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Seattle’s ‘autonomous zone’ belongs to a grand tradition of utopian experiments

The year 2020 seems to be drawn straight from the plot of some discarded dystopian novel — a book that never got published because it sounded too far-fetched. Not only is there a pandemic to contend with, unemployment nearing levels last seen in the Great Depression, and nationwide protests against police brutality, but it’s all happening in the same year Americans are supposed to elect a president.

Amid the chaos and tear gas, some people see a chance to scrap everything and start over, a first step toward turning their visions for a better world into reality. In Seattle, protesters in one six-block stretch of Capitol Hill, a neighborhood near downtown, have created a community-run, police-free zone, recently renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP. It’s a scene of masked crowds, vibrant signs and street art, a “no cop co-op” giving away food and supplies, and newly planted community gardens. In Minneapolis, volunteers turned a former Sheraton hotel into a “sanctuary” offering free food and hotel rooms — until they got evicted.

“We’re seeing a new resurgence of utopianism,” said Heather Alberro, an associate lecturer of politics at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom who studies radical environmentalists and utopian thought.

Problems like climate change, the widening gap between the rich and everybody else, and racial inequality gives many the sense that they’re living through one giant unprecedented crisis. And these combined disasters create “the exact conditions that give rise to all sorts of expressions” of utopian thinking, Alberro said. From broad ideas like the Green New Deal — the climate-jobs-justice package popularized by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — to Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” people are offering up new plans for how the world could operate. Whether they came from literature or real-life experiments, these idealistic efforts can spur wider cultural and political change, even if they falter.

A community garden in CHOP’s Cal Anderson Park. Grist / Kate Yoder

Based on President Donald Trump’s tweets about Seattle’s CHOP (or Fox News websites’ photoshopped coverage of the protest) you’d picture pure chaos, with buildings afire and protesters running amok. The reality was more like people sitting around in a park, screening movies like 13th, and making art. It’s a serious protest too, with crowds gathered for talks about racism and police brutality in front of an abandoned police precinct. The protesters’ demands include abolishing the Seattle Police Department, removing cops from schools, abolishing juvenile detention, and giving reparations to victims of police violence.

“The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone #CHAZ is not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection — it is a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan tweeted last week.

The protest zone goes by many names: Originally called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, it was later rebranded as CHOP. The barricaded area, which spans from Cal Anderson Park into nearby streets, is part campground, part block party. Tourists wander through, snapping photos of the street art.

A week earlier, protests in Cal Anderson Park, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, were met by police officers spraying rubber bullets, mace, and tear gas. Then, last week, the police abandoned the area, and the protesters declared it their own, turning the “Seattle Police Department” into the “Seattle People Department” with a bit of spraypaint.

The CHAZ follows a long history of anti-capitalist experiments that reimagined the way the world was run. In 1871, the people of Paris, sick of oppression, rose up to take control of their city for a two-month stint. The Paris Commune canceled debt, suspended rent, and abolished the police, filling the streets with festivals. The French government soon quashed their experiment, massacring tens of thousands of Parisians in “The Bloody Week.” Even though it was short-lived, the Paris Commune inspired revolutionary movements for the next 150 years.

Protesters sleep in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street, 2011. Ramin Talaie / Corbis via Getty Images

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protestors took over New York City’s Zuccotti Park for two months to highlight the problems of income inequality. Their encampment offered free food, lectures, books, and wide-ranging discussions. The radical movement ended up changing the way Americans talked, giving them a new vocabulary — the “99 percent” and “1 percent” — and its concerns about income inequality went on to mold the priorities of the Democratic Party.

Alberro compared Seattle’s CHOP to a community of 300 environmental activists in western France who set up camp at a site earmarked for a controversial new airport starting in 2008. One of many ZADs (zones à défendre) that have sprung up in France, the community ended up being not just a place to protest the airport, but to take a stand against what protesters saw as the underlying problems — capitalism, inequality, and environmental destruction. (The government ended up shelving plans for the airport in 2018). “The point of these autonomous zones is not only to create these micro exemplars of better worlds,” Alberro said, “but also to physically halt present forces of destruction” — whether that’s an airport or, in the case of Capitol Hill, how police treat black people.

A bike rides past a farm in “la Zad,” a utopian community protesting an airport in Western France. LOIC VENANCE / AFP via Getty Images

Seattle has a lengthy history of occupations and political demonstrations tracing back to the Seattle General Strike in the early 1900s. The Civil Rights era brought sit-ins and marches. Indigenous protesters occupied an old military fort in 1970 and negotiated with the city to get 20 acres of Discovery Park. Two years later, activists occupied an abandoned elementary school in Beacon Hill, demanding that it be turned into a community center (now El Centro de la Raza).

And it might not be a coincidence that the new protest zone appeared on the West Coast, often portrayed in literature as an “ideal place” to set up utopian communities, Alberro said. For instance, the book Ecotopia, published in 1975 by Ernest Callenbach, depicted a green society — complete with high-speed magnetic-levitation trains! — formed when northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceded from the United States. The book went on to become a cult novel, influencing the environmental movement’s focus on local food, public transportation, and renewable energy.

Ecotopia isn’t exactly an ideal parallel for the current wave of protests, as its utopia was white. Callenbach envisioned a segregated society where black people opted to live in the less affluent “Soul City.” Still, it’s apparent that some of its other messages live on. Alberro has talked to many “radical” environmental protesters for her research, and most of them haven’t read any of the green utopian books she asks about. But they repeat some of the ideas and phrases from that literature nearly “word for word” when describing the changes they want to see in the world.

Though Seattle’s protest zone is focused on racial oppression, not environmental destruction, Alberro sees a similar impulse behind all these projects. “Many activists would argue that it’s all part of the same struggle,” she said, arguing that people can’t successfully take on environmental issues without addressing racism and other socioeconomic problems. “There seems to be a cultural atmosphere that molds these different movements, even though they often don’t come into contact with one another.”

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Seattle’s ‘autonomous zone’ belongs to a grand tradition of utopian experiments

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This Guy Is So Smart, He’s Got His Own Academic Journal

Mother Jones

Slavoj Žižek is part philosopher, part international phenomenon. And if that seems impossible in this day and age, consider: Žižek, a Slovenian cultural theorist, has published more than 40 books in English, has starred in four films, and even has an academic journal (International Journal of Žižek Studies) dedicated to his work. Renowned for his gymnastic thinking and mastery of counterintuition, Žižek has been called “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” by the New Republic and “one of the world’s best known public intellectuals” by the New York Review of Books.

Out this week, his latest book, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles With the Neighbors is an urgent and entertaining diagnosis of the ongoing refugee crisis and global terror threat, highlighting the glaring contradictions in our attitudes and actions. True to form, Žižek, an avowed Marxist, takes this fraught historical moment as an opportunity to apply his particular brand of bombastic, unconventional salve. His past positions have chafed liberals and conservatives alike, and this book will be no exception. (See below.) I caught up with Žižek to talk about the limitations of democracy, orphan prophets, and America’s ugly presidential election.

Mother Jones: What, specifically, is the biggest problem that the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in North America, has exposed?

