Posts Tagged ‘Free Speech’


(We ran two earlier, considerably shorter versions of this post in years past under the title “Nazi Germany and the U.S.A.” As you might have noticed, things have changed a bit lately, hence this update.)

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REFERENCES TO FASCISM abound in American political discourse. Unfortunately, most of those using the term wouldn’t recognize fascism if it bit ’em on the butt, and use it as a catch-all pejorative for anything or anyone they dislike. But the term does have a specific meaning.

Very briefly, as exemplified in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, fascism is an extreme right-wing, phony-populist ideology and political-economic system (which Mussolini dubbed “the corporate state”), the key features of which are strident nationalism, militarism and military worship, a one-party state, a dictatorial leader with a personality cult, a capitalist economic system integrated with state institutions (to the mutual benefit of capitalists and fascist politicians), suppression of independent unions, government use of media as a propaganda instrument, suppression of civil liberties and all forms of political opposition, and an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.

The racism, racial scapegoating, and racial persecution that permeated German fascism are not part of fascism per se, unless one wants to classify extreme nationalism as racism. There’s a case to be made for that, but for now let’s consider them as separate maladies. But since the topic of this post is the comparison of Nazi Germany to the U.S.A., we will consider racism as well as fascism in the following comparisons.

Getting to the headline topic, just how similar is the present-day U.S. to Nazi Germany? Let’s look at specifics:

 

Nationalism

  • Nazi Germany: See Deutschland Uber Alles, Triumph of the WillLebensraum, etc., etc.
  • US.: “American exceptionalism,” “God Bless America,” “Manifest Destiny,” “Make America Great Again,” etc., etc. From ideological justification for invasions, territorial annexations, and military interventions to everyday trivialities (Nazi armbands in Deutschland, flag worship in “the land of the free”), America gives Nazi Germany a run for its money as regards nationalism.

Corporate Capitalist Domination

  • Nazi Germany: The German industrialists (notably the Krup armaments company) were key Hitler backers, and benefited handsomely from his rule.
  • U.S.: Trump has filled his cabinet with people from the fossil fuels industry (e.g., Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil) and big banks, notably Goldman Sachs (Steven Mnuchin, et al.); Obama’s primary 2008 backers were Wall Street firms and the pharmaceutical companies; Bush/Cheney’s were the energy companies.

Of late, Trump’s slavishness to the interests of the big corporations has become blindingly obvious with his dismantling of clean air and water regulations (which safeguard public health while impeding corporate profits), his attempts to open millions of acres of federal lands (including national monuments) to desecration by mining and fossil fuels corporations, his (and other Republicans’) attempts to restrict access to Medicaid, to allow the insurance industry to discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions, and his refusal to do anything about the obscene price of prescription drugs and the obscene profits of the drug companies. (Trump’s “plan” to reduce drug costs was complete bullshit designed only to string along the gullible while providing cover for the continued gouging of the public by big pharma. The fact that pharma stocks spiked immediately after Trump released the details of his “plan” tells you all you need to know about it.)

Militarism

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis constructed the world’s most powerful military in six years (1933-1939).
  • U.S.: Last year, U.S. military spending accounted for approximately 43% of the world’s military spending, and the U.S. has hundreds of military bases overseas. With the aid of his accomplices in Congress, Trump just boosted the “defense” budget to approximately $700 billion, not including the tens of billions in the “black budget.” The figures aren’t final yet, but it’s a good bet that current U.S. military spending not only considerably outstrips any other nation’s (China’s is hard to judge because of secrecy, but may be as high as $250 billion), but could quite possibly now account for a full half of the world’s military spending.

Military Worship

  • Nazi Germany: Do I really need to cite examples?
  • U.S.: “Support our troops!” “Our heroes!” “Thank you for your service!”

Military worship is almost a state religion in the United States. Tune in to almost any baseball broadcast for abundant examples; this worship even extends to those on what passes for the left in the United States: Michael Moore, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow.

Military Aggression

  • Nazi Germany: “Lebensraum” — you know the rest.
  • U.S.: To cite only examples from the last half-century where there were significant numbers of “boots on the ground,” Vietnam (1959-1973), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Grenada (1983), Panama (1988-1990), Kuwait/Iraq (1991), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2003-2011). And this doesn’t even include bombing campaigns and drone warfare. Then there’s the matter of proxy aggression enabled via logistical and intelligence support by the U.S. The most horrific current example is the brutal Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war.

