I have published a Western States Legal Foundation Commentary, Ukraine: Time to Step Back from the Brink, available at the link below.
Ukraine: Time to Step Back from the Brink, Western States Legal Foundation Commentary, February 2015.]]>
I gave a talk at the Global Network on Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space annual meeting last weekend. Several people asked for a text, so I am posting the talk here (see link below). The talk touches upon current U.S. strategic weapons modernization programs, military space, and their relevance to the current climate of growing great power competition and confrontation, including the crisis in the Ukraine.
Vandenberg Air Force Base: Local and Global Connections]]>
Frame from video, Urban Shield 2012 Highlights, listed on Youtube as sponsored by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
by Andrew Lichterman
Urban Shield, a huge multi-agency emergency response drill, will be held at sites throughout the Bay Area from October 25-28, 2013. Although often presented to the public as useful for preparing the region to respond for everything from earthquakes and fires to school shootings, Urban Shield primarily is focused on preventing and responding to terrorist attacks. Urban Shield also features a trade show with vendors promoting products ranging from high powered weapons and surveillance equipment to protective gear for hazardous materials response teams. The trade show will take place at the Marriott, in downtown Oakland. The exercise also is a competition, with SWAT teams, hazmat teams, EMT’s and firefighters not only from the Bay Area but from around the world competing for top honors.
A coalition of groups centered in the East Bay is protesting Urban Shield. The law enforcement aspects of the exercise are emblematic of the militarization of policing that took root in the “war on drugs” and has accelerated and intensified in a post 9/11 era. Further, a trade show in downtown Oakland featuring guns and ammunition undercuts long-running efforts to stop the marketing of guns and ammunition, part of broader efforts to stem the tide of gun violence in the city through non-violent means rather than violent repression.
Urban Shield sometimes is portrayed as a general emergency response exercise, but its primary focus is anti-terrorism. There’s a consortium of agencies called the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) that administers Urban Shield. At recent public hearings on Urban Shield, Oakland city officials tried to give the impression that the city’s involvement was limited to hosting the firefighting elements of the exercise, even suggesting that Alameda County, not Oakland, was the proper agency for questions or criticism concerning Urban Shield. All major Bay Area jurisdictions, however, participate in UASI governance: the UASI “Approval Authority” includes “representation from each of the three major cities of Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose and the County of Alameda, County of Contra Costa, County of Marin, County of Monterey, County of San Francisco, County of San Mateo, County of Santa Clara and County of Sonoma.” (Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, The Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy 2012–2014, January 2012, p.5).
A report to that group on last year’s Urban Shield exercise stated that “[s]cenarios must contain a nexus to terrorism” to comply with the Homeland Security Exercise Evaluation Program. The Urban Area Security Initiative’s Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy 2012–2014 states that
“Threat assessment data indicates that the Bay Area is home to many international and domestic terrorist organizations, making it a prime location for potential terrorist attack.”
Despite the supposed multi-purpose nature of the event, anti-terrorism and military-style police response dominates the imagery, marketing, and substance of Urban Shield. Promotional videos put out by the Alameda County Sheriff’s office, which coordinates Urban Shield, have the kind of highly charged music and pacing normally associated with TV advertising for a football playoff game. The action in the video is dominated by explosions and heavily armed swat teams kicking down doors and engaging in simulated gun battles. Now and then a firefighter or EMT appears, dealing with the destruction one would expect in the wake of one or another scenario with a “nexus to terrorism.”
A frame from a video of highlights from Urban Shield 2012 appears to show heavily armed officers apprehending “terrorists” with banners saying “No war for oil” and “we are 99%.” (see image at top of page.) The frames just preceding show some kind of improvised explosive device. This raises disturbing questions of who our police are being trained to profile and target as terrorists. Both the anti-war and the Occupy movements have been overwhelmingly non-violent, and have involved no activity reasonably described as “terrorist.”
