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I suppose there is no longer much point in debating the facts surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown. First, because Officer Darren Wilson has been cleared by a grand jury, and even the collective brilliance of a thousand bloggers pointing out the glaring inconsistencies in his version of events that August day won’t result in a different outcome. And second, because Wilson’s guilt or innocence was always somewhat secondary to the larger issue: namely, the issue of this gigantic national inkblot staring us in the face, and what we see when we look at it—and more to the point, why?
Because it is a kind of racial Rorschach (is it not?) into which each of these cases—not just Brown but all the others, from Trayvon Martin to Sean Bell to Patrick Dorismond to Aswan Watson and beyond—inevitably and without fail morph. That we see such different things when we look upon them must mean something. That so much of white America cannot see the shapes made out so clearly by most of black America cannot be a mere coincidence, nor is it likely an inherent defect in our vision. Rather, it is a socially-constructed astigmatism that blinds so many to the way in which black folks often experience law enforcement.
Not to overdo the medical metaphors, but as with those other cases noted above, so too in this one did a disturbing number of whites manifest something of a repetitive motion disorder—a reflex nearly as automatic as the one that leads so many police (or wanna-be police) to fire their weapons at black men in the first place. It is a reflex to rationalize the event, defend the shooter, trash the dead with blatantly racist rhetoric and imagery, and then deny that the incident or one’s own response to it had anything to do with race.
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial about sending around those phony pictures claimed to be of Mike Brown posing with a gun, or the one passed off as Darren Wilson in a hospital bed with his orbital socket blown out.
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial about how quickly those pictures were believed to be genuine by so many who distributed them on social media, even when they weren’t, and how difficult it is for some to discern the difference between one black man and another.
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial about how rapidly many bought the story that Wilson had been attacked and bloodied, even as video showed him calmly standing at the scene of the shooting without injury, and even as the preliminary report on the incident made no mention of any injuries to Officer Wilson, and even as Wilson apparently has a history of power-tripping belligerence towards those with whom he interacts, and a propensity to distort the details of those encounters as well.
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial about Cardinals fans taunting peaceful protesters who gathered outside a playoff game to raise the issue of Brown’s death, by calling them crackheads or telling them that it was only because of whites that blacks have any freedoms at all, or that they should “get jobs” or “pull up their pants,” or go back to Africa.
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial about sending money to Darren Wilson’s defense fund and then explaining one’s donation by saying what a service the officer had performed by removing a “savage” like Brown from the community, or by referring to Wilson’s actions as “animal control.”
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial about reaction to evidence of weed in Brown’s lifeless body, as with Trayvon’s before him, even though whites use drugs at the same rate as blacks, but rarely have that fact offered up as a reason for why we might deserve to be shot by police.
Reflex: To deny that there was anything racial behind the belief that the head of the Missouri Highway Patrol, brought in to calm tensions in Ferguson, was throwing up gang signs on camera, when actually, it was a hand sign for the black fraternity of which that officer is a member; and to deny that there is anything racial about one’s stunning ignorance as to the difference between those two things.
Reflex: To deny that there’s anything at all racial about the way that even black victims of violence—like Brown, like Trayvon Martin, and dozens of others—are often spoken of more judgmentally than even the most horrific of white perpetrators, the latter of whom are regularly referred to as having been nice, and quiet, and smart, and hardly the type to kill a dozen people, or cut them into little pieces, or eat their flesh after storing it in the freezer for several weeks.
And most of all, the reflex to deny that there is anything racial about the lens through which we typically view law enforcement; to deny that being white has shaped our understanding of policing and their actions in places like Ferguson, even as being white has had everything to do with those matters. Racial identity shapes the way we are treated by cops, and as such, shapes the way we are likely to view them. As a general rule, nothing we do will get us shot by law enforcement: not walking around in a big box store with semi-automatic weapons (though standing in one with an air rifle gets you killed if you’re black); not assaulting two officers, even in the St. Louis area, a mere five days after Mike Brown was killed; not pointing a loaded weapon at three officers and demanding that they—the police—”drop their fucking guns;” not committing mass murder in a movie theatre before finally being taken alive; not proceeding in the wake of that event to walk around the same town in which it happened carrying a shotgun; and not killing a cop so as to spark a “revolution,” and then leading others on a two month chase through the woods before being arrested with only a few scratches.
To white America, in the main, police are the folks who help get our cats out of the tree, or who take us on ride-arounds to show us how gosh-darned exciting it is to be a cop. We experience police most often as helpful, as protectors of our lives and property. But that is not the black experience by and large; and black people know this, however much we don’t. The history of law enforcement in America, with regard to black folks, has been one of unremitting oppression. That is neither hyperbole nor opinion, but incontrovertible fact. From slave patrols to overseers to the Black Codes to lynching, it is a fact. From dozens of white-on-black riots that marked the first half of the twentieth century (in which cops participated actively) to Watts to Rodney King to Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo to the railroading of the Central Park 5, it is a fact. From the New Orleans Police Department’s killings of Adolph Archie to Henry Glover to the Danziger Bridge shootings there in the wake of Katrina to stop-and-frisk in places like New York, it’s a fact. And the fact that white people don’t know this history, have never been required to learn it, and can be considered even remotely informed citizens without knowing it, explains a lot about what’s wrong with America. Black people have to learn everything about white people just to stay alive. They especially and quite obviously have to know what scares us, what triggers the reptilian part of our brains and convinces us that they intend to do us harm. Meanwhile, we need know nothing whatsoever about them. We don’t have to know their history, their experiences, their hopes and dreams, or their fears. And we can go right on being oblivious to all that without consequence. It won’t be on the test, so to speak.
We can remain ignorant to the ubiquity of police misconduct, thinking it the paranoid fever dream of irrational “race-card” playing peoples of color, just like we did after the O.J. Simpson verdict. When most of black America responded to that verdict with cathartic relief—not because they necessarily thought Simpson innocent but because they felt there were enough questions raised about police in the case to sow reasonable doubt—most white folks concluded that black America had lost its collective mind. How could they possibly believe that the LAPD would plant evidence in an attempt to frame or sweeten the case against a criminal defendant? A few years later, had we been paying attention (but of course, we were not), we would have had our answer. It was then that the scandal in the city’s Ramparts division broke, implicating dozens of police in over a hundred cases of misconduct, including, in one incident, shooting a gang member at point blank range and then planting a weapon on him to make the incident appear as self-defense. So putting aside the guilt or innocence of O.J,, clearly it was not irrational for black Angelenos (and Americans) to give one the likes of Mark Fuhrman side-eye after his own racism was revealed in that case.
I think this, more than anything, is the source of our trouble when it comes to racial division in this country. The inability of white people to hear black reality—to not even know that there is one and that it differs from our own—makes it nearly impossible to move forward. But how can we expect black folks to trust law enforcement or to view it in the same heroic and selfless terms that so many of us apparently do? The law has been a weapon used against black bodies, not a shield intended to defend them, and for a very long time.
In his contribution to Jill Nelson’s 2000 anthology on police brutality, scholar Robin D.G Kelley reminds us of the bill of particulars.* As Kelley notes, in colonial Virginia, slave owners were allowed to beat, burn, and even mutilate slaves without fear of punishment; and throughout the colonial period, police not only looked the other way at the commission of brutality against black folks, but were actively engaged in the forcible suppression of slave uprisings and insurrections. Later, after abolition, law enforcement regularly and repeatedly released black prisoners into the hands of lynch mobs and stood by as their bodies were hanged from trees, burned with blowtorches, body parts amputated and given out as souvenirs. In city after city, north and south, police either stood by or actively participated in pogroms against African American communities: in Wilmington, North Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, New York City, Akron and Birmingham, just to name a few. In one particularly egregious anti-black rampage in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, police shot blacks dead in the street as part of an orgy of violence aimed at African Americans who had moved from the Deep South in search of jobs. One hundred and fifty were killed, including thirty-nine children whose skulls were crushed and whose bodies were thrown into bonfires set by white mobs. In the 1920s, it is estimated that half of all black people who were killed by whites, were killed by white police officers.
But Kelley continues: In 1943 white police in Detroit joined with others of their racial compatriots, attacking blacks who had dared to move into previously all-white public housing, killing seventeen. In the 1960s and early ’70s police killed over two dozen members of the Black Panther Party, including those like Mark Clark and Fred Hampton in Chicago, asleep in their beds at the time their apartment was raided. In 1985, Philadelphia law enforcement perpetrated an all-out assault on members of the MOVE organization, bombing their row houses from state police helicopters, killing eleven, including five children, destroying sixty-one homes and leaving hundreds homeless.
These are but a few of the stories one could tell, and which Kelley does in his extraordinary recitation of the history—and for most whites, we are without real knowledge of any of them. But they and others like them are incidents burned into the cell memory of black America. They haven’t the luxury of forgetting, even as we apparently cannot be bothered to remember, or to learn of these things in the first place. Bull Connor, Sheriff Jim Clark, Deputy Cecil Price: these are not far-away characters for most black folks. How could they be? After all, more than a few still carry the scars inflicted by men such as they. And while few of us would think to ridicule Jews for still harboring less than warm feelings for Germans some seventy years later—we would understand the lack of trust, the wariness, even the anger—we apparently find it hard to understand the same historically-embedded logic of black trepidation and contempt for law enforcement in this country. And this is so, even as black folks’ negative experiences with police have extended well beyond the time frame of Hitler’s twelve year Reich, and even as those experiences did not stop seventy years ago, or even seventy days ago, or seventy minutes.
Can we perhaps, just this once, admit our collective blind spot? Admit that there are things going on, and that have been going on a very long time, about which we know nothing? Might we suspend our disbelief, just long enough to gain some much needed insights about the society we share? One wonders what it will take for us to not merely listen but actually to hear the voices of black parents, fearful that the next time their child walks out the door may be the last, and all because someone—an officer or a self-appointed vigilante—sees them as dangerous, as disrespectful, as reaching for their gun? Might we be able to hear that without deftly pivoting to the much more comfortable (for us) topic of black crime or single-parent homes? Without deflecting the real and understandable fear of police abuse with lectures about the danger of having a victim mentality—especially ironic given that such lectures come from a people who apparently see ourselves as the always imminent victims of big black men?
