Friday, 28 June 2013

Snoop cameras to be turned on NYPD

It’s not a Brazilian- or Turkish-style upheaval, but New York’s revolt against its domestic Praetorian Guard, the NYPD, is an encouraging sign after years of resentful tolerance of its abuses. The City Council passed two measures Wednesday to rein in the free-lance bullying by a largely unfettered security force that has distinguished itself in recent years by mass criminalization of minority youth (stop-and-frisk), frequent assassins of same (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham), and Stasi-style snooping (the CIA-NYPD spying on Muslims). Add to that the frequent use of agents provocateurs to generate crimes where arguably none would otherwise have been committed and the NYPD’s shameless service of Wall Street during the Occupy period, and one can wonder where protection from crime morphs into political control.

One of the two bills passed establishes an external inspector to monitor the department, which of course makes the boys in blue completely insane. This one passed overwhelmingly and looks solid enough to override a mayoral veto. The other also garnered a 2/3 majority but only just—to facilitate lawsuits for racial profiling. It’s possible the police and Bloomberg can peel off one of those votes and stop that measure, but the outside IG has a good chance to become law.

Bloomberg’s reaction has been completely hysterical. He’s trotted out every Bush-Cheney-Obama trick of fear-mongering and demagogy, screeching about how this will endanger ‘our’ children. (I think the Bells and the Grahams might find this statement ironic.) The cops naturally insist that the day these laws take effect, wild hordes of violent criminals will seize power in New York City and proceed to burn and pillage Sixth Avenue. They showed up en masse as a sea of blue uniforms to intimidate the council members out of supporting the bills, but this time it failed.

The momentum for these changes has been building over years. The half-million annual stops were making black and Hispanic families furious despite their eager desire for effective policing given that they are the principal victims of crime. Those totals are down now as the NYPD saw the opposition build, but only to head off any regulation. Sean Bell’s death and the subsequent acquittal of his assassins (50 shots at an unarmed driver partying on the night before his wedding) put in stark evidence how the cops act with impunity when the victims are non-white. Two active-duty cops taped their C.O.s demanding arrest quotas, which is now an obvious department policy despite official denials. A state senator testified how a high-ranking police chief told him the stop-and-frisk law was specifically designed to keep black kids afraid. Recent revelations of NSA abuses are a reminder that the NYPD has benn part and parcel of this spy system for years.

We also have a mayoral election in full swing, which is making it harder for active-duty pols to side with the cops, which is what most of them would prefer to do. Christine Quinn has been forced to take her distance from Bloomberg, supported one of the two bills. Mysteriously popular Anthony Weiner, who has now surpassed Quinn in the polls, is the only candidate playing to the white outer-borough vote by siding with the cops. (Weiner, as suspected, has channeled Mayor Koch and has become a depressingly viable candidate for the same reasons.)

The times are against reduction of police powers, but these signs of resistance to a full-fledged police state are important. And hey, if the police are doing nothing wrong, why worry about being watched?

[P.S. This is post #1000 since I began this blog in 2007 -- am preparing a longer essay with an overview to celebrate.]

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jim Crow 50 years later

The Supreme Court majority has declared that the Voting Rights Act’s special vigilance over racist trickery in the old Confederate states is no longer necessary since people aren’t being blocked from voting on the basis of race. Huh? Florida? Ohio? Eight-hour lines? Voter ID laws? Purges of the rolls? No one is seriously expected to believe this, and seeing the justices trot out such laughably false bullshit is almost more disturbing than the ruling itself.

It is no coincidence that the rollback of civil rights protections occurred literally hours after the reigning neo-Confederates in Congress nearly succeeded in their attempts to peel $20 billion off the food stamp program in the midst of the worst sustained economic slump since the Depression. One can’t use the N-word on TV any more as poor Paula Deen has discovered on her cooking show, but if you deprive the N-people of anything to cook with, that’s okay.

The message is pretty clear: we want you to slink back into your hovels barefoot and terrified because even though we can’t lynch you openly any more, we have plenty of tools with which to keep you ‘in your place.’

Some people will find my judgment harsh. But despite the liberal sheen of this fair city, I don’t find New York’s approach to its African American underclass all that different. We still have the cops and their billionaire defender Bloomberg insisting that they have free rein to criminalize every black kid over 12 through stop-and-frisk, and if any of them resist too much, we all know that they can take a bullet for it and that no one in uniform will ever do a day in jail afterward.

Welcome back to the future.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Brazil upheaval stuns leadership

When I visited Brazil in April for a look at the country’s once stellar HIV/AIDS prevention and care program, I never imagined that the distressing but, I thought, relatively narrow complaints of my counterparts there would resonate throughout the entire country a mere two months later. But that’s what happened. Not that their specific beefs attracted much attention then or now, but their analysis of how the leftist Workers Party (PT) and its government evolved over a dozen years in power is exactly what we’re now hearing from the streets of every major Brazilian city—and quite a few minor ones.

Brazil once had one of the most innovative and successful HIV prevention and care programs in the world after decades of steady work through complex public-private partnerships. Governments of different ideological hues paid some attention to what grassroots leaders and service providers were saying and recommending, and the Brazilian model was widely lauded and applauded. But then a few years ago, said our Brazilian counterparts, the PT leadership abruptly decided that they didn’t need any further dialogue and would make policy on their own.

