To anyone who watched the G20 circus, the headline isn’t much of a hyperbolic stretch. Here was a country, which spent nearly $1 billion on security measures — greater than any summit’s security budget in the history of the world — and yet footage of burning police cars and shattered store windows played on loop throughout the week on Canadian television.
Where were the cops? How were a handful of fringe protesters able to create this — admittedly limited — havoc?
Naomi Klein proposes an interesting explanation. The state and cops had received widespread criticism for the tremendous amount of cash being dumped into security for this single event (78 percent of Canadians believed that the cost was unjustified,) and when some anarchists lit up their police car, they may have decided to take a long lunch break just to teach everyone a lesson.
Huh. Here I was, thinking the only way to stop nations from unloading their cargo is to murder nine people, wound dozens, and imprison hundreds more. Turns out, you can do it in a totally peaceful manner.
Hundreds of peace activists prevented the unloading of an Israeli ship at the Port of Oakland Sunday by forming a picket line.
Organizers said their goal was to delay the ship”s unloading for 24 hours in protest of the Israeli military”s May 31 open-seas raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla that had been bringing goods to Gaza. The raid ended in the death of nine Turkish citizens.
Note from Allison: Congratulations to all the protesters that made this happen! You should all be very proud of yourselves.
Today, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent the following letter to the Acting Architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers,asking that the Capitol Power Plant (CPP) use 100 percent natural gas for its operations. They write, “the switch to natural gas will allow the CPP to dramatically reduce carbon and criteria pollutant emissions, eliminating more than 95 percent of sulfur oxides and at least 50 percent of carbon monoxide… We strongly encourage you to move forward aggressively with us on a comprehensive set of policies for the entire Capitol complex and the entire Legislative Branch to quickly reduce emissions and petroleum consumption through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean alternative fuels.”
UPDATE: Bill McKibben, who helped organize the impending civil disobedience at the CPP emails me “just to say, this civil disobedience stuff kind of works. How many coal plants are there?”
Here is the letter:
February 26, 2009
Mr. Stephen T. Ayers
Acting Architect of the Capitol
SB-15 U.S. Capitol
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Mr. Ayers:
We want to commend your office for working to implement the Green the Capitol Initiative by increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is a shadow that hangs over the success of your and our efforts to improve the environmental performance of the Capitol and the entire Legislative Branch. The Capitol Power Plant (CPP) continues to be the number one source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the District of Columbia and the focal point for criticism from local community and national environmental and public health groups.
Since 1910, as you know, the CPP has continuously provided the Capitol, House and Senate office buildings, and other facilities with steam and chilled water for heating and cooling purposes. The plant remains an important component of the facilities master plan and the future of the Capitol complex, and we know your office has taken steps to make the plant cleaner and more efficient. While your progress has been noteworthy, more must be done to dramatically reduce plant emissions and the CPP’s impact. Since there are not projected to be any economical or feasible technologies to reduce coal-burning emissions soon, there are several steps you should take in the short term to reduce the amount of coal burned at the plant while preparing for a conversion to cleaner burning natural gas.
We encourage you to take advantage of current excess capacity to burn cleaner fuels and reduce pollution. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO) and an independent analysis from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the boilers at the CPP are now running with more capacity than has been historically demanded or anticipated. Even with the new Capitol Visitor Center in operation, these analyses show there is sufficient capacity to further increase the burning of natural gas and still meet energy demands at peak hours.
We are also interested in identifying and supporting funding to retrofit CPP if necessary so that it can operate on 100 percent natural gas. Unfortunately, our staff has received conflicting information and cost estimates on what would actually be required to operate the CPP year-round with exclusively natural gas. If a retrofit of two remaining boilers is indeed required, then we encourage you to develop realistic budget numbers to accomplish the retrofit expeditiously including any costs for the purchase of additional quantities of natural gas. In your budget analysis, it is important to take into account that time is of the essence for converting the fuel of the CPP. Therefore it is our desire that your approach focus on retrofitting at least one of the coal boilers as early as this summer, and the remaining boiler by the end of the year.
While the costs associated with purchasing additional natural gas will certainly be higher, the investment will far outweigh its cost. The switch to natural gas will allow the CPP to dramatically reduce carbon and criteria pollutant emissions, eliminating more than 95 percent of sulfur oxides and at least 50 percent of carbon monoxide. The conversion will also reduce the cost of storing and transporting coal as well as the costs associated with cleaning up the fly ash and waste. Eliminating coal from the fuel mixture should also assist the City of Washington, D.C., in meeting and complying with national air quality standards, and demonstrate that Congress can be a good and conscientious neighbor by mitigating health concerns for residents and workers around Capitol Hill.
