How inert can the Democratic Party be? Do they really want to defeat the Congressional Republicans in the fall by doing the right thing?
A winning issue is to raise the federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 since 2007. If it was adjusted for inflation since 1968, not to mention other erosions of wage levels, the federal minimum would be around $10.
Here are some arguments for raising the minimum wage this year to catch up with 1968 when worker productivity was half of what it is today.
1. Pure fairness for millions of hard-pressed American workers and their families. Over 70 percent of Americans in national polls support a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation.
2. Already eighteen states have enacted higher minimum wages led by Washington state to $9.04 an hour. With the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the New York State legislature is considering a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage. The legislature should pass the long-blocked farm workers wage bill at the same time.
3. Since at least 1968, businesses and their executives have been raising prices and their salaries (note: Walmart’s CEO making over $11,000 an hour!) while they have been getting a profitable windfall from their struggling workers, whose federal minimum is $2.75 lower in purchasing power than it was 44 years ago.
4. The tens of billions of dollars that a $10 minimum will provide to consumers’ buying power will create more sales and more jobs. Aren’t economists all saying the most important way out of the recession and the investment stall is to increase consumer spending?
5. Most independent studies collected by the Economic Policy Institute show no decrease in employment following a minimum wage increase. Most studies show job numbers overall go up. The landmark study rebutting claims of lost jobs was conducted by Professors David Card and Alan Krueger in 1994. Professor Krueger is now chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
6. Many organizations with millions of members are on the record favoring an inflation-adjusted increase in the federal minimum wage. They include the AFL-CIO and member unions, the NAACP and La Raza, and hundreds of non-profit social service and religious organizations. They need to move from being on the record to being on the ramparts.
7. With many Republicans supporting a higher minimum wage and with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum on their side, a push in Congress will split the iron unity of the Republicans under Senator Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner and gain some Republican lawmakers for passage. This issue may also encourage some Republican voters to vote for Democrats this fall. A Republican worker in McDonalds or Walmart or a cleaning company still wants a living wage.
8. President Barack Obama declared in 2008 that he wanted a $9.50 federal minimum by year 2011. If lip-service is the first step toward action, he is on board too. There is no better time to enact a higher minimum wage than during an election year. Against millions of dollars in opposition ads in Florida in 2004, over 70 percent of the voters in a statewide referendum went for a minimum wage promoted by a penniless coalition of citizen groups.
9. The Occupy movement can supply the continuing civic jolts around the local offices of 535 members of Congress, a slim majority of whom are not opposed to raising the minimum wage but who need that high profile pressure back home. Winning this issue will give the Occupy activists many new recruits, and much more power for getting something done in an otherwise do-nothing or obstructionist corporate indentured Congress. About 80 percent of the workers affected by a minimum wage increase are over 20 years of age.
Remember there is no need to offset a higher minimum wage with lower taxes on small business. Since Obama took office there have already been 17 tax cuts for small business and no increase in the federal minimum wage.
At the University of Virginia, twelve students have begun a hunger strike to protest the low wages and other injustices inflicted on contract service-sector employees. Students at other universities are likely to follow with their Living Wage Campaigns in this American Spring. They are fed up with millions of dollars for top administrators’ salaries or amenities such as fancy practice facilities for athletes, while the blue collar workers can’t pay for the necessities of life.
Raising the federal wage to 1968 levels, inflation adjusted, is a winning issue. It just needs a few million Americans to rouse themselves for a few months as they do for their favorite sports team and connect with all those large concurring organizations and their powerful legislators, like Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a big supporter, to start the rumble that will make it a reality.
If you are interested in more information on the efforts to raise the minimum wage, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just when you thought the government couldn’t ruin the First Amendment any further: The House of Representatives approved a bill on Monday that outlaws protests in instances where some government officials are nearby, whether or not you even know it.
The US House of Representatives voted 388-to-3 in favor of H.R. 347 late Monday, a bill which is being dubbed the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. In the bill, Congress officially makes it illegal to trespass on the grounds of the White House, which, on the surface, seems not just harmless and necessary, but somewhat shocking that such a rule isn’t already on the books. The wording in the bill, however, extends to allow the government to go after much more than tourists that transverse the wrought iron White House fence.
Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country.
Under current law, White House trespassers are prosecuted under a local ordinance, a Washington, DC legislation that can bring misdemeanor charges for anyone trying too get close to the president without authorization. Under H.R. 347, a federal law will formally be applied to such instances, but will also allow the government to bring charges to protesters, demonstrators and activists at political events and other outings across America.
The new legislation allows prosecutors to charge anyone who enters a building without permission or with the intent to disrupt a government function with a federal offense if Secret Service is on the scene, but the law stretches to include not just the president’s palatial Pennsylvania Avenue home. Under the law, any building or grounds where the president is visiting — even temporarily — is covered, as is any building or grounds “restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.”
It’s not just the president who would be spared from protesters, either.
Covered under the bill is any person protected by the Secret Service. Although such protection isn’t extended to just everybody, making it a federal offense to even accidentally disrupt an event attended by a person with such status essentially crushes whatever currently remains of the right to assemble and peacefully protest.
Hours after the act passed, presidential candidate Rick Santorum was granted Secret Service protection. For the American protester, this indeed means that glitter-bombing the former Pennsylvania senator is officially a very big no-no, but it doesn’t stop with just him. Santorum’s coverage under the Secret Service began on Tuesday, but fellow GOP hopeful Mitt Romney has already been receiving such security. A campaign aide who asked not to be identified confirmed last week to CBS News that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has sought Secret Service protection as well. Even former contender Herman Cain received the armed protection treatment when he was still in the running for the Republican Party nod.
In the text of the act, the law is allowed to be used against anyone who knowingly enters or remains in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so, but those grounds are considered any area where someone — rather it’s President Obama, Senator Santorum or Governor Romney — will be temporarily visiting, whether or not the public is even made aware. Entering such a facility is thus outlawed, as is disrupting the orderly conduct of “official functions,” engaging in disorderly conduct “within such proximity to” the event or acting violent to anyone, anywhere near the premises. Under that verbiage, that means a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense, but those occurrences covered as “special events of national significance” don’t just stop there, either. And neither does the list of covered persons that receive protection.
Outside of the current presidential race, the Secret Service is responsible for guarding an array of politicians, even those from outside America. George W Bush is granted protection until ten years after his administration ended, or 2019, and every living president before him is eligible for life-time, federally funded coverage. Visiting heads of state are extended an offer too, and the events sanctioned as those of national significance — a decision that is left up to the US Department of Homeland Security — extends to more than the obvious. While presidential inaugurations and meeting of foreign dignitaries are awarded the title, nearly three dozen events in all have been considered a National Special Security Event (NSSE) since the term was created under President Clinton. Among past events on the DHS-sanctioned NSSE list are Super Bowl XXXVI, the funerals of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, most State of the Union addresses and the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
With Secret Service protection awarded to visiting dignitaries, this also means, for instance, that the federal government could consider a demonstration against any foreign president on American soil as a violation of federal law, as long as it could be considered disruptive to whatever function is occurring.
When thousands of protesters are expected to descend on Chicago this spring for the 2012 G8 and NATO summits, they will also be approaching the grounds of a National Special Security Event. That means disruptive activity, to whichever court has to consider it, will be a federal offense under the act.
And don’t forget if you intend on fighting such charges, you might not be able to rely on evidence of your own. In the state of Illinois, videotaping the police, under current law, brings criminal charges. Don’t fret. It’s not like the country will really try to enforce it — right?
On the bright side, does this mean that the law could apply to law enforcement officers reprimanded for using excessive force on protesters at political events? Probably. Of course, some fear that the act is being created just to keep those demonstrations from ever occurring, and given the vague language on par with the loose definition of a “terrorist” under the NDAA, if passed this act is expected to do a lot more harm to the First Amendment than good.