Misuse and Misrepresentation of Science

  • The Nazis suppressed “Jewish science,” financially supported and sponsored fringe pseudoscience (into the supposed superiority of Aryans, among other things), and based government policy (including the Holocaust)  on that fringe pseudoscience. They mutilated science to force it to fit into the procrustean bed of their ideology, and millions died as a result.
  • U.S.: Here, the misleading “science” is supplied by the major corporations and their bought-and-paid-for “scientists,” who denigrate real science while promoting corporate-sponsored studies that promote corporate interests. Prominent examples include the efforts of the tobacco, pesticide, and sugar industries to present their deadly products as safe while vilifying scientists whose research demonstrated the actual effects of their products. Tens of millions have almost certainly died as a result.

Currently, the most serious such assault on science is corporate-funded climate change denial. It’s been obvious for decades that climate change is real and a deadly threat, and over 95% of climate scientists agree — and have agreed for decades — that it is. Yet the fossil fuels corporations have funded and promoted the work of a very few contrarians (whose work doesn’t, upon examination, hold up) to cast doubt on climate change science so that they can wring every last dollar from coal, oil, and natural gas.

Now, official U.S. policy is based on climate change denial pseudoscience. Trump has filled his administration with science deniers, especially climate change deniers, notably Scott Pruitt at the EPA, who are busy undoing clean air and water regulations, are doing their best to promote use of dirty fossil fuels, and are discouraging the use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Trump has even proposed public subsidies for money-losing coal-fired power plants that utilities are planning to close.

As in Nazi Germany, government policy is based on willful ignorance of science. Millions upon millions will almost certainly die as a result, unless the government drastically reverses its course and implements evidence-based policies based on the work of climate scientists.

(For more on all this, see Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology, and Politics in Science [revised & expanded], by John Grant. Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published Corrupted Science.)

Incarceration and Slave Labor

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis built concentration camps holding (and exterminating) millions, and employing slave labor.
  • U.S.: In comparison, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, far outstripping China, with only Russia’s incarceration rate being anywhere near that of the U.S. Slave labor is routine in America’s prisons.

Justice System

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis had a three-tiered “justice” system: one for the rich and powerful (who could get away with virtually anything); a second for the average citizen; a third for despised minorities and political foes.
  • U.S.: There’s also three-tiered “justice” system here: one for the rich and powerful (who can get away with virtually anything); a second for middle-class white people; and a third for almost everyone else.

Obama’s “Justice” Department never even investigated the largest financial fraud in world history that led to the 2008 crash, let alone charged those responsible. Prosecutors routinely pile on charges against average citizens to blackmail them into plea bargaining and pleading guilty to charges of which they’re not guilty; it’s no accident that America’s prisons are filled with poor people, especially blacks and hispanics who can’t afford bail and good legal representation; at the same time cops routinely get away with murder of blacks, hispanics, and poor whites.

Suppression of Unions

  • Nazi Germany: In Nazi Germany, the government tightly controlled the unions, and used them as arms of the state.
  • U.S.: In the U.S., the government merely suppresses strikes when “in the national interest” and allows corporations to crush union organizing drives through intimidation and by firing anyone who dares to attempt to organize.  Of late, the Supremes have further crippled the unions by outlawing the collection of fees from nonmembers who the unions represent in collective bargaining. (Admittedly, the sell-out, hierarchical, visionless AFL-CIO unions bear considerable responsibility for this sad state of affairs.)

Free Speech

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression of free speech; direct government control of the media.
  • U.S.: There’s near total corporate control of the media, and suppression of free speech when it shows the faintest sign of threatening, or even embarrassing, the government or the corporations that control the government. The Obama and Trump administrations have viciously gone after whistleblowers and reporters who have exposed their wrongdoing — Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, James Risen, Reality Winner, et al.

Trump routinely attacks journalists who report anything even slightly embarrassing to him, or who point out any of his almost innumerable lies. Of late, he’s upped the ante by attacking the press as the “enemy of the American people” in a transparent attempt to intimidate the press and provoke the anger of his worshippers.

As well, Trump routinely lies about damn near everything, great and small — Politifact clasifies 69% of his statements as being “mostly false” or worse — counting on the fact that the press (e.g., New York Times) is reluctant to label his lies as lies, allowing Trump to muddy the waters and mislead the public.

Fortunately, Trump doesn’t have complete control of the media. But he does have the sycophantic tools at Fox “News,” Breitbart, InfoWars, and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber. Almost worse, 67% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media sites such as Facebook, with an unknown percentage getting all of their news from these platforms (predominantly Facebook). What makes this dangerous is that Facebook feeds them news reports that, based on their previous “likes” and other use, reinforces their existing beliefs and prejudices.

