(Second of two articles)
A recent two-part series in The New York Times laid out in detail the pivotal role that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played in President Obama’s decision to join in France and Britain’s 2011 military campaign against long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Times articles make the case that Clinton bears a heavy part of the responsibility for the tragic, increasingly chaotic aftermath of that campaign in which Gaddafi was ousted and killed.
As the Times summaries of the articles put it, Gaddafi’s fall “seemed to vindicate Hillary Clinton. Then militias refused to disarm, neighbors fanned a civil war, and the Islamic State found refuge,” leaving Libya “a failed state and a terrorist haven.”
While neocons, right-wingers and humanitarian interventionists back in 2011 were seeking regime change in Libya, there was one non-governmental organization that was alone among progressive groups in mobilizing public opinion around the world in support of military action in Libya in the form of a no-fly zone.
And this wasn’t just any organization, but the fast-growing, on-line advocacy giant Avaaz.org, which in 2011 had 7 million members and today boasts 43.1-million members in 194 countries. As such, the New York City-based Avaaz is, as we noted in a previous article, the largest and most influential Internet-based, international advocacy organization on the planet.
Through its members’ petitions and a full-page ad last June in The New York Times, Avaaz has for the last few years been pushing for a no-fly zone in Syria, as have assorted neocons and war-hawks in congress and think-tanks who favor military operations to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Hillary Clinton (but not other presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump) is a staunch advocate for a no-fly zone and regime change in Syria.
Like Clinton and other interventionists, Avaaz — in advocating for a no-fly zone in Syria — has not been chastened by what its advocacy wrought in Libya. Some of the same arguments for a no-fly zone that Avaaz made for Libya, it has made again over the last few years for Syria. This, despite as we noted in that earlier article, that top U.S. generals have warned that a no-fly zone in Syria is a “high-risk operation..a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties,” civilian and military.
It’s instructive to examine Avaaz’s no-fly zone advocacy for Libya in 2011 to get a handle on the organization’s continued thinking that — barring a diplomatic settlement growing out of a current tentative ceasefire in Syria — more war, under the cover of humanitarian intervention, would somehow save more civilians’ lives.
Call for No-Fly Zone in Libya Did Not Turn Out Well for Libyans in Aftermath of U.S./NATO Attacks
In its call for a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, Avaaz submitted to the United Nations a petition containing 1,202,940 signatures gathered on-line. Demonstrating Avaaz’s impact, 90% of those were collected in just a two-day period between March 15 and 17 of that year, when its reported membership was a more modest, but still impressive, seven million.
And we now know what a sage piece of advocacy that was — as Libya experienced not only a no-fly zone, but U.S./NATO forces’ bombardments, the ousting and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffy, the rise of ISIS, the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the flood of refugees from the chaotic, failed country that Libya is today.
Even at the time Avaaz was gathering all those signatures back in 2011 in support of a no-fly zone in Libya, there were critics who wondered why a U.S.-based non-governmental organization felt it had to stand up with neocons and war-hawks in advocating for an action that violated Libya’s sovereignty and was likely to lead to more violence against the Libyan people.
As John Hilary writing in The Guardian presciently warned in March 2011: “Little do most of these generally well-meaning activists know, they are strengthening the hands of those western governments desperate to reassert their interests in north Africa…A no-fly zone would almost certainly draw NATO countries into further military involvement in Libya, replacing the agency of the Libyan people with the control of those governments who have shown scant regard for their welfare…”
Hilary, executive director of War on Want, the U.K.-based charity that fights poverty and economic injustice, further noted, again presciently: “Clearly a no-fly zone makes foreign intervention sound rather humanitarian — putting the emphasis on stopping bombing, even though it could well lead to an escalation of violence.”
Noting that support for a no-fly zone in Libya was at that time “rapidly becoming a key call of hawks on both sides of the Atlantic,” (just as has been the case in more recent years regarding Syria) Hilary commented: “The military hierarchy, with their budgets threatened by government cuts, surely cannot believe their luck — those who usually oppose wars” [such as Avaaz] “are openly campaigning for more military involvement.”
On-line progressive organizations constantly seek signatures on petitions calling on the U.S. or other governments to adopt or change or reject certain policies. But Hilary pointed out that calling for a no-fly zone crosses a line into dangerous territory. As he wrote:
“The issue exposes the core of the problem with internet activism: instead of changing the world through a lifetime of education, it aims to change the world through a single click of the mouse. The impacts might be benign, when lobbying a government to stop causing harm. But a positive plan of action in a situation such as Libya requires more thought. Calling for military intervention is a huge step — the life and death of hundreds of thousands of people might hang in the balance. The difference between the ease of the action and impact of the consequence is great.”
Avaaz’s Justification for No-Fly Zone in Libya
It’s worth examining the Libya experience to get some idea of how Avaaz sees using military action to achieve what it contended would be civilian-saving humanitarian results.
Looking back, in calling for a no-fly zone Avaaz appeared to fully accept and spread the Gaddafi-will-systematically-murder-all-opponents line that western governments were trumpeting as the justification for intervention, stating in its March 15, 2011 message to members: “Right now Gaddafi’s forces are crushing the rebellion town by town” and noted that “brutal retribution awaits Libyans who challenged the regime. If we don’t persuade the U.N. to act now, we could witness a bloodbath.”
Avaaz went on to say that while it “is deeply committed to non-violence… enforcing a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi’s gunships is one case where UN-backed military actions seems necessary.”
On March 17, 2011, just two days into flooding the U.N. Security Council with petitions containing 1,172,000 signatures, Avaaz enthusiastically reported (exclamation point and all) that the United Nations had agreed to take “‘all necessary measures’ short of an invasion to protect the people of Libya under threat of attack, including a no-fly zone!” It seems Avaaz’s expressed deep commitment to nonviolence had expanded beyond a no-fly zone to encompass “all necessary measures” — and Libya was soon on the receiving end of all those necessary measures.
When it was promoting a no-fly zone for Libya, Avaaz — as with its current Syria campaign — did receive pushback from some members. The organization felt it necessary to respond at some length on-line to the criticism before the no-fly zone was put into effect and the onslaught against Libya began.
Avaaz’s then-campaign director Ben Wikler (who is now with MoveOn.org), in an on-line posting responding to John Hilary’s Guardian article quoted above, outlined a number of reasons and procedures Avaaz used in taking up the cause of a no-fly zone for Libya. Among his points:
- “The call for a no-fly zone originated from Libyans – including the provisional opposition government, Libya’s (defected) ambassador to the UN, protesters, and youth organizations…Avaaz staff are in close and constant contact with activists inside Libya and have been repeatedly asked to move forward on this campaign.”
- “In some ways,” Wikler wrote, “we work a lot like journalists… talking to people and weighing the facts before we form conclusions. However, our staff’s personal conclusions also have to pass the test of our membership being strongly supportive of any position we take.”
In the Libya case, though, it would seem that Avaaz scarcely considered the potential negative aspects of military action — such as, when you “win,” what happens afterwards.
- According to Wikler, a random-sample poll taken before the petition was promulgated on-line, showed that “84% of [Avaaz] members supported this campaign, while 9% opposed it. Since launching it, we’ve found intense support for the campaign from around the world.” Avaaz says that petition ideas such as a no-fly zone campaign “are polled and tested weekly to 10,000-member random samples—and only initiatives that find a strong response are taken” to the wider membership. The organization has not disclosed who within Avaaz was the main instigator of the petitions for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria. Generally speaking, Avaaz says here’s how its petitions develop: “… Avaaz staff don’t set an agenda and try to convince members to go along with it. It’s closer to the opposite: staff listen to members and suggest actions they can take in order to affect the broader world. Small wonder, then, that many of our most successful campaigns are suggested first by Avaaz members themselves. And leadership is a critical part of member service: it takes vision and skill to find and communicate a way to build a better world.” Although this doesn’t say so, certainly on a matter of such import and controversy as a no-fly zone the final call would logically come from executive director Ricken Patel.
