Tag Archives: Occupy Wall Street

Mattia Gallo: Interview with a Russian Comrade

The following interview with our comrade Ilya Matveev was made by Mattia Gallo and originally published in Italian as “La Russia ai tempi di Occupy.” Our thanks to her and Ilya for their permission to republish it in English here.

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What is the Russian Socialist Movement? When were you founded? Who are its members?

The Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) is the product of a merger between two far-left groups: Vpered (Forward) and Socialist Resistance. It was founded in March 2011. Both groups were heirs to the Trotskyist tradition. Vpered was affiliated with the Mandelist USFI. However, the RSM is not explicitly Trotskyist: it was modeled as a broad leftist force capable of uniting the non-sectarian far left into the nucleus of a future radical mass party. In part, it was modeled on the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), although obviously on a smaller scale.

Currently, we have several organizations in different Russian cities. The largest RSM groups are in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kaluga. We have a smaller presence in Novosibirsk, Samara, and other places, as well as an affiliated group in Perm. Overall, we have some two hundred to three hundred members.

The Kaluga group is probably the strongest and most coherent. There is an industrial cluster in this city, and it harbors a rare thing in Russia, an independent trade union, in this case, a local of the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (the ITUA, which is also present in Petersburg and the Petersburg area). Our members in Kaluga are union organizers, autoworkers, and radical youth. The RSM have taken part in strikes and in worker self-organization in Kaluga. In Petersburg, RSM also consists of union workers and activists, but its ranks also include radical intellectuals and artists. In Moscow, the RSM is mostly made up of intellectuals, and it has become increasingly popular in radical artistic circles.

Generally, despite some internal problems, RSM is slowly becoming a rallying point for the radical left in Russia, due to its open, non-sectarian character and strong intellectual foundations. We try and play a role in the trade union movement and various social movements, to bring radical politics into these milieux, not, however in typical sectarian “entryist” fashion, but by really working with people, talking to them, getting to know them. We are also working on developing a coherent leftist theory for our situation. Obviously, our success is limited, but at least that is what we recognize as our goal.

In today’s very difficult circumstances, the RSM is very much focused on defending political prisoners in Russia. One of them, Konstantin Lebedev, is a member of our organization. Another RSM member, Filipp Dolbunov (Galtsov), is currently seeking political asylum in Ukraine. The RSM is a driving force behind the international solidarity campaign against political persecution in Russia.

Apart from that major concern, we also work with independent unions and social movements, especially against neoliberal policies in education and health care, and in the environmental and feminist movements, as well as the anti-fascist movement. We organize various cultural activities, in part through our affiliated independent publisher, the Free Marxist Press. We publish a newspaper called the Socialist, and run a web site

When and how did Occupy Moscow begin? What things happened in Moscow? What demands did its activists make, and what difficulties did they face?

On May 6, 2012, a mass opposition rally in Moscow was brutally dispersed by riot police. The police violence was unprecedented, and in a twisted Stalinist move our government afterwards started arresting people for taking part in a “riot,” thus setting the stage for a latter political show trial. Still, after the events at the rally, a minority of the marchers, around a thousand people, refused to go home and began a game of “catch me if you can” with the police on the streets of Moscow. This group of protesters moved around the city, trying to outmaneuver the police. This lasted for two or three days. Finally, the group settled in a kind of permanent camp near the monument to the Kazakh poet Abay on a small square in downtown Moscow. People kept coming, and the police didn’t disperse the camp, probably because the new protest tactics disoriented them. That is how Occupy Moscow or Occupy Abay began.

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It should be noted that some leftist activists had tried to import Occupy tactics before these events, organizing small “assemblies.” The Spanish Indignados and the American OWS were of course important and inspiring for us. However, we didn’t really believe something like that could happen in Moscow—and yet it happened.

Occupy Abay was an OWS-style camp on a small square, with a thousand to two thousand people in attendance daily, and some fifty to a hundred people staying on site in sleeping bags overnight. It was such a fresh experience of self-organization beyond traditional leftist and social scenes! Leftists, including RSM members, and anarchists were truly energized by what was happening right before their eyes. Leftist activists grouped in a European-style “info point” on the square with literature and leaflets. We organized a series of workshops for camp participants on unions, social movements, and leftist politics. The RSM began publishing a daily Occupy Abay leaflet, which quickly became a kind of official newspaper for the camp. Other self-organized activities included a kitchen and cleaning shifts. The square was so immaculately clean that the authorities had to fabricate evidence to present the camp as a nuisance to the neighborhood. However, the most important self-organized activity was the general assembly.

From the beginning, there was tension in the camp (just as in the Russian protest movement as a whole) between rank-and-file participants and self-proclaimed “leaders.” Some established opposition personalities tried to name one person “governor” of the camp, but of course the people ignored them. The left presented an alternative—participatory democracy in the form of the general assembly. The process was very difficult in the beginning, but eventually the assembly became the real voice of the camp. The climax of this self-governing process was, perhaps, an episode during the final hours of the camp’s existence, when the police ordered people to go home. Opposition leaders asked to speak to the crowd. But they had to wait their turn in a queue, just like other regular participants. When their turn came, they made their case—to comply with police orders—but the assembly rejected their proposal. In retrospect, it was the correct decision, since the police didn’t disperse the camp for another day.

The whole history of Occupy Abay/Occupy Barrikadnaya/Occupy Arbat (the last two are subsequent names for Occupy Moscow, reflecting the sites it briefly occupied after Abay was broken up) didn’t last more than several days, but it was an incredibly rich period of improvisation, self-organization, political struggle, and agitation. It injected the ideas of participatory democracy and horizontal structures into the protest movement, which had almost completely lacked such ideas before. We are still reflecting on the political and social significance of this event.

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The major difference between Occupy Moscow and OWS, the Indignados, etc., is that the Moscow camp was not leftist as a whole. It wasn’t organized around social issues; rather, it was the temporary form that the opposition movement in Russia, mostly liberal, took in Moscow in May 2012. Therefore, the participants were not only leftists, but also liberals, even people from the far right (which was rather humble and didn’t cause trouble, being in a weak political position). However, only the left in Russia practices self-organization, self-government, and participatory democracy. Therefore, the left quickly became an essential force driving the camp and its activities.

Talking about civil liberties in Russia, the Pussy Riot case and the anti-gay laws enacted in several Russian regions and now proposed in the national parliament are emblematic in the eyes of the world. You wrote an article last November, “A Police Story (What Happened to Filipp Dolbunov),” about a Russian student abducted by the police. Can you tell us what happened? What is your analysis of civil liberties in Russia?

Well, I wrote about a specific case of police repression against one activist. Currently Filipp, who is my comrade, is seeking political asylum. He is in Ukraine, but this country isn’t safe for him, as the case of another activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, shows: Leonid was kidnapped in Kyiv by Russian security forces, tortured, and brought back to Moscow.

