When death is a life-affirming choice

Brittany Maynard’s bold final campaign for death with dignity


When death is a life-affirming choice
Brittany Maynard (Credit: CNN)

Like every one of us, Brittany Maynard is going to die. But like very few of us, she knows exactly when. In just a short time, the 29 year-old’s life will come to an end.

In a powerful essay for CNN, the volunteer advocate for Compassion and Choices writes this week of how earlier this year, “after months of suffering from debilitating headaches,” she got the nightmare diagnosis of brain cancer. In April, her doctors told her that she likely had only six months or so to live. She’d been married less than a year. She and her husband had been trying to start a family. Now, she and her loved ones are trying to help her die. The former Bay Area resident acknowledges that “There is no treatment that would save my life, and the recommended treatments would have destroyed the time I had left.” And with only five states in the US with death with dignity laws, Maynard and her husband moved to Portland and established residency there so that she could obtain what she refers to simply as “the medication” that will help her in her final act. She plans to celebrate her husband’s birthday on October 26. She plans on making her exit soon after.

Maynard’s choice is a brave and difficult one. And by speaking out about it, she’s part of a growing collection of patients who’ve made the often-taboo conversation around end-of-life decisions more humane and, with luck, compassionate. Earlier this year, Toronto criminal lawyer Edward Hung shared the story of his “terminal incurable” ALS, and his decision to go to Switzerland for the “assisted death” that Canadian law forbids. Last year, writer Jane Lotter went viral with her eloquent self-penned obituary, and its postscript that with the help of “powdered barbiturates, provided by hospice officials… Jane took advantage of Washington state’s compassionate Death With Dignity Act.”

It is a generous thing to use one’s few remaining days to speak out in the hope of raising awareness and helping others. Not many of us want to leave this world at all. But to the extent that we have any say in the matter, wouldn’t most of us choose to do it as peacefully and lovingly as possible? For far too many of us, the final laps around the track are wracked with suffering and unnecessary fighting over the fulfillment of even our own most explicit wishes. For far too many of us, death is framed in terms of “losing a battle,” as if anything but going down gasping and swinging is an admission of defeat. A report on “Dying In America” issued last month by the Institute of Medicine revealed that “Most Americans who indicate their end-of-life wishes say they want to die at home, with a focus on alleviating pain and suffering. That’s not happening.” We need sweeping and uniform change, across every state. We need Maynard’s choice to be available to anyone facing a terminal diagnosis and a desire to be as free of needless pain and intervention as possible. We need that for ourselves and for our loved ones. However much time we’re given, we all deserve a death that honors the life that came before it. We deserve a death that, like the great Geoffrey Holder’s, can be choreographed to our own unique tune. And the chance to do what Maynard says she hopes for, to be able to say to the people we care about, “I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.”

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.


Kurds rise up across Europe to demand action against ISIS

by Jerome Roos on October 7, 2014

Post image for Kurds rise up across Europe to demand action against ISISTurkish-Kurdish peace process appears to be on verge of collapse as tensions flare up over Turkish inaction and support for ISIS in the siege of Kobanê.

Kurdish anger is exploding onto the streets of Turkey and across Europe in protest at Western inaction in Kobanê and Turkish collusion with ISIS. As the extremist militants of the Islamic State close in on the besieged town on the Turkish-Syrian border, with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) running low on ammunition and Kurdish commanders warning of an impending massacre, the Turkish government and the US-led coalition appear to be content to stand by and let ISIS unleash a bloodbath in the city.

In recent days, thousands of Kurds have descended upon the Turkish town of Suruç, just miles from Kobanê, in an attempt to cross the border, break the siege and bring supplies and reinforcements to their family, kin and comrades. Turkish troops have responded by sealing off the border crossing and firing teargas and rubber bullets both at Turkish Kurds trying to break into Syria and at Syrian refugees fleeing towards Turkey. Cut off from the outside world and without much air support, the YPG fighters are left to fend for themselves.

Desperate to get Turkey and the international community to take decisive action before ISIS overruns the city center, Kurdish protesters are staging demonstrations, occupations and actions across Europe. In The Hague, a group of Kurds briefly occupied the entrance hall to the Dutch Parliament, in Brussels they broke into the European Parliament, and in London they staged a protest at the Oxford Circus tube station. Further protests were held in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Stockholm and dozens of cities across the continent.

On Tuesday, heavy clashes also broke out throughout Turkey, leaving streets ablaze and resulting in at least twelve deaths. In Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood, police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators. In Mus, a 25-year-old man was reportedly killed after being struck in the head by a teargas canister. In Diyarbakir, two men were killed when Islamist groups opened fire on Kurdish protesters. Violent protests also broke out in Ankara, and authorities declared a curfew in five Kurdish-majority provinces.

The main demands of the Kurds are for the US-led coalition to step up airstrikes against ISIS positions and for the Turkish military to open up the border and thus relieve the siege of Kobanê, allowing reinforcements, supplies and ammunition to flow through towards their comrades in Syria. The Turkish government has stated that it is only willing to open the border if the Syrian Kurds give up their self-governing cantons, join the Free Syrian Army, and allow Turkey to establish a buffer zone in Northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).

The Kurds are rightly furious at these demands, which clearly belie Turkey’s real intentions: to crush the thriving experiment in democratic autonomy that has been underway in Western Kurdistan ever since Assad’s troops retreated from the North in July 2012. On Saturday, President Erdoğan stated that for him ISIS and the PKK are basically the same. Since the YPG militia in Kobanê are effectively fighting under the Syrian wing of the PKK, Turkish support can be ruled out. In recent weeks, Erdoğan has made it more than clear that he would prefer to see an expanded Islamic State over a consolidated Kurdistan.

Turkey will therefore never be the savior in this unfolding drama. Instead, the Kurds must be given a fair chance to fight for themselves and deal a heavy blow to the ISIS gangs — something they can only do if they are well-armed, well-supplied and supported from the air. The YPG and PKK fighters have so far proven themselves to be the most disciplined, the most courageous and the most effective armed opposition to ISIS on the ground. But they are a leftist force that is still considered to be a “terrorist” organization by Turkey, the US and Europe. While the US and Europe are starting to recognize that the YPG/PKK may be a useful ally, they have proven unwilling to offend Turkey over the issue.

The result of this Turkish sabotage and international lack of determination has been to unravel the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, which had been underway ever since the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew most of its fighters from Turkey in 2013. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has stated that the future of the peace process will depend on the outcome in Kobanê, and he has given Turkey until mid-October to show its commitment to preventing the fall of the city. Since it is unlikely that Erdoğan will change course, the PKK may soon see itself forced to resume the armed struggle against the Turkish state to defend the democratic advances that the peoples of Kurdistan have made since 2012.

In this sense, Tuesday’s riots may be only a taste of what lies ahead. With Kurdish outrage boiling over and the peace process on the verge of collapse, it now seems increasingly likely that the Syrian civil war will spill over into Turkey. If this were to happen, the Turkish government and the international community will have themselves entirely to blame. At this point, there is only one way to prevent such a catastrophic escalation of the conflict: for Turkey to open the border and the US-led coalition to strike ISIS positions around Kobanê. Only if this impending massacre is averted will Turkey itself be able to remain at peace.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.



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The class antagonisms of Hong Kong’s umbrella movement

by ROAR Collective on October 5, 2014

Post image for The class antagonisms of Hong Kong’s umbrella movementDespite the politeness, short-sighted demands and bitter populism of the protests, it is at least clear that after this Hong Kong will not be the same.

The Class Antagonisms of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement

Written by an American Ultra and some anonymous friends

PART 1: The History

A Global City

Itinerant shoppers pose for selfies as the skyline of the finance district across the bay bursts into a kaleidoscope of green and yellow lights. Below them, the waters of Victoria Harbor stir quietly, foreboding a typhoon. Despite the churning water, the nearby cruise ship hardly seems to move. It is docked to the pier at Tsim Sha Tsui, its gangplank descending into one of the most luxurious shopping malls in East Asia, a convenience allowing wealthy visitors from all across the world the ability to disembark from one climate-controlled environment to another without ever leaving the safety of AC and well-trained security. Once off the ship, they can spend money tax-free at the city’s most fashionable restaurants and retail outlets, eating Japanese BBQ and then gliding over polished floors to browse retro British outfits at a boutique marketing 20s-style colonial chic.

Outside on the dock, rain starts to splatter down on the selfie-takers’ outstretched iPhones. A young girl sings old Cantonese pop songs, even though everyone listens to K-pop now, accompanied by her boyfriend’s out-of-tune guitar. People drop a few serrated Hong Kong coins into their donation jar. The wind begins to pick up, washing away the Cantonese tones as it sweeps static across the microphone. Behind her, the cruise ship sits white and motionless.

