Monday, June 17, 2013

A Culture of Dissent Or Democracy 451

I'm sad. I'm sad because I'm worried. I'm worried because the world seems to be on fire and we are, for the most part, just watching it burn. All over the world people are rising up, but where are we? Take Turkey for instance, what started as a demonstration by a handful of activists to save a public park organically morphed into essentially a popular anti-authoritarian movement. What began as "save the park" became "save the country." The authorities, in turn, escalated the battle. The police brought in tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and chemical cocktails along with their general brutality to the park. The result has been astounding. Even today some Turkish unions are calling for a General Strike to check the power of Erdogan and his government. It all started with a few people willing to defend a park.

The revolutionary spirit which laid dormant for decades and centuries was reignited in the Middle East in 2011 with the Arab Spring before quickly jumping over the Atlantic to drive the fervor of Occupy Wall Street. Last night I read about demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro that turned violent when police bum rushed peaceful activists who were simply protesting bus fare hikes. Today I read about Mexico City and Greece where peaceful protestors were also gathering and being repressed. Who knows who I will read about tomorrow. A culture of dissent seems to have manifested in the global culture, but what are we doing here in America? 

In Turkey, their uprising started to save a park; In Rio, bus far hikes; In Greece, they are demonstrating against austerity and cutbacks. While I realize that the socio-politico-economic situations in each of these countries is far more complex than the broad strokes with which I am painting them, it has been something relatively small that has ignited the passions of the people and police brutality that has exacerbated the struggle into a People's Movement. Here at home we have a military and domestic police state many many many times the size we need that is paid for with our tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations and private interest buy our elections and lobby for favors while paying no taxes. Meanwhile, the everyday citizen is forced between working 2-3 jobs at minimum wage and abject poverty. Oh and by the way, all of your communications are subject to search and seizure by your government. These are all serious problems that affections millions every day and are just the tip of the iceberg. What is it going to take for us to pour into the city centers and demand our rights?

Here in Philadelphia we have a plethora of local problems, not least of which is the school situation. The banksters stole hundreds of millions of dollars from our school district which left it with a budget crisis. What was the city's response? Close 23 schools. Meanwhile, there are 400 prison beds opening up outside Philly from the $400 million dollar prison expansion. If the kids can't go to school I guess Harrisburg felt like they needed somewhere to go and for those corporate cronies prison is the best option. Then let's talk about hunger, homelessness, poverty, and our crumbling infrastructure on top of the systematic oppression that has existed for so many for centuries. The list goes on and on. We do not live in a Utopian future where our "leaders" rule wisely while we feast on the byproducts of our greatness. No, inequality has gotten so bad in this country that we let the rich and powerful push our communities to the margins to fade into the background while the Fat Cats feast in their corporate towers. Let me ask you: what do you think they would have done in Turkey, Greece, or Rio under these circumstances? I feel pretty damn safe saying that they would not settle for working groups, rallies, and Facebook posts. I am inclined to believe that they would take to the square and (dare I say?) occupy it until their demands are met. 

We do not do that here anymore though. Part of me understands: people have got kids, jobs, and have to put food on the table. Not everyone can gather in the public square 24/7 to provide a space for the people to voice their dissent, but what about those of us who can? What are we doing? I had a beer with some folks today to talk about a potential action on July 4th and our visions were quite different. One of us wanted to put on a creative action outside of a public target; one of us wanted to do some clandestine fun protests to draw attention to issues and share the stories on Facebook; and one of us wanted to try to get everyone and their mother down to a park for a talk. The end of all three conversations was the same: "I am interested in the prospect but I don't want to do the organizing work." We all three are tired of the complacency and want to act, but we a) don't believe that we could muster any amount of people for any kind of action in the current American political climate and b) don't want to put in the foot work to get it done, even if we did believe. United we can make a stand, but divided we will most certainly continue to fall. So, I ask you: what hope do we have?

"Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die." I first heard that phrase while listening to a Gospel song back in my Church-going days. The premise of the song is that everybody likes the idea of going to heaven, living in the new world, or a resurrected pure lifestyle, but they don't like selling all of their possessions and giving the money to the poor, laying down their life for their enemy, or forgiving each others' trespasses. In short everybody wants to be rewarded, but nobody wants to put in the hard work. Is this where we have come to in this country? Has all hope of popular democracy faded? Have we burnt ourselves out in a flame of occupied glory? Or is there something else? 

Is there a bright new day on the horizon? What will it take for us to leave everything behind? What kind of conditions do we, our friends, family, and neighbors have to live in before we are fed up enough to fight back? When will rallies turn into revolutions? I don't ask this with any sort of pride. I am honestly humbled to ask such a question because there are so many people who give their lives to this work, but I was first humbled by a capitalistic military mechanism designed to enslave me, you, and everyone you and I care about. Now, I am angry. I am angry and sad. I am angry at my country and I am sad that the vast majority of us are watching it burn. Somebody please tell me what we are going to do. Better yet, meet me in the park and let's talk about it. Anybody want to join me?

Monday, June 10, 2013

If There Is Hope, It Lies In The Proles

This is the transcript of a speech I gave at Independence Mall on 6.9.2013

I want to start out and acknowledge how much of a privilege it is to stand before you today. I was born into a world where the way I look gives me certain privileges; those privileges extend from being able to know that I am always at the top of socio-political chain. For centuries men who looked like me have built an empire for the benefit of the rich on the back of the working, poor, and people of color. The simple fact that I am able to stand before you today is a privilege denied to many for fear of reprisal from the police state. I, like many of you, did not ask for this privilege but either God or fate decided that I should wear this skin, but we must bear that responsibility, for better or for worse. With great power comes great responsibility and that responsibility is what has brought us all here today.

George Orwell is his monumental work 1984 burned forever into our minds the fear that truth could be so distorted such that we would accept lies as the truth and the truth as lies: War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. At first glance these ideas seem paradoxical. Such ideas can redact mistakes, change the meaning of words, and even rewrite history. In the story Big Brother, the personified state, had cameras on every street corner, microphones in every room, and eyes on everything written. As a result, the people lived in fear of being found out to be what is called a thought criminal. A thought criminal was someone who disagreed with the state. Even the mere utterance of dissent was punishable by death. Big Brother’s omnipresence was his omnipotence.

While Big Brother’s presence in the cities was absolute there was a contingent of resistance. They were called the Proles. Students of history will note that this is shorthand for Marx and Engels’ proletariat, the working class. They were described as such as well. While the elite of Big Brother’s machine dined upon the finest food and drank the finest wine, these resistors lived in abject poverty, so marginalized by the machine that they were driven from the public square to exist in pockets of poverty away from the “safety and security” of Big Brother’s bosom. Out of sight out of mind, they say. When the Proles got out of hand they even could expect to be bombed in their sleep. Sound familiar?

1984 is an extreme example of a dystopian future. When I read this book in College I thought to myself, naively in hindsight, that things could never get that bad. Never could a state have total access to my emails, my phone calls, and my thoughts. Never could the US government, a supposed beacon of liberty and democracy for the world, imprison and torture one of its own for telling the truth. Never could a democratic government even attempt to justify raining death down from the sky on its own people. I was wrong.

I think we all knew that the state was spying on us, but the recent revelations of the scope and audacity of the government’s spy program is infuriating. In the world of 1984, the people were painfully aware of Big Brother’s presence. “Big Brother is Watching You”, the posters said on every corner surrounding the face of their crypto-fascist benevolent leader. In the world of 2013, at least up until very recently, our crypto-fascist benevolent leaders are much more subtle. They are not so audacious as to reveal their motives. They operate in secret, in the dark, where their lies will not be exposed. Thankfully, we have heroes committed to telling the truth.