United States Representative Justin Amash (MI-03) was one of only three lawmakers to vote against the act when it appeared in the House late Monday. Explaining his take on the act through his official Facebook account on Tuesday, Rep. Amash writes, “The bill expands current law to make it a crime to enter or remain in an area where an official is visiting even if the person does not know it’s illegal to be in that area and has no reason to suspect it’s illegal.”
“Some government officials may need extraordinary protection to ensure their safety. But criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activity — even if that activity is annoying to those government officials — violates our rights,” adds the representative.
Now that the act has overwhelmingly made it through the House, the next set of hands to sift through its pages could very well be President Barack Obama’s; the US Senate had already passed the bill back on February 6. Less than two months ago, the president approved the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, essentially suspending habeas corpus for American citizens. Could the next order out of the Executive Branch be revoking some of the Bill of Rights? Only if you consider the part about being able to assemble a staple of the First Amendment, really. Don’t worry, though. Obama was, after all, a constitutional law professor. When he signed the NDAA on December 31, he accompanied his signature with a signing statement that let Americans know that, just because he authorized the indefinite detention of Americans didn’t mean he thought it was right.
Should President Obama suspend the right to assemble, Americans might expect another apology to accompany it in which the commander-in-chief condemns the very act he authorizes. If you disagree with such a decision, however, don’t take it to the White House. Sixteen-hundred Pennsylvania Avenue and the vicinity is, of course, covered under this act.
Student solidarity groups from more than twenty UK universities held Israeli Apartheid Week events last week, raising awareness of the apartheid analysis and building boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) on campus. Coming towards the end of an academic year that has seen students’ unions across the country and the National Union of Students move to support BDS initiatives and many successful BDS campaigns, the week has been hailed as having taken the UK student movement for Palestine to new heights.
The week kicked off on the Monday with a national day of action, with campuses across the country organising mock checkpoints, street theatre and supermarket actions.
Focus on youth
Organisers chose to bring young activists from Palestine and South Africa as visiting speakers, resulting in energetic and action-focused panel discussions and providing students with the opportunity to hear about the latest developments in the Palestinian and South African youth movements.
In Scotland, five universities hosted talks by Adameer activist Murad Jadallah and Wassim Ghantous, a Palestinian youth activist currently active in the Belgian BDS movement. With students in Scotland especially active in organising solidarity for Khader Adnan, Murad’s talks on the work Adameer had been doing to support him were particularly well timed. The announcement that Adnan was to be released came shortly before one of the biggest public events was due to start.
Yara Sadi from the Who Profits from the Occupation? project spoke alongside local activists in Leicester, Leeds and Sheffield and Israeli BDS activist Leehee Rothschild visited the universities of Sussex, Warwick and Essex.
In London, the main panel discussion featured film maker Eyal Sivan, Palestinian BDS National Committee secretariat member Rafeef Ziadah, journalist Ben White and South African student leader Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. Mbuyiseni spoke passionately of the “potent gift of international solidarity” that contributed to the downfall of South African apartheid and must be developed further to support the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid.
Mbuyiseni also spoke in Nottingham and alongside Ewa Jasiewicz at a meeting at Manchester Metropolitan University that launched a campaign against the university’s ties with Veolia, the French multinational that provides services to Israel’s illegal settlements.
At the University of Liverpool, the Guild of Students voted to adopt a range of policy motions in support of campaigns following presentations earlier in the week by the Corporate Watch research group about their newly released BDS book Targeting Israeli Apartheid.
On Friday, the week was rounded up with a series of social events. In London, a Beats Against Apartheid event was attended by over 600 students. It was the perfect energetic ending to an inspiring week with performances from hip-hop artists Lowkey, Mic Righteous, Awate and spoken word performers Rafeef Ziadah and Jody Mcintyre among many others.
Opposition and repression
Despite much fanfare in the Israeli media, the official ‘Voices for Israel’ delegation made little impact. Bizarrely, meetings at which they spoke were poorly publicised and there was almost no visible presence on campuses from the official delegation.
In contrast, local pro-Israel student activists attempted to intimidate IAW organisers, with students at LSE being pelted with water balloons as they staged a mock check point on campus and there were reports of confrontational behaviour in Birmingham, Nottingham and elsewhere.
Regardless of these attempts at intimidation, Israeli Apartheid Week has been widely successful and has continued its consistent growth across the UK. Indeed, the failure of pro-Israel activists to detract from our activities in any meaningful should be seen as a further sign that the debate on UK campuses is now happening very much on our terms.
For information on the Israeli Apartheid Week events that will take place elsewhere in the world in the coming weeks, check out the official Israeli Apartheid Week website.
- Israel student society attacks peaceful Palestine protest with water bombs at London School of Economics (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Apartheid conference goes ahead in Paris despite university ban (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Mbuyiseni Ndlozi – Israeli Apartheid Week | Stop the Wall (aboriginalpress.wordpress.com)
- Transforming Finkelstein BDS attack into opportunity (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- This year, another U.S. media blackout of “Israeli Apartheid Week” (dangordonreporting.wordpress.com)
Barack Obama can’t hide the fact that he is the One Percent’s president. Most of what he is dangling for the rest of us this election year turns out to be smoke and mirrors, yet he offers corporations a huge tax rate reduction – a gift that will keep on giving long after Obama is gone. It is typical Obama behavior. He sprinkles his speeches with phrases that mimic Occupy Wall Street, then turns around and promises the One Percent a bigger prize than George Bush could deliver.
Obama wants to lower the nominal corporate tax rate form 35 percent to 28 percent. For manufacturing industries, the rate would fall to 25 percent. Big Business has long complained – dishonestly – that American companies are put at a disadvantage by the highest tax rates in the world. But that’s only true on paper. When it comes to actually paying taxes, European corporations give a bigger share of money back to their governments and societies than U.S. companies do. The fact that the U.S. posts a higher official tax rate, while in the real world U.S. corporations pay lower taxes than Europe, is proof of the absolute corruption of the U.S. tax system, where corporations write the tax code and all of its loopholes.
Obama claims he will extract even more tax money from the corporations by doing away with loopholes. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that. The administration has no plans to revise the U.S. tax code any time soon.
Private studies show the average company pays an effective tax rate of substantially less than 20 percent, and a government study showed that more than half of American companies paid no taxes at all in at least one out of seven years.
Back in the Fifties, corporate taxes made up 28 percent of government revenues. In the Sixties, the corporate share was 21 percent of each dollar of taxes. Today, corporations only account for ten percent of the money the U.S. government takes in per year. In other words, they have never had it so good.
Hardly anyone outside the administration believes that the Obama plan will wind up collecting more corporate taxes than it gives away. The grassroots National People’s Action projects that permanently lowering the tax rate will cost the federal government $700 billion over the next ten years. The loss in revenue will increase pressures to cut programs that serve people – which is another way of saying that the 99 percent will pay for the tax reductions of the corporate 1%.
Even in the highly unlikely event that the Obama plan winds up collecting more tax money through closing down corporate loopholes, the president has already stated that the additional revenue will go right back into corporate pockets, in the form of new or existing tax breaks for favored industries, in manufacturing, clean energy, and research. This, of course, would be the biggest loophole of all. Under a Democratic or Republican administration, every corporation would claim to be a manufacturer, or to be doing research. And, President Obama can’t say the word “coal” without also saying “clean” – so that dirty industry would get tax breaks, too.
Obama’s whole plan is a tax giveaway, not a tax reform. And, that’s the point. It’s a billion dollar election year. Corporations need to know what kind of government their campaign contributions are buying.
Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
- Over Last 10 Years, General Electric’s Effective Tax Rate Was 2.3 Percent (thinkprogress.org)
- 5 Key Facts About The Obama Administration’s Corporate Tax Overhaul (thinkprogress.org)
Azerbaijan’s Milli Mejlis held debates on amending the Constitution and renaming the country into the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan, a Russian expert says.
“Supporters of this idea insist that today’s Azerbaijan is just a part of the Azerbaijani state that used to exist before and was divided by Russia and Iran in the 19th century; they claim two thirds of this state still remain within Iran’s territory, and this is historic injustice,” said Alexander Krylov, chairman of the Scientific Society of Caucasian studies experts, leading research scientist of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations according to Analitika.at.ua.
“Apparently, Tehran views such statement as a bellicose action and a direct challenge to Iran. Debates in Azerbaijan’s Milli Mejlis further complicated the tensions between the neighbouring countries. Baku blames the Iranian government for activities undermining the Azerbaijani state, in particular, through the Turkic-language Iranian 2A TV channel,” the expert said.
“Azerbaijan’s authorities and politicians are particularly indignant over the channel’s claims regarding Azerbaijani statehood being groundless, and Azerbaijan being a historic part of Iran. Activists of Azerbaijan’s Islamic party charged with subversive activities against Azerbaijan in favor of Iran were arrested recently in Azerbaijan.
So, a question emerges: how far can this conflict extend? In terms of legislation, renaming of a country requires amending the Constitution; to do this, the majority of Azerbaijan’s citizens should vote for it during a nationwide referendum. So far, nothing is said about a referendum. Therefore, the problem is not the renaming of Azerbaijan but something else. Obviously, Baku uses development of this issue as a lever of political pressure on Iranian government and as a method of solving its own domestic problems,” Krylov said.
According to the expert, in case of a military resolution of the Iranian issue the U.S. and Israeli politicians are insisting on for many years, Azerbaijan’s territory may be used for striking Iran.
“In this case, the current propaganda against Iran is likely to be a part of preparation for this scenario. U.S. may attempt to use Azerbaijan as a new version of Afghan “Northern Alliance”; also, in case of large-scale changes in the borders and establishment of new countries in the regions (i.e. Kurdistan), Azerbaijan may receive vast territories,” the Russian expert stated.
- Azerbaijan Claims More Iranian Terror Plots Without Providing Details or Evidence (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Azerbaijan Hub for Mossad’s Assassination & Espionage Operations against Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Dennis House, the presenter of Connecticut’s “Face the State” TV show, describes his recent interview with a refreshingly candid candidate for Joe Lieberman’s Senate seat:
In her first television interview of the campaign, Lee Whitnum came out swinging against two of her fellow Democrats seeking the nomination for the seat currently held by Joe Lieberman. During a taping of Face the State, the lawyer and author from Greenwich was highly critical of Susan Bysiewicz and Chris Murphy.
On Bysiewicz, here is an excerpt of what Whitnum had to say: “I don’t like her at all. I think she is a card-carrying Israelist.” Is she running to make sure this Congress remains pro-Israel?”
As for Murphy:
“Chris Murphy pledged $30M to Israel over the next ten years……..We elected a young maverick kid and he just hasn’t done very much. He needs to be taken out of office.”
Whitnum hasn’t made many friends in the Connecticut Democratic Party. She is currently suing Governor Malloy, alleging he called her an anti-semite. She called Senator Lieberman a traitor, and demanded Senator Richard Blumenthal to resign, both because of their support of Israel.
Whitnum’s opposition to the United States policy on its ally Israel, has led to those anti-semitism charges. She also filed a lawsuit against the town of Greenwich, for allowing a menorah on town property. On Face the State Sunday, you’ll hear Whitnum talk about what she believes needs to be done when it comes to Israel.
Watch this amazing interview here.
WASHINGTON – The Unites States has expressed “deep regret” over the Belarusian authorities’ decision to expel two European Union diplomats in retaliation for new EU sanctions imposed on Belarusian officials over alleged human rights violations.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry advised on Tuesday that the head of the EU delegation to Belarus, Ambassador Maira Mora, and Polish Ambassador Leszek Szerepka “leave for their capitals for consultations to inform their leadership of Belarus’ firm position that pressure and sanctions are unacceptable.” Minsk also recalled its ambassadors from Warsaw and Brussels.
Mora said she would leave Belarus later on Wednesday, while other European diplomats will leave the country “in the near future.”
“These actions, like the expulsion of the US ambassador to Belarus in 2008 and the closure of the OSCE office in Minsk in March 2011, are only deepening Belarus’ self-isolation,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
Following the Belarusian statement, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced on Tuesday that all EU members will recall their ambassadors to Minsk.
“In expression of solidarity and unity, it was agreed that the ambassadors of the EU member states in Minsk will all be withdrawn for consultations to their capitals,” Ashton said through her spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. “All EU member states will also summon Belarusian ambassadors to their foreign ministries.”
The diplomatic scandal broke out after the EU announced that it had blacklisted another 21 Belarusian officials over their alleged involvement in the ongoing crackdown on the country’s opposition. More than 200 people were already on the blacklist, including President Alexander Lukashenko, two of his sons, and most of the country’s top leadership. They have been banned from entering the EU and their European assets have been frozen.
Toner said in his statement “the United States stands with our partners and joins them in calling on Belarus to end its repression of civil society and the democratic opposition.”
While announcing the decision to expel the diplomats, Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh warned that “other measures to defend our interests will also be taken” should Western powers continue putting pressure on Minsk.
He also threatened to ban entry to the country for those EU officials who contributed to the introduction of the new sanctions.
This is Part I of a two part series on infiltration of Occupy and what the movement can do about limiting the damage of those who seek to destroy us from within. This first article describes public reports of infiltration as well as results of a survey and discussions with occupiers about this important issue. The second article will examine the history of political infiltration and steps we can take to address it.
In the first five months, the Occupy Movement has had major victories and has altered the debate about the economy. People in the power structure and who hold different political views are pushing back with a traditional tool – infiltration. Across the country, Occupies are struggling with disruption and division, attacks on key persons, escalation of tactics to property damage and police conflict as well as misuse of websites and social media.
As Part II of this discussion will show, infiltration is the norm in political movements in the United States. Occupy has many opponents likely to infiltrate to divide and destroy it beyond the usual law enforcement apparatus. Others include the corporations whose rule Occupy seeks to end, conservative right wing groups allied with corporate interests and other members of the power structure including non-profit organizations allied with either corporate-funded political party, especially the Democratic Party which would like Occupy to be their Tea Party rather than an independent movement critical of both parties.
On the very first day of the Occupation of Wall Street, we saw infiltration by the police. We were leaving Zuccotti Park and were stopped in traffic by the rear of the park. We saw an unmarked van open, in the front seat were two uniformed police and out of the back came two men dressed as occupiers wearing backpacks, sweatshirts, and jeans. They walked into Zuccotti Park and became part of the crowd.
In the first week of the Occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC we saw the impact of two right wing infiltrators. A peaceful protest was planned at the drone exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. The plan was for a banner drop and a die-in under the drones. But, as protesters arrived at the museum two people ran out in front, threatening the security guards and causing them to pepper spray protesters and tourists. Patrick Howley, an assistant editor for the American Spectator, wrote a column bragging about his role as an agent provocateur. A few days later we uncovered the second infiltrator when he was urging people on Freedom Plaza to resist police with force.
There have been a handful of other reports around the country of infiltration. In Oakland, CopWatch filmed an Oakland police officer infiltrating. And, in another video CopWatch includes audio tape of an Oakland police chief, Howard Jordan, talking about how police departments all over the country infiltrate, not just to monitor protesters but to manipulate and direct them.
