Sunday, January 24, 2021

Platforming Fascists

Some apologies, awkwardly paired with some critical analysis.

It has now been two weeks since I posted a certain interview on YouTube.  It has been six days since Twitter exploded in my face -- to which I reacted with the most classic array of adolescent defensiveness I have exhibited online in years -- and five days since I took the video down from my YouTube channel.  Then several days followed, consisting largely of an extremely awkward combination of apologizing for my many mistakes in this process, as I began to learn what at least some of them were; listening to friends and comrades I had either upset by posting the video, or who were upset by my reactions to what people were accusing me of on social media; listening to other friends and comrades upset because I took the video down; and probably wasting my time and energy defending myself against accusations of racism, anti-Semitism, sympathizing with fascists, being duped by fascists, or perhaps even being one myself.

Of course, apologizing for what I did wrong while defending myself against false accusations is an impossible combination, especially on social media, where only the shortest posts that inspire the most controversy are the ones most people might see.  I'm constantly finding that people I know well, of every age, are continually impacted both emotionally and intellectually by these social media algorithms, but I'll leave that topic aside for now.  In any case, I now resort to the forum that many people seem to think is extinct, for reasons I have yet to grasp, my blog, where there are no discussion threads to speak of, where there's a beginning, middle and an end to the articles, and no one is likely to drop in on the most incendiary sentence somewhere in the middle, and see only that one.

For those who are thinking, when is this idiot going to get to his apology, and stop diverting attention to complaints about social media algorithms, take a couple deep breaths and keep reading.  This isn't Twitter, everything is not going to happen in the first paragraph.  I need to tell a story first.  You may have your own ideas about my actions -- whether strongly in support, strongly in opposition, or somewhere in between -- but if I am to draw any conclusions from the past week that make any sense, first I need to tell you a bit about what preceded it, for the present only makes any sense at all when understood in the context of the past.

First of all, briefly going way back, while I completely reject any notions that you have to be from any particular background in order to deeply understand the experiences of someone from a very different background -- and actually I can prove that theory, and regularly do -- it is also the case that my interest, or perhaps obsession, with things like history and politics is partially rooted in my personal efforts to come to terms with and perhaps even grow to understand my own family history in this troubled world.  If I were from a different background, I might have written just as many songs about the Palmer Raids, the Red Scare, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the Second World War, xenophobia, as well as the Irish famine and the immigrant experience, among other subjects.  But trying to understand these things was literally completely tied up with trying to understand the experiences of my grandparents.  My grandfather Alvin was born in 1899.  The twentieth century is entirely a matter of oral history, for me.  They're all dead now, but actual people I was good friends with did things like fight against Franco's army in the Spanish Civil War.  My nanny in New York City got out of Germany in one of the last kindertransports in 1939, and lived through the Blitz in London.

More recently, in my adult life, many friends and comrades have been killed or maimed in the struggles to make the world a better place, both within the US and around the world.  There are empty seats at many of my concerts -- or there were, prior to the pandemic -- because the people who would have been sitting in them are were killed in Rojava, Palestine, or elsewhere, or may be soon.  And yes, I admit to being proud that a significant little slice of the folks who join the YPG in Syria or the YLF in Seattle get a little solace from my music, assuming my inbox can be believed.  It's why I do what I do, and none of this is abstract to me.

Over many years, but especially over the past few, I've written many songs and essays related to the subject of why fascism has been popular in the past, and why it is popular today in many parts of the world.  I've written a lot about what fascism is what it isn't, because there's a lot of confusion around that, currently and historically.  Politics and history are often over-simplified in convenient ways for the people doing the over-simplifying, and I have been pushing back against this tendency, which is prevalent now in the mainstream press as well as much of the more alternative press, and rife on social media.  Particularly as of earlier this month, I have been told by some that the arguments I have been making around the question of understanding the attraction of fascism or fascist ideas are racist, since they question the preeminence of racism as the main attraction for people who become fascists of one kind or another.

One of my better efforts at trying to have this uncomfortable discussion, according to some, was something I published in Counterpunch on January 4th, An Open Letter to Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys (cc: Antifa).  It is a blatant effort to appeal to those elements of these groups who might have joined for reasons other than the ones usually depicted by NPR and CNN.  It's also a slightly less blatant effort to reach out to certain elements of the street-fighting autonomous movement crowd --  primarily here in the US, but also elsewhere -- that it is all too common in this scene to reject out of hand the idea that there's any point to trying to talk with a member of one of these groups, or that there may be common ground to be found among those elements who are motivated more by complaints about the ruling elite than by that elite's efforts to divide and conquer us by means of racial division or xenophobia.

I'm not at all good at social media, by my own estimation, but I'm active on various platforms, and when I posted an audio version of the open letter on YouTube, I was not surprised that it was on that platform that I started getting responses from members of these groups, of varying kinds, not all entirely negative.  When a good friend and history professor I know asked me about responses to my open letter, and whether I knew anyone who was or had been a member of one of those groups in question, it was then that I thought of the young man who emailed me a year earlier, with a long email about how he had become a fascist as a teenager and done some terrible things, but that he had seen the errors of his ways, to make a long email short.

It was then that I emailed this young man, who I had not been in touch with for months, to see if he had any feedback on my open letter.  He wrote back, eloquently, with an emphatic agreement with what I talked about in my piece.  Which did not come as a surprise to me at all, since the open letter was not based on wild guesswork or anything of the sort.  It was then that I thought it would be very interesting to interview the young man, and to hear from his own mouth what motivated him to become a member of the far right, and what motivated him to leave, and seek other answers to his burning questions, that did not involve racism and nationalism.

I've conducted hundreds of interviews with people, particularly since the pandemic.  They have included people with varying perspectives, but mostly somewhere on the left politically, and those that weren't have apparently not been controversial enough to capture anyone's attention.  Usually my interviews are listened to by not more than a few hundred people, sometimes a few thousand.