The trade show to be held at the downtown Oakland Marriott is more than just a side show. Exhibitors showcase an array of equipment including guns and ammunition, surveillance devices, software to organize the vast flows of information gathered by police agencies, and gear used by bomb squads, paramedics, and fire departments.
Participating vendors are invited to play an integral part in Urban Shield. Exhibitors pay up to $15,000 to sponsor the event, and those in the upper tiers get far more than a booth at the show. All but the lowest tier can attend one or more Urban Shield dinner events. Vendors who pay $4500 or more get tickets to a “VIP tour” allowing them to view at least eight of the exercise venues. Those that pay $7500 or more are entitled to a “Product Demonstration at a designated tactical scenario.” The vendor application warns that product demonstration opportunities will be filled on a first come, first served basis, and that “[t]o ensure your product is being utilized to its full potential, it is highly recommended you commit your product early during the scenario development process.” A 2012 Alameda County Sheriff’s Department presentation on that year’s Urban Shield exercise showed featured technologies and company logos in slides describing scenarios, for example, the Parrot-AR Drone for a scenario in which “[a] member of the Sovereign Citizen movement drove a truck into a government building which resulted in a partial building collapse and fire.”
Slide from Bay Area UASI Approval Authority Urban Shield 2012 Presentation, December 2012.
We live in a society where at all levels of government money too often drives policy, and that appears to be the case with Urban Shield. In a time when budgets for public services have been under attack for years, it’s hard for local agencies to find money for emergency preparedness. Homeland Security is a big pot of money–over 50 billion dollars annually throughout the Federal government. And that’s without including Defense Department homeland security spending–another $18 billion per year. But that money comes with strings, such as the requirement that exercises like Urban Shield have a focus on terrorism rather than hazards far more likely to inflict widespread devastation on the Bay Area, such as earthquakes, floods, and fires on the wildland-urban interface. The Urban Area Security Initiative’s 2012-2014 Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy reflects the way the quest for funding shapes this inversion of priorities:
“The purpose of the Bay Area Homeland Security Strategy (Bay Area Strategy or Strategy) is to ensure the Bay Area region has a comprehensive document and system that outlines the region’s risks, capabilities, vision, structure, goals and objectives for homeland security. Having such a Strategy will ensure the Bay Area is in the best possible position to clearly track and articulate its risk and capability needs to local leaders, the State of California and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when seeking resources and funding to enhance homeland security and public safety across the region. The Strategy is designed primarily to address terrorism risk faced by the Bay Area with an understanding that capabilities enhanced to combat terrorism often enhance the ability to also manage natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and man-made accidents, such as hazardous materials spills.”
All of this–the acceptance by local officials, even in a supposedly “liberal” region like the Bay Area, of funding tightly tied to an increasingly militarized internal security apparatus, the incorporation of corporate marketing directly into government activities–might have seemed shocking to many a decade or two ago. The “new normal,” however, is a surveillance-internal-security state driven by an intelligence-police-prison-industrial complex, a new Homeland Security wing of the military industrial complex. As I wrote six years ago regarding Bush-era domestic spying, the Cold War arms race was fueled in large part by power and profit interests having little to do with the common good, exploiting the climate of fear and to sell an endless and ever more sophisticated and expensive array of military technologies and services to the State. But for the emerging police-surveillance-industrial complex, our civil liberties will not be mere collateral damage in larger campaigns selling weapons and wars. They will be squarely in the sights of those who seek to sustain an increasingly two-tier society and to increase their profits by diminishing the freedoms of the rest of us.
The “war on terror” has led to a climate of fear and inflated threats. It has encouraged those in government to view the population as either victims or enemies. Training develops attitudes as well as exercising skills. The “homeland security” approach typified by Urban Shield emphasizes technology heavy, military-style rapid response. We are far better served by seeking solutions that strengthen our everyday public services and the economic and social health of our communities–the strongest basis for mutual aid and recovery in times of disaster. It’s time to end the war at home.
