Friday, September 5, 2014

Gaza to Ferguson

One of the most heartening developments connected to the uprising in Ferguson has been connections made with the resistance in Gaza--connection made by people in Ferguson, in Gaza, and around the world. This connection reignites the internationalism of 2011--"Arab Spring, European Summer, American Fall" but at a different level. Whereas the rebellion of the squares in 2011 was based on growing alarm among the highly educated that they no longer had a decent future (notwithstanding the huge differences between the political context in the Arab countries and the West), Ferguson/Gaza represents the revolt of those who have always been aware that they have no future.

The connection between Ferguson and Gaza has been made partly because of concrete manifestations, most notably the training of the police chief in Ferguson in Israel. Here I will describe three ways in which the two situations paralleled each other. First is the basic context. These are revolts of people who have basically been declared redundant, in the way of the prosperous people who believe they have every right to whatever they want. They are not first and foremost a proletariat in the marxist sense--unemployment is too high to use strikes as a primary weapon, nor do those who are employed occupy a particularly strategic place in production. This does not mean that they are not exploited--Ferguson is what it is partly because of the looting of the subprime era, and the conflict over Gaza is in part a conflict over control of resources. As well in Ferguson, part of the larger picture of policing is an effort by the city government to use motor vehicle fines to fund itself--in effect squeezing an impoverished population because more conventional revenue sources--taxes from property or business--are less and less viable. They are shunted to the margins, where the powerful hope they will remain quiescent. In return, they are offered virtually nothing. Whether one calls the places they are forced into occupied territories, slums, ghettos, refugee camps or prisons, at this point, there is little effort to dress them up in the bunting of consumerism or progress. Instead, the powerful basically believe they cannot make trouble, so there is hardly reason for the sort of elaborate work (and often dollars) needed to maintain hegemony. This situation, to be regarded as human trash, exploited sometimes, but often just pushed aside, is the first parallel between Gaza and Ferguson. And this helps clarify what just happened. In both places, this situation has been resisted. The invisible made themselves visible. And their foes were not able to put them back in their place.

This brings us to the second major parallel between Gaza and Ferguson. Basically, both Israel and the forces of order in Ferguson lost their respective battles. Israel visited horrific destruction on Gaza. Over 2,000 people were killed, thousands more maimed, tens of thousands left homeless. The economic infrastructure was destroyed. A high tech progrom was carried out, involving terrifying robo-calls to imminent victims of drones, and hateful messages scrawled on the walls of destroyed homes. But Hamas’ capacity to fire projectiles seems intact. The tunnels seem more menacing than they were perceived at the beginning of the conflict. Dozens of Israeli soldiers were killed, a small fraction of the Palestinian death toll, but too many for the Israeli public. And the effects on consciousness further afield--within Israel, in the West Bank, in the United States, and in the rest of the world--are largely opposite what the Israeli leadership hoped for, unless it has completely lost its mind (More about this below).

In Ferguson, it was the appearance of militarized police that catapulted this story onto the front pages. But it was also striking that the heavy handed show of overwhelming force failed to repress the protests. The contrast with Occupy Wall Street was stark. Occupy gained its footing because of political fumbles that resulted in a failure to promptly confront it. By the time Bloomberg was ready to go ahead with a “park cleaning,” OWS had already gathered sufficient steam and liberal allies to force him to call it off. But when a militaristic police force showed up in the middle of the night, the park was easily cleared. It was a devastating blow from which the movement did not recover. More than a few OWS sympathizers concluded that consequential protest in the US would be met with overwhelming force and quashed. In Ferguson, not only did the militarized police fail to stop the protests. The arrival of the “good cop,” Ronald Johnson, also did not seem to slow the momentum. Nor did the mobilization of the National Guard. At this point the protests appear to be declining, not so much because they have been repressed but because these sorts of mobilizations don’t last forever. There are some promises from the Attorney General and the FBI to look into the killing of Michael Brown. I suspect many people in the immediate area and quite far afield are concluding that this sort of protest is effective and possible.  And, as with Gaza, we must consider the opinions of actors further afield. Here too, the protestors won big.