The anecdotes and tales were very consistent: one after another, NGO leaders, doctors, public health experts and long-time activists told us that the government had simply stopped listening to them, consulting them or paying any heed to their criticisms or complaints. What had once been vibrant consultative bodies and advisory councils now had fallen into disuse; long-standing nonprofits, cut off from international aid (since Brazil is now a prosperous ‘BRIC’ country and no longer officially ‘poor’) and getting no domestic subsidies to fill the gap, were shutting their doors by the dozen. People felt powerless to do much in response given the PT’s considerable popularity and president Dilma Rousseff’s personal standing. They could be brushed off as middle-class whiners while the government’s base among the poorest of the poor remained intact.

But suddenly that’s all changed. A 20-centavo (US $0.10) fare hike in São Paulo triggered the national revolt, but it’s also pretty apparent that the disaffection goes way beyond the cost of a bus trip. Many people told us that the spectacle of seeing the country’s prosperity grow enormously while most citizens’ lives remained unaffected by the bonanza had seeded profound disgust. The consensus, based on considerable evidence, is that much of the new wealth was and is siphoned off by the elites through corruption and insider dealing.

The last straw for many was the sight of new soccer stadiums and other infrastructure going up around them in preparation for the 2014 World Cup with far greater spending to follow for the 2016 Olympics. Remarkably, given the country’s image, it turns out that Brazilians want good health, education, and transport services instead of more frivolous games and parties, which must have come as a quite shock to the leadership.

Another jolt for the PT-led coalition is seeing its natural constituents among the country’s lower economic strata pouring into the streets to denounce the entire political class and Madame Dilma personally. If our conversations are any indication of a broader reality, the PT chiefs may have turned their collective back on what is often called ‘civil society’ in the Latin American context—nonprofit staff, academics, some civil servants, activists of all sorts—the people who maintain links between the state and its citizenry. Instead, Dilma & company privileged deals with Brazilian and sometimes foreign businesses in pursuit of growth, growth and more growth—not to mention the juicy emoluments that could accompany it for those few plugged into the unfair system of rewards.

We expect right-wing governments to behave in this way, and a natural response is to place one’s hopes in the more progressive or populist political alternatives as a channel of protest, Lula over Sarney, Obama over Bush, and so on. But what happens when that nice-sounding team becomes complicit in the same old exploitation? In the Brazilian case—which may be instructive for the future elsewhere—the popular revolt comes with an explicitly anti-party stance. Brazilians now insist that none of the existing electoral players represent them, forcing the leadership to show quick results. Dilma has already announced major investments in public transport as a first step to calm the roiling protests.

It’ll be interesting to see what else they have to do to defuse the unexpected rebellion in the streets.

For general background on the PT’s evolution, this two-year-old article by Perry Anderson remains useful and prescient:

Saturday, 22 June 2013

What a great guy I am!

The Human Rights Film Festival should be taken in moderate doses. The curators and directors do make an effort to season the appalling with the inspirational, but inevitably the topic of human rights has to focus a lot of mental energy on their violation. It makes for rough but very educational sledding.

This year’s most surreal feature has to be The Act of Killing, which features not only the topic of the Indonesian mass slaughter of 1965-66 but its actual perpetrators for the simple (and breathtaking) reason that they are proud of it. Unlike the Serbians trying to cover up Sbrenica or the Rwandans pretending that they didn’t kill anyone, the Indonesian gangsters and paramilitaries brag about how they grabbed communists and ethnic Chinese, interrogated them in makeshift dungeons and slaughtered an estimated 1 million of them.

The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, asked the gangsters (who are also extremely proud of that title, using the English word, which they translate as ‘free man’) if they wanted to make a film about what they did, and they enthusiastically agreed. What follows is a mix of their film output--cinematic displays Fellini on LSD could not have dreamed up--along with reality-style scenes of their production process and interviews with them about the procedures used to perform their heroic deeds.

One recreated scene is the massacre of a village of communist sympathizers in which local people are used as extras. A minister from the current government is on the scene to express his glowing approval of the reenactment while a perpetrator recalls fondly the opportunities he had to rape 12-year-old girls before finishing them off.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard of such things. But perpetrators who still think nothing of what they did and repeat their willingness to repeat it on cue—that has to be unique. The film is getting a commercial release in July, and it is going to be quite interesting to watch the Indonesian government respond to this vision of their country and themselves. No wonder the film credits have a few names followed by long lists of ‘Anonymous.’

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Turkey v/s Brazil (not the World Cup)

Two countries, comparable in terms of their size, influence and economic importance, are dealing with popular outbursts this week, and the contrasting styles say a lot about their ruling parties and their long-term prospects.

Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian Islamist party turned to the riot police immediately, cracked down causing deaths and serious injury, and now has followed up with political arrests. Will trials follow to show that the organizers are traitors being paid by foreign enemies? That would be consistent with Prime Minister Erdogan’s rhetoric since the first day of about the eruptions in Istanbul.

Similarly, Brazil’s surprising mass demonstrations in a half-dozen cities could not have pleased the governing coalition of Dilma Rousseff, the successor to Lula. But her comments on the spontaneous expression of frustration and anger were completely the opposite:

Brazil woke up stronger today, Rousseff said in a televised speech on Tuesday. The size of yesterday's demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population.

