Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolution

By Janet Biehl On December 16, 2014

Post image for Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolutionIn early December an international delegation visited Rojava’s Cezire canton where they learned about the ongoing revolution, cooperation and tolerance.

From December 1 to 9, I had the privilege of visiting Rojava as part of a delegation of academics from Austria, Germany, Norway, Turkey, the UK, and the US. We assembled in Erbil, Iraq, on November 29 and spent the next day learning about the petrostate known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with its oil politics, patronage politics, feuding parties (KDP and PUK), and apparent aspirations to emulate Dubai. We soon had enough and on Monday morning were relieved to drive to the Tigris, where we crossed the border into Syria and entered Rojava, the majority-Kurdish autonomous region of northern Syria.

The Tigris river channel was narrow, but the society we encountered on the far shore could not have been more different from the KRG: the spirit of a social and political revolution was in the air. As we disembarked, we were greeted by the Asayis, or civilian security forces of the revolution. The Asayis reject the label police, since police serve the state whereas they serve society.

Over the next nine days, we would explore Rojava’s revolutionary self-government in an old-fashioned state of total immersion (we had no internet access to distract us). Our delegation’s two organizers — Dilar Dirik (a talented PhD student at Cambridge University) and Devriş Çimen (head of Civaka Azad, the Kurdish Center for Public Information in Germany) — took us on an intensive tour of the various revolutionary institutions.

Rojava consists of three geographically non-contiguous cantons; we would see only the easternmost one, Cezire (or Jazira), due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State, which rages to the west, especially in Kobani. But everywhere we were welcomed warmly.

Rojava’s Third Way

At the outset, the deputy foreign minister, Amine Ossi, introduced us to the history of the revolution. The Syrian Ba’ath regime, a system of one-party rule, had long insisted that all Syrians were Arabs and attempted to “Arabize” the country’s four million Kurds, suppressing their identity and stripping those who objected of their citizenship.

After Tunisian and Egyptian opposition groups mounted insurgencies during the Arab Spring in 2011, rebellious Syrians rose up too, initiating the civil war. In the summer of 2012, the regime’s authority collapsed in Rojava, where the Kurds had little trouble persuading its officials to depart nonviolently.

Rojavans (I’ll call them by that name because while they are mostly Kurds, they are also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, and others) then faced a choice of aligning themselves either with the regime that had persecuted them, or with the mostly Islamic militant opposition groups.

Rojava’s Kurds being relatively secular, they refused both sides and decided instead to embark on a Third Way, based on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who rethought the Kurdish issue, the nature of revolution, and an alternative modernity to the nation-state and capitalism.

Initially, under his leadership, Kurds had fought for a state, but several decades ago, again under his leadership, their goal began to change: they now reject the state as a source of oppression and instead strive for self-government, for popular democracy. Drawing eclectically from sources in history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Öcalan proposed ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as the name for the overarching program of bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and a cooperative economy. The implementation of those principles, in institutions not only of democratic self-government but also of economics, education, health and gender, is called Democratic Autonomy.

A Women’s Revolution

Under their Third Way, Rojava’s three cantons declared Democratic Autonomy and formally established it in a “social contract” (the non-statist term it uses instead of “constitution”). Under that program, they created a system of popular self-government, based in neighborhood commune assemblies (comprising several hundred households each), which anyone may attend, and with power rising from the bottom up through elected deputies to the city and cantonal levels.

When our delegation visited a Qamishlo neighborhood (Qamishlo being the largest city in the Cezire canton), we attended a meeting of a local people’s council, where the electricity and matters relating to women, conflict resolution and families of martyrs were discussed. Men and women sat and participated together. Elsewhere in Qamishlo, we witnessed an assembly of women addressing problems particular to their gender.

Gender is of special importance to this project in human emancipation. We quickly realized that the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution. This part of the world is traditionally home to extreme patriarchal oppression: to be born female is to be at risk for violent abuse, childhood marriage, honor killings, polygamy, and more.

But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official — for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.

Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.

Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ — or women’s protection units — whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.

When we visited a meeting of the YPJ, we were told that the fighters’ education consists not only of training in practical matters like weapons but also in Democratic Autonomy. “We are fighting for our ideas,” they emphasized at every turn. Two of the women who met with us had been injured in battle. One sat with an IV bag, another with a metal crutch — both were wincing in pain but had the fortitude and self-discipline to participate in our session.

Cooperation and Education

Rojavans fight for the survival of their community but above all, as the YPJ told us, for their ideas. They even put the successful implementation of democracy above ethnicity. Their social agreement affirms the inclusion of ethnic minorities (Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians) and religions (Muslims, Christians, Yezidis), and Democratic Autonomy in practice seems to bend over backwards to include minorities, without imposing it on others against their will, leaving the door open to all.

When our delegation asked a group of Assyrians to tell us their challenges with Democratic Autonomy, they said they had none. In nine days we could not possibly have scoured Rojava for all problems, and our interlocutors candidly admitted that Rojava is hardly above criticism, but as far as I could see, Rojava at the very least aspires to model tolerance and pluralism in a part of the world that has seen far too much fanaticism and repression — and to whatever extent it succeeds, it deserves commendation.

Rojava’s economic model “is the same as its political model,” an economics adviser in Derik told us: to create a “community economy,” building cooperatives in all sectors and educating the people in the idea. The adviser expressed satisfaction that even though 70 percent of Rojava’s resources must go to the war effort, the economy still manages to meet everyone’s basic needs.

They strive for self-sufficiency, because they must: the crucial fact is that Rojava exists under an embargo. It can neither export to nor import from its immediate neighbor to the north, Turkey, which would like to see the whole Kurdish project disappear.

Even the KRG, under control of their ethnic kin but economically beholden to Turkey, observes the embargo, although more cross-border KRG-Rojava trade is occurring now in the wake of political developments. But the country still lacks resources. That does not dampen their spirit: “If there is only bread, then we all have a share,” the adviser told us.

We visited an economics academy and economic cooperatives: a sewing cooperative in Derik, making uniforms for the defense forces; a cooperative greenhouse, growing cucumbers and tomatoes; a dairy cooperative in Rimelan, where a new shed was under construction.

The Kurdish areas are the most fertile parts of Syria, home to its abundant wheat supply, but the Ba’ath regime had deliberately refrained from industrializing the area, a source of raw materials. Hence wheat was cultivated but could not be milled into flour. We visited a mill, newly constructed since the revolution, improvised from local materials. It now provides flour for the bread consumed in Cezire, whose residents get three loaves a day.