There were also reports in Los Angeles of a dozen undercover police in the encampment before they were forcibly evicted by the police. The raid by the LA police was brutal and resulted in mass arrests, with most charges dropped, but with others mistreated in jails. Similar pre-raid undercover activities were reported in Nashville, Tennessee.
Los Angeles also had infiltrators from the right wing group, Free Republic. They posted on their webpage a call for infiltrators to block a vote concerning an offer from the City of Los Angeles for virtually free space for Occupy LA: “Need LA Freepers to show up to block this vote by the Occupy LA General Assembly. How brave are you?” In the end, the LA occupy decided not to accept the offer from the city, something also opposed by other elements in the encampment.
In New York, there were reports of infiltration. For example, a protester described how undercover police infiltrated a protest at Citibank and were the loudest and most disruptive protesters. Later at the station listening to the police the protester said in an interview: “It was a bit startling how inside their information was – how they were being paid to go to these protests and put us in situations where we’d be arrested and not be able to leave.”
Survey and Interviews of Occupiers Shows Common Tactics, Common Infiltrators
These scattered reports seem to be the tip of the iceberg. As a result of experiencing extreme divisive tactics and character assassination on Freedom Plaza against us we began to hear from occupiers across the country about similar incidents in their occupations. We decided to speak to and survey people about infiltration and have found similar stories around the country.
Recently we toured occupations on the west coast, where we spoke to many occupiers and have attended General Assemblies at Occupy Wall Street and Philadelphia. We heard stories in Arizona of someone with website administrative privileges deleting the live stream archive which included video that was to be used in defense of some who were arrested. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania someone took control of the email list, making it an announce-only list and when the police threatened to close the camp, that person put out a statement that the Lancaster occupiers had decided to go without any conflict. In fact, no such decision had been made and 30 occupiers had planned to risk arrest when the police tried to remove them. The false email resulted in no resistance.
Our west coast trip ended at the Occupy Olympia Solidarity Social Forum. We were able to survey 41 people representing 15 different occupations primarily on the west coast but including Missoula, MT and New Orleans, LA. Participants were questioned about 10 different behaviors. The most common behaviors, seen in roughly two-thirds of those surveyed and covering 12 of the 15 occupations, were:
- Disruptions of the General Assemblies and attempts to divide the group: Individuals would interrupt General Assemblies with emergency items or sidetrack the agenda with their personal needs or issues. When proposals were presented to the General Assembly on principles for the occupation or plans to prevent division, individuals would question the authority of the writers of the proposal, launch personal attacks or question their abilities. There were frequent attacks on people who did the most work and were perceived as leaders. The anti-leadership views of many occupiers were used to essentially attack the most effective people. Sue Basko wrote about this in Los Angeles in a comment on a Chris Hedges article, writing that there was an “ongoing campaign of harassment and coercion against the Occupy LA participants and volunteers. Each day is a fresh set of victims.” She describes the use of Twitter, list serves and blogs to “defame and harass anyone giving their efforts to help Occupy LA.” This has included attacks on “social media workers, the website team, the lawyers (including me), the medics, the livestreamers, the writers, and on and on.” She also writes “there is the very strong belief that some among them are FBI or DHS agents placed there to start the group, egg it on, control it.” Conversations with others in Los Angles confirmed this report. Our experience in the area of personal attacks included outlandish lies calling us criminals and thieves and near daily email attacks since early December. We found that when we respond and correct lies, it does not stop them and have concluded that if someone has the intention to be a character assassin there is nothing you can do to stop them except to expose them. While that does not necessarily stop them, it at least gets those in the occupation who are not gullible to doubt the undocumented personal attacks.
- Individuals who took over the website and/or social media and then removed them or hacked them and took control: As noted above, these networks have been used in personal attacks, as well as to send inaccurate messages to the media and other occupiers. One mistake made is to allow a large number of people to have administrative privileges on the website. Being an administrator allows people to erase critical information as occurred in Phoenix. In Washington, DC we have been removed as administrators of a Facebook page we created because we allowed people who turned out to be untrustworthy to have administrative privileges. Note, people can blog or post to Facebook or websites without being administrators.
Division over how money was being spent was an issue reported by 50% of respondents and in 12 out of 15 occupations, individuals persistently questioned transparency and use of funds. In General Assemblies in New York and Philadelphia we saw disruption by people who complained about money issues. In New York, an argument about access to free Metro Cards resulted in a 30 minute argument. In Philadelphia, it was a vague complaint about “where is the money?” We saw something similar at a 99%’s meeting in San Francisco where one of the questioners complained about missing money. And, we have seen the same in Washington, DC with false accusations of missing money. Sometimes these disruptors seem like homeless or emotionally disturbed individuals. They could be acting out their concerns or they could be encouraged by police to attend meetings to cause disruption and could be paid a small amount to do so. Whether paid or not, the impact is the same – it takes the Occupy off of its political agenda and turns people off to participating in the movement.
Finally, the issue of escalation of tactics to include property damage and conflict with police: The euphemism for this is “diversity of tactics.” In fact, there is great diversity within nonviolent tactics. This is really a debate between those who favor strategic nonviolence and those who favor property destruction and police conflict. In 11 of 15 occupations there were reports of verbal attacks on police and/or escalation of tactics from nonviolence to property destruction or violence. In one occupation, an individual took over the direct action working group and escalated the tactics used beyond what the group had agreed upon. In one occupy, the GA approved putting up a structure but agreed that if the police wanted it taken down they would promptly do so in order to prove the structure was temporary. When the structure was up, a handful of people refused to take it down causing a 10 hour police conflict and undermining public support for the occupy. In another occupation, because a minority of the occupy refused to adopt nonviolent strategies, a protest with the teacher union was cancelled preventing a major opportunity to expand the movement. When it comes to the issue of violence vs. property damage, it is particularly hard to tell whether the differences are political or instigated by infiltrators.
Participants were asked about attempts at co-optation by law enforcement, individuals or organizations affiliated with the Democratic Party and about suspected infiltration by right wing groups: 8 of the 15 occupations (41% of respondents) reported Democratic groups attempted to co-opt the occupation, using it to push or prevent a legislative agenda or using the occupation’s social media to change the times of protests or meetings. Far fewer reported suspicion or evidence of right wing infiltration (12% of respondents in four occupations), most stating that the corporate media provided poor or misleading coverage. The most common form of infiltration was by law enforcement agencies (49% of respondents; 11 of 15 occupations). Some respondents reported having video evidence, some reported law enforcement officers having more information than they had been given, police using names of occupiers when names had never been provided and some suspected police infiltration but had no proof.
Of course, there is a lot of suspicion, but people are rarely able to prove infiltration. These incidents could be people with real political disagreement within the Occupy, or they could be people who are emotionally disturbed, mentally ill or who bring other personal challenges with them. Or, it could be an infiltrator manipulating these people, playing on their fears and prejudices. This is not a simple issue, as we will discuss in Part II, it is best to judge people by their actions and not label them as infiltrators without direct proof.
