Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial by Richard Price

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010


Michael S. Wilson

Among liberal intellectuals in the North, there is a commonly held view of tribal and indigenous peoples as victims of the international political economy and the neoliberal model of resource extraction. A less common perspectivedespite its condemnation of ongoing colonialism and its refusal to accept the post-colonial states attempt to assimilate all others”—does not essentialize and victimize them, but instead demonstrates who they are, how they see themselves and their surroundings, and what they choose to do. Instead of victims, the second perspective sheds light on humans and their efforts to not merely resist an imposed world order and vision of development,but also pursue their own alternatives.

Falling within the second perspective and carving its own genre therein, Richard Prices Rainforest Warriors is a story about extraordinary people who, because of their special relationship to their forest and the multiplying threats against it, used the Inter- American framework of human rights law to enact social change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond their particular communities. Throughout, the book crosses several thresholds: between the fields of legal studies and anthropology, between the study of institutions and of the humans who construct and are shaped by them, and between the cases for environmental sustainability and human rights. In encapsulating an anthropological analysis of a legal case, as well as a study into the lives of Saramakas who pushed international jurisprudence to a new high, Rainforest Warriors is a vessel that carries an example for others to use, challenge, and improve.

The first half of the book supplies both a decolonizing historiography of the Saramaka peopleSurinamese Maroons, or descendants of self-liberated slavesas well as deep insights into the relationship between them and their bio-scape. This integral relationship is key to their final legal case, for the Saramakaseconomic, social, spiritual, and cultural survival depends on it. During the seventeenth century in the profitable Dutch colony of Suriname, Maroons escaped from coastal plantations to the forest, where they learned to depend on nothing other than each other and their natural environment. After repeated and failed attempts at recolonization, the Dutch administration was forced to recognize the Maroons territorial sovereignty in 1762.

However, since decolonization, the Surinamese state has often breached this sacred oath. Among such violations, two particular cases were adjudicated by the Inter- American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) and its Court after the victims exhausted all attempts to access justice through the State. The first, heard in 1992, involved a military assault in which more than 20 Maroons were arbitrarily tortured, many of whom were then killed, and secretly buried (66); the second, heard in 2005, concerned the butchering of at least 39 Maroons, mainly women and children, at the hands of military death squads and under the excuse of an internal conflict against armed rebels (84). Both of these cases, which the plaintiffs won, set new precedents for the still-budding Inter-American human rights framework. Moreover, they set the stage for a third trial, heard in 2007, regarding the deforestation of Saramaka territories at the hands of Chinese logging companies, which operated with the full consent of the Surinamese government.

Starting with Saramakasencounter with the logging companies and their guards, and following their efforts at organizing communities and requesting the intervention of the IACHR, the second half of the book produces a careful and dense description of this third case, including the trial proceedings. When necessary, the narrative summarizes the technical and legalese, butmuch more than thatit also furnishes details and insights excluded from official documents. Indeed, this book demonstrates that ethnography can put a legal dispute into human context with great effect; Prices methods of conducting social science aptly lent themselves to describing and interpreting the many symbolic events behind the Courts favorable ruling.

In the final chapter and afterword, Price, consistent in his comprehensiveness, presents three critical insights. First is a review of the states actions in reticent compliance and open defiance of the Courts mandate, accompanied by criticisms of the Courts ability to enforce its verdict. The second is the authors outline of at least 14 current hotspotsof ongoing socio-environmental conflicts related to indigenous or tribal peoplesrights in Suriname (227). Thirdly, the book ends with a discussion of the verdicts implications for the rest of the Americas.

A crucial element of this work is its interrogation of the efficacy of international law. At every turn, Prices argument begs the question: how and to what extent can a predominantly Western framework of human rights law attain justice for those most excluded from Western institutions? At least from the authors perspective, the Court often fell short of recognizing the legitimacy of cultural difference and ethnic autonomy. In questioning the efficacy of the law, and providing illustrative answers, the book crosses yet another threshold: one between a human rights advocacy perspective and a critical eye towards ethnocentricity in our universalmechanisms of justice.

However, the cultural, political, and legal limitations of the IACHR are not insurmountable; they only emphasize the importance of the groundwork done by not only community activists, but also social and even natural scientists, whose research, documentation, and expert testimony can further bridge the gaps between the everyday realities of the peoples and ecosystems under threat, and the rigid structure and limited power of the laws meant to protect them.

The power of law ultimately rests with the people who decide to wield it, and Price demonstrates this with clever multidimensionality, for ethnography is both the method of acquiring data and the completed output; it is the story and its contents. Additionally, it is also the many cases that will launch as a result of its example. This is why Rainforest Warriors is, for activists and jurists, a lesson; for perpetrators of human rights violations, a warning; and for academics, journalists, and anyone else whose career depends on fieldwork, a hope that our work can one day reciprocate the favors of our host communities and study subjects.

This book review was published by the Human Rights Review on the June 2014 issue, and is property of Springer Science+Business Media (DOI 10.1007/s12142-014-0320-8). The final publication is available online at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12142-014-0320-8#page-1

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Brazil in 2013: Case Study in the Process of Social Change

How does a social movement grow, succeed, or fizz?

June 28, 2013

In response to more than month of protests that have attracted at least one million people across dozens of Brazilian cities, and to solidarity demonstrations in other cities around the world, President Dilma Rousseff has announced a set of concessions to protestors’ demands: a one time investment of $25 billion for public transit, tougher penalties for those charged with corruption, and a national referendum on constitutional reform.

While the legally binding referendum was soon replaced by a non-binding popular plebiscite, mainly due to allegations that the former encroached on the balance of power among branches of government, these concessions represent a symbolic victory for this convergence of social movements. Moreover, the president’s proposal diverts attention from herself as the target decision-maker and redirects it toward the divided Congress.

This victory may legitimize the efforts of protestors, and even temporarily invigorate them, but their pressure will be most needed when Congress takes up its own response to the public outcry. At that moment, economic disruptive tactics, such as strikes or road blockades, can be the decisive factor if protestors hope to prevent these reform proposals from being delayed and diluted.

In other words, Brazilian protestors can really shake the power structure, and indeed they already have. Whether outside observers are interested in the politics of protest or in international sporting events, the world’s attention is focused on Brazil. Inside or outside, all of us allegedly have a stake in the transformation of our increasingly “global” civil society.

“It’s not about the national team. It’s about corruption.”

According to the Associated Free Press, 1.2 million people took to the streets across Brazil on June 20th alone. For most observers, the catalysts to these events are a public transit fee hike in São Paolo and the costs the country will incur from hosting the World Cup and the Olympics.

Indeed, the public will pay for roughly 91 percent of the World Cup’s estimated cost of $13.5 billion. As far as the Olympics in Rio, Brazilian taxpayers will outspend the estimated $15 billion spent by their British counterparts during the London 2012 games.

One stadium alone, the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, cost 1.5 billion reais (almost $700,000). Although the stadium can seat 71,000, it is unlikely these seats will be filled after the World Cup, because as the newspaper Valor Economico reports, less than a total of 50,000 people have attended 57 matches held this year in the area.

Moreover, research on previous World Cups and Olympics has shown that they have a negligible impact on the country’s economic development. Even if these events do increase the short-term revenues of affluent tourism industries (an assumption in question, based on negative evidence from the Olympics in London and China), the greatest long-term impact is a loss for the majority, rather than a gain from their investment.

As summarized by Brazilian filmmaker Carla Dauden in a video she uploaded when the protests were barely starting: “Now tell me, in a country where illiteracy can reach 21 percent, a country that ranks 85th in the human development index, a country where 13 million people are underfed every day, and many, many others die every day due to lack of medical treatment, does that country need more stadiums?”

