12/31/2012 3:11:29 PM
This article originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
are about to take this house over, okay?” shouted Reneka Wheeler, speaking
slowly and emphasizing each word as she stood in front of a vacant house in
southwest Atlanta two weeks ago. It wasn’t really a question; the home had
already been cleaned up and secured, and the only thing left to do was turn the
key. It was a small, pastel-pink bungalow in the middle of the Pittsburgh
neighborhood in Atlanta,
the type of community where more plywood boards than children’s faces peek out
from first-floor windows.
small crowd gathered in front of Wheeler cheered in affirmation. The woman —
flanked by her partner, Michelene Meusa — bounded up the front steps and
entered her new home with a quick jangling of her wrist. Their children, Johla
and Dillon, soon followed. Dillon exposed a buck-teeth smile and Johla’s pink
hair beads tossed from side to side. The last six months hadn’t been easy for
the two children; since July, the family had been shuffling from shelter to
shelter, where Dillon and Johla often found that other adults didn’t approve of
their mothers’ relationship.
M&T Bank — a commercial bank
headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. — claimed to own the house, an
allegation it would soon enforce. But, for the moment, Meusa and Wheeler had
enacted a new vision and definition of housing rights — not by petition or
proposal but by altering the reality on the ground.
going to change the way we do business,” declared Doug Dean, a former state
representative from Pittsburgh,
Ga., on the women’s new front
lawn. “Whether you agree with how we’re doing it, the fact of the matter is
that freedom is not free. We must take back our community.”
December 6, the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Homes movement, Meusa and
Wheeler were only two among thousands of people who gathered for coordinated
direct actions focused on the human right to housing. Building on a year filled
with eviction blockades, house takeovers, bank protest and singing auction
blockades, the anniversary of Occupy Homes demonstrated that the groups were
still committed to risking arrest to keep people sheltered. Yet, even more
significantly, the day’s events demonstrated a crystallization of the
movement’s central message: that decent and dignified housing should be a human
right in the United States.
Alma Ponce and supportive community members from various Occupy groups rallied
inside and outside Ponce’s
home, which was scheduled for eviction on December 6. In Minneapolis,
John Vinje, a veteran who had been evicted from his family’s home by U.S. Bank
and Freddie Mac earlier this year, worked with Occupy Homes MN
to take over a bank-owned home on the south side of the city. In St. Louis, a
handful of housing advocates temporarily occupied a Wells Fargo branch and
began auctioning off the contents of the bank — including the Christmas tree,
paintings and computers, chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho! Corporate greed has got to
go!” Other actions occurred in Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Mendham, N.J., and cities
actions appear to be snowballing. In Atlanta,
Occupy our Homes took over a second house on December 8. In Minneapolis, the group opened up another
house on December 23 in an action led by Carrie Martinez, who refused to
celebrate Christmas with her partner and 12-year-old son in the car where
they’d been living since their eviction in October.
the first Occupy Homes day of action on December 6, 2011, the events
demonstrated a high level of coordination and communication among housing
groups in various cities — this time drawing on the language and tactics that
had been successful throughout the past year.
the small crowd marched to Meusa and Wheeler’s new home, for instance, people
chanted, “Empty houses and houseless people — match them up!” This was a
refrain that echoes the rallying cry commonly used by J.R. Fleming, chairman of
Anti-Eviction Campaign. (His wording is to match “homeless people with
peopleless houses.”) Later, after much of the fanfare had died down, Johla and
Dillon began planting flowers and vegetables in the front yard, an action that
is reminiscent of when Monique White, a mother in Minneapolis, planted a massive garden in the
weeks before her scheduled eviction to demonstrate that she was not leaving.
(U.S. Bank caved and canceled the foreclosure.)
in Woodland, activists covered Alma Ponce’s lawn
with tents — an allusion to the fall 2011 occupations that has also been used
in eviction blockades in Alabama and Georgia over
the last year. Ponce’s
home had been the site of successful eviction blockades in May and, given the
heavy activist presence on December 6, the sheriff refused to show up.
important shift evident on the anniversary is that Occupy Homes groups have
started rallying more and more behind a rights-based framework to explain why
they are pursuing direct action.
is a human right, not for the banks to hold hostage,” Michelene Meusa said a
few days after the action, when, at M&T Bank’s request, the Atlanta Police
Department arrested her and three others for criminal trespassing. When she
refused to leave, she made an explicit comparison between her civil
disobedience and the actions of the civil rights movement.
shift towards a human-rights framing of the housing movement and away from
following the Occupy movement’s focus on economic unfairness — i.e., “Banks got
bailed out, we got sold out” — is significant. The human rights framework is
often more powerful in movements led by people of color, drawing strength, as
Meusa did, from the civil rights era and cutting through the class divisions
that plague housing in a way that movements focused only on mortgage loan
get explosively excited about organizing to protect their rights,” said Anthony
Newby, one of the organizers with Occupy
Homes MN. A year ago,
Newby and the Minneapolis
campaign were more focused on organizing for principal reductions and holding banks
accountable while setting aside more confrontational actions like outright home
liberations for a later date. Yet, as John Vinje’s home liberation in south
Minneapolis on December 6 showed, the group had transformed over the course of
the year into one that is willing to challenge the logic of class-based housing
discrimination: a logic that denies that access to decent housing is, in fact,
a right to be protected rather than a privilege to be bought — on credit, of
she waited for the sheriff inside her home in Woodland, Alma Ponce expressed a similar
commitment to the rights-based framework. Explaining that the rest of her
family doesn’t speak English, she said, “They’re very scared and I know I’ve
been — what is that word? — taken advantage because I am Latina, and they think I’m not going to be
able to defend myself.” Switching to Spanish, she later added, “We Latinos have
to come out and defend our rights. Because we do have rights here in California, and if we
unite, we can keep moving forward.”
