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by Alexander Cockburn, November 23, 2011
From Manhattan, to Nashville, to St Louis, to Portland, Oregon, to Oakland, California, the police this week moved in to clear out the Occupy Wall Street protesters from the various downtown plazas or squares where they’d established their peaceable focos. The mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, had earlier acknowledged a conference call between 18 mayors (at obvious federal instigation from the Justice Department) across the US discussing strategy, and the mode elected was clear enough. Get them out, by any means necessary.
These marching orders were taken most seriously in — where else? — the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement back in 1964, at Sproul Plaza, entry way into the University of California at Berkeley. FSM’s birth was prompted by the arrest of Jack Weinberg for soliciting money for the civil rights movement. He was put into a police car, but a spontaneous sit-down trapped it. Eventually the roof was used as a FSM platform.
Last week 100s of students massed in Sproul Plaza to protest proposed fee hikes of 81% that would bring UC tuition from $13,000 to over $22,000. The students pointed out that the banks caused the financial crisis, which in turn caused the budget crisis. So the banks, not the students, should pay for it. The students set up their own small encampment on the lawn outside Sproul Hall.
An eyewitness, Michael Levien, described on CounterPunch last week what happened at around 9.30 pm last Monday night:
“A phalanx of police in riot gear turned the corner of Sproul Hall and rapidly charged, thrusting their batons with violent force into the crowd. Chanting ‘non-violent protest’ and ‘stop beating students,’ student after student took fierce baton thrusts to their chests and limbs.
“Then the police started swinging, brutally beating people’s chests, arms, knees, and backs. They were swinging to hurt. With the crowd behind and the police in front there was no way for people to leave even if they wanted to. A few people tried to escape in the narrow gap between the students and police. They were savagely beaten. Throughout what can only be described as a terrifying physical attack that has left many with serious injuries, the students stayed entirely non-violent.”
Enter Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who often likes to reminisce about his Freedom Rider days. At the 40th anniversary of the founding of FSM, they had a mock police car and platform and Chancellor Birgeneau spoke from it, reminiscing warmly about the birth of FSM and the importance of free speech. I spoke at the same anniversary, giving measured praise for subversive free speech in an event organized by Lenni Brenner, “FSM and the Sixties: Lessons for Today.”
Chancellor Birgeneau seems to be a man changed from the freedom rider of the mid-1960s or even the man perched on the platform in 2004. Last week he emailed the campus, defending the administration’s response by saying that it was necessary to remove the encampment for “practical” considerations of “hygiene, safety, space and conflict issues.” He remarked: “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.” So Rosa Parks prevented a white person from sitting in the seat reserved for them on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Club her to the ground!
So chapter 1 of the Occupy movement draws to a close; maybe the concerted onslaught by uniformed goons actually did the movement a favor—scant comfort to those battered to the ground—by leaving the Occupiers with a positive bank balance in ·terms of imagery at the moment of their enforced departures. Besides, this will allow trained teams of OWSers to hunt down all members of those drumming circles and dispose of them by any means necessary. This is not protected speech.
What next? Thus far the OWS movement has mostly been evoked by its participants in terms of self-education and consciousness-raising about the nature of America’s political economy. There’s been a lot of talk about a brave new world being born. One fellow chided me for not writing more about the movement which he hailed as “the most militant upsurge from the Left since the Vietnam War, the most frontal assault on the worst features of capitalism since the Great Depression.”
This is a vast overstatement. In terms of substantive achievements, OWS has a long way to go, which is scarcely a reason for reproof since it only really got going in September. “The most frontal assault on the worst features of capitalism since the Great Depression?” Scarcely.
The early 60s Civil Rights Movement prompted the Civil Rights Act, and Medicare, the latter being effectively socialized health insurance for the senior crowd. Pushed by the popular movements, President Johnson and a Democratic Congress passed a flood of laws.
As historian Alan Nasser pointed out last week, “In less than four years, Congress enacted the Truth In Lending Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the National Gas Pipeline Safety Act, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Flammable Fabrics Act, the federal Meat Inspection Act and the Child Protection Act.
“Business-government relations had never before seen such an avalanche of legislation limiting the freedom of capital in the interests of working people. Between 1964 and 1968 Congress passed 226 of 252 worker-friendly bills into law. Federal funds transferred to the poor increased from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion in 1968. One million workers received job training from these bills and 2 million children were enrolled in pre-school Head Start programs by 1968.”
Resistance to the war in Indochina was fierce. In Vietnam the troops mutinied. Units shot their officers in the back or threw grenades into their tents. In 1971 the Pentagon counted 503,926 ‘incidents of desertion’ since 1966 and reckoned that more than half of US ground forces in Vietnam openly opposed the war. At Christmas 1971, Vietnam Vets Against the War seized the Statue of Liberty for 48 hours and draped it with a banner demanding ‘Bring our Brothers Home.’
On the home front, people fought the draft or simply fled it. Major US cities were torn by riots. The anti-war movement, coming on the heels of the civil rights movement, transformed a generation. Finally, Congress simply denied Nixon the war money in Indochina.
To evoke those stormy times is to underline that America was at the peak of its economic power in the late 1960s, whereas today Moody’s warns the world that US T-bills are a risky investment, American corporate capitalism is infinitely better protected in its perquisites than it was 45 years ago when those worker-friendly laws shot through Congress.
