Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Internal Struggle

The Internal Struggle: Battling Oppressive Tendencies in Radical Spaces
The following is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with several admins of the Anarchist Memes Facebook page discussing racism, sexism, transphobia, and a host of other oppressive behaviors in radical spaces and how to battle those behaviors.

1. How has anarchist thought evolved over time to be more inclusive of marginalized social groups?

[E]: Anarchism is a socialist ideology which had its birth and early infancy (as an actual political movement) within the First Internationale, with the Bakunin/Marx split. Like in socialism more broadly, the question of privilege apart from class privilege has always been a problem in the anarchist movement, with the (white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied) leadership of many anarchist groups refusing to acknowledge other vectors of oppression than the oppression experienced through class struggle, the one avenue of oppression that they themselves feel.

Already early on, though, anarchism experienced some queer theory. Der Eigene (The Unique) was the first gay Journal in the world, published from 1896 to 1932 by Adolf Brand in Berlin. Likewise, influential anarchists like Emma Goldman were far “ahead of their time” in that field, so to say. The politics of marginalized social groups, such as queer liberation and PoC [People of Color] liberation, has always been something that fit perfectly with anarchism because anarchism is opposition to all forms of structural oppression. But, as noted, many anarchist organizations (being dominated in large parts by a white heterosexual proletariat) has had a hard time recognizing this inherent property of anarchism.

Over time, as marginalized groups have gained a voice and prominence due to their own struggle for these things, they have also gained a voice and prominence within the broad anarchist tradition. Something which they should have had from the start, if only all of the early anarchists were as self-consistent as some of them were.

2. Why do you think that some on the radical left tend to downplay or outright ignore problems such as sexism and racism? Would you say that it is a major reason why more marginalized groups don't identify/don't become involved with anarchism?

[JA]: I think it is typically, generally, privilege (and white-male anarchists) clouding the analytical and emotional lens of those downplaying/ignoring sexism and racism. Many if not most white western anarchists seem to come to anarchism through a processes of de-conditioning themselves from the values and perceptions imbued in to them from the dominant culture often it's a process, an exponential shedding of negative, bigoted, privileged sensibilities and ideals, which is not to say downplaying racism, sexism or any other oppression is okay/excusable. I'm not suggesting it's incumbent for anyone to have patience with those express or retain bigoted and insensitive views.

To the contrary, I think an environment openly hostile to privilege and bigotry is an effective way of teaching people that there is something very wrong with those sorts of views. And more importantly, I think hostility towards bigotry and privilege rightly creates an environment which preferences the feelings of the oppressed before those who would downplay or deny their oppression. A culture of disdain towards oppressive attitudes and conditions is integral to adjusting attitudes and perceptions in my opinion.

[OM]: One of the main factors in excluding marginalized groups, in my experience especially with German activists, is the massive amount of unchecked privilege. This is especially true for activists who have entered Anarchism not to institute any meaningful social change, but to be part of a scene they consider a cool and edgy place to be in, i.e. they are not into it to build a better society, but to raise their own social status. These people (usually of the white, cishet, male, able-bodied/minded variety) then tend to establish dominance within their groups by all means available, including loads of oppressive behavior, especially shouting down and talking over more marginalized voices. Here in Germany, they have managed to successfully appropriate the concept of privilege, which is now considered a strictly individual property and not a result of structural inequality (e.g., people talk endlessly about the white privilege of individuals, but refuse to acknowledge white supremacy). Some even believe that, if they talk about their privilege a lot and in scene-approved terms, they can unilaterally rid themselves of said privilege, which leads to results to white men shouting down (white) women who raise topics like misogyny with shouts of “Check your white privilege” (white privilege can be interchanged with every other privilege here that is not male privilege).

Another major issue here is in my experience sub-culturalism. The confinement of Anarchism to a very narrow subculture is a major contributor to Anarchism’s current state as a white boys club. To participate in most German Anarchist groups, one has to strictly adhere to a host of unwritten rules and to display very specific cultural tastes in the areas of music, clothing, language, leisurely activities and so on. These cultural tastes are often considered more important than a person’s political affiliations.

Many of these rules actively exclude marginalized people. For example, everyone who owns a smartphone gets a lot of hate from local Anarchists for “supporting capitalism and consumerism” despite these devices being highly assistive for disabled people (I as an autistic person rely on my smartphone a lot to navigate everyday life, so I get a lot of ableism hurled at me here). Another example would be hostility towards poor/working class people. Since current Anarchist groups in my area are mainly made up of white men from wealthy backgrounds (the stereotypical trust fund kids), antagonism towards people who rely in wage labor (who, in general, tend to be more marginalized than the trust fund kids) for their survival definitely happens. Common critiques of “consumerism” actually go in a similar direction, basically preaching a very protestant-like asceticism and scolding women and working class people for acquiring things that make their lives easier and/or more pleasant (for example TV sets, washing machines, and so on).