Can we just put aside all we think we know about black communities (most of which could fit in a thimble, truth be told) and imagine what it must feel like to walk through life as the embodiment of other people’s fear, as a monster that haunts their dreams the way Freddie Kreuger does in the movies? To be the physical representation of what marks a neighborhood as bad, a school as bad, not because of anything you have actually done, but simply because of the color of your skin? Surely that is not an inconsequential weight to bear. To go through life, every day, having to think about how to behave so as not to scare white people, or so as not to trigger our contempt—thinking about how to dress, and how to walk and how to talk and how to respond to a cop (not because you’re wanting to be polite, but because you’d like to see your mother again)—is work; and it’s harder than any job that any white person has ever had in this country. To be seen as a font of cultural contagion is tantamount to being a modern day leper.
And then perhaps we might spend a few minutes considering what this does to the young black child, and how it differs from the way that white children grow up. Think about how you would respond to the world if that world told you every day and in a million ways before lunch how awful you were, how horrible your community was, and how pathological your family. Because that’s what we’re telling black folks on the daily. Every time police call the people they are sworn to protect animals, as at least one Ferguson officer was willing to do on camera—no doubt speaking for many more in the process—we tell them this. Every time we shrug at the way police routinely stop and frisk young black men, even though in almost all cases they are found to have done nothing wrong, we tell them this. Every time we turn away from the clear disparities in our nation’s schools, which relegate the black and brown to classrooms led by the least experienced teachers, and where they will be treated like inmates more than children hoping to learn, we tell them this. Every time Bill O’Reilly pontificates about “black culture” and every time Barack Obama tells black men—but only black men—to be better fathers, we tell them this: that they are uniquely flawed, uniquely pathological, a cancerous mass of moral decrepitude to be feared, scorned, surveilled, incarcerated and discarded. The constant drumbeat of negativity is so normalized by now that it forms the backdrop of every conversation about black people held in white spaces when black folks themselves are not around. It is like the way your knee jumps when the doctor taps it with that little hammer thing during a check-up: a reflex by now instinctual, automatic, unthinking.
And still we pretend that one can think these things—that vast numbers of us can—and yet be capable of treating black folks fairly in the workforce, housing market, schools or in the streets; that we can, on the one hand, view the larger black community as a chaotic maelstrom of iniquity, while still managing, on the other, to treat black loan applicants, job applicants, students or random strangers as mere individuals. That we can somehow thread the needle between our grand aspirations to equanimity as Americans and our deeply internalized biases regarding broad swaths of our nation’s people.
But we can’t; and it is in these moments—moments like those provided by events in Ferguson—that the limits of our commitment to that aspirational America are laid bare. It is in moments like these when the chasm between our respective understandings of the world—itself opened up by the equally cavernous differences in the way we’ve experienced it—seems almost impossible to bridge. But bridge them we must, before the strain of our repetitive motion disorder does permanent and untreatable damage to our collective national body.
*Robin D.G. Kelley, “Slangin’ Rocks…Palestinian Style,” in Police Brutality: An Anthology, Jill Nelson, ed., (New York, W. W. Norton, 2000), 21-59.
This is the time of year when high school seniors apply to college, and when I get lots of mail about whether college is worth the cost.
The answer is unequivocally yes, but with one big qualification. I’ll come to the qualification in a moment but first the financial case for why it’s worth going to college.
Put simply, people with college degrees continue to earn far more than people without them. And that college “premium” keeps rising.
Last year, Americans with four-year college degrees earned on average 98 percent more per hour than people without college degrees.
In the early 1980s, graduates earned 64 percent more.
So even though college costs are rising, the financial return to a college degree compared to not having one is rising even faster.
But here’s the qualification, and it’s a big one.
A college degree no longer guarantees a good job. The main reason it pays better than the job of someone without a degree is the latter’s wages are dropping.
In fact, it’s likely that new college graduates will spend some years in jobs for which they’re overqualified.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 46 percent of recent college graduates are now working in jobs that don’t require college degrees. (The same is true for more than a third of college graduates overall.)
Their employers still choose college grads over non-college grads on the assumption that more education is better than less.
As a result, non-grads are being pushed into ever more menial work, if they can get work at all. Which is a major reason why their pay is dropping.
What’s going on? For years we’ve been told globalization and technological advances increase the demand for well-educated workers. (Confession: I was one of the ones making this argument.)
This was correct until around 2000. But since then two things have reversed the trend.
First, millions of people in developing nations are now far better educated, and the Internet has given them an easy way to sell their skills in advanced economies like the United States. Hence, more and more complex work is being outsourced to them.
Second, advanced software is taking over many tasks that had been done by well-educated professionals – including data analysis, accounting, legal and engineering work, even some medical diagnoses.As a result, the demand for well-educated workers in the United States seems to have peaked around 2000 and fallen since. But the supply of well-educated workers has continued to grow.
What happens when demand drops and supply increases? You guessed it. This is why the incomes of young people who graduated college after 2000 have barely risen.
Those just within the top ten percent of college graduate earnings have seen their incomes increase by only 4.4 percent since 2000.
When it comes to beginning their careers, it’s even worse. The starting wages of college graduates have actually dropped since 2000. The starting wage of women grads has dropped 8.1 percent, and for men, 6.7 percent.
I hear it all the time from my former students. The New York Times calls them “Generation Limbo” — well-educated young adults “whose careers are stuck in neutral, coping with dead-end jobs and listless prospects.” A record number are living at home.
The deeper problem is this. While a college education is now a prerequisite for joining the middle class, the middle class is in lousy shape. Its share of the total economic pie continues to shrink, while the share going to the very top continues to grow.
Given all this, a college degree is worth the cost because it at least enables a young person to tread water. Without the degree, young people can easily drown.
Some young college graduates will make it into the top 1 percent. But that route is narrower than ever. The on-ramp often requires the right connections (especially parents well inside the top 1 percent).
And the off-ramps basically go in only three directions: Wall Street, corporate consulting, and Silicon Valley.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe the main reason to go to college – or to choose one career over another — should be to make lots of money.
Hopefully, a college education gives young people tools for leading full and purposeful lives, and having meaningful careers.
Even if they don’t change the world for the better, I want my students to be responsible and engaged citizens.
But when considering a college education in a perilous economy like this, it’s also important to know the economics.
"I’ve been dreaming of death. Seeing pictures of death. Seeing pictures of bloody sheets hanging on clotheslines."
Just days before Michael Brown and his brown body encountered a white police officer and a gun in Ferguson, Missouri, the 18-year-old child said that to his stepmother. She told the world of this foreshadowing during Brown’s funeral two months ago, as anger turned to tears, and this small community ignited a wave of protests and activism that would continue for more than 100 days – and will begin anew, starting right now.
In the months since, all of the leaks and all of the tweets warning that there would be no indictment for Darren Wilson – that instead there would be black“violence” and a perpetual “state of emergency” – have served as constructed preparations to manage our disappointment, for the big reveal that our criminal justice system was still as broken as it ever was. And now that the grand jury’s decision has arrived in the form of a smirking white prosecutor, all of the agony of that wait has culminated in nothing more than the sum of our grim expectations, to ignite cynicism and an old rage.
Today, Mike Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson has not been indicted for his murder. And who among us can say anything but: “I am not surprised”?
I remember sitting on a grand jury once. The state and county attorneys present their singular narrative, their small bits of evidence, to construct a case that says that the offender is guilty – or not. And when you sit on the grand jury, you’re not given much in terms of a complete accounting of events that could lead to any of the possible charges.
The 12 citizens on the Ferguson jury may have heard more “than any other grand jury has heard about any other case in living memory”, but the state owns the space, and the state does not own us. Wilson may have testified – he may have said he “feared for my life” – but the state has refused to listen to the testimony of a young black man with his hands in the air. The story cannot end here.
A non-indictment is no absolution of guilt, but are you not angry? Are you not sick of being unsurprised?
Ferguson is indeed a microcosm – of the all the narratives about race and America that we fear and suppress. Still: it is not enough to say that, yes, of course the promise of justice – the promise of America, of democracy – has failed its black citizens, again. It doesn’t make the disappointment any less disappointing, nor the rage any less real. But it doesn’t make the moment any less mighty either.
We can choose to say something else. We are choosing to protest.
There are guidelines – for them and for us, for cops and for protesters – but there is no textbook when history unfolds in real time, and there are no rules for coping with a moment as mighty as this. There will be changes, and there is still a federal civil-rights investigation. Right now, though, there are only tears of rage, frustration and anger – or all three at once.
"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time."
Fifty-three years ago, James Baldwin aptly observed that devastating truth. Fifty-three years later, the sustained rage restarts every 28 hours, because every 28 hours an African American is killed by law enforcement, or a security guard, or a “vigilante” claiming self-defence – or all three at once.
The students I teach at a community college in Manhattan – freshmen, like Mike Brown would have been right now, returning home to his family for Thanksgiving break – are relatively conscious of this regularity, of this apparent normality.
The young people know about John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black man who died after an Ohio police officer shot him for carrying an unloaded BB rifle in the pet-food aisle of Walmart, whose mother misses her son and doesn’t understand why an Ohio grand jury did not indict the cops responsible for this death.
The young people know about Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black father of six who died after a New York police officer put him in an illegal chokehold, whose family awaits in tears of rage as a grand jury still has not indicted any of the cops responsible for that death.
They know about Darrien Hunt and Vonderrit Myers Jr, another unarmed teenager shot dead by a white law-enforcement officer with a gun. After this weekend, they know about 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 28-year-old Akai Gurley. They know about Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell; I am teaching them about Edmund Perry and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But do they know about Ezell Ford in Los Angeles or Marlon Horton in Chicago and all the black and brown bodies gunned down by cops every day since that August afternoon when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown after those 90 seconds on Canfield Drive? Does a grand jury of our supposed peers – an extreme version of the kind I sat on – mean to say that if the cops are never wrong, they never shall experience any penalty or consequences for their errors, especially when they prove fatal? Or do we just expect this and that death, do we just embrace this failure of humanity?