I listen to a lot of interviews on BBC, NPR and elsewhere, where interviews are conducted with very offensive people on a regular basis, as well as with very sympathetic people, and either sort of interview can be done well or badly, it seems to me.  But I think my first mistake, in this series of them here, was thinking of myself as a journalist.  I do, but there a lot of people who don't look at me like that, and assume that if I'm interviewing someone -- or for that matter, retweeting something someone tweeted -- that I'm not exploring a position, but advocating for it.  People who read Counterpunch regularly know that my favorite platforms to write for are ones that embrace a diversity of viewpoints, but it's easy to see why many people still would see my interviews as advocacy for a particular position.

So you could say that the first mistake was made before I ever uploaded the interview.  The second mistake was uploading it.

I absolutely should have at least done some research online to verify whether there's any consensus out there in various relevant circles -- very much including among my many friends who are involved with antifascist struggle here and abroad -- as to whether Matthew Heimbach was "ex" or not, as he has eloquently presented himself to me to be.  And whether I was presenting Matthew as an ex-fascist or not, I should have consulted many people I know about many other aspects of the interview, from re-traumatizing victims to the question of providing sufficient context.  Academics I know are currently working on a written version of the interview which will be heavily contextualized, for an academic journal, which seems like a better way to present the material, for various reasons.

I usually broadcast my interviews live on multiple platforms at the same time, using Streamyard.  I didn't do that with this interview for various reasons.  I wasn't sure I'd want to broadcast it, depending on how it went.  Also, I mainly wanted to post it on YouTube, because that's where I get all the death threats from fascists, on many of my antifascist videos.  I have long noticed that this is the main platform I'm on where there are copious numbers of Nazi trolls watching videos they end up on for one reason or another.  My hope was that they would see this one, and that it would give them things to think about, like embracing internationalism and rejecting racism and xenophobia, in the aim of working class unity, in the aim of preventing a fascist future, in the days just after the Capitol siege.

The different sorts of responses I began to get varied a lot, depending on whether they already knew who Heimbach was.  Those who didn't, of whatever political persuasion, wrote abundantly to me that it was one of the most interesting discussions they'd ever heard.  From people who knew who Heimbach was, responses were all over the map, but tended towards the denunciatory, the most common accusations being that I was being insensitive to Heimbach's victims, and that I was platforming a fascist.

Quite possibly, the most offense I caused involved my various tone deaf arguments in defense of keeping the interview up, before I took it down.  I regret all of those comments unequivocally and completely, both their content and their timing.  I hope I didn't lose any friends as a result, but I'm sure I lost fans.

After I began to realize how much offense the existence of the interview was causing, regardless of the content of it, when the criticism began to come from people I actually knew in what we used to call the real world, I took it down.

What began immediately afterwards were people (I assume) on Twitter with larger followings than mine who began to circulate wildly misquoted versions of things that were actually said in the discussion, openly and publicly daring me to put the interview back up, and prove that I did not in fact say that a "majority of capitalists are Jews," which of course I never said.  The person on Twitter who initiated this false rumor mostly posts GIFs of various fascists throughout history being hit by projectiles, but posts also include attacks on people like me.  This misquote was retweeted dozens of times by accounts with large followings, probably seen by hundreds of thousands of people altogether, many of whom indicated through comments on the thread that they believed it on face value.

In the course of a two-hour discussion about why some people become fascists, one of the many sensitive subjects that will tend to arise will include the question of why the number of billionaires in the US of Jewish lineage is clearly disproportionate according to their population, although most Jews are working class, as with every other racialized, ethnic, or religious group in the US.  When an alleged antifascist intentionally confuses words like "disproportionate" with words like "majority" to their large audience, they are aiming to discredit, and they're serving the interests of those who wish to keep us all divided -- whether they are well-meaning but sectarian anarchists, FBI provocateurs, Russian agents, or some combination thereof.

I have serious regrets for going about posting this interview the way I did, and for lashing out against my critics as I initially did.  I'm especially sorry for any pain caused to my friends and comrades in Appalachia, where Heimbach is from, who have had to deal with him and his racist friends in his racist party over the past decade or so.

I've been in relationships where after we broke up and I realized I had some serious stuff to apologize for, my ex assumed my apology meant I was sorry for everything else she ever got mad at me about, too.  But this isn't that sort of apology.  Because as much as I may have missed the mark, what I was trying to do with that interview is have a dialogue.  The kind of dialogue I'm talking about is one that is currently not happening, as far as I can tell -- not in the ways it needs to happen.

What has become ever more clear to me over the past week is that regardless of my role in provoking anger and causing hurt among some people in the antifascist community in particular, the way things are going now isn't working.  When people are protesting with guns, it's not a protest anymore, it's something else.  People are carrying guns on both the left and the right at protests now, as anyone can tell you who has been to one lately, in Portland and elsewhere in the US.  No one seems to even be trying to communicate, and when they do, almost regardless of how they go about it, it seems, they will be vilified.

To the extent that dialogue happens, at least of the sort that manages to reach my attention, it is mostly coming from what I would call a dangerously mainstream perspective.  The reformed members of the far right that we are exposed to on NPR became some kind of Democrats.  They reject QAnon and the Elders of Zion, only to embrace bourgeois democracy.  Otherwise they're irrelevant, and we don't hear about them.

I've learned through a veritable torrent of feedback from people recently, primarily on Twitter, that there are many people out there who represent themselves as antifascists who make it abundantly clear in many ways that they don't believe in communication with the right, or in the concept of winning the hearts and minds of people whose current belief system appears to be so divergent from theirs.

