Monday, November 28, 2011

Paul Berman: The Flight of the Intellectuals

In the days since I've finished reading Paul Berman's "The Flight of the Intellectuals," I've thought of a number of ways to write this review. One is to write a book just like it. Paul Berman has an issue with the way current influential intellectuals deal with Islamism, and he sums it up in the last two sentences of his book, while spending 200 pages on something entirely tangential. But the book itself is a (short) full-length response to an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2007.  Journalist Ian Buruma profiled Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim of Egyptian descent (his father was exiled from Egypt).  Berman dislikes pretty much everything about this article, and the intellectual trend that it stands for, and is either lucky, privileged, smart, well-respected or some combination of these things, enough to have authored an entire book in response.  So my first thought is to write a book in response to a book. Or at least to write a book in response to an article I didn't like and add an aside, ala the many asides Berman throws in: "By the way, this book is a followup to reading "Flight of the Intellectuals," wherein Paul Berman explicates his feelings after reading a New York Times Magazine article for 200 pages. Which is not to say that this book has anything to do with that book, just that this is where I got the fabulous and slightly self-aggrandizing idea."

I ruled that one out though, because I'm not upset enough with any one particular article to write an entire book, or even a short book, and I'm not famous enough that anyone would publish it. (Paul Berman is author of the best-selling "Terror and Liberalism.") Then I thought I would write a sort of summary of what this book is about, but really, it's about a long and complicated subject that I don't know anything about and would bungle if I got anywhere near summarizing Berman's summary. The subject is Islamism, and its supporters and detractors, and the semantic complications of words like "fascism," "totalitarianism," "terrorism," "moderate," etc, and how these words seem to have caused modern scholars to follow the wrong Islamist leaders down the wrong path. This review does a nice job of summarizing the book.

I ruled both of these approaches out.  I ruled out not reviewing the book at all, because I actually did like the book, which reads like an extended lecture from a very entertaining and engaging college professor, and I learned a lot about a very interesting and timely subject. The book was extremely well-researched: it seems like Berman may have read every book in every language remotely related to his subject. (Sidenote: strangely, while he refers to each book in his text, he does not use footnotes, end notes, or include a bibliography.) I also ruled out not writing up anything about the book because right before picking up this book, I put down another book, something I really really have a hard time doing, and am still feeling guilty about. I tried so hard to read "Triumph of the City" by Edward Glaeser, and failed. The book is written in a style tried to emulate an entertaining and engaging college professor, and while it appears that Glaeser also knows his subject thoroughly, he throws in examples like they are common knowledge. The book is written for popular audiences, and, being part of this audience, I have no idea what he is talking about.  The book fell flat, where "The Flight of the Intellectuals" kept my interest for all 200 pages of a response to a magazine article. Strangely, Berman's polemic works.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ross Perlin: Intern Nation

Sometimes a thing is so ingrained, so taken for granted, so normalized that the thought of challenging it is almost embarrassing.  Internships, at least for Generation Xers and forward, are one of those things.  In order to get a "good job," a person of a certain background goes goes to the best school she can, and while studying, either during the school year, or most definitely during the summer, does at least one unpaid internship. This is not considered demeaning or ridiculous, even though from the outside, the thought of someone working for free is counter-intuitive and perhaps even illegal.  It's just "what you do."  After college, this person of a certain background hopes to find a job of a certain status, and all of these types of jobs require "work experience," and internships are seen as the way to have "work experience" on a resume, regardless of the type of work, the quality of work, or the the payment received.  But this is the status quo, and to challenge it seems ludicrous: pay me? For an internship? Where I am learning? And getting free resume padding? Possibly at a nonprofit where they can't afford to hire me?

Ross Perlin's "Intern Nation" is a counterattack to these prevailing and dangerous ideas.  He challenges interns to stand up for themselves, governments to enforce existing laws, businesses to do right by their flexible employees, unions to pay attention to all employees, universities to correct the institution of internships that they have started, and on and on.  It's a mess. Little known fact: The underpaid or unpaid internship (or internships) you did before, during and after college were illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938 and modified in 1947 to exempt a group called "trainees:" a broad group that has come to include the people we now think of as "interns." Only, this group is not really that broad, and employers everywhere have figured out how far to stretch the exemption.  The FLSA did things like establish the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and end child labor. Pretty nifty, and pretty unimpeachable. Per Perlin, no one really argues with "the elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well being of workers." Then came the 1947 exemption: "trainees" were allowed to receive a "training wage" that fell below minimum wage or even no wage at all, in exchange for vocational training.  There are VERY specific criteria which must be met for a position to qualify however, and EACH one of these must be met:
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Ask yourself if this list sounds like any internships you are familiar with or have participated in. The last two items on the list are perhaps more for the protection of the employer, so that they don't get left with some obligation of payment to the intern/trainee, and are the only ones that I've actually seen in practice. But I have never seen/heard of an internship with *any* of the criteria listed in numbers 1-4, let alone all 6, and remember, all 6 must be met for an internship to be exempt from the FLSA standards. This means that the thousands and thousands of unpaid and underpaid internships taking place each year are illegal. And no one is fighting it. Employers and universities (more later) are taking advantage of young people, students, unemployed people, sector switchers, under-employed, etc, in an enormous, unregulated way.


