Mayor de Blasio is the Obama of New York City

He’s only been in office six months and I know we should be leery of making comparisons that risk becoming glib, but the consistencies are already too apparent to be ignored: Bill de Blasio is the Barack Obama of New York City.

Both took office with expectations higher than were reasonable but have fallen short of what someone with sober expectations might have expected. High expectations without mobilizing a movement to realize those expectations is part of the problem, true. That is, and is not, a mitigating factor. That too many hopes were poured into individual office-holders, and too little effort into holding them accountable, is beyond reasonable dispute. But that does not ameliorate the necessity of judging them by what they do rather than what they say.

And who they appoint. Among President Obama’s first significant appointments was Lawrence Summers to be his lead financial adviser. All was lost right there; an unmistakable neoliberal signal. Among Mayor de Blasio’s first significant appointments was William Bratton as police commissioner. Commissioner Bratton held that office under Rudy Giuliani, a time when the New York Police Department often acted like an occupying army, with relations between the police and, in particular, Black and Hispanic communities, abysmal.

He followed his Giuliani-time stint with a lucrative deal with Kroll Inc., a security firm that describes itself as “Wall Street’s eyes.” He also greatly increased the use of “stop and frisk” tactics when he was Los Angeles commissioner despite his new boss’ promise to curtail usage, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force increased under his leadership.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Should we judge Mayor de Blasio by his words or by his actions? He certainly said words welcomed by most New Yorkers in the days leading up to the June 23 vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in which it voted for an increase in rents for rent-stabilized apartments, as it has in each of its 45 years of existence. Consistent with the position he took during last year’s mayoral campaign, he publicly called for a rent freeze. He went so far as to say, hours before the vote, that:

“We need a course correction, a one-time action to clearly rectify the mistakes of the past, and a course correction that will actually provide fairness to tenants who have been charged more than they should’ve.”

But he also said the decision should be based on “the actual facts, the actual numbers.” That was a signal to not expect a rent freeze.

The Rent Guidelines Board is independent, but the mayor appoints all nine members; Mayor de Blasio has had time to appoint or re-appoint six of them. So although the mayor can’t dictate what the board members will do, he can select people who will follow his alleged philosophy. Previous mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, each unreserved servants of New York’s two dominant industries — real estate and Wall Street — had no difficulty packing the board with appointees who routinely gave landlords significant rent increases.

Two board members represent tenants and two represent landlords, so the five “public” members are decisive. And it was one of Mayor de Blasio’s picks, an executive with M & T Bank, who put forth the proposal for a one percent raise despite widespread hope that this year would see the first-ever freeze. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bank executive, Steven Flax, cut a deal with landlord interests on the board because the latter realized they would not be able to get the much bigger increase they sought.

Landlord profits rise with rents

According to a report prepared by the board — which presumably relies on landlord reporting and thus likely somewhat understates their income — apartments in rent-stabilized buildings generated an average net income of $436 per month in 2012. The average building surveyed has 45.3 units — thus, the average building yields $237,000 in profits for one year! It is true that many buildings are much smaller, but it is also true that many landlords own multiple properties.

Moreover, that average net income has increased 31.5 percent since 1990, with much of that coming since 2005. Landlord profits have increased all but one year since — that is, the rents collected have risen faster than expenses.

Mayor de Blasio has kept former Mayor Bloomberg’s real estate policies intact. During the billionaire ex-mayor’s reign, zoning laws were changed over wide swathes of land to allow luxury high-rises where either smaller residential buildings or commercial operations had been, accelerating gentrification. The zoning could have been reversed; 40-story towers are out of place in neighborhoods where buildings had been on a human scale. But just last month, Mayor de Blasio allowed the notorious developer Two Trees (which has already rapidly gentrified another Brooklyn neighborhood down the East River) to build towers up to 55 stories in Williamsburg, on the site of a shuttered sugar factory.

The developer that previously owned the property wanted to build an out-of-scale luxury housing complex that is certain to put still more upward pressure on local rents — this is a historically working class area — consistent with the new zoning. Having instead flipped the property to Two Trees, the “progressive” mayor decided to capitulate to the new developers’ demand to allow even bigger buildings in exchange for a token increase in the number of affordable units.

But perhaps we should not hold our breath waiting for the lower-priced apartments to be built — another developer, Forest City Ratner, has pushed the date for the promised affordable housing associated with the massive luxury-housing project at Barclays Center far into the future. That despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and buying rights to what had been public land for below market value.

Mayor de Blasio has made no move to reverse any of the Bloomberg-era rezoning — heavily opposed by neighborhood residents who rightly saw them as being implemented to benefit developers at their expense. He is eyeing similar rezonings (in other words, keeping the wave of gentrification moving) for another 15 neighborhoods. The mayor is already on the record as saying he will continue the Bloomberg administration’s policy of higher-density building. That’s music to the ears of the city’s billionaire developers. Not so much to neighborhoods lacking the infrastructure to handle such influxes.

Folding on charter schools

Then there is the matter of charter schools — funded through city taxes but privately run and given public-school space for free at the expense of the public-school students. Charter schools are the leading edge of efforts to privatize school systems and put them under corporate control while busting teachers’ unions so as to bring on younger teachers with less pay and less job security. And they achieve similar or worse results than traditional public schools, despite the hype that surrounds them.

In contrast to his campaign promises to reign in charter schools and make them pay for the space they use, Mayor de Blasio’s first move was to approve 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the Bloomberg  administration. Hedge funders and other corporate interests, backed by “Governor 1%,” Andrew Cuomo, swiftly reacted with a counter-offensive against that tepid opening. Governor Cuomo rammed through a provision in the state Legislature that requires the city to hand over space for free to charter schools.

Mayoral control of schools was fine when a billionaire mayor wanted to corporatize them but not when there is a theoretical possibility of a mayor allowing public input in education policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s reaction? Not so much as a whimper as his charter-school promises were eviscerated as if they had never existed, and then he played a critical role in defeating an electoral challenge to the governor when the latter was challenged for the nomination of the Working Families Party, a small party that seeks to provide progressive cover to Democrats by cross-endorsing them.

