Friday, March 5, 2010

Thoughts on the NYC march to Defend Public Education

by Jody Ballew

On March 4th, 2010, students and workers in NYC gathered to march in protest of coming MTA layoffs, CUNY budget cuts, public school closings, and a larger working class crisis after a year of record profits and bailouts for Wall Street.  Below is my reflection on the march in Manhattan written immediately after I got home.  Of course, I could add my own endless analysis and complication of my own thoughts, but somehow the version below expressed my raw mood well.  

experienced crowd control first hand tonight. it is sickening and analyzable against crowd movements and the anger and agitation that accumulates (somewhat by design) as a march progresses.  we were penned into enclosed areas multiple times: the cops actually ordered people to "get in the pen".  the cops taunted us.  one cop in a suit commented to my face, "this shit is annoying me, i might have to smack somebody soon."  we marched from patterson's office all the way to the Fashion Institute where the MTA hearings are being held again tonight.  These MTA hearings are a joke to absorb the anger from the lay off of 1100 employees.  the lay offs are coming.  the guy who spoke at the end of the march on behalf of the angry transit workers was a cop.  a cop as liaison between workers and bosses.  this was an angry protest. cuny students, jobless grad students, angry kids from high schools that are slated to be closed, laid off teachers and professors, transit workers facing unemployment, and a ton of communists and socialists who were surely agitating the crowd big time.  i saw a guy who was literally wrestling with a cop at one point and the crowd surged towards him and started screaming at this line of cops.  strangely when he got pulled back by the crowd the cops let him go.  this guy was furious and very huge.  if people hadn't pulled him back, he would have been creamed.   this was a very angry protest.  it was horrifying the way the cops controlled our movements.  there were 2 moments when i thought some guys would try to overturn the metal barricades.  when i left, some of the protesters were getting ready to go into the mta hearings.  the crowd control is complete, but the cops are not fearless.  i don't know about the rest of the country, but there are a lot of very angry people in this town.  

people are rip roaring mad.  is there a way to process all these actions, energy, and anger into real political change?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Militarization of Crowd Control

by Justin Rogers-Cooper

The Pittsburgh G-20 Summit protests in late September were a threshold event. They’ve mostly been ignored for several basic reasons. The commercial media ignores stories it can’t shift into familiar narratives. Vast numbers of the population have also practiced denial strategies for much of the negative news in the past decade. Such news does not match the fatalistic optimism churned from earnings guidance reports, political campaign speeches, upbeat advertising, and entertainment spectacles. These optimistic mediums and genres are all associated with civic and corporate power. They logically behave as institutions that must direct public emotion. They spin simplistic stories that redefine disorders as isolated disruptions or exceptional “tragedies.” Another interpretation of these national “tragedies” and disruptions is possible by connecting together what they have in common. The actions of security forces in 2009 Pittsburgh, 2005 New Orleans, and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York reveal intensifying policies of the Homeland Security state since 9-11. By tracing police actions back to those policies it’s possible to more substantively interpret the meaning of the Pittsburgh protests.

The policies reflect a consensus between law enforcement and the military about the use of new technological weapons against citizens and non-citizens. New weapons were used against Americans for the first time in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh security forces used non-lethal forms of equipment to disperse crowds, including the Long Range Acoustic Device, the LRAD. This large sonic gun blasts high volume sound waves into people’s heads. It radiates short bursts of sound waves. It’s audible over very long distances. Firing it up-close on someone makes it very loud and powerful. It has previously been used in Iraq against Iraqis. It was also used as a defensive weapon on the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit in 2005 off the coast of Somalia. The ship used the LRAD against pirates. The pirates left the ship alone despite having rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The use of the weapon against non-violent crowds is a human rights violation and a civil liberties crime.

The device is meant to inflict non-lethal injury. In this sense it echoes the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that the military used to torture enemy combatants. Like the Taser, the LRAD is also a new law enforcement weapon that’s supposedly non-lethal but also relatively unstable in live trials. The Taser is an electroshock gun that’s meant to immobilize bodies. Like Predator spy planes that shoot Hellfire missiles at suspected targets in Pakistan, the Taser and the LRAD are new weapons that fundamentally change the new laws of security powers. These weapons modulate ranges of force in order to subdue individuals and crowds.