Similarly, Cezire was Syria’s major source of petroleum, with several thousand oil rigs, mostly in the Rimelan area. But the Ba’ath regime ensured that Rojava had no refineries, forcing the oil to be transported to refineries elsewhere in Syria. But since the revolution, Rojavans have improvised two new oil refineries, which are used mainly to provide diesel for the generators that power the canton. The local oil industry, if such it can be called, produces only enough for local needs, nothing more.

A DIY Revolution

The level of improvisation was striking throughout the canton. The more we traveled through Rojava, the more I marveled at the do-it-yourself nature of the revolution, its reliance on local ingenuity and the scarce materials at hand. But it was not until we visited the various academies — the women’s academy in Rimelan and the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamishlo — that I realized that it is integral to the system as a whole.

The education system in Rojava is non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they “search for meaning,” as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives. They learn to be empowered and to participate in Democratic Autonomy.

Images of Abdullah Öcalan are everywhere, which to Western eyes might suggest something Orwellian: indoctrination, knee-jerk belief. But to interpret those images that way would be to miss the situation entirely. “No one will give you your rights,” someone quoted Öcalan to us, “you will have to struggle to obtain them.”

And to carry out that struggle, Rojavans know they must educate both themselves and society. Öcalan taught them Democratic Confederalism as a set of principles. Their role has been to figure out how to implement it, in Democratic Autonomy, and thereby to empower themselves.

The Kurds have historically had few friends. They were ignored by the Treaty of Lausanne that divided up the Middle East after World War I. For most of the past century, they suffered as minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Their language and culture have been suppressed, their identities denied, their human rights overruled.

They are on the wrong side of NATO, where Turkey is permitted to call the shots on Kurdish matters. They have long been outsiders. That experience has been brutal, involving torture, exile and war. But it has also given them strength and independence of mind. Öcalan taught them how to reset the terms of their existence in a way that gave them dignity and self-respect.

This do-it-yourself revolution by an educated populace is embargoed by their neighbors and gets along by the skin of its teeth. It is nonetheless an endeavor that pushes the human prospect forward. In the wake of the twentieth century, many people have come to the worst conclusions about human nature, but in the twenty-first, Rojavans are setting a new standard for what human beings are capable of. In a world fast losing hope, they shine as a beacon.

Anyone with a bit of faith in humanity should wish the Rojavans well with their revolution and do what they can to help it succeed. They should demand that their governments stop allowing Turkey to define a rejectionist international policy toward the Kurds and toward Democratic Autonomy. They should demand an end to the embargo against Rojava.

The members of the delegation in which I participated (even though I am not an academic) did their work well. Sympathetic to the revolution, they nonetheless asked challenging questions, about Rojava’s economic outlook, about the handling of ethnicity and nationalism, and more. The Rojavans we met, accustomed to grappling with hard questions, responded thoughtfully and even welcomed critique. Readers interested in learning more about the Rojava Revolution may look forward to forthcoming writings by the other delegation members: Welat (Oktay) Ay, Rebecca Coles, Antonia Davidovic, Eirik Eiglad, David Graeber, Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Johanna Riha, Nazan Üstündag, and Christian Zimmer. As for me, I have much more to say than this short article allows and plan to write a further work, one that incorporates drawings I made during the trip.

Janet Biehl is an independent writer, artist, and translator living in Burlington, Vt. She previously edited The Murray Bookchin Reader and is the author of Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

A history of state repression in Guerrero, Mexico

By Francisco Alonso On December 12, 2014

Post image for A history of state repression in Guerrero, MexicoThe recent massacre of 43 students shocked the world, but was only the latest act in a long history of state repression in Mexico’s Guerrero region.

The Iguala massacre woke up a society that seems inured to widespread corruption, impunity and brutal violence. Recently, Mexican society did show a reaction to other massacres, like the one that occurred in Monterrey where 52 people died locked up in a casino building after it had been deliberately set on fire. Or in Tamaulipas where 72 Central American migrants heading to the U.S. were kidnapped and murdered after they refused to become hit men or pay ransom for their release. However, what happened in Iguala was different. It was a clear act of political repression and this time the participation of state agents as perpetrators was impossible to hide.

Moreover, the massacre targeted a focal point of political activism in Mexico; a school of teachers, a ‘school of democracy’.  For more than half a century, teachers from Ayotzinapa have been fighting against corrupt policemen, homicidal soldiers, paramilitary forces, caciques (local strong men) and now the narco state. Ayotzinapa has provided a disproportionate amount of leaders toGuerrero’s social movements, including Lucio Cabañas, founder of the Partido de los Pobres (PDLP), the most important rural guerrilla organization during the 1970’s.

On one side the Iguala massacre is an archetypical case — so recurrent in Mexican history — in which a peaceful protest turns into a rebellion because of state repression. On the other hand, although it is by no means new, the fact that repression was carried out by public officers and policemen who were collaborating with hit men from a criminal organization is a present-day distinctive. In such a case a major social outburst is hard to avoid. In this moment, actions taken by the government and civil society will determine if a system collapse will be avoided. As Trejo states, “in Iguala past, present and future converge.” This convergence may be shown by tracing a long cycle of mobilization and repression in Guerrero where impunity has always prevailed, from la guerra en el paraíso to Iguala’s inferno.

Not a Revolution, but a ranchero revolt

According to Ian Jacobs, author of The Ranchero Revolt, Guerrero’s history was shaped by its physical geography. In the early twentieth century there were very few roads in a region with very rough terrain. The lack of roads made land unattractive to elites during the Porfiriato. Hence, the problem of stolen lands did not acquire the dimensions it took in the neighbouring region of Morelos, where sugar cane haciendas dispossessed peasants and generated a fertile ground for the Zapatista rebellion of 1911.

In contrast, Guerrero did not experience widespread usurpation of communal lands in the early twentieth century. Hence, the political evolution of the region was different; without a rebellion such as the one led by Zapata, the Porfirian structure of caciques remained intact during the Mexican Revolution and was even reinforced when caciques disguised themselves as ‘revolutionaries’ and were accepted by the regime during the post-revolutionary decades.

In Guerrero, the Figueroa brothers (Ambrosio and Francisco), who betrayed Zapata on many occasions, imposed themselves as the main overlords. They became the quintessential caciques in the region and founders of the everlasting Figueroa dynasty, a sort of ‘Somosa family’ in Guerrero.





December 30, 1960, Chilpancingo, Guerrero

A student demonstration claiming university autonomy was repressed at Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital. Seventeen protesters were killed. The massacre forced the governor, general Raúl Caballero Aburto, to resign (Cervantes, 2007). The student uprising evolved into an urban popular movement with presence in many state regions spearheaded by the Asociación Cívica Guerrerense (ACG), a political organization created in 1959 by regime opponents. There were many teachers among them.