While this cycle of protest has taken aim at the disparity between exorbitant investments on World Cup renovations versus the dilapidation of basic public services, the grievances that have emerged from the streets have included wealth inequality, widespread corruption, police brutality, and low investment in social services, such as health care, education, transportation, and housing. Indeed, hoping to seize the moment, the country’s five dominant labor unions have called for a strike on July 11 for better wages, shorter workdays, and greater pensions.

Mainstream media have focused on the visible problem, the games, mainly because they rarely intend to address the abstract. However, popular discontent in Brazil is not about the tournament, but deep-seated social problems. As a protestor’s sign sums it up, “Não é contra a seleção—é contra a corrupção! (It’s not against the national team, it’s against corruption!)” This very sentiment was echoed by the young superstar for the Brazilian national team, Neymar Jr., in a recent interview.

At the heart of the issue is the government’s broader pursuit of the neoliberal development model. Additional issues that stem from this include, for example, the long-term development plan in the Amazon, which includes ongoing subsidizes of hundreds of hydroelectric dam projects.

Civil society groups have relied on international conventions on indigenous rights and domestic rulings on environmental protection to temporarily stall the Belo Monte Dam and its five subsidiary dams–not to mention Brazil’s multiple outsourced dams across other Amazonian nations. Similarly, the government continues exploring more sites for off-shore drilling, and clearing rainforests to support the ethanol biofuel industry.

These are only a few among the hundreds of social, economic, and environmental issues that have been the foci of Brazilian and regional movements for decades. In the last month, these social forces have created for themselves the opportunity to come together in a big way. If they can mount a sufficient threat against this aspiring superpower, they also have a good chance of  effecting far-reaching social change.

Brazil today is an influential producer, but also a huge consumer market; price fluctuations here can have structural, macro-economic consequences. Uncertainty for investors and even spiraling inflation may result, which would force governments in consumer nations to pressure Brazilian politicians to solve the crisis.

Within the context of the tripple-set of games–the current FIFA Confederations Cup, the upcoming World Cup, and the Olympics in 2016–Brazil will take center stage in the global arena, further raising its vulnerability.

The President’s Response

A crucial piece of the puzzle that has been ignored in most media accounts of the current protests is the president’s activist past. Dilma Rousseff was raised in an upper-middle class family from Belo Horizonte. In her youth, she joined a Marxist guerilla to fight against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. In 1970 she was captured and jailed for two years, during which she joined the hundreds of thousands of Latin American leftists tortured by their governments during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Her career in government is less easily romanticized. As Minister of Energy in President “Lula” da Silva’s cabinet, Rousseff streamlined the controversial Belo Monte dam project, even though there was a court injunction that prohibited government preparations for it. In 2010, when Lula left office with the highest approval rating in the country’s history, Rousseff, by then his Chief of Staff and chosen successor, was handily voted into office.

Until recently, Rousseff enjoyed all the popularity necessary to expect her re-election next year. But the political landscape has rapidly changed over the past three weeks; therefore, this former activist’s response could affect the prospects of her presidency as well as the potential for broader social change.

Her broad-stroke reply to the protests is a particularly astute move on several levels. It could either strengthen the grassroots movement—by providing it with both legitimacy and further space to institute its demands—or co-opt it in her favor.

For movement organizers, a popular plebiscite would represent a major success, even if a short-term one. Far from the passage and enforcement of meaningful reforms, the president’s recognition of their efforts has granted activists a symbolic strength that should not be understated. From this perspective, the president is serving the role of an “elite ally”—a key target in power whose interest may overlap with those of the social movement.

On the other hand, this political maneuver—it also helps to divert attention towards the Congress. Rousseff will have to submit the plebiscite to both chambers of the legislature, where more than two-dozen parties are almost evenly divided among opposing coalitions. Lawmakers have promised to put the plebiscite out to the public before the election next year.

Prospects for Change

Like other left-wing parties in Latin America, Rousseff’s Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) has embraced the goals of macroeconomic development as dictated by the international political economy and its bottom-line logic. For this reason, they have fast-tracked projects notoriously noxious, such as open-pit gold mines, at the risk of human rights violations and long-term environmental insecurity.

Just as more presidents of different stripes defend the privatization, diversion, and extraction of natural resources, more civil society groups and spontaneous movements are finding collective outputs to express their concerns–and sometimes their outrage–about inattention to basic public needs, such as health and education. The middle and lower classes are fed up, enraged, and organizing to alter their circumstances.

The potential of these social forces is playing out in Brazil today. As we have learned from recent movements, from the Middle East to Wisconsin and Occupy, pressure can dissipate—but can be most necessary—precisely when politicians begin to formulate their responses.


Image courtesy of “Occupy Brazil” (Facebook).


Versions of this article appeared in Tikkun Daily and Socialist Worker.

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Mexico’s Return to “Perfect Dictatorship”

July 2, 2012


On the night of July 1, Enrique Peña Nieto shouted before cameras, “this Sunday, Mexico won!” The presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Peña used the speech to declare himself the winner, promising an “honest” and “democratic presidency.”

Peña believes he has defeated both the conservative incumbent Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), which supported technocratic reforms—such as the Free Trade Are of the Americas, the Plan Puebla-Panamá, and the actually successful Central American Free Trade Agreement—but later placed legal restrictions on the privatization of state enterprises.

Peña might also have beaten the increasingly popular promise of redistribution posed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático. The PRI is expected to return to market liberalization policies under Peña, the election’s largest spender, who has also promised “neither a pact nor a truce” in the war on crime.

As soon as legally possible, television networks’ exit polls fired their verdict—Peña by five, ten or even fifteen percent—and the electoral commission’s first count confirms him as virtual president. The PRI also took key governorships for example in the state of Yucatán, where it won by less than 400 votes.

The return of the PRI comes in the face of an escalating conflict, the violence of which is palpable even across its borders. The party has a long history corruption and violence, and the patterns of its connections to the drug trade are well documented.1 Dismissing history, Mexicans have given the party another chance.

Many still believe in the party, despite decades of growing inequality, poverty and cronyism.2 Simply put, the party crushed its opposition, maintained national unity through violence, and retained order in the streets. Understandably, some long for the days in which the government stayed out of the way of criminal organizations and these consequently stayed out of public view.3

Under the PAN-led “war on drugs,” the everyday lives of many citizens have become increasingly affected by crime—the effects of the war may seem more immediately damaging than the instability created by the PRI’s economic policy.

However, many see the escalating power of the cartels has some of its roots in PRI-led neoliberalization, as well as how the PRI handled its relationship with organized crime. In Mexico State, where Peña was governor, women are murdered at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.4 As expected, Peña denied this repeatedly during the campaign.5

Adding to the PRI’s potential scandals, Peña allegedly drove too cozy a relationship with Mexico’s media conglomerate, Televisa, which he was been forced to address in public.6

Laura Becerril, a woman leaving the polls, commented, “I don’t even know how Peña won—everybody I know says they voted for López Obrador.”

“I have a friend who got there in the afternoon and couldn’t vote because they were out of ballots,” she tells me tepidly.

More than 1,500 citizen reports of such anomalies can be read online (www.ObservacionElectoral2012.com.mx). These range from delinquent proselytism to unusual conditions at polls, missing ballots in left-leaning districts, vote buying, and violence against monitors. Of 31 states and one federal district, most of the reports are from Distrito Federal (26.5 percent), followed by Peña’s Mexico State (18.9 percent).

The day after the election, La Jornada devoted its front page to a survey by academics and specialists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México that concluded 71 percent of Mexicans believe electoral fraud to be a possibility.

They may be drawing from recent experience, such as the 1988 “system collapse” electoral fraud, or the 2006 contested presidential appointment.7 Some could even venture far more deeply into Mexico’s long history of exploitation and resistance.