A third issue I identify here is an attitude of “we exclude no one,” which leads to Anarchist groups actively accepting the presence of racists, sexists and ableists because excluding them would be “authoritarian,” while failing to acknowledge that accepting these people automatically excludes PoC, women, queer folx, disabled people and so on.

3. Do you think that this problem between anarchists who engage in oppressive behavior and those who do their best not to/acknowledge their own privilege; create a major rift in the anarchist movement? That is creates a sort of purity test?

[JA]: Well, I think this is an issue for socialism broadly - right-wing political philosophies don't have to grapple with people actively not acknowledging their privilege because (and to the degree that) they're ideologies built on privilege.

I think the percentage of abusive, privileged, bigoted people within the ranks of anarchists/marxists/et al are quite low - but that their awful behavior casts a wide shadow. I don't believe there is much disagreement on the importance of safeguarding against and identifying abusers/bigots in our midsts. I think most of the left today, is quite cognizant of the fact that we have to be diligent about allowing patriarchy, white supremacy, and other vectors of oppression to permeate and distort our organizations, praxis, etc.

[OM]: I largely agree with fellow admin [JA] here, but I would like to add that purity tests are already a thing in Anarchist contexts, usually not referring to privilege though (but more to aforementioned cultural tastes and socioeconomic status), and mostly conducted by people with a lot of unchecked privilege.

4. What have been some of the problems that you have encountered when bringing up race, sexism, or other oppressive social structures on the AM page?

[JA]: The biggest problems in raising topics concerning racism, sexism, etc (in my opinion) - are non-anarchists flooding the page with their bigoted nonsense. Concomitant with that, are the pacifist-police who ubiquitously argue that any ban or hostile attitude towards racists somehow violates the racist's freedom-of-speech or some tenant of anarchism (which is ludicrous, on multiple levels, as we perpetually explain).

5. Why do you think so many anarchists seem to misunderstand anarchism, seemingly in order to continue oppressive behavior?

[JA]: I don't believe the people who misunderstand anarchism, and think that it excuses their oppressive behavior, are actually anarchists. I think they're half-wits who self-apply the label per their misconceptions and intellectual laziness. What they think anarchism is - is not what anarchism is.

Many, many people mistake anarchism for a kind of sociopathic anti-philosophy - a philosophy which eschews order or concern for anyone/anything but the self.  Which is, of course, the opposite of what anarchism is.

[E]: From a very cynical power-relations point of view, it makes perfect sense that they are misunderstanding anarchism in order to continue oppressive behavior within self-described “anarchist” spaces. Many of these people don’t face the same oppression as members of other marginalized groups do, and as such this experience lies far from their own understanding of the world, which makes empathy with people in those situations extremely hard, especially when your own privilege depends on that relation of power.

6. How have racial tensions in the anarchist movement contributed to the rise of so-called nationalist anarchists? What exactly is a nationalist-anarchist?

[JA]: "National-anarchism" didn't come out of anarchism - national anarchists misappropriated "anarchism" in the same way "anarcho-capitalists" have. In the same way American-capitalists misappropriated the term "libertarian" from the left etc. There's really no connection between "national-anarchists" and anarchism, save the title, which they surreptitiously took as their own.

[E]: A nationalist-“anarchist” is either a crypto-fascist seeking to recruit through the use of quasi-anarchist slogans and aesthetics turned towards a fascist mindset (see the “autonome Nationalisten” [Autonomous Nationalists] in Germany for a good example of this, with the Far-Right subverting and using the symbols of the Far-Left), a nationalist who has misunderstood anarchism or a self-proclaimed “anarchist” who has misunderstood anarchism. In all cases, it’s an ideology that’s built on the sophism of “freedom of association” applying between ethnicities and “peoples.” It’s a sort of strange mix between völkisch nationalism in the old pre-Nazi conception and all the most surface and hollow thoughts of an early Mikhail Bakunin (who was more interested in pan-Slavism and Slavic nationalism than he would later be, spurning those ideas later in life).

Fascists have also co-opted anarchist thinkers in the past, with the “Cercle Proudhon” being an early Far-Right quasi-fascist organization, and the early Italian fascists had great respect for the syndicalism of Georges Sorel and the conception of political violence that Mikhail Bakunin put forth.

