2011 - %3, October

Oakland Police Under a Cloud for Violent Occupy Crackdown

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 8:49 PM PDT

As Iraq war vet Scott Olsen awaits surgery in an Oakland hospital, Mayor Jean Quan and the Oakland Police Department are under a cloud for their aggressive crackdown against #OccupyOakland on Tuesday night. Olsen was struck in the head by a projectile fired by police then in a violent clash with protesters. Precisely what struck him remains unclear, but the Guardian reported yesterday that a photographer documenting Olsen's injury went back to the scene and found a bean-bag round next to the bloody spot where Olsen went down.

Questions are swirling as to whether Oakland police used excessive force and violated the department's own crowd-control policy. The OPD denies that Oakland officers used flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets against the crowd, despite allegations to the contrary. (OPD spokespeople suggested that other law enforcement agencies may have used them.) Interim police chief Howard Jordan has admitted to the use of tear gas and bean bags, saying his officers used them as a defense against bottles, rocks, and paint thrown by angry protesters.

On Tuesday night I was at the intersection of 14th and Broadway, just outside Frank Ogawa Plaza, for several harrowing hours: I witnessed police officers firing projectiles indiscriminately into the crowd—not carefully targeting instigators, as OPD policy dictates. Freelance reporter Angela Bacca, who was also there, told me that upon arriving she "got tear gassed almost immediately," and then saw police fire bean-bag rounds at a woman carrying water to demonstrators to help them rinse tear gas out of their eyes and off their clothes. "They were just shooting at people trying to get them out of the way," Bacca said. "I definitely thought it was unprovoked." The OPD has not responded to requests from Mother Jones by phone and email for comment.

According to the OPD's policy, projectile bean bags can only be used narrowly and not for general crowd control:

Less lethal specialty impact weapons that are designed to be direct fired at a specific target ("Direct Fired SIM") including but not limited to flexible batons ("bean bags"), shall not be used for crowd management, crowd control or crowd dispersal during demonstrations or crowd events. (PDF)

The OPD policy spells out three specific circumstances in which bean bags can be fired on people: "against a specific individual who is engaging in conduct that poses an immediate threat of loss of life or serious bodily injury to themselves, officers or the general public when other means of arrest are unsafe," or "who is engaging in substantial destruction of property which creates an imminent risk to the lives or safety of other persons," and only "when the individual can be targeted without endangering other crowd members or bystanders." 

TKTK: Schuyler Erle/TwitterA shot-filled bean-bag round held by a protester at Frank Ogawa Plaza Tuesday night. Schuyler Erle/TwitterThis isn't the first time the Oakland Police Department has been accused of excessive force. After demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Oakland in June to protest the death of Oscar Grant, the young black man shot and killed by a BART transit officer in 2009, the National Lawyers Guild filed a lawsuit accusing Oakland police of violating its crowd-control policy. The Guild put a statement on its Web site Wednesday condemning the use of force by OPD during Tuesday's clash, and said the department may have violated the same policy by deploying bean-bag rounds that night.

Mayor Quan has promised an investigation into police misconduct and expressed her "deepest concern for all of those who were injured." On Wednesday she made her first public appearance since returning from a trip to Washington, DC, where she said she wanted to "prevent last night's events from happening again" and announced plans to visit the plaza Thursday night in an attempt to smooth relations.

Joseph Carter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who is organizing media interviews on Scott Olsen's behalf, told me police investigators have spoken with a handful of eyewitnesses about Olsen's injury, but says the department has yet to reach out to Olsen's family. There is no word from the OPD on when its investigation will be completed. 

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Exclusive Video: Behind the Barricades at Occupy Oakland

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 7:30 PM PDT

A day after police fired tear gas and projectiles at Occupy Oakland protestors, I turned my camera on those who gathered again at Frank Ogawa plaza. For more of our Occupy Wall Street coverage, click here.

