I've been involved in Occupy since last September. I went down to Liberty Square about one week after the occupation began and stayed for 5 days, then returned to join the occupation in my hometown, Boston.
It's been an interesting personal journey for me. I have no idea what the long-term manifestations of the Occupy movement will look like. What I do know is what a lot of us have realized: at the core of what makes the global society so dysfunctional are the deeply historical roots of oppression and the colonization mentality. Man's inhumanity to man.
I've come to realize that there will be no change without challenging ourselves to confront this, in every niggling corner of our minds and interactions and to figure out how we replace the values of colonization and oppression with something more compassionate, respectful, dignified, just and sustainable. Sometimes, the corners you find yourself running into, and turning a flashlight onto, are surprising. In the past ten days, I have been surprised, indeed.
I'm an arrestee from the Boston Police raid of Dewey Square (the Occupy Boston encampment site.) I was injured during my arrest. I pled 'not guilty' and am out on bail while I await trial. I am profoundly disturbed by how our government has used our police forces, along with the privatization of public space, to suppress our right to assemble and express our dissent. (Free speech zones? The whole damned country is supposed to be a free speech zone!) I am angry that our police officers around the country are willing to don military weaponry and use force against their fellow citizens who are taking peaceful action. I am wary of the police.
Yet, I am now involved in an action directed at the Boston police force, while beginning to work with some members of it. How crazy is that?
Spontaneous Birth of a Campaign
In January, this year, many of us from Occupy Boston had been directed to read the Boston Police Patrolman's Association (BPPA) newsletter, The Pax Centurion. In it was a scathingly derogatory piece about people in Occupy Boston.
Here is one quote about the impact of the loss of the encampment:
Since the occupiers were told to un-occupy a few months ago, the real professional bums have been suffering. They have been unable to steal wallets, computers and cellphones from naïve idiots who invited them into their tents. Their sex lives have also been greatly diminished, what with the lack of guilt-ridden, stupid college girls who offered themselves willingly to the poor and downtrodden victims of oppression.
It is dripping with disdain and contempt on so many levels. In another article, the author uses this official vehicle to write his version of an event known around here as "Sinkgate". Tensions had grown around the City's insistence that the encampment was not sanitary, while they denied us the ability to do what we could to make it so. An occupier designed a grey water sink we could use on site for dishes and when we tried to bring it onto the site, the police moved in and took it out of our hands. They claimed that construction materials were not allowed. It's clearly a propaganda piece to cement their version of the story, as there were pending court cases surrounding this incident. Fortunately, many people there filmed everything, so claims that officers were being battered can easily be countered.
Read the whole thing here: http://www.cleanupbppa.org/paxarchives/PAX2012JanFeb.pdf
We all saw this and, basically had a good laugh at how ridiculous, unprofessional and undignified the writing was. That was that. We probably never would have given it a second thought.
However, one of our members wrote the editor, Jim Carnell, a letter and when the May/Jun issue came out (in the end of June, apparently), it had a response and people let us know.
The response to our comrade is juvenile. After a sarcastic opening paragraph, Carnell dives into personally disparaging Bil, the author of the letter:
Ahmmm, Bil(L) (I notice you spell your name with only
one “L”- the correct and proper spelling –for men that is – is
with two, but I shouldn’t jump to conclusions…),
Carnell disparages everyone who is not white heterosexual male and professions he approves of, from what I can tell. In this one response he expresses homophobia, disparages people from many different towns and neighborhoods, liberals, college girls and teachers.
It was this which caught our attention, though: "I have the luxury of speaking on behalf of what 99% of police officers really think.."
He is using the Pax Centurion to amplify his own political views and his contempt for so many fellow citizens with the power of "speaking on behalf of" the police force.
