a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The FBI and Occupy: sometimes it ain’t paranoia

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th December 2012

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has obtained FBI documents
detailing the agency’s national efforts to monitor the Occupy Wall Street
movement. Click here for more.

Last week, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) reported:

FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

At the time of the wave of crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampments around the country, some writers — most prominently Naomi Wolf (“The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy,” 11/25/11) — argued that events showed “coordination against OWS at the highest national levels,” while others like Joshua Holland felt the “word “coordinated” is too vague to offer any analytic value.” 

In followups, many progressive commentators joined Holland in minimizing the federal role in the crackdowns.  First relying on Holland’s rebuttal, and later focusing on reports from Portland exonerating the Obama DHS in that city, Corey Robin, for instance, argued that the “Crackdown on Occupy [was] Probably Not Organized by the Obama Administration.”  To be clear: the motive wasn’t to minimize the crackdowns, but to question the need to invoke a driving federal role in them.*  As Scott Lemieux (“Lawyers, Guns & Money”) put it mockingly — he seems not to be able to help himself — Wolf’s position implied that “authoritarian actions could not be the result of our benevolent local overlords but must be the work of the big bad feds.    History does not provide much support for this assumption.”  Robin’s analysis was the same, if more circumspect: “political repression in the US tends to be decentralized and local.”  Call it the “They don’t need no steenkin’ federal badges” analysis.

The documents obtained by PCJF — in this “production” and previous ones throughout the year — make that view not wrong so much as uninteresting, even beside the point.

True, there’s no smoking gun directly tying the DHS or the FBI to the violent evictions or the decisions leading to them.*  But the documents show that focusing on the evictions per se was an analytic mistake of its own: federal agencies from the FBI to DHS to the National Park Service had laid the groundwork well before then.

PCFJ exec. director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on “Democracy Now!”

A Democracy Now! segment summarizes the news of the document release:

…the FBI monitored Occupy Wall Street from its earliest days and treated the nonviolent movement as a potential terrorist threat. Internal government records show Occupy was treated as a potential threat when organizing first began in August of 2011. Counterterrorism agents were used to track Occupy activities, despite the internal acknowledgment that the movement opposed violent tactics. The monitoring expanded across the country as Occupy grew into a national movement, with FBI agents sharing information with businesses, local police agencies and universities.

Among the examples PCJF highlights:

  • As early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the New York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests that wouldn’t start for another month. By September, prior to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they might be the focus of an OWS protest. […]
  • The FBI in Anchorage reported from a Joint Terrorism Task Force meeting of November 3, 2011, about Occupy activities in Anchorage. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Monday after: “Stop the NRA” rally on Capitol Hill

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th December 2012

Stop the NRA Emergency March
(click for Facebook event page)

I’ve rarely been as upset by an event as by the Newtown killings; the only similar thing I can think of right now is 9/11.  On learning of the massacre on Friday, I’d thrown my papers at my computer screen, walked out of the office about for a minute, came back, angrily typed “FUCK THE GOD DAMNED NRA” on my Facebook page, hesitated for a moment, and posted it.

Deciding to go
Amid a variety of responses (mostly positive), one friend supplied some more coherent words to go with the sentiment:

“It’s like with the weather and global warming: We can’t say for certain that the NRA’s tooth-and-nail opposition to any sort of reasonable gun regulation anytime anywhere led directly to this particular incident. But we CAN say for certain that the NRA’s tooth-and-nail opposition to any sort of reasonable gun regulation anytime anywhere makes incidents like this one much more likely to happen. So, yes: FUCK THE GOD DAMNED NRA.” 

That’s it. This country has half the world’s firearms and 80% of the gun deaths among the 23 richest countries. Either we’re genetically crazier and meaner than anywhere else, or something else is going on.  I think it’s the militancy of the NRA, a combination lobbyist/chamber of gun commerce organization that helps make owning even the most absurdly overpowered gun seem virtuous to zealots, and that helps oppose even the most minimal of regulations.

So when I saw there was a plan to march to a DC office of the NRA, I felt like I had to join it or feel like I’d let myself down, even if it was during work hours.  I did so despite some misgivings: would this event become Exhibit X in gun advocates’ case that they’re the ones being persecuted?  Might it be better to just ignore the NRA and take our signs and demands elsewhere?  I decided I was overthinking it — especially once I saw the online gun nut hordes descend on the Facebook event page, sneering, jeering, and (I think) strongly suggesting to anyone else “wow, Adam Lanza probably thought all of this crazy stuff too.”

