Friday, August 30, 2013

...And Justice for All


"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
                                                                              - George Orwell

Pfc. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning's sentencing to 35 years in prison last week for leaking hundreds of classified documents of U.S. war crimes to WikiLeaks is proof positive of something I have long suspected of this country:

There is no democracy. There is only the illusion of democracy.

As Ned Beatty's Arthur Jensen, chairman of the fictional Communications Company of America in Sidney Lumet's Network explains to Howard Beale, "There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union-Carbide, and Exxon."

Manning, like Network's doomed Beale "meddled with the primal forces of nature,"--in this case the callous, murderous U.S. military industrial complex. And now, he too will be forced to atone.

From the beginning, Manning's trial was a rigged facade. The defense was prohibited from using any of the leaked documents as evidence in the trial. And, though the court ultimately failed to indict Manning on the specific charge, the prosecution nonetheless managed to convince the judge and the American public that her leaks somehow endangered U.S. security and "aided the enemy."

According to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll, 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Manning's actions, suggesting most still erroneously believe she somehow compromised U.S. security. Then again, the same poll also finds only 33 percent of Americans followed news of the trial closely-- compared with 67 percent who did not--which seems to negate the validity of the previous statistic.

Even before her trial began (indeed, long before she was formally charged with any crime), Manning was subjected to near-torture prison treatment, held for days in solitary confinement and forced to spend the night naked in her jail cell. Even former State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley called Manning's unwarranted treatment "counterproductive and stupid."

In nearly all of the commentary concerning Manning--whether from the right or the left--what is inevitably overlooked is the actual content of the military cables she leaked. This is, of course, no accident. When it comes to attacking and discrediting whistleblowers, the Obama administration and the corporate media employ the same tactic: Shoot the messenger, ignore the message. It is the same approach used with N.S.A. whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

So, let's talk about the war crimes Manning revealed.

Perhaps the most startling is the "Collateral Murder" video taken from a U.S. Apache helicopter as its pilot nonchalantly guns down nine innocent Iraqi civilians who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two of those killed were Reuters reporters. At one point, the soldiers indiscriminately fire on a van carrying children.

The blurry, black-and-white helicopter video log, combined with the soldiers' detached, indifferent back-and-forth exchange make the incident appear like something out of a video game. As our military weapons and instruments of war become increasingly automated with unmanned predator drones and the like, soldiers become more alienated from the actual horror of combat. Killing innocent human beings via remote control some 3,000 miles away is now as easy as sending an email.

This dehumanizing effect is further reinforced by the soldiers' crude, callous references to the civilians as "fucking pricks," and their exclamations to "light 'em all up." Marshall McLuhan, in his prescient if often inscrutable musings on technology, was right: "We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us."

Chelsea Manning was not responsible for these crimes--she merely exposed them. Yet, since her disclosure of these blatant war crimes, Manning has been treated--in both her trial and in the media--as the criminal. It is as if, upon reporting to your boss your discovery that a co-worker is stealing company funds, your boss promptly fires you.

Such is the warped logic under Barack Obama's administration, which has prosecuted more American whistleblowers, including journalists, under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined. As Mother Jones' Peter Van Buren wrote in a story last year ("Obama's War on Whistleblowers," 06/12/2012), "The Obama administration has been cruelly and unusually punishing in its use of the 1917 Espionage Act to stomp on governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers whose disclosures do not support the president's political ambitions."

Conversely, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the other architects of the Iraq War--a war based on fabricated rationales--remain free citizens. The Democratic Party, upon reclaiming the Senate and the House of Representatives from a Republican majority in 2006, refused to impeach any officials in the Bush regime for such flagrant disregard for the rule of law and grossly deceiving the American public. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denounced impeachment as politically "divisive," and even went so far as to claim there was "no evidence" Bush had committed a crime.

