Ryan Harvey

Archive for the ‘Thoughts & Analysis’ Category

Revolution, Elections, and Betrayal: Hard Lessons from Egypt

In Thoughts & Analysis on September 21, 2012 at 11:03 am

As the new Morsi government negotiates with the IMF, it’s clear that – as in the United States – elections in Egypt have not responded to citizens’ revolutionary demands for economic and social justice, alleviation of poverty and democratic decisionmaking.

Originally published at Truth-Out.

Stenciled faces stare out from almost every wall as one walks through Cairo. Some faces are accompanied by names and dates, others by political slogans. Some wear eye patches; some depict blood and pain. Others are determined, brave and proud. They are just some of the up to 1,000 people who lost their lives in the streets here in Egypt between January and December of 2011.

The wall along Mohamed Mahmoud Street is perhaps the most powerful memorial to the martyrs. Stretching nearly three blocks, the massive mural, once painted over by the military but quickly re-claimed, stands as a reminder of the tragic price that was paid for revolution here. Large full-color portraits of both the martyrs and some of the heroes of the resistance stand interspersed by the stenciled faces and slogans. Occasional picture frames are scattered, most containing faces of the dead, but some have been left blank as a reminder that there are more to come.

Around the corner, large concrete-block barriers, only recently opened, and huge bundles of barbed wire still span the streets. For almost a year, these barricades lined the areas south of Tahrir Square, preventing the public from reaching the Interior Ministry and others buildings inside.

It was here that, in November of 2011, with elections just one week away, tens of thousands gathered after police attacked a Tahrir Square sit-in led by some of those injured during the revolution. News of the attack, which killed two of the injured as well as several others, spread fast through this city of 18 million. Within hours, thousands responded with their bodies, and the fighting went on, day and night, for almost a week.

After the fights, there was a push to rename the street – originally named after a former minister of the interior – El-Shohadaa, or Martyrs’ Street. Revolutionaries hung banners at the ends of the street with the new name and wrote it on the emerging mural wall.

Standing back, you see that the mural has one unifying message: “You left us here and went to the elections.” This is directed not only at the people who called those who fought here “criminals,” but also at the Muslim Brotherhood, which, many say, left the revolution unfinished to gain political power and turned on its former comrades, who continued fighting in the streets for the larger demands of the revolution.

Today, not even two years since the revolution that shook the world, the security state remains unchanged and the economic policies that have long pushed Egyptians to the edges of poverty have continued. And Sami Sidhom, the man considered ultimately responsible for the November attack on Tahrir and the subsequent repression along Mohamed Mahmoud that killed 40 and left hundreds with massive injuries including missing eyes, is still the assistant minister of the interior for security, the position he held under the Mubarak regime.

In September, to the background of street protests and public criticism, the new government of Mohamed Morsi is negotiating a $4.8 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which it had spoken out against during the elections.

Similar agreements with the IMF recently brought highly opposed austerity measures to Southern Europe, specifically to Greece and Spain, and throughout the 70s and 80s, IMF policies left much of the Global South further in debt.

I walked along Mohamed Mahmoud street with a number of young Egyptians recently and talked with them about the revolution, the elections, the economic situation and their perspectives on the last year and a half of their lives.

The story of Mohamed Mahmoud can be read as a metaphor for the whole stifled revolutionary period: popular protests were met with repression, which led to fierce resistance. Then, the established parties rolled out political maneuvers to convince people to leave the streets to “restore order” once the dictatorship had been dislodged. The type of “order” restored in February 2011 led to over a year of Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) military rule and the continued imprisonment of thousands of people. The “order” restored in late November led to the eventual election of Morsi and the continuation of Mubarak-era police, military and neoliberal economic policies.

Two of the young men, Ahmed and Omar, explain that the battle on this street was about fighting the police and was very much seen as an unfinished part of a revolution that began as a demonstration against them and the political role they had played under the dictatorship. “We all came down to fight when we heard about the attack,” Omar, who also fought in November, tells me. “Our friend was run over and killed by a police truck during the initial push into Tahrir, along with others. We came to fight back.”

Then the elections came, and, convinced by both the military regime and the new political powers, crowds dispersed. “The media convinced the country that we were thugs and criminals,” Omar says bitterly.

As the street empties into the busy traffic of Tahrir Square, a huge mural depicts Sambo, who rose to infamy during the revolution after fighting a soldier, taking his gun and turning it on the police. Then the wall turns, continuing its story of revolution, betrayal and the stifled dreams of another Egypt.

“This is what we have left now,” Ahmed says bitterly as we walk Mohamed Mahmoud, “words and slogans.”

Between Myths and Lies

Western perceptions of this revolution and of the many protests that followed it distort several key aspects of it, like the concept that somehow, the staging of elections has led to some new period of improvements in Egypt. The story we hear is that with nonviolent resistance, the Egyptian people won a revolution that has now brought democracy to the country.

Election time is perhaps when political mythology moves fastest through any society. In the United States, one can see this in the bumper stickers with Martin Luther King Jr.’s image next to Barack Obama’s, with the words “Fulfilling the Dream” over top, simplistically implying that the entirety of the civil rights movement had culminated in this moment. One can also see it in the deceptive “Occupy the Vote” signs that adorn front yards in my city, Baltimore, printed by local Obama Democrat campaigners.

To deconstruct the first myth, it goes without saying to most Egyptians, especially the young and poor, that the revolution here was no more about voting rights than the civil rights movement was about having a black president. In both cases, these movements were very much about economic, as well as social, justice, and they were movements against the poverty that far too many in this world experience. That elections would magically answer these demands is not a myth, but rather, historically, an all-out lie. And it seems to be exactly how politicians, both in Egypt and in the United States, would like to tell the story of last year’s revolution.

The other myth is that the revolution was nonviolent, which is a lie, as well. No one with any understanding of the Egyptian revolution could honestly misunderstand it as being nonviolent. On just the fourth day of the revolution, the January 28 “Day of Rage,” almost every police station in Cairo was burned or firebombed, and the massive headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was completely burned. Throughout the revolt, police were attacked with thousands of molotov cocktails, rocks, fireworks and, occasionally, with live rounds. Hundreds were killed fighting in the streets, including a number of police and soldiers, and many hundreds were brutally injured.

In November, the fighting was brutal and the casualties high. To support those in the streets, volunteers walked amongst the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square, collecting money to buy bottles for Molotov cocktails. “Everyone gave what they could,” Ahmed tells me.

“To support the fighters,” he said, “at one point, we had this gas station, and we just kept refueling and throwing molotov cocktails.”

The Egyptian state and security forces were also taking up collections for the fighting, only they were dealing with much bigger players. Three times in 2011, including in January under Mubarak and in November under the SCAF, US-based Combined Systems Incorporated (CSI) shipped 21 tons of tear gas to the Interior Ministry to support its crackdowns on the revolution.

In November, Egyptian dock workers at the Port of Suez refused to sign for and unload the shipments, while coordinated solidarity protests were held at both the gates of CSI’s Jamestown, Pennsylvania, factory and at the Manhattan headquarters of their parent company, Point Lookout Capital. Those fighting along Mohamed Mahmoud heard rumors but say no media outlets covered the controversial story of the November CSI shipment.

The combination of those rumors and the obvious maneuvers of the political parties away from revolutionary action led many young people to the streets in an attempt to revive the spirit of January and February. They left defeated, depressed and isolated. “Mohamed Mahmoud Street taught us that while people where fighting for their dignity, the political parties ran to the elections,” Ahmed tells me. “They no longer cared about why we were dying.”

Ahmed was among one of many young people who traveled to Mahalla in April of 2008 to participate in a general strike there led by the powerful textile workers union, and he fought alongside them as almost a dozen were murdered by police. He then helped organize solidarity demonstrations in Cairo in the years after.

“Mahalla felt betrayed by the rest of Egypt,” he says of 2008. “They felt as though the country failed to support them when they rose up. When the revolution started, they waited to see if we were for real, if we were talking about the economic issues and if we were willing to fight. Then they rebelled, too.”

It was neoliberal policies pushed by the IMF, particularly privatization initiatives, as well as brewing tension with police and government officials, that pushed workers to the streets of Mahalla. Many reference the strike as being an entry point into oppositional activism in the underground organizations of Egypt. The strike also resulted in the formation of the April 6 Movement, which played a key role in the revolution.

“What Happened Here Is Over”

While details of the pending IMF agreement have yet to be released by either party, Daily News Egypt wrote recently that “reports circulated that the IMF demanded of Egypt to lift food and fuel subsidies as a pre-condition for the loan,” and the International Herald Tribune reported that: “the State Department and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will take executives from nearly 50 American companies, like Caterpillar and Xerox, to Cairo beginning Saturday as part of one of the largest trade delegations ever. The officials and executives will urge the government to make changes in taxation, bankruptcy and labor laws to improve the investment climate.”

The dangers of such loans lurk primarily in these stipulations, such as those calling for “changes to labor laws.” It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand what this means: lower wages and attacks on organized labor.

Such measures are and have always been justified by citing a nation’s debt burden; in Egypt’s case, it owes up to $35 billion to international lenders, the majority of it to Europe and the United States. So, says IMF rhetoric, to service its debt to the West, a nation must cut government spending, namely from social programs and food and fuel subsidies, and shift that money into repaying loans from the IMF. The catch is that, after each loan, the debt usually just grows bigger.

But many in Egypt and around the world argue that Egypt’s debt is “odious,” a much-debated legal term for debts incurred under dictatorship or through corrupt political mechanisms. “Egypt’s external debt is a direct result of [the] Mubarak regime’s failed economic policies, which resorted to external borrowing as a quick fix for complex economic problems,” reads the campaign web site for Drop Egypt’s Debt, which campaigns for the unconditional dropping of Egypt’s Mubarak-era debt. “Although Egyptians did not have a say over the need for external borrowing nor the spending priorities for the loans’ proceeds, they continue to suffer from Mubarak’s debt burden even after his fall.”

If deemed odious, such debt should be unconditionally dropped, which would leave Egypt far from needing a $4.8 billion loan.

In this debate, the hypocrisy of the United States government shines through. When it comes to military support, it has given up to $1 billion a year for 30 years, including during the entirety of Mubarak’s reign, as well as another $1 billion dollars last year directly to the SCAF.

“U.S. assistance to Egypt has long played a central role in Egypt’s economic and military development,” the State Department says of its program to support Mubarak. Such “military development” left almost a thousand dead here, while, throughout the revolutionary period, including both January and November of 2011, American companies like CSI in Western Pennsylvania continued to arm Egyptian security forces with tear gas and other weapons.

For young, low-income people like Ahmed, the dream of a new Egypt is compromised not only by the trauma of lost friends and the political repression of the post-revolutionary period, but also by the continuation of Mubarak-era mandatory military service laws. Those who are not in university are banned from leaving the country until they have served one to three years in an institution that they hate, and it is up to the military to decide the length of service.

I ask Ahmed, who dreams of traveling, if he had considered dodging the draft, or if there has been a movement to resist it. “If you do, you go to military jail,” he says, “where you are tortured and beaten.”

“No one wants to go there,” he said.

While many of us in the West celebrate the revolution that, together with its counterpart in Tunisia, ushered in the Arab Spring and inspired the indignados protests in Spain and the Occupy movement in the United States, this is the Egypt that Egyptians live in. They walk daily past the stenciled memorials of those killed in the streets as they face the continuation of some of the worst aspects of the Mubarak regime. Only now, they enjoy the freedom to talk openly and bitterly about it.

“What happened here is over,” Omar tells me flatly as we smoke sheesha later in a downtown café, a “Boycott the Elections” sticker still fixed to the pipe. “We celebrated at first, and then we realized what was going on.”

“The situation here is very bad,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the Egyptian revolution is that, to win real, substantive changes, you must stay in the streets and fight from there. As soon as you leave, your power is gone, and it is left in the hands of the few political players who have managed to push their way to the top.

“Never trust politicians,” Ahmed says bitterly. “They will never think outside of the ballot box.”

These are perspectives that we in the United States should take very seriously as election time approaches. Will we pull ourselves out of the streets to give “political space” to those in power, the way many from the antiwar movement did after Obama’s election? Or will we figure out ways to continue building, expanding and improving upon the massive social pressure unleashed in Zuccotti Park and Oscar Grant Plaza and from the anti-eviction camps of Minneapolis and Atlanta?

It’s a hard conversation, but there’s no better time to engage in it than now.

Occupy Wall Street And Beyond: An Update From The United States

In Thoughts & Analysis on November 7, 2011 at 11:35 pm

This was written for folks outside of the United States, but it may be a worthwhile read also for those living within the country who are interested in some analysis on the context and dynamics and a generalized history of the “Occupy Movement”.

Something big is happening in the plazas and streets of the United States. Emerging from the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York, a new movement has taken shape that seems to transcend what many organizers have classically envisioned a mass social movement against the economic system looking like… but it’s shaping up to be one!

Below I offer some context to this movement, a description of some of its dynamics and positions, a brief summary of what has been happening since it began September 17th, and my opinion on what this all means.

From Bush to the Tea Party

It is no secret that politics in the United States have been moving further and further to the right since the 1970s. For many, the introduction under Ronald Reagan of domestic neoliberalism and an almost religious emphasis on pro-business policies that would “trickle-down” to the rest of us, marks the beginning of our current situation.

In the last few years the cultural component of this current has manifested most publicly as the Tea Party, which has been riding a wave of anti-Obama sentiment stemming from a mixture of racism and genuine disillusionment with American liberalism. The Obama years have seen a surge in membership in racist hate groups according the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors them.

