Justice comes with an umbrella: Hong Kong and Occupy Central

Pro-democracy protestor engulfed by tear gas. Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protestor engulfed by tear gas. Hong Kong, September 28, 2014.

Following a strong students’ strike on Friday, the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong launched Occupy Central in its full form early. They aim to paralyze the economic center of the territory, to force changes in the political structure to allow for universal suffrage and free election of the chief executive in 2017.

I first wrote about the simmering conflict over a year ago, and about Occupy Central earlier this month. It is a reminder that some of richest places in the world, like Hong Kong and Singapore, are not true democracies and their people are fighting for the same political rights that many in the developing world seek.

Hong Kong exists in the nexus between colonialism and authoritarianism, a British holding turned over to China but given certain rights that the mainland population does not have. The agreement was vague, and Beijing is attempting to keep true democracy off the table, and make an already anti-democratic system more rigged.

Student meeting to discuss tactics. September 29, 2014
Student meeting to discuss tactics. September 29, 2014

Occupy Central is a shining example of the mass civil disobedience that is popping up all over the world, which can challenge governments and the existing economic order that resists progress.

As with climate change, world poverty, endemic racism- there is no time for gradualism. Hong Kong has waited 17 years for full democracy and has not gotten it, and will never get it if the present state of affairs continues. The need is for people to get more radical and ambitious with their movements. It’s to go beyond symbolism and into disobedience. Nobody said a just society would come easy.

The fight for democracy in Hong Kong

Protest march held prior to Hong Kong’s 25th anniversary vigil of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The ongoing struggle for transparent democracy in Hong Kong continues, as the last week featured significant setbacks. 2017 will bring the first direct elections for the head of Hong Kong, but it appears that the process of nomination will be rigged in order to elect candidates willing to support policies of mainland China. Candidates will need to be approved by a majority of a large nominating committee, which will likely have a conservative bias that defers to the Beijing government.

Election boards do not see high-profile use in the United States, but they are a key mechanism resisting multiparty politics. They have been used to exclude many candidates for the Presidency of Iran, and are a weapon for incumbents and dominant parties.

Encampment in Hong Kong for Occupy Central, 2014.

When the British left in 1997 very little effort was expended towards ensuring a democratic Hong Kong. Thus the past two decades have been full of vague promises. Since no dates were etched in the political process, things have been delayed as long as possible. This has mostly benefitted pro-Beijing groups; democratic opposition can only show its full power when there are democratic elections to move in.

One of the main democratic coalitions, Occupy Central, are furious. They promise to radicalize and expand protests, but Hong Kong does not have the same powerful push for democracy that other places have. Due to its economic importance, and its attachment to the political and economic power of China, few major players date side with Occupy Central:

China recently warned foreign countries against “meddling” in Hong Kong’s politics, with an article in a state-run newspaper on Saturday accusing some in Hong Kong of “colluding” with unnamed “outside forces”.

Despite great wealth and geopolitical importance, Hong Kong is an ignored front in the fight for worldwide democracy.

A world to win

Nathan Schneider, one of the first journalists to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement, has written a feature for Al Jazeera entitled “From occupation to reconstruction“. Anyone who has experience in Occupy knows the reaction from other people since the major encampments were dispersed. What happened to Occupy? It seems to have been a total failure.

Spanish indignados protest, Madrid.

The truth is more complex. Schneider, more than any other journalist I’ve seen, catalogs the evolution from 2011 to today. This is both internationally and in America, as Occupy was not the original spark. There were student strikes in Chile, an ongoing radical revolution in Spain, the crisis in Greece. Some protestors I met were led to believe that this was unique and special, it’s important when charting a global movement to avoid chauvinism.

Occupy was not shattered, it flowed into the thousand crucial issues that its participants cared about. Anyone who visited an encampment or went on a march knew that Occupy was big-tent in the extreme. Through the large actions, formerly unacquainted people met, formed workgroups, and it went from there. All the national media coverage about a $15/hr minimum wage comes in large part from the energy of Occupy. Before Kshama Sawant was a member of the Seattle City Council, she was a an Occupy organizer. What $15/hr is, fundamentally, is the working class playing offense. It’s putting the American economic system on the table. Beyond a system where the employer and the corporate politician says what they will allow, the last year has seen a shift towards workers saying what they need. Occupy was a key part in translating a key phrase bandied about- when something is “bad for the economy” it’s often just bad for people in power. The economy is a lot more than a few billionaires. Or at least it should be.

For a year or more I had an Occupy hangover. I missed the mass turnout, the radical direct democracy, the egalitarian nature of an encampment. There are new developments, evolutions of what started in September 2011, and they’re something to get excited about. It’s the real deal. And each tangible victory in 2014 makes every word chanted in 2011 mean something more.


Working together for racial justice

Justice for Trayvon march. Credit Victor F.

Earlier today a group of friends and compatriots, part of the San Jose chapter of Justice for Trayvon Martin, protested against racial bias in the legal system and with respect to law enforcement. Several of them are familiar due to my affiliation with Occupy San Jose during the fall and winter of 2011. The San Francisco Bay Area has had a long history of racial tension and protest- from the 1960s in Oakland emerged the Black Panthers, one of the most influential protest groups to emerge from the decade. A critically-acclaimed movie, Fruitvale Station, was just released, about the deeply controversial shooting of Oscar Grant on January 1st, 2009.