Local authorities in New York criminalized protest in 2004 through mass arrests, but they went a step further in Pittsburgh by criminalizing the use of communications by protesters. Elliot Madison’s arrest by the Pennsylvania State Police in Pittsburgh for Twittering the location of the police to protesters is symptomatic of a campaign to prevent crowds from intelligently communicating. The subsequent search of Madison’s apartment by an FBI counter-terrorism unit confiscated books by Marx and Lenin as evidence. A grand jury trial is still open. The police are using the 1968 Riot Act as legal precedent. This is an orchestrated attack on legitimate forms of political dissent.

These actions send signals. Public authority will use any means necessary to control individuals and crowds. This includes authorizing the use of violent new instruments of control. Each new tool reflects a unique technological breakthrough in the science of controlling human bodies efficiently. Another signal should be psychological. These on-going assaults are tolerated because of little compromises that individuals make about the social contract and the ethical responsibilities one has toward suffering. Each little compromise has required a denial. It returns as anxiety in many. Not coincidently, the American public has reacted passively against these new technologies of immobilizing bodies. Anxiety paralyzes one’s ability to think clearly about the real movements in American politics.

These real movements reflect essential changes in the technology of crowd control. Companies that provide emergency training for local authorities use computer simulations that simulate natural disasters, fires, terrorism, and civil disturbances. A simulation video advertised on Youtube boasts that every block in New York has been digitally reproduced for that training. It’s as realistic as Grand Theft Auto. These exercises against civil disturbance reflect significant attitudes and expectations of the US towards its own population. The expression of these policies in physical confrontations reveals an organized and methodical approach toward all bodies present in declared “emergency” and “disaster” zones. In much of the military literature, protests are also classified as civil disturbances. Civil disturbances are, in turn, defined as man-made disasters. As a result, strategic responses to natural disasters and protest disasters are very similar. They involve suspending civil liberties for the purposes of protecting public order and private property. Local and state authorities transfer powers of civil control to security forces. Crowds of the population are ‘managed,’ whether they have formed for looting, to express a grievance, or to protest.

They are also managed if they become displaced by climate catastrophes or economic incentives. In 2006, the Halliburton subsidiary KBR received a 385 million dollar contract for temporary detention and processing centers. At the time, this contract reminded some independent journalists of the REX-84 “readiness exercise” Oliver North spearheaded during the Reagan administration. The exercise imagined that 400,000 migrants from Mexico entered the US and became an uncontrollable population. The plan called for all 400,000 to be detained. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be responsible for storing them. As immigrants, they would not be subject to constitutional protection.

Like the KBR centers contracted in 2006, the camps would detain, house, and process bodies. The United States has powers to create domestic internment camps just as all other state governments do. The World War II Japanese internment camps provide evidence that the United States can detain tens of thousands of bodies after declaring an emergency.

In 1982 former FEMA head Louis Giuffrida drafted an executive order for continuity of government planning in the event of nation-wide insurgency of African-American militants. The order called for “martial law” and “suspension of the Constitution.” The REX-84 camps and the Japanese interment camps are large-scale precedents for Guantanamo Bay. State authority rests on emergency powers in all three cases. They are large-scale precedents for the 2000 protesters detained at Pier 57 during the 2004 New York protests. During periods of instability and vulnerability, the state exercises emergency powers. The camps must be understood as logical reactions to national security needs. Governments must manage different scales of population.

Populations can express themselves through specific, collective forms of identity. One such identity is crowds. Crowds are inherently unstable and very powerful. They thus make the state vulnerable. Protests and protesters acquire disproportionate power when they form crowds. Crowds can make demands that elections cannot. Crowds can use force that cannot be undone. Crowds can shift political sentiment for authority by exposing the erosion of power, by embarrassing authorities, or by being subjected to police brutality. Crowds can visually demonstrate the violence of the state against certain ideas. As crowds, they have the power to draw emotions and media to ideas and bodies possibly subject to censorship or derision.

The collective power of assembled bodies can overwhelm repellent police technologies, including lethal weapons. Crowds can overwhelm state forces through the sheer power of numbers. A crowd as organized and energized as an Ohio State Buckeye football crowd could easily occupy the state capitol building in Columbus. This is why crowd control was essential for the protection of President Obama in Pittsburgh. This is also why movements that encourage various kinds of crowds have successful records against state forces. An example might be the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 and the Berlin Wall crowds in 1989.

Crowds can overcome state violence. Crowds can overcome crowd control. They can break through crowd control and seize centers of power. They then use their occupation of power as a demonstration of strength. From this position of strength they can demand strategic concessions from authority. These concessions can sometimes only be achieved through crowds, and not through “democratic” institutions sustained by corporate-funded political parties. The government of populations requires that civic authorities and security forces see protest crowds as crowds first and constitutionally assembled citizens second. Crowds must be controlled because crowds have power.