December 30, 1962, Iguala, Guerrero

During 1961 the popular movement grew in strength. The provisional local government called for elections to be held in December 1962 in order to renew state and local authorities. The ACG presented José María Téllez as their candidate for Guerrero’s governorship. After losing the elections, they protested against what they considered to be a fraudulent result. Again, demonstrators were confronted by the police and the military.That time the toll of the repression was 8 deaths and 156 arrests.

The ACG leader Genaro Vázquez fled the state but was captured in 1966. ACG members rescued him in 1968 from the Iguala prison and fled to the Sierra (Guerrero’s western highlands), where Vazquez renamed the ACG as Asociación Cívica Nacional Revolucionaria (ACNR) and stated that members of his organization were convinced that the armed struggle was the only means to transform the situation (Salgado, 1971).

May 18, 1967, Atoyac, Guerrero

A protest rally took place to demand the destitution of the primary school director and the school committee. The rally was led by Lucio Cabañas. The police had warned Cabañas that they would not tolerate any demonstration, so they opened fire when Cabañas started to speak, killing five people, including a pregnant woman. Like Vazquez, Cabañas also fled to the Sierra and formed thePartido de los Pobres and its armed branch; the Brigada campesina de ajusticiamiento (Peasant execution brigade).

1960s  – 1970s, Guerrero, La guerra en el paraíso

In the Sierra, the rebels found the fertile ground for rebellion that was absent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The federal and state governments were carrying out two large-scale modernization projects in Guerrero, both taking place either in the Sierra or in localities close to it. Partly financed by the World Bank, the first project consisted of the construction of a series of dams and civil engineering enterprises through the Balsas River, mainly for energy production.

The goal of the second project was to develop the port of Acapulco and its surroundings as a mayor international tourist destination. This state-sponsored modernization was planned by a central bureaucracy interested in economic progress at the national level but caring little about concerns of the local population. Hence, it became a process of  authoritarian economic exploitation.

During the 1960’s and the 1970’s labour conflicts erupted in the Sierra; land was taken away from peasants and forests were cut down by foreign timber companies. Popular protest emerged with a broad set of demands ranging from land redistribution, an end to forest exploitation, attendance of educational, health and socioeconomic needs of the popular classes, rights to unionize, democratic transparency, and community decision making.

The wave of mobilization was severely repressed and guerrilla organizations nurtured the grievances. According to Trejo, repression in Guerrero in the 1960’s and 1970’s reached levels of the guerras sucias in Chile and Argentina. According to the special prosecutor’s office, the Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado (FEMOSPP), that was investigating the guerra sucia, at least 482 forced disappearances took place during that period.

May 30, 1974

PRI senator Ruben Figueroa Figueroa (Francisco’s nephew) was kidnapped by the PDLP. As asked by the rebels, the Mexican government announced the retrenchment of the army from Guerrero rural areas to the headquarters, but Guerrero’s countryside was heavily militarized in secret. Soldiers were looking for Figueroa and hunted down the PDLP. Cabañas died in combat, and Figueroa was rescued. In 1975 he became the governor of Guerrero.

The FEMOSPP, with more than 500 oral testimonies and documents from the Mexican national archive (Archivo General de la Nación), asserted that, once Figueroa became governor of Guerrero, he perpetrated hundreds of crimes. Figueroa then ordered arbitrary detentions. The state’s chief of security Mario Acosta Chaparro, together with Alfredo Mendiola, Alberto Aguirre and Humberto Rodríguez, was in charge of executing the victims and throwing their bodies from airplanes in the ocean.

Army and police forces managed to suppress the rebellion in the highlands by killing or imprisoning most of the rebels. By the 1980’s neither the ANCR, nor the PDLP, nor the other dozens of guerrilla organizations formed in the 1970’s, were a threat to the Mexican state.

Carrots and sticks

The ‘stick’ came together with some ‘carrots’. Two of those carrots were particularly important. After wars, reconstruction processes follow. Something similar happened after Guerrero’s guerra sucia. The first carrot meant significant state resources and a new program for land redistribution aimed at winning the ‘hearts and minds’ and avoiding a subsequent rebellion in rural areas. This process can be seen as the state’s “massive incursion” in Guerrero’s eastern highlands, ‘la Montaña’ region. The second carrot was a democratic opening in which former guerrilleros were exonerated and the Mexican Communist Party (PCM) legalized and allowed to compete in the elections.

Nevertheless, no one was held responsible for the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the guerra sucia. Furthermore, the forced disappearances of radical opposition leaders continued despite the process of democratization and government alternation at the federal and state levels. Impunity prevailed. The tension of this historic moment was captured in the closing lines of Carlos Montemayor’s novel Guerra en el paraíso. In the novel, when Lucio Cabañas is shot, a thought resonates while he is falling to the ground: “there is still a lot to be done, to be done, to be done…”

Francisco Alonso is a PhD researcher in Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence.

Tides of relief: Nikos Romanos wins victory in hunger strike

By ROAR Collective On December 11, 2014

Post image for Tides of relief: Nikos Romanos wins victory in hunger strikeAfter a month on hunger strike and weeks of solidarity protests, the anarchist prisoner Nikos Romanos is finally granted his demands by the government.

By Foula Farmakidis, Spyros Marchetos and Christina Laskaridis

Tides of relief emanated from Greece on Wednesday, when the anarchist prisoner Nikos Romanos ended his month-long hunger strike that sparked solidarity actions across the globe. His demands were essentially met, with the parliament decreeing that student prisoners will be allowed educational leave on certain conditions, including electronic security tagging.

Romanos’ desperate struggle against an intransigent government brought up international memories of Bobby Sands and the other Irish republican prisoners who died in 1981. Now his victory, suggesting that the extreme right-wing Samaras government may be on its last throes, shows what a huge influence a person can have when they are unafraid to risk their own life and when they are backed by a resourceful solidarity movement.

Video report by Ross Domoney:

Romanos, 21, carries a tragic past. In December 2008, his childhood friend Alexis Grigoropoulos died by his side after having been shot, in cold blood, by a policeman. This 15-year-old became the symbol of an entire generation which, with alarming premonition, foresaw the social catastrophe that was soon to be unleashed on Greece. Alexis’ death galvanized and radicalized the youth. No surprise that Romanos, who at 15 years of age carried his friend’s coffin on his shoulder, decided to battle against the state.