Add that to Trump’s denigration of the free press and you end up with a significant part of the population that’s woefully misinformed.

Other Civil Liberties

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression.
  • U.S.: Suppression when individuals exercising those liberties show the faintest sign of threatening the government or the corporations that control the government. The coordinated suppression (by the FBI, local governments, and corporate security agencies) of the Occupy Wall Street Movement nationwide in 2011/2012 is the latest large-scale example.

Spying Upon Citizens

  • Nazi Germany: The government had a massive eavesdropping operation. No citizen was safe from government scrutiny.
  • U.S.: The FBI, DHS, and NSA — and let’s not forget Facebook — make the Nazis look like amateurs.

Free Elections

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression
  • U.S.: U.S. citizens have the opportunity to vote for the millionaire and billionaire representatives (over half of Congress at last count, plus the president) of the two wings of the property party: one wing being authoritarian, corporate-servant, science-denying theofascists, the other wing being merely authoritarian corporate servants who routinely betray those who elect them. As well, the Republicans are doing their best to destroy what passes for American electoral democracy through egregious gerrymandering and voter suppression on an industrial scale.

Racism

  • Nazi Germany: Do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.: (We’ll restrict ourselves here to the present.) The “justice” system imprisons blacks at a rate over five times that of whites, and hispanics at a rate about 30% higher than whites. Cops routinely get away with murdering poor people, a disproportionate number of them blacks and hispanics. Median household wealth for whites is 13 times that of blacks. And median household income for whites is 60% higher than that of blacks and hispanics.

As well, the Republican Party’s longtime “southern strategy” — and its largely successful attempts to disenfranchise black voters — was and still is designed to appeal to racists.

Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and racial scapegoating of Mexicans and other hispanics is merely the cherry atop this merde sundae.

Victimhood

  • Nazi Germany: Hitler and the Nazis whined constantly about the German people being victims of the Jews (under 1% of the population at the time) and the supposedly vast Jewish conspiracy permeating all facets of social and economic life, even depicting Jewish people in propaganda films as vermin: rats. In short, Hitler stirred up hatred of a powerless minority by presenting them as victimizers rather than victims.
  • U.S.: Trump whines constantly about an “invasion” of Latin American immigrants — fleeing horrific violence and political and social repression — who he portrays as rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and gang members endangering the nation through a supposed crime wave. (In reality, per capita criminal activity by Latin American immigrants is lower than that of Americans as a whole.)  In short, Trump stirs up hatred of a powerless minority by presenting them as victimizers rather than victims.

Personality Cult

  • Nazi Germany: Again, do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.A.: Trump worship is rampant on the evangelical right, who see this steaming pile of viciousness, hypocrisy, and narcissism as the means to their theofascist ends. And Trump encourages such sycophancy. The cringe-inducing filmed cabinet meeting last year in which cabinet secretaries heaped fulsome (in both senses of the word) praise and thanks on the dear leader is but one example. Another example: Last July presidential aide and Trump toady Steven Miller said on Fox “News” that Trump — who would likely flunk a fourth-grade English test — was the “best orator to hold that office [president] in generations.” All hail the Glorious Leader.

 

Yes, there still are significant differences between Nazi Germany and the U.S.A.  But they grow smaller with every passing day.


Over the last week, we’ve seen several violent clashes between Nazis and counterprotesters. (Nazis might call themselves “alt-right,” “white separatists,” etc. Rather than give any credence to such rebranding, we’re calling them what they are: Nazis.)

It’s necessary to resist these losers, these tools of the powers that be. Violent defense of self and others is perfectly justified to repel physical attack.

But physically attacking people who are merely exercising free speech, no matter how loathsome, is never justified.

Last night, I saw a video of antifa protesters physically attacking Nazi organizer Richard Spencer, who was standing before microphones answering reporters’ questions. I was horrified on several counts:

  • Either you believe in free speech or you don’t. The principle of free speech applies to even the most loathsome speech — especially to the most loathsome speech. Once you start making exceptions for speech you really hate, it’s a very slippery slope to banning speech that anyone really hates, in which case freedom of speech vanishes. (“Anyone” here applies to any individual, group, or organization with the physical power to intimidate or beat others into silence.)

Another antifa protestor provided exactly the justification you’d expect for the assault on free speech, labeling it “violent speech,” saying that it was too “dangerous” to be allowed. (Speech is speech. Violence — physical attack on people or animals — is violence. These two wildly different things are not the same, and mere conflation of the two is not a convincing argument that they are.)