the continued onslaught of foreclosures across the United States, the question
remains: How much will these movements have to scale up to make structural
changes, rather than just individual changes?
organizing during the Great Depression provides some instructive parallels. The
economic devastation since 2008 has been quite similar to what the nation
experienced throughout that period. In 1933, for example, banks foreclosed on
an average of 1,000 homes every day. In 2010, the rate of displacement was
comparable: The average number of foreclosures was more than 2,500 homes a day,
and the population has increased two-and-a-half fold.
scale of housing organizing during the early 1930s, however, dwarfs what we
have seen so far today. Crowds of hundreds, and sometimes even thousands of
people, mobilized to stop evictions in New York,
other urban centers, mostly under the direction of the Communist Party. As in
much of current housing organizing, women were often on the front lines. Masses
of these women filled the streets as others climbed to the roofs and poured
buckets of water on the police below. Women beat back the police officers’
horses by sticking them with long hat pins or pouring marbles into the streets.
If the police were successful in moving the family’s furniture out to the curb,
the crowd simply broke down the door and moved the family’s belongings back
inside after the police had left.
were times that landlords were saying, ‘You can’t evict anymore in the Bronx. These people control the streets,’” says Mark
Naison, a professor at Fordham
University and one of the
nation’s leading researchers about housing organizing during the Depression.
communities also formed anti-foreclosure organizations, combining the fight for
housing with the fight for fair wages, especially in the sharecropping South.
Hundreds of thousands of farmers came together to form anti-eviction and
tenants-rights groups like the Farm Holiday Association in the Midwest, the
Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the
Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which stretched from Tennessee to Texas. The
groups descended on farm auctions en masse to intimidate investors and speculators
and then bet on the property with absurdly low prices — a penny, a dollar —
until the property was returned to the owner. They also banded together to do
eviction defense, which, in rural areas, was simple and classically Southern.
was people with rifles standing there and defending the house,” said Naison.
encampment protests called Hoovervilles spread across the country, entirely
built, governed and populated by the displaced. Accounts of the mutual aid and
self-governance in these encampments testify to the similarities between
Hoovervilles and the Occupy encampments in 2011. The only difference, perhaps,
is the former’s longevity; one of the largest Hoovervilles, located in Seattle, stood for 10
years, housed more than 1,000 residents at its peak and held its own elections
for the community’s mayor.
movement achieved substantial legislative gains. Housing policy became a major
part of the New Deal, culminating in the National Housing Act of 1934, which
established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to provide affordable
loans to spur homeownership, and the Housing Act of 1937, which established
public housing authorities across the country.
the era’s housing activists like Catherine Bauer were involved in the drafting of
this new legislation, the laws were far from full victories. The FHA, in
particular, was a highly conservative and often racist lending agency whose
main objective was reigniting housing construction rather than helping
individual homeowners — a mission that led to massive and ongoing federal
handouts to industry. Still, the establishment of public housing systemically
changed the landscape and ideology around housing in the United States
and was “one of the most successful federal programs in the 20th century,”
according to Damaris Reyes, the executive director of the public housing
advocacy group Good Old Lower East Side.
this measure, the Occupy Homes network and aligned housing movements still have
light-years to go — a reality that many organizers acknowledge. Yet the
conditions have changed since 1930s, suggesting that what we need are not
massive federal construction and lending programs, but rather a shift in the
way housing rights are perceived and enacted in the U.S. Rather than coping
with the scarcity of the 1930s, the United States now confronts vast,
unprecedented wealth and gaping economic inequality — a condition that is
perhaps best illustrated by the fact that there are upwards of a dozen empty
and unused houses for every homeless person in the nation.
more than enough wealth and roofs to provide safe and dignified homes for the
country’s population, the challenge today is to demonstrate that this situation
of desperate need coexisting with wasted excess is not one we need to accept.
Doing so requires the protests of people like Reneka Wheeler, Michelene Meusa,
John Vinje, Alma Ponce and Carrie Martinez who are willing to defy the law — on
camera and unafraid. And it will take these actions happening again and again.
As John Vinje in Minneapolis explained, “If the police come and decide that
they’re going to kick us out, we’ll make our stand up to the point where if we
have no option but to retreat, we’ll just go and find another one. And take it
over. And hopefully we’ll wear them down to the point that they’ll quit trying
to come and kick us out.”
resilience is just what the Occupy Homes network showed on December 23, with
the city’s second home takeover led by Carrie Martinez. And, while questions of
strategy and ability to scale remain, Martinez
reminds us that the purpose is always to enact the human right to housing — one
family at a time.
happens, we’re just grateful not to be living out of our car and to have
somewhere warm to spend our holidays,” Martinez
Mark R. Brown/mrbrownphoto.com.
12/20/2012 10:51:09 AM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
year ago around this time, Occupy Wall Street was celebrating Advent — the
season when Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In front of
Trinity Church, right at the top of Wall Street along Broadway, Occupiers set
up a little model tent with the statuettes of a nativity scene inside: Mary,
Joseph and the Christ child in a manger, surrounded by animals. In the back, an
angel held a tiny cardboard sign with a verse from Luke’s Gospel: “There was no
room for them in the inn.” The reason for these activists’ interest in the
liturgical calendar, of course, was the movement’s ongoing effort to convince
Trinity to start acting less like a real estate corporation and more like a
church, and to let the movement use a vacant property that Trinity owns.
year later, even as a resilient few continue their 24-hour vigil on the
sidewalk outside Trinity, churches and Occupiers are having a very different
kind of Advent season together. Finding room in churches is no longer a problem
for the movement.