The African American body is still the bellwether of the health, the promise and the problems of the American democratic experiment. The message that the Missouri grand jury has now sent to young African Americans – from Ferguson to my classroom and the rest of the world – is that black lives do not matter, that your rights and your personhood are secondary to an uneasy and negative peace, that the police have more power over your body than you do yourself.
Culpability doesn’t mean much behind a wall of blue, but today, we channel that rage to urge for transformative reforms in law and spirit. Why should we accept these terms that occlude black and brown citizens in the 21st century, in the year 2014? Why should we put faith in our justice system, as it stands, when the laws appear to be so unequally applied? What the fuck is policing that insists on using deadly force for the most minor of offenses? How the hell can such deadly force be excused by the system? What kind of world is this where the cops have more rights than you do?
"I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change... We live here together, this is our home. We’re stronger united."
Mike Brown’s father said that, in a video released on Friday with a message “to heal and to create lasting change”. President Obama and attorney general Eric Holder and all the rest offered healing words, too, mostly so that we would protest in peace, which we will – no matter how many of the battle tanks roll back in, no matter how many rubber bullets get fired, no matter teargas canisters are launched into the streets.
Meanwhile, the (white) leaders attempt to offer a smattering of words to mimic something akin to reform. The “insulated, isolated” Missouri governor, Jay Nixon, announced in advance of the decision a commission to investigate why things fell apart so rapidly, that “they are on edge”. The preachy St Louis mayor, Francis Slay, announced plans to expand a jobs initiative, that “we will protectyour right to peacefully assemble”. There will be all sorts of commissions and initiatives, just as there were after Los Angeles in 1992 and Cincinnati in 2001, just as President Johnson announced in 1968 and President Clinton did in ’97.
But in 2014, can any new commission or initiative or reform really provide very obvious and knowable answers that any other commission or initiative or reform couldn’t?
To offer a committee and yet another jobs program to “save” black parents from burying another black child is not a preventive measure when another white police officer will shoot and kill another big brown body on another empty street on another sunny afternoon any minute now. It’s important to invest in the economic wellbeing of communities, and certainly communities of color. And perhaps we do need a national civilian review board that tracks, monitors and investigates police shootings and excessive force cases. We should be doing all that anyway. Public policy changes and institutional reforms must and will happen after Ferguson, and many of the ideas for them will begin in these here pages.
But when the hands are up and the cop still shoots, reform is merely a Band-aid on a malignancy. When there is still no recognition of black humanity – when law enforcement is still so constantly projecting white fears of black criminality – then the answer is not just a happy political narratives. Because Darren Wilson still would have fired 12 times if Mike Brown had been wearing a tie on Canfield Drive.
The governor and other officials may have sent the message that to protest is to be violent, to channel anger in non-violent protest is to be tantamount to criminal action. But they, too, are wrong. Protest is exactly what we need."They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect" That decision, 157 years ago by Chief Justice Robert B Taney, ruled that Dred Scott must return to slavery. It sparked rage and frustration and anger, but it was the fuel for an antislavery movement, for a civil war and three amendments to our Constitution and an overhaul of our systems to align our ideals to affirm that, yes, black lives do matter. And yet the hydra of white supremacy persistently sought measures to subvert citizenship.
The definitive moment for Missouri’s social contract with African American citizens manifested itself in bloody, violent race riots initiated by whites in 1917. Missouri’s defining moment now is what we make of unfit justice, even if it manifests itself in protests beyond what we saw this summer.
At some point, we can talk about answers to our questions. But right now, there is only and will be a righteous anger in the streets of Ferguson, and throughout St Louis county, and in so many places across the nation and the globe. Sustained rage is the fuel – it is the best tool we have to insist for equitably applied justice, to compel police departments to respect the social contract it has with its citizens.
The black youth activism since that August day has been nothing short of remarkable. Since October, organizers have staged protests and creative acts of civil disobedience to compel the communities of St Louis County to confront the future of police-community relationships. It has been enough to remind anybody who is even slightly aware of their surroundings – of the pattern of police abuses, excessive force and systemic racism – that there is not a single community in America where people of color are not at a powerful, pernicious tension with their police department. That we have let another white cop who shot a black kid get off the hook.
And so we protest. Because it is our only recourse. We do not explode in violence, but we do not accept these terms that anticipate and perpetuate failure. We channel a sustained, clear-eyed rage, and we insist that our policies and our enactment of those policies ensure equal protection for the most vulnerable among us and accountability for officers in uniform when they kill unarmed youth with impunity.
We protest so that some day, some years from now, justice is not a surprise, nor a dream, nor deferred. So that justice just is.
For days, large swaths of the U.S. and the globe waited to hear whether or not the grand jury would indict Office Darren Wilson. For a week, Missouri governor Jay Nixon had declared a state of emergency, calling out the National Guard to “maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech.” Today, he repeated the same message.
“Together we are all focused to make sure that the necessary resources are at hand to protect lives, to protect business and to protect free speech.”
Given the record of arrests by Ferguson police of protestors and reporters, Nixon’s message was fairly simple to translate: he anticipated—correctly–that the grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson. Nixon’s fear was that in such a case, Black Americans’ ire at that decision would explode in violence and potentially violate the lives, businesses, and “free speech” not of black protestors, but of white denizens. Nixon hadn’t said it, but his assumption of violence reinscribed the assumption of Black madness, of the lack of rationality. “Protest” could only be irrational, because it would challenge the “natural order of things,” to paraphrase 17th century French economist François Quesnay. In his very actions, he all but indicated, what most of us knew and feared—that the grand jury would not indict Darren Wilson. And for Nixon, the Ferguson police, and the white residents of Ferguson that is as it should be.
The natural order, for Gov. Nixon, is one in which police violence will continue to be seen as “stopping criminals,” and preserving “freedom” for the whites of Ferguson. In the meantime, the Black citizens of Ferguson and their supporters across the globe will ascribe an enormous, though rather different, symbolism to the verdict: no indictment confirms the continued absence of legal—and indeed, moral justice.
Yet, it is hard to imagine that even had the grand jury indicted, that their decision would have much of an effect on the institutional, deeply-embedded problem of state-endorsed, police-led racial violence in Ferguson, St. Louis, or anywhere else in the U.S.
The indictment itself is supposed to be an indication of whether there appear to be sufficient grounds for putting Wilson on trial. In the event that the grand jury had indicted, a trial itself, guaranteed to be a long arduous process, would most likely not have had a very satisfactory outcome. In the even more unlikely—and far away—case that the trial were to have found Wilson to be guilty of having killed Brown unjustly, at most, one police officer would have been convicted for one act. A guilty legal verdict, in effect, would have been just that: a lone legal verdict in one case involving one Black teenager and one white police officer.
Symbolically, such a guilty verdict could have been a start. In a society where many Black Americans who have too keen an awareness of the history of racism, the “natural order of things” is, I suspect, precisely what many of us hoped to see overturned through an indictment—and possibly a guilty verdict in a trial for Darren Wilson. That “natural order of things” is the continued foundation of unjust economic rules, systemic racism, white supremacy. Yet, it is obscured under the universal, race-neutral promise of “equality and freedom for all,” distracting us from the racial bias that grounds “reasonable standards,”–where standards are reasonable only for those who stand on the side of white supremacy, land, and profit. Similarly, justice is thought to be the outcome of “due process,” in which process is only afforded to those who can afford the dues.
Yet neither an indictment nor a conviction of Darren Wilson would have given Black Americans, or other populations of color what is so urgent: A court system that sees the history of racial injustice through serial acts of police violence, that processes justice by taking into full account the history of slavery, and that of racial, political, and economic segregation. Neither an indictment nor a conviction would have afforded long-term racial justice, in which police officers no longer represent the white ruling class of Ferguson, in which the governor of Missouri doesn’t send the National Guard to shut down the speech and protests of those who are the victims of racism. That form of racial justice—regardless of the decision not to indict—will need much more. It will need the cultural, legal, and economic defeat of white supremacy. And that is a much longer, much larger struggle.Related Stories
There will be no justice for the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
After three months of deliberations, a 12-member grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri, did not find probable cause to press charges against Darren Wilson, a white 28-year-old Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, during a daytime confrontation on August 9.
The decision, which was announced on Monday night by prosecutors and preceded by an appeal for calm from Missouri’s Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, was predicted by the Brown family’s legal team. The governor, who declared a state of emergency before the announcement, said that local churches would be open as “safe havens” if violence broke out. Turmoil is expected because the killing has become a symbol of deep and enduring institutional racism and excessive policing in communities of color.
“The grand jury considered whether Wilson was the initial aggressor in this case, or whether Darren Wilson was authorized as a law enforcement officer to use deadly force in this situation, or if he acted in self-defense,” said St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch. “They determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson and and returned a ‘no-true’ [probable cause] bill on each of the five [possible killing-related] indictments.”
“The physical and scientific evidence examined by the grand jury, combined with the witness statements, supported and combined with that physical evidence, tells the accurate and tragic story of what happened,” McColloch continued, saying that the Ferguson police officer first heard about a local convenience store robbery suspect before stopping Brown, who matched that description.
McColloch said that the local police shared all of their evidence with the FBI, which has launched its own investigation under federal civil rights law, and would make that record public after his press announcement. He said those two investigations occurred in a sea of misinformation circulated by protesters and the media, including witnesses who later withdrew their testimony about seeing Brown gunned down.