This is a broken record, the same rationale cited by every thug and bully since time immemorial who wants to deny others the right to free speech.

To bolster their position, one half expects antifas to begin citing the ancient half-witticism by authoritarian jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. concerning “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” (Again, political speech is political speech; yelling fire isn’t — short of transubstantiation, it’s impossible to make the two identical.)

  • The antifa protestors physically attacking Spencer do not understand the most basic anarchist principle: The ends do not justify the means; rather, means determine ends. If you employ violent, authoritarian means, you’ll achieve violent authoritarian ends. In this case, the attacking antifas abrogated to themselves the right to determine what others can say. This is straight up authoritarianism.

Beyond that, there’s the simple matter of optics.

  • The video of the attack was shocking and repulsive. How in hell did those guilty of the assault expect people who witnessed the assault to react to it? “Good for you! A group of you beat up an unarmed man to prevent him from speaking! What a display of principles!”

As others have pointed out, such assaults give the moral high ground to the Nazis — the only moral high ground they can claim. Those who attacked Spencer achieved the near impossible: making a Nazi appear sympathetic.

In a related matter, I saw an interview with an antifa protestor blithely talking about deliberate property destruction during demonstrations. Yes, yes, yes, property is just property, vandalism and sabotage are not violence because they’re directed against things, not people or animals. Agreed.

But again, don’t they understand the optics?

When people see protesters smashing in the windows of, for instance, a Starbucks, it’s a fair bet that a good majority of them won’t say to themselves, “Another inspiring blow against global capitalism!” It seems more likely that they’ll say, “Why the tantrum? Why don’t they just grow up?”

An important matter here that no one seems to be talking about is that such property destruction is not a sign of strength; not a sign of good planning; not a sign of the organization necessary to the free, egalitarian reorganization of society.

Rather, wanton property destruction is a sign of weakness.

Real revolutionary change involves taking over existing structures (including physical structures) and transforming them, not wantonly trashing them — which is a sign that you’re letting off steam because you have no idea of how to get from here to there, no idea of how to get from this authoritarian, racist, sexist, exploitative society to the the society that you say you want.

Again — and it shouldn’t be necessary to say this — defending yourself and others from violent assault from fascists is completely justified.

But don’t confuse that with suppressing free speech.

Please realize that the ends do not justify the means. Means determine ends.


(We ran an earlier, considerably shorter version of this post in September 2013. As you might have noticed, things have changed a bit since then.)

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REFERENCES TO FASCISM abound in American political discourse. Unfortunately, most of those using the term wouldn’t recognize fascism if it bit ’em on the butt, and use it as a catch-all pejorative for anything or anyone they dislike. But the term does have a specific meaning.

Very briefly, as exemplified in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, fascism is an extreme right political-economic system (which Mussolini dubbed “the corporate state”), the key features of which are strident nationalism, militarism and military worship, a one-party state, a dictatorial leader with a personality cult, a capitalist economic system integrated with state institutions (to the mutual benefit of capitalists and fascist politicians), suppression of independent unions, suppression of civil liberties and all forms of political opposition, and an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy.

The racism, racial scapegoating, and racial persecution that permeated German fascism are not part of fascism per se, unless one wants to classify extreme nationalism as racism. There’s a case to be made for that, but for now let’s consider them as separate maladies. As well, since the topic of this post is the comparison of Nazi Germany to the U.S.A., we will consider racism as well as fascism in the comparisons.

Getting to the headline topic, just how similar is the present-day U.S. to Nazi Germany? Let’s look at specifics:

Nationalism

  • Nazi Germany: Deutschland Uber Alles
  • US.: “American exceptionalism,” “God Bless America,” “Manifest Destiny,” etc.

Corporate Capitalist Domination

  • Nazi Germany: The German industrialists (notably the Krup armaments company) were key Hitler backers, and benefited handsomely from his rule.
  • U.S.: Trump has filled his cabinet with people from the fossil fuel industries (Rex Tillerson, et al.) and big banks, notably Goldman Sachs (Steven Mnuchin, et al.); Obama’s primary 2008 backers were Wall Street firms and the pharmaceutical companies; Bush/Cheney’s were the energy companies’ boys, etc.

Militarism

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis  constructed the world’s most powerful military in six years (1933-1939).
  • U.S.: U.S. military spending currently accounts for approximately 43% of the world’s military spending; the U.S. has hundreds of military bases overseas; and Trump wants to increase military spending.

