SWAT Team Fife

SWAT hand signals
SWAT hand signals (thanks u/ikebu)

In The Andy Griffith Show, the town of Mayberry has two cops: the cool, competent Sheriff Taylor who refuses to carry a gun, and the excitable, cowardly Deputy Fife who is so jumpy that he is not allowed to keep his service revolver loaded and yet still manages to prematurely fire it in stressful situations.

American policing has decidedly settled on the model of Fife — sans the precaution of keeping sidearms unloaded during non-emergencies. As yet another reminder that giving firearms to police officers does not impart to them a corresponding bravery or levelheadedness, here is a recent headline I would have missed if I were not a member of some running discussion boards:

Police responded to a distraught woman in a parking garage who was holding an airsoft gun to her head. The first officer to arrive was so eager to kill the woman that he discharged his weapon early and shot himself in the leg. Another officer successfully opened fire, but missed the subject who then threw her toy gun off the parking structure and was taken into custody. (Despite the headline, other news agencies have reported that this incident was unrelated to an earlier kidnapping report.)

Unfortunately, well-armed cops literally shaking in fear as they confront with deadly force members of marginalized groups and emotionally exhausted individuals is standard operating procedure for American police. Just last week four police officers, after receiving reports that she may be suicidal, performed a “wellness” check on Chelsea Manning by breaking into her apartment with guns and a taser drawn (she was not home, but The Intercept has published a security camera video of the incident). The homicidal response of American police to any sort of emergency is so well known that it is often weaponized by petty or political enemies as another recent headline reminds us: “The home of Parkland survivor David Hogg was swatted this morning”.

Iconic, in my mind, of the sharp contrast between the armament amassed by police and their near total lack of courage and sympathy when faced with someone in need is the 2012 case of Milton Hall. Accused of stealing a cup of coffee from a Michigan gas station, Hall (a 49-year-old homeless black man) drew a small Swiss Army type pocket knife to keep the responding police officers at bay. Police immediately escalated the situation. Dash cam and witness cellphone video show that eight police officers (including a K9 unit) formed a semi-circle around Hall. Six of the officers had firearms, both handguns and rifles, trained on Hall who was squatting in a defensive position with the small knife in his hand. At one point, the K9 handler backed up and Hall seemed to relax and took a step toward the police officers. All six officers opened fire, discharging 46 rounds in a few seconds and killing Hall. (I describe the death of Milton Hall and three other homeless men murdered by police in my essay “When Police Kill the Homeless”.)

One indicator of the depth of the cowardice, barbarity, and impunity with which police kill is the shear number of family pets shot by police in America every year. Most police shootings in most departments involve dogs, but nobody keeps track of how many are killed by police nation wide. The Puppycide Database Project has collected data on over 2,900 dogs shot by police so far. In headline after headline the shootings are unprovoked, a function of police being armed, undisciplined, unaccountable, frightened, and predisposed to violence. A 2014 article titled “Can Police Stop Killing Dogs?” in POLICE magazine quotes a Department of Justice specialist, in what I hope is an overly high estimate, that as many as “25 to 30 pet dogs are killed each day by law enforcement officers.” That’s each day.

But one of the most infuriating behaviors of American police is the readiness with which so many officers arrive on a scene, heart pumping with fear, to quickly shoot an unarmed human suspect — disproportionately so if the suspect is a racial minority. In the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black kid who was innocuously playing with an airsoft gun at a park near his home, “quickly” meant less than two seconds after officers drove up to him. But in cases of actual danger, when people need protection from armed perpetrators, cops decked out in tactical gear too often become suddenly preoccupied with their own safety.

When I was a freshman in high school, a nearby school became the site a mass shooting. The two perpetrators planted propane bombs in the cafeteria set to detonate during lunch — when around 500 students would be in the room — and then positioned themselves in their cars with semiautomatic weapons and shotguns to shoot fleeing survivors. When the bombs failed to explode, the two improvised and became pioneers of the modern shooting rampage. According to the Columbine Review Commission report (all parenthetical page numbers refer to this document), “six officers from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office had arrived on the scene within minutes after the attack had begun” in addition to four Denver police officers (including three SWAT team members). (38) As the killing spree continued inside the school for about 40 minutes before the shooters committed suicide, the police outside the school — with their superior and growing numbers, firepower, armor, radios, and training — did almost nothing to intervene or put themselves in danger.