The event
I ducked out of work at 11:30*, and arrived at the gathering place at New Jersey and D Street, SE around noon — a few blocks from the Capitol Building, with its “in session” light on.

Three short videos: (1) demonstration, (2) interview with demonstrator
Deb Morris, (3) interview with demonstrator Mary Ester; all 3 play
automatically in sequence.  Or click a link for a single video.

I found a crowd of maybe a couple hundred people and what seemed like a couple of dozen newspeople and professional cameramen and -women.  (As ever, everybody had a camera or smart phone and was busily snapping pictures or recording the scene.)

An organizer reminded the crowd, perhaps unnecessarily, that “this is a solemn occasion,” and urged us not to get into confrontations with any counterprotesters.We then took the short, two block walk to the NRA Federal Affairs Division at 410 1st St SE — apparently in the same building as the popular “Bullfeathers” pub.  Either the  “Shame on the NRA!” chant felt a little too confrontational at first, or I’m not the only one who just doesn’t like chanting in unison in the first place.  But then a guy who turned out to be a Republican media consultant leaned out of his office window above a neighboring Subway store, and yelled “Arm the teachers!”  After that most of us were just fine with “Shame on the NRA.”

The rally itself was a little awkwardly staged, but served the purpose of learning just what the NRA’s many absurd legislative priorities and views are.  Organizers read each item in the 2012 NRA House Candidate Survey to the crowd — each paired with the name and age of one of the little victims in Newtown — and then we all answered together “NO we disagree about [lengthy NRA candidate survey position]!  Shame on the NRA!”  Since some of the items ran to forty words, this made for a slightly tedious demonstration experience, but whatever.  Here are the crowd responses prompted by the organizers, numbered to correspond to the NRA survey:

  1. I disagree with the NRA and would support legislation to ban the manufacture, sale or transfer of semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.
  2. I disagree with the NRA and oppose national Right-to-Carry reciprocity legislation.
  3. I believe that all firearms transactions — including private transfers between non-licensees, such as family members and friends — should be federally regulated, and I support additional legislation to require the federal government to approve all private firearms transfers.
  4. (NRA item skipped in rally list: Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco firearms sales reporting requirements in Southwestern states)
  5. I disagree with the NRA and believe imported firearms should be treated differently than identical American manufactured firearms.
  6. No, I disagree with the NRA [that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms and that it applies to all Americans regardless of where they live in the United States.] **
  7. I disagree with the NRA and oppose protection from disclosure of firearms trace data.
  8. I disagree with the NRA. All firearms should be banned.**

Read the rest of this entry »

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Wal-Mart Strikers Food Fund, Worker Organizer Fund

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th November 2012


(photo slideshow via, OURWalMart: JOIN US)

Wal-Mart Strikers Food Fund

Occupy Wall Street is committed to supporting the Walmart worker strikes that will commence on Black Friday (11/23/2012). We are raising money to provide food and sundries to Walmart workers who will lose needed wages as they strike so that they can achieve better work conditions. We ask you to participate by donating, at the very least, what you make in one hour, to provide food and basic items to striking workers.

We are working with the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the Walmart workers to distribute this money to striking workers who are who speaking out for good jobs and stronger communities.

Wal-Mart Worker Organizer Fund

Walmart workers decided in October 2012 to strike on Black Friday after they were targeted for retaliation for speaking out against substandard work conditions and treatment in the first ever walk out in the history of the company. Now we are looking at a world in which the bravest workers of Walmart are being fired so they may be silenced.

We will support the workers participating in organizing efforts and nonviolent demonstrations in support of the fight for economic civil rights of the Walmart worker effort. Money raised will go towards paying stipends and living expenses for workers fired for organizing and participating in acts of peaceful civil disobedience.

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“Black Friday” Wal-Mart action in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd November 2012

I’m in my hometown, Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the Thanksgiving weekend, and today I had the privilege of joining a  Wal-Mart Black Friday event there.  Unlike others you may have read or seen video about, this one wasn’t a big demonstration outside a Wal-Mart, or a “mic check” inside one.  Instead, it was “just” two of us — but with a large, local interfaith community behind us.

