Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Ordinary Injustice (Averted)

Every once in a while, you get to witness firsthand the sterilized, mechanical, inhuman, and ultimately ordinary injustices of our system’s procedures.  On Friday, I received my latest exposure to this melancholy-inspiring fact of life by way of a trip to a property auction.

Every weekday at 10 and 11 AM around 25 foreclosed properties are auctioned off in a mind-numbingly slow and surprisingly unceremonious bidding process in a cramped corner on the steps of the Multnomah County Courthouse.   On Friday, this ritual included 6 people:  the “crier” or auctioneer, 4 individual buyers bidding on behalf of real-estate companies, and a curious pea-coated stranger with a notepad and a lot of questions.  Also present, outside on the sidewalk, was a small group of people who had come to the auction on short notice to support Angela Hill and her two children who are currently in the process of being removed from their home in SE Portland for defaulting on a mortgage owned by Wells Fargo.

The buyers told me that when they bid on homes, they are dealing directly with the banks and don’t interact with the prior homeowners who they believe to be already off of the property.  They seemed genuinely surprised to find that Angela was, in fact, still in the home.  As I explained the situation, including Angela’s contribution to her community -- including involvement in Groundwork Portland, the Emerson Street Garden, and the da Vinci School -- and why so many people had gathered to support her, it was immediately apparent from the pained facial reactions of the buyers that the human element was usually absent from these proceedings.  Similar to the lack of empathy a bombardier would feel for his unidentifiable victims while mechanically unloading bombs out of an airplane from a high altitude, the auction process is infinitely easier to stomach when those involved are spared the moral pangs of having to experience the personal sufferings of the individuals whose plight they are contributing to.  To use a generalization that encompasses the socially created barriers invented to take advantage of the symptoms of our intuitive psychological nature, otherwise moral human beings can hide behind illusions, weak rationalizations, and outright lies if the victim is unknowable, ignorable, or out of sight.  Here, the rationalization that the banks are the real enemy and that the people are out of the home before auction when added to the barking of bid orders from off-site authorities through earpieces are more than enough to overcome any moral qualms the buyers might have.  Had we not been there to tell Angela’s story, these buyers might have never even considered her situation – mechanical, repetitive, and boring as the auction process is. 

In practice, the auction usually works like this.  The buyers start by presenting certified checks and other proofs that they are bona-fide buyers.  All of the buyers have an idea of how much they are willing to spend on a property because their companies have done due diligence in valuing properties ahead of time.  Then, the crier recites a long legal document outlining the regulations of the process (largely ignored by the bidders who undoubtedly have heard it many times before).  After what seems like an eternity, the business of bidding begins.  The crier introduces a property by address, asks for a minimum bid, and the bidders best one another by adding anywhere from one to a hundred dollars until someone emerges victorious.  One of the buyers told me that the process sometimes can take hours for the purchase of a single property.  If a prior-determined reserve price isn’t met during the bidding process, the bank automatically buys the property back at the reserve price.  The buyers told me that they go through this ritual twice a day… five days a week… always without reference to the facts underlying a property’s transition from occupied to available.

Interestingly, these specific buyers had been exposed to “Occupiers” once before.  They reported to me that on one prior occasion, a group of people had come to the auction and physically disrupted it by shouting and shaming everyone involved.  Though they clearly understood the aims of the disruption, they found it annoying and distasteful to be personally accused of perpetrating evil.  Unsurprisingly, the buyers reported to me that they much preferred the civil conversation and discussion to the yelling and chanting.  And despite that bad experience, they still had sympathy for homeowners who had been victimized by deceptive and fraudulent lending practices, and were largely in agreement that the grievances of the Occupy movement were legitimate.  In addition, these buyers were eager to volunteer that large banks are enemies to the community.  Personally, I found these buyers to be very nice people and believe that they could be enlisted as allies in our larger struggles with banks if we are able to engage them in the correct way.  They belong to the 99% as much as anyone and have a wealth of experience in real estate transactions.  At the very least, we need to continue to learn from knowledgeable people to continue to improve our understanding of the system’s flaws so we can continue to develop creative ways of fixing it.

On that particular day, Angela’s home evaded purchase and title reverted back to Wells Fargo.  It’s hard to say if our gathering or my discussions with buyers had any effect on this eventuality or if the property was simply undesirable.  Regardless of the “real” answer, it is helpful for Angela that her dispute remains with Wells Fargo and not a third party.  Perhaps we can draw media attention to her plight and shame Wells Fargo into renegotiating her mortgage.  Only time will tell, but groups like We Are Oregon and Unsettle Portland – the actual organizers of this event – will continue to fight on behalf of families like Angela’s with innovative and effective actions to bring ordinary injustices to public light.