The Brown family’s attorneys have said they did not expect a fair shake from prosecutors in St. Louis, a city with enduring racial divides where the authorities almost always side with the police. They pointed to Ferguson Police Dept. leaks to the media to smear Michael Brown’s character following his killing, plus additional leaks during the secret grand jury proceedings—notably an autopsy report that Brown had not been shot multiple times in the back. These leaks suggested Wilson would not face charges, even for an unintended killing—second-degree murder or manslaughter—as Missouri law and jury instructions strongly defer to the use of deadly force by on-duty police officers.
The decision underscores for many Americans and especially communities of color, that justice in America and the legal system are not the same. The grand jury’s decision was expected to spark new waves of protests across the country, if not immediately after Tuesday’s announcement, then in coming days.
Several hundred protesters gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department on Monday night. As the 8pm local time announcement neared, the mood became tense, according to video feeds and tweets. Some protesters chanted, “We’ve got to fight back." They grew silent as McCulloch made his announcement and then erupted afterward, mixing indignation with resignation.
Across the country, civil rights leaders predicted the highly emotional case would provoke strong reactions. On Monday in the San Francisco Bay Area, clergymen were planning to hold vigils and open forums in churches, Amos C. Brown, a NAACP national board member and prominent local minister, asked KQED-FM. “Why is it that violence is commonplace in the African-American community?”
“We are saying when the decision comes down regardless of what the decision is people should be out in the streets,” said D’Andre Teeter, a local organizer and member of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network. “There should be no business as usual in the country.”
In Atlanta, protests are expected on Tuesday, according to AtlantaWordWorks.com, a group that usually promotes poetry but sent out a release late Monday “to express the moral outrage our communities are experiencing in Georgia, regarding racially charged police murders and state sanctioned violence.”
Voilent protests erupted in Ferguson and across the country in the hours following the grand jury's announcement. In Ferguson, businesses were vandalized, police cars burned and gunshots were fired.
"This is not about vandalizing," Brian Redmon, 31, told a New York Times reporter in Ferguson as a police car burned before them. "This is about fighting a police organization that doesdn't care about the lives they serve."
Racial Bias In Law
Brown’s attorneys had been hoping for a second-degree murder charge, which is when a person knowingly causes the death of another. Eyewitnesses have said there was an initial scuffle between Brown and Wilson by the police car’s driver’s door, and then Wilson fired at Brown as he initially was running away—but then stopped and faced Wilson. But jury instructions in Missouri, which are read to the panel before it decides whether to press charges or not, allow police to use deadly force if the officer believes it is “immediately necessary.”
The St. Louis County grand jury’s decision, under state law, is only the first expected action from the legal system concerning the death of Michael Brown. The Department of Justice has also been investigating under federal civil rights laws. It has not yet made any annoucement on when its decision on pressing charges might be issued, although many legal commentators have said the likelihood of a Justice Department prosecution is slim.Related Stories
When a district court in China missed the deadline this month to issue a ruling on a high-profile lawsuit against a gay conversion clinic, it alarmed the country’s gay rights activists, who were initially hopeful that the court’s willingness to hear the case meant the government might be opening up to China’s LGBTQ community.
The lawsuit, filed in May with Beijing’s Haidian District Court, has now exceeded the six-month deadline usually allotted to Chinese courts hearing civil cases. The judge in charge of the lawsuit told the news publication China RealTime that the decision had not been delayed and would be released soon.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, a 30-year-old Beijing resident who identifies himself as Xiao Zhen, accused a psychiatric clinic in Chongqing, located in China’s southwest, of exceeding the limits of its license by offering a program to “cure" homosexuality. The lawsuit also targets Chinese search engine Baidu for advertising the clinic on its website.
Xiao Zhen said he visited the clinic earlier this year at the request of his parents after he told them he was gay. He said his parents urged him to attend the clinic after they found an advertisement for it on Baidu.
The clinic promised to cure homosexuality by using a mix of traditional Chinese smoke therapy, hypnosis, electrolysis and emotional diversion therapy. The clinic charged 500 yuan (about $81) for an initial session and the entire program cost 30,000 yuan ($4,900).
When Xiao Zhen arrived at the clinic for the initial session, he said he was told to lie down on a couch where a staff member placed electrodes on his hands. After 20 minutes of hypnosis, he was told to think about having sex with a man and wiggle his finger when he felt aroused. When Xiao Zhen moved his hand, he was given an electric shock.
He told China RealTime: ““I had no idea it was coming, so I literally jumped up off the couch and asked the doctor if this is what the rest of the therapy would entail.”
According to China RealTime, the doctor told him the full treatment would include 30 sessions, each involving three or four shocks.
“I thought this process probably won’t make me straight, but it could make me crazy,” Xiao Zhen said.
Xiao Zhen left the clinic immediately, and after doing some research, found that the clinic was only licensed to provide counseling or psychiatric treatment, not physical treatment. With encouragement from his friends, Xiao Zhen filed a lawsuit against the clinic.
The lawsuit also alleges that the clinic cannot claim to “cure” homosexuality because homosexuality is not considered a mental illness.
Homosexuality was removed from China’s list of mental illnesses as recently as 2001. It was only in 1997 that the Chinese government decriminalized homosexuality. However, gay marriage is still illegal in the country.
Gay rights advocacy in China has gained momentum this year. In March, a 19-year-old activist sued the government for denying his request to register his gay rights organization as an NGO, which would allow it to receive donations and tax exemptions. According to the BBC:
"In a written reply to him, the local government said homosexuality had no place in Chinese traditional culture and 'the building of spiritual civilization'—a catchphrase in modern China for what many believe is the party's indoctrination."
Grassroots activists are also demanding greater tolerance on college campuses. In September, 112 Chinese universities received letters demanding that campuses create a more welcoming atmosphere for LGBTQ students and allow LGBTQ clubs and communities in the universities.
The action followed a report by the Guangzhou-based Gay and Lesbian Campus Association that found 40 percent of references to homosexuality in Chinese textbooks call it a mental illness.
Richard Burger, creator of the Peking Duck blog and author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, explained the stigma around homosexuality in China in a post on his website:
"Homosexuality remains stigmatized throughout most of the country, partly because, as Fei Wang points out, it clashes with the long-held belief in China that children must marry and continue the family line by bearing offspring."
The stigma in China mirrors in many ways the opposition to gay rights in the United States, where some ultra-conservative groups consider homosexuality to be unnatural and believe a person can be cured of being gay. In 2006, it was revealed that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s husband practices reparative therapy, a procedure that promises to turn gay people straight, at his Christian counseling center.
According the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are nearly 70 therapists in the United States who advertise that they practice conversion therapy for gay people. The SPLC says that, “People who have undergone conversion therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.”
Earlier this month, the National Center for Lesbian Rights testified at the United Nations that unwanted gay conversion therapy for children is equivalent to torture and child abuse, asking the UN Committee Against Torture to ban any attempts to change a minor's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Saying he is like a “psychotic ex, sending you videos all of the time,” John Oliver — whose Last Week Tonight is on hiatus — posted a video to YouTube to discuss America’s “strangest Thanksgiving tradition”: the Presidential pardoning of a turkey.
Oliver notes that only one turkey receives a pardon while America consumes an estimated 46 million of the bird’s peers.
The HBO host calls for all turkeys to be eaten, saying they are delicious before proclaiming, “death to turkeys!”
Watch the video below, uploaded to YouTube:Related Stories
Covering war, empire, the national security state and occasionally a cultural commentary, Tom Dispatch features some of the best and most established progressive writers on the block -- the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, and Andrew Bacevich -- and it has done so at a remarkably steady pace for over a decade: about 150 essays a year. AlterNet has been proud to publish virtually every article produced by Tom Dispatch, and we consider TD an incredibly valuable resource. It's mainly a one-man show with Tom Engelhardt, known far and wide as a writer's editor for top-flight publishers, at the helm.So it was a pleasure to spend a recent morning with Tom Engelhardt to discuss his new book, Shadow Government (Haymarket, 2014), and how we will grapple with the worsening effects of the National Security state.
AlterNet: Looking back over the past decade, it seems things have gotten worse. True or false?
Engelhardt: Thirteen years later, it's gotten endlessly worse. What I see as the worst part of it is that -- forget politics for a minute -- there just seems to be no learning curve in Washington. It's like, you know what it reminds me of, but not in an amusing way? That old movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray wakes up the next morning and it's always the same. Except in this case, each day gets worse.
And now we're at a point where, the National Security State -- what I call in the title of my book, the Shadow Government -- has little accountability whatsoever. If I were break into a house, and I was found and caught, I would be brought to court for it. I might end up in jail.
If the Shadow Government breaks into a house, nothing will happen. You can run through the crimes, they range from destroying evidence of a crime they committed, CIA destroying its own tapes, perjury before Congress, to kidnapping and assassination, including the murder of American citizens, torture which we all know about. Every kidnapping which we like to call rendition because it sounds somewhat politer.
AlterNet: There are basically zero consequences for committing these crimes.
Engelhardt: Not a single person has gone to jail. I always think the torture thing is the telling one. There are 101 cases of torture, CIA torture brought before the justice department. Two of them included the actual deaths, the killing functionally of prisoners in black sites. One in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. Of those 101 cases, not one was brought to trial. The Justice Department dismissed them all. One man however has gone to jail over the CIA torture program is John Kiriakou, who was a CIA agent, and his crime was to release the name of a CIA agent who'd been involved in the torture program.
You really don't need to know more than that. It's true that Washington always had a certain lack of accountability, but people did over the years get brought up in charges. In this period, no. The federal apparatus is in post-legal America. We're still in legal America. That's a terrible change.
AlterNet: So How long has Tom Dispatch been publishing now?Engelhardt: Well, it started as a small email list just as the Afghan War started, October 2001. And you know, it's funny. I think the first thing I would say is that, to go back to the beginning, my initial impulse starting Tom Dispatch was very modest. I'm no megalomaniac but I made a mistake around 9/11; I had the feeling that 9/11 might open us up to the pain of the world. It didn't. When I started to see the repeated ceremonies around us as the biggest survivor, dominator, victim, of bad guy Osama Bin Laden, I was appalled. I had the feeling that this was going to be a terrible moment for this country, the worst with my life, I had the feeling this was going to be a terrible moment.
