Sunday, October 30, 2011

When All Hands Are Unclean

The Occupy Together movement made it pretty clear from mid-September that it assigned equal blame to Republicans and Democrats for placing their parties at the beck and call of corporate lobbyists. This baseline position made the efforts by Republicans to claim the Occupy movement was started by ACORN or unions look sort of silly (yeah, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, I'm talkin' to you). What has been fairly predictable since the post-Sept. 11 period, however, is the degree to which Democrats have compromised themselves by making tactical deals with the national security state. We could see this at the local level when cities played host to party conventions or IMF/World Bank meetings. It was often Democratic members of city councils who argued the most vociferously for rules to bar protests or ban the wearing of bandanas within city limits.

The chickens certainly came home to roost at the end of October, as Denver, Atlanta, Nashville, and Portland vied for the title of the city that could look the most like Oakland. And in many cases, the city, county, and state leaders left with the most egg on their faces were liberal Democrats, often members of minority groups. Oakland in particular was graced with the trifecta of Mayor Jean Quan, City Administrator Deanna Santana, and Vice Mayor Ignacio de la Torre, sharing the blame for the out-of-control riot police. It is likely that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock will look equally pathetic after blame is parceled out for the Oct. 29 melee that put two in the hospital and 20 behind bars. What is equally ironic is that it is often conservative judges, as in the case with Nashville, who keep freeing protesters after police arrest them multiple times, saying the city and county do not have the authority to make such sweeping ordinances preventing free assembly.

Outsiders may say the Occupy movement has gotten out of hand, demanding the kind of crackdown we are seeing nationwide. Are there instances of provocateurs and overly boisterous protesters pushing the lines of police netting? Absolutely. Do some war veterans with PTSD and a few gun owners ignore the Occupy insistence on Gandhian principles of nonviolence? From time to time. But have there been any cases where protesters have attacked police? Don't be ridiculous, particularly when said police are in full body armor.

The militarization of first responders has taken place in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have thrown out money for Joint Terrorism Task Forces, intelligence fusion centers, and tactical SWAT teams in any cities over half a million in population. And the two major parties have been right there taking the money and largesse from such militarization. When New York police from all boroughs staged a near-riot Oct. 28 to prevent Bronx cops from being indicted on ticket-fixing charges, the police attacked the media and representatives from Commissioner Ray Kelly's office. Kelly and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg should take this as a warning that the New York Police may no longer be a controllable mob as they confront Occupy Wall Street. Let this be a broader warning for the nation. We may be seeing rogue cops emerge as uncontrollable forces in many cities in the next few months, and some Democrats may regret making such deals with the devil that the Republicans are all too happy to serve. By then, of course, it will be too late to say you are sorry.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Truly Unthink(able)

It's certainly not surprising that many political organizations (I'm looking at some Democratic Party-affiliated groups here), and many corporations, want to cash in on the new activism in any way possible, in order to sell stuff. This is at least as old as citizen-activism itself, and picked up speed significantly in the late 1960s, when Madison Avenue wanted to make advertising bucks off the "youth revolution." In fact, the second-ever issue of National Lampoon in 1970 had an article, 'Crossing the Rubicam,' ("Up against the wall-to-wall carpeting, Max Factor!") about how the revolution would be sold back to you so that you could be branded. Damn, that piece predated the arrival of Adbusters magazine by almost 20 years!

It's hard to get mad at all the new corporate-sponsored efforts to "stick it to the man," and some scarcely seem worth mentioning, though the irony and paradoxes associated with protesters at Occupy Together often seem overwhelming, and become a constant source of satire for Fox News and others. It might be unfair of me to place the launch of social-networking site in this category, because it never claimed to be an aggregator of nonprofit and activist networks - it only claimed to be a killer of Facebook by respecting privacy. But because it moved into beta during the height of Occupy actions, many commentators have claimed that it's the social network to help bring about the revolution - or at least smack down Facebook and Google+ in one fell swoop.

If it mildly failed at that task, it would not be worth a blog item here. But there is something more insidious going on at Unthink, something I think Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn and cultural critic Thomas Frank will have fun dissecting. The site creates protected zones similar to Google+, and in that sense is an interesting spin from the latter. But it also collects information about the type of activist a person wants to be, and attempts to correlate that with how innovative a user might be in trying new technology. And it brings in the concept of brand loyalty and brand equity, which suggests that Unthink would like to get multiple big-business sponsors, and create databases of how a person might see him/herself as green, culturally liberal, economically collectivist, etc.

At this point, a civil libertarian might sit up and say, "What? Perfect consumer marketing databases? This sounds like something both large corporations and the CIA/NSA might want to invest in, even more so than Facebook or Twitter!" Maybe so, but I'm not trying to make a paranoid reach here. Instead, my complaint is about assumptions that are more subtle and pervasive.

Remember, Occupy Wall Street grew out of Adbusters, and the magazine has a larger critique than economic or political specifics. It makes the cultural observation that the individual has been wooed over from the former role of citizen, to the role of corporate consumer, defined through buying and selling in the market, first and foremost. It's a point Thomas Frank has made eloquently in the books What's the Matter with Kansas?, The Conquest of Cool, and One Market Under God. Lasn and Frank have been quick to point out that Occupy protesters might be a wee bit hypocritical when they purchase supplies at Wal-Mart, hold a sign along with a Starbucks frappuccino, and carry their Androids or iPhones with them everywhere.

Now none of us can be purists, though some try harder than others to divorce themselves from branding, eating locally, bartering or buying green, etc. I'm not arguing for ascetical purism. But I'm suggesting that when a new social networking site claims to be the anti-Facebook and to divorce itself from corporate malfeasance, and then collects information on how the subscriber wants to use high-tech toys and adhere to brand equity, they are performing the worst type of sins that the Occupy Together movement is trying to address. I don't think that Unthink is a conscious trojan horse for Apple, Nike, Samsung, and the federal government. Instead, it's worse in some ways through its own unawareness that there is a problem here. Its founders fail to realize that the key to 21st-century activism is enacting the divorce from corporate branding, and to a certain extent, that includes distancing yourself from high-tech gadget fetishism. The Unthink profile reinforces the image of the Occupy Wall Street protester with the iPhone 4S and Starbucks coffee, and yes, there is something wrong with that picture.