- Avaaz staff played “a key role in consulting with leading experts around the world (and most of our staff have policy as well as advocacy backgrounds) on each of the campaigns we run, and Libya was no exception.” This begs the question: Who were these experts, and did Avaaz seek out critics of such an action?
- On the question of whether imposing a no-fly zone would lead to a full-blown international war in Libya, Wikler downplayed the possibility at the time: “No-fly zones can mean a range of different things. Some analysts and military figures [none named by Wikler] have argued that it would require a pre-emptive attack on Libya’s anti-aircraft weapons. Others [again, none named], however, contend that merely flying fighter planes over the rebel-controlled areas would ensure that Qaddafi wouldn’t use his jets to attack eastern Libya, because he knows his air force is weaker than that of Egypt or NATO states. The best solution is the one that reduces civilian deaths the most with the least violence. Things might not turn out as expected, but while there are potential dangers to an international war, there are certain dangers to civilians if things continue without a no-fly zone.” [Emphasis added.]
Calling for military action seems a very risky calculation for an advocacy group to make, given even its own nodding recognition that the action it supports might bring on an international war or other “things… not expected.” And to discuss such an issue in a mere one sentence and conclude that the risk is worth it — and after the petition is already out there — is not indicative of a transparent, all-cards-on-the-table process that make for well-informed potential petition signers.
At the very least, now with the benefit of hindsight, you would think that the Libya experience would give Avaaz some second thoughts about supporting a no-fly zone in what top U.S. generals quoted in our previous article have described as the even riskier environment of Syria. But no such soul-searching is evident in Avaaz’s campaign for a Syrian no-fly zone.
For this and the previous article, we submitted a series of questions to Avaaz media personnel and campaign directors, with an emphasis on obtaining specifics as to the organization’s rationale for supporting no-fly zones in Libya and Syria — including whether the tragic outcome in Libya had figured at all in Avaaz’s consideration of whether to call for a no-fly zone in Syria. After requests (and reminders) on five occasions in November, December and January, we finally received a response on February 11 from campaign director Nell Greenberg, but that addressed only a few of our specific questions. Our follow-up questions, submitted on February 12, have gone unanswered.
As with the other questions we submitted to Avaaz personnel, the organization did not answer whether the Libya experience made the organization’s leaders think twice about taking up the Syria no-fly zone issue. It was possibly obscurely referencing the Libya no-fly zone when Greenberg stated to us: “Much of what you’re asking for are reflections on past campaigns given the geopolitical landscape today. But based on the way we work, I cannot tell you how any Avaaz member would feel today about a past campaign without going back and asking them.”
Our follow-up question made it clear that we were not asking how any individual Avaaz member might feel about the Libya campaign today, but rather how Avaaz’s leaders felt about proposing a no-fly zone for Syria when the Libya military action had turned out so disastrously. To date, Avaaz has not responded to any of our follow-up questions.
- Regarding whether a no-fly zone would violate Libya’s national sovereignty, Wikler in March 2011 stated: “National sovereignty should not be a legitimate barrier to international action when crimes against humanity are being committed.” Then in perhaps a foreshadowing of the organization’s call for a similar action in Syria, Wikler added: “If you strongly disagree, then you may find yourself at odds with other Avaaz campaigns as well.”
Wikler concluded his defense of the call for a Libyan no-fly zone by saying: “All told, this was a difficult judgment call. Calling for any sort of military response always is. Avaaz members have been advocating for weeks for a full set of non-military options as well, including an asset freeze, targeted sanctions, and prosecutions of officials involved in the violent crackdown on demonstrators.
“But although those measures are moving forward, the death toll is rising. Again, thoughtful people can disagree – but in the Avaaz community’s case, only 9% of our thoughtful people opposed this position [84% approved] – somewhat surprising given that we have virtually always advocated for peaceful methods to resolve conflicts in the past. We think it was the best position to take given the balance of expert opinion, popular support, and most of all, the rights and clearly expressed desire of the Libyan people.”
The figure of 84% approval from a sampling of Avaaz members seem astounding — and raises the issue of whether the questions were worded in the most emotional ways that would produce such an overwhelming result (along the lines of — Gaddafi is slaughtering, and will slaughter, everyone in his path and we must act now to avert a bloodbath). It also raises the question of whether Avaaz offered any counterpoints that a no-fly zone could lead to a wider war and end up killing, maiming and displacing thousands of civilians.
Regardless of the numbers, relying on partisan civilian sources in embattled areas for tactics or military solutions of any sort is both a dubious and frightening proposition and hardly seems the role for an advocacy organization to undertake.
Avaaz’s Origins: Founders and Funders
Even in the U.S. progressive community, Avaaz is far less well-known than its sister advocacy organization MoveOn.org. To put Avaaz in perspective, a little background is in order.
Avaaz was created in 2006 and officially launched in 2007 by MoveOn.org Civic Action and the little known and closely affiliated global advocacy group Res Publica, Inc. Its initial significant financial backing came from liberal philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations (then called Open Society Institute).
Avaaz’s individual founders included three of its current officers/directors — Ricken Patel, Eli Pariser and Thomas Pravda — as well as Thomas Perriello, Andrea Woodhouse, Jeremy Heimans, and David Madden. (More about them later.)
If you don’t know much about Avaaz, or think about it as I long did as a non-U.S. entity (actually, its headquarters is in New York City), that is not so surprising since many of its campaigns are targeted to specific countries other than the United States, and only a little over 5 percent of its 43.1 million members are U.S.-based. (A member being anyone who has ever signed an Avaaz petition — and that includes me.) Still, even that small U.S. percentage equates to 2.3 million people — a number that would be the envy of most U.S. activist organizations. (By way of comparison, Avaaz’s affiliated member organization MoveOn.org claims more than 8-million members.)
The U.S. membership in Avaaz is about the same as the German membership (2.2 million), and far less than France with 4.3 million and Brazil with a whopping 8.8 million members. Other nations with more than one million Avaaz members include Italy (2.1 million), Spain (1.8 million), the United Kingdom (1.6 million), Mexico (1.4 million), Canada (1.2 million). India has 991,000 members and Russia 901,000. Overall, Avaaz claims members in 194 countries, with its smallest membership — 81 — in the British overseas territory of Montserrat, population 5,100.
Avaaz is organized under the name the Avaaz Foundation, a 501(c)(4) non-profit lobbying organization, with its headquarters in Manhattan. It describes itself as having “a simple democratic mission: To close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want.”
In its most recent Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service, signed in September 2015 for tax year 2014, Avaaz reported contributions totaling $20.1 million and net assets of $7.6 million. Avaaz, which says that it is entirely member funded, had previously stated that it accepts no single contribution of more than $5,000, but that was not the case in 2014 as the organization reported that 18 individuals had contributed amounts ranging from $5,000 to $15,383. The contributors were not identified by name in the filing. Since around 2010, the organization is on record as not accepting corporate or foundation donations — although it did receive grants totaling $1.1 million from George Soros-connected foundations in the three years before that.
In response to our inquiry about Avaaz funding and the organization’s early link to Soros, campaign director Nell Greenberg responded:
“With regards to Avaaz funding, this movement was founded with the ideal of being completely self sustaining and democratic. 100% of the Avaaz budget comes from small online donations…Avaaz has never taken a contribution from a government or a corporation, and since 2009 has not solicited any contributions from charitable foundations.”
She continued: “We did receive seed funding from George Soros and the Open Society Foundation, but not after 2009. No corporation, foundation or board member has influence on the organization’s campaign directions or positions. This is hugely important to ensuring that our voice is exclusively determined by the values of our members, and not by any large funder or agenda.”