I have two kids and I just had that urge not to pass, not to not do anything. I just couldn't imagine passing the world on to them without having done anything. But I had no idea what to do. I was using the internet at the time, but I didn't know much about the online world. I didn't know you can read around newspapers everywhere.
Right in that aftermath, I saw an article, describing what it meant for us to bomb Afghanistan. It said, "We're bombing rubble." Because of course, Afghanistan after 30 years of war was already rubble.
I thought that's an incredible image. I took that article, I made a list of 13 people, some relatives and friends, I sent it out and wrote them, "You've got to read this."
Then I suddenly realized, the press was narrowing in a way I hadn't seen in my lifetime. I suddenly realized I could go read news at any publication available over the internet. I started doing just that; I started piling these articles up and the next thing I knew it was the miracle of the online world, the positive side of it. People started asking if could they be on my list. I didn't even know I had a list.
AlterNet: What about blowback? It seems like blowback is inevitable. Almost every major activity and you take in this home range but nobody, it is not even mentioned in the conversation. You think that anybody will factor that in?
Engelhardt: It is real. Listen, we would not be here now, to return to what we're talking about before. If we hadn't decided to give the Russians their own Vietnam in Afghanistan, this was the arming of the Mujahadeen in the 1980s, starting in 1979-80. We decided to give Russia a taste of what Vietnam had been like for us. This was talked about. This isn't like interpretation. If we hadn't decided to do that, there of course would have been no Al Qaeda. There would have been no Taliban. In other words, if you want to really talk about blowback, 9/11 and everything thereafter is one big blowback. And we can't currently know what the blowback from present operations say in the Middle East will be in the coming decades.
What we've known from the last thirteen years, is that the blowback gets spread around, not just in the USA. Libya is a great example, it's a very good example of what you could call blowback not directly at the United Stated but global blowback. The Obama administration intervened in Libya in 2011. It was a "no-casualties intervention" that has no casualties for us. It was an air intervention. The result of it was, Gadhafi went down and if you look three years later, Libya is a failed state, not a democracy. It's a failed state filled with worrying, ever more extreme, malicious in the leftover of the Libyan army. In the meantime, all of Gadhafi’s arsenals were ransacked and those arms passed all the way to the Sinai, all the way south to Nigeria. Our intervention in Libya has functionally destabilized significant parts of Africa. That's blowback. It doesn't just happen directly to us but it certainly does have major consequences for millions of people.
I think you can argue that with a possible exception of the Osama Bin Laden raid, literally speaking, every single American military action from the day after 9/11 to the present moment has been a disaster. Literally, two failed wars. If you look that in another way, Al Qaeda, if we had not been hysterical at that moment, Al Qaeda was an organization. It had those camps in Afghanistan. It has scattered followers around the world. It had a modest amount of money. It was at that moment, capable of launching operations more or less every year or so.
AlterNet: That was an essay you wrote that we ran, titled "The Last Empire" -- how there's no other great power on Earth than the US, yet it's incapable of exercising its power in traditionally constructive ways.
Engelhardt: This is the striking thing. We are the unipolar power but we cannot translate that into policy, almost anywhere on Earth. It seems that's quite a factor. Nothing seems to turn out as we want. Even countries like Afghanistan where the country traditionally would have been thought of as a puppet regime. They finally got after two years of push and pull they finally got their bilateral agreement signed that will leave you troops there for the next 10 years which is another disaster.
AlterNet: Does the internet play a big role in destabilizing the rest of the planet? AlterNet.org and Tomdispatch.org in the Internet business obviously. In the last 10 years we've seen the size of the on-line progressive community balloon 20-30 million people on any given week reading progressive content. An incredible number. But what does it add up to? Are we just garnish on a surveillance tool? What do you think about being an Internet publisher in a world where the Internet may be making things incredibly worse?
Engelhardt: I don't know. It's such a Janus-faced thing because part of it is miraculous. I've written about it as a disaster of privacy and I've written about it as the Golden Age of Reading because at the same time it's a disaster, it's a journalistic disaster for normal newspapers and someone. But never have we had such access to so much good and interesting analysis.
AlterNet: What has it done for us? Are we stronger or weaker?
Engelhardt: I think I'm too close to it to know. This is one I don't think I can answer. Some of the internet completely appalls me because one of the things that I see about the internet is it takes certain constraints and taboos off people. I'm always struck by this.
AlterNet: We have a situation where no one has any idea on these questions, it seems. We have the greatest analysts in the world and you're one of them. We have more information than we ever dreamed. But we seem to have less political leverage to do anything with that information.
Engelhardt: There are two different things here. I think one is what's to be done or what could be done and what can be done or will be done and they're not the same thing. In other words, I can say to you as a start. I think you could find people not just on the left or even the center left but on the right who would agree with this. I think we could just start by not doing so to speak. We could not intervene in the next place. This is not very complicated. We could decide that we were going to not be a military-based culture. We could decide that on the next disease pandemic, the thing that we were going to create a civilian humanitarian response and not send 3,000 boots on the ground to Liberia or wherever and create special SWAT team.
The thing is, I think it's obvious, we could begin to dismantle our imperial presence on the planet which is doing us and nobody else any particular good. There are a lot of things. It's not that I can't sit here and think what could be done. What's unclear to me is how the hell to get any of it done: That's the other question you're asking. That is, where are the combinations of forces that would begin to create the pressure for such things to happen? On that unfortunately, I don't know.
AlterNet: It seems like Obama was really trying hard not to intervene post-Iraq. Circumstances of course with the Islamic State started pushing him out of his position. But then this is enormous pressure. The beheading, the Washington Post pounding him day after day, going down on the polls. Knowing that have you yourself military back up in the polls, it seems like he had no choice now. Of course you have a choice but he seems to be completely boxed in, had no real allies, no one wanted to sit back and wait. How do you fight that? What's the option for any president?
Engelhardt: If you're just talking about the President, the one thing I would say is he didn't try hard enough. That I would say. This is a man who knows that this doesn't work, arming the rebels isn't going to, etc. he knows all this stuff. He did it anyway. For me, I just think for shame. Take your medicine and stand up for that you actually bloody think.
The reason it's hard to answer that in a serious way, and a million other important questions like it is, the United States, let's just say post-9/11 has done the same thing over and over and over again. We don't know what it would be like if we hadn't done something. There is no way to answer that because we have no examples, no counter examples to doing the same damn thing that everybody knows isn't going to work.
AlterNet: That situation Obama was in, and the many others like it where we keep doing the wrong thing -- is that it appears to be impossible to do anything different. All the forces are so far aligned, whether it's government secrecy, whether it's the money for the military, whether it's the thousands of private contractors, or the right wing enabled by the rest of the media.
Engelhardt: Obama could always get up and address the American people and say, "Look, this is why I'm not doing it. We've done it wrong. Seventeen times and I'm not going to do it. It's going to look bad for a while, I'm going to take heat for a while. The buck stops here." All the things that people are taught out to say, he could have said that. What would they have done? They would have had certain things to do. It happened with Syria, the only example. It was pathetic the way he backed down and finally ended that. He backed down for actually sending the missiles on Syria. We saw. There was also, it's a pressure. It's the same scenario. It was the one time that he backed off and actually stuck to his guns.
AlterNet: With so few examples of this from our elected leaders, what's a way of looking at things and finding some optimism in the value of our enterprise as publishers and editors of independent thought when it comes to war and empire?
Engelhardt: Here's how I actually think about it. Even at my age of 70, I learn. One of my learning experiences had to do with Rebecca Solnit who writes for Tom Dispatch. She wrote a book called Hope in the Dark. It was based on an essay she sent in to Tom Dispatch out of the blue in 2003. In that essay which had a profound effect on me, she mentioned, she was involved with an antinuclear movement in the 1980s in Nevada, to try- that failed basically. It was a vigorous anti-nuclear, People's Anti-Nuclear Movement that failed or it felt like it failed. When the Soviet Union fell in 1990, the Kazaks were left with nuclear weapons.
Instead of keeping them, the leaders of Kazakhstan at that time decided they would return them to the Soviet Union. They didn't want to be a nuclear power. When they made that announcement, they pointed to the Anti-Nuclear Movement she had been involved in in Nevada as one of the inspirations for their decision. She used that as an example of the fact that you cannot tell when you act in the world as best you can, you can't tell what effect your'e going to have on who. You might affect no one in Nevada by working in Nevada for years and somehow affect the Kazakhs, who knows.
For me, I found this very inspirational. I know what I can do well. I do it as best I can at Tom Dispatch. I always assume, I always hope, that what I do, the attempt to give people new ways, new frameworks for thinking about their world, to look at their world differently, which is kind if what Tom Dispatch tries to do overall. I can't know what effect that's really going to have. I can't know if it's useful or not. I can't know if the internet, if it's part of something that's wonderful, it wouldn't matter if it's just a nothing. But I think that's a reasonable bet to make that it could do something.
AlterNet: That's the only bet you got.
Engelhardt: And hope to hell that it will have an effect than do to do nothing. Let me put this another way. Years ago, I added it late in this life. I edited Studs Turkel. I edited, the last book I edited with him which I always love to came after his book on death was a book on activism which he called, Hope Dies Last. What I learned from that book which also taught me something was, in good times, it's easy to be hopeful in your life, it's not a big deal. In bad times, the only way you can really feel hope is to act."
It's a wonderful book about activist, about people who in bad times took that first step and acted. Whatever happened, you never what's going to happen. But I have to say personally, that I think if I weren't doing Tom Dispatch I would be in a state of depression. I really would be in a state of depression. But Tom Dispatch, just the doing, this I learned from Studs, God rest his soul. The state of doing is brings a feeling of hope. It's important in a world in which things look terrible. To feel some sense of possibility, there are future generations, you've got a child, I've got a grandson and children, you want to feel that there's something both that you can do for them and something that can be done for this world. I am probably a pessimist at heart but an operational optimist.