The situation with civil liberties in Russia is outrageous and rapidly becoming more and more catastrophic. More than twenty people are awaiting trial for taking part in the May 6 “riot” (i.e., the brutal attack on a legal, sanctioned rally by riot police). Most of them are in jail. Hundreds of detectives are working day and night to conjure a case out of nothing. One of the arrested confessed and was sent to prison for four and half years. On January 17, while facing similar charges and imminent deportation from the Netherlands back to Russia, Alexander Dolmatov took his own life.

The police have merged the May 6 “riot” case with the Sergei Udaltsov case. Udaltsov is one of the few public opposition leaders from the left. He has been charged with “organizing the unrest” on ”evidence” presented to the entire country during a special broadcast on Russian state-controlled TV. Udaltsov and two other people, one of them, Konstantin Lebedev, an RSM member, are now accused of being the “organizers” of the “riot” that took place on May 6. There is an endless chain of fabricated evidence and trumped-up charges that is directed against the Russian opposition, but mainly the left.

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I was on Bolotnaya: arrest me!

Another group that suffers disproportionately from state repression are anti-fascists. Some of them have been sentenced to prison, while others have been arrested and awaiting trial for months on end.

Please read our appeal for solidarity to learn the details about the recent crackdown in Russia. The RSM and other left groups are in desperate need of solidarity, so any actions of support are most welcome.

Another article of yours, “The ‘Welfare’ State Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This,” talks about the situation of the “welfare state,” a term that in Italian and Russian translates to the “social state.” What is your analysis in this article? What are the social and economic problems in your country?

My basic point in this article is that Russia is not a welfare state, despite the fact that it’s called a “social state” in the Constitution. It lacks a minimum wage (which is set below official subsistence level, i.e., this minimum wage is not enough to avoid dying from starvation). Strikes are almost completely prohibited. The situation with housing, education, health care, childcare, science, and cultural institutions is scandalous, and it’s getting worse day by day.

Even though we now have more than 130 dollar billionaires and one of the world’s largest money reserves, teachers and university professors in some Russian regions are paid the equivalent of 150-250 euros a month, just like doctors and other public employees. Wealth inequality, according to some sources, is the greatest in the world.

Oil and gas-driven growth has not brought prosperity or a meaningful economic future to Russia. It is a country ruled by a parasitic, uncontrollable elite. And their answer to all problems is more neoliberalism, more deregulation. They are currently implementing neoliberal reforms in education, health care, and science and culture, just like in Europe. For example, schoolteachers are forced to compete for wage bonuses, just as schools are forced to compete for pupils. This deliberate introduction of market logic in fields completely alien to it, such as education, health care, and culture, is a basic sign of neoliberalism. And the result is European-style “budget cuts” in a situation where there’s nothing to cut to begin with. The social, scientific, and cultural institutions of the Soviet state are in shambles, and now they are being terrorized yet again by this new neoliberal assault.

What are the problems of universities in Russia? Is the education system under attack by neoliberal policies undertaken by the Putin government? What are the main changes and differences between the education systems in USSR and Russia today?

University teachers have been underpaid for decades in Russia. Average wages are 200-500 euros per month even for those who have degrees. In general, the share of educational spending in the federal budget is very low both in absolute and relative terms. Education amounts to about 4.5 percent of Russian GDP, lower than the OECD average—despite the fact that it needs to be rebuilt, not just maintained.

Another problem is university bureaucracy. The institutions of collegial self-government and university autonomy do not function. Both professors and students are subjugated to the will of the administration.

Some problems, such as the lack of autonomy, are inherited from the USSR; some are new.

For example, the authorities have embarked on a program of university reform. It is basically a neoliberal policy, which identifies “ineffective” institutions of higher learning and closes them or merges them with others. Students, professors, and society as a whole have no say in this.

Still, there are some encouraging signs. The atmosphere in Russia has changed since the protests began in 2011. It is not such an apathetic, depoliticized society as before. And university staff are becoming angry, too: when the education minister blamed them, in an interview, for their incompetence (which, he said, explained their low salaries), more than a thousand professors signed a letter of protest. A new independent university teachers’ union is being created. Just a few days ago, an activist at Moscow State University, Mikhail Lobanov, successfully avoided being fired after a strong campaign of solidarity on his behalf. This might be a small success, but it inspires hope: students are becoming more aware of their potential, and professors are, too. There is an incredible amount of work to be done, but it is much easier now to believe in our eventual success.

Photos taken from the Facebook pages European Revolution, OccupyAbay, and Elena Rostunova without permission but with much gratitude.

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Filed under activism, critical thought, interviews, leftist movements, political repression, protests, Russian society, trade unions, urban movements (right to the city)

Occupy Parnassus! Kirill Medvedev’s “It’s No Good”

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Occupy Parnassus!: Kirill Medvedev’s ‘It’s No Good’
By Garth Risk Hallberg
February 19, 2013

1.
In the fall of 2011, as the first protesters began assembling in Zuccotti Park, a different sort of occupation was underway in my apartment. My son had just turned one, and another kid was due in the spring. My life now consisted largely of early-morning adjunct gigs, late-night sessions banging my head against the writing desk, and afternoons measured out in the tiny spoons used to scrape the last bits of Gerber from the jar. Also: NPR. Lots of NPR.

By late September, the top of each hour brought new details about the methods and motives of “Occupy Wall Street.” Here, it seemed, was the cause I’d spent my twenties longing to throw my body behind. But now that it had materialized, there was a catch: mine was no longer the only body I was responsible for. I could take my son with me to the demonstrations, but did I really trust the NYPD to lay off the pepper spray, should he rattle the bars of our protest pen?

Plus who would take care of him if I got carted off to jail? Not his mother, whose nine-to-five job was our primary means of keeping the fridge stocked and the rent paid, and whose sick days would convert to precious maternity leave come the spring. There was always daycare, of course…but, then, as a would-be placard-carrying member of the 99%, I couldn’t even afford the hours of daycare I was already paying for. And here I ran up against the first great fallacy of the mainstream media’s OWS coverage. Of course the occupation as such was heavy on students, the unemployed, and men who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Wavy Gravy. Stroller-pushing contingent-workers like me were constrained from spending all day and night at Zuccotti by the very conditions that made them want to do so. Thus does insecurity—financial, physical, psychological—become the stick that keeps us on the rutted path of late capitalism. (Consumer electronics being the carrot.)