Rousseff comes from a left-wing background and undoubtedly joined plenty of street protests against the Brazilian military dictatorship in her day. So it would have been cynical and hypocritical, though not impossible, for her to have acted like a Turkish pasha. But her remarkable statement shows why Brazilians are considered to be among the world’s best diplomats: instead of taking offense at the anger expressed, she symbolically placed herself at the head of the marches and demonstrations. She almost sounds as if she agrees with the protests—against herself.

No one is reporting so far on the talks taking place within government circles there, but I would bet money that Madame Dilma is communicating urgently to her police captains around the country to stop aggravating the situation by acting like assholes. If you don’t yet know how to control crowds without resorting to arbitrary brutality, I suspect she’s telling them, now’s the time to learn. Nothing will sustain and deepen the protest movement faster than a police overreaction.

Turkey, on the other hand, is heading for a dangerous polarization by all appearances, and while Erdogan may be successful in crushing his youthful antagonists, the long-term costs could be severe. Both countries face similar pools of disgruntled youth and for the same reasons: pharaonic public spending laden with corruption while basic services deteriorate. I don’t know about Turkey, but I suspect the other aspect I witnessed recently in Brazil applies there, too: a sense of powerless over supposedly democratic institutions that are populated by remote elites who don’t care what you think and aren’t shy about letting you know it.

Once the dust settles in Brazil’s major cities, it will be interesting to hear if the appearance of angry mobs has injected some humility into the Brazilian political class and if their tendency to ignore everyone outside the power structure will shift into something more inclusive. Expect more government-NGO dialogues, roundtable discussions with residents about pressing social issues, meet-the-people exercises broadcast on popular radio stations, and the like—while the Turkish prosecutors prepare their cases against ‘violent extremists’ in the pay of the CIA.

Monday, 17 June 2013

U.S. weakness exposed by Syria war

How can Sarah Palin stand up and discuss Syria with a straight face? Could she have found it on a map before the recent round of partisan criticism from McCain and other armchair warriors? But comedy acts aside, Obama’s announcement that the rebel groups are going to get U.S. weaponry provides a good moment to consider the sad mess.

Anyone not made of stone must be shocked by the ongoing suffering of that population. You live under a terrifying dictatorship for decades, and at your first attempt to complain publicly, the top guy’s thugs come out and fire into the crowds, not once but repeatedly over a period of months. You respond with Gandhian civil resistance, losing more and more civilians in each demonstration. Next, they move into your neighborhoods and slaughter dozens in their beds, snatch your children and torture them. Finally, after everything else fails, you take up arms, soldiers and officers defect, the regime looks shaky. But the Russians quickly supply the dictator with diplomatic cover and warplanes to bomb your cities into dust.

Minus the airplanes, it sounds like Ronald Reagan’s approach to Guatemala. But I digress.

What’s striking about the unfolding tragedy is that the U.S. has zero credibility among some of the key players, not to mention worldwide public opinion. It’s hard to take seriously any expressions of solidarity with the Syrian populace emitted by Washington when the unresolved Palestinian statelessness and refugee issues, for which the U.S. bears, a huge share of responsibility, belie any such claims. Iranian support for Assad’s murder campaign is appalling, but the Obama Administration has given the mullahs ample motive to see the rebellion as a threat to themselves. They might know that Assad is a tinpot nazi in their lucid moments, but why would they trust Obama’s motives in wanting him out?

The purported trigger for the decision to send arms is the regime’s possible use of chemical weapons. While the evidence is significant that this has in fact occurred, who can believe the Americans on the topic of weapons of mass destruction? When they (we) need to make shit up as a causus belli, they do so, and everyone knows it.

The goal of U.S. foreign policy in the region for decades has had little to do with the wellbeing of its inhabitants but with the protection and strengthening of Israel. I understand that states are not churches and that there may be compelling reasons for the geostrategists and the cynical guys who run the world for that. But now the outside players have turned the Syrian uprising into a proxy war for themselves, and the years of distrust and instability make a sensible political resolution unlikely if not impossible. Had the U.S. exercised real determination to find a lasting solution instead of enabling the most intransigent Israeli hard-liners, the starting point to fixing Syria would be far less bleak.

Finally, the idea of limited intervention by the western powers to stop the ongoing slaughter is undermined by the way they handled Libya. NATO’s airwar was originally sold as a limited intervention to stop the massacre at Benghazi that was clearly about to happen. But it soon morphed into an open military alliance with Khaddafy’s enemies, which pissed off the Russians who felt snookered.

Our foreign policy seems increasingly dictated by the security and warmaking apparatus (note the headlines about Obama’s decision and the ‘heavy pressure’ applied on him—need we ask by whom?), rather than cooler civilian heads who might have a more long-term vision of the country’s interests and less knee-jerk willingness to rely on guns. It’s another result of our allowing the military-industrial-espionage complex to explode into its current cancerous state and our now ingrained habit of bowing down before anything wearing a uniform since the events of 2001.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Snowden tells us what's going on--535 members of Congress couldn't

Now that we’ve had the chance to absorb the first round of the Edward Snowden revelations about the Stasification of America, some of the contours of the new world we now live in are emerging. It’s not a pretty sight, but our spymasters are also looking at some unexpected consequences. If he’s not careful, Obama may end up looking less like a fearsome new Occidental Karla and more of a frantic Sorcerer’s Apprentice. [Above: utterly useless California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who helps the NSA spy on us but thinks Snowden committed ‘treason’]

The New York Times had a piece today about the failed attempt by Yahoo to resist government vacuuming up everything on its servers, a legal battle that played out in complete secrecy from the rest of us. But more revealing was a companion investigative piece on the scandal at Bloomberg News where reporters were found spying on businesses through the data that Bloomberg terminals provide to their Wall Street clients.