There will be a community witness and picket outside the trade show at the Marriott Hotel, 11th & Broadway, Oakland, October 25, 9am-5pm. For more information, go to http://facingteargas.org/facing-urban-shield-action-network]]>
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Once again, the President of the United States is leading a rush towards war without regard for the United Nations Charter and the international legal regime intended to control prohibited weapons and to respond to threats to peace and security. Even before United Nations inspectors were on the ground in Syria to determine whether a chemical weapons attack had occurred, the U.S. and its allies began moving ships into attack position in a manner that, in the context of public statements by the leaders of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, constituted an undeniable military threat to Syria.
Since World War I, use of chemical weapons has been viewed almost universally as monstrous, and as a violation of treaty-based and customary standards of international humanitarian law. If they were used in Syria by any party, that action should be condemned, and all states should cooperate in identifying the perpetrators and in pursuing their apprehension and prosecution by all legal means. There is no provision of international law, however, that allows ad hoc coalitions of countries to determine for themselves who they believe the guilty parties to be, and to punish them by acts of war against the territory of a sovereign state. The United Nations Charter allows unilateral military action only where a country is under attack or imminent threat of attack. None of the countries proposing the use of force against Syria can make any claim that Syria has attacked them, or that they are under imminent threat of attack. International treaties outlawing chemical weapons and prohibiting their use provide no special exception for such ad hoc use of military force. To the contrary, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the most comprehensive instrument concerning chemical weapons, provides for investigation of alleged violations by specialist bodies constituted by the Convention and recourse to the United Nations to authorize any use of force.
In this instance, it is especially important that transparent, credible procedures be followed for investigation of the allegations of chemical weapons use and a determination of the responsible party or parties, as well as for actions to prevent further use and to punish those culpable.
* * *
The airwaves are full of pundits and politicians saying that both the chemicals weapons use and the broader crisis in Syria present no good choices. But it is hard to see how breaking solemn undertakings to most of the countries in the world by neglecting treaties and principles of international law that the United States has agreed to will either bolster U.S. “credibility” or enhance respect for international law. President Obama says he is ready to make the “hard choices.” But giving in to the powerful, omnipresent American war caucus once more by sending cruise missiles against a country that cannot respond in kind is neither a hard choice for an American president nor a good one. It is a course of action that will take many lives with little promise of saving others, and that will once again lead us all down a dangerous road with no visible end. For American elected officials, saying no to the easy, violent options offered by a national security and military industrial complex too long ascendant would be the hard choice, the courageous choice, and the right choice.]]>
On August 27, the Oakland Police Department issued a community notice to make the public and media aware of an aerial survey that would be taking place over portions of San Francisco, Pacifica and Oakland through September 1, ostensibly to measure “naturally-occurring background radiation.” According to the notice, the flyovers are part of a joint research project between the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The only explanation offered: “The background data will be used by DNDO and NNSA to improve aerial radiation measurement capabilities used by local, state and federal entities.” The Oakland Police notice refers its readers to the DNDO and NNSA Public Affairs offices for additional information.
On August 30, annoyed by the low-flying helicopter buzzing around our office in downtown Oakland, I followed the Oakland Police Department’s advice and wrote to DNDO and NNSA. After pointing out the fallacious characterization of current radiation levels being “naturally-occurring” (noting that prior to July 16, 1945 it would have been possible to measure naturally occurring levels of background radiation, but this has not been the case for 67 years), I posed the following questions, and requested a reply:
1) What is the significance of the timing of this data collection?
2) What criteria was used in selecting the areas for the flyovers?
3) What will the data be used for?
4) Will a report on the findings be released to the public? If so, when?
5) Are additional flyovers planned for the future? Is so, when and where?
Based on the letters, I also submitted an op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times. Both the Chronicle and the Times had published “news” stories recycling the NNSA press release. As of this writing, I have not heard back from the DNDO, the NNSA. Nor have I heard back from either of the newspapers regarding the op eds. I’ll let you know when I do. In the meantime, I’ve posted my op-ed below.