I hope that more and more people will continue to answer these calls – this time literally a Facebook message the night before – and show up to these sorts of events.  The gathering of people alone is enough to bring media to cover events and often sends companies like Wells Fargo into panic mode to remedy the bad press coverage as fast as possible.  In practice, this could be the difference between a family continuing to occupy a home or being out on the streets.  And, though protecting a single home may not have the star-appeal or significance of a revolutionary change, for Angela Hill and her family, it means the world.  Simply showing up and lending your body is sometimes enough to ensure that our community members have some protection against the systemic forces that can easily overwhelm an individual or family.  The collective talents of a small group really can stave off disaster and injustice. 

Even if we have to take it one person or family at a time, we can, from the ground up, create communities based in solidarity where people are protected and valued simply because they exist.  In effect, we are re-injecting humanity into the mechanical operations of our system.  This is progress.  And it is happening.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nearly Insignificant Press Attention

I went to the NDAA march last night and was interviewed by KGW.  They aired about 20 seconds of the interaction.  So here's my shameless plug:

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Daily Defiance

             At around 8:45 PM on Saturday night, I witnessed yet another poorly-planned, unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective use of police resources.  About 50-60 police (my rough estimate), dressed in full riot gear, descended upon a few hundred Occupiers who had, hours earlier, declared the occupation of a new park between Main and Salmon in downtown Portland.  At 8:30, the police made an announcement (from a P.A. system mounted on the top of what appeared to be an old ice cream truck) that a “state of emergency” had been declared in the park blocks and anyone in the park was subject to arrest.  The police then lined up on Main St. and in a forceful sweeping maneuver from the Southeast, accompanied by aggressive pushing and the use of batons, pressed the protestors out of the park and into Salmon St.   In the course of the eviction, there were a dozen or so arrests and some people were struck with the batons.  One of these people was a 15-year old boy named Walker Prettyman who took a baton to the face. 

It’s difficult to communicate through written word just how frightening riot police can be.  Even as a person who is larger than most of the police officers and not easily intimidated, their organized presence causes a strong psychological anxiety that I haven’t previously experienced. 

Different people react differently to the stress of the situation.  Some people yell at the police.  Others retreat.  But it is undeniable that the entire character of the assembly changes as soon as a threatening police presence arrives.  I’ve now witnessed this phenomenon at least four times and confidently assert that riot police are inherently provocative.  Their presence alone is an application of force.  And utilizing their unique skill-set – dispersing violent crowds – is not a necessary and proportional response to the Occupy protests. 

            Having witnessed their fellow protestors hit in the face, arms, and backs with batons, the peaceful crowd grew more defiant and it seemed a clash was inevitable.  People were yelling obscenities and threats at the police as they were ordered via loudspeaker to disperse.  It was a very tense time. 

But then something interesting and unexpected happened.  In the midst of the chaos, the sound of dance music erupted.  Immediately, the crowd began to happily and energetically dance in the street.  I’ve never experienced anything like it.  A moment of extreme anger and tension became elation in an instant.  In a word: surreal.  

            Noticeably confused, the line of riot police moved backward allowing for a safe distance and after a few minutes a march began to City Hall.  What ensued was a two-hour dance party/protest through the streets of downtown Portland with a small bike-cop escort and most of the riot police sent home for the evening.  Eventually, the protestors returned to the same park they had been evicted from earlier and celebrated a minor victory. 

            Such is the character of the Occupy movement.  Occupiers and those who protest in solidarity are defiant… but gleefully so.  Certainly, there are angry outbursts and moments of intense frustration, but they tend to subside rather quickly.  And remarkably, those outbursts very rarely manifest in any sort of violence toward the object of verbal abuse (usually the riot police).  Marching (usually accompanied by some music and dancing) appears to be the default method of stress relief. 

            The media reporting – which, unsurprisingly, tends to be simple and sensationalist – fails to communicate the complexity of the Occupy dynamic for its readers and viewers.  Occupy is a social phenomenon that provokes anyone who bothers to pay attention, and often it gives you no choice but to pay attention.  But for more than a passing judgment, Occupy must be continually experienced to be truly understood.  There are so many possible angles one could analyze it with; no simple explanation or snapshot will do. 