Goldman Sachs had complained about this practice in a recent case, but the Times reporters found that far from being an anomalous case, Bloomberg reporters had routinely used their access to metadata about business users to figure out what they were up to.

For example, if a reporter suspected that a Bloomberg subscriber was involved in a merger deal, it was easy to track his movements by seeing what city he accessed his account from. They could also learn what subscribers were looking at and draw conclusions.

Does this sound a tad familiar? It is exactly what the government plans to do with all of us to make sure we are not plotting terrorist acts. But unlike we defenseless citizens represented by a Congress easily kept in the dark, browbeaten into submission and/or bought off, the victims in this case include the nation’s top business executives. If they become seriously upset, someone is going to hear about it.

Meanwhile, Common Dreams has posted a very thoughtful summary of why the howls of indignation from horrible elements like the Feinstein sound so defensively lame:

Part of the answer is that the politicians don’t want to admit that Congress (and the courts) have failed to exercise adequate oversight over a giant network of secret agencies and corporations that is wasting billions of dollars on worthless surveillance and, in the process, invading the privacy of millions of Americans and endangering the capacity of reporters, leakers, and crusading members of Congress to check the secret abuses of secret government.

Senator Feinstein and her colleagues don’t want to admit it, but the secrecy system does not permit her and her colleagues to restrain secret government. Once they get a secret briefing, they are pledged not to discuss what they have learned, even with their staffs. Feinstein is such a weak overseer that she could not even persuade the secret FISA court to declassify its sweeping surveillance orders or the legal rationale behind them. But Mr. Snowden could do that with his leaks. He, not the senator, revealed that the secret court had, with its rubber stamp, rendered the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonably broad seizures meaningless.

This is a elegant dismantling of the whole Obama claim that the three branches of government are somehow co-managing this cancerous apparatus rather than being managed by it. It is only through leakers (or ‘informers’, as the reliably reactionary Time magazine cover calls them) that we know anything about what has been going on and only through leakers that Obama has been forced to have the national debate about it that he cynically pretends to welcome.

As Glenn Greenwald points out in The Guardian in his follow-up to the first week of shockers, members of Congress, including those on the relevant committees, have responded by issuing ambiguously worded warnings about what we don’t yet know because even they are powerless to clearly state what the fuck is going on.

How can anyone think that it's remotely healthy in a democracy to have the NSA building a massive spying apparatus about which even members of Congress, including Senators on the Homeland Security Committee, are totally ignorant and find ‘astounding’ when they learn of them? How can anyone claim with a straight face that there is robust oversight when even members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are so constrained in their ability to act that they are reduced to issuing vague, impotent warnings to the public about what they call radical ‘secret law’ enabling domestic spying that would ‘stun’ Americans to learn about it, but are barred to disclose what it is they're so alarmed by? Put another way, how can anyone contest the value and justifiability of the stories that we were able to publish as a result of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing: stories that informed the American public—including even the US Congress—about these incredibly consequential programs?

Greenwald also points out the utility to the snooper state of having someone like Barack Obama in charge so that the liberal pundits instead of expressing outrage at these repressive tactics are the first to rush to the defense of their guy and anything he does. ‘Every defense Obama defenders are making now were the ones Bush defenders made back [in 2006]’, says Greenwald. But oh god, are they going to be sorry—and complain to high heaven—when the winds change and the Bush/Obama spy apparatus is turned against them once again.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Whoa, Nellie, shut down more schools & hospitals!

Mayor Bloomberg announced $20 billion worth of work on flood-proofing the city yesterday, another tax on our futures that will come out of our pockets instead of the fossil fuels industries’.

All the whining about paying taxes from our Tea Party birdbrains and other feathered friends doesn’t take into account the vast spending that will start to be or already is needed to keep us from floating down the boulevards in the next few years. Bloomberg’s plans include a new neighborhood called Seaport City built on the East River in lower Manhattan, 20-foot flood walls along the south shore of Staten Island, a surge barrier between Queens and Brooklyn, and New Orleans-style levees all over town.

I guess we won’t be hearing much talk about how dumb those people in NOLA are to keep living in a place they should have enough sense to get out of.

The Daily News said that new FEMA maps produced post-Sandy show 500 million square feet of buildings housing 400,000 people now added to official danger zones. But many prosperous white people live in those areas, so you can bet the money will be spent.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

When the mighty stumble

Things happen when our leaders start to feel the heat for their behavior, and the secondary effects often are more telling than their direct reactions to the criticism. For example, yesterday’s announcement by the Obama Administration that it won’t keep suing to block access for girls under 18 to the morning-after contraceptive known as ‘Plan B’ is curious. After brushing off the Dems’ natural constituents among reproductive health advocates for most of his five years in office, Obama suddenly reverses course. Hmm. Maybe he needs all the allies he can get this week.

