Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Empathy

[I've been catching up -- sort of -- with overnight events, focusing on Portland (OR) this morning, and witnessing the police stand down at about 6:30 this morning on the Livestream; the elation at the People's Victory in Portland was and is very encouraging. It was almost unbelievable to watch. Haven't been able to follow up on Oakland yet. But the Black Bloc "issue" continues to roil...]

Yesterday, I made a comment suggesting -- but not fleshing out -- my growing empathy with the Oakland Mayor and City Council over their dilemma in dealing with Occupy Oakland and the other pressures they are facing.

I've given it more thought, and though I'm still not completely sure of how this thing is evolving, I'm less and less convinced of the bad intent that is being asserted by both the Council and the Occupation about the other.

On the other hand, I think there really is bad intent on the part of the UC administration toward the students and faculty -- let alone the underpaid and vastly undervalued workers at the University -- at Berkeley (and by extension, the rest of the University system in California), and they seem now to be intent on precipitating a complete implosion of the System. I suppose their ideal is to replace it with Prisons for All.

As I've said, Oakland has been under a crypto-form of martial law for years, the point of which is suppression of Popular Will -- through any means necessary. The Occupation throws that fact back at Authority. They use the term, "De-colonize Oakland." That's basically what it boils down to: it's time to end the colonial oppression of the People of Oakland -- by any means necessary.

Oakland city officials are in a bind in part because they have been doing everything they could possibly imagine doing to meet the demands of their colonial overlords. And who, exactly, are they?

Check out the membership of the Chamber of Commerce. Most of them, of course, are small scale entrepreneurs with little or no power on their own; they've joined with the Major Players in the hopes of getting some crumbs from the table of their betters. This is true of Chambers of Commerce everywhere.

The Major Players in Oakland include the Bank of America and pretty much all the rest of the usual bankster suspects as well as a fairly wide variety of property interests. Landlords. The Owners, in other words.

Included among the Major Players in Oakland must be Kaiser Permanente, the major health care system in the Bay Area (and perhaps in California). Kaiser is ostensibly non-profit (one of the few major players in the healthcare field that is) but it is a huge force in the industry. It is enormously profitable, of course, but because it is non-profit, it doesn't pay taxes. It uses its profits to expand. In other words, it acts very much like a for-profit corporation.

The City Officials have been playing ball with these interests for many years, and they thought they were playing by the rules set for them and they were getting somewhere. Oakland was "turning around." From a dismal Bay Area backwater filled with uppity Negroes, random criminals and others who needn't be considered, it was being transformed into a somewhat rough but "trending" Bay Area destination; it was coming up in the world.

The City was doing everything it could to meet the demands of its high and its mighty, and the physical transformation of parts of the Downtown was remarkable. Not perfect by any means, but clearly "better" than the near ruin that had taken root since the Bad Old Days of the Black Panthers and whatnot.

This is the basic tension today: Oakland's officials have been doing what they thought they were supposed to do to make a better city. And it didn't work.

This is the same sort of economic and social dilemma Americans who have been playing by the rules all these years also face. They did what they thought they were supposed to do and they find they failed. The System failed them. They've seen every bit of gain they've made over the past few decades be taken from them by the very forces they thought they were serving so well all these years.

Everyone -- including the Oakland officials -- is caught in the same trap and dilemma. The Occupy Oakland people are taking a stand against it, and by doing so, they are posing a threat to the Established Order, the Order that has brought on this catastrophe.

Oakland officials must know that they are being squeezed and robbed just as much as their constituents are, but they seem to believe that if they adhere ever more rigorously to the demands of the Owners -- for example, by "clearing out" the riff raff at Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza -- they will be rewarded and things will get better for Oakland, just as individuals facing the Squeeze can be convinced to scapegoat some despised Other (be it Occupy-related or not) for their difficulties.

I have no tolerance for scapegoating under any circumstances, but I can easily understand how it happens. The way to deal with it is to recognize the common situation and focus on what needs to be done rather than focusing on division and blaming one another for those difficulties.

Occupy is trying various means to get past the divisions and scapegoating that is natural in a situation such as this, and the Oakland officials are resisting -- as are many civic officials including those in Sacramento -- because they have a huge personal stake and investment in preserving the status quo. It's not just a monetary investment, though that is often one of the driving factors of mindless adherence to the status quo; among many civic bodies, the emotional investment is even stronger than the pecuniary one. It is not simply a matter of the ability to exercise Power -- though that plays an important role -- it is more deep seated: it is the investment of an entire life's work that is being shown to be "worthless." Decades of public and social service have proved unable to halt the backward march of the 1%; in fact, much of what these high minded officials have been doing has actually enabled the Backward-Movement.