Check out Engelhardt's new book, Shadow Government to learn more (Haymarket, 2014).
The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise, This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.
In the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:
Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?
At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective action) that could address the crisis. It’s a crucial insight, and it alone justifies the price of admission.
Klein reports that her “environmentalist friends” constantly ask her, “Do you have to say ‘capitalism’?” It’s a great laugh line, but it’s important to acknowledge that the question is a fair one. Because if capitalism – the hard core of our woe-begotten economy – is the problem, then our near-impossible task becomes even more difficult. Given her animus against neoliberalism (see her previous bestsellers, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine), you might expect her to agree that vocal anti-capitalism is unnecessary; neoliberalism is quite enough to fear all by itself. But Klein is playing another game, and it requires her to call things by their proper names. In this sense she may not even be an environmentalist, at least not in the old sense of the word. The modern American green movement has so long strained to avoid charges of anti-capitalism that you could write its history in terms of this avoidance. Such a history would recount endless screeds against “industrialism,” “technology,” “reductionism,” “patriarchy,” “overpopulation,” and, lately, even agriculture. All of these, no doubt, have something to teach us, but absent a coherent understanding of political economy, they shade together into noise and confusion.
So yes, she had to say “capitalism.” And so do the rest of us. For there is no greater priority than to bring the economy under effective democratic control, and if we imagine that we can do such a thing without, for example, learning to speak about growth in a coherent way, we are mistaken. Indeed, if we imagine that we can understand the problem of growth without understanding the problem of capitalism, then we ourselves are part of the problem. Klein knows this, and touches on the relevant debates, but – interestingly – she doesn’t press them very hard. Rather, and this is the same move she makes when it comes to climate science, she gives the reader a few choice entry points and then returns to her chosen strategy: “Think big, go deep, and move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health.”
It’s quite an ask, and Klein does not pretend otherwise. Rather than retreat from the difficulties, she emphasizes that the necessary rate of emissions reduction is not beyond our powers, though it is without historical precedent. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The problem is that it’s too late for incremental strategies, and that the “great transition” we need will not come because, as in the old environmentalism, people rally to protect nature alone. Our only real hope is to put the problem of justice at center stage.Speaking of climate science, there’s a point I cannot omit. As Klein briefly explains, the global “carbon budget” is all but exhausted, and in consequence global emissions have to drop very far and very quickly if we’re to have any real chance of stabilizing the climate system. Her discussion of these issues is organized around key numbers provided by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin at the UK’s Tyndall Centre, scientists who argue that if we’re to stabilize the climate, the citizens of the wealthy world will have to reduce their emissions even faster than the global average, by 8 to 10 percent a year.
Greens like to speak of “renewal,” “reinvention,” and “restoration.” Increasingly, they speak of “resistance” as well. Klein has planted her flag on this hill, and her exploration of the global resistance to “extractivism” that she calls “Blockadia” is the heart of her book. There’s a lot to say about the politics of Blockadia – its potential and its limits – but the point I wish to emphasize is that when she looks at this resistance, she does not see a small and blinkered thing. She sees a movement that is learning by doing, and as fast as it possibly can. She wants to speed the process along, and to that end she continues down the list of “re” words, past even “resistance,” to arrive, finally, at “redistribution.” Her book’s excellent conclusion is framed by an extensive discussion in which the abolition of slavery – rather than, say, the moon shot or the Manhattan Project or even the New Deal – is taken as the archetype of the global mobilization that we now need.
Another topic that Klein takes head-on is the deadlock in the international climate negotiations. How are we to understand the problem of development in a climate-constrained world? What are the obligations of the wealthy countries to the developing ones? Here again are questions that the green mainstream fears to explore in anything like a serious manner, but she puts them on the agenda, and for this she deserves a great deal of credit. (Full disclosure: She cites my own work with EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environmental Institute).
Can This Changes Everything be taken as a marker of change? My sense is that it can. For one thing, it comes just after the People’s Climate March, which was itself a milestone in the climate justice movement, and it was clearly written as an expression of that movement’s ethos and priorities. The question is not if Klein has written a very good climate book – she has – but if it’s the breakthrough book we need, the one that lays out the stakes in a manner that makes them comprehensible. There’s no question it will help.
The novelist Nathanial Rich, in his New York Times review of This Changes Everything, struck an interesting note when he compared it to The Collapse of Western Civilization, a grim “view from the future” just published by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Although Rich generally approves of Klein’s “robust new polemic,” he’s less sure about her optimism. He grants her the movement’s progress, but differs when it comes to its adequacy in the face of the danger. Where Klein sees that danger as reason for an all-hands-on-deck mobilization, Rich recalls her admission that it will be extremely difficult to restrict the rise in global temperatures to an average of 4°C. Given that four degrees “is the premise for the nightmarish future described by Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway,” he concludes that The Collapse of Western Civilization “appears to be the book that is furthest from fiction.”
The point? Only that The New York Times, a bastion of realist moderation, chose to grace This Changes Everything with a reviewer who believes that the collapse of civilization is more likely than the transformational renewal that is the keystone of Klein’s book.
In closing a recent talk, Klein said that most climate activists are haunted by despair, for they know that while everyone cares about the climate, their concern is thin. Her conclusion is that “only justice will fuel a movement that is truly fighting to win.” This is exactly right. Were we all to admit it, this really would change everything.
The short life of Adam Lanza, the killer responsible for the 2012 mass shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, was a perfect storm of missed cues, bungled mental healthcare, overwhelmed and absentee parenting, easy access to guns, violent video games and online chats where murder was discussed like baseball scores.
These are some of takeaways from a 114-page report issued by the state of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate that spent more than a year taking a hard look at Lanza’s life, his medical history, mental health treatments, school experiences, relationship with his parents, and life online—all to ask what could have been done differently.
The report, which reads like a slow-motion train wreck, is careful to avoid drawing hard conclusions about what factors went wrong and exploded in Lanza’s killing of 27 people on Dec. 14, 2012. Instead, it seems to say that every thread was a factor as Lanza spiraled downhill and burrowed into an internal violence-filled fantasy land.
“While we describe the predisposing factors and compounding stresses in AL’s life, we do not conclude that they add up in an inevitable arc leading to mass murder,” the report concludes. “There is no way to adequately explain why AL was obsessed with mass shootings and how or why he came to act on his obsession. In the end, only he, and he alone, bears responsibility for this monstrous act.”
However, the report describes the factors that contributed to Lanza’s mass murder spree at a location he knew very well—the grade school where his absentee father took him as a young adult on walks to try to talk to him. These factors—from his medical history, to the quality and effectiveness of the care he received privately and through school, to his access to guns and violent online fantasyland—pose the question of what might have unfolded if any of these variables had differed.
The most obvious question concerns Lanza’s lifelong access to guns, from an early age to his teenage years when it was clear most of the mental health interventions weren’t changing his behavior. The report says:
AL grew up in a home where it was commonplace to use guns for recreational activity. It cannot be overlooked that as his mental health deteriorated and his isolation from the world increased dramatically, his access to guns did not diminish. His parents, and certainly his mother, seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son.
Particularly in the waning months of AL’s life, when his mother noted that he would not leave the house and seemed despondent, it is not clear that she took measures to curtail his access to guns or whether she considered his potential for suicide or other acts of violence. Additionally, there is no mention of access to or use of firearms in any other available educational, medical, or mental health records.
This summation is followed by others describing Lanza’s ongoing relationship to guns against a backdrop of fractured family dynamics. He often got what he wanted, as the path of least resistance in a broken home that didn’t know what to do with him.
In later interviews with state police, Mr. Lanza [the father] indicated that he had never given or purchased a firearm for AL but that he assumed Mrs. Lanza [the mother, who he murdered] had. Mr. Lanza indicated that he was unaware that Mrs. Lanza was buying AL his own guns, as opposed to simply doing shooting activities together. Mr. Lanza indicated he knew AL had access to guns when he took him to a shooting range and AL had two long guns that Mr. Lanza believed were purchased by Mrs. Lanza.
The report backs away from the conclusion that access to guns was a decisive factor, saying, “while millions of people in the developed world may have schizophrenia, only an infinitesimal number of those individuals will engage in acts of violence. But rates of gun violence around the world do vary widely based on access to guns.”
Gun-control advocates counter that argument evades the basic truth that access to guns is directly tied to their use in violent assaults, particularly inside the home. “We cannot ignore this simple truth: Too many shootings occur because proper weight has not been given to the risks that come with gun ownership,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, commenting on the report. “A gun in the home increases the risk of an unintentional shooting, suicide and homicide.”
The report also describes in great detail the long history of the parents’ efforts, especially his mother and public school officials, to get mental health conseling for Lanza and place him in what they hoped would be positive settings where he might outgrow anti-social behaviors. Looking backward, the report questioned whether government case workers and clinicians should have deferred to Lanza’s mother, who claimed she didn’t need more help, when, in retrospect, she clearly did.
A review of AL’s history raises questions regarding whether any providers, particularly the educational system and pediatrics, viewing a youth with profound developmental and mental health challenges, who was at times borderline or actually anorexic, and who was often unavailable for school or treatment, considered that AL’s parents needed assistance or otherwise lacked capacity to ensure that his specialized needs were met.
The report skirts the key question of whether Lanza’s mental illness was of a magnitude that could not be treated through the mix of therapies that were available through schools and private clinicians. In retrospect, it suggests that the state should have acted to step in earlier, because there were clear signs that his mother, left alone as his primary caregiver, was more than overwhelmed and depressed by the ordeal.
The role of a child welfare system may inevitably be to compel a family into support services, a role that may, admittedly bring with it suspicion or fear on the part of the child or family. However, it is fair to query here whether the Lanzas, after all engagement with community mental health services ended, needed to be compelled into services and whether this type of action may have arrested AL’s deterioration and isolation from the community….