The day after Hurricane Sandy struck New York in late
October, Occupiers hustled to organize a massive popular relief effort, and
Occupy Sandy came into being. By circumstance and necessity, it has mostly
taken place in churches; they are the large public spaces available in affected
areas, and they were the people willing to open their doors. Two churches on
high ground in Brooklyn became organizing hubs, and others in the Rockaways,
Coney Island, Staten Island and Red Hook
became depots for getting supplies and support to devastated neighborhoods. To
make this possible, Occupiers have had to win the locals’ trust — by helping
clean up the damaged churches and by showing their determination to help those
whom the state-sponsored relief effort was leaving behind. When the time for
worship services came around, they’d cleared the supplies off the pews.
Sandy has been miraculous for us, really,” said Bob
Dennis, parish manager at St. Margaret Mary, a Catholic church in Staten Island. “They are doing exactly what Christ
preached.” Before this, the police and firemen living in his neighborhood
hadn’t had much good to say about Occupy Wall Street, but that has changed
leaders are organizing tours to show off the Occupy Sandy relief efforts of
which they’ve been a part, and they’re speaking out against the failures of
city, state and federal government. Congregations are getting to know Occupiers
one on one by working together in a relief effort that every day — as the
profiteering developers draw nearer — is growing into an act of resistance.
that’s only one part of it. Months before Sandy, organizers with the Occupy
Wall Street group Strike Debt made a concerted effort to reach out to religious
allies for help on a new project they were calling the Rolling Jubilee; by
buying up defaulted loans for pennies on the dollar, and then abolishing them,
organizers hoped to spread the spirit of jubilee — an ancient biblical practice
of debt forgiveness.
religious groups jumped at the chance to help. Occupy Faith organized an event
in New York
to celebrate the Rolling Jubilee’s launch. Occupy Catholics (of which I am a
part) took the opportunity to reclaim the Catholic concepts of jubilee and
usury for the present economic crisis and released a statement in support of
the Rolling Jubilee that has been signed by Catholics across the country.
Rolling Jubilee idea has been hugely successful, raising more money more
quickly than anyone anticipated — around $10 million in debt is poised to be
abolished. But now Strike Debt, too, has turned its attention to working with
those affected by the hurricane. On Dec. 2, the group published “Shouldering
the Costs,” a report on the proliferation of debt in the aftermath of Sandy. The document was
released with an event at — where else? — a church in Staten
newfound access to religious real estate is not merely a convenience for this
movement; it has implications that a lot of people probably aren’t even
thinking about yet. Occupy Wall Street has learned from the Egyptian Revolution
before, and now, even if by accident, it is doing so again.
Tahrir Square was still full of tents and tanks, and Hosni Mubarak was still in
power, the editors of Adbusters magazine were already imagining a “Million Man
March on Wall Street,” the idea that led to what would become their July 13,
2011, call to #occupywallstreet. More than a year after the occupation at Zuccotti Park began, though, and nearly two years
after crowds first filled Tahrir, neither revolt very much resembles its
origins. The Egyptian Revolution, first provoked by tech-savvy young activists,
has now been hijacked as a coup for the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative
religious party; its only viable challenger is none other than Mubarak’s ancien
regime, minus only Mubarak himself. Occupy, meanwhile, has lost its encampments
and, despite whatever evidence there is to the contrary, most of its enemies in
power deem it no longer a threat.
many U.S. activists even today, the dream of creating a Tahrir-sized rupture in
this country persists — of finally drawing enough people into the streets and
causing enough trouble to make Wall Street cower. But what if something on the
scale of Tahrir really were to happen in the United States? What would be the
was thinking of this question recently while on an unrelated reporting mission
at a massive evangelical Christian megachurch near the Rocky
Mountains. Several thousand (mostly white, upper-middle-class)
people were there that day, of all ages. They had come back after Sunday
morning services for an afternoon series of talks on philosophy — far more
people than attend your average Occupy action.
time I step foot in one of these places, it strikes me how they put radicals in
the United States
to shame. These churches organize real, life-giving mutual aid as the basis of
an independent political discourse and power base. Church membership is far
larger, for instance, than that of unions in this country.
there were a sudden, Tahrir-like popular uprising right now, with riots in all
the cities and so forth, I can’t help but think that it would be organizations
like the church I went to that would come out taking power in the end, even
more so than they already do — just as the Islamists have in Egypt.
the idea of occupying symbolic public space was the Egyptians’ first lesson for
Occupy Wall Street, this is the second: Win religion over before it beats you
religion, again and again, people in the United States have organized for
power. Religion is also the means by which many imagine and work for a world
more just than this one. Just about every successful popular movement in U.S. history
has had to recognize this, from the American Revolution to labor, and from
civil rights to today’s campaigners for marriage equality — and now Occupy.
I stop by the Occupy Sandy hub near my house — the Episcopal church of St. Luke
and St. Matthew — and join the mayhem of volunteers carrying boxes this way and
that, and poke my head into the upper room full of laptops and organizers
around a long table, and see Occupiers in line for communion at Sunday
services, I keep thinking of how Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program ends.
The 12th step is where you cap off all the self-involved inner work you’ve been
doing, and get over yourself for a bit, and heal yourself by helping someone
who has been around Occupy Wall
Street during the year since its eviction from Zuccotti Park knows it has been in need of
healing. Whether through flood-soaked churches, or on the debt market, this is
how the Occupy movement has always been at its best, and its most exciting, and
its most necessary: When it shows people how to build their own power, and to
strengthen their own communities, this movement finds itself.