The mayor has yet to challenge the governor on any issue, despite the latter’s corporate agenda, backed heavily by the financial industry. The New York City government is hamstrung in advancing tenants’ interests because of the state law known as the Urstadt Law, which forbids local governments from enacting rent laws better than the limited protections allowed under state law. The mayor could push for the repeal of Urstadt, a long-time demand of housing activists, but has remained silent. The one thing he could have delivered, a rent freeze, he did not do.

Although it may seem that a one percent increase — the smallest ever granted — is not much different than zero percent, a first-ever freeze would have set an important precedent and created the conditions for future rent freezes — or rollbacks. In 2011, about 55 percent of New York City’s households lived in apartments with rents that exceeded 30 percent of household income, defined as the maximum affordable rent, up from about 45 percent ten years earlier.

Just as President Obama made a couple of symbolic gestures that were easy to do — successfully pushing for the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay act and withdrawing the Bush II/Cheney administration’s legal memos “legalizing” torture — Mayor de Blasio has overseen a reduction in “stop and frisk” police tactics and pushed for an expansion of pre-kindergarten school programs. Those are widely popular and represent a minimal “promise kept.” But, so far, overall, an Obama-esque drifting and surrender to corporate ideology. Both have effectively turned Right-wing offensives in bipartisan collaborations.

Trend is larger than any one personality

One person, one office-holder, can only do so much; all the more so is that the case when there is no sustained grassroots mobilization that can hold them to account. Nor should we overemphasize personalities when the structure that maintains corporate domination is as strong as ever. This is hardly a new phenomenon — North American liberals and European social democrats have been capitulating to corporate interests and adopting right-wing positions steadily through the three decades of the neoliberal era. The tenures of Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, to name only a few at the national level, tell us there is something much larger than individual personalities at work here.

There is a breakdown of coherence beyond dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, and cowardliness. It’s that North American liberalism and European social democracy no longer stand for anything. They, and their leaders, believe as fervently in capitalism and its limitations as strongly as any conservative. But although acknowledging problems and advocating reforms, they are trapped by their belief that capitalism will solve its own problems and nothing more than tinkering is necessary, or imaginable.

Beyond the exhaustion of liberalism and social democracy, and their submission to corporate perspectives, is the lack of mass movements. At the start of his first term, President Obama told his supporters to “make me” do what they wanted him to do by applying pressure. They didn’t, and haven’t. Mayor de Blasio did not go so far as to say that to his supporters, but the same principal applies. There is no serious movement pressuring him to not only fulfill his campaign promises, but, more importantly, to move the political agenda well beyond.

For example, why shouldn’t housing be a human right instead of a commodity for private profit?

In the absence of popular pressure, corporate money speaks all the louder. Ringing your hands in frustration gets you nothing. Organizing a movement, filling the streets, refusing to cooperate with business as usual changes societies. Until that happens, corporate power and money will continue to call the tune, no matter who is in office.

If you have enough money, you get to create education policy

When a society sees children as fodder for profit instead of tomorrow’s citizens to be educated, privatization has surely gotten out of hand. Shortcomings in education, a product of larger societal deficiencies, would best be addressed in a systemic manner, but instead we get hedge-fund managers leading attacks on those favorite scapegoats of the Right, teachers.

The latest exhibit comes to us from New York City, where new Mayor Bill de Blasio is under sustained attack for applying the most gentle tap to the brakes in the runaway train of charter-school approval. What crime did Mayor de Blasio commit that has brought thunderous denunciation onto his head? He approved only 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the administration of the previous mayor, financial industry billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

New York City already has nearly 200 charter schools. These are controversial not simply because public money is directed from public schools to private, for-profit companies, but because the charter schools take space away public schools and pay no rent. Yep, private operators use public space for free while public school students lose facilities.

One of the largest operators of charter schools in New York is Harlem Success Academy, which operates 18 of them — all located in public school buildings. Juan Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News, reported on the experience of the Mickey Mantle public school for special-education students when the academy arrived:

“ ‘We lost our library and a bunch of classrooms that [first] year,’ [special-education teacher Lynn] Manuell says. The following year, as Harlem Success increased its enrollment, Mickey Mantle was ordered to give up more space. ‘We lost our technology room, our music room, our art room and we had to start sharing the cafeteria, the gym and playground,’ Manuell says. … A fellow teacher conducts four periods a week of gym in a regular classroom because so little time has been allotted in the main gym to the Mickey Mantle pupils.”

Those with less get less so those with more get more

The chief executive officer of Harlem Success is Eva Moskowitz, who drew a salary of $488,000 in 2011. Her ability to pay for the public facilities she uses is demonstrated by a teacher who writes on education issues, Mercedes Schneider:

“Since 2006, Eva Moskowitz has been running a small charter empire that has at least $50 million in government per-pupil funding, at least $30.9 million in total, end-of-year assets, and the support of hedge fund millionaires. Why is it, then, that her Success Academies have never paid a dime in rent for the public school space occupied by her charter schools?”

A good question. Ms. Moskowitz, a former city council member, justifies her charter-school empire by saying that her students get higher test scores than the citywide average. But as a private school, her academies can pick and choose their students, notes education researcher Diane Ravitch:

“The media do not know that her schools do not serve the same demographic as the children in the public schools. She enrolls fewer children with special needs and fewer English language learners. Her schools have a high suspension and attrition rate.

Her logic seems to be that since she gets high test scores (note the above sentence as one does tend to get high scores by keeping out low-scoring students), she deserves to get whatever space she wants, rent-free. By that logic, the city should give extra privileges to students with high scores, and should take away space and privileges and programs from those with low scores.”

Maybe they aren’t better after all

Better results on standardized tests is a primary argument proponents of charter schools routinely make. The corporate media accepts these claims without investigation, yet the facts tell a different story. At best, charter schools have roughly comparable results; those that show better results are in the minority.

A widely cited 2009 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that 83 percent of charter schools studied in 16 U.S. states had results that were either worse or not significantly different than public school results. A second study by the center in 2013, covering 26 states and New York City, found that 75 percent of charter schools had results that were not significantly different or were worse than public school results.

The Rand Corporation, hardly an entity hostile to business interests, reached substantially similar conclusions in its study of California charter schools:

“Regarding student achievement, results are mixed. Students in charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than students in conventional public schools, but there is variation among the types of charter schools. With respect to governance, only a small proportion of chartering authorities are collecting accountability information such as student grades, promotion rates, and dropout rates.”