7. How do you think that people can make their own groups more inclusive of marginalized groups?

[JA]: I found all these questions originally - and still do - difficult to answer as a cis white male. I can't speak for marginalized communities, and it feels inappropriate to pontificate on their behalf.

[E]: People have to speak up. They have to not accept or be silent in the face of the racist, sexist, transphobic or otherwise reactionary actions taken by their groups. Trying to go for a squeaky-clean image by further silencing the marginalized voices is not the way to go about it, when someone is being a racist asshole you have to confront it, not just ignore it. Otherwise, we’re not going to get all that far. In many ways, the reason that Anarchist Memes has evolved in the direction it has is because we refuse to be silent when self-proclaimed anarchists act just like the oppressors they claim they are fighting. Racism, sexism, transphobia, or any other kind of oppression should not be casually accepted in anarchist spaces, and it won’t be on Anarchist Memes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Cash Cops: How Civil Forfeiture Enriched U.S. Law Enforcement

This was originally published on

Civil forfeiture is a major issue that's recently gotten into the news, notably due to Attorney General Eric Holder's change to the controversial police action of seizing people's property. Unfortunately, Holder’s actions, while laudable, won't stop the massive damage that has already been done – and may very well continue the problem. Because although the media has finally begun to talk about the issue, we still haven’t been presented with a full scope of civil forfeiture: what it is and what it means.

To understand forfeiture, one must go back to colonial America. The idea of civil forfeiture comes directly from the British; early forfeiture law “refers to the power of a court over an item of real or personal property.” This could include land, in which the court would decide who owned a piece of land, or marriage, where the courts would have the authority to terminate a marriage.

Originally, in rem jurisdiction was “incorporated into American customs and admiralty laws governing the seizure of ships for crimes of piracy, treason and smuggling in the early days of the Republic, and during the American Civil War." It was later formalized in 1966 “in the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims which apply to our civil forfeiture cases.” So the United States has always had some type of civil forfeiture law.

The situation changed, however, when President Nixon announced the War on Drugs and began to use civil forfeiture as an instrument of law enforcement. Author Montgomery Sibley notes that, as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, Congress strengthened civil forfeiture as a means of confiscating illegal substances and the means by which they are manufactured and distributed. In 1978, Congress amended the law to authorize the seizure and forfeiture of the proceeds of illegal drug transactions as well.

Under Nixon, the Continuing Criminal Enterprise statute was also enacted, targeting repeat offenders of lucrative drug trafficking. Meanwhile, an important side effect of the Control Act was that it not only allowed police to seize private property being used in a crime – it also made clear that the owner of said property had to prove the property in question was not being used as part of a crime. In other words, when it comes to proving that someone's property isn’t being used for criminal purposes, the burden of proof is on the owner, not the police. This creates a situation where the police can essentially confiscate someone’s belongings, allege that the items are being used to further a crime, and the owner must somehow prove that the allegation is false – something that can be extremely difficult to do.

In 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, further changes were made under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act with regards to funds attained from civil forfeiture. Two new forfeiture funds were federally created, “one at the U.S. Department of Justice, which gets revenue from forfeitures done by agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and another now run by the U.S. Treasury, which gets revenue from agencies like Customs and the Coast Guard." As PBS reported, "these funds could now be used for forfeiture-related expenses, payments to informants, prison building, equipment purchase, and other general law enforcement purposes.”

However, there was a major change in that local law enforcement this time would also get to have their share of the pie. “Within the 1984 Act was a provision for so-called ‘equitable sharing,’ which allows local law enforcement agencies to receive a portion of the net proceeds of forfeitures they help make under federal law.”

As soon as this occurred, America saw a massive increase in the amount of civil forfeitures carried out by federal agents between 1989 and 1999, when the value of civil forfeiture recoveries nearly doubled from $285,000,039 to $535,767,852 – a 187% increase in only 10 years. And the numbers only grew as time went on.

In 2012, $4.6 billion was acquired via civil forfeiture, compared to a decade earlier, in 2002, when the amount seized was just $322,246,408. The increase of over 1,400% reveals a major cash cow for law enforcement.

There was an attempt to reform civil forfeiture through the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. This included several changes most notably in regards to poor or impoverished defendants, where the new law ordered courts to issue the defendant a lawyer “when the property in question is a primary residence,” as well as to pay the lawyer regardless of the outcome of the case, whereas before, defendants had to essentially defend themselves.

