Agitators, inside and outside
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rosa parksThe outside agitator charge is one that has historically been invoked by authorities with bad arguments. Whatever misdeeds they have committed to provoke protest are indefensible, so they resort to canards. Usually the target is some sort of lefty agitation.

Any fool should know that an unimpeachable movement, for civil rights, was fueled by outside agitators, as well as inside ones. Civil rights workers came to the South from all over the U.S. to help register black people to vote. Union organizers often come into places they’ve never lived in before. So to suggest there is something inherently bad about outside agitators is usually reactionary bullcrap.

Of course it matters what sort of agitation is involved. Bad or unwise agitation is what it is, aside from its authors. When Al Sharpton was ranting about Korean grocers, that was inside agitation.

The other reactionary angle to outside agitator mongering is the implication that protest be confined to narrow subjects and goals. Politics is all about motivating big ideas by reference to specific incidents, among other things. So resistance to broadening protest is another form of reaction. I’m not on the ground in Ferguson, so I can’t say who is doing what to whom. All I can say is that justice for Michael Brown is a laudable objective, but it is not ambitious enough. What about the next Michael Brown? You know there will be one.

There are some visible outsiders in Ferguson who are very unlikely to make any sort of productive contribution. Making it easier for police to attack non-violent protesters by chucking shit, besides being cowardly, is a sure way to shut the whole thing down. On the other side, it’s possible that some local leaders would like to chill things out as much as possible, which means demobilize people. I don’t fault their intentions, but demobilization is not something to hope for.

There would be less downside to demobilization, which seems to be happening, in light of the evident lack of any organized action. If the only thing people are going to do is walk up and down the street saying justice for Michael Brown, they might as well go home. That message has been delivered. Absent any expansion of the protest, both thematically and politically, I’m not optimistic about the outcome.

 

Who’s the man?
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sharpton-jewishThe vacuum of organization on the ground in Ferguson remains apparent. What do I mean? We see no public organized face to the protest, just a set of rotating independent actors, some honorable, others not so much.

At minimum, somebody needs to call themselves a damn committee, meet, and publish a leaflet (I know, that’s old fashioned; maybe a web page) with some minimal demands. First and foremost is a demand for the right to assemble, as purportedly guaranteed but-not-really by nothing less than the Constitution. Jim Dalrymple II of BuzzFeed and @adamserwer described how this right was denied, in daylight, Wednesday morning. There had been no violence, no shadowy figures running around in the dark.

There is organization on the side of counter-insurgency. First and foremost is former FBI informer the most Reverend Al Sharpton. He can lead rallies calling for justice for Michael Brown and admonish others to stay within boundaries ostensibly set by the family, in whom he has sunk his vampiric fangs, but apparently he can’t bring himself to join the protesters in the street and defend their right to be there. There is also the talk about ‘outside agitators’ (never in reference to the Rev), which is another way of saying protest must not exceed certain political limits.

Then we have the cult of Officer Friendly, a.k.a. Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police. He babbles about ‘transparency’ in front of the television cameras, later directs the thug police to scream at people, shove them around, point their shotguns, arrest journalists, and the like. I’m not there on the ground, but I’m not so sure about the large fellows roaming around with shirts that say “Peacekeepers.”

There are some genuine out-of-town loonies in Ferguson. They are helpfully identified by their T-shirts. Older white dudes, invariably. I’m not giving them the respect of naming them, but I’ve seen them in action for forty years. Their game is to come out of a crowd of regular folks, do something to provoke police, then run back into the crowd. Or from within the crowd, provoke the police by throwing shit. The surest way to shut down the whole protest is to give police more excuses (though they can and will always invent some) to assault protesters and media.

The bottom line is that any political leader, including Sharpton, A-G Holder, and the president himself who fails to defend the elementary right to assemble is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

 

The late great Bill of Rights
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The good people of Ferguson, MO now enjoy the right to stroll, but not to assemble. They have the right to a free press, as long as the free press stays in the free press zone, properly roped off from places they might want to go, and activities they might want to film or photograph. Governor Nixon spoke of the police “providing First Amendment rights” on MSNBC. Governor, you don’t provide rights. You practice forbearance in the denial of rights. Oh and here’s good Captain Ron (scroll down), directing police to provide a bit less in the way of freedom of the press.

This is an old story to anyone who has tried to protest at one of the political conventions, Democratic and Republican, in cities run by liberal mayors as well as conservative ones. It’s familiar to the those who demonstrated against the International Monetary Fund, and more recently to the people at the Occupy encampments. We don’t even have to get started on privacy, the NSA, and all that jazz. Forget the Bill of Rights; it’s a dead letter.