This is the battle that is Hong Kong: Old Cantonese love songs hurled into the growing wind of a typhoon, torn apart before they reach the walls of lifeless Cruise ships and shopping malls looming under the lights of the financial district. Here spectacle confronts stubborn humanity in the archetypal “global city,” designed to allow capital to filter through the port, banks and real estate markets to plunder the Asian mainland without ever having to pass outside the safety of climate control and security cordon.

For many years, Hong Kong was little more than a backwater colonial leftover, with living standards hardly better than those seen in the other hubs of European activity in Asia. After the mainland Chinese Revolution, foreign support for industrial development and agrarian reform poured into the city as a hedge against insurgency, but living standards and welfare programs were not immediately forthcoming. The colonial regime was still a brutal one, ruling over an unstable society and struggling to accommodate an influx of immigrants. In the decades following the mainland Revolution, spates of rioting were common. Riots in 1956 marked the beginning of what would soon become repeated conflicts with the British government. In the spring of 1966 another wave of rioting began which culminated a year later with the 1967 Hong Kong riots, the largest domestic disturbance in the city-state’s history, which saw massive strikes paired with city-wide street-fighting against police, the bombing of government offices and targeted attacks against right-wing media outlets. In the end, after 18 months of open rebellion, millions of dollars of property had been destroyed, some five thousand were arrested, two thousand convicted, and many communists deported to the Chinese mainland.

Following the 1967 riots, the government began a massive expansion of the welfare state, with the “Colony Outline Plan” proposing to house nearly a million people in new, cheap, state-built public apartment complexes. The massive build-up in manufacturing seen since the 1950s was finally paired with moderate wage increases, and Hong Kong’s position as one of the early “Asian Tiger” economies was secure. By the 1980s the city was an integral link to a newly-opened China, both through its geographical proximity to China’s first Special-Economic Zone across the water in Shenzhen and because of its historical connections to the Chinese mainland. It was in these decades that the foundation was laid for the “global city,” often very literally: Li Ka-shing, one of the richest men in the world, made his fortune in Hong Kong by buying properties at bargain prices following the 1967 riots. Today, those properties form the backbone of the city, and Li not only owns major skyscrapers in the financial district, but also the port itself, one of the busiest in the world.

It was this port and the financial structure surrounding it that allowed Hong Kong to step out of its role as a manufacturer and into its role as an administrative center for global capitalism in the 1980s. As manufacturing shifted toward the port cities in China’s mainland, Hong Kong became an ideal location for the management of these new industrial hubs and a key re-export node for the Asian mainland. Many of the new Chinese factory zones were themselves piloted by capital from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as more far-flung members of the Chinese diaspora. Asian foreign-direct investment in China today still exceeds that of the US or Europe—often in partnership with or on behalf of Japanese capital.

Today, the Hong Kong border with the mainland is a perfect image of this divide. On the Shenzhen side, breakneck development sprawls up against the riverside: faceless, half-empty apartment towers cluster together under the haze of pollutants. On the Hong Kong side, greenery abuts the river, the entire border region turned into a nature reserve and agricultural zone guarded by the military, where one needs a special license just to enter the forest. At first glance, the two worlds appear to be antagonistic: the uncontrollable, environmentally devastating growth of sprawling Shenzhen piling up against the idyllic greenery of its “post-industrial” neighbor. In reality, this antagonism is a sign of the deepest interdependence. Each side of the divide is co-constituted by the other. Shenzhen wouldn’t have been built without Hong Kong capital. And Hong Kong would never have become a desert of shopping malls, office towers and carefully crafted agrarian idylls without the factories of Shenzhen.

The border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong

The Generation with No Future

Hong Kong’s boom years were crafted by its own boom generation—largely the children of immigrants who had fled to the island first during the Sino-Japanese war, and then during the civil war between Nationalist and Communist armies in the later 1940s. As in US, Europe and, ironically, mainland China, it was this baby boom generation which, though staffing some of the revolts of the 1960s and early 1970s, was ultimately defined by the defeat of these movements, with a significant fraction of the generation turning against those engaged in these revolts in exchange for a secure position within the restructured global economy. In Hong Kong, this meant the construction of one of the world’s most extensive experiments in laissez faire capitalism—one still often lauded by conservative commentators.

But this has also created a squeeze effect on those coming after the baby boom generation. Raised on examples of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps billionaires like Li Ka-shing, by parents who themselves made a killing in the unregulated industrial slaughterhouse of Shenzhen’s heyday, many of Hong Kong’s younger people are now faced with nothing but soulless service jobs and repeated economic crises, first in 1997, then in 2007. Forced into cut-throat competition for spots in top universities, even those students who succeed in this system are then made to fight for life-crushing corporate jobs where they will work for abysmally long hours and still be spending an average of 40% of their income on housing.

Today, 8.5% of Hong Kong households have a yearly income of one million dollars or above, and the city hosts one of the largest super-prime housing markets in the world. At the same time, a massive housing shortage exists alongside skyrocketing prices and hundreds of thousands of empty apartments, purchased by the wealthy as speculative investments. The city is one of the densest in the world and housing prices are so high that many young people are forced to live with their parents well into their thirties, while many of the poor are expelled out to public housing in “new cities,” from which they have to commute back into Mongkok or Wanchai to work. Others are forced to find unsafe, painfully small slum units built on the tops of buildings and in the interstices of alleyways—with more than 50,000 residents estimated to literally live in cages.













Most of Hong Kong’s public housing is located in the new cities, located in the “New Territories” far from the island’s main urban core (details on this chart can be found at the original source here)

In all, the country’s gini coefficient, at .537, is one of the most unequal in the developed world, and upwards of 20% of the population lives under the poverty line. Migrant laborers are routinely abused, collective bargaining is illegal and the city had no minimum wage at all until 2010, when it was set to a meager 28 HKD per hour—not even enough to ride the subway from Mongkok to the airport. Meanwhile, wealthy foreign businessmen are paid enough to afford premium flats in the mid-levels, a neighborhood constructed in the colonial era to accommodate British functionaries fleeing an outbreak of the plague in the lowland

Even though Hong Kong is by no means in the same “anomic breakdown” as places like Greece, the over-worked, over-shopped, over-crowded youth of the city seem to have much in common with the unemployed, underpaid youth of an emptying Athens. Faced with a foreclosed future, many youth have decided to simply leave: emigration from Hong Kong is now increasing at the fastest rate since the mass-emigration of the pre-handover period of the early 1990s.[ii] Despite relatively low unemployment (four to five percent) due to a still-ascendant East Asia, there are more subtle signs of the crisis: demand for mental health services has more than doubled in the past decade, it is commonplace now to hear people speaking about the cultural “death” of Hong Kong, and what used to be routine protests against government developments and the mainland government quickly snowball to increasingly uncontrollable proportions. The recent student strike and (re)occupation of the Central district (and now Admiralty, Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and several other key nodes in the city) are only the latest in a series of such events.

Despite being located at a more privileged position in the division of labor, the youth in Hong Kong are clearly participating in the same global dynamic of revolt spearheaded by young people worldwide following the financial crisis that began in 2007/2008. The people involved in these events are, precisely, “ultras”—those members of our “generation with no future” who have sensed the looming economic, environmental and social doom all around them and chosen to fight back. Worldwide, there are major differences in the origin and experience of those engaged in these activities. Some are students, some are street kids, soccer hooligans or service workers. Coming from such divergent backgrounds, these revolts have been marked by what the communist theoretical collective Endnotes calls the “composition problem,” wherein “class fractions that typically keep their distance from each other were forced to recognize one another and sometimes live together.” The problem embedded in this is the question of how a movement might “compose,” “coordinate” or “unify” “proletarian factions, in the course of their struggle” when faced with these divergent experiences, especially as the social base of the movement begins to grow. The result has been the production of movements that, though broadly resonant with large segments of the population, are ultimately inchoate on the ground.

Pan-Democrats and Passionate Citizens

Each of these revolts, whether in Egypt, Greece or Missouri, has been profound in its potential but also crippled by this political incoherence and practical inexperience. Some places, like Greece and Spain, have a more cohesive left-wing political tradition that is now being rediscovered and revived by young people. Other areas, however, have seen sharp turns to the right, as far-right groups in places like the Ukraine and Thailand have outmaneuvered others in their ability to defend, extend and coordinate the movement, drawing more of this disaffected generation into their ranks.

Hong Kong, unfortunately, sits closer in many respects to these latter examples than the earlier ones. After 1967 the communist-leaning left had lost much of its mass base and was ruthlessly dismantled by the police. Meanwhile, the state began giving concessions to workers, students and others in exchange for their participation in the project of economic restructuring. Hong Kong’s own Cold War climate, relative to China, persisted even after the opening of the Chinese economy to foreign capital, further preventing the resuscitation of any sort of substantial communist left in the city-state by forcing every nascent radical grouplet to take a position on the “China question.” Any “violence” in a protest is, to this day, invariably explained as the work of CCP provocateurs from the mainland.

