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Chase Madar: The Criminalization of Everyday Life

7:33 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Police Tank

Militarized police are now a fact of life nationwide.

Sometimes a single story has a way of standing in for everything you need to know.  In the case of the up-arming, up-armoring, and militarization of police forces across the country, there is such a story.  Not the police, mind you, but the campus cops at Ohio State University now possess an MRAP; that is, a $500,000, 18-ton, mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle of a sort used in the Afghan War and, as Hunter Stuart of the Huffington Post reported, built to withstand “ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IEDs, and nuclear, biological, and chemical environments.” Sounds like just the thing for bouts of binge drinking and post-football-game shenanigans.

That MRAP came, like so much other equipment police departments are stocking up on — from tactical military vests, assault rifles, and grenade launchers to actual tanks and helicopters — as a freebie via a Pentagon-organized surplus military equipment program. As it happens, police departments across the country are getting MRAPs like OSU’s, including the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota. It’s received one of 18 such decommissioned military vehicles already being distributed around that state. So has Warren County which, like a number of counties in New York state, some quite rural, is now deploying Afghan War-grade vehicles.  (Nationwide, rural counties have received a disproportionate percentage of the billions of dollars worth of surplus military equipment that has gone to the police in these years.)

When questioned on the utility of its new MRAP, Warren County Sheriff Bud York suggested, according to the Post-Star, the local newspaper, that “in an era of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and mass killings in schools, police agencies need to be ready for whatever comes their way… The vehicle will also serve as a deterrent to drug dealers or others who might be contemplating a show of force.”  So, breathe a sigh of relief, Warren County is ready for the next al-Qaeda-style show of force and, for those fretting about how to deal with such things, there are now 165 18-ton “deterrents” in the hands of local law enforcement around the country, with hundreds of requests still pending.

You can imagine just how useful an MRAP is likely to be if the next Adam Lanza busts into a school in Warren County, assault rifle in hand, or takes over a building at Ohio State University.  But keep in mind that we all love bargains and that Warren County vehicle cost the department less than $10.  (Yes, you read that right!)  A cornucopia of such Pentagon “bargains” has, in the post-9/11 years, played its part in transforming the way the police imagine their jobs and in militarizing the very idea of policing in this country.

Just thinking about that MRAP at OSU makes me feel like I grew up in Neolithic America.  After all, when I went to college in the early 1960s, campus cops were mooks in suits.  Gun-less, they were there to enforce such crucial matters as “parietal hours.”  (If you’re too young to know what they were, look it up.)  At their worst, they faced what in those still civilianized (and sexist) days were called “panty raids,” but today would undoubtedly be seen as potential manifestations of a terrorist mentality.  Now, if there is a sit-in or sit-down on campus, as infamously at the University of California, Davis, during the Occupy movement, expect that the demonstrators will be treated like enemies of the state and pepper-sprayed or perhaps Tased.  And if there’s a bona fide student riot in town, the cops will now roll out an armored vehicle (as they did recently in Seattle).

By the way, don’t think it’s just the weaponry that’s militarizing the police.  It’s a mentality as well that, like those weapons, is migrating home from our distant wars.  It’s a sense that the U.S., too, is a “battlefield” and that, for instance, those highly militarized SWAT teams spreading to just about any community you want to mention are made up of “operators” (a “term of art” from the special operations  community) ready to deal with threats to American life.

Embedding itself chillingly in our civilian world, that battlefield is proving mobile indeed.  As Chase Madar wrote for TomDispatch the last time around, it leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court.  Today, Madar returns to explain just how this particular nightmare is spreading into every crevice of American life. Tom

The Over-Policing of America
Police Overkill Has Entered the DNA of Social Policy
By Chase Madar

If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. And if police and prosecutors are your only tool, sooner or later everything and everyone will be treated as criminal. This is increasingly the American way of life, a path that involves “solving” social problems (and even some non-problems) by throwing cops at them, with generally disastrous results. Wall-to-wall criminal law encroaches ever more on everyday life as police power is applied in ways that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

Read the rest of this entry →

Michelle Alexander: The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare

6:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(image: drauh, flickr)

(image: drauh, flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In March 2010, when TomDispatch first published a piece by Michelle Alexander, her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, had just been published. As I wrote then, it focused in startling ways on “a growing racial divide, one which includes the formation of a new undercaste in America that loses its normal rights at the prison gates and often never recovers them.” Her piece offered nothing short of a new way to look at racial oppression in this country in the twenty-first century — and in hardcover it would sell a mere 3,000 copies. But Alexander was a superb writer, had a compelling personal story (check it out on Timothy MacBain’s riveting 2010 TomDispatch audio interview with her), and something new to tell the world — and somehow (never discount miracles!), it broke through.