Image by Poster Boy NYC,
licensed under Creative
12/18/2012 4:21:09 PM
This post originally
appeared at TomDispatch.
Weren’t those the greatest of days if you were in the American
spy game? Governments went down in Guatemala
thanks to you. In distant Indonesia,
Laos, and Vietnam, what a
role you played! And even that botch-up of an invasion in Cuba was
nothing to sneeze at. In those days, unfortunately, you -- particularly those
of you in the CIA -- didn’t get the credit you deserved.
You had to live privately with your successes. Sometimes,
as with the Bay of Pigs, the failures came back to haunt you (so, in the case of Iran, would your “success,” though so many years
later), but you couldn’t with pride talk publicly about what you, in your
secret world, had done, or see instant movies and TV shows about your triumphs.
You couldn’t launch a “covert” air war that was reported on, generally
positively, almost every week, or bask in the pleasure of having your director claim publicly that it was “the only game in town.” You
couldn’t, that is, come out of what were then called “the shadows,” and soak up
the glow of attention, be hailed as a hero, join Americans in watching some
(fantasy) version of your efforts weekly on television, or get the credit for
Nothing like that was possible -- not at least until well
after two journalists, David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, shined a bright light
into those shadows, called you part of an “invisible government,” and outed you
in ways that you found deeply discomforting.
Their book with that startling title, The Invisible Government, was published in 1964 and
it was groundbreaking, shadow-removing, illuminating. It caused a fuss from its
first paragraph, which was then a shockeroo: “There are two governments in
the United States
today. One is visible. The other is invisible.”
I mean, what did Americans know at the time about an
invisible government even the president didn't control that was lodged deep
inside the government they had elected?
Wise and Ross continued: “The first is the government
that citizens read about in their newspapers and children study about in their
civics books. The second is the interlocking, hidden machinery that carries out
the policies of the United
States in the Cold War. This second,
invisible government gathers intelligence, conducts espionage, and plans and
executes secret operations all over the globe.”
The Invisible Government came
out just as what became known as “the Sixties” really began, a moment when
lights were suddenly being shone into many previously shadowy American corners.
I was then 20 years old and sometime in those years I read their book with a
suitable sense of dread, just as I had read those civics books in high school
in which Martians landed on Main Street in some “typical” American town to be
lectured on our way of life and amazed by our Constitution, not to speak of
those fabulous governmental checks and balances instituted by the Founding
Fathers, and other glories of democracy.
I wasn’t alone reading The Invisible
Government either. It was a bestseller and CIA Director John McCone
reportedly read the manuscript, which he had secretly
obtained from publisher Random House. He demanded deletions. When the
publisher refused, he considered buying up the full first printing. In the end,
he evidently tried to arrange for some bad reviews instead.
Time Machines and Shadow Worlds
By 1964, the “U.S. Intelligence Community,” or IC, had
nine members, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the
National Security Agency (NSA). As Wise and Ross portrayed it, the IC was
already a labyrinthine set of secret outfits with growing power. It was capable
of launching covert actions worldwide, with a “broad spectrum of domestic
operations,” the ability to overthrow foreign governments, some involvement in
shaping presidential campaigns, and the capacity to plan operations without the
knowledge of Congress or full presidential control. “No outsider,” they
concluded, “can tell whether this activity is necessary or even legal. No
outsider is in a position to determine whether or not, in time, these
activities might become an internal danger to a free society.” Modestly enough,
they called for Americans to face the problem and bring “secret power” under
control. (“If we err as a society, let it be on the side of control.”)
Now, imagine that H.G. Wells’s time machine had been
available in that year of publication. Imagine that it whisked those
journalists, then in their mid-thirties, and the young Tom Engelhardt instantly
some 48 years into the future to survey just how their cautionary tale about a
great democratic and republican nation running off the tracks and out of
control had played out.
The first thing they might notice is that the
Intelligence Community of 2012 with 17 official outfits has, by the simplest of calculations,
almost doubled. The real size and power of that secret world, however, has in
every imaginable way grown staggeringly larger than that. Take one outfit, now
part of the IC, that didn’t exist back in 1964, the National
Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. With an annual budget of close to $5 billion,
it recently built a gigantic $1.8 billion headquarters -- “the third-largest structure
in the Washington
area, nearly rivaling the Pentagon in size” -- for its 16,000 employees. It
literally has its “eye” on the globe in a way that would have been left to
sci-fi novels almost half a century ago and is tasked as
“the nation’s primary source of geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT.” (Don’t ask
me what that means exactly, though it has to do with quite literally imaging
the planet and all its parts -- or perhaps less politely, turning every inch of
Earth into a potential shooting range.)
Or consider an outfit that did exist then: the National
Security Agency, or NSA (once known jokingly as “no such agency” because of its deep cover). Like its
geospatial cousin, it has been in a period of explosive growth, budgetary and
otherwise, capped off by the construction of a “heavily fortified” $2 billion
data center in Bluffdale, Utah. According to NSA expert James Bamford, when finished in
2013 that center will “intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of
the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the
underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic
networks.” He adds: “Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in
near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the
complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as
well as all sorts of personal data trails -- parking receipts, travel
itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’” We’re
talking not just about foreign terrorists here but about the intake and eternal
storage of vast reams of material from American citizens, possibly even you.
