped to their lowest since figures were first published, in 1969. Naturally a wave of small store and chain outlet closings is underway, and soon more big chains will be following Circuit City into the boneyard. That means more broke unemployed folks, of course. It also means that the highly leveraged commercial real estate market is tanking fast. That’s the folks who brought you all those malls now starved for customers and covering empty shop windows with brown butcher paper.

And guess what? All the commercial loans and mortgages the developers and management firms took on have long since been bundled, split into tranches, overvalued and sold off to eager banks, hedge funds and speculator--just like residential mortgages. Now there’s another pile of steaming toxic waste which has to be kept hidden in the vaults of the banks. And another turn of the downward spiral takes shape.

From the standpoint of the ruling class, whether they grasp it or not, two things have to happen for this depression to end. First, the global financial system has to be rebuilt from the ground up, and that can only happen on the rubble of the huge, flat-broke banks currently acting as parasites on national economies the world over. Isn't dread that this will happen the best explanation of why desperate financial firms, bleeding money and with stock prices tanking, opted to become the biggest donors to Obama’s $50 million Inauguration?

Second, the huge overproduction--of consumer goods and of means of production--has to be destroyed. That’s what’s starting to happen in the auto industry right now. It won’t be pretty and it won’t be over soon.

From the point of view of everybody outside the ruling class, this gives us one task, crystal clear. Resist! Every single bid to dump the crisis on ordinary working people must be resisted with determined struggle, preferably of the pitchfork and torch variety. Plant takeovers and organizing drives in the workplace. The pillorying of cut-minded local officials like Philadelphia’s mayor when he tried to close eleven libraries. Campus protests like the coordinated demonstrations in the California higher education system. Hounding Wall Street bigwigs when they dare to appear in public.

The watchword of the Obama campaign was “Hope.” Well, if all we do now is sit back and hope, we are going to find ourselves hoeing one very hard row.

Hope will not make President Barack Hussein Obama and the Democratic Congress (much less Republican congresscritters) turn their backs on the banks and corporations--on their lobbyists, on their campaign donations, on their bought-and-paid-for media, on the think-tanks and “experts” they fund. Only struggle, and the fear it engenders in their hearts, will do that.




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January 15, 2009

From The Frontlines In Oakland: "Don't Shoot!"

[Fire on the Mountain is pleased to offer this report by a long-time Oakland resident about the community's ongoing response to the police murder of Oscar Grant.]

New Year's Day

On the early morning of January 1, I happened to be in the Emergency Room of Oakland General. Word came in that there had been a disturbance on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train at Fruitvale Station and patients were expected. The first ambulance brought in a guy who had leapt from the platform when BART police stopped a crowded train and started pulling young male “troublemakers” off. His legs were fucked up.

Then the paramedics brought in Oscar Grant. He was still alive and talking. Techs were telling him "Hang in there, hang in there," as they tried to reinflate the lungs collapsed by a police bullet and to re-transfuse the blood he was losing--fast. His heart rate collapsed and CPR brought him back so he could be wheeled into the Operating Room, but the internal bleeding couldn't be stanched in the OR, and Oscar Grant died.

There's one thing I want to highlight here. When Oscar Grant was brought in, he had a deep hole in his back, the entry wound, but on the other side you could actually see the bullet pressing out against the skin of his chest from the inside like a big pimple. It was removed on the spot. (ER personnel don't often go around fishing out bullets, unless it's life-threatening--that's TV stuff--but this one took only a quick incision to remove.) The slug was flattened, completing the picture of someone who had been shot in the back while pressed right up against a very hard, flat surface.

Anger Builds

I've been asked how come it took almost a week for the first massive protests to erupt in Oakland. I'm not sure of all the factors, but one thing is that it took a while for the videos taken by other BART passengers on the stopped train, using their cell phones, to circulate on the news and YouTube. It was in the news that the police had tried to confiscate them, but there were too many. In one of the videos, the scene of Oscar Grant's murder is framed by other cell-phone cameras being held up.

As the story became clearer, people recalled earlier BART police outrages and got madder and madder. The cops' defense, which tried to suggest that Officer Johannes Mehserle hadn't intended to kill Oscar Grant and may have accidentally drawn his handgun instead of a Taser, went nowhere. The videos were powerful testimony. One woman I know, who deals with cops professionally every day and tends to be way too sympathetic to them, tried to tell us that the videos showed the cop in “a Taser stance" and wound up leaving the room amid mocking comments.