Taking this major step toward cleaning up the Capitol Power Plant’s emissions would be an important demonstration of Congress’ willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global warming, energy independence and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels. We strongly encourage you to move forward aggressively with us on a comprehensive set of policies for the entire Capitol complex and the entire Legislative Branch to quickly reduce emissions and petroleum consumption through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean alternative fuels.
Thank you for your attention to this critical matter.
Speaker of the House
Senate Majority Leader
Some of the most prominent names in progressive politics launched a major new organization on Thursday dedicated to pinpointing and aiding primary challenges against incumbent Democrats who are viewed as acting against their constituents’ interests.
Accountability Now PAC will officially be based in Washington D.C., though its influence is designed to be felt in congressional districts across the country. The group will adopt an aggressive approach to pushing the Democratic Party in a progressive direction; it will actively target, raise funds, poll and campaign for primary challengers to members who are either ethically or politically out-of-touch with their voters. The goal, officials with the organization say, is to start with 25 potential races and dwindle it down to eight or 10; ultimately spending hundreds of thousands on elections that usually wouldn’t be touched.
“Most of the time, regardless of your record in Washington, an incumbent does not have to worry about being challenged in a primary,” explained Jeff Hauser, an online Democratic operative who will serve as the group’s executive director. “This only increases the power of the Washington echo chamber and the influence of lobbyists. We are trying to change that… We think there are potentially talented challengers out there who think the process of mounting a primary challenge is simply too daunting. When you bring to bear the resources of national organizations and the influence of the netroots, you can help these potential candidates.”
It is a concept bound — indeed, designed — to ruffle the feathers of powerful figures in Washington, in part because the names behind it are now institutions themselves. With $500,000 currently in the bank, Accountability Now will be aided, in varying forms, by groups such as MoveOn, SEIU, Color of Change, Democracy for America, 21st Century Democrats and BlogPAC. FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher and Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald will serve in advisory roles, while Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos will conduct polling, with analytical help from 538.com’s Nate Silver.
“This will be very much interactive and localized,” said Hamsher. “We are already going out to local state blogs to help us identify well-qualified candidates in their communities. Once those people are identified we will be able to bring the strength of our resources to help them mount primary challenges.”
In a conversation with the Huffington Post, Hauser, Hamsher and Greenwald said that the process by which targeted incumbents were chosen would not constitute an ideological litmus test. The goal, they noted, was simply to follow the numbers: figure out which Members were casting votes that were out of tune, philosophically speaking, with their constituent’s public opinion readings. And then bear the most basic form of political pressure: encourage a primary challenger to run and help him or her campaign. Fundraising will be done by galvanizing online support for specific races — a practice now natural to Accountability Now’s principals.
The overarching premise would be to break down the power of incumbency. But the side effects would be equally lucrative: putting members on notice that their votes have consequences and offering a support structure to aspiring progressives.
“We want to normalize the idea that Democratic incumbents can be challenged…and to the extent that we can legitimize that you can then open up the conversation, causing even the good incumbents in Washington to endorse primary challengers as a means to make the political class more responsive,” said Greenwald. “We want to destroy the taboo against challenging politicians from within their own party.”
And yet, not everyone is bound to be on board, least of all official Washington. Protecting incumbency is, as Accountability Now’s founders are acutely aware, one of D.C.’s foremost operating principles (in 2008, only 23 incumbents lost their House races and only four of those losses came in the primary). And there is a reason for it. Political power comes in the form of numbers and unity. As such, keeping the majority intact often takes precedent over ideological purity. Rep. Donna Edwards’ victory over ethically challenged Al Wynn in 2008 — a template for what Accountability Now seeks to do in 2010 — was one of the few cases that went against the grain.
But in private, some Democrats expressed worry about pushing for progressive change from the outside rather than from within. Would running an election opponent be the best measure of political persuasion? What if, hypothetically, a primary challenger won the nomination only to lose in the general?
These are concerns that Accountability Now does not take lightly. They insist that they will “take district realities into account,” which means that Democrats who represent moderate districts will be forgiven for their moderate votes. But beyond that, they argue, it is the candidate’s responsibility, not theirs, to ensure reelection.