Or consider a little-known post-9/11 creation, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is not even
a separate agency in the IC, but part of the Office of the Director of National
Intelligence. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama
administration has just turned that organization into “a government dragnet,
sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens -- even people
suspected of no crime.” It has granted the NCTC the right, among other things
“to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal
behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them... copy entire government
databases -- flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans
hosting foreign-exchange students, and many others. The agency has new
authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years,
and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were
Or take the Defense Intelligence Agency, which came into
existence in 1961 and became operational only the year their book came out.
Almost half a century ago, as Wise and Ross told their readers, it had 2,500
employees and a relatively modest set of assigned tasks. By the end of the Cold
War, it had 7,500 employees. Two decades later, another tale of
explosive growth: the DIA has 16,000 employees.
In their 2010 Washington Post series, "Top Secret America," journalists Dana Priest and
William Arkin caught a spirit of untrammeled expansion in the post-9/11 era
that would surely have amazed those two authors who had called for “controls”
over the secret world: “In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building
complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been
built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three
Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings -- about 17 million square feet of
Similarly, the combined Intelligence Community budget,
which in deepest secrecy had supposedly soared to at least $44
billion in 2005 (all such figures have to be taken with a dumpster-ful of
salt), has by now nearly doubled to an official $75 billion.
Let’s add in one more futuristic shocker for our time
travelers. Someone would have to tell them that, in 1991, the Soviet Union,
that great imperial power and nemesis of the invisible government, with its
vast army, secret police, system of gulags, and monstrous nuclear arsenal, had
disappeared largely nonviolently from the face of the Earth and no single power
has since arisen to challenge the United States militarily. After
all, that staggering U.S. intelligence budget, the explosion of new
construction, the steep growth in personnel, and all the rest has happened in a
world in which the U.S. is facing a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran and
North Korea), a minority insurgency in Afghanistan, a rising economic power
(China) with still modest military might, and probably a few thousand extreme
Muslim fundamentalists and al-Qaeda wannabes scattered around the planet.
They would have to be told that, thanks to a single
horrific event, a kind of terrorist luck-out we now refer to in shorthand as
"9/11," and despite the diminution of global enemies,
an already enormous IC has expanded nonstop in a country seized by a spasm of fear and paranoia.
Preparing Battlefields and Building Giant Embassies
Staggered by the size of the invisible government they
had once anatomized, the two reporters might have been no less surprised by
another development: the way in our own time “intelligence” has been
militarized, while the U.S.
military itself has plunged into the shadows. Of course, it’s now well known
that the CIA, a civilian intelligence agency until recently headed by a retired four-star general, has
and is now putting a significant part of its energy into running an ever
spreading “covert” set of drone wars across the Greater Middle East.
Meanwhile, since the early years of the George W. Bush
administration, the U.S.
military has been intent on claiming some of the CIA’s turf as its own. Not
long after the 9/11 attacks, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began pushing the Pentagon into CIA-style intelligence activities -- the "full
spectrum of humint [human intelligence] operations" -- to “prepare” for
future “battlefields.” That process has never ended. In April 2012, for
instance, the Pentagon released the information that it was in the process of
setting up a new spy agency called the Defense Clandestine Service (DCS). Its
job: to globalize military “intelligence” by taking it beyond the obvious war
zones. The DCS was tasked as well with working more closely with the CIA (while
assumedly rivaling it).
As Greg Miller of the Washington Postreported, “Creation of the new service also coincides with
the appointment of a number of senior officials at the Pentagon who have
extensive backgrounds in intelligence and firm opinions on where the military’s
spying programs -- often seen as lackluster by CIA insiders -- have gone
And then just this month the head of the Defense
Intelligence Agency, originally a place for analysis and coordination, announced at a conference that his agency was going to
expand into “humint” in a big way, filling embassies around the world with a
new corps of clandestine operators who had diplomatic or other “cover.” He was
talking about fielding 1,600 “collectors” who would be “trained by the CIA and often
work with the Joint Special Operations Command.” Never, in other words, will a
country have had so many “diplomats” who know absolutely nothing about
Though the Senate has balked
at funding the expansion of the Defense Clandestine Service, all of this
represents both a significant reshuffling of what is still called
“intelligence” but is really a form of low-level war-making on a global stage
and a continuing expansion of America’s
secret world on a scale hitherto unimaginable, all in the name of “national
security.” Now at least, it’s easier to understand why, from London to Baghdad to Islamabad, the U.S. has been building humongous embassies
fortified like ancient castles and the size of imperial palaces for
unparalleled staffs of “diplomats.” These will now clearly include scads of
CIA, DIA, and perhaps DCS agents, among others, under diplomatic “cover.”
Into this mix would have to go another outfit that would
have been unknown to Wise and Ross, but -- given the publicity Seal Team Six
has gotten over the bin Laden raid and other activities -- that most Americans
will be at least somewhat aware of. An ever-greater role in the secret world is
now being played by a military organization that long ago headed into the
shadows, the Joint Special Operations Command(JSOC). In 2009, New
Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh termed it an “executive assassination ring” (especially in Iraq) that did
not “report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days... directly to the
In fact, JSOC only emerged into the public eye when one
of its key operatives in Iraq,
General Stanley McChrystal, was appointed U.S. war commander in Afghanistan. It has been in the
spotlight ever since as it engages in what once might have been CIA-style
paramilitary operations on steroids, increases its intelligence-gathering
capacity, runs its own drone wars, and has set up a new headquarters in Washington, 15 convenient minutes from
the White House.