No less than our erstwhile champion, President Barack Obama, went on television Monday afternoon and spoke of his Promise Keepers initiative, aimed at steering wayward black youth onto the straight and narrow. The relevance to the current uproar? You figure it out. Cops shoot black kid, we start talking about improving the conduct of black kids. As some furious Twitterers pointed out, if only there was a Federal program to counsel pathologically violent officers of the law to give up their wicked ways. Perhaps some good liberal will file a new bill.

 

Ferguson: the good, the bad, and the ugly
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"Ain't nobody going in this motherfucker, bro." (resident guarding beauty store)

“Ain’t nobody going in this motherfucker, bro.” (resident guarding beauty store)

Vox has a comprehensive collection of information, as of Saturday morning (when I started writing this post). For some really really deep background, read this. I’m afraid this isn’t over by a long shot, because given the lack of professionalism exhibited thus far (though hard cases might call it an excess of professionalism, either ironically or sincerely), I suspect the local and county police are doctoring evidence and the St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch is playing white resentment politics.

And where the fuck is the left in St. Louis? Hello? Bueller?? Oh, here they are. You go, peeps. And here’s a bail fund.

Some unwelcome bits of information have been confirmed.

Brown is the guy in the store hold-up pictures. He pushed the store clerk. This has been acknowledged by the attorney for Brown’s buddy. Obviously that does not justify his execution.

There was use of Molotov cocktails. Last night there was more looting, as well as residents acting to prevent looting.

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It should be understood that in any sort of popular uprising or mass protest, this sort of thing is going to happen. There is seldom any perfectly clean mobilization. What matters is how the good guys and gals comport themselves, in terms of organization: what sort of unified face do they present to the world.

I’ve been glued to MSNBC and the Internet and so far, I don’t see much organization, only spontaneous acts of virtue. We see individual elected officials getting interviewed, but no collective statement beyond a demand for justice, and at least going by what I’ve seen, no collective action. Like Rahm Emanuel said, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

There have been some stirrings in Washington, DC. There was a prescient bill introduced by Alan Grayson to curb the transfer of military equipment to state and local governments. It was overwhelmingly rejected, by Democrats as well as Republicans, including the African-American member who represents Ferguson. Oy. That was in June; perhaps some members of Congress will reconsider. There is also some talk of hearings. I suggested an agenda, usefully amended by commenters.

It’s not the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning.

 

 

Zionism as national liberation
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One thing I’ve heard is that those on the left who support all forms of national liberation but that of the Jews, in Israel, are anti-Semitic, or at least hypocritical.

Most simply, there is nobody on the left who supports all national liberation struggles. That’s just a myth. Some struggles are perceived as illegitimate for one reason or another. For instance, the Hmong people were recruited by the CIA to fight on the U.S. side in Vietnam. They had national aspirations. Nobody on the left supported them, for obvious reasons.

National liberation (NL) cannot be separated from context. Liberation from what? With what consequences? Similarly anti-Zionism today cannot be separated from the historical developments in Israel/Palestine. A different development I submit would provoke a different sort of antiZionism. A benign one that respected Palestinian national aspirations could indeed reduce anti-Zionism to a crank anti-Semitic fringe, but that isn’t the reality.

There are many on he left who disdain any sort of NL. So there is nothing hypocritical or inconsistent about their anti-Zionism. This includes anarchists who not only oppose NL but oppose states of any type, on principle. Like Chomsky.

You could interpret anti-Zionism as inflexible opposition to a Jewish state under any circumstances, while simultaneously endorsing the NL of others. Maybe some on the left are guilty of this. Alternatively you could imagine anti-Zionism as I do: Zionism is what Zionism does. What it’s doing now is unacceptable to me, ergo my anti-Zionism. If Israel allowed a Palestine, I’d preoccupy myself with other things. I think most others would too. Any remnant could be legitimately scrutinized for anti-Semitism.

It’s not so complicated. In light of Tibet’s treatment at the hands of the PRC, I’m inclined to be sympathetic to Tibetan national aspirations. If however Tibet exhibited murderous intent towards some internal minority, not so much. The Kurds are a classic example of an imperialist project, yet I have no problem supporting their independence. It seems by far the preferred outcome.

Zionism has outlived its legitimacy as NL. Israel has already been liberated. Now it needs to be restrained from evil deeds.

thennow

Academic freedom for me but not for thee
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Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita

A Palestinian-American academic named Steven Salaita was offered a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne, IL. This offer was withdrawn when some of his anti-Zionist tweets got some heightened public attention. (They weren’t secret in the first place, just never noticed by some people.) Corey Robin has been beating his erudite drum on this, so visit his blog for the back story.

Though I’m no lawyer, it seems Salaita has the makings of a decent legal case. I am not qualified nor have the interest to evaluate his scholarly credentials. I just want to deal with the anti-Semite canard, which is encapsulated in this oped by Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet. (Another rejoinder to Lubet here.)

The Steve Lubet piece (repeated by leading Salaita critic Cary Nelson) says this:

He once retweeted a vile suggestion that journalist Jeffrey Goldberg ought to get “the pointy end of a shiv.”