Military Worship

  • Nazi Germany: Do I really need to cite examples?
  • U.S.: “Support our troops!” “Our heroes!” “Thank you for your service!” Military worship is almost a state religion in the United States. Tune in to almost any baseball broadcast for abundant examples; this worship even extends to those on what passes for the left in the United States: Michael Moore, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow.

Military Aggression

  • Nazi Germany: “Lebensraum”–you know the rest.
  • U.S.: To cite only examples from the last half century where there were significant numbers of “boots on the ground,” Vietnam (1959-1973), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Grenada (1983), Panama (1988-1990), Kuwait/Iraq (1991), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2003-2011). And this doesn’t even include bombing campaigns and drone warfare.

Incarceration Rates

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis built concentration camps holding (and exterminating) millions, and employing slave labor.
  • U.S.: In comparison, the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, far outstripping China, with only Russia’s incarceration rate being anywhere near that of the U.S. Slave labor is routine in America’s prisons.

Justice System

  • Nazi Germany: The Nazis had a three-tiered “justice” system: one for the rich and powerful (who could get away with virtually anything); a second for the average citizen; a third for despised minorities and political foes.
  • U.S.: There’s also a three-tiered “justice” system here: one for the rich and powerful (who can get away with virtually anything); a second for middle-class white people; and a third for everyone else. It’s no accident that America’s prisons are filled with poor people, especially blacks and hispanics. At the same time cops routinely get away with murder of blacks, hispanics, and poor whites. Obama’s “Justice” Department never even investigated the largest financial fraud in world history that led to the 2008 crash, let alone charged those responsible; prosecutors routinely pile on charges against average citizens to blackmail them into plea bargaining and pleading guilty to charges of which they’re not guilty; and the Obama Administration (and now the Trump Administration) viciously goes after whistleblowers and reporters, who have exposed its wrongdoing–Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, James Risen, et al.

Suppression of Unions

  • Nazi Germany: In Nazi Germany, the government tightly controlled the unions, and used them as arms of the state.
  • U.S.: In the U.S., the government merely suppresses strikes when “in the national interest” and allows corporations to crush union organizing drives through intimidation and by firing anyone who dares to attempt to organize. (Admittedly, the sell-out, visionless AFL-CIO unions bear considerable responsibility for this sad state of affairs.)

Free Speech

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression of free speech; direct government control of the media.
  • U.S.: There’s near total corporate control of the media, and suppression of free speech when it shows the faintest sign of threatening, or even embarrassing, the government or the corporations that control the government. Obama’s war on whistleblowers and reporters — and now Trump’s — is only the latest example. Of late, Trump has upped the ante, routinely attacking journalists who report anything even slightly embarrassing to him, or who point out any of his almost innumerable lies.

Other Civil Liberties

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression.
  • U.S.: Suppression when individuals exercising those liberties show the faintest sign of threatening the government or the corporations that control the government. The coordinated suppression (by the FBI, local governments, and corporate security agencies) of the Occupy Movement nationwide is the latest large-scale example.

Government Spying

  • Nazi Germany: The government had a massive eavesdropping operation. No citizen was safe from government scrutiny.
  • U.S.: The FBI, DHS, and NSA make the Nazis look like amateurs.

Free Elections

  • Nazi Germany: Total suppression
  • U.S.: U.S. citizens have the opportunity to vote for the millionaire representatives (over half of congress at last count) of the two wings of the property party: one wing being authoritarian, corporate-servant, crazy theofascists (yes, they meet the definition), the other wing being merely authoritarian corporate servants who routinely betray those who elect them. It’s also pertinent that the Republicans are doing their best to destroy what passes for American electoral democracy through egregious gerrymandering and voter suppression on an industrial scale.

Racism

  • Nazi Germany: Do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.A.: (We’ll restrict ourselves here to the present.) The “justice” system imprisons blacks at a rate over five times that of whites, and hispanics at a rate about 30% higher than whites. Cops routinely get away with murdering poor people, a disproportionate number of them blacks and hispanics. Median household wealth for whites is 13 times that of blacks. And median household income for whites is 60% higher than that of blacks and hispanics. Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and racial scapegoating of Mexicans is merely the cherry atop this merde sundae.

