Thursday, February 28, 2013

State of the Whatever

Last night Jean Quan gave her State of the City. It was quite something (read: a hot mess). I never watch the presidential State of the Union speech- it seems to me like a bunch of blah blah blah we're awesome, here are some challenges, here's what I'm going to do, campaign blah blah blah, we're awesome, the opposite party sucks, blah blah blah, did I mention I'm awesome? But since the advent of twitter, I've been able to follow along and a) know exactly what the president (in this case Obama, I can't remember if Bush was around during twitter) is saying b) read what my smart tweeps have to say about what he's saying and c) know what he's not saying. It's amazing the real time fact checking that gets done during the State of the Union (SOTU). I wish I had written more closely after that event, and I could remember the things that he insinuated or glossed over, but Obama is smart: he carefully sounded both liberal and not "out there:" I'll support small businesses, I won't raise taxes, etc, but didn't mention actual taxes that would affect middle class families, or that his policies were all under cut by hostile interest groups and Republicans, or the drone strikes that were going on literally as he spoke.

But President Obama is an effective politician. It is almost impossible to discuss Quan and Obama in the same blog post, perhaps even offensive. What I realized last night, though, is that even when politicians are saying nothing, like in states of the whatever, the delivery is crucial.

I recommend watching a few minutes of this (it goes on for 73 minutes, and I don't recommend watching 73 minute of it without some hard liquor handy).

State of the City

Some observers last night thought that Mayor Quan was more lucid and coherent than usual. If true, this is even more disturbing than if, like me, you think this is just sort of par for the course. Mayor Quan starts out saying something to the effect of "I have lots of people to give shout outs [right?] to, so I'll save those for the end." But basically the entire night consisted of Quan calling out various audience members and having them stand and clap for each other. There weren't that many people in the audience, so it was remarkable how many of them got "shout outs," and Quan pretty vocally disparaged anyone who didn't show up ("He RSVP'd!"). The shout outs, it turned out, were the bulk of her speech, or at least a good half of it. At the least, they were enormous distraction: each time Quan even considered saying something important, she interrupted herself with a call out to one person or another. Politically unsavvy.

 Quan didn't seem to misstep or stumble over her words (although she does that constantly): the things that came out of her mouth are the things she really truly believes, they are who she is. First, she said that a bad day involved meeting with Lew Wolff, owner of the Oakland A's. Okay, few people have any nice feelings for Wolff, but as someone who should probably be making nice with him in order to you know, keep the A's in Oakland, the comment was just ridiculous. This reverberated around twitter. Then she really truly said that she was counting on universal health care to fix Oakland's budget. So much of the budget is tied up in pensions and health care (police and fire, city employees, etc), that this would be nice, wouldn't it? But it's some kind of delusional thinking to plan a city's budget on universal health care. She mentioned how thrilled she was to have Bob Wasserman coming to Oakland, both giving credence to the theory that she had supported his contract as a campaign move and alienating the many many citizens who had voiced opposition to Wasserman/Bratton. And most notably, she said she didn't think that it was fair that all these things had happened to her since her term started. She didn't specify, but one could only imagine she was referring to Occupy, the deficit, etc. Quan really has a sad life. And at one point, she talked about brisket. Yup, brisket. I could practically hear her mouth watering. And then she said that she had promised the women of East Oakland a place to shop. She meant that there will be a grocery store coming to the Deep East, but man, the word choice!

It was notable that Quan talked about some of the awesome things that Oakland is known for: the greenness of Oakland, the walkability and bikeability, the food (hence brisket), etc. She went on for a long time about how we're the city that gets knocked down and gets up again. But this part was, well, not pronounced.

Meanwhile, @fakejeanquan was fact checking and smack talking back on twitter along the hashtag #oaksotc. If states of the whatever are good for anything, it's now for community involvement and dialogue.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What's Alameda County Got To Do With It?