So, we started looking through the rest of the newsletter. If we felt juvenile insults launched at us, it was nothing compared to the racist and sexist tropes peppered throughout the newsletter. You can see samples we pulled just from this one issue here. In one "joke" they managed to convey anti-muslim, rape culture, sexist and necrophiliac sentiments all in one gem ignorantly based on a false rumor from the Egyptian political scene:
Officer Jay Moccia on deceased Egyptian women:
“The new Egyptian Government has declared it legal to have sex with your dead wife within 6 hours of her expiration. The sex is the same, but the dishes pile up.” [page C3]
The concept of the 'declaration" came from a piece of propaganda put forth by Mubarak loyalists to scare people about the Muslim Brotherhood. But, Officer Moccia thought it was true. And funny:
He said the joke was based on a report that he read on the English-language website of Al Arabiya, a news organization based in Dubai, about a proposal in the Egyptian Parliament to make it legal for a husband to have relations with his wife within hours of her death.
“I just thought I’d make a little light of it, finding it rather humorous,” he said. “I stand behind everything I wrote.”
Because, you know, there is so much humor in the idea that men would defile the corpses of their dead wives. And, of course, it's believable because it's Muslim men. And the sex is the same, because well, you don't need consent from your live wife, either! Hahahahahahaha! Not.
We were horrified. This is an official newsletter of our police force. The people we pay to keep the peace in our neighborhoods. Hey, it's a socialist job. We have a social contract that we all contribute into the pool to provide funds for a police force. So, we all should be able to expect that our officers are professional, treat everyone with dignity and respect and perform their duties with political neutrality. If you read this newsletter and you're a woman, a person of color, you're not hetero-normative, you're not from this country originally, you're a teacher, a college student.... the list is endless..... you are not going to feel safe if you have an encounter with a Boston Police officer. In your head, you will be asking yourself, "Is this Jim Carnell or one of the 99% of police officers he speaks for?" and you will be filled with fear.
That is not right.
As we were perusing this highly offensive content, something jumped out at us: advertisers. Companies were paying to advertise in this bigoted tome? We couldn't believe it. In the group of 5 or 6 people I was chatting with, it turned out that two of us are alumnae of Simmons College, who had an ad in the Pax Centurion. We just immediately got on our computers and wrote notes. She wrote an email to the marketing department and I posted a note on their Facebook page.
We both got responses from Simmons, informing us that they had no idea of the nature of the content. Furthermore, they had solely intended to contribute to the BPPA's scholarship fund for the children of police and fire department employees. They would demand that their ads be pulled from the Pax Centurion.
And a campaign was born. We would reach out to all the advertisers. We couldn't let it go.
There were five of us who were feeling particularly compelled to dive in. Amongst us are some useful skills: writing, analyzing, researching, media messaging, social networking and computer expertise. It's a great bit of teamwork. Ten days later and I'm still feeling impressed that, even with tensions arising amongst us at moments, while we learn about each other's styles, we're working as a pretty amazing unit.
In about one day, we went from, "I'm going to write Simmons," to having a web site and a twitter account and making media contact. It started with a Google doc where we were recording quotes from the newsletter and started listing advertisers. We put the text of the first letter and FB content in there. This was to have an easy place to jointly add and grab material. Then we let people know on Twitter that the doc was there, if they wanted to contact advertisers or help us gather info.
Within hours, one of us built a spreadsheet to make tracking advertisers, contact info and their responses, even easier. The next morning, we had morphed that into a WordPress site with static pages for different kinds of information and blog posts to report any activity.
Soon, we decided to buy a domain name and there we have hosted a private forum where those of us behind the scenes are coordinating and talking to each other. This also gave us the ability to have CleanUpBppa email addresses.
Boom! Instant organization infrastructure. It's been highly effective, as you will see.
Ready For TakeOff
Thank goodness we had the ability to put all that in place. I don't know how we'd have kept up without it. When we posted on Twitter that Simmons was going to end their advertising in the Pax Centurion, one of our social contacts said she was going to share the news with Jezebel, a well-known feminist blog. They decided to post about it and their headline didn't pull any punches:
Within minutes, it was then covered in a local blog covering news around Boston:
If you follow the entries on our blog, you can see all that unfolded in that first 24 hours. The Police Commissioner made a Twitter comment. The Mayor spoke out. A local news station covered the topic. It was then posted on the national MSNBC site.
After that, three more advertisers announced they were requiring the Pax Centurion to drop their ads. (Along with more statements that their intentions had been to support the scholarship fund, not the newsletter.)