But I would propose that the strategy of just being oppositional, whether during the Trump era or not, was a failed strategy to begin with, as I also argued (in Counterpunch and elsewhere) when he first was elected.  The only way social movements win is by being inclusive, inviting, broad-based, and forward-thinking, with a vision for the equitable future we want to see, that recruits far more than it shuns, that builds far more than it smashes.

We're so far from that point.  I'll keep on making my little efforts to get us there, for the love of humanity.  But I'll try to do it in such a way that doesn't alienate quite so many anarchists next time.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bethel's Family Doctor Has Died

Dr. Edward Volpintesta, family doctor to many in Bethel, Connecticut for almost half a century, has died of complications from Covid-19.

There's a lot else going on in the world right now, but among the forested cul-de-sacs of Bethel, Connecticut, many people are hearing the news, or will be hearing the news soon, that their family doctor has died, of complications from Covid-19.  At 8:56 am Eastern Time, Ed Volpintesta passed away.

Dr. Edward Volpintesta was many things to many people.  If you look him up on Google, you'll find his address right away.  For 45 years, he practiced family medicine on the main drag, Greenwood Avenue.  He fathered three children, all now well into adulthood, all living nearby, with a total of six grandchildren, several of whom are now young adults themselves.

The mother of those three now middle-aged kids, Christina, married my father, Howard, over three decades ago, and Ed married the woman who is now his widow, Nami, a long time ago as well.  In effect, this ultimately just meant a bigger extended family, on both ends of the generational spectrum, for all the grandchildren that soon came along.  Having somehow ended up far from any extended family, out here on the west coast, raising three children in Portland, I often look east towards Bethel with envy, wishing my children could know all of their many grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all growing up together there.

I first met Ed when I was a child.  From then until the present, from my own vantage point as the son of the man who would marry Ed's ex-wife, Ed was always warm, kind, and supportive, always the definition of a gentleman, particularly when many people might expect something different.

For me and many others, he was always the doctor in the family, if ever there was need of one.  Which, for me, as a young itinerant hippie passing through or nominally living in Connecticut or somewhere nearby, meant regularly taking advantage of this relationship to help various girlfriends get refills on essential prescriptions like birth control pills, and to treat the various sorts of maladies that tended to accompany Grateful Dead concerts.

I'm going on memory here, but I'm pretty sure Ed was the first in his family line of poor Italian immigrants to become a doctor.  At the time he wanted to study medicine, there was the opportunity to go to medical school in Mexico more or less for free, in exchange for serving the public in Mexico after you graduate.  Unfortunately, the system for using the doctors who graduated to serve the public was such a bureaucratic mess that they had Ed sitting around most of the time instead of taking care of people, which drove him bonkers, but that's where he studied medicine, anyway, and where he and Christina began raising children together.

Ed started practicing medicine in Bethel in the 1970's, and stopped in 2020.  When he stopped practicing medicine, in February, 2020, he wrote in the local newspaper how he was just fed up with all the electronic record-keeping that was becoming more and more of a burden in the profession.  He participated actively in online forums on this and other subjects related to being a good doctor.  Snooping around on the web, I just learned he had a local cable show, answering questions people wanted to ask a doctor about.  No doubt there's a whole lot more I didn't know about Ed.  I didn't know him well, which is why I can write about him like this, so soon after his death.

Ed was very active until he got sick a couple of weeks ago.  We had, in fact, just become Facebook friends for the first time, only weeks before he went into the hospital.  In retirement, he seemed to be getting a bit more active on social media, which, of course, is where we go to look at pictures of children and grandchildren these days.

Although retired, he was very much the family doctor to the end.  My father had a minor stroke last summer.  Ed was the one who told him that the symptoms he was having sounded like a stroke, and that he should go to the hospital.  Ed arranged for Howard to go straight to where he needed to go, and by all accounts, my dad received the best care among Ed's former colleagues, and he has fully recovered.

When Ed went into the hospital on December 27th, his wife, Nami, assured family members that he was getting "all the same stuff that Trump got."  Which probably wasn't true, but in any case, no doubt he was receiving the best available care there at the hospital he knew well.  Covid led to pneumonia and blood clots, which led to multiple organ failure, and this morning, death.

Due to the pandemic and other factors, I hadn't seen Ed in a couple of years.  Usually, at least once every year or two, I might be part of an extended family dinner of some kind there in Bethel, or I might be doing a concert at a small venue somewhere in town.  Whenever I did concerts in town, even if there were only ten people in attendance, as I recall there being on one occasion, two of the folks in the audience would reliably be Ed and Nami.  They'd show up, donate twice whatever the door charge was, and sit through the whole show, paying enthusiastic attention throughout.

It's easy to recall the last words Ed said to me, whenever it was that I last saw him.  It was at the end of the last concert I did in Bethel, two or three years ago.  He was by then in his seventies, but still as tall as I recall him being when we were both much younger.  He was in a jovial mood, looking physically vibrant, standing his full height, beaming.  He dropped another bill into the donation basket as he and Nami walked out of the room, pausing to smile at me and say, "keep being an anarchist."

Will do, Ed.  Thanks for everything.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Questions In the Wake of the Beer Belly Putsch

After seeing some very strange, amnesiac discussion threads on social media, I have a few words to consign to the screen.

Naturally, social media and the media media are all going nuts since the more or less successful far right siege of the Capitol.  There are a variety of talking points that I've been hearing that I have some thoughts on.

First of all, in one of Trump's various post-siege missives, he assured his followers that the "our incredible journey is only just beginning," meaning his political ambitions, and the future of the far right.  He's getting on in years and evidently not in the greatest health, but if he lives long enough, my guess is he'll start a TV network, a social media network, and a new political party, which will soon eclipse the Republican Party, and become the main competition for the Democrats.  Whoever planted explosives at the headquarters of both the RNC and the DNC during the event clearly agrees with Trump's coming rejection of the two major parties.