Halfway across the country, in Milwaukee, a report released in December 2012 by the Forward Institute found that the higher scores of the city’s charter schools in comparison to public schools “is explained by their bias selection of low truancy students.” Overall, however, this report found that charter schools have had a negative impact on student poverty because “schools with higher poverty enrollment levels have experienced per-pupil funding cuts more than two times the cuts in the most affluent districts.” The report’s sobering conclusion is this:

“[W]hen controlling for school and community factors, charter schools in Milwaukee do not offer a better educational outcome for students.”

Just as in New York, you can “achieve” better results if you can pick and choose your students, and provide more resources.

This offensive against public education is not new. When I was a student myself in 1970s New Jersey and an adult still living there in the following decade, the incessant ideology was that Catholic schools were better than public schools. The Catholic schools also could rid themselves of less desirable students, and the thesis wasn’t true anyway. When a ranking of area high schools was undertaken, the two public high schools in my home town were ranked first and second, while the Catholic schools ranked well down the pack. I was fortunate to grow up in a town that put money into its school system.

Turning schools into drill halls

Charter schools place a heavy emphasis on standardized testing. Yet even if it were true that charter schools could deliver consistently higher scoring on them, it is questionable at best whether such tests are actually evidence of student learning.

A National Research Council report in 2011 found that “The available evidence does not give strong support for the use of test-based incentives to improve education.” That shouldn’t be a controversial statement — turning schools into drill halls so students can regurgitate material to pass a test is not a substitute for leveraging teachers’ professional skills to encourage creative learning. The council’s report states:

“The tests that are typically used to measure performance in education fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways. This is important because the use of incentives for performance on tests is likely to reduce emphasis on the outcomes that are not measured by the test.

The academic tests used with test-based incentives obviously do not directly measure performance in untested subjects and grade levels or development of such characteristics as curiosity and persistence. However, those tests also fall short in measuring performance in the tested subject and grade in important ways. … [S]cores on the tests used with incentives may give an inflated picture of learning with respect to the full range of the content standards.”

Here we have an important clue. Corporate titans want employees with strong technical skills without the ability to think independently. In U.S. universities, there is a heavy emphasis on business and business-friendly courses while liberal arts are under sustained attack. The charter-school movement is very well funded and promoted by industrialists and financiers — this is not altruism based on supposed concern for student learning, but rather an attempt to take over education to suit their narrow economic interests.

The billionaires who drive education policy

On the national level in the United States, by far the three biggest funders are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Microsoft founder Bill Gates became wealthy producing software that doesn’t work well because he can exploit a monopoly he was accidentally handed; Eli Broad became wealthy building suburban houses, taking advantage of the many government subsidies that enabled the suburbs; and the Waltons benefit enormously from Wal-Mart’s leading role in forcing manufacturers to re-locate to China because that is the only way they can meet Wal-Mart’s demand for low prices.

What possible qualification do such people have to dictate education policy?

Nonetheless, they have driven policy across the country, even at the federal level. The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition for education funding, the intellectual product of the three foundations, induced states to change laws and favor charters to get the money, according to a detailed report by Joanne Barkan in Dissent. The Gates Foundation even supplied consultants to states to help them win Race to the Top money. That is merely one of numerous examples, Ms. Barkan writes:

“A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.”

Hedge-fund millionaires are bankrolling much of the push for charter schools on the local level in Chicago and New York. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) sought to crush the teachers’ union and drastically increase the use of charter schools as part of his neoliberal agenda when his hard-line tactics induced the teachers to go on strike in September 2012.

He failed because the union worked with the community ahead of time to explain the stakes, and to prepare parents for the possibility that the teachers would be forced to go on strike. When the inevitable attacks came in the predictable form — “the teachers are greedy” “the teachers only care about getting more of your tax money” — they did not have the usual impact. Mayor Emanuel had clearly expected the community to be on his side; instead the people were with the teachers.

Providing muscle for Mayor Emanuel were hedge-fund managers running an organization called “Education Reform Now,” an advocate for charter schools that paid for a series of automated telephone calls to Chicago parents during the three-day period in June when the teachers were voting to authorize a strike, and for a barrage of television commercials attacking the teachers during the strike.

Hedge-fund money talks, politicians snap to attention

And that brings us back to New York. Hedge-fund managers are major backers of charter schools there; they are heavily represented on the boards of the Harlem Success Academy and its individual schools. They are also financial backers of New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself a promoter of charter schools and corporate agendas in general who spoke at rally organized by Eva Moskowitz on March 4.

That was an event in which Ms. Moskowitz closed her schools and bused her students to the rally, which merited no comment in the corporate media. Just ask yourself: What would the reaction have been had public schools closed for political purposes, particularly if done so with union backing. Everyone would have to wear earplugs the screaming denunciations would be so loud.

The fact that charter schools tend to be non-unionized with less experienced teachers making less money and possessing less job security should not be left out of the picture.

Governor Cuomo has racked up considerable contributions from financiers seeking to control education, according to a Chalkbeat New York report:

“Cuomo’s reelection bid has so far received nearly $400,000 from a cadre of wealthy supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network, according to an updated tally of newly-released campaign filings. Some money has even come from Moskowitz’s political action committee, Great Public Schools, which has given $65,000 to Cuomo since 2011. … By one tally of the 2014 filings, Cuomo racked up at least $800,000 in donations from 27 bankers, real estate executives, business executives, philanthropists and advocacy groups who have flocked to charter schools and other education causes in recent years.”

Although recently disbanded when watchdogs began requesting its donors be made public, the governor had set up a “Committee to Save New York,” a group of wealthy business leaders and real estate barons that spent $17 million promoting government austerity, cuts to pensions and tax cuts for the rich.

Education advocates in New York City — those concerned with students and not profits — have pinned their hopes on Mayor de Blasio, who promised that he would charge charter schools rent. So far, however, he seems to have gotten cold feet. He has yet to announce a plan, and now says he wants to charge them on a sliding scale rather than a standard rate. The New York City Independent Budget Office has calculated that the city would generate $92 million by charging a flat rate of $2,320 per student.