Of Avaaz’s four current officers/directors, only executive director Ricken Patel was listed as full-time, with annual pay of $177,666 for 2014. Chairman Eli Pariser; treasurer Thomas Pravda, and secretary Ben Brandzel are not day-to-day employees and all received no compensation in 2014. Of Avaaz’s 77 employees, the five highest-compensated staff members after Patel received salaries ranging between $111,000 and $153,000.
For its various domestic and overseas campaigns, Avaaz reported providing $3.2 million in grants to U.S. organizations and $932,000 to foreign organizations in 2014. Reported grants of more than $5,000 came in five categories, with the largest recipients being the U.S. Fund for UNICEF ($1 million for education for Syrian refugees), and the Rain Forest Trust ($1 million for “conservation of land and species”).
To help combat the Ebola virus, Avaaz provided $500,000 to the International Medical Corps, $350,000 to Save the Children and $300,000 to Partners in Health. For organizing for the September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, Avaaz provided $27,500 to Align and $10,000 to New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Rounding out the list, a $10,000 grant went to Amazon Watch for “protection of the Amazon.”
For activities outside the United States, Avaaz spent most heavily in Europe on campaigns, advertising and consulting — $6.2 million, with South America a distant second at $685,000 for consulting services, followed by East Asia and the Pacific with $553,000 for campaigns and consulting services. Expenditures in five other regions ranged from $45,000 to $270,000.
Avaaz reported that the foundation is still comprised of the same two member organizations — MoveOn.org Civic Action and Res Publica, Inc. (U.S.) — which were the original founding groups.
Res Publica, a 501(c)(3), lists the same Manhattan address as the 501(c)(4) Avaaz and presumably provides unspecified assistance to Avaaz. Back at Avaaz’s beginning, the three principals in Res Publica were the aforementioned Patel, Pravda and Perriello. The three men had all served with the International Center for Transitional Justice, which “assists countries pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse.” Also in those early days, according to some accounts, Avaaz listed the Service Employees International Union and Australia-based GetUp.org.au as co-founding organizations, but they seem to have long since been out of the picture.
In Res Publica’s most recent Form 990 filing with the IRS for 2013, Patel is listed as executive director, Pravda as treasurer, and Vivek Maru as secretary. All received no compensation. Contributions for 2013 totaled $963,895, of which $846,165 was from “Government grants” for unspecified purposes. The organization reported that it “provides strategic advice to other non-profit organizations… [and] also provides educational and action-based e-mail campaigns to citizens in every country via its website.” It also reported supporting projects “through fiscal sponsorship, that focused on online security and Internet freedom for repressed communities globally…”
Here are profiles of Avaaz co-founders and past and current officers:
Eli Pariser: Avaaz Chairman and Co-founder
Eli Pariser was executive director of MoveOn.org from 2004 through 2009 when the organization experienced explosive growth, and has been its board president since then. MoveOn, in the words of an on-line Pariser biography, “revolutionized grassroots political organizing by introducing a small-donor-funded and email-driven model that has since been widely used across the political spectrum.”
In addition to being a founder of Avaaz and currently serving as its chairman, the Brooklyn-based Pariser has been a member of the boards of Access and the New Organizing Institute. A best-selling author and former fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, Pariser is co-founder and executive of the on-line media company Upworthy. He is also currently a member of the advisory board of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs.
We would note that Pariser appears to be one of the few Avaaz founders and officers whose background is almost entirely in on-line activism, while some others have governmental or otherwise overseas experience working in programs in high poverty and/or war-torn countries.
We submitted several questions to Pariser on March 9, but he has not responded as of this writing.
Ricken Patel: Avaaz Executive Director and Co-founder
Prior to the founding of Avaaz in 2007, the Canadian-born Ricken Patel consulted for a number of international and well-established non-profit organizations — the International Crisis Group, the United Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Harvard University, CARE International, and the International Center for Transitional Justice. He worked in several countries including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan and Afghanistan. He also was the founding executive director of Avaaz-affiliated Res Publica, which among its past projects “worked to end genocide in Darfur.” As executive director of Avaaz since its begining, Patel is the face of the organization and has been termed “the global leader of online protest” by The Guardian.
Thomas Pravda: Avaaz Treasurer and Co-founder
Through two of its co-founders — Tom Perriello and Thomas Pravda — Avaaz has connections to government officialdom in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Perriello (discussed below) is now with the State Department as U.S. special envoy for the African Great Lakes and the Congo-Kinshasa.
Pravda is currently serving as the (unpaid) treasurer and a director for Avaaz, while at the same time holding down a post as a diplomat with the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, commonly known as the Foreign Office. He is also co-founder and officer in Res Publica.
As the Foreign Office is “responsible for protecting and promoting British interests worldwide,” this could raise conflict-of-interest possibilities regarding U.K. and U.S. foreign relations and military issues that might be taken up by Avaaz. This would include the organization’s advocacy for a no-fly zone in Syria, in which both the U.S. and U.K. would be expected to participate. Our research, though, found no example of anyone raising a specific issue about Pravda’s dual role as U.K. diplomat and Avaaz officer, but this relationship looks problematic on the face of it.
Pravda’s self-provided biography shows he has been with the Foreign Office since October 2003, and with Avaaz since 2006, and that he was also an advisor to the U.S. State Department in 2009-2010 regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In his diplomatic assignments Pravda has worked on E.U. trade and development policy; as an advisor to the Special Representative for Climate Change, and as the U.K. Representative in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has also consulted extensively on political, security, research and advocacy issues for such institutions as the U.S. State Department, the United Nations Development Program, the International Center for Transitional Justice and Oxford Analytica.
Ben Brandzel: Avaaz Secretary and Co-founder
In addition to currently serving as the (unpaid) secretary for Avaaz, Ben Brandzel is the founder and director of OPEN (Online Progressive Engagement Network), described as an alliance of the world’s leading national digital campaigning organizations. Besides being a founding board member and former senior campaigner at Avaaz, Brandzel is the chief founding advisor for OPEN member groups in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. He also served as the original advocacy director for MoveOn.org and in 2009-2010 directed new media campaigns and fundraising for President Obama during the health reform campaign. He writes frequently on digital organizing and transnational movement building.
Tom Perriello: Avaaz Co-founder
If I were going to name one chief suspect among Avaaz’s founders as the architect of its no-fly zone advocacy in Libya and Syria, it would be Tom Perriello. More than anyone else connected with Avaaz from its earliest days, Perriello, since leaving the organization — first for Congress and then for the think-tank world before going to the U.S. State Department — has shown himself to be a reliable advocate for war: For continuing the war in Afghanistan, for bombing Libya and ousting Gaddafi, and for taking military action to support Syrian rebels and remove Assad from power.
Perriello champions “humanitarian intervention” and lauded the NATO bombing campaign in Libya — before the U.S./NATO “victory” there and before the country subsequently went all to hell — as a prime example of how this approach can succeed .
We asked Avaaz whether Perriello’s thinking had influenced the organization’s campaigns for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria, and received a stern denial from Avaaz’s Greenberg: “Tom Perriello, specifically, was an Avaaz board member at the founding of the organization but has not been on the board since December 2009, and has had no role in Avaaz’s Syria campaigns.”
Perriello’s career, like some others with Avaaz, has been more one of public service through established organizations than of activism. According to an on-line biography, in 2002-2003 Perriello was special advisor to the international prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, and then served as a consultant to the International Center for Transitional Justice in Kosovo (2003), Darfur (2005) and Afghanistan (2007). In 2004, he co-founded Res Publica with Patel and Pravda. Perriello has also been a fellow at The Century Foundation and is a co-founder of DarfurGenocide.org. He said in his on-line bio that he had “spent much of his career working in West Africa and the Middle East to create strategies for sustainable peace, and he was involved in the peace processes that helped end the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”
A Democrat, Perriello was elected to Congress from Virginia’s 5th District in 2008. (It would appear from the statement we received from Avaaz that if Perriello left the organization in December 2009 then he was still on the Avaaz board during his first year in Congress.)
