Matt Taibbi Talks About Criminalized Poverty and Why Wall St. Is Above the Law
It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. Thewar on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right?
Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
What Do Occupy Protesters Think About the Pepper Spray Cop Being Awarded $38,000?
Remember pepper spray cop? He’s the campus police officer at the University of California, Davis who decided to handle a seated line of peaceful, non-threatening Occupy demonstrators in the most rational way he could: by calmly firing a stream of pepper spray directly into their eyes from close range, like a landscape gardener squirting pesticide at some overgrown flowerbeds.
At first, everyone was outraged at Officer John Pike’s blasé manner of temporarily blinding peaceful protesters, then the internet got involved, turned the image into meme—photoshopping Pike into basically every pop culture image ever created—and everyone kind of forgot about it. Until last week, when it emerged that he has been awarded $38,000 in workers compensation by California’s Department of Industrial Relations—more than the $30,000 each of his victims received—for the “psychiatric injuries” he’s experienced since that day in November of 2011. UC Davis will foot the bill, in addition to the $70,000 the school paid him in salary while he was on adminstrative leave.
I spoke to Bernie Goldsmith—an ex-Wall Street attorney and social activist who was an Occupy organizer at UC Davis and there the day of the pepper spraying—about what his fellow protesters think of Pike’s payout.
VICE: What happened that day? How did it escalate to the pepper spray incident?
Bernie Goldsmith: We all put up our tents in the middle of the day and predicted that the police would come at about 3 or 4 AM, arrest a few of us and allow the others to leave. We thought it would be a very typical protest. Instead what happened was a shockingly stupid mismanagement from the administration and the police force. The [UC Davis] administration decided that, instead of doing the sensible thing of evicting us at night, the police should evict us at 3 PM, surrounded by students.
Which riled everyone in attendance up a bit, I suppose.
That’s an understatement. I was a scout on the day, looking out for police approaching the quad. And, to my great surprise, instead of two or three officers coming and quietly writing tickets and telling us to leave, I observed a phalanx of fully armored riot police with helmets and shields. We’d moved the tents into a circle in the middle of what is basically a giant field, so there was no obstruction being caused. Protesters got into a ring around the circle and locked arms. Then the police tore apart the ring, handcuffed a couple of people in this first group, and started tearing down the tents.
Journalist Tim Pool is streaming live from Istanbul today where antigovernment protests have been ongoing since last Friday. What began as a campaign against the city’s plans to construct a mall in a public park has escalated into a massive display of anger over the ruling party’s neo-Islamist social agenda and religiously driven laws. Riot police have moved in with brutal force, using tear gas on tens of thousands of protestors. It is the largest civil uprising in the history of Turkey.
Gerald Koch Hasn’t Been Charged with a Crime, but He’s in Jail Anyway
A New York anarchist has been jailed for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury about his political beliefs, his friends, and the legal support he provided to Occupy Wall Street.
Gerald “Jerry” Koch, 24, was subpoenaed before a grand jury that is believed to be investigating the 2008 explosion outside a military recruitment center in Times Square. The blast damaged the front door of the center and injured no one, but the FBI began a “terrorism” investigation of local anarchists.
Koch isn’t accused of this crime—or any other crime. Prosecutors told his lawyers that they think he was at a bar in 2008 or 2009, after the bombing, and that someone else at the bar knew about another person who was involved. Koch was subpoenaed to a grand jury in 2009—when he was only 19—and publicly stated that he didn’t know anything about it and wouldn’t cooperate.
On May 21, he appeared before the grand jury again, refused to answer any questions, and remained silent the entire time. More than a hundred supporters yelled out to him as he was taken to jail.
"By the time you read this," Koch said in a statement released after the hearing, "I will be in the custody of the United States government for continuing my refusal to cooperate with a federal grand jury. This is the right thing to do."
Occupiers Faced Down Cops in Istanbul’s Taksim Square
On the night of May 27, bulldozers and backhoes rolled into Gezi Park, a tiny island of trees and grass at the center of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, and started ripping it apart. This was part of a government project to “pedestrianize” the historic square—what that meant in this case, according to many blogs, was turning one of the last open green spaces in the city into a shopping mall. No community organizations or local people were asked what they thought about the plans for the park devised by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which included rebuilding a historical barracks that was demolished in the 1940s and adding sidewalks to make the square more friendly to pedestrians.