Mexico’s 1821 emancipation from colonialism only shifted power to the locally established elites. The victorious criollo general Agustín de Iturbide declared himself emperor. It was subsequently ruled by various generals (40 governments in 50 years) and invaded by the U.S. In 1864, the conservative elite invited Maximilian von Habsburg to rule as emperor.

In the late 19th century, the executive power underwent several reforms that undercut the power of the Catholic Church and the military. To do this, Mexicans elected Benito Juárez, an indigenous Supreme Justice, to the presidency; however, France, England and Spain invaded, using external debt as an excuse to take ports.

After 30 years of one military dictatorship, the Porfiriato, indigenous uprisings and worker strikes became a full-blown revolution that overturned the power structure and enacted redistributive reforms; however, the “revolutionary” party used these events to consolidate. It centralized the executive power, set up unions and coopted them, habitually rigged elections, and brutally silenced seven decades of resistance and dissent.

Meanwhile, corruption and populism—evidenced in acts like the nationalization of petroleum in 1938 (to the dismay of U.S. Standard Oil)—defined the state monopoly. During the Cold War, it saw macroeconomic growth (and mounting inequality) and adopted the U.S. National Security Doctrine. Under the PRI, Mexico became the “perfect dictatorship,” in the words of the Peruvian-Spanish writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa.

In 1982, Mexico’s leaders began to restructure policy with neoliberal reforms that opened the economy to international capital. The influx of investment and commodities culminated in the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Small-scale producers declined and migration skyrocketed.

By this time, the United States had secured a national security state in Colombia.8

Although the U.S. war on drugs did not reduce demand for drugs in North America, it shifted patterns in their production, transportation and distribution. It created the rise of El Chapo Guzmán, the metaphor representing Mexico’s narco-traffickers. The notoriously violent cartel, Los Zetas, was once an elite anti-subversive branch of the Mexican military, created and trained through U.S. military assistance under National Security Doctrine.9

The party lost the presidency in 2000, creating a cloud of dust. This power vacuum was coupled with scandals and manipulations. Every form of political attacks were waged in law, media, and the streets. Mexico reached a level of instability that looked as if it could not collapse any further; however, the plausibility of extraction from the world’s 6th largest petroleum reserves would be protected by larger power structures.

In December of 2006, two weeks after taking office (winning by less than one percent of the vote), president Felipe Calderón opened a war on drug cartels. In six years, militarization has resulted in the deaths of 60,000 and the disappearance of 100,000. The state of affairs has transformed Mexico, and led to the inspiring rise of student-led movements like #YoSoy132 or the transnational network Movimiento Regeneración Nacional.

Peña has vaguely promised a change of strategy before the Mexican populace; to U.S. policymakers, he avows the continuation of the anti-cartel military combat. On Sunday night, Calderón celebrated Peña’s victory and asked the public to confront together the “many things” that are wrong with Mexico. Days ago, Calderón announced he plans to leave the country at the end of his term.


1 Alejandro Gutierrez, “Dirty money contaminates 65% of campaigns in Mexico: Buscaglia,” Proceso, June 16, 2011.

2 Thomas Palley, “Del Keynesianismo al Neoliberalismo,” UNAM Economía, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2005): pp. 138-148.

3 Charles Bowden, Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family (2004), p. 3.

4 David Deolarte, “En cinco años, 922 mujeres han sido asesinadas en el Edomex,” Proceso Reportaje Especial, February 1, 2011.

5 For the contradictions between Pena’s record and rhetoric, see “The Governor’s Miraculous Achievement,” The Economist, September 22, 2011.

6 Enrique Méndez, “Demostré que no soy el candidato de televisoras: Peña Nieto,” Mexico, D.F.: La Jornada, May 8, 2012.

7 Jesus Orozco Enriquez, “Certainties, Doubts and Lessons from Mexico’s 2006 Election: the Electoral Court and the Presidential Election Disputes and Declaration of Validity Resolutions” (The State of Mexico’s Democracy, Yale University, 2006).

8 William Aviles, “Paramilitarism and Colombia’s Low-Intensity Democracy,” Journal of Latin American Studies Vol. 38, Issue 2 (2006).

9 Sylvia Longmire, Cartel: the Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars (New York: MacMillan, 2011).


This article was published in Counterpunch on July 3, 2012 and in Socialist Worker …soon thereafter.

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So you want to change the world…

“The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” – Plato

We want to contribute, to make the world a better place. We get an education, develop interests and seek new answers—all because we wish to positively affect the world during our lifetimes.

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” Howard Zinn wrote. You have to be political; the political is personal. Whether or not you are conscious of it, you impact the world everyday you wake up. How your taxes and other resources are allocated, what kind of standing you have, and almost every social condition that determines your everyday life, is determined by politics.

While some do not wait to graduate college to work for (or against) political change, many students across the world are making use of their education, experience and the network they developed as undergraduates, to take positions of power.

One way to influence society and achieve change is to run for office. Given the changes in candidacy age restrictions, the doors to public office have been widened to younger people. For instance, Zach Vruwink, a 24-year-old and UW – Stevens Point graduate in Political Science and Public Administration, just won the April 3 election for mayor of Wisconsin Rapids.

“I am interested in running for office, its just a matter of when and where,” said Patrick Testin, who served as student senator and president of the College Republicans until he graduated from UWSP last year.

“I have found that many people in city, county, and state politics started on campus,” said Jay Burseth, a former student body president and Political Science and History double major at UW – Milwaukee. “Chris Larson, for example, who is my state senator here in Milwaukee, ran for the same office I held at UWM just four years before me. Sachin Chheda, who is the Chair of the Milwaukee Democratic Party, used to run campaigns at UWM.”

“I suspect and foresee the ultra-conservative and malicious people I ran against a few years ago at UWM will pop up again in state politics. Many were very open about how they were using UWM as a start to move on to other, much larger elected positions,” Burseth pondered. “This idea frightens me.”

Self-identified young conservatives tend to be distrustful of government and politicians; on the other side of the spectrum, many young progressives and radicals reject running for office—which can be overly dramatic and undeniably superficial—as a means to enact social change.

Not all believe that organized social change is necessary. “Change your life, you’ll impact the world around, changing that world, hopefully creating a domino effect that, in turn, changes the rest of the world,” said Libby Olbrantz, a recent UWSP graduate and the current Vote Organizer at Lane Community College, Oregon.

Of course, individual action is important. The numbers add up; take a half-long shower, ride a bike to work, recycle, and you’re making a difference. Ultimately, however, privatism can only take society so far. Climate change is a factor to consider—how quickly do we need to change the world?

“Running for office is the least effective way to make change. Getting together with other people and demonstrating is one of the most. So is educating people about how our society really works,” said Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive.

“There are many roles so-called ‘radicals’ can play in society. It is important to have these people in positions as journalists, educators, elected officials, etc.,” Burseth said. “I have found that when people I agree with politically don’t run for office or don’t take a serious role in combating power, then other, power-hungry and corrupt folks take those positions.”

Burseth said that while political office is unappealing, there is no other choice. “I know far too many great activists and organizers who have resorted to bartending, when maybe elected officials of both parties are better suited for these types of jobs.”

The question on social change denotes a change in the characteristics of society and culture; therefore, political victories must expand beyond the legal system. For example, musicians and artists can sway public opinion and inspire action, although the vast majority of what we consider celebrities is far from risking a career for social justice. There are notable exceptions, of course. George Clooney, known for his acting and looks, was recently arrested in Washington D.C. while leading a protest outside of the Sudanese embassy.

Johnathan Predaina, who was the student senate president at UW – Platteville last year, sees a value to different approaches to enacting change, such as journalism. However, journalism degrees are next to worthless, and that industry retains a level of elitism despite digitally based openings.