Personality Cult

  • Nazi Germany: Again, do I even need to cite details?
  • U.S.A.: Trump worship is rampant on the evangelical right, who see this steaming pile of hypocrisy and narcissism as the means to their vicious ends. And Trump encourages sycophancy. The cringe-inducing filmed cabinet meeting a couple of months ago in which the cabinet secretaries heaped fulsome (in both senses of the word) praise and thanks on the dear leader is but one example. Another example: Yesterday, presidential aide and Trump toady Steven Miller said on Fox “News” that Trump — who would likely flunk a fourth-grade English test — was the “best orator to hold that office [president] in generations.”

Yes, there are very significant differences between Nazi Germany and the U.S. But they seem to grow smaller with every passing day.


wendell phillips

“The time to assert rights is when they are denied, the men to assert them are those to whom they are denied. The community which dares not protect its humblest and most hated member in the free utterance of his opinions, no matter how false or hateful, is only a gang of slaves.”

–Wendell Phillips, “Mobs and Education”

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Quoted in The Heretic’s Handbook of Quotations

Front cover of "The Heretic's Handbook of Quotations


Anarchist Cookbook front coverby Keith McHenry, primary author of the new Anarchist Cookbook, author of Hungry for Peace, and co-founder of the international Food Not Bombs movement

 

The government and business leaders of Santa Cruz, California have stepped up their decades-long effort to drive the city’s poor and homeless out of town. The most dramatic assault this year was the June 2015 closing of the Homeless Service Center, which took away showers, meals and a safe place to sleep for hundreds of people who depended on the facility.

At the same time, the city continued its aggressive enforcement of the city’s sleeping ban ordinances. The city council also voted to implement a more aggressive version of the park closing law adding harsher stay-away provisions. The city also installed “mosquito boxes” in areas frequented by the homeless. The boxes cost about $1,500 each, and.according to J.M. Brown of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, they “let out a high frequency sound that is so annoying it causes headaches.”

In response to the closure of the service center, homeless people and their supporters began organizing, starting with a campaign of “Emergency Breakfasts” at the high visibility intersection next to the closed Service Center, followed by weekly sleep-outs at City Hall.

While it was attempting to make life so miserable for homeless people that they’d leave town, the city council also increased restrictions on street artists, many of whom not only make their living preforming or vending on Santa Cruz’s main commercial street, Pacific Avenue, but also relied on the closed service center. These people were trying to make ends meet, to make a meager honest living. The city council decided to make that much harder for them to do. In the fall of 2013, it drastically restricted free assembly by placing 61 performance and free speech “boxes” along Pacific Avenue. Not long after, the city spray painted “blue boxes” on the sidewalk. Security guards and the police enforced the law making people move after one hour, ticketing those outside the blue boxes or whose layouts or performance spaces were too large to fit in the designated spaces.

Pacific Avenue artists have become globally loved performers and visual artists. Among them are Artis the Spoonman, who has played with Frank Zappa and Soundgarden; the Flying Karamazov, Tom Noddy,’s Magic Bubbles, and The Great Morgani. I also painted along the avenue in the 1970s and often paint on Pacific today.

On Tuesday, February 18, 2015 The Great Morgani announced he would no longer perform in downtown Santa Cruz “due to the recent strict enforcement of current ordinances” passed by the Santa Cruz City Council. Six months later the “blue boxes” started to disappear.

Artists would discover that their favorite location had been erased. In August, artists began to resist the elimination of their “free expression” zones by creating their own. According to journalist Bradley Allen, “The action of painting blue boxes comes on the heels of two well-known artists, Joff Jones and Alex Skeleton, being arrested by Santa Cruz Police on August 20 for displaying art in front of [the] Forever 21 [shop] which, as of recently, is not allowed since the boxes there were removed. A few days later on Sunday, the artists defiantly returned to the sidewalk in front of Forever 21 dressed in Colonial attire with displays of their artwork and a painting of the First Amendment. They were not arrested a second time.”

Jeff Jones said:

My art expresses my social, religious, and existential views. My first amendment guarantees me the right to express that in a public space. My friend Alex and I were arrested yesterday for exercising these rights. . . . Stand up for your rights!!!

They arrested me, too. Santa Cruz Police arrested my partner and me during a sleep out at city hall on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, charging us with felony vandalism and conspiracy to commit a crime. Officers said we had spray-painted new blue boxes in 33 locations throughout the downtown area.

The felony (!) charges are still pending. We go to court in Santa Cruz at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, September 30, 2015.

Santa Cruz police spokeswoman Joyce Blaschke said:

The blue corner marks that Abbi Samuels and Jonathan Keith McHenry made were similar to official city markings for street vendor areas. Authorities noticed the 33 markings and caught the pair by reviewing surveillance footage. In addition to vandalizing the city sidewalks, the act undermines the city’s program to establish safe, orderly and fair use of the downtown sidewalk space.