In February 2013, Romanos was arrested along three other youths for attempted bank robbery. Witnesses and the public prosecutor agreed that the arrestees did not use their weapons out of concern for the hostages’ safety. After their capture they were all tortured so brutally, that the police digitally edited the photos given to the press so as to mask their injuries.

While serving his sentence, Romanos studied for the national university entrance exams, and thus secured a place at a university. The Minister of Justice visited his prison in September to grant, on behalf of the Greek state, an educational achievement award to him and other inmates. Romanos at the time was protesting against the appalling conditions within the prison, never received the award, and explicitly refused any favors from the state.

Despite awarding Romanos for his efforts in entering university, the state forbade him to actually attend it. Protesting for the law granting inmates educational leave to be enforced, Romanos started a hunger strike on November 10. The legal grounds for withholding his leave are convoluted. The Greek penal system includes educational leave in the framework of the rehabilitation of prisoners, but the Justice Ministry argues that a terrorism suspect cannot be safely let out of prison, even if Romanos has already been acquitted once for the terrorist charges against him.

Few doubt that the young anarchist was refused educational leave as a punishment for his ideas, by a government eager to show that it will not tolerate radical dissent. Romanos demanded from the state, which he intensely abhors, that it recognize his legal rights, which the state is supposed to guarantee for all. He never stole from the public purse nor from citizens; rather he attempted to rob one of the banks which was never brought to account for its part in the economic debacle of the country. No one failed to notice the irony of young anarchists being brutally persecuted for an unsuccessful and bloodless bank robbery by the very same people who treat those convicted of large-scale theft of public money and violent crimes with utmost lenience.

Examples abound. A corporate media and business tycoon who embezzled 235 million euros from the ex-state owned Postal Bank was released on bail, and even visited the US, Paris and the Maldives while his bail terms forbade him from exiting the county. A banker convicted of embezzling 700 million euros from the now defunct Proton Bank, and also facing trial for homicide, was left free to roam by the very same prosecutor who denied Romanos educational leave.

Two electricity company owners facing trial on embezzling 270 million euros from the state were also released on bail, thanks to the legal acumen of their defense attorneys, who just happened to be the Government Speaker at that time, Makis Voridis, and the then Secretary General of the Government, Takis Baltakos. A shipping magnate and oil tycoon sentenced to five years in prison for tax evasion and various other unlawful activities was immediately rewarded with the ownership of the most profitable public company in Greece, privatized at a fire-sale price. Finally, one of the accomplices of Grigoropoulos’ murder was released on bail after just one year in jail, on “humanitarian grounds,” to deal with family difficulties.

The Minister of Justice himself, Charalambos Athanasiou, has often made moves characterized as extreme-right, bigoted, and even venal. He never managed to explain the considerable property he amassed while holding public positions, property he even failed to declare, thus breaking the law — but this was no problem, as he soon changed the law and made it legal. He consistently hindered controls on other high earners with unexplained incomes; he legislated in favor of embezzlers of public money; and he even tried to get most of the convicted drug wholesalers out of prison with a law catering especially for them.

Athanasiou furthermore provoked an international outcry when he snubbed the European Court of Human Rights that had condemned Greece for refusing elementary rights to same sex partners. A further irony, that does not escape the polarized and intensely politicized Greek society, is that he maintained his inhuman stance towards Romanos while his own father — a collaborator of the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War — owed his life to the leniency showed to him by communist partisans.

The Minister of Justice greatly contributed to the heightening of tensions during the past few days. He stoked fears that Romanos might escape, while Romanos had agreed to be tagged during his leave. Romanos’ teacher in prison, actually the head of the prison education service, even proposed to escort the young convict to classes himself, and guaranteed his prompt return to the jailhouse, to no avail. Romanos refused to follow distance courses from within the prison walls, an idea beyond the logistical capabilities of the Greek system, denouncing it as an attempt to chip away at the right of prisoners for leave permits. But during the last month the government clearly cared more about publicly humiliating Romanos than about keeping him alive.

On Monday, December 8, Romanos’ father met with Prime Minister Samaras, who rebuked his pleas on the grounds that a Prime Minister cannot obstruct the course of justice. Actually Samaras has governed the country by bulldozing through austerity and repressive measures, using decrees with no concern whatsoever for the constitution or any other legal obstacles. How else could the state, for example, refuse to implement the court ruling that the cleaners of the Ministry of Finance building be re-hired, following their unlawful redundancy?

On Tuesday, December 9, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the lower court’s decision that refused educational leave to Romanos. With the government rebuking any alternative to distance learning from within prison walls, the parliamentary discussion on Tuesday descended into mayhem. On Wednesday, the 31st day of his hunger strike and with his demands still unmet, Romanos escalated his fight by starting a thirst strike, as an act of refusal to further dilute prisoners’ rights. The danger for his life was now imminent.

Minister Athanasiou had stated: “Even if God Himself were to descend to earth, He couldn’t change this decision.” We do not know who proved more mighty than God Himself, but the fact is that the Greek government — hell-bent on humiliating and thwarting all dissidents, as well as outright beating them — was obliged to make a costly and humiliating U-turn.

A day earlier, it had announced a change of plans for the forthcoming election of the President of the Republic, that may soon lead to a SYRIZA government. Political games played on the back of Romanos might have something to do with this. Seeking alliance with the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn to scrape together the necessary votes for electing the President, the government had its tactics exposed in Parliament and rejected by Golden Dawn. Its plans to score political points by claiming that the hated Memorandum days are over were further foiled on Monday, when the extension of the international bailout was agreed by European Finance Ministers.

On the back of a mounting public outcry, with masses of people gathering in solidarity outside Romanos’ hospital, tensions rising, and time running out, Athanasiou brought the amendment to Parliament on Wednesday, and Romanos stopped his hunger strike. On the other hand, the government still ignores the300 Syrian refugees who are also on hunger strike on the Parliament’s doorstep; it is still introducing high security prisons fit for an era of austerity and repression; and it still finalized the purchase of Israeli drones for border and protest control. But these may be the government’s last days, while Romanos’ brave and principled stance in prison brought results beyond his wildest dreams. All in all: a big victory for Romanos’ and his comrades’ struggle.

By Foula Farmakidis, Spyros Marchetos and Christina Laskaridis.

After being exposed, undercover cop draws gun on protesters in California

By Evan Blake and Gabriel Black
12 December 2014

On Wednesday night, a plainclothes police officer dressed as a protester had his identity revealed before drawing his baton and pistol on a crowd of protesters and reporters in Oakland, California. The officer and his partner have been accused of trying to incite the crowd towards violence before they were exposed as provocateurs.