In his one term, Perriello was a staunch supporter of the global war on terror, the military appropriations to continue U.S. wars, and keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Defeated in his 2010 bid for reelection, Perriello went on to serve as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and counselor for policy also at Center for American Progress, a Democratic party-supporting think tank. From 2014 to the present he has been with the State Department, first as the Special Representative to the Secretary of State for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and since last summer as the U.S. special envoy for the African Great Lakes and the Congo-Kinshasa. Although said not to be involved with Avaaz currently, his humanitarian intervention philosophy seems alive and well at Avaaz with its calls for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria.
In this excerpt from his 2012 article on humanitarian intervention, Perriello sounds absolutely eager to send in the bombs wherever “egregious atrocities” are occurring and human beings are suffering. And this, as Perriello writes, would give “progressives” the “opportunity… to expand the use of force to advance key values.” Following are two paragraphs from Perriello’s article that give the flavor of the “humanitarian intervention” philosophy he advocates. It would certainly be helpful if Avaaz would tell us if it subscribes to its co-founder’s rather bloodless and creepy prescription for advancing progressives’ “key values.”
“Operational developments since the end of the Cold War have substantially improved our capacity to wage smart military operations that are limited in time and scope and employ precise and overwhelming force,” Perriello wrote. “This presents progressives with an opportunity—one that is too often seen as a curse—to expand the use of force to advance key values. Our technical capacities, ranging from accuracy of systems intelligence to smart weaponry, now allow for previously impossible operations. Today, we have the ability to conduct missions from the air that historically would have required ground troops. And we possess an admittedly imperfect but highly improved ability to limit collateral damage, including civilian casualties. Among other things, this means fewer bombs can accomplish the same objectives, with early estimates suggesting that the Libyan air campaign required one-third the number of sorties as earlier air wars…
“We must realize that force is only one element of a coherent national security strategy and foreign policy. We must accept the reality—whether or not one accepts its merits—that other nations are more likely to perceive our motives to be self-interested than values-based. But in a world where egregious atrocities and grave threats exist, and where Kosovo and Libya have changed our sense of what’s now possible, the development of this next generation of power can be seen as a historically unique opportunity to reduce human suffering.”
Imagine the nerve of those other nations Perriello refers to — failing to see that the United States selflessly engages in “values-based” bombing: Bombs for a better world.
Andrea Woodhouse: Avaaz Co-founder
Another Avaaz co-founder, Andrea Woodhouse, describes herself as a development professional, social entrepreneur and writer. She has worked in many countries experiencing conflict and political transition, including Indonesia, Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma/Myanmar. In Indonesia, she reported working on one of the largest anti-poverty programs in the world, which she said became the model for a national program of post-conflict reconstruction and state-building in Afghanistan. She has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations and was a founder of the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program.
Jeremy Heimans: Avaaz Co-founder
According to an on-line biography, Jeremy Heimans in 2005 co-founded GetUp, an Australian political organization and one of that country’s largest campaigning communities. It has campaigned for same-sex marriage and in support of Julian Assange of Wikileaks. In addition to being an Avaaz co-founder, Heimans in 2009 co-founded Purpose, an activist group that launched several major new organizations including All Out, a two-million member LGBT rights group.
David Madden: Avaaz Co-founder
David Madden, another Avaaz co-founder, is a former Australian Army officer and World Bank and United Nations employee. With Jeremy Heimans, he co-founded GetUp. Madden has worked for the World Bank in Timor Leste, and for the United Nations in Indonesia. In 2004, Madden was one of the founders of Win Back Respect, a web-based campaign against the foreign policy of U.S. President George W. Bush.
George Soros’s Role in Avaaz Early Years
For the last few years, various on-line bloggers have questioned whether Avaaz is somehow doing the bidding of philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations, or of the U.S. government (or portions thereof). (See an example here.)
There is no question that there was a close connection between Avaaz and Soros and his organizations dating back to Avaaz’s early days, but what — if anything — does that translate into today?
As noted earlier, in one of the few of my questions that Avaaz answered directly, there was an acknowledgement of early Soros “seed money” to Avaaz, but a denial of any continuing involvement with the organization.
Of all individuals or organizations outside the Avaaz structure, though, Soros’s foundations played the most significant role in helping get Avaaz off the ground with generous grants. Additionally, the Open Society Institute (the previous name of the Open Society Foundations) served as Avaaz’s “foundation partner” on campaigns of joint interest, most notably in connection with the Burmese Democracy Movement.
Avaaz still has a Soros connection — notably, as indicated above, Eli Pariser serving on an Open Society advisory board. And both Avaaz and Soros seem to share an antipathy to what they characterize as Russian aggression as exemplified by Avaaz’s sometimes over-the-top statements about Russia in Syria. (For example, as noted in our previous article, Ricken Patel holding Putin’s government responsible for being complicit with the Assad government in “coordinating atrocities” and “targeting the assassinations of journalists” in early 2012. Also, see this September 30, 2015 Avaaz posting using flimsy evidence to accuse Russian planes of deliberately bombing civilian neighborhoods.)
Donations by Soros’s Foundations
Over a three-year period beginning in 2007, Soros’s foundations — either directly or passed through Res Publica — gave Avaaz a total of $1.2 million.
In 2007, the Open Society Institute gave $150,000 to Res Publica for general support for Avaaz, and $100,000 for Avaaz’s work on climate change.
In 2008, Open Society Institute again gave a total of $250,000 to Res Publica — with $150,000 of that again for general support for Avaaz and the remaining $100,000 for Avaaz’s climate change work.
The following year, Soros was even more generous to Avaaz. His Foundation to Promote Open Society in its Form 990 filing for 2009 (page 87) reported giving a total of $600,000 to Res Publica for Avaaz’s use — $300,000 for general support and $300,000 for climate campaigning.
Avaaz increased its ties to the Soros organization in 2008 by selecting the then-named Open Society Institute (OSI) as its “foundation partner” to oversee some $325,000 in donations that Avaaz had received from its members — in just four days — to support the Burmese Democracy Movement.
Avaaz said it was linking up with OSI — “one of the largest and most respected foundations in the world” — for the purpose of OSI monitoring Avaaz’s grant awards and expenditures. OSI was “taking no overhead on the funds we are granting to Burmese groups” for technology, organizing, support for the regime’s victims and victims’ families, and international advocacy.
In June 2009, OSI reported that its Burma Project grantees — including Avaaz — had rallied global support around democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. On that occasion, Avaaz partnered with the Free Burma’s Political Prisoners Now! Campaign to collect more than 670,000 signatures asking for UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s support for Aung San Suu Kyi and some 2,000 other political prisoners.
From available information, it does not appear Soros or his foundations have contributed financially to Avaaz or directly engaged in projects with the organization in the last five to six years. And Avaaz itself says the Soros financial connection ended in 2009. Whether the substantial assistance Soros’s foundations gave Avaaz in its first three years of existence carries any lasting influence, though, is certainly hard to show.
Avaaz’s Impressive Record of Advocacy
As noted in our previous article, even allowing for organizational self-hype, Avaaz has an impressive record of advocacy — a record that mostly seems off-kilter with its no-fly zone advocacy in Libya and Syria. For example, here are some other Avaaz campaigns not previously mentioned:
- Avaaz has played a prominent role in a number of actions directed at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
- Avaaz was a key player in a successful campaign (including a petition with more than 1.7 million signatures, coupled with occupations and protests at some 15 Barclays bank branches across the United Kingdom) to pressure Barclays to divest its $2.9 million holdings in an Israeli defense contractor, Elbit Systems.
Avaaz received plaudits from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for its role in that campaign. Elbit Systems is the major Israeli-based arms and security company that manufactures drones used in surveillance and attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. It also provides electronics for the “apartheid wall” being constructed on the West Bank.