Millionaire hedge-fund managers and other wealthy backers are opposed, helping to orchestrate ferocious attacks in the corporate media, particularly by the city’s tabloids. The New York Times reports that charter advocates “warn that such a move would alienate donors amid worries that their contributions would end up in the city treasury.” Everybody, through paying taxes, sharing responsibility for the most basic of social services — educating children — should be the most minimum duty for anyplace that considers itself civilized.

That little tidbit about “alienation” speaks volumes about the inequality that has become so pervasive and reveals the real agenda here — educating some children so that they become corporate drones and throwing away other children as excess humanity without value. Why doesn’t this sicken more of us?

Does Occupy Wall Street have a future?

Will Occupy Wall Street have more birthday celebrations? The movement marked its second anniversary with a daylong series of events in its New York City birthplace, but with smaller numbers than it has drawn for past events.

Having spent September 17 at series of rallies and marches, I have no interest in surmising the end of a movement into which so many have placed great hopes. But two years on from the electric beginnings of Occupy in Zuccotti Park and its rapid spread to hundreds of cities, it must be asked: What is the future for Occupy? Or has it accomplished its mission, to be supplanted by as yet unformed movements to carry forward the work of building a better world?

Photo by Mark Dunlea, via www.popularresistance.org

Photo by Mark Dunlea, via http://www.popularresistance.org

The Occupiers and allies ranged from a couple hundred to several hundred at the various rallies and marches — noticeably smaller than 2012’s first anniversary. A credible showing considering the breadth of events that included a march on the New York Stock Exchange, assemblies at Zuccotti Park, a rally in Washington Square Park focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, street theater in Times Square, a rally for a “Robin Hood” financial-industry tax near the United Nations and marches connecting some of these. And all this on a work day.

Nonetheless, such crowds do not constitute a mass movement. The organizing wasn’t helped by fissiparous tendencies; a painstaking effort to reach consensus was undermined by one organizer deciding to do his own thing with his own Occupy group. (An organizer involved in the anniversary preparations told me this was the most difficult organizing he had been involved with in his many years of movement work.)

Despite the “leaderless” ideal of Occupy, there are leaders within the remnants of Occupy and they are not necessarily working harmoniously. There is nothing unique happening here: There is no social movement or large organization where these problems do not arise. But they do not help an organization already on the wane. That Occupy is a dwindling movement is a development with multiple roots, not least of which is the violent repression of it soon after its exhilarating birth.

Speaking truth to power makes those in power angry

There is no mystery as to why that repression was unleashed — Occupy unambiguously critiqued the corporate dominance of our world, the gross inequality that is worsening, the lack of accountability on the part of the financial industry and — perhaps the highest crime — encouraging people to see social divisions in terms of class. Not by explicitly referring to class or using class terminology, but by popularizing the concept with the “1% vs. the 99%” narrative. There is considerable room for debate on the size of the elite that dominates capitalist society (there are those who argue for higher and lower figures than 1%), but that such an elite is recognizable is demonstrated in how quickly the concept spread.

The Department of Homeland Security coordinated the crackdown on Occupy across the United States and the FBI had its hand in the repression as well, branding Occupiers as “terrorists” and plotting to disrupt its events. Both agencies worked closely with not only local police departments but even with the country’s banks. Police eagerly attacked Occupy encampments and actions, such as Oakland, California, police firing tear-gas canisters at point-blank range. The New York City police destroying the Occupy Wall Street library certainly was emblematic.

The anger that fueled Occupy has not dissipated, nor have the issues that animate the movement. We should never underestimate the importance of naming the problem, of clearly opposing what is wrong. No matter the future, Occupy will always be the movement that provided the service of changing the conversation. Overnight, we went from wondering why there was no organized response from the Left, leaving a vacuum filled by the corporate-created Tea Party, to a new orientation in which the actual agents of economic collapse were placed in a metaphorical bulls-eye rather than the traditional scapegoats of minorities, immigrants and government.

The real problem is the system that enables the bankers, not the personalities of the bankers themselves, but even with its emphasis on banker greed Occupy was, and is, traveling on the right track. The same institutions sit atop the economic pyramid; there has been no accountability for those who brought on the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Governments around the world continue to be under the dominance of these same institutions and people. Discouragement that the energy created by Occupy has not led to any change is one factor in the movement’s decline. Even more so, the discouragement engendered by the violent response to Occupy, a resignation induced in many that nothing can change, is a factor — the very purpose of that violence.

Even leaderless groups have leaders

While acknowledging the considerable force of the factors in the preceding paragraph, we nonetheless should examine the structure of Occupy itself. The desire to not replicate past top-down patterns and integrate horizontal decision-making is admirable, but the idea that there should be no leaders doesn’t pass the test of the real world. Occupy has leaders, the same as any other organization, but when they are not acknowledged, accountability is eroded. Decentralization, ironically, opens opportunities for ambitious leaders to promote themselves.

Such leaders may be acting on what they perceive to be the organization’s best interest, or they may be acting in ways to undermine the organization. There is suspicion by some people involved in Occupy organizing that others who they viewed as acting in destructive ways may have been Democratic Party operatives seeking to disrupt the movement. I am in no position to know if that is true, but there is more than ample evidence that the consensus painstakingly created was subject to being disregarded despite the sanctity of consensus within Occupy Wall Street. Having competing events at the same time is one way to shrink crowds.

There is also no doubt that Democrats have variously sought to co-opt it or tried to destroy Occupy. Let us not forget who the occupant of the White House was when the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI unleashed coordinated violence upon it across the country. Such tactics, traditionally visited upon any U.S. movement that makes a direct critique on the system instead of acting for small reforms, are always supplemented with more subtle machinations.

Circling back to the structure of Occupy itself, a discussion of its tactics can’t be avoided. Occupy was reasonably clear about what it is against — but it is never enough to be against something. We also have to be for something.

Refusing to make demands became something of a fetish, even allowing for the slow process of building consensus at long assemblies and the diversity of opinions and backgrounds. Understanding the problem and naming the sources of the problem are the first concrete steps, without which progress is impossible. Concrete ideas and models should follow — goals to work toward.

Unwinding the disastrous policies that have brought the world to its present state won’t happen on its own or by moral persuasion, but through organized work that will have to clear giant roadblocks and face the hostility of the institutions and people who benefit from the current system and the governments they dominate through their wealth and power. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.