Slavoj Žižek: It’s an issue with democracy! When people complain Europe is not transparent—if, right now, you organized elections all across Europe, the first result would be to throw all the immigrants out. Unambiguously. This is the problem! I spoke with some Slovenian representatives in Brussels when they were negotiating to help Greece and immigrants. And they told me they were making deals in closed sessions, but if the debate were to be public, it would have been much worse for Greece and for immigrants, because public opinion in countries like Slovenia and Poland was much more against immigrants and against helping Greece. What shocks me is that the very same people who complain that the democratic process in Europe should be more transparent at the same time want more rights for immigrants.

MJ: And what does this mean for democracy?

SZ: The state wants to impose basic anti-racist measures, and then local communities controlled by right-wing fundamentalists block that. I am here on the side of the state, which I am ready to endorse up to the crazy end. We have to accept that the people are quite often not right. I believe in democracy but in a very conditional way. There are elections that are a miracle, in the sense that you can see that people were really, authentically, mobilized. For example, in spite of all the compromises that occurred later, the Syriza elections—this was an authentic choice. So miracles do happen, but they are exceptions. Don’t fetishize the people. Don’t mythologize the people, they are not right! Don’t mythologize the immigrants. This is the big motive running through my book.

MJ: This is one of those positions that won’t be too popular on the left.

SZ: My point is precisely that the ultimate racism is to endorse the immigrant other, but the idealized version of that other. They are ordinary, shitty people like all of us. The point is not to like them. The point is to accept them the way they are and try to help them. That’s why I don’t want to open my heart to the refugees. That’s for liberals to do. Let’s open our purses to them. Give them money! Let’s not get into this emotional blackmail.

MJ: You first bring up the term “double blackmail” in the book with regard to the supposedly irreconcilable opposition between secular capitalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Please explain that.

SZ: Although I’m totally opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, I don’t buy the story of stupid, radical leftists who claim Islamic fundamentalism is one of the big anti-capitalist forces. I think this is empirically not true. I read reports of Daesh ISIS. The nearest approximation is that they operate like a big mafia corporation, dealing with artifacts, cultural monuments, oil. Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, they are not traditional. Forget about their ideology; look at their organization! They’re a brutal centralized power. They are ultramodern in their mode of functioning.

The second reason I think the opposition is wrong is that a new form of capitalism is emerging. It’s a wrong, racist term, but “capitalism with Asian values,” which simply means capitalism no longer ideologically perceives itself as this hedonistic individualism. More and more, you can combine a certain religious, ethnic, or cultural commitment. Like India’s prime minister, Narenda Modi, my hero in a horrible sense. I am totally opposed to him. He is a neoliberal economist and Hindu fundamentalist. So again, this entire disposition of oppositions like “liberal permissive capitalism” versus religious fundamentalism is wrong—it doesn’t function like that. This is not where capitalism is moving.

MJ: An interesting illustration of this contradiction is Uber, which recently caught flack for taking $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia. So we have the technological vanguard of Silicon Valley in bed with one of the world’s most infamously regressive Islamic regimes, and yet Uber’s services in the kingdom have been portrayed as a social justice issue, since women aren’t allowed to drive.

SZ: So let me play the devil here. As Saudi Arabia I will tell you, “Fuck you. You preach multicultural tolerance. Such a role of women is an immanent part of our culture. Where is your tolerance for different cultures?” And in a way, I would be right! Because you cannot say, “We will correct women’s role in society and otherwise we leave to Saudis their culture.” A shameful story is how American feminists supported the invasion of Iraq, claiming it would bring liberation to Iraqi women. They were totally wrong. Saddam was still, with all the horrors, a secular leader. Women held public posts in Saddam’s Iraq. If anything, now the role of women is much lower. They are much more oppressed now. Isn’t this a beautiful irony?

The main social effect of the American occupation of Iraq was to worsen the position of women and, because of the rise of more orthodox Islam, most of the Christians left Iraq. Christians were a considerable minority there, a couple million of them for thousands of years. It took American intervention to see them thrown out. Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister, was an Iraqi Christian. We should never forget this. The two states which are disappearing now in the Middle East, Iraq and Syria—are you aware that these are the only two states which were formerly secular? Assad was also horrible, but neither Syria nor Iraq defined themselves as Islamic states. They defined themselves as secular states.

MJ: Yet in your book, you focus as much on the impact of economic policy in creating these problems as you do on the impact of military intervention.

SZ: Economic trade agreements are more destructive; they’re even worse. I’m not even a priori against military interventions. Take the Republic of Congo. The state is simply not functioning—it’s the closest you can get to hell on earth. But of course nobody wants to intervene there because Congo’s local warlords all make deals with big companies who get minerals—like coltan for electronics—much cheaper. I would have nothing against a nice military intervention into Congo to simply establish it as a normal functioning state with basic services. But this I can guarantee will never happen. Big powers become interested in human rights violations only when there is some economic interest behind it.

MJ: Let’s talk about the American election.

SZ: When I was young, decades ago, my leftist friends were saying that those in power speak the official polite dignified language. To provoke them we should be more vulgar with words. But today it’s the opposite. Right-wing populism introduces vulgarity into public space. Trump is obviously a pure ideological opportunist. You know he makes the move to the right, then a little bit to the left. At some point he supports raising minimum wage, then he’s lowering it. At some point he said we should have more understanding for Palestinians; now he says we should recognize Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. He is an opportunist, and I think that even with his provocations, he is nothing extraordinary. I don’t think there is anything remotely radical in his position. I am infinitely more afraid of people like Ted Cruz. Trump is a vulgar opportunist. Cruz is a monster. Do you think Ted Cruz is human?

What I find problematic about this demonization of Trump is that through this demonization, Hillary Clinton succeeded in building a common front. This is the only time I sympathize with Trump. When Bernie Sanders supported Hillary, Trump said, “It’s like Occupy Wall Street supporting Wall Street.” Hillary succeeded in building this totally ideological unity, from Clinton Foundation donations from Saudi Arabia to LGBT, from Wall Street to Occupy Wall Street. This consensus is ideology at its purest.

MJ: What do you make of the argument that, beneath all the racial animus we’re seeing toward immigrants and refugees, there’s some vague, misdirected frustration with neoliberal policy?

SZ: This is always how racism works. Take anti-Semitism: The Jew was always the ersatz for the capitalist. The big achievement of anti-Semitism was to take class resentment and rechannel it into race resentment. Here we come to the true greatness of Bernie Sanders. Instead of just despising the ordinary farmers who fell for racist rhetoric, he got them on his side. He got those who by definition are conservative fundamental Republicans to the moderate left. This is a mega achievement. He is the answer for the left. To get this infamous silent majority on your side should be our strategy. The left should reappropriate things like public decency, politeness, and good manners. We shouldn’t be afraid of this. Capitalism has become an extremely vulgar space.

MJ: Back to the question of refugees. Nowhere do you advocate opening borders, or posit that everything will work itself out.