Then, the Boston Herald had a piece. It was talked about on our local NPR station, WBUR, in their "Radio Boston" show. A City Councilor had something to say. An AM talk radio show covered it. The Metro - the free paper distributed on our T - covered it.
Then, the Boston Phoenix published a hard-hitting exposé:
"Whether Muslims, women, or gays, no pedestrian is safe from Moccia’s rhetorical wrath. In the March-April 2011 issue he questioned, “Are we breeding the fight out of American males?” He opined, “Men have become feminized, these ‘metrosexuals’ indulge in manicures, pedicures, yoga, and all sorts of other sissified pursuits.” Green-lighting all this chest-pounding is tireless BPPA president and member advocate Thomas Nee, whose name appears atop the Pax masthead. Nee also presides over Carnell’s condemnation of young offenders as “thugs” and “scumbags” in Pax — this while his own son Joseph was convicted in 2008of conspiracy to commit murder for plotting a school shooting at Marshfield High School.
Never mind that Carnell himself collected nearly $52,000 in sick pay last year for a total salary of $97,729 (down from his 2010 take of $155,399)."
Things are getting real.
It's Never Simple
We are a group of people who are outraged over an official police publication being used to express contempt about so many of our fellow citizens and as a political tool to cement our police force as representing a particular political stance in our public discourse. When we set out to say something, it was simply a matter of finding the newsletter rhetoric unacceptable. Our police force serves us. All of us. Not just a particular faction. And particularly not a faction wielding an inordinate amount of power in our nation today. (Carnell claims that people using EBT cards - the one used as debit cards for spending your public benefits - are costing him his salary increases and pension fund, for instance. Does anybody really believe that pension funds are disappearing, and that cities and states are in financial dire straits, because of EBT users? That's only a line you're willing to spout if you're willing to be a propagandist mouthpiece for the power elite. Is that an appropriate role for our police force?)
So, our original goal was simply to "shame advertisers into pulling their ads from Pax Centurion."
However, one blog response reminded us that, of course, it's never as simple as that. A local black activist, Jamarhl Crawford, is the voice behind The Blackstonian and he had this to say:
I’m glad that Occupy Boston, advertisers and some media are now concerned. However, I find it ironic and indicative of white privilege that there’s a hullabaloo now that some white people from Occupy Boston are offended. In years past, Carnell and also Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association President Thomas “Tom” Nee have espoused views offensive to African-Americans, Africans, Latinos, Muslims, Homosexuals, Women, Immigrants… you get the picture. MAMLEO (Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officials) expressed their outrage when a newly elected President Obama was depicted within the pages of the Pax Centurion as Obama Dawg, obviously a throwback to the racist caricatures of Jim Crow and Slavery and an echo of the racist right wing conservative party line in chorus with “birthers” and tea partiers.
I was really struck by this. I think there is a piece missing in his analysis - this is gaining traction because of corporations making a statement and with their money - not because we're white activists, per se. However, there is still a lot of validity in his critique. If Blackstonian and MAMLEO have been exposing the bigoted rhetoric in the BPPA newsletter for years, why hasn't anything been done?
Why is it that this was a non-issue until corporations say something? Why are we so willing to ignore the cries of racism within one of the fundamental arms of city government? Upon reading his post, I penned, well typed, this response:
We need to pay attention to this observation. Why didn't the press or the public pick up on it and get outraged when MAMLEO and The Blackstonian were speaking out about BPPA and the Pax Centurion?
I'm glad that our action seems to be getting attention. And, I will repeat that when I first saw the commentary about Occupy Boston in the Pax Centurion, I found it juvenile but didn't care much. It was when I was re-directed there and saw that so many groups were subject to disdain and that the rhetoric was so racist and homophobic and xenophobic and sexist, that I was moved to act. I have no idea of the race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity or sexual identity of some who have been helping with tweets and letters, etc., Not all of us are part of Occupy Boston. But we do know that the core group of us pushing this story are white. And that Occupy Boston is predominantly white.