Perhaps Occupy is not the organizational model to create a sustained movement. Perhaps newer groups will have to continue the work of Occupy, in conjunction with groups already at work. Whatever its future, Occupy has been an indispensable part of the work to create a better world. We can only hope that it will continue to be there.

See also:

Attacks on critical thinking vs. cheers for scapegoating

The long arc of mass movements

Seeing bias but supporting the architect of bias: We have a long way yet to go

Half a century has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, a passage of time symbolized by a Black man sworn in as president on a holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Yet it would be naïve to suggest that racism is now something in our past; that Dr. King’s hope that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin has become everyday reality.

Racism is so woven into the fabric of society that it is sadly comprehensible that two generations of civil rights struggle has not eradicated it. The contradictions that swirl around a subject that is still uncomfortable for most to discuss were captured in a New York Times survey published last week. The survey asked a series of questions related to the “stop and frisk” tactic used by the New York City Police Department in which police officers routinely stop young people on the street and search them in what is claimed to be an effort to catch potential criminals before they commit a crime.

In 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available, the New York Civil Liberties Association reports that New Yorkers were stopped and searched by the police 685,724 times. Of these stops, 88 percent were reported by the police as stops of people who were totally innocent. Only nine percent of these stops were of White people. Those numbers are typical for a program that has run for several years.

The Times survey found that:

  • 55 percent believe that New York City police favor Whites over Blacks, while 27 percent believe that both Whites and Blacks are treated fairly.
  • By almost identical margins, New Yorkers believe that police favor Whites over Hispanics.
  • 61 percent say they approve of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly while 24 percent disapprove.

People of Color were more likely to observe bias and less likely to support the commissioner than Whites, but the general pattern was the same. That majorities could simultaneously acknowledge racial bias and support the police chief responsible for a practice that most exemplifies that bias demonstrates that regressive attitudes like racism retain a strong social hold. Virtually all of the more 1,000 people who participated in the Times survey surely would vehemently oppose a hooded Klansman and look upon the Jim Crow South with horror. And yet a majority have little trouble in voicing approval of systematic harassment, a routine of criminalizing young people simply for being Black or Hispanic.

Mistaken beliefs that stop-and-frisk are effective in suppressing crime account for much of the reason for those approvals. But it is far from only that. And the law-and-order angle is not untinged with stereotyping — I vividly remember watching an interview of a White producer of a typical police “reality show” who, when asked why his program showed Black people almost exclusively as perpetrators, unashamedly answered, “Because they are the ones who commit the crimes.”

Ah, yes, it’s always the “Other” who is responsible for social problems.

The power of divide-and-conquer

And here we get closer to the reasons for the persistence of racism. And also to the persistence of sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, national hatreds and other social ills. In any society that is based upon inequality — where an elite arrogates to itself a hugely disproportionate share of wealth and dominates the levers of power and opinion-making to maintain its elite status — strong social divisions work to maintain such inequity. Divide-and-conquer is an old technique.

Pre-capitalist societies were subject to scarcities; the precarious nature of agriculture and lack of modern medicine guaranteed that periodic famines would leave too little for everybody to survive. Lords needed a powerful ideology (and deadly force when necessary) to enforce their “rights” to take so much of what their peasants or serfs produced. Nowadays, the dizzying increase in productivity ensures that mass starvation is not a possibility, if you are fortunate enough to live in a developed country, however much inequality ensures that millions in those countries will go to bed hungry some of the time.

But whether it is the aristocracy and the church dominating peasants, with the church continually telling them that their subordinate position is dictated by God, or capitalists and their corporate mass media dominating working people, with the mass media and orthodox economists telling them that the world cannot be organized any other way, the same dynamics are at work. But any ideology has to be supplemented. And what better than divide-and-conquer?

Racism (and sexism and other backward ideologies) are artificial constructs. The origination of modern racism can be traced to seventeenth century colonial Virginia. The plantation-owning aristocracy feared that Black slaves, White indentured servants and those former servants who were nominally “free” would unite, putting an end to their rule. Instilling anti-Black racism in poor Whites was the solution to this threat, a process facilitated by the racism justifying massacres of Native Americans.

At first, White indentured servants and Black slaves were treated similarly by plantation owners on the North American mainland, excepting the significant fact that the servants had seven-year terms in contrast to the slaves’ lifetime sentences.* Servants’ sentences, however, were frequently extended. The Virginia of the seventeenth century had workhouses on the English model; children of poor parents could be removed and sent to workhouses, enabling those parents to be pressed back into the ranks of servants. Black slaves and White indentured servants socialized together, helped each other escape and joined in rebellions.

Racism began to be developed as an ideology to counter solidarity between Blacks and Whites and to counter poor White settlers who left the colonies to live among Indigenous peoples, whose non-hierarchical society was more appealing to thousands of them. To facilitate this process, freed servants were given small privileges not available to slaves to give them the illusion of having a stake in the aristocracy-dominated social order; Whites who rebelled were not punished as severely as Blacks; and poor Whites were forced to move inland due to the monopolization of coastal land by elites, thereby exacerbating tensions with Native Americans.

The genocide of Native Americans — ultimately reducing their populations by 95 percent — was of course well under way across the New World. The plantation-based economies there were dependent on slaves, and the European countries that were the earliest sites of the emerging capitalist system grew wealthy. More specifically, the emerging capitalist class grew wealthy and increasingly assertive in political matters.

Old World capitalists and New World slaves

European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. (At this time, the Caribbean was far more important than mainland colonies, and conditions for slaves there was harsher; owners of Caribbean plantations often worked their slaves to death within a few years.) Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to European accumulations of wealth. He wrote:

“Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”**

This early buoying of capitalism can be obscured because slavery is a system best suited for accumulating agricultural surpluses; slavery’s association with plantations, however, can’t be disassociated from the use of plantation profits. Those surpluses provided investment capital for capitalist development despite slavery having been abolished within the internal British and other Western European capitalist systems.

Slave revolts and popular movements had much to do with abolishments of slavery, but the changing economic system was prominent as well. Slavery, as well as serfdom, is incompatible with industrial capitalism’s need for “flexible” workforces that can be hired or fired at will and for large numbers of consumers who can buy the capitalists’ products.

Slavery ended in the South, but subordination enforced with state-sanctioned terrorism did not until the civil rights movement a century later, when activists quite literally staked their lives on ending it. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.”

