Humans in uniform and what will winter bring?

Time magazine has named “The Protester” its “Person of the Year” for 2011.

That seems like the right choice to me. “In 2011, protesters didn’t just voice their complaints,” Time’s cover story says, “they changed the world.” And they’re still changing it. That’s what makes this a good choice for the story of the year.

In the spring of 2011 we watched demonstrations across the Arab world — starting in Tunisia and then spreading to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and the entire region.

Time is right to say that the protesters themselves are the heroes of these stories. They’re the protagonists driving this story. The antagonists — the villains, frankly — are the powers that be. And in between them in each case, in every country touched by the Arab Spring, has been another faction that has played a key role in determining the outcome of the protests: the military and the militarized police.

These soldiers and police officers and strange hybrids of the two are not, themselves, full members of the privileged class of the powers that be. In most cases, the interests of these humans in uniform were best represented by the protesters. But the autocrats who signed the solders’ paychecks and issued their orders had a different set of interests. So at some level, those humans in uniform had to make a choice — would they choose to defend raw power, or would they side with the people?

In Egypt, the humans in uniform chose the side of hope and freedom, refusing to become nothing more than Mubarak’s hired thugs. These humans in uniform refused to cease being humans just because they had put on that uniform. And so Egypt was changed.

In Libya and in Syria, the humans in uniform tried to strike a bargain with raw power. They agree to act as the hired goons of the powers that be. That didn’t work out so well for those goons in Libya. And the temporary success of raw power in Syria is only delaying the inevitable.

In the summer of 2011, mass demonstrations came to America.

In Madison, Wis., the powers that be explicitly declared themselves opposed to the interests of the humans in uniform.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set out to disenfranchise workers by taking away their right to bargain, beginning with the right of state employees in public workers unions. Walker hoped to divide the humans in uniform from other workers by assuring the state’s police officers that, if they remained loyal servants of the powers that be, he would reward them by destroying their union last of all.

Wisconsin’s police union didn’t seem to view that as an attractive bargain. And so the demonstrations grew, reminding the world that raw, unchecked power is never a friend of humans, not even of humans in uniform.

In the fall of 2011, mass demonstrations appeared to be everywhere. Protesters “occupied” Wall Street and soon occupations were pitching tents and tabernacles in cities across America and around the world.

That wave of protest has changed our national conversation. After months wasted obsessing over the phantasms and fears of the super-rich — bond vigilantes, phantom inflation, calls for the poor to be sacrificed to appease the confidence fairy — we began, finally, to talk about the real problems of joblessness, underwater households and an economy rigged against 99 percent of us.

And once again the humans in uniform were called on to act as nothing more than the hired goons of the powers that be. The fall of 2011 was a shameful season for the NYPD, as many of New York’s Finest showed themselves to be neither fine nor New Yorkers, but merely power-addled fantasists in role-playing costumes.

In city after city, brutes in blue spent the autumn proving that they hadn’t been paying attention in the spring. They were still clinging to the idea that violent repression might work. They actually seemed to think that “cracking down” on protesters would make them go away instead of making them stronger. These hapless Pinkertons seemed surprised when mass arrests and capricious violence only increased the number of protesters.

You may take your weapons and go,” the students of UC Davis informed the awkwardly armored police officers who had just assaulted them with pepper spray. “You can go.” That was an expression of authority — a granting of permission that showed power had been turned rightside-up. The humans in uniform of the hyper-militarized police sheepishly packed up their pepper spray and left.

What will the winter bring?

The presence of tents in Zuccotti Park was a symbol of protest, but tents are the homes of people on the move. The occupation is moving on, but it doesn’t seem to be going away.

I’m most encouraged by the direction of Occupy Our Homes, an effort that is directly challenging the powers that be by unmasking the foreclosure crisis as the product of choices made by and on behalf of the super-rich. These protesters are mobilizing “to stop the bailed-out and fraudulent big banks that are stealing our homes.”

As Bruce Judson writes, this effort is “Shining a Light on Our Great Failure“:

What the Occupy protesters recognize, either explicitly or implicitly, is that since the start of the housing crisis, government actions have by and large penalized suffering homeowners while rewarding banks that should have failed because of poor business decisions. The government has not adequately enforced the laws associated with ensuring that foreclosures are valid, and it appears to have no concerns when banks wrongfully take possession of homes (which, I believe, used to be called “criminal trespass” and  “breaking and entering”). On the flip side, all of the administration’s plans associated with helping homeowners facing foreclosure have failed miserably.

All of this is bad economics, violates the rules of accountability and equal justice that are essential to a viable capitalist economy, and undermines our democracy.

Here again, on the one side are the protesters representing the interests of people, and on the other side is the raw power of banks wrongfully taking possession of homes. And here again, in the middle, are humans in uniform who will have to choose sides.