The two police officers had been wearing bandanas over their faces throughout the march. KTVU news reports that at one point during the march a protester who suspected the two of being officers pulled down one of the officer’s bandanas. The news station reported that, “the two policemen started to walk away, but the protesters persisted, screaming at the two undercover cops.”

Then one officer, “pushed the protester aside. The man responded by pushing back and then the officer tackled him to the ground, handcuffing him. The crowd, incensed, began to gather around them.”

Undercover cop aims his gun at a photographer

The officer who had pushed back the protester took out his baton and began beating the demonstrator after the scuffle started. When a crowd began to surround the officers, the one using his baton drew his pistol and aimed it at the heads of those around him.

Photographs show that the people the policeman was aiming at were all reporters and photographers. Reuter’s photographer Noah Berger, freelance journalist Courtney Harrop, and San Francisco Chronicle photographer Michael Short were all threatened with the officer’s pistol, ostensibly for taking photographs of the scene.

The two officers soon arrested the man who had been beaten with the help of riot police who had been tailing and monitoring the protest march. The two plainclothes police have subsequently been identified as California Highway Patrol officers.

According to the DailyDot, protesters claim that the two undercover officers attempted to “disrupt the peaceful protest and provoke violence.” These witnesses say that the officers banged on windows and encouraged protesters to loot businesses.

Despite widespread coverage of the Monday night freeway occupation, the Wednesday night uncovering of police provocateurs has gone unreported in most major news outlets. As of this writing, the only major newspapers to have covered the story are the New York Daily News and the local San Francisco Chronicle.

The Wednesday evening protest was one of several nightly demonstrations against the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Oakland and neighboring Berkeley have seen protests every night since Saturday.

The march on Wednesday night came on the fifth straight night of protests against police brutality centered in Berkeley, which grew to their peak on Monday night, when over 1,500 marched through Berkeley and 200 protesters blocked traffic on Interstate-80, the busiest freeway in the East Bay Area. The protests have gradually dwindled on following nights.

During the weekend protests, two men were also accused of working for the Oakland Police Department. A video was posted online comparing the two accused undercover cops with images of two police officers with the OPD.

Acting Oakland Police Chief Howard Johnson made a remarkable statement about placing undercover police agents in protest organizations in 2003, stating, “You don’t need to have some sort of skill to be able to infiltrate these groups. If you put the people in there from the beginning, I think we’ll be able to gather the information. And maybe direct them to do something we want them to do.”

Oakland police made a total of 170 arrests during the week in November following the exoneration of Darren Wilson (the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who killed Michael Brown), while in San Francisco more than 80 people were arrested during protests on Black Friday alone.

Injuries to protesters over the course of the past five days include broken legs, at least two induced seizures, several head wounds and concussions from baton blows to the head, and deep welts from rubber bullets. Stephen Lam, a photographer and journalist working for Reuters, was pepper sprayed.

On Tuesday night, a crowd of over 500 assembled in downtown Berkeley, which gradually dwindled during a march to Oakland, where the roughly 200 remaining protesters led another freeway occupation on Highway 24. They blocked traffic for half an hour, at which point the California Highway Patrol (CHP), Berkeley Police Department (BPD) and Oakland Police Department (OPD) used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.

Later, when protesters had been herded under the freeway, two officers fired 4 rubber bullet rounds from above, while still on the freeway, reportedly hitting one protester on the ear, one on the ankle and another on the head. The person shot in the ear was sent to the hospital for treatment.

Six media myths about the Black Friday demonstration in San Francisco

Media Myths About Protests


By and

Since November 24, protests have been raging across the nation in response to the non-indictments of police officers Darren Wilson, who fatally shot unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, and Daniel Pantaleo, who strangled an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, to death in New York City on camera. We believe the media has covered the protests in a way that exaggerates their violence and has minimized their significance. Here are six myths about a large demonstration in San Francisco that took place on Black Friday, followed by what actually happened.

Myth 1: the Media Said the Protest Became an Ugly, Violent Riot

Ugly. Violent. Riots. Looting. Cowering shoppers. Frightened crowds. That’s what Americans heard about the Black Friday march in San Francisco from the media.

But how violent was the protest really? The answer: not very. Only a tiny minority of the people present was involved in property damage or assault. And those moments were vastly outweighed by long periods of peaceful marching.

You might think it’s hard to estimate how much of the protest involved criminality. But we’re going to try, based on a minute-by-minute report of the four-hour protest by San Francisco-based freelance journalist Sam-Omar Hall, eyewitness accounts (including from us), and from information released by San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr.

In the five incidents of vandalism and violence in Union Square, an estimated 9 people were involved, out of about 400 protesters — in other words, just 2 percent of those participating. The incidents took place over a span of about 15 minutes, starting at 6:43 p.m. — the only time during which vandalism occurred in the first two hours of the march.

Over the next two hours, in the Mission District, about nine isolated incidents of vandalism and violence took place during a span of about 20 to 30 minutes. In all, the four-hour protest involved isolated incidents of criminal behavior over about 35 to 45 minutes — far from the “riot” described by the media.

For comparison, let’s look back to earlier this fall, when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. Rioting sports fans in the Mission District damaged 28 Muni buses; lit street bonfires on couches, trash cans, mattresses, and Lyft’s pink mustaches; smashed five police vehicles; and shot guns, wounding two people. The damage to Muni alone totaled at least $140,000. Despite the far greater intensity of property damage and violence, police only made forty arrests — half the number made on Black Friday.

Myth 2: There Was Indiscriminate Looting

In reality, property damage was targeted at major chain stores and upscale businesses. Stores damaged included Macy’s, Bank of America, Simayof Jewelers, McDonald’s, RadioShack, and Beretta — an upscale restaurant on Valencia Street.

What are the common denominators of these targets? They’re either large national chains or symptoms of gentrification.

Myth 3: Police Arrested 79 Vandals

In reality, police did not arrest any vandals. In a press conference last week, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr concluded his statement by saying that “All told that night, we made 79 arrests.”

But Suhr did not specify why the 79 people were arrested, leaving the journalists present with the impression that 79 arrests were made in response to violence and vandalism.

A later question, however, blew that idea to shreds. In response to a media question about how many arrests were made in regard to vandalism, Suhr admitted, “We have no arrests for vandalism.”

In fact, of the 79 arrested, all but 4 were cited and released for misdemeanors unrelated to assault or vandalism. Of the four booked into jail, two were for outstanding warrants, leaving only 2 arrests that had anything to do with violence that night.

But of the 9 news reports of the press conference, only 2 mentioned that none of the 79 arrests were for vandalism.