Imprisonment and a lack of jobs

This line of thinking, widely propagated, is a direct descendant of earlier, more crude ideologies. And from here it is a small step to justify mass incarceration and the racial bias exemplified by the U.S. prison system. More than 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States, a total and a rate that are the highest in the world. Black men are incarcerated at a rate almost seven times that of White men; two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are People of Color although Whites use drugs in similar amounts.

It is no longer unusual for police chiefs in large cities to be Black, and even the president and his attorney general are Black, yet the conveyor belt of repression continues to run smoothly. This is an institutional, structural problem that is untouched by the symbolism of a single leader.

In this neoliberal era, massive economic dislocations and poverty have made migrants of tens and hundreds of millions of people around the world, many of whom are small farmers forced off their lands due to cheap, often-subsidized agricultural products imported from the strongest capitalist countries. Corollary to dominant/subordinate pairings are immigrants, particularly those who become undocumented workers — another source of exploitable labor and a new means of fostering divisions when jobs are harder to find.

It so much easier to point at immigrants and blame them for depressing wages rather than examine the economic and social structure, at home and abroad, that puts mass immigration in motion and creates the conditions for the exploitation. Similarly, it is much more comforting to see oneself as a self-made success rather than someone who does work hard but nonetheless is a recipient of social privileges. In a country in which racism is so densely interwoven into the fabric of society, can any of us honestly say we are free of all prejudices?

The question, then, becomes one of a willingness to overcome social conditioning. Shaking one’s head sadly at racial bias in policing but supporting the police chief who intensifies that bias and voting for the politicians who appoint the chief is an unwillingness to critique the world you live in, and all the inequalities that have made today’s world what it is. A better world is not going to come into being by wishful thinking; it’ll only come about when we are not only willing to confront ourselves and our society, but to act.

* This and the following paragraph are based on Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present, pages 37-58 [HarperCollins, 1995]; Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, page 297-299, 327-328 [W.W. Norton & Co., 1975]; and Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World, pages 252-254 [Bookmarks Publications, 1999]
** Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, page 88 [Howard University Press, 1982]

Tuition battles, debt and union-busting: The many faces of neoliberalism

The eleven students who barricaded themselves inside Cooper Union’s tower have ended their occupation, but their struggle resonates well beyond the New York City university. Inextricably bound up in the movement to save Cooper Union’s tradition of free tuition and enable meaningful student and faculty participation in the affairs of the university is a struggle against neoliberalism.

The victorious students who endured police violence and heavy-handed legal tactics during the months of the Québec student strike earlier this year; the unsustainable student debt burying students across the United States; the union-busting offensives in Wisconsin; and the latest anti-union effort in Michigan — to name only some of the struggles from 2012 alone — should not be looked at in isolation but rather are part of a continuum of which Cooper Union is one manifestation.

Workers’ struggles and students’ struggles are linked, and not simply because today’s students are tomorrow’s workers. Education is now treated as a commodity — professors are increasingly part-time adjuncts and students are expected to hand over ever larger sums of money for tuition, and students are encouraged to think of higher education in mercenary terms, as nothing more than technical training for a job rather than (or in addition to) an opportunity to improve oneself through study. Being an employee in a capitalist enterprise is indistinguishable from oneself being reduced to a commodity — we have no choice but to sell our labor if we intend to eat and keep a roof over our heads.

All this requires atomization of society: set off at each other’s throats, fiercely competing over scraps. It is solidarity that breaks this pattern. Thus it was not surprising when a Cooper Union spokesman, presumably speaking for the president, Jamshed Bharucha, issued a statement claiming that the occupiers “do not reflect the views of a student population of approximately 1,000 architects, artists and engineers.” Did they do a survey? One suspects not.

The suggestion here seems to be that the strikers are unreasonably “spoiled,” an intimation made during recent student occupations at nearby New York University and the New School. Note that the student strikers in Québec were similarly denounced when they took to the streets in massive numbers to block an increase in tuition although Québec already had the lowest tuition of any Canadian province.

This is a favorite neoliberal tactic — attempt to engender jealousy that somebody has something you don’t have, and loudly proclaim that something should be taken away from them. This tactic was on ample display during Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s unilateral attempt to eliminate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state-government employees and impose draconian cuts to education and social programs. Government workers and unions were the designated scapegoats, making their pensions easy targets; Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do.

Although a similar effort was defeated in Ohio, by forcing a referendum that was won, Michigan legislators this week approved legislation banning automatic payroll deductions of union dues. In states with such laws, unions are required to represent all workers despite receiving dues from only a portion of them, leaving unions with less resources and therefore weaker, and fueling the neoliberal ideology of hyper-individualism because “free riders” gain the benefits of collective bargaining by the union, funded by members, while not contributing dues.

Using the force of the state to break unions on behalf of capitalists to force reductions in wages is simply neoliberal austerity in legislative clothing.

Continued free tuition would be a victory for all students

Similar to higher union wages setting a higher bar for everybody’s wages, continued free tuition at Cooper Union should be defended as a gain for all students. Once lost, it is unlikely to be regained. The public City University of New York system had free tuition until 1975; tuition has risen fivefold since it was first instituted, well above the rate of inflation and a pattern replicated by public and private universities.

With that in mind, the demands of the Cooper Union student occupiers and their supporters, which have not been rescinded, are straightforward:

  • The administration must publicly affirm the university’s commitment to free education.
  • The Board of Trustees must immediately implement structural changes to create open flows of information and democratic decision-making, including making board minutes publicly available and the appointment of a student and faculty members.
  • President Bharucha steps down.

The students say Cooper Union’s weakened finances are a result of mismanagement. The university has been on a building spree of late, leveling two of its three main buildings and replacing them with expensive new buildings. In ending their occupation but vowing to continue to struggle, the students said:

“The problems at Cooper Union strike a nerve with millions of others struggling with student debt, administrative bloat, and expansionist agendas. We live in a world where massive student debt and the rising costs of higher education remain unchecked, where students are treated as customers and faculty as contracts. Cooper Union’s mission of free education affords equality and excellence and offers an alternative for a better future of higher education.