From August 27 to September 1, residents of San Francisco, Pacifica and Oakland experienced a low-flying helicopter criss-crossing their neighborhoods. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), this helicopter was “taking measurements of naturally-occurring background radiation.”
The NNSA’s press release is misleading in its characterization of current levels of radiation as “naturally-occurring.” Prior to July 16, 1945 it would have been possible to measure naturally occurring levels of background radiation, but this has not been the case for 67 years. The U.S. “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, followed in short order by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, produced the first wind-borne plumes of long-lived radioactive particles to traverse the globe. Since that time, over 2,000 nuclear test explosions have been conducted around the world–above ground, underwater and underground–dumping huge amounts of radiation into the environment. 25% were exploded in the atmosphere, over 200 of these by the United States. Major and routine releases of radiation from more than 400 nuclear power plants worldwide, including the catastrophic accidents at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have also contributed.
At the local/regional level, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (originally called the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory), the Lawrence Livermore National nuclear weapons Laboratory, the General Electric research reactors at Vallecitos, the decontamination at Hunters Point of Navy ships exposed to fallout from U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific, and the transportation of nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel at sea and over land, have made their own contributions of long-lived man-made radiation. It may be possible to come up with 2012 “baseline” radiation measurements, but they will not be from “naturally-occurring” radiation.
We have some questions. What is the significance of the timing of this data collection? What criteria were used in selecting the areas for the flyovers? How will the data be used? Will a report on the findings be released to the public? Are additional flyovers planned for the future? We believe the public has a right to know the answers to these questions.
Almost seven decades into the nuclear age, it is disingenuous for our government to perpetuate the myth of “naturally-occurring background radiation.” Like global warming, radioactive contamination of the environment is almost entirely the result of human activities. These include uranium mining and processing, generation of nuclear energy, and production, use and testing of nuclear weapons. Invisible radioactive isotopes, some of which remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years, don’t respect national borders and present a cumulative, universal threat to public health, leading to cancers, leukemia, and birth defects.
Rather than misleading the public, our government should provide reliable information about current sources of radioactive pollution, whether from the Livermore Lab or the ongoing releases from Fukushima, and their potential health impacts. Instead of continuing to invest in life-threatening nuclear technology, the U.S. should lead negotiations for the global elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, investing instead in life-affirming sustainable, renewable energy sources, protection of public health, and long-term stewardship of deadly radioactive nuclear waste.]]>
Back in 2006, I wrote a series of posts about the “Divine Strake” test, a very large conventional high explosive test slated to be conducted at the Nevada Test Site (now dubbed/sanitized to the “Nevada Nuclear Security Site”), intended to simulate the effects of low-yield nuclear weapons. That test was later canceled as a result of opposition both from disarmament groups and from regional opponents concerned about potential environmental effects. Along the way, I found budget documents showing that the U.S. military also was developing a very large, earth penetrating conventional bomb called the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. (see the latter part of my post titled The ‘Divine Strake’ low-yield nuclear weapons simulation: government denials and responses).
At that time, Defense Threat Reduction Agency Director James Tegnelia was quoted in an American Forces Press Service piece, denying that the Defense Department’s Hard Target Defeat program manifested anything more than a theoretical interest in developing a large conventional earth penetrator:
“One weapon Tegnelia commented on is the HTD program’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a multi-ton bomb. He stressed that it’s a defensive, not offensive, weapon. He told AFPS that the MOP is a test article meant to understand the design principles on which a country might build a weapon to counter hard targets. ‘We are not in the process to convince anybody to field a large earth penetrator,’ he said.” Steven Donald Smith, “U.S. Agency Works to Reduce WMD Threat,” American Forces Press Service, April 3, 2006 (emphasis added).
Tegnalia made this statement despite budget request documents filed earlier, in February 2006, listing among the FY2005 accomplishments of the “CP operational warfighter support” program the following:
Analyzed effectiveness of massive ordnance penetration against hard and deeply buried targets and completed preliminary design.