- A petition directed to the government of Israel and to the U.S. Congress netted 185,000 signatures in support of the portion of President Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 in which he said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
- In 2011, some 1.6 million people — more than 300,000 of them in just the first two days — signed an Avaaz petition to European leaders and U.N. member states, urging them “to endorse the legitimate bid for recognition of the state of Palestine and the reaffirmation of the rights of the Palestinian people. It is time to turn the tide on decades of failed peace talks, end the occupation and move towards peace based on two states.”
- In March 2013, at the time of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC’s) annual conference and congressional lobbying days in Washington, D.C., Avaaz joined with Jewish Voice for Peace to erect hundreds of anti-AIPAC posters across Metro stations in central D.C. The signs read: “AIPAC does not speak for me. Most Jewish Americans are pro-peace. AIPAC is not.”
- Through its petitions, Avaaz has strongly opposed governmental surveillance of U.S. citizens, and has defended Wikileaks and national security whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.
- In April 2011, amid news reports of Manning’s brutal treatment while imprisoned at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia before facing a court martial for providing classified documents to Wikileaks, almost 550,000 people signed an Avaaz petition to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The petition, headlined “Stop Wikileaks Torture,” called on those officials “to immediately end the torture, isolation and public humiliation of Bradley Manning. This is a violation of his constitutionally guaranteed human rights, and a chilling deterrent to other whistleblowers committed to public integrity.”
- A December 2010 Avaaz petition, calling “the vicious intimidation campaign against Wikileaks” by the U.S. and other governments and corporations “a dangerous attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” produced 654,000 signatures — more than 300,000 of those in the first 24 hours the petition was circulated on-line.
- In June 2013, just days after the first reports of the National Security Agency’s illegal worldwide spying appeared, some 1.38 million people signed a petition, headlined “Stand with Edward Snowden,” to President Obama. The petition read: “We call on you to ensure that whistleblower Edward Snowden is treated fairly, humanely and given due process. The PRISM program is one of the greatest violations of privacy ever committed by a government. We demand that you terminate it immediately, and that Edward Snowden be recognized as a whistleblower acting in the public interest — not as a dangerous criminal.”
- In April 2012, some 780,000 people signed an Avaaz petition to members of Congress, and another to Facebook, Microsoft and IBM (with 626,000 signers), to drop their support for the Internet surveillance bill known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The bill, the petition stated, would place “Our democracy and civil liberties… under threat from the excessive and unnecessary Internet surveillance powers” that it would grant to the U.S. government without requirement of a warrant.
- In the face of widespread hunger strikes at the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2013, Avaaz gathered 690,000 signatures on a petition to transfer the 86 men who had already been cleared for release, and to appoint a White House official whose responsibility it would be to close down the prison. Said the petition: “This shameful complex is a scourge on humanity, is destroying lives, and fuels hate across the world. Close it down!”
- Avaaz is also in the front ranks on various other issues — fighting global warming, seeking an end to U.S. and European arms sales to Saudi Arabia, protecting rain forests, saving endangered species, promoting clean energy, challenging Rupert Murdoch’s bid for a greater media monopoly in the United Kingdom, defending human rights in a number of countries, etc.
In none of those other campaigns do we see Avaaz proposing military action of any sort. Why this anomaly when it came to Libya and now Syria? Especially, when military action’s aftermath turned out so badly in Libya, and when even the nation’s leading generals say a Syria no-fly zone would escalate the war and endanger the very civilians Avaaz has the stated goal of protecting?
John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
Eastern Europeans and Arabs are all-too-familiar with the political street hooliganism sponsored by global «provocateur» George Soros and his minions. Lately, middle-class Americans have had a taste of the type of violent protest provocations during the current US presidential campaign that have previously been visited upon governments from Macedonia and Moldova to Syria and Libya.
Recently, Donald Trump campaign rallies have seen highly-coordinated and well-planned political demonstrations in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Dayton, and other cities. The rallies were disrupted by highly-coordinated and well-planned protesters waving freshly-printed protest signs before awaiting television cameras. Such «rent-a-mob» actions are trademark signs of the involvement of George Soros and the «godfather» of political street violence, Gene Sharp, in disrupting the normal political process.
One of the favored methods proposed by Sharp and embraced by Soros-financed groups is the taunting of individuals. Sharp’s advice to taunt speakers is being played out in the US presidential campaign: «instead of predominantly silent and dignified behavior… people may mock and insult officials, either at a certain place or by following them for a period». Sharp suggests that taunting individuals, such as presidential candidates, be combined with a refusal to disperse when either asked or ordered to do so. Sharp claims that these methods are «non-violent». However, when the US Secret Service, charged with protecting presidential candidates from assassination or bodily harm, order protesters to leave a campaign venue and there is a subsequent refusal to do so, violence is a certainty.
Soros and Sharp honed their street revolution tactics on the streets of Belgrade in the Bulldozer Revolution that overthrew Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic on October 5, 2000. Two Soros-financed and Sharp-inspired groups, OPTOR! and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), as well as their leader Srdja Popovic, a so-called «pro-democracy» agitator, have all been unmasked as US intelligence assets. Popovic has received funding from the CIA-linked US Institute of Peace, a creation of neo-conservatives to advance the type of undemocratic political street disruptions first seen in Serbia and that soon expanded to Ukraine, Georgia, Egypt, Venezuela, Russia, Macedonia, and other countries. Today, Soros-inspired political violence has targeted Trump rallies across the United States.
Popovic first began to infiltrate American politics by ostensibly supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement. As his ties to the CIA and Goldman Sachs later showed, his intent and that of his financiers were to derail the anti-capitalist popular movement.
Several veteran «agents provocateurs» of the Occupy Wall Street movement who are now part of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign have been enlisted by groups like Unbound Philanthropy, an immigrant rights group, to disrupt Trump rallies. Together with the Soros-financed group Black Lives Matter, these professional street hooligans have carefully, and in compliance with the Sharp model, staged their demonstrations to achieve maximum media coverage while achieving the maximum level of disruption to the primary election process.
Unbound Philanthropy is funded by Obama’s deep-pocketed friend and frequent vacation host in Hawaii, William Reeves, a former JP Morgan executive who now heads up BlueCrest Capital. In some cases, the political protesters masquerade as Trump supporters by wearing pro-Trump shirts and hats in order to gain access to Trump campaign venues. This methodology of disruption employs another Sharp tactic, that of using false identities. Coupled with the tactic of «non-violent harassment» of individuals, the use of employing false identities to gain admittance to Trump rallies, followed by coordinated protests in the form of placard-waving «stand-ins», are textbook examples of Sharp tactics being employed with the financial support of Soros and his gang, which includes Reeves and pro-immigration Hispanic groups and Black Lives Matter. Many of the anti-Trump street actions are coordinated by MoveOn.org, another group financed principally by Soros and the Hyatt Hotels’ Pritzker family of Chicago. One member of the Pritzker family, Penny Pritzker, serves as the Secretary of Commerce in the Obama administration.
MoveOn.org, which has endorsed Sanders, is actually using its protests at Trump rallies as a fundraising gimmick. It promises to disrupt future Trump campaign rallies and it will use every weapon in the Sharp/Soros handbook.
Another Sharp/Soros tactic employed against Trump is the «speak-in». During a Trump campaign appearance in Dayton, a pro-Bernie Sanders protester jumped a barrier and rushed the stage in an attempt to grab the microphone from Trump. The Secret Service tackled the protester who was arrested by police. The protester previously took part in a 2015 protest at Wright State University in Dayton where he dragged a US flag on the ground. Destruction of property, including US flags, is another hallmark disruption tactic proposed by Sharp.