The result has been that Hong Kong’s so-called “left,” has for decades been dominated by a naïve discourse of “democracy” against mainland “authoritarianism.” Inspired by the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing and terrified by the ruthlessness with which it was crushed, most of Hong Kong’s radical students since 1989 accepted at face value the mainstream media portrayal of Tiananmen as a student-led movement for “democracy.” In Beijing, despite the widespread participation of non-students, the formation of the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation, and the state’s decision to charge worker-participants with far higher crimes carrying much longer sentences than their student counterparts, it was the students who were able to dominate the messaging of the movement and appeal to western liberal audiences with calls for the liberalization of the political and economic system. This was the distorted image of the movement transmitted to viewers in the US and Europe, and its influence was only amplified in Hong Kong.

The first immediate effect was the formation of the “Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China,” which began to bring together figures such as Szeto Wah, Martin Lee, and Lee Cheuk-yan, all of whom were quickly attacked by the mainland government. Two years later, in 1991, Hong Kong held its first direct elections, which saw a landslide victory for the electoral alliance between the United Democrats of Hong Kong and the liberal Meeting Point party, alongside an amalgamation of smaller liberal-leaning parties. The 1991 election is seen as the birth of the “Pro-Democracy” camp, which has splintered and reunified several times in the twenty years since. Today, these electoral parties, alongside a loose amalgamation of academics, activists and NGOs, are broadly referred to as the “pan-democrats.”

A key component of the pan-democrats’ activist wing has been the secondary-school organizations such as Scholarism, formed to protest the Chinese government’s “political education” curriculum, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), which is elected by the student unions the city’s seven major universities. Though these organizations technically have a very broad base, their leadership is almost universally in line with the pan-democrats, and they seek a legalistic and polite path to reform. Even while the student organizations often force the more institutionalized wing of the pan-democrats to take action in an uncertain situation, many of these student groups still pride themselves on “Hong Kong civility,” even going so far as to condemn those who fight back when police attack protesters. At each stage of recent political events in Hong Kong, HKFS and groups like Scholarism have played both a leading and an ultimately stifling role. From protests against developments in the New Territories to the brief occupation following this year’s annual July 1st march, the student groups have been integral to getting the protests off the ground, but almost universally falter when faced with actual police repression.

This has created a situation where Hong Kong’s young protesters are stretched between an ideologically weak but well-funded “pan democrat” liberalism and its vaguely far-right variant, loosely grouped around the 人民力量, or “People Power,” party and its followers, called 热血公民, or “Civic Passion.” Though they officially have no position on questions of immigration, Civic Passion has widely accepted far-right Hong Kong nationalists into their organization and their yellow-shirted membership can frequently be spotted at rallies telling immigrants (particularly mainland Chinese) to leave.

Wong Yeung-tat, a leader of the right-wing Civic Passion group, with an anti-CCP banner behind

Consistent with nationalist politics elsewhere, Civic Passion tends to obscure class conflict with the language of national belonging. In terms of political analysis, many are more similar to people like Ron Paul and Alex Jones than to anything recognizably leftist. Rather than seeing the true role of the international capitalist class in the looting of Hong Kong’s future, they only see the role played by mainland capitalists in this process. More dangerously, they then attribute a completely false role to thousands of poorer mainlanders who have migrated to Hong Kong (or simply visit as less wealthy tourists), portraying them as locusts come to infest the city and drain it of all its resources.

Anti-mainland sentiment is a widely accepted and very public form of racism in Hong Kong, clearly visible on the surface of everyday life. In 2012, Apple Daily, one of the few media outlets without direct or indirect censorship from Beijing, ran a full-page ad that portrayed a giant locust looming over Hong Kong, asking: “Are you willing for Hong Kong to spend one million Hong Kong Dollars every eighteen minutes to raise the children born to mainland parents?” Then, earlier this year, over 100 people joined an “anti-locust” campaign, marching to Canton Road—a site of many expensive jewelry shops favored by wealthier mainland tourists—with signs that said things like “go back to China” and “reclaim Hong Kong,” yelling abuse at any mandarin-speaking bystanders. In moments of exacerbated social tension, this everyday racism is a convenient pressure-release, structured such that it both divides the protesters and prevents them from looking across the border to find their natural allies in the rioting migrant laborers of the Pearl River Delta.

An anti-mainlander ad run in one of Hong Kong’s biggest newspapers

But, when disillusioned by the conservatism of the pan-democratic alliance, groups like People’s Power and Civic Passion are the first visible alternatives, since they have been some of the few groups willing to attempt more militant actions. In only a few years these groups have seen a marked increase in popularity, as young people have watched the pan-democrats’ vigils and party-pandering going nowhere. To take the most frequently cited example: On June 4th, the mainstream democratic parties hold an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. Civic Passion began a yearly alternative rally, more militant but also interspersed with nationalist (what they call “localist”) and racist slogans. In 2013, their alternate rally only brought together around 200 people, but by 2014, it had attracted 7,000. Attendance at the official vigil shrank by tens of thousands in the same interval, though this main event still remained far larger.

In today’s “Umbrella Revolution,” it may appear that anti-mainland groups have again been sidelined. But past experience shows that, when the pan-democrats begin to falter through their own inaction, only the far-right has been capable of pushing for tactical advances capable of winning over increasingly militant swaths of the youth. Politics in Hong Kong has been running up against this wall for years now.

A sticker seen on walls throughout Hong Kong in the weeks leading up to the umbrella movement. Translation: “No colonizers! No New Hong Kongers [i.e. immigrants from mainland China]“

OG Occupy and the Port Strike

The current “Occupy Central” group—technically “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”—tends to obscure the existence of Hong Kong’s original Occupy Central. Like Occupy in the US, Hong Kong’s 2011 Occupation targeted a downtown financial center, raising tents in the bottom level of the HSBC building in the heart of the city’s finance district. Though Occupy Central was among the longest-lasting of any of the 2011 Occupations (starting in October 2011 and ending around September 2012), it saw much smaller numbers than elsewhere, with only hundreds participating at the height of the movement. Nonetheless, it marked a new era of civil unrest in the small city-state, and many of the participants in the original Occupation went on to build the groundwork that made the current movement possible, organizing against the New Territories developments or helping to coordinate the student strike that ignited the “Umbrella Movement.”

Hong Kong’s original Occupy movement

But the original occupation, like many others, was also politically chaotic. Alongside a nascent anarchist presence, the movement churned together the usual mixture of conspiracy-theory types, short-sighted activists and, of course, some liberals. In Hong Kong, these liberals were of the pan-democratic variety, though their political perspective is basically parallel to the shallow “get money out of politics” critique hoisted by liberals involved in Occupy Wall Street. Despite the divergence between these liberals and the original occupiers—a swath of young professionals, students, the unemployed, and homeless people—it was the older liberals who, following the eviction of the Occupation, were able to use their media connections and international acclaim to announce a plan for what was effectively a re-occupation, despite the fact that hardly any of them had participated in Occupy Central itself.

A triad of talking heads—professor Benny Tai, professor Chan Kin-man and the reverend Chu Yiu-ming—formulated and proposed a plan for a series of collective deliberations that would culminate in a reform program to be proposed to the legislative council, demanding a government elected by popular vote. In Hong Kong, this is referred to as “universal suffrage,” despite the fact that it excludes segments of the population such as immigrant domestic workers. If the reform plan was not accepted, the three leaders threatened mass civil disobedience in Central, calling the new movement “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” to emphasize that it would be “non-violent” and not go against the wishes of the majority of people of Hong Kong.

The logo for the new “Occupy with Love and Peace”

But after the new Occupy Central group held an online vote (in which only one tenth of the Hong Kong population ultimately participated), anti-Occupy forces sponsored a city-wide petition and signature-gathering campaign and public opinion polls found that there was not majority support for the re-occupation. In response, Benny Tai declared that the movement had “failed,” fearing that an actual occupation would drive more and more of the so-called “pragmatic” citizens into an outright rejection of the pan-democrats’ program. Around this time, it was common to see ads broadcast on the public buses, in which everyone from young Hong Kong hipsters to old business-owners explained that the plan to occupy Central would shut down small businesses and ruin weekend shopping. This fear that a protest movement might lose the support of civil society is a constant anxiety in Hong Kong politics, effectively forcing most movements to stifle themselves before they even begin, all in the name of politeness.

The post-facto re-branding of Occupy also conveniently disguised the more radical aspects of the original occupation with the new liberal platform. Though the significance may not be apparent to outside viewers, the original Occupation was one of the few spaces where some of the members of the “generation with no future” were coming together and collectively critiquing the whole of Hong Kong politics, pan-democrats included and politeness be damned. Some of the core members of that Occupation even distributed a lucid critique of liberal democracy, effectively “slaughtering” Hong Kong’s “sacred cow”—something that would have been completely unthinkable throughout much of the city’s post-’89 history. And it was out of this milieu that more radical segments of students and young people ultimately circumvented the quavering “deliberations” of Occupy Central with Love and Peace to initiate the student strike, not only Occupying Central, but also Admiralty, Causeway Bay and a large stretch of Mong Kok.