Then again, another of the things too often glossed over in accounts of Occupy Wall Street is that it wasn’t a top-down program, whose output was a certain number of sleeping bags on the pavement. Rather, it was a piece of tactical hardware designed to execute any app deemed useful by its users—techno-utopian cant made collectivist flesh. This should have been apparent to anyone who spent more than half an hour down at Zuccotti. At first, you’d see the modest size of the occupation, relative to the number of cameras trained on it, and you’d think, Wait: Is this it? Then, out of nowhere, thousands of union electricians would appear, or affordable-housing advocates, or undergraduates, or, more likely, all of the above, and another drive or meeting or march would whir into motion. (As Michael Greenberg has noted in The New York Review of Books, those circuits would be reactivated after Hurricane Sandy to channel vital aid to the Rockaways.)

By October, my son and I had found our own way to take part. With his mother’s blessing, we pursued a sunshine policy, steering clear of martial-sounding or geographically marginal events in favor of those well-publicized enough to ensure my small comrade wouldn’t become another casualty on YouTube. We marched on Citigroup. We marched on JPMorgan Chase. We repaired to Zuccotti for pizza and purée, and then we marched some more. Well, I marched; he rode.

One memorable afternoon, in the company of a whole holy host of freaks and straights, aging lefties and juvie anarchists, friends from other events and perfect strangers—plus, this being a Saturday, my wife—we even took over Times Square. It was the same rainbow coalition I’d observed a decade earlier, marching against the Iraq War. In 2002, though, in the streets of D.C., everyone seemed to recognize that the switches on the war-making machinery had already been thrown. You could sense the inertia in the way the message decayed into calls for the abolition of the WTO and the World Bank, the liberation of Palestine and Mumia. Those chants that managed to break through the discord rang hollow off executive buildings emptied for the weekend.

By contrast, the message of Occupy Wall Street was so clear and so obvious as to subsume any ancillary concerns. Obviousness, in fact, may be why Occupy Wall Street proved such an effective counterweight to the Tea Party movement, with only a fraction of the money and organization and time. It takes great resources of all three to persuade Americans that Keynesian deficit spending is the source of our ills, because it’s total horseshit, whereas it takes very little to remind people of what they’ve already discovered in the most grinding, empirical way to be true: As an allocator of resources, our economic system is needlessly unjust, and getting more so by the day. And when the hoary old cry went up from Times Square—”We are unstoppable; another world is possible”—this, too, felt self-evident, assertion and evocation in a single stroke. For here was a halter-topped woman with frizzy hair leading thousands of people in social democratic chants from atop someone’s shoulders, and here was the commercial center of the world coming disobediently to a halt. Here were tourists taking buttons from engagé tweens and affixing them to jackets that would soon travel back to every corner of America. And here it all was again, up on the giant news screens overhead, the peak of a “high and beautiful wave” (to crib from Hunter S. Thompson). Under all those lights, we seemed to be waking, however briefly, from a long bad dream.

2.
Notwithstanding the Monday-morning harrumphs of the commentariat, that autumn of idealism has left behind consequences of the most solid, realpolitik kind. The ongoing debate over whether creditors—i.e., capital—or borrowers—i.e., you and me—will bear the losses of the Great Recession has been permanently rebalanced, to the great annoyance of the business class. (Last December’s $43-million PR push was not so much about how to “Fix the Debt” as about whom to affix it to.) On its own terms, though, the Occupy project remains incomplete. When we argue over whether to set top marginal tax rates at 35% or 39.6%, or what to do about the sequester, or the class politics of Girls, we have turned from debates about an unjust system to debates within it. And though the possibility of “another world” has been preserved from total eclipse, it now seems hazy again, as if glimpsed from the far side of sleep. We need some outside force to jolt us back awake.

All of which is a very roundabout way of trying to explain why It’s No Good, the first major English-language publication of the writing of Kirill Medvedev, is so necessary, and so timely. Medvedev is a Moscow-based poet in his late 30s, and the book, the latest entry in Ugly Duckling Presse’s redoubtable Eastern European Poets Series (and the first to be published jointly with N+1), assembles English translations of his most important “poems/essays/actions” from over the last fifteen years. This was a period of radicalization for Medvedev, and the work amounts to a guerilla attack on the stagnation of Russian cultural life in the new millennium. By itself, this would make It’s No Good an invaluable document. But for readers beyond the old Iron Curtain, there’s a further twist of the knife: as with the best science fiction, the outrageous world Medvedev brings so vividly to life starts to sound awfully like our own.

An introduction by editor Keith Gessen sets the scene for Medvedev’s evolution. In “the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008,” he explains, the atmosphere in Russia was one of “boredom, suffocation, and surrender…”

Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. “Stability” was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence…[but was] also permanently discredited.


In the texts that follow, Medvedev will link this surrender to two mutually reinforcing phenomena, one political, one aesthetic. On one side was a problem of ignorance: Members of his generation, the first to come of age after the fall of Communism, “spent the 1990s not really knowing what politics was,” he writes. “We lived outside it; we never believed it could affect our private lives.” On the other side was a problem of sophistication: literature, which might have enlarged those private lives, had become content merely to reproduce them.

An exemplar here was the poet and impresario Dmitri Kuzmin, who published Medvedev’s early poems in his magazine, Vavilon…and who hovers over It’s No Good as a sort of Oedipal-Hegelian father figure, to be rebelled against and absorbed. A long, valedictory “essay-memoir” two-thirds of the way through the book may put some readers in mind of McSweeney’s circa 2003:

The central literary tendency of Vavilon was the so-called “new sincerity”: the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.)


Of course, Russia’s liberalizing culture industry had no more difficulty assimilating Vavilon’s “authenticity” than the Politburo did assimilating social realism. As Medvedev sees it, this was art as gesture, as narcotic, as commodity, “a series of irresponsible infantile games and so-called independent intellectual proclamations – covering the terrain specifically assigned to such proclamations.”

The poems that make up the bulk of It’s No Good burst out of that terrain like bombshells. Superficially, their debt to Kuzmin is obvious. Medvedev’s voice, as translated by Gessen and others, is resolutely direct, colloquial, and personal. At times, it sounds like a Muscovite Frank O’Hara. “I don’t know why / I decided to work / at the nightclub Sexton / when I was eighteen,” begins one poem. Says another: “I really like when / a series of arches in moscow run /one after the other /creating their own kind of tunnel / out of arches.” As with O’Hara, the specificity of reference almost overwhelms argument; viewed from a certain angle, Medvedev’s poems might seem merely a catalogue of people, buildings, and foodstuffs signifying life for a young cosmopolite. Yet read him at any length (the poems are rarely under three pages, and sometimes swell to dozens), and it becomes impossible to confuse his urbanism with urbanity, or, as he puts it, “dignified aloofness” to the wider world. Medvedev complains, of one Vavilon-affiliated contemporary: “a person in his poems is always / returning from work / moving around the glaring twilit / cityscape / given shape by information streams.” His own Moscow resists such streamlined shapes. It is “glaring” in a different sense, made discontinuous by eruptions of frustration, pessimism, and rage. One moment, it’s true, we may be among the office towers, cruising through a catalogue

of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius
of everyone who became an assistant
to editors-in-chief
or a designer
for major fashion magazines….


