Dharun Ravi, Hate, and Race: Reflections, Part 2

My thoughts continue to turn to the Dharun Ravi case. An important question has emerged on Twitter sites and other blogs, namely that of race. It is a difficult issue to unravel. One wants to avoid the danger of pitting race against sexuality in a faux competition about which is the more urgent category. I can’t help but wonder—not only about the “brown” question, but about the implications of his court conviction for that question. For Ravi, whose family migrated when he was younger, his conviction leads to the possibility that he will be deported (he has already had to surrender his passport, although this may have been because of the fear that he might have tried to flee the country before his trial). But few news pieces have mentioned the race question.

It is a barely known fact that hate crimes charges, once thought to be important for the prosecution of crimes against vulnerable populations, are extremely destructive  because they are used most viciously against vulnerable populations. Pooja Gehi, of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project has pointed out that hate crimes convictions affect more populations of color than white or non-minority populations, and that for this reason, they are opposed to the use of hate crimes charges for convictions. Again, I write this not to exculpate Dharun Ravi, but to ask the question about the implication of such an extreme charge against a young man of color. There is no doubt that the Ravi’s actions were extremely hurtful and painful for Tyler Clementi. Still, it is important to note that Ravi was not charged in his death.

Let’s be clear here: the grounds for prosecution in a hate crime are ambiguous. One must prove that the actions were based on the prejudice against the identity of the victim, i.e. that someone was killed, maimed, intimidated because s/he was gay, black, transgendered. But it is, in many ways, an incoherent logic. It is not often possible to distinguish violent aggression from prejudiced aggression. It is not often possible to distinguish hatred of the victim based on her particular features from general identity categories. After all, most crimes are based on the identity of the victim. Most rapes are perpetrated against victims known by the perpetrator; many convicted murderers knew their victims. So, the thing that distinguishes a hate crime from an “ordinary” crime is the category of vulnerability that the victim fits into.

But as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project points out:

Our penalties are harsher and sentences longer than they are anywhere else on the planet, and hate crime laws with sentencing enhancements make them harsher and longer. By supporting longer periods of incarceration and putting a more threatening weapon in the state’s hands, this kind of legislation places an enormous amount of faith in our deeply flawed, transphobic, and racist criminal legal system. The application of this increased power and extended punishment is entirely at to the discretion of a system riddled with prejudice, institutional bias, economic motives, and corruption.
 

I draw on SLRP’s statement to point to the ways in which hate crimes charges are dubious grounds to prosecute Ravi or to find justice for Clementi, particularly at a moment when spying is part and parcel of the air that we breathe. Should Ravi have known better than to spy? Yes. Was what he did hurtful? Yes. Is it a “hate crime”? I’m not sure. Ravi’s actions might be better described as violating privacy, as bullying or intimidation. But to describe his actions as violating privacy raises the question of how what he did is different from the milieu that the state advocates. To describe his actions as bullying prompts the question of how to charge him (there are, as far as I know, few laws on the books against bullying). To describe his actions as intimidation might not have obtained as harsh of a sentencing as “hate crimes legislation” will. Were they homophobic?  Most likely. But I’m not sure that the link between homophobia and “hate crime” is an obvious, simple, or correct one.

I am also troubled by the implications that such a conviction has: The court could potentially deport him back to India, a country where he has family but few friends and virtually no ties. There is something perverse about deporting someone who has spent most of his life in the United States, as if it were his country of birth. The harsh penalties for migrants who make errors that are post-facto considered crimes is remarkable, but perhaps not surprising in this age of xenophobia. Had he been a US citizen, Ravi might have had to serve prison time (and perhaps he still will), but he would be—presumably—released eventually to a community that knew him and would support him. Clementi’s state of mind may have been fragile, and yet some of his actions were surprising—even after discovering that he was spied on by Ravi, and after asking for a room change, he asked for privacy in their shared room again, and he again invited his friend back to spend time in their shared room, even though he was already aware of Ravi’s predisposition to spy on him. It may be precisely these questionable actions that influenced the prosecution not to attempt to charge Ravi in Clementi’s death.