The Sharp definition of a «speak-in» is a «special form of nonviolent intervention… when actionists interrupt a meeting… or other gathering for the purpose of expressing viewpoints on issues which may or may not be related directly to the occasion». Soros classifies the action as «social intervention», with «psychological and physical aspects». Regardless of Sharp’s definition of such actions as «nonviolent», the Secret Service does not take lightly anyone lunging at a presidential candidate, especially after the assassination of candidate Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968 and the shooting and attempted assassination of candidate George Wallace in 1972. Soros’s operatives are dangerously playing with fire by bringing such violence-tinged street protest tactics to the American presidential political scene.
The stench of Popovic and Soros in the street operations against Trump, who has railed against Wall Street’s «free trade agreements» and neo-conservative «wars of choice», can be seen in the links between the street protest groups and corporate giants like Goldman Sachs.
Popovic and his CANVAS non-governmental organization (NGO) has received funding from a former Goldman Sachs executive named Muneer Satter.
Satter happened to work at Goldman Sachs with fellow corporate executive Heidi Cruz, the wife of Trump’s opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Although Satter retired from Goldman Sachs in 2012 he continues to serve as vice chairman of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. In 2012, the year that Satter retired from Goldman Sachs, the firm loaned more than $1 million to Cruz’s Texas US Senate campaign.
Satter also happens to be close to both President Barack Obama and anti-Trump GOP operative Karl Rove. Satter has donated to both Obama and Rove’s Crossroads political action committee. Satter was also the national finance co-chair of Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
This year, Satter joined the Senator Marco Rubio campaign as Illinois Finance Committee co-chairman. Such background players, Heidi Cruz and her Goldman Sachs friend Satter, as well as Rove, Romney, Reeves, Soros, the Pritzkers, and Popovic – a Central Intelligence Agency-linked foreign interloper in the United States political system – are the actual movers and shakers behind America’s presidential election. Their jobs and those of other deep-pocketed political financiers like Paul Singer, Haim Saban, Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Zell, and Norman Braman, are to ensure that no «unfiltered outsiders» ever become the President of the United States. These and other wealthy backroom political maestros owe their undemocratic but massive political influence to insider politicians residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. They will do everything in their power to prevent an «unfiltered» candidate from becoming the next American president.
I just concluded a brief phone conversation with a MoveOn activist. It’s an election year, and her natural and obvious goal was to promote Barack Obama’s cause in November. She did not say much, however, and did not have a chance to speak at length, for when I heard Obama’s name after her organization’s name, I told her that I would never vote for Obama.
“Why,” she asked.
“Because he’s a war criminal, a promoter of authoritarian government, a tool of Wall Street and an opponent of authentic health care reform, among many other reasons,” I replied.
There was a brief silent moment which I used to punctuate my claim that “I [was] criticizing Obama from the left.”
I told her this because I did not want her to consult her talking points when she formulated her response.
She didn’t. In fact, she was shocked, and indicated that she could not understand why anyone on the left would criticize the President.
And that’s one problem with those progressives who tie their political fate to the Democratic Party and its candidates. They lack imagination. Their commitment to a pseudo-pragmatic electoral strategy binds them to a corrupt Democratic Party, to its commitment to war-making abroad, the security-surveillance state at home, to elite lawlessness, to a general austerity, a predatory economic system and the oligarchs who own them.
They are blind to the false dilemma inherent in the lesser evil principle. Why is the dilemma false? Firstly, the Democratic and Republican Parties do not exhaust the political options available to America’s nominally free citizens. Secondly, whereas the policies of the two parties differ on this or that issue and their constituencies differ, they are not so distinct that they differ in kind. The Democrat and Republican Parties are system affirmative entities, and reflect this fact. Voting for a candidate of one party thus affirms the core principles of the other party. This point expresses the gist of George Wallace’s “not a dime’s difference” evaluation of the two legacy parties. Thirdly, both parties form a party system which affirms and reproduces the larger political system of which they are a part. They accomplish these goals because they and the elections they contest operate as filters which eliminate the political opposition as an electoral force while thereby producing legitimacy for the results of the election and for the political system as a whole. Barack Obama was elected President. He legitimately occupies the office of the President. Outsiders — Ralph Nader and his kind — typically are shunned and ridiculed. The party system reproduces itself, and changes little. An authentic democratic politics can be found only in the streets. Sheldon Wolin thus identified the early 21st century American political system as an inverted totalitarian regime, a system without an opposition. Fourthly, there are situations, electoral contests and political choices that feature lesser evils which are too evil to tolerate. A lesser Hitler remains a Hitler. An Obama acts like a Bush. A Clinton works hard to complete the Reagan Revolution. War, war crimes and lawlessness; mass murder, suppression of dissent and incarceration of whistleblowers; social austerity, economic predation and personal hardship — these are some of the policies and policy outcomes which MoveOn supports when it thumps the tub for Barack Obama.
The lesser evil principle acquires its persuasive force when one considers the New Deal and Great Society reforms which once marked the history of the Democratic Party. One may suspect that Americans who voted for Obama and “change you can believe in” affirmed the collective memory of and institutional residues left over from these past victories. But these memories are mostly just memories. The New Deal State and the political culture which supported it parted ways decades back. Militarism and empire, finance capital and the capitalist class pushed labor and the lesser sort to the margins of the Democratic Party. This is the place where one will find MoveOn and the like. Rahm Emanuel once denounced them as “fucking retarded.”
The ideologically committed liberal should ponder well Emanuel’s words and insolence.
Stephen Zielinski can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
With hindsight gained by googling “MoveOn” and “co-opt” after the fact, I can’t claim that nobody tried to warn me. Many websites with left and even liberal politics had said in so many words, “Be wary of this organization called the 99% Spring. It is a Trojan horse for the Democrats.” I just didn’t read that anywhere in a timely fashion. I’ve had a lot of stuff on my plate lately. That’s my excuse. And in my ignorance, I responded to some spam about “nonviolent direct action training” organized by MoveOn and got invited to this 99% Spring thing on April 10 at the Goddard Riverside Community Center in Manhattan. Somebody even called me all the way from San Francisco to make sure I was a sincere seeker on the left and would be attending, along with 120,000 others in training sessions around the country.
Which I did. The meeting was a few blocks from where I live. The spam said it was “inspired by Occupy Wall Street.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was vaguely hoping that whatever the 99% Spring was, it would start a chapter of Occupy Wall Street on the Upper West Side, conveniently near my abode, and agitate for the Democrats and MoveOn to move left.
The first clue that my evening might go otherwise was the sign-up table, where there were a bunch of Obama buttons for sale and one sign-up sheet for the oddly named Community Free Democrats (are they free of community?), which is the local Democratic clubhouse. That killed the “inspired by Occupy Wall Street” vibe right there. No piles of literature from a zillion different groups, as there had been in Zuccotti Park. No animated arguments among Marxists, anarchists, progressives, punks, engaged Buddhists, anti-war libertarians and what have you. Just Obama buttons, which didn’t appear to be selling.
Inside the hall, it looked like an alumni reunion for the 1966 Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade. Almost all the 150 or so people were 55-80 years old. The ones I talked to expressed curiosity about Occupy Wall Street and enthusiasm about “nonviolent direct action” but didn’t have the knees or the ears for full participation in OWS activities in the financial district.
A large man with long wavy hair combed back started the presentation with a stirring call for…the meeting to be off the record. He didn’t want any stories that would violate anyone’s privacy, and if there were any lurking journalists, they weren’t allowed to use any names and they must see him afterwards for further instruction on the ground rules. This struck an even more dysphoric note than the Obama buttons.
WTF thought #1: This was a public event ostensibly to convince members of the public to engage in behavior that challenged the legitimacy of government authority in public and might cause angry police to beat the public crap out of them. Why would anyone risk that without trying to get publicity for their cause? Nonviolent direct action that no one knows about is like jerking off. It might make you feel better, but you’re not changing the world.