But then suddenly, we are hearing

of all the half-drunk and stunted intellectuals
who (unlike me)
matured too early,
then burned out,
of everyone who found work in the morgue
of everyone who did time in jail
then died of an overdose
of everyone who worked at
the politician kirienko’s campaign headquarters
and then joined his permanent team.


The closing descent from threnody back to sarcasm bespeaks the scale of Medvedev’s loss of faith in that distinctly Russian class formation, the “intelligentsia.” These were the people who were supposed to lead his country out of its slumber and instead discovered a taste for Ambien. But the dramatic expansion of the point-of-view, the deepening of emotion, and the Beatnik anaphora holding it all together produce a countervailing movement: One feels the quickening of an almost spiritual belief. Medvedev wants his poetry not only to “appeal to personal experience,” but to transfigure it, to break it open, to disclose what is underneath. And what is underneath, he insists, is always already political. The meticulously name-checked fruits of bourgeois existence—parties, nightclubs, careers, and even much of contemporary art—are underwritten by exploitation, militarism, and a more nebulous brand of postmodern unfreedom. Reader, you are hereby called to consciousness. Or at least deprived of an alibi.

Alongside Medvedev’s messianic streak runs a notable impatience with the formal strictures of Russian lyric poetry—the elegant prosody of Anna Akhmatova or his beloved Joseph Brodsky. Gessen’s introduction presents these tendencies as merely coincident. But really, I think, one compels the other. Trained at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, Medvedev has a considerable, if well-disguised, capacity for artifice—for finding Pushkin in the punkish. Still, his conception of poetry is one of vision, rather than of craft. This helps explain the porousness (some might say sameness) of these largely untitled poems, which tend to flow together into a single Poem. It also helps explain their peculiar rhythms, and their general aversion to beauty. They gather force not by rhetorical turns, but by incantation, as Medvedev strains “to see without distortion by one’s social position, without limitations by one’s artistic milieu.” The results are frequently startling:

we dance around others’ misfortunes like mischievous wolves like some sort of
lascivious bats in a frenzy
we make our way toward them by the light of bonfires on the outskirts of town
through desolate fields of garbage
we fall on them swoop down throw ourselves at them with all of our might oozing
the syrupy poison of empathy.

Which isn’t to say that the artist-monk can’t be funny, because Medvedev’s puckish streak runs deep. It surfaces sometimes at the expense of others (“as a janitor / I was always beyond suspicion”), but more often at the expense of his own ambitions. One of my favorite poems in the collection concludes on a note of perfectly serious ridiculousness, or ridiculous seriousness:

misha is going to do everything right
in this life,
whereas I’m going to continue sitting here
deep in shit
with my principles.


3.
In 2004, Medvedev’s principles led him to make an unusual move: he renounced copyright to his own oeuvre. Henceforth, he declared in his “Manifesto on Copyright,” his poems would cease to be grist for the culture industry. They would appear on his website, and on facebook and LiveJournal, but reprinting them “in any anthologies, collections, or other kinds of publications” would be “consider[ed]…a disgusting manipulative action by one or another cultural force.” They were to be published

ONLY AS A SEPARATE BOOK, collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS.


The “Manifesto on Copyright” marks a hinge moment in the book, and in Medvedev’s career. Immediately before comes the longest, finest poem in the book (“Europe”) and an incendiary essay called “My Fascism.” The poems that follow the manifesto are thinner—at times they feel like Medvedev doing Medvedev—but the critical essays, by way of compensation, grow richer and more prophetic.

In the piece on Kuzmin and especially in “Literature Will Be Tested,” from 2007, Medvedev begins to articulate a dialectical vision of a new global humanism. Its acolytes, he argues, must preserve “postmodernism’s irrepressible critical outlook.” At the same time, Medvedev departs from the main body of post-’68 critical thought by insisting on the value of “grand narratives and global concepts.” To forego them, he says, is to accede to “an idealized consensus between the goals of ‘diversity’ and the interests of the global marketplace.”

And as he pursues the links between the stagnation he’s been confronting in Moscow and the larger, global situation, parallels that have heretofore been sub rosa become explicit. For Russia isn’t the only place where the notion of a life beyond politics gained traction after the collapse of Communism. “The end of history,” we called this period in the U.S. And what were the results? Open-ended war, accelerated environmental destruction, and the further consolidation of class power. History, history, and more history. Meanwhile, “the idea of ‘contemporary art’” grew ever more attenuated, as every imaginable gesture of “authenticity,” literary or otherwise, became a fungible commodity—one whose sale or purchase gets broadcast to your social network. “You can’t change the world that way,” Medvedev reminds us. “You can’t rise to the next level of existence that way.”

After the bracing cynicism of some of the poems, this formulation might sound preachy. But as a craftsman and as a human being, Medvedev knows he must make the political personal, even as the arrow also runs the other way. Taken as a whole, then, It’s No Good is less a sermon on change than a narrative enactment of it. In aesthetic terms, the distinctions among poems and essays and actions come to seem as provisional as those subtitular backslashes suggest; there’s criticism in the poetry, poetry in the criticism, and action in all of it. And in political terms, we get a portrait of the poet’s awakening to futility where he’d thought there was power, and vice versa. The thing might as well be a Bolaño novel…albeit one with a happier ending.

In another of his more unguarded moments, Medvedev confesses

I think it was genuine contact–
when two completely different people
begin to understand one another
in my opinion this
is a real event
in art and
in life.


It’s No Good is just such an event. It awakens us to the contingency of contemporary reality’s ceaseless argument for itself, and to what might still be possible outside it. Archimedes famously said something like, Give me a place to stand, and a long enough lever, and I’ll move the world. Kirill Medvedev and his translators have given American readers another place to stand, a kind of Zuccotti of the mind. Now if only we can keep our grip on the lever.

Bonus Link: Four poems from It’s No Good

Image source: dominic bartolini

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Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy

Editor’s Note. By way of introducing our readers to Tidal, a journal and web site focused on the theory and strategy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, we are reprinting, below, Conor Tomás Reed’s excellent article on the movement, public education, and the right to the city, from the Tidal web site. You can find out how to donate to Tidal here. (Thanks to Comrade O. for the heads-up.)