Now, having considered the harshness of the penalty for Ravi’s actons, I also want to point out one detail that must be emphasized: from most descriptions of Ravi, he is part of that class of human beings that we would categorize as assholes. They are narcissistic, shallow, thoughtless, unconcerned about others and ungenerous, often mean and nasty, among other characteristics. Ravi’s actions were…assholish. But were it a crime to be an asshole, our prisons should be even more jam-packed with white, wealthy folks: bankers, presidents, legal advisers, and former secretaries of defense, of state, attorneys general. This is not to say that our prisons should not already be holding these folks, after convictions of many crimes (just refer back to many, any, of my columns). But being an asshole is not equivalent to having committed a crime.

In fact, as I have argued less explicitly, this is precisely what the political and legal culture of the last decade has engendered, through an emphasis on technologies such as Facebook, MySpace, email–and an emphasis on the ubiquity of surveillance—electronic surveillance, and the combination of the two in the form of Reality TV: from Survivor-like shows, to reality TV shows that fetishize idiocy and stupidity (I don’t even know the names of them, but I believe “The Bachelor” and its female heterosexual equivalent, and the “wife-swapping” show are among them), and then the celebrity versions of “The Real World,” with Whitney Houston et al., The Osbournes, the Bachelor celebrity-style with Flayva Flav, as well as the show with the English “Supernanny” and now another with an African-American nanny). Needless to say, these shows glorify and valorize the cultivation of assholish traits for our viewing pleasure–and most importantly–for corporate profit.

But as importantly, they also perpetuate racism, homophobia, patriarchy, indentured servitude and Aunt Jemimah stereotypes, and prostitution in all but name. (WIFE-SWAPPING?) Seriously. Western liberal feminists point to Muslims as having questionable marital practices. So what does it mean that millions of viewers tune in to watch—-American, Christian or Jewish–families swap their wives and mothers? And that heterosexual couples–men and their wives–APPLY to be on these shows?

So it is that I wonder about the cultural and political acceptance of surveillance on corporate television shows, and the sheer rage and indignance against personal incidents of surveillance, as in the Ravi case. It is interesting–and perplexing– to come back to the dichotomy between those don’t want to be surveilled (interpreted as those who have something to hide) and those who are ok with having their all their moves monitored).

In France, where I write this column, street corners, the hallways of hotels, the lobbies and libraries of schools—all have surveillance cameras, electronic keys to monitor when you enter and exit your room, monitors that show whether your room lights were left on, etc. And France, too, has its own version of intimidation of North Africans, Muslims, and migrants in general. After the latest dust-up about whether France’s public schools were serving halal meat to unsuspecting non-Muslims (Egads! We all should be so lucky), a charge made by France’s right-wing presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, President Sarko–in his ongoing attempts to abscond with Marine Le Pen’s right-wing proprietorship–promised to arrest anyone who visits fundamentalist Islamic sermons on the internet, limit immigration by half, and cut benefits for legal immigrants.

Surveillance then has become part and parcel of the air we breathe. It is rapidly normalized. At what point then, do we decide that one man’s actions are a hate crime, while another’s are an act of leadership? Perhaps we need to take seriously the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s point that hate crimes are a category that are deployed against folks of color more than against white folks. Hate crimes are suspiciously like other legal categories, like “terrorism,” that the state creates and deploys only against certain targets. As I argue ad nauseam in my book, the state—the “law”–does so to manage its own population, to control and domesticate its residents by criminalizing them for engaging in those very same practices that it (the state) uses to terrorize the segments of its own constituency.

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Dharun Ravi, Raymond Kelly, and the US state: one man’s spying is another man’s leadership

Apologies for having been missing for a few weeks. Learning—re-learning–a language seems to have rendered me mute in English. There is also the added issue of reading, comprehending, and digesting the news in another language that seems to make it more difficult than usual to have anything to say with accuracy, precision, or confidence.