Four days later, after nonviolent protesters occupied the park and survived attacks by the police that included tear gas and water cannons, they’ve won at least a temporary victory thanks to a court decision. In fact, Instanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbaş, just announced that there was never any plan to build a mall. It’s an amazing eleventh-hour turnaround, but it didn’t happen without a battle.
Protesters began gathering in the park as early as Monday, May 27, and word spread through social media as more pro-park, anti-government Turks showed up to sit in front of the bulldozers. By Wednesday, the police were involved, and they responded to the nonviolent protests with aggressive tactics—what really got everyone’s attention was a photo from Reuters showing a young, apparently peaceful environmentalist in a red dress getting pepper-sprayed by a gas-masked cop. That image became a symbol of the “occupation” of Gezi Park, as well as the cops’ terrorization of the protesters.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the AKP wasn’t interested in starting a dialogue with the occupation and gave a speech on Wednesday that made it clear that a decision on the park’s fate had already been made. By then, many protesters had set up camp at the park and were sleeping in their tents. At dawn on Thursday, May 30, the police entered the park, firing tear gas and burning tents. The bulldozers were stopped, however, when opposition politicians Sırrı Sureyya Önder and Gülseren Onanç stood in front of them and demanded to see proper permits.
Even with the police using pepper spray as if it were bug repellent, the occupation continued, and even grew. On Thursday, photos of protesters reading to the police spread around the internet, and those who are involved in the occupation say they are committed to nonviolence.
Should College Be Free? These Protesters Think So
Yesterday morning, 50 students at Cooper Union in New York, took over their university president’s office. They promise to remain until he resigns.
The occupation is the latest battle in a war to keep Cooper Union free. Cooper Union is one of the only colleges in America that doesn’t charge tuition. But on April 23, Chairman of the Board Mark Epstein announced that, starting in 2014, the college would cost students $20,000 a year. That’s a 2 zillion percent increase. It was, according to protesters and students, a betrayal of the principles on which Cooper Union was built.
"Education should be as free as air or water," the school’s founder, industrialist Peter Cooper, once procliamed. Cooper was the most progressive of the robber barons, a simple-living abolitionist Unitarian who invented Jell-O. He founded his university to provide an education to cash-strapped geniuses of both sexes. He positioned it where Bowery meets Broadway, as a geographic nod to class transcendence—where the upper and lower classes collide.
Since 1859, Cooper Union has been free. Cooper’s original endowment is supplemented by donors, alumni, and, most crucially, rent from the land under the Chrysler Building, located 39 blocks away.
Growing up in New York, I viewed Cooper Union through the filter of legend. Because it was free, it took only the best.
My friend Zak Smith, a Cooper art graduate who went on to exhibit in the Whitney Biennial, told me via text: “The great schools in the US are all too often just places that make rich families richer. Cooper Union was the exception.” Smith comes from a working-class family, but thanks to a free education at Cooper, he landed a Yale scholarship for his master’s degree and later became a world-renowned contemporary painter. “Not anymore. If it wasn’t for Cooper, people like me wouldn’t get to be artists.”
Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee Wants to Give Americans Money for Nothing
Walking the streets of New York City this spring, you would have been hard-pressed not to come across posters promoting the Occupy Wall Street-led May Day general strike. “A day without the 99 percent,” is how it was billed. With the strike, the group was attempting to light a fire that might bring down capitalism and launch the US into an American Spring. However, Occupy’s rallying cry fell on deaf ears, as the rally had poor attendance and limited impact. Looking back, it seems like that was the moment that the pied pipers of political and economic discontent’s critical mass finally dissipated. The group’s momentum seemed to have run its course, and the fickle media’s attention turned to the sideshow that was the 2012 presidential election.
After May Day, Occupy had to find itself all over again. Call it an identity crisis. But in an organization as decentralized as OWS, where individual efforts and actions are constantly emerging as branches and nodes of a shape-shifting whole, identity is a fluid concept anyway. The post-May Day breakdown was a chance for rebirth—a function of Occupy Wall Street’s built-in eternal recurrence mechanism. It was in this ferment that Occupy forged its next project: Rolling Jubilee, a plan to buy anonymous medical debt, thus offering relief to Americans burdened by exorbitant healthcare costs.