My new friend Lance McCold and myself were put in touch by Rev. Jim Sessions of the Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee, a “network of religious leaders and  allies”  united in concern for economic justice.  We met outside Oak Ridge Wal-Mart Supercenter #1194 in blustery late fall weather, then went inside to look for management to whom to hand a letter signed by over 40 local ministers and persons of faith.

Not being sure where to go, we asked a cashier, who called over someone I imagine was floor supervisor.  I had brought my video camera, hoping to film what I could.  The floor supervisor called a manager — and on hanging up, said “no cameras.”

Lance McCold, Knoxville participant in the
Wal-Mart Black Friday
events as a supporter of
Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee

A few minutes later, we were met by a nice enough, if harried young woman, N., who heard Lance and then me explain that we were there to deliver a letter from the local interfaith community, in solidarity with Wal-Mart workers and actions across the United States seeking better treatment and better pay.

N. scanned the letter quickly, tracing every word with her finger to be sure of missing nothing.  She then disappeared for several minutes behind an unmarked door near Customer Service — leaving us to joke nervously that if a SWAT team appeared, we’d each blame the other guy.  But when she reappeared, her main concern was just whether there was anyone else outside, she’d heard something about cameras.  We said there were just the two of us; I said I had a camera along but had put it away on request.

The excellent letter, drafted by Rev. Jim Sessions, is addressed to Mike Duke of the Wal-Mart home office in Bentonville, Arkansas.  It begins,

Dear Mr. Duke,

We are writing you today to let you know that on this Black Friday, we join thousands of people of faith who are gathered at different Walmart stores across the country in support of Walmart associates and Walmart-contracted warehouse workers demanding respect, better wages and safer working conditions.

As we stand outside of East Tennessee area stores on the biggest shopping day of the year, we see an endless stream of customers and thousands of items flying off the shelves. By the end of the day, Walmart will make millions in sales and profits. The hardworking associates and warehouse workers, however, will go home with barely enough to make ends meet. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lessons from Katrina: Shock Doctrine… or Occupy Sandy?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd November 2012

Goldman Sachs Tower during Sandy blackout

Goldman Sachs Tower, New York City during Hurricane Sandy blackout, 10/29/2012

Hurricane Katrina was not the first large scale American natural disaster.  But whether because of the magnitude of the storm, the inadequate federal and state responses, or both, it was perhaps the first one to shake American confidence that our country was up to the task of taking care of its citizens after a disaster, or of helping communities recover from one.

Even natural disasters, it seemed — usually imagined to be a time of unity and shared commitment — could bring out both the best and the worst in people.  On the one hand, thousands of volunteers poured in to the disaster areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, and affected residents themselves rallied in many innovative ways to begin rebuilding their communities.

On the other hand, though, some people took strategic advantage of the crisis to push agendas they wouldn’t have been able to before — the phenomenon known as “Shock Doctrine” ever since Naomi Klein’s 2007 book of that name.

To give but one example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan once claimed Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”  But teachers like Mike Klonsky thought otherwise; what really happened, he said, was “the firing of every teacher in the city, the driving out from the city’s schools more than 100,000 mostly African-American children, the busting of the teachers union, and the creation of a new two-tiered school system around a core of privately-managed charters …[with] mostly inexperienced and unqualified TFA teachers teaching poor kids “study and time management skills.” I can only imagine what would happen if this recipe was foisted upon white, middle-class parents. But don’t worry. It never will be.” *

In an essay marking Katrina’s second anniversary, New Orleans professor and activist Bill Quigley identified ten lessons from Katrina, including self-reliance, telling your own story,** and understanding that disasters will reveal the structural injustices in the communities involved.  But first and foremost, he wrote,

One. Build and rebuild community.

When disaster hits and life is wrecked, you immediately seem to be on your own. Isolation after a disaster is a recipe for powerlessness and depression. Family, community, church, work associations are all important –get them up and working as fast as possible. People will stand up and fight, but we need communities to do it. Prize women –they are the first line of community builders. Guys will talk and fight and often grab the spotlight, but women will help everyone and do whatever it takes to protect families and communities. Powerful forces mobilize immediately after a disaster. People and politicians and organizations have their own agendas and it helps them if our communities are fragmented. Setting one group against another, saying one group is more important than another is not helpful. Stress and distress is high for everyone, but community support will multiply the resources of individuals. Build bridges. People together are much stronger than people alone.

The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy seems to be shaping up similarly for the communities of the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York seaboard as Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath did for the Gulf Coast: a monumental cleanup and repair job, a struggle for aid — and also sometimes a race between residents rebuilding community and outsiders exploiting opportunities for their own policy and/or business agendas.