At one point early in the shooting, the Denver SWAT members on scene witnessed one of the shooters stick the barrel of his gun out a door and fire several rounds. “Two of the Denver officers fired at the doorway, but it is not known why the Denver officers, who were fully equipped with high-powered weaponry and body armor, took no further action.” (33, note 80)

Even after receiving a description of the shooters, and while unarmed students and teachers did what they could to rescue each other, the armed police continued in their cowardice. “It was reported that at least one student who had managed to escape from the school (and who had carried out a fellow student with him) told the police outside the school that there were only two gunmen and urged that the police go in after them to prevent further killing. But instead of entering the school, the police first began to set up a security perimeter around the school so that the gunmen could not escape.” (60, note 152)

The worst of the carnage took place in the library about fifteen minutes into the shooting, where for almost eight minutes dispatchers knew where the killers were and police continued to safely tend to their security perimeter outside. “At that point, Patti Nielson dropped the telephone — leaving the line open — and sought refuge under a desk. Dispatchers could hear the ensuing carnage as the perpetrators in a seven-and-one-half minute killing spree taunted and executed nine more students, while sparing others.” (30)

In fact, no attempt to enter the school was made by police until 12:06pm, about the same time the shooting ended. That initial entry resulted in two staff members being escorted safely from the school. A second attempt by SWAT to enter the school, this time near the library where the perpetrators were already dead, did not go as smoothly. As officers approached the door they were spooked by a reflection of themselves in a window, which they shot before retreating (in order to “reassess the situation”). (43, note 103)

Police did not enter again until an hour after the shooting had ended. “Regrettably, wounded students remained in the library awaiting rescue during the period of time police had postponed entering the school’s west side.” (44) As victims bled to death in the school, SWAT teams moved very slowly and cautiously through the hallways. “The sheriff’s report implied that the officers faced too many unknown hazards for them to move more quickly, but in an interview with a law enforcement trade journal, Williams later stated that the officers ‘went in with superior weapons. We had HK MP5’s (automatic sub-machine guns), assault rifles, gas guns, shotguns, as well as sidearms. We entered with Army helmets with Kevlar, ballistic tactical jackets with steel plates in the front and ballistic shields.’ Despite such weaponry and armor, the record reflected that a burned carpet, spent and unlit ordnance, unfired bullets and broken glass had deterred officers from conducting a swifter search”. (53, note 132)

It took an hour and a half for police to reach the science room where students and teachers were performing first aid on victims — whom the police commenced to rough up. “Teacher Alan Cram characterized the SWAT officers as ‘very abusive;’ they would not listen to him as he tried to tell them” the whereabouts of a wounded teacher. (53) It took police over three hours after the shooting stopped to make it to the library where most of the victims were. In the Columbine episode of the television series Zero Hour, Randy Brown, the father of one of the students who knew the shooters, described the scene outside the library as he understood it:

One of the things the police don’t want you to know about that day is that on April 20th, while the executions are taking place, while these innocent children are being murdered in the library, the outside library door is propped open. And the policemen that are standing by their cars on the lawn outside are listening to these children being murdered. And they listen, and they listen, and they never rescue them. And they let them be murdered.

Yet it took less than two seconds to shoot and mortally wound Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun.

I don’t mean to imply that cowardice or violence should be at the root of a criticism of policing in general, but the inverse relationship that seems to hold between the degree to which police are armed and the heroics of their actions is a tragic phenomenon which goes along with the transparency of American police in fulfilling their class roles.

Mill, Marx, Einstein, and Hawking on Technology

Writing in 1848, John Stuart Mill expressed his scepticism about the perpetual growth demanded by economists and the ability of capitalism to put technology to its proper use of improving life for everybody:

Hitherto it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot.

In Chapter 15 of Capital (published almost 20 years after Mill’s book), Marx reproduces the first sentence of the above quote and adds:

That is, however, by no means the aim of the capitalistic application of machinery. Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working-day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus-value.

Marx died on March 14, 1883, four years after the German physicist Albert Einstein was born, also on March 14. In 1949 Einstein wrote a letter for the debut issue of Monthly Review magazine titled “Why Socialism?” in which he presents some of the usual complaints about capitalism as it developed to and during World War II, including the observation that “Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all.”

Almost 70 years of advances in manufacturing later, Stephen Hawking (who, like Marx, died on a March 14th) echoed this pessimism toward capitalism as a system which is still unsuitable for managing mechanized production in a useful way (other than to make the rich richer):

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
— Stephen Hawking
Reddit AMA

My Local Megachurch Hosted a Gigantic Funeral for a Cop

Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
— Jesus
Luke 9:60

Flatirons Community Church is the largest church in Colorado with close to 20,000 members, most of whom attend one of the weekly services at the church’s main campus in the town of Lafayette.