“No incumbent worth their salt should lose in a primary — their advantages are considerable, and so to be vulnerable indicates a considerable focus on K Street, not Main Street,” said Hauser. “A primary is the height of democracy, a two-year job performance review — what is wrong with having to listen to constituents as well as D.C. lobbyists and groupthink.”
I just received this e-mail from Eileen Clancy, an activist and member of the watchdog group, I-Witness.
We have begun the process of filing suit regarding our treatment at the hands of law enforcement in St. Paul during the RNC. A press release is attached.
Six months after the RNC, the government has charged only 15 percent of the 800 people the police arrested in that period. On Friday, the St. Paul City Attorney announced that he would not prosecute 323 people arrested in a single round-up on the final night of the convention.
Since most potential RNC litigants are approaching the 180-day statutory deadline for giving notice to municipalities in Minnesota, we should have a better sense of the scope of the civil lawsuits contemplated in relation to the RNC fairly soon.
Eileen and I-Witness were routinely harassed at the Republican National Convention (RNC.) By the way, this is the same RNC during which Amy Goodman was violently arrested. During the RNC (and after some initial harassment from local police, including the suspicious mass arrest and release of I-Witness,) I received an urgent email from Clancy.
The police were surrounding her office…again.
Police have arrived at our office in St. Paul. They say that they have
received reports of hostages barricaded in the building. We are behind a
locked door. Lawyers are outside dealing with them.
That was the second encounter I-Witness had with police at the RNC. The first encounter occurred on August 30 when seven members were preemptively detained at the house where the group was staying. The police were basically harassing the protest group, who are peaceful, and whose only intent was to videotape the protests.
Such was the general chaos of the RNC. I was routinely e-mailed by journalists, who were fairly certain of their impending arrest.
I had my own run-in with St. Paul’s police state when I was trying to gather information about Amy Goodman’s arrest for Huffington Post.
Something called the Joint Information Center was set up to monitor all of the hubub that occurs when — ya’ know — a city jails hundreds of activists exercising their right to freedom of speech and protest. My name and press credentials were taken down a few times by various ominous, anonymous foot soldiers.
These are the notes I took during the investigation. I was making inquiries as to the whereabout of Amy Goodman, and the two Democracy Now producers (Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar) with whom she was arrested.
11:00PM EST: The Ramsey County Jail redirected me to something called the “Joint Information Center.” Under a little pressure, the operator finally revealed his name (Sgt. William Palmer,) though he asked for my name (had me spell it twice) and asked for my phone number in exchange. Friendly stuff.
Palmer informed me that Kouddous and Salazar will be held in jail overnight until they are taken to court tomorrow. No one knows what they are being charged with, but Palmer attributes their arrest to “suspicious behavior.”
Kouddous and Salazar are still being held without any formal charges.
11:22PM: Apparently, one of the job qualifications for working at the JIC (Joint Information Center) is that you must have the scariest voice in the world. I spoke with a Coast Guard named Chief Bauman, who again took down my information: name, phone number, website I write for, etc. He had me spell my name twice and repeat my phone number three times.
The JIC seems to exist less to help media representatives and more to intimidate the hell out of them. For instance, I wondered aloud why I couldn’t directly speak to a media representative and first had to pass through Bauman’s filter. Bauman explained he was a conduit between reporter and information.
I then asked Bauman why the JIC was staffed with police officers and Coast Guards seemingly naive to the ways of media. He informed me that he was working at the JIC for “security purposes.” I laughed and said, “Yeah, I see there’s a lot of security at the RNC.” He didn’t laugh.
Bauman said he didn’t know what court Kouddous and Salazar are being taken to in the morning. He said he would get back to me.
This is the state of modern protest. You can protest, but only if you have a permit, you stand back 500 feet from the target of your dispute, you stay behind the barbed wires, and only use a bullhorn if you have another permit. It’s neutered dissent. And even if you obey all their little rules, you get bullied and harassed like Eileen Clancy and Amy Goodman.
And Clancy and Goodman weren’t even protesting. One is a representative of a watchdog group, and the other is a highly respected journalist. Imagine what they do to the poor kids and students, who are usually doing nothing more than operating inside the guidelines of the law, when the cops pick them up off the street.
If the dull tool of bureaucracy hasn’t chipped away enough from America’s monument to civil disobedience, the watchful Sauron-esque eye of the government is threatening to blast it into smithereens. As I wrote over at Huffpost, last year’s DNC and RNC were both laboratories for the newest, most high-tech toys for the intelligence community. Denver dropped $50 million on the police state project.
