At Sheremetyevo Airport Edward Snowden reportedly passed the time reading Russian literature, including Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. To my knowledge he hasn’t read Brothers Karamazov, but this quote from a famous section called “The Grand Inquisitor” seems appropriate:
Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that great gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.
What else can explain the wholesale embrace of the “keep you safe” NSA surveillance industry among a significant part of the population?
The largest changes toward demanding civil liberties protections have occurred among liberal Democrats, Tea Party Republicans, independents and liberal/moderate Republicans. Only self-identified “moderate/conservative Democrats” – the Obama base – remains steadfast and steady in defense of NSA surveillance. The least divided, most-pro-NSA caucus in the House for last week’s vote was the corporatist Blue Dog Democrat caucus, which overwhelmingly voted to protect the NSA’s bulk spying on Americans.
Unwavering devotion to Obama and the Democratic Party leads to a blind, childlike faith capable of rationalizing almost anything.
All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. -George Orwell,Nineteen Eighty-Four
Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK made waves when she interrupted President Obama during his policy address at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013. Even the President said, “That woman is worth paying attention to.”
Benjamin spoke to Cool Revolution about Obama’s speech on drone strikes in the Mideast and the future of Guantanamo prison detainees. She explains why she thinks he isn’t making a change in policy at all. She also explains why she spoke up and why disrupting speeches like this one is the result of “desperation.”
“We’ve done everything conceivable… we’ve run out of options.”
Medea Benjamin, founder of the organization CODEPINK, has actually been to Pakistan and seen the results of drone bombing. Obama has not. She had several pointed questions for him, which she yelled from the back of the room even as she was being thrown out.
“Will you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities? Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims? That will make us safer.”
Right-wing opinion spewer Michelle Malkin called her a “serial heckler.” A conspiracy theory sprang up on social media that Benjamin was planted by Obama to help make him look good.
In my opinion, she derailed him. Obama spent most of the speech justifying the drone program as “legal” and making us safer. He failed to address how the U.N. has said that drone strikes in Pakistan violate its sovereignty. He failed to justify the deaths of three American citizens killed by drones and the maiming and killing of children by drone attacks. Or the terror thousands have suffered in the Mideast anticipating drone attacks on their homes and villages.
Toward the end of his address Benjamin started in and wouldn’t let up. Eventually, Obama was brought to a standstill. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he conceded.
Seriously, the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES IS RIGHT NOW SAYING YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO @medeabenjamin
We get the usual sexism whenever CODEPINK comes to town. They, and Medea, are screeching loonies, freaks, bitches and worse. At least they’re not dressed up like vaginas this time (like they did at the Democratic National Convention). At first Obama called Benjamin a “young lady.”
Right-wingers found plenty to heckle in the heckler. And Obama-worshiping liberals squirmed in their seats and said, “Won’t she just shut up??”
The fact is, disruption and interruption get attention. Passivity doesn’t. Look at what passivity has gotten us for the last decade. Iraq, Afghanistan, financial collapse, unemployment, loss of civil liberties, cuts to education, lack of accountability. And on and on.
Political activity for most people means “being informed,” sadly equated with watching MSNBC. People sitting in front of the TV getting outraged and fearful serves the interests of the powerful. It keeps them paralyzed. To combat impotence and vent rage, you might rant on Facebook, troll on websites, and tweet clever, snarky haikus.
My favorite form of pseudo-activism is signing online petitions. From my brief days of fundraising, I know that fifty percent of the time online petitions are a way to scoop up info on potential donors.
You can get involved in “the democratic process” and knock on doors for a candidate. The bravest souls scrawl a slogan on a sign and actually get out on the streets. The hardcore get arrested.
A variety of tactics, from moderate to radical, is important in movements for social change. But the moderate may have little to no effect these days. We’re entering an age – or maybe we’re long past it – when thousands of people carrying signs make no difference to those wielding power. Post-9/11, crowds are viewed as a threat to maintaining order. It doesn’t take much for law enforcement to break out the teargas and tasers.
During Obama’s speech, Benjamin asked questions that the White House press corps can’t and won’t ask. Maybe the questions don’t occur to them. Even if they did, they don’t dare ask them for fear of losing “access.”
What mainstream media has been good for in the past is investigative journalism. Free press is supposed to be the watchdog of government corruption and wrongdoing. What they didn’t realize when they snickered at Wikileaks was that eventually the Obama administration was going to come down hard on them too. Investigative reporting through whistleblowers is all but impossible now.