Big Screen Moments and “Covert” Wars
At their top levels, the leadership of the CIA, the DIA,
and JSOC are now mixing and matching in a blur of ever more intertwined,
militarized outfits, increasingly on a perpetual war footing. They have, in
this way, turned the ancient arts of intelligence, surveillance, spying, and
assassination into a massively funded way of life and are now regularly
conducting war on the sly and on the loose across the globe. At the lowest
levels, the CIA, DIA, JSOC, and assumedly someday DCS train together, work in
teams and in tandem, and cooperate, as well as poach on each other’s turf.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to write a single volume
called The Invisible Government. You would instead have to produce a
multi-volume series. And while you were at it -- this undoubtedly would have
stunned Wise and Ross -- you might have had to retitle the project something
like The Visible Government.
Don’t misunderstand me: Americans now possess (or more
accurately are possessed by) a vast “intelligence” bureaucracy deeply in the
shadows, whose activities are a mass of known
unknowns and unknown unknowns to those of us on the outside. It is beyond
enormous. There is no way to assess its actual usefulness, or whether it is
even faintly “intelligent” (though a case could certainly be made that the U.S.
would be far better off with a non-paramilitarized intelligence service or two,
rather than scads of them, that eschewed paranoia and relied largely on open
sources). But none of that matters. It now represents an irreversible way of
life, one that is increasingly visible and celebrated in this country. It is
also part of the seemingly endless growth of the imperial power of the White
House and, in ways that Wise and Ross would in 1964 have found inconceivable,
beyond all accountability or control when it comes to the American people.
It is also ready to take public credit for its
“successes” (or even a significant hand in shaping how they are viewed in the
public arena). Once upon a time, a CIA agent who died in some covert operation
would have gone unnamed and unacknowledged. By the 1970s, that agent would have
had a star engraved on the wall of the lobby of CIA headquarters, but
no one outside the Agency would have known about his or her fate.
Now, those who die in our “secret” operations or ones
launched against our “invisible” agents can become public figures and
celebrated “heroes.” This was the case, for instance, with Jennifer Matthews, a CIA agent
who died in Afghanistan
when an Agency double agent turned out to be a triple agent and suicide bomber.
Or just last week, when a soldier from Seal Team Six died in an operation in Afghanistan to
rescue a kidnapped doctor. The Navy released his photo and name, and he was widely hailed.
This would certainly have been striking to Wise and Ross.
Then again, they would undoubtedly have been no less
startled to discover that, from Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne to Syriana,
the Mission Impossible films, and Taken, the CIA and other secret
outfits (or their fantasy doppelgangers) have become staples of American multiplexes.
Nor has the small screen, from 24 to Homeland, been immune to
this invasion of visibility. Or consider this: just over a year and a half
after Seal Team Six’s super-secret bin Laden operation ended, it has already
been turned into Zero Dark Thirty, a highly pre-praised (and controversial) movie, a candidate for Oscars with a heroine
patterned on an undercover CIA agent whose photo has made it into the public arena. Moreover, it was a
film whose makers were reportedly aided or at least encouraged in their efforts by the CIA, the Pentagon, and
the White House, just as the SEALs aided this year’s high-grossing movie Act
of Valor (“an elite team of Navy SEALs... embark on a covert mission to recover
a kidnapped CIA agent”) by lending the film actual SEALs as its (unnamed)
actors and then staging a SEAL parachute drop onto a red carpet at its Hollywood premier.
True, at the time The Invisible Government was
published, the first two James Bond films were already hits and the Mission
Imposible TV show was only two years from launch, but the way the invisible
world has since emerged from the shadows to become a fixture of pop culture
remains stunning. And don’t think this was just some cultural quirk. After all,
back in the 1960s, enterprising reporters had to pry open those invisible
agencies to discover anything about what they were doing. In those years, for
instance, the CIA ran a secret air and sizeable ground war in Laos that it
tried desperately never to acknowledge despite its formidable size and scope.
Today, on the other hand, the Agency runs what are called
“covert” drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia in which most strikes are promptly
reported in the press and about which the administration clearly leaked information it wanted in the New York
Times on the president’s role in picking those to die.
In the past, American presidents pursued “plausible
deniability” when it came to assassination plots like those against Congolese
leader Patrice Lumumba, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem. Now,
assassination is clearly considered a semi-public part of the presidential job,
codified, bureaucratized, and regulated (though only within
the White House), and remarkably public. All of this has become part of the
visible world (or at least a giant publicity operation in it). No need today
for a Wise or Ross to tell us this. Ever since President Ronald Reagan’s
CIA-run Central American Contra wars of the 1980s, the definition of “covert”
has changed. It no longer means hidden from sight, but beyond accountability.
It is now a polite way of saying to the American people:
not yours. Yes, you can know about it; you can feel free to praise it; but you
have nothing to do with it, no say over it.
In the 48 years since their pioneering book was
published, Wise and Ross’s invisible government has triumphed over the visible
one. It has become the go-to option in this country. In certain ways, it is
also becoming the most visible and important part of that government, a vast
edifice of surveilling, storing, spying, and killing that gives us what we now
call “security,” leaves us in terror of the world, never stops growing, and is
ever freer to collect information on you to use as it wishes.
With the passage of 48 years, it’s so much clearer that,
impressive as Wise and Ross were, their quest was quixotic. Bring the “secret
power” under control? Make it accountable? Dream on -- but be careful, one of
these days even your dreams may be on file.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the
and author of
The United States of Fear
as well as
The End of Victory Culture
, his history of the Cold War,
runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick
Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
2001-2050. You can see his interview with Bill Moyers on supersized
politics, drones, and other subjects by clicking here.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on
Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt
Image by USASOC News Service,
licensed under Creative
12/14/2012 12:11:03 PM
This article was originally published at Solutions Online.
