Apocalypse Maybe? Risks of Chaos and Violence

As I watched Richard Engel’s “On Assignment” program last night, which focused on the unmitigated ruthlessness in the rise and fall of ISIS in the Middle East and beyond, once again the human capacity for violence and even the creation of a cult of death collided with my sense of how good and brave people can be. Despite the growing immediacy of the climate emergency, we also see the growth of movements proclaiming various forms of violent racist xenophobia, from the death cult of ISIS to the cult of hatred and violence spewed by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe.

I had just read an article by Michael Mann, a friendly critique of Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Of course, these two stellar public intellectuals come at the existential threat of climate chaos from very different backgrounds.

Michael.E.MannMichael E. Mann is one of the top climate scientists in the world, famous for his graphic rendition of exponential growth in the heating of the planet forced by the workings of the global corporate growth economy – the “hockey stick” of exponential growth. Mann envisions mounting broad institutional action to stem the tide of climate chaos.

Naomi KleinNaomi Klein became a famous journalist by producing a series of books articulating the the essence of accelerating political-economic changes we experience today. In particular, her book, The Shock Doctrine, explains how “disaster capitalism” dominates and exploits vulnerable nations. Her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, stands as the go-to source for understanding the global political economy that continues to accelerate the climate crisis.

The Difference

Mann’s problem with On Fire is that he worries that too great an emphasis on collective political protest that links the climate crisis with demands for economic and social justice risks, will alienate independents and moderate conservatives. These folks may be pivotal in mounting serious national climate action. But they may not be so progressive as to support the entire agenda of the Green New Deal. Besides, the Trumpists are sure to yell, “Socialism!” Well, they will do that anyway. However, I am not sure that trope has much traction these days.

Naomi Klein seems to take her argument a step further in On Fire. She pins her hopes on growing collective protest against inaction by the reactionary corporate state. She rejects “market mechanisms” such as cap and trade, which serve mostly to allow big polluters to dodge their culpability. Michael Mann is not so sure we should let such options go. He wants to “decouple” the climate action movement from the progressive social agenda. He also voices a couple of minor inaccuracies in Klein’s essays, but lauds her overall effort.

To Agree and Disagree

Well, I agree and disagree with both these important figures in the public discussion of how to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of the carbon emissions that are central to the global industrial-consumer economy. On the one hand, we should not reject any tactic that might contribute to climate action. On the other hand, some techniques may be more viable and quick to implement than others.

However, in neither case can we accomplish such a radical reduction in carbon emissions without a so far largely unanticipated radical reorganization of society around a very different energy-use regime. Merely rolling out renewable energy production to feed a continuing industrial-consumer culture will be far from enough change. If we look seriously at exactly how to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade, we cannot do so without dismantling the corporate state, as we know it.

We have to face the fact that our corporate economy functions on absolute loyalty to the illusion of endless economic growth driven by fossil fuels, which is anathema to any meaningful climate action. It is also inherently inequitable, since, as Peter Kalmus so eloquently explains, the structural flaw in corporate capitalism is that “…money exhibits a gravitational attraction whereby wealth accrues more wealth.” The debt-based fossil-fueled corporate economy feeds a “black hole of wealth” for the few and growing poverty for the rest. A New Great Transformation of society, therefore, would necessarily entail reduction of social and economic injustices along with reduced carbon emissions, overproduction, and waste.

Violence or Community

Whatever path we take, a great deal of chaos and violence is likely to occur. That is where my reaction to Richard Engel’s reporting comes in. Humans are capable of not only vast creativity and kindness; they are also capable of unfathomable violence toward each other and the world around them. What climate-action path can we choose that will also minimize the violence and destruction likely under conditions of growing chaos? I cannot escape the conclusion that re-forming viable communities at the local ecological level may serve us best. Only when humans unite in groups of a size and mandate capable of engendering great cooperation, can we avoid the worst of the violence to come.