The Department of Defense would control military support of state law enforcement during domestic emergencies that involve crowds. During martial law, executive authority resides under the direction of local civil authorities. This is the single most important aspect of understanding martial law. Elements of the military maintain “liaisons” with federal, state, and municipal authorities. The 2005 Department of Defense “Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support” explicitly refers to the military support the Pentagon may lend local police authorities. Since the executive who declares emergency powers is local, to understand martial law one must not focus on Presidential executive powers. The Homeland Security press release by the Secret Service during the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit described the participating security as a combination of “local, state, and federal security,” along with “public safety and military partners.”

In the context of American constitutional law and Department of Defense policy, martial law emergency powers always reside with local civil authorities. Martial law is not about negotiating checks and balances of federal powers. Martial law is called into being wherever crowds form. Martial law emergency powers are part of a capillary, distributive system of emergency powers in the United States. Senator David Vitter acted as a liaison between Karl Rove and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco after Hurricane Katrina, for instance, and told Blanco the Bush administration asked her to declare martial law or “as close as we can get.” This exchange lays bare where the powers reside.

This is the case because Presidential authority is legally limited. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act withdrew northern troops from the south by limiting the powers of the executive to command military troops within US borders. The President could nonetheless still declare a state of national emergency and declare nationwide martial law, but doing so would draw a great deal of negative attention and media. Martial law powers are much more flexible – and thus more tactically useful – because they rely on local authorities. Department of Defense military forces would be renamed Defense Support of Civilian Authorities (DSCA). These forces are also referred to as Civil Support. These Civil Support forces would engage “riots, acts of violence, insurrections, unlawful obstructions or assemblages, or other disorders prejudicial to public law and order.” These unlawful assemblages – crowds – might be dispersed through the simple speech act of a local authority. The simplicity of this speech act is necessary for enforcing property relations at any time. Crowds trigger local authorities to invoke emergency powers that are inseparable from the powers of martial law.

Military support is necessary to back local authorities because of the strength of crowds. Operation Garden Plot is the plan developed by the Pentagon in 1968 to create workable strategies for civil disturbances. The Pentagon developed it to consolidate knowledge related to recent deployments of troops legalized by the1807 Insurrection Act. The Insurrection Act allows the President to use military troops against American citizens. It occurred in 1957 Little Rock, 1962 Oxford, 1965 Selma, and 1967 Detroit. These are several of the public disorders that inspired Garden Plot. By 1970 over 375,000 National Guard units were trained in Garden Plot riot control techniques. In the preceding year, state governors summoned the National Guard on 92 different occasions: to Chicago, to Berkeley, and to Kent, Ohio. In Kent they shot four non-violent protesters. These are legal and political precedents for Pittsburgh.

In the last two decades many of the laws surrounding crowd control came to define the actual apparatuses of federal emergency powers. Crowd control laws are important because they address how security forces can interact with real bodies. This then clarifies the real expressions and fears that motivate state power. The REX-84 exercise is an example of state policies that envisage large-scale responses to massive population control problems. It’s interesting that new crowd control methods were included in the new civil liberties policies following 9-11. Airport security grew. Bridge security grew. Vast detention centers opened in Afghanistan and Iraq. A special torture camp opened in Cuba. The CIA “black sites” prison system continued to expand.

These are all human rights crimes. In the United States, human rights and civil rights are two separate discourses. It may be effective to wind them together more. Since 9-11 civil liberties have come under intense assault. This is also to say political dissent in the United States has become criminalized. The criminalization of protest is occurring because protest crowds qualify as civil disturbance emergencies. Civil disturbance manuals used by the army claim that disturbances arise from “highly emotional social and economic issues,” where “economically deprived” residents are ready to release frustrations. This link between civil disturbance, economic conditions, and emergency powers received some surprising attention last October, when California representative Brad Sherman claimed some legislators were threatened with martial law unless the bailout bill passed.

It is here that the crowd, forces of crowd control, and the constitution clash. The civil liberties that have come under the most assault are freedom of speech and assembly. These conflict with policies about crowds and civil disturbance. Since crowds threaten public order because of their power, the response of security forces reverts back to policies and laws that govern civil disturbances. Civil disturbances are emergencies, and as such emergency powers are in effect. Defining protests as emergencies allows police conduct that should be understood as unacceptable violations of constitutional rights.

