Whatcom Citizen guest writes. This is a pseudonym for a local writer whom we know and respect. The writer must remain anonymous. We will explain in a separate post this evening why we are posting an article without a name.
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For nearly a year, the Occupy Wall Street movement dominated headlines. Through direct and disruptive action, they forced the entire country into a discussion about income inequality. It almost looked as if we would take our country back from the moneyed interests. Sadly, we didn’t.
Now, six years later, another social movement, Black Lives Matter, has seized the microphone. Black activists and white allies are putting a spotlight on the systematic physical and emotional abuse of black citizens by law enforcement officers.
Both Occupy and Black Lives Matter have touched very real and substantive nerves in our lives. Both movements used techniques of protest and non-violence to accomplish their goals. So, why did the Occupy movement fall apart?
When Dan Pike evicted the Occupy movement from Maritime Heritage Park he did not give an explanation, but the writing was already on the wall. Nationally, the movement was losing steam and locally, the group had splintered, with two separate websites and organizational structures, each claiming to be the “authentic” Occupy Bellingham. In the course of one year, the movement crumbled.
Part of the collapse was due to a lack of clear, actionable, policy goals. Occupy Wall Street had plenty of clear ideas: income disparity, prosecution of the bankers that ruined our economy, and regulation of Wall Street speculators so it wouldn’t happen again. Yet when it came to putting concepts into specific policy, there was chaos. One Occupy Wall Street victory was the $15 minimum wage, but it needed a life and movement of its own to get passed in Seattle. Without clear and specific policy goals, and ways to motivate public action, Occupy was overwhelmed by confusion and inertia. The moneyed interests crushed them with vigor.
Black Lives Matter is facing similar challenges. When their organizers met with Hillary Clinton, the lack of actionable policy goals immediately became an issue. Black Lives Matter tried to push Clinton into leading a change in public opinion. Clinton said, “You change laws. You change allocation of resources. You change the way systems operate. I don’t believe you change hearts.” She was right; and she succinctly identified what separates a successful people-powered movement from one that will be diverted and destroyed.
As a white, middle-income resident of Whatcom County, I realize I have considerable privilege. I also realize it is not my place to tell activists who or what to be angry about. That said, my concern for the fledgling Black Lives Matter is that by focusing on changing minds instead of policy, they will simply fall victim to the same challenges that brought down Occupy Wall Street. What’s needed is a coherent plan with specific goals for changing policy. The good news for Black Lives Matter is that there are a variety of policies to be changed, starting here in Whatcom County.
On Monday night, Sheriff Bill Elfo appeared on a statewide television news program asserting there are over 500 gang members in Whatcom County. It seems an oddly specific number; a number contrived, perhaps, to justify building a 521-bed jail (if only Bellingham would participate!) as opposed to a 383-bed jail (without Bellingham’s help). Are these gang numbers simply fear tactics on the part of our Sheriff’s department? Should we surrender to such cheap tactics or should we push back with an alternative? This is a discussion we need to have as a community, and it should extend to intrusive law enforcement like predictive policing software.
Construction of a new jail, ongoing abuse of people of color by law enforcement, and inordinate income disparity are all interconnected. For years, systemic violence on the part of law enforcement has been used to pump money out of communities of color and into the pockets of private industry. When the Justice Department examined the police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, they found the police used Black residents as a perverse sort of ATM, filling their coffers through punitive tickets. This money was then doled out to private contractors for new militarized equipment for law enforcement, completing a pipeline from an abused community through government departments to moneyed interests.
If we build a new jail of 521 beds or more, building it will take all our public safety taxing authority for the next 30 years, which is limited by state mandate. Add to that the increased costs to staff it and 30 years worth of maintenance, and rest assured, the idea of turning it over to a private prison company will begin to circulate.
A final thought. Machiavelli, in The Prince, outlined a diabolical way to control a recently seized territory. The Prince is advised to appoint a brutal general to oversee the new territory while the Prince travels elsewhere. In his absence, the general executes all political adversaries, dissidents and potential troublemakers – crushing any potential opposition. When the Prince returns, he feigns horror at the general’s actions and promptly executes him. A grateful population adores the Prince, who now lives without fear of rebels organizing against him.
While they may have had flawed tactics, Occupy Wall Street had the right villain, as does Black Lives Matter. We can and should reform our law enforcement community, but let’s not forget who is the general and who is the Prince. Our law enforcement may need a serious culture change, but in the end, it answers to big business.