People who knew Mrs. Lanza described her as spending a lot of time in a local restaurant and bar during this last year. According to one individual, Mrs. Lanza was often at the bar and she would stay late. When asked about AL and son Ryan, Mrs. Lanza would rarely speak about AL. Interviews indicate that Mrs. Lanza may have expressed some concern to friends or acquaintances about AL, particularly in 2012, noting that he had not come out of his room for months and that he would not engage with her. She worried that he did not care about her at all.
The report reconstructs how Lanza spent most of his time in the years before the killing spree at his home, where he later murdered his mother, and at the elementary school. Playing a video game called “Dance Dance Revolution,” Lanza would work himself up into a physical frenzy akin to running long-distance races.
Reports were that AL would dance for hours at a time. Per description, he would whip himself into a frenzy, a behavior consistent, possibly, with a need to contain anxiety-producing impulses and thoughts. There were days when he would not do anything else but Dance Dance Revolution. He generally would do it alone except for his one friend at the time. AL would sometimes engage in this activity for ten hours at a time. He would move until he was drenched in sweat, not eating for extended periods. He would then retreat into the bathroom and wipe himself off, sometimes returning to the activity once again.
Lanza also played a variety of combat-oriented video games, including some that put him in the role of a “first-person shooter,” the report said. He also had more than a passing interest in researching mass shootings, reading biographies of the killers, and talking about this interest with another youth (who cut off ties to Lanza six months before the shootings) and in chatrooms, the report said.
AL and the friend also talked about their interest in mass murderers or serial killers, but this was just considered to be a mutual morbid interest. Both he and his acquaintance liked horror movies. In June of 2012, he and his primary acquaintance had a falling out and stopped spending time together. AL began researching mass shootings on the computer in 2011. His interest accelerated until he appeared to be obsessed with the details and narratives of these shooters. He and cyber-acquaintances would write about their mutual interest in various shooters and incidents.
The reports’ authors wring their hands over what could have been done differently. Teens today live in a world where their forms of recreations are often filled with violent books, movies and video games. The report’s biggest takeaway seems to be that any household plagued by anti-social bahaviors—if not mental illness—needs to reduce risk factors that can erupt in violent explosions, such as ready access to firearms.
The report chronicles Lanza’s last months, showing an all-but impending explosion.
Over the last months of AL’s life he was also closely connected to a small community of individuals that shared his dark and obsessive interest in mass murder.
July 23, 2012 (from AL to Cyber-Acquaintance): “My interest in mass murdered [sic] has been perfunctory for such a long time. The enthusiasm I had back when Virginia Tech happened feels like it’s been gone for a hundred billion years. I don’t care about anything. I’m just done with it all.
The report says that Lanza was utterly alone, unaccountable and drifting without any boundaries. The investigators found a draft college application essay in which he argued that pedophilia “should not be considered abhorrent or illegal.”
While not everyone who is cut off and isolated is a mass murderer-in-waiting, the report affirms that people who are socially isolated and left to drift on their own are not only endangering their own well-being but are likely to inflict some harm on others that reflects their obsessions. In Lanza’s case, that obsession was extreme violence.
[Cyber] Acquaintances wrote back and forth [to Lanza] regarding various sources of information about shootings, including school shootings. His peer and community influences, present through much of his life, at least in some fashion, through school and family, had largely gone away. Replacing these influences was a narrow group of peers who exerted no positive, regulating force on AL. Unlike normalizing influences and positive community peer groups, his cyber group would have had little willingness or ability to stop his dangerous trajectory or to offer cautioning feedback to him about his impulses.Related Stories
This week the USA Freedom Act was blocked in the Senate as it failed to garner the 60 votes required to move forward. Presumably the bill would have imposed limits on NSA surveillance. Careful scrutiny of the bill’s text however reveals yet another mere gesture of reform, one that would codify and entrench existing surveillance capabilities rather than eliminate them.
Glenn Greenwald, commenting from his perch at the Intercept, opined:
“All of that illustrates what is, to me, the most important point from all of this: the last place one should look to impose limits on the powers of the U.S. government is . . . the U.S. government. Governments don’t walk around trying to figure out how to limit their own power, and that’s particularly true of empires.”
Anyone who followed the sweeping deregulation of the financial industry during the Clinton era, the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999 which effectively repealed Glass-Steagall and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, immediately sees through Greenwald’s impromptu dogma. Let’s not forget the energy market deregulation in California and subsequent manipulation that resulted in blackouts throughout the state. Ditto that for the latest roll back of arms export controls that opened up markets for the defense industry. And never mind all those hi-tech companies that want to loosen H1-B restrictions.
The truth is that the government is more than happy to cede power and authority… just as long as doing so serves the corporate factions that have achieved state capture. The “empire” Greenwald speaks of is a corporate empire. In concrete analytic results that affirm Thomas Ferguson’s Investment Theory of Party Competition, researchers from Princeton and Northwestern University conclude that:
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
Glenn’s stance reveals a broader libertarian theme. One that the Koch brothers would no doubt find amenable: the government is suspect and efforts to rein in mass interception must therefore arise from the corporate entities. Greenwald appears to believe that the market will solve everything. Specifically, he postulates that consumer demand for security will drive companies to offer products that protect user privacy, adopt “strong” encryption, etc.
The Primacy of Security Theater
Certainly large hi-tech companies care about quarterly earnings. That definitely explains all of the tax evasion, wage ceilings, and the slave labor. But these same companies would be hard pressed to actually protect user privacy because spying on users is a fundamental part of their business model. Like government spies, corporate spies collect and monetize oceans of data.
Furthermore hi-tech players don’t need to actually bullet-proof their products to win back customers. It’s far more cost effective to simply manufacture the perception of better security: slap on some crypto, flood the news with public relation pieces, and get some government officials (e.g. James Comey, Robert Hannigan, and Stewart Baker) to whine visibly about the purported enhancements in order to lend the marketing campaign credibility. The techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley are masters of Security Theater.
Witness, if you will, Microsoft’s litany of assurances about security over the years, followed predictably by an endless train of critical zero-day bugs. Faced with such dissonance it becomes clear that “security” in high-tech is viewed as a public relations issue, a branding mechanism to boost profits. Greenwald is underestimating the contempt that CEOs have for the credulity of their user base, much less their own workers.
Does allegedly “strong” cryptography offer salvation? Cryptome’s John Young thinks otherwise:
“Encryption is a citizen fraud, bastard progeny of national security, which offers malware insecurity requiring endless ‘improvements’ to correct the innately incorrigible. Its advocates presume it will empower users rather than subject them to ever more vulnerability to shady digital coders complicit with dark coders of law in exploiting fear, uncertainty and doubt.”
Business interests, having lured customers in droves with a myriad of false promises, will go back to secretly cooperating with government spies as they always have: introducing subtle weaknesses into cryptographic protocols, designing backdoors that double as accidental zero-day bugs, building rootkits which hide in plain sight, and handing over user data. In other words all of the behavior that was described by Edward Snowden’s documents. Like a jilted lover, consumers will be pacified with a clever sales pitch that conceals deeper corporate subterfuge.
Ultimately it’s a matter of shared class interest. The private sector almost always cooperates with the intelligence services because American spies pursue the long-term prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism; open markets and access to resources the world over. Or perhaps someone has forgotten the taped phone call of Victoria Nuland selecting the next prime minister of Ukraine as the IMF salivates over austerity measures? POTUS caters to his constituents, the corporate ruling class, which transitively convey their wishes to clandestine services like the CIA. Recall Ed Snowden’s open letter to Brazil:
“These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
To confront the Deep State Greenwald is essentially advocating that we elicit change by acting like consumers instead of constitutionally endowed citizens. This is a grave mistake because profits can be decoupled from genuine security in a society defined by secrecy, propaganda, and state capture. Large monolithic corporations aren’t our saviors. They’re the central part of the problem. We shouldn’t run to the corporate elite to protect us. We should engage politically to retake and remake our republic.
Beginning when I was an 18-year-old university student, I took out four Sallie Mae “Tuition Answer” loans worth about $36,000 between 2006 and 2008 – which was more than twice as much as I earned working my way through college – so that I could attend the City University of New York’s Hunter College. It’s a relatively affordable school, but due to the deaths of both of my parents when I was younger and the fact that my job at a local clothing store paid only $7 per hour, I still needed money to make ends meet.
I felt uneasy signing the paperwork, but my school’s financial aid office was plastered with posters and pamphlets depicting smiling students whom Sallie Mae had allowed to follow their dreams and I was under the impression that they were benevolent. I had no idea that, without a cosigner, I’d end up with credit card-like interest rates, amongst a multitude of other problems.
Most people think of Sallie Mae as a purveyor of federally-backed student loans with low, government-mandated interest rates, regulated deferred payments and hardship waivers. And, looking back, the differences between the federal student loans and private, bank-backed student loans that Sallie Mae services were definitely blurry – listed in the same pamphlets, referred to as “Sallie Mae” loans, marketed in the same way. You could even say that Sallie Mae bases the reputation of its other, more predatory student loan products on the strength of the reputation of the federal loans everyone knows them for. (Perhaps that’s why reports surfaced in mid-November that the Obama administration may remove Sallie Mae from federal loan-servicing.)
But after I finished my undergraduate degree in 2009 and earned a Masters degree in geography in 2011, I wasn’t able to find work. The field of computerized mapping had previously been booming, but entry-level tech jobs had dried up. I couldn’t even get a job housekeeping at a local motel. And unlike federally-backed student loans – which give borrowers the option of income-based repayment plans or deferring payments altogether in cases of financial hardship – private lenders, like the ones behind the loans Sallie Mae gave me, are under no such obligation and have no incentives to offer any repayment flexibility.
So, with no income and my private student loan payments, interest and fees, I was headed for default.
Sallie Mae’s collectors called me up to 10 times per day, even on weekends and holidays. I begged their representatives (and recorded the conversation on camera, as shown in the CNN documentary Ivory Tower) to make my payments affordable so that I could begin to pay them back rather than default. They refused.