Additional photo and video credits: thomashawk/Flickr; O'Halloran, Thomas J. and Leffler, Warren K./US News and World Report/Wikimedia; JacobRuff/Wikimedia Commons; Keoki Seu/Flickr; /YouTube; Ella Baker Center/Flickr

Congressmen Cite "Many Serious Concerns" About Keystone XL

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 3:34 PM PDT

A few developments of note on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. On Wednesday, three Senators and 11 members of Congress asked the State Department's Inspector General to look into the review of the pipeline.

The group also wrote to President Obama informing him that they have requested an investigation. They cited the "many serious concerns" that have been raised regarding conflicts of interest—which we've covered here, here, here, and here.

Obama faced some anti-Keystone hecklers at a public speech on Wednesday. "We’re looking at it right now, all right?" he responded. "No decision has been made. And I know your deep concern about it. So we will address it."

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to offer additional comments on the pipeline soon, The Hill's E2 Wire reports. The EPA gave the initial environmental impact statement a failing grade, so their comments on the final version will be much anticipated.

The Price of Plutocracy

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 12:34 PM PDT

With income inequality on everyone's radar today, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tweets this:

Quite so. This gives me an excuse to repost one of my favorite tables. It compares how much income various groups make today vs. how much they would be making if everyone's incomes, rich and poor alike, had grown at similar rates since 1979. As you can see, by 2005 the bottom 80% were collectively earning about $743 billion less per year while the top 1% were earning about $673 billion more. It's sort of uncanny how close those numbers are. For all practical purposes, every year about $700 billion in income is being sucked directly out of the hands of the poor and the middle class and shoveled into the hands of the rich.

One of the points this drives home is just how much the story of growing income inequality really is a story of the top 1%. Inequality has increased within the bottom 99%, but not all that dramatically. It's really the top 1% and the top 0.1% where all the action is. So if the Occupy Wall Street folks are ever looking for an alternate slogan, they might consider "Give us back our $700 billion."

You can, of course, try to concoct some story in which growing income inequality has boosted economic growth, so that the gains of the rich have been solely from income that nobody would have gotten otherwise. But it's a pretty tough story to tell, because there's simply no evidence for it. The American economy hasn't been growing any faster over the past 30 years than it did in the 30 years before, it's just distributed the gains of its growth disproportionately to the rich.

To bring this home a little more vividly, take a look at the row labeled "41-60." That's the dead middle of the income distribution. If all income groups had grown at the same rate over the past 30 years, that median household would today be making about $10,000 more than they are. That's the price we pay for our growing plutocracy.

Want more charts? This one comes from the chart pack we did for my article earlier this year, "Plutocracy Now." Click the link if you want to read it, or else click here if you just want to browse the charts.

Raw Data: What Our Kids Is Doing

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 10:52 AM PDT

Via Brad Plumer, here's the latest data from Common Sense Media about the media diets of young children in America. To be honest, I'm a little surprised that TV watching is only two hours a day for 5-8 year-olds. On the other hand, I'm sort of appalled that 75% of 0-2 year-olds watch TV, and of those, the average TV-watching time has increased from 1:02 to 1:30 over the past six years. In that age group, it probably ought to be zero. Other interesting nuggets:

  • 30% of kids under two have a TV in their bedroom.
  • Only about 60% of kids read or are read to every day. More reading, please.
  • 92% of high-income kids have high-speed cable. Only 42% of low-income kids do. The divide is about the same along the educational spectrum.

More at the link.

The War Over Walid Phares' Wikipedia Page

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 10:20 AM PDT

Lebanon's brutal civil war may have officially ended more than two decades ago, but the battle to define its roots and meaning continues...on Wikipedia.

As I discovered while reporting this story on Mitt Romney's Middle East policy adviser Walid Phares, the Wiki pages of major groups, events, and figures in Lebanon are under constant revision by partisans on all sides. Phares' page was a particular hotbed of activity, which was strange, given that his role was in the Lebanese Forces was mostly unreported by the Western media and, unlike his former associate Samir Geagea, he doesn't play an ongoing role in Lebanon's domestic political drama. Many other actors from the war still do, which is part of why there's so much activity on their pages and so much disagreement about what to include.