There are a multitude of problems with this.  Legally, unpaid interns are not considered employees, no matter how long they've worked there. No pay=no rights. Perlin describes the case of one student in New York who was required to do an internship in order to receive her degree in social work.  Immediately on beginning her internship, where she did the same work as a paid employee (a clear violation of numbers three and four above), she was the subject of sexual harassment.  She attempted to sue the harassing doctor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but the case was thrown out of district and appeals courts "holding that Bridget didn't count as an employee, and therefore had no right even to stand in the courtroom and make her case." The reason she wasn't counted as an employee? She was unpaid. As Perlin writes: "no wages, no benefits, no vacations, no overtime or sickpay--therefore also no rights in court."


Here's one of the places where the universities come in.  Bridget was required to do an internship to complete her degree, under the theory, one supposes (I don't know exactly how it went down at Bridget's school) that work experience is a) complimentary to classroom experience and b) vital to post-graduation employment success, especially in a field like social work. In this way alone, universities are condoning the industry of internships whereby kids go and provide unpaid labor to a variety of employers. In the meantime, universities help employers feel better: "a convenient myth has been making the rounds that interns earning academic credit fall outside the FSLA. A significant percentage of employers using unpaid interns now hide behind this urban legend, requiring their interns to be enrolled in college and to submit proof of the credit received for an internship." Even better, the colleges make money for each credit- and sometimes substantial money. "Colleges and universities have allowed the academic credit myth to spread in part because these credits, closely linked to tuition, now form a significant revenue stream at may institutions." Perlin gives numerous examples of the ways people make money off students' unpaid labor: some colleges won't give credit for internships, but studetns want the "jobs," so they find colleges who will give credit and pay close to 5,000 for the "privilege" of a useless credit. Other colleges accept the credits, and why not? They don't have to teach the students anything, or really do much of anything: the students find the internships, pay for the privilege of having a credit on their transcript, and the college has no overhead.  It's free tuition. Additionally "situated learning" and "experiential learning" are in right now, along with the idea that a kid needs an internship to get a job. So what if not much learning is done? So what if no skills are learned at the job? Academies respond, necessarily to pressure from persuasive, influential, and monied parents, and internships are hot on the lips of these folks. So what that academia was behind the initial move towards the FSLA and the end of child labor in the first place? Internships are educational!

I'm working backwards: maybe we could call it saving the best for last.  Because Ross Perlin starts "Intern Nation" with one of my favorite subjects: Disney! Way back in 1955, Disney created "Disney University" as the training division of the mega-corporation, and starting in 1972, outside universities really started sending students there.  First came a hotel management department in New York, then a culinary school in Rhode Island who wanted to use the much bigger kitchen space (get it? schools saving money by partnering with corporations?), and in the 1980 the "College Program" was born. Interns lived on site, paying for room/board out of their tiny paycheck, and do pretty much any shit work you can think of at the park: cleaning hotel rooms, making french fries, etc.  Unionized Disney workers are being slowly replaced by sleights of hand: "casual workers" (interns, college program interns, part-timers, casual temporaries, etc) cannot exceed more than 35% of hours worked at Disney World. At this point, these casual workers make up 1 out of every 4 hours worked, but the numbers can be tweaked deceivingly, and Disney doesn't really care how they are balanced out.  Further, there's been a hiring freeze on full-timers, but of course no freeze on (underpaid and untrained) interns who rotate in and out. Add this to my long line of concerns about Disney.



Beyond the basic issues I've laid out here, Perlin goes through a whole list of equally or more disturbing effects of internships. There's the Washington DC internships that are basically filled through nepotism, or at the very least through connections, which means there is no sense of meritocracy, or a chance for anyone new to make it in.  This, of course, has racial and class implications: how can new leadership emerge if they can't get the resume padding needed from the posh internship if they can't get the posh internship in the first place? Further, most internships have this risk: unpaid and even underpaid internships are a financial hardship for all but the wealthy, which means that the average student cannot afford to pay to play at work.  Colleges requiring internships are thus solidifying an already existing unequal playing field.  Further, with no evidence that these internships lead to real jobs, real WORK during the school year or summers might actually be more important than internships, but is downgraded: no internship, no credits, no resume padding. 


And no one is saying anything. Read it and fight back.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupation Continues

So I never wrote the Promised Part 3 of my Occupied Oakland blog, but it's still coming. I didn't write it because I've been literally torn up inside about Oakland: a crazy, messed up, beautiful city that is really part of my identity. It seemed like it couldn't get worse after Scott Olsen, the war vet, was nearly killed by a canister of tear gas to the head, and then someone was murdered a few yards from the Occupy Oakland camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza. At first it appeared, and OPD confirmed, that the shooting was completely unrelated to OO: the murder was the cities' 101st murder of the year, and it would be completely thinkable that, based on these numbers, someone would get shot downtown.  But everyone in City government who was on the fence about the movement was quickly off the fence and demanding the removal of the encampment, citing this kind of violence and misuse of police resources.