The most relevant historical anecdote in terms of what just happened in DC could be the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923.  Ten years before Hitler came to power, he and two thousand other fascists tried to seize the reigns of state in Munich, but the police fought them back, and their effort failed, with 16 dead.  It was the main event early in Hitler's career that propelled him to far more widespread recognition, and eventually, to become dictator.  Obviously, Trump is already in power, sort of, so it's a very imperfect historical reflection, but still very relevant.  

This was an event that Trump or his descendants will be able to use to their benefit.  There weren't many martyrs, but there will presumably be trials and prison sentences, as there were after the 1923 putsch in Munich, and these will be used to great propaganda advantage.  Two different folks I know independently came up with the term Beer Belly Putsch for this one.

On a separate historical note, loads of politicians keep making bizarre comparisons to the torching of the Congress by British forces in the War of 1812, such as Senator Cory Booker.  Senator Booker had lofty words about how the last time the Congress was attacked by people with guns, it was the British Navy, unlike this attack, which we brought upon ourselves.  But actually, we brought the other one upon ourselves as well.

As with every other war the US has ever been in, with the partial exception of the European theater of World War 2, the War of 1812 was started by the US.  The British colony of Canada was harboring escaped African slaves, and the US government, dominated as it was by slave-owners, didn't like that at all.  And so the US sent in their military forces, such as they were back then, to burn down the Canadian city of York (now Toronto).  Government buildings as well as residential homes were burned to the ground by the marauders from the US.  

Two years later, in response to this cross-border attack, the British Navy sailed down the Potomac River and burned down the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House, leaving all residential houses untouched.  A very measured military response, you could say.  But it was most definitely brought down upon the nation by US policy.

But what seems to be especially dominating the conversation lately revolves around questions of security, or the lack thereof, at the Capitol.  

Most of the comparisons being made are between the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer and yesterday's siege on the Capitol.  While these comparisons are definitely relevant, they can be misleading on their own, because they can give the impression that police only crack down heavily, in large numbers, with severe brutality, when the protesters are mostly Black.  If your main experience with protests have been from 2014 to the present, and have mainly involved Black Lives Matter, this would be a very sensible conclusion to reach.

So I thought I'd just share a few brief descriptions of protests that I have physically participated in over the years, for a little bit of a broader context than we're getting on TV.

I've been to many protests like one I attended as a teenager, led by Jesse Jackson circa 1982, where we marched around on a permitted route in DC, a diverse group of tens of thousands, mostly people who vote Democrat, where everything was peaceful, no one committed civil disobedience, the police were not numerous and sometimes even nice, basically what you imagine a permitted march is supposed to be like.

The first time I witnessed police brutality was in San Francisco sometime around 1987 at a protest against US support for the rightwing dictatorship in El Salvador.  Several hundred mostly white people in our twenties and thirties wanted to shut down the Federal Building for the day through civil disobedience, so the police preempted us by setting up barricades around the building and defending the barricades with clubs.  People pulling at the barricades were beaten from the other side of the barricades every second or so.  Then we discovered that about 10% of our ranks were actually made up of undercover cops, and people who we thought were fellow protesters began to savagely attack anyone on the street.  I saw four cops pulling in different directions on each limb of a young white woman that day.  The police were so brutal, the event made national headlines, briefly.

In Washington, DC on April 16th, 2000, tens of thousands of folks associated with the global justice movement succeeded partially in shutting down the biannual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank, by surrounding ninety blocks of the city in a human chain.  I saw police vans rev their engines and plow into the human chain, nearly killing young, mostly white college students that made up the majority of the people surrounding the ninety-block area, which the police had fenced off with 10'-high fences.

A few months later in Quebec City, tens of thousands of protesters came to the city, again with the intent of shutting down meetings of the global elite through mass civil disobedience and other tactics, such as launching teddy bears from a home-made catapult.  In Quebec City, the police used so much tear gas against us that I had a welt on my eye for six months afterwards.  The city had spent millions of dollars to wall off the walled city even more, with a big metal wall around 20' high surrounding the old stone walls of North America's only walled city.  But they still saw fit to disperse such massive amounts of tear gas that it got into the meetings of the global elite within the walls, and they caused thousands of local Quebec City residents to flee the area.  I vividly recall the fear on the faces of the children clutching their dolls, holding hands with their parents, walking down the hill, away from the city center, towards safety.

Two years later in November, 2003, in Miami, they again walled off downtown with high fences in preparation for their meetings.  Again, thousands of riot police attacked thousands of people who had come with the perhaps vague idea that they might hope to shut down the meetings, which never had a chance, because of the overwhelming and overwhelmingly brutal police presence.  If you did not get hit by a plastic-coated steel bullet or inhale copious amounts of tear gas, you were very lucky.  On a tour of the east coast I did after Miami, I saw welts on my friends bodies of every possible size and description.

At an anti-war protest in New York City in 2004, they wouldn't let us march.  Half a million people or more clogged the city streets, penned in by countless steel pens erected by Bloomberg's cops.  Later in the same year, at the Republican National Convention in New York City, they allowed us to march, but not to have a rally.  And when several hundred people marched without a permit in the course of the RNC events then I was among them, and barely escaped mass arrest, when the police boxed us in with their netting and held everyone there who didn't slip out at the right time.  I've seen many mass arrests of hundreds of mostly white people.  Sometimes they hold everyone over the weekend, like they did to 600 mostly white youth in DC on April 15th, 2000.  I was there for that, too.