So what have we got left? It’s getting cramped in here–less wiggle room to reform the corrupt system, agitate on the streets, expose wrongdoing and hold lawbreakers accountable.
We can go into the halls of power and say fuck dignity and make a ruckus, that’s what we can do.
Every person in power needs to know that prepared speeches and talking points aren’t going to cut it any more. Pushed to the breaking point by unemployment, low wages and illegal foreclosures, ordinary people are becoming radicalized.
Your next interview, Mr. President, ain’t gonna be softball questions thrown by Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. It’s gonna be Medea Benjamin in your face every day.
Nominee for Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t address US-Israeli foreign policy in today’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but if he follows in Clinton’s footsteps, he will implement an Obama policy that essentially gives Israel everything it wants and more.
President Obama has provided every penny and more in foreign assistance requested by Israel. Moreover, the president has agreed to sell Israel our most advanced jet fighter, the F-35. And unlike the previous administration, President Obama has authorized the sale of advanced “bunker buster” weapons to Israel that are now part of its arsenal. Bottom line, in the words of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the U.S.-Israel relationship is as strong as it’s ever been…. But we cannot be fooled. The president’s actions prove that he has Israel’s back. When the Palestinians threatened to obtain statehood at the United Nations Security Council, President Obama pledged a veto. When the notoriously biased Goldstone Report attacked Israel’s self defense efforts in Gaza, President Obama fought against it. When Israeli diplomats’ lives were threatened in their Cairo Embassy, President Obama intervened to save them. And when forest fires ravaged northern Israel, President Obama committed US assistance to extinguish them.
The US view that Israel is a strategic asset in the Middle East plus the rabid pro-Israel lobby underlies the remarkable level of American support for Israel over the years. Glenn Greenwald contends that “Israeli aggression is possible only due to the unstinting financial, military and diplomatic support of the US.” And Middle East expert William Quandt negatively assesses Obama’s achievements in the region, based as it is on a continuation of past policy, saying, “There is no evidence of a fundamental rethinking by the president; his Middle East policy is the product of his view of America and the world.”
Ultra-right pro-Israel media predictably whine that Senator Kerry is no friend of Israel. But there is little indication that Kerry would change the course of US policy regarding Israel. During the DNC convention, he defended President Obama’s Israel cred, portraying him and Netanyahu as best of buddies. Unconditional support of Israel, no matter how destructive to Palestinians and the stability of the region, will continue.
[UPDATE below: Lachelle Roddy comments on her reasons for speaking out during Senate Foreign Relations hearing.]
CODEPINK intern and college student Lachelle Roddy disrupted Senator John Kerry’s nomination hearing for Secretary of State today. [VIDEO below] From the gallery of the Senate chamber, Roddy voiced her objection to U.S. military aid to Israel:
We’re killing thousands of people in the Middle East who are not a threat to us. When is it going to be enough? When are enough people going to be killed? I’m tired of my friends in the Middle East not knowing if they’re going to live to see the next day!
CODEPINK is an activist group which opposes U.S. military aggression abroad, including military aid to Israel, which it believes is being used to oppress Palestinians.
Video of Roddy disrupting the hearing:
Roddy commented on her reasons for speaking out during the Senate hearing, which she says was a spontaneous outburst and not a planned action:
I stood in the back listening as they continued to reference how big of a threat the Middle East is to America and how America needs to be a global leader, as if we are not already occupying enough countries. I had had enough when they mentioned economic sanctions on Iran. I could not stay silent any longer, and decided to speak up.
The effect of U.S. foreign policy on the lives of her friends from the Middle East also motivated her:
I live in a global village in Roanoke while in school [at Hollins University], and there are many women there from the Middle East including Afghanistan and Palestine. They never know whether their families will be alive the next day because of U.S. drones as well as U.S. funding of Israeli war crimes.
It’s very difficult for them to go to school here when they have so much hardship back at home because of our nation’s foreign policy, especially when they can not speak up out of fear of being labeled a terrorist.
Roddy was charged with unlawful conduct and interrupting Congress.
In response to Roddy’s outburst, Senator John Kerry retained his composure and recalled his activism following his military service in Vietnam:
When I first came to Washington and testified, I obviously was testifying as part of the group of people who came here to have their voices heard. And that is, above all, what this place is about. So I respect, I think, the woman who was voicing her concerns about that part of the world, and maybe one of you have traveled there. Some of you were there recently. Senator McCain, you were just there, you were in a refugee camp, and I know you heard this kind of thing. People measure what we do.