When the Tea Partyers start slamming you from the left over the NSA/CIA snooping, it might indeed be time to firm up your more reliable supporters. Let’s see if Obama’s defensiveness over trying to turn the U.S. into East Germany results in a few concessions to environmentalists and economic liberals in coming days.

Here at home, our mayoral candidates are slugging it out in preparation for the fall primary, and voila, suddenly City Council chief Christine Quinn has allowed a vote on suing the NYPD to come before the full membership. It’s the first time in eight years that she’s permitted the Council to approve something she opposed, another good example of what happens when people start to feel their control slip a tad.

And up in Albany, Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver snapped pissily at the news media yesterday for being ‘unfair’ to him over engineering a cover-up of the gross sexual harassment antics of his buddy, Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez. The nasty mess stinks so badly that Silver’s iron grip over the state legislature is being questioned for the first time in years.

A large part of the problem with our notoriously corrupt state government (and to a lesser extent the city’s as well) is that leaders like Quinn and Silver are supposed to be first-among-equals, not dictators. But they jigger the rules so that no one can get anything through without their nod; in essence, they end up substituting themselves for the entire legislative function. Where’s the democracy when a majority of deliberative body can’t vote on something unless the boss agrees to it?

Both at the city and state level, we have electoral caudillismo more than popular rule. The other members, duly elected by us in a fantastical imitation of sovereignty, are turned into sounding boards, critics and/or claques, but are crippled politically unless the top guy, or gal in Quinn’s case, says yes to at least something they want. It’s a good working metaphor for the concentration of power nationally, too—multiplied by 10,000.

Monday, 10 June 2013

No, Edward Snowden is not a traitor but Diane Feinstein is

The security-financier-war-profiteer nexus now controlling our lives and livelihoods is on the defensive, at least for a while, and doesn’t it feel great? Just to see former chief spook Dennis Blair, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Jane (‘The Bouffant’) Harmon and all of rest of them scramble to explain why Americans should be reassured about mass snooping is delightful. They know they’ve been caught red-handed in the revelations about PRISM and metadata.

Their fallback position, as usual, is that only Really Bad People will be affected by the Stasi-fication of the U.S.A., and therefore you and me and Uncle Artie can go about our business just fine, play video games and sleep peacefully in our beds. I’m sure a lot of people in socialist Poland thought and felt the same way—until they ran afoul of the ruling clique and discovered that the secret police could chew them up and spit them out for breakfast. It always feels remote until it’s not.

That’s why Senator Udall and the voices of minimal reason should drop their claims that the snooping and data-massing doesn’t work to stymie terrorist acts. Who knows? It probably does sometimes—police states can be quite effective. Is that how we want to live? We’d better decide soon. Meanwhile, the snooper state can always say, Tut, tut, you don’t know the secrets, and we can’t reveal them.

Jane Harmon spent a decade on the highly select super-panel (‘gang of eight’) in the House of Representatives that had oversight over all this, and she admitted tonight on The News Hour that she was completely surprised to learn in the mid-00s of the vast and illegal wiretapping that occurred under Bush. This was, perversely, her attempt to defend the current system of review, which is laughable on its face—if one of eight people in the elected branch of government who are the only ones permitted to know what is going on confesses that she didn’t have a clue, the security state is by definition out of control.

Harmon argued that she and her colleague solons passed new laws right away, so the system worked. She didn’t admit (and the useless Gwen Ifill didn’t ask her) that the only way anyone found out about the violation was through an Edward Snowden-style leak. Thus unintentionally, Harmon admitted that such leaks--not her undistinguished self--provide our only real check on the runaway power of the security state.

That’s why Snowden’s face should be stamped on quarters, and profiteering traitors like Feinstein should be exiled to a remote swampland and shunned from patriotic society. It’s not whistle-blowers and alarm-sounders who are putting our nation in jeopardy—it’s the intellectual thugs who wrap themselves in the ashes of the 9/11 victims to insist we need Karla to protect us and who get paid handsomely to sell us out.

Friday, 7 June 2013

We are not right in the head

There is something demented going on: Obama has just gone public insisting that having the NSA and the CIA snoop around our private emails, telephone records and other electronic behavior is urgently necessary because nothing must stand in the way Keeping America Safe. Congress, that non-entity down the lane, claps its flippers and honks, ‘Safe! Safe!’ on cue.

This is added to the unlamented demise of habeas corpus, application of torture (unpunished), permanent legal limbo for dastardly ‘terrorists’ (half of whom are known to be innocent) and all the rest. The message is: civil liberties be butt-fucked, them’s are fer naïve gadflies in the ACLU who don’t know how tough you have to be in the Real World.

Simultaneously, real, active threats to our collective safety are allowed not only to occur but to flourish. Any hint of restrictions on firearms possession or use brings out the choruses of constitutionalists quoting from the holy writ of the Second Amendment. In this and only this case, personal liberty must trump all, and if defenseless citizens get shot by the tens of thousands—well, tough luck, it’s the price of Freedom.

So which is it? Do Americans have the right to be safe from violence, or don’t they? The answer must be, Which kind? If dark-skinned people from foreign lands are up to no good, then we throw out the entire, 200-year-old rulebook to get at them. But if the guy next door is a violent nutbag, we can’t lay a finger on him or his arsenal until he blows away half a Burger King.

No wonder half the adult population is on anti-depressants: this is nuts.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

I’m innocent, so why worry?