For over a century, the Cooper Union has sustained the mission of providing free education to all admitted students. After decades of financial mismanagement, the administration now seeks to implement tuition-based programs. Rather than dedicating themselves to the difficult task of maintaining the promise of free education — Jamshed Bharucha’s administration and the Board of Trustees have chosen to pass the consequences of financial and institutional mismanagement on to the shoulders of the college’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, and future generations. They’ve taken the easy way out.”

Not dissimilar to how working people are expected to bear the burden of an economic crisis caused by financiers while the financiers’ institutions are bailed out. Those same financiers are hungrily circling Social Security, falsely blaming one of the few remaining strands of the social safety net so that they can get their hands on it and plunder it for their personal profit.

Solidarity achieves tuition freeze in Québec

The struggle for a sane higher-education system is one that must be fought everywhere. The struggle to maintain free tuition at Cooper Union is not separable from the struggle to rein in out-of-control tuition increases elsewhere. The successful student strike in Québec, although centered on Francophone students in Montréal, nonetheless was a province-wide struggle that drew enormous support from working people. It was so successful, in fact, that it caused the provincial government to fall.

It also helped that students were already organized in three student province-wide associations. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

That move backfired, as the demonstrations over what become known as the “Maple Spring” in a nod to last year’s “Arab Spring” only grew bigger. After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. That victory did not come easily (the process is called “struggle” for a reason). A supporter of the strike who is long past being a student himself wrote on the Waging Nonviolence web site:

“The revolting students paid a heavy price. They put their academic year in jeopardy and many were beat up by the cops. Over 200,000 students maintained a strike for five months, 3,387 were arrested and hundreds injured — some seriously by plastic bullets and batons.”

Moreover, students estimate that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the largest of the province’s student associations with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Explosion of student debt

College tuition in the United States is far higher than it is in Canada and has risen to the point that student debt is estimated to be more than US$1 trillion. A Center for American Progress report said U.S. tuition has increased more than 1,000 percent during the past three decades. (That is more than three times the official rate of inflation.) The report notes:

“One of the major self-inflicted causes is the consistent decline in state funding for higher education, which had helped colleges keep tuition affordable. The steadily and rapidly increasing cost of college nationwide prompted a dramatic rise in student borrowing—a natural result as families could no longer rely on scholarships, grants, and personal savings, which cannot keep up with the rapidly increasing tuition costs.”

Similar to governments running deficits because they borrow from the wealthy rather than tax them, financiers profit from the explosion of student debt. A major contributor to this mounting debt are for-profit private colleges, many of which enroll huge numbers of students, many unprepared for college, by virtue of government-guaranteed loans given with no oversight.

Just as corporate initiatives attempt to replace public primary and secondary school systems with “charter schools” run by corporations for the profit of executives, the neoliberal model of higher education is to saddle students with heavy debt. Not only is this profitable in the short term, but it also makes the students, once they enter the workforce, more pliable employees due to the massive loans hanging over their heads.

Corporate executives want students drilled for business needs, but refuse to pay taxes needed to support education. And they want students to shoulder the burden of tuition although they, and society as a whole, benefit from an educated workforce.

The idea that anyone achieves success all on their own is preposterous — all of us rely on institutions (including schools) and build on those who came before us. Least of all can capitalists who accumulate fortunes on the backs of students, employees and freelancers, and benefit from government-funded infrastructure, claim to be free of society. The neoliberal cult of individualism is a means to foster jealousy and atomization — and to keep the 99 percent subordinate.

The corporate steamroller of gentrification is a deliberate process

By Pete Dolack

Gentrification is an ongoing process, of which we’ve had two reminders in the past month in New York City. The recent closing of the Bowery Poetry Club is a sad reminder of the dwindling number of community spaces — and one need only look across the street to see a high-end corporate clothing boutique occupying the space where CBGB showcased musical acts for more than three decades.

Even last weekend’s annual commemoration of the Tompkins Square Park police riot of 1988 was, in its own way, an echo of gentrification as the event served mostly as an act of nostalgia for the past of Manhattan’s Lower East Side that remains only in pockets. No New York City neighborhood put up more of a fight for its survival as an alternative haven for non-conformists in cultural, political and social milieus. That any of its tradition as a place of resistance to the overwhelming power of money survives in the now legalized squats, smattering of community spaces, and the out-numbered activists, artists and non-conformists who are able to remain by virtue of rent regulations is because of collective action.

Just to be clear about what is meant by the term gentrification, a working definition of it is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

This process is concurrent in many cities and countries. A special twist in New York City is that artists are used as a “bait” to put formerly industrial areas on the map as destinations, until the artists are no longer needed and are forced out by the sharply rising rents that sweep over the area once gentrification takes hold. This process can happen gradually, as it was in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, or it can happen swiftly, as it was further down Brooklyn’s East River waterfront in the “Dumbo” enclave.

These processes are never organic, but become orchestrated once a neighborhood attracts a reputation as “hip” or “interesting.” In this variant, the artists arrive in places either emptied by de-industrialization, subject to high crime rates under the impact of neglect, or a combination of the two. In the case of Williamsburg, the process greatly accelerated following a massive rezoning that allowed 40-story luxury condominium buildings along the East River where only industrial uses has previously been allowed. (That more than 95 percent of local speakers at an hours-long hearing were in opposition and that local activists spent years developing an alternative plan in line with the neighborhood’s character was of no consequence.)

So now we have the “irony” of aggressively marketed buildings branded as “The Edge” located where an open-air waste-transfer station operated only a few years earlier: Bags of garbage used to molder there until a barge could arrive to remove them.

One strongly suspects the developers responsible for the complex do not inform the newcomers of the recent past.

The neighborhood that became know as Dumbo (the name is an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) underwent the process much quicker. Artists had settled there, too, as space became available. One real estate company essentially bought the neighborhood and openly used the artists as bait to make the neighborhood a desirable destination, going so far as to give street-level space for them to use as galleries or performance stages for a couple of years until the developers would be ready to reclaim the building to convert into condominiums and/or rental space for high-end corporate retail businesses.

The process extended to the corporatization of the annual Dumbo Arts Festival. I appeared as a poet in the 1999 pre-gentrification edition of the festival, simply because I happened to meet the friendly organizers of the spoken-word event, which was held on a loading dock. Artists would open their studios to the public, and those participating in the festival were primarily artists who lived there. A decade later, the neighborhood had been transformed into an expensive shopping mall, and the festival now boasts a string of corporate sponsors. Few artists remain in a neighborhood now dominated by million-dollar condominiums, the owners of whom undoubtedly fancy themselves as trend setters by virtue of living there.