The mainstream media, likewise, when it can be bothered to cover Manning's plight at all, has offered scorn and ridicule, painting her as a traitor. From the start the media used Manning's sexual orientation and gender identity issues against her in a disgustingly homophobic manner. Yet, gay rights advocacy groups--like Maine's prominent Equality Maine--raised no objections. Most LGBT groups, like those in the labor and anti-war movements, remain cloyingly loyal to President Obama. By their thinking, if Obama believes Manning is a traitor, then she must be a traitor.

(Curiously, Manning's coming out as transgendered the day after her sentencing seems to have generated more online support and praise from liberals than Manning ever received during her trial. In recent days, I have seen Facebook posts lauding Chelsea Manning's bravery and courage from people who previously seemed to have no opinion of her whatsoever. No doubt, Manning is a highly brave and courageous individual, but because of her actions--not her gender identity.)

Manning's sentence--the longest ever issued for a whistleblower--represents the last nail in the coffin for any remaining pretense of American justice.

It also sends a clear and chilling message to all investigative reporters: Be careful what you report on. Disclose any embarrassing state secrets, or evidence of torture or war crimes and you, too, will find yourself in Manning's shoes. As a result, according to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, "Investigative reporting has come to a standstill."

To get a sense of the rank hypocrisy behind Chelsea Manning's sentence, consider the following quote from Secretary of State John Kerry concerning Syria's (alleged) use of chemical weapons:

"The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable."

Perhaps Kerry should have added to the second sentence, "Except when such actions are carried out by us. Then they are completely justified."

Indeed, in light of Manning's outrageous sentence, I propose we amend the Pledge of Allegiance accordingly. The final line should now read, "...with liberty and justice for some."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Owns the Land?

Congress Square Park during First Friday Art Walk.

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, the Portland City Council will vote on whether or not to sell off most of the downtown area known as Congress Square Park to a private, out-of-state corporation. All indications suggest a majority of the councilors will vote for the sale, much to the dismay of Portland residents who wish to keep the park open for public use.

The Ohio-based company, Rockbridge Capital, which bought the adjoining Eastland Park Hotel in 2011, will purchase the area--which the local media insist on calling "Congress Square Plaza"--for approximately $524,000, according to The Portland Press Herald ("Agreement Outlines Plan to Buy Congress Square Plaza," 08/17/2013). The company plans to build an events center in the area. Opposition to the sale is a key part of my campaign for the City Council.

Since the city began talks of "revitalizing" the park nearly two years ago, members of the public have been systematically shut-out of the debate. The proposal to sell off the area was never put to a vote. Opponents of the plan have voiced their disapproval at numerous City Council and Housing & Development Committee meetings, only to be ignored. Members of the group Friends of Congress Square Park, a diverse coalition of activists intent on preserving the park for public use, have been consistently derided as a "vocal minority," who simply do not understand how this "sweetheart deal" will benefit Portland economically.

I actually think Rockbridge is unrealistic about how economically successful this "events center" will be--though, for the city's sake, I hope I am wrong. But whether or not the soon-to-be-renamed Eastland Park Hotel rakes in a ton of money for Portland is not the point. (The city would have more money if it did not routinely throw it all away on TIFs, subsidies, tax-breaks and handouts to corporations. See: Portland Waterfront.)

Portland lawmakers seem hell-bent on privatizing, commercializing and "revitalizing" every square inch of the city. When they are through arbitrarily auctioning off large pieces of the city will there be anything left for residents to enjoy? At what point do we say, "enough is enough"? As my friend and Portland School Board member, Holly Seeliger noted in a recent blog post, this fight to maintain public land is not unique to Portland. A very similar confrontation led to the uprisings in Turkey earlier this summer.

This is all a symptom of the disease that is capitalism.

Unfettered, unregulated capitalism, with its singular obsession on maximizing profits at all costs, turns everything--including public space, the environment, and even human lives--into a commodity. And for Portland's City Councilors, that is all Congress Square Park is--a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

Ironically, in their zeal to draw more tourists to Portland, city officials are driving year-round, working-class residents out. Rising costs of rent and the lack of jobs have made Portland almost as expensive to live in as Boston. Soon only the wealthy will be able to afford to live here.