Myth 4: Police Acted Legally Throughout

In reality, police mass-arrested seventy people on legally dubious grounds. Starting at about 9:45 p.m., police silently arrested around seventy protesters who were trapped and huddled together on Liberty Street. The arrests occurred over a period of about two hours.

So you might imagine that cops had good reasons for the mass arrests. But you’d be wrong.

Those arrested were compliant, exhausted, and wanted to go home. Here’s how they ended up cuffed and jailed instead:

The group had turned onto Liberty in an attempt to escape two police lines trapping them on Valencia. Police chased them onto Liberty and ordered them to get out of the road and onto the sidewalk. Everyone got onto the sidewalk.

Then a different police line approached from ahead and ordered protesters to get back into the road. Police circled the group of protesters, forcing everyone back onto the sidewalk and up against a wall on Liberty.

Police wouldn’t respond to questions, and when approached, they lifted what looked like automatic weapons. (These weapons were probably rubber-bullet guns.) No one knew what was happening, everyone was tired, and no one was offering any resistance. People started calling family to say they were likely getting arrested, as police began picking off and cuffing protesters one by one.

People were not read their rights. Police quickly mumbled the charge numbers to each person as they were handcuffed. It turned out that everyone present had been charged with jaywalking and with failure to obey a law enforcement officer. Everyone was taken to the Hall of Justice in vans, cited, and released some hours later — except for three people detained overnight because they had prior warrants.

Were the arrests legal? Not really, because it was impossible for protesters to simultaneously obey two sets of officers and be on and off the sidewalk at the same time, one legal expert explained. “Implied with any directive is the ability to obey or comply, so if they told you to do something that was in some way impossible then that would be unlawful,” said Danny Everett, a criminal defense attorney and former San Francisco deputy district attorney.

The arrests were legally dubious in another respect, too. The officer who handcuffed one of us — Ryan Heuser — told Heuser that he had “failed to disperse.” But no dispersal order was given in the vicinity of the mass arrest.

We later learned that a dispersal order was given to a different group, several blocks away on Valencia and completely out of earshot. This tactic has been used recently by Los Angeles Police Department officers who arrested a large group of protestors after a dispersal order had been read in a different part of downtown.

Is that a legal move by police? Not exactly. “If you give an order to one set of people and then expect another to comply with it, then that would not be lawful,” Everett said. “It’s not a lawful order.”

Myth 5: Police Acted With Great “Restraint”

Police Chief Suhr said last week that police acted throughout the protests with “restraint.” Media accounts have supported that narrative and totally avoided any criticism of police tactics.

Yet during the protest, SFPD used a kettling tactic — essentially blocking or trapping protesters in a tight area — that is highly controversial in other countries. In the United Kingdom, some legal experts say that kettling is used to make protesting so unpleasant that people who experience it will never protest again.

It’s also widely accepted that kettling is likely to provoke violence. In Union Square, it was only after protesters had been kettled between police lines for more than fifteen minutes that we heard glass break for the first time. “Does the benefit of any prevention of disorder by kettling justify the anger, dismay, and sometimes further disorder that it creates?” asked British reporter Dave Hill in a report after a notorious kettling incident in London in 2010.

Myth 6: Police Acted In The Public Interest

Arresting people who aren’t criminals is not in the public interest. But arresting protesters who didn’t commit a crime has one major advantage for police. It makes those people less likely to ever take to the streets and protest again. “I would highly anticipate that there’s a 99.9 percent chance that all those charges would be dropped,” Everett said. “The purpose is to arrest you and defuse the situation.”

Mary Noble is managing editor of Topix, and has written on politics and social justice since 2012. Ryan Heuser is a freelance journalist and a graduate student at Stanford University.

Podemos: the political upstart taking Spain by force

by Carlos Delclós on December 9, 2014

Post image for Podemos: the political upstart taking Spain by forceSome frequent questions about the political singularity that now leads the polls in Spain. Just who are Podemos? And could they be a force for change?

In April of 2013, the far-right Spanish television channel Intereconomía invited an unlikely guest to their primetime debate show: a young, Jesus-haired college professor with an unequivocally leftist background named Pablo Iglesias, just like the founder of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. Their goal was to corner him and hold him up as an example of an antiquated and defeated leftist past. Yet Iglesias responded to their rhetoric in a simultaneously polite but firmly antagonistic tone that appealed to both the younger generations who became politicized through the indignados movement and the older generations who did so during Spain’s transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy.

Over the following months, Iglesias and the team of academics and activists behind him were able to use this window of opportunity to catapult the message of the social movements and, most importantly, the people left behind by years of austerity and neoliberalism, into the mainstream media. Shortly after gaining access to the media, they formed the political party Podemos (“We Can”), initiating what polls are showing to be an authentic dispute for control of the Spanish government. How they were able to accomplish this in such a short amount of time will be studied in the political and social sciences for years to come.

Because it is a process that I have followed very closely for a number of years, I have often been asked by independent media-makers, academics and activists about how all of this came to be and what the implications are for movement politics. In this piece, I try to address some of the main questions I get from people who are actively engaged in the struggle for a real democracy.

Who are Podemos? Who are its leaders? Is this just another typical leftist party?

Podemos is a new political party that emerged at the beginning of 2014, initially as an alliance between the trotskyist Izquierda Anticapitalista and a group of academic “outsiders” with an activist background who had built a vibrant community through a public access television debate show called La Tuerka (“The Screw”). When I refer to this second group as outsiders, it is not to suggest that their academic output is eccentric or of a low quality. Rather, they are the types of academics who do not fit the mold favored by the so-called Bologna reforms of higher education in Europe, with its emphasis on highly specialized technical “experts” and empirical research, and its hostility towards a broader, theoretical and more discursive approach. These academics are currently the party’s most recognizable faces due to their formidable skills as communicators and their access to the mainstream media.

Recently, Podemos held elections for their Citizens’ Council, which is effectively the party’s leadership. Over 100.000 people participated in those elections through online voting. The team selected by Pablo Iglesias won by an overwhelming majority. It includes an interesting mix of academics, activists and some former politicians. For instance, Juan Carlos Monedero worked as an adviser to Hugo Chávez between 2005 and 2010, and he also advised Gaspar Llamazares of the Spanish United Left party. Íñigo Errejón is a very young and highly promising political scientist who carried out research in Bolivia and Venezuela, though prior to that he was one of the founders of Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), who had a major role in spearheading the indignados movement. Other activists from Juventud Sin Futuro include Rita Maestre and Sarah Bienzobas. Rafa Mayoral and Jaume Asens worked as lawyers for the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), the highly successful civil disobedience movement for decent housing. And Raimundo Viejo and Jorge Moruno are prominent intellectuals associated with the autonomist left.