That is probably the response of most people to the revelations of massive snooping on our private communications by the Obama Administration. The corollary to our collective abandonment of our civil protections in the name of Protect Us At All Costs (Unless It Entails Gun Restrictions), this dangerous reaction is perfect for creating a full-fledged police state—led by phony constitutionalist Barack Obama who turns out to be a creepy authoritarian.

It’s a mistake to think that ‘police state’ can only mean Nazi Germany or Saddam’s Iraq where people disappear from their beds, swing from lampposts, or are boiled in oil in secret dungeons. East Germany was also one, and I’m sure for most citizens who minded their own business and did exactly what they were told, it felt fairly benign with guaranteed employment, cheap (albeit depressing) living, and an austere but secure old age. But as we now know, pretty much everyone was spying on pretty much everyone else, the state knew what time of day you cut a fart and how loudly, and dissent was crushed before the dissenter half knew that he was ready to object (sort of like the NYPD’s approach to Muslims).

Technology now has made possible far vaster state control of our lives, and the idea that one can escape its claws through obedience is dangerously naïve. As Juan Cole outlines today, giving the government such Stati-like access to our private affairs means that the powerful become essentially untouchable as anyone who dares to challenge them can be exposed and crushed. It’s not just private citizens who need to be protected from state agents but also (and especially) other powerful players through whom our social and political conflicts can be manifest.

Look at how the Chinese ruling elite operates within a system of ostensible party unanimity: the inevitable conflicts that arise over policy and group interests play out in a cutthroat world of intrigue and are resolved through ‘anti-corruption’ campaigns, to which all are subject because all are and must be corrupt as a condition of their power and influence. It’s a great system for maintaining the benefits of the Chinese model within a miniscule group of the privileged class, but we like to think our country has somewhat nobler goals.

Obama’s cynical arrogance in defending this outrage is truly breathtaking (although his defenders seem immune to any suggestion that he is as big a bully as the loathsome W). He dared to claim that there is a ‘robust legal regime’ governing this activity. ‘All three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorizing intelligence collection . . . Congress is regularly and fully briefed. . .’ Where to begin with this pack of lies? All three branches of government are now beholden to the security apparatus that now operates independently of any of them, with the White House’s open connivance. It remains temporarily true that popular opposition might crimp their movements a little, but how is that to be generated when reporters are being charged with co-conspiracy in espionage as just happened under Eric ‘Rule-of-Law’ Holder?

It is probably too late to reverse the systematic destruction of the Fourth Amendment, especially since we’ve already signed off on the even more basic burying of habeas corpus and the resuscitation of the Star Chamber via Guantánamo. We now can only prepare not to be surprised when this powerful apparatus of repression blossoms fully into our daily lives.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Bike Share trumps the wankers

I did the Tour de Brooklyn Sunday, which is a family-friendly 22-mile mass cycle through some of the neighborhoods of that distinguished borough, starting near the Navy Yard under the Manhattan Bridge, then winding through Carroll Gardens, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant (‘Bed-Stuy, Do or Die!’ as the locals reminded us), and other zones unfamiliar even to me, a frequent biker out there. It was a fun gathering without any purpose except to take over the streets in a big, giggling group with police and our own marshals stopping traffic at intersections so that the 1,000-plus cyclists could pedal through care- and car-free.

Several of my fellow riders commented on how the reactions of the denizens of these different localities varied in rather notorious ways block by block. Somehow the ferocious honking and screaming insults only seemed to come from drivers in prosperous corners like Park Slope while in the minority-heavy areas like the West Indian nabes of Crown Heights or rough-tough Bed-Stuy itself, people were overwhelmingly amused to see the bike invasion and even brought out their children to wave at us. One lady sitting on her porch cackled gleefully at the fact that the cars were forced to stop for us lowly riders.

The organizers of the event, Transportation Alternatives, is a powerful and savvy pro-cycling and public transport group, which has just welcomed Bike Share to New York, a privately-funded (by Citigroup, unfortunately) system of permanently available, short-hop bikes ready for public use as of Memorial Day. I joined up immediately and used them four times on my day off Friday to get around town.

The idea is that by facilitating bicycle use without the hassle of ownership, cities can generate a spike in bike traffic, which then leads to a virtuous cycle of more safety in numbers and further increases in ridership. It’s been tried in Copenhagen, Paris and London and inaugurated successfully in Boston and Washington, D.C. The whole concept is a bit of a no-brainer given the massive tie-ups and noisy, stinking mess that our traffic patterns have brought us, but the opposition has been relentless.

It’s pretty hard to understand how people can be against bikes, but there you have it: the tabloid (Murdochian) press railing against Bike Share tendentiously, opportunistic politicians like Anthony (Dick) Weiner threatening to rip up established bike lanes, and former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall’s silly and self-indulgent opposition to a bike lane running past her Prospect Park domicile.

These people make regular fools of themselves, but they have powerful backers. (Weinshall is married to U.S. Senator and Democratic bag man Chuck Schumer, which is telling—it shows what a fake liberal Schumer is and generates sympathy for any random madness committed by the poor woman.) There are lobbies for the whole infrastructure of car-based commerce like parking garages, filling stations, road builders and repairers, you name it—a lot of money churns through our city based on the use of cars.