Refined Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) concept and began detailed weapon development and testing. Planned statically- emplaced Proof-of Principle test of effectiveness of Massive Ordnance payloads. Planned demonstration of massive ordnance airblast lethality against a full-scale tunnel target. Exhibit R-2a, RDT&E Defense-Wide/Applied Research - BA2 , 0602716BR Project BF - CP Operational Warfighter Support February 2006
On July 25, 2012, the Air Force Times quoted Air Force Secretary Michael Donley stating that the Massive Ordnance Penetrator is ready for use. (h/t to Common Dreams for its coverage of the issue). The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, more likely admitting the truth rather than retroactively revising it, states on its web site that
Flight tests have been successfully conducted at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. MOP integration activities for initial weapon delivery are also complete. Final system refinement, design and test will be complete in 2012 with additional weapon deliveries in 2013. The Air Force is managing and funding the program at this time, with Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) providing support.
Early tests of MOP were conducted by DTRA under the MOP Technology Demonstration effort. These tests began in 2004 with DTRA partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory. DTRA conducted flight tests from 2008 to 2010. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, “Massive Ordnance Penetrator.”
All of this illustrates once again that on most matters, there is little reason to believe that any official of the United States Government is telling the truth when speaking for public consumption.]]>
The Reaching Critical Will project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has released a new report on nuclear weapons modernization. The report, titled Assuring Destruction Forever: Nuclear Weapon Modernization Around the World, can be downloaded for free and hard copies are available for $8 from the Reaching Critical Will website.
The report explores in-depth the nuclear weapon modernization programs in China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and analyzes the costs of nuclear weapons in the context of the economic crisis, austerity measures, and rising challenges in meeting human and environmental needs. It features three pieces by DisarmamentActivist.org authors. Andrew Lichterman, senior research analyst for Western States Legal Foundation, wrote the chapter on the United States and a chapter on the role of civil society and social movements in creating the requisite political will for disarmament, and John Burroughs, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, wrote a chapter on international law and nuclear weapons.
The chapters also are available separately as pdf files. Below are the links to chapters written by WSLF staff and board members.
Chapter on U.S. nuclear weapons modernization, by Andrew Lichterman
Chapter on international law and nuclear weapons modernization, by John Burroughs
Civil Society, Social Movements, and Disarmament in the 21st Century, by Andrew Lichterman
There will be a launch event for the report in Vienna, Austria on Thursday May 3, one of a number of NGO events scheduled alongside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty preparatory committee meeting the first two weeks of May. The launch event will be in Room M2 of the Vienna International Center, May 3, 1:15–2:45p.m.]]>
Yet while the U.S. government lectures and threatens Iran and North Korea about the evils of nuclear weapons, it routinely test fires its own long-range nuclear Minuteman missiles from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast of California. Almost 450 Minuteman missiles remain deployed and on alert, part of a U.S. nuclear arsenal still large enough to end civlization in a day. The next Minuteman test launch is scheduled for February 25, 2012.
A nonviolent protest is planned at Vandenberg at five minutes to midnight, Friday February 24.
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has chartered a Green Tortoise bus that will leave for Vandenberg from Oakland at 5 pm, Feb. 24, returning by 7 am the next day, picking up people along the way.
Plan to get on the bus! $40 requested; no one turned away! Contact MacGregor Eddy: firstname.lastname@example.org; 831 206 5043
If you live in Southern California, please join a protest from 12 noon–1 pm on Feb. 24 at the Los Angeles Air Force Space and Missile Center, 262 N. Douglas Street.
Wherever you live, please sign the petition calling on President Obama to cancel the test and start negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons. click here to see the petition.
For more about Vandenberg Air Force Base, see the Spring 2012 Western States Legal Foundation Information Brief, Vandenberg Air Force Base: Where the Present and Future of U.S. Warmaking Come Together
Oscar Grant Plaza, Occupy Oakland
Early Tuesday morning, hundreds of police officers descended on the Occupy Oakland encampment, driving campers from their beds. The police arrested those who stayed, gassing some and shooting others with “non-lethal” projectiles. Their property was confiscated, the small temporary village, with its kitchen and library, medical tent and children’s area, was destroyed.