Some may wonder why Democrats or groups closely affiliated with the Democrats like MoveOn, Campaign for America’s Future, Rebuild the Dream or unions like SEIU would want to infiltrate the Occupy (note: individuals who are Democrats, union, MoveOn or members of other groups are not the same as the leadership). Essentially, leaders of these groups see Occupy as the Democrats’ potential answer to the Tea Party. Occupiers do not see themselves that way, but these groups want the Occupy to adopt their strategy of working within the Democratic Party. In one example, Eric Lottke, a senior policy analyst for SEIU who has been involved in Occupy DC, appeared on a radio show with two other occupiers from Occupy Washington, DC and Occupy Oakland. Lottke said he was speaking as an occupier from Occupy DC and talked about ‘taking back Congress in 2012′, the need for an electoral strategy and gave the usual Democrat rhetoric about Obama needing more time. The two other guests said Lottke was completely out of step with most Occupiers who say we should not focus on electoral politics but instead should build an independent movement to challenge the corrupt system. We doubt the Occupy DC General Assembly agreed with Lottke’s pro-Democratic Party, pro-Obama views but Lottke had positioned himself to speak for them. Van Jones of Rebuild the Dream similarly was appearing in the media as if he were an occupy spokesperson claiming there will be 2000 “99% candidates” in 2012; again trying to push Occupy into Democratic electoral politics. These are just two examples of many Democratic Party operatives trying to send Occupy into Democratic Party politics despite the movement consistently describing itself as independent and non-electoral.
In Washington, DC we have seen some occupiers attacking the National Occupation of Washington, DC (www.NOWDC.org) scheduled for this April, while other occupiers have shown enthusiasm for it. Solidarity with NOW DC has been shown by 19 General Assemblies of occupations from around the country. InterOccupy classifies it as a national Occupy event. The attackers have been criticizing NOW DC by attacking the authors of this article. This attack is occurring at the same time that Democratic Party aligned groups have announced their own project which occurs at the same time as NOW DC, the “99%’s Spring.” Thus far the dividers have succeeded in preventing solidarity from the two DC occupations with the rest of the Occupy Movement. Is the timing a coincidence?
No doubt the information in this article is incomplete. We have only been able to survey and talk with people at about 20 occupies. We would very much like to hear from others around the country about experiences at their occupation as understanding these tactics is the first step to confronting and addressing them. (Send your comments to email@example.com.)
In Part II of this series we will focus on the history of government infiltration and destruction of political movements and political leaders and will examine steps that can be taken to minimize the damage from these tactics. One thing evident from the history: infiltration has been common in political movements for a century and the tactics of division, attacks on leaders, escalation of tactics, fights over money and misinformation to the public are common throughout that history.
- Spies and Provocateurs: Police Spying on Occupy Movement not Likely Limited to Los Angeles (alethonews.wordpress.com)
The stupid Attack Iran obsession seems to have infected virtually all discussion of the Middle East.
Marc Lynch of G.W. University said something stupid…then Amnesty International said something stupid…and how about those stupid Islamic terrorist plots?
I have already written about Marc Lynch’s rather terminal and embarrassing misunderstanding of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in the matter of Syria, a major problem since he presents threatening Assad and his cohorts with prosecution by the ICC as the cornerstone for his vision of coercive diplomacy.
Largely because of the insistence of the United States, the ICC does not enjoy universal jurisdiction. It cannot pursue crimes against humanity regardless of where they occur; it can only act 1) in the case of “state parties” – nations that have both signed and ratified the Rome Statute, thereby binding themselves to submit to the jurisdiction of the ICC or 2) when the UN Security Council decides that the superseding demands of world peace and security dictate that a malefactor, whether or not he or she belongs to a “state party” should be turned over to the court.
As long as Syria—a signatory but not ratifier of the Rome Statute—is shielded in the Security Council by Russia and China, Lynch’s riposte to Syrian recalcitrance, the threat of ICC prosecution, appears ludicrous.
Of course, there is always the possibility that the West will refuse to accept defeat and simply try to change the rules under which non-state-party despots are exposed to ICC jeopardy.
Andrea Bianchi and Stephanie Barbour try to do their best to expand the ICC’s reach, despite a rather sobersided piece of reporting by AP that highlights the limits to ICC jurisdiction in the matter of Syria:
“Experts said the list is likely to be more of a deterrent against further abuses than a direct threat to the Assad regime. Syria isn’t a member of the ICC so its jurisdiction doesn’t apply there, and Russia would likely block any moves in the U.N. Security Council to refer the country to the Hague-based tribunal.
“But Andrea Bianchi, a professor of international law at Geneva’s Graduate Institute, said anyone on the U.N. list might still be arrested and prosecuted if they traveled from Syria to a country that has signed up to the international court.
“‘Personally, if I were on that list I would worry,’ he said.
“Human rights group Amnesty International urged that the list be kept secret to prevent suspects from being tipped off.
“‘If in the future there is to be any potential to issue sealed arrest warrants the list has to remain confidential,’ said Stephanie Barbour, coordinator of the group’s campaign for international justice.”
Personally, if I was of the opinion that the ICC was basically an arbitrary tool against dictators that the United States and its allies doesn’t like, I guess I’d worry, too.
And if I was a professor at some Geneva institute of higher education, or a coordinator at AI, I’d be rather ashamed that I wasn’t spending some time highlighting the fact that the United States has gone even further than Syria in removing itself from the ICC’s jurisdiction.
But that’s just me.
Here in Connect-the-Dots-Istan, we were also struck by the parallels between the stupid Muslim assassin in Washington story and the stupid Iranian terrorists in Thailand, Georgia, and India story.
Foreign Policy tells us about the long and winding path to arrest of the Moroccan who tried to assassinate President Obama with a bogus suicide vest thoughtfully provided by the FBI:
A would-be suicide bomber was arrested on Capitol Hill today after accepting what he thought was an explosive vest from undercover agents. Roll Call’s Emma Dumain has the details:
“The arrest was the culmination of a lengthy and extensive operation,” the statement continued. “At no time was the public or Congressional community in any danger.”[...]
Local reports by Fox News describe the individual in custody as “a man, in his 30s and of Moroccan descent” who has been a target of a lengthy FBI investigation. Fox News reported that the suspect believed the undercover FBI agents assisting him were al-Qaida operatives.
Roll Call notes that the story is similar to that of Rezwan Ferdaus, who was arrested last September in the midst of a plot to attack the Capitol with a remote-controlled aircraft. Ferdaus was also in communication with FBI agents posing as al Qaeda members.
The case is also similar to that of Farooque Ahmed, who thought he was going to blow up the DC Metro system in 2010, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who thought he was going to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland Oregon in 2010, David Williams, who thought he was going to blow up a Bronx synagogue in 2009, and the “Fort Dix Five,” who thought they were going to attack a New Jersey military base in 2006.
In each case, undercover FBI agents spent months communicating and providing fake resources to the suspects before springing the trap. …
The increasing frequency of these operations is bound to raise some questions about whether law enforcement agencies are pushing along the development of plots that the individuals involved might never have acted on without the longterm encouragement of their “al Qaeda contacts.”
Now, I don’t have any special insights into the concurrent anti-Israeli bomb plots with Iranian principals that were simultaneously busted in Georgia, India, and Thailand, but Arshin Adib-Moghaddam wrote in Counterpunch to offer a perspective on the conspiracies:
Let’s assume that sections of the military and security apparatus in Iran are responsible for the string of bombings in Georgia, Thailand and India. What would be the motive? The argument that Iran is retaliating for the murder of five civilian nuclear scientists in Iran is not plausible. If Iran wanted to target Israeli interests, it has other means at its disposal. It is hard to imagine that the Iranian government would send Iranian operatives to friendly countries, completely equipped with Iranian money and passports – making the case against them as obvious as possible.
If the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are as professional, highly trained and politically savvy as we have been told repeatedly by Israeli politicians themselves, if they have successfully trained and equipped the cadres of Hezbollah and other movements with paramilitary wings in the region, then why would they launch such a clumsy and self-defeating operation?
And why India, Georgia and Thailand, three countries that Iran has had cordial relations with during a period when Iran is facing increasing sanctions spearheaded by the United States? A few days ago, India agreed a rupee-based oil and gas deal with Iran and resisted US pressures to join the western boycott of the Iranian energy sector. As a net importer of 12% of Iranian oil, India’s total trade with Iran amounted to $13.67bn in 2010-2011. What would be the motive for damaging relations with one of Iran’s major trading partners and regional heavyweights?