I have never paid attention to my relationship to Alameda County before. I don't know if I've ever voted for an Alameda County Board of Supervisors, in fact, I don't know if I *can* vote for an Alameda County Board of Supervisor, even though Oakland is very much in the heart of ALCO, as those of us who live here affectionately (?) call it. Further, looking at this map of ALCO districts, I can't even tell what district I'm in, as the districts that cover Oakland seem to split right down my neighborhood. But it's time to pay attention to ALCO, as they're the ones who can (or can't, depending whose legal opinion you take) decide if the Alameda County Sheriff can purchase one (or two, depending on what day you ask Sheriff Ahern) drone that will definitely fly over Oakland, which is definitely in Alameda County. Oh, and it might fly anywhere between Monterey County and the Oregon border, because even though the large majority of those places are NOT in ALCO, and the majority of people who live there definitely don't get to vote for the ALCO supervisors, Sheriff Ahern of ALCO is in charge of "Area 2" mutual aide, and because of this, he gets to use his drone in any of those areas.

I'm an avid follower of Oakland City Council meetings. Those who know themacinator (or her alterego on twitter, @greenkozi) know this. I've never bothered to pay attention to ALCO, because, to be perfectly honest, I think of the county as our boondock neighbors: the unincorporated areas stretching out to Livermore that I disdain as not really the East Bay, the areas that give the East Bay the bad stench of "suburbia." I didn't even know that ALCO Board of Sups met in Oakland, right downtown. When I started in animal welfare, I worked out near Santa Rita, which is run by ALCO, and by the shelter, also run by ALCO, which was tiny and quaint, and often had about 5 dogs in it. Sweet, provincial, I thought. Recently Oakland has started contracting the with sheriff's office to do traffic stops, etc, and I started paying more attention. Then came the drone.

Berkeley was the first jurisdiction that the drone would fly over to really pay attention. Citizens of our righteous neighbor to the north asked their government to create a no-fly zone to go along with the no-nuke zone, but this idea was, well, nuked. The Berkeley City Council did, however, send a pretty explicit and well thought out letter to Alameda County about their concerns about Sheriff Ahern's proposed drone usage, including the following:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the Council of the City of Berkeley the City of Berkeley expresses its concern about the proliferation of drones and domestic law enforcement and the lack of adequate regulations to protect against improper surveillance and to protect the privacy rights of citizens...

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED the Berkeley City Council urges the Alameda county sheriff and the Board of supervisors to not purchase a drone...

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City of Berkeley urges the Alameda county Sheriff to not fly drones over Berkeley air space except 1) in the case of a disaster, 2) to assist in locating missing persons, 3) to assist in rescue efforts, 4) to assist in police pursuit of known suspects who have committed serious or violent crimes.
To the best of my knowledge drones have neither been publicly discussed nor put on the agenda of a City Council meeting in Oakland.

So. First, my observations about Alameda County meetings. The meeting yesterday was a "Public Protection Committee" meeting, not a full Board of Supervisors meeting, but some observations are still worth noting. First, the meetings are held in the Administrative Building of the Court of Alameda. You have to go through an airport-style security screening to get in- laptops out, belts off, etc. This seems excessive, but I suppose is par for the course in court buildings now. The meeting was held in a beautiful renovated room on the top floor. I'm talking windows, natural light, electrical outlets for laptops, plush seats that reclined, etc. This might sound like a typical hearing room, but it's night and day from Oakland. Part of me thinks that chambers in Oakland have historical value, but part of me feels like there's no reason people shouldn't be comfortable. Then there were the two Supervisors present, Haggerty and Valle. I'll have to read up more on these guys, but Haggerty was clearly quite conservative- made jokes about getting drones at Costco for his kid and repeatedly shut down and condescended to the ACLU lawyer, while Valle seemed sincerely interested in protecting civil liberties. The tone in the room was serious and I didn't see anyone playing with their phones. Again, this seems like it should be a given, but it was a change from Oakland meetings, and the audience seemed to act accordingly. Though many of the same people came to discuss drones as come to Oakland meetings to discuss public safety (I recognized many Occupy activists), there was generally quiet until near the end when many in the audience clapped for well spoken anti-drone activists. Speakers with viewpoints were itemized on the agendas: Sheriff's presentations, ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc, with time limits. Then each public forum speaker was allotted 3 minutes and they just queued up and handed in their cards to the clerk: no calling of names, etc. Their time was clearly shown on a screen in front of them, and for the ten speakers I stayed for, not one went even a second over their time. The meeting flowed smoothly, with no threats of escorting people out. I only heard Sup Haggerty instruct chambers to be quiet once.