The morning after the new blue boxes appeared, city officials were outside Forever 21 in a state of confusion, as they tried to figure out why the performance spaces they had removed a week or two before had suddenly reappeared.

And what harm came from this? Low-income people have places to earn a few dollars. A guitarist sang outside New Leaf, and was excited that a new blue box had been placed at exactly the right location for him to reach an appreciative audience.

Street performance thrived on Pacific Avenue for years with the community working out conflicts as neighbors. Tom Noddy and his Bubble Magic show started on Pacific Avenue. Noddy took his performance art to Late Show with David Letterman and fills auditoriums in cities all around the world. He helped create the Street Performing Voluntary Guidelines negotiating with members of the Downtown Neighbors’ Association and a group of 35 street performers. Noddy says the guide lines “allowed us all to use common sense and try to keep petty disagreements from getting us all into court, or city council chambers.” The informal relationship lasted for years, but corporate pressure changed all that through the passage of laws restricting street performance.

Tom ScribnerWhen the possibility of an anti-street performance ordinance first surfaced decades ago, Nobby shared the news with musical saw player Tom Scribner. The city had already placed a monument to Scribner on Pacific Avenue, showing him playing the saw. Noddy says Scribner spoke at one city council meeting saying if the law passed he would set up next to the monument of himself and be the first to be arrested. Noddy thinks that if Scribner had been arrested, it would have made national news. So, for the time being, the city tabled the ordinance.

While the struggle against free expression on Pacific Avenue has a long history, the most recent drama started on September 10, 2013 when the Santa Cruz City Council passed an amendment to the city code that restricts the space allotted for “noncommercial use of city streets and sidewalks” (i.e. street performance) to 12 square feet per individual or group.

After the council vote, Dixie Mills, founder of the Santa Cruz Fringe Festival, noted:

This new ordinance will silently kill the street performer/vendor scene that is so much a part of the flavor of downtown Santa Cruz. If the ordinance just banned this kind of activity all together, there would probably be a big uproar. This way these activities are still allowed, but they are so constrained with rules that slowly but surely we will have a quieter, and less interesting downtown. It seems to me the spirit of Santa Cruz would want to attract these artists instead of making it difficult or impossible for them to share their talents.

Conflicts between street artists and business leaders forced the issue to be revisited by the city council in the fall of 2014. The new changes, which were unanimously approved on October 28, 2014 and passed at the November 18, 2014 council meeting, stated that the city would set up 61 color-coded spaces along Pacific Avenue where vendors and performers could stay for up to one hour.

The city never did place 61 color coded spaces along Pacific Avenue, but it did paint a couple of dozen blue boxes on the street side of the sidewalks. During the year after the policy was adopted, a number of these spaces were quietly erased without public input, sparking new protests by local artists. It should not have been a surprise to anyone that artists would resist as police and hosts used the disappearance of popular blue box locations as a way to drive them off Pacific Avenue.

Private control of public space is one of many threats to democracy, free expression and the health of our communities. Confiscation of public space for private use is common across the United States. This confiscation has limited efforts to communicate about such important issues as climate destruction, war, racism, poverty and civil liberties. It has limited the public’s access to unique expressions of art, music and theater. It has robbed people of the right to make a living selling their artistic talents. It is a threat to the soul of our community.

I have spent my adult life defending the right to communicate with the community in public. Macy’s and Filene’s were among the stores that first confiscated public space in the United States with the formation of Downtown Crossing in 1979 in Boston. Before that, the main obstacle to sharing alternative ideas and culture with the public had been the construction of shopping malls. Malls lured people away from the public spaces created by downtown shopping districts to privately owned spaces that banned or limited the distribution of information, the selling of art or street performances. Malls became a gatekeeper to ideas and free expression. Corporate friendly messages and art were permitted. Any challenge to corporate ideology was eliminated.

Downtown Crossing brought this concept of mall censorship to public spaces. An invisible blue line was drawn around the center of Boston in the area with the most pedestrian traffic, an area where those with little money or resources could have an audience of thousands.

I discovered this invisible line one morning when I started to set up a literature table outside the Park Street Subway Station in the Boston Commons. Police arrived and told me I had to move and directed me to an office on Washington Street where I could pay hundreds of dollars a week to rent a place on the sidewalk. I refused. I had been setting up my literature at that location for years. After all, there was even a monument to the idea that the Commons was to remain free for all forever. After more threats of arrest, I finally set up just over the invisible “blue line.”