This is a horrifying realization for anyone -- if they ever come to it.

People will naturally resist it and try to hold on as long as they can to what they know and they will do everything in their power to maintain some sense of self-worth in the face of the kind of exposure Occupations all over the world are making possible. It's human nature to do so.

And they will use whatever suppressive tactic they can get their hands on -- in the case of the Occupations, heavy-handed policing -- to enforce their continued status.

But it doesn't work. Every time there is a crack down, there is greater growth of the Movement-Becoming-Revolution. All the keening and garment rending over the Black Bloc tactics in Oakland (still going on with less and less effect) looks silly compared to the destructive actions of the Powers That Be.

Perspective is gained: a broken window is more horrifying than a destroyed generation of young people, than a destroyed neighborhood, than a looted and destroyed country? How so? In context, a broken window is... a broken window. A broken society is a catastrophe.

So while the Oakland Mayor and City Council struggle with the problems they are immersed in, problems they have brought on themselves to some extent, but problems they share with all of those in the Plaza in front of their City Hall (which is true of civic bodies almost everywhere) it helps if their mutual dilemma can be recognized. There's no need to scapegoat one another. There is a need to find common ground -- because they are on the same ground, facing the same forces of destruction.

That's the step in this Revolution that will be the most difficult to take. I don't know whether they can do it in Oakland. But I think they must try, and if what I am hearing about the efforts of the Mayor and her husband in particular are true, then the parties are not as far apart as they might seem to be. As I've said, the wild card is the police chief, who really seems to want to mix it up with as much force and violence as he can muster.

Time will tell...


  1. Nice break down of the situation in Oakland.

    Ya know, I think we have a long, long way to go before people really realize what's been happening for decades. Well, actually, since the dawn of money and business and profit. A person like Glenn Greenwald doesn't help when he says that the OWS movement is -- or should be -- about making sure the rules are applied evenly, equally.

    Naw. If that's what OWS is about, then it's just a weak, lame "third way" movement of frightened middle-classers who want their cut of the pie and aren't really all that concerned about the poor or the growing inequality crisis.

    The rules are rigged. Even if they're applied evenly, that still means the folks already swimming in wealth and power will keep expanding all of that at the expense of everyone else. Hell, even if we could guarantee equal pay raises, for instance, that just means someone making 30K gets $1500 more a year, while someone making a million gets $50,000 more. Same percentage applied across the board means the wealthy get richer faster, etc. etc.

    That example is a stand-in for a host of other "play by the same rules" scenarios.

    If we can't get rid of this rotten, evil, immoral, disgusting economic system, then the very least we should be shooting for is radical economic, class-based "affirmative action." We need a radical wealth redistribution downward that makes the old Social Democracy theories look like the tea party in comparison.

    Excellent article by Naomi Klein here.

    A major component in all of this: the environment may just make the call for us. It may make the continued existence of capitalism moot. Naomi Klein is correct when she says that "the left" has to drop its stance regarding "growth". Even green growth -- though all of that is obviously preferable to the centrist or right wing alternative. We need radical redistribution downward, and then steady-state, no-growth, sustainable economic systems that deal with the finite nature of natural resources -- our shrinking natural resources, while population grow.

    . . . .

    Thanks for compiling OWS info here. It's a great resource.

  2. I wish there was a straight line to a dénouement but so far, the path forward just gets more and more complicated.

    Of course maybe we'll look back and say, "Gee, it was so much simpler than any of us knew!"

    I haven't had a chance to read Naomi's piece yet -- it's on my list though. Been following the events in Portland for most of the day. The line of black-clad RoboRiot Police hasn't moved for hours. Meanwhile, in the background, the Occupation camp is being destroyed and the debris is being put in dump trucks and driven away.

    Anyone who could watch this taking place and who is still fretting over some broken windows and graffiti in Oakland should really push the reset button on their perspective and priorities.

    The redistribution of which you speak is looking more and more inevitable. When I see banksters literally taking charge of entire European countries, to squeeze and bleed them of every last euro before tossing the husks away, the explosion of rage that's just below the surface is bound to overwhelm them.

    What do they say? "Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind?"

    To put it mildly.