For Iran it doesn’t make sense to risk alienating India by launching an assassination attempt in the capital of the country. Similarly, Iran has good economic and political relations with Georgia and Thailand. Why would the leadership in Tehran risk a major crisis with these countries during this sensitive period when IAEA inspectors are moving in and out of Iran to investigate the country’s nuclear program?
Good, good questions. Especially when it was recently revealed that the Israeli intelligence agencies were mounting false flag operations, convincing Balochistan militants that their attacks against Iranian targets were being orchestrated by the CIA, not Mossad.
I would also not hesitate to draw the conclusion that US and Israeli security services have a sizable roster of extremist dingdongs on tap, available to incite and detain as the needs of public safety and anti-Muslim/anti-Iran diplomacy require.
PETER LEE has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on international affairs. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Washington DC: FBI Foils Own Terror Plot (Again) (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Hanaa Shalabi is on hunger strike. She is a Palestinian female political prisoner from the village of Burgin near Jenin. She was kidnapped from her home on February 16, 2012 by Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in the middle of the night.
Hanna’s family was ordered outside the house, she was blindfolded and handcuffed. All cell phones and computers in the house were confiscated and a photograph of her brother hanging on the wall, who was killed by IOF in 2005, was torn up and stepped upon by one of the soldiers. Hanaa was also beaten and sexually harassed by the IOF.
Her attorney stated, “she is demanding the end of administrative detention and that the soldiers who beat her up and undressed her to carry out a body search be put on trial.”
Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold prisoners indefinitely on secret evidence without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. Hanaa was ordered to serve administrative detention for six months in the HaSharon prison. As of this writing, Hanaa has entered her 13th day of an open-ended hunger strike and is currently being held in solitary confinement. Latest reports indicate that Israeli prison officials have moved her to different prison to cut off any contact with the outside world.
This young lady has been in administrative detention before, totaling 2 1/2 years starting in March, 2009 where she served for 6 consecutive terms. Hanaa was among the freed Palestinian prisoners who were released in October 2011 under the prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. However, this time Israel has reneged and rearrested her as it did in previous prisoner exchange deals. For example, in November 1983, Palestinian prisoner Ziad Abu Ain was supposed to be part of a prisoner release deal, but was rearrested on the bus containing those who were about to be released.
I will never forget that prisoners ‘exchange deal of Thanksgiving Day 1983. My younger brother Samih was among the freed prisoners, after spending 18 months in an Israeli concentration camp in south Lebanon. He was kidnapped by IOF while visiting our family with his German wife and 5 year-old daughter, Carmen. Throughout his captivity, neither our mother, his wife, Carmen nor our oldest brother was permitted to visit him, even though he was being held merely 20 miles away.
While lobbying in the US to secure his release, Israeli officials first denied holding him, then they admitted he was in Ansar prison camp, held on terrorism charges. When I refuted their false allegation, I was told he has committed a crime in Germany. However, after German officials denied this false claim, the Israeli Attorney General arrogantly stated on public record that under Israeli law, Israel can prosecute people for committing a crime in different countries. This was a clear flagrant violation of international law and the sovereignty of Germany.
According to Ademeer, there are 25 members of the Palestine National Council, including the Speaker of the Parliament, who are among 5,000 Palestinians held captive in Israeli dungeons. This includes 6 women, 166 children and 320 “administrative detainees.”
According to Palestinian prisoner solidarity sites, over 20,000 administrative detention orders were issued since 2000 by the Israeli occupation authority. On February 24, 2012, the 320 Palestinian administrative detainees held captive without charge or trial declared a boycott of Israeli military courts. This boycott is to start on March 1 in protest of these sham courts that are used by the Israeli occupation army and Israeli intelligence as a cover for illegal detention based on “secret” files and lack of indictment.
One week after Hanaa’s kidnapping, her 67 year-old parents started an open-ended hunger strike in a tent set up in front of the family home in support of their daughter’s struggle for freedom and in protest of her illegal detention. Her father, Yahya Shalabi, promised that they will continue the hunger-strike until the release of their daughter and the abolition of administrative detention.
Hanaa Shalabi and her parents put themselves against overwhelming odds. They have the moral courage to challenge Israel’s injustice no matter what. This is a dignified family with deep conviction, who are standing firm and tall beyond anyone’s expectation. I know from experience that Israel does respond when its image and reputation is on the line. Therefore, I urge everyone who reads this to help in anyway then can to expose Israeli injustice.
- Hana al-Shalabi on hunger strike against renewed administrative detention (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Israel issues third consecutive detention order against prisoner of conscience Ahmad Qatamesh (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Khader Adnan ‘stable’ after surgery (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Palestinians in Gaza demand release of female prisoner (altahrir.wordpress.com)
- School Children (Palestine) Organize Solidarity Protest with Detainee Shalabi (altahrir.wordpress.com)
- Valiance in the Face of Cruelty (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- B’Tselem reports sharp increase in the numbers of Palestinians being held in administrative detention (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Palestine: Wave of Arrests since First Phase of Prisoner Exchange (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Right of return is a central demand of the Palestinian liberation movement. (Abed Rahim Khatib / APA images)
There have been a number of thoughtful and incisive rebuttals to the recent video interview in which Norman Finkelstein absurdly calls the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against apartheid Israel a “cult,” and admonishes Palestinians to limit their struggle to the “two-state solution” (“Video: Arguing the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign with Norman Finkelstein (interviewed by Frank Barat),” 9 February 2012).
However, Finkelstein’s attack on the BDS movement is not, as some of his critics have suggested, merely an indication of personal demoralization, faulty legal analysis, or political shortsightedness. Rather, it reflects a stubborn attempt to rationalize his rejection of Palestinian demands — especially full equality and refugee rights — that challenge the legitimacy of a “Jewish state.”
“What is the result [if the BDS demands are satisfied]?” Finkelstein rhetorically asks in the interview. “You know and I know what the result is. There’s no Israel!”
This existential defense of Israel is hardly new. Despite his ferocious criticism of the 45-year-long occupation, Finkelstein has long represented those non-Palestinians in the solidarity movement who see the “two-state solution” as necessary to ensure Israel’s survival as a “Jewish state,” a means of reconciling their altruism with their political comfort zone.
Not only is this unjust on its own terms, but it places Finkelstein squarely at odds with a grassroots Palestinian movement demanding an end to all the apartheid structures without which the “Jewish state” could not exist.
Finkelstein denounces those BDS demands as a “clever” attempt to hide their anti-Zionist logic. But the real problem is that he and his allies often become alienated, if not hostile, when called upon to acknowledge — much less confront — more than a century of the Zionist colonialism, particularly the ethnic cleansing of 1948 (the Nakba).
In 2009, for example, Finkelstein condemned the Gaza Freedom March for merely referencing refugees’ right of return, with little critical response from solidarity activists (“Why I resigned from the Gaza Freedom March Coalition,” September 2009).
This time, however, something is different. Instead of passing unnoticed, Finkelstein’s attack on BDS has triggered push-back support for the campaign, another reflection of its growing success in building uncompromising support for Palestinian rights.
An important opportunity
Finkelstein’s interview is an important opportunity — particularly for those of us who are Jewish — to affirm our unequivocal support for those rights. This both undermines false charges that BDS is anti-Semitic, and promotes a broad-based, international movement committed to ending not only the occupation, but the entire apparatus of colonialism and apartheid throughout historic Palestine.