I have been tempted to return to the page after reading about the verdict in the Dharun Ravi trial. Ravi was convicted on 15 counts of hate crimes. Without challenging the verdict, I wonder again about some of the ironies, some of the hypocrisies that this case exposes. I wonder about the irony between the conviction of Ravi and the exaltation of the United States government and the New York Police Department, which has engaged—en masse—in similar actions for 11 years (or 9 years in the case of the NYPD). In the former case, the action of spying on someone whom one doesn’t know, doesn’t like, doesn’t understand—is described as immoral, intimidating, and an action that emerges from “hate” of the person who was spied upon. Yet, the description of a state, of a military, of a municipal police force which engages in similar actions for identical reasons—is that they are engaging in spying for the purposes of “protection,” “security,” i.e. to root out and scrutinize the unknown element in their midst.

Apparently, we can recognize that the inability to manage one’s own “hate,” “threats,” or fear of the unknown is a personal moral failing that has legal consequences. But when an institution (such as a state), composed of multiple persons with authority, with power, expresses similar sentiments, this is recognized as a kind of heroic measure to protect a country. Notice the lack of contrition in Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s comments or Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s defense of the NYPD. The practices of the US government and the NYPD’s surveillance are not recognized, as in the case of Dharun Ravi towards Tyler Clementi, as the unrestrained, unaccountable practice of acting out one’s fears in an irresponsible way.

We can go even further: the state’s predilection to survey those whom it feels threatens “its people” is a racist, xenophobic practice that has done more unspeakable damage to the ability to cultivate intimacy, hospitality, the “amicalement” of community, than the presence of immigrants or religious fundamentalists can do by itself. We know that after the events of 9-11, residents innumerable communities came together, helped each other, and saw each other in their humanity. Were there stories of the fear of the unknown? Yes. We heard many stories of the murders of brown men like Balbir Singh Sodhi, of the harassment of children, women, and men alike for being dark, migrants, Muslims. But we also know of Peaceful Tomorrows, the organization formed by the families of the victims of 9-11 to challenge, among other things, the racial profiling of Muslims. The harassment of Muslims was not the rule until the state explicitly approved the isolationism of Muslim men, the surveilling of religious and ethnic communities, and the torture of men with Muslim names.

We know that the state leads by example, and it has led unrepentantly by approving the surveillance of “suspected terrorists,” without evidence, without charges, and without accountability. If the state’s unrepentant example is to insist that profiling—a tactic that we know does more to cause fear, suspicion and hostility than it does to actually catch terrorists or criminals—then I wonder why Dharun Ravi is guilty of a hate crime, of intimidation, when the state is valorized for “protecting its own.”

To be clear, I don’t exculpate Ravi. Still, it is surprising to see where the lines are drawn between immoral acts, quotidian practices, and heroic moments. Both Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi were around 10 years old when 9/11 occurred. They presumably came of consciousness in an epoch where surveillance was the norm, and the honeymoon sex videos of Tommy and Pamela were readily accessible, and the bare-breasted orgies of college students on spring break in Florida or at Mardi Gras in New Orleans are a few clicks away, where Facebook shows millions of pictures of drunken encounters. Some of these may have been consensual, many others were not. Adults have lost their jobs because of them; students have had college admissions rescinded because of them. And yet, the question still arises about how to distinguish between the “hate” of a young migrant male directed toward another young gay male, and the “acts of security” of a state directed toward immigrants, religious communities, and dissidents.

Are younger adults accustomed to having every act filmed? Where do they draw the line between quotidian spying and the unspeakable violation of privacy? Do they feel, as I have been informed repeatedly, that those who have nothing to hide will not mind the pervasive invasion of privacy? Even many of us who “have nothing to hide,” are troubled by the state’s practice of surveillance. How do I reconcile the insistence that “those who have nothing to hide will not mind,” with the violation of the privacy of Tyler Clementi. Surely, he had nothing to hide—he told his parents that he was gay shortly before he started his freshman year at Rutgers. But he wished, presumably to have the dignity to keep his intimate relationships confidential and to share his sexuality with others of his own choosing. Ravi, on the other hand, assumed that spying on another, inviting others to spy on him, was harmless.

In this Ravi was wrong, but in this, Ravi followed the lead of the state. Shouldn’t the state, in the personages of G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzalez, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Raymond Kelly, Michael Bloomberg also be charged with hate crimes?