Add to that the suburbanite distaste for giving up car trips or having to sit down next to non-white persons on public buses, and it’s easy to see the appeal of demagogic whining against 20-somethings on two wheels, especially when plenty of them (us) can cop a superior attitude. The whole worldview reflected in the opposition to Bike Share is the same blithe, fuck-global-warming, self-pleasuring posture promoted by the fossil fuels industry and our Christian nutbags.

I predict, however, that the outcome this time will be a massive victory for our side similar to that Bloomberg pulled off by banning smoking in bars. People had their knickers in knots for months beforehand over that one, too, and suddenly the world not only did not end, but people loved the results: clean, breathable air at mealtime. Even smokers like it now because they get an excuse for go outside to share a social cig with the other addicts.

Bike Share is likely to generate a huge boost in bike use, add another commuting option for many residents and eventually lead to further development of protected lanes and traffic calming measures throughout the city. With time, we can expect Bike Share to move uptown and further into the outer boroughs. New York will be not only as fabulous as ever but could also evolve into a less noisy, less hectic, more liveable, not to mention safer, place. And the big money boys who are so desperately constipated over it can relax the lower chakras, give birth to that eel and realize that, hey, it’s also good for business.

[Disclosure: I belong to Transportation Alternatives and support them enthusiastically.] [Photo: Tour de Brooklyn, 2 June 2013]

Monday, 3 June 2013

Secrets and stealing

We Steal Secrets is an even-handed documentary that will challenge black-and-white thinking about what is happening to and in our national security state, its accumulation of more and more secrets, its attempts to keep them, and others’ attempts to penetrate them.

My bias, both as a recovering journalist and as a native member of a polity based on the idea of an informed citizenry, is in favor of porosity. I recognize the claim on secrecy of state agents and also their probably irredeemable tendency to abuse that power. I can think of extremely few situations where government desire to operate in the dark outweighs the public’s right and need to know. [I see, incidentally, that this non-committal position means I am hopelessly sold out to the Forces of Evil according to some commentators. Happily, I no longer participate in these polemics and can entertain myself here in obscurity quite well, thank you.]

The title of Alex Gibney’s documentary, ironically, comes from the lips of former CIA director Michael Hayden who is clever enough to adopt an avuncular tone on camera while defending his frequently criminal enterprise. We steal other people’s secrets, he means, and we need to operate clandestintely to pull that off. Fair enough, but it implies that we have to look the other way and assume these guys are acting in our best interests. Hold that thought.

What are we supposed to do, however, when this snooping and its first cousin, warmaking, lead to crimes against humanity? Should reporters have cooperated with the secret bombing (and slaughter) of Cambodia because Kissinger and Nixon were getting us the best deal in Southeast Asia? Cheney should be able to cook up an invasion of Iraq and bankrupt us because our CIA guys must be able to ‘steal secrets’ unimpeded?

Walter Pincus at the Washington Post argues that the Obama Administration’s notorious snooping around in the AP’s telephone records, while excessively blunderbuss in application, resulted from a grave security breach that ruined an important covert operation. It’s an interesting perspective, but Pincus doesn’t have anything to say about the prudence of ‘covert operations’ in the first place when these include agent provocateurs staging pre-terrorist attacks so they can snare suspects--which is what the operation entailed. It’s the same problem we have here in New York where the NYPD justifies its snooping in mosques as preventive while nearly all the ‘incidents’ it manages to prevent begin within the bowels of the NYPD itself.

So we need a free press and unintimidated reporters able to dig around the edges of the security state to find out what is happening and responsibly sound the alarm on things that that are handled badly or should not be happening at all. That’s where Wikileaks and the Assange/Manning drama presents murky issues, which the Gibney film displays in full. The famous Bradley Manning document dump could have been—and at first was—handled by reporters who examined the evidence and filtered the facts into vetted articles. The revelation of the Army video showing the outrageous slaying of Reuters cameramen was one meritorious outcome.

But then two things screwed up what could have been a healthy check on illegitimate war tactics: Assange’s sexual misconduct case and the subsequent collapse of the Wikileaks model. While the facts are not yet in, We Steal Secrets suggests that Assange’s behavior in the Swedish sex case was something between dumb and abusive. (It includes exclusive testimony by one of the women involved, from whom we have not previously heard.) Instead of separating that case from the Wikileaks mission, however, Assange successfully merged the two and purged anyone who resisted. The Wikileaks model probably will not survive the ongoing melodrama and Assange’s caudillismo. That is a pity.

Meanwhile, the documents that Manning apparently funneled from State Department and military sources were not sufficiently protected and, according to the film, filtered into cyberspace out of anyone’s control. That tells us something about the dangers and drawbacks of our modern, computerized lives. Now that diplomatic notes are not written out with quill pens and stored in metal bins, it just may not be possible to guarantee the privacy that Hayden and his gangs so desire--and that they have decided we citizens no longer merit.

But back to the CIA’s demand for impunity and secrecy so they can protect us. Question: define ‘us’. It’s not a flippant request given this week’s news that David Petraeus has now gone to work for a branch of the private equity firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

Even more astounding is the news that Sir Jonathan Evans, a 33-year veteran of Britain’s spy service MI5 (Military Intelligence), has now joined the board of the vast worldwide conspiracy known as HSBC bank. This is the same entity recently sanctioned with a slap on the corporate wrist for money-laundering billions for drug runners and a host of other crimes.