The only option Sallie Mae offered me to avoid default and subsequent financial ruin was to pay a $150 fee every three months to put my loans in “forbearance”. But interest – more than $1,100 per month on my $36,000 in loans – would still have continued to accrue and that $150 wouldn’t be applied to either the interest or the growing balance. It was mind-boggling.
Bankruptcy wasn’t even an option, thanks to the government’s 2005 “reforms”: you can now only use bankruptcy to discharge student debt in cases of extreme hardship, such as total and permanent disability. It would’ve been easier to get out from under my debt if I’d amassed it through using credit cards irresponsibly or even gambling, rather than taking out student loans to finance my education.
So in early 2012, I started a Change.org petition to demand that Sallie Mae reverse its “unemployment penalty fee” policy. After 170,000 signatures and a press conference, Sallie Mae agreed to start applying the fee to students’ balances. I beat Sallie Mae at its own bureaucratic game, but even that wasn’t enough.
I’m proud that my campaign had helped a lot of people, but I was still screwed: I was still unemployed, Sallie Mae still wouldn’t work with me on a payment plan, and my interest rates were still incredibly high. My “tuition answer” turned out to be a bill that grew to a monstrous $77,000, just three years after graduation.
I defaulted, and Sallie Mae brought four lawsuits against me to try to recoup all that money and more. If the lender had won, I would’ve had a judgment against me for the next 20 years; they would’ve been able to to garnish my wages and tax refunds; and, on the rare occasion that I had more than $2,000 in my bank accounts, they could’ve taken all but $1,920 of it. My credit would’ve been wrecked for at least seven years, preventing me from renting an apartment, leasing a car or getting a job – at least, with one of the 60% of employers who check your credit before they hire you.
Sallie Mae’s lawyers verbally suggested working out a settlement, but it felt like a trap: the judge said that, if I missed a single payment, my balance would revert back to $77,000 and none of the payments I would’ve made in the interim would be counted against that balance.
Instead, I spent a year representing myself in county civil court, because the majority of lawyers I’d spoken to were ignorant of – or outright refused – to get involved in student debt cases. But the New York Legal Assistance Group set me up with a lawyer named Kevin Thomas who, when he heard my story, said, “You’re going to be OK. Trust me.” I was reluctant, but I figured I had nothing left to lose.
It turned out that Sallie Mae had more to lose than me: Kevin discovered, and brought to the attention of the court, that in three of the four suits, I was being sued by an entity – “SLM Education Credit Finance Corp” – that wasn’t even registered to do business in New York State, and the plaintiffs couldn’t produce any evidence that the entity in the fourth suit – “SLM Private Credit Student Loan Trust VL Funding LLC” – even exists.
Sallie Mae’s own lawyer was dumbfounded. The judge threatened them with a $10,000 sanction for their “nonsense”, then dismissed their case against me because they lacked standing. Their attempt to overturn the judge’s decision was denied, and they were told that, if they want to sue me again, they’d have to register to do business in New York (and pay millions, if not billions, of dollars in taxes) first.
I had won.
There is no single way to describe the enormous relief I feel about the opportunity to actually have a financial future. But there is one way to describe knowing that the company that sold me predatory loans – and tried to ruin my entire future in the process of collecting them – not only lost in court, but may have to leave multitudes of victims alone. It’s called schadenfreude.
• This article was amended on 24 November 2014 to reflect that Sallie Mae attempted to vacate the judge’s order and lost, rather than initiated an appeal.
Our Economy Is Built Around a Bunch of Scams and Pure Greed -- and the Alternatives Are Staring Us in the Face
Wall Street is only one of several financial roach motels in what has become a giant slum of a global economy. Notional “money” scuttles in for safety and nourishment, but may never get out alive. Tom Friedman of The New York Times really put one over on the soft-headed American public when he declared in a string of books that the global economy was a permanent installation in the human condition. What we’re seeing “out there” these days is the basic operating system of that economy trying to shake itself to pieces.
The reason it has to try so hard is that the various players in the global economy game have constructed an armature of falsehood to hold it in place — for instance the pipeline of central bank “liquidity” creation that pretends to be capital propping up markets. It would be most accurate to call it fake wealth. It is not liquid at all but rather gaseous, and that is why it tends to blow “bubbles” in the places to which it flows. When the bubbles pop, the gas will tend to escape quickly and dramatically, and the ground will be littered with the pathetic broken balloons of so many hopes and dreams.
All of this mighty, tragic effort to prop up a matrix of lies might have gone into a set of activities aimed at preserving the project of remaining civilized. But that would have required the dismantling of rackets such as agri-business, big-box commerce, the medical-hostage game, the Happy Motoring scam, the suburban sprawl “industry,” and the higher ed loan swindle. All of these evil systems have to go and must be replaced by more straightforward and honest endeavors aimed at growing food, doing trade, healing people, traveling, building places worth living in, and learning useful things.
All of those endeavors have to become smaller, less complex, more local, and reality-based — rather than based, as now, on overgrown and sinister intermediaries creaming off layers of value, leaving nothing behind but a thin entropic gruel of waste. All of this inescapable reform is being held up by the intransigence of a banking system that can’t admit that it has entered the stage of criticality. It sustains itself on its sheer faith in perpetual levitation. It is reasonable to believe that upsetting that faith might lead to war. After all, a number of places organized as nation-states will be full of angry, distressed citizens clamoring for sustenance and easy answers — and quite a bit of their remaining real capital is stored in the form of things that blow up.
There is an awful lot that President Barack Obama has to answer for after all this time. But there is almost no public chatter (let alone true debate) about his failure to discipline the banking system. He should have commenced to restructure the biggest banks in January of 2009. He should have proposed through his congressional proxies the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall act. Almost nobody besides Bill Black has remarked on the remarkable record of the SEC under Obama in making no criminal referrals to the Department of Justice, not to mention the stupendous dereliction of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Of course, Barack Obama is not the only eminent office holder in the land. The behavior of all the others the past decade represents such a titanic failure of nerve and action that the younger generation must think that only revolution can avail. I believe they’ll get their chance. Everything on the horizon — most particularly the idiotic chorus of financial “bulls” — points to an ever more harrowing outcome of the orchestrated pretense that governs money matters in this moment of history.
More of the moment is the anxious decision of the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury in the matter of Michael Brown’s death. The race hustlers so prominently showcased on CNN want to put over the story that there is only one possible just decision. If it doesn’t work out the way they like, this will be a bloody holiday and perhaps the beginning of something much bigger.
As a general rule, I try not to write about hypocrisy in politics. It’s such a constant, such a fact of life, that it can feel a bit like complaining about traffic or the weather.
But just as there’s a difference between waiting an extra 20 minutes during rush hour and being stranded in your car for five days — or between a typical snowstorm and what’s happening currently in Buffalo — there’s a difference between the routine hypocrisy of politics and the kind we saw this week from Republicans in the House. One kind is an annoyance to be quickly forgotten; the other leaves a mark.
Before getting into why they’re so egregious, however, let’s pause to recap the Congressional GOP’s recent machinations.
Aware no doubt of how President Obama’s announcement this week on immigration reform would dominate both the media and the public’s attention, Republicans in the House, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, have been working to make sure the next head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — which acts as Congress’s honest broker when it comes to scoring fiscal policy — is not a nonpartisan technocrat, as has usually been the case, but rather a loyal member of the conservative movement. And, as former CBO chief Peter Orszag recently explained, because the CBO has no institutional protections from partisan hackery, and maintains its integrity mostly through tradition, there’s precious little anyone can do to stop them.
While there are no doubt many changes ideologues like Ryan would like to see the CBO make, reports indicate that the main reason GOPers want to install a right-wing hack as its chief is in order to make the agency integrate “dynamic scoring” more fully into its estimations. “Dynamic scoring,” for those who don’t know, is a phrase conservatives like to use to give a tenet of their anti-tax religion — lower taxes lead to more revenue! — an intellectual gloss. More importantly, dynamic scoring is generally the special sauce right-wing “wonks” put into their projections in order to claim that massively cutting taxes on the rich won’t lead to fiscal ruin. Remember the absurd claim that Bush’s tax cuts wouldn’t explode deficits? Thank dynamic scoring for that.So that’s what’s happening under the radar with the CBO. And if that were the whole story, it’d probably fall under into the “routine traffic and weather” category of hypocrisy I mentioned earlier. What makes this more of a Buffalo snowstorm-level problem is the context — specifically, the fact that Republicans are destroying yet another norm of American politics, the nonpartisan CBO, at the very same time that they’re waging a relentless and disingenuous campaign to persuade the media (and thus the American people) that the way the Affordable Care Act was written was a breach of democratic norms without precedent.
Yes, this is where “Grubergate,” the most recent of the GOP’s seemingly endless supply of manufactured outrages, comes in. If you’re not familiar with this tempest in a teapot, I recommend you catch up by reading my colleague Joan Walsh. But for our purposes here, all you need to know is that Republicans have been devoting a ton of energy toward making MIT’s Jonathan Gruber’s admission, that the White House designed Obamacare with the likely political ramifications of the CBO score in mind, equivalent to the 18-minute gap in the Nixon tapes. Because the president knew that calling something in the bill a “penalty” instead of a “tax” would make it harder for conservatives to scream that Obamacare was the tax hike to end all tax hikes — as they did (and are still doing) with Hillarycare — that means, conservatives argue, that the bill itself was only able to pass through the most dastardly lies.
As BuzzFeed’s Adam Serwer noted, the Grubergate politicking is most likely an attempt to lay the groundwork for defending a possible future Supreme Court gutting of the ACA. (Although Gruber’s confirming the right’s suspicions of liberal technocrat elitism and piggishness, by calling voters stupid, is operational, too.) But when you see it through the lens of Ryan’s dynamic scoring push, you’re confronted with a level of bullshit that is flabbergasting — even in the context of partisan politics. According to Paul Ryan and other Republicans, it is absolutely not OK for a president to design a bill in a way that makes it harder for its opponents to demagogue. It is not OK to write a bill and think of the CBO at all. What is OK, apparently, is corrupting it from within.