These days corporate lobbies own the President and the US Congress and the regulatory agencies. National economic policy is laid down by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, an errand boy of the banks. He took over from Hank Paulson, also an errand boy for the banks. If Obama is not re-elected in 2012, another errand boy will be waiting in the wings.
In the 1930s Roosevelt developed his New Deal program in part to head off mass movements to his left. In the 1960s Kennedy and Johnson similarly responded to the challenge of mass movements. Today, the OWSers have registered a presence and won considerable public support, which should not be surprising because America is in poor shape, the rich unpopular and politicians despised. But, as yet, there is no sign of any material political consequence deriving from this popularity.
Four years ago a candidacy was gathering momentum, declaring that the time had come in America for a moral awakening, for a change in national consciousness, a rising above self-interest and partisanship. Young people rallied to the call. Obama swept into the White House and promptly stuck a ‘Business As Usual’ sign on the door of the Oval Office.
Suppose the OWS movement had begun in the early fall of ’08, just as the economy was imploding, amid widespread public fury at Wall St.’s corruption, notably the banks and big investment houses? Would candidate Obama have felt quite so blithe in lobbying his fellow senators to support Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s TARP bailout of the 9 biggest banks? Obama had been in close touch with top-tier Wall St. men all year long and was their point man rallying his fellow senators — and of course the recipient of their campaign contributions, far outstripping what Wall St. gave McCain.
On October 1, 2008, the US senate voted 74 to 25 for the unconditional bank bailout, with eight Democrats voting No, among them Dorgan, Feingold, Wyden, and Landrieu. Sanders also voted No. (Dorgan always had a healthy mistrust of Obama. In his recent book Confidence Men , Ron Suskind writes that at a December 2008 meeting during the transition, after Obama had announced his appointments of Geithner and Summers — thus making absolutely clear where his priorities would lie — Dorgan told him bluntly, “You’ve picked the wrong people. I don’t understand how you could do this. You’ve picked the wrong people!”)
Imagine an OWS movement spreading across the country through September and October of 2008, piercing through Obama’s vapid rhetoric about change, excoriating the bipartisan congressional support for de facto financial dictatorship by Wall Street. There would have been a thousand opportunities for dramatic actions. Birgeneau’s Freedom Rides could this time have been “Freedom from Debt” rides with OWS trucks collecting maxed out credit cards from every voting district in the country and driving them to Washington to dump in front of the White House and Congress.
Okay, so you’re a realist and you can’t imagine it, and you’d be right, because in the late summer and fall of 2008, it was All Aboard for Obama and the Change Express. The pressure to conform to this ecstatic, albeit totally irrational call was intense. One of my friends — a left militant from way back — told me he didn’t dare voice his doubts publicly in front of his wife and children. All he could do was mumble to the family dog out in the garden.
So now, four years later, we have OWS, in part a re-run of the idealistic hopes of those Obama zealots of 2008, minus illusions about crusading candidacies. There’s lots of talk about What Next. Somebody will think of something, no doubt. A friend from Portland recently wrote privately, apropos OWS:
“It doesn’t seem to me that the OWS is ready to be fully political. Didn’t it take the new left years to build to 1968? Was part of its less-than-fully ‘successful’ push because it was premature or exhausted? Was it because it never had full enough backing from social forces to be overwhelming? The new left didn’t spring ready formed into mass collective action in 1960 but built up powerful oppositions through solidarities only formed through practical common struggles. We see this happening now but we can’t expect it to happen overnight. On the contrary, OWS has shaky grounds to build on, but a more propitious moment. The early sixties were a period of rising affluence with a strong labor movement, albeit with a corrupt and conservative bureaucracy, a strong potential for working-class solidarity and powerful social movements demanding change. OWS faces a largely anomic society after decades of economic erosion and declining political power at every level, with the exception of anti-globalization movements that were the older brother and sisters of OWS. Our folks in Portland are still being arrested and still occupying and re-occupying. They have it pretty easy for now because they have tremendous support from the public. Let us hope that in one way there is rounding of the circle. Where the unintended consequences of parts of new left agitation became identity politics, the OWS might bring us back to class politics. From there, we can join the Greeks.”
On Counterpunch last weekend Michael Hudson lays out a minimal economic program on how to clean out the Augean stables. He calls for a financial Clean Slate:
“To restore the kind of normalcy that made America rich, the most important long-term policy would be to recognize what is going to be inevitable for every economy. Debts need to be written down — and the politically easiest way to cut through the tangle is to write them off altogether. That would free the bottom 99% from their debt bondage to the top 1%. It would be a Clean Slate, starting over — and trying to do things right this time around. The creditors have not used the banking system to make America more productive and richer. They have used it as a vehicle to reduce the population to debt serfdom.
“A debt write-down sounds radical and unworkable, but it’s been done since World War II with great success. It is the program the Allies carried out in the German economy in that country’s 1947 currency reform. This was the policy that created Germany’s Economic Miracle. And America could experience a similar miracle.”
Hudson is a fascinating scholar of the history of debt cancellations. He just sent me his pamphlet, The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations. It has a drawing of the cuneiform transcription of a debt cancellation (amargi law) by Enmetena, ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash, c. 2400 BC, the first known legal proclamation. The original is in the Louvre.
Let’s hoist our Babylonian banner!