At the local and State political level, Tea Party billionaires have been successful in winning some popular support as well as several key elections, which have been followed by coordinated legislative attacks on “government spending”, a vague term usually referring to any spending benefiting public health programs, immigrants, unions, students, women, the elderly, and the poor.

In Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, bills have been passed that require police officers to check the immigration status of people they think could be undocumented, essentially requiring them to racially profile brown-skinned people. These bills also take state funding away from undocumented people and require public schools to check immigration status before allowing children to enroll. In Arizona, the introduction of SB1070, which is now legally stalled, brought a massive wave of street protests. Protests also erupted in Georgia when a similar bill was introduced, but they were unable to stop the legislation.

In Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, among other states, a bill taken from the same think-tank that wrote SB1070 in Arizona, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),  has been adopted. In Wisconsin, the “budget repair bill”, seeking to break public unions, privatize university control, increase student tuition, and cut funding for Wisconsin’s public healthcare program, was introduced in early February. Hundreds set up an occupation and up to 10,000 rallied daily inside the Capitol building in Madison for a month and coordinated marches of over 100,000 people, the largest demonstrations in the state’s history, to stop the bill from taking effect. Republicans broke so many laws trying to ram the bill through and avoid the protests that the bill has now been legally blocked by a federal judge.

On top of this new wave of right-wing activism and popular reaction, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent interventions in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan, have increasingly caused many regular folks to see an imperial agenda in United States foreign policy. Afghanistan, now the longest and most expensive war in U.S. history, is still raging, and attempts by Obama to market the withdrawal from Iraq as a success have been met with a bitter cynicism.

Locally, especially since the 2008 “economic crisis” was officially recognized, many people across class lines have been pushed out of their houses by the same banks that benefited from a $1 trillion federal bailout package. Some couldn’t help but notice absurd amounts of “government spending” going to multiple wars with little-to-no popular purpose while people were losing their homes. This foreclosure crisis precipitated the recession and had a wide impact on both the poor and middle class, and it served to bring together those forces in a unified anger against the big banks and financial institutions.

People aren’t just losing their homes, they are losing their ability to get by. The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington D.C., released information recently that found extreme poverty neighborhoods growing by one-third over the last 10 years, and that 40 percent of those living in such live below the federal poverty line.

Alongside that, a recent New York Times poll announced that a majority of the country did not trust the government, and that almost half believe the “Occupy Movement” reflected the majority’s interests. “Not only do 89 percent of Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing, but 74 percent say the country is on the wrong track and 84 percent disapprove of Congress,” the New York Times states.

Arab Spring, American Winter

When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisian and Egypt, at the same time as the occupations and mass protests in in Wisconsin began, we were paying close attention. Many were inspired by the movements in north Africa and those that soon emerged across the Middle East. Many of us saw photos of Egyptians with Wisconsin-solidarity signs, and it helped globalize the movement’s spirit while internationalizing the understanding of this moment.

While massive protests erupted in a similar fashion in 2006, culminating with the “Day Without an Immigrant” marches on May 1st, they struggled to win popular support in a country with much bottled and exposed racism, as well as struggling to keep up their own momentum. However, they did catalyze many in the Latino community and their allies, and gave birth to a new Civil Rights generation of social activists. Their participation in the current wave cannot be ignored, however, nor can the current movement’s aversion to embracing immigration as a cornerstone issue.

The Wisconsin protests earlier this year, while being viewed as being somewhat unsuccessful politically, were a major social and cultural success. They broke a silence surrounding resistance to the Tea Party’s recent surge, and they sent a message to the people of this country that affective protest must transcend traditional methods and doctrine if they are to be effective. Occupation became a realistic option where it wasn’t before.

The massive student uprising in Chile and the Indignados protests in Spain that started in May further pushed Americans to a place where action was necessary. It seemed like the whole world was beginning to rise up, fairly peacefully too, against long-seated regimes and massive economic systems. The clock was ticking.

It was in this context that on September 17th, a small group of people began an “occupation” of Zuccotti Park, a small concrete plaza in downtown Manhattan. All it took was a simple idea; the global moment was such that people were willing do something out of the ordinary to attempt to move the country to action.

Many community organizers, radical activists, and others who have long been involved in movements for systemic change across the U.S. largely ignored the gathering at first, and some even scoffed at it. “When I first heard about the #OccupyWallstreet actions a few months ago, I laughed. The whole idea sounded naïve,” my friend and Steelworker  union organizer Patrick Young writes. “Without any real organizational support, a group of people were going to try to occupy the most heavily policed space in the world.  The group didn’t have a clear message; any sort of tactical or strategic unity; and the demands weren’t even defined.”

Some experienced organizers along with many younger people, for whom Adbusters’ call to “Occupy Wall Street” had provided their first step into activism, put their weight into the occupation from day one.

“We all knew there was this poppable tension under the surface of the country,” a friend who came to Wall Street on the 17th tells me. “And this had so far only been manifested by the Tea Party. This is why I went to Zuccotti Park, because I was curious… this call had been circulated in a time of great tension and revolutionary potential… and, what happens if someone plucks the surface and breaks the tension?”

Indeed, what started small began to gather attention. After a week or two, hundreds of people had come to Zuccotti Park to set up camp or attend nightly meetings. The gathering’s commitment to democratic process and daily, consensus-driven general assemblies perplexed and inspired people. The United States is not used to such outpourings of participatory democracy.

The rallying cry of the movement became “We are the 99%”, a slogan referencing the fact that 1% of the population of the United States controls 40% of the wealth. This framing of the debate around economics resonated widely with people here. The idea was and is to bring together as many people as possible under this banner, which exposed an inherent interest in wealth-redistribution and an acknowledgment of a class war that has existed for so long that has primarily been perpetuated by the rich against working people and the poor.

As the movement grew, Patrick Young, who I quoted earlier, concluded that “perhaps the success of Occupy Wall Street can provide a lesson to us ‘experienced’ organizers: Maybe we don’t have all the answers.  Maybe it’s possible that this group can go about it all the ‘wrong’ way and still have success in pulling off something really big. And maybe we don’t really have our finger on the pulse of what’s going to resonate with our neighbors, our coworkers and our classmates.”

Challenges for Collective Liberation

While the gathering at Zuccotti Park was growing and its rhetoric was taking shape, very important and well though-out critiques began to be circulated online, mostly via Facebook and Twitter. These critiques challenged the whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity of the gathering at Zuccotti Park and called into question the safeness of the park as a community space.

In one piece, entitled “So Real It Hurts”, Manissa McCleave Maharawal tells of her and a group of fellow South Asian folks confronting racism in the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street in the early days.

“I had heard the “Declaration of the Occupation” read at the General Assembly the night before but I didn’t realize that it was going to be finalized as THE declaration of the movement right then and there. When I heard it the night before with Sonny we had looked at each other and noted that the line about “being one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class…” was a weird line, one that hit me in the stomach with its naivety and the way it made me feel alienated…

This movement was about to send a document into the world about who and what it was that included a line that erased all power relations and decades of history of oppression. A line that would de-legitimize the movement, this would alienate me and people like me, this would not be able to be something I could get behind. And I was already behind it this movement and somehow I didn’t want to walk away from this. I couldn’t walk away from this.”

After threatening to block the passage of the declaration, the General Assembly agreed to change the document to recognize the race-realities so often ignored by those proclaiming themselves “beyond” racism. Tough conversations and reflection followed, but still, the group refused to turn away form this movement and instead opted to throw their weight into it:

“It was hard, and it was fucked up that we had to fight for it in the way we did but we did fight for it and we won. The line was changed, they listened, we sat down and re-wrote it and it has been published with our re-write. And when we walked away, I felt like something important had just happened, that we had just pushed a movement a little bit closer to the movement I would like to see– one that takes into account historical and current inequalities, oppressions, racisms, relations of power, one that doesn’t just recreate liberal white privilege but confronts it head on.”

Bronx-based hip-hop trio Rebel Diaz went down to Zuccotti Park in the early days and were confronted by a similar racism:

“Besides being stared at and looked at as if we were invading their space, the predominantly young, white and liberal Occupiers sent over one of the few African American men over to talk to us. When we asked them why they didnt approach us themselves and build with us, they replied that “they thought we would get mad because they were white”…

Our intention is not to dismiss it as just this, but the gut feeling was that there is a serious disconnect down there. We left with mad questions! Where was the hood? Where was the poorest congressional district in the USA, from The South Bronx at? Like we say in Hip Hop, where Brooklyn at? Could it be that perhaps the working class couldn’t afford to just leave work and the responsibility of bills and family survival to camp out in a city park? Did folks from our communities not know about this? If people of color were occupying Wall St would we have lasted this long?”

What is so interesting about Rebel Diaz’s critique is that is ends with a call for participation in the occupation while offering a very strong critical analysis that could so often manifest as a decision not to participate.

“Our analysis on whats going in Wall Street is that its very similar to the Syntagma Square uprisings in Greece, and other city squares like the ones in Madrid. In these movements, there is no central leadership, its about something, but then again not really, because the demands arent clear. What is clear is the identification of the common enemy : the greedy banks…

We encourage folks to support the occupations and see them for themselves. Perhaps the topless nude activists, or the drum circle may not be for you, but the idea of having a national dialogue sparked about these greedy bankers and their abuse of the people is important and needed. We plan on going back with more people!!”

Brooklyn-based queer labor organizer Charlene Obernauer struck a similar note when she described her commitment to carry on the occupation while recognizing the need for a great cultural change to occur in the park. Like the previous critiques, her analysis of a racism, sexism, and homophobia present in the park spread fast on Facebook:

“But despite the many amazing organizers who have justifiably left OWS and vowed to never return, many others just won’t walk away. They see the potential of the movement. They hate many of the people and ideologies behind it; they hate the privilege and the arrogance, but they see the potential.

Every organization, every movement, struggles with acknowledging systematic oppression. Movements that deny racism, movements that deny sexism; movements that are completely unaccountable to the very people they claim to be liberating; these movements will fail. Again and again, we have witnessed their failure.”

As Charlene notes, some who came to Occupy Wall Street did make a decision to turn away from this young movement after experiencing some of the things mentioned above, and more. As this movement grows further, it will have to address its early days while continuing to address and be challenged by concepts of anti-oppression and collective liberation.

A Social Movement Emerges

At some point in this time period, most people recognized that a mass social movement had suddenly taken shape, though there are varying opinions about its lack of stated, external political goals and trajectory. However, it is clear to many people that this movement is extremely powerful and rather broad. Many have related that relatives and other people in their lives who have never been politically active before have become quite moved by the occupations.

What Occupy Wall Street has done is catalyzed a country that is extremely angry at the financial institutions and the system of capitalism that we have. This is not to say that these protests are all “anti-capitalist”, rather, they are a strange combination of anarchists, socialists, communists, progressive liberals, conservative-identified libertarians, and even some who identify as Republicans but see the hyper-rich as exploiters of the values they identify with.

That said, the issues being raised at Wall Street and the discussions surrounding them are quite critical of what we on “the left” call capitalism or what some on “the right” call corporatism; a financial system working specifically for the rich and inherently opposed to the interests of the poor; the reliance on currencies based on the gambling of debt; the “bubbles” created and exploited by investors to take advantage of people’s fears and needs (such as occurred during the sub-prime loan crisis here but also in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere); corporate-plundering of the planet; the looting of the pensions and social security of working people to save collapsing banks, and more.

Whatever you want to call it, it’s spreading. A few weeks after 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, which ironically brought Occupy Wall Street to the forefront of world attention, encampments were established in almost every major city in the country, as well as in cities across Europe and parts of Latin America and Canada. From Des Moines, Iowa to Tampa, Florida and all the way up to Seattle, Washington, people took to their central squares, parks and plazas.

New York and Oakland have certainly become the epicenters of the movement, but major encampments and protests have been ongoing in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and several other cities as well.

In the last two weeks, police repression of the “Occupation Movement” has spread, leading some to see a national strategy by colluding municipalities and the federal government. As of this writing, mass arrests and police violence have occurred in New York, Oakland, Nashville, San Diego, Portland, Denver, Rochester, Chicago, Atlanta, Tulsa, and other cities.

While some cities have struck decent agreements with local occupations, others have brutally attacked them. But, like a good social movement, every police attack and mass arrest has served to bring more people out, and they have helped fortify this movement’s place in American culture.

“You can’t stop a spirit that’s coming alive,” Seattle-based songwriter Jim Page wrote of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that shut down one of the most important economic summits in the world. “That’s the kind of spirit that’s bound to survive.”

The Oakland General Strike

Early in the morning on Wednesday, October 26, heavily armed riot police violently stormed the Occupy Oakland camp at Oscar Grant Plaza, arresting over 100 people. That night, a march of over 3,000 people took the streets of Oakland, demanding immediate control of the plaza, renamed by the people of Oakland after last year’s police assassination of unarmed Oscar Grant. Mass protests and riots that followed the killing, both against the police and the judicial system that allowed Officer Johannes Mehserle to spend only 6 months in prison for the murder of Grant, radicalized many in the Oakland-area and reinforced deep division between the people and the police.

As night fell, riot police opened fire on the march with various projectiles, tear gas, and concussion grenades. When the smoke cleared, 24 year-old Iraq veteran Scott Olsen lay motionless on the ground, his face covered in blood. Olsen had been struck with a tear gas canister directly in the head, breaking his skull and causing traumatic brain damage.