_______

On the City as University: Occupy and the Future of Public Education
Conor Tomás Reed

For quite a long time now, we precariously situated students and faculty in CUNY have been practicing the art of what Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls “poor theory”—“maximizing the possibilities inherent in the minimum… being extremely creative and experimental in order to survive.” Unable to isolate ourselves within the velvety quicksand of armchairs and seminar table solipsism, we have instead pursued a kind of crowd scholarship that jettisons “interest” for “involvement.” Discussions among crowds of people—in and out of assemblies, street marches, virtual forums, shared meals, space-transformations, and yes, even jail stints—have assembled critical lessons and experiences not yet valued by scholastic frameworks of singularly rendered knowledge. Thousands have co-authored this document itself.

We are engaged in a process of defending our educational and social futures from a threadbare past and present. US student debt has surpassed $1 trillion—a third of this debt is held by graduate students. Crippling tuition increases and education cuts in some cases triple tuition and erase whole departments. Meanwhile, our campuses become increasingly militarized. As recently spotlighted in UC-Davis and CUNY’s Baruch and Brooklyn Colleges, administrators unabashedly welcome the surveillance, intimidation, and brutal arrests of students and faculty who peacefully dissent. But after our pulses shudder from being followed by armed officers, after our indignation roils from reading lies that presidents and chancellors print about our political acts, and after our bruised bodies heal from being treated like enemy combatants on our own campuses, we gather in crowds again because we have no other choice. In spite of these grim circumstances, we’re also witnessing and creating major explosions of resistance through education movements across the world—Quebec, Chile, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, England, California, and around CUNY. Suppression of dissent is being met in resourceful ways. These struggles have demonstrated the power of creative action to mobilize millions—including street theater, public visual art, alternative models and sites of education, music, viral performance videos, and more. For activists in NYC, a few significant developments have arisen out of our own work—to conceive of education itself as a potential form of direct action, to rethink how we approach the call to strike, and to focus more acutely on dialectically connecting student/faculty work with wider community efforts at social change.

In the City University of New York and around the metropolis more broadly, our experiences in the Occupy movement taught us decades of lessons in a matter of months. As Tidal readers know, many CUNY folks were an active part of Occupy Wall Street, helping to maintain a multitude of working groups during the swift upsurge in city-wide radicalization. We facilitated thousands-strong public conversations and direct action trainings, built the People’s Library, and connected a global art and design community through Occuprint. At the CUNY Graduate Center, we began to hold regular general assemblies using the OWS model of direct participatory democracy. We claimed campus spaces that had otherwise not been used for political discourse (such as the recent week-long “Transforming Assembly” interactive exhibition at the James Gallery), and encouraged deeper undergrad students/grad students/faculty collaboration (including multiple open letter campaigns).

We worked on outside free public education initiatives, such as the People’s University series in Washington Square Park, as well as multiple-week open forums on the general strike leading up to May Day, all the while engaging in constant discussions of how to alter our pedagogies and institutional structures. Students and faculty explored consensual direct democracy in our classroom settings. This semester, several graduate student adjuncts team-taught a course at Brooklyn College entitled “Protest and Revolution: Occupy Your Education,” in which the students and facilitators together shaped how each class was used. 

And yet, after the White House-directed nationwide eviction of Occupy encampments this winter, the movement’s future was by no means foreseeable. Furthermore, when the May Day general strike call came out, a serious schism arose in activist circles in NYC and around the United States about whether to frame our efforts as a general strike when we knew that this was an actual impossibility. We queried whether this political action term could be used more as an act of prescriptive manifestation, rather than of descriptive demonstration. Students and faculty in the CUNY movement decided to build for the day with affinity for the language of striking, but not going to such lengths as setting up picket lines at our schools. We considered more fruitful ways to engage in a strike action that wriggled out of the negation-driven rhetoric that dominated initial May Day calls. “No/stop/don’t/shut down” left very limited visions of what the day would actually look like. We recognized that Occupy’s spring coming out party couldn’t be simply a long laundry list of what we opposed.

In early 2012, several graduate students wrote a short piece entitled “Five Theses on the Student Strike” in Occupy Wall Street’s Tidal journal, which set useful initial terms of the kind of affirmational, go-power, strike-as-on-switch tactics and political vision we wanted to create for the day. We sought to invoke the most dynamic and capacious political rhetoric to envision our specific goal of educational direct action, while using the weeks leading up to May 1 to theoretically and practically build for this, instead of standing still to debate whether the day’s actions should be called a strike or not.

By the time May Day had arrived, we had amassed a coalition of students and faculty from almost a dozen schools to produce the Free University: a “collective educational experiment” that ended up drawing almost 2000 participants in what is now delightfully considered the sleeper hit of the day’s event in NYC. We wanted to provide the best of Zuccotti Park’s legacy—unpermitted reclamation of public space, heterogeneous gatherings for radical discussion, and, what is still one of the best organizing tools out there, free food. The big secret is that around forty people coordinated this event within about a month. Our call for anyone to sign up to hold any kind of class or skill share was met with a deluge of exciting workshop submissions. Our call for anyone to attend meant that tuition, ID cards, costly books, security checkpoints, and many other chains tied to higher education were easily dissolved.

Educators conducted over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hours we occupied and transformed the park. Over a dozen faculty members contractually prohibited from striking moved their entire classes off campuses and into the park in solidarity with the call to strike. Attendees shared and learned from front-lines movement experiences on occupying foreclosed housing, student organizing and debate skills, indigenous environmentalism, open access academic publishing, and anti-capitalist approaches to math and science. Collective poetry readings brushed up alongside figure drawings and collage projects. We welcomed such luminaries as Drucilla Cornell, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ben Katchor, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Chris Hedges to join large crowds that gathered and mixed freely.

However, our ambitions mustn’t be misunderstood as creating a Free University to be a temporary utopian enclave, full stop. We promoted these outside classrooms as areas for generating rooted political content that could be catalyzed into movement activity. Indeed, at 3pm, our whole Free U campus marched to the main Union Square rally location, and then later swarmed the financial district, book shields and banners in hand. To focus on education itself as direct action suggests that we can transform public space into mobile classrooms—in public parks and community centers, as well as in street intersections, board rooms, and bridges. Future Free University initiatives can include radical think-tanks, hosting classes inside other classes, projecting our stories on various walls around the city, and performing pop-up Free U’s at annual city-wide events. We’re establishing the foundations for future attempts at dual power with such projects as People’s Boards of Education that decide and implement our own education plans while refusing those dictated from above.