Caterpillars might not be haute cuisine for many Americans, but a new organization in Africa is promoting them as a simple, nutritious solution to the continent’s high rate of malnutrition. Shea caterpillars are brown, wriggly worms about the size of a child’s pinky finger. They are already sold live at markets in places like Burkina Faso, a small, landlocked West African nation that has a shortage of physicians. The caterpillar larva is recognized as highly nutritious and is eaten with many of the region’s staple foods, such as sorghum, millet, rice, maize, peanuts, potatoes, beans, yams, and okra.
Two engineers from Burkina Faso who specialize in microbiology and nutrition, Kahitouo Hien and Christophe Mandi, have devised a business to promote local products, and they employ local women as caterpillar collectors. The organization, called FasoProt, will sell a protein supplement made from ground caterpillar to children and pregnant women. FasoProt will also sell a more expensive delicacy, dried caterpillars, to subsidize the protein supplement.
It is estimated that malnutrition in Burkina Faso is responsible for 50 percent of children who die before their fifth birthday. Half of the population lives below the poverty level. The health situation was aggravated in 2009, when the heaviest rainfall in 90 years triggered massive floods that contaminated water sources and forced many to flee. Given local success, Hien and Mandi envision their project being replicated in neighboring West and Central African countries.
Image: Women kneading millet, Burkina Faso, by the CIDSE, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/5/2012 11:49:35 AM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
Mahoma Lopez, a long-time restaurant worker in New York City, it came down to a decision
between fight and flight. Last fall, his boss at the cafe on the Upper East
Side where Lopez had worked for years began cutting hours and screaming at his
employees, withholding overtime pay and threatening to fire anyone who
complained. Being Mexican-born and with halting English, Lopez had been in this
position before. Time after time, he’d quit; to be a proud man in his industry
required a fair number of employment changes.
and Crusty —” Lopez said, smiling as he began the story of his most recent
employer, one in a chain of cheap, 24-hour eateries sprinkled across Manhattan. Lopez leaned
back in the flimsy chair of the pizzeria a few blocks from his Queens apartment. With his large stomach thrust forward
and his wide cheeks covered in a trimmed beard, the 34-year-old looked stately,
December, the campaign began underground,” he said.
Last month, Lopez and his co-workers
at the Hot and Crusty on 63rd St.
won a suspenseful and highly atypical 11-month labor campaign. The battle
pitted 23 foreign-born restaurant workers, supported by a volunteer organizing
center and members of Occupy Wall Street, against a corporate restaurant chain
backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm. The campaign
itself was filled with enough twists, betrayals and finally triumphs to be the
subject of an upcoming documentary,Cafe Wars (check out the trailer, below). Yet the story of Mahoma Lopez’s own
year-long evolution from an employee to an organizer exemplifies the new,
dynamic direction of the U.S.
labor movement that appears to be on the brink of resurgence.
has a friendly disposition, which he employs in conversation to smooth over
whatever difficulties have come his way. Crossing the Mexican-American border
with a coyote — a smuggler of migrants — was no big deal, he says, even though
the coyote was detained and imprisoned at the border, leaving 18-year-old Lopez
in charge of the rest of the group once they reached Texas. Lopez also talks about his father’s
early death deftly, explaining that it left him a good job as a gas station
attendant, which Lopez assumed when he was 13. His relaxed demeanor didn’t
inure him to things like chaotic protests; as a boy growing up in Mexico City, he was
generally against marches.
thought: The people are crazy,” he remembered.
aversion to chanting crowds doesn’t mean that Lopez can’t be rash and impulsive
in his own life. “Me enojé” —
which means “I got angry” in Spanish — is frequently his answer for why he made
various life decisions, from quitting unpleasant jobs to immigrating to the
U.S. But what Lopez sees in himself as recklessness, labor organizer Virgilio
Aran sees as the type of pride and steadfast character that can make someone a
very disciplined, that’s one of the most important qualities,” said Aran, who
became involved in the Hot and Crusty campaign at the end of 2011. “He has been
developing throughout the campaign, but I think that quality came with him
before I met him.”
who co-founded the Laundry
along with his wife, Rosanna Rodriguez, first heard about Hot and Crusty when
he received a call from one of Lopez’s co-workers, a man named Omar. At that
point, the campaign was in its “super-secret” infancy. It consisted only of
Lopez and two others, Gretel Areco and Gonzalo Jimenez, encouraging trusted co-workers
to call the city Labor Board’s anonymous hotline. This, at first, was about as
radical an action as Lopez was willing to take against his boss’s threats and
frequent tirades. Omar hadn’t yet been vetted, and his unsolicited offer to
call Aran put Lopez in a panic.
moment was one of Lopez’s first brushes with the heart-racing anxiety that can
come with organizing. By the end of the campaign, it would become a frequent
it turned out, Omar was trustworthy, and Aran was one of the city’s best
unaffiliated labor organizers. The newly-formed Laundry Workers
Center was looking for
its first campaign — although, as the group’s name implies, Aran had been eying
the city’s notoriously exploitative laundry industry, not the low-wage
restaurant business. Aran began an eight-week political education crash-course
for the Hot and Crusty workers, and Lopez became his most curious and
determined pupil. As the New Year approached, few could expect what was on the
horizon — both for the Hot and Crusty campaign and on the national scene.
the labor movement, 2012 began with all the paralysis of an election year,
combined with the gloomy disappointment of the failed
Scott Walker recall campaign in Wisconsin
six months earlier. To many grassroots activists, organized labor was too
lumbering and bureaucratic; to nearly everyone else, it was a pension-hungry
special interest group that no longer belonged in today’s economic reality.