Whether or not Podemos can be considered a typical leftist party will depend on its evolution. What is clear is that they do not adopt the rhetorical and aesthetic baggage of the marginal leftist and green parties that currently decorate European parliaments. Also, in contrast to SYRIZA, Podemos did not exist prior to the 2011 wave of protests; they emerged based on a diagnosis of the movements’ discourse and demands. Much of what has made Podemos so effective in the post-2011 political arena has been their ability to listen to the social movements, while the pre-existing Spanish political parties were busy lecturing them. Yet, as time progresses and support for the party grows, Podemos is finding itself increasingly tempted to assume the structures that are best adapted to Spain’s formal institutions. Unsurprisingly, these structures are those that currently exist. Whether or not this institutional inertia can be overcome depends on the degree to which the party’s constituents are capable of maintaining tension with its leadership structure and guaranteeing their accountability.

Why did Podemos explode onto the scene in the way they did?

Podemos burst onto the political scene because they understood the climate in the aftermath of the 2011 protests better than any other political actor. For example, the role of the social networks in connecting those movements was extremely important, but a lot of people and political organizations misinterpreted that fact as support for a techno-political, decentralized peer-to-peer ideology. In contrast, I think Podemos saw the social networks as a discursive laboratory through which to build and strengthen a common narrative that they would then take to the public arena in order to maximize its impact. To put it bluntly, they were not content with memes and likes and long comment threads. They wanted to take that discussion to the bars, the cafés and the unemployment lines.

In a sense, the key to Podemos’s emancipatory potential can be summed up in a phrase popularized by Raimundo Viejo and later put into a song by Los Chikos del Maiz, a Marxist rap group that has been very close to the party’s emergence: “El miedo va a cambiar de bando,” which translates to, “Fear is going to change sides.” Currently, they are accompanying that phrase with another, saying that the smiles are also starting to change sides. Using this approach, what they have managed to do is take the insecurity and fears produced by precariousness, unemployment or poverty and, in contrast to projecting it on immigrants (which is what Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and, to a lesser extent, Beppe Grillo have done), they project it onto what they call “la casta” (the caste), which is basically the ruling class. And they have done this while, at the same time, “occupying” feelings like hope and joy.

Who supports Podemos? What segment of the population would consider voting for them?

In most of the reports I have seen or read in English, Podemos is described as a sort of outgrowth of the indignados movement, in something of a linear progression. I think this is wrong. While their message resonated far beyond their class composition, the indignados movement was largely composed of a relatively young, college-educated precariat. Their emphasis on direct action and slow, horizontal deliberation introduced something of a selection mechanism into actual participation in the movement, whereby people who were less versed in the culture of radical politics, had less time to spend in general assemblies, were not entirely comfortable with public speaking, were not particularly interested in learning new internet tools and were not willing to take the risks associated with civil disobedience were filtered out over time.

In contrast, Podemos’s access to television guaranteed contact with an older audience, which is extremely important in a country such as Spain, with its older population structure and decades of low fertility. And the types of participation that Podemos enabled (namely, ballot boxes and smart phone apps) have a low learning curve, require less time and involve fewer risks than the more autonomous politics of the indignados. Because of this, Podemos attracts a crowd that includes a much larger component of underprivileged, working class and older people, in addition to a very strong, college-educated youth demographic.

The ideological composition of the people who support Podemos is also interesting. While the bulk of the support they draw comes from people who used to vote for the center-left “socialist” party, nearly a third of the people who currently support them had previously abstained from voting, turned in spoiled ballots or even voted for the right-wing Popular Party. Furthermore, while Podemos openly rejects the standard “left-right” division that has characterised Western politics for years, surveys are showing that their voters mostly view themselves as leftists, that is, neither center-left nor far left. Taken together, this might suggest that Podemos are drawing on something of an untapped leftist imaginary, or that they may very well be redefining what it means for people to consider themselves “leftists” in Spain.

What is Podemos’s relationship with the grassroots movements?

Podemos’s relationship with the grassroots movements is a tricky question to tackle. In addition to the establishment parties and the mainstream media, some people who are active in the grassroots and social movements have been quite critical of Podemos. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I think it is an issue that requires much more reflection than what I can offer here, which is entirely my opinion at the moment. But at its heart, Podemos is part of a growing exasperation with an institutional “glass ceiling” that the social movements keep bumping up against and have not been able to shatter. This exasperation is visible not only in the rise of Podemos but also in the emergence of municipal platforms intended to join outsider parties, community organizations and activists in radically democratic candidacies. In this context, people from the social movements are generally split between those who favor that type of participation and those who prefer a radicalization of non-institutional action.

The main criticism I see coming from the second group is that Podemos started “from the top and not from the bottom.” I think this is wrong. A comically low-budget local TV show and a Facebook page are not what I would consider “high” in a neoliberal chain of command. What Podemos have done is rise very quickly from there, and as they have done so, they have had to deal with questions related to institutional inertia and the autonomy of their own organization. And that is where I think critical voices coming from the social movements are right to be nervous.

While Podemos initially drew its legitimacy, structure (the Círculos they started in various cities were basically conceived as local, self-managed assemblies) and demands (a citizen-led restructuring of the debt, universal basic income, affordable public housing, an end to austerity policies, etc.) from the social movements, their intention was always to draw people from beyond the social movements. They have succeed wildly in doing so, and it turns out that the world outside of the social movements is huge. And despite the fact that they agree with the demands of the social movements, that world appears to be less interested in the social movements’ methodology than the social movements would like. This is enormously frustrating, because it confronts us with our own marginality. It is also unsurprising, because if people who are not activists loved our methodology as much as our message, there would probably be a lot more activists.

The main example of this tension is the internal elections. So far, Iglesias’s lists have consistently won with close to 90% support, and many people who have been influential in shaping the discourse of the social movements (and even that of Podemos itself) are increasingly being left out of decision-making because they are not on those lists. Once out, they discover how little influence the social networks and the Círculos actually have not only relative to that of the members who appear on TV, but also on the people who are not actively involved in the Círculos, yet still identify with Podemos enough to vote in their elections. So far, this has led to some internal accusations of authoritarianism, which I find misguided and think are kind of missing the point. I think the real problem is that we are finding that, in the present climate, people are generally happier to delegate responsibility than we suspected, at least until they can vote on specific issues that affect their daily lives.