Guest Post: Syria and the International Left

Today’s post responds to an urgent question that has re-emerged in the wake of the uprisings of the last year: how should we understand what it means to support the efforts of a people to resist an autocratic government even as we are suspicious of foreign intervention, given its deleterious and devastating patterns of destruction? In a sobering and insightful column, Prof. Omar Dahi offers some important reflections as the question of intervention in Syria becomes immediate. I encourage you to continue to reflect constructively in the comments section.–FS

Guest Post: Syria and the International Left

by

Omar Dahi, Hampshire College

When the uprisings began in Tunisia and Egypt, Arab and International Left groups rallied to the cause of the protestors. These groups emphasized the role that the US, EU and their regional allies had in propping up and supporting these authoritarian regimes. However, the US government and its allies, caught off guard, tried assertively to manage the uprisings so as to preserve or further their own interests. By “they,” I refer to the US, the EU and the Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This aggressiveness manifested itself in three primary ways: 1) They established and sustained financial and military ties with friendly remnants of the old regimes in those countries and cultivated ties with new ones, in particular Islamist political parties. 2) They consolidated their cooperation with existing pro-US regimes, such as Morocco and Jordan, in an attempt to head off revolutionary movements in those countries. 3) The Gulf countries moved assertively to re-spin the uprisings from their initial form as movements demanding civil rights, social justice, and democracy into a false picture of a sectarian Sunni-Shia battle. This shift had the double benefit of shielding themselves from domestic demands for radical reform and ensuring that a Sunni ally would come to power in those countries, such as Syria, undergoing mass upheaval.

In Syria, the Left has much to be suspicious about, including the following: the proclaimed support for Syrian freedom and human rights by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world; the fact that the largest exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC) consists of pro-Western allies who race to please and appease the West by promising to cut off ties with Iran and Hizbullah and demand western military intervention; and that the uprising has been at best poorly covered by the Western media, or at worst, fabricated to make the Syrian government appear a lot more brutal than it really is and to cover the brutality and crimes of its opponents.

Why should the International Left care about what happens in Syria? Should it do anything other than oppose cynical US efforts to overthrow an official enemy? The answer depends on how one answers a basic question: Is the Syrian uprising part of the revolts and uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, demanding freedom and denouncing oppression and corruption, or is it a separate case to be evaluated on its own? This question has been asked many times since March 15th 2011. But it needs to be emphasized that the answer, whichever it is, carries ethical, analytical, and organizational implications: Ethical, because it conditions whether one supports a people’s aspirations for freedom; Analytical, because it conditions one’s understanding of the motives of the protestors; Organizational, because it conditions who the Left believes to be its allies in this struggle.

At the political level, the Syrian uprisings were a militant civil rights movement against the Security-Party-Military nexus. As recently as a year ago, merely signing a petition that called for some more freedoms made Syrians vulnerable to punishment of several years in prisons under charges such as ‘weakening national morale’ and other Orwellian phrases. In the first scattered demonstrations that took place in Damascus, even before the incidents at Dar’aa, the main slogan chanted by the demonstrators was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated.” Political debate was stifled and discussions in public were guarded and reserved. Syria’s authoritarian regime was not just a danger for political dissidents; navigating daily life in Syria was a struggle for most ordinary and lower-class Syrians. The state-security apparatus had extended its tentacles to all aspects of Syria’s political economy. Everyone from the taxi driver, street vendor–all the way up to businessmen– had to curry favor, and bribe and appease the mukhabarat (the notorious secret service apparatus) to get the simplest task done, or simply to be left alone.

However these grievances against the Syrian state have been well-documented; some aspects of the regime, including the more claustrophobic side of daily life in Syria-with ubiquitous security presence- have lessened or improved in the last decade. Many aspects of this corruption became worse, not better, under the rule of Bashar Al-Asad. That is because the revolts were an expression of anger against economic deprivations, corruption and inequality, and poverty. Jamal Barout found that according to some measures of poverty, the percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from 11% in 2000 to 33% in 2010; . That is to say, about 7 million Syrians live around the poverty line. The last decade has seen the increasing marginalization of Syrians, especially in the rural areas. This marginalization has exacerbated the increasing desertification of the country, most notably the devastating drought. The International Crisis Group reported that the dispossession of the several hundred thousand farmers in the Northeast as a result of the drought should not be thought of as merely a natural disaster. The increase and intensive use by agro-businessmen (including land previously kept for grazing), as well as the illegal drilling of water wells (by whom?) (facilitated by paying off local administration) have contributed to the crisis of agriculture. Both of these practices are a manifestation of the inability of the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Asad to check the power of influential businessmen or to perform basic regulatory functions.[1]