The permanent emergency is already here. It’s sometimes called the war on terror. It stretches from Kabul to Pittsburgh. It is meant to test the boundaries of what a population will tolerate against fellow citizens. Because these citizens included anarchists, state violence becomes more acceptable. This represents a new fashion of policing undisciplined ideologies. If one is Muslim, or a terrorist, or an anarchist – or a protester – one’s body becomes subject to forms of temporary state control. For radical Muslims this state control can last for years of indefinite detention; it can also include torture. For illegal immigrants it might last months and sometimes years. Judging by Pittsburgh and the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, it can last for a few days against American citizens.

It’s hard to direct attention to these policies. The police commit routine violations of the law because they have acquired a patriotic armor. The same is true for American soldiers. The police and the military elicit intense forms of devotion from wide intersections of classes, ethnicities, and genders. American nationalism has functioned throughout the transition from Bush to Obama. Focusing on the individual actions of police officers is not important anyway, however. One need not fear criticizing any individual police officer or soldier. This only mystifies the problem. The problem is one of policy.

Citizens have the right to form crowds. Forming crowds is also a human right. A new security policy must reflect these rights. Crowd formation is inevitable. No government can ultimately control collected human bodies and organized crowds. Policies must reflect this reality. Crowds too control the terms of “consent” inherent in all representative government. Recognizing this will make it easier to evolve the political systems in new ecological and economic eras. Decaying political forms will erode in power. The corporate-funded two-party system relies on an infinite-growth economy that relies on fossil fuels for food and labor production. The post-petroleum era will require much more local forms of production. The groups that will dominate this era will form new kinds of crowds. They must be allowed to emerge.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Did the UC protests work?

by Jody Ballew

Amy Goodman with Democracy Now reports,
Amid thousands of student protesters and armed police standing guard, the University of California’s Board of Regents has approved a 32 percent increase in student fees. The vote will bring the total cost of a UC education to more than $10,000 per year for the first time. 
For me, this raises a very basic question about protest.  Does it work?  Is protest effective?  The students who occupied buildings and organized strong protests demanded a stop to these tuition hikes.  The hikes are now in place.  Why didn't the Board of Regents respond to the loud and present voices of the students?  How will the UC protesters reconstitute their protest now that their central demand has been denied?  UC students have already committed to a second strike on 3/4/2010.

Here is the interview and coverage by Democracy Now.  This video explores some very interesting perspectives regarding the protests and the privatization of education around the University of California events.  Goodman's guest Bob Samuels, President of the University of California American Federation of Teachers, offers real reasons to resist tuition increases.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Protesting War in Favor of Public Education

NYS taxpayers will contribute billions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq this year.

The City University of New York faces up to $62 million in budget cuts.

Below is a selection of protest images in response to those realities.

The University of California is Occupied!

by Jody Ballew

Students at the University of California Berkeley and Santa Cruz have occupied buildings on their campuses in protest of the 32% tuition hikes.  Their demands call for a stop to the proposed 32% tuition hikes, a repeal of faculty layoffs and a reversal of the 15% labor cuts for custodial staff.  Video of the occupation at Berkeley is pouring in on YouTube.

As these occupations spread from the Santa Cruz campus to Berkeley, the police response has escalated to a level of violence that is much like that against University of Pittsburgh students at the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh this September.  Despite the peaceful appearance of the protests, crowd control measures include forcefully striking students with batons and crowd barricades are used to shove protesters.  As professor Robert Dudley is arrested National Lawyers Guild observers call out to ask him his name.  In response, students chant to the police officers, "Shame on you!", "Students. Not criminals",
"Hey hey! Ho ho! Police brutality has got to go!", and "You're sexy, you're cute, take off that riot suit!".
Asking, "Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!"
Shouting, "No cuts! No fees! Education should be free!"  There's an idea.

UC students are actively demonstrating opposition to fading educational opportunites.

CUNY and SUNY students face similar financial challenges.  NY Governor David Patterson has proposed sweeping cuts to public education from Kindergarten to College.  The legislature calls these budget cuts a "Deficit reduction plan".  For us CUNY students these cuts mean reduced campus services, hiring freezes, larger classes, and ultimately a reduction in our TAP financial aid.  Many of us depend on these services to make our education possible.  These cuts will have the most effect on the students who already face financial and personal obstacles to education.  CUNY Chancellor Goldstein has summarized some of the effects of those cuts in his testimony to the NYS legislature.  