In Orwell’s classic we were thankfully provided with a hero. Winston Smith was just another cog in the machine. He was responsible for protecting state secrets. He was one of the worker bees who was responsible for rewriting history to fit Big Brother’s narrative till one day he decided he had had enough. He went home and wrote in his journal “Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother” over and over again. His rage became all consuming. He started traveling to the areas where the Proles lived, sought out comrades, and started to live an alternative life until the chance came to join the resistance. (A theme running throughout the book is an underground resistance that operates in secret). For Winston the chance never came. He was arrested, tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and brainwashed into believing that Big Brother was reprimanding him for his own good.

We have our own Winston Smith, but our Winston has not caved under the pressure of his torturers or his solitary confinement. His name is Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning, like the hero of our story, was charged by his superiors with hiding the truth and rewriting history. However, instead of hiding information away like Winston, Bradley did what any person of good conscious would do- he exposed the truth. What was Big Brother’s response? In both cases our heroes were taken and locked away. Like Winston, Bradley was arrested, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for refusing to hide the truth. He has been beaten, humiliated, and dehumanized for refusing to rewrite history.

One of the last lines of 1984 is a picture of Winston sitting in a diner watching Big Brother on TV. “He smiled and looked up. He loved Big Brother.” Our story, however, will not end this way. Our hero will not cave. He has endured and continues to endure years of inhumane treatment at the hands of Big Brother, yet still he remains strong. Just last weekend hundreds of us gathered in support of Bradley in Fort Meade, MD where his court martial is taking place. People came from the horizons and margins of the northeast to show their support and solidarity for our Winston. Because our Winston does not love Big Brother. He loves the people of the world living under the boot heel of imperial oppression and is currently suffering for it. Bradley’s livelihood is on the line right now. Why? Because Big Brother wants to keep his secrets and steal yours and mine.

Thankfully, the story does not end here. There is another line in 1984 that bears worth mentioning: “If there is hope, it lies in the Proles.” If you’ll recall the Proles were the everyday people who refused to live under the eye and out of the poisoned breadbasket of Big Brother. As a result, they suffered. They went hungry. Their homes, businesses, blocks, and neighborhoods were derelict at best and firebombed at worst. But behind the cold dead eyes of oppression an idea remained, and ideas are bullet proof. The idea was resistance. It was almost impossible to find the resistance in 1984 because they had to stay so well hidden to stay out of Big Brother’s sight, but I would bet you that behind every eye is Proleville you would find a hope. A hope that resistance was real and that they were not alone.
We gather in public today to express that very idea, resistance, and to affirm to all who would gather with us: you are not alone. Revolution will not come today. It probably won’t come tomorrow or the week after that, but as long as Big Brother spies on us, censors us, and continues to chip away our human rights, our discontent will continue to be kindled and fanned until it erupts into the fires of rebellion.

We are the discontent. We are the truth tellers. For if it is not us, then who? If not now, then when? How many rights must we be stripped of before we stand our ground, even in the face of beatings, prison, torture, and loss? Must we stand naked before the tribunal of our conscious in a world that we let manifest before we wake up to the dangers of a surveillance state? I pray that day never comes.

My favorite theologian Bishop N.T. Wright, speaking of the work of Jesus, said of him that he did not fight the battle with the enemies sword for that would have been to lose the war in principle. Likewise, we must remain vigilant, and if our democratic rights are not affirmed and upheld, then we bear the responsibility to resist. Emails will be taken; Phone calls will be recorded; People will be taken; And some of us will bear the blunt force of the state, as so many of us have before. But we must, like Bradley, endure their schemes, persevere through their suppression, and resist their order.
We are gathered here to protest the surveillance state. We already live in a surveillance state. Some of our brothers and sisters are living in a brave new world, content to be lied to and pacified by corporate media and celebrity culture, but you and I are Proles, living under the constant gaze of Big Brother’s PRISM colored eyes. But if there is hope, it lies in the Proles and as long as resistance lies in our hearts and we cultivate community, we can and must overcome.