“Personally I’m going into academia to be a Tech-Ed teacher to keep classes here relevant to the 21st century, keeping our children up to speed with emerging technologies,” he said.

But, while universities are prime places for political organizing and action, academia is an institution of exploitation just as any other. Graduate schools do not produce independent thinkers and innovators, but a cheap pool of adjuncts expected to satisfy market demands. The exhausting workload and status-conscious environment might also be disengaging, and many who enter as idealists leave as cynics.

Ultimately, you don’t need any specific vocation or degree to find your voice, demand justice and accountability, and overall be informed and politically active. Each person in society must remain aware and vocal for democracy to truly function.

“Civil disobedience is not our problem … Our problem is civil obedience. … Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves … and the grand thieves are running this country.” – Howard Zinn

“Movements are the voice of the people, independently thinking. Academics are teaching to the test because they’re forced to if they want to get more funding to do more innovative teaching… but it’s hard to say this new teaching will be better. Politicians can be swayed by ‘investors,’ public and private, because they like what they have and would like to stay in office,” Predaina asserted.

In all, a combination of people willing to organize within and outside of the political system is the most effective means of changing society. “I’m not sure which I’d place over the other,” said Predaina of the different paths to social change. “Radical organizing has a huge part and has played a significant impact in Wisconsin this past year, as we’ve seen.”

“I see it as a cycle with feedback. You need all of them,” said Matthew Guidry, a UWSP graduate and former member of student government. He emphasized the coalition between progressive candidates, grassroots organizers, journalists and academics. “When the elected officials are so far off, organizing and radical organizing become key in directly and indirectly communicating the needs of the people to elected officials.”

Versions of this article appeared on The Pointer at UWSP and The Bitchin’ Kitsch.

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Drug use at UWSP: student survey provides insights

“One of the most persistent and unusual aspects of human behavior, observable in all cultures and through all of history, is man’s dissatisfaction with his ordinary state of consciousness and the consequent development of innumerable methods for altering it,” according to Charles T. Tart, professor emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Davis.

Students at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, the “green campus” in the UW System, have to cope with the prospect of being stereotyped as vegans, bikers, hippies, bluegrass fans and stoners by their counterparts in other universities. As the natural resources school, UWSP has a stigma of attracting those students across the state who are most “in tune with nature.”

However, this view might not be accurate, as indicated by the most recent survey about drug and alcohol use on campus. While students in the UW System have been found to abuse alcohol at a higher rate than in other states and the national averages, UWSP does not perform much differently than other schools in the state.

Although marijuana is the leading drug among U.S. college students, a far worse problem is alcohol abuse. Only 27.9 percent of UWSP students said they used illegal drugs or over-the-counter drugs they were not prescribed since entering college; meanwhile, 72 percent said they have either continued to or started to drink alcohol since entering college.

“The elevated and pervasive incidence of high-risk drinking is cause for alarm. National studies of college students show that binge drinking is strongly correlated with suicide, personal injury, physical violence, sexual aggression, vandalism, criminal activity, unsafe sexual behavior, and reduced academic performance,” according to the UW System Strategic Plan for AODA Prevention Initiatives.

Anne Hoffman, UWSP Wellness Coordinator, was a part of the committee that drafted the strategic plan a decade ago. Since then, Hoffman continues spearheading efforts to prevent, intervene in and curb alcohol and substance abuse, sexual assault, and unhealthy student habits and lifestyles. She terms this work ‘harm reduction’.

“We think, how can we help students have a great authentic collegiate experience?” said Hoffman. Her direct efforts include precluding unhealthy choices through a presentation to incoming freshmen during orientation, a required 1-hour online course, an online educational program and accessible resources, trainings and presentations before student organizations and residence halls, as well as by enforcing policies of student expectations—and the possible consequences of violating them.

“The vast majority of students are really complacent,” said Hoffman. The largest problem she sees is the low level of awareness held by students and the broader community about the services available. According to the survey, less than half of the respondents were aware of the campus resources and initiatives to reduce and help students with alcohol and drug abuse. Among these services, UWSP is equipped with a full-time counselor certified in alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA).

Hoffman remains hopeful that her dynamic efforts will reduce this false image of UWSP students. She prides herself in looking at her line of work from different perspectives, such as the social and cultural aspects of abuse.

Wisconsin’s infamous drinking culture is one such consideration. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2000 that alcohol consumption rates in Wisconsin are the highest in the nation, with 70.4% of Wisconsin adults using alcohol, and 23.2% engaging in binge drinking. According to Hoffman, 22 percent of students have alcoholism in their family.

“As school becomes more expensive, I want students to get every dime they invested out of their experience,” said Hoffman, who believes the survey results indicate that students can see a connection between substance consumption and academic performance.

“Higher grades have been correlated with lower levels of alcohol consumption, and in a national study of nearly 94,000 students from 197 colleges and universities conducted over three years, students with D’s or F’s reported consuming almost ten drinks per week, while those with A averages consumed a little more than four drinks per week,” notes the Strategic Plan.

The Pointer received feedback about the issue from four anonymous students who identified as drug users, and were interviewed separately. These students had a different view about their consumption.

The four anonymous students (who we will call students A, B, C and D) said they consumed marijuana, beer, and alcohol as their substances of choice, although one of them (B) noted he were also interested in “miscellaneous psychedelics.” When asked how many times they used each week, two male seniors (A and B) said “at least 30 times per week.” One of the two said, “Money is the only limiter.” One female senior (C) said she used marijuana “three times per week, tops,” and a male junior (D) admitted to smoking “weed at least 28 times” weekly.

When asked if they had ever used substances before class, all four said yes. Students A, B  and D said they smoked marijuana “before almost every class” or “regularly.” Student C said she smoked marijuana before class “sometimes,” adding, “It makes class awesome!”

Reflecting on this astonishing revelation, students were asked whether marijuana use had impaired their learning abilities, reduced their productivity, lowered their grades or degraded their college experience. Student A said, “Not at all—if anything it makes me more productive because I have to write a lot of Philosophy papers and I can be much more productive when I’m stoned.” Student B said, “I feel less productive, but more creative,” noting drug use was a distraction from productivity because of time management rather than mind-alteration. Student C said “I don’t let it, I usually wait until I’m done with work.”

Students A, B, and D said their drug consumption had enhanced their college career. All three pointed to their grades, social relationships, and post-graduation plans as signs of their success in college, despite their above-average consumption. The most interesting comments came from student D, who noted he was on the Dean’s List (denoting academic honors) and reflected that “it must be a personality thing,” referring to how drive and focus can overpower the negative effects of marijuana.

Pointing to his 3.7 GPA, Student D also argued, “I don’t believe it has impaired my ability to actively listen or participate in class discussion.” He stated that as a freshman, he found it hard to concentrate in class or contribute to discussion until he started smoking marijuana before class, which raised his ability to delve into subjects, critically analyze situations, and eloquently contribute to class. He went as far as to refer to marijuana as a possible “beneficial learning aid.”

“For those who may suffer from anxiety or ADD, marijuana can have a focusing effect,” Student D said. He also associated drug use with sociability and his success in extra-curricular involvement on campus. “My college career has been a positive one in regards to my future goals.”

“Drugs have been an important means of inducing altered states of consciousness throughout history. Cultures have embraced or rejected this means. Proponents have touted it as the shortcut to Enlightenment, while critics, both ordinary men and those considered spiritual giants, have called it an escape, a pseudo-Enlightenment,” Tart argues.