SZ: There are real cultural problems. You know in Cologne, Germany, the New Year’s scandal. This was of course not a rape attempt—if you want to rape you don’t go to the place full of light and people at the center of the city. This sort of thing happens all the time. It was happening at the anti-Mubarak protests at Tahrir Square. This is a typical lower-class Arab carnival ritual. You dance around women; you maybe pinch them a little bit, but you don’t rape. Of course, this is unacceptable for us. But we need to talk openly about this, because if we don’t talk about this we feed the opponents, the right-wing paranoiacs, Islamophobia. An open, honest debate should be risked here. And the first mistake we make is if we think we understand ourselves, we definitely don’t. Yes, criticize Islamic fundamentalists. But at the same time analyze ourselves.

MJ: So can progressive values and Islam be reconciled?

SZ: If you look at the Muslim tradition, there are terribly progressive elements of it. Islam is not a religion of family; it’s a religion of orphans, which is crucial—Muhammad was an orphan and so on. There is tremendous emancipatory potential in that. The Haiti revolution, the key ideologist was a guy named John Bookman, a slave who knew how to read, that’s why they called him Bookman. But you know which book he was reading? The Koran. Islam played a key role in mobilizing slaves in Haiti. Right now, I think we live in dangerous times. Who knows what turn it will take. But I think there is a chance for the left.

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This Guy Is So Smart, He’s Got His Own Academic Journal

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Voters Sure Are Pissed Off This Year

Mother Jones

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Voters are angry this year. Bernie Sanders proved it on the Democratic side and Donald Trump on the Republican side. People are sick and tired of the old guard that talks and talks but never gets anything done. The establishment has turned politics into a corrupt charnelhouse catering to the rich and powerful instead of regular Americans, and voters are finally fed up. The tea party was a start, Occupy Wall Street was next, and now there’s a volcanic, bipartisan fury erupting all over the country.

So, um, that means incumbents should be in big trouble on both sides of the aisle. It’s probably been a bloodbath in the primaries this year—though of course the lamestream media will never tell you about it. Let’s take a look.

Hah! There’s your evidence right there. In 2014 four incumbents lost their primary contests. This year five have lost. Behold the fury of the American electorate. Truly this year represents the long-awaited revolt of the voters against the entrenched interests that bailed out Wall Street and sent all our jobs overseas.

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Voters Sure Are Pissed Off This Year

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Alaskan tribes given tiny amount of cash for climate change resilience

Alaskan tribes given tiny amount of cash for climate change resilience

By on 19 Feb 2015commentsShare

Alaskan Native American communities are soon to be the happy(ish?) recipients of $8 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior in order to encourage climate resilience. If you think that $8 million sounds like chump change when it comes to federal disaster relief funds, and particularly piddling when you consider that the money will go to an area deeply in need of repair and protection in the midst of a climate-induced crisis — well, you are right!

The Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs issued a press release on Tuesday announcing that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell plans to make the money available for promoting “climate change adaptation and ocean and coastal management planning.” The press release also states that the Interior “must act to protect these communities” — because, we assume, Alaskan tribal communities are losing access to basic needs like food, water, and adequate shelter due to the effects of climate change.

That money isn’t, however, intended for rebuilding purposes. The Department of Interior notes that of these funds, $4 million will be available for “climate adaptation planning” and the other half for “ocean/coastal management planning” — essentially, it will all go to educate, train, and plan for climate adaptation. More funds could come from President Obama’s FY16 budget proposal, which included $50 million to support resilience projects in coastal areas.

A little background, now: Native American tribes occupy about 4 percent of U.S. land, and make up about 1 percent of the population — and for the part of that 1 percent living in Alaska, climate change is a significant health hazard. For the tribes that still practice traditional lifestyles, 80 percent of their diets are foods gathered from the immediate surrounding — but they can’t gather like they used to, because climate-change provoked coastal erosion is making food harder to come by. Other scary, climate-induced effects include aquatic changes, ecosystem shifts, and increased flooding due to melting ice shelves.

Native Americans have been making their case for relocation money for years. One coastal Alaskan town, Shishmaref, has sought funding since 2002. Homes lack running water and plumbing, beaches are shrinking, and houses are literally falling into the sea. How much would it cost to save the town by moving it inland? That’s estimated at a cool $179 million.

So, you get it: $8 million isn’t nearly enough to prepare Alaskan villages for rising seas and a warmer climate. With this federal money, tribal members will be sitting in on technical workshops about “long-term climate resilience” while they watch their homes slowly tilt towards the shore.

Interior Department Will Provide Millions To Help Native Americans Adapt To Climate Change

, ThinkProgress.



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Alaskan tribes given tiny amount of cash for climate change resilience

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Soundtrack for a Police-Brutality Protest

Mother Jones

The sun was setting as the Millions March began to disperse in downtown Oakland, California. Thousands of people had taken to the streets throughout the day to show solidarity and outrage over the slew of high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans by police. With coordinated marches held around the country, it had been a day of signs and banners, impassioned speeches, and pointed but peaceful demonstrations.

As evening fell, a second march was about to begin. A young man in a black hoodie, his face hidden behind a red bandana, shouted “Fuck the police!” through a megaphone as hundreds filed into the intersection behind him—the tone of this march was markedly darker.

In Oakland, anger over racism in the criminal justice system is always simmering beneath the surface. But the grand jury decisions to not indict the officers responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, had fueled continuing protests around the Bay Area. Graffiti scrawled across street signs and boarded-up businesses reflected the shouted sentiments that could be heard over sirens and helicopters, echoing through the streets each night.

But something made this march stand apart. Among the marchers was a cart stacked with two PA speakers, an amplifier, an inverter, and a couple of deep-cycle batteries to power the setup. With nearly $4,000 worth of equipment, the music cart added a dimension missing from the previous protests. At dusk, people followed the sound to join the march, pausing to circle around the cart and dance to the rhythm booming through the speakers.

Brian, the cart’s owner, who asked that I not publish his last name, told me he started bringing his sound system to demonstrations as part of Occupy Oakland back in 2011*. A student who works part time in sound production and theater design, Brian was happy to step up when march organizers asked him to. “I think music helps crowds stay together and it helps people feel more empowered. It’s hard to describe,” he said, with a pause. “You go on a march without music—there’s a difference.”

Brian’s selections, some of which were penned on these very streets, reflected the sentiments of the marchers. “I think in a lot of ways music enables protests to be something that is fun and joyous while still matching the angry mood,” he told me. “That is balance that you have to strike.” He emphasized that his role was strictly one of support. “I think it is super-important, as a white person in this movement, that I take a backseat. I am trying to be very careful not to lead the march with the sound system, and it is very important to play music that people are enjoying in the crowd.”

Police presence was felt throughout the night, but around 6:30 pm, following scattered acts of vandalism, an Oakland Police intercom boomed instructions to disperse, warning the hundreds of marchers that their assembly was unlawful. Anyone there, regardless of purpose, was subject to arrest, which could “result in personal injury,” the police warned. The march continued even after police ran at the crowd, causing some protesters to scatter momentarily. But the music kept playing and people kept marching.

Some volunteered to help push the cumbersome equipment—nearly 200 pounds of it—over grassy knolls, through stopped traffic, and away from police who attempted to corral protesters into kettles, a common crowd-control tactic. Others gave Brian song requests.