Food Not Bombs in Golden Gate ParkOn August 15, 1988, official efforts to remove uncomfortable speech came with the arrest of nine Food Not Bombs volunteers who were sharing free vegan meals and peace literature at the entrance to Golden Gate Park.

During the arrests of 1988, San Francisco Police Spokesperson Jerry Senkir explained to the media that, “There has to be some kind of (police) action. At this point it seems to be a political statement on their part not a food give away issue.”

The effort to drive Food Not Bombs’ message out of sight continued in 1989 after 27 days of occupying Civic Center Plaza. Police Captain Dennis Martel told the media that, “They (Food Not Bombs) don’t want to feed the hungry, they just want to make an anarchist type statement and we aren’t going to allow it.”

The San Francisco police made over 1,000 arrests in eight years of seeking to silence the message that we could end hunger and homelessness if the country changed its priorities.

One of the first “designated protest zones” or Free Speech [restriction] Zones was declared by Mayor Andrew Young in Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Free Speech Cages or First Amendment Areas started to become the norm at public events or outside government offices.

Authorities justified their restriction of free speech and free assembly through the Broken Window Theory of criminology first introduced in a March 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly by social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The “theory” (more accurately a poorly tested hypothesis) is that trash and litter promote the accumulation of more trash and litter and the social breakdown that goes with such dilapidation. In the case of free speech and free assemply restrictions, authorities are equating political demonstrations, political speech, street vending, and street performances with trash, litter, and dilapidation, while providing no evidence that such things are synonymous.

This social “theory” helped lead to numerous “quality of lfe” laws and policies across the nation, including anti-street vending, busking and panhandling campaigns, sleeping bans, sit-lie laws, and public expression limitations exemplified by “blue boxes” in Orlando, Florida and Santa Cruz, California.

Things sure have changed in Santa Cruz. The city placed Marghe McMahon’s 1978 sculpture of anarchist street performer Tom Scribner outside Bookshop Santa Cruz to honor the street culture of Pacific Avenue–a monument to the very culture the city seeks to eliminate today.

The spirit of tom and other artists has made Santa Cruz an inspirational place attracting visionaries and tourists from all over the world. Tom Scribner was one of those who encouraged a culture that championed free expression. The retired logger could be heard playing his saw on Pacific Avenue during the 1970’s until his death in 1982. His radical ideas resonated with the street community that made Pacific Avenue home. After all, he had spent a lifetime defending free speech. Tom wrote of an earlier free speech struggle in Washington state:

Weeks earlier, the local police had begun arresting IWW’s for speaking on the street. There had been a general strike of the Shingle Weavers A.F.L. and the I.W.W. at the time and free speech had been banned. Well, the minute the organization heard about that, Wobblies began pouring into Everett to continue the campaign. Wobblies came from near and far just to “speak on the street.” Of course, they had to be arrested for such a heinous crime so the jails were full.

We need the spirit of Tom Scribner and the 1960s Free Speech movement to rise again. The confiscation of public space and limits to free expression have had far wider impact than most people realize. Imaginative expressions of art, music, and theater have been crushed. Low income visionaries have been gagged, and many conversations have been limited or eliminated by anti-free speech/anti-free assembly policies. These include conversations about climate destruction, the funding and waging of wars, the transfer of our economic health to the wealthy, corporate domination of society and other threats to our freedom have been silenced. Reclaiming pubic space is crucial. A free society depends on it!

Supporters are organizing A Festival of the Streets the day that we’re scheduled to be arraigned. It will be held on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at 8:00 a.m. outside the Superior Court of California-Santa Cruz, 701 Ocean St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. We hope to see you there.

We’re not criminals. The real criminals are those seeking to drive the artists off of Pacific Avenue. If we don’t start to reclaim public space, we’ll likely find that free expression and freedom itself will continue to erode away until they no longer exist. No wonder city officials took the replacement of 33 blue box “free speech zones” so seriously. It is a direct threat to their power. Power that they are misusing in the interest of corporate domination of our community.


de Cleyre

“Make no laws whatever concerning speech and speech will be free; so soon as you make a declaration on paper that speech shall be free, you will have a hundred lawyers proving that ‘freedom does not mean abuse, nor liberty license’; and they will define and define freedom out of existence. Let the guarantee of free speech be in every man’s determination to use it, and we shall have no need of paper declarations. On the other hand, so long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; . . .”

–Voltairine de Cleyre, “Anarchism and American Traditions”


Voltaire

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

–Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778)