In an interview with Democracy Now, Erin Rosa, a reporter for the Colorado Independent, explained that Denver seemed to be seriously bracing for a stand-off between the police and protesters [during the DNC], to the point where the Colorado Army National Guard constructed a makeshift barracks in the far east region of the city:
They’re not saying what the purpose is for nearly 400 people to be stationed in this private university. They’re actually going to be stationed at Johnson & Wales University in the eastern region of the city, you know, more than 400 troops in that one area. They rented more than 500 rooms across the city. And they’re not saying what the purpose will be for, but they have confirmed that it will be all Colorado National Guard personnel.
So while Denver would be immersed in a total police state, what sort of behavior could individuals expect from their new intelligence and censorship overlords? In the same interview, Mike German, National Security Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, warned protesters that new guidelines for what constitutes suspicious terrorist-like activity may include some pretty basic elements of protesting:
The Los Angeles Police Department issued an order compelling their officers to report criminal and non-criminal suspicious behavior that can be indicative of terrorism, and they listed sixty-five behaviors…One of the precursor behaviors to terrorism that’s identified in the order is taking video. And we put in our report a couple of instances where people taking video were stopped by police officers simply for taking pictures or video. And in some cases, particularly where they’re taking photographs or video of police, it actually resulted in arrests.
I argued this would put quite a damper on many grassroots responses to this kind of intelligence/police state bullying, particularly I-Witness, a group created to protect citizens from the attacks of overzealous police authorities. Clancy, the founder of I-Witness Video, explained that it’s important to keep a video log of every protest (complete with date and time displayed clearly on the camera) should the footage be needed as evidence in later court hearings.
Clancy also explained that the Deputy Chief of Operations in Denver testified before the House subcommittee that they see the DNC fusion center as an opportunity to make permanent a “super fusion center.” Clancy said the Denver crew is going to take their government allocated $50 million and “play with their new toys,” and they are going to build a permanent and more powerful surveillance apparatus for Colorado.
At the time, Clancy offered these words of wisdom to future generations of activists:
“The federal government is trying to criminalize video because it has tremendous power to expose bad acts by the police and federal agents. The best way for people to document police misconduct is to band together in video activist groups such as I-Witness Video, work in pairs or affinity groups, protect their footage by making back-up copies, publish their work in the media or on the Internet, and vigorously challenge any arrests, detentions and police orders to erase photos or videotapes. The First Amendment offers tremendous protection to people videotaping the police at work, but we must fight to maintain our right to shoot.”
Now it’s time to see if Eileen Clancy and the members of I-Witness will receive some delayed justice, and if the police and government officials in St. Paul will acknowledge any wrong-doing.
Please remind Mr. Coleman and Mr. Pawlenty that the behavior of law officials was (at best) overzealous, and at worst, totally fascist and unnecessary:
Contact Mayor Chris Coleman at: 651-266-8510 or e-mail him.
Governor Tim Pawlenty can be reached at: (651) 296-3391 or e-mailed at email@example.com.
I-Witness press release: First Step in RNC Lawsuits Taken.
Here in New York, several dozen student activists have barricaded themselves inside a cafeteria at New York University. The group Take Back NYU has submitted several demands, including the establishment of a socially responsible committee, a full disclosure of the school’s annual budget and support for Palestinian students in the Gaza Strip.
Student: “The first two orders of the socially responsible finance committee will be an in-depth investigation of all investments in war and genocide profiteers, as well as companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine.”
Update from Nov5:
We are off to a great start. In the 5 days since we launched November5.org, nearly 10,000 of you have signed up for this effort!
Getting our country back on track by using the leverage we can exert over Congress is an approach that naturally fits with third party and independent voters, as well as many who voted for Democrats and Republicans. Millions of us realize that we must now put our shoulders to the wheel of justice and push harder than ever.
If we all move fast to get our friends and family involved, we could have 1000 active and organized citizens in each Congressional district in 2009. To do this, we need you to encourage people to sign up today by forwarding this link: www.november5.org.
Remember to emphasize to others that what will make November5 different from many other similar efforts is that we will have no allegiance to any political party. We want to create a non-partisan mechanism to get problems solved. Action will result when members of Congress hear loud and clear from their constituents back home. This will not be about raising big money for expensive television ads during the Super Bowl. It will involve using tried and true organizing techniques – and all the local creativity we can muster – to make sure that our Representatives respond to our voices, district by district, person by person.