At the same time, this propensity to delegate depends a lot on the legitimacy and trust people have in Podemos, which to a large extent was built through their relationship with the streets. So I think the influence the social movements have on Podemos is going to depend on their ability to engage in street politics in such a way that they are able to meet dispossessed people’s needs, on the one hand, and shape the public conversation in a way that forces Podemos to position itself. An example would be the PAH. Podemos cannot stray too much from their demands for decent housing because everybody knows and agrees with them. If Podemos were to stray too far from their demands, the PAH could mobilize against them or simply put out a harsh press statement, undermining their legitimacy considerably.

Where do you see this going? Could Podemos actually win the elections?

I think this is going to change Spain and Europe as we know them, no matter what. Polls are showing that Podemos have a real shot at being the most voted party in the country. Some show that they are already the most supported, and Pablo Iglesias is by far the most popular politician in Spain. If Podemos were to win, in all likelihood the Popular Party and the “socialists” would try to form a national government centered on guaranteeing order, making a few cosmetic changes to the constitution and sabotaging any chance for Podemos to ever beat them. They would also probably try to destroy any chance at something like Podemos rising again. As it stands, the establishment is doing everything in its power to discredit them: associating them with terrorist organizations, accusing their spokespeople of misconduct based on nothing, fabricating news stories. Fear really has changed sides, and it is clearly the establishment that is frightened.

In this sense, I think it’s very important for movements, and for Podemos themselves, to think of what is happening as a kind of political singularity. This is not Obama putting the Democrats in the White House. It is a group of people who have been actively engaged in the struggle against neoliberalism that have managed to turn a populist moment during a period of economic crisis into a hope for a better democracy and an end to neoliberal austerity. At least in Spain, to blow this chance could be a major step backwards for emancipatory politics, towards another long journey through the desert.

Carlos Delclos is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. Currently he collaborates with the Health Inequalities Research Group at Pompeu Fabra University and the Barcelona Institute of Metropolitan and Regional Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Obama administration seeks to contain anger over whitewash of police killings

By Patrick Martin
8 December 2014

Protests continued over the weekend in dozens of US cities against the official whitewashes of the police killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

There were demonstrations for a fifth consecutive day Sunday in New York, where a grand jury in Staten Island refused to indict policeman Daniel Pantaleo despite widely circulated cellphone videos showing a half-dozen other cops overpowering Garner while Pantaleo applyied a chokehold to his neck, causing his death.

Related protests took place over the weekend in Providence, Rhode Island; New Haven, Connecticut; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Miami; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Las Vegas and Seattle. There were also protests in Berkeley, Oakland, Los Angeles, Riverside and other locations in California.

Violent clashes with police erupted at the Berkeley protest after police, using clubs and firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets, charged a peaceful demonstration. The largest protests continue to be in New York City, where police have pulled back from mass arrests after 200 demonstrators were rounded up Thursday in Times Square.

The official reaction to popular anger over the whitewash of Eric Garner’s murder differs superficially from the militarized response to the November 24 decision of a grand jury in Missouri to bring no charges against the cop who fatally shot Michael Brown.

State authorities sent more than 2,000 National Guard troops into Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri with the clear threat to use massive force against protests. At the same time, government officials from President Obama on down declared that the grand jury process had to be respected, while the media proclaimed the evidence demonstrated the innocence of Officer Darren Wilson.

In the Garner case, where the cellphone video provided incontrovertible proof of the police killing of an unarmed man, the government and media response has been more cautious, expressing sympathy for the Garner family and calling for empty “reforms.”

Above all, the Obama administration has sought to divert popular anger over the police killings into the blind alley of racial politics, depicting the root problem to be racial prejudice, particularly among individual policemen, to be overcome by better training and the recruitment of more African-American cops.

Obama led this effort, giving an interview to Black Entertainment Television, to be aired Monday, during which he said that racism is “something that’s deeply rooted in our society, it’s deeply rooted in our history.”

He urged patience, particularly on young people who have been in the forefront of the recent protests, saying, “When you’re dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you’ve got to have vigilance, but you have to recognize that it is going to take some time and you just have to be steady.”

This argument conceals the essential source of police violence against the working class, which is rooted, not in a centuries-old slave system, but in today’s capitalist oppression of the vast majority of the population by a corporate-financial elite. It is the enormous and growing gulf between the super-rich oligarchy and the working class that accounts for the increasingly violent methods employed by the police against the working class as a whole.

While police violence and harassment are pervasive in impoverished and predominantly African-American neighborhoods in many US cities, the majority of those killed by police are white, a fact that was underscored by the latest police murder, the killing of an apparently mentally ill man on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles Friday night. The man was holding a pocket knife and represented a threat to no one but himself, but he was gunned down as horrified tourists looked on, 100 yards from the site of the annual Academy Awards.

Appearing on the NBC interview program “Meet the Press” Sunday, Esaw Sniper-Garner, the widow of Eric Garner, said that her husband’s killing was not just a matter of police racism.

“I feel he was murdered unjustly,” she said. “I don’t even feel like it’s a black and white thing, honestly, you know, in my opinion. I really don’t feel like it’s a black and white thing.”

She explained that her husband was well known to the police because he sold untaxed loose cigarettes to make ends meet, and lived only two blocks from the headquarters of the 120th police precinct. He had been arrested many times, and never offered any physical resistance.

Snipes-Garner said she was herself afraid of the police, in the aftermath of her husband’s death. “Yes I am,” she insisted. “That’s why I left Staten Island.”

Appearing side-by-side on the same program, Al Sharpton, acting in his capacity as a political agent of the Obama administration, sought to turn the discussion with Esaw Garner back to race.

He urged more appeals to the Obama administration and Congress for action by the Department of Justice in both the Garner and Brown cases. Referring to Garner, Sharpton said, “If he was of a different race, with the same background … would he have been treated the same way?” In fact, it would be more appropriate to ask whether Garner would have been treated the same way if he had Sharpton’s wealth.

At the same time, Sharpton suggested that black workers were responsible for the endemic conditions of poverty and police repression. Proclaiming his support for the Obama administration, Sharpton said his organization, the National Action Network, “supported the jobs bill, support infrastructure development, because we want to challenge men in our community to say, ‘You’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to be responsible.’”

While the Sunday network interview programs devoted the lion’s share of their time to the popular response to the police killings, there was virtually no discussion of the actual role of the Obama administration in encouraging such violence, through the federal program that promotes the militarization of local police and supplies them with heavy weapons, including automatic rifles, armored vehicles and other military equipment made available from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most significant action taken by the Obama administration in the wake of the Garner grand jury decision was to declare its full backing for these programs, as outlined in a White House report released early last week. The action underscores the fundamental class issues at stake. Representing the corporate and financial aristocracy, the administration is absolutely committed to the continued build-up of the apparatus of repression in the United States.