It is simply not credible that these top-level links between the commanding heights of the financier sector now successfully impoverishing the entire world and the supposed public servants running our security state(s) have anything to do with the welfare of the rest of us. The arguments on their need for free rein and protected secrets off limits even to attempts at newsgathering are self-serving and increasingly dangerous.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Our miserable crop of mayoral candidates

The race to replace Mayor Bloomberg was looking interesting for a while, but the longer it goes on, the more all the candidates are beginning to look like wart colonies on legs. Christine Quinn, the front-runner, is the darling of the usual suspects among the construction, developer, real estate and finance lords, so anyone who can rattle her cage is welcome by default. But the alternatives range from icky to cynical to, at best, disappointing.

We were starting to like John Liu, who picked up the endorsement of the city’s largest municipal employees union this week, the one whose members are the custodians, leaf-rakers and toilet cleaners of New York and who have been without a contract for several years. Liu promised them some back wages, which is fair enough although it could be taken as opportunistic. But his performance with the powerful orthodox Jewish communities was shameful—not that anyone else did much better.

Some of these communities, whose internal discipline means the head rabbis often control huge blocs of votes, are upset about the health department’s insistence that their practice of ritual circumcision known as metzitzah b’peh, include warnings to parents. It seems the official circumciser is required to suck the blood off the recently cut infant penis, which if you or I tried to do, would get us 30 years and a Level III sex offender handle for life. But okay, it’s part of their religion, fine.

The problem is that the health department has traced the probable cause of 12 cases of herpes simplex in babies to the procedure and now requires orthodox parents to sign a consent form acknowledging the risks. Despite this toothless and eminently reasonable request, the orthodox leaders have taken great umbrage and sued to reverse it. Even more amazing, many of the mayoral candidates went to Brooklyn to a forum this week to denounce the largely symbolic measure and pander to the orthodox voters.

Liu said the DoH procedure was a heavy-handed interference by the ‘billionaire mayor [who] decided he knows better than anyone else’. Rev. Erick Salgado, an evangelical pastor, called it interference from City Hall in religious matters. Bill de Blasio, another liberal favorite, echoed that it was about Bloomberg ‘imposing his will’ instead of working with religious leaders respectfully. William Thompson, /bloomberg's last opponent, also endorsed revisiting the issue in new ‘conversations’.

The problem with this plausible sounding demand for new talks is that the orthodox leadership doesn’t want the consent process and has no interest in compromise. So sadly only Quinn looked like an adult and defended public health and, not incidentally, the orthodox newborns themselves, who just might like to start life without a herpes infection. She said the consent process already reflected a balanced approach and should be maintained.

As for the other candidate in the race for mayor, Anthony Weiner, the less he has to say about penises, the better.

This story stinks

My nomination for Most Bogus Explanation of the Week goes to the multi-hued stories emerging from the killing of Ibragim Todashev by an FBI agent after several hours of questioning, allegedly because the dead guy attacked the feds and other cops who then had to shoot him six times in self-defense. The details of this bizarre incident are so patently suspicious that one would expect some sort of uproar. But then one would be wrong because ‘terrorism’ suspects are to be considered road kill until proven innocent.

I suppose black kids in some of our rougher neighborhoods might not raise an eyebrow about the incident given the frequency with which the cops’ guns ‘go off accidentally’ when accosting them on the streets. But aren’t the FBI guys interested at least in keeping suspects alive long enough to find out things? Why was so little care exercised in the security of interrogator and suspect in this case?

When the Todashev killing was first made known, the official story was that he lunged at the questioning agent with a knife. The suspect had a knife in his possession? Does this perhaps sound like um, sloppy police work? Reporting on the anonymously-sourced accounts of the knife are summarized by Atlantic Wire here.

Note that the first explanations included the knife—important for creating impressions about why the death occurred—but once the first news cycle was over, suddenly maybe he didn’t have a knife after all but overturned a table in a threatening manner. Or something.

One would think one or two gunshots would be enough to restrain the most intractable detainee. So why six, including one in the back of the head?

There are a raft of other unanswered questions about this killing:

-Why was there no video recording of the interrogation? Several sources reported that Todashev had confessed to a triple-homicide committed with the Boston bomber just before he was killed. Huh? They get this close to a confession and don’t have him in a police station with cameras running? They’ve identified a dangerous killer with martial arts training and yet have taken no security precautions while holding him?

-Why did Todashev not have a lawyer present? They are about to secure a confession in a murder case, for chrissakes, but there was no concern about it being thrown out because of a lack of a documented Miranda warning?

-Why did Todashev have a funny feeling about the last questioning session with the FBI, as his friend Khusn Taramiv relates? Why did he think he was going to die? Did something happen in prior interrogations that set off an internal alarm?

But what’s really remarkable about the story is how little anyone seems to care. I suppose once we accept that the President himself can maintain a ‘kill list’ that he carefully reviews every Tuesday and that this list can include American citizens if he so decides, then it’s not much of a stretch to think that any agent of the state should just go ahead and generate a list of his own. After all, we’re talking about ‘terrorists’ here, the ‘worst of the worst’, and the American people demand to be protected from these nefarious creatures at all costs. So all those legal niceties known as the rule of law can go out the window. It’s fine though really because these tactics will never, ever be used against the rest of us.