Children’s play zone and medical tent, the kind of threats to public order that required hundreds of heavily armed police to subdue.
But that was just the beginning. When Occupy Oakland residents and supporters attempted to reclaim the plaza– with a march that from most reports appeared, with the exception of scattered incidents, to be nonviolent on the part of the protesters– police responded with overwhelming force. It is clear that large quantities of tear gas and various “nonlethal” rounds were fired at unarmed civilians. I was not there Tuesday night. But I would note that I have been present at many, many demonstrations, including a number that involved objects thrown at police in which the police response was considerably more restrained. I find it difficult to believe in this case that police officers, present in very large numbers, armed and in full riot gear, ever were in significant danger from the demonstrators. It seems more likely that those who decided to deploy the kind of force we saw Tuesday wanted to send a strong message, and perhaps one that would be heard beyond Oakland.
The militarized U.S. police forces of the 21st century also seem to have absorbed the attitudes and approach of the U.S. armed forces: deploy maximum force to overawe all adversaries. If any resistance is encountered, protecting the armed forces of the State takes priority over everything else: civilian lives in U.S. wars of occupation abroad, and Constitutional rights and the last shreds of democracy at home. And perhaps our elites also consider civilian lives a regrettable but necessary cost in what what looked on Tuesday like a war against the expansion of democracy: one demonstrator, a Marine veteran who survived two tours in Iraq without harm, lies in the hospital critically injured, shot in the head with one or another kind of allegedly “non-lethal” projectile.
One might wonder whether if Oakland had suffered a large earthquake and its residents had self-organized to feed and house themselves in its parks and open spaces if local authorities would have felt it appropriate to fly-speck those encampments for health and safety violations, and to destroy and disperse them if they were not up to code. This country has suffered an economic and social catastrophe, and its authorities–local, state and Federal– have proven incapable of responding with measures that can provide for the welfare of all of its people. More and more people, feeling abandoned by governments who respond only to the concentrated economic power of corporations and the wealthiest individuals, are attempting to organize together both for mutual support and to find a way forward that works for the rest of us. The response from the “authorities” is to find ways to declare such activities to be crimes. But the truly “unlawful assemblies” today are occurring inside the halls of government, where every voice and vote is for sale to the highest bidder, not on streets and plazas where people are trying to create ways of living together where basic human needs are met, and where every voice is heard and respected.
Occupy Oakland by night]]>
These are some reflections on the occupations, having spent time at several and followed many others from afar. The occupations share similarities, but also have local characteristics. I can not speak for any or all of them, but as a participant in the debate they have sparked I can speak, and that is the point. This is some of what I have heard, and some of what I want to say. It is not a time to speak with one voice. The conversation is only beginning. The more it grows and the longer it goes on, the more reason for hope.
Occupy everywhere: reclaiming public space
The occupation movement is a response to internal colonization, to a sense that there is no space in our cities and towns and lives that has not been invaded by immense organizations in which we have no voice. In most aspects of our lives we are commanded or exploited, presented with pre-made, limited choices or no choices at all. And even that is only if our existence is either useful or profitable to the huge organizations that control both the necessities of existence and most social space, real and virtual. If we are neither useful as workers nor profitable as consumers, we are thrown away, pushed aside, squeezed out. Soon there will be no place left to go.
A popular trope used by the mainstream media and in professional political circles to denigrate the Occupy movement is to express puzzlement about “what those people want,” to say they have no “demands.” Yet the immediate “demands” of these occupations are clear. The first is that we have the right to reclaim public spaces (regardless of their legal definition) for their rightful purposes, which are the discussion necessary for the construction of communities that are fair, democratic, and work for all of us, and for the physical activity of constructing such a community. The second demand, equally important, is not really a demand but a call, addressed to all who hear in their capacities as human beings. It is “join us.” It is a call that appeals first to all of us who are politically homeless in the current order of things, who lack the wealth or the position in an increasingly rigid, polarized, and inequitable society to have a voice.