He tried his best to match their moods, switching from heavier, more strident songs to upbeat classics like the Commodores’ “Brick House” and Michael Jackson hits to calm the crowd during police confrontations. “At that point we had broken out of those kettles,” he said, “and it is a little bit of a scary moment—a moment in which we won, which is great, but I think people were a little on edge.” The music seemed to do the trick; marchers could be seen dancing past a growing number police vans and squad cars.

The victory wouldn’t last long, though. Around eight o’clock, the group around the sound system danced right into a police kettle and was quickly surrounded. The police silenced and confiscated Brian’s gear and began arresting people. Officers from 11 different agencies made 45 arrests that night in Oakland, and Brian was among them. He was released quickly though, and he says people can expect to see him and his sound system out on the streets again soon.

Here’s a sampling of songs he played last week:

“Lovelle Mixon”—Mistah F.A.B. feat. Magnolia Chop:

“Fuck Tha Police”—Lil Boosie:

“We Ain’t Listenin’ (Remix)”—Beeda Weeda, J Stalin:

“N.E.W. Oakland”—Mistah F.A.B.:

“Hyphy”—Federation feat E-40:

“Don’t Snitch”—Mac Dre:

“G Code”—Geto Boys:

“California Love”—2Pac feat. Dr. Dre:

“Fuck Tha Police”—N.W.A.:

“Rock With You” – Michael Jackson:

“September”—Earth, Wind, and Fire:

Correction: The original version of this article misidentified the year the Occupy Oakland protests began.

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Soundtrack for a Police-Brutality Protest

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Hong Kong Protesters Give Ground—For Now

Mother Jones

Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong have begun partially removing barricades blocking entrance to key government offices ahead of a government-issued deadline on Monday morning mandating demonstrators clear the way for normal business to resume.

But according to reports, protestors remain divided, with many still rejecting plans to concede.

Late into the night, about 200 protestors were still present in front of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s office. Some cars were allowed through, including one ambulance that was inspected to ensure no tear-gas cannisters were being carried inside.

Protestors, who are demanding for Leung to step down and to be allowed free elections in 2017, are largely hoping to avoid violent confrontations with police come Monday morning.

“If the government uses force to clear away protesters, there will be no room for dialogue,” Lester Shum told reporters, according to the AP.

But Leung warned he was ready to “take all necessary actions to restore social order” and allow roughly 3,000 civil servants return to work.

Watch more below:

Check back for more updates.


Hong Kong Protesters Give Ground—For Now

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"Serious-Minded" Benghazi Committee Chair Pushed Anti-Obama IRS Conspiracy Theory

Mother Jones

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When Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) was anointed last month by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to lead yet another congressional investigation of Benghazi, the second-term tea party congressman, a former prosecutor, was hailed by his Republican colleagues as an evenhanded lawmaker who had no political ax to grind in this endeavor. Boehner called him “serious-minded” and cited his “zeal for the truth.” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) praised him as “cerebral” and said “he has a great capacity to work through an investigation and come to a fair conclusion.” And Gowdy himself vowed, “We’re going to go wherever the facts take us. Facts are neither Republican nor Democrat. They are facts.”

Yet when it comes to another conservative crusade, the supposed-IRS scandal, Gowdy has not been so dispassionate and judicious. As a member of the House government oversight committee led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), which has mounted the main congressional inquiry into this matter, Gowdy has publicly suggested that the vetting of political groups conducted by an IRS office in Cincinnati was part of a scheme hatched in Washington to benefit President Barack Obama and the Democrats. And he has done so without presenting facts to prove this assertion.

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"Serious-Minded" Benghazi Committee Chair Pushed Anti-Obama IRS Conspiracy Theory

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Law Enforcement vs. the Hippies

Mother Jones

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Paul Waldman writes today about how lefty protest groups get treated differently from right-wing protest groups:

The latest, from the New York Times, describes how law enforcement officials around the country went on high alert when the Occupy protests began in 2011, passing information between agencies with an urgency suggesting that at least some people thought that people gathering to oppose Wall Street were about to try to overthrow the U.S. government. And we remember how many of those protests ended, with police moving in with force.

….If you can’t recall any Tea Party protests in 2009 and 2010 being broken up by baton-wielding, pepper-spraying cops in riot gear, that’s because it didn’t happen. Just like the anti-war protesters of the Bush years, the Tea Partiers were unhappy with the government, and saying so loudly. But for some reason, law enforcement didn’t view them as a threat.

Maybe this is because lefties don’t complain enough. You may remember the hissy fit thrown by Fox News when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report suggesting that the election of a black president might spur recruitment among right-wing extremist groups and “even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.” As it turns out, that was a good call. But the specter of jack-booted Obama thugs smashing down the doors of earnest, heartland Republicans dominated the news cycle long enough for DHS to repudiate the report under pressure and eventually dissolve the team that had produced it.

And the similar report about left-wing extremism that DHS had produced a few months earlier? You don’t remember that? I don’t suppose you would. That’s because it was barely noticed, let alone an object of complaint. And even if lefties had complained, I doubt that anyone would have taken it seriously. There’s just no equivalent of Fox News on the left when it comes to turning partisan grievances into mainstream news.

There’s probably more to it, though. Mainstream lefties just don’t identify with the far left as a key part of their tribe. They’ll get a certain amount of support, sure, but they’ll also get plenty of mockery and derision, as the Occupy protesters did. On the right, though, extremists are all members of the tribe in good standing as long as they stop short of, say, murdering people. They only have to stop barely short, though. Waving guns around and threatening to kill people is A-OK, as Cliven Bundy and his merry band of armed tax resistors showed.

So when DHS produces a report suggesting that right-wing extremism might turn out to be a growth industry in the Obama era, the ranks of the conservative movement close. An attack on one is an attack on all, and Fox News stands ready and willing to turn the outrage meter to 11. Rinse and repeat.

Continued here: 

Law Enforcement vs. the Hippies

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People Aren’t Buying Houses Because They Have No Money

Mother Jones

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This is from the “Gee, ya think?” file. It’s from a Financial Times story summarizing various theories about why the housing market has turned flat. After acknowledging that none of the usual theories seem “quite sufficient” to explain things, we get this:

Sam Khater, deputy chief economist at Corelogic said he believes “it’s structural”, pointing out that as long ago as the 1990s, there was growth in population and employment, “but during that entire time period we have not had median incomes growth”.

Although the US economy has added several million jobs in the last few years, there has been little incomes growth for the average American, and that may have reduced housing demand. New household formation has been exceptionally low, with many adults in their 20s and 30s continuing to live with their parents.

That helps to explain some of the divergent trends in the housing market. For example, builders are putting up much bigger homes, to cater to wealthy Americans who are doing well, which helps to explain why the number of starts is low.

Yeah, that could explain it, all right.

None of this snark is meant for Robin Harding, who wrote this piece. At least he put a spotlight on the obvious problem of stagnant incomes. That’s more than most business writers have managed to do.