Last year I attended a march in downtown Oakland during the turmoil that followed the Martin shooting-which I described in detail in this post (where I felt it distasteful to be dominated by white, hard-line Communists). The shooting and the activism since is part of a larger need to make law enforcement more transparent, and end racial biases in sentencing. One of the biggest determinants of which people receive the death penalty for murder is the race of the victim. The laws used to prosecute gangs also lead to high recidivism and much collateral damage- an proposed California proposition in 2008 would have created a world where ex-gang members could violate parole just for living in their old neighborhood. There is still much to be done.

I didn’t make this protest, but I stand in solidarity with those that did. Never give up, never surrender.

Standing up to end the foreclosure nightmare

Living in California, I am near several cities that have been destroyed by the financial crisis and the end of the housing bubble. When I was a senior in high school in 2008, the north Bay Area city of Vallejo declared bankruptcy, something that was not in the realm of possibility a decade prior. Several others have followed suit- many with over 100,000 residents. The collapse of the housing market, and with it the construction industry, have decimated many of these bedroom communities- Stockton, to the east, finally has unemployment in the low teens, but for years struggled with rates approaching 20%. Worst of all is the huge portion of families who have mortgages to pay in excess of the current, post-bubble value of their home. Often foreclosure has become a question of when, not if.

The city of Richmond, California is implementing a strategy of buying devalued mortgages, then re-selling to the same people who were in the foreclosure process. This comes with teeth, as lenders who refuse to sell these mortgages will have them taken using the power of eminent domain. This power makes a prominent appearance in the Constitution and state charters- the Fifth Amendment ends with the declaration- “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” These banks that hold the devalued mortgages can have them seized by the city, and paid what they are worth. The mortgages are then refinanced and the homeowners pay far less a month, keeping houses full and money free for spending locally.

The investment firm MRP has been trying to get cities to try the process, but the large legal threats by various corporations (many of these mortgages are owned by large Wall Street banks and investors) has meant that Richmond is the first. The city has prided itself on progressive and in this case, unusual solutions to the problems that have faced similar cities like Vallejo, Modesto, and the state capital Sacramento. That they are doing something ad odds with traditional business interests should not been a huge shock, as Gayle McLaughlin, the two-term mayor, is a member of the Green Party of California. She and a Democratic city council voted unanimously in favor of the plan, made possibly in part by the fierce campaigning of a social group called the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). Having met and worked with ACCE members, they’ve been working on all scales- from mobilizing occupations of individual homes to prevent foreclosure, to city and state-wide efforts such as this. It’s heartening that this community spirit is finding allies both in local government.

We have a zombie economy presently- people stuck in debt from houses and investments that are worth far less than they did at their peak. The idea that people are paying 300k on a house now worth 175k is ridiculous, and it drags all other aspects of the economy down. If we want vibrant downtowns with lots of local businesses and active community support, the anchor of mortgage debt has to be dealt with.

What is terrorism? Thinking bad thoughts

What is terrorism? Whatever it needs to be

The US has pursued “domestic terrorism” by practicing pre-emptive prosecution, that is, going after individuals who have committed no crime but are alleged to possess an ideology that might dispose them to commit acts of “terrorism”. Maintaining that it can -and should – be in the business of divining intent, the government decimates crucial elements of the US justice system. Thus, in cases where terrorism is charged, prosecutors need not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, only the defendant’s potential for committing a crime need be established in order to convict.

Consider the case of Tareq Abufayyad, a young Palestinian man and recent college graduate who was detained at San Francisco International Airport when he was on his way to unite with his family, all of them naturalised citizens of the US. Tareq was deemed inadmissible merely on the grounds that he had the potential to become a Hamas-operative.

FBI Agent Robert Miranda, the lead investigator into the government’s case against the Holy Land Foundation, argued before the Immigration Judge presiding over Tareq’s case that, because he was a well-educated man from Gaza, a strong-hold of Hamas, Tareq would be “attractive to Hamas” as a future recruit.

Also touches on Occupy activists charged with terrorism and explosives charges- despite being urged to buy and being supplied activists by undercover FBI agents.

The revolution will not be organized

As a member of what most people would consider the political left, I am often flabbergasted and let down by my colleagues (or in this context, my comrades). The history of leftist coalitions is one of faction and division. The 1960s and the aftermath of all its rage and radical politics showed little progress, in some cases facing strong backlash. The United States began a forty year turn to the right, joined by many European democracies. 1968 saw a devastating defeat for anti-Vietnam elements and the rise of Richard Nixon. There were also setbacks in the student’s revolt in Mexico, and the events of May in France; a series of unprecedented general strikes created a socialist opposition to Charles De Gaulle that took his government to the brink of collapse. Yet a few weeks later the conservative establishment was in firm control of France, convincing winners of snap elections.

Continue reading “The revolution will not be organized”

Oscar Grant (formerly Frank Ogawa) Plaza; March 30th, 2012

Oscar Grant (formerly Frank Ogawa) Plaza; March 30th, 2012

A mural in the former Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed after the man shot by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. It depicts the now-famous silhouette cast by protesters on top of trucks in the Port of Oakland. On November 2nd, 2011 during a general strike (the first since 1946 in the United States), well over 10,000 people brought the Port to a standstill for twelve hours.

Oscar Grant (formerly Frank Ogawa) Plaza; March 30th, 2012

A mural in the former Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed after the man shot by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. It depicts the now-famous silhouette cast by protesters on top of trucks in the Port of Oakland. On November 2nd, 2011 during a general strike (the first since 1946 in the United States), well over 10,000 people brought the Port to a standstill for twelve hours.