            Any given occupation – almost 2000 to choose from now – on any given day will have its share of contradictions, imperfections, and failures.  Yet, this is how all human beings are each and every day.  Like all other groups of people, Occupy will have to continue to grow and find mechanisms for dealing with its failings in order to maintain moral legitimacy.  But, despite predictable hang ups, the enduring qualities of the Occupy movement persist in its consistent and tireless attempts to take the desperation and isolation that many of us feel when we consider the state of modern politics and re-direct those emotions into expressions of unity and shared action against the failing sectors of the American experiment. 

Occupiers have articulated legitimate concerns about the state of the government.  They know full well the way the revolving door works:  if you work with the lobbyists as a regulator, legislator, or aide, you will be rewarded with a great paying private sector job.  They know that the government and the financial industry colluded to game the system in the largest get-rich-quick scheme ever devised.  They know that in addition to the bipartisan bailout, the Federal Reserve lent 7.7 trillion dollars to the banks with little or no interest.  They are aware that then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulsen gave advanced notice of the bailouts to select hedge funds while telling the public that failing financial institutions were fine. This week they read about the Congress, which is unwilling to do anything about the ailing economy, propose the ability to indefinitely detain American citizens and hand the power to censor the internet over to media conglomerates for the sake of intellectual property protection.  They see the widespread corruption and then look at their lack of housing and healthcare, their student loans, their joblessness, their lack of a future and say: “no thanks, we’d like something better.”  They protest in the spirit of the First Amendment; they petition for redress of their grievances, which are legion.  The First Amendment doesn’t require that you back a specific piece of legislation in order to be protected, only that your assembly is peaceable.  

            I’ve now been a legal observer to and supporter of the Occupy movement for about a month.  This movement really is not about the police.  When there are normal, non-riot police present, protestors hardly take notice.  Most of the time, the police hang at the periphery and are accessible for polite conversations.  Occupiers largely recognize that police officers are under the same threats of austerity as the rest of us (though departments like the NYPD accepting multi-million dollar donations from major banks raises some questions).  The police have only become an issue because of their own exaggerated response to the protests.  And despite the fact that they blame the costs of overtime on Occupy, choosing to use force is a clear political choice by the City’s higher ups.  There’s no law or principle requiring the use of riot police when people gather (if there were, parades and marathons would be much scarier).  Anyone who has actually attended an Occupy protest can attest to the absurdity of preparing for extreme violence.  I wish I had a picture of the confused look on my face when the police declared a “state of emergency” and cleared everyone off of the sidewalk before entering the park.  Having a police presence is certainly justifiable; no one argues that it isn’t.  But no one should view the costly and exaggerated use of force chosen by the City as anywhere near necessary.

            I believe that the flailing, incoherent, and embarrassing response of the City stems from its inability and unwillingness to empathize with Occupiers.  The Portland Police Department, in (sadly) predictable American fashion, is using force to deal with that which it cannot comprehend.  This authoritarian mentality cannot understand that the mindless application of force generally tends to cause unintended consequences; in this case, the movement only grows more determined and gathers more support.  “Maybe if we scare it, it will go away” is not going to work. 

            At some point, the City of Portland is going to have to recognize that there is a formidable international political movement developing and alter its police response accordingly.  Even the United Nations is taking notice of the failure of our country’s municipalities to protect the human rights of peaceful protestors.  Such action is usually reserved for third world dictatorships and banana republics.  Representative governments allow and protect political speech even when it is inconvenient. 

While we expend resources picking on the politically disenfranchised, there are real criminals in the world.  Some of the worst are wearing nice suits, are very presentable, and are the objects of respect and admiration because they’ve accumulated vast wealth.   But, it’s harder to pursue these people because they have lobbyists, private police, lawyers, and by default, members of the government.  Even so, it is clear that the Occupy effort has produced some action on this front. 

The good people in government now know they have some public support to take action against the complex financial crimes that crippled our economy.  Massachusetts has sued five major financial institutions for deceptive loan practices and one federal judge has seriously rebuked the SEC’s secret settlement deals with financial criminals as being against the public interest.  Some in the mainstream media have even returned to asking questions about the financial collapse.  Last night I saw 60 Minutes presenting evidence of mass fraud at Countrywide and grilling the Justice Department on why banks haven’t been prosecuted.  Occupy has inspired courage in the members of existing institutions who are just as aware of our institutional problems.  Those who think that this would have happened without Occupy are deluding themselves.  Before the first occupation in Zuccotti, everyone had basically accepted that the banks were going to get away with it.  At least now there are some indications, small but not insignificant, that the institutions that we trust with overseeing our political process will make some efforts to inform and protect us.  We should continue to demand more. 