Crowd scholarship of education outside walls can focus on such anti-disciplinary subjects as the compositional practice of street writing. Science lessons can observe as well as counteract neighborhood environmental devastation. Social geography can be taught through power-mapping areas of surveillance and gentrification, as well as routes for resistance. Poetry writing as a social and bodily practice can be differently imagined when we see ourselves as stanzas marching in the street, enjambing past police barricades, and breathing new life into words made collectively resonant through mic-checks. We can crowd-source syllabi in becoming students of urban revolutionary life—featuring Michel de Certeau, Jane Jacobs, Samuel Delany, and David Harvey alongside community texts and memoirs that academia has long overlooked. Harvey demonstrates the reflexive power in embracing our entire cities as universities when he says: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”

This work must also boomerang back into the academy walls in the process of ultimately decentering university spaces as the sole, tightly guarded sites where knowledge is made and trafficked. Each conference is a space to differently occupy, establish networks, and debate living strategies.  Each thesis and dissertation is an opportunity for multi-author, multi-modal scholarship to be evaluated by a committee of peers. Cross-department/cross-borough gatherings and actions can replace the vacuous insularity of academia. Our libraries can become true active repositories of 21st century movement life that is being daily archived in posts, streams, pamphlets, and feeds. Such participatory archive sources as occupycunynews.org and Interference Archive are excellent models for librarian archivists today.

Moreover, faculty nationwide will have to heed UC-Davis professor Nathan Brown’s recent challenge: “Student activists have understood the simple point that forms of action which do not pose an immediate and concrete barrier to the normal functions of the university will be ignored, deferred, and displaced. So they organize occupations and blockades. If faculty want to confront the totalitarian conduct of administrations, we will also have to organize and participate in occupations and blockades.” His jibe that faculty can organize international conferences, but not a twenty-person faculty sit-in, demonstrates how academics’ priorities will have to shift and grow, or else risk social irrelevance. I welcome our own CUNY professors to meet this challenge by considering the incredible power that mass faculty direct actions would contribute to our movement.

Occupy is at a crossroad, its development is not inevitable, we can become another mysterious blip (especially as the election season approaches), or we can do the patient and painstaking work of building a mass movement that will flourish in the face of what is an inevitable reality of further violence, crackdowns, and surveillance by the state. Academia has a role to perform in Occupy’s future, but one that employs both a step forward and a step aside. Academia must cede intellectual space for community members—the exiles of our current university systems—to raise their own critical voices while we listen and learn. And academia must also reconcile its own demons of the past 30+ years of significant yet extremely disillusioned and defensive theoretical positions. The current international spotlight on higher education can offer us the chance to make dramatic advances towards community control of our daily lives. Now that’s the  kind of education no school but ourselves can provide.

First printed in CUNY Graduate Center’s The Advocate.

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The “Pepper Spray Incident” and the Inevitable Radicalization of the UC Student Body

occupyeverything.org
The “Pepper Spray Incident” and the Inevitable Radicalization of the UC Student Body
Written by Eric Lee
November 22nd, 2011

When I watched Lt. John Pike and the University of California Davis Police Department violently attack our peaceful demonstration against social inequality and austerity on Friday, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation.

There is no dearth of personal recollections of this weekend’s events circulating the internet as the “pepper spray incident” and Chancellor Linda Katehi’s “walk of shame” have made UC Davis the center of international attention and outcry. In light of this, it is more important to consider the implications of these events and what they mean for the growing global movement against social inequality. Particularly, it is important to recognize the historical importance of the past week’s profound radicalization of students in the UC system and across the nation. The entrance of an organized student movement into the current social situation has deep implications, and they should be considered as the movement goes forward.

The video that has now gone viral speaks volumes and there is no need to romanticize the moments in great detail. My friends and I were approached by a small army of thugs, who violently attacked some of the kindest, most intelligent, most caring people I have ever met. I was not as brave as my friends who made history by refusing to yield to the police goons, and I have to admit that after watching their bodies react, I do not regret falling back. I saw hard working, compassionate students and teachers violently vomiting, weeping, and holding each other as that disgusting orange goo ran down their teary faces. I saw hundreds of students pour out of classrooms and the library to come to our defense. I saw the police turn tail and flee after seeing the looks of fury in our eyes. I saw the looks in their eyes, too—looks of genuine fear. I’d never seen that before in a police officer’s eyes.

So, what role will California college students play in the Occupy movement? As the worldwide revolt against social inequality continues despite the deeply disturbing intentions of the wealthiest among us to suffocate the movement, the students now have an incredibly important role to play. With the original occupiers on the East Coast forced by the cold weather and brutal police raids to reclaim less visible, unused property, the West Coast is responsible for sustaining and building the movement until spring.

And UC and CSU students are ready to rise to the occasion. 10,000 of us gathered in Berkeley last Tuesday, 2,000 here in Davis on the same day, and an Occupy camp has been set up at UCLA. Hundreds of UC students converged in downtown San Francisco last week and succeeded in shutting down a Bank of America. CSU students forced the CSU Board of Trustees to secretly flee their original meeting spot before passing another round of fee increases. UC leadership cancelled the UC Regents’ meeting last week out of fear that it would be shut down by student protestors.

The participation of thousands of students across the state in the anti-Wall Street movement represents the rapid radicalization of California students, which in itself is indicative of the quick move to the left by millions of movement sympathizers. The radicalization of the students manifests itself on the busses, in the restaurants, and in the coffee shops on and around my campus, where discussion of political strategy dominates. Of course, these anecdotes mean relatively little—but the politicization of the student body is significant nevertheless. Though the process of politicization is experiencing its birth pangs, it is emotionally moving that the process has finally begun.

This radicalization must continue to be channeled into a starkly anti-capitalist political tendency. Objective material conditions are ensuring that liberal elements of the student body will be drowned out. This is a huge break from the Free Speech Movement of the mid-60s, and even from the anti-Vietnam War movement that followed. Youth unemployment in the United States is above 20% – higher than in some “Arab Spring” countries. We’ve seen the statistics about wealth inequality: the top 1% controls the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%. Only 40% of college students graduate, and for those that do, they enter the workforce with an average debt-load just under $30,000.

And then what? A minimum wage Starbucks job at $8.50 an hour? Perhaps most importantly, though, is the current rollback of nearly every major social gain won by the working class since the 1930s. Even in the midst of the Vietnam War, after all, President Johnson’s “Great Society” at least recognized that social inequality existed and that the most impoverished Americans were worthy of minuscule levels of government support.

At least our parents got “Guns and Butter”. Now we’re stuck with just the guns.

Today, the contrasts couldn’t be starker. President Obama has escalated the war on the working class by continuing the decades-long trend of drastically slashing social services. In fact, Obama has promised to out-do the GOP in the race to see who can slash more services to deal with the massive debt our country has accumulated from years of war and tax breaks for the wealthy. He has proposed gutting services that tens of millions of Americans rely on for survival: Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, WIC, etc. The cynical Manipulator-in-Chief has invaded new countries, illegally murdered American citizens abroad, and expanded the War on Terror into Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

I spent a year working as a volunteer on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I was drawn to his candidacy by his promises to serve “Main Street, not Wall Street”, to close Guantanamo Bay, to end the wars, to stop the mass deportation of undocumented families, and to roll-back the PATRIOT Act and the rest of the unconstitutional post-9/11 national security apparatus. I, like many in my generation, naively thought that a candidate that was backed by Wall Street could still make “change”.