We want to focus on the victories – big and small – that we can achieve. Too much citizen advocacy involves sending emails or letters to Washington, D.C. We need a return to raising our voices on the ground “back home,” where Congressional elections are decided.
High on our list is a plan to pass privately-delivered, publicly-funded health care. This approach would save hundreds of billions of dollars over the current for-profit system, enough to provide coverage for every American. After all, how can you be civically active if you are worried about your health care? Many organizations do great work on this issue (see Physicians for a National Health Program), but there is a need for much more citizen muscle behind it. That’s where we’ll come in.
Other issues we are looking at include: new regulation of Wall Street, a $10 living wage, the elimination of unnecessary weapons systems that cost tens of billions, a strong drive for investment in solar, wind, and conservation – against coal and nuclear – and a federal law requiring paper ballots and establishing uniform rules for ballot access for all candidates.
Soon, we will email you with more details on how this website will enable you to organize in your district, and on how we will keep building November5 in the coming weeks.
Now, though, it all comes down to getting all of the people who agree with the basic approach of shifting our focus to Congress in 2009 signed up for November5. This is the critical building phase and we all have to do everything we can to get the word out.
Onward for Justice,
The November5 Team
Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.
They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy – but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.
Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree – domestically – as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government – the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens’ ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors – we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don’t learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of “homeland” security – remember who else was keen on the word “homeland” – didn’t raise the alarm bells it might have.
It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable – as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.
Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.
1 Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a “war footing”; we were in a “global war” against a “global caliphate” intending to “wipe out civilisation”. There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda has noted, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without national boundaries in space – the globe itself is the battlefield. “This time,” Fein says, “there will be no defined end.”
Creating a terrifying threat – hydra-like, secretive, evil – is an old trick. It can, like Hitler’s invocation of a communist threat to the nation’s security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist evocation of the “global conspiracy of world Jewry”, on myth.
It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain – which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks – than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.
2 Create a gulag
Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal “outer space”) – where torture takes place.
At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, “enemies of the people” or “criminals”. Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders – opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists – are arrested and sent there as well.
This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.
With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA “black site” prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.
Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can’t investigate adequately.
But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don’t generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: “First they came for the Jews.” Most Americans don’t understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.
By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People’s Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.
3 Develop a thug caste
When leaders who seek what I call a “fascist shift” want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.
The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America’s security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution
Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode – but the administration’s endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.
Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for “public order” on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would not rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling station “to restore public order”.
4 Set up an internal surveillance system
In Mussolini’s Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China – in every closed society – secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being watched.
In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens’ phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.
In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about “national security”; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.
5 Harass citizens’ groups
The fifth thing you do is related to step four – you infiltrate and harass citizens’ groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.
Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 “suspicious incidents”. The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track “potential terrorist threats” as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests as “terrorism”. So the definition of “terrorist” slowly expands to include the opposition.
6 Engage in arbitrary detention and release
This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society there is a “list” of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.
In 2004, America’s Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela’s government – after Venezuela’s president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.
Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, “because I was on the Terrorist Watch list”.
“Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that,” asked the airline employee.
“I explained,” said Murphy, “that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution.”
“That’ll do it,” the man said.
Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that the categories of “enemy of the people” tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.
James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several times. He is still of interest.
Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the list.
It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, you can’t get off.
7 Target key individuals
Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don’t toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile’s Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.
Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not “coordinate”, in Goebbels’ term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically “coordinate” early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.
Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.
Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that “waterboarding is torture” was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job.
Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933, attorneys were “coordinated” too, a step that eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.
8 Control the press
Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s – all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed already.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he threatened “critical infrastructure” when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical of the Bush administration.
Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy – a form of retaliation that ended her career.
Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC’s Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN’s Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.
Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers.
You won’t have a shutdown of news in modern America – it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it’s not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can’t tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.
9 Dissent equals treason
Cast dissent as “treason” and criticism as “espionage’. Every closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the definition of “spy” and “traitor”. When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times’ leaking of classified information “disgraceful”, while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the “treason” drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.
Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail for up to five months, and “beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured and threatened with death”, according to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America for a decade.
In Stalin’s Soviet Union, dissidents were “enemies of the people”. National Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy “November traitors”.
And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since September of last year – when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 – the president has the power to call any US citizen an “enemy combatant”. He has the power to define what “enemy combatant” means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the right to define “enemy combatant” any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.
Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin’s gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo’s, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation cells.)