It was clear to me (and everyone in the world audience, probably), that Occupy Oakland was about to be kicked out.  And I'm also pretty sure that it was clear to everyone that the Occupiers didn't want to go.  Mayor Jean Quan managed to bungle the situation repeatedly- telling the protesters that they could move to a different space, causing one twitterer (?) to write that "We've reached a semantic impasse. You can't just say "Would you guys move your occupation over here please?" That's not an occupation." Recently, she mentioned a conference call with 18 mayors, and the story went viral: Occupiers everywhere have taken this as proof that there is a conspiracy to evict camps in a coordinated manner all over the country.  Members of the City Council held a press conference about OO, saying it had to go, and got shouted down. (I'm still unclear why they chose to hold the presser by Lake Merritt, unamplified, and then why they lost their cool and returned the jeers of the protesters with chants of their own, making buffoons of themselves.)

I'll cut to the chase: I practically didn't sleep until the camp was evicted.  I don't watch the news because it's overwrought and full of half-truths, but it's REALLY hard to turn off twitter, especially when you know some of the people writing, and you've learned to know others, and whose feeds to trust. The problem is, it's a constant influx of information, and of stressful information. I knew Alex had been shot at Occupy Oakland within 2 minutes of it happening (literally), and I can follow along with General Assemblies online.  It was common knowledge that the police were going to raid the camp, and it soon became common knowledge what date (last Monday in the early AM) the police were going to raid, even as the Council and Mayor said "you have to leave immediately" and served eviction notices with no precise time. And I couldn't sleep, because of how poorly the de-occupation went last time. Strangely, this time, the emptying-out of the camp went smoothly, as these things go. About 30 people were arrested, no injuries or use of force incidents were reported, and the park re-opened about 6pm. The Mayor and the Chief and the City Administrator gave a (ridiculous) press conference thanking everyone for a job well done, and said the park would be open for free speech but never for lodging.  Occupiers, including me, met at the Main Library that afternoon, and marched back to Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they were indeed allowed to assemble, though not "lodge" (i.e. camp).

My first inclination was to be proud of the city- the City and the Occupiers- for a peaceful evacuation of FOP.  I agreed with Desley Brooks (and the later Council Members) that the movement was about more than the patch of grass that the Occupiers were Occupying, but had come to see the Cities' mishandling of the situation as a valid enough reason for the Occupiers to keep on Occupying.  Many of the people in the tents at FOP were homeless, or poor, or mentally ill and were receiving services and basic shelter from other Occupiers. There was food at the Plaza, and books, and religious leaders, etc.  There were tents.  And these people, these "others" that no one in the City (capital "C") wanted to see, were camping on City doorstep, en masse. The City claimed that this was unsanitary, and unsafe, and hurting local businesses, but the truth was, many of the people that were living at FOP were people that the City does not want to see, and certainly not as a big group. Homeless people are easier to deal with one at a time, in a doorway, or alley, or somewhere you don't have to see them at all. It's probably true that some big business chose not to sign a lease in downtown Oakland: the camp was unsightly, and homelessness is unsightly. But it's real, and it's part of Oakland.  I couldn't be proud that the solution the City came up with was to disperse the camp via the police. It was great that nobody decided to respond to the 600 police officers in riot gear with violence, as I expected, but that was besides the point: Occupy Oakland has been removed.

I'm sure the City feels it has won: the encampment has gone. But what have they won? They claimed that downtown Oakland was safer before OO, but I disagree. Tons of money was poured into "Old Oakland" a long time ago, but it sits mostly vacant. I wouldn't walk around there at night, but I did on Saturday, because I went down for the march that OO held in solidarity with Egypt.  I did feel safe: there were people around, which generally makes me feel safer. I have never seen downtown Oakland with that number of people on a Saturday night.  The City claims OO is bad for business, calling on the Chamber of Commerce's threats about companies leaving and being destroyed. But the Chamber doesn't represent local businesses, rather, they are a group of people made up of large corporations.

 Perhaps the real question, then, is what has the City lost? Multiple times in the contentious pre-second-eviction City Council meeting, the Mayor and various Council Members described Oakland as a "progressive" city. But it's clear that the City is beholden to large companies, dependent on outdated, fear-driven police tactics, and feeling very threatened by a small group of people trying to change the world. In the meantime, the weakness of the Mayor has been laid out internationally, the City Council has embarrassed themselves, and the already trashed reputation of the police department has done nothing to repair their image.  Meanwhile, campers are temporarily being allowed to stay at Snow Park, a tiny corner park in an upscale neighborhood right by Lake Merritt, but out of view of the politicians, though the Mayor and Chief Jordan have said that this is is only temporary. On Monday I spoke to a feel people who were staying at Snow Park who were clearly transient: they are Occupying because these tents are their permanent dwellings.  The Mayor has mentioned "vouchers" for homeless facilities at the old Army Base, but is this the answer? Or enough of an answer?