Thus Yves Smith of “naked capitalism” notes, in” Shock Doctrine, American-Style: Hurricane Sandy Devastation Used to Push for Sale of Public Infrastructure to Investors,” the immediate pressure in Pennsylvania to deploy shiny new “P3” (public/private partnership) initiatives for the rebuilding process.’s Joseph DiStefano reports: “Rebuilding the shattered Shore and the swamped New York tunnels, along with badly needed updates to the Northeast’s exhausted roads and rails, will be an opportunity to implement streamlined construction laws backed by Republicans and pro-business Democrats in Congress and the states, says Frank Rapoport, Berwyn-based partner at New York law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge L.L.P., and counselor to contractors who support “public-private partnerships” (P3).”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Yes, -10 LT -5, but -10+6 GT -5+0

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd October 2012

If everyone quoting Daniel Ellsberg’s piece at me were even one-tenth as active as Daniel Ellsberg has been in opposing Obama’s worst policies, they might have a point. But (by and large) they aren’t, they don’t, and so, with respect, I think Ellsberg’s point isn’t as strong as he does.

It’s not just Romney vs. Obama; the quality of the opposition from the left to either of their administrations matters, too — and that’s where Obama might come up short: the majority of the left have so far let him get away with just about anything whatsoever, while they’d (rightly) not let Romney do so.

Still, while the past four years haven’t given enough reason to expect it, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong in the next four.

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A city’s ‘city issue’ issue

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th March 2012

Early last month, my city’s City Council voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution about the infamous Citizens United ruling, which concluded:

WHEREAS, the Takoma Park City Council supports efforts to see the ruling overturned or a Constitutional Amendment proposed that would reaffirm fair opportunity in the electoral process for individual people.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Council of the City of Takoma Park supports efforts to reverse the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and supports efforts to open the electoral process to the broad group of citizens who wish to participate effectively in the affairs of their country.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

2/6/12 Takoma Park City Council: session on
legislative updates and gas tax/Citizens United resolutions
(may require installing Microsoft Silverlight video software).
The first 4 minutes can be skipped for this discussion.

I was surprised to learn my own councilmember, Seth Grimes, was against it; I was even more surprised to learn why he and Councilmember Tim Male voted “nay.”  From the “GranolaPark” (which is as reliably dismissive of such causes as the name implies) account in the Takoma/Silver Spring Voice:

Tim Male … firmly rejected two proposed resolutions, one calling for the reverse of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision  […]  Male said there was “no value” in the city passing the resolutions. In the first place the Citizens United case was not a city issue. Secondly, Takoma Park supporting a liberal cause would not be a surprise, nor would it carry any weight  with the legislature, he said […]  If the city is to make a progressive stand, he said, let it be for something “hard to do.” The city’s rent control policy, for instance, comes at a price that residents are willing to pay for the sake of principle.

Seth Grimes also failed to [vote] for the resolution against the Citizens United decision. He didn’t see it as a city issue, either, and said constituent concerns should be brought up with elected officials in the appropriate jurisdiction.

Grimes, July 2007: “…I attended tonight’s Takoma Park, Maryland City Council
meeting to urge the City Council to vote in favor of an impeachment resolution,
which they did. It’s a very important step that shows the world where we as
individuals in Takoma Park stand and we all hope that it will set an example for
other people in the United States who feel as we do to urge their representatives
in Congress to take steps toward the impeachment of Vice President Cheney
and President George Bush.”

(Video by Michelle Bailey, published 09/18/07 at

One reason I found this surprising was that not too long ago, Seth Grimes had quite a different view.  In 2007 he was videotaped supporting an impeachment resolution; he uploaded a copy of the video himself in November 2008, and I recall seeing it or another one like it on his campaign web site* during his uncontested run for office last November.  All that notwithstanding, Grimes had signaled his “no” vote a few days before the council session in his blog, writing:

I have misgivings about the other item. The Citizens United decision is bad news — corporations are not people, and heavy corporate spending in electoral campaigns is pernicious — but Citizens United isn’t a city issue. Should the city devote time and resources to this question? Again, please share your thoughts.

On February 28th, I responded:

I wish I’d seen this sooner. I’ll share my thoughts per your request, even if it’s too late for the Citizens United vote.