Indeed, it is the wealthy and business elite that have clamored loudest for Rockbridge's events center. Surrounding shops like Emerald City, Queen of Hats, Cross Jewelers and Coffee by Design believe the events center will mean more patrons for their stores. This will undoubtedly be great for these businesses, but it is difficult to tell how the events center will benefit the rest of us.

Profit-obsessed members of the local business community, including the Portland Chamber of Commerce, denounce Congress Square Park as a "failed space"--"failed" because the park is not contributing to their personal finances. In the myopic mindset of the capitalist--a rapacious worldview that divides citizens into "producers" and "takers"--a thing's only value is its economic worth. The notion of intrinsic beauty or worth is completely foreign to them.

There is, furthermore, an additional class element to this controversy. Congress Square Park, for those unfamiliar with it, has long been a frequent hangout for the city's poor, homeless, and destitute. Again, when business owners call the park a "blight" this is bourgeoisie code for the fact that it attracts Portland's "less desirable" residents. And just as the City Council, last month, banned desperate panhandlers from standing in busy median strips, it is now looking to remove them from Congress Square as well.

Let's just call this what it is: a war on the poor.

Many of those that congregate in the park suffer from mental disabilities. Others are alcoholics or drug addicts. Most of them are simply looking for a place to rest for a while. They lack the family or social support systems the rest of us take for granted. These are the people society has turned its back on. Since these individuals have no money to spend, as far as the business elite are concerned, they are worthless.

"There is always more misery among the lower classes," Victor Hugo observes in Les Miserables, "than there is humanity in the higher." Given the recent resurgence in popularity of Hugo's classic novel-turned-musical, it is unfortunate audiences still have not grasped his central message concerning poverty and class-warfare.

Even members of Portland's arts community, like blues-guitar virtuoso, Samuel James, support the Congress Square auction. "I'm sick of being called nigger every time I walk by there," James, who is black, told me during a recent conversation.

The fact that James confronts such deplorable racism on a daily basis is, to be certain, a travesty--one that belies the constant assertion that we now inhabit a "post-racial" America. As a white person, I cannot, truthfully, ever fully understand the emotional impact of racism.

That being said, I find James' gross oversimplification of this issue into cheap identity politics disappointing. The poor and disenfranchised, most of whom do not have the benefit of a proper education and upbringing often speak in the baser, crude language of hate and prejudice because they do not know any better. Seeking any sliver of solace from their own miserable plight, the disenfranchised will lash out at anyone else they perceive to be "The Other." That is not to excuse the use of the "N-word" by anybody. But a compassionate understanding of class-struggle acknowledges this fact.

Then again, maybe the critically lauded songwriter figures the events center will give him another musical venue to book shows in. His reaction is, if anything, further evidence of how the withdrawal into identity politics has destroyed the Left.

We do not need Rockbridge's events center. What we do need, though, is more public space free and open to residents. This is about more than one park. It is about the very idea of who owns Portland--the taxpaying citizens, out-of-state corporations or the moneyed elite that run our local government.

Even if Congress Square's fate is already sealed, the fight to maintain and protect public space is far from over.

Business owners and Samuel James can send hate mail to Citizens who care about public space should send me to the Portland City Council this November. And if you just enjoyed this article and think it was worth the 1100-some-odd words it takes up, feel free to make a donation via the button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Justice for Whom...?

The limits of "Boutique Activism."

The recent efforts of the group Justice for Mary raise legitimate questions about the nature of activism and civic engagement.

Justice for Mary seeks to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of 18-year-old Kennebunk resident, Mary Tanner in July of 1978. The teenager went missing one weekend and was never seen alive again. Local police discovered Tanner's beaten body in Lyman. An autopsy revealed she was three-months pregnant. The killer has never been found, though many of Tanner's relatives believe the individual may still be living in the area.