As others tried to help him, police fired concussion grenades into the crowd, injuring another protester who was also hospitalized when a grenade exploded next to her head. As of this writing, Olsen is in an Oakland hospital awaiting possible brain surgery.

The following night, while multiple “snake marches” tied up traffic in downtown Manhattan chanting “New York is Oakland, Oakland is New York” and Egyptians announced that they would march through Tahrir Square in solidarity, 3,000 people again took the streets of Oakland. This time the crowd ripped down the fence around Oscar Grant Plaza and held a massive general assembly there to discuss next steps.

As the general assembly wrapped up, calls for a “General Strike” went out. The crowd of over 2,000 voted overwhelmingly in favor of the strike and set the date for Wednesday, November 2nd.

That week, people around the country waiting in anticipation for what would happen in Oakland, and solidarity rallies were organized all over the country. If they failed to pull off something major, it could slow the energy of this unfolding movement. When the day came, many people were glued to their computers to watch livestreaming coverage of the many marches.

A number of unpermitted marches took the streets of Oakland starting early that Wednesday. Many businesses closed in anticipation of the strike, and many of them hung signs in their windows supporting “the 99 percent”. Reports of tens of thousands started to emerge… Oakland had done it! They had mobilized serious numbers to defend the occupations and raise their voices against police violence.

While minor property destruction against big banks captured the attention of the violence-obsessed media, the largest and most empowering action of the day was a mass march and civil disobedience at the Port of Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle estimated the size of this march at 100,000 people.

As blockades went up around every entrance to the port, the 5th busiest in the country, representatives from the ILWU -the radical union that organizes workers at the port,-announced that the night shift had been closed due to the blockades. Many of these workers stood with the people picketing.

The jubilation from Oakland was immeasurable.

The significance of a march of this magnitude pulling off a mass direct action is hard to explain. It took organizers a year and half to pull a crowd half this size in 1999 to shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, and that was a national action! This was local, pulling mostly folks from the direct municipalities of San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland, San Jose, and their respective suburbs.

Even the mass media was forced to recognize the success of the General Strike. “Occupy Oakland Shuts Down Port” read the USA Today headline. “Thousands of Occupy Oakland protesters expanded their anti-Wall Street demonstrations on Wednesday, marching through downtown, picketing banks and swarming the port. By early evening, port authorities said maritime operations there were effectively shut down,” announced the New York Times.

On a week’s notice, 100,000 people had gathered to take a major action against one of the most important economic sites in California!

Around midnight, others from Occupy Oakland reclaimed a foreclosed homeless services center that had been sitting vacant near Oscar Grant Plaza. After an hour or so of stand offs, police attacked. Barricades that had been erected in the streets surrounding the center were lit on fire, and those behind them attempted to keep the police back, while others fled. Over 90 people were arrested and a number were injured.

An Iraq-war veteran named Kayvan Sabeghi was walking home near this time when police stopped him. After asking why he couldn’t walk to his house, Sabeghi was beaten by the police, rupturing his spleen. After 24-hours of being denied medical attention, Sabeghi was transferred to the hospital and underwent surgery. He is the second Iraq veteran in one week to undergo surgery after an Oakland police attack.

On Tactics, Strategy, and Movement Building

The small-scale property destruction and an attack on a Whole Foods grocery store by the Black Bloc during one of the mass marches drew lines between some occupiers. Many anarchists responded with critiques of what they saw as childish, random attacks that risked pushing new people away from this young movement.

Others came out in defense of the Black Bloc, saying that all targets were legitimate and that the actions of the Bloc were advancing a needed “dialogue”. An anonymous post called “The Black Block, a hopefully more interesting critique” described the scene:

“At whole foods it became a giant shouting match between two groups of hundreds of people each. And I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs “they’re just fucking windows!!” somehow these two groups of people had gotten so obsessed with these windows that they were willing to create divisive debate and bad feelings through whole sections of a protest that is already showing itself to be the most substantial internal threat to American capitalism in forty years.

Is it always black block time? For me It’s not about whether black block, or the specific brand of minor protest violence it represents is “good or bad” it’s about whether or not it’s useful right now. The answer might be yes, but IF we aren’t thinking critically about our tactics then we’re…dumb.”

Some involved in the building takeover responded to public criticism of their decision to build barricades to defend their action:

“But we also hoped to use the national spotlight on Oakland to encourage other occupations in colder, more northern climates to consider claiming spaces and moving indoors in order to resist the repressive force of the weather, after so bravely resisting the police and the political establishment. We want this movement to be here next Spring, and claiming unused space is, in our view, the most plausible way forward for us at this point…

We understand that much of the conversation about last night will revolve around the question of violence (though mostly they mean violence to “property,” which is somehow strangely equated with harming human beings). We know that there are many perspectives on these questions, and we should make the space for talking about them. But let us say this to the cops and to the mayor: things got “violent” after the police came. The riot cops marched down Telegraph and then the barricades were lit on fire. The riots cops marched down Telegraph and then bottles got thrown and windows smashed. The riot cops marched down Telegraph and graffiti appeared everywhere.

The point here is obvious: if the police don’t want violence, they should stay the hell away.”

A street-medic who was out in the night actions wrote a condemning “Open Letter to the Black Bloc and Others Concerning Wednesday’s Tactics in Oakland” that caused further discussion.

“My concern was with the ill-conceived tactics used to occupy the building, in that it looked like an anarchist glamorshot instead of a committed and revolutionary act to actually acquire and hold that space. I am tired of direct actions being done in a way that turns them into photo-ops and nothing else. I am tired of watching barricades be built only to be abandoned the minute the cops open fire. In addition, the crowd on 16th around the occupied building was terrifying far before the cops ever showed up. As a woman and queer person I wanted to get the fuck out of there almost immediately as it felt wildly unsafe on multiple levels, and I feel like whoever orchestrated the take-over made choices that specifically facilitated the overall crazy atmosphere. There were fistfights, screaming matches, fires, and just a general vibe that people were out to fuck shit up, and absolutely no attempt on the part of anyone to shut that sort of in-group violence down…

I want better tactics, and I want accountability to the communities that may be impacted by our behavior, and I saw none of that last night.

I saw black bloc kids running from the camp while it was under police assault, and as someone who spent about two hours negotiating and assisting in the care of an ostensibly homeless man from the camp, hit by a rubber bullet in the camp, while black bloc kids ran away to their safe homes and made comments like “at least we crushed the place” and “we’ll just take it back,” I want those kids to be held accountable to the damage that they did, damage made possible by their class and race privilege.”

Another anonymous anarchist responded to the public discourse with an “Open Letter from Anarchist Participant in The General Strike”:

“Do not denounce the courage of those willing to defend themselves and our collective spaces of direct democracy. Just as we shouldn’t denounce the courage of comrades who use their bodies in non-violent resistance. Know your friends, and don’t confuse them as your enemies. Support them. We’re all out here together, don’t let anyone change that. We have a beautiful thing happening in Oakland. LETS KEEP IT UP!”

MC Lynx, an anarchist hip-hop artist and organizer from the Oakland-area chimed in as well, venting a frustration with fellow anarchists:

“The plain fact is that using tactics like property destruction in the middle of a giant protest full of people that have explicitly rejected property destruction or direct confrontation as tactics is disrespectful and the exact opposite of Solidarity. It places other protestors at increased risk without their consent which directly conflicts with our vision of a world where everyone has a say in the decisions that impact them. There is NOTHING Anarchist about such action. Further, it doesn’t win us any friends or do anything to advance our cause or the larger cause of OWS. All it does is alienate people who should be our allies and justify the repression that will be levied against us by our enemies.”

Some folks have argued that more economic damage was caused by ten minutes blockading the port than a night of window smashing. Plus the port blockades were wildly popular… and they didn’t cause any fistfights among  their own participants.

Others have argued, morals aside, that the movement was not ready for this type of widespread property destruction, nor did it need it.

Another Oakland hip-hop artist and organizer, Boots Riley from The Coup -who has been quite active with Occupy Oakland-, defended a “Diversity of Tactics” framework while also criticizing the smashing of windows on November 2nd:

The truth is that while almost everyone I know in Occupy Oakland (including myself) thinks that breaking windows is tactically the wrong thing to do and very stupid, many people do not agree with non-violent philosophy. If you kicked those folks out then you would have a body of folks that wouldn’t have been radical enough to even call for a General Strike…

On November 2nd, a large group of people with many contradictions successfully shut down the city in the biggest action with an overt class analysis in 60 years. People all over the world, all over the country, all over Oakland- are excited by this. If you are threatening to leave because, in the midst of this mass action some people broke windows and we are all trying to figure out how to work together, then you’re missing the point and you’ll be missing out on history.”

The conversation has been so large and widespread that the Occupy Oakland General Assembly canceled one of its meeting to replace it with a public discussion on tactics, violence & non-violence, and accountability within the occupy movement. While this is indeed an “old conversation”, in over a decade of involvement in militant or semi-militant street actions, community organizing, and political discussions, I have never seen it happen in such a broad, mindful, and sustainable way.

Why is this? Because folks in Oakland understand that a lot rests on their shoulders right now, pushing many into a discussion that has too-often resulted in lots of folks packing their bags and leaving street-protests, or worse, political movements. In the past it was overshadowed by a willingness to walk away, now it’s being conducting with an understanding of mutual needs.

Like those critiques mentioned earlier from Occupy Wall Street, those coming out of the Oakland General Strike are heavy with emotion and a desire to not let this movement go away. It’s just too important and too big.

What’s Next?

Following the Oakland General Strike will be a day of mass action on November 17 (N17) being led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), whose experience during the Wisconsin occupation seems to have helped push them in a more grassroots, organizing-driven direction.

N17 will see cities across the U.S. doing major blockades, including an 8:00 AM mass march to disrupt or shut-down the downtown Manhattan business and banking corridor, home to Wall Street.

This is just the beginning. This movement, in words echoed by people all over the U.S., just might be, like economists and politicians have said of the major banks, “too big to fail”.

“Globalization” Is Coming Home

In Thoughts & Analysis on October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Protests Spread As Financial Institutions Target Global North

UPDATED FROM EARLIER ARTICLE

At some point recently, we entered a “movement moment”, a period of time where long-term strategic campaigns merge with spontaneous, organic social upheaval and manifest in the streets with rebellious joy.

Such moments can bring about radical, revolutionary changes in short periods of time, as displayed in the Arab Spring and now, perhaps, in the Global North’s emerging winter.

Major protests are gripping some of the most powerful countries in the world, namely the United States, England, and Italy; an ongoing uprising is taking place in Greece; some of the largest demonstrations since the 1973 military coup have taken in Chile; and long-established dictatorships have fallen or are about to fall all over northern Africa and the Middle East.

In the United States, a sense of grassroots democratic engagement is spreading across the country to the surprise of many long-engaged community organizers and radicals, and conversations questioning the moral and theoretical basis of financial capitalism have become quite regular among ordinary people.

Late in the third week of October, amid the largest protests since the fall of the military junta in 1974 in which a massive crowd attempted to storm Parliament, the Greek government finalized austerity measures laid out for the “Troika”, the name given to the joint power structure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union, and the European Currency Unit.

In Brussels over the October 21st weekend at a now-extended emergency meeting focused on how to save financial capitalism in light of the Greek debt crisis, the European Union announced a new round of bail-outs for many of Europe’s big banks, citing national governments as one of the main sources of revenue. When the Irish state struck a similar agreement with the Troika last year, they looted the pension funds of public employees across Ireland.

As the EU met in Brussels, 2,000 people filled Dublin’s Dame Street in front of the Central Bank of Ireland and the IMF’s office to join the “Occupy Dame Street” encampment.

But contrary to many corporate media-statements suggesting otherwise, what has unified people across the world is not just solidarity with the protests on Wall Street or with the Arab Spring. While there is certainly an undeniable lineage between these movements, what has caused such upheavel is a shared situation; many of these countries are facing economic conditions that a critical mass of the people has collectively deemed unacceptable.

But this debate is nothing new. In fact, many of the economic paradigms and institutions being combated right now were the same ones being combated a decade ago in what was dubbed by the media as the “anti-globalization” movement and by those of us involved in it as “the movement of movements”. If first caught the public’s eyes in the Global North in Seattle at the end of 1999 when the World Trade Organization’s summit was shut-down by 50,000 people.

“Anti-Globalization” Comes Home

Shortly before the once-prized economy of Argentina collapsed at the end of 2001, a “European Summer” saw massive protests across Europe against “neoliberalism”, the corporate economic system behind what is commonly called “globalization.” Emphasizing the privatization of public services and resources and the removal of environmental and human rights regulations deemed “barriers to trade”, neoliberal globalization was widely recognized as the key factor exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor on a global scale.

These protests were the largest and most brutal events that this movement experienced in the Global North; with  In Gothenburg, three protesters would be shot by the police, and in Genoa, 21 year-old Carlo Giuliani would be shot twice in the face and then run over by a police truck, killing him instantly.

The echoes of these events can still be heard throughout Europe, especially among those who experienced the traumatic police repression or served jail time for their role in the events. A few weeks ago, I saw a beautiful stencil memorial to Carlo in a hallway of one of Austria’s last political squats – just one reminder that the political memory of these uprisings is very much part of the fabric of the European autonomous left.

But there’s a much louder echo being heard in Europe right now, the echo of corporate-globalization itself. And as in the last decade, a rage that has built up over many years is beginning to emerge in the form of a mass, loosely coordinated social movement.