Randomly skipping ahead, there were protests at the G20 meetings in 2009 in Pittsburgh, around ten thousand people in attendance at the peak.  At one point a collection of a couple hundred mostly white college students were having an unpermitted meeting on a college campus, outdoors, when for no apparent reason the police announced the campus was locked down, and they began to systematically attack anyone who was there, and not inside a building.  The buildings were locked, so anyone who didn't get in to one in time was running away from the campus for their lives.  Police were roving around, randomly clubbing anyone they saw.  I saw them knock a white woman off her bicycle very violently.  A cop clubbed me in the back and nearly knocked me over, but I kept running.  I can still feel the impact of his club on my back, as easily as I can feel the whiplash I got from a car accident I was in several years ago.

These are just a few samples to give a little flavor of how the police mobilize when faced with the prospect of ten or twenty thousand mostly young white people who want to commit acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, for the most part, such as sitting in the street.  They spent upwards of a hundred million dollars on security in Pittsburgh.  The following G20 in Toronto in 2010, I was there, too, they spent $1 billion on security.  And we're talking about totally militarized security.  They had loads of armored vehicles at those aforementioned protests in Quebec City, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Toronto.  Total robocop gear everywhere, no badges or faces to be seen, only armor and clubs and amplified voices in armored vehicles to go along with them.

Practices of the police commissioners in charge of running the show at each of these events included little encouragement for people to peacefully protest and exercise their First Amendment rights or any of that bullshit.  What they did instead was terrorize their communities, spread fear in the press, and spread fear among the ranks of their officers.  They showed their cops videos implying that some of us coming to the protest had killed cops in the past (which was false).  They systematically encouraged residents in a poor, mostly Black neighborhood near downtown Miami to freely rob protesters.  Instead, people in the Overtown neighborhood went out of their way to help protect us from the police, harboring fugitives, you could say.

I was also in Ferguson in 2014, a couple weeks after Michael Brown was killed, and yes, I saw all the same stuff there in terms of militarized police forces responding to what was overwhelmingly nonviolent civil disobedience, in the form of people marching in the streets.  And over the past months I've seen lots more of that sort of thing here in Portland, with friends young and middle-aged, white and Black, suffering all descriptions of injuries at the hands of a savage police force.

This is a viciously white supremacist, institutionally racist system, to be sure -- it has been since the foundations of this once largely slave-based economy, and systems of racist oppression have continued ever since.  However, for the powers-that-be, the enemies are many.  The race-based system we have here is set up to divide and conquer the population in so many ways -- and it succeeds in this endeavor.  The clubs come down against people of color just for being people of color, no doubt.  But if you think for a moment that white people are free to commit acts of civil disobedience or violence against the authorities, if you think they just let us do whatever we want if we want to shut down a meeting of the global elite, think again.  Usually they are much better prepared than they were on January 6th, 2021, whether the folks trying to shut them down are people of color or not.

The primary difference, in this case, was not that the group of far right protesters, riots, coup-attempters, insurrectionists, or whatever you want to call them, were white, but the fact that they were from the far right.  This accounts for the lack of security preparation for this rally, which was planned in advance, like most of the aforementioned meetings of the elite -- planned in advance because the joint session of Congress was, too.  And it also accounts for the fact that people were engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the police and not getting shot.  No group of white anarchists has ever tried to do what they did.  If we did, we'd be shot.

And in case I need to explain why the far right get systematically treated with kid gloves, or just ignored entirely, when they want to have a rally in Portland or Charlottesville or Washington, long before this attack on the Capitol?

Because, as we are learning daily with new revelations about who was involved with the Capitol siege, the police largely are already on their side.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Why Does Mayor Ted Wheeler Hate Us So Much?

Tear Gas Ted is getting Tough On Crime and Anarchy, and I've got some analysis for you.

Oregon Public Broadcasting has been giving a lot of play to Mayor Wheeler's latest couple of speeches, where he once again criticized "violent anarchists" for doing terrible things like spray-painting memes on plywood, or breaking the windows of outrageously expensive downtown corporate property that he confuses for "local businesses owned by people of color" (I think that's a direct quote of the man), and of course, most recently, for allegedly punching him in the shoulder.

Not wanting to interfere with the news cycle, or sensing the bad optics that might be involved, he took a week off from criticizing the Criminals and Anarchists (interchangeable terms of course) of Portland, while the far right was laying siege to the Capitol Building and attacking other state legislatures across the country, but now he's had enough time off, and he's back at it.

OPB reporters have pointed out that the mayor has given a lot of speeches lambasting people he characterizes as anarchists, while talking very little about the far right.  I would add that he rarely has anything critical to say about his tear gas-happy police force, either, from which he derived his most popular nickname.

In his recent speeches railing against "Antifa anarchists," which is, incidentally, a little like saying "liberal progressives," he points out that most of them -- all, he claims, in the instance of the riot declared by the police downtown on New Year's Eve -- are young white men.  He also said they should be prosecuted for their crimes, and probably he talked about reclaiming downtown from the constant protesting and window-smashing, but I couldn't listen to the whole speech.  It was too predictable, and his voice grates on me too much.  But I heard enough -- more than enough -- to put his latest little public tantrum in some context.

All of his main talking points were derived from a combination of things frequently said by the police commissioner, and things frequently said by the richest commercial property owner in the city, both of whom are regularly featured in local media, naturally.

Ted Wheeler is a very slick politician with inherited wealth, coming out of a long dynasty of local political power and timber money, which is how he got to be mayor.  He's white and male, too, as with many of the "Antifa anarchists," but that's where the similarity ends.

I dressed up as a protester for Halloween -- with a helmet, padded vest, and leaf-blower.  The latter device I used as a socially distant candy delivery mechanism, rather than for blowing tear gas back at the cops -- and I was taken aback by the degree of thinly-veiled hostility I encountered among some of my fellow white male neighbors, particularly those in one of the many new, half-million-dollar houses in the neighborhood, who clearly agreed with their mayor's perspective.  But I shouldn't have been surprised.  After all, they may have been listening to their mayor's speeches, among other things.