“From the very beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the question of crippling debt that people are forced to carry has always been part of the agenda,” says Yates McKee, a member of Occupy’s Strike Debt team, which is leading the Rolling Jubilee project. “Student debt, mortgage debt, medical debt, and municipal debt—all of that has been a part of Occupy from the very beginning.”
Activists within Occupy Student Debt, an early sub-group of Occupy focused on the debt crisis, had the idea of using Occupy’s I Am The 99 Percent Tumblr to present real people who were debtors and break the silence around debt. It was a issue that was close to their hearts, as many of the original Occupy campers were debtors of all stripes.
As Yates explains it, Occupy Student Debt went on to create the Pledge of Refusal, which many Occupy participants signed. “It wasn’t about forgiveness,” Yates emphasizes. “It didn’t say, ‘Let’s come up with a piece of legislation that forgives our debt.’ Rather, it noted that going into debt is systematic. In order to live, you have to enter into this predatory debt. So the Pledge of Refusal was non-compliant with the debt system. It was similar to a debt strike.”
Originally, the debt strike concept gained a lot of traction within the Occupy movement, but people across the country weren’t ready for such an idea and conditions across the country couldn’t support a mass default. So in the post-May Day void, where Occupy’s idealism finally gave way to reality, they knew they had to take another approach to fighting debt. Luckily, the Occupy Student Debt movement still had a great deal of enthusiasm behind it, even after May Day.
“The only campaign that still had a lot of energy was the Occupy Student Debt campaign,” observes Yates. “So over the summer, we decided to have what we call ‘thematic assemblies,’ where in one assembly we talked about the environment, and in another assembly we talked about labor. And then we did one on debt. And we made sure to invite everyone from Occupy Student Debt, Occupy Universities, Free University, and Occupy Labor.”
The larger assembly then got together and discussed what would it mean to build a political movement around debt in all its forms and not just on certain types of debt in isolation, like student loans. This ultimately lead to the transformation of Occupy Student Debt into Strike Debt, the sub-group which now healms the Rolling Jubilee.
“One phrase we started to use was ‘Debt is the tie that binds the 99 percent’” says Yates. “There is something structural about the debt economy we’re forced to go into in our lives. And this was when we flipped the idea of a debt strike to Strike Debt. What would it mean to strike debt, to attack debt from all these different angles and metaphorically cross it out?”
Occupy describes the vast swaths of America’s debtors as “an invisible army of defaulters.” What if this invisible army were to come out of the shadows and become a political force? Out of this thought experiment came debt memes like “You are not alone” and ultimately the Rolling Jubilee program.
Jubilee, as laid out in the Bible’s book of Leviticus, was a time when debts were forgiven. Strike Debt appropriated the concept in a symbolic way and used it as the namesake for its first major project, in which a fund—financed by donations—buys debt.
These Boobs Kill Capitalists
What with the overthrowing of the Spanish government not really happening and skulls getting cracked left, right, and center, the 25-S protests in Madrid last week turned out to be a bit of a bummer. However, there was one image that shone like a ray of karmic light through all the police brutality and debris of smashed dreams. Or actually a bunch of images, most of which were taken by pervy Spanish photographers, who may or may not have been suffering from pee-filled kettle boners.
But whatever, let’s not ruin the moment:
Through her profile on Modelmayhem, I tracked down Jill Love: model, actress, independent filmmaker, and the best publicist Spain’s anti-capitalist indignados movement could ever hope for.
VICE: Hi Jill. You’re a Catalan-born American filmmaker who lives in Santa Fe. Is that right? Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself?
Jill Love: I’m Catalan, I was born in Tarragona. At the age of 18, I moved to Madrid to start a new life. At the age of 26, I moved to the United States to start another new life. I’m still moving and I’m still having new adventures every day.
Clearly. Did you expect the photographers to go so wild?
Not at all. I was on my knees in front of the police, praying to Isis. My eyes were closed. When I opened them I was surrounded by many photographers. It all got a little out of control. I left once it got too crazy.
Have you been getting much attention since the protest?
Yes, I’m getting a bit overwhelmed with the situation, to be honest.
What’s the reaction been like from the rest of the 25-S protesters?
Loads of people understood that my act was one of LOVE and PEACE. Others think it’s an easy way to get attention.