In Europe, young and old alike have been facing the dissolution of what had long been considered staples of western European countries; England’s health care system is on the privatization block; the right to squat abandoned houses is being stripped in England and The Netherlands; the International Monetary Fund has tightened its grip on Greece, Ireland, and Portugal with increasing austerity measures, and tuition rates for students across the continent are rising dramatically.

Alongside these economic conditions, increasingly militarized restrictions to immigration into what has been dubbed “Fortress Europe” stand as a drastic reminder that money and products, but not people, travel freely into and out of neoliberal economies.

What is happening is that “globalization” is coming home to the countries that helped create it. The rich economies of the global north, which long relied on the exploitation of southern peoples and economies, are coming under the same restrictions they once imposed on the rest of the world.

Though many poor people in these countries have long suffered from domestic exploitation, the present wave of budgets cuts threatens to expose both the poor and middle-classes to harsher realities, unifying them in a social movement that is now attempting to maintain this often-fragile alliance.

What we are seeing now is the emergence of a similar political discussion to the days after Seattle, only this time we have turned inward in the Global North: we are now not just talking about solidarity with the Global South, rather we are addressing issues both global and local, as we are feeling the harsh effects of a global economy designed for a minority of the world’s wealthiest people.

Rise of the Indignados

It is in this climate that tensions in Europe have been brewing, so when the Arab Spring broke out across North Africa and the Middle East, the spirit quickly spread across the Mediterranean to the countries of southern Europe.

In Tunisia, a generation of young people educated in universities had found themselves with few job options. In 2008, they watched the government of Ben Ali kill protesting miners in the southern city of Gafsa, and student organizations and bloggers began publicly agitating for major changes.

Protests reached a peak at the end of last year, and when hundreds of thousands refused to stand down against the guns of the Tunisian military, the dictator Ben Ali fled the country.

The movement in Tunisia inspired Egyptians, and they too soon took to the streets, waging highly publicized battles for control of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

While Egypt was roaring, students, union workers, and community members refused to leave the Capitol building in Wisconsin. Opposed to Tea Party governor Scott Walker’s introduction of harsh legislation targeting unions, education funding, and healthcare subsidies, hundreds – and at times thousands – would remain inside for almost a month and build a vibrant protest community inside.

The Indignado movement in Spain arose next, bringing thousands of people out for weeks-long protests in squares across the country. They found their strongest base in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya.

Hundreds of Indignados recently marched for two and a half months from Spain to set up camp outside of the EU summit in Brussels.

Many people across the world watched YouTube videos of police attacking Indignados in the Plaça on May 27, which fueled international support for the movement and inspired the call for Occupy Wall Street.

Visiting Barcelona last week, I talked with several Indignados and learned about their movement. I told them about my time in Madison, Wisconsin during the occupation of the Capitol there and about the ways in which that movement organized, related to political parties and how some of its participants now reflect on the events.

A friend and Indignado participant took me to the Plaça Catalunya, where hundreds of Indignados had made their homes for a month in the shadow of the old telephone exchange building used the by the anarchist CNT during the war years in the late 1930s. Here she and another participant tell me of the movement’s many dynamics and of the violent police encounters that greeted their peaceful encampment.

On June 15, two weeks after bloody attacks by police, over 2000 Indignados blockaded the Catalan parliament, forcing the government to use helicopters to access the building. Four days later, hundreds of thousands marched across Spain, under the banner “We will not pay for their crisis!”

Meanwhile, neighborhood councils sprung up throughout the city and existing ones took on work related to the protests. Since then, a network has been maintained to physically defend families facing foreclosure and eviction throughout Barcelona.

Soon thereafter in Greece, coming on top of years of militant street protests, massive square occupations were launched following the Indignados model, bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets of Athens this summer. “They were opposed to all political parties and to the established unions,” a Greek friend tells me, pointing out the inherent radical democracy proposed by such gatherings. “They were very broad, involving both the poor and the middle classes.”

Portugal too had square protests emerge after the Indignados took the Plaça, and recently Lisbon saw a march of up to 130,000 people against EU and IMF austerity measures. “The government pretty much does what the IMF says,” a friend in Portugal explains to me upon my arrival in one of Western Europe’s poorest countries.

Collective Movement Spaces

Though it reads like a mystical story of upheaval, to say that the protests in Europe or Wisconsin were “inspired by” the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia is only half true; they were inspired by the successful protests, but they were also pushed forward by similar conditions being imposed on them by many of the same institutions.

There can be no denying that there is a strong, energetic relationship between the Arab Spring and all of these movements that have emerged since then. However, it is a relationship that mostly exists through consciousness rather than direct communication, and has manifested as a series of movements that are globally understood to be linked, much like the “movement of movements” of the “anti-globalization” years.

Though the Indignados knew little of the Wisconsin protests, their movement bore many similarities to it in terms of organization, demands, disagreement over vague or direct purpose, size, and relations with the community.

In both Madison and Barcelona, a few hundred people remaining in a fixed location with little previous organizational connections brought hundreds of thousands of people together on multiple occasions. In both cities, a shared space became an epicenter of cultural and social change.

And in both cities, after a little over a month, the protests disintegrated with a mixture of success and shortcoming. In reflection, participants from both movements feel everything from celebration to confused defeat, some believing their actions did not push hard enough, others seeing them as the early stages only for future events.

Shortcomings aside, the Indignados, the movement in Wisconsin and the protests now spreading from Wall Street expose a new, directly democratic, non-dogmatic politic, one that has been clearly inspired by movements of the last ten years, but which also includes a wide variety of people with a range of political affiliations and visions.

Perhaps the main characteristic of all of these movements, and their main strength, is the creation of social spaces in which movements can host dialogue and experience fast-paced social changes and collective transformation. This is why Tahrir Square became a symbol, and why the Capitol in Wisconsin and the Plaça Catalunya became sites to defend and celebrate.

Whereas many movements struggle constantly to find collective space, usually through the hosting of regular marches or demonstrations, the establishment of such spaces as the encampments in the Plaça Catalunya or at Occupy Wall Street, allows for a more rapid sense of power to develop, often leading to a more horizontal arrangement of power within a movement.

They also create space for real debate and dialogue around issues of power and privilege. A number of essays and videos discussing race, sexism, class privilege, and homophobia within the “occupation movement” have gone viral over the last two weeks.

Interestingly, almost all of these have been written with a sense of urgency, not to discredit the occupations, but to urge those participating to push them to new levels, to move them beyond their traditional comfort zones, to help them grow by ensuring they take on issues that have historically killed emerging social movements in the United States.

Such collectively organized spaces, with their rejection of traditional leadership models and their emphasis on the empowerment of their participants, have the capacity to become key focal points of transformation for this generation. That is, if their participants are able to recognize their shared power and learn from the needed critique mentioned above.

Perhaps they will, as has Egypt’s Tahrir Square, become both the symbols and sites of global revolt against the neoliberal economies of the corporate-era.

Of course, there are still many battles ahead, but it is certain that what happens next in New York may be influential throughout the world.  It seems accurate to say that right now, the whole world really is watching.

Protests Grow in “Europe’s Next Greece”

In News, Thoughts & Analysis on October 10, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Hundreds “Occupy Dublin” As Wall Street Tactic Spreads

“What are you protesting against?” asks a man walking home from the pub last night. “Is this about the IMF?”

When I answer that yes, this is about the IMF, he gets excited. “Fuck the IMF,” he says as he starts to walk further into the crowd. For another hour, he enters conversations with various people at the camp site set up in front of the Central Bank of Ireland the day before after an internet call went out to “Occupy Dublin.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is hated in Ireland for their role last year in a major round of austerity measures that cut social services while bailing out Irish banks with over €85 billion. “The State has sold itself completely to the financial cartels,” a 42 year-old unemployed construction worker tells me.  “They are transferring more wealth out of Ireland than British landlords ever did, and these are Irish people doing it!”

With this anger, it is no surprise that the protest-camp, inspired by a similar camp outside of Wall Street, is quite popular here. A consistent stream of passersby and people who have heard about the camp on the news are stopping by day and night to lend support, talk politics, share stories, or find out how they can help.

Most people here heard via Facebook about the call for the camp and responded quickly. A man who helped put out the call says it is extra exciting because the camp is breaking with the media image of an Ireland that doesn’t protest or raise a fuss about the recession. “When I saw the videos from Wall Street,” he says, “I thought, ‘finally, people are waking up!’”

Many of those interviewed believe that this will not be ending anytime soon. “This is going to be a long thing,” Ashman says of the camp, adding that he and many others are willing to risk arrest to hold the space.

“We have to resist,” the unemployed construction worker mentioned earlier tells me. “Resistance means that power understands that there are consequences for their actions.”

“Europe’s Next Greece”

Along with the recent IMF takeover of major areas of Ireland’s economy and a major sell-off of natural resources in the energy sector to multinationals, the situation here has also been exacerbated by a decade-long “building bubble” that recently burst.

“The Dublin you are looking at today is not the Dublin of ten years ago,” says a man in his early 30s who has stopped by the encampment. He points out that a large amount of development projects, backed by Irish banks and pushed by EU economic concepts, remain empty years after development. From office parks to condominiums, these projects helped push Ireland into the debt crisis it has now entered.

A 17 year old secondary school student chimes in. “They were giving people loans for things that they knew they couldn’t afford,” he says. “Everyone saw it coming… It was just a matter of time.”

With this crisis emerging, former IMF chief economic Simon Johnson dubbed Ireland “Europe’s Next Greece” as he advocated last year for the government to “convert the liabilities of private banks into debts of the sovereign,” or in other words, to make the people pay for the crisis.

“That’s the main issue when we’re talking about housing Ireland,” a 22 year-old participant of the camp tells me. “Basically, tax-payers are now paying for all these empty buildings, so the banks can have money.” She blames large property owners and banks for colluding to make large profits on risky business, and then coming to the government to bail them out.

Like the subprime loan crisis the precipitated the recession in the U.S., risky investments by banks looking for “expanding” markets almost brought the whole economy down after the reality hit them that these loans would not be paid back. So, like in the U.S., they looked to the state for help, who then went into the pockets of tax-payers to subsidize their adventurous partners.

“They have socialized the debt of the bankers onto the people,” a participant at the camp tells me. “The people are angry… There is a significant anger at the situation that has not yet manifested, and the government knows this.”

Another area facing cuts has been the healthcare sector. 26 year-old Ashman, from Limerick, originally came to the encampment to lend his support but ended up joining it. He tells me in calm anger how the IMF situation has led to the closing of emergency units in hospitals surrounding Limerick, in which many of his relatives work. Now, he says, people may have to travel up to an hour to receive emergency care.

“And on top of that, the government has turned around and taken the retirement money of people like my family, who have paid taxes their whole lives.” In fact, the Irish state agreed with the IMF to loot the pension funds of public workers to help pay the IMF back for their loan. “They gave the pensions of these hard-working people to the banks,” Ashman says.

One of the organizations backing the Occupy Dublin call is the Enough Campaign has called for a referendum on the austerity measures, a move that was defeated by the government last year. They point out that in Iceland, a similar referendum exposed the reality of the public’s position on austerity for the people and bail-outs for the banks; “Last year the people of Iceland demanded the right to have a referendum on their IMF deal and in March 2010 a massive 93 percent of the people rejected the deal,” their website reads. “There is an overwhelming democratic case for putting an agreement with such profound implications for the economic and social future our country to a referendum of the people.

In a sense, what the sub-prime loan sharks did is what the IMF and its partner organization the World Bank have done consistently throughout the world; large-scale lending for infrastructural projects in the name of “economic development” that have more than often failed to bring about the economic changes promised. The result is further debt-burden, followed by IMF-introduced austerity measures to reallocate public money to paying the debt back.

Now that same tactic is turning around on Ireland and many other European countries. “The American dream has become the Irish nightmare,” an unemployed former IT manager tells me, “or rather, the global nightmare.”

Only two days into it, one can see that if this protests gains momentum, it could create a very big political situation for the Irish state.

Refocus, Re-Energize, Recall

In Thoughts & Analysis on April 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Wisconsin’s Mass Movement Considers Next Steps


Originally published March 15 at Truth-Out.

I went back to Wisconsin this weekend to participate in and document what is being considered the largest demonstration in the state’s history. On Saturday, March 12, up to 100,000 people marched in Madison against the passing of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union “budget repair” bill.

After almost a month of deadlock, Republican senators introduced an edited version of the controversial bill last week, removing economic language from the original to maneuver around a Democrat strategy to block it.

Fourteen Democratic state senators had been camped in Illinois for three weeks, depriving the Senate of the basic majority, called a quorum, required for decisions involving budgetary issues. Their absence had blocked the bill from moving forward.

Indiana state Democrats are using the same strategy now to stall a copycat bill in that state.

The idea in Wisconsin was to delay the vote to give space for the mass movement, which flooded the Capitol with record-breaking protests to respond to the illegal methods used by Republican lawmakers to ram the bill through, while also building grassroots power around the state to challenge it politically.

Though the power-building aspect of the delay tactic was effective, Senate Republicans passed the edited bill, which is being legally contested, and the House followed suit the following day. The governor then signed it into law.

As of Sunday, March 13, state workers in Wisconsin have been stripped of their right to collectively bargain on almost every front and have been blanketed by harsh organizing restrictions.

The response from the mass movement was clear: this is only the beginning of a long fight.

Indeed, the upsurge in community and labor groups coming together is unprecedented in recent American history, drawing comparisons to the unity forged in the streets of Seattle between union workers, environmentalists and student activists during the massive protests that shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial in 1999.