George Orwell once said, “In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” We, with the shared heart of Bradley Manning and all the victims of senseless violence committed in the name of the Empire, are here to tell the truth which means that we are here to commit revolutionary acts. This is a scary thing. Not everyone has the capacity or privilege to stand at the enemies’ gate and speak truth to power, but those of us who do have the capacity have the responsibility to remain steadfast. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We do not have the lobby, the money, or the power, but if there is hope it lies in Proles. We are all Winston Smith. We are all Bradley Manning. And we have gathered here today because we all feel morally compelled to resist. First they will ignore us. Then they will laugh at us. Then we’ll fight back. But then… we’ll win.

Down with the surveillance state and free Bradley Manning!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Continuing Saga of the People V. Wells Fargo

Two weeks ago thousands of Philadelphia public school students walked out of their classrooms to head to City Hall and to the school district headquarters with one demand: more funding for education. The budget deficits and poor priorities of city government have caused the city to close 23 schools with more cuts coming to music, art, sports, after school activities, and community centers, among a host of other public service cuts in the coming years. When asked “why?” the local and state government always cry “austerity!” and “cutbacks!” Why? We know where the money is; We just need to go get it back.
Between 2003 and 2009, 107 school districts and 86 local governments in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania entered into interest rate swap deals with some of the power house banks on Wall Street: Wells Fargo (then Wachovia), Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, among others. All together those districts and governments tied up $14.9 billion dollars in the swaps. Philadelphia was one of those school districts. During the life of those loans they lost $331 million in interest and cancellation fees. That’s on top of the net loss of around $71 million that they lost over the life of the swaps in fees and services.
 Last year the Philadelphia school system had a $629 million dollar budget deficit. That deficit has caused schools to close, teachers to be laid off, and cultural programs being removed from the remaining schools’ curricula. In 2008 the big banks received $700 billion (with essentially a $3.5 trillion buffer in addition loans being offered) in rescue funds from the federal government while our city was losing tens of millions in interest to the banks. While our schools were starved the fat cats were feasting on our losses. In the third quarter of 2012 Wells Fargo alone posted $4.9 billion in profits. Where did that money come from? It came from starving schools systems and city governments who are now faced with a choice: default on their debt or cut essential services. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein earned $21 million last year. Where did that money come from? In part, from the Philadelphia school district.
These huge megabanks were not born in Philadelphia (indeed, they were never born at all). They weren’t even conceived here. Wells Fargo is a west coast bank. Bank of America has its base of operations in North Carolina (for low corporate tax rates[,] mind you). These banks are more than strangers. They are shady strangers with a gun protruding from their suit pocket. If they are going to operate their global mob operation within our city limits then the least they can do is pay for it. When asked“why?” tell them it was for the single mother who works two jobs whose son is on the street because there was no funding for the community center. Tell them it’s for the next Mozart who just had her clarinet taken from her because there was no funding for instruments. Tell them its for the young man who could finally make the Sixers great again but can’t play because he has to work a job and go to an underfunded school because he has to take care of his sister because his mother can’t afford her medicine and their groceries. Tell them it is for the People.
When will these vampires have enough of sucking the lifeblood out of our families and communities with their racist predatory lending, unjust forecloses, and gambling on Wall Street? How long is it going to take our leaders to recognize the connections between austerity-minded politicians, the greed of corporate lobbyists, and the satanic temple that is the banking industry? And when are we going to get our retribution?
The city should start by taking every public dollar out of Wells Fargo as councilman Kenney’s has proposed. Then they should demand their money back from the cancellation fees and, if they are brave, the damages from the manipulation of LIBOR rates and subsequent losses incurred on interest payments. Then they should pass a Robin Hood tax on big banks: put a price on every transaction that banks enter into with the city and charge them an occupancy tax.
The connection between the greed of the big banks, our current budgetary plight, and the educational crisis is obvious. The question is what are we going to do about it.