The story is undoubtedly tragic and one certainly must admire the way the community has rallied in support of Mary's memory. Having grown up in Kennebunk, I cannot recall a similar outpouring of support. (I did not know Mary. Her murder took place three years before I was born.)

What I do know, given the small size of my hometown, is those spearheading the Justice for Mary campaign are not at all what I would call political activists. I have no doubt they faithfully show up to vote once every two years or so. But if they are involved in additional forms of civic engagement, I am unaware of it.

Which leads to my question: Why will otherwise non-politically motivated people rally behind an admittedly noble cause like Tanner's, but not that of say, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Trayvon Martin? Yes, I realize none of these individuals live in Maine. Yes, I understand those supporting Justice for Mary have likely never met any of them. Let's momentarily put all questions of local proximity and personal intimacy aside and just focus on the broad, general concept of "justice."

Why justice for Mary Tanner but not for any of these individuals? It is a valid question and one that, again, is in no way meant to discredit or dishonor the memory of Tanner.

Here is one possible explanation:

Justice for Mary, like other popular social activist campaigns like Komen for the Cure, The Dempsey Challenge and Mary's Walk (named for a different Mary), represent the corporate co-option of traditional activism. They are what Chris Hedges calls "boutique activism."

These events and causes, while well intentioned, do not threaten systems of power or authority in any manner. They do not lead to violent police raids, as Occupy Wall Street and its various sub-groups did. Participants are in no danger of being arrested. And they ultimately require no personal risk or sacrifice on the part of supporters.

Indeed, many of these campaigns are funded by some of the wealthiest Fortune 500 corporations. Komen for the Cure, for instance, lists as its sponsors General Electric, Dell, and Bank of America. The major sponsor of the more local Dempsey Challenge is the Amgen insurance corporation.

Liberal, upper-middle class socialites can pat themselves on the back for supporting these causes without ever threatening the slightest bit of societal change. Incidentally, Tanner's immature joke about stealing cigarettes so she could pre-smoke them for the homeless, as recounted by her brother during her recent memorial gathering, suggests she was brought up in just such an affluent, morally indifferent household. Again, having grown up in Kennebunk, I can attest such classist attitudes are all too common among residents.

Participants will often claim breast cancer or Disease X is a "horrible illness that needs to be cured." This is undoubtedly true. Yet the same could be said of war. Where were these people back in 2003 when the U.S. was gearing up to invade Iraq? Why were they not invested in "saving lives" then?

What's that you say? "Justice for Mary is not intended to be a political group"? I would argue the murder (and possible rape) of a young woman in a traditionally patriarchal society is a highly political issue. Then, of course, there is the issue of the media's longstanding obsession with missing, young, attractive, white women...

What, for instance, are Justice for Mary's supporters intending to do to prevent further acts of violence against women in the community or nationally? As far as I can tell, nothing. Their singular focus is on securing judicial justice for Tanner's death. Assuming the killer is someday found and imprisoned, the group's work will apparently end there.

I reached out to Tanner's brother, Charles Tanner, a resident of Portland who has spearheaded the efforts to solve his sister's murder. I posed these very questions to him. He responded by merely referring me to the group's Facebook page.

What is most frustrating about organizations like Justice for Mary is their missed opportunity. Groups such as this could potentially serve as an introduction to social/political activism for otherwise apolitical citizens. But their narrow, myopic focus often prevents participants from branching out into broader issues.

I do hope Mary Tanner's case is eventually solved. I hope the murderer(s) is brought to justice. But I also hope Tanner's legacy does not end there. I hope supporters of her cause will, perhaps feeling awakened and fulfilled from their burgeoning civic lives, continue to fight for justice for others beyond Kennebunk's town boarders.

Unfortunately, given the largely self-imposed limits of boutique activism, I fear this particular cause will remain something of an aberration in supporters' otherwise apolitical lives.

Runners at a 2012 Pink Ribbon marathon.