Leaving Juaréz

Another in the Mad Jubilado series

Border crossings always involve some stress. After all, borders do represent the absolute authority of the state over the legitimacy of persons. Will the state accept me as who I claim to be or not? Are my papers in order? Will they allow me to cross, or will I be detained for an unknown time? Lots of young men with guns on both sides view everyone with both suspicion and indifference. Crossing an international border can be a critical inflection in the trajectory of a life.

Border.crossing_Juarez.El.Paso

Crossing at the Bridge of the Americas

Juaréz has become the iconic dangerous border town. Investigative journalists have written Important books about the extreme murder rate, frequent disappearance of women, and drug cartel shootouts, suggesting an endemic culture of violence. For the past few years, we traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, down the center of Mexico, stopping in Chihuahua, Torreon, Durango, and finally the old city-center of Mazatlán, on our way to a small town on the Pacific coast.

Although I had been to Mexico many times in my life, only once before had I driven long distances through Mexico. That time I spent most of my 1964 college summer there. My roommate and I drove down the west coast to Guadalajara, spent eight weeks living with Mexican families while completing our college language requirement. Then we drove to Mexico City, climbed the pyramid of the moon nearby, and drove up the east coast to the border. Then, just about out of gas money, we turned west to return to California, where we were teased for our newly acquired Mexican accents.

At the Texas border, the U.S. border guards made us take everything we had out of my VW van, and take everything out of all suitcases, backpacks, etc. We suspected that they were certain these two bearded young men must have been carrying some contraband. They looked disappointed as we took our time re-packing all our clothes, ten-dollar guitar, books, and assorted trinkets into the van. It was a degrading experience, but it was also the nineteen sixties.

Now retired, this Mad Jubilado and his esposa have begun to enjoy spending at least part of the winter in a small fishing village on the west coast of Mexico, where the daytime temperature hovers around 80 degrees F, and the water at the beach is comfortably cool. We take our dog in the cab and too much stuff in the bed of my ever-reliable Tundra.

After three winters in La Peñita, getting there was less than half the fun. It’s a long drive, but we have found some nice reasonable hotels with gracious staff who accept our dog. Las carreteras cuotas are as good as New Mexican highways, with frequent clean rest stops. The peso had taken a dive, with among other factors the U.S. presidential election of 2016 – “I will build a great wall…” So, we are able to live on about the same money as if we’d stayed home.

However, the transition to a warm pleasant winter is all about the border crossing. Once we had gotten our new tourist cards and temporary vehicle import permit at the aduana (customs) checkpoint on the highway south of Juaréz, we felt as if someone had lifted a great burden from our backs. We were ‘good to go’ in Mexico.

Driving through Juaréz is much like driving through Los Angeles, Albuquerque, or any other large U.S. city. Its violent reputation is not visible in the direct experience of driving through mid-day, heading south toward Chihuahua. Everything seemed quite mundane. Yet, the world is changing in very dangerous ways far more rapidly than most of us are aware or will admit. That is largely because the urban-industrial machine that operates across all borders keeps plodding along as if the nations they define were actually doing something about global climate disruption.

Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.

Antifa: Fascist Violence and Violence Against Fascism

They’ve got all the weapons; they’ve got all the money…It‘s all there.

~  John Lennon[1]

Political elections can have powerful cultural effects when infused with growing fear, deep anger, resentment of economic and social injustice, and racism. Diverse forms of social instability follow the displacement and ruined hopes for more and more people. The economic and political actions of the neoliberal economic elite have forced an intensified polarization of society along lines of race and class. Resentment, fear, and anger creep further into the political process, encouraged by narcissistic demagogic scapegoating.

Klansmen w.flag_Photo Credit.Martin_Flickr

KKK ~ Photo Credit: Martin / Flickr

As traditional forms of social control weaken under such conditions of political upheaval, social change, and stress, the exercise of power tends toward the violent. Violence can be cultural, psychological, physical, or any combination. The unfortunate surge of activity by racist “white nationalists,” neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups in the wake of the U.S. 2016 presidential elections exemplify this process. Violence is both contagious and addictive.

Neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and related white-nationalist elements had been constrained by a national culture that since the civil rights movement in the 1960s had explicitly rejected racism. Those constraints were already weakening when Donald Trump’s vitriolic campaign for the presidency attacked “political correctness” and continued his “birtherism” claims. Victims of racism, sexism, and xenophobia became that much more vulnerable.

Trump a the perennial candidate for public attention, continued after the election, giving bigotry implicit political permission to go public. The rise of extreme nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe accompanied social instabilities amplified by the flood of refugees from death and destruction in the Middle East, where European military units operate alongside U.S. forces.  Blaming the victim prevailed there as well as in the U.S. as the “sorrows of empire” spread throughout the industrialized world.

The Rise of Antifa

A small faction among the many protesters against the rising racist neo-fascist demonstrations under the Trump presidency, called “antifa,” meaning anti-fascism, rapidly gained attention. It reflected the growing political instability in the U.S., as well as a revulsion against authoritarian groups threatening a new rise in racist violence. Antifa members proclaim their dedication to destroying fascism “by any means necessary” for their “collective self-defense.” [2] They have fiercely defended those protesting the neo-Nazis in Charlotte and beyond. Cornel West reported that antifa members protected him and other non-violent protesters from violent neo-Nazi attackers there.

antifa_demonstrating

Antifa in Charlotte

Yet, in numerous historical movements for change, avoiding street violence has contributed to positive change far more frequently than “rioting in the streets.”

So-called militia and other extreme right-wing groups had strengthened during the Black Presidency. Trump had fed their growth by championing the racist “birther” denial of Obama’s citizenship and presidency The new surge of white nationalism once Trump took office was encouraged by Trump’s not so subtle embrace of racism and xenophobia. His refusal to condemn the violent racists of the neo-Nazis in Charlotte added fuel to the fascist fire.

Republicans and Democrats alike condemned Trump’s presidential pardon of the infamous racist xenophobe, Sherriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, shortly thereafter. A federal court had convicted Arpaio of contempt of court for having defied court orders to stop racially profiling Latinos. Trump actively enabled racism and fascism repeatedly in his first months in office while attempting to suppress federal investigations of his secret financial-political connections to the Russians. The President’s behavior only amplified the growing instability and loss of social control in the U.S.

Illusions of Violence in the Corporate State

State violence can enforce some degree of social control under any political regime, for a while. However, as demonstrated in countless cases from Chile and Argentina to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others, any social order enforced by violence is inherently unstable. Dictators, occupiers, and would-be autocrats who incite extremist violence in a population often lose the very control they sought.

True social control emanates from cultural values and social relations that respect both individuals and groups. The rise of movements, such as “antifa,” within protests against neo-Nazis and the “black block” among peaceful protests like Occupy Wall Street, reflect how unstable the politics of social control became in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Antifa’s goal as a group, is to oppose fascism (racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc.), “by any means necessary.” However, its model of change has one weak link – the illusion of the effectiveness of violence. The history of non-violent movements demonstrates its own efficacy and the self-indulgence and futility of street violence. It is important — strategically as well as morally — to align means with ends. Democracy cannot be ‘enforced’ by violence.

There is strength in numbers, but the violence of the state can crush large crowds if given an excuse. The ‘Black Block’ pseudo-anarchists did the Occupy Wall Street movement no good at all, harming it instead. Violence, even against mere property, becomes a two edged moral sword, no matter how high minded the goal. Those concerned with the rise of racist white nationalism and the like must organize community and cultural resistance, not physical confrontation (other than in pure self-defense).

Remember, the rise of neo-fascism in the U.S. and Europe today is a direct result of the degradation of democracy and the decline of economic and social justice. These take diverse forms, often expressed in domestic and foreign terrorism. The re-establishment of genuine social control in any society must find its strength in the cultural values of compassion and peace in its communities, not the extremist hate fomented by power elites struggling to maintain their control. Violence is both addictive and contagious.

In seeking peace and stability, look to overcome the sources (the 1% of the 1%) of extreme inequity, social, economic, and climate injustice, not to confronting the particular class of victims who express their misguided rage in evil ways. We can socially sequester the haters; but the system must be transformed if society is to regain control of its destiny, a vastly more difficult task.