Fundamentally, this means that the protests denounced the capture of the state by a few oligarchs. This can be best seen by the level of anger against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the President. Makhlouf and his close associates, who turned Syria into their private fiefdom over the past decade. They did so by building a large economic empire through a mixture of coercion and intimidation, instrumental use of state power (including the judiciary) and outright fraud.[2] As Bassam Haddad argued in a recent article, the “private sector’s march in Syria is undermining both state and market” due to extreme cronyism and patronage networks which are unable or unwilling to change despite the fast changing pace of events in the country.[3]

In other words, the Syrian regime is a corrupt and authoritarian power that a very large sector of Syrian society no longer supports and to and which it refuses to acquiesce to. The regime continues to enjoy the support of many sectors of society, including from minority populations and those who have been traumatized by the destructive legacy of US invasion of Iraq. The invasion has killed hundreds of thousands and contributed to the ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in Syria. However the fact that the Syrian uprising is being manipulated and highjacked by imperialism and its allies does not mean the regime is worth supporting or simply opposing any intervention or help for Syrians. It also does not mean that the brutality of the regime is not real and in fact, the casualty rate may be in fact worse than is being reported.

We can challenge military intervention in Syria—an intervention that is likely to have disastrous consequences there as well as in Iraq, in terms of the actual destruction caused by the invasion. We can also anticipate as a certainty that the invading powers will ‘pick winners’ and install their own allies, further destroying the fabric of Syrian society. The International Left, as well as the broader International civil society, must intervene in a way that sustains (through education, solidarity, and aid) the uprising. It must also, as much as possible, attempt to sustain and protect the agency of the Syrians themselves, while opposing armed intervention. We must choose among the least worst options, since doing nothing will ensure that that the crisis continues to be manipulated by cynical powers.


[1] Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VI): The Syrian People’s Slow-motion Revolution. Middle East/North Africa Report N°108, 6 Jul 2011.

[2] Carsten Wieland. 2011. “Asad’s Lost Chances.” Middle East Report Online.

[3] Bassam Haddad. 2011. The Political Economy of Syria: Realities and Challenges, Middle East Policy, 17(2): 46-61. See also Bassam Haddad, “Dictatorship, Military Intervention, and False Binaries on Syria.”

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Omar S. Dahi is assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of economic development and international trade, with a special focus on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa and on South-South economic cooperation. His publications include articles in the Journal of Development Economics, The Middle East Report, and the Review of Radical Political Economics.

Guest Column: Al Gore’s False Climate Solutions

Dear readers: I am traveling/living outside the US for the next several months, improving my French language skills and doing some research (I can feel your sympathy for my difficult plight. Thank you.). I plan to use the occasion to post some guest columns alongside a weekly (or, if other commitments permit) a biweekly column by yours truly.  Please continue to check in when you can.

Today, I’m very happy to introduce a guest column by Ben Grosscup, a Hampshire College alumnus and long active in ecological and environment issues. Mr. Grosscup offers some important reflections on why Al Gore’s neoliberal approach to climate solutions is flawed.

Guest Column: Al Gore’s False Climate Solutions

By BEN GROSSCUP

An earlier version of this piece was published on Friday, March 2, 2012 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

 
On April 27, former Vice President Al Gore will keynote the inauguration of Hampshire College’s new president, Jonathan Lash. Gore may be the world’s best-known climate activist. While he has educated the public about climate change, his solutions are based on a flawed assumption that the only way to address the climate crisis involves creating markets and extending corporate rights.