It wasn’t the first time that younger people had come into conflict with the old guard of pan-democrats. When tensions began to heighten in the city after the ousting of the original Occupy in 2012, this newfound antagonism began to percolate outward. In March of 2013, a massive strike began among workers at the Kwai Tsing Container Terminal of the port of Hong Kong, resulting in the largest, longest labor conflict that the city had seen in decades. Though there was no immediate connection between the original Occupy, the strike and the present protests, it’s clear that each was generated by the same economic stagnation and intensifying class antagonism. More importantly, each movement has created a shift in people’s general political awareness, and this new awareness has become the base of support for subsequent movements.

Though initiated independently by crane operators within the port, the strike was quickly picked up by the Union of Hong Kong Dockers, which is affiliated with the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and the Labour Party, all led by the old guard of pan-democrats. With union representatives spearheading negotiations, the initial energies of the striking workers were quickly diverted and the strike was prevented from spreading to a majority of the workforce. The port, owned by Li Ka-shing’s flagship company, Hutchinson Whampoa, is central to both the image and economy of Hong Kong. A true shutdown would have resounded through the entire region’s economy, drying up the profit flows for many of the area’s richest capitalists in both Hong Kong and the mainland. Realizing that such a shutdown would mobilize the media—and the wealthy people who compose “civil society”—against the workers, the union and labor party convinced the strikers to accept the court injunction banning them from the port only days after the strike began.

This meant that, instead of occupying the port itself, workers set up tents on the sidewalk outside of it and erected a mostly symbolic blockade in front of one of the port’s entryways. Media worldwide reported on the “strike,” but, behind the show, the port was running only slightly slower than usual. Even at the height of the strike the port was still operating at 80% capacity. Only a fraction of workers within the port were members of the union, and, among the unionized workers, those who argued for increased economic obstruction were sidelined or ignored. Younger supporters attempted to make contact with more workers, but were again sidelined by the old guard of liberals staffing the unions.

Fearful that even the minor disruption caused by the roadside occupation was too much for the palate of civil society (who were, after all, the main contributors to the strike fund), the union soon dismantled the camp altogether, setting up a second, much more meager encampment at the foot of the downtown Cheung Kong Center, where Hutchinson Whampoa has its headquarters. From then on, “strikers” were far removed from the port itself, reduced to holding signs in front of a downtown building. In the end, only a fraction of the demands were met, and most workers considered the strike a loss.

When later asked how they felt about the strike, which many media outlets portrayed as unprecedented, many of the older workers pointed out that two earlier strikes had actually occurred at the port prior to the 1997 handover, when the Labour Party was non-existent and most labor unions were illegal. These older workers argued that the earlier strikes were actually far more successful, since the workers had no union or party representation pushing them to appeal first and foremost to the tastes of civil society. They had therefore simply engaged in wildcat strikes that crippled the actual functioning of the port and thereby won them significant portions of their demands. By comparison, the most recent strike was a dismal loss.

PART 2: The Present

Umbrellas Up

The port strike is an important precedent for understanding the “Umbrella Movement,” since today’s occupiers will doubtlessly be faced with the same dilemma. Just like the strikers, they risk becoming deadlocked between appealing to civil society and deepening their economic obstruction. Already, internal divides within the movement make this apparent. Most of the younger protesters have completely rejected the leadership of “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” group, lambasting Chan Kin-man when he claimed that the blockades would end if Chief Executive CY Leung stepped down. Meanwhile, these same young people have parroted popular language about democracy, universal suffrage and non-violence—demanding that no property be harmed and that people not fight back even if the police attack.

A poster encouraging people to use non-violence, and to fight only for democracy (but not literally)

This servile spirit of “politeness” risks stranding the protesters in a dead zone. In this dead zone, they’ll find themselves incapable of escalating the economic disruption that gives power to the movement—since many see even damaging private property as uncivil—and this inaction will make it easy enough for the government to starve out or appease the protesters with more minor concessions, such as the firing of the Chief Executive. Many, though aware of this conundrum, are equally fearful that (rumor has it) gangster provocateurs might escalate the situation on orders from Beijing, creating a convenient excuse for a military occupation of the island.

An interesting contradiction arises here. The latent nationalism of the protests makes it so that the police, as “Hong Kong people,” are seen as allies and potentially future participants, while the intervention of the military—even if it used all the same tactics as the police—would be universally rejected. This is because the military units themselves would be composed of mainlanders under the direct order of Beijing, rather than the secondary control of Beijing’s Hong Kong politicians. For the protesters, this does not represent any sort of logical contradiction. Many firmly hold to the position that it is counterproductive to fight police or resist arrest, then, in the next sentence, argue that people would be fully justified in using violent tactics to resist the military.

A populist perspective prevents the recognition of any antagonism internal to “the people,” transposing the source of all conflict outward onto external groups, whether defined by race, national origin or simply immigration status. When such populism is predominant, riots, property destruction and even “impoliteness” on the part of protesters will be invariably written off as the work of “outsiders”—in this case, mainland Chinese—at least until they generalize. But strikes have a much greater propensity to break such a populist logic, since they immediately make visible antagonisms internal to the given society.

A barricade in Mong Kok.

Abandoned public buses plastered with protesters’ messages in Mong Kok (it says “Democracy Wall” in reference to China’s Democracy Wall Movement of 1978-1981)













Another barricade in Mong Kok, this time with two cars parked in front to ensure that police cannot easily break through. One car has had its tires removed in order to prevent it from being easily pushed away, added in the wee hours of October 3. Until then, the occupiers had opened this barricade whenever ambulances and firetrucks needed to pass through. This was added after police in Admiralty had used the opportunity of an ambulance-opening to themselves drive into the occupation with with rubber bullets and tear gas on October 2.

The current movement has only a few paths forward, and many routes to defeat. The tactical stagnation of the protests could allow the government to simply wait them out, as the protesters’ own inaction delegitimizes them in the eyes of more casual participants. There are already complaints from people who have newly joined the protests that the entire movement seems to be simply drifting, with no real force leading it forward. At best, the revolt may fail by becoming a “social movement”—a sterile spectacle put on for civil society, where future NGO leaders and politicians gestate before being unleashed upon the poor. At worst, the people of Hong Kong might actually get the popular vote, in which case they’d be allowed an enormous amount of participation in a system over which they have no control and in which all the same problems of inflation, inequality and immiseration would continue unabated.

In this situation, however, there is also the risk that defeat might come in the form of a resurgent rightwing. If the far-right is capable of becoming the force that can torque the protests out of their stagnation, then the movement as a whole will slide farther down the path of nationalism. In the current “era of riots,” the right-wing tends to be capable of magnetizing people to itself regardless of whether the majority of people agree or disagree with the racist politics of groups like Civic Passion—which went normcore early on in the movement, abandoning its public presence in favor of an “undercover” agitation, spreading flyers and speeches attacking the inaction of the “leftist pricks” in charge, and only more recently has become a visible presence, their yellow-shirted members defending the barricades in Mong Kok (barricades built by anarchists, no less) against attempts to dismantle them by “blue ribbons” (civilian opponents of the movement allegedly organized by Beijing). This situation bears a miserable similarity to the experience of Ukraine, with the far-right acting as hatchet men for an alliance of more West-leaning capitalists.

A small group of Civic Passion members reinforcing a barricade in Mong Kok after “blue ribbons” attempted to dismantle it on October 2. The police were called to mediate in the dispute between the dismantlers and the defenders of the occupation — in this case mainly Civic Passion members. Note that their shirts say, in English: “proletariat,” consistent with the general usurpation of leftist terminology by far right or “third positionist” groups.

Translation: ‘Don’t trust leftist pricks. Be vigilant [lest they ask us] to disperse. Remember that we are [doing] civil disobedience, not having a Party! What we want is real universal suffrage! No karaoke. No group photos. We still haven’t won. No leaders. No small-group discussion.

It’s Not About “Democracy”

But defeat is by no means inevitable here. Young people in Hong Kong, like pretty much anywhere these days, are recognizing that their future has been looted and are attempting, through whatever means they have available, to both reach some understanding of how they have come to be in this position and how they might fight back. In Hong Kong, China is very much “the future,” as the small city-state is integrated more and more into its massive mainland neighbor. This means that the sense of a doomed future among youth translates into the intuition that China is also the origin of that approaching doom.