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[1] In an interview by a 14 year old boy, filmed shortly before John Lennon was assassinated.

[2] Mark Bray, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2017) offers both a history of anti-fascist movements and an ideological argument for the rise of contemporary anti-fascist groups that confront neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the streets, in acts “of collective self-defense.” Antifa willingness to use “any means necessary” crosses the line from non-violent protest to street fighting. That is certainly problematic, though Cornel West reported that antifa actions in Charlotte had protected him and other peaceful protestors from violent attacks by neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…a Cop: Warrior or Peacemaker in a Dangerous World. Part I

Almost everyone would agree that the world is a dangerous place these days. Technically, the U.S. has never fought a war on its own soil. Nevertheless, expanding the West and the capture of parts of Mexico were executed on the lands of others, as was the original establishment of the thirteen colonies of New England, all of which were then converted to “our soil.” We frequently observe outbreaks of violence and overthrow of governments elsewhere around the world. The U.S. often intervenes in those far away places, but always claims to be “spreading democracy” and protecting U.S. “interests,” or, more commonly these days, fighting a “war on terrorism.”

Our government projects the image of a worldwide policeman, “keeping the peace,” while secretly practicing torture and conducting presidentially sanctioned extrajudicial remote assassinations via drones. If it were not for occasional whistle blowers, we would never know. No nation has ever invaded the U.S., but we have invaded many. Yet, despite denials, our nation seems to increasingly engage in violence around the world and revere aggression as a matter of national and personal pride. Violence has been deeply rooted in the American culture since its beginning and continues to be reflected in everyday life as well as the mass media and its images of vanquishing “the bad guys.”

Domestically, there has never been such a surge of mistrust between the people and the institutions of law enforcement and justice as exists today. That mistrust has grown in parallel with the militarization of police forces and the legal favoritism toward the most powerful interests in the nation.. “Law enforcement” has become increasingly isolated from the people, as it moves ever closer to becoming the armed force of the power elite.

Our perception of violence has changed. Who now goes hitch hiking on the highways of American without fear? Indeed, who would pick up a hitch-hiker without fear? The mood of the country has changed since the 1950s. Crime rates have declined in recent years, but with no less fear of violence. What gives? Well, we know that a lot more guns are out there and we are acutely aware of the growing number of mass shootings at public locations such as schools and shopping malls. And, there are those rare but shocking shootings of police during ostensibly routine traffic stops. Despite lower crime rates, it is not unreasonable for police officers to fear the unexpected. So, we want them to be prepared for unforeseen danger. The old story of everyday police experience still holds – long periods of boredom occasionally but rarely punctuated by the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death crisis. Nevertheless, these days something is different.

During the Great Depression, the infamous bandits, Bonnie and Clyde, were the epitome of criminality but they were also cultural icons of rebellion in the eyes of the public just as the chaos of the times was surging and a sense of national instability had grown widespread. But Bonnie and Clyde’s status as criminal superstars arose from the creation of legend by the newspapers as much as from their actual exploits. They provided an entertaining distraction from the uncertainties of everyday life and the hardship of the times. But they were the exception. Fear of violence in the general population was not as widespread as fear of hunger, and fear of the general population was not prevalent among police, who were still considered, for the most part, “peace officers.”

Today we have fear of the growing instability of both economy and climate, in addition to the international political instabilities exacerbated by the “war on terror,” and all their ramifications for everyday life. We also fear the growing failures of political institutions to address the crises of economy, climate and domestic politics, as well as a vague but growing fear of violence. These fears extend even beyond the level of technical knowledge of economics, climate science, or crime – they pervade the public consciousness and the media whether fully understood or not. Vehement denial of societal problems stems from ignorant fear as well as from acceptance of propaganda.

All of this frames the growing concern about police violence, which parallels the constant stream of news of questionable killings of mostly men of color, but not always. The most recent shooting death of a mentally unstable homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque Police on the outskirts of the city, coalesced those concerns because it was so clearly seen as unjustified when the video recorded by the police themselves went viral. The department was already under investigation by the Department of Justice for its excessive number of police shootings and deaths in recent years for a department of its size. This tragic case provides a window of opportunity to examine changes in the role of police in our cities and how those changes may affect the future of violence in America. Part II of this essay will examine the illusions and facts of police action and training in this disturbing context.