Meanwhile, I'm very intrigued by the Occupy movement, at least its incarnation in Oakland. It's far from perfect, but there is definitely something very real going on. I have not been to a General Assembly yet to see the actual proposals in action, but I have gotten a sense of how the proposals are made and how communication works. The encampment, on Saturday before the second coming of the Police, was similar to when I saw it during the General Strike, though less crowded of course. It did not, contrary to rumors, smell like feces or anything else particularly bad.  I did see a joint being rolled, but this must should be taken in context: downtown Oakland is host to Oaksterdam, including a marijuana university. I'm taken with the process, if not entirely by the crowd or the results. 

I spoke with a man when I was down at the library on Monday, who said he stayed around the corner (possibly at Snow Park), and was a little bemused by the whole thing. We watched a young Asian kid, dressed in an emo-punk style, buy two gas masks from a very large white man in his mid-30s, who looked to be making a killing. Two young indie white mid-20s behind us were shaking their heads: "those don't work." My new friend, a black man in his mid-40s, commented that the Occupiers, who he visits every night, were here, but had no idea what was going on here.  They want to get arrested, he said, they want to get teargassed, but what do they know? I agreed, and shared that sentiment. The speeches we were listening to where very passionate and articulate and idealistic. At one point, someone condemned violence and a tall young white man in expensive athletic gear smoking a cigarette muttered loudly that this was a privileged position to take. I looked at him and looked away before arguing with him. My new friend and I talked about how in my neighborhood, far to the East of Lake Merritt, very few people seemed to have heard about OO, or at least care about it. They are even less likely to come out when surrounded by a crowd of people who seem to tempt fate with willingness need to be arrested. For my neighbors, principles may not be worth going to jail for.  That idea sounds foolish.  We compared the situation: people who are there in body, but unclear on the concept, and people totally clear on the concept, and not there in body.  At least in this context, I feel like OO has an excuse: this is a new movement, and one that has potential, and going through growing pains. The City on the other hand, has nothing of the sort.


Monday, November 07, 2011

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Occupy Oakland (re)Visited Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a little bit (okay, a lot) about what had changed since my I first wrote about original feelings about the Occupy Wall Street movement in general and the more local Occupy Oakland movement. I end up writing forever time-wise and word-wise and decided it would be better for all parties involved if I broke my thoughts up into chunks.  When I first posted, I hadn't had anything to do with Occupy Oakland, and had only participated in a Global Day of Action in San Francisco on October 15th.  After that, and especially after October 25th when the police and the protesters had such a terrible night, a friend of mine started heading down to the General Assemblies that Occupy Oakland holds every night at Frank Ogawa Plaza (side note: OO (the Occupy Oakland Movement) has renamed FOP "Oscar Grant Plaza," as I mentioned yesterday. Somehow I cannot bring myself around to calling the plaza this. I think part of my resentment is that Oscar Grant's murder happened in Oakland but had nothing to do with Oakland. Memorializing the park in front of City Hall after him reiterates that this horrific piece of violence is another piece of Oakland violence.) Every day my friend and I would dialogue about her experiences at the General Assemblies, and about my concerns, as well as my experiences working with police and the city.  I also watched the following video, which I found enlightening about the intelligence of OO and the truly democratic process that goes on. It's almost 10 minutes long, but I encourage you to watch it.


From what I understand from my friend, S, who goes to the meetings, a proposal is made via the "People's Mic." Since the General Assembly does not use amplification, one person says something, and people serving as the People's Mic shout what was just said so everyone can hear it. This part, she says, is long and boring.  Then the Assembly breaks into groups of 20, and discusses the proposal. The groups come to consensus about the proposal, then have someone present the group's view to the General Assembly. The large group then comes to consensus or does not.  There is a huge variety and diversity of views, and not everything goes the way each group member or group would like it; for example, in the above video, the letter which I found incredibly sane and well thought out, did not pass. It was written prior to the eviction, and perhaps would have avoided some of the conflict.  But the democratic process that is going on involves creativity, growth, and mistakes.

I ended last time with a note about my optimistic boss and my total skepticism.  October 25th, she believed, would lead to Oakland as a whole having a better dialogue.  I rolled my metaphorical eyes (I hope I didn't roll my real eyes at my boss.)  But the dialogue did start happening. After October 25th, Oakland became the center of media attention, including internationally. People started discussing what was working in OO and what wasn't working in OO, and what was and wasn't working in other places. Reporters from reputable and progressive news sources sent reporters to OO to live, live-tweet, and report.  People I know from twitter moved their attention from OccupySF to Occupy Oakland. (By the way, for excellent independent and reliable reporting about OO via twitter: @JoshuaHol of AlterNet, @pixplz aka Justin Beck, and @tigerbeat aka Steve Rhodes.) OO was where it was at.  Notably, the Council and Jean Quan weren't really part of the larger discussion.  City Council held off on discussing OO till a special City Council meeting Thursday, October 4th, but more on that later. Meanwhile Quan has held some press conferences in typical politician style: saying a whole lot of nothing. (For excellent coverage both as it happens and with behind the scenes stuff, follow @matthai of the SF Chronicle.)

The Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA) put out a remarkable letter asking for clear leadership after the events of October 25th. The letter stated in part that "As your police officers, we are confused," and asked "the citizens of Oakland to join us in demanding that our City officials, including Mayor Quan, make sound decisions and take responsibility for these decisions. Oakland is struggling – we need real leaders NOW who will step up and lead – not send mixed messages." This was a bold step for the police to take- speaking out of school- and a welcome one: it showed what I had believed to be true, that individual police officers did not want to be in the position that they were in on the 25th, but were thrown into an unsafe situation by whichever combination of authorities. They acted as they were trained (which may need revision), and the situation escalated, but the OO mess was not a situation the police wanted to be in the middle of.

The OPOA letter was put out after OO called for a general strike on Wednesday, November 2nd. The strike was an amazing success. For the first time I went out to Occupy Oakland, and it really was, in most ways, as cool as S had told me.  There were So Many People there. Official estimates have put the numbers at 5000-7000, especially when people were marching to shut down the Port of Oakland, and some (crazy) people have said there were 100,000 people out that day.  Unions came out, families came out, Buddhists came out, individuals came out, Mac came out (of course). Oakland came together and I haven't felt that optimistic about Oakland in a very long time. People were in downtown Oakland all day, and after I took the old dog home, they marched on the port, closing it down. I was worried about this part of the day, since the last action (that I know of) in the port in 2003 went really badly and I thought the crowd would be spoiling for a fight after October 25th. I was wrong. The crowd was not spoiling for a fight, and the police had decided not to respond at all unless there was a call for service. (They eventually came down and basically provided traffic control toward the end of the evening, and late there was another confrontation.) The lack of police presence during the march was noticeable: at every march and parade there are cops controlling traffic. During the strike people on bikes blocked off the street, and the march carried on, peacefully.  I left when windows got broken, but it was clear in later videos that those "outside agitators" really were the culprits: each act of vandalism was clearly someone in all black, who had come spoiling for a fight. When I was walking in the streets, you could see these people, and see that they were a tiny minority of people. Thousands of people came together in Oakland to march for a better world. It was very cool. I didn't go with the marchers to shut down the Port, but you can see the vastness of the numbers who did.

Occupy Port of Oakland 26
photo courtesy of Brian Sims, cc
The general strike happened on a Wednesday, the day before a pre-planned City Council meeting on Thursday that was scheduled to be all about OO. The meeting was interesting for it's calmness: only two people were escorted away from the mic, one who was clearly mentally unstable and the other a young activist who hadn't learned or didn't care about moderating his passion in front of The Establishment. As always happens with the Oakland City Council, nothing was decided. First, City Administrator Deanna Santana gave a summary of her attempts to deal with the Occupiers, and the reasons they had to go, including a fancy powerpoint presentation and lots of big lawyer words. Her assistant, Arturo Sanchez, went over all the things he had done in the camp and all the signs he had posted, and all the times he had been rebuffed, and showed pictures of all the awful things he had seen (like open flames and buried electrical cords.) The Police Chief spoke, and was interrupted, and sounded like perhaps public speaking is something he is not fond of doing (unlike Chief Batts) and basically said his guys did great, and that the encampment was a public safety issue.  The Mayor spoke and defended herself and said she had done some wonderful stuff but couldnt' do it while this was going on.

Then the Council listened quietly to over a hundred speakers, most supportive of the encampment and Occupy Oakland, some supportive of OO but not the encampment, and a few, mostly business owners, ready for the whole thing to go away. The speakers had some great points about what OO is about, about where the city has failed them, and about other alternatives. And then each Council Member spoke. Rebecca Kaplan gave an impassioned speech about how the movement was wonderful and Oakland has always been progressive, and about how police are people too. Desley Brooks unleashed a can of whoop-ass on Kaplan for being inconsistent in public and behind closed doors, but said she supported OO, but that everyone involved needed to think beyond a patch of grass. Pat Kernighan, who represents District 2 which includes one of the wealthiest parts of Oakland, ranted on about getting OO the hell out of dodge.  Nancy Nadel did her best to sound radical while saying she knew she didn't have the votes for her resolution, and Ignacio de la Fuente was incoherent, but got the point across: Occupy Oakland was bad for business. Libby Schaff "agreed with what everyone else had said" which was impossible, since the speakers before her had disagreed. President Reid talked about his pride in the marines and commiserated with Scott Olsen and apologized for the police brutality, and Jane Brunner was AWOL. And nothing got done, because, as always, the Council tabled the important question of the day till the next meeting.