There are plenty of young protesters who are frustrated with the inactivity of the movement, but feel isolated and incapable of pushing anything forward themselves. This is especially true at night, when more of the angry and dedicated young people tend to come out, but there are currently no means whereby these protesters are able to make contact with one another and coordinate their activity. More importantly, even these protesters tend to translate their discontent into the language of “democracy” and “universal suffrage,” and they fail to look across the border to find allies among the factory workers of the Pearl River Delta.

But despite the fact that the pan-democrats’ terminology is the lingua franca of the movement, it’s clear that the movement itself is, for many people, hardly about liberal “democracy.” In fact, most discussions of what protesters actually want quickly jump into entirely different terrain. When asked what their goals are, many will respond with the parroted list of demands—this is incredibly consistent across social strata and different age groups. But when pressed about why they want these things, most protesters then immediately jump to economic, rather than purely political, problems.

People bemoan skyrocketing rents, the inhuman levels of inequality, inflation in the price of food and public transport, and the governments’ tendency to simply ignore the vast swaths of people sitting at the bottom of society. One speaker at an open mic made the common—if simply wrong—argument: “Why is Hong Kong just a couple of rich people and so many poor people?! Because we have no democracy!” Many claim—with abysmally poor awareness of how liberal democracies actually function in places like Greece or the US—that once they are able to “choose” their own leaders these leaders will be able to fix widespread problems of inflation, poverty and financial speculation. Democracy has thereby come to designate less the practical application of a popular voting system and more a sort of elusive panacea, capable of somehow curing all social ills.













An older man (originally from Hong Kong but living abroad for several decades, returning to visit relatives) has his picture taken in front of the barricades in Causeway Bay. At his left is the word “democracy” (Behind him is another poster warning against “leftist pricks”). He disagrees with the protesters’ disruption of traffic and civil order, but thinks the police went too far in using tear gas against them, and now worries that a 1989-style bloodbath will ensue.

But both the populist and democratic illusions of the movement are capable of being destabilized. As the occupation spreads to broader segments of the population, new participants bring their own demands to the barricades. Some of the original liberal students, including the HKFS leadership, have become increasingly frustrated by this, and have been plastering up signage encouraging people to stick to demands of universal suffrage. Interviewees have expressed the fear that the movement will get “confused” and “watered down” by many of the new protesters, who have come out to protest against the police attacks on students more than they are protesting for electoral reform. But it’s just as possible that the new demands may actually re-ignite the movement itself, pushing it beyond the domain of mundane electoral demands. Generally, when class strata far distant from those that initiated the movement begin joining in, it signals a sort of phase shift in what is going on and amplifies the movement’s power, rather than watering it down.

A poster urging people to stay “on point” and that new protesters stop demanding things beyond electoral reform

One particularly volatile potential is the increasing involvement of workers. The relatively small Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions has called for a general strike and, on October 1st (China’s “National Day”), at least some workers began heading the call. Several of the port workers who were involved in the initial dock strike were also present early in the week, showing their support for the protesters, though also claiming that another port strike seemed “impossible.” But as the occupation in the streets continues to grow, particularly in areas with more residential housing such as Mong Kok, it becomes more and more likely that other workers may begin to join in.

The extension of the occupation into a general strike would have the added effect of inherently destabilizing both the exclusively political demands of the movement as well as questioning its populist presumptions. If the port workers were to initiate a second strike, for example, there would be no denying the role of Li Ka-shing and other Hong Kong capitalists in the plundering of workers’ everyday lives and the pillaging of young peoples’ future. It would be simply impossible to defer this conflict out onto mainlanders. The class antagonism internal to Hong Kong would become increasingly undeniable, and the protests could be forced off their path-of-least-resistance and toward a future simultaneously more dangerous and hopeful.

The Typhoon

Tsim Sha Tsui is now occupied, but the rumor is that the right-wing has a strong presence. Barricades have been built outside the shopping mall and crowds huddle under umbrellas, debating the future of the movement under the looming shape of the cruise ship. The right-wing pretends that the cruise ship is just full of mainland capitalists, while the left-wing seems unable to speak. The girl singing Cantonese love songs and her boyfriend playing off-tune guitar are gone now, maybe building a barricade somewhere out of tourist kiosks and traffic signs. But the singing is not so much simply absent as it is transformed, extending now to the entire city in the shape of people’s hopes plastered onto emptied buses and rain-splattered government buildings.

The typhoon has come, and the waters are shaking so violently that it’s unclear how much longer the cruise ship can sit immobile above the city. Its wealthy denizens, mainland and otherwise, sit quiet and invisible behind the white walls and cordons of police. If the pier is occupied, will the port come next? Despite the miserable servility of Hong Kong politeness, the short-sighted demands and the bitter populism of the movement, it is at least clear that, after this, Hong Kong will not be the same. There is no longer the possibility of preserving the status quo—and this fact, if anything, ensures that there is a potential to the movement, even if it is defeated.

The typhoon is by nature a chaotic creature, and, after the island is flooded, it may seem to leave things even worse than they were before. But that chaos also holds a certain promise. The breaking of the status quo cuts a glimmer of possibility in a horizon that had appeared before as nothing but sheer doom. There is an opening. Maybe people begin to learn how to navigate toward it, despite the rain. And, even if it keeps raining for years to come, people have umbrellas.

This article was originally published on Ultra-Com.org.



If Kobanê falls, the US and Turkey will be to blame

by Jerome Roos on October 4, 2014

Post image for If Kobanê falls, the US and Turkey will be to blameAs Kurdish forces put up a heroic fight to save the democratic stronghold of Kobanê, the US-led coalition seems content to let ISIS commit a massacre.

As I write these words, Kurdish fighters are waging a heroic battle to keep the strategically important city of Kobanê on the Syrian-Turkish border from falling into the hands of ISIS. Kobanê has been under siege since mid-September, when ISIS forces launched a ferocious three-way assault on the city, terrorizing the local population and causing up to 160.000 civilians to flee to Turkey. On Friday, ISIS stood within a hundred meters of Kobanê’s suburbs, but local forces — though heavily outgunned — have so far managed to keep the extremists out. Kurdish commanders fear a massacre if the city falls. It is not clear how much longer their defensive lines can hold.

Though shamelessly under-reported in the international media, the battle for Kobanê is of crucial importance for the fight against ISIS, the fate of the Kurds, and the future of the region more generally. As one of the few strongholds of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Kobanê is both a major thorn in the side of ISIS and the site of a thriving popular experiment in democratic autonomy. Yet the momentous struggle of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) is being blatantly ignored by the US-led coalition and cynically exploited by the Turkish state, both of which appear to be content to let ISIS slaughter the local population and decimate the Kurdish resistance.

For almost three weeks now, the men and women of the YPG/YPJ — armed only with light machine guns and a few rocket-propelled grenades — have been battling the extremists in close quarters combat. ISIS has deployed heavy US-made weaponry, including at least 20 tanks and armored vehicles seized in the sack of Mosul, but since they advanced onto Kobanê in relatively open plains they were vulnerable to airstrikes. “Most civilians have left the city, and any minute ISIS will be inside Kobani,” Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday. “There are many questions as to why [the US-led coalition] don’t attack ISIS now as they are easy targets … Without their heavy vehicles, the Kurds would be able to defeat them.”

Turkey, for its part, has been accused of colluding with ISIS in a dual attempt to oust its regional nemesis, the Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, and at the same time undermine the Kurdish struggle for autonomy. It is a public secret that Turkey — an important US ally and the second biggest military force in NATO — has long kept its borders open to extremist militants trying to enter Syria to join the insurrection against Assad, even allowing ISIS fighters to cross back into Turkey to regroup, receive medical treatment, and sell Syrian and Iraqi oil on the black market. At the same time, it has prevented thousands of Turkish Kurds from crossing the border and joining their compatriots in the defense of Kobanê, even firing teargas at Kurdish refugees fleeing from Syria.

In recent days, under heavy pressure from the US government and with its hands freed following the release of 46 Turkish hostages held by ISIS, Turkish officials have been stepping up their anti-ISIS rhetoric. On Thursday, Turkey’s Parliament accepted a bill that would allow the government to intervene militarily on Syrian soil to “fight terrorist groups.” Prime Minister Davutoğlu has stated that “we wouldn’t want Kobanê to fall; we’ll do whatever we can to prevent this from happening.” This rhetoric, however, contrasts sharply with the reality on the ground. Earlier this week, Turkey moved dozens of tanks towards the Syrian border, but in what appears to be a sign towards ISIS that it does not intend to intervene, it neatly parked them facing away from Kobanê.

The reasoning behind Turkey’s maneuvers appears to be fairly straightforward. President Erdoğan has indicated that he will not approve any actions that aid the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units, which the Turkish governments considers to be a “terrorist” organization. Simply put, there is a fear that the PYD-led Rojava revolution in Northern Syria could embolden Kurds in Turkey to seek similar autonomy within its borders. As the Turkish columnist Ömer Taspinar writes, “Ankara is concerned that the American-led campaign against ISIS will achieve two things. First, it will strengthen the Syrian Kurds, who maintain close ties with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Second, it will strengthen the regime in Damascus … Ankara will decide to play an active role in the coalition only if it gets serious commitments about reversing these dynamics.”