The Death of Andy Lopez and so Much More

When I arrived in Santa Rosa, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, I wasn’t thinking about the news reports I’d read about the police killing of the thirteen year old with the toy replica of an assault rifle in that town of 160,000 a few weeks before. It had been an uneventful trip and now we were driving around the area on a balmy December day.

We stopped at the Bohemian Market in Occidental, a small nearby town in Sonoma County. There I spotted a Sonoma County Gazette, “written by readers.”  Wherever I visit, I grab a copy of the local free paper to check out the culture and economy. Lots of ads for local stores, civic announcements, festivals of all sorts, and the occasional news story in such papers give a pretty good sense of life in the area.

In the December issue of the Sonoma County Gazette, I found no less than three articles and several letters to the editor, expressing views on the police shooting of Andy Lopez — some in response to a set of articles on the event in the November issue. Some actions had already been taken in response to citizens’ concern with probable over-reaction on the officer’s part on seeing a thirteen year old with a toy gun.  One proposal was for a stonger policy on police use of deadly force.

One writer argued that the City of Santa Rosa had a use of deadly force policy that unreasonably favored the officer.  When I read the part of the policy that was quoted, it reminded me of the “stand your ground” laws recently promoted by the infamous Koch brothers and their political action  arm, ALEC, and enacted into law in about 26 states.  As is well known now, these laws have the effect of excusing the use of the deadly force of a firearm when a person ‘feels potentially threatened’ by another in a public setting.

Neither citizen nor police officer should be allowed to kill anyone on the chance that they may be “dangerous.”  A steady stream of news stories about unarmed citizens shot by uniformed officers suggests a serious defect in the credibility of law enforcement in the nation as genuine keepers of the peace.  Among the articles and letters in the Gazette, blame was found in every party, from toy manufacturer to parent, child, officers, and department policies.  Yet something remained missing.

Guns are dangerous.  Guns in the hands of some persons are far more dangerous than guns in the hands of others.  The American culture of violence further muddies the waters when guns are involved in an issue.  We confuse “training” with wisdom.  When police academy cadets are self-selected by their propensity for violence, training will not fix the problem.  Most law enforcement institutions today still do not seriously screen applicants for appropriate psychological character.  One of my university students several years ago reported that most of the cadets he knew from high school were the guys who liked to beat people up.  These are the folks who are now Los Angeles Count Sheriffs — that’s the outfit the FBI investigated over this past year documenting massive violence against inmates and visitors to the LA County Jail, before indictments were handed down by federal prosecutors; some of those charged were high ranking, suggesting the very endemic culture of violence for which the LA County Sheriffs are so famous in minority and youth communities.

Stronger use of deadly force policies, more rigorous training, civilian review boards, and full transparency in police shooting investigations are all important.  But they are not enough if you want a compassionate thoroughly disciplined police force dedicated to the safety of all people.  Unfortunately, one commentator in the Gazette is right: combat veterans are trained to kill and to dehumanize those they see as the enemy — that is their experience, their outlook, and what they do.  Their high suicide rate  results from the irreconcilability between their life actions and the human values they once held.  They should have no place in any civilian police force.  A serious psychological screening would eliminate almost all of those who have killed professionally.

I learned to shoot guns as a boy — younger than Andy Lopez when he  was  killed — but that was decades ago when the NRA was all about safety and therefore self-discipline, not about promoting the economic interests of weapons manufacturers by pushing the sale of every kind of gun to everyone.  Twenty years later I learned, through the practice of Aikido, that centered calm compassion and clarity of purpose can diffuse many situations that might otherwise explode in violence.  That is not typical of police culture.  One important way for American culture to get over its obsession with violence and with guns is to establish genuinely compassionate and highly disciplined civilian police forces.  Unfortunately, the militarization of police in America — largely through the economy of the drug war — is taking us in exactly the opposite direction.