This is not to say this is not a charged issue, only that it was almost impossible to believe that these meetings take place blocks apart, with many of the same people present.

So the substance of the meeting (it's been a few days since I started this blog, and since then many pieces have been written by mainstream media (MSM), and other places, and my memory is fading, but I'll do my best): The sheriff and his commanders gave powerpoint presentations, brought out a demo of the drone (where did they get it? was it a real one or a dummy? if it was real, had they already purchased it?), appealed to our sentiments- if our young daughter had been abducted, wouldn't we want the assistance of a drone?, and basically said, "hey, we're good guys," we will only use the drone for good. The ALCO reps insisted on the term "sUAS"- "small unmanned aircraft system," and reiterated that the drone would not be used for surveillance (this came up later when Sheriff Ahern interrupted anyone who used the term "surveil" to insist that this would not happen).

Then Linda Lye (@linda_lye) of ACLU Northern California spoke about her concerns about the usage of drones and the need to tighten up the policy that was being discussed. She said that ACLU NorCal had met with the Sheriff's Office, which was great, but the Sheriffs had then proceeded to ignore all of the suggestions. One of the main issues that Lye pointed out is that this policy was actually a "General Order": an internal document for ALCO Sheriffs: they can change it at will with no oversight. The GO, as it stood, was already designed to allow the kind of surveillance that the Sheriff kept denying. The loopholes that exist can grow and change anytime. To me, Lye came across as extremely reasonable. Where previously I had been an adamant No Drone kind of girl, I felt she was making a great point: there is nothing inherently terrible about a drone, but there are very dangerous things about the usage of drones, and policies must be in place to prevent government abuse. Some specifics: the GO did not state what kind of crimes it would be used for. She gave the example of jaywalking, clearly an overreach, but explained that in a protest situation, people are arrested for obstructing streets and this can be charged as a misdemeanor. Because the policy allows for misdemeanors, and drones will most likely be used in large protests (think Occupy or Port situations), this is not an overreach anymore. Further, she said that becuase the low cost of drones is precisely an argument FOR drones on the Sheriff's part, drones become terribly tempting to use: it becomes easy to use the drone Just Because. Lye was great: the drones should be used for "emotionally appealing" things, just like that lost child, or the old person on the train tracks that the Sheriff brought up later, not the criminal stuff that Ahern wanted. ALCO would be an outlier if they adopted this policy.

Bottom line: the ACLU, maybe the arbiter of reasonable but accurate information according to most progressives who care about these things, told ALCO that they needed to watch their step on this one. And one of the main reasons was something I had never even heard of: fusion centers. Fusion centers are repositories of information shared between jurisdictions on the local, state and federal level thanks to the Department of Homeland Security. This is not a conspiracy theory, this is something the DHS bragged about. And when called to task about, Sheriff Ahern said he didn't see any reason why he would want to share any info with a fusion center. He also wouldn't commit to NOT sharing info with a fusion center, nor would he commit to declining grant money that required he turn information collected over to a fusion center. The DHS has a "If You See Something, Say Something," program: they specifically encourage agencies to speak up when they, well, see something.

The director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke after Lye in another pretty starkly convincing proposal about how the Sheriff was willing to throw away civil liberties in favor of a new toy. Alameda County Against Drones (@nomby on twitter) spoke passionately against all drones over our backyards whatsoever. Since I started writing this, Mother Jones has written about the same meeting. So, I'll stop now.

Bottom line: if you live in Oakland, this matters. If you live anywhere in California from Monterey to Oregon, this matters.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy and Mkie McGuire: We Are Many

I don't buy a lot of books anymore, but I'm kind of obsessed with Oakland: AK Press published a book on Occupy that put Occupy Oakland (OO) at the center of the story, so I did it. Even more than that, the book took on race and Occupy: something that as an armchair critic, I thought was a major problem. "We Are Many," a collection of essays, personal stories and documents from Occupies around the country takes on the project of looking at "movement strategy," not just the movement itself, and so doing race plays a crucial part. The book is giant and uneven with tons of contributors, and I've been reading it for awhile, so I can't sum it up, but it's definitely a worthy piece. Caveat: AK Press is an anarchist/radical publisher, and they make me look centrist. "Liberals" and "nonprofits" take a lot of heat in this book, maybe unjustly. This is a drawback: the audience of this book just might be the liberal nonprofit, "traditional" organizing crowd that might want to learn from "We Are Many": taking flack from radicals isn't a great marketing strategy. (So what, say the contributors!)