Participation in the movement against the Wisconsin bill has been widespread, bringing together labor, students and community members and exposing a massive opposition to a Republican-led government that snaked into power with little mention of the massive changes it was planning on pushing through.

The bill, and the possibly illegal means with which the Republicans moved it into law, caused the largest protest in Wisconsin’s history this weekend.

Saturday’s demonstrations came after a month of mass marches, door-to-door campaigning, phone banking, rallies across the state and two weeks of daily rallies and sleep-ins inside the state Capitol building in Madison.

The sleep-ins at the capitol began as an impromptu decision by folks waiting to publicly testify against the bill, but it quickly turned into a full-out occupation, complete with childcare, free food, entertainment, a daily, ten-hour open-microphone session, a medical space and more.

Almost every day for those two weeks, the Capitol would reach its 2,500 person capacity around lunchtime as marches and individuals streamed in chanting, singing, dancing and addressing the crowds.

Midway through Saturday’s massive rally outside the Capitol, the packed crowd parted to allow some surprise guests to enter. Flanked by allies, the “Fab 14″ had just returned. A huge roar greeted them as they each addressed the crowd, urging folks to keep fighting and thanking them for their commitment and energy.

The 14 are appreciated for sticking their necks out and risking their political careers to actually represent the folks of Wisconsin, something that has become very uncommon in the Democratic Party over the last many years. Most people are used to Democrats talking big and acting little. That’s how my generation watched the Iraq war start, and, more, recently, that’s how we watched the Afghan war escalate.

Wisconsin represents quite a departure from that, with democratic lawmakers fleeing the state, participating in protests, plastering the Capitol windows with protest posters, allowing protesters to use their offices to organize and even sleeping in the occupied building with hundreds of others.

The defiant speeches Democrats made inside the House hearings on the bill inspired many to further action and helped solidify a relationship between the people and the state that more resembles the “dance” between people and state that characterizes recent Latin American democratic social movements rather than boring American politics-as-usual.

A common question from those addressing crowds throughout the protests has been, “Where the hell is Barack Obama?!” The answer is, “Who knows?” Or maybe it’s, “Who cares?” He has been silent on the issue, causing many in Wisconsin to draw a distinction between those Democrats who give a crap about common folks and those who don’t.

In fact, the national Democrats are nowhere to be found, and none seem to be making much of a public, national issue out of what all present know to be the kick-off of a national Tea Party strategy. Local people and those politicians that have stood with them are fighting it out on their own.

Some of those Wisconsin Democrats are now leading a statewide recall effort to turn the right-wing tide around. Eight Republican senators are up for immediate recall, and the petitions have already started circulating.

Many I spoke with are looking toward the effort to recall several Republican senators and, eventually, the governor, as a major point to organize around. If maintained as a grassroots effort, such a strategy could contain within it much dialogue, face-to-face political organizing and, perhaps, widespread grassroots social change.

I talked with organizers from several organizations that have been instrumental in the protests and in the sleep-in to get their perspectives on the situation. Most look toward the future as an opportunity to change the political landscape across Wisconsin, seeking to develop long-term organizing projects from the brief rupture in Madison.

They told me that, over the next few weeks, they will be announcing some very exciting things, but could not go into detail yet. Stay tuned.

On the union side, many were anticipating some sort of general strike or mass labor action, as had been discussed a few weeks back, and many workers wore that message proudly on their signs on Saturday. But the unions have not announced any major steps yet.

The word on the street is that folks are giving the legal process a few weeks to see if there isn’t a way to repeal the law on the grounds that it was rammed through illegally, without an adequate public hearing.

If that legal process fails, some are looking toward strikes as an option. Others believe a mass strike could be damaging at this point.

Even with a strike, a point of struggle will be overturning the bill, which, unless challenged effectively on legal grounds, could be hard to do. Some worry that it could be four years before political process could allow for that to happen.

But as mass movements in the past have taught us, when people organize and build enough power, laws start to matter less than justice. When a movement gains strength, suddenly the “impossible” demands of yesterday are met by a scared and defeated opposition.

Let’s hope that the movement in Wisconsin can follow in that great tradition, overcome Scott Walker’s attacks and lead the country somewhere new with a massive, grassroots political victory.

After all, as the messages of support from people in Egypt that have come to folks in Wisconsin via Facebook illustrate, the whole world is watching. And they are counting on Wisconsin to win.

Dirty Truths of the “Good War” (2)

In Thoughts & Analysis on December 10, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Part 2 of 4
Spreading Democracy (and Heroin)

Originally published by Truth-Out.

Documents made public by WikiLeaks’ latest file drop show that Afghan President Hamid Karzai pulled strings several times throughout early 2009 to free numerous drug traffickers with whom he had political or economic ties.

The documents also show that US officials have held multiple high-level meetings with a man widely viewed as one of the country’s major heroin dealers.

That man is Ahmed Wali Karzai: He’s the half-brother of President Karzai and has been investigated by numerous major newspapers for drug allegations.

Referred to in many US documents as “AWK,” Ahmed Wali Karzai, has long been on the radar of government officials and journalists for his off-the-books dealings with local warlords, traffickers, Taliban members and Afghanistan government officials.

Now, previously secret US Embassy documents, made public by WikiLeaks, further these claims. The documents also show that the US has continued to consult with AWK on major infrastructure projects, security contracts and economic plans.

One of the leaked documents is a report from a November 2009 meeting between AWK and the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. In this document, Eikenberry describes Karzai as being, “… widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.” Nevertheless, he cautions that working with Karzai is a political necessity.

In this meeting, Karzai calls for private “jihadi” mercenaries operating within the region to fall under his control; he also calls for major development projects to be initiated with his oversight. Eikenberry responds, “… given AWK’s reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

He also notes that Karzai, “… is understood to have a stake in private security contracting …” and “… both he and the governor have tried to exert control over how contracts are awarded in the province … all of which could be a significant conflict of interest in the province.”

In another document, made public by WikiLeaks, there is a report from a February 2010 meeting with AWK in which, then-Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan Francis Ricciardone says that Karzai, “… appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities and that the coalition views many of his activities as malign.”

This new information linking the Karzai’s with the heroin trade supplements previous reports on AWK’s operations in Kandahar. It also further emphasizes the realities of the “dirty war” in Afghanistan.

In 2008, The New York Times released reports that Ahmed Wali Karzai was extensively linked to the heroin trade. An investigative report, in late 2009, declared that Karzai was, “… a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade.”(1)

The report also announced (citing, “current and former American officials”) that Karzai, “… gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency and has for much of the past eight years.”(2)

According to The New York Times, the Bush White House said it, “… believes that Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in drug trafficking,” and, “Neither the Drug Enforcement Administration, which conducts counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, nor the fledgling Afghan anti-drug agency, has pursued investigations into the accusations against the president’s brother.” (3)

The Times article also extensively quotes a jailed, high-level Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) informant, named Hajji Aman Kheri. “It’s no secret about Wali Karzai and drugs,” he told them. “A lot of people in the Afghan government are involved in drug trafficking.”(4)

Other examples of such immunity were recently made public by WikiLeaks as well.

In April 2009, President Karzai pardoned five border policemen who were caught smuggling 124 kilograms of heroin in their patrol vehicles. They were sentenced to terms of 16 to 18 years each, only to be pardoned by President Karzai shortly after, “on the grounds that they were distantly related to two individuals who had been martyred during the civil war.”

Rumors in the US Embassy are that Karzai is also planning on pardoning several other men caught smuggling heroin. One man was a high-ranking police chief and nephew of a member of Parliament, who was caught ordering his men to smuggle heroin. Another man was a “priority DEA target.”

The same document says that Karzai tampered with the case of a narcotics trafficker whose father is a wealthy businessman and Karzai supporter. “Without any constitutional authority,” the embassy cable says, “Karzai ordered the police to conduct a second investigation which resulted in the conclusion that the defendant had been framed.”

These documents come after controversy arose last year when former Afghan Defense Minister and current First Vice President Muhammad Fahim was selected as Karzai’s running mate. CIA reports sent to the White House in 2002 suggested that Fahim was involved in narcotics trafficking and, though the White House avoided public criticism, they privately directed American military trainers to work with Fahim’s subordinates only, but not with Fahim himself.

President Karzai’s other brothers have also made headlines this year for their secret dealings. Abdul Qayum Karzai mediated secret talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia. Mahmood Karzai has come under a federal investigation for tax evasion, racketeering and extortion.

Now, documents leaked to the Guardian tell of Fahim’s predecessor, former Afghan Vice-President Ahmed Zia Massoud, arriving in Dubai with 52 million dollars in cash and not needing to explain it. The reports outline the extent to which money has been smuggled out of Afghanistan by corrupt officials, and that Afghan officials have consistently lied about these “capital flights.”

Another major figure under suspicion for selling drugs happens to be one of the main men charged with stopping them. Former Counter-Narcotics Deputy Minister Muhhamad Daud Daud, who came out of the Mujahideen under Ahmad Shah Massoud and became one of Afghanistan’s biggest military commanders, is also in the mix.

While publicly assisting the US in counternarcotics policy, Daud Daud profits from the industry. According to The Guardian UK, “several western officials” allege that Daud Daud, “… has historical and family links to smuggling.”(5)

A 2009 investigation by the Canadian Globe and Mail, found evidence that Daud Daud was deeply involved in the heroin industry. This investigation tells of a man named Sayyed Jan. In the story, he was stopped by members of the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan, with 183 kilograms of pure heroin in his car.(6)

“The drug dealer was carrying a signed letter of protection from General Mohammed Daud Daud,” the report says.(7)

“That document, along with other papers and interviews with well-placed sources, show that General Daud has safeguarded shipments of illegal opiates even as he commands thousands of officers sworn to fight the trade,” the investigation concludes.(8)

According to the family members of the arrested trafficker, Jan paid General Daud Daud $50,000 to allow him to make a single trafficking run. Jan was later bribed out of prison and is believed to be once again leading his trafficking operation.

This is a glimpse of how one smuggles heroin out of Afghanistan: Pay off the officials who are supposed to be stopping you. It’s an open-secret in the world capital of heroin.

“As of mid-February 2007,” an internal military file from April 2007 states, “Afghan government officials working with eradication forces [are] accepting bribes from local farmers.”(9)

This report describes farmers paying between $750 and $1,000 per acre for protection from corrupt officials. This amount of money is not something the average farmer can afford to pay, thus, one can assume that these pay-offs are made by large landowners.(10)

The document concludes that the police chief and “other provincial officials” are involved; and that Helmand provincial Governor Wafa was fully aware of the situation.(11)

In July 2010, The Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, issued a report stating, “… most experts we spoke with agree that corruption at all levels of government enables narcotics trafficking.”(12)

The report goes on to describe that members of the Afghan government have historically, “… rendered many aspects of the counternarcotics program useless, including using the eradication program as a means of extorting and by robbing alternative livelihood programs of resources intended for the Afghan farmer.”(13)

It also cites research which found, “… there is a growing belief in the south (of Afghanistan) that those working for the government are more actively involved in the trade in narcotics that the Taliban.”(14)

This study found that the vast majority of farmers understand the central government to be highly involved in the narcotics industry.

This information is even more alarming when laid next the UN’s own statistics on the Afghan heroin trade.

As of 2009, the Taliban’s share of opium-profits is estimated at 125 million dollars only. This means that the other 2 billion, 875 million dollars must go to either corrupt government officials or other warlords/drug networks.(15)

The US is in the middle of a drug war, backing men whom they know to be warlords and heroin traffickers in exchange for their political cooperation against groups like the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Network, which oppose the current Afghan government and the US presence that keeps it afloat.

The US used this strategy in the 1980s as well, when it backed the Afghan Mujahideen rebels to combat Russia’s bloody occupation. Its support for some of the most undemocratic and notorious warlords in the Mujahideen resulted in a decade of civil war that led to the Taliban’s rise to power.

And, as it did in the 1980s, when covert US government funding supported the anti-Soviet insurgency, the US is working with some of the most undemocratic and notorious warlords in the country.

The blowback from such alliances today will probably be similar.

Not only is the blood of Afghans and NATO troops on the hands of the White House and the Pentagon, their fingerprints are on the syringes of tens of thousands of heroin addicts who continue to easily meet their addiction on the streets of American cities, and on the guns and knives used to regulate the illicit economy that provides it to them.

1. Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan Leader Said to Be Paid by CIA,” New York Times, October 27, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Declan Walsh, “Afghan province to provide one-third of world’s heroin,” Guardian UK, June 14, 2006.
6. Graeme Smith, “Afghan officials in drug trade cut deals across enemy lines,” The Global and Mail, March 21, 2009.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. WikiLeaks, “Afghan Eradication Officials Accepted Bribes in Helmand Province.”
10. Ibid.11. Ibid.
12. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, 111th Congress second session, “US Counternarcotics Strategy in Afghanistan,” July 2010. 13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Addiction, Crime and Insurgency, The Transnational Threat of Afghan Opium,” October 2009.

Dirty Truths of the “Good War”

In Thoughts & Analysis on October 26, 2010 at 1:48 am

Part 1 of 4
An Introduction To Afghanistan’s Heroin Economy

That the war in Afghanistan has widely been considered, albeit somewhat sarcastically, as the “good war”, is something of a work of magic by the Pentagon and its media-influencing personalities.

If one views war from a standpoint where the only visible casualties are those who have lost their lives specifically in on-the-ground violence, Afghanistan can be seen as “better” than the war in Iraq. Though every life is sacred and every death hits home the same way, the multiplication of that by hundreds of thousands is surely a significant thing, especially in terms of its macro effect on a society.