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People Aren’t Buying Houses Because They Have No Money

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The Man Behind the Vampire Squid: An Interview with Matt Taibbi

Mother Jones

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Matt Taibbi has an unmistakable voice in American journalism—assured, addictive, and usually pissed off. After launching his career working for expat papers in Moscow, Taibbi returned to America and trained his sights on politicians and the political process—rich turf for a writer with a knack for spotting and skewing absurdity. After the financial crisis hit in late 2007, Taibbi pivoted to covering the banking sector, penning articles that resonated with the Occupy Wall Street set. (He’s the man who memorably labeled Goldman Sachs a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”) Following years at Rolling Stone, Taibbi recently announced he would join First Look, Pierre Omidyar’s news organization, where he will head up a yet-unnamed magazine on financial and political affairs.

I recently interviewed Taibbi about his new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, at InForum, a speaking series hosted by San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. Their conversation will be broadcast by 230 public radio stations across the country.

Mother Jones: Matt, you start The Divide by unearthing the story of the Holder Memo, which is pretty obscure. Tell us what it is and how it played a part in the financial crisis.

Matt Taibbi: The Holder Memo goes back to the late nineties when Eric Holder—who was then just an official in the Bill Clinton Justice Department—wrote a memo which has come to be known as the Holder Memo, which was originally thought of as a sort of get tough on crime document. The memo basically provided federal prosecutors with guidelines they could use to go after white-collar offenders. Most people at the time paid attention to the tough aspects of this memo. Among other things, it allowed prosecutors to say to corporate offenders, “we will only give you credit for cooperation if you do things like waive privilege,” which was a powerful tool that prosecutors had never had before. So for years, this was thought of as an anti-business document. But at the bottom of the Holder Memo there was this little addendum. It outlined something called the Collateral Consequences Policy, and all Collateral Consequences said was, if you were a prosecutor and you were going after a big, systemically important company that maybe employs a lot of people, and you, the prosecutor, are concerned that there may be innocent victims if you proceed with a criminal case against this company, for instance shareholders or executives who had no role in the wrongdoing, than you may seek alternative remedies apart from criminal prosecutions: fines, deferred prosecution agreements, non-prosecution agreements—all of which is really saying you don’t have to prosecute when you have a big company that’s done something wrong.

This is a completely sensible policy. It makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense now. The problem is, that when Holder returned to office as attorney general, he came back to a world that was populated by this new kind of corporate offender, the too-big-to-fail bank, which was basically, exactly the kind of company that Collateral Consequences could have been created for. And a lot of these companies have done a lot of very shady things, but Collateral Consequences provided the government with a way to proceed in a way that didn’t involve criminal prosecution. It sort of gave the government an excuse to not go forward. Furthermore, even though the intent of this doctrine was to prevent prosecutions against companies, they’ve begun to conflate it to not proceed against individuals at the companies as well, which I don’t think was the original intent the memo, but that seems to have been its legacy now, because we’ve seen a series of settlements where they haven’t proceeded against either the companies or individuals at the companies.

MJ: So do you think the Holder Memo is a symbol of that mentality, or is it an actual factor in the decision to fine and delay prosecutions?

MT: I think it’s a combination of both, actually. The existence of the Holder memo—first of all, it was gathering dust for years. After Bill Clinton left office, people forgot about that memo for a long time, until there was an event, it was the collapse of Arthur Andersen. Everyone remembers, of course, this Big Six accounting firm that played a role in the Enron scandal. They were accused of shredding two tons of documents. The government proceeded with a single felony count against the company, the company went under, 27,000 jobs were lost, and politicians everywhere freaked out. And basically there was a general consensus within the law enforcement community that we will never again proceed against a company in this fashion if we can avoid it. That was really when Collateral Consequences was dusted off and reborn; Arthur Andersen was really just a precursor to the decisions we made with regard to the companies implicated in the Great Recession that had done, I would argue, far worse more systemic thing than Arthur Andersen had.

MJ: There’s an argument to be made that there have been some massive fines, some gi-normous fines, and trials can be lengthy and super expensive, so what is the argument against just going the fine route?

MT: This is a super important question, because in a vacuum, a lot of this approach of very high fines, coupled with deferred prosecution agreements where they may impose certain conditions on the company—in a vacuum, that may make a lot of sense. It may seem like the best possible solution. The state doesn’t have to waste five, six, seven years trying to prosecute a company, you don’t have to beat back thousands of motions, and you don’t have to worry about perhaps losing a case where you have to expend enormous resources in the first place, so it does make a kind of sense. But the problem is, it falls apart when you think of who doesn’t have the option to just buy their way out of jail. And this gets to the whole reason why I wrote this book.

And here I should make a confession: when I decided to write this book, this was right around the time of the Occupy protests, and ironically the financial crisis had sort of been a boon to my career. Before 2008, I was sort of a typical political humorist. I sort of made fun of politicians for a living. That was really all I did, and I had this existential crisis about whether or not that work was valuable at all, and then I got assigned to cover the financial crisis and the causes of it, and I started doing these stories, and I discovered this whole, complicated world of things I never knew about and I had to study. I was doing these pieces basically translating these very complicated and elaborate scams and trying to help broad audiences understand what had happened in 2008, and I thought this was a really worthwhile endeavor, but it was really just an intellectual exercise. I got a charge out of the challenge of deciphering these things and translating it for audiences.

When I’d finished this book, Griftopia, which had done fairly well, so I was getting offers to write another book. And I was trying to think of what I would write about next, and it occurred to me that I should write about the fact that nobody really was going to jail, and somewhat cynically I thought, “This is going to be easy. Morally, this is totally indefensible and all I have to do is tell a few stories about people who had done terrible things and gotten away with it, and boy, will that make people angry, and it’ll sell a lot of books, and that’ll be easy.” And then I started to do my due diligence, I decided to look into who does go to jail in America and why, and I started to become overwhelmed by all these horrible, horrible stories about injustices that were being done to ordinary people who didn’t have money. One of the first days I went out, I heard about a thirteen-year-old, mentally disabled, African American boy in Brooklyn who’d been picked up by a couple of cops, and they’d thrown him in the back of a squad car and told him that he couldn’t go home that day ’til he helped them find an illegal gun. And so he ended up telling them there was a gun at his grandmother’s house, and they descended upon that kid’s grandmother’s house, they hauled in the grandmother, they hauled in the kid, the hauled in the kid’s brother—it’s terrible.

I heard story after story. A woman gets arrested, an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles who gets arrested for driving without a license, and she’s sentenced to 170 hours of community service and a $1,700 fine, and she has to take her kids to the community service every night. She’s crying herself to sleep every night.

I was overwhelmed, emotionally overwhelmed by all these stories of people who were doing time, who were thrown in jail for varying degrees of absurdity, and it struck me that there was no way to talk about whether or not this Collateral Consequences policy is justified until you actually look in the mirror and ask yourself: Do you really know who’s going to jail in this country, and why people going to jail in this country? I was living my life happily not knowing that all these people were being arrested, but it’s morally indefensible when somebody can pay a fine and get out of a billion-dollar theft while other people are doing two or three years in jail for reaching into a cash register in a liquor store. That’s a very long-winded answer, but the whole point is, you have to look at the two things side-by-side in order to evaluate the policy, and that’s what they don’t do. When officials defend these policies, they deny the connection that there’s any connection between the two problems.

MJ: Backing up for a second to the different ways that, say, bankers were treated and homeowners were treated. Can you talk a little about moral hazard?