Yes, Occupy Boston is riding the wave of Occupy attention and has garnered a position wherein it can, when it gets the right issue, leverage that attention and bring sunlight to a story. Is that because it's seen as white middle-class folk who are, finally, impacted by the vagaries of the system we live with? Why would this story get traction now, when white people complain? Why didn't it get traction when people of color complained?
We know the answer. The mainstream media, and even the social media are dominated by white people and white culture. You can call it 'mainstream America', but let's face it, that phrase is defined by how white, property-owning people have forged, through slavery and genocide and oppression of anyone who doesn't fit their mold or play their games, this "America'.
We didn't know about the MAMLEO and Blackstonian complaints because we don't pay attention. We don't pay attention because they are not "us". If we want to generate a just and sustainable society, it is incumbent upon those of us who have any more benefits in the existing societal structures to pro-actively pay attention to what those who have less benefit, more suffering, are crying out about. Even when we can't relate or have differing perspective or political ideas, we need to listen. Always listen for the truths we need to hear and the solidarity we need to offer.
I'm glad I'm doing something now. I'm ashamed that I didn't know before; that I'm so late in my life to realizing who it is I need to listen to. I can only ask forgiveness and offer my ongoing solidarity. (And I can only speak for myself, here, not for anyone else engaged in the campaign to Clean Up BPPA.)
That response hasn't been published before today, because we use our web site to focus on the advertisers. It was a group decision to have editorial/political statements from individuals be expressed through different venues, so that, unlike Carnell, we aren't perceived as speaking for anyone but ourselves. It's an important tenet in our organizing that no one try to imbue their own voice with more power than that of one person.
Still, we're being compelled into the deeper anti-oppression work that the Pax Centurion lets us know needs to be done. It is not a loose rock floating in the culture. It's the tip of an iceberg. Some folks have been chipping away at it from underneath and we've just managed to lob some dynamite at the exposed piece.
Where To Go From Here
The Mayor and the Police Commissioner evade any responsibility for the continued spewing in the Pax Centurion by hiding behind some First Amendment claim. But, something about that doesn't pass the smell test. If Carnell or Moccia want to exercise their democratic right to free speech, they can do it on their own blog or in their personal newsletter. When they write in the newsletter which represents the entire police union, they are not exercising their own free speech, they are imposing their voices onto everyone else in the union.
Newspapers fire columnists for expressing views which are simply not tolerable to the publishers. Those columnists can't claim that they have the legal right to their jobs because of the First Amendment. When you work within an organization, you must express what's is a fitting representation of the whole organization. So, why do all the members of the BPPA let this represent them? Why can't the Commissioner consider this "conduct unbecoming?" Why doesn't the Mayor scream about this from his bully pulpit, until it stops?
According to department numbers, around 16 percent of the department’s 164 sergeants are black or Latino. In addition, the department has only a handful of minorities as supervisors in specialized units like gang and homicide.
Census estimates show minorities account for around 50 percent of the city’s resident
I believe they said there is only one woman in a command position. Call me crazy, but I think our population might have a higher percentage of women than they are representing on our police force.
We can't ignore this. We can't listen to these police officers, who have been trying to address this for decades, tell the stories of what they are up against and how it impacts policing in our city and do nothing. The culture of a city's police department and the culture in City Hall both reflect and impact the culture of the city itself.
Each and every one of us in the core organizing group of Clean Up BPPA is from elsewhere originally. Some of us from southern and southwestern states. All of us are experiencing Boston as one of the most racist places we've lived. I've been here for over 20 years now. It has always baffled me that Massachusetts is known as a liberal state, but the racism here is so strong. It is still a very segregated city.
And then I look at what's happening at BPD. And the mission is clear: reach out to MAMLEO and other organizations in the communities of color to see how we can help change the culture of the police department. It's an act of solidarity, since I don't like the whole nature of the police system in the first place. Still, it's a step toward a middle ground to offer to help at least make what it is a less oppressive system. I'll happily do that in the hopes that it helps lesson the bigotry that plays out in the arrests and convictions of my fellow citizens. My comrades, regardless of whether we have different ideas about other aspects of life.
So, stay tuned.....