To be very specific about who these "Antifa anarchists" are that the mayor is referring to:  what I can say from personal knowledge is that half of them are housing insecure, because they can't afford to live in this country the way it is these days, especially here, in the most rent-burdened city in the USA.  Privileged white male youth?  Hardly.  Not like Ted was, when he was young.  Not at all.

Also, as anyone who has spent much time at protests in Portland over the course of the past few months can attest, including the ones downtown, many of the participants are, in fact, Black, and from every other racialized group.  Also, many identify with genders other than male or female, which of course the mayor has no interest in knowing about, or acknowledging in his word use.  Also, many are not male, in any sense, but are female-identified females.  I wasn't downtown on New Year's Eve, so I don't know offhand if that was the case on that particular night, but normally it is the case.

So, to recap, the mayor is laying into a fairly small group of largely homeless teenagers for being upset with the government, for a whole lot of different reasons, and for daring to express their anger by launching fireworks at City Hall -- which is a very solid, stone building -- and for smashing the windows of a Starbucks nearby (quite likely they did this after being thoroughly shot at and gassed by the cops).  But because he says they're white and male, that's supposed to tell us that they're basically doing it just to party, and also they must not care about Black people, because if they did, they'd protest in a different way, and then everything would be better.  And if they're not protesting on behalf of oppressed Black people, what could they possibly be upset about, since all us white folks are rich like him?

Now, the mayor, being the mayor of the city and the ostensible head of the police bureau, presumably knows that the Portland police -- like all the other police departments across the country -- have undercover agents.  He also knows that what these agents tend to do, among other things, is join the Black Bloc ("Antifa anarchists"), and be the first ones to throw rocks at windows.  This is an established pattern.  He ignores it.  This is not to say that it's only undercover cops throwing rocks, but they do throw lots of them, no question about it, and he chooses to ignore this fact.

Why does the mayor have just about nothing critical to say about the far right, which is growing across this country?  Is it because they don't tend to smash windows -- at least until recently -- but only attack random Black people and random black-clad white people with bear mace and pickup trucks?  Smashing windows is much worse for business than attacking protesters (or people perceived to be protesters).  Is that why he cares so much about the windows, and calls the smashing of the windows "violent," unlike the plastic-coated steel bullets and other projectiles fired at us by the police, which he would call something like, "responding to violence with established crowd control techniques"?

The mayor repeats the line of the police chief, that there need to be prosecutions of these violent protesters.  The mayor knows full well that in order for there to be prosecutions, the police have to actually target specific people who have committed a crime, arrest them, and charge them.  At that point, the District Attorney can decide whether to press the charges, change the charges, drop the charges, or whatever, at his discretion.  He is an elected official named Mike Schmidt, and the mayor has just basically ordered him to get with the mayor's "tough on crime" program, or else.  A much more polite, less mafia-sounding, and also perfectly legal, version of Trump's talk with that election official in Georgia, really.

The police attack entire crowds methodically, almost never targeting specific people for specific acts, but just attacking everyone as soon as one person throws a water bottle.  That's reality on the ground, regardless of the mayor's fantasies.  After they attack entire crowds -- causing serious injuries, sometimes permanent maiming, always psychological trauma -- they round up a few stragglers and arrest them, often including journalists, medics and legal observers.  At which point the DA tends to drop the charges, because he has nothing to charge anyone with.  He's also a progressive, unlike the gaslighting mayor, but that's largely beside the point in this instance.

The biggest reason I suspect the mayor is choosing this moment to come down so hard on "Antifa anarchists," and to try further to divide this grouping from the rest of the more progressive/radical segments of what remains of Portland as we once knew it, is that there will soon presumably be a Democrat in the White House again.  With Democrats in City Hall, in Salem, and in DC, what might we possibly have to complain about?  Even the mayor came out on one night to protest against Trump's federal goons, when they were in town in larger numbers.  But that was different, clearly.

There are a lot of reasons for mainstream Democratic mayors like Ted to take the positions he does, in speeches like this one, and in his policies.  Such as his recent policy decision, along with the requisite two other members of the five-member City Council, to once again spend half of our local tax dollars on the police department in the 2021 budget.

But perhaps he's just angry that he didn't invest in plate glass and plywood manufacturers earlier in the pandemic, when he might have stood to make more money from his stock portfolio.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

An Open Letter to Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys (cc: Antifa)

Have you ever found yourself surrounded by masked rioters being chased by flag-waving patriots and thought, I've seen this movie before?

I woke up this morning dreaming that I was speaking at one of your rallies.  I thought then, well, if I probably won't be getting an invitation to speak at one of them, what would I say if I were to be asked to share some words?

Contrary to popular opinion in kindergarten, words are far more powerful than either sticks or stones, and I think this is something that most of us actually already know.  Words can be used to divide and rule entire societies, it seems.  We can have some people on some TV networks saying some sets of words, with other people on other networks using different vocabulary, and a different perspective, to talk about the same issues, and pretty soon we can achieve an endless series of tragic physical results from such words.

So I especially like to avoid alarm-bell words that require lots of defining if you're going to use them successfully, or else no one really knows what they mean.  If I do use such a word, I'll tend to define it clearly first, unless I'm writing for a very particular audience.  I'm mostly talking about "ism" words such as as socialism, anarchism, communism, capitalism, fascism, nationalism, supremacism, racism, anti-racism, sexism, progressivism, conservatism, liberalism, elitism.

Other words are important, or at least to some people they can be, so I'd want to first say that I'm so sorry Aaron Danielson was killed.  Without getting into the details and not having been present, many of us were expected something like this to happen.  Whether the next person killed at a protest was going to be shot or run over was unknown, but that someone else would be killed was just a matter of time.  