Now, the paperback of the book is a bestseller with 175,000 copies in print and Alexander has the stamp of approval of the New York Times, which recently led the front page of its culture section with a piece on her and her book (“Drug Policy as Race Policy: Best Seller Galvanizes the Debate”). TomDispatch is proud to have been there at the beginning and to have played a very small part in Alexander’s well-deserved success. Unfortunately, her piece, now two years old, couldn’t feel more up to date (and just to ensure its absolute up-to-dateness, Alexander has gone over it and made a few additions). It’s great to have her work in our periodic “best of TomDispatch” series. Tom

The New Jim Crow
How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste

By Michelle Alexander

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Jen Marlowe, The Freedom Reading List

8:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

With Hosni Mubarak gone, let’s do a little Egyptian math on the Mubarak years. 

According to experts, the fortune amassed by Egypt’s former president and his two sons (both billionaires) could reach $70 billion.  That includes funds in secret offshore bank accounts and investments in residences and real-estate properties reaching from Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills to Wilton Place in central London and Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheik tourist resort.  Since Mubarak has been president for 30 years, he’s put that little fortune together at a record clip — something like $2 billion or more a year.  He and his family are now worth approximately four times the gross domestic product (GDP) of Paraguay, five times the GDP of embattled Afghanistan, and more than ten times the GDP of Laos.  He may be the richest man and they the richest family on Earth.  All this happened, by the way, in the years when millions of Egyptians — at least one in every 10 — lost their farms, while more than 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

And let’s just mention a few others in the cast of characters who let the good times roll and made a few bucks off the reign of the Mubarak family: steel magnate and ruling party insider Ahmed Ezz, for instance, managed to eke out a $3 billion fortune, while former Interior Minister Habib Ibrahim El-Adly scraped by with a near-rock-bottom $1.2 billion.  And they are just two of at least five much-loathed Mubarak cronies who reportedly crossed the billion-dollar mark in these years. 

As for a trio of Washington lobbyists — former Republican representative Bob Livingston, former Democratic representative Toby Moffett, and mover-and-shaker Tony Podesta — who bravely hired themselves out to the Mubarak regime, they made chump change: reportedly a mere $1 million a year for their efforts.  Who knows what Frank Wisner, the former ambassador sent to Cairo by the Obama administration to give Mubarak the boot, made working for Patton, Boggs, a company which proudly boasts of the litigation work it’s done for Mubarak and company?  Conflict of interest anyone?

Meanwhile, don’t forget the Egyptian military.  It didn’t do so badly in the Mubarak years either.  After all, according to one expert, it owns “virtually every industry in the country,” and it still managed to take in a handy $35 billion in “aid” from Washington since 1978.

As for ordinary Egyptians who protested the devolving state of their country?  Estimates of the number of political prisoners in Egypt’s grim jails have varied over the years from 6,000 to 17,000.  Their well-being was overseen by former head of intelligence Omar Suleiman.  Since Egypt was a “torture destination of choice” for the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, Suleiman happily oversaw that program, too, as Mubarak’s torturer-in-chief.  Appointed vice president by his pal, Suleiman was the “democrat” the Obama administration seemed ready to back until recently to manage the “transition to democracy.” 

All in all, should we wonder that such a torturing kleptocracy on the Nile is now being shaken to its foundations and that another spirit, a spirit of democracy, freedom, and justice, is rising in the region?  Sometimes such a spirit can be caught in the story of a single ordinary, yet remarkable, life.  Jen Marlowe has done so in her just-published book The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker.  It’s a remarkable story about how even prison can prepare the way for another world and its message, as Marlowe’s latest TomDispatch post indicates, is particularly appropriate for this Middle Eastern moment.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for one Palestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

*****

From An Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square
One Palestinian’s Odyssey in a Middle East Ablaze

By Jen Marlowe

As pro-democracy demonstrations sweep across the Middle East, ousting dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, many in the West have expressed surprise that such a strong, sophisticated vision of a democratic future is being articulated by ordinary citizens and grassroots movements in the Arab world.

I have not been surprised. Sophisticated organizing for democratic reform and justice has a rich legacy in the region.  In fact, watching anti-Mubarak demonstrators taking to the streets en masse to demand true democracy, freedom from repression, and the right to be stakeholders in their own political and civil systems caused me to reflect on my friend Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem who has spent the last two decades working for peace and a nonviolent end to Israeli occupation. He is, in many ways, a product of that legacy.