By refusing to carry out meaningful airstrikes on ISIS positions around Kobanê and allowing the extremists to overrun the town unencumbered with US-made tanks, the Obama administration appears to have aligned itself with Erdoğan’s demands. The US knows that, in the months and years to come, it will need Turkish airbases and possibly Turkish ground support to defeat ISIS. Since it still considers the PKK and PYD to be terrorist organizations, it shares Turkey’s preference to have ISIS and the Kurds battle it out to death. This cynical approach confirms just how little interest the US and its allies truly have in promoting democracy across the region.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s dirty games are pointing into a predictable direction. Erdoğan has now publicly reserved the right to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer zone in the Syrian border region, while actively lobbying the US to establish a no-fly zone over Northern Syria. Since ISIS does not have an airforce, this effort is clearly aimed at keeping Assad from intervening when Turkey takes control of what is now de facto Kurdish territory inside Syria. At the same time, however, Erdoğan wants to avoid (or at least postpone) a head-on military confrontation with the Syrian Kurds, which would inevitably lead to a breakdown of the peace process and renewed armed conflict with the PKK. And so he will allow ISIS to commit a massacre in Kobanê and decimate the Kurdish resistance before intervening to crush both — in the name of “anti-terrorism”.

This historic betrayal of the Kurds by Turkey and the US is not the first, and it certainly will not be the last. However, this time around the betrayal is all the more despicable because the Syrian Kurds have been by far the most organized, the most democratic and the most courageous armed opposition to ISIS on the ground. When the Kurdish peshmerga — associated with the conservative-nationalist Kurdish regional government in Iraq, a key alley of Turkey and the US — embarrassingly retreated from Mount Sinjar in August, leaving tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees stranded, dying of thirst and surrounded by ISIS, the YPG/YPJ fighters crossed over into Iraq and risked their lives to establish a humanitarian corridor, saving thousands of Yezidi from certain death.

Meanwhile, the social revolution that has been underway in Kobanê ever since Assad’s forces retreated in 2012 has contributed to the flourishing of a democratic culture that promotes popular participation, social emancipation, gender equality, ecological sensitivity, local self-organization, and ethnic and religious pluralism. As such, the fall of Kobanê would deal a serious blow not just to the Kurdish cause and the fight against ISIS, but also to the struggle for a secular and democratic alternative in the region. The brave Kurds, of course, would fight till death, but as Kobanê’s Defense Minister Ismet Sheikh Hasan puts it, the US-led coalition “needs to strike ISIS targets before it’s too late. ISIS is not only a threat for the Kurds, but for the entire world… If a massacre takes place tomorrow, the international community will be responsible.”

UPDATE 04/10/’14: Saturday evening will mark the start of the traditional Eid al-Adha holiday across the Muslim world, and ISIS has declared that it wants to seize the town to celebrate Eid in the Kobanê mosque. But on Saturday morning, Kobanê’s Defense Minister Hasan reported that Kurdish forces have inflicted heavy losses on ISIS: “there are 150 dead bodies of gang members at Miştenur. They cannot collect them.” The spokesperson for the Kobanê canton government, Mahmud Beşar, referred to the battle for Kobanê as “an epic that will determine the destiny of Kurdistan”:

We will say the Eid prayers in Kobanê, but the two armies (YPG/YPJ) are writing an epic of resistance. The collapse of the [ISIS] gangs is continuing. At this minute there are fierce clashes going on. Kobanê is in a key location as regards a democratic Syria and a democratic Middle East. We will resist to the end. What is important is Kobanê and the democratization of Syria and the Middle East. We are fortunate to be involved in the writing of history. The Rojava revolution began here, and now the destiny of the Kurdish people is being written here.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. This article was written as part of his column for TeleSUR English.


The rise of revolutionary street art in Oaxaca

by Jen Wilton on October 3, 2014

Post image for The rise of revolutionary street art in OaxacaFor years, the walls of Oaxaca have been a canvas for expressions of social anger. Now the revolutionary role of local artists is finally recognized. 

“Graffiti is revolutionary,” says Terrance Lindall, an artist from New York City, the birthplace of modern graffiti. “People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls — it’s free.”

Mexico has a long history of revolutionary art. Especially well-known are the revolution-era muralists from the early 20th century, such as Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. These artists painted masterpieces in public spaces, aiming to create a “public and accessible visual dialogue with the Mexican people.”

Today, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, a new street art phenomenon has taken root. When walking around Oaxaca City, the quality of art that can be found in the streets is striking. More than just beautifying these spaces, many of the pieces provide pointed sociopolitical commentary. They remind passers-by of some of the worst problems Oaxaca, and Mexico more generally, are facing right now — political repression, grinding poverty, the perils of migration, threats to Indigenous people and environmental damage, to name a few. They also point to solutions and offer inspiration to take action.

Well-known Oaxacan artist Yescka explains the importance of graffiti and street art. “It’s an attempt to reintegrate art into society. I feel that art right now is standing outside society because it belongs to a limited sector of galleries, intellectuals and museums. I believe art is for everybody and that’s why we’re trying to create a link, so that the people can get in touch with art in their everyday lives again.”










The birth of a movement

Every year, as schools close down for the summer, teachers in Oaxaca strike to negotiate increased wages and better school supplies, in a tradition dating back to 1981. Unlike in previous years, however, in June 2006 thousands of police officers in riot gear were sent by the governor to break the strike, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the teachers’ protest camp in the city center. Scores of people were injured in the process.

The violent crackdown sparked a public backlash against the state government, as people took to the streets in support of the teachers. Fresh protest camps were erected and general assemblies held to facilitate collective decision-making. In many neighborhoods across the city, barricades were set up to control the movement of police and paramilitary groups. Mainstream radio stations were taken over by protesters as a way to disseminate information widely.

During this time, street art was used to condemn the abuses of power that had become so prevalent in the troubled state and to publicly point to a shared reality of oppression. It was an accessible way for people to share information and rally support.

However, in October 2006, thousands of federal police were sent to Oaxaca to regain control of the city. In the 2008 book Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca, internationally recognized visual artist Hugo recounts how he greeted the arrival of tanks and heavily armed troops by painting a message on the ground in his own blood: ni una gota más de sangre (not another drop of blood). Three people were killed that same day — local teacher Emilio Alonso Fabián, resident Esteban Zurita López and American independent journalist Brad Will. Graffiti denouncing Governor Ruiz Ortiz as a murderer appeared throughout the city center.

By the end of November, a major crackdown in the city center saw the last encampments and barricades torn down by the Federal Preventative Police, marking the end of the teachers’ occupation. Students relinquished control of a university campus they had occupied for months. Protesters and bystanders alike were assaulted, arrested and in some cases disappeared and tortured, with no way to tell family members where they were.

For a few months the protests died down, but by the time the school year ended again in May 2007, the street art scene in Oaxaca exploded, amid ongoing peaceful protests aimed at the state government. In the 2009 book Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca, renowned Oaxacan-born singer Lila Downs said of the burgeoning street art movement at that time: “As repression continues, the symbols become stronger, and they come to life.”

The legacy lives on

Some quintessential images from that early period can still be found in Oaxaca today. The Virgin of the Barricades is a notable example that depicts the Virgin Mary, a central figure in Mexico’s overwhelmingly Catholic religious life, wearing a gas mask. Flaming tires cover her veil, accompanied by the simple words “protect us”, as she clasps her hands in quiet prayer.

Many artists worked side by side, and others came together to form collectives. The Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO) was born during the 2006 uprising, with an eclectic group of artists joining forces to make highly political pieces of street art. Yescka, then a young artist in the collective, also spoke in Teaching Rebellion of that early coming together.

He explains: “It’s always been important to me to express myself freely, to make images that leave a mark, that tell a story of a time, an era or a moment that will never be erased because they live on in our memories. A lot of young people I know, myself included, had always been painting in the streets, but often without any real purpose. What I can thank this movement for is that it made us conscious, gave us reason and meaning — it opened our eyes.”

Two other young artists, Rosario and Roberto, also channeled their creativity in a new direction during 2006. The pair created designs for t-shirts, banners and posters in support of the protests. Even after the uprising had officially been quelled, the duo continued designing and printing t-shirts for the movement. In 2007, they formed the collective Lapiztola, a play on the Spanish words lápiz (pencil) and pistola (gun), with Yankel, an architect and graffiti artist who had also been active during the 2006 protests.

“Our style emerged from the need to express and demonstrate against what has been happening in our city,” the collective explained in a press statement. Lapiztola’s work conveys poignant ideas about place and poverty through stencil-work and graffiti. A frequent motif of their work is the portrayal of a hard-working individual juxtaposed with a flock of birds, perhaps representing freedom from life’s harsher realities.