WTF thought #2: Transparency is the only protection that nonviolent people have against police spies and provocateurs and other infiltrators. Occupy Wall Street does a pretty good job with transparency. An organization claiming to be inspired by OWS but shunning transparency is deeply suspect.
WTF thought #3: Washington press corp rules for a meeting on nonviolent direct action?
WTF thought #4: I actually wasn’t there with the idea of writing about it, but neither did I agree to anything, so there was no agreement.
WTF thought #5: The name of the large man with the wavy hair was Marc Landis. He is a District Leader for the Democrats, who were paying for use of the meeting room. He is running for City Council. According to his law firm’s website his areas of experience are: “Real Estate, Banking & Finance, Corporate & Business Law, Securities & Private Placement, Fund Formation & Investment Management Group…” His Facebook page, which is geared for his City Council campaign, makes it sound like his specialty is pro bono community work. I don’t know. He might be a nice guy, but it doesn’t take a lot of intuition to wonder if he’s really been “inspired by Occupy Wall Street.” He’s a corporate lawyer. I can think of no reason for him to demand that the meeting be off the record other than he and his party don’t want to be publicly associated with anything radical, even it’s a pseudo-radical front group meant to steer people away from the truly radical Occupy Wall Street and into pointless activities that don’t embarrass Obama.
Next they showed a video that invited us “to tell our story” so that the 99% Spring could post us online along with hundreds of other people who had been foreclosed, bankrupted, lost their medical insurance or whatever. It appeared they all wanted to raise taxes, so that the rich would “pay their fair share.”
It was sanctimonious. It was supplicating before power. The audience looked like it wanted to puke.
Next some guy whose name I didn’t catch gave an astonishingly simple-minded lecture on the history of American radicalism since the populists. “This might be okay for Iowa, but not the Upper West Side,” said a woman near me.
That’s an insult to Iowa, but let me explain about the Upper West Side. It used to be a liberal-to-radical neighborhood that was ferocious in its support for civil rights and the anti-war movement. Its nickname was the Upper Left Side, and people here could read three biographies of Leon Trotsky before breakfast. Disastrously, it has become the most desirable living space in Manhattan, and Wall Street/corporate/real estate weenies have been taking over. But a significant radical remnant remains, thanks to rent control laws that Democrats seem to understand are necessary to preserve their voters.
“And then in the 50s, we had the civil right movement…” the guy droned.
“ Uh, I think we should conclude the lecture and break up into groups to discuss our nonviolent direct action training,” said Landis. “We seem to be losing people.” A lot of them, too.
So the hundred-odd remaining Upper Left Siders split into four groups for discussion. My group happened to be led by Landis, who directed the 35 of us to sit in a circle and identify ourselves with an explanation of why we were there. I was about #15 in the circle and the people who preceded me all appeared to have no experience with Occupy Wall Street and wanted to get involved. When it was my turn I said that Zuccotti Park was the most entertaining place to be in Manhattan for a couple months last fall and I hoped it would revive. And I said that the other thing I liked was that it was to the left of the Democratic Party and was pushing it from outside. There had been some mention of “the repeal of the Glass Steagall Act during the 90s” and I pointed out that it was Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who deregulated Wall Street.
“Excuse me,” said Landis. “We have a limited amount of time and a lot to discuss. We need to let everyone speak.”
I’ve thought about that a lot. I don’t believe I spoke for more than a minute, but I habitually obey the rules in a group, so I shut up. In retrospect, I was censored. I should have demanded a discussion of the true purpose of the 99% Spring and why Obama’s Department of Homeland Security orchestrated the violent destruction of hundreds of nonviolent Occupy camps around the country last fall.
As it was, we finished going around the circle. Everyone was a teacher or writer or connected with the labor movement. Wisconsin came up a few times. Landis asked what kind of a world we wanted to see. Someone said, “Socialism” and Landis said the topic for discussion was now how to plan for a “hypothetical direct action.” Every time somebody brought up something that was actually happening, Landis insisted that our agenda was set and we were only discussing hypothetical situations. So we talked about hypothetically withdrawing money from a hypothetical evil bank, or hypothetically stopping the hypothetical fracking in the Catskills that is going to poison New York City’s hypothetical drinking water.
“What about May 1?” said a retired professor.
“What about it?” said Landis.
“I heard that Occupy Wall Street was calling for a general strike. They’re planning actions all around midtown and they’re saying that nobody should go to work that day.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Landis. “We’re talking about hypothetical situations here.”
And so it went from 6:30 to 9:30 last Tuesday night. Over half the crowd left early. Most of those who stayed appeared to be angry and mystified that they had received no training whatever in nonviolent direct action. I doubt that the Democrats or MoveOn succeeded in co-opting anyone, and I predict that they will be inventing more dreary front groups as the election year grinds onward. “Front groups, not issues!” should be Obama’s rallying cry.
“I’m taking the subway to Wall Street,” said a guy in his 20s (probably the only guy in his 20s) as he walked out the door. “That’s where the action is. People are sleeping on the sidewalk there. Apparently the police can’t arrest you if you take up less than half the sidewalk. Go to Maydaynyc.org if you want to find out about the general strike.”
- Reportback: the 99%spring Training for Trainers and the Plot to Coopt #occupy (occupywalkusa.org)
- Infiltration to Disrupt, Divide and Misdirect Is Widespread in Occupy (Part I) (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Counter-Insurgency as Insurgency (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The 99% Spring Is Here – Let’s Take the Fight to Big Oil, Gas and Coal (ecowatch.org)
The “99% Spring” Brings Co-optation into Full Bloom
As the Occupy movement begins to come into full bloom across the country this Spring – with plans for massive days of action and demonstrations on May 1st, new campaigns for transit justice on both coasts, continued organizing against foreclosures and police violence, and a slight chance of a bank protest or two – there are several weeds sprouting in the prefigurative garden. Not least of which is the “99% Spring” campaign, led and funded by every corner of the modern Democratic Party machine. One might ask themselves “What is wrong with non-violent direct action?” or “How effective could the ‘Democratic Party machine’ actually be, anyway?” There is nothing inherently wrong with civil disobedience and it surely remains to be seen if this campaign can train 10,000 people let alone the 100,000 they plan to. The campaign director at MoveOn.org, Ilyse Hogue, an organization that seems to be the key player in the 99% Spring, has recently written in the Nation that “Occupy is Dead” and that the 99% Spring will succeed where Occupy has failed – while mimicking their slogans. What they lack in actual knowledge of Occupy’s health, they certainly make up for in co-optive obviousness. Fertilized by decades of expanding inequality, Occupy needs to bloom and transform in the coming months, without getting mired in conflict with the various failed institutions of the organizational Left. However, those flowers of resistance will have to rise above the weeds of a dying order, including the 99% Spring dandelions.
The organizations comprising this effort are a litany of individual trade unions, both trade federations, environmental groups, and a range of non-profits, including groups who have done very respectable work, such as Jobs with Justice. There likely isn’t unified intent on behalf of every actor in this campaign. In Oakland, I have heard of some local participants in the training having serious reservations about the effort, but are participating in it nonetheless. The (potential) intent of these organizations, or the people they will train who will choose to lie down and get arrested, over some other tactics, isn’t the issue. What matters is the effect of this effort in the existing political context of counter-insurgency, the dismissive, patronizing and divisive terms in which this is being put, and the timing – right before the presidential election. If successful, this will undoubtedly serve as a wedge over tactics, exacerbating the “good protester / bad protester” trope that is always used, and that we have heard in the last few months already – from liberal Mayors to Fox News and everywhere in between. This attempts to bring organizations with sordid histories into Occupy, who will invariably try to wrestle legitimacy from a popular, radical movement, into political groups that are reformist at best, wholly complicit with the current order at worst. Hogue has stated that the plans for this effort pre-dated the formation of the Occupy movement in the U.S. The original goal, likely, to generate systemically non-threatening actions to draw attention to inequality and injustice – not to stop it, but to gather votes for Democrats, who, ostensibly, address those issues. Now that the Occupy movement has already done that, inadvertently, they seek to employ the same campaign to contain and defang that movement while preserving their positions as mostly poverty pimps and lazy labor bureaucrats that think strikes have lost their usefulness.