I think you’re making a mistake if you remain committed to avoiding national political issues and resolutions of this kind purely on principle.

It won’t surprise you to hear me say it’s important for its own sake: sometimes national leaders fall down on the job, so sometimes they need to hear from local politicians. And when you and city council say something, you have a particular kind of recognition and respect that I don’t. Don’t let people tell you your statements would be discounted just because it’s a Takoma Park resolution. You’ve taken the trouble to run for office, and you’ve been elected. That matters.

I also don’t think this resolution or others like it need to take significant resources on the part of the city. The resolutions are generally written for you, you’ll have to listen to people advocate for it regardless, you’ll take as much or as little time to discuss it as you like.

But I think it’s also particularly important even when one is focused, by preference, on a purely Takoma Park agenda and goals.

That’s because part of what sets Takoma Park apart is precisely its reputation for not shying away from national issues when a reasonable, timely, cogent statement can be made. I think both current and prospective residents really value that. And I don’t mean in just a vague, “that’s nice” way, I mean in a way that makes people want to live here.  Therefore, that reputation is indirectly a part of what helps maintain the unique population and unique political climate that are so important to accomplishing your local political and policy goals.

We’re proud of the Nuclear Free Zone, of the impeachment resolution, of the sanctuary city status, of votes condemning the Iraq war or the PATRIOT Act. So whatever your feelings about any particular “national issue” resolution per se — whether Citizens United or anything else — I hope you’ll reconsider ruling out supporting any such resolution in the future. I think you’d be upholding a proud Takoma Park tradition. And I think that, too, is a part of your job.
(links added)

I’ve had no real answer to my comment or an emailed version of it I sent. When I told Councilmember Grimes during a conversation that I was surprised because of his former support for the impeachment resolution, he basically simply acknowledged that he was for that then but wouldn’t be for it now– which isn’t an explanation, more just a restatement of the situation.

In watching the city council discussion of all this, the only other thing I saw was that he noted the results of an extremely sparse canvassing of our Ward, in which the handful of opinions he got were split — 7 for, 7 against, 2 hard to interpret — on the value of resolutions about non-city or indirectly city-related issues. It’s hard to believe this could have tipped Mr. Grimes’s opinions one way or the other, though he seemed at pains to suggest they had a bearing. Mr. Male’s opinions were oddly formulated, too, as if city council decisions only have value if they are surprising or difficult to make. That’s a measure of *newsworthiness* perhaps — but that shouldn’t be the yardstick a representative measures his success with, representativeness and faithfulness to one’s principles should.

At any rate, my goal here isn’t to be hostile or to embarrass. Rather, I hope Mr. Grimes, at least, reads this supporter’s comment again, takes a look at that video, recalls how he felt and what it meant for those of us supporting that impeachment resolution — and changes his mind. He was right in July, 2007. There’s no reason he can’t be right again.

* UPDATE, EDIT, 3/11: The link leads to a post on Seth’s Facebook page, posted in August on the day of his announcement there that he was running for City Council.

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Thinking about free speech, bad speech, and more speech

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th March 2012

A friend recently pointed out a piece by Jonathan Turley, “Free speech under fire,” and wrote, Don’t forget, the cure for offensive free speech is more free speech (discussion, debate, dialogue) — not suppression of free speech.”

I don’t disagree in the cases Turley describes — I think the judge got the case he leads with wrong.  (Well, for lack of legal training I guess I should rephrase: I hope the judge got this case wrong.)  An assault is an assault, it can’t be excused by claims (far-fetched ones at that) that the assault was a response to hate speech.  Likewise, I don’t support criminalizing Holocaust or genocide denial, as happens in Europe.

But I think my friend’s statement still begs many questions of what all counts as “suppression” of free speech.  Who is actually capable of it?  Are we talking about legislation and enforcement, or citizens’ and political groups own choices to condemn speech and boycott its supporters?  Does the word “suppression” encompass “discouragement” or “regulation”?  To cut to a couple of chases: “don’t be telling us not to ask people to boycott Rush Limbaugh or oppose Citizens United!  You’re suppressing our speech!” 🙂

I’m trying to make a friendly but serious point.   It needn’t be all we consider, but as a starting point, our First Amendment is in this respect strictly and (I think) rightly about government abridgment of free speech — “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech. It’s not about the rest of us penalizing bad speech, or agitating that others do so; that’s arguably a great deal of the point of free speech.