The political classes–government officials elected or appointed in or out of uniform, party operatives, NGO professionals, propagandists masquerading as reporters and analysts in the corporate-owned media– can not–will not–hear either the demand or the call. They cannot hear the call because it is not addressed to them as they demand to be addressed– in their status as officers, officials, or professionals. The demand for the moment only says to those who insist on their roles and prerogatives in the machinery of destruction: you have done enough damage. Leave us alone, while we figure out what to do about it. This demand leaves no place for them so long as they remain within their well-paid roles and does not pay homage to their status, so they refuse to hear it.
The call, on the other hand, addresses people differently and presents us with different choices. For those with no organized power or voice, the choice is: remain silent, and sooner or later one or another of the immense organizations that dominate the life of this planet will take what little you have left. The system we inhabit is inexorably using up the world, and those in the upper echelons of organizations deploying great power plan to be the ones who remain comfortable as long as there is comfort to be had. For those with some measure of power, privilege, and status, the choice is: Come down from your office towers and out of your fortresses, shed your uniforms and your suits, your guns and badges, abjure all claims to status and privilege. Begin with us a new conversation about how we can make a democracy, and how we can find a different path forward for a society gone terribly wrong. Here you can claim to be no more than one more human being with one voice, but also will be no less.
Right now, it is difficult to imagine those still benefiting from the current order risking what they have for an unknown future, its vision not yet defined. Those at the top almost certainly will hold hard to power, and today’s true “middle classes”–the experts, professionals, technicians and propagandists essential to the operation of the vast organizations of corporate capitalist modernity–have a long history of hedging their bets but ultimately siding with the powerful. Yet all of us on some level must be aware that we have constructed a society sustained by fragile systems of production designed for short-term elite profit rather than long-term collective survival, and bristling with weapons capable of destroying not only civilization but much of the biosphere. The choice is narrowing down not only to nonviolence or nonexistence, but to one form or another of peaceful, democratic revolution or nonexistence. The need to transform our global energy, agriculture, transportation, and production infrastructure, and with it the values that ultimately determine the demands we place on the planet and each other, will strain all of our capacities for the foreseeable future. We are unlikely to survive this time of transition unless the risks of the changes to come are fairly shared, with every voice being heard.
Occupy the United States: No more company towns
“Our question then narrows down to this: can those people who live in or come to Chickasaw be denied freedom of press and religion simply because a single company has legal title to all the town? For it is the State’s contention that the mere fact that all the property interests in the town are held by a single company is enough to give that company power, enforceable by a state statute, to abridge these freedoms.” Marsh v. Alabama (1946) 326 U.S. 501, 505.
In Marsh v. Alabama, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the rights to freedom of expression could not be denied to people who lived in company towns, municipalities whose roads and streets and sidewalks were owned by the employers of most who lived there. Sixty five years later, most of the United States has been reduced towards the anti-ideal of the “company town.” Much of what people experience and believe to be public space is legally defined as “private property,” dealt to one or another enormous real estate developer or opened to “the public” in complex deals that over time have ceded ever more control of our built urban environment and what we can do there to those interested only in how they can profit from our presence. Zucotti Park, location of the Wall Street occupation village, is the product of one such deal. Any lawyer who has represented people trying to be heard in public by speaking or leafleting likely has discovered that significant places where people gather or assemble in American cities and that most everyone experiences as “public spaces” today are, in fact, “privately owned.”