Despite his commitment to environmentalism, Gore’s political legacy has been ecologically disastrous. The pro-corporate policies he supports – nuclear power, agrofuels, so-called “free trade” and carbon trading – are false solutions to the climate crisis. They fail to contend with its root cause: an economic system that demands ever-expanding corporate profits. But as this avaricious system impinges upon the natural limits of the biosphere, our world breaks down.

Faith in the flawed ideology that we can transcend the ecological crisis without addressing this contradiction in capitalism makes Gore’s “solutions” part of the problem.

As vice president, Gore led the fight to increase the power of the corporate class at the expense of popular democratic rights in two major treaty negotiations. Gore relentlessly championed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the media and in Congress, and he played a pivotal role in restricting the Kyoto Protocol’s legal mechanisms to carbon trading.

In Gore’s nationally televised defense of NAFTA, which aired on CNN’s Larry King Live in November 1993 just before Congress approved the deal, he presented the treaty primarily as a means of reducing tariffs on trade. He argued that as governments reduce restrictions on corporations, business productivity would increase and improve everyone’s livelihood.

But NAFTA had only partly to do with trade. It also gave corporations in all three participating countries the right to sue signatory governments whose policies interfered with their profits.

Following NAFTA’s adoption, Americans didn’t get the secure livelihoods Gore promised.

Instead, companies that once paid relatively higher wages relocated factories to Mexico and Americans struggled to adjust to a more precarious job market. Mexicans went to work in new “free trade zones” where companies drove down wages and evaded taxes while public infrastructure crumbled. NAFTA privatized traditional Mexican community land stewardship systems, pushing millions off their land. This corporate cannibalism of the body politic has exacerbated an utter breakdown of much of Mexican society, manifesting as poverty, drug violence and desperate northward migration as people seek respite from this misery.

Gore’s record on climate policy echoes his trade policy record. In 1997, Gore traveled to Kyoto, Japan, for an international conference to develop a framework for a global treaty on climate change. He stated that the U.S. would not sign the Kyoto Accord unless every other country agreed to a “cap-and-trade” scheme for carbon emissions. The U.S. position conflicted sharply with competing proposals to directly require industrial countries to reduce pollution. Gore successfully pushed through this agenda, which became the basis for the Kyoto Protocol.

Under “cap-and-trade,” governments allot transferable rights to spew climate-destabilizing pollution to the worst corporate polluters, who buy and sell those rights on a market. This privatizes access to the biosphere’s carbon-cycling capacity. By framing everyday corporate pollution in terms of an exchange value rather than an urgent threat, this policy regime makes the incalculable harms of climate disruption interchangeable with the more easily measured financial costs of mitigating pollution.

It prioritizes what it can quantify – and ignores what it cannot.

Some within the environmental movement still defend Kyoto, because it remains the only existing legal mechanism for curbing emissions. In 2005, European signatories inaugurated the EU Emissions Trading System as the official carbon trading mechanism under Kyoto. Shamefully, these countries’ carbon footprints have been rising since, discrediting those who support “cap-and-trade” for its ecological benefits.

Besides not helping to curb the pollution that endangers our lives, the most disgraceful aspect of Gore’s legacy on climate policy is that today the notion of “tradable rights to pollute” dominates the U.N. climate negotiations, displacing non-market alternatives. Those negotiations lack credibility because, after 20 years, they aren’t ameliorating the climate crisis.

The system of market fundamentalism that brought us to the sorry place we’re in has failed catastrophically – a realization more people are making thanks to the Occupy movement. Growing numbers throughout the 99 percent have lost faith in the corporate state and gained confidence in their own initiative. Through creative occupations of public spaces, this movement demonstrates its commitment to creating and envisioning radically different alternative worlds that remain off-limits to market fundamentalists like Gore.

Hampshire College may view Gore’s visit as bolstering its reputed dedication to ecological sustainability, but Gore’s record violates this commitment. The same thinking that delivered the debacle of NAFTA and the calamitous distraction of carbon trading will help none but the clever investor in navigating the difficult times ahead.

The college should feature Gore as part of a debate in which his solutions to impending global catastrophe can be challenged, not just passively applauded.

Ben Grosscup of Amherst, a Hampshire College graduate, represents Precinct 9 in Amherst Town Meeting. He is actively involved in Occupy Amherst and is a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology.