Moreover, “freedom of speech” and “guaranteed, unregulated, unopposed amplification of speech” are not the same thing; that’s why the former is guaranteed, and the latter is not.  For example, Rush Limbaugh will always be free to say disgusting things about people he disagrees with, even if his radio program dies for lack of advertising — he’ll just be saying them to his drinking buddies at the Lowlife Saloon, not to a nationwide audience.  Likewise — and to recall an example where *my* ox was gored — the Dixie Chicks remain free to make new music and seek new audiences when their fan base got upset about Natalie Maines’s “ashamed of Bush” remark.  I think what happened to the Dixie Chicks was unjustified and even a demonstration of a “fascist impulse.” But I’m for free speech — not consequence-free speech; while a law against criticizing the president would not be fair game, the conservative listeners boycott of their music was.*

Turning to another example of often-offensive free speech, corporations and groups should be able to advertise on behalf of favored candidates — but it’s not “suppressive” to insist on spending limits or transparency.  By contrast, the Citizens United ruling is the very apotheosis of “more speech” — indeed, it’s “all but unlimited speech which no one has a prayer of adequately rebutting in the same volume” — as a supposed cure for the other guy’s speech.  But this particular “more speech cure” is a new and worse disease; true, I can write a blog post or upload a video rebutting some Super PAC lie — yet “more speech” rebutting “bad speech” — but the fifty people who see those rebuttals are a drop in the democratic bucket compared to the millions who see the TV ad or radio spot I’d be responding to.

This kind of issue — how to oppose offensive and/or  free speech — can be fraught even in relatively small-scale, local settings. For example, last fall a letter was circulated to Montgomery County, Maryland politicians asking them to sign a statement condemning an Islamophobic presentation at a local Republican women’s group.  Later on, a second letter requested that an Annapolis hotel not host a conference scheduling a number of Islamophobic speakers.

The first letter — elected officials signing a letter criticizing an event — arguably verged on government abridgement of free speech. But “verging on” and “being” are different things; since the letter merely found the Islamophobic event “inappropriate” and saying rhetoric of the kind “had no place in” the county.  This wasn’t attempted abridgement of free speech so much as free speech of their own.  The second letter was actually an easier case from my perspective: one group of private citizens asks another to reconsider a course of action.  Given the (insultingly overblown) fears this raised for the conference organizers, though, the letter resulted in a small police presence at the conference.  While not arguing against the right to draft and send the letter, a simple counterdemonstration or request to speak as well might have been a better choice of tactics.

In both cases, the group I was a part of took slightly different approaches to those of the lead organizers.  We worked with the circulator of the letter to stage an informational forum about the “Creeping Sharia” myth, and we joined in a counterdemonstration at the Annapolis hotel without signing the letter asking for the hotel to disinvite the convention.  I think those were good choices — but I don’t think drafting or signing either letter would have been beyond the pale, either.  Far from being suppressive of free speech, they were most properly understood as examples of precisely the “more free speech” — nothing more, nothing less — that my friend supports.

As do I.  What I’m saying is that we make it much too easy for ourselves by claiming a “free speech absolutist” mantle when it can’t possibly be true.  I don’t know where my friend stands on the Rush boycott or Citizens United, but the point is that sometimes whichever side one is on, someone’s speech is diminished — Limbaugh’s, or those encouraging a boycott; an Islamophobe’s, or those seeking to mobilize public opinion against him; corporations wanting to engage in unlimited, unregulated advertising, or people rightly feeling their own citizenship is rendered inconsequential by comparison.  In such cases, we must decide what we believe free speech is for, and whether that value is compelling enough for us to intervene.

There are other distinctions and issues to to be made in the two cases, e.g., a public figure trying to humiliate a private figure vs. a public renouncing a group who had sought the limelight; the possibility of monopolistic radio station collusion in the Dixie Chicks boycott; etcetera.  But for the purposes of discussing the right to object to their speech by penalizing their businesses, the broad similarities outweigh them.

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Wisconsin union buster legislators greeted by protesters

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th March 2011

On Wednesday, many of the key GOP legislators who voted to end collective bargaining for public unions in Wisconsin planned on coming to DC for a March 16 fundraiser — essentially sneaking into DC to pick up their checks for their sneak vote against labor.  A lot of different groups — AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Public Campaign — started telling their supporters to show up at the site of the fundraiser: the BGR lobbying firm headquarters, at 601 13th St NW in Washington DC.