Sami’s political awakening came in 1980, when he was inducted into a highly organized, democratic community and, at the age of 18, began a program of serious study, reading hundreds of books including:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract
Makarenko’s Pedagogical Poem
The writings of Ho Chi Minh, Basil Liddell Hart, and Angela Davis
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Imam Ghazali
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Arab Nationalism Between the Reality of Separation and the Aspiration for Unity by Munir Shafiq
The complete works of Dostoevsky. Twice.

These were not parts of syllabi for courses in political science and literature. Sami was not in a university. He was a Palestinian political prisoner in an Israeli jail, incarcerated for building a bomb with two friends intended to be used against Israeli security forces. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of Sami’s friends. He and his other friend were arrested by the Israeli secret service, tortured, interrogated, and finally sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison, respectively.

It was in prison that Sami received his higher education. The veteran prisoners in his jail had established a complex, intricate, community-based society with self-governance. This included a program of study for the new prisoners via a curriculum created and overseen by an education committee.

Previously, political prisoners had been forced to work in Israeli military factories, making netting for tanks and building crates to hold missiles. The prisoners revolted, burning down one of the factories, and then made a collective decision: their efforts and energy would go only towards their own people. They won access to books, paper, and pens through hunger strikes and other acts of resistance.

A Palestinian Odyssey

For the first three years of his confinement, Sami sat with five other new prisoners in a circle on the concrete floor of their cell for six hours a day, six days a week, being instructed in great detail by two older cellmates/teachers. One of them covered the background of Fatah (the secular Palestinian national liberation movement that Sami was a member of) and the other taught the history of rebellion and revolution in the modern world, from the Bolsheviks in Russia to Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas and the Vietnamese movement that defeated the French and Americans in a decades-long war. Their lessons were peppered with comparisons to and anecdotes from places as distant and disparate as Ireland and South Africa.

After the six hours of group meetings, Sami and his fellow prisoners would sit on their mats, each with a book, reading in silence for the rest of the day. The books were assigned, but the education committee mixed the fare. A dense political volume like Mahdi Abd Al-Hadi’s The Palestinian Issue and the Political Projects for Resolution would be followed with a volume of poetry or a novel like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered.

When Sami graduated from the mandatory courses, he was free to determine his own reading and composed a list of 70 titles. Taking advice from the older prisoners, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels topped his list.

Given the mainstream media’s emphasis on the role of inflammatory Islamic rhetoric in the Palestinian resistance movement, one might assume the prisoners’ reading list would have been replete with books focusing on anti-Israel indoctrination.  In reality, Sami underwent the intensive equivalent of a liberal arts education.

He emerged from his decade in prison well-versed in Greek and Roman classics, Russian literature, world history, philosophy, psychology, economics, and much more. He read The Odyssey and The Iliad three times each. He read the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. He read the letters that future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from prison to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, a future prime minister herself. Sami describes the prison library as “an ocean.” The texts mentioned above only skim the surface of his deep plunge into world literature.

This education system was just one element of the remarkable society that Palestinian prisoners built inside Israeli prisons. They held elections every six months for a prison-wide council and steering committee.  They divided themselves into committees chaired by the members of that steering committee, responsible for education, communication with the Israeli guards, security, and intra-prisoner affairs.

Sami served several times on the elections committee and the magazine committee.  When his cell got hold of a contraband radio, he and his cellmates became the news committee, surreptitiously listening to radio reports at night and stealthily disseminating the news in headline form to the other cells each morning.

There were daily book discussions in the cell, weekly political meetings between cells, and monthly gatherings of the entire 120-person section or corridor of cells to take up thorny topics of disagreement among members of the different Palestinian resistance movements jailed together. When the prisoners engaged in any joint action, such as a hunger strike, the decision would be made collectively after lengthy deliberation.

Israeli guards sometimes revoked the privileges of the prisoners as a form of punishment. The harshest punishment of all was the confiscation of pens, paper, and books. Books, according to Sami, were the prisoners’ souls.

The Impact of Prison

Prison did not further radicalize Sami in the ways one might expect, nor did it stoke a desire for revenge or for the further use of violence. Instead, locked away, he began to develop a worldview grounded in principles of nonviolence, democracy, and equal rights. Undoubtedly, he was influenced by a collection of speeches he came across by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the teachings of Gandhi that he read. But much of the human being that Sami grew into emerged from the society the prisoners had painstakenly created, with its emphasis on reading, discussion, reflection, democracy, solidarity, and equality.

Sami speaks with nostalgia of the weekly “criticism” meetings that the older prisoners in his cell facilitated. He approached the first such meeting with trepidation.  No one, after all, likes to be scolded for doing something wrong.