“Our culture today is one of the most drug-oriented cultures in history; we go by the millions to our doctor (or our dealer) for pills to pep us up, calm us down, wake us up, put us to sleep, relax our tensions, make us forget, or enlighten us. As a whole our cultural attitudes toward drugs are irrational to the point of absurdity. We mightily praise some drugs whose detrimental effects are enormous and well known, such as alcohol, and condemn other drugs about which we know very little,” according to Tart.

Tart’s point may indicate a real policy problem. Attention-deficit stimulants are a booming industry on campuses, as students abuse non-prescribed amphetamines as a ‘study aid’ drug. Of all non-alcoholic substances used by UWSP students, amphetamines were far ahead of the others, according to the survey.

Angela Janis, a certified psychiatrist and a member of the Wisconsin Medical Society, said there are prescription drugs available to adults that are more dangerous than marijuana, such as Valium. She said marijuana, which has only been shown to potentially cause brain damage in adolescents, is virtually impossible to overdose on, unlike opiates like morphine.

Wisconsin Democrats have proposed legislation that would decriminalize cannabis use for medical purposes. The last of such attempts was this previous November, when Rep. Mark Pocan and Sen. Jon Erpenbach introduced a medical marijuana bill. As Pocan argued, “making medical marijuana legal is the right and compassionate thing to do for patients in pain.”

Janis said there is strong evidence medical marijuana would benefit patients who are suffering due to a number of terminal illnesses or pains, such as cancer, side effects from chemotherapy, HIV, chronic pain, glaucoma and muscle spasms, including symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis.

“I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws, but I’m not someone who believes in legalization,” said Senator Barack Obama in 2004. Since taking office, President Obama has increased federal expenditures on a crackdown on marijuana use, including 150 raids in more than seven states that allow medical marijuana.

The crackdown includes the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Justice, which has sent threatening letters to legislators in 10 states who proposed medical marijuana laws.

Since 1965, 20 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana possession. The 1986 federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for small quantities of drugs have increased the federal prison population by six-fold, from 36,000 to over 270,000 (half of whom are drug offenders). Between 2009 and 2010, almost half of all 1.6 million drug-related arrests were for possession of marijuana.

Many also worry about the increasing drug-related violence in Mexico, and now pouring into the U.S., as a result of prohibition. Since 2006, the U.S. has increased domestic police and overseas military assistance to countries such as Mexico, where 100,000 people have died as a result of the ‘war on drugs’ over the last five years. The Obama administration has increased funding for these military operations.

According to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, drug legalization is “the only way to eliminate violence associated with the drug cartels now moving into the United States.” There are also economic ramifications to legalization. By Miron’s estimates, federal, state, and local governments spend roughly $44 billion a year to fund prohibition. Through regulation and taxation at rates similar to those on alcohol and tobacco, those governments could collect $33 billion a year.

According to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion, over 53 percent of Americans now support marijuana legalization. The Green Party’s presidential alternative to Barack Obama, Jill Stein, has promised marijuana decriminalization as a means to end the failed war on drugs.

This is but one section of the Party’s “New Green Deal” platform, which has drawn attention from those on the left who have become disappointed with the Democrats and, particularly, Obama, the President who said in 2008, “I inhaled frequently—that was the point.”


The original version of this article was written for and appeared in The Pointer Newspaper.

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Why Mexico’s elections will matter

January 23, 2012

Most of us in the U.S. have spent our patience for electoral politics on the escalating gaffes by the Republican Party presidential contenders who, in their own ways, have demonstrated to the public how unsuitable they are to run the country. But our southern neighbors have a more clearly decisive election at hand this year.

Due to the political malleability of its legal system and the centralized power of its executive office, Mexico has a long history of blood-shed during presidential elections–candidates are assassinated, votes (and voters) disappear, entire indigenous and peasant communities are invaded, tortured and sexually abused by the military, and protest movement and worker organizations are brutally crushed. After all, this is Mexico, which has in recent years done quite miserably at re-representing itself as anything other than the media and U.S. border hawks’ notorious legal limbo, a placed marred by its political extortion and subordination.

Of course, then, judicial repression of opposition parties, as well as other forms of violence, are expected to occur. But this may also be a time of opportunity, of a new stage of political and economic development for the country. Indeed, Mexico’s presidential and 14 gubernatorial elections this coming July could mark an escalation of violence or a turning point for one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners.

Exacerbating the current electoral period’s propensity to result in bloodshed is the $30 billion business of international drug trade, which passes through hands of Wall Street investors and bankers, U.S. arms manufacturers, and government officials at every level before $23 billion reach the pockets of Mexican cartels annually.

As a result of U.S. drug interdiction programs in the Andean region and later in Colombia, which  slowly broke the influence of South and Central American cartels, Mexican producers filled the vacuum created by the ongoing and untreated U.S. consumer demand for narcotics. Mexico produces the majority of the marijuana and methamphetamine, and between 70 and 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the country. A Mexican government report estimated that that the country’s economy would contract by 63 percent, and the U.S. economy would contract 19-22 percent, if drug trade was entirely curtailed.

Polls show Mexicans currently favor ‘dapper’ Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI, which ruled the country with monopoly-capitalism for 71 years until 2000.

In December, when invited to speak at the International Book Fair–in order to promote a book he claims to have written–Peña Nieto was unable to answer an audience question about which three books had influenced him most.

After minutes of hesitation, Peña Nieto said he had read “parts of” the Bible. He then proceeded to mistake book titles and authors, before helplessly apologizing, stating “I have read a number of books … I have a hard time recalling the titles.” This is not his first gaffe. In a 2009 interview, he could not remember the cause of his wife’s death two years earlier.

In second place, polls show Josefina Vazquez Mota, from President Calderon’s catholic-conservative Partido Accion Nacional (PAN). Vazquez Mota was Calderon’s secretary of public education before joining the lower chamber of the Mexican congress, and currently faces widespread discontent about the state of everyday violence to which the country has descended in the last six years.

In a distant third is the center-left Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD), under candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who seems a polarizing figure: while he seems to be a common butt-end of everyday jokes, he was also declared “Legitimate President of Mexico” by an assembly of protestors in downtown Mexico City on November of 2006.

Not much time has past since the 2006 elections, largely regarded as fraudulent and another stain in the country’s recent political history. A year before the election, the polls placed then Mexico City’s mayor Lopez Obrador ahead of the other two parties, despite months of a corporate-sponsored media campaign ensuring an economic recession and other social maladies if he were to be elected. The rhetoric from the PRD was to pry the nation from the super rich, while the PAN and PRI parties equated class consciousness with fascism and dictatorship.

The election was originally too close to call, as announced on election night by the electoral commission, Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE). Both Calderon and Lopez Obrador declared victory.

In the coming days, reports of voter intimidation and vote buying, ballot boxes found in a dump in Nezahualcoyotl and in sewage drains in Mexico City, ballot stuffing and illegal campaigning, surfaced. However, these and other rising issues of electoral fraud were drowned out in the media (dominated by the network conglomerates Televisa and TV Azteca), which, according to an IFE report to the Organization of American States, served as a base for the candidates with the most corporate funding. Five days after election day, IFE declared Calderon the winner.

Lopez Obrador, a long-time protest organizer, failed at attempts to legally dispute the IFE’s decision and called for a massive protest in Mexico City when the federal electoral court refused to authorize a full recount. The demonstrations lasted months, during which one-to-two million of his supporters occupied vital avenues in the largest metropolis in the hemisphere.

In December, days after taking office, President Calderon opened a bloody pathway for U.S. intervention through the Merida Initiative, a $400 billion military security agreement to fight narcotic producers. In the first six months of his presidency, cartels executed an average of eight people each day.

The ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in the deaths of over 50,000, the disappearance of over 100,000 Mexicans and the displacement of over 700,000 peasants in five years. Mexico’s displaced, who ambulate in absolute poverty before either becoming the fodder of war or joining organized crime, cause a major economic strain on the country–i.e., they are a nuisance. Although crime runs at each level of society, with different levels of acceptability at different income levels, in Mexico, police and military forces are responsible or directly tied to the majority of the everyday violations of human rights reported.

The casualties and targets of Mexico’s intensifying conflict are, by a grossly disproportionate margin, the poor, peasants, indigenous people, women, migrants and disaffected urban populations. There is little tolerance for a free press, and it has taken the title as the country with the greatest journalists murdered, surpassing countries such as Colombia and Iraq.

Left commentators agree that labor and energy reforms are prescient, and–if one can sift through their soundbites, often devoid of meaning–the PRI and PAN candidates have already announced they seek privatization of Pemex, the parastatal oil company. In 2008, escalating issues with Luz y Fuerza, the electrical worker’s union, led to the nepotistic privatization of electricity, and the firing of 44,000 workers. The PRI created national workers union, which has always excluded peasants from representation, is also quavering and in need of reform.

The national education workers’ union, SNTE, notoriously corrupt and drenched in controversy, has a history of manipulating elections. In 2006, its PAN-affiliated president, Elba Gordillo used her position to influence the highest levels of the electoral commission, IFE, causing the replacement of poll workers in 22,000 sites across the country just before that year’s election.

The July elections will determine more than the course of the pressing demand for energy, fiscal and labor reforms in Mexico–they will either lead to an increase in the repression of social forces calling for justice and feed the military- and prison-industrial complex, or set a path towards economic redistribution and justice for the poor, who join organized crime largely because they find no prospects in Mexico’s current subservient position in the international division of labor. Thus, what is at stake in the coming presidential and gubernatorial elections in Mexico is no-less-than hemispheric security and economic recovery.


The demands of the washington consensus and international institutions led to rising income inequality and low growth since the 1970s, which slowly caused the PRI to collapse under Ernesto Zedillo (December 1994-2000).

Zedillo was the selected PRI candidate after the party’s original nominee, Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated on March 23 of 1994. His presidency sponsored multiple military massacres of organized indigenous land-defense communities, such as in Aguas Blancas and Acteal, as well as the signing of NAFTA. He also oversaw the privatization of key Mexican ports, airports, railroads, natural gas distribution systems, and others.

A current Yale economist, Zedillo also serves on the board of directors of Citi Group, Procter & Gamble, Electronic Data Systems, Coca-Cola’s international advisory consort and as a director of Union Pacific, to which some of Mexico’s railroads were privatized during his presidency.

The PRI was replaced by PAN, which has followed a perhaps even worse technocratic, neoliberal course since it took over the presidency in 2000 under Vicente Fox, Coca-Cola’s chief executive in Latin America. Fox was not the first non-PRI candidate who won the presidential elections, but–as the ruling class saw its one-party capitalist system grow unsustainable–he became the first allowed to assume the role. His victory was cheered as the great ‘democratic transition’ for Mexico.

Under him, peasants in San Salvador Atenco resisted big-business, bureaucracy, and military forces and stopped the expropriation of their lands–for which they would be ‘repaid’ at less than $2 per square meter–for the $2.5 billion construction of a new international airport in 2003. At the time, President Fox deflected criticisms by stating that these rural workers had “won the lottery” with the government’s repayment offer.

Further suggestive of the class structure in Mexico, current leading presidential contender Peña Nieto’s new wife–a well known Mexican actress–Tweeted: “Like, I think if Indians want to improve their conditions, they should get to work and stop being lazy or violent, like in Atenco.”

The same community was the setting of a 2006 raid by federal police, which specifically targeted the leaders of the Fronte de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra (People’s Front in Defense of Land), and a neighboring community’s flower merchants, who organized against the replacement of their downtown square with a shopping mall. The confrontation resulted in the rape of 47 women, the arrests and brutal beatings of hundreds and the murder of two young solidarity activists, all at the hands of police, who continue to steal, rape and murder the rural poor, with increased fervor and impunity under the name of the war on drugs.

The decades-long PRI truce with drug traffickers–government turns a blind eye as long as cartels restrict street violence–collapsed under PAN, which was not immune to corruption and infiltration. Nahum Acosta, one of Fox’s cabinet aides, was found to be a spy for the Juarez cartel. The toll of trafficking-related violence during Fox’s six years in office was over 3,000, many of them serving as public displays of ruthlessness, meant to manifest fear and subordination.


To understand the importance of the war on drugs on international finance, arms production, worker’s justice, violence, human rights and democracy, we must venture at least as far back as the Iran-Contra scandal, through which–as demonstrated by a scratch-in-the-surface investigation in the U.S. Congress in 1986–the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran (a subject of an arms embargo also engaged in a war against then-U.S. ally Iraq) via Israel to fund the anti-Sandinista Contra army in Nicaragua.

The Contras’ mission was beyond the subversion of Nicaraguan democracy, support for the arms industry or the slaughter of both Iranians and Iraqis; they were also assisted by the CIA and U.S. aircraft in producing cocaine for distribution in the streets of the United States, namely African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, as was documented in 1996.

The effects of Reagan’s escalation of the repressive war on drugs on democracy abroad and at home are visible. With one in 100 adults behind bars, the U.S. boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. It holds 25 percent of the world’s total incarcerated population, and its per-capita execution rate is among the top five. One in thirty Americans, more than 7.3 million, were on probation, parole, jail or prison at the end of 2008.

A 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics documented that at least half of the prison population is disproportionally represented by ethnic minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic males. The political economy of the militarization and criminalization of drug use created a vast and profoundly racist, class-based and for-profit justice system in the United States and provided another excuse to intervene in Latin American and world affairs for corporate interests.

The war on crime, as the war on terror and the war on drugs, are part of the same ‘national security’ neoconservative strategy that places corporate contracts and social repression over human rights and real security; they are all part of a system that logically results in a $40 billion drug trafficking business.

“So now we’re narco-terrorists,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales in 2008, after winning a referendum ushered against him by U.S.-backed elites in his country. Morales was the indigenous leader of a coca-growers’ union before becoming president in 2006. “When they couldn’t call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists.”

As noted by Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans in a 2001 study, “Not so long ago, communism was ‘the enemy’ and communists were demonized as a way of justifying gargantuan military expenditures. Now, fear of crime and the demonization of criminals serve a similar ideological purpose: to justify the use of tax dollars for the repression and incarceration of a growing percentage of our population. The omnipresent media blitz about serial killers, missing children, and ‘random violence’ feeds our fear. In reality, however, most of the ‘criminals’ we lock up are poor people who commit nonviolent crimes out of economic need. Violence occurs in less than 14% of all reported crime, and injuries occur in just 3%.”


Mexico, which is already being referred to as a failed state due to the impunity, violence, and insecurity that characterizes its plutocratic system of governance, is an example of why politics matter most where they seem degraded and futile. In a country whose politics are reduced to the legacy of different forms of competing plutocratic hegemonies, a natural and social result of history, the exceeding reports of violations of human rights against its poor, indigenous, peasant, female, and leftwing populations are too close to home–it is at our peril that we turn a blind eye to them, as we do daily to the tragedies occurring globally.

For those of whose tax dollars are funding this ‘international security’ and ‘development’ charade, as well as fueling the demand for exceedingly criminalized substances, it’s about time to notice.

Michael Wilson is as student journalist and community organizer in Wisconsin. He is currently the News Editor for The Pointer at UWSP (where this article first appeared; it was republished by SocialistWorker.org in February 2011).

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Filed under International justice, peace and justice, police state

Changing Conditions Under the Power Structure

“Policies don’t change, interests don’t change, institutional sources of these don’t change, but conditions do. And the most important condition is the domestic population. And that changes because of dedicated activism, sometimes inspired by great tragedies.” – Noam Chomsky, Kent State University, May 2000.