I was among those who joined the demonstration.  As ever, I brought along my camera and video camera.

At first we just walked up and down in front of the building, I’d guess maybe five or six hundred people all told.  Then all of a sudden a guy standing at the door starts waving people in, so everybody so inclined crowded inside, chanting, blowing whistles, etc.

What greeted us was an all but perfect stage setting for a confrontation with the ruling class, something out of Bertolt Brecht’s wildest dreams: a marble and glass indoor atrium, lined with palm trees below, stretching up for ten stories above, each floor with balconies at which startled denizens of the building gathered to view the impromptu occupation. A heroic statue* stood at the center of a stairway reaching up several stories; a “Respect Workers Rights” banner was quickly hung on the balustrade in front of it. It developed that three or four hundred people can really raise a pretty deafening ruckus if they are so inclined.

The organizers showed a deft touch with the whole thing in that they did *not* stay in any one place for long.  After a few remarks by an AFL-CIO organizers, a Wisconsin teacher, and a Sheet Metal Worker union official, the word was OK, we’re leaving now, clean up, leave it better than you found it.

At this point many hundred more had gathered outside, and the DC police decided to just cordon off the block and give it over to the protest.  So that’s what happened — but after a few minutes the crowd proceeded away from that as well, heading straight to the White House.  We got there in about ten minutes, stood there doing many of the same chants — “What’s disgusting? Union busting” etc. — and then left *again* along a diagonal path through Lafayette Park, away from the White House.  I had no idea where they were headed and tagged along.  But when they got to H Street they doubled back heading east — towards the US Chamber of Commerce.  And by golly if they didn’t head straight in there too!  So I did as well.

This time the place was smaller, a regular lobby maybe forty feet by forty feet, with several dozen of us inside, one guy banging a drum for all he was worth, everyone else chanting “hey hey ho ho” and “people united will never be defeated” and whatnot.

One security guy was apparently steamed about it all — and decided he’d pull a fast one on us and close and lock the doors with us still on the inside.  I started to leave, but he blocked me — and he was a *big* guy, bound and determined to keep me from leaving and on bottling up everyone else behind me.   At no time did I hear him or anyone else request that we leave, though I may have missed that part, I was maybe the 30th person to go in.

By the time he was trying to shut the doors, there were about three or four dozen of us inside.  One guy ducked under his arm, he tried to stop that (so he wasn’t just trying to block further entrants). A bunch of us started to press out, me in the lead (I didn’t want to get trapped in there).  A bit of a nonviolent scrum ensued, him and one or two security guards on the outside trying to close the doors on us, 4 or 5 of us pushing out, me getting pushed from both sides — kind of the cork in the bottle — thinking hmm, this is the proverbial tight squeeze.  But our push won, the door stayed open.  On the outside, people began chanting “let them out,” and as far as I know everyone did stream out — and dispersed, this time for good.

In just a few minutes my friend Tim and I had left as well.  We headed over to a bar, and celebrated the day with some beers and fish and chips.  I gave away my “We Are One” ATU sign — which someone else had given to me — to some tourists who asked me for it.

I’ll post some videos below.  The first two are fairly raw footage — i.e., sometimes I forgot the camcorder was on and you’ll see the bag or my feet or the world turned upside down.  But in a way, it was, and the topsy turvy videography almost gets across the spirit of the moment as well as anything else.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Other accounts of the protest:

* The statue in the center really was magnificent, it seemed all but designed for the occasion. It turns out it’s called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” by Donald De Lue; perhaps sadly, the original is at the Normandy American military cemetery in France. I like to think this was its happiest day in many a year.

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The leaders of America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st March 2011

These are the leaders of America, not bought and paid for pols – not Walker, not Boehner. Not Reid or Schumer. Not Gingrich. Not Palin. And not Obama either, so carefully running behind this uprising, at a distance seemingly calibrated to the nearest sixteenth of an inch.

These people are the leaders of America. Tell me I’m wrong. You can not. I will not believe you.

Wisconsin “Budget Repair Bill” Protest from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

Wisconsin “Budget Repair Bill” Protest Pt 2 from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

WI “Budget Repair Bill” Protest (Feb 20-24?) Pt. 3 from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

Films by UW media specialist Matt Wisniewski; backstory here and here. Meanwhile, a simple joke is making the rounds on Facebook:

“A public union employee, a tea party activist, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, ‘Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.’”

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