He was taken off-guard when the prisoner-facilitators started the meeting by criticizing themselves. Then, turning to the younger prisoners, they began with positive feedback, noting, for example, who had participated actively in group discussions. The prisoners were also given the opportunity to critique each other, but only after each had criticized himself first.

Sitting in those meetings, Sami came to realize that much of the goal of this prison society was, as he puts it, to build the humanity of the young prisoners. Political books and discussion provided intellectual stimulation, literature engendered empathy and compassion, and carefully facilitated discussions fostered connection and solidarity.

Prison as a place of study is hardly unique to Palestinians. Though in the United States prison is notorious for intense violence, political prisoners worldwide have historically used their time of incarceration to educate themselves.  Malcolm X famously taught himself to read and write in prison. Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland, where many Irish Republican Army volunteers were jailed, was regularly referred to as “the university of Long Kesh.”  While locked away on Robben Island for 27 years, Nelson Mandela received a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London.

What was suprising to me, however, was the intricate community built by the Palestinian prisoners, with enormous care taken to nurture and educate the young. The path that Sami set out on, while in prison for constructing a bomb, led him to an unshakeable belief that Israelis and Palestinians can and must work together to build a common future of peace with justice. I had never considered the possibility that a decade in prison might not harden a prisoner against his jailers but provide him with the intellectual and emotional tools to become a passionate advocate for reconciliation.

Prison was instrumental in shaping Sami’s worldview and his growth as a courageous and critical thinker, thanks not just to his determination to study, but to the fact that older political prisoners viewed the development and education of a younger generation as their primary human and political task. Sami’s own proudest moment, he would later tell me, was when it was his turn to become a teacher.

From Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square: connecting the dots

As I watched the events in Tahrir Square unfold, leading to President Mubarak’s ouster, I experienced the same excitement and inspiration I first felt when Sami began describing his prison experience to me.  There are striking parallels between the two in terms of solidarity, human connection, and incredible organization.

For example, neighborhoods in Cairo organized their own volunteer guards to make sure their streets and homes remained safe; people set up ad-hoc clinics in Tahrir Square; demonstrators banded together to protect the Egyptian Museum and its priceless treasures from regime-friendly thugs and looters.  And according to a Democracy Now report by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, when a group of demonstrators associated with the Muslim Brotherhood began to chant “Allah Akbar!” the crowd drowned them out with the chant, “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!”

But I watched with dismay the way the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) responded to the protests. It seems reasonable to expect that those who struggled for their own people’s freedom would be quick to support an Egyptian nonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet the PA banned and suppressed solidarity demonstrations in the West Bank — and such repression of political expression was no isolated incident. The once revolutionary Fatah movement has become the corrupt, authoritarian, and self-serving Palestinian leadership we see today.

There are complex reasons for this transformation, including the fact that, though some of Sami’s former cellmates now hold high positions within the PA, much of the current Palestinian leadership is drawn not from the revolutionary prison generation, but from PLO members who returned from exile in 1996 after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.  In addition, those accords created the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government without a state.  The political goals of a national liberation movement and the political project of nation building were absorbed by an entity (the PA) that had functionally become a sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation.

Beyond the specifics, there is the issue of the nature of power itself.  Once a regime — any regime — is in power, its tendency is to do whatever it takes to cling onto, consolidate, and expand that power, even at the expense of the very ideals it came to power to uphold.

Whatever the mixture of reasons, if there is a parallel to be drawn between the incredible Palestinian political prisoner community of the 1980s and the inspirational people’s revolution emerging like a tidal wave in the Arab world today, there is also a warning to be offered.  Today’s Palestinian Authority provides a lesson for the people of Egypt. It is not enough to struggle for freedom and democracy against an authoritarian or dictatorial regime (or, in the Palestinian case, an occupying power). Once the revolutionaries obtain power, the struggle for those same core values becomes even more difficult and critical.

May Palestinians and Egyptians gain strength and solidarity from one another as they demand freedom as well as a meaningful political voice. May they learn from each other as they build enduring institutions of democracy and pluralism. May they continue to nurture hundreds of thousands of courageous, critical thinkers.

The people’s revolution is still unfolding in Egypt and all over the Arab world, including the occupied Palestinian territories.  Where it will lead is unknown.  If, however, it maintains (or, in the case of the Palestinians, rediscovers) its roots in ideals about a caring community that nurtures the humanity of its young, as in Tahrir Square and as in the Israeli jail where Sami Al Jundi went to “university,” then genuine social change in the Arab world is inevitable.

Jen Marlowe is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, playwright, human rights advocate, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her new book, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, co-written with and about Palestinian peace activist Sami Al Jundi, has just been published by Nation Books. Her previous book was Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for one Palestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)

Copyright 2011 Jen Marlowe