This recent story from Atlanta suggests that in this context, in these situations, humans in uniform may be less likely to follow the thuggish example of the servants of power who cracked skulls and “cracked down” in their midnight raids on tent cities. In this story the homeowner (some reports call her Vita Lee and others Elvinia Hall) is 103 years old and has lived in the home with her 83-year-old daughter for the past 53 years. For the past several months, Deutsche Bank has been trying to foreclose on the family.

“This family has been waging a war against Deutsche Bank,” community activist Derrick Boezeman said.

But when Fulton County sheriff’s deputies were sent to the home to evict these elderly women, those humans in uniform decided that they didn’t want to fight in that war as Deutsche Bank’s mercenaries. They took one look at the situation, turned around and left. Following orders from mega-bank overlords to devour the homes of widows was not what those deputies signed up for, not what they swore to uphold, not their job.

Here’s hoping that this winter we’ll see more humans in uniform come to that realization.

 

  • Albanaeon

    I think a lot of us may be facing a choice between what is easy and what is right next year.  We can’t have rights in a police state, only privileges that may be revoked.  We can’t have a functioning democracy when corporations and their money are treated as ‘more’ equal than the rest of us.  We can’t have a modern, progressive nation with the income inequalities of a banana republic. 

    Hopefully enough people, and the right people, choose to do the right thing…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Pelikan/100000903137143 Jonathan Pelikan

    This is a really, really powerful post, Fred. We should all spread it far and wide because everybody needs to read it.

  • Anonymous

    “In Egypt, the humans in uniform chose the side of hope and freedom”

    …for a time.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15809739

  • STZ

    After reading for many years, I decided to break my traditional silence to state that this is probably the finest article that Fred has ever written, and the one that bodes the best news.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Prost/100002434484052 Tony Prost

    I have been hoping for so long. I am almost sixty now. How much longer do I have to keep hoping?

  • Uncle Max

    The story about the two elderly women about to be foreclosed upon makes no sense.  According to the reports, the loan was taken out fraudulently by a grandson without the home owners’ consent.  How the sam hill can they be foreclosed?

  • P J Evans

    The same way that banks foreclosed on people who weren’t behind on their mortgages, and in some cases on people whose mortgages they didn’t even hold. Illegally, that is, and in a number of cases by fraud and perjury.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    To misquote the late great Molly Ivins, “It’s time once again to ask the always-relevant question:  ‘Why aren’t these people in jail?’”

    Oh, and in case anyone thought PJ was exaggerating:  Read it and weep (Warning:  May cause blinding rage and a desire to burn down the nearest bank.)

  • Smilodon

    I hadn’t wanted to watch the video (I’m not very good at watching people in pain) but I’m glad I did, for the hope at the end.

  • walden

    Ah yes, good ol’ “Humans in uniform”, my favorite part of the magazine except for “Life in these Untied Skates”.

  • spinetingler

    maybe I’m at some holiday-induced emotionally-fragile place, but that post brought me to tears. Well done Fred.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Lovely post. :)

  • friendly reader

    I had a discussion with my parents on Skype the other night about a case here in Japan where the VP of a railway company committed suicide after an accident due to carelessness on the part of the company led to some deaths. While we agreed that suicide wasn’t the answer, both of them agreed that the sense of shame when you company fails people, and a sense of responsibility, are sorely lacking in many companies in America.

    My dad then said that perhaps shame will make a comeback if we just yelled “Come back, shame!” Oh, my dad and his puns!

  • Anonymous

    “To misquote the late great Molly Ivins, ‘It’s time once again to ask the always-relevant question: “Why aren’t these people in jail?”‘”

    Good point, CU 5012. The problem, as I see it, is not the Boys-in-Blue who are pepper-spraying and/or dragging protesters off to jail; it’s the Boys-in-the-Pinstripe-Suits-and-School-Ties in the Prosecutor’s office who won’t *investigate* any of this crap that the Bank$ters are pulling. Is it too much to ask that these guys start playing Elliot Ness to the Bank$ter’s Al Capone rather than Guy of Gisborne to their Prince John?

  • Bificommander

    Certainly an inspired post. But as for the interpetation of the Egyptian people in uniforms, it seems Fred’s analysis is a bit too optimistic. They seem to have taken orders from the real powers-that-be, human in slightly fancier uniforms, and didn’t defend the figurehead of the power. Certainly, this figurehead Mubarak is guilty of quite a few crimes, and deserved to be removed. But given the uniforms much more violent response to attempts to remove the powerbrokers that stood behind Mubarak for years, I think their support for the protesters wasn’t so much driven by ideals as by a pragmatic approach to maintaining power for their real bosses.

  • Ursula L

    Part of the problem is that there are really strong cultural and legal forces pushing individuals in the police and military to follow orders even when those orders are wrong.  