the end of the year, however, labor had re-established itself through the
strike in Chicago, the first
successful strikes at Walmart stores and warehouses in its 50-year history,
the world’s largest private employer, the airport workers’ Thanksgiving Day
walkouts at LAX, and the
beginnings of an ambitious campaign to unionize employees at McDonald’s,
Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains in New York City. The movement
seemed invigorated, bursting with new leaders — and nowhere was this rapid
transformation happening faster than at the fringes of the labor world, where
the organizing could be focused on worker empowerment rather than continually
being constrained by restrictive labor laws.
places I see [exciting organizing] happening most consistently are on what we
would call the margins of the former labor movement,” writes
Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the
Labor Movement. This, she explains, “is in a lot of the immigrant
a blistering cold day in late January, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Mahoma Lopez and his small cadre
of co-workers and volunteer organizers went public with a 50-person march to
his Hot and Crusty store, where Lopez delivered a list of demands to a stunned
me, that was one of the most incredible moments,” Lopez remembered. He
confessed to being so nervous that, nearly one year later, he couldn’t quite
believe that it had been he who delivered “la
carta de demandas.”
to the scale of the teachers’ strike or the snowballing Walmart walkouts that
would erupt less than six months later, the Hot and Crusty fight was minuscule.
Yet, the backdrop — the Manhattan
food-service industry — was a microcosm of today’s highly globalized and highly
unequal economic system.
the city’s tens of thousands of restaurants net an annual profit of more than
$12 billion, according to the New York State Restaurant Association. Inside the
sector’s hierarchy, however, this wealth hardly trickles down. The majority of
the jobs the industry produces are low-wage, no-benefit positions that are
overwhelmingly held by immigrants, about a third of whom are undocumented.
According to a 2005
study, 60 percent of surveyed workers reported their bosses violating
overtime laws, and one-third reported being verbally abused at work.
workers like Mahoma Lopez often endure the most exploitative conditions.
According to a 2010 New York Times investigation,
Mexican men are more likely to be employed in the restaurant industry than any
other ethnic group, including American-born workers, in part because fear of
deportation and desperate economic need makes them unlikely to report
below-minimum-wage pay or workplace abuse.
this addiction to cheap labor drives down wages throughout the industry,
investors and private equity firms end up accumulating much of the resulting
profits. The chain that includes Lopez’s Hot and Crusty is owned by Praesidian
Capital, a $700 million company with a white South African operating partner
named Mark Samson. To the Hot and Crusty workers and supporting organizers,
Samson — living in a high-rise around the corner from the restaurant — became
the symbol of the industry’s power imbalance. Rumors flew about his investing
practices and his numerous chains of restaurants. But the bottom line that
sparked the labor struggle wasn’t jealousy over Samson’s and other investors’
tax filings — it was their labor practices.
doesn’t matter how rich you are, it matters what type of situation you’re putting
the workers’ lives in,” said Diego Ibanez, a volunteer organizer who worked
with Lopez and Aran to plan actions throughout the Hot and Crusty struggle.
that first freezing march, the escalation on both sides was fierce. The employees
organized and won an independent workers’ association recognized by the
National Labor Relations Board in May. They received tens of thousands of
dollars in back pay, only to learn that the company decided to close the store
in retaliation against the newly formed workers’ association. At that point,
the legal handbook went out the window, and Lopez’s impulsiveness became
indispensable. Far from being against a noisy protest, Lopez now hungered for
like to joke about the most radical things we could do, and he always liked
those conversations,” said Ibanez. When we joked about occupying the workplace,
and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that.’ He liked the possibilities of
August 31, the day the manager came to inform Lopez that the store was to be
closed — a decision made weeks earlier — Lopez, his co-workers and a handful of
community members rushed into the restaurant and prevented its closure by
holding a workers’ assembly. The action resulted in multiple arrests and kicked
off a picket line and a week-long sidewalk cafe that, fittingly enough, opened
for (free) business on Labor Day.
back-and-forth continued. Finally the company relented, only to reveal that
unpaid rent had soured the relationship with the landlord, who wouldn’t renew
the lease. The workers’ picket stretched into its second month, straining
finances and spreading fatigue. Still, Lopez remained a bedrock of the
one point, his financial situation had become so precarious that Virgilio Aran
found Lopez — who has a wife and two sons to support — a part-time job, which
kept him away from the picket line for the first time since it began.
first day that he went to the part-time job, one of his co-workers stayed at
the picket line himself,” said Aran. “Mahoma called me that night and he said,
‘I won’t take the job. That was my first and last day.
here in the struggle for the victory, and the picket line is more important
than getting some type of income,’” Aran remembered Lopez saying. “That’s his
in late October, the company ceded to the workers’ demands — agreeing to reopen
the store, recognize the workers’ association and sign a collective-bargaining
agreement that included paid vacation and sick time for the workers, required
wage increases, a grievance and arbitration procedure, and a union hiring hall
that gives the association the power to hire new employees. That night, after
Lopez learned that he had finally won, he sat down and called every single
organizer and thanked them.
next week, as he waited for the store to reopen, Lopez became the newest
volunteer organizer with Laundry Workers’ Center. According to Aran, Lopez is
now one of the lead organizers on another underground labor campaign.
like any seasoned organizer, if you ask Mahoma Lopez about the new campaign, he
won’t reveal a word.
Photo by Workers of Hot
and Crusty. Used with permission.
Cafe Wars Trailer from Robin Blotnick on Vimeo.
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