Barack Obama has delivered on exactly none of these promises. In fact, the ruling class could hardly ask for a better leader. Corporate profits have soared during his presidency, as unemployment remains stiflingly high with no signs that the economy will add jobs at a rate quick enough to keep up with population gain. It makes me furious that the candidate to whom I dedicated a year of my life has turned on me. I take it very personally. I am not the only 21-year-old who feels this way. I also served the President’s political party for a year following his election. I was an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party, and was a staffer for a statewide Democratic campaign. But the Democratic Party is leading the attack on working people across America.

Democratic Governor, Jerry Brown, for example, seems like he’s trying to out-do Scott Walker in imposing austerity on the indigent and the young. Democratic mayors across the country are ordering riot police on their own peaceful protesters. In the bay area, “progressive” Democrats like Jean Quan and Ed Lee have ordered riot police to evict occupiers on multiple occasions. These liberal champions ordered police to beat Iraq War Veterans Scott Olson and Kayvan Sabehgi.

Today, no solution to the social crisis can be found through either of the two big-business parties. This is why the burgeoning student movement in California represents a great hope for the anti-capitalist position. In light of this, demands for Chancellor Katehi’s resignation should be considered only as a show of our power. In reality, even if we are to succeed in ousting Katehi, her replacement would be no different.

We students can re-shape the future of public education in California only by abolishing the UC Regents, CSU Board of Trustees, and their respective police forces. Democratic student, worker, and faculty control of the entire decision-making process is needed to reverse the trends towards privatization, debt, and austerity.

And we should also remember that the crisis in higher education is a symptom of the crisis of capitalism. The American student movement of the late 60s, for example, failed to prevent the attack on the working class that has been carried out by Democrats and Republicans throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s because it failed to self-consciously establish itself as a movement against capitalism.

This belies the issue of “no politics” that is such a popular refrain for liberals taking part in the Occupy movement today. “No politics” has been our strategy for 40 years, and look what it has gotten us! Back to UC Davis — I have read multiple accounts on the events of the past days that emphasize how UC Davis is a turning point for the Occupy movement. Images of the blatant police brutality and the powerful silence that met the Chancellor when she left her botched press conference have terrified and inspired millions. But this isn’t an unprecedented show of violence, and police brutality isn’t a new phenomenon. The events of the past days are a glimpse of reality, not a break from the past. Though it has taken a viral video to make this clear to many, it is an important fact to remember.

The images from Davis, Berkeley, Chapel Hill, New York, Oakland, Denver, and countless other cities and towns across the country have galvanized support for the movement and have even further embedded Occupy Wall Street as a facet of American political life. The images have also revealed democracy in America for just what it is: a façade.

In light of this, students at UC and across the country must prepare ourselves for the coming struggle. The police attacks will not abate—they will only grow in intensity. Our debt load will grow, unless we reject the concept of debt as required by capitalism. Fee hikes will continue until we reject the very idea of paying for school. We should fight for something radically different—a society where production is managed based on social need and human rights to housing, food, education, transportation, and physical security. One where our friends, brothers, sisters, and parents aren’t sent off to die in unnecessary wars. One where speculators and bankers are treated like the criminals they are.

The lines in the sand are being drawn on my campus and across the country. Students, ask yourselves: Which side are you on?

[Point of clarification: I write this as an individual and in no way as a spokesperson for any group.]

Eric Lee is a 4th year undergraduate at the University of California, Davis.

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They Live

A look into the “HOW” of the Occupy Wall Street movement: The consensus process.

The community of occupiers at Liberty Plaza have sparked the process of building a movement that now transcends any one physical landmark. The tools to keep the movement alive belong to all of us.

Created by the Meerkat Media Collective. For the last 6 years we’ve been using consensus decision making in our filmmaking process – http://meerkatmedia.org

THE MOVEMENT:
http://www.OccupyTogether.org
http://www.OccupyWallSt.org
http://www.OccupyVideos.org

MORE ON CONSENSUS:
Top 10 Most Common Mistakes in Consensus Process and how to Avoid them: http://treegroup.info/topics/Top-10-Consensus-Mistakes.pdf
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/10/08/1022710/–occupywallstreet:-a-primer…

START YOUR OWN GENERAL ASSEMBLY:
http://nycga.cc/resources/general-assembly-guide/

_____

Mike Davis
No More Bubblegum

Los Angeles Review of Books
October 21, 2011

Who could have envisioned Occupy Wall Street and its sudden wildflower-like profusion in cities large and small?

John Carpenter could have, and did. Almost a quarter of a century ago (1988), the master of date-night terror (Halloween, The Thing), wrote and directed They Live, depicting the Age of Reagan as a catastrophic alien invasion. In one of the film’s brilliant early scenes, a huge third-world shantytown is reflected across the Hollywood Freeway in the sinister mirror-glass of Bunker Hill’s corporate skyscrapers.

They Live remains Carpenter’s subversive tour de force. Few who’ve seen it could forget his portrayal of billionaire bankers and evil mediacrats and their zombie-distant rule over a pulverized American working class living in tents on a rubble-strewn hillside and begging for jobs. From this negative equality of homelessness and despair, and thanks to the magic dark glasses found by the enigmatic Nada (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), the proletariat finally achieves interracial unity, sees through the subliminal deceptions of capitalism, and gets angry.

Very angry.

Yes, I know, I’m reading ahead. The Occupy the World movement is still looking for its magic glasses (program, demands, strategy, and so on) and its anger remains on Gandhian low heat. But, as Carpenter foresaw, force enough Americans out of their homes and/or careers (or at least torment tens of millions with the possibility) and something new and huge will begin to slouch towards Goldman Sachs. And unlike the “Tea Party,” so far it has no puppet strings.

[…]

Back to strategy, though: what’s the next link in the chain (in Lenin’s sense) that needs to be grasped? How imperative is it for the wildflowers to hold a convention, adopt programmatic demands, and thereby put themselves up for bid on the auction block of the 2012 elections? Obama and the Democrats will desperately need their energy and authenticity. But the occupationistas are unlikely to put themselves or their extraordinary self-organizing process up for sale.

Personally I lean toward the anarchist position and its obvious imperatives.

First, expose the pain of the 99 percent; put Wall Street on trial. Bring Harrisburg, Loredo, Riverside, Camden, Flint, Gallup, and Holly Springs to downtown New York. Confront the predators with their victims — a national tribunal on economic mass murder.