    It was quite upsetting, in the lead-up to the invasions if Afghanistan and Iraq, that no US soldiers questioned the legality of the war and their orders to invade, and none refused to carry out orders to wage aggressive war.  

    Waging war of aggression was one of the charges at the Nuremberg Trials, and Americans didn’t accept “just following orders” from German soldiers as a valid defense or excuse after WWII. The complicity of the US military, of ordinary soldiers, validated my father’s belief that the justice after WWII was a sham, about victors punishing losers rather than about establishing principles of behavior that would be universally expected in the future.  

    As long as police and soldiers feel that they’re legally and morally doing the right thing when they follow orders, and as long as they face the prospect of punishment for questioning or refusing orders, we’re not going to see humans in uniform acting with humanity as a matter of course.  

    Military and police culture needs to change.  

    But, more importantly, the laws that govern the military and police need to change.  Police and soldiers who think carefully about the morality of their orders and refuse those orders that they aren’t completely certain are moral need to receive official reward and protection.  

    The idea that following orders makes it okay is deeply pervasive.  A few years back, there was a discussion similar to this one at Making Light, which is hardly a conservative stronghold.  Yet people there vigorously defended US soldiers who were carrying out orders, even as they insisted that the orders were criminal.  

    “Support the troops” is wrong, when what the troops are doing is wrong.  Our support needs to be strong for troops who recognize and defy the order to do wrong.  And we can’t give that support with our full efforts when we’re also busy encouraging those soldiers who carry out wrong orders anyway. 

  • http://twitter.com/Jongargia Jonathan Garcia

    Winter is coming.

  • rizzo

    The cops that allowed the poor old lady to stay in her home are the best cops.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I agree completely.

    I also think we have to share some responsibility. The reasons why soldiers are asked to participate in illegal wars is because we keep electing politicians who send them into illegal wars… again and again and again. How can we ask soldiers to defy orders and risk going to jail if we can’t even ask ourselves to vote against warmongers, which doesn’t even require any personal risk on our part?

    Maybe we can’t do anything about that as individuals, but we can at least pay attention to sheriffs and DAs who tell their officers to do bad things on a local level. One vote might be small in a federal election but it’s huge in local races that most people ignore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Pelikan/100000903137143 Jonathan Pelikan

    I agree completely. There was some quote I read a long time ago about the revolutionary war, when a European officer agreed to come to America and help train our boys. “When a soldier in Europe is given an order, he does it. When an American gets an order, he asks ‘why?’” I’m paraphrasing, but the general seemed to approve of this difference. Well, I want that sort of thing to become the ideal we strive towards with a modern, egalitarian military.

    That’s one of the many reasons why the story of Bradley Manning drove me to such deep despair. That’s a story about America, and specifically the armed forces of the United States, failing completely in all their moral and ethical obligations and dishonoring everything we stand for.

  • Anonymous

    It was quite upsetting, in the lead-up to the invasions if Afghanistan and Iraq, that no US soldiers questioned the legality of the war and their orders to invade, and none refused to carry out orders to wage aggressive war.

    A small number did, actually.  They of course got arrested for it, but it happened.  It probably doesn’t help that ‘wage aggressive war’ is not an illegal order.  (starting one, on the other hand.

    Waging war of aggression was one of the charges at the Nuremberg Trials, and Americans didn’t accept “just following orders” from German soldiers as a valid defense or excuse after WWII.

    They didn’t accept ‘just following orders’ as an excuse for various atrocities committed, but it’s not like they prosecuted the entire Wehrmacht for ‘waging aggressive war’.

    “When a soldier in Europe is given an order, he does it. When an American gets an order, he asks ‘why?’”

    Doesn’t really apply to the specific events under discussion, but… time and a place, though.  A battlefield is not a good location for an open debate on the best method to proceed.

    That’s one of the many reasons why the story of Bradley Manning drove me to such deep despair.</BLOCKQUOTEHe did kinda give up classified information to whoever cares to read it.  That's not a minor thing.

  • Ursula L

    Doesn’t really apply to the specific events under discussion, but… time and a place, though.  A battlefield is not a good location for an open debate on the best method to proceed.

    My father, stepmother, grandmother, and step-grandmother were all civilians, in battlefields, at one point or another in their lives.  

    And a battlefield is exactly the time and place where it is most important for soldiers to stop and question orders, to question methods, to question their purpose being there.  

    Because if you’re there, and your orders are wrong, your methods are wrong, your purpose is wrong, you’re a monster, the thing that still gives my stepmother nightmares over sixty years later.  

    There are many places along the way when wars can and should be questioned.  But the battlefield is the most important place, because it is the final defense against atrocity.  

    If you have a gun in your hand, or a bomb in your plane, and a child could be at your target, you are the person who controls whether you’re a decent human or a baby-killer.  And if you don’t stop and think, at that moment, and you kill a child, then you’re a baby-killer.  And no order in the world can change that fact, because that is what you have done.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X