But this is only one symptom of the disease threatening the body politic. Not only direct privatization but the accretion of myriad local rules, regulations, and police practices have favored commercial interests over expressive rights. Events that bring cash-rich “consumers” into public streets and squares, even if they foreclose other uses, are favored over events that have no commercial value, regardless of their character as political expression. At the central square in the large town nearest to my home, a commercialized, permitted farmer’s market is welcomed by local officials and police; Food not Bombs efforts to feed to homeless are greeted with hostility and harassment. Local police even have attempted to exclude people distributing leaflets in what is literally the town square, a traditionally protected forum for expression, at times when permitted events like the farmers’ market were present, claiming that such commercial events foreclose other uses for their duration–despite the fact that such events present a rare opportunity where ordinary people without enormous resources might communicate with large numbers of their neighbors. (The leafletters eventually were allowed to proceed, but the chilling effect remains). The default position in many jurisdictions seems to have become that attempts at public political communication are presumed to be prohibited–especially where they might distract Americans from their primary functions of buying and selling. To many of us, public police agencies look more and more like private security, their main function being to protect the property of their paymasters, and to be sure that only paying customers are allowed on the premises.
The result has been that public spaces, and the city itself, have been reduced to places geared almost entirely to serving business functions: places to work and consume, to make, buy, and sell packaged things and experiences whose crafting is controlled by powerful private organizations.
“More generally, in the course of the last two or three decades, public places, from large urban centers to remote suburban and exurban areas–have been visibly and functionally transformed into simulated theme parks. The intimacy, vibrancy, contact, and contestation of the public realm have been replaced by physical separation, inaccessibility, inertness, and a form of order largely enforced through the built environment itself. Public life itself has been fundamentally altered by these and similar changes. The ‘messy vitality’ of the public streets, parks, and squares has given way to a ‘filtered, prettified, homogenous substitute.’ In short, place has increasingly become less public–both in terms of its title and its character.” Timothy Zick, Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p.201.
All of this is how the corporate colonization of everyday life plays out in everything from architecture to the legal lexicon and the informal police practices of American public space. The particular forms the occupations take in the United States are in part a more or less conscious response. They are also a response, however, to other manifestations of the concentration of wealth and power that diminish the significance of traditionally protected forms of public expression. A pervasive “security” ideology in which the smallest imaginable threat of physical danger outweighs any political rights the citizenry might have has been used to eliminate most physical access to public officials in contexts where a critical message might be delivered. Public events where high government officials are present resemble to ordinary inhabitants at street level nothing so much as an armed assault, with one’s town or city invaded by heavily armed units complete with air cover. Only the hardiest protester is likely to venture near in the face of this, and would be even less willing to do so if they understood the vast array of invisible surveillance and monitoring also now routinely deployed.
And, of course, there is the utter corruption of a political system awash in unlimited money, the price of meaningful access to public officials now far out of reach for all who lack great personal wealth and have interests not represented by one or another wealthy, powerful organization. There is also the concentration of the mass media, both within the United States and globally, that has occurred over the last thirty years, with a handful of media giants controlling most of the world’s airwaves and publications. One can point to the countervailing trend of cheap means of communication, from the e-mail and the internet to versatile mobile phones, that have given people with meager resources an unprecedented capacity to communicate laterally with large numbers of people. In a sharply polarized economy and society, however, an expanded conversation among the relatively powerless is only a first step towards a politics that can bring significant change. There remains the key role of the “town square: ” a place where all can have an equal voice in the conversation about who we are and how we will govern ourselves, a place for the expression of a public will that those who claim to rule in our name can not ignore. Such places, real or virtual, have existed only in a few places and always have been incomplete, never achieving fully equal voice for the inhabitants of any country. Today the fragile, partial achievements of democratic movements past are everywhere under threat from the concentration of wealth in an insular upper stratum of immense organizations and by the political power that such concentrated wealth brings. Where fragments of the town square remain, they must be defended. Where none exist, they must be created.
We have discovered that in a starkly two tier world, the wealthy and powerful may be willing to let us chatter among ourselves, so long as we remain otherwise obedient, invisible, profitable objects. Hence the internet discussions and mobile phone networks and whatever organizing they enable remain only a means leading to another end, the demand not only for a hearing but for a collective process of decision where all have an equal voice. When large numbers of people find their participation in the channels that allow them to communicate not only with each other but with their governments blocked or marginalized, there is nothing left but reclaiming public space, and by doing so demanding that the public conversation begin anew.]]>