So my boss and I were both right: dialogue *is* happening, between the city and the occupiers, and even within the city. There is great potential for change here. AND the city is incompetent, as usual. The city administrator's attempts to justify the raid on the encampment were feeble, and as someone on twitter said, looked like an attempt at CYA (cover your ass) in the face of potential fallout.  As usual, the City Council sounded like they not only agreed but that they could barely stand to sit at the same dais with each other, let alone do anything but make speeches across each other. And the citizens spoke at the Council, but did not dialogue with them, proving the point that each side was saying: "no one will talk to me!" As of Thursday, cooperation seemed at a minimum: the Police, the City Administrator, the Mayor, the City Council, and the Occupiers seemed to be sitting on separate continents, and no one was willing to hand anyone else a boat and paddle.  But I'm still optimistic.




(Coming soon: part 3 of 3- the Occupy Movement and Race.)

Friday, November 04, 2011

Occupy Oakland (re)Visited

Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong, and sometimes I have to keep learning. A lot has changed in two weeks since I wrote about it, and I've learned a lot and continue to rethink my position on Occupy Oakland daily. In two more weeks I may be embarrassed by this post.

In the timeline of Occupy Oakland events, probably the most famous is the early morning of October 25th, when OPD was ordered to evict the occupiers from Frank Ogawa (renamed Oscar Grant) Plaza.  The city had been warning the protesters to move since October 21st, and conflicting accounts have been given as to how much communication there was between officials and occupiers, but I'm guessing that official accounts of how much they tried are overstated, and that the way Occupy Oakland works did indeed make these attempts difficult. The city doesn't work that hard to surmount difficulties, however, so I am not placing blame on protesters.  Police moved in on the encampment in the early morning hours for practical and safety reasons: there are less people in downtown Oakland at 3 AM, so if the eviction went badly (which it did), less people would be likely to be hurt. After the people were removed, clean up crews from the city would still have time to clean up before the city opened for business. 

The removal didn't go down smoothly.  The protesters didn't want to leave, and the police plan, if there was one, didn't seem to go right.  Non-lethal "defensive" weapons like tear gas, flash-bangs, and rubber bullets were used. It was bad, and it was quickly national news.  That night, it got worse, as the protesters came back, and so did OPD, along with police from something like 14 other agencies.  Tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bangs- it was a scene.  Everything was live streaming all over the world: comments were made on Al Jezeera that this kind of scene would cause a US invasion in the Middle East, and they weren't far off.  Sadly, a war vet who was already on the ground was hit in the head with a tear gas canister in a clear act of police brutality which was caught on video and quickly became a flash point for the whole world. In a city known for its violence and for the violence of the police (not least Oscar Grant, which had the misfortune of occurring in Oakland while not actually involving OPD), October 25th was exactly the kind of event that brings Oakland into the center of media attention.

The whole thing was, unsurprisingly, handled terribly by the city.  Mayor Jean Quan was out of town when the police moved in on the Occupiers. (Note: I've never liked her.)  When asked, and she had to be asked because she wasn't going to take control of the situation and offer information, she said that she had no idea the eviction was going to happen.  This was unequivocally the wrong answer.  Either she really didn't know it was going to happen or she lied, and knew when it was going to happen, throwing her staff under the bus in an attempt to save face in a crisis. If she didn't know, it begs the question of what the hell is going on in this city (as if that question wasn't already begging an answer): police Chief Anthony Batts (fortunately) just quit a few weeks ago and Quan appointed Howard Jordan to Interim Chief, with rumors that she would eventually chose him as Chief.  It later came out that the City Administrator Deanna Santana and Interim Chief Jordan had been working on the plan for five days, and that Mayor Quan had signed off on the plan. It is still not clear to me exactly what Mayor Quan didn't know, or why her fundraising trip to DC was more important than what was literally an occupation on the doorstep of City Hall.

October 25th and the aftermath was, for me, like watching a dog fight at a dog park.  Totally foreseeable and totally preventable.  You put a whole bunch of humans with their lattes in a small fenced area with dogs who don't know each other, and there will probably be a fight. (Leave it to themacinator to throw in a dog analogy.) The dog park is the opposite of setting your dog up for success. The city's job is to set her citizens up for success. On October 25th the city failed both the protesters and the police. (The city also failed the rest of Oakland taxpayers who will foot the immense bill for the operation.)  Mayor Quan had initially told the protesters that they could occupy the Plaza. Then the protesters were told by paper notices that they had a certain amount of time to vacate the plaza.  Communication between police and protesters, between the city administrators and protesters, between any city agency and protesters, it appears, had been minimal.  I believe this is due both to lack of trying on the behalf of the city, and due to the way that the Occupy Oakland movement works. Multiple police agencies, all under the aegis of OPD, each with their own tactics and "tools" were ordered into a situation that quickly grew out of control.  Predictably, escalated police presence led to escalated violence on the occupiers side.  Where previously the Occupy Oakland movement had been almost universally peaceful, a night time operation involving hundreds of under-prepared police and hundreds of passionate protesters galvanized them into another afternoon and night of violence.