We US citizens will get a trial eventually – for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. “Enemy combatant” is a status offence – it is not even something you have to have done. “We have absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model – you look like you could do something bad, you might do something bad, so we’re going to hold you,” says a spokeswoman of the CCR.
Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain point there are some high-profile arrests – usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just isn’t real dissent. There just isn’t freedom. If you look at history, just before those arrests is where we are now.
10 Suspend the rule of law
The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency – which the president now has enhanced powers to declare – he can send Michigan’s militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state’s governor and its citizens.
Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears’s meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole’s baby, the New York Times editorialised about this shift: “A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night … Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any ‘other condition’.”
Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act – which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch’s soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias’ power over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.
Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini’s march on Rome or Hitler’s roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.
Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.
It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere – while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: “dogs go on with their doggy life … How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster.”
As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are “at war” in a “long war” – a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president – without US citizens realising it yet – the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.
That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions – and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the “what ifs”.
What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack – say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani – because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.
Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us – staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody’s help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who are willing to put pressure on the administration because they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.
We need to look at history and face the “what ifs”. For if we keep going down this road, the “end of America” could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before – and this is the way it is now.
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … is the definition of tyranny,” wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.
From “The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot,” Chelsea Green Publishing, Sept 2007
With the Democratic Convention and then John McCain’s vice presidential pick announced this week, I didn’t pay much attention to other news. So, this last Sunday as I sipped French Vanilla coffee and watched This Week with George Stephanopolous, my heart broke when they reported that Del Martin had died.
Del was 87 and had certainly lived a full life as one of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders. Just three short months ago, she and her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, become the first same-sex couple married in California….again. The pair had wed once before, but their marriage was annulled by a bunch of judges, most of whom have failed in sustaining a relationship a quarter of the time Phyllis and Del have.
I don’t really recall how these two women first came on my radar. In between their work as founders of the nation’s first gay and lesbian magazine, The Ladder, and organizing multiple civil rights groups, they are really hard to miss.
I’ve always held an admiration for trail blazers, for those who go against the grain even at the risk of persecution. While I believe Phyllis and Del have been heroes of the highest proportion for consistently putting the good of the whole before themselves time and time again, my true regard comes from their dedication to each other.
In each book and article I read about the two of them, in each show or documentary telling their love story, they had the same statement: that from the time they first met each other in Seattle in 1953, they both knew the other would always be their partner. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just like you don’t make a conscious decision for your left arm to be your left arm. They were part of each other in a way that couldn’t be severed.
So, since I embarked upon my own adventures in marriage nearly five years ago, I have channeled the commitment of Phyllis and Del on many occasions. To me, it’s not an issue of sexuality. There are heterosexual couples like us that I could seek advice from and there have been many times that I have. But, with Phyllis and Del, they’ve never seen their love as a choice. It just was. And, that’s what I want for my own marriage.
In one of the documentaries I watched on the two ladies, they both acknowledged that the other had, on many occasions, frankly pissed the other off. They lived together, they worked together. It would be impossible through 55 years of living so closely to another human being, sharing the same air and the same money, not to get peeved at times. But, the idea of separating, of existing apart, was never even thought of.
Through too many arguments to count, times when I thought I might kill Rowdy if I didn’t get away from him, I’ve drawn on the wisdom of Phyllis and Del. At a time when most marriages have little shot of making it past the first few years, largely because of our wildly unrealistic notions of matrimony, Phyllis and Del have taught us that true romance isn’t glitzy and exciting. Rather, it is dependability, curled up on the couch watching re-runs on a Sunday afternoon dependable, sitting for hours in a hospital room dependable. Any first kiss under the stars is going to take our breath away, or at least many of them will. It’s what comes after that, when you’ve climbed every new and exciting milestone and it’s just the two of you that molds into what Phyllis and Del shared for 55 years.
I’m still new to marriage. As the road of life goes, we’ve just pulled out of the driveway. And, truthfully, I don’t know if we will have the same success as my two marital heroes. Really, who does? But, when the times are hard, and I know some will be, I’ll be thankful that I stumbled upon the story of Phyllis and Del, two of the great lovers of our time. From the openness in the relationship, especially at a time when so many fail, I thank them. And, for Phyllis, who at the age of 83 is living for the first time in 55 years without her spouse, my heart and prayers are with you.
Ever since I met Del 55 years ago, I could never imagine a day would come when she wouldn’t be by my side. I also never imagined there would be a day that we would actually be able to get married. I am devastated, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed. –Phyllis Lyon