There was a strange juxtaposition of protests outside of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, pro-Obama health care and con. At noon a large crowd of pink sign-carrying ralliers mingled with a completely different crowd of Tea Partiers as one protest transitioned to the other.
The protests are prompted by the Supreme Court hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate, the most controversial part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Health care law supporters emphasized the positives for women’s health, such as coverage for preventative care, while tea partiers characterized the Obamacare insurance mandate as socialism, tyranny and promotion of abortion.
Meanwhile, a certain orange cat struck the proper attitude toward the Supreme Court.
I thought about this possibility during a protest at the White House against HR 347, the bill which President Obama signed a few days ago. HR 347 makes federal crimes out of infractions at protests that used to be prosecuted under local ordinances. The law is concerned with keeping protestors away from what they’re protesting–public figures and events–broadly defined as “restricted buildings and grounds.” They include any where Secret Service-protected individuals can be found. Any disruption of “Government business or official functions” is a felony offense.
Just a few days after the signing, protestors in DC laid down in front of the White House to demonstrate that they “knowingly” were protesting at the President’s residence, an area ostensibly restricted by the new legislation.
Free Speech in America
A little later, marching through DC, the protestors obstructed traffic Downtown. An older man came up to me, distressed by young people defying the police. He turned out to be an immigrant from Ukraine. “Why do they do this? The police here, they are good. They are–hooligans.” He had a good deal more to say on the subject, ranging from Occupiers being tools of the enemies of America to nostalgia for the relative security of Soviet pensions and low street crime rates. Whatever he was raving about, the way he talked and dressed, it took me back to my days as a student during the last gasps of the Soviet Union.
In those years of glasnost (openness), when Gorbachev the reformer tried to steer the titanic Soviet state into modernity, protests on the streets were out of the question. On every holiday you saw parades of the same old-fashioned Red variety as you had for 70 years. I distinctly remember some stray tank careening past my dorm during some patriotic display. You might not have had to fear your Young Pioneer son or daughter turning you in to Stalin, but people watched what they said at work at the very least. Things were freer than they had been. Still, free speech was for the purpose of Party apparatchiks praising the Party. Even today in Putin’s Russia, there is no such thing as dissent without fear of retribution; only a few years ago, journalist Anna Politskovskaya was murdered for her criticism of Putin and opposition to the Chechen conflict.
The contrast of memories of the Soviet Union and witnessing American youth lie down in front of the White House made me reflect on both how good we have it in the US and conversely the dark path our government seems to taking. Many sovereign states have constitutionally guaranteed civil rights including protected speech. Few have all the guarantees of the First Amendment much less fulfilled them as well as the US has, even with gross historic flaws such as the McCarthy hearings. To lose the full measure of our freedoms would be grave. They’re worth fighting tooth and nail for.
The truth is that in the last decade since 9/11, an American public cowed by fear and increasing passivity has swallowed the Orwellian equivalence of protest/dissent with terrorism. Americans have not only accepted but embraced an erosion of our own civil rights. We haven’t slipped into a dystopian nightmare yet, but without vigilance, we could lose what we so easily take for granted. A new legal regime to curb and outlaw protest makes vigilance all the more difficult.
An Executive with Dictator’s Powers
Remember when it was unpatriotic, if not treason, to question the President? That was the lead-up the Iraq War. Dissent is never popular, but Iraq War dissenters were shunned and ignored, especially in the cowardly mainstream media. More long-lasting effects on civil rights were part of the fabric of going to war in Iraq.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by Obama as his last act of 2011, got a lot of attention by authorizing the president to indefinitely detain US citizens. But, as Glenn Greenwald notes, the Iraq War was the precursor. President Bush and President Obama claimed the power of indefinite detention and more under the 2001 Authorization of Military Force in Iraq:
…while the powers this bill [NDAA] enshrines are indeed radical and dangerous, most of them already exist. That’s because first the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have aggressively argued that the original 2001 AUMF already empowers them to imprison people without charges, use force against even U.S. citizens without due process (Anwar Awlaki), and target not only members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban (as the law states) but also anyone who “substantially supports” those groups and/or “associated forces.”
The unmitigated authority of the president to detain someone, anyone, plainly has the potential to chill dissent. Protest movements like Occupy are at risk because they could be targeted as terrorist groups, and individuals detained without charges or due process under the NDAA.