I was left very shaken on the afternoon of the 25th (before the night of violence that left Scott Olsen, the Iraq vet injured) and the 26th of October.  Mayor Quan called for protesters to come to the plaza between the hours of 6am and 10pm for "free speech activities" and I felt sick to my stomach. What exactly are "free speech activities" and why can they only take place during certain times?  I felt like dragging her back to Berkeley's invisible free speech monument. I wanted to remind everyone that Oakland has *real crime to fight, not a bunch of people camping and causing a rat problem.  I felt like screaming cliches about violence causing violence, and fighting fire with fire never puts the fire out.  I was not a happy camper.  I came to work the next day and my boss, who believes in positive thinking, was upbeat and optimistic, about how this was a great place for Oakland to start. If it were possible, themacinator would have been rendered speechless. It's not possible, so I answered with ranting about dog parks, Quan, etc. She answered with support for Quan, and that at least the police didn't use machine guns like in the '70s. But, aside from these absurdities, she has been right: Oakland may have found a way to move forward. 

themacinator has been rendered sleepy by all of this blogging and will save the rest for another day.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets

This is the best book I've read all year.  Looking back, I've read 29 books so far in 2011, and I've read some REALLY good books. Daniel Ellsberg is one of those very important historical political figures that I (and you?) had never heard of. I learned of this book when I went to hear Garry Wills talk, and he basically said that "Secrets" is The Book on the consolidation of presidential power. I'm not one to doubt the man who is probably my favorite public intellectual, and he's right: Ellsberg is the man.  The short version of Ellsberg's importance for those, who, like me, are clueless: In the 60s Ellsberg worked for the Rand Corporation, which was and is a Think Tank with access to important government documents. He worked for the government in various advisory positions that allowed him access to ultra top secret documents and high-level officials.  He was trusted and trustworthy, and very good at his job.  He also had combat experience: in the 50s he served in the Marines, and almost uniquely among those at the Pentagon, volunteered to go to Vietnam and learn what was going on on the ground in 1965 to 1967.  Other officials flew in for a day or two and flew out, or relied on word of mouth. Ellsberg, on the other hand, visited every province in Vietnam affected by the American "pacification" project.

 Ellsberg's investment in the war started at an interesting position given the anti-war pacifist he became: at the beginning of his tenure, Ellsberg's main priority was the absolute avoidance of further use of nuclear weapons.  When "Secrets" begins, Ellsberg calls himself "a dedicated cold warrior." His interest in stopping the Vietnam War at that point had nothing to do with the war itself: he was mostly concerned with preventing nuclear warfare should the conflict escalate into war with China, which he believed that the Johnson administration's choices would certainly cause.  In 1964, Ellsberg was a naive Pentagon employee: basically an assistant to the assistant to the Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, and understood that all the insiders agree that the course of the Vietnam war isn't going well, and that the next step would be increasing the US involvement.  As then-President Johnson came closer to deciding what direction to go in increasing the involvment, Ellsberg got a taste of what it means to work in the White House when his boss, John McNaughton, told him that if President Johnson asked for his (McNaughton's) opinion, he would give him the official opinion, the opinion of McNamara, even if it wasn't what McNaughton felt was best.  "I knew why he was telling me this," Ellsberg explains. 
He didn't define what he meant by loyalty, but it was clear enough from his story: Do what's good for your boss, the man who hired you; put that above what you think is bets for the country, above giving the president or the secretary of defense your best advice if that would embarrass your boss... I was shocked.  Lie to the president? Deprive him of your own best judgement, when he was asking you for it, on a matter of war and peace?