MT: Everybody’s heard this term “moral hazard,” right? This is the idea that, after the financial crisis in 2008, we had all these people who were headed into foreclosure. I think at one point it was four million people who were either in foreclosure or headed for foreclosure, and the argument emanating from Wall Street during this time was that to provide assistance to these people in the form of any kind of a bailout would encourage irresponsibility, because these people had taken on more debt than they could handle, and that was their fault, and they should take responsibility for their actions, and it would just be encouraging more bad behavior if we provided any more assistance to those people. And in some cases, the people who were making that argument were exactly the same people who were taking gigantic bailouts from the United States government. The example I like to cite is Charlie Munger from Berkshire Hathaway who very famously said that people in foreclosure should suck it in and cope. Meanwhile, his company was a major investor in Wells Fargo which was a recipient of TARP money, and he didn’t seem to complain too much about getting TARP money, he didn’t think that was a moral hazard. But he did think it was a moral hazard for people who were in foreclosure.

What’s so funny about this is if you talk to people on Wall Street, they just don’t see the hypocrisy of that. It’s just a very strange thing.

MJ: Who surprises you most who’s not, if not in actually jail, at least came close to being prosecuted. Is there a specific example that you think, “wow, I can’t believe these people haven’t at least gone to trial?”

MT: Let’s talk about Countrywide, for instance. Of course there was a case, there was an SEC case involving Angelo Mozilo, the creator of Countrywide. Countrywide nearly blew up the entire world. The innovation of this company was basically that they were going to give a loan to anything with a pulse. This was part-and-parcel of the whole scam that undermined the entire subprime mortgage crisis. It was a very crude fraud scam, actually. It was just dressed up in a lot of camouflage and jargon. Basically, banks lent billions of dollars to companies like Countrywide who in turn went out to poor and middle class neighborhoods, gave loans out to everyone they could find. I talked to one former mortgage broker who worked for a company like Countrywide who used to go to 7-Elevens at night and hang around the beer cooler, and that’s how he found clients to give mortgages to.

Anyway, they would go out and they would create these giant masses of loans. It didn’t matter whether they had enough income to pay, it didn’t matter whether they were citizens, whether they had identification, whether they were real people at all—whatever. They created the loans, they sold them back to the banks, the banks pooled the loans, they chopped them up into securities, and then they more or less instantly turned around and sold these securities to institutional investors like pension funds, foreign hedge funds, foreign trade unions. In other words, it was this giant scam. You had people who thought they were buying triple-A-rated real estate here in the United States. In fact, they were buying the home loans of extremely risky home buyers here in the US, and Countrywide was at the center of this whole thing. I talked to a whistleblower at Countrywide who was hired to be part of their quality control team, of all things, and he tells a story of pulling into a parking lot to meet with Angelo Mozilo and his lieutenants, and there’s a fancy car in the parking lot that has a personalized license plate that says “FUND EM”. And when he asked about it, they were basically like, “Yeah, we give mortgages to everybody who asks.”

Their irresponsibility nearly blew up the entire financial system, and Angelo Mozilo made about half-a-billion dollars working at Countrywide, and he was fined by the SEC something on the order of $49 million, most of which was covered by an insurance policy by Bank of America which had by then acquired Countrywide. So he ended up paying, out of his pocket, only about a million, two million dollars. And he walked away with something like $400 million that he got to keep, and he’s not doing any time. To me, that’s an example of the kind of person—patient zero of the financial crisis. And not only does he not do time, he gets to keep all his money.

MJ: Are there any reforms that have come about that you feel optimistic about?

MT: I do, I feel there is some momentum, especially in the Senate, for breaking up too big to fail banks. It’s an idea that was brought up first during the Dodd-Frank hearings. You might remember the Brown-Kaufman amendment. The idea was basically, if a bank physically exceeded certain parameters, they had to break up into smaller pieces because otherwise they posed a hazard in the sense that if they got in trouble again, we would have to a) bail them out and b) there was the problem that they were unprosecutable, because once they were as big as they are now, Collateral Consequences comes into play: “We can’t move against a company like a Chase or a Wells Fargo or a Goldman Sachs or a Morgan Stanley because they’ve just become too big and too unmanageable.”

Brown-Kaufman was routed during the Dodd-Frank negotiations. It was something on the order of 60-something to 30-something, but there’s been movement on both sides of the aisle. And people like Sherrod Brown have succeeded in convincing, slowly but surely, Republicans and Democrats, that this too big to fail problem is just untenable.

And also, there’s been a lot of support from the heads of the local federal reserve banks, who’ve also been saying this problem has to change, and this is creating a terrible moral hazard. I do think, while it’s probably going to take another disaster, but after that disaster happens, we’ll probably end up breaking up some of those companies, and I think that’ll be important.

MJ: So bankers, clearly, can’t go to jail. Who does, and why, when crime is down, is the prison population five times what it was twenty years ago?

MT: I’ve asked that question of so many people, and the answer I kept getting was, it’s a statistical mystery. Nobody really knows why crime started to go down in the early ’90s in the United States, but it has. Violent crime has plunged something on the order of 44 percent since 1990, and it’s across the board, it’s in all regions of the United States—cities, rural areas, it doesn’t matter. Crime is just down. Editor: Read Kevin Drum on the connection to lead exposure here.

Some people ascribe it to the aggressive policing strategies like broken windows, the whole idea that we’re not going to turn an eye to something like fare jumping or jay walking, and we’re going to pick up everybody who does every little thing, and that’s been a cornerstone of policing in New York City, where I live. Last year, New York City issued 600,000 summonses for things like riding the wrong way down a sidewalk on a bicycle—that was 20,000 summonses. There were 80,000 for open container violations, 50,000 for marijuana, which is actually, technically decriminalized in New York since 1977, but they use a trick to arrest people for that one. As long as you keep your marijuana in your pocket in New York, they’re not supposed to be able to arrest you. But stop and frisk, and, basically, other forms of policing, have allowed cops to profile people and ask them to empty their pockets, and then as soon as they empty their pockets and take the weed out of their pocket, then it’s open, and it’s in public view, and then that’s a crime. So you have someone who is obeying the law and being lawful, and fifty-thousand times last year, they took those people and they turned them into people who had to answer marijuana summonses and go to court for that.

I don’t personally believe that’s the reason why crime is going down, but I do think that’s a big reason why the prison population is going up.

MJ: So what does sending people to jail for low-level possession or “jay biking” do?