In addition, the issue of burden of proof changed as the government now had to "establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property [was] subject to forfeiture,” where previously the government could seize property solely on probable cause. Put simply, in order to seize property, the government now had not just to present evidence, but to present evidence “based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence.” With that reform, it was no longer enough to say there was a possibility that the evidence could have been used in a crime. However, the law didn't deal with the problem that the burden of proof was on the property owner, nor did it deal with the conflict of interest in which the government could seize property and sell it – using the money to fund its own operations. Because the pressing question still remains: how exactly do police use the funds they've gained from civil forfeitures?

In 2013, Vice reported that a district attorney in Georgia used the funds to “to buy football tickets and home furnishings,” whereas “officers in Bal Harbor, Florida, took trips to LA and Vegas and rented luxury cars, and other DAs and police chiefs have bought everything from tanning salons to booze for parties.”

The Washington Post also reported that police are using the funds to militarize themselves, buying an array of items such as “Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.” And this spending is on top of the military surplus gear police receive from the Pentagon.

While there is a federal force to ensure that funds are used appropriately, it's wildly understaffed; the Justice Department has about 15 employees assigned to oversee compliance, with some five employees responsible for reviewing thousands of annual reports. Essentially, then, police are free to spend the money they gain from civil forfeitures on anything they want, without fear of punishment.
Besides the previously noted conflict of interest and burden of proof issues, there are also other major problems with civil forfeiture – notably, the disproportionate racial impact and harm it causes to innocent people.

In 2012, Vanita Gupta, the ACLU deputy legal director, was involved in a settlement of several civil forfeiture cases in Texas in which mainly black and Latino drivers were pulled over, many times without justification, and had their assets seized by police. Gupta noted that civil forfeiture laws “invite racial profiling” and “incentivize police agencies to engage in unconstitutional behavior in order to fund themselves off the backs of low-income motorists, most of whom lack the means to fight back, without any hard evidence of criminal activity. It is no way to run our justice system.”
Furthermore, in 2014, the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute reported reported that civil forfeiture laws “routinely amount to de facto racial discrimination, as law enforcement officials routinely target low-income people of color, seizing their assets.” It quoted the ACLU as saying that “asset forfeiture practices often go hand-in-hand with racial profiling and disproportionally impact low-income African-American or Hispanic people who the police decide look suspicious and for whom the arcane process of trying to get one’s property back is an expensive challenge.” Thus, like many aspects of the criminal justice system, civil forfeiture disproportionately impacts minorities.

Great harm is also committed against innocent people who are not actually engaging in any crime. Gothamist reported that in March of 2012, the NYPD confiscated $4,800 belonging to Gerald Bryan, and took Bryan “into custody on suspected felony drug distribution, as the police continued their warrantless search.” Bryan's case was later dropped, but when he went to reclaim his money “he was told it was too late: the money had been deposited into the NYPD's pension fund.”

The NYPD’s civil forfeiture was declared unconstitutional twice. However, the process still continues, reflecting a failure to protect the basic rights of citizens – and a breakdown in the rule of law. The very people who are supposed to enforce the law are the ones who profit from ignoring it – something that was proven in a recent study by the Institute for Justice, which found that “civil forfeiture encourages choices by law enforcement officers that leave the public worse off.”
“Under civil forfeiture," said the report, "when participants could gain financially by taking property from others, that is overwhelmingly what they did.”

While many might argue that the civil forfeiture game has changed due to recent actions taken by AG Holder, unfortunately very little actually has. As Vox reported in January: "Holder's order only curtails ‘adoptions’ that are requested through the federal program by a local or state police department working on its own. It still allows local and state police to seize and keep assets when working with federal authorities on an investigation, and when the property is linked to public safety concerns — such as illegal firearms, ammunition, and explosives."

Thus, civil forfeitures continue unabated for the most part. This data analysis revealed that “only about a quarter—25.6 percent—of properties seized under equitable sharing were federal ‘adoptions’ of properties seized by state or local law enforcement, the kind of seizures the new policy targets” and that “of the nearly $6.8 billion in cash and property seized under equitable sharing from 2008 to 2013, adoptions accounted for just 8.7 percent.” Put simply: local and state law enforcement can still engage in civil forfeiture and make large amounts of money off it.

To make things worse, incoming Attorney General Loretta Lynch appears undisturbed by the current state of civil forfeiture, since she “has used civil asset forfeiture in more than 120 cases, raking in some $113 million for federal and local coffers,” and even calling it a “wonderful tool.”
There have been attempts at reform. But both of them – the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2014, and the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, which “would protect the rights of citizens and restore the Fifth Amendment’s role in seizing property without due process of law,” died in Congress. In the meantime, it seems that cops and the government will continue to cash in on the property of U.S. citizens.