The idea of corporatization has so taken hold that Dumbo’s open space, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, is expected to generate a profit. That sounds crazy, but it is really true: Some of the land set aside for the park is being sold to developers to build high-end hotels or other commercial enterprises to offset the costs of the park.

But the draw of artists is not necessary. Gentrification moves in waves and is ongoing; in New York City, developers are greedily preparing to devour Harlem — its historical cachet reduced to an advertising campaign — and have begun to eye outlying neighborhoods such as Bushwick. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

The city’s oldest gentrification project is that of the Lower East Side. Here the concept of “spatial de-concentration” was put into practice. “Spatial de-concentration” is a deliberate strategy of reducing the available housing stock to disperse a population. The Lower East Side in the 1970s suffered from a wave of landlord abandonments, arsons and city neglect, such as reduced firefighting services; eventually a shortage of housing triggered rising rents and stimulated real estate speculation.

A neighborhood that was an escape from the pervasiveness of corporate mass culture — its unique ambience created by a mix of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks — and anchored by community spaces and local mom-and-pop businesses has been transformed into an alcohol-fueled playground for the privileged overrun by “trendy” bars and chain stores. Deep-pocketed chain stores and boutiques owned by holders of trust funds are becoming the only entities that can afford the commercial rents as the very concept of commercial rent control is never raised by any political leader.

The average neighborhood residential monthly rent is now $2,400 — this in a neighborhood where, 40 years ago, people paid less than $100 for an apartment. Commercial space has increased in price still more steeply; local businesses that give back to the community are steadily forced to close their doors. As the former population becomes a smaller minority within in its neighborhood, the ability to fight back in an organized way dwindles, until a critical point is reached where real estate interests become essentially dictatorial and the process accelerates.

At some point, history becomes nostalgia. And 24 years later, the Tompkins Square Park police riot — when police hiding their badges went on a rampage against anybody luckless enough to be near the park sparked an intense period of struggle that lasted for several years — was unmistakably an object of nostalgia in this year’s commemoration. And even that had its corporate echo, as one person seized control of the annual event after chasing out others who previously helped organize it, and announced that he owns the marbles and will take them home if others don’t do as he says. A most capitalist attitude.

A community needs community institutions. Several years ago, I published a book of poetry by a friend who had recently died. The poet was well-liked and very modest; his friends felt it important that his work be kept alive. After I had completed the book, I walked one Friday afternoon to the Bowery Poetry Club, saw the owner, Bob Holman, there and began to ask him if I could schedule the book-release party there. Before I could get the first sentence out of my mouth, he enthusiastically said yes, giving me a two-hour Sunday slot without charge. I don’t think Starbucks would have done that.

I don’t pretend to know the club’s financial specifics, but I don’t think it takes a stretch of imagination to imagine that Mr. Holman had a large mortgage or rent to cover each month. And his club, home to artists and performers in a variety of disciplines, was a haven for community do-it-yourself arts and culture. I mention this not because its closing is a loss to a specific community (which it is) but because it is an example of what is happening on a mass scale through the corporate homogenization that arrives in the wake of gentrification.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby the “commons” are taken away and replaced by privately owned space. When there are no longer places where the community can gather — whether for their own cultural events, to discuss community issues or as gathering places for demonstrations and protests — the ability to maintain alternatives to the pervasive corporate culture and to continue to retain the ability to cohesively resist corporatization or to defend themselves against a city government determined to push them out is greatly diminished.

The Lower East Side will provide an example here. During the 1990s, a former school building was used to build a community space called Charas/El Bohio; benefit concerts, dance parties, space for a variety of local cultural groups and performers, and meeting places for organizers were among its uses. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which real estate developers saw dollar signs in front of their eyes and in which a large body of neighborhood activists resisted gentrification, Charas was seen not as the busy community resource it was, but as a threat that had to be eliminated.

In one of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last acts, he saw to it that is was eliminated. Partly because of his hatred of community organizers or any opposition, partly because of his embrace of corporate ideology that insists private profit is the only legitimate usage of any property, and partly in support of a corrupt local council member in bed with developers who literally saw himself in a war against the neighborhood but who supported Giuliani, Charas was taken away and sold at far below market rate to a connected developer. Because of ongoing pressure that has blocked a necessary zoning change (the corrupt council member who did not try to hide the hatred he felt for his own constituents is long out of office), the developer has not been able to realize his plans. But 13 years later, Charas sits empty behind sealed walls and has so deteriorated that it is now uninhabitable.

That’s capitalism in action: A community resource created and run by the community is taken away so one person can make a profit, and the resource is allowed to rot unused if that one person doesn’t realize the profit.

The path of gentrification mirrors that of culture. The corporatized art world now mimics finance capital. In the financial world, a tiny number of people succeed in positioning their company for an initial public offering and the fantastic riches that flow upward from it while so many others labor for little; in the art world, a small number of artists catch the eye of a wealthy investor, generating multimillion-dollar sales while legions of other artists starve.

None of these patterns are new. The taking away of the commons is as old as capitalism; in fact capitalism was built on the privatization of commons. As a market arose for commodity agricultural products, feudal lords wanted to clear space for sheep meadows. Peasants were forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), forcing them to become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or laborers in the new factories to endure pitifully low wages and inhuman working hours.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, a “moral” crusade promoted by owners of factories and agricultural estates in which the tiny fraction of commons that had survived were taken away; the measure of independence that rights to the use of commons provided wage laborers was denounced for fostering “laziness” and “indolence” — defects that could be cured only by forcing them to be fully dependent on wage work.

Legal codes make such work more civilized these days, but the principal remains. An independent community is a community that can’t be pacified or narcotized by consumerism; common or collective property available for community use presents a counter-example to privatization of all spaces; and the use of resources for community benefit instead of for private profit represents an especially dangerous counter-example. Such concepts must be systematically stamped out, and for resisters, a militarized police force is used to enforce the rule of wealthy elites instead of the army as in past times.

If democracy is the goal, then community self-management must be a part of it — decision-making that requires a radically different way of organizing the community. A system in which the community exists to be plundered for the private profit of local elites is incompatible with democracy.