Perhaps it will also convince Finkelstein, who has courageously exposed Zionist hypocrisy in the past, to support the BDS campaign’s comprehensive demands, or at least refrain from undermining those who do. Regardless, response to his attack shows that a growing part of the solidarity movement is willing to stand up — as it did in the struggle against apartheid South Africa — for the entire range of rights to which every oppressed people is entitled.
David Letwin is a Palestine solidarity activist who works with Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition. He participated in a 2007 delegation of lawyers and activists to the West Bank and 1948 territories, and was a member of the 2009/2010 Gaza Freedom March, where he co-authored the Cairo Declaration.
- In flinching move, Finkelstein slams boycott movement (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Two critiques of Norman Finkelstein’s recent appearances (alethonews.wordpress.com)
“Perception is 100 percent of politics,” the old adage goes. Say something three, five, seven times, and you start to believe it in the same way you “know” aspirin is good for the heart.
Sometimes though, perception is a dangerous thing. In the dirty game of politics, it is the perception – not the facts of an issue – that invariably wins the day.
In the case of the raging conflict over Syria, the one fundamental issue that motors the entire international debate on the crisis is the death toll and its corollary: the Syrian casualty list.
The “list” has become widely recognized – if not specifically, then certainly when the numbers are bandied about: 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 – sometimes more. These are not mere numbers; they represent dead Syrians.
But this is where the dangers of perception begin. There are many competing Syrian casualty lists with different counts – how does one, for instance gauge if X is an accurate number of deaths? How have the deaths been verified? Who verifies them and do they have a vested interest? Are the dead all civilians? Are they pro-regime or anti-regime civilians? Do these lists include the approximately 2,000 dead Syrian security forces? Do they include members of armed groups? How does the list-aggregator tell the difference between a civilian and a plain-clothes militia member?
Even the logistics baffle. How do they make accurate counts across Syria every single day? A member of the Lebanese fact-finding team investigating the 15 May 2011 shooting deaths of Palestinian protesters by Israelis at the Lebanese border told me that it took them three weeks to discover there were only six fatalities, and not the 11 counted on the day of the incident. And in that case, the entire confrontation lasted a mere few hours.
How then does one count 20, 40, or 200 casualties in a few hours while conflict continues to rage around them?
My first port of call in trying to answer these questions about the casualty list was the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which seemed likely to be the most reliable source of information on the Syrian death toll – until it stopped keeping track last month.
The UN began its effort to provide a Syrian casualty count in September 2011, based primarily on lists provided by five different sources. Three of their sources were named: The Violations Documenting Center (VDC), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian Shuhada website. At that time, the lists varied in number from around 2,400 to 3,800 victims.
The non-UN casualty list most frequently quoted in the general media is the one from the Syrian Observatory – or SOHR.
Last month, SOHR made some headlines of its own when news of a rift over political viewpoints and body counts erupted. Two competing SOHRs claimed authenticity, but the group headed by Rami Abdul Rahman is the one recognized by Amnesty International.
OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville stated during a phone interview that the UN evaluates its sources to check “whether they are reliable,” but appeared to create distance from SOHR later – during the group’s public spat – by saying: “The (UN) colleague most involved with the lists…had no direct contact with the Syrian Observatory, though we did look at their numbers. This was not a group we had any prior knowledge of, and it was not based in the region, so we were somewhat wary of it.”
Colville explains that the UN sought at all times “to make cautious estimates” and that “we have reasonable confidence that the rounded figures are not far off.”
While “also getting evidence from victims and defectors – some who corroborated specific names,” the UN, says Colville, “is not in a position to cross-check names and will never be in a position to do that.”
I spoke to him again after the UN decided to halt its casualty count in late January. “It was never easy to verify, but it was a little bit clearer before. The composition of the conflict has changed. It’s become much more complex, fragmented,” Colville says. “While we have no doubt there are civilian and military casualties…we can’t really quantify it.”
“The lists are clear – the question is whether we can fully endorse their accuracy,” he explains, citing the “higher numbers” as an obstacle to verification.
The Casualty Lists Up Close: Some Stories Behind the Numbers
Because the UN has stopped its casualty count, reporters have started reverting back to their original Syrian death toll sources. The SOHR is still the most prominent among them.
Abdul Rahman’s SOHR does not make its list available to the general public, but in early February I found a link to a list on the other SOHR website and decided to take a look. The database lists the victim’s name, age, gender, city, province, and date of death – when available. In December 2011, for instance, the list names around 77 registered casualties with no identifying information provided. In total, there are around 260 unknowns on the list.
Around that time, I had come across my first list of Syrians killed in the crisis, reportedly compiled in coordination with the SOHR, that contained the names of Palestinian refugees killed by Israeli fire on the Golan Heights on 15 May 2011 and 5 June 2011 when protesters congregated on Syria’s armistice line with Israel. So my first check was to see if that kind of glaring error appears in the SOHR list I investigate in this piece.
To my amazement, the entire list of victims from those two days were included in the SOHR casualty count – four from May 15 (#5160 to #5163) and 25 victims of Israeli fire from June 5 (#4629 to #4653). The list even identifies the deaths as taking place in Quneitra, which is in the Golan Heights.
It also didn’t take long to find the names of well-publicized pro-regime Syrians on the SOHR list and match them with YouTube footage of their funerals. The reason behind searching for funeral links is that pro-regime and anti-regime funerals differ quite starkly in the slogans they chant and the posters/signs/flags on display. Below, is a list of eight of these individuals, including their number, name, date and place of death on the casualty list – followed by our video link and further details if available:
#5939, Mohammad Abdo Khadour, 4/19/11, Hama, off-duty Colonel in Syrian army, shot in his car and died from multiple bullet wounds. Funeral link.
#5941, Iyad Harfoush, 4-18-11, Homs, off-duty Commander in Syrian army. In a video, his wife says someone started shooting in the mostly pro-regime al Zahra neighborhood of Homs – Harfoush went out to investigate the incident and was killed. Funeral link.
#5969, Abdo al Tallawi, 4/17/11, Homs, General in Syrian army killed alongside his two sons and a nephew. Funeral footage shows all four victims. The others are also on the list at #5948, Ahmad al Tallawi, #5958, Khader al Tallawi and #5972, Ali al Tallawi, all in Homs, Funeral link.
#6021, Nidal Janoud, 11/4/11, Tartous, an Alawite who was severely slashed by his assailants. The bearded gentleman to the right of the photo, and a second suspect, are now standing trial for the murder. Photo link.
#6022, Yasar Qash’ur, 11/4/11, Tartous, Lieutenant Colonel in the Syrian army, killed alongside 8 others in an ambush on a bus in Banyas, Funeral link.
#6129, Hassan al-Ma’ala, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.
#6130, Hamid al Khateeb, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.
#6044, Waeb Issa, 10/4/11, Tartous, Colonel in Syrian army, Funeral link.
Besides featuring on the SOHR list, Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, Iyad Harfoush, Mohammad Abdo Khadour and General Abdo al Tallawi and his two sons and nephew also appear on two of the other casualty lists – the VDC and Syrian Shuhada – both used by the United Nations to compile their numbers.
Nir Rosen, an American journalist who spent several months insides Syria’s hot spots in 2011, with notable access to armed opposition groups, reported in a recent Al Jazeera interview:
“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.”
“And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha ["thugs"] are also killed by anti-regime fighters,” Rosen continues.
The report issued in January by Arab League Monitors after their month-long observer mission in Syria – widely ignored by the international media – also witnessed acts of violence by armed opposition groups against both civilians and security forces.