            Dealing with the failings that Occupy has articulated will require more than the quick-fix mentality that Americans are used to.  This means we have to check our own resolve and decide individually if we are in it for the long run.  Not only do we have to communicate with one another about existing problems, we have to change the way we think.  We have to rediscover community, loyalty, and solidarity because these are the only tools individual people have against the predatory institutions that plague us.  We have to press the boundaries of what is acceptable for a while in order to give ourselves some space to reform and rebuild a working system.   It’s not easy to challenge authority, but we have good reason to do it, and it’s about time we took some chances. 

            The whole world is watching.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Did Portland Police Use Paramilitary Tactics on Occupy Portland Then Shift Gears After N17?

This is a nice mashup of an interview I did with Occupy Portland.

This Time a Great Notion

This is a TEDx speech I gave in the spring.

Presentation Slides:

The Right of the People Peaceably to Assemble

(Note: this was originally posted on on Nov. 18, 2011 --

I am very, very troubled about a narrative floating around in local political discourse: that Occupy protestors are solely responsible for increased police spending and must cease their activities because they are causing the absurdly large police presence which materializes in order to monitor each protest.

This narrative implicitly assumes that police have no option but to flood the streets with officers when any large group of people gathers together. And apparently, some of the police must be dressed in full riot gear (and visible to everyone) even when there is no indication that violence will occur. The absurdity of this tactic was immediately apparent to anyone who participated in yesterday's protests, filled with citizens young and old -- college students, retirees, established labor officials, war veterans, and other concerned citizens -- marching (while happily dancing to funk music, a sign of violence if I've ever seen one) with the intent of highlighting the failures of a broken system. From the response of the police, you'd have thought that Occupy organizers had proposed a violent overthrow of the local government! Instead, police knew very well from discussions with the organizers and their own secret infiltrations of public meetings (really, what is the point?) exactly which protestors planned to enter banks and be arrested for non-violent disobedience -- sitting in the banks and thereby disrupting business.

Let me propose a different narrative: the police are implementing specific policy choices when they decide to pay their officers overtime and recruit extra officers from departments around the area. They are not forced to do so. In fact, in light of the repeated and consistent peacefulness and non-violence of Occupy protests up to this point, the police go far beyond reasonable bounds when they arrange intimidating displays on the streets. And when individual police officers (names withheld, but I'll be submitting complaints to the city) are visibly itching for a violent confrontation, pushing people around with horses and hitting women with batons, the police are the instigators of violence and not the protectors of citizens.

If it doesn't trouble you that paramilitary dress is now commonplace in crowd control operations, you've already accepted the first narrative. Instead of the proffered rationale that the police are merely protecting protestors and citizens alike, they are demonstrating the modern mindset of police bureaus around the country: people who transgress social norms are not citizens; they are outsiders to the social order. Everyone who saw the protest from an outside perspective was treated to that implicit framing. They probably wonder: "how violent have the protests become if the city feels it needs to call out the riot police to enforce order!?"

The first irony of the situation is that we have a Constitution granting, as its chief civil liberty, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble. Presumably, this right extends to the ability to express displeasure at the dominant ideologies of the day without having to submit to intimidation and implicit threat of violence that accompanies the presence of riot police. Scaring people during an assembly, though not as serious as actually beating them, is a form of prior restraint, of telling you that the State doesn't authorize your message.

As the son of a long-serving district attorney, I was brought up to have a deep and profound respect for law enforcement. I suppose what I previously believed about protests is that crowds are inherently dangerous and not to be trusted. However, after actually protesting a few times in the last few weeks, I now know better, and am appalled at the actions of the Portland Police and scoff at the notion that they deserve any modicum of respect or praise for their handling of the protests. Failing to use violence on peaceable assemblies should not be lauded as respectable restraint. Instead, we should be outraged that it is ever even a consideration in the first place!

The second great irony of this situation is that the Portland Police are going to bankrupt themselves with their adopted strategy if Occupy protests continue. Like a boxer who has just seen a cut open up over his opponent's eye, any Occupy organizer worth his salt is going to notice the vulnerability of the police to this brute economic fact and immediately organize more protests. In fact, the next protest should be aimed directly at the overuse of police force. Imagine the irony of the police coming out dressed like storm troopers to intimidate protestors who are trying to highlight the excessive uses of police force and intimidation. We might be treated to such a show very soon, as leaders of the police apparently cannot tame their authoritarian instincts even when self-preservation and legitimacy are on the line.