Many people, of course, avoided downtown that day, knowing there would be lots of armed people with different opinions all in the same place at the same time, shouting at each other and worse.  Other people, perhaps people with stronger political convictions than most, can't stay home.  Such as many of the folks who I hope might be hearing these words right now.

There are a lot of people, from a wide variety of political orientations, who would think it pointless for me to be even attempt to communicate with you.  They think the divide is too great.  They're expecting all the predictions of civil war to come true.  They think folks like you and I live in our insulated little echo chambers, in different worlds, and we couldn't even communicate with each other if we tried.  And then, going to protests, as you and I have done so often, any of us can bear out the fact that there is a whole lot more bear mace being sprayed in different directions than anything resembling communication going on.  Looking at my YouTube channel, the comment section on certain songs largely consists of people exchanging death threats with each other.

But I think the folks who think we're hopelessly polarized and have no grounds for communication are completely wrong.  I think we live in the same world, and we face the same sorts of problems, and could benefit from the same sorts of solutions, too, and I think many of you already agree with this notion.  That's what I would really want to focus on, if I were speaking at one of your rallies.

I think about so many of the rallies when I've seen you guys around, and I don't want to judge too much by appearances, but to me you look mostly like members of the working class.  Some of you might be rich, I don't know, but I'd be willing to bet that at least 99% of you aren't.  Many of you are military veterans, which is also true of no small number of those among the ranks of the groups you oppose.

Being members of the working class living in the Portland area, as so many of you are, and as I and most of my friends are, I'll bet there are a whole lot of things we have in common.  

I'll bet half of us live in the same sorts of two-story, wooden, grey, Class C apartment complexes that you can see lining most of the major roads in most of the neighborhoods of both Portland and across the river in Vancouver.  I'll bet many of us have the same landlord, in the form of an investment group, such as Prime or Randall.  I'll bet our apartment complexes are managed by the same stingy management company, such as CTL.  And I'll bet your rent also doubled over the past ten years, and this development has caused you great consternation, made you angry, made you want to find solutions.

Oh, and did you happen to notice that during the time your rent doubled, Obama was in the White House?  Hard not to notice coincidences like that.

And while your rent was doubling during the Obama years, maybe you, like me, were having kids, making a family, hoping to move into a bigger place, maybe to buy a house, only to see any such hopes dashed by the reality that the cost of buying a house or renting a bigger apartment was out of the question, if you didn't have a six-figure income.

And during that decade, who was running the city you lived in, where the rents and the taxes kept going up and up, while your income did not?  Democrats.  I noticed that, too.

When you look around your neighborhood at all the construction sites here in the booming Pacific Northwest, and you see the workers, and when things break at your apartment complex and you see who comes to do repairs, and who maintains the grounds, did you notice that most of the people doing most of the work are immigrants?  I noticed that, too.  

And who are the people always advocating for the rights of immigrants, and for taking in more immigrants and refugees, while the cost of living keeps going up and jobs are as scarce as they are?  Democrats, once again, as I know you have observed.

Have you ever wondered, if we had a lot less immigration in this country, what that might do to wages in the construction industry?  They'd go up, right?  That's obvious, isn't it?  Same for other industries, too, right?

A lot of people look at all of this, they put two and two together, and they conclude that the policies of the Democratic Party are not very conducive to our survival.  If they want to do things like welcome lots of immigration, export jobs with free trade deals, and govern cities in such a way that the rent doubles every ten years, maybe it's very reasonable to conclude that the Democratic Party isn't representing the interests of the general population.  Did you reach that conclusion at some point along the line?

And then someone comes along who wants to deal with this mess, to do something on behalf of most people, drain the swamp, build the wall, stop the flood of immigrants taking so many of the jobs, end the endless wars and stop policing the world, get out of free trade deals, put up tariffs, and try to make moves to reverse the trend of everything going in the wrong direction all the time, and for supporting his evidently reasonable policies, you are called every bad name in the book.

But then, as you have been giving your support to this president, you may have also been noticing that many of the policies he's been talking about are opposed not only by the Democrats, but, at least until very recently, by most of the Republican leadership as well.  You may also have begun to notice that the man doesn't necessarily support the things he says he supports, and he hasn't drained the swamp at all.  Am I right?  Or did I just lose you there?  I'm just guessing there are a lot of you who realize, on some level, along the line, that Trump is mostly just saying the things he thinks you want to hear, and then governing on behalf of big business, like very rich politicians have done in DC for a very long time.

Being a history buff, if I were speaking at one of your rallies I'd want to try to talk about what I see as some pretty clear historical parallels between now and a century ago.  Trump seems new and unconventional in many ways, but this kind of societal divide between large groups of economically struggling Americans on different sides of issues like immigration goes way back.

Exactly one hundred years ago here in the Pacific Northwest and around the United States, as well as across Canada, conflict raged in the streets.  Veterans of the First World War made up the ranks of many of the people involved on all sides of it.  The cities were full of returning soldiers, many of whom were sick with the Spanish Flu.  Disease was rampant, there was insufficient housing, and not enough jobs, either.  At the same time, a massive influx of immigrants from war-torn Europe was coming, along with the returning soldiers from the war. 

It was a situation designed for conflict, and conflict there was.  On one side were people who viewed themselves as patriots, who wanted to control the dramatic impact that widespread immigration was having on the job and housing markets, and in society generally.  On the other side was a labor union led largely by immigrants, who said everyone -- the working class throughout the world, regardless of nation, race, gender or other such factors -- should be organized into One Big Union.

This movement saw the First World War and immigration from Europe that was going on at the time as just two more ways the ruling class was trying to divide the working class, and have us fighting each other, whether on different sides of trenches in European wars, or in competition over low-paying jobs here in the US, in order to make sure those jobs keep on paying badly, and the owners make more profits.  Instead of opposing immigration, they organized immigrants along with everyone else.  They had learned that they had to make a choice between supporting their nation, in the sense of supporting the imperial goals of their governing elite, or supporting their class, and they chose the latter.