The Report states: “In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the observer mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against government forces and civilians…Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children…In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers.” The observers also point out that “some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.“
Importantly, the report further confirms obfuscation of casualty information when it states: “the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”
On February 3, the eve of the UN Security Council vote on Syria, news broke out that a massacre was taking place in Homs, with the general media assuming it was true and that all violence was being committed by the Syrian government. The SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman was widely quoted in the media as claiming the death toll to be at 217. The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which provide information to the VDC, called it at “more than 200,” and the Syrian National Council (SNC), a self-styled government in absentia of mainly expats, claimed 260 victims.
The next day, the casualty count had been revised down to 55 by the LCCs. (link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16883911)
Even if the count is at 55 – that is still a large number of victims by any measure. But were these deaths caused by the Syrian government, by opposition gunmen or in the crossfire between the two groups? That is still the question that needs to break through the deafening narratives, lists, and body counts.
In International Law, Detail Counts
While the overwhelming perception of Syrian casualties thus far has been that they are primarily unarmed civilians deliberately targeted by government forces, it has become obvious these casualties are also likely to include: Civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and opposition gunmen; victims of deliberate violence by armed groups; “dead opposition fighters” whose attire do not distinguish them from regular civilians; and members of the Syrian security forces, both on and off duty.
Even if we could verify the names and numbers on a Syrian casualty list, we still don’t know their stories, which if revealed, may pose an entirely different picture of what is going on in Syria today
These questions are vitally important to understand the burden of responsibility in this conflict. International law provides for different measures of conflict: the two most frequently used gauges for this are the Principle of Necessity, i.e., using force only when it is necessary, and the Principle of Proportionality, i.e., the use of force proportional to the threat posed.
In the case of Syria – like in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya – it is widely believed that the government used unnecessary force in the first instance. Syrian President Bashar Assad, like many of these Arab rulers, has as much as admitted to “mistakes” in the first months of protests. These mistakes include some shooting deaths and detaining a much larger number of protesters than expected, some of whom were allegedly tortured.
Let us assume, without question, that the Syrian government was over zealous in its use of force initially, and therefore violated the Principle of Necessity. I tend to believe this version because it has been so-stated by the Arab League’s observer mission – the first and only boots-on-the-ground monitors investigating the crisis from within the country.
However – and this is where the casualty lists come in – there is not yet nearly enough evidence, not by any measure acceptable in a court of law, that the Syrian government has violated the Principle of Proportionality. Claims that the regime has used disproportionate force in dealing with the crisis are, today, difficult to ascertain, in large part because opponents have been using weapons against security forces and pro-regime civilians almost since the onset of protests.
Assuming that the number of casualties provided by the UN’s OHCHR is around the 5,000-mark -the last official figure provided by the group – the question is whether this is a highly disproportionate number of deaths when contrasted directly with the approximately 2,000 soldiers of the regular Syrian army and other security forces who have been reportedly killed since April 2011.
When you calculate the deaths of the government forces in the past 11 months, they amount to about six a day. Contrast that with frequent death toll totals of around 15+ each day disseminated by activists – many of whom are potentially neither civilian casualties nor victims of targeted violence – and there is close to enough parity to suggest a conflict where the acts of violence may be somewhat equal on both sides.
Last Sunday, as Syrians went to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum, Reuters reports – quoting the SOHR – that 9 civilians and 4 soldiers were killed in Homs, and that elsewhere in Syria there were 8 civilian and 10 security forces casualties. That is 17 civilians and 14 regime forces – where are the opposition gunmen in that number? Were none killed? Or are they embedded in the “civilian” count?
Defectors or Regular Soldiers?
There have also been allegations that many, if not most, of the soldiers killed in clashes or attacks have been defectors shot by other members of the regular army. There is very little evidence to support this as anything more than a limited phenomenon. Logically, it would be near impossible for the Syrian army to stay intact if it was turning on its rank-and-file soldiers in this manner – and the armed forces have remained remarkably cohesive given the length and intensity of the conflict in Syria.
In addition, the names, rank and cities of each of the dead soldiers are widely publicized by state-owned media each day, often accompanied by televised funerals. It would be fairly simple for the organized opposition to single out by name the defectors they include on their casualty lists, which has not happened.
The very first incident of casualties from the Syrian regular army that I could verify dates to 10 April 2011, when gunmen shot up a bus of soldiers travelling through Banyas, in Tartous, killing nine. This incident took place a mere few weeks after the first peaceful protests broke out in Syria, and so traces violence against government forces back to the start of political upheaval in the country.
“Witnesses” quoted by the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian insisted that the nine dead soldiers were “defectors” who had been shot by the Syrian army for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, debunked that version on his Syria Comment website. Another surviving soldier on the bus – a relation of Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, #6022 on the SOHR list, whose funeral I link to above – denied that they were defectors too. But the narrative that dead soldiers are mostly defectors shot by their own troops has stuck throughout this conflict – though less so, as evidence of gunmen targeting Syrian forces and pro-regime civilians becomes belatedly apparent.
The VDC – another of the UN’s OHCHR sources for casualty counts – alleges that 6,399 civilians and 1,680 army defectors were killed in Syria during the period from 15 March 2011 to 15 February 2012. All security forces killed in Syria during the past 11 months were “defectors?” Not a single soldier, policeman or intelligence official was killed in Syria except those forces who opposed the regime? This is the kind of mindless narrative of this conflict that continues unchecked. Worse yet, this exact VDC statistic is included in the latest UN report on Syria issued last week.
Humanitarian Crisis or Just Plain Violence?
While few doubt the Syrian government’s violent suppression of this revolt, it is increasingly clear that in addition to the issue of disproportionally, there is the question of whether there is a “humanitarian crisis” as suggested by some western and Arab leaders since last year. I sought some answers during a trip to Damascus in early January 2012 where I spoke to a select few NGOs that enjoyed rare access to all parts of the country.
Given that words like “massacre” and “slaughter” and “humanitarian crisis” are being used in reference to Syria, I asked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh how many calls for urgent medical assistance his organization had received in 2011. His response was shocking. “Only one that I recall,” said Dabbakeh. Where was that, I asked? “Quneitra National Hospital in the Golan,” he replied, “last June.” This was when Israeli troops fired on Syrian and Palestinian protesters marching to the 1973 armistice line with the Jewish state. Those same protesters that ended up on SOHR’s casualty list.
A Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) worker confirmed that, recalling that his organization treated hundreds of casualties from the highly-publicized incident.
As the level of violence has escalated, however, the situation has deteriorated, and the ICRC now has received more calls for medical assistance – mainly from private hospitals in Homs. The SARC today has nine different points in Homs where it provides such assistance. The only two places they do not currently serve are the neighborhoods of Bab Amr and Inshaat “because the security situation does not allow for it – for their own safety, there is fighting there.”
During a phone call last Thursday, one NGO officer, explained that the measure for a “humanitarian crisis” is in level of access to basic staples, services and medical care. He told me off the record that “There is a humanitarian crisis in (i.e.) Baba Amro today, but not in Syria. If the fighting finishes tomorrow, there will be enough food and medical supplies.”
“Syria has enough food to feed itself for a long time. The medical sector still functions very well. There isn’t enough pressure on the medical sector to create a crisis,” he elaborated. “A humanitarian crisis is when a large number of a given population does not have access to medical aid, food, water, electricity, etc – when the system cannot any longer respond to the needs of the population.”
But an international human rights worker also cautions: “the killing is happening on both sides – the other side is no better.”
People have to stop this knee-jerk, opportunistic, hysterical obsession with numbers of dead Syrians, and ask instead: “who are these people and who killed them?” That is the very least these victims deserve. Anything less would render their tragic deaths utterly meaningless. Lack of transparency along the supply-chain of information and its dissemination – on both sides – is tantamount to making the Syrian story all about perception, and not facts. It is a hollow achievement and people will die in ever greater numbers.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.