But when one pries the lid of the Afghan war open, what is revealed makes the Iraq war look “normal”. Beneath it is a giant web of sketchy political bargains involving warlords and network of major heroin dealers with friends in high places doing business protected by NATO forces or their allies in the Afghan government.

Afghanistan now produces 93 percent of the world’s opium, making it by far the largest source of income in what is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, and this “good war” is largely a political and physical battle between rival warlords who control the flow of this global resource. NATO’s role is essentially to favor one and help facilitate the defeat of the other.

Opium has been produced in Afghanistan for ages without causing any major problems to the country, but the explosive growth of the opium economy that we know today, based mostly around the opium derivative heroin, is directly linked to the awful wars of the past thirty years. Since the Soviet Union’s brutal invasion and subsequent occupation in 1979, Afghanistan has been largely controlled by the heroin economy and subject to strange international forces behind it.

Under CIA supervision, members of the Afghan resistance, the Mujahideen, produced or forced farmers to produce poppy for heroin export on the global market throughout the 1980’s. The money paid for their fight against the Red Army and their unpopular Afghan puppet government, buying weapons and providing training for guerillas.

Tens years of guerilla war was not cheap, so alongside U.S. dollars the guerillas created a vast “black economy” based in heroin-dealing, similar to the Contras use of Cocaine profits under CIA supervision to buy weapons and training for their fight against the Sandanista government in Nicaragua.

Many Mujahideen commanders went on to become warlords in various factions; The Northern Alliance being one of the main bodies, the Taliban that arose in the 1990’s, and smaller but equally violent organizations like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and the armies of commanders like Ahmad Shah Massoud and Rashid Dostum. These factions vied for power after the Soviet withdrawal in violent civil wars and continue that fight today, only now the Northern Alliance has NATO troops to back it up.

With NATO troops, the pattern for fundraising has continued from the 80’s. Poppy is cultivated and converted into opium and heroin for export, and the off-the-books money coming mostly from heroin users in Western Europe is used to buy weapons and pay bribes to the Afghan government or local power-holders for political protection. The UN reported this year that drugs and bribery are the two highest sources on income in Afghanistan.[i]

Since the days of the Soviet occupation, the U.S. has maintained strong ties with key power-holders in Afghanistan to combat whoever their enemy is at the time. And the way to hold power in Afghanistan is to have your hands on the poppy-fields, or at least have your guns pointed at the farmers who have their hands on the poppy-fields and whom you tax in exchange for protection.

Many of these power-holders are today’s political elites in Afghanistan, meaning they not only hold official power, but also enjoy cozy relationships with the United States and Britain, helping shape their policies around drug eradication and interdiction, among other things.

The U.S. and Britain have overseen a poppy eradication program since 2002, when President Karzai first allowed the controversial practice. In the last few years, the eradications have been shifted onto Afghan forces with NATO troops and contractors as security. The Afghan institution that oversees this is the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics.

Partnering with NATO forces since day one has been the massive American corporation DynCorp, one of the world’s leading defense contractors. Widely known for their role as the chemical fumigators of Colombian coca crops, they began poppy-eradication missions in Afghanistan in 2004, shortly after the missions were initiated.[ii]

DynCorp was contracted to establish a poppy eradication force (PEF) by recruiting Afghan police officers to conduct eradication missions, and have been paid up to $290 million since 2004 to “train, equip, and sustain PEF personnel and to carry out operations.”[iii]

The supposed theory is that if the Taliban is to be beaten, it will largely be through taking the heroin industry away from them. This is why the Afghan war has increasingly become a drug-war, with soldiers, Marines, and contractors sent to secure areas where opium is heavily produced. Taking these areas means the Taliban is unable to tax farmers, move product, and press farmers to cultivate opium.

But targeting “Taliban” poppy over other people’s poppy is a confusing game. On SOCNET, an online forum for contractors and former military members, a former DynCorp contractor’s post explains the anger born from this targeted eradication. “What would piss me off is to drive miles and miles through beautiful poppy fields, as far as the eye could see and watch them go by… only to pull in to some pathetic farmer’s field and chop his down and essentially ruin him.”[iv]

In response, another former contractor who served in Afghanistan from 2005-2007 explains similar confusion. “I was one of the guys behind the guns flying cover and I never did understand how the decisions were made on what field got cut”, he says. “It also seemed that the chosen fields were almost always hard to find and deep inside other fields that would not get cut.”

A Center for American Progress and Center on International Cooperation (CIC) report stating that “the eradication campaign in the 2002/3 growing season [was] generally targeted against the more vulnerable [farmers] and that the crops of the wealthy and influential were not destroyed.” The report explains that these eradications happened “in the absence of any prosecutions or even stigmatization of warlords and militia commanders allied with the U.S.-led Coalition but known to be involved in narcotics.”[v]

Targeted eradications that intentionally leave wealthy and well-connected people’s poppy fields in place makes one wonder if the goal of such operations is even drug-related, or if it just political.

To beat the heroin industry would pit the entire country against the occupiers even more than it already is, and it would deplete the number one income for poor Afghans. Thus it seems impossible to impact it. When a third of this year’s poppy was destroyed in a mysterious fungal blight, it did not impact the availability of heroin, only the price.[vi]

When you considers the balance of power in Afghanistan, or if say you are a U.S. official trying to figure out how to get out of the longest war in U.S. history as it grows worse and worse for everyone involved, you must work with the heroin lords. To leave Afghanistan, the U.S. will have to make agreements with heroin dealers so they can do their business in exchange for the “political stability” derived from their power.

This is why many believe that a “war on drugs” in Afghanistan is a poorly acted out performance. Not only do heroin cartels manage to smuggle over 90 percent of the world’s opium out of a country occupied by multiple armies, they also manage to do it and still meet the world’s demand. Afghanistan produces 60 percent of the world’s heroin inside its roughly defined borders and exports the vast majority of it.

An amazing feat on its own, smuggling the heroin out is the second half of the effort. The first half involves smuggling in hundreds of tons of the precursor ingredients needed to produce heroin, most notably the chemical acetic anhydride, which is produced in only a few countries under heavy supervision.

According to a State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report from 2009, “Drug traffickers rarely produce these chemicals independently, as this would require advanced technical skills and a sophisticated infrastructure that would be difficult to conceal.” Instead, they divert legally produced chemicals through several methods, sometimes involving the chemical producers themselves.[vii]

And we’re not talking about a few bottles or acetic anhydride in the trunk of someone’s car, we’re talking about 10,000 tons of precursor chemicals, including 1,300 tons of acetic anhydride of which, in 2008, less that two percent was seized in Afghanistan.[viii]

So in a country occupied by multiple armies overseeing a drug war, they somehow cannot seize any more than 2 percent of the main precursors chemicals needed for the world’s heroin, which must be imported because it is not produced in the country.

Acetic Anhydride prices have been shooting up since the Afghan invasion began in 2001, shifting from U.S. 13-34 dollars in 1998 to an estimated U.S. 300-400 dollars today.[ix] The UN reported last year that “prices for acetic anhydride have nearly tripled in Afghanistan in recent years” and that “as a result, trafficking acetic anhydride is now more profitable than trafficking opium..”[x]

There are various reasons for the price increase; extra emphasis by counter-narcotics forces on precursors causing small disruptions in supply, instability causing middlemen to increase costs, and taxes extracted by various factions along the way. There has also been an effort to recruit foreign chemists to come into Afghanistan to help oversee the chemical mixes process, which also adds to cost.[xi]

But a significant chunk of this price increase is coming from the increasing amount of bribes that one must pay to import heroin precursors into Afghanistan. This network involves many levels of government, illegal organizations, foreign governments, companies, and more. They are the people who hold power over the areas that one must pass through on the route to and from the poppy fields and the heroin labs.

That’s the other side of the story, the one that involves officials in the Afghan and NATO governments. It also involves transportation worker and small time security guards, police, soldiers, and others armed people who control transportation routes into and out of Afghanistan.


 

[i] UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “Drain the Swamp of Corruption in Afghanistan,” Says UNODC . http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/press/releases/2010/January/drain-the-swamp-of-corruption-in-afghanistan-says-unodc.html

[iii] United States Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of Inspector General – Status of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Counternarcotics Programs in Afghanistan, Report Number MERO-A-10-02, December 2009

[v] Barnett R. Rubin. Road to Ruin: Afghanistan Booming Opium Industry. Center for American Progress, Center on International Cooperation. October 7th, 2004.

[vi] Mohammad Elyas Daee, Abubakar Siddique. As Afghan Opium Blight Spreads, Farmers’ Lives Wilt, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, May 18, 2010. http://www.rferl.org/content/As_Afghan_Opium_Blight_Spreads_Farmers_Lives_Wilt/2046022.html

[vii] U.S. State Deprtment Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. International Narcotics Control Strategy – Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control, March 2009. http://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2009/

[viii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime & Government of Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotics. Afghanistan Opium Survery 2009, December 2009.

[ix] UN Office on Drugs and Crime & Government of Afghanistan Ministry of Counter Narcotics. Afghanistan Opium Survery 2009, December 2009.

[x] UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Addiction, Crime and Insurgency, The Transnational Threat of Afghan Opium. October 2009.

[xi] Jon Boone, Afghan drug lords hire foreign chemists. Financial Times, July 28 2008. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/adfbb7f6-5ccb-11dd-8d38-000077b07658.html?nclick_check=1

Is It About Independence, Or Explosions?

In Thoughts & Analysis on July 4, 2010 at 1:16 am

I sat on the stone wall that lines Druid Lake tonight and watched Baltimore destroyed by bombs. I watched tracers light up the sky, followed by the deep pulse of distant explosions.

I watched huge clouds of smoke rise from downtown, escaping from the flaming buildings. I saw explosions as far as Dundalk, Curtis Bay, and Morgan State. I saw light emerging from deep in the West Side, illuminating the trees that line the park.

I saw the Belvedere Hotel hit by a series of missiles, a huge flame bursting out the East wall. I remembered when the bartender there, an Iraq veteran himself, took me and a friend on the roof to see the best 360 degree view I’d ever seen of the city. I wondered if he would survive the attack.

Then a huge bomb fell into the apartment building at Howard and 28th, sending a large cloud of smoke into the air. I could only imagine the horrors inside as elderly residents tried to escape the flames. I watched cars crossing the 29th St. bridge fired on by helicopters that then continued on their way into Remington. I watched mortar fire land in the houses of Reservoir Hill that face the park, and heard the sounds of gunfire from the streets behind them.

It was a total nightmare, something I never wanted to experience. Thankfully, it was mostly in my head. It was the Fourth of July, and celebratory explosions were popping off all over the city.

But I wasn’t celebrating, I was mourning. The fireworks reminded me not of 1776 or 1812, but of 2003, when I watched an almost identical scene on the TV news. I thought not of British Redcoats, but of U.S. Soldiers and Marines. I was watching a re-run of Shock And Awe, the massive bombing campaign the U.S. unleashed on Baghdad on March 19th, 2003.

I texted a friend, a former National Guardsman who participated in the initial invasion of Iraq. I told him I was thinking of Baghdad, watching the city light up, and I asked how he was. He said he was “in hiding”, not interested in being taken back to that place again, at least, not this year.

I thought how many friends of mine, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have joined the ranks of the anti-war movement, were in hiding too, taking pills to calm their shattered nerves, reasoning with their shame and anger at the roles they played in occupying these countries.

I thought of my childhood friend Austin Koth, who deployed to Baghdad in 2006 with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. I imagined which exploding firework might best match the sound of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that took his life two weeks before he would have come home. Then I heard it.

I thought about the millions of Iraqi and Afghan citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by the “Global War on Terror”. I felt so sad and sorry to the Iraqi people for the actions of my government, a government that wouldn’t budge no matter how unpopular the invasion was or how many people voiced opposition to it.

I wondered how I could explain that to those who lost limbs when our bombs came crashing into their neighborhoods because one of their neighbors may or may not have posed a threat to U.S. forces. I thought about the brave people who picked up weapons to defend their communities from the invasion of my government.

I thought “what if Baltimore was really being bombed right now?” I wondered what I would actually feel like, what it means to watch your home, the home of so many friends and family, crumble under the bombs of a foreign government. I wondered what I would do and what my friends would do. Would I go out into the chaos to look for survivors? Would I stay far away hoping to save my own life? Would I fight? Would I organize others to fight with me?

These thoughts paralyzed me for an hour as I sat and stared out into the city. I was among families having cookouts, all the while a simulation of a major bombing campaign lit up my city’s skyline.

I saw Baghdad.

It is amazing that we celebrate our Independence Day in such a way. A total glorification of war. A sensory overload of violence. After all, our fireworks are meant to imitate the “bombs bursting in air” which helped win the so-called Independence War against Britain.

I wonder how many on this day they think about the “genocide basic to this country’s birth,” as Cree folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie puts it… of the forced “Trail of Tears” march to Oklahoma, of  Red Cloud’s war in what is now Wyoming, where the young Crazy Horse helped strategize the fight against the imperial army of Colonel Henry Carrington, or of the massacre of Cheyennes at Sand Creek  under Colonel John Chivington.

I wonder how many actually een consider the Independence movement that led to the creation of the United States, it’s inspiring stories of unity and struggle, and it’s disgusting associations with slavery, conquest, and war . I wonder if they think about other Independence movements, from Vietnam and India to Algeria and Mozambique, that fought similar struggles against colonialism.