At any rate, take a look at the pace of revisions and counter-revisions that have taken place on Phares' Wikipedia page just since my story was published Thursday morning, and even over the past month:

There have been nearly a hundred edits to Phares' Wikipedia page during October alone, most involving his relationship to the Lebanese Forces; the edit wars on his page go back to 2005. His defenders frequently scrub the page of any lines referring to that relationship (some of which really have been inaccurate and inflammatory). It's not clear that the users are actually different people. After TEOS2011 was flagged as a possible sock-puppet, another user, JudgeDredd1975 (who has an extraordinary knowledge of Mr. Phares' bibliography), showed up to defend TEOS2011 writing, "I have no idea who is TEOS2011, although we apparently share the same values of keeping Wikipedia's integrity by not letting it become a platform for cheap defamation[.]" Both JudgeDredd1975 and TEOS2011, among other users editing Phares' page, have a limited interest in Wikipedia: Their only revisions have been to Phares' page.

From October to November 2008, Phares' page was edited extensively by a user called "futureofterrorismproject." Phares' title at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, according to his online bio, was the "director for Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies." His or her edits however, were mostly additions to Phares qualifications, not attempts to scrub the page of information related to Phares' role in Lebanon's civil war. 

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Jan Brewer Goes Nuclear on the Arizona Redistricting Commission

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 10:20 AM PDT
Gov. Jan Brewer

Over the past month, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission has been floating a new election map that would create four Republican-friendly districts, two Democrat-friendly ones, and three toss-ups. That makes Gov. Jan Brewer really, really angry, Roll Call reports:

The GOP governor began the impeachment process for removing members from the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission by submitting a letter outlining her grievances to commission Chairwoman Colleen Mathis. . . .

Arizona Democratic Party Executive Director Luis Heredia described the governor as "drunk with power," calling the move "a brazen power grab that would rival any in Arizona history."

"She is moving toward impeachment of citizens on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission simply because these volunteers have fulfilled their duty to draw fair and competitive districts," he said.

Arizonans voted the IRC into existence in 2000. The non-partisan body's purpose: To take state lawmakers out of redistricting, in hopes of making it a less overtly political process. But Brewer seems intent on catering to GOP interests and undermining voters, and is accusing the IRC of drawing a gerrymandering map that dilutes Arizona's electoral competitiveness.

The governor has the power to remove members from the body, which includes two Democrats, two Republicans, and one Independent, and is widely expected to target Chairwoman Mathis. But she must first get the backing of two-thirds of the Arizona state Senate, where Republicans hold a 21 to 9 advantage over Democrats. That solid majority probably explains, at least in part, why Brewer is doing this now. Currently, a committee made up mostly of Republican state lawmakers is reviewing the IRC's plan, and will issue its recommendations soon. 

Brewer's move has caught the attention of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) and executive director Michael Sargeant. "Unsatisfied with new congressional and state legislative maps that already favor Republicans, Arizona’s GOP leadership is making a naked power play," Sargeant said in a press release on Thursday. "Arizona Republicans are abusing their power for partisan gain and subverting the will of the electorate, which voted to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians over a decade ago."

For the past several months, state Republicans have been weathering accusations that their proposed election law changes don't adequately reflect the state's Latino population, making the new map ripe for rejection by the DOJ. Under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, Arizona is one of nine states that must ask the DOJ to pre-clear part or all of any changes to election laws.

State Democrats didn't think Brewer was serious about her threats to dismantle the panel. What might have set her off: A recent poll of Arizona voters showing that President Obama enjoys slim (but surprising) leads over GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry. Obama's popularity versus a still-unresolved GOP presidential field isn't necessarily any sort of bellwether for local races. But Brewer is taking every precaution.

Wall Street is the New Wal-Mart

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 9:49 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias has an interesting notion today. He suggests that selling luxury goods to the wealthy is all well and good, but if you want to get truly rich you need to sell to a mass market. Think Henry Ford, Sam Walton, and Bill Gates. But what if you peer into the future and conclude that the middle class is going to be fairly stagnant while the rich are going to get ever richer and richer? What kind of mass market is there in goods for the rich? There are only so many yachts they can buy, after all.