The existing powers, who some of these same progressives have consistently stood against (from their political position), deeply need to weld a safety valve on Occupy. Homeland Security, who has been “advising” police and city governments nationally and who coordinated the mid-November 18-city raid on the Occupy movement, released an article this week entitled “The Occupy Movement: Rising Anarchy” which states:
“So far, Occupy protests in the United States exhibit a mostly peaceful nature. However, certain elements within Occupy that have been seen both here and abroad have the potential to inflict major damage to governments, people and the private sector. If not carefully monitored and mitigated, these elements pose a significant threat to modern democracies.”
The existing order needs an institutionalized, liberal super-hero-on-a-leash to be used (whether the organizations involved all intend to or not) disrupt, discredit and destroy, from the inside, those elements who organized the November 2nd General Strike in Oakland, the militant demonstrations against police violence in New York in recent weeks, or community-led, anti-capitalist efforts against foreclosures in Chicago, or those that set barricades aflame in Seattle on December 12, 2011, or the scores of lesser-reported militant action that have taken place in the last half-year, out of nowhere. They also want to suck in the tens of thousands of young people all over the country, hoping to be able to do the same thing in their cities, into a more palatable strategy. Those in power would like to see nothing more than for 100,000 people to be trained to chain themselves to local bank branches for 6-9 months, hooting about their “greedy side,” get disillusioned at how fruitless that is, and go back to playing video games and downloading pirated music after Obama’s re-election.
Counter-Insurgency by any other name
This is not primarily about tactics, it is about politics. MoveOn.org and reactionary unions are not spearheading this for no reason. Are we to believe that the same unions that discourage their members from taking non-violent direct action during labor disputes, have found both the time and the energy to do a solid favor for the radical Left, by resuscitating a movement they have mistakenly diagnosed as dead? This is primarily about co-option and division, about sucking in a large cross-section of Occupy into Obama’s reelection campaign, watering down it’s radical politics, and using these mass trainings as a groundwork to put forward 100,000 “good protesters” to overshadow the “bad protesters” (who actually take personal risks and/or have radical politics), to ease the State’s ongoing campaign to pick us off one by one. In the words of MoveOn.org’s own campaign director, it is unabashedly and overtly a campaign of clear co-optation. This is not a riding of the coattails of a hip social movement; this will be a form of counter-insurgency. This will be used to disrupt, divide, discredit and destroy the Occupy movement. The parameters of acceptable protest will be imposed, not by some local non-profit starving for funding or wanting to remain relevant, but by city officials, the police, the major media, Homeland Security, Chambers of Commerce, police front groups like “Stand for Oakland,” and on down the line.
The Occupy movement has broken with the Left’s long-standing, self-defeating tendencies of meaningless, police-choreographed marches, 1-day pageant strikes, movement discourse that thinks the logic of the lowest common denominator that wins elections will win social justice (99% frames not withstanding), and non-violent civil disobedience designed to curry favorable media attention that gets de-contextualized and buried in the sea on nonsense entertainment that is the media. This scares the hell out of capital and the State. 99% Spring is not part of some nefarious conspiracy theory with Homeland Security or “the illuminati.” 99% Spring is not Wall Street. But they sure as hell are doing their work, whether some of them want to realize that or not.
“Just Say, No” (to government-sponsored co-optation)
A New York lawyer and some folks from OWS have made an attempt to turn the direct democracy of Occupy into a representation democracy of elected “Occupy politicians” who would have a new-Constitutional Convention this July 4th weekend in Philadelphia, comprised of elected officials from the Occupy Movement (“rising anarchy,” be damned). In short time Occupy Wall Street, from which these charlatans emerged, publicly denounced this attempted event at a General Assembly, along with Occupy Philadelphia. We have (imperfect) emerging direct, democratic institutions in our cities that reflect the will of the movement. We should use them. We should address the Operation 99% Spring Co-optation initiative the same way that New York and Philadelphia dealt with the “new founding fathers.” It is time to weed out our garden, so that real, social justice efforts can bloom.
My knowledge of the Occupy movement is derived primarily from my experience in Oakland. We have seen counter-insurgent efforts of this type before: when Mayor Quan’s Block-by-Block campaign organization tried to set up a “peace camp” right before the raid of the second Occupy Oakland encampment; when the one singular thing reporters wanted to know from press contacts before the December 12th Port Shutdown was “How can we get the protesters to obey police orders?” or their myopic fixation on the property destruction that they consider “violence;” to Quan’s unheeded call for the “leaders of the Occupy movement” to condemn said “violence” (by which she means people carrying shields who were hit with projectiles and beaten, while groups of children were tear-gassed): or how permits, taken out behind Occupy Oakland’s back, were used to arrest people for possession of blankets in Oscar Grant Plaza – some of whom are facing prison time; to Quan’s use of non-profits as a palatable alternative to a violent, discredited, and costly movement in a press-release and subsequent “volunteer fair.” All of this counter-insurgent misrepresentation, baiting, discreditation, and divisiveness is wearying and something we need to get better at combating. It has also only been partially effective. An Oakland Tribune poll found that 94% of Oaklanders support Occupy Oakland, even after all of the efforts I outlined above. We shouldn’t find a false complacency in this. It should be noted that even though most of these were attempts at co-optation, most came from clearly demarcated enemies.
99% Spring is attempting to graft itself to Occupy and hollow it out from the inside out, imposing rigid norms of non-violence and deference to police authority, while watering down our politics and introducing well-funded and trained institutions that are either fully invested in, or dependent upon, the existing power structure – and have the resources, connections and will of self-preservation to navigate the Occupy ship into a doldrums from which it will never emerge. Despite the undemocratic and self-defeating norm of consensus, we, as an Occupy movement, still have a sense of what we came here to do. We didn’t come here to sign petitions or to get Obama reelected. We didn’t come here to “have a voice in the system”; we came here to flip it on its head. We will not be co-opted. We should not have our tactics determined by the Democratic Party. We should not let ourselves be undermined from within. We have the capacity to call the 99% Spring out for what it is – a deluded attempt by the Obama campaign to kill two birds with one stone, to take the hundreds of thousands in the street demanding real democracy (laying bare the utter failure of the Obama administration and the American State) and turn it into a vehicle to re-elect him. So that he can bomb Iran with impunity, or continue to deport more undocumented immigrants than any other president, or cover-up more massacres in Afghanistan, or think that half-baked rhetoric about inequality coupled with more tax breaks for businesses represents “Change we can believe in.”
The Occupy movement may not have the power to change the talking points of duplicitous, liberal Mayors. It may not have the capacity to change the preoccupations of the mainstream media. It certainly doesn’t have much say in the manner in which the police try to suppress it. But we do have control over what goes on in our own house. These people only become part of the Occupy movement if we let them continue to say that they are out of one side of their mouth, while the other side says we are directionless, un-strategic and “dead.” Every single Occupation that doesn’t want to turn into nothing more than an ample pool of chumps registering people to vote for the same Obama administration that has declared an all-out war against us, should bring forward a resolution at their General Assembly to condemn this clear attempt to destroy our movement. This isn’t about violence versus non-violence; this is about autonomy versus co-optation. History will not forgive us if we let the 99% Spring Trojan horse into out movement so that the injustices we rose up against can be perpetuated with our own sanction, in our own name.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.
- Infiltration to Disrupt, Divide and Misdirect Is Widespread in Occupy (Part I) (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The 99% Spring aims to train 100,000 in direct action (dailykos.com)