I wonder if any note the parallels between British policy in colonial America and U.S. policy in Iraq. After all, it was the British who set the stage for our presence when they invaded and occupied Iraq in 1921.

And the Iraqi resistance that arose after U.S. Administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer set drastic and far-reaching economic decrees in 2004 isn’t that different from events in our own history. Only two decades after a coalition of African and Irish slaves, alongside others, tried to burn down the city of New York, working class American “patriots”, without the leadership of any of the so-called “Founding Fathers,” fought back after similar changes were initiated by the British in the 1760s and 70s. They kicked British officials out of the farmlands of New England, rioted against the Stamp Act, and dumped Tea in the Boston Harbor to protest British economic policies.

Then they picked up guns.

But political history aside, a deeper question remains; why the glorification of war? Is it to remind ourselves of the glory of victory, to remember those who suffered and died to free the United States from Britain? Is it to turn war into a celebration, to be enjoyed from afar, knowing we will probably never see it?

I tend to believe the latter, that the fireworks celebration is not about Independence, it’s about explosions. It’s about war. It’s a yearly mass-experience that reminds us that we live in a culture of violence and that we are safe enough from war that we can celebrate it from a detached position. But it’s not a conspiracy by some branch of government or some multinational fireworks company, it’s a cultural practice, an unwritten consensus.

If we took time to consider the real impacts that war and mass violence have across the world, I don’t think we would be able to stomach all the hot dogs. I think we would start to feel the weight of so many lives that were taken early by the crippling shards of shrapnel bursting out of bombs and missiles dropped by our military around the world.

And if we all considered what we would do if we were on the receiving end of such an assault, if we saw the bombing of Baltimore the way i did tonight, maybe we would feel the common humanity that binds us to those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other countries that live the results of our government’s aggressive foreign policy.

Perhaps then we could start celebrating Independence Day in a way that honors, educates about, or supports those fighting similar battles today, even if they are against our own government’s policies.

Stin

In Thoughts & Analysis on May 25, 2010 at 10:41 pm

For memorial day, in memory of all who have died as a result of wars worldwide, for peace and justice.

Austin Koth grew up on my street and taught me some of the basics of life, like the word “Fuck”. He also taught me how to dive, how to play hide and seek, and how to take risks. We once took inner tubes down the creek nearby after a huge snow storm melted, ending up miles away and walking home. My parents were not too pleased.

But he was still allowed to babysit me, and probably saw a lot more of my growing moments than I did of his. But I did see some of his, and I recall his decision to enter the Navy, after which I did not see as much of him.

Stin was the kind of guy that everyone in the neighborhood knew and remembered. During a truth-or-dare game, he would end up in a speedo, sneaking into a neighbors pool in the middle of the night and doing laps. He would also sneak into the local public swimming pool in the middle of the night, or do crazy shit off home-made jumps on a snowboard, down otherwise boring backyard hills.

When it became known that he was deploying to Iraq for a 6-month tour, I was a bit numb. I didn’t want to think about that. A guy from my highschool had been killed in Iraq and another was heading there. I didn’t want to think of Austin filling a local hole because of some bullshit mission to find nonexistent weapons at the behest of George Bush. The war I had stood against with all of my being had become a very real thing in my personal life.

The last time I saw him was Christmas, 2005. I told him right before he deployed to be careful, and he knew from my glance what I really meant; “Don’t fucking die in this bullshit”. He knew I had been protesting since 9/11 against a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He knew I had been an instrumental part of the walkouts the day the war started, when me and 300 others shut down Towson, Maryland in the freezing rain for the whole day.

He also knew George Bush was an asshole, but this asshole was his Commander in Chief, and he wanted to be part of the story all his fellow service-members were part of. He knew the justification behind the war was full of lies and deceit, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that hundreds of thousands of his buddies were going over there and so was he.

Stin was the last person to back down from a dare. Austin was deployed in early 2006 with a Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, to identify and diffuse or detonate roadside bombs (IEDs). These units, made famous recently with the award-winning film “The Hurt Locker”, suffer the highest casualty rates throughout the Iraq-occupation.

I spent months waking up to open the newspaper, waiting to see his name. Everyday I had the same horrible feeling in my stomach as I read through the names of the dead, sometimes a dozen U.S. troops a day. 822 U.S. troops would die that year.

That summer I had been put in touch with a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who wanted to be part of a tour I was organizing, mixing music and anti-war organizing. They were all members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which was just starting to really take off as a group. I moved back east from California to organize the tour, staying at my parents house and doing non-stop phone calls and emails. Occasionally I ventured to other states to play shows.

On a short tour I played a show in New York at Bluestockings Books, a radical activist coffee shop in the Lower East Side. For some reason that night, I didn’t play a song I had been playing at every show in that time period, a song called “In The Blink of an Eye” that I had written about Austin’s deployment to Iraq. For some reason it didn’t feel right. Maybe I didn’t want to think about it. Maybe it was some more powerful force that kept it from my hands and lips;

They’ve got bombs on the road
You’ve got bombs in the sky
So many dying
For a flag to fly
Everything could change
In the blink of an eye
So we hope you make it home alive

After the show, I got my phone out of my guitar case and saw several missed calls, all from family members. I knew someone had died, but who? My mother? A friend? I started shaking as I called my brother.

Brett answered in a flat, low voice. “Do you have somewhere to sit down”. “Who died? Who died?!” I asked.

“Austin’s dead”.

That was all I needed. “Motherfucker. God damnit. This fucking war. Austin fucking Koth. What the fuck?”

Austin had been blown to shit by an IED at Camp Victory, planted by members of the Iraqi military moonlighting as insurgents. But I didn’t blame them. I blamed the politicians who sent Austin and a million others from my generation into Iraq to walk around in circles to defend the interests of a mob of U.S. corporations and Pentagon brass with something to prove to and take from the world. I blamed George Bush and his cabinet’s violent, possessive fantasies. I reflected on this more recently in a song called “Placing The Blame”;

And how would you react
If soldiers occupied our streets?
Would you fight in the name of your country
Like Muhammed and Khalid?
We took this nation’s world
And everybody knows what for
I don’t blame the ones who built the bomb
I blame the ones who built the war

After getting the news I hung up with my brother. My anger nearly surpassed my grief, but both flowed together. I took some time to myself hunched over in a corner before making a few more calls. A group of friends were nearby and allowed me the space, then asked what was up. They took me to the East river and my friends Jay and Rosie got me the most important 40 oz. of my life. I let the river, alcohol, and compassion of friends keep me safe.

Then I traveled home to face the reality of the situation.

His closed casket served as a grim introduction to his injuries. His shoulder had been ripped off his body, completely blown apart. His face and chest were probably gone. He was killed instantly, at least.

And some fresh-faced sailor somewhere was training to fill his bloody boots.

Stepping away from the coffin, I found myself looking at his picture book, mostly memories of good days past. I was fine until I came to the photo of his unit standing with his Field Memorial. It was his helmet, his rifle, his boots. I lost it. That image is burned in my mind. That’s my friend, a fucking gun and a helmet. That’s it.

As the viewing ended, I realized there were metal pins people had on with a Field Memorial insignia on them. I looked in the basket but they were all gone, I was gonna flip out; “Can I get get a fucking pin”, I thought. “For my friend?!” As I walked away a man I did not know came up to me with a pin, it was his personal one, but he gave it to me without a word. His look told me he was former military, and he understood that I needed it more than him. Whoever he was, I think about him often. At least some glimpse of positive humanity lingers in my mind when I look at that pin, which sits on the mirror in my truck to give me a daily reminder of the human costs of war and the beauty of good friends.

I made my final peace with Austin over his coffin, in a graveyard that sits right across from the high school I had dropped out of 6 years earlier. I vowed to continue my efforts to end war. I vowed on his life to exit my comfort zone if it meant being effective, to take risks, to throw myself into the work and dedicate a portion of my life to confronting and overcoming future conflicts.

When the rifles were fired in his honor, I felt the violence of war. I understood the cracking of those bullets to signify the horrible way in which millions and millions of people in this world have met an early and disgusting death. I will never forget the intensity of that moment and the weight that it carries.

The funeral ended with Stin’s mother getting the flag that covered his coffin, which I wanted to destroy. “Fucking flag, they replaced him with this flag. They did this to him for this flag. What does that flag have to do with us?” I didn’t see it. Others did, and I respected that, but the idea of replacing a mother’s love for her son with a flag will never make any sense to me.

“Thanks for your son, Ma’am, here’s a flag we got at the Walmart.”

Stin, the dude who would run down the street and leap over the biggest bush, or free hand climb up the dangerous rocky slope behind the mall, dead in Iraq. Killed in a war that generations in the future will look back on in anger, sadness, and frustration, wondering just what the hell we were thinking.

Those of us from my generation will look back on these years and remember the friends and family members we lost, and reflect on the lives that were taken in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stin’s real memorial, the one that means the most to those of us who grew up with his charismatic and life-loving energy, is a bench behind my childhood home. We all used to pass time there doing mostly illegal but also legal things. We talked philosophy, politics, bullshit, and more. We developed funny mythology about our neighborhood, naming trees, reflecting on funny things from the past.

The original bench was sawed in multiple pieces one night and littered with Christian pamphlets. We think one of our friends had a wild religious episode and decided this was the site of sin. So after Stin’s death some of his closest friends got a new bench, with a gold plaque for him on it. It reads:

Edward Austin Koth
Born June 27, 1976 – Towson, MD.
Died July 26, 2006 – Baghdad, Iraq.

Hopefully I will sit on this when I’m an old man and reflect on the life of this great dude.

For my part, I continue to uphold the oath I took over his coffin.I have worked since his death as an ally to Iraq Veterans Against the War, and co-founded the Civilian-Soldier Alliance with other non-veteran anti-war organizers. We work to support service-members and veterans to build a movement against war within the U.S. military.

I also carry on his legacy in a funnier way; whenever I stand at a cold body of water, the kind you would have to a be nuts to get into, I harness his energy and dare myself in his honor to throw myself in. I don’t always do it with the speed and willingness that he would, but I eventually pull it off!

That’s his spirit, and that’s how I keep a little piece of him alive inside of me.

A Relative Calm: The Occupation of Iraq in 2010

In News, Thoughts & Analysis on May 22, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Written with assistance from TJ Buonomo. Originally published at Common Dreams.

The U.S. anti-war movement, which has been stalled recently due to much organizational and political confusion and disagreement, has largely lost touch with the changing political and economic dynamics in Iraq. When we lose touch with these realities, we lose touch with our ability to organize effectively, to strategize victories, and to be the allies we want to be to the Iraqi people.

One of those realities is that U.S. troops are largely no longer patrolling Iraqi streets, breaking down doors and detaining people, standing at checkpoints with their guns pointing into cars, or walking through markets waiting to be attacked. For the average U.S. service-member, the war in Iraq may be nearing it’s end.

Alongside the waning U.S. presence, violence rates are dropping dramatically, both for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Though this comes as a a relief to many Iraqis, the recent wave of attacks in Baghdad and the unrest surrounding the recent elections hints at a fragile peace. “The conditions on the ground are rapidly deteriorating in Iraq” says Iraqi political analyst and peace activist Raed Jarrar. After last month’s general election, there is a dramatic spike in violence and growing threats to the security and political stability of the country.

Muqtada al Sadr exposed this weak political situation with a referendum on the election, in which neither of the main candidates won more than 10 percent of the vote. Though it was non-binding, the vote shows massive organized opposition to the current government.

Part of this opposition is due to Iraq’s economic policies being largely shaped by the United States and it’s economic institutions. Indeed, the relative calm being experienced right now is not due to Iraqi victory, rather, it is due to partial U.S. victory; they achieved part of their strategy in Iraq. The new Iraqi economy looks a lot like what the U.S. likes when it rearranges a country’s economy through IMF-imposed debt-repayment schemes, with heavy privatization and profit-sharing agreements for multinationals. Energy contracts that many believe are the reason behind the invasion are now starting to blossom, and the U.S. has positioned itself for a long stay in the Middle East. While the U.S. won some of what it wanted in Iraq, the Iraqi people lost big. They suffer from multiple angles. Hundreds of thousands are dead, with some studies showing that figure at over one million, and millions of refugees who survived the war continue to live a dismal life in Syria and Jordan, or on the outskirts of their own country.

Iraqi workers continue struggling to organize in a country where unions are banned and where decisions about who owns the natural resources of the country are decided in the boardrooms and offices of the United States and Western Europe. Water, if it’s available, is still largely not fit for human consumption. Large areas of the major cities remain in ruins, electricity is scarce, and the poisonous residue of Depleted Uranium continues to soak into the topsoil of the agrarian towns outside of them.
The “Surge” and the Awakening Councils

In light of all of this suffering, things are beginning to improve. The first step to this is the end of the violence caused by the U.S. war, and that is starting to occur. The dropping level of violent attacks began in June of 2007, when the U.S. “surge” troops were in place.Violence levels across the board have fallen since then. At the time of this writing, 27 U.S. service-members have died in Iraq this year, compared to nearly 500 in the same time-period in 2007. Last year, 150 U.S. service-members were killed in Iraq, compared to 904 in 2007. Casualty rates among Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians have fallen in the same periods, signifying a general, significant decrease in violence.