Another of way saying this is that as the rich get richer, they spend a smaller and smaller share of their income on ordinary consumption. That leaves more and more money to be socked away as savings:

But rich people also don’t just “save” money in the way that middle class people do on a larger scale. They purchase large quantities of financial services. So to the extent that you anticipate income to be increasingly concentrated at the top, it makes more sense to go into selling financial services than into selling non-finance items. The people who get rich with non-financial enterprises (Bill Gates, the Walton family) are all selling to mass markets. Lots of people make a living selling luxury goods to the top 1 percent, but nobody becomes a billionaire that way. Unless they’re selling financial services.

As a corollary of sorts, I'd note that people have a tendency to do dumb things with money. That should come as no surprise. But when middle-class folks do dumb things, the consequences just aren't that bad. The consequences might be bad for them, but on a macro level, the middle class just doesn't have all that much money to do dumb stuff with. That's because they spend most of their income on food, clothes, housing, gasoline, and so forth.

But rich people? When their money starts to pile up so high that it's burning holes in their bespoke suits, they start doing dumb stuff on an epic scale. And Wall Street is there to cheerfully cater to their every dumb whim, and then toss in a few even dumber ones that they'd never thought of before. If you keep this up for a few years you get 2008. Social justice to the side, this is, in my mind, one of the key reasons why we should care about reducing income inequality. The middle class can more or less be trusted to do useful things with the bulk of its money. The rich can't.

How We Shop

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 9:31 AM PDT

Shopping expert Paco Underhill explains how we shop:

Some people predict that the Internet is going to replace the retail store. It's already killed Borders. What impact could it have on, say, buying a bed or a toaster?

Buying an electronic appliance generally involves three visits, or missions. A scouting mission, a narrowing mission, and a purchasing mission. Of those three missions, at least one or two might be happening online, whereas it previously would be happening in store. The role of the Internet is an information-gathering -- scouting and narrowing -- vehicle. It doesn't mean less buying. It means less day-to-day traffic.

That sounds disturbingly accurate. I need a new laptop, and a couple of weeks I started my scouting mission. On the internet. Last week I spent an afternoon on a narrowing mission, visting Fry's, Micro Center, Best Buy, the Microsoft Store, and the Sony Store. Two days ago I accidentally noticed a sale on one of the models at the top of my list, so today I'll probably head out on my purchasing mission.

Of course, I could just as easily have accidentally noticed a sale on the internet, in which case our local bricks-and-mortar retailers would have been out of luck. Still, Underhill has a point. The internet probably spurs nearly as much shopping as it cannibalizes.

Also of note is his anecdote about a Japanese department store that has a private club for loyal customers. Interesting! Sounds like something Nordstrom should try.

The Future of #OWS

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 8:44 AM PDT

Dahlia Lithwick says that the media's bafflement toward the Occupy Wall Street movement is the result of its obsession with simple storylines that can be explained in 60 seconds or less:

Mark your calendars: The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences. While the mainstream media expresses puzzlement and fear at these incomprehensible “protesters” with their oddly well-worded “signs,” the rest of us see our own concerns reflected back at us and understand perfectly. Turning off mindless programming might be the best thing that ever happens to this polity. Hey, occupiers: You’re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you’re actually changing what’s reported as news. Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling. Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.

By refusing to take a ragtag, complicated, and leaderless movement seriously, the mainstream media has succeeded only in ensuring its own irrelevance. The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times. This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

I'd like to think this is true. Unfortunately, my instincts tell me that the corporate media is stronger than Lithwick gives it credit for. As weeks drift into months, and the OWS movement continues to shun the very idea of alliance building, political action, or stronger messaging, it looks more and more as if it's going to drift into irrelevance without accomplishing anything. Heavy-handed police action could change that, of course, but at this point it sort of looks to me as if its most promising destiny is to be v1.0 of whatever springs up in its wake. If things go well, OWS will inspire someone else to create a similar group that's better at mobilizing public outrage, but OWS itself won't be part of it. That's no bad thing if it happens that way, but not what OWS's creators were hoping for.