Today, there is no massive, ecumenical movement of the working class for us all to join.  No such alternative like that currently exists.  When it did exist, laws were passed, called the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a national police force was formed -- called the FBI -- in order to destroy the movement.  Union halls across the country were burned to the ground, and union organizers of all races were lynched under bridges here in the Pacific Northwest. 

But the kind of vision that formed this movement that was so targeted by the authorities back then has in the past been so powerful that it has brought down governments, it has forced the world's biggest corporations to make massive concessions, it has reshaped entire societies for the better.  It has also brought down upon it such terrible repression, it has been so targeted by the authorities and so alternately vilified and silenced by history, that even the very concept that the movement ever existed seems like a utopian fantasy, not like a practical reality that has shaped the world as we know it, perhaps more than any other force besides gravity.

I may be a geek, but if I had the chance to speak at one of your rallies, I'd want to talk about patterns.  There is a pattern happening here, and these consistencies between Portland in 1920 and Portland in 2020 are not accidental.  The dynamics of the conflicts in this society now are created by the same sorts of people who were creating them back then.  In many cases, their direct descendants.  These things tend to run in the family, as does inherited wealth.

Why does the political elite enact policies intended to create these conflicts, and why do they then make moves to exacerbate them?  In the back of our minds, I think we all know the answer.  If I were speaking at one of your rallies, and I asked this question, would anybody shout, "divide and conquer," or am I being overly optimistic?  Because it seems to me that as long as those who, for example, support increasing immigration and those who support decreasing immigration can be in conflict with each other over the scraps dropped from the table of the ruling class, the ruling elite wins.  

The ruling class logic is so simple and effective on us, it's hard to even see it's there.  Most Mexicans accept such low wages because they're either undocumented and living in the shadows of the law, or they're competing with people who are in that situation.  And, as you know too well from personal experience, in all likelihood, the rest of us are competing with them, too.  And unless we take the concept of exclusion to its logical conclusion and we really think laws and walls are going to keep out the hundreds of millions of people just on the other side of the southern border who also need to feed their children, or unless we believe genocide is the actual solution here, then all the people living in this country are going to have to have the opportunity to work, and if they're going to work, they're going to have to be paid, and if they're going to to be paid, then whatever they're paid is what you're going to get paid, too.  So if you want to be paid well, and to live in an affordable place, you have to stand up for everyone else's rights to a living wage and decent housing.  That's what these conflicts in other societies have taught us.  The ruling elite here learned those lessons from history, too, which is why they divide and rule the way they do.

I'm a musician, by profession, and before the pandemic I used to tour a lot.  Ireland is one of the places where I have the most fans.  There are reasons for this, both political and cultural, but I'll save that discussion for another time.  Point is, I have a fairly deep familiarity with some other countries where I have spent a lot of my time over the decades, working.  In a part of Ireland called Northern Ireland, which is more a political term than a geographical one, the population is fairly evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants.  The Catholics there have long lived as second-class citizens, and what has come to be known as the Troubles, which resulted in thousands of people being killed in Northern Ireland from the 1970's to the 1990's, was largely about Catholics having equality with Protestants.

So, you can see if you look at it that there is this, even now, a simmering conflict going on between two groups of people in this very conflicted part of the world that we call Northern Ireland.  If you're part of the society, you will likely have developed ideas about the folks who live on the other side of the wall -- those Protestants only care about other Protestants, or those Catholics are criminally inclined, etc. -- and you likely will have developed a sort of bipolar, Catholic/Protestant view of the world, as a sort of default, whether you feel passionately about it or not.

But if you back up and look at it from the outside -- even if you just go work in England for a few years, like so many Irish do, from both sides of the sectarian divide -- what you'll see looking back at Northern Ireland are two groups of people we call Catholics and Protestants, one group of which is generally a little better-off than the other, but what you'll notice most of all is that the majority of both Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants are poor by European standards.  I heard one speaker at a union rally in Derry note that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland has the fifth worst quality of housing in Europe, while the Protestants have the sixth worst housing standards.

Back to the US.  Contrary to the rhetoric, our ruling elite consists of millionaire Democrats as well as millionaire Republicans.  The Congress consists almost entirely of millionaires, the Democrats being slightly richer than their Republican counterparts.  And history shows us in abundance that different elements of the two groups of millionaires are always vying, over the years, decades, and centuries, to convince us all that they represent us, or different elements of us, the people of this country.  What they're doing in their efforts to appeal to different segments of society, in effect, is practicing divide and rule politics.  Who they're trying to divide from whom doesn't even vary that much over the years, though the dynamics evolve somewhat.

What I'd most want to get across, if I were ever to have access to your attention, is that the reason they need to divide us is because they can't afford to have us be united.  And the reason they can't afford to see us united is because they don't rule on our behalf, they rule on behalf of the 1%.  Neither party represents us, the working class majority, of whatever color or gender.  And Trump doesn't, either, no matter how much he may succeed in painting himself as an outsider or a rebel of some kind.

What the elite from both ruling parties want is division.  What they want is for us to shout at each other and shoot each other.  They will try in so many different ways to make that happen.  They -- and their friends who run the major social media platforms, with their conflict algorithms, and their friends in the corporate media, whether CNN or Fox -- will do their best to reduce the debate to some people calling others fascists who love racism, while others are called communists who hate freedom, or anarchists who love chaos and arson.

What they fear most, I would conclude, is a united working class.  Or, to put it another way, a working class that is aware of its own existence.  Or, to put it another way, class solidarity, and especially international class solidarity.  What they love most are pawns.


A Tale of Two Narratives

Was it a peaceful gathering, a riot, or an insurrection?  That depends on who we're talking about, and who's talking about them. Eve...