As it turns out, this was the crux of the American situation in Vietnam. Loyalty, the absolute necessity not to embarrass anyone and to hide the truth, kept the United States embroiled in a war that was not winnable, or as Ellsberg later decided, was not even a legitamite war (if there is such a thing).  By 1967, Ellsberg came to the conclusion that one of the "lessons of Vietnam" stems exactly from this strange loyalty leading to lies and bad policy:
the impact on policy failures of internal practices of lying to superiors, tacitly encouraged by those superiors, but resulting in a cognitive fauilure at the presidential level to recognize realities.  This was part of a broader cognitive failure of the bureacracy I had come to suspect.  There were situations... in which the US government, starting ignorant, did not, would not learn.
When Ellsberg finally had enough, he leaked The Pentagon Papers: 7000 pages of historical documents (already historical in 1969 when began copying them) of the hsitory of US involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  Ellsberg reached a place where he felt he could no longer be a part of the government, but that he had key access to information and important people that gave him the unique position of potentially stopping the war.  With the release of The Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg hoped to pressure Nixon and his adminstration, or Congress, or the public, into stopping the war.   The papers tell the clear story of the lying that the executive branch told the to Congress and to the public. They contain detailed history of what went wrong at every step of the way, starting with French involvement. What the Pentagon Papers don't include are the documents that Ellsberg knew existed: memos to  various presidents from the very beginning advising that involvement in Vietnam could go nowhere good.  At each step of the way, presidents had top advisers saying, in effect, "Don't do this!" and at each step of the way, these statements were hidden away.
This was so not just because of the charges of "weak on communism," "appeasement," and "defeatism" that could be expected... Of more importance, such documents, if leaked, would reveal that a president strongly inclined to escalate had had a real choice... an extrication option that was actually recommended by advisers of great authority.  That revelation would burden the president with personal responsibility for all that followed from his decision to reject their alternative. Hence hte need to keep this advice unusually secret from Congress, from the public, and even from people like me in his own bureaucracy.
Basically, lies got the US into the war (really, the French wanted their colony back, and the US backed them up), lies kept the US in the war, lies kept the parts of the US governement from knowing what was really going on in a war that they were authorizing funding for and kept the part of the government that was involved in waging the war confused about their own war, and kept the public totally in the dark. The first time I realized this was hearing and reading Wills, but Ellsberg said it again: the total secrecy was a bizarre irony.  The public was told that details could not be revealed and that "state secrets" must be kept so that the enemy wouldn't know what was happening. In this way, Johnson and Nixon were able to wage top-secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, without Congress or the public knowing. But the people in Cambodia and Laos, and the government of North Vietnam, from whom the secret was presumably was supposed to be kept, knew exactly what was happening. They were being bombed, and they were fighting back. There was no secret there. The "secret" was the secrecy itself.

In 1967, Ellsberg had an eye opening moment when someone leaks the number of troops that President Johnson was about to request: 206,000. This was the first time the public had heard a remotely close-to-real number, rather than the usual 40,000 or so that Johnson usually talked about. The trick was usually to call up troops, then ask for them after they had been deployed.  After the leak, Ellsberg realizes that there was a "thin- yet almost impermeable- membrane that separated the executive branch from the legislative in terms of infomration.  I had seen for years how effectively the president could lie about his policies, with the safe assumption that his lies would not be exposed... I now saw how the system of secrecy and lying could give him options he would be better without, or it could dangerously prejudice his choice." For example, Johnson was pressured by the military at this point, and couldn't fall back on the checks and balances that Congress and the public might have provided.  At this point, Ellsberg was ready to do something big, something big enough to stop the war, or at least to pressure Johnson to change.  Read the book for the full details on how he went about leaking the papers, and to whom.

While I was reading the book, and getting to the point where Nixon is elected on a vow to get America out of the war "with honor" while knowing that he will do no such thing, President Obama announced that the US would have all soldiers out of Iraq by the end of 2011.  There is really nothing like a White House insider to make a person extremely cynical, and I'm pretty sure Ellsberg's book is the best place to start to wipe any last naivete out of your eyes.  I will paraphrase Ellsberg's understanding of the Vietnam war's history after he completed reading the Pentagon Papers for the first time:

1. There were no 1st and 2nd Indochina wars like the history books say, just one 25 year long conflict.
2. The war was actually an American/Vietnamese war. The war was first French/American v Vietamese war, then just American v Vietnamese, fighting against "American policy and American financing, proxies, technicians, firepower, and finally, troops and pilots." (i.e. There was no civil war in Vietnam.)
3. After the late 1940s, the war would have ended had the US not funded it. After 1954, there would have been no war if the US and their Vietnamese funded allies had not violated an election that had been negotiated in Geneva.
4. This was not a civil war, nor an "aggression from the North." The Vietnam war had "one side [which] was entirely equipped and paid by a foreign power-which dictated the nature of the local regime in its own interest... In terms of the UN Charter and of our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression."

I'm not an expert on either the Iraq war or the Vietnam wars, and I know that the quagmire comparison has been made endlessly.  In October of 1972, Henry Kissinger, in an eerie prequel of Iraq, said that "peace is at hand." The Vietnam war ended in 1975.  If you have forgotten (and I wish I had), George W Bush told us that the Iraq war was over, "mission accomplished," in 2003. If troops are really leaving at the end of the year, they will have remained 8 years later.  Some things have certainly changed in terms of transparency: where a Johnson or Nixon could send troops to Vietnam and go on fake missions, or have them bomb countries without the public knowing, technology has advanced to the point that the world knows what happens instantly in most of the rest of the world. This type of transparency works up to a point, however. When George Bush started preparing for the Iraq War after 9/11, few people were really surprised, and fewer believed in his pretenses for war. Again, the a foundation of internal loyalty and lies, much in the way that Vietnam-era Presidents and Administrations psyched themselves into starting and continuing an amoral, expensive, and deadly war. It was technically easy enough this time around to find out the lie in the yellowcake story, but just as hard, or harder, to put a stop to the war machine Bush put in motion.

Read "Secrets" and hope that there's an Ellsberg Jr. out there that is already working on something as massively damaging to the war machine. Too many people are dying.