Whereas the tweet actually said:

“Jeffrey goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv”

Not quite the same, is it? Lubet also mangles the context of the “making anti-semitism honorable” tweet, perhaps because in his outrage he neglected to do any deeper investigation (due diligence, Counselor?). I spent a bit of time reading Salaita’s tweets myself and I don’t buy the anti-Semite accusation. Maybe he scrubbed his Twitter feed. As far as I know, it’s still up in all its glory.

Quoth Michael Rothberg, Head of the Department of English at UIUC and the Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies:

I have reviewed a large number of tweets sent by Professor Salaita during recent weeks. While I understand that they are partisan and angry messages—and therefore may be considered controversial—I do not agree that anything written there warrants firing or rescinding an offer that was already promised. Indeed, if academic freedom and the right to free speech do not guarantee controversial and offensive political expression—and especially expression outside the classroom—what are they good for?

The tweets I read are certainly vitriolic regarding Israel and Zionism. I did not see one that went over the line, by my lights, as far as The Jews are concerned. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, though rhetoric of the former often slips into, or boldly goes into, the latter. So it does pay to choose one’s words carefully. I would think a real anti-Semite would slip in an overtly anti-Semitic tweet now and then. In fact as the linked MondoWeiss piece shows, Salaita offers a slew of anti-anti-Semitic tweets. If anybody wants to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in principle, then sure, Salaita is an anti-Semite and so am I. Thus endeth the conversation, see ya, don’t want to be ya, don’t let the door hit your toches on the way out.

The most notorious tweet quoted by critics — the one quoted accurately — refers to the kidnapped Israeli settler kids. It’s bad. I don’t think there is any excuse for it, but not because it’s anti-semitic, because it’s eliminationist. If I expressed murderous thoughts about Chris Christie for oppressing my home state of NJ, it wouldn’t make me anti-Italian, though I could be criticized on other grounds.

Salaita is part Palestinian. One wonders how temperate others would be in the face of a comparably lethal and prolonged military assault on whatever ethnic/religious/other group they might identify with.

There are various petitions circulating. Corey has some for particular groups of academics. Here is one for the great unwashed masses.

– Yrs from beyond the Pale

More justice
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Flickr-riot-police-katesheetsDemilitarization of the police is now a watchword, which is all to the good. But we can do better. Before I elaborate, I’d like to note that thus far the most substantive statement on this affair comes from no less than Senator Rand Paul, in no less than TIME Magazine. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill took a creditable stand on demilitarization. Nancy Pelosi had an adequate statement, short and sweet. Somewhat surprisingly, Elizabeth Warren offered pablum. And lastly, President Obama was as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

There has been some chatter about conservatives who routinely rail against an over-bearing government being missing in action, including from yours truly. In fact it is possible to find statements from the Right (or from libertarians, who often reject descriptions like ‘right-wing’ or conservative) that have been critical of police misconduct (see S.E. Cupp’s Twitter feed). Rarely, however, have these been from Republican office-holders. I look forward to a spirited competition between the parties to see who can get religion on this issue first.

An incident like this can be a point of departure for a discussion of related policy issues. Justice needs to be done in the Michael Brown case, but we should go beyond talk of healing and a narrow focus on the shooting. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

On demilitarization, there should be an immediate moratorium on Federal transfer of military gear and equipment to state and local police agencies. Armored vehicles should be returned to the Department of Defense. They can be melted down and made into cute trolley cars or converted into awesome giant ice cream trucks.

The abuse of SWAT teams should be the subject of an independent study, comparable in scale to the Kerner Commission. The national SWAT scandal was well-explored by Radley Balko, who transitioned from blogging to a column at the Washington Post.

The Federal government should repeal all mandatory minimum sentencing laws that needlessly expand the U.S. prison population, one of the largest in the world.

The Department of Justice should compile a log of all Federal prisoners who have been imprisoned for minor drug offenses and President Obama should grant them all pardons. They did this with about 80 people. There have to be several thousand more who could qualify. Federal criminal law pertaining to low-level offenses needs to be slimmed-down.

Criminal offenses for possession of marijuana should be totally eliminated and left to state governments. We could imagine a parallel agenda here for state governments.

The use of private corporations to run prisons bears review, not necessarily because private prisons are guilty of more brutal treatment of inmates, but because their political advocacy has a malign influence on the determination of criminal penalties and the administration of justice.

These are things the Federal government can do. In some cases there has been some movement at DoJ to these ends. There is now an opportunity for that movement to be accelerated.

P.S. Two late additions, from commenters:

Eliminate, or at least radically scale back disenfranchisement of felons. This is a state government thing at present.

Fully fund public defenders, another state government assignment, and Neighborhood Legal Services, a Federal agency that represents the poor in civil cases.