MT: Well, it can have all kinds of consequences, not just for that person, but for that person’s family. A great example is one that’s in the book that involved a couple guys in Harlem, Michael McMichael and Anthony Odem. They were basically arrested for being black and driving a nice car in Harlem. Actually it was the Bronx. The police told them that the probable cause was that they had smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from their car, even though this was winter and the car windows were rolled up and the police had spotted them from blocks away. They pulled these guys over—and the reason they pull over all these people is they’re looking for two things, they’re looking for guns or warrants, ’cause that’s how cops get promoted, they find guns or they catch fugitives. So they’re just rolling the dice, figuring a couple black guys in a nice car, they’re going to find one or the other. Well, these guys were innocent, it turned out, but rather than let them go, they cooked up this marijuana possession charge, even though there were no drugs in the car, but they said they smelled the odor. Because of that, because these guys had this ridiculous charge hanging over their heads, one of them, Anthony, who was applying for a job at the MTA to be a subway operator, he lost his chance at that job, ’cause you’re not allowed to apply for a job if you have a drug charge hanging over you. A lot of times if you get arrested for a drug charge, your relatives might lose their Section A housing. If you get arrested for welfare fraud, you are forever barred from asking for any more public assistance. Again, we talk about collateral consequences for banks, and what the consequences might be for shareholders, but there’s all kinds of consequences for people when someone’s arrested, and for some reason, we don’t have to consider that, but we do have to consider it for the other kind of offender.

MJ: You and I talked a little in the green room about bail, who gets it and what happens if you don’t get it, which has some pretty profound effects on future employment, statistically, and the ability to keep rent and so forth. Can you talk a little about how that industry, and how other industries are sort of picking at the carcass of the criminal justice system?

MT: First of all, there’s this amazing trick I learned about that involves bail. It happens in many different states. There’s a saying in a lot of different courts, if you go in, you stay in, if you get out, you stay out, which basically means if you make bail, you’re probably going to beat the case; if you don’t make bail, you’re probably going to lose the case. What happens in New York, especially, is that if you’re charged with a misdemeanor, for instance, and you don’t make bail, they have a speedy trial law in New York, where they’re supposed to either drop the case or bring you to trial within ninety days. But there’s a trick the state is allowed to use to evade that restriction. What they do is, when you have a court date, the prosecutors will show up in court, and they’ll say to the judge—I actually saw this happen—they’ll say to the judge, “Your Honor, we’re not ready to proceed today, one of our witnesses is missing,” or whatever it is. And the judge—of course the calendars in these courts are always horribly over-scheduled and stuffed, and he’ll look at his calendar, and he’ll say, “Well, the next time we can meet is two-and-a-half months from now, so let’s write in a date for then.” So everybody goes home, but of course the defendant is miserable because he knows he’s not going to have a hearing for at least another two-and-a-half more months. But the very next day, what happens is the prosecutor files what’s called a “certificate of readiness,” which basically means, “while I wasn’t ready ready to proceed yesterday, I am ready to proceed today.” And the prosecutor knows they’re not going to reschedule the court date for that day, the next available hearing is two-and-a-half months from now, so instead of charging the prosecutor for 65 or 70 days toward that ninety-day restriction, they only charge him for one day, and in this fashion, a person can be sitting, awaiting trial for a misdemeanor, not for ninety days but for a year, two years, even more. And as a result, if you don’t make bail, what ends up happening is, the prosecutors come to you and say, “Look, we got you, and we’re going to offer you a deal: time served plus tens days. You should either take that or leave it, and nine times out of ten people take it, because the alternative is, you might end up serving three or four or five times as much time waiting for trial as you would if you were sentenced. This is why bail is so critical. And of course bail is a non-factor in white collar crimes: unless you’re charged with anything short of multiple homicide, you’re going to be able to get out on bail for almost anything. It’s just an issue that is not talked about very much.

And of course there’s the commercial aspect of it, too, where there are companies that are making enormous sums of money on these people who are stuck in the system and are forced to go to bail bondsmen to get money to get out. And it’s not a coincidence—I witnessed this myself many times—lawyers have a term for an amount of money judges will set for bail that is just barely too much for the defendant to afford and just too little for a bail bond company to be interested in giving out. They call it nuisance bail, and it’s this little sweet spot that the defendants can’t afford to pay. Over and over again you’ll see somebody who really only has $300 in assets, yet a $400 bail, and that’s how people end up in jail. Then through all these other tricks, they end up pleading to these cases.

MJ: We have a piece on commercial bail industry in our upcoming issue, it was actually founded here in San Francisco. The nickname of it was the Old Lady of Kearney Street, which is right around the corner, and it was the fountainhead of city corruption, so declared in a Serpico-level bust of the police department back in the 1930s.

MT: Yay San Francisco.

MJ: There has been positive movement on this front, rolling back mandatory minimums, rolling back three strikes in some cases, De Blasio putting the quash on stop and frisk. Conservatives are kind of leading the way on prison sentence reform in some states because it’s a fiscal issue, it’s just too expensive. They took a look at the numbers and it doesn’t make sense. Is this just sort of a collective awakening, has it gotten so big that we can’t afford it, literally?

MT: I’m sure the finances played a key role in that whole situation. With three strikes, the morality of it was the key factor, it’s just totally indefensible. One of the cases I covered was someone who got sentenced to life for stealing a pair of $2.50 tube socks. That’s politically indefensible, no matter what you think about crime.

I do think the progress is maybe overstated a little bit, because even in New York where stop and frisk is allegedly being rolled back a little bit, I talk to people in neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, and they say they’ll just come up with some other way of stopping people on the street. They’ll come up with some other way of emptying pockets. They’ll say they saw a bulge in your pocket or that they saw you conducting a transaction with a friend, and who’s going to argue with the probable cause listed in a summons? It takes a lot of energy to overturn, even investigate those sorts of cases. I think it’s always going to be politically popular to bang on crime committed in inner cities, and as a result of that, we’re always going to have high prison populations from those areas, until, I think, there’s a larger awakening to the injustices that are being done.

MJ: You’re known for your zingers, particularly your vampire squid line about Goldman Sachs. I’m curious as a writer, did you know when you wrote that line, “This is gold, this is gonna be the one!”?

MT: No, not at all. It was really late at night, I stuck it in the bottom of the piece. It was the editors who put it up at the top. You never know what lines are going to stick and which ones aren’t.

One of the reasons I had to use a lot of that kind of language is because this subject matter is so dry and so inaccessible to people that you have to use every trick in your literary arsenal to sex it up for people, and one of the things you especially have to try to do is have fun with things like physical descriptions of people, and use fiction writing techniques in order to play up the black hat vs. white hat aspects of things. I’ve been criticized for that, for over-dramatizing, and in some cases I guess the criticism is justified. But the problem is, the trade off is if you don’t do that, then people aren’t going to pay attention at all and they won’t be interested in that. So there’s a fine line you have to walk between how much color you have to use in these stories and how closely you have to stick to just the facts.

MJ: What was the hardest part to slog through in understanding either the fiscal crisis or the criminal justice system? Derivatives?

MT: Oh, yeah. It was all of that stuff. Are you kidding? I remember the first time I started to read about the financial crisis, it was after the first Sarah Palin speech, September 3, 2008. I was at the convention, and I was in the filing room, and after her speech, I was just about to write up her thing and I’m looking at the internet and seeing that the world is ending, basically, and I turned to a reporter next to me and I’m like, “Dude, have you noticed that the economy is melting down? What’s a subprime mortgage, did you understand any of this stuff?” And he looked at me and said, “Pshh.” That was his whole reaction, like it wasn’t even worth looking into.