The Kent State and Jackson State shootings became emblematic of the sacrifice made by the peace movement, and the repression that the government was willing to enforce in order to suppress dissent in American colleges and broader society (although the latter school’s shootings were not as publicized, as it was a predominantly black school).

On February 15, 2003, more than ten million people gathered in the streets of more than 100 cities across the globe to say no to the imminent war in Iraq. As the United States and Britain prepared for a final attempt to bring the case of the invasion for authorization from the Security Council, the citizens of the world demanded that their governments demonstrated accountability and responsibility towards the protection of the thousands of innocent civilians that would die in the conflict. This is not to mention the “Holocaust of hunger,” as was termed in a Methodist publication about the arms race published during the early Cold War period, that is caused by the siphoning of resources away from humanitarian needs to building a massive arsenal. The mass demonstrations of February and March of 2003 led the international community and the United Nations to reject the case for war. The Security Council is by design intended to support the interests of its five permanent members. Pressure on leaders by grass-roots demonstrations for peace thus denied the United States of the legitimacy for their case.

Although the U.S. went on with its plans to invade despite lack of international legitimacy, and without approval from the Security Council, thus illegally, the power of the people was evident in the decision of the United Nations, which strengthened the peace movement. It was a victory for both, it was, as David Cortright wrote, a sort of dialectic through which the international community and the anti-war movement reinforced each other. The Iraq war was “lost politically before it began militarily.” The refusal of the SC to condone the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was “the UN’s shining moment . . . one of its finest hours.” Then UN Secretary General used a phrase from a New York Times article of the time, referring to world public opinion as “the other superpower.”

We live in a highly militarized society, in terms of foreign and domestic policy as well as cultural values. The DoD, a leviathan emblematic of the military-industrial complex made up of unelected people working in consensus with defense contractors, has a nearly-unlimited budget. When it comes to its funding, money is no object. Meanwhile public schools everywhere across the country have to cut essential educational programs (like literature and the arts, just as an example) to stay afloat. This is no accident, as the power structure’s last goal is to educate the masses. An educated populace would break through the façade of democracy, in which a very small number of the population control the majority of the world’s wealth. In the United States the National Taxpayer’s Union estimated that 10% of the population controls 71% of the wealth. A United Nations University study reported that in 2000, 10% of adults in the world accounted for 85% of total wealth. That is not a democracy, and the power structure knows that. You cannot claim to be free when you are impaired by the chains of economic slavery.

The power structure understands that to retain their power and wealth, they need to keep the populace uninformed. They have to provide a notion of freedom and democracy, but constrain these as much as possible. They do that, as Albert Einstein pointed out in 1932, by controlling our sources of information, the press, the churches, our schools, and most of our institutions. In 2007, when I was a freshman, according to my political science 101 textbook, 98% of the U.S.’s public opinion was dictated by four media conglomerates (General Electric, Viacom, Time Warner and News Corporation), which have a vested interest in maximizing profits for themselves and their partner corporations. G.E., for example, which owns NBC and MSNBC, is one of the largest weapons-parts manufacturers in the world.

And so you provide a short level of actual liberty to people to keep them subservient, but as soon as a catastrophe happens, governments seize the opportunity to further subvert democracy and liberty. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789 made anti-government speech or documents illegal—if you were an immigrant, you could be deported for speaking against the government of the U.S.; Abraham Lincoln removed Habeas Corpus during the Civil War (though he was one to return it after the war’s end); the Espionage Act of 1917 made it criminal to make or convey any statements which interfere with military operations; the Sedition Act of 1918 made “disloyal” language about the government, the military, the flag, or the constitution of the U.S., as well as the uniforms of the armed forces (yikes!), or any language “intended to bring the above into contempt, scorn, or disrepute,” illegal; the government in Mexico City imposed a state of martial law during the H1N1 crisis early this summer; the Honduras golpista government did the same thing soon after their coup d’etat at around the same time.

Under the Patriot Act, any person in the world can be detained without a charge, indefinitely, without access to counsel or a notification to family, if the president of the United States deems it appropriate. Once released, even if never charged, even if you were tortured or starved, it is also illegal for you to pursue legal action against your captors. Also, under the patriot act, any criminal act can be considered an act of terrorism, and any act of terrorism can punishable by death. Surveillance is another part of the patriot act. This has a particular psychological effect on people, making them afraid to speak against injustice as perpetrated by their government. The spiral of silence goes on, and feeds onto itself. This essay is by any means an act of terrorism and can be considered a capital crime by a martial court.

Once the power structure manages to subvert democracy and civil rights, it is very hard for the people to make the pendulum to swing back. In fact, the power structure makes sure that there is not even a discussion about it, that there’s no debate in the streets with regards to the unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act, for example. And so this isn’t going to chance, and in fact gets worse and worse in terms of law. The pendulum can only swing back with the pressure of the people.

Current demonstrations for greater environmental protection are taking place by brave members of the global society in Copenhagen. Last week, Danish authorities are boasting on the media about their new “anti-riot equipment” and gigantic cages where, they will temporarily hold protestors until they’re processed and transported to jails. The Danish Parliament has rushed a number of stiffened penalties against protesters. All of these scare tactics aside, the people need to speak, and the way to be heard, by authorities, decision-makers and by others who might be too afraid to dissent, is to stand up and protest. They are sending a message to the world. To decision makers, they let them know that they are aware, and their voice on the issue is being heard. To others, protestors let them know that they’re not alone, and that their silence is the enemy’s greatest tool. They let us know that the spiral of silence can be broken.

The people need to break through the systematic atomization and disinformation, the process by which we are separated from each other and kept in blindness and ignorance, which fosters obedience and consumerism, deference and blind nationalism and xenophobia. We need to realize that sometimes laws are not above justice, and that in order to regain moral laws based on true justice rather than the protection of the power structure, we need to unite, learn to cooperate, and demonstrate to the world that we’re not going to sit and watch TV, and complain from time to time about how much we’re underpaid producers. We’re wage slaves. To the powers that be, we’re nothing but consumers of overpriced goods, which are the product of resource extraction, labor exploitation, and environmental degradation. Ipods, for example, are a commodity that most people embrace, are highly over priced and made in—let me check mine—China. They travel the world to be sold in different consumer markets, consuming fossil fuels. They’re made out of led and copper, which are hazardous, and end up in landfills all across the globe.

We need to stand up and change things. We can make a difference, as affirmed by the former UN Secretary General when he referred to world public opinion as “the other superpower.” We must gain confidence, despite worsening conditions. We need to let our voice be heard, because if we don’t do it now, then things are only going to be worse. State terrorism, the scare tactics to keep us afraid to speak for ourselves, the same tactics used throughout history, always evolving and perfected by the next tyrant, are not powerful enough to stop the people. Once united, we cannot be defeated.

The way to do this is through increased democratic participation and outspoken, nonviolent activism. Dr. King said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” Cowardice in the face of injustice is perhaps even worse than aggression. We must oppose violence with love, and change the conditions through which the power structure acts. We have the power to broaden or constrict their options, because they won’t do so themselves.

When John Kennedy authorized in 1962 the bombing of crop storages, of rice fields, deliberately cutting poor people from a supply of food, his actions were met with discontent in the form of a few crossed arms. When Ronald Reagan tried the same thing against Central America, the deliberate targeting of “soft-targets,” meaning defenseless citizens, he was met with opposition from all corners of the country, from women, from church groups, from all unexpected places. It prompted his administration to create a state propaganda machine, the Office of Public Diplomacy. This was exposed during the Iran/Contra Hearings in Congress, which incidentally were themselves a theater to appease public discontent and left the establishment largely untouched. Still, it was progress. Atrocities still occurred, but they could have been much worse.