Like the NDAA, HR 347–the ‘‘Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011”– codifies and increases powers that are “radical and dangerous.” It’s an extension of already existing laws encroaching on public protest. While the government may make reasonable limitations on the time, place and manner of protest, HR 347 restricts First Amendment rights to a greater degree.
It’s now a federal offense “to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of government business or official functions, engage in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds” and at any time when Secret Service are on the scene. HR 347 also lowers the intent requirement. It was already illegal to “knowingly and willingly” protest in restricted areas, now the standard is “knowingly.”
The power to designate an area restricted is broad and vague; police may be able to pronounce this on the spot. The penalties are also higher–offenders will be charged with felonies instead of misdemeanors. Although keeping protestors away from the object of protest is unfortunately nothing new (for example, in college I was corralled into pens with other protestors during a crucial Bush-Dukakis debate), HR 347 is pernicious because protestors must keep entirely clear of figures protected by the Secret Service–our most prominent political leader and candidates. Glitter-bombing is out, unless you’re prepared for some major criminal penalties.
Self-censorship and dissent
In spite of the paramilitarization of police, the tightening of laws to curb protest, and the equation of protest with threat to the public, we have to remember that in comparison we still have it good in the US. This isn’t Syria, China, Tibet, Burma or any number of African dictatorships–where dissent almost certainly leads to imprisonment, torture or death.
Yet as you observe the control totalitarian governments wield over their people through fear, our rights become even more precious. As an activist, when you start to ask, “What will happen if I do this, or this…?” then a law has already done its damage. You’re bound to scale back and muzzle yourself in consideration of consequences. The authorities who now see little difference between protest and terrorism seek more and more power to “protect” the non-dissenting public.
The Democratic and Republican National Conventions are coming up. The G8 Summit was moved to Camp David out of caution, while the NATO summit remains in Chicago. How much you want to bet that Homeland Security designates them all as “events of national significance”? HR 347 and its friends were written and passed with just such events in mind, and they’re precisely the ones where dissenters need to be on the streets.
At CPAC 2012 held in DC this weekend, I had the opportunity to hear two speakers most celebrated by the Tea Party–Andrew Breitbart and Sarah Palin. That they are both celebrated and completely unhinged speaks volumes about the Tea Party. They just can’t give up the crazies.
No one really needs proof that Andrew Breitbart–purveyor of website BigGovernment.com and promoter of the highly edited O’Keefe videos–is mean, paranoid and totally off his rocker. But if proof was needed, he gave it to us in spades. After his CPAC speech, Breitbart came out to greet DC Occupy protestors in front of the conference site. This video shows a meltdown of epic proportions.
Palin and Breitbart always toss plenty of red meat to the true believers, and they didn’t disappoint. Flush with vitriol toward President Obama, they unloaded their particular mix of aggressive insults and victimology. Key among their buzzwords was “radical”–that Obama is a radical, that radicals “are at war with you.” The word was guaranteed to rile up the troops and get a standing ovation. None of this is new. I was eager instead to get their take on Occupy.
Palin has always been on the right side of one issue, at least rhetorically (mangled syntax or not): corruption in politics. She is fully in line with Occupy when she calls out “crony capitalism,” corporate welfare and bailouts. She perceives to some degree that she and Occupiers are in agreement on this, but advises them that they are “occupying the wrong place, you’re protesting the wrong thing.” The right thing to protest, she says, would be Obama, that epitome of Chicago machine politics–“the champion of power players.” To Palin, Breitbart and their Tea Party sycophants, all evils lead back to Obama. What she fails to understand is that Occupy doesn’t support Obama or Democrats in the least.
Breitbart in his paranoia took it a step further and hinted at what seems to be a common Tea Party theory on Occupy: it is coordinated by unnamed powers. Breitbart sarcastically called Occupy a “natural, organic group of people,” but “we have emails” to prove that someone is pulling its strings. He apparently doesn’t know what totalitarian is, since he called Occupiers “a bunch of totalitarian freaks.” He might get more traction by calling them anarchists instead. Never mind, they are “the very definition of un-American.”
Breitbart could use Glenn Beck’s chalkboard to more persuasively draw the lines between Occupy and Democrats, George Soros or whomever. Palin will use Occupy to flog Obama in the same tiresome ways as always. If Tea Partiers manage to grab the microphone again, depend on hearing a lot of conspiracy theories about Occupy.