Lets look first at the larger battle for hearts and minds around the Isreal/Palestine conflict. Israel itself has been sliding towards a vicious, intolerant, racist madness depicted by Max Blumenthal in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Israel’s foundation is racist, but the polity has long had quite a bit of space for dissenters and, not so long ago, there was a substantial, even if lightweight, peace movement. During the first weeks of the assault on Gaza, demonstrations were small, didn’t have many Jewish participants, and were met by terrifying mobs out for blood. By the end, there was a modest revival of the old peace movement, and larger demonstrations. Israel has a ways to go before getting back to the inadequate normal of the nineties, but these cracks haven’t appeared for a while. Still, it is hard to be too optimistic about developments within Israel. But then there is the situation in the West Bank. Lately the West Bank has epitomized acquiescence to the status quo, as Gaza has epitomized resistance. Abbas has followed a cautious strategy (if that is the right word for it), trying not to offend the US or Europe much. And this strategy has not been effectively challenged from below. But a couple of weeks after the onslaught on Gaza began, the largest demonstrations in years were held in the West Bank. Now we read that the West Bank may be on the verge of a social explosion. Further afield, in places like London and South Africa, some of the largest demonstrations  ever in solidarity with Palestine were held.

And then there is the situation in the United States. Notwithstanding the unanimity of the Senate in affirming its support for Israel, notwithstanding all the ridiculous lies and twisted arguments promoted in the media, the space for dissent around US support for Israel, already increasing in the last ten years, widened substantially. Two developments were particularly noteworthy. One was the direct action to “block the boat,” and prevent a ship carrying Israeli goods from unloading in the Bay Area. It represented a heightened level of confrontation and confidence for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The other was action taken by Jewish Voices for Peace to protest at Jewish Federation offices in several cities. This literally marks the arrival of activism and controversy about support for Israel within the formal organizations of American Jewry. This is a very significant development. The unanimous support for Israel by these organizations has been a huge obstacle to change in the US. The left extreme of American rabbis (apart from an eccentric Hassidic group) has typically been to use wiggle words, wring hands, and say “we hope there can be peace.” The emergence of J Street, a pro-Israel group which took a little distance from the traditional Israel Lobby, AIPAC, was a welcome development, but it was too limited in its dissent to make much of a difference. In theory, a coalition to end military aid to Israel and transform the US relation to it could be built around the Jewish community; in practice, liberal groups (labor unions, African American leaders, liberal churches, etc) have been fearful of undermining their relationship with Jews. The sooner the unanimity is broken, then, the better. Two signs of the time--an article in an Israeli newspaper warns that “Israeli Apartheid Week” held on many college campuses the last few years is likely to turn into “Israeli Apartheid Year” this coming school year, as BDS activism picks up. And the New York Times just published an anti-zionist Op Ed piece that could appear on Electronic Intifada or MondoWeiss. For those familiar with the perspective of those three publications, and notwithstanding the Times editorial page’s formal commitment to offering diverse perspectives that its editors do not endorse, this is a “hell freezes over” moment. At the very least real wariness about the motives and actions of Israel is becoming dominant among liberal public opinion, and I think organizations are likely to become more confident about expressing some need for US policy to change. Progressive politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Bill de Blasio, who have back-burnered this issue when not expressing outright support for Israel, are likely to find themselves under fire. Few in the US will say this out loud, but the increasing space for criticism of Israel can be traced back to the resistance posed by Hamas. If not for that resistance, and Israel’s monstrous and ineffectual response, Palestine would remain mired at too low a spot on the progressive radar to fight the steep obstacles facing those who want change.

Ferguson is triggering similar changes in public opinion and the space for activism. The image of the criminal or radical African American male has been a weapon in the reactionary arsenal for decades (actually centuries). I well remember the reaction to the looting during the New York blackout of 1977 (in retrospect, an indirect response to the austerity imposed in response to the fiscal crisis of the early 70s) occuring in the midst of a decade when the "Black mugger" was very prominent in the popular imagination. “Those people are on welfare, but it is still not enough for them, and they defy the logic of a civilized society by looting." Soon the US elected a president endorsed by the KKK, as well as his successor, whose defining campaign ad was also the vilification of the African American male as criminal, in this case Willie Horton. The momentum of this stereotype was devastating to the African American community, which was incarcerated at ruinous rates. It was also destructive to any hopes for a broad coalition to challenge the power and concentrated wealth of what Occupy memorably tagged “the 1%.”

For its part, as it revived class-based populism, Occupy basically evaded race. In fairness, Occupy showed solidarity with Troy Davis and others like him. But it can’t be said that it attempted to take on the question of police persecution of communities of color very directly, except somewhat at the end as it was looking for allies to challenge police repression. The power of the stereotype of the black criminal was not simply in its ability to mobilize those on the right; it also coursed through liberal circles, where, again going back to the seventies, resentment among White liberals that Blacks did not appreciate White liberal leadership or were impinging on White public patronage networks was rife. And, not least, it helped paralyze African American politics. I remember once hearing Bill Fletcher on Democracy Now!, discussing the aftermath of the acquittal of police officers who had killed Sean Bell. The New York Times had noted (a little giddily, I thought), that there were no riots or unruly demonstrations. Fletcher said that to understand the muted response, one had to understand the fear of crime within the Black community.