Like many other Oaxacan street artists, the members of Lapiztola have showcased their work at numerous exhibitions in Mexico and abroad. An adaptation of a mural titled El maíz en nuestra vida (Corn in our lives), originally painted for a festival in Cuba, recently found its way onto the streets of Oaxaca.

The piece depicts a young woman aiming a rifle at scientists dressed in white hazmat suits, leaning over long stalks of corn. The piece links in with current protests across Mexico, the birthplace of maize, against the widespread introduction of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn.

Internal divisions

While the Oaxacan street art scene is made up of a diverse mix of artists and causes, a handful of the better-known collectives have recently become embroiled in a heated conflict. One artist is currently facing legal action for sexual assault and the projects he is associated with have come under fire from a group of women calling for justice to be done.

Battle lines have been drawn. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this war has also been waged by applying paint to concrete.

Graffiti and stencil work denouncing the artist in question can be found scattered across the city center. The collectives associated with the accused artist have plastered statements on public walls, explaining their stance and distancing themselves from the alleged assault in February 2014.

It seems Oaxacan street art is also being used to highlight divisions that exist within the movement itself. Even progressive social movements can mirror the wider problems of the societies they belong to. Violence against women in Mexico has reached epidemic proportions in recent decades. The very real issues of machismo and patriarchy need to be adequately addressed, both beyond and within Mexico’s social movements.

Raising consciousness

Author Louis Nevaer helped document the rise of street art in Protest Graffiti Mexico: Oaxaca. He says street artists have a role to play in helping to empower and lift people out of ignorance. “In Oaxaca, graffiti artists are modern-day scribes,” Nevaer writes, “passing the written word to people in rebellion against injustice.”

While printing presses and radio stations can be shut down, street artists enjoy relative freedom to communicate with their fellow citizens. After all, graffiti that has been painted over simply becomes a blank canvas for someone else to use. “They cannot stop us, because the people are with us,” Ana Santos, a pioneer in Mexico’s graffiti movement, told Nevaer. “We are the people.”

“In a way I feel like we revolutionized art,” says Yescka, highlighting the wider social transformation that came out of Oaxaca’s 2006 uprising. “That was when I began to understand [the true] meaning of art: making people more sensitive, raising consciousness, and creating new spaces for artistic expression.”

Jen Wilton is a freelance journalist, researcher and photographer based in London, UK. Her interests include social movements, sustainable energy, alternative economies and Latin America. She tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at Revolution Is Eternal

This article was originally published at Contributoria



Naomi Klein: “we are not who we were told we were”

by Liam Barrington-Bush on October 1, 2014

Post image for Naomi Klein: “we are not who we were told we were”On the eve of the publication of her new book, Naomi Klein talks about the things that give her hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak.

Naomi Klein rose to international acclaim in 1999 by explaining how big corporations were exploiting our insecurities to convince us to spend money we didn’t have, on stuff we didn’t need (No Logo). In 2007 she masterfully dissected the ways those steering the global economy use moments of social and environmental crisis to justify transferring public wealth into the hands of the ultra-rich (The Shock Doctrine). Less-known though are the alternatives Klein spends much of her time witnessing, documenting, and digging into, from the spread of fossil fuel divestment, to community-owned energy projects and resistance to tar sands pipelines.

On the eve of the publication of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Klein sat down with Liam Barrington-Bush at the Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa, to talk about where she finds hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak. She reminds us that in a culture that treats people as consumers and relationships as transactions, ‘we’re not who we were told we were.’


LBB: In a recent piece in the Nation, you wrote: “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real — let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.” What has helped you to believe that a different way of living is possible?

NK: I think part of it is just having been lucky enough to have seen other ways of living and to have lived differently myself. To know that not only is living differently not the end of the world, but in many cases, it has enabled some of the happiest times of my life.

I think the truth is that we spend a lot of time being afraid of what we would lose if we ever took this crisis seriously. I had this experience when I had been living in Argentina for a couple of years; I came back to the US because I had agreed to do this speech at an American university. It was in Colorado and I went directly from Buenos Aires, which was just on fire at that moment; the culture was so rich, the sense of community was so strong. It was the most transformative experience of my life to be able to be part of that.

So I end up staying at a Holiday Inn, looking out at a parking lot, and it’s just so incredibly grim. I go to this class and I do my spiel. I was talking about Argentina and the economic crisis. At this point the US economy’s booming and nobody thinks anything like this could ever happen to them. And this young woman says, “I hear what you’re saying, but why should I care?”

And it was so funny because people don’t usually say that out loud. Like, they may think it, but she was like: ‘…I don’t understand why I should care, because, I mean, I have a really great life. I drive to school and I drive to Walmart and I drive home.’ And I just thought, that doesn’t sound like that great a life, you know?

Arundhati Roy tells Americans that she feels sorry for them; that she feels like, ‘you’re staying in your house to protect your washing machine.’ The truth is, if you have been exposed to other ways of living that have more community in them, where doors are more open to one another, first of all, you want to shop less, because you’re not shopping to fulfil all these other needs you’re not getting fulfilled. You’re not shopping for identity and you’re not shopping for a sense of community.

There’s a virtuous cycle that sets in when we build community; whether we build community in movements or in other ways, because I do feel like we are shopping to fill this void a lot of the time. I always find the only thing that makes you not want to constantly fill that void is if something else is filling it, you’re just too busy, you forget.

So that lack of imagination just has to do with what we’ve been exposed to. That’s why Occupy Wall Street, for all its flaws, was such a transformative experience for so many people. Because it was that moment where it’s like, ‘Oh! We’re not who we were told we were!’ It was that feeling of surprise that there are so many other people in this city who just want to talk to strangers and connect in this way, unmediated.

LBB: In the same article you wrote, in reference to your own ‘rootless’ life, that the poet Wendell Berry encouraged you to “Stop somewhere. And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.” How do you see the relationship between a sense of place and the solutions to something as massively daunting as either climate change or capitalism?

NK: Since the ‘70s, the icon of environmentalism has been the globe, the earth from space. And it was a really deracinated relationship with the earth, it was literally the astronaut’s view of the planet — this god-like posture — we’re looking down at earth.

A lot of the mistakes of the Big Green groups, I think, can be traced to this idea that environmentalism is about this whole planet. So if it’s about the whole planet, you can offset your carbon pollution in Richmond, to a carbon-offset in Honduras. The world becomes this chessboard.

I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places. And those places happen to have the largest pools of carbon underneath them and those places, because of technology, are linking up with other places.

That’s why Wendell Berry says, ‘each of our jobs is to love our place more than any other place.’ And if everybody did that we’d be fine. Nobody needs to love the whole world!

LBB: I was in Perth, Ontario recently. In some ways, Perth is just another North American small town, but it is also a place where a strong localism is bringing together a real mix of people; elements of the traditional farming community, hippie back-to-the-landers, off-grid survivalists, Transition Towners, traditional food bank volunteers, alongside those working on more participatory and sustainable ways of addressing the community’s food needs. Do you think this kind of place-based solution has the potential to bridge some of the political divides that have made so many larger scales of change impossible for so long?

NK: I don’t know if it holds solutions, but it certainly has potentials that are harder to realize in cities. Especially I think in farming communities you can definitely overcome left-right divides, because often you’re drawing on a tradition and a history of stewardship. So there’s a real disconnect between that philosophy, which has very deep roots, and modern capitalism, which is so ‘use-it-up-and-throw-it-out.’

Also around climate organizing, people often find that if you’re able to speak to and revive that conservative tradition of stewardship, it’s an opportunity to cross political lines. And even if those conservative farmers don’t even believe climate change is real, they still believe in the principles of protecting the land and protecting the water, and the responsibility to leave the land better than you found it. So if you believe in that, it doesn’t even really matter if you believe in climate change, because you’re not going to frack your land.

LBB: Are there any particular stories you have heard or experienced in your travels that give you hope for us getting out of the current mess?

NK: I think the movement that I have found most inspiring in recent years is… the movement against the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline in British Columbia. That’s not because it’s more inspirational than other movements, I just found it to be — and still find it to be — one of the most positive and beautiful movements I’ve ever been a part of because it is this amazing combination of resisting something that people don’t want, but also just a total celebration of place.

I really felt so lucky to witness this process where people in that very special part of the world, really fell more deeply in love with their place and created these incredible coalitions to defend it, like the Save the Fraser Declaration, which more than a hundred First Nations signed.

Fighting these extreme extraction projects becomes a real space for historical healing. We use these words and we have these symbolic marches around reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples and it’s very empty. But what actually played out in BC is the very concrete realization among non-Indigenous British Columbians that they are tremendously lucky that so much of their province is on unceded Indigenous land.

