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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Law and Disorder

 [This is the text of an article I wrote which appeared in the MetroOccupied's second edition in June.]

Society is said to be based on the maintenance of law and order for its social “stability”. This is done through either the creation, or the appearance, of legitimacy and “order”, and usually is forced upon others: policing, war, colonialism, globalization. The key to winning over the people in these instances is said to be winning “hearts and minds” through control of the flow and content of information. Today this is done through a limited few powerful mass media outlets deciding what information is to be disseminated.

Looking at the media's relationship to the Occupy movement brings to light a double pronged repression of both information and free of speech. The NYPD has increasingly cracked down on Occupy protests through violent repression and a squelching, or perhaps even an altering, of the media’s reporting at a grassroots level. Through these oppressive tactics the NYPD has directly changed the presentation of issues; in essence controlling information and the public’s understanding of the Occupy movement.

A recent federal lawsuit Rodriguez v. Winski illuminates these concerns in claiming that 15 plaintiffs, from city council members to journalists to veterans to Occupiers, had their 1st amendment right to free speech violently and systematically squelched by the NYPD. The suit asserts that the department can no longer police itself, thus should be placed under federal oversight. The lawsuit also alleges that TIME magazine, at the urging of the NYPD, changed an inflammatory picture of NY City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez being arrested.

Are the police and other powerful interests meddling in the coverage and choice of stories that are reported on and become “news”? Reporters from two major publications - the NY Times and MSNBC.com - have told this writer that despite their personal interests, there is no editorial level interest in the Occupy movement and they have been told not to cover it.

On May 1st this became very apparent when the NY Times, buried their story as the 12th article in the city/region section of the website and on page A24 of the print edition. The article also lead with arrests and bloodied protesters rather than why they were protesting, the numbers in the streets, or that there were hundreds of protests globally celebrating international labor day.

It is not difficult to connect the ground level repression by the NYPD, and the higher level aversion to covering the Occupy movement, to more systemic governmental and private desires to control both the flow and type of information consumed by the public. By emphasizing arrests and violence in their coverage, the media portrays Occupy as a lawless threat to the maintenance of social “order.” This portrayal easily constructs negative opinions in the minds of Americans taught to respect social order and the law. If the media was to cover the actual reasons why Occupiers were in the streets and why these people were willing to be arrested and beaten, there would be no mystery why the 99% should stand with Occupy.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Free Speech

I wanted to quickly examine a statement I read this morning from an article on an increase in legislation banning begging in many American cities. 
"Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, has appealed, arguing that begging is not protected speech."
How is asking people for help not free speech?  And how can you even begin to quantify and codify any act of asking for anything in a way that is anything but grossly subjective and completely up for individual interpretation?  The article continues to discuss that a major issue of it is the manner of asking, that people are being very "aggressive".  As if asking for help in the form of begging is anything short of an act of desperation.  The act of a person that has lost a sense of humility, and is beyond worrying about society's general concepts of dignity and what others think of them.  To a place were they are simply begging for help (listen to the first ten minutes of this radio spot).  If pan handlers are aggressive its because they are hungry and desperate.  Its the same as a person standing on top of a cliff and shouting at the top of their lungs that they can be anything if someone, anyone, will just give them a chance.  How is it possible that a desperate person asking for help is not free speech?

Lets also examine this from another stand point.  Many from the right wing and conservative establishments, and increasing amount now from the American left, are pushing for decreases on state aid and dependence on the social safety net.  They want individuals to be able to reach out to private means for help:  friends, family, random others/institutions, what have you.  They want the needy off the state roles, yet with this stance on begging they are taking a major avenue away from people in need.  This brings us to the paramount issue of and with homelessness; politicians and the public don't want solve the issue.  They want to ignore it, sweep it under the rug, and pretend that it is solely the individual's own fault rather than a structural issue that they and their lives are a part of.     

The fact of the matter is that we as people seem to feel awkward when someone we don't know asks us for something.  Skeptical, mistrusting, defensive.  Especially when that is a beggar on the streets.  They need something, and I think most people feel a slight tugging at their hearts and emotions.  We want to help a human in need.  And this to me is the core of this problem, we can't look individual people in the eye and abandon them.  So we as a society try to marginalize the homeless and keep them away from the areas that "we" and tourists traverse.  We push them out of sight, so we don't feel bad that we are doing nothing to solve a problem that is endemic within the way our society is constructed.

But more importantly to my point is that to say that asking for something, anything, is not covered as free speech is to say that questions themselves are not free speech.  It is to say that social engagement involving speaking to another person, interacting with them verbally, is somehow allowed to be judged as to the merits of what you are or are not saying to that other person.  It is in fact to be saying we are going to assess and regulate what we the people can and are allowed to say to other people and even how we express our speech.  This to me is so fundamentally the heart and soul of what free speech is.  If I can't ask you or anyone else for anything - especially help - then I don't live in a society, I live in a vacuum.  Just as language without an outlet is communication with myself and a question without a questioned is unanswerable, I need to be able to freely express myself to be considered to have freedom of speech.  If I want all my questions to remain in my head, all my solutions to come from within, and all my speech to go unheard, then I don't want to live in a society with others but rather I want to live in my own world, my own vacuum.  This is not the world we live in.  We live together with others and can't act alone without affecting others.  If I live with you and can not ask you question, I am not free to speak as I please.