After the Tet Offensive, President Johnson asked the Pentagon for 200,000 more troops for the war in Vietnam. They refused, stating that they would need those forces at home to calm civil disorder. This, argues MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, was proof of the military’s mentality that led to the Kent State and Jackson State killings not long afterwards. It is widely recognized that the Vietnam War was ended because of pressure from below from peace and anti-war activists.

Contrary to the Reaganite deception that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War because of his doubling of the defense budget, his SDI, the success of his “war on drugs” and counterrevolutionary operations in Central America, and his increased reliance of militarism as pressure on the USSR, which in reality only escalated tensions, the Cold War ended because of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. By the 1980s, Soviet militarism and its competition with western militarism was beyond unsustainable, despite its long-suited egregious exploitation of natural resources and slave labor, to which layers of bureaucracy gave increasingly eroding cover. As Gorbachev recounts in his memoir, his “new thinking” and will to concede to Western demands, in some framings, was a consequence of pressure from Eastern and Western peace movements, which learned to cooperate with each other in the late 1970s. These movements bridged their divide and emphasized demilitarization in the West and respect for human rights in the East. It was the work of movements such as that led by composer Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Walessa in Poland that brought down the iron curtain.

When it became evident that the United States would invade Iraq, millions of people took to the streets in more than a hundred cities across the globe to say “no.” Millions of Americans declared their patriotism by standing up against government-sponsored injustice and the way it was openly diverging from its role and guiding principles set out in the constitution. Out of love and as the most powerful form of patriotism, peace activists spoke against the intentions of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who had published their National Security Strategy before 9/11, and labeled Iraq part of the “axis of evil”–again, before 9/11. Others in the opposite isle in government also used the age-old argument that the protestors were unpatriotic. More moderate people even today say things like: “you shouldn’t speak against your country.” Because you have respect for liberty and democracy, it is imperative that you question the intentions of your government. Dissent is integral to a democracy. The militarization of our policy and culture—which has led to the creation of the National Security state (a euphemism for police state) and justified our interventionism across the globe—has pushed the masses into deference, yes-man-ship, obedience, unquestioning and xenophobic nationalism. That is not characteristic of a democratic society, but its opposite, in fact.

“We will have to repent in this generation . . . for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”    – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil Rights and anti-war activists complained about the rising police state in the 1960s, but they still rose to resist it. Imagine what they would think about the lack of inaction that has followed the state terrorism in the most recent decade. We like to think that there needs to be a better time for peaceful protest to regain our country. The time is now.

UPDATE: Since this essay was written, the year 2011 happened. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Boazizi, a Tunisian college graduate and vegetable seller burned himself alive to protest his conditions after police illegally confiscated his vegetable cart, thereby springing a rebellion against abject conditions and a lethargic plutocracy–in one of the region’s most prosperous and stable countries. As 2011 dawned, the Tunisian revolt proved the merit of peaceful protest when the man who har ruled with U.S. support for 23 years, Zinedine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia in January 14; as popular uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria followed, it became clear that something big had started. In all of these places, nonviolent protests were met with violent repression from police and military forces, often with U.S. approval. In Bahrain, where the U.S. negotiated and directly assisted the Saudi military’s brutal crushing of the uprising. In Yemen, the U.S. supported Ali Abdullah Saleh and facilitated his affluent ceding of power to a puppet pseudo-democratic system. The U.S. also turned a blind eye on Syria’s Assad as he murderously and bloodily silenced the country’s movement.

Egypt was a significant and emblematic struggle for the year. By the end of January, dictator Hosni Mubarak’s police forces lost an intense and brutal fight against protestors, who held onto their encampment in Tahrir Square, Cairo despite four nights of intense fighting. The dictator’s continued subversion of civil rights and media, his paid thugs’ assaults with machetes, clubs and whips on the occupiers, and his speeches against the mobilized masses, only encouraged protestors, who on February 9 began organizing a massive worker strike against the military regime. In February 11, on the same day that peaceful protesters in Cairo celebrated the ouster of their U.S.-sponsored dictator–whose regime was for decades propped by the U.S. taxpayer, as one among the top four recipients of U.S. military assistance in the world (along with Israel, Turkey and Colombia)–the Governor in Wisconsin introduced his “Budget Repair Bill,” which united teachers, students, workers, police and firefighters in the struggling middle class, who sprang into action against budget cuts, corporate handouts and anti-union laws.

By the summer, when the Labor Party’s youth leadership was the target of a radical right-wing extremist in Norway, student protests in Chile had opened yet another new chapter in full-scale rebellion for the world, as the country’s middle class majority now favored the restructuring of public education and other services away from privatization. Chile’s model of neoliberal prosperity, jumpstarted three decades ago by the openly fascist and U.S.-sponsored Pinochet regime and its top economic advisor Milton Friedman, was soon uncloaked and its true face of injustice was exposed by a democratic youth rebellion.

In Spain, millions of public workers and youths protested as the “indignados” and, despite (or perhaps because of) police brutality, they occupied their universities and public squares in cities big and small. Like their Spanish comrades, Italian protestors creatively escalated their tactics against police forces who turned out almost as repressive as in the Middle East. Protests against budget cuts, privatization, racism, unemployment, austerity and international banking occurred from Ireland to Bulgaria. In the UK, racist police violence In Greece, workers and students stood up against the austerity dictated by bankers and bureaucrats to stage massive protests and general strikes. Like their counterparts south of the Mediterranean, Greek citizens resisted with violence the constant police crack downs on their public square encampments.

Peru and Bolivia were not far behind the global movement, as indigenous protestors there rejected government deals with transnational mining companies that would immediately and disproportionately harm their communities, but also the global environment in the long-run.

On September 17, the Occupy Wall Street took on the legacy of the year’s struggles and asked the “99%” in the U.S. to seize the moment, to realize that the rising economic crisis was not temporary but a necessary product of capitalist doctrine, and to stand together against the 500 or so individuals–the majority of whom are American–who own half of all the wealth in the world. Organized labor joined hands with the middle class students and youths in the Occupy movement and successfully staged two strikes in Oakland and a global “occupy the bridge” day.

By the fall, students in Angola and Colombia had followed the Chilean example and had spurred a massive popular movement of resistance against economic injustice. Then, on October 15, a global day of action was called for by the “Occupy” movement. More than 1,000 cities in the U.S. alone were occupied, and hundreds if not thousands of others in at least 82 countries were the scenes of participant protests during this day, which evidenced the power of this movement; its internationality exuded airs similar to the protests that took place across the world in 1968.

The year 2011 was also reminiscent of 1968 because it was difficult for the corporate media to contain images of police pepper spraying peaceful protestors, including an 86 year-old woman, using tear gas against nonviolent crowds or beating students with clubs. In this way, 2011 also showed to be a different revolution altogether–the democratic nature of user-generated media in the internet gave more strength to the movement, which had begun making solid transcontinental connections. Social media now allowed us to continue communicating ideas and demonstrating the realities that the media attempted to cloud.

The November strike of 30 million workers in the UK was the largest labor action in the country since the 1930s. The Wisconsin Spring was the largest social movement in the state’s unparalleled history of labor activism. The rebellion in Tahrir square remains actively demanding the end of the security state and military control over Egypt. With such record of rebellion, it can only be expected that the seemingly defeated revolutionary struggle has resurrected from its grave, and will continue to push back against an increasingly obvious attack on decent standards of living for people across the world. Our political discourse has been once again awakened to the possibility of social change and the inevitability of struggle; these changing conditions will doubtlessly accelerate as we head further into the multiplying crises of capitalism.

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