Against this backdrop and history of conflict — which still exists — you would hear a non-native farmer say, ‘I’m so grateful to my First Nations neighbors for never giving up these rights and defending these rights, because this is going to be what protects my water.’

So that’s extraordinary! I can’t believe how much I’ve seen my country change in such a short time. It’s that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are fighting for what is most essential — they’re fighting for their children’s health, they’re fighting for their water, they’re fighting for their land and they understand, we understand, that our fates are truly interconnected.

So these words that we use, like solidarity and all of this, suddenly become really concrete. It is literally that if we do not deal with this past, of who created this crisis and who is largely responsible and how that’s going to translate into policy and resources, then ultimately we’re all cooked.

Another movement I’ve found inspiring this past few years is just how quickly the fossil fuel divestment movement has spread in campuses and cities. I think it speaks to the fact that people understand that there are power dynamics at play in the climate fight that a lot of the Big Green NGOs have tried to paper over. Where the discourse was just like, ‘we’re all in this together, everybody’s going to do this, the billionaires are going to join together with the Hollywood celebrities, are going to join together with ExxonMobil and the Nature Conservancy and we’ll fix this together!’

So what was really inspiring about being part of the launch of that movement was realizing that people were so up for this! It was like they were just waiting for someone to ask!

I don’t think that this tactic is going to bankrupt ExxonMobil or change everything, by any means, but what I found inspiring was seeing the readiness of large numbers of people to use tactics that are significantly more confrontational than the ones that the traditional green movement had been offering. So I think that that’s a really hopeful sign for the future.

LBB: Are there any particular themes or patterns you’ve picked up between these and other sources of inspiration, that you think could offer hints to people wanting to take action themselves?

NK: I think another inspiring movement is the rise of renewable energy in Germany. That is a really important case study because this is a post-industrial, Western, large, very powerful economy, that in the past decade has made a dramatic shift towards renewable energy, primarily wind and solar.

But what’s really interesting about it, is that it is the small-scale, decentralized, cooperatively-owned aspect of the transition that is fastest-spreading, that has people most excited. That’s an important pattern. Energy democracy is a phrase more and more people are using to describe this sort of phenomenon, where it isn’t just about switching from fossil fuel to so-called green energy, it’s also a power shift in who owns and controls the source of the power, where the resources go.

So what is driving the movement in Germany is not just that people don’t want nuclear power, they don’t want coal; it’s that they want to have control over their energy, they want their resources and the profits to stay in their communities. And this is happening in the age of austerity where it’s a big deal if you can actually get resources to communities. So these are very much pro-democracy movements. They’re not just about where your energy is coming from and what color it is, it’s really about self-determination and community control.

And there are ways of designing government policy that decentralize power. So you look at Germany none of this would be happening if Germany didn’t have a bold national feed-in tariff plan. You couldn’t just do it ad hoc, at the local level. That would not get to you what Germany has done, which is 25 percent of their electricity coming from renewable energy and that’s going to keep expanding.

You need those bold policies and you also need to say no to fossil fuels — you need regulation. So you need to have a relationship with government in order to win those policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be in government, by the way, because German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is no lefty, but the anti-nuclear movement and the climate movement in Germany is strong enough that they have won this, which is extraordinary.

Similarly, I look at what’s happening in Spain with this transition from the street movement of the indignados to Podemos, a political party that is intersecting with traditional politics, but in a new way. So I think that’s another pattern that we’re starting to see, of finding ways to intersect with policy, with the state, but at the same time to decentralize power and deepen local democracy.

Naomi Klein is a Canadian activist and best-selling author of No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). Her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, is out from Allen Lane/Penguin Books now.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the ‘more like people‘ Facebook page.

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

Student leaders threaten to escalate Hong Kong protests

By Peter Symonds
2 October 2014

Tens of thousands took part in protests yesterday in Hong Kong to demand the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and a full and open election for his post in 2017. Crowds of people, overwhelmingly young, took advantage of the October 1 national holiday to join demonstrations in at least five locations on Hong Kong island and neighbouring Kowloon.

Student leaders threatened to escalate protests today unless Leung resigns. Lester Shum, vice secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, declared yesterday that there was “no room for dialogue” with Leung and warned: “If he does not resign by tomorrow, we will step up our actions, such as occupying several important government buildings.”

The protests have also sparked small demonstrations in Macau and Taiwan. Chinese authorities, fearful that the protests could spread to the mainland, have clamped down on the media and Internet.

Leung has refused to step down or hold talks with any protest organisers. He used his National Day speech to appeal to protesters to accept Beijing’s decision to allow a 2017 election with universal suffrage but limited to candidates vetted by a nominating committee stacked with pro-Beijing appointees.

Beijing’s announcement in late August provoked widespread hostility, which the official opposition “pan-Democratic” grouping sought to exploit to force a compromise on the nomination process. The pan-Democrats threatened to use their numbers in Legislative Council to veto the proposal and, in effect, maintain the anti-democratic status quo. Currently the chief executive is simply chosen by a 1,200-member committee, dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists.

The current protests erupted after clashes last Friday between police and students, who boycotted classes to oppose Beijing’s plan. The protests were joined by the Occupy Central organisation, which had proposed, but not begun, a civil disobedience campaign. Riot police were withdrawn from the streets after their attempts to suppress the protests over the weekend only caused the crowds to swell.

Those joining the protests are animated by fears that Beijing will impose further anti-democratic restrictions, and by discontent over the deepening social divide between rich and poor. This social polarisation has been intensified by Hong Kong’s economic integration with China, which has accelerated since Beijing’s takeover of the former British colony in 1997.

Industry has shifted to take advantage of cheap labour in southern China, causing a collapse in the manufacturing workforce from about one million in the early 1980s to 20,000 in 2013. At the same time, the banking and financial sector has burgeoned. Hong Kong is the preferred location for Chinese companies to launch initial public offerings—$43 billion since 2012—and a transit point for investment into and out of China. Last year, two thirds of foreign direct investment into China flowed through Hong Kong.

While a narrow layer of super-wealthy tycoons has prospered, the living standards of the majority of working people have fallen. Jobs in manufacturing have been replaced by low-wage positions in service industries that benefitted from a growing numbers of tourists from the Chinese mainland. Despite declining real wages, the cost of living, especially housing costs, have risen sharply. The waiting time for public housing has blown out to ten years, forcing the low paid into makeshift accommodation and what are known as “cage homes.”

Layers of the middle classes, especially the young, have also been impacted. A university graduate earns roughly the same as a decade ago and faces increasing competition from applicants from the mainland for jobs.

These pressing social issues, however, find no expression in the perspective advanced by those parties and organisations dominating the current protests—the pan-Democrats, Occupy Central and various student groups—which are all, despite tactical differences, narrowly focussed on ensuring opposition candidates can stand in the 2017 election. This is a significant factor in the predominantly middle class composition of the protest movement and its failure to attract substantial support from the working class.

The demand for full and open elections reflects the interests of layers of the Hong Kong elite who resent being marginalised by pro-Beijing tycoons and fear that the Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s political affairs will undermine its competitiveness as an Asian financial centre. This wealthy stratum is determined to defend what it regards as Hong Kong’s competitive advantage, particularly over Chinese financial centres such as Shanghai: the long-established defence of capitalist property that unpins all commercial and financial transactions and is entrenched in the legal system established under British colonial rule.

In April, a group of about 70 current and former financiers and managers, describing themselves as the financial arm of Occupy Central, wrote to Chinese President Xi Jinping to protest over threats to press freedoms, and the political cronyism in the finance industry, and to call for open elections for the chief executive. “In the long run, if you want to maintain an international banking and finance centre in Hong Kong, you need to have a good system, a good framework, in order to protect it,” Lai Chong Au, a marketing manager told the New York Times .

Even if the opposition parties and organisations achieved their objective in full—an open election in 2017 for chief executive—the result would be a contest, dominated by big money, between candidates representing rival factions of the Hong Kong tycoons.

The pro-Western orientation of much of the official Hong Kong opposition leaves the present protests open to manipulation by the major imperialist powers. At this stage, the US and Britain have expressed concerns, but not called for the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive or explicitly backed the opposition’s demands over the 2017 election.

Before meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Hong Kong authorities to “exercise restraint and respect protesters’ rights to express their views.” In response, Wang declared that “Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs,” adding that “all countries should respect China’s sovereignty.”

Britain’s cautious approach was underlined by the comments yesterday by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten who appealed for China’s leaders to consult with opposition figures. “I think we’ve got to see dialogue replacing tear gas and pepper sprays,” he told the BBC. “The right thing to do is to embark on a new period of consultation … because there are a lot of very moderate people on the pro-democracy side.”

Embroiled in an escalating war in Iraq and Syria, and an ongoing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, the US and its allies appear wary about immediately stoking up another international political crisis. Given the acute state of geo-political tensions, however, that could rapidly change.