When a protest demanding justice was called by the family at the Fruitvale Station on January 7, things began to pop. I wasn't able to attend, but friends and co-workers did. This is where the main slogan of the protests, Oscar Grant's plea on the BART platform, “Don't Shoot!” was adopted by the community.

That rally, numbering in the thousands, become a night of rebellion, as folks finally felt they had a chance to light up the cops. Several hundred young folks, white anarcho types in bandana masks and Black youths in roughly equal numbers, took the lead. There's video of the night, including a burning police car and Mayor Ron Dellums getting, let's say, a mixed response from angry Oakland residents as he tries to calm down a bunch of folks who aren't feeling at all calm.

The Struggle Continues

Yesterday, after another week had passed, my son and I attended the latest rally, called by the community-based Committee Against Police Executions (CAPE). It started at City Hall at 4 PM. Even though the news had reported that Johannes Mehserle had been arrested in Nevada on a fugitive warrant on murder charges, around 2000 people showed up. The talk from the platform did emphasize the need for “peace” but it echoed also the mood in the mood in the crowd, which was very angry. A letter from the mother of NYC police victim Sean Bell was read, and a list of names of victims of police murder called out, each answered by a crowd roar of “Don't Shoot.”

This time, Mayor Dellums had his rap down, though. He declared, and I think he's right, that the Mehserle arrest was a victory for the people's struggle. Previous killer cops in the BART system had walked away, but Oakland's anger had produced an arrest. Further, it would have to continue to insure a trial and justice, and to pursue other goals, like civilian review of the BART police force.

The mayor was followed by hiphop legend Too Short, a proud Oakland loyalist, who repeated Dellums' pitch that the crowd break up peacefully. There was a huge police mobilization to underline the call to disperse. Still, folks were not ready to go home quietly. As dark fell, many of the demonstrators, including a big contingent from the grassroots Black bike repair and customizing subculture called “scrapers,” headed out for the county building to keep the protest going.

Over the years, I've been to a lot of demonstrations, and often it feels like a duty. We are there because it is the right thing to do. This felt different, I want to say exhilarating,, although that doesn't quite catch the determination in the feeling. But as I left, I said to myself, “Where this goes, we will see. But this is the start of something, I can tell.”

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January 14, 2009

Neil Young on the Meltdown: "Fork in the Road"

Well, Neil Young screwed up bad once, back in the 1980s, slipping Reaganwards, but he's been pretty much on the one ever since.

Apologies for the video--don't like 'em much, myself. Still, check out ol' Neil's first take on the economic meltdown. It's a throwaway from a recent recording session, not as composed as his savage "Let's Impeach The President" which ripped Bush in 2006, but that's yesterday's news, and like Neil, we'd best be looking ahead.

I've got hope,
 but you can't eat hope. 
I'm not done. 
Not giving up. 
Not cashing in.
 Too late.

There's a bailout coming but it's not for you.
 There's a bailout coming but it's not for you.
 It's for all those creeps hiding what they do.

Neil Young - Fork In The Road

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January 10, 2009

Rescuing Capitalism: Second Time as Farce

With unemployment skyrocketing, many of us have been saying that President-Elect Obama might do well to look to the 1930s Works Progress Administration as a model. Unfortunately he seems determined to give "job creation" money to the private sector, which will skim 30% off the top in profit and administrative overhead before anybody gets a job.

But guess who is looking to emulate the WPA: Saks Fifth Avenue's marketing department. Yes, the artist hired by the high-end retailer to design its new shopping bags, Shephard Fairey, says that he's been looking at WPA agitprop posters as an inspiration, "to lift morale."

[The Saks gig has doubtless already lifted Fairey's morale. He is the hot graphic artist in the country now after the success of his iconic Obama Hope poster, the main symbol of the campaign. FotM has discussed Fairey before, here.]

This was the subject on an article in the January 8 Style section of the New York Times entitled "Consumers of the World Unite." I am recapping it here because I suspect that few readers of this blog (with the exception of myself) avidly follow the "Styles" section--though perhaps this is vicious stereotyping on my part.

The article also notes that Saks' spring marketing features images lifted from 1920s advertisements for state-run department stores in the Soviet Union, and that their new slogan "Want It!' uses lettering based on the graphic designs of the Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko. It also describes images featuring models in socialist realist poses, with raised fists. The vice president for marketing at Saks is quoted admitting that "What we do every day, really, is propaganda."

Fairey, the designer, disclaims political implications of the advertising images, saying everyone knows "this is just a way of getting attention." I am not sure of the deeper cultural-political meaning of this borrowing except to say that smart capitalists and their propagandists seem to realize that, at this point, capitalism is more palatable if it makes itself look like anything but…capitalism.

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