Clearly, something has changed. If we look at the chain of Troy Davis-Trayvon Martin-Michael Brown we see ascending public anger within the African American community, but also more widely, as most solidarity rallies in these cases have been mixed race. Although the old tactics of vilifying Michael Brown’s character, denouncing “violent” protesters, and even unironically invoking “outside agitators” were all pulled out, none seemed to stick much. This is not to underestimate continuing resistance to confronting racism, even in its most violent manifestations at the hands of the police; only to note that the terrain seems more open for challenge than it has in some time. Particularly notable was the migration of the term “the militarization of the police” from the margins to mainstream publications. Although many people on the left justifiably worry that the "militarization" question will obscure ongoing racism at the hands of police with ordinary weapons, "militarization of the police" has disrupted the high esteem of the police among the American public, politicians, and media more than any time I can remember.

In thinking about this opening, it is worth noting the diversity of approaches on display in Ferguson. While the response to the Rodney King verdict was a five day riot, from the start in Ferguson there have been large conventional demonstrations. These demonstrations produced the memorable slogan “hands up/don’t shoot” (reportedly Michael Brown’s last words) and the image of collectively raising hands above heads. But there was also the more militant practice of pushing back against the police, looting, etc. It was probably the latter that intensified the overreaction by the police that consolidated Ferguson as an international story. Ferguson is actually only the latest in a series of unruly community responses to police shootings (a number of whose victims were Latino or white) in the last few years in places including Anaheim, Durham, Albuquerque, and East Flatbush. It was only a matter of time before one of these situations broke through. To explain Ferguson, some observers have pointed to the mismatch between the demographics of the police force (almost entirely white) and the population, while others have noted the novelty of trying to repress riotous behavior in suburbs. Regardless, it should be apparent that it resonated in places quite different--places with more diverse police forces or "traditional" urban neighborhoods.

And now that it has broken through... It is clear the case has generated intense reflection within the African American community, particularly among younger people. To some degree, Ferguson seemed to mark the end of an era of leadership epitomized by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, neither of whom was able to capture the spirit of the uprising and point a way forward. Ferguson has generated a huge response on traditionally African American campuses, even though it is the middle of the summer. It has also spread to additional campuses for the Monday August 25 Hands Up Walk Out action. There have also been protests, some peaceful, others a little unruly, although none rising (or sinking, depending on ones perspective) to the status of “riot” in numerous cities. Pictures I’ve seen suggest multiracial crowds.

Waves of protest matter, but one of the more poorly understood ways they matter is to baptize people, through direct action, into enduring political commitment. This only occurs with a small portion of the protesters, but they become the core that pushes additional movements forward. Looking around, they may find that there are already budding movements in the African American community around foreclosures, education, low wage workers as well as a number of criminal justice issues. Indeed, it was apparently a core of activists in these movements in Ferguson who organized many of the demonstrations about Michael Brown. Although questions of police, and trying to focus an agenda into a couple of demands that might make a difference is likely to be the highest priority, it does not require an advance degree in Marxism to recognize that the crisis in Ferguson and other places like it is much broader than questions of criminal justice. Perhaps the experiment with solidarity economics in Jackson Mississippi that was spearheaded by the election of Chockwe Lumumba and then tragically cut short by his death will be seen as a touchstone in the creation of a broader project. Need it be said that while one can reference all of these struggles within the African American community, they are simultaneously class based struggles of importance to people of all races in the United States?

There is no reason to be excessively optimistic about either Gaza or Ferguson. Even fairly minimal demands--fully lifting the siege of Gaza, or national legislation curtailing police abuse--is likely to prove elusive without struggle, and these sorts of steps are really only the beginning of a much larger struggle to actually achieve justice. Nor would I want the above to be read as minimizing the ongoing human tragedies in both places. But as we mourn the losses, we should also be cognizant of what has opened up. Israel’s mighty military and America’s militarized police proved ineffectual at subduing and repressing poorly armed or unarmed opponents. The movement of repression and resistance has opened up cracks in ideological structures that can and must be widened. It is a moment fraught with possibility.