I was so worried about this because we don’t know anything about the economy and it’s blowing up before our eyes, but everyone I talked to just spoke in that impenetrable jargon, and it’s really, really difficult to get a read on it. I would call up people and say, “tell me something about something.” That’s how desperate I was, in the beginning. I would randomly call up analysts—cold call them—and say, “Tell me something understandable.” And it wasn’t until I found a guy who basically made cartoons about Goldman Sachs who sat me down and he walked me through some very basic things about how subprime mortgages worked and how the collateralized debt obligations worked, and once I got the basics of it…but I would say it took me like three months. It’s like learning a language. For anybody who’s studied a foreign language, there’s that moment when you feel like you can actually converse with people, and it takes a while.

MJ: Do you feel like you’ll always have that fluency, or do worry that you’re getting rusty?

MT: Well, one of the problems is they’re constantly coming up with new innovations. If you’re not paying attention, god knows what they’ll come up with next, and it’s very difficult to stay on top of. Recently, there was this whole scandal in the foreign exchange market, so I have to learn all about currencies, which I’ve never had to do before. A few months ago I had to do a thing on metals prices, so you have to learn about the metals markets, but that’s the job. Journalists are basically like professional test crammers. You have to get up to speed on something you know nothing about by Friday morning when you start Thursday night.

MJ: Your pieces seem to be very fueled by rage. Back in the day, maybe fueled by some other stuff as well, but always there’s a level of furry there, I think, and I’m wondering how that helps you propel yourself through a piece, and also does it sometimes make you feel like, “wait, I have to feel on my own personal level a sense of hope.” What is that thing you’re hopeful about?

MT: I think it’s important for a journalist to have a sense of outrage about things. In fact, this is one of the things that sort of motivated me in a certain direction with my career. I started off a long, long time ago, I worked for a newspaper in Moscow called the Moscow Times. It was your basic expatriate newspaper. Everybody wrote in AP style, that kind of very careful, third-person prose. And we’d be writing about things that were sort of epic—scandals, like the loans for shares scandal, which was basically a thing where bunch of Boris Yeltsin’s buddies privatized the jewels of the Soviet empire for themselves for free, and we would describe these things and we used a sort of unemotional language, and it occurred to me that if you’re writing about something that was outrageous, and you don’t write with outrage, that’s deceptive. You’re lying to your readers when you do that. And you have to find a way to summon the appropriate emotional reaction to the material. I think it’s something you have to work at. This is why I told that story about why I got assigned to write this book. I was sort of going through the motions at that point before that. It had become a purely intellectual, professional exercise to sort of write about this stuff.

On this project, it wasn’t until I heard that story about that kid who got stuck in the squad car all day long, and I thought about that over, and over, and over again. You just have to stay in touch with that anger, and it’s important to do that. I think people can be lulled to sleep by a false impression that everything’s cool if they don’t see a sense of alarm in television and newspaper coverage.

MJ: After you left the Moscow Times you helped found a really subversive publication called eXile which mercilessly attacked Russian officials, among others. What would the Matt Taibbi of then said to the Vladimir Putin of now?

MT: Well, Vladimir Putin was in office during the last couple years when I was at the eXile. We were actually more upset, not with Putin back then, but with the American reporters who were enabling him. This has all been lost in history now, but when Putin came up through the ranks, he was thought of as a friend of the United States. People thought he was going to be a continuation of the Yeltsin presidency. Yeltsin, of course, was basically a patsy for the United States government, and Putin, being his handpicked successor, was thought of—they used terms like “tecnocrat” to describe him. I remember there was a New York Times story that talked about his past as a KGB agent, and they went into this whole thing about how the KGB wasn’t that bad of an organization, and that in the Leningrad of the 1970s where Putin grew up it was a cool career choice for a young man of talent and intelligence. And they made all these excuses for this guy who had not only been a KGB agent but who had been basically a bagman for one of the most corrupt mayors in the history of Russia, which is saying a lot. And we were very, very upset about the fact that the American press was all over this person.

But what would I say to him now? Look, he’s been horrible, I was personal friends with a couple of journalists who are no longer with us because of Vladimir Putin, journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, there was another one named Yuri Shchekochikhin, who both met with violent ends for writing about the Putin administration. Putin is a difficult character to summarize easily, because in some ways he’s a bit of a hero to the ordinary Russian because he represents standing up to the West, he represents keeping Russia’s wealth in Russia, which he did achieve on some level. During the Yeltsin years, Russian capital was flying out of the country and ending up in Swiss banks and the Russian people were suffering. So he’s a complicated character, but I think he’s morphed into a classic Russian strongman, and that type has reappeared over and over again in Russian history, and it’s almost never a good thing.

MJ: There was an infamous story in your past of hitting the New York Times‘ Moscow bureau chief with a pie with some horse semen in it, but you also followed John Kerry around in a gorilla suit in 2004. You’ve done these very gonzo stunts. What’s the occasion that rises to the need to do that?

MT: Back when we were doing the eXile, our entire mission was to be as crazy as possible. There was a guy, once, who walked across the United States backwards. He started, I think, in New York, and made it all the way to California, and that was sort of the concept of the eXile. We were going to do everything that a newspaper did but in reverse. The corrections would refer to something that had never been in the newspaper. Every single thing in the newspaper was a goof on journalism. We were trying as hard as we could to be ridiculous and absurd. We even, once, purely out of spite and indifference to the wishes of our advertisers, we did a whole issue in French. It was bad French, too. We were young kids and just experimenting with what you could do with the medium. You have to be able to sell a story in addition to being good at telling a story, and the ability to be self-promotional and bring salesmanship to a subject, it is important. I don’t think it’s so necessary to use a gorilla suit any more, but, for instance, the vampire squid thing, that sort of language and creating a persona, and a narrative voice that people can connect with. That’s important. That’s the difference between a story that people will read and one that people won’t read, and you do have to know when to do that, how to get attention when you need to.

MJ: Coming out of our discussion of combining theater and performance and political critique, I’m wondering what is your takeaway of how the Occupy movement dissipated. If you were to go back and assess what happened there, do you have a single takeaway?

MT: First of all, I think Occupy was great. It was unexpected, it was organic, it developed out of thin air. It wasn’t the creation of some foundation that decided it was going to force an issue somewhere. People just came out to the streets and they gathered. Originally I was disillusioned that there wasn’t a single coherent goal of Occupy, but over time, I thought that became a strength of the movement because people just sort of came out and they were expressing their general dissatisfaction with something. It was important that we all recognized there was something wrong with our society, and I think that was cool.

To me, the failure of Occupy had a lot to do with who was coming out to protest. I remember going to a foreclosure court in Jacksonville, Florida. There was this little room where a judge sat and this attorney who had been hired by the banks to throw people out of their homes would come in first thing in the morning with a gigantic stack of folders. He was like Dagwood with a sandwich, he was just carrying this gigantic stack of folders. And each one of those represented a family who was going to be thrown out of their house that day, and there was such pure rage in that room of people who were losing their houses, and those people weren’t the people protesting at Occupy. And I think if you could combine the people who were the real victims of the financial crisis and of the crime and of the misdeeds and the people who came out at Occupy, then I think you’d have something really dangerous. But they never managed, I thought, to reach all those people.

Original post – 

The Man Behind the Vampire Squid: An Interview with Matt Taibbi

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