It's almost impossible to even talk about this book as a whole, just as it would be almost impossible to talk about Occupy as a whole: how can you talk about a movement that, by nature, is leaderless, demandless, nameless. There are some common take-aways, though.

1. The movement is not over, and it is not fair to say this, say many contributors. Historically, movements are not built in a day, and just because we live in a world of FAST everything, and because the encampments sprung up quickly and were crushed quickly and were discussed in real-time on social media does not mean that Occupy is over. I want to believe this, and much of me does believe this. Frances Fox Piven (not exactly a flash in the pan activist herself) is particularly convincing on this, but she is also convincing on what it will take for Occupy to keep going: "the growth," she writes "depends on its ability to reach beyond its largely young and student constituency and to sweep in diverse groups of workers and students and the poor." While one Occupy in the book describes its constituency as older- 50s and 60s in Santa Fe- this Occupy was notably "conservative" for an Occupy, and not representative of poor or workers, but the more "typical" Santa Fe liberal.

2. Occupy needs to address race issues. I've said this before, and to anyone that would listen, but movements and activities and projects in Oakland won't work if they're based in downtown Oakland. They're destined and pre-determined to be predominately white if they're based in downtown Oakland, and any movement/activity/project that doesn't analyze where they choose their home base is already missing a chance to evaluate their racial biases. Downtown Oakland may seem convenient: it's right by two BART stations, after all, but most of Oakland isn't that close to BART. East Oakland is "served" by Coliseum BART and West Oakland has West Oakland BART, but that's it. Movements that center in downtown or uptown cater to those people, generally white, who live there, or can bike or travel there. Not everyone in East and West can bike or travel there. "Oscar Grant" Plaza was a great example of that. How many people in East Oakland actually came to OGP? Could come to OGP? Wanted to come to OGP?

Interestingly, a piece in "We Are Many" by a collaborative group, Croatoan, argues that statements like mine serve to erase the contributions of people of color from Occupy Oakland: "To describe the participants of Occupy Oakland as primarily white men is not only factually incorrect, it ultimately prevents participants from being able to look honestly at the social interactions which occurred under its auspices." After reading all of the pieces about problematizing race and Occupy, I would argue that rather than erasing, my point just further complicates the issue, and perhaps combines point number one (how to extend the longevity of the movement) with this point: For Occupy to survive, it must extend its physical form. Further, Occupy is absolutely not ALL white, or male, or white male. But it certainly never came close to reflecting Oakland's diversity, even a casual observer could see this. Croatoan made a fabulous point, however, that diversity can be an empty category: The US Army is "simultaneously one of the most racially integrated and oppressive institutions in American society." My  point is that they don't have to be mutually exclusive: the ideal would be to continue to do the work that "We Are Many" advocates for while simultaneously doing the work that is missed, the kind of work of cooperation discussed in "Hillbilly Nationalists."

3. Occupy didn't need demands, and this isn't a problem. How many times have you heard "what do they WANT?!" "We Are Many"'s contributors explain over and over that demands would delegitimize Occupy by legitimizing the system that Occupy was trying to expose as illegitimate. Further, much of Occupy was about developing a new process- a horizontal democracy, true participation, not about "demands" at all. Changing the conversation.

There's a ton more, but really hard to encapsulate. There is a lot to like in this book and a lot that really grated on me. There were smoothing over of facts (like the myth that Jean Quan and mayors "conspired" to evict the various camps) and some seriously patronizing language. I liked that some of the things that I find problematic with Occupy, like "diversity of tactics" being language for violence had multiple sides represented, and I especially liked how various authors placed Occupy in historical context, even when the historical context differed. That's okay: this is history that isn't being told by the winners, but by the vanguards.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level

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Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have one revolutionary thing to tell you, and they really want you to understand it, to the point of tedium, which is too bad, because the thing they have to tell you is really quite important and will make you think about things differently: social problems and world problems and almost all problems stem from inequality and can be changed by addressing inequality. Of course this is a major oversimplification, but problems affected by inequality include poverty, gun violence, homicide rate, obesity and on and on. We tend to think of these things in term of poverty rates or race or any number of other things but by comparing country's rates of inequality as well as the rates of inequality within the fifty states, Wilkinson and Pickett paint a different picture.