Pro-war voices say the Surge is the reason behind this drop, that more troops means less violence. They use this argument to justify the current surge in Afghanistan too. But something more significant happened at the same time as the Surge: the U.S. began paying huge amounts of money directly to insurgent groups to fight Al Qaeda. These groups, like the Awakening Councils in Anbar and their Baghdad counterparts, the Sons of Iraq, had been fighting the U.S., but were now working “side by side” with them. It is estimated that at least 100,000 fighters were paid through this program.

The Awakening Councils were the result of Sunni militias and insurgent groups breaking ranks with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a group linked to the wider Al Qaeda and thus well-funded by it’s global network. The break came largely as result of Al Qaeda’s attempts to organize politically in Anbar, thus challenging the tribal structure that many insurgent leaders presided over, as well as Al Qaeda’s attempts to control smuggling routes that were maintained by them. When this threat became greater than the threat posed by U.S. troops, these groups made a loose alliance with the U.S. to fight Al Qaeda.

These forces drove Al Qaeda out of many towns and cities across central Iraq and brought a close to the horrors of 2006-2007, when civil-war raged and over 50,000 Iraqi civilians died.

The Iraqi government opposed the Awakening strategy because it would disrupt the government’s hold on power, but the U.S. needed it to stem the tide of a growing insurgency, to begin the process of ending a very unpopular war. And that part of the strategy worked.

However, in 2009 the payments from the U.S. were shifted to the Iraqi government, who only agreed to pay 20 percent of the salaries of the Awakening Councils. Then they issued arrest warrants for hundreds of Sunni leaders involved in them, ushering in a new era of political fighting. In 2009, the Sons of Iraq saw repression from the police and Army, and on April 4th of this year, up to 25 members of the Sons of Iraq and their family members were found handcuffed and shot to death in Albusaifi, south of Baghdad. Their killers were wearing Iraqi Security Forces uniforms.

While the Sunni militias were being organized against Al Qaeda in the northern cities, the Iraqi Army invaded Basra, which was largely controlled by Shi’ite political/religious leader Muqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, Iraq’s largest “insurgent group” with 60,000 soldiers. The invasion was an attempt to show that the Iraqi military was capable of pulling off it’s own offensives. And though Basra is a Shi’ite dominated city, it has always been one of the secular capitals of Iraq. It is also one of the bases of the Iraqi Oil Union, a powerful and radical labor force fighting against the forced-privatization of public resources. Many residents were pleased that the Mahdi Army’s position had been broken by the invasion, but few welcomed a British and U.S. presence.

The Mahdi Army launched a large offensive around Baghdad and in other cities at the same time, targeting U.S., British, and Iraqi Security Forces, but also many Sunnis. This is another reason Sunnis teamed up with U.S. forces when they did. In the end, the Mahdi Army was pushed out of Basra, but al Sadr continued to hold a large influence over Iraqi politics, which was noted recently with his massive “shadow vote”.

Casualty Rates and the SOFA

The way in which Iraq is controlled by the U.S. is hidden by layers of long documents and well-disguised rhetoric. As the Surge was running it’s course, the U.S. and Iraqi governments were discussing a “treaty” that would establish long-term agreements on U.S. access to military bases, ports, and other infrastructure, as well as legal agreements governing American war-policy in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, was the product of these discussions.

The SOFA’s main point is that it dictates the terms by which U.S. troops will leave Iraq. It also solidified a U.S. withdrawal from the towns and cities of Iraq by mid-2009. Alongside the SOFA, the Strategic Framework Agreement was signed, outlining the economic conditions for a long-term U.S. presence. This document sets the stage for Iraq’s entry into the U.S.-proposed Middle East Free Trade Area Initiative as well as the World Trade Organization, the opening of its farmlands to U.S. agribusiness, and the opening of its economy to U.S. supervision.

The SFA, like the SOFA, restricts the U.S. to following the Iraqi government’s lead, but both documents can be cancelled by either party at will by “written notice”. Perhaps these are temporary shows of cooperation by the U.S.?

Either way, for many Iraqis the late-2008 ratification of the SOFA was the legal side of a contentious fight to get the U.S. to leave their country. Insurgent groups dedicated to a U.S. withdrawal began lowering their weapons, but didn’t turn them in. Some are waiting to see if the U.S. actually leaves. Civilian deaths started to drop in the summer of 2008, but haven’t changed too much overall since (88 in Sept 2009, compared to between 1,000 and 3,000 a month in 2006/2007). 4,644 civilians died violently in Iraq in 2009, according to the 2009 Iraq Body Count.

For the U.S., it was a well-worded allowance to access Iraqi resources and territory and to keep a U.S. military presence there for some time to come. And it was a needed calm for the U.S. at a time when anti-war feelings were running high among Americans, especially among members of the U.S. military. That year veterans had organized the Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan hearings in Washington D.C. that saw over 100 veterans testify to the horrors of these wars.

For the Iraqi government, the SOFA was pandering to U.S. economic aims to guarantee security for a weak state and an increasingly unpopular leader.

Either way, violence rates, including the number of Iraqis killed by U.S. and coalition forces, started dropping significantly, “with a total of 64 reported by Dec 25th, 2009″ (compared to 594 in 2008). Deaths in the ranks of the Iraqi Army were down from 519 in 2008 to 103 in 2009. June 30 2009, when U.S. troops were mostly withdrawn to bases outside of the cities, is the beginning of the greater decrease in violence. This is because the U.S. wasn’t really present on the streets anymore.

In August of this year, in accordance with the SOFA, U.S. “Combat Forces” will be withdrawn from the country completely. The term “Combat Forces” is deceptive; a lot of what goes on day-to-day in the Iraq occupation is considered “non-combat”, including policing operations, house searches, detainments, patrols, guard duty at bases, and more.

But what’s shifted recently, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities, is that Iraqi Security Forces are taking on most of this work, sometimes with direct American support, but often and increasingly without. Iraqi Security Force deaths since the June 30th deadline have not changed too much however, indicating a general continuance of attacks directed at those carrying out the work of the U.S.

The changing of the guard does not necessarily mean an end to the U.S. combat role. If history has told us anything, this is the beginning of a long stay in the Middle East. The SOFA is a near-photocopy of the Anglo-Iraqi Treat of 1930 (See SOFA here and Anglo-Iraqi Treaty here), which secured British hegemony in Iraq, and Britain hung around for decades after it was signed.

A key lesson from Britain’s history in Iraq lies in the SOFA’s agreement that the Iraqi government can ask the U.S. to intervene in something to “provide security” for it. This arrangement means an unpopular Iraqi government can call on the U.S. to “support it”, in other words, to repress democratic movements against it, much like the British did during their 1941 re-invasion. It gives the U.S. the ability to determine, with it’s Iraqi counterparts, when the Iraqi state is meeting the conditions for it’s own self-rule.

Iraqi political analyst Raed Jarrar writes that “the main problem with a condition-based withdrawal plans is that it creates an equation where deteriorating conditions lead to an extension of the military occupation”, while much of that deterioration has been caused specifically by the U.S. presence. It’s a recipe for an open-ended war, and it is being paid for with the lives of countless Iraqis and over 4,000 American service-members.

Debt, Oil, and the Economic Occupation

The families and friends of these U.S. service-members, and the tens of millions of Iraqis who are suffering from 8 years of war, have thus been praying for peace for years.

Now their calls are finally being heard for the wrong reasons. While those on both sides of the front-lines of this war were bearing the brunt, investors were in the background cutting deals that would make them very rich. War brings massive profits, and they cashed in. But unpopular wars start to become burdens. In 2007 and 2008, the investors began praying for peace too, but they are not interested in the same peace as those who suffer daily as a result of these occupations. The relative calm means that western investment schemes will start to turn-around, and a long-line of U.S. corporations will start getting fat contracts centering around the energy sector.

So the investors will get some quick cash from the relative calm. As violence levels have fallen, the price of Iraqi bonds has risen. These bonds are essentially loans made by private-investors to Iraq’s state, and their interest-rates have doubled in the last few years. According to MIT economist Michael Greenstone, “The only thing the bond market cares about is whether a functioning Iraqi government will be there in the future to make the promised interest payments.” They are only interested in getting their money, and Iraq’s debt is huge.

Iraq still owes a lot of money to the rich countries and their institutions, who are playing a heavy role in making sure they will reap profit in post-war Iraq. When The Paris Club, a group of rich countries led by the U.S., announced it would drop 80 percent of Iraq’s debt, they passed it off as a gesture of solidarity. But this “debt-relief” would only come if Iraq accepted one of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) infamous Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).

The stipulations of this SAP are standard for any predatory IMF loan throughout the world. 30 percent of the 40 billion dollar Paris Club debt was dropped immediately, another 30 was dropped in 2005 after Iraq officially entered the agreement with the IMF, and another 20 was dropped in 2008 as Iraq began meeting the qualifications set out by the IMF. And what are those qualifications? According to a 2009 interview with Iraqi vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi, arguing against the general IMF stipulations, “The policy of (the World Bank and IMF) is that the economy must be 100 percent left to the private sector”.

This 80 percent “debt-relief” has still left Iraq with the other 20 percent of it’s debt to the Paris Club countries, around 10 billion dollars. That’s as large as other countries that are held in economic bondage by the IMF, like El Salvador, Jamaica, Guatemala, and Kenya. And the typical trend is to cut social programs and increase investment towards the export markets, which rarely benefits the general population.

So the prospects of the average Iraqi seeing any kickback from this “debt-relief” are bleak. Iraq suffers from a 15-20 percent unemployment rate, and 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. It is also one of only nine countries in the world that has neither mandatory severance payments or unemployment benefits. And a Saddam-era law banning unions is still on the books (one of the few the U.S. strategically left in place). The IMF’s role in Iraq is not to help the Iraqi people get back on their feet, but to facilitate the passing of Iraq’s entire economy over to private-companies, starting with the oil.

The main mechanism the financial vultures created to suck Iraq dry of it’s chief export, and the majority of it’s economic power, is the Hydrocarbon Law (“The Oil Law”). The Oil Law was first proposed in 2007, but still sits awaiting ratification. Iraqi government has not signed off on it because it is very controversial in Iraqi society, especially among the trade unions.

The Iraqi unions oppose both the corporate-backed Oil Law and the IMF’s agenda. In a unified statement at the beginning of an unofficial meeting with World Bank/IMF representatives 6 months ago, Iraqi labor leaders expressed their opposition to the general policies of the IMF in Iraq;

“The Iraqi government authorities have not consulted with trade unions, or asked us to participate in the drafting these policies, or in their implementation. We pointedly condemn this lack of consultation, and demand inclusion in all future meetings and to be contacted directly [by the International Financial Institutions, IFIs] despite our fundamental position against IFI programs and policies.”

The Oil Law puts Iraqi officials in the Executive Branch in charge of deciding on what types of contracts to sign with foreign oil companies, taking future decision-making on contracts out of the hands of the Legislative branch. This will make it easier for foreign oil companies and their governments to secure lucrative Profit Sharing Agreements, or PSA’s, which they prefer. These PSAs ensures profits for big business and give a disproportionate amount of money to the private-sector: If the Oil Law goes through, two thirds of Iraq’s oil fields, previously state-run, will be controlled by multinationals.

In this way, the Iraqi government is nowhere near sovereign, as it’s economy is largely controlled by international forces. The oil policies that have turned into the proposed Oil Law were designed in the United States and England by a team of Iraqi exiles and U.S. specialists selected by the State Department. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill’s recent quotes to BusinessWeek highlighted this imperial relationship; “The last government (of Prime Minister Maliki) did good things on oil resources. I want to see that continue.”

The Oil Law is set to be finalized this year. Future battles in Iraq may well be between the organized unions and a U.S.-backed Iraqi State.

Anti-War to Economic Justice: Making the Transition

The question for those of us organizing for peace in Iraq is, can we continue our solidarity with the Iraqi people even after U.S. forces withdrawal? Can we be there for Iraqis as they deal with the slow and grueling repercussions of U.S. invasion? Can we devise and carry out methods of reconciliation that empower and support Iraqis while continuing an anti-war dialogue in the U.S., especially among U.S. troops and veterans? Can we take the lessons from Iraq and apply them to Afghanistan, and future wars?

“Our responsibility”, In the words of Raed Jarrar, “starts by ending the 20-year war, but it doesn’t end there.” As the U.S. presence mutates into a more sleek monster, our work is to challenge U.S. economic offensives, and to follow through with reparations for the people of Iraq.

The transition from an anti-war movement to a movement for reparations and economic justice could take many shapes.

It could mean teaming up with other organizations and movements to build a strong and forceful campaign focused specifically around IMF and World Bank policy in Iraq; These institutions are the gateway for the corporate-offensive that is beginning its “surge” in Iraq.

It could mean getting behind the Iraqi union movement, like US Labor Against the War has done, and helping promote the voices and demands of Iraqi workers.

For those of us in the anti-war veteran and service-member organizations, it could mean continuing to initiate dialogue with the military community around the injustices done by U.S. foreign policy.

It could mean putting efforts towards the above while also putting work into opposing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and doing similar follow-through afterwards.

It could mean organizing reconciliation trips with veterans and civilians to hear first-hand the needs and demands of the Iraqi people, and building long-term networks of solidarity between them that could support movements for real sovereign decision-making in Iraq.

It could mean building long-term organizations out of the short-term ones we’ve formed in recent years, to build networks that can effectively challenge future U.S. military policies from the get-go.

If we can transition into a movement that takes on some of this work, we may be able to establish bonds that diffuse the massive tension between our peoples and establish political infrastructure for a peaceful Iraq. If we can’t, we may well deal with the blowback from the U.S. invasion for years to come.

The decision on how to move forward lies with us.

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