H.R. 347 and Quelling Political Protest: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

When President Obama promised in his signing statement not to deploy NDAA maliciously, he was really distracting us from the real issue at stake in the passage of that bill. NDAA (click the link for the PDF; the HTML version is missing the crucial Sec. 1021) cemented the rollback of civil liberties, a rollback that had been noted prominently in the USA PATRIOT ACT, and continued through numerous bills since 2001.  As we know, NDAA gives POTUS the authority to order the US Military to detain indefinitely anyone suspected of terrorism on US Soil or on international grounds.

Here is the wording that pertains to whom is liable to indefinite detention. Besides those who took part in the attacks of September 11, 2011, Section 1021 also includes

A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.
 

In fact, according to Sections 1021 and 1022, the US Military is “required” to detain anyone suspected of “assisting” Al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups to be held indefinitely by the US Armed Forces. Section 1022 also enables POTUS the option to extend that provision to US citizens, and it promises to detain anyone who commits a “belligerent act” against the U.S. or its coalition allies in aid of such enemy forces, under the law of war, “without trial, until the end of the hostilities authorized by the [AUMF].”

What is especially alarming in NDAA, besides the infinite expansion of authority awarded (and demanded by the POTUS in order to sign it), is the ambiguous wording of Section 1021. Anyone who “aids” enemy forces or commits a “belligerent act.” Belligerence, in this day, can be interpreted to mean getting pissy or making bad jokes with TSA officials at US airports. It can also mean being “angry,” as the White House has already warned Occupy protestors. And, as we know, in this age of unabashed warrantless surveillance of folks’ online surfing habits, it can mean listening to the sermons of fundamentalist preachers (always Muslim, of course), or writing pointed critical comments about POTUS or the War on Terror or the US Banks, or the 1%, or the NYPD, or…

While NDAA doesn’t break any new ground in the violation of the civil liberties of US citizens, it does open up the slippery slope to conflate political protest or civil disobedience and a “threat” to the safety of politicians.   This past Monday, the House voted to approve, 388-3, a bill that cements that slippery slope. HR-347 makes it illegal for anyone to be in a Federal building, or be near a person who is protected by the Secrete Service, without permission to be there. Yup. Seriously.

Here’s an excerpt:

‘‘§ 1752. Restricted building or grounds
8 ‘‘(a) Whoever—
9 ‘‘(1) knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so;
‘‘(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
‘‘(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds; or
‘‘(4) knowingly engages in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds;
or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).
‘(b) The punishment for a violation of subsection (a) is—‘‘(1) a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than 10 years
 

Any bells going off? The bill, less than 3 pages, packs a serious punch to the 1st Amendment. If you are a citizen, non-citizen, foreign national–doesn’t matter–and you want to express your dissent, protest, disagreement of current policies and practicies in proximity of some of the powers who created them, whether in a Federal Building, in front of the White House, or in front of Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney–you are now engaging in an illegal act.

The amount of damage that it can potentially do to the capacity to express dissent, to protest, to challenge political authority is enormous: Good-by Occupy. Good-bye political demonstrations near US politicos. Good-by, dissent of POTUS’ War on (Terror? WMD’s? Iraqi massacres? Drones? Iran? I’m not sure anymore).  This bill is a response by the political powers that be to the increasing unrest, anger, and outrage that their plutocratic, kleptocratic and authoritarian actions are inducing: bank theft and embezzlement, violence by a police state, murder of US and foreign nationals, invasion and murders of civilians under the auspices of “democracy,” and many other heinous actions.

This bill, which still has to be passed by the Senate before it can become law, is the logical extension of the series of bills that expand the political aura and untouchable authority of our politicos and the ruling elite which is increasingly identical. Note the political success of billionaires Mayor Michael Bloomberg (defending the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims outside his jurisdiction, including in CT, PA, NJ, or Syria, Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere), former NJ Jon Corzine (former head of MF Global, which is missing substantial sums that can’t be accounted for), Mitt Romney, etc.

Don’t be fooled by the “kinder, gentler” message delivered by Obama in the NDAA signing statement. That was just the foil. The best of political silencing is yet to come.