Why? "Imagine living in a society where 90 per cent of the population mistrusts one another and what that must mean for the quality of every day life." This lack of trust, and the sense of shame that many in unequal societies feel leads to a serious issues of status. Shame, Wilkinson and Pickett explain, is "the social emotion." Humans are wrapped up in social status, and low social status, or the extreme emphasis on social status that comes from inequality leads to "psychosocial stress." (This isn't psychobabble.) As our social position becomes one of the main parts of our identity, and inequality becomes bigger, "some people seem to count for almost anything and others for practically nothing." Don't believe that this is important? At one point Wilkinson and Pickett suggest going to a poor neighborhood and insulting someone. The point hit home for me: if you perceive yourself as counting for nothing, you're more likely to take an insult to your status as an insult to your self. This is a road map for social breakdown.

I've read (and written) a lot about education lately, so I'll use that as an example. All of the graphs used in "The Spirit Level" are in the form of the one below (taken from the books' companion site, Equalitytrust.org.uk). The bottom of the chart is the level of income inequality and the vertical axis shows the percentage of students dropping out of high school. This particular graph uses levels of inequality in US states while some graphs use economically developed countries.Over and over these graphs show the same line: the linkage between the rates of inequality and the negative societal issue (in this case high school drop out rates) are clear.

Often we think of affluence as the difference between good and bad education rates, but if you look at a state like Montana, it falls low on the rates of both inequality and high school drop out rates, but according to the 2008 Census data, ranked 18th in people falling below the poverty line. Further, Wilkinson and Pickett's data showed that the steepness of the social gradient (this is complicated) matters: the as differences between parents' education grow, average education score drops. This is another way of saying that in societies where the inequality between adult education is greater, childrens' inequality is likely to be further. Reducing inequality, not necessarily poverty, is the solution. Like Lisa Delpit, Wilkinson and Pickett remind us that "performance and behavior in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities seem to be diminished." This goes back to the initial discussion of psychosocial stress: in unequal societies, people are constantly measuring themselves up to each other, and are constantly finding themselves falling short: we're in a rich state, a poor state, we're black, we're brown, we're in a poor district, we're not expected to do well. When considered "minorities" or against the unattainable "American Dream," almost everyone is going to fail, or seem inferior, and therefore fall short, leading to poor performance.

The list goes on- Wilkinson and Pickett remind us that "very few people are victims of violent crime [even in Oakland], but fear of violence affects the quality of of many more." This is, to reiterate a common theme, especially true in more unequal societies, which tend to be more violent. (Their discussion includes short if problematic discussions of gender roles and violence, as well as the role of guns and violence.) They discuss prison rates, and how how violence and imprisonment are cyclical: "imprisonment rates are not determined by crime rates so much as by differences in official attitudes towards punishment versus rehabilitation and reform. In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of 'us and them' are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fer of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes towards the 'criminal elements' of society." Again, the issues of trust come up: if we can't trust our peers, we can't trust them to reform, or live next to us.

Wilkinson and Pickett propose two ways of addressing the financial part of inequality: taxing/benefits to redistribute wealth or having less differential between salaries, as in Japan. To them, it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as the goal is obtained. The government's role in inequality also has to be addressed, as they often further the problem by addressing the symptoms rather than the inequality itself, which leads to further income disparities. Addressing inequality, the authors believe, will also help us achieve sustainability: as we consume resources in our desire for status, we're eating up the earth's resources. More equality would lead to less consumption: smaller cars, houses, etc. They site evidence on this in terms of "savings, debt, bankruptcy rates, spending on advertising and working hours." Not bad. The take home: "equality does not mean being the same... Nor does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity." We have an amazing standard of living in the United States, and the extremely poor should be brought to this standard of living. We don't all need private jets, though, and rectifying this will help everyone.