During this time of economic crisis, our country and our state face difficult financial choices, as reflected in the Deficit Reduction Plan. Every state or state-supported agency, to the extent that it can, must work to alleviate the state's burden. The proposed reduction for CUNY's senior colleges in the current year is $53 million, which represents a 4.8 percent cut in state support, taken against non-personnel service (OTPS) costs.

Clearly, it is difficult for the University to absorb a mid-year reduction, particularly when it follows previous cuts to CUNY's senior colleges totaling $68.3 million. While the University anticipated the likelihood of a mid-year cut and took appropriate measures to mitigate its effect and prevent significant diminishment of academic services, the fact remains that it will have a chilling effect on CUNY's plans. As the legislature reviews the proposed OTPS reductions, the University will continue to focus on protecting its core mission. Going forward, a serious concern is the cumulative effect of the cuts on the quality of education at our senior colleges; we must prevent the permanent damage that will result from a sustained period of reductions.

In addition, the reduction plan proposes cuts in state aid to the community colleges in the amount of $260 per student, as well as cuts to related community-college support, including child care centers, rental aid, workforce development, and the College Discovery program.

So, CUNY students face the same challenges in their pursuit of a public education as the UC students.  The UC students have organized a strong response to those challenges.   Will their demands be met?  How will CUNY students be effected by the proposed budget cuts?  Will we make any demands?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Rutherford Institute on the Criminalization of Dissent: "Is Tweeting now a Felony under Federal Law?"

John W. Whitehead, Constitutional attorney and founder of The Rutherford Institute, has written a scathing analysis of the arrest of Elliot Madison.

                                           (image courtesy of

Among his various claims:

1)  "With each passing day, hope fades that the Obama administration will diverge from George W. Bush's erection of a police state."

2)  "The government is sending a clear message that Elliot Madison is not the exception but the rule: this is what happens to people who disagree with the government and act on it. They are targeted, tracked, placed under surveillance and, if they happen to violate any arcane laws, made examples of."

3)  "Furthermore, the report uses the labels "terrorist" and "extremist" interchangeably. In other words, when citizens such as Elliot Madison voice what the government considers to be extremist viewpoints, that is tantamount to being a terrorist."

4)  "Clearly, freedom of thought and conscience are at serious risk today from federal and state agencies intent on suppressing actions they deem to be a threat to the status quo. It all adds up to an Orwellian government that would like nothing better than to dictate what we can think, read and believe. The thought police are not that far away."

What do you think?  Are the "thought police...not that far away"?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Panel Discussion Monday 11/16 at 12:30

On 11/16, there will be the Protest Study Project panel in Library Room 230 at 12:30 at Queens College. The debate over the Pittsburgh G-20 Summit protests continues. 

Join us for a discussion of issues of protest, activism, police brutality, and civil rights around the Pittsburgh G-20 International Summit in September, 2009. 

The panel will consider these video clips from Pittsburgh:

"Bike Girl"
Reuter's Summary
National Guard

The panelists will include:

Martin Stolar represents Elliot Madison and Michael Wallschlager. Madison and Wallschlager were arrested in Pittsburgh on 9/24 for twittering to protesters and all charges against them were dropped last week, but a federal grand jury investigation is still pending. Martin can also provide legal perspective and experience on issues surrounding challenges to the First Ammendment stemming from demonstration and dissent.

Jeffery Rothman represents James and Irina Weiss in their efforts to have their property returned that was taken in the raid in Queens on the home owned by Elliot Madison. He is also one of the lawyers (along with Martin Stolar and numerous others) pressing the civil rights litigation against the City and the NYPD stemming from the mass arrests made during the 2004 Republican National Convention, and can comment on general concerns surrounding the suppression of First Amendment activity in the context of demonstrations.

Dr. Premilla Nadasen is an historian who writes and teaches about grassroots organizing and social protest. Her book Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the U,S. won the John Hope Franklin Prize. She is a regular contributor to the Progressive Media Project and has written for numerous journals and magazines. She currently works with Domestic Workers United, a domestic worker rights group here in NYC, and is writing a book on the history of domestic worker activism.

The panel will be moderated by Professor Justin Rogers-Cooper who has been my mentor and collaborator on The Protest Project at Queens College. Justin is a Writing Fellow at LaGuardia Community College, an adjunct faculty at Queens College and Skidmore College, and a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. The title of his dissertation is "Revolutionary Affects: Literature, Crowds, and the Crisis of American Nationality, 1860-1935."