Second, continue to democratize and productively occupy public space (i.e. reclaim the Commons). The veteran Bronx activist-historian Mark Naison has proposed a bold plan for converting the derelict and abandoned spaces of New York into survival resources (gardens, campsites, playgrounds) for the unsheltered and unemployed. The Occupy protestors across the country now know what it’s like to be homeless and banned from sleeping in parks or under a tent. All the more reason to break the locks and scale the fences that separate unused space from urgent human needs.

Third, keep our eyes on the real prize. The great issue is not raising taxes on the rich or achieving a better regulation of banks. It’s economic democracy: the right of ordinary people to make macro-decisions about social investment, interest rates, capital flows, job creation, and global warming. If the debate isn’t about economic power, it’s irrelevant.

Fourth, the movement must survive the winter in order to fight the power in the next spring. It’s cold on the street in January. Bloomberg and every other mayor and local ruler is counting on a hard winter to deplete the protests. It is thus all-important to reinforce the occupations over the long Christmas break. Put on your overcoats.

Finally, we must calm down — the itinerary of the current protest is totally unpredictable. But if one erects a lightning rod, we shouldn’t be surprised if lightning eventually strikes.

Bankers, recently interviewed in the New York Times, claim to find the Occupy protests little more than a nuisance arising from an unsophisticated understanding of the financial sector. They should be more careful. Indeed, they should probably quake before the image of the tumbrel.

Since 1987, African Americans have lost more than half of their net worth; Latinos, an incredible two-thirds. Five-and-a-half million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Sates since 2000, more than 42,000 factories closed, and an entire generation of college graduates now face the highest rate of downward mobility in American history.

Wreck the American dream and the common people will put on you some serious hurt. Or as Nada explains to his unwary assailants in Carpenter’s great film: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…. and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Thanks to Comrade Agata and the NYC General Assembly Arts & Labor Working Group for the heads-up.

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Filed under activism, film and video, leftist movements, protests, urban movements (right to the city)

The Militarization of US Campus Police: Three Responses

[…]

Last week, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a statement justifying the brutal use of police batons on student protesters like this:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience… the police were forced to use their batons.

Perhaps the Chancellors of Davis and Berkeley have never seen this photo of people with linked arms. It is an iconic image of non-violent civil disobedience in this country.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau thus joins the likes of Bull Connor, the notorious segregationist and architect of the violent repression of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, as some of the very few people who view the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King as violent.

Most people disagree, which is why King was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout my life I have seen, and sometimes participated in, peaceful civil disobedience in which sitting and linking arms was understood by citizens as a posture that indicates, in the clearest possible way available, protestors’ intent to be non-violent. If example, if you look through training materials from groups like the Quakers, the various pacifist organization and centers, and Christian organizations, it is universally taught that sitting and linking arms is the best way to de-escalate any confrontation between police and people exercising their first amendment right to public speech.

Likewise, for over 30 years I have seen police universally understand this gesture. Many many times I have seen police treat protestors who sat and linked arms when told they must disperse or face arrest as a very routine matter: the police then approach the protestors individually and ask them if, upon arrest, they are going to walk of their own accord or not the police will have to carry them. In fact, this has become so routine that I have often wondered if this form of protest had become so scripted as to have lost most of its meaning.

No more.

What we have seen in the last two weeks around the country, and now at Davis, is a radical departure from the way police have handled protest in this country for half a century. Two days ago an 84-year-old woman was sprayed with a chemical assault agent in Seattle in the same manner our students at Davis were maced. A Hispanic New York City Councilman was brutally thrown to the ground, arrested, and held cuffed in a police van for two hours for no reason at all, and was never even told why he was arrested. And I am sure you all know about former Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen, who suffered a fractured skull after police hit him with a tear gas canister, then rolled a flash bomb into the group of citizens trying to give him emergency medical care.

Last week, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper published an essay arguing that the current epidemic of police brutality is a reflection of the militarization (his word, not mine) of our urban police forces, the result of years of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror. Stamper was chief of police during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and is not a voice that can be easily dismissed.

Yesterday, the militarization of policing in the U.S. arrived on my own campus.

These issues go to the core of what democracy means. We have a major economic crisis in this country that was brought on by the greedy and irresponsible behavior of big banks. No banker has been arrested, and certainly none have been pepper sprayed. Arrests and chemical assault is for those trying to defend their homes, their jobs, and their schools.

These are not trivial matters. This is a moment to stand up and be counted. I am proud to teach at a university where students have done so.

Bob Ostertag, “Militarization of Campus Police”

_____

[…]

I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.

Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing.

I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.

Nathan Brown, “Open Letter to Chancellor Linda B.P. Katehi”

_____

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

[…]

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

I won’t recite the statistics, but the entire university system in California is under great stress and the State Legislature is paralyzed by a minority of legislators whose only idea is that they don’t want to pay one more cent in taxes. Meanwhile, students at Berkeley are graduating with an average indebtedness of something like $16,000. It is no wonder that the real estate industry started inventing loans for people who couldn’t pay them back.

“Whose university?” the students had chanted. Well, it is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else’s in California. It also belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest systems of public education in the world.

Robert Hass, “Poet-Bashing Police”

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Filed under activism, open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, protests, student movements

Amanda Palmer: “Greetings from Sunny #Occupy”

On her blog, singer/songwriter/performer Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls) has written an illustrated account of her musical travels to different Occupy  encampments in North America:

occupy is a small seed. and yet it’s as huge, vast and complicated as the very unwieldy problems it’s trying to address.

i feel excited and sad for my generation, for the world, for my country. excited because i am so happy to see people mobilizing. trying.
waking up and going out and doing.
sad because it’s also underlined how jaded and difficult we are.

sometimes we forget that the world is absolutely fungible, morphable, re-creatable. we forget (maybe want to forget) that governments and systems topple ALL THE TIME, that human peoples have a habit of looking around, saying “nope, nope, don’t like this one bit” and gathering enough force, energy, and will to create a change. i’m sure at every single moment in history where a regime has seen a giant shift, there’s been those standing by, thinking that the impossible (change) would never happen, could never happen.

is that you?

could you honestly imagine a different kind of country, where business and government run without corruption, where the wealth of the land is fairly shared, where people actively took responsibility to take care of each other instead of just trampling their way to the top as an accepted way of life? or does that sound stupid, naïve, an impossible hippie-dream? what if everyone who thought that was a actually a pretty good idea stood up in solidarity and forced a change? would you stand up?

if occupy does nothing else, it’s made people wonder that.

i’ve been shocked by the number of people (even pals of mine) who actually are trapped by the idea that things can’t – and won’t – get better…so “why fucking bother?”
that’s, sadly, exactly how greedy people in positions of power need you to think. it makes their jobs incredibly easy.

Amanda Palmer’s cover of Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down”:

Thanks to Sergey Chernov for the heads-up.

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Filed under activism, film and video, protests, urban movements (right to the city)