The other day Flatirons hosted the funeral for a sheriff’s deputy who was shot and killed while responding to a call in the Denver area. It was an extraordinary memorial service attended by thousands of law enforcement officers and citizens and preceded by a massive procession of hundreds of police and fire fighting vehicles. Miles of highway and city streets were closed to traffic as saluting spectators lined them with American and https://twitter.com/flatironschurch/status/960957736908341248"`thin blue line`"] flags.

Almost nobody in attendance worked directly with or ever met the deceased. But clearly what he stood for as a law enforcement officer meant something to these people, something that reverberated to the core of their own identities. The pomp of police worship became an opportunity for frightened [white] people to reassure themselves that the world is bad but they will prevail.

To someone more familiar with the New Testament than white evangelical American Christianity, it might seem somewhat contradictory for a nominally Christian church to put itself at the center of this ritual, especially at a time when the violence, racism, and corruption of American law enforcement has become so well documented that not even the most colorblind and self-absorbed liberal can feign ignorance to the white supremacist implications carried with the praise and defense of its institutions.

But white self-described ‘born-again’ Christians are by far the most adamant minority behind the rise of Trumpism in this country. Even during its regular services, giving reassurance to those blinded by ideology is what Flatirons and churches like it do. It is what they are for. In their auditoriums, “Christianity” is no longer about propertyless cynics proclaiming the radical transformation of society and becomes instead a counseling service for broken people who are desperate for ways to cope with their anxieties, alienation, and dysfunctional relationships without ever having to question the decaying foundations of their society.

I’ve personally attended several services at Flatirons and have listened to recordings of additional sermons by Lead Pastor Jim Burgen on the website. Despite frequently pronouncing what "Jesus says" or what "Jesus wants", very little attention is ever given by Burgen to the actual sayings of Jesus as recorded in any of the gospels. It’s easy to get the idea that neither Burgen nor his audience have much interest in what Jesus meant by his cryptic sayings. But the lessons at Flatirons do from time to time give an apt illustration of one or another of Jesus’s teachings. Most recently: what it looks like for the dead to bury the dead.

Occupy the Farm Redux

You’re really doin’ some bang-up policework
You ripped the whole damn garden out
You got the rats out of your corn
And let the vampires in your house
You got a bug for son and daughter
To always know the time and place
And it don’t seem all that crazy
Just the way the world is run today
— Mischief Brew
Bang-Up Policework

Five years ago I wrote about the eviction of Occupy the Farm from UC Berkeley land on the same day the Denver City Council passed the “urban camping ban” to further criminalize homelessness in Denver. If you look at the URL of that post, you’ll see that I had originally titled it “A Depressing Monday.”

Back in 2012 I thought the eviction was the end of Occupy the Farm and never heard anything else about it until I came across a 2014 documentary about the project earlier this month. It turns out I gave up too early and Occupy the Farm has been one of the most successful of the camps inspired by Occupy Wall Street: the activists broke back onto the land in May 2013 to re-establish the farm. Despite two more raids by police, they refused the university’s comically bureaucratic attempts at co-optation, successfully got Whole Foods to back out of their development plans, and finally the university capitulated and has committed to preserving a plot of land including a little over an acre which has been turned into the UC Gill Tract Community Farm.

One of the more novel tactics the university used was to file a lawsuit against individual activists (which it later dropped). It’s silly, but much preferable to the Reagan approach of simply shooting activists with shotguns (I’m surprised the documentary didn’t point out the parallels between Occupy the Farm and the 1969 occupation of People’s Park).

Berkeleyside reported on the progress of the farm in the summer of 2005:

The farm aims to be a source of organic produce for anyone who lacks access in the East Bay. Volunteers have harvested 17,000 pounds of produce since June 2014. Today, about 30 different types of crops grow on just over one acre of land — everything from dry-farmed tomatoes and leeks to pineapple ground cherries, which are tomatillos that taste just like, well, pineapple.


The farm has seen seven field trips from nearby schools and has hosted interns and over 40 different workshops. Volunteers also supply food to the Berkeley Food Pantry, senior housing communities including Harriet Tubman Terrace and the Sojourner Truth Manor, and other community groups. (“UC Gill Tract Farm blooms amidst controversy” by Kathleen Costanza)

After Whole Foods backed out, the university did make a deal with Sprouts which protesters were unsuccessful in challenging (I believe the store opened for business this month). In an interesting contradiction which seems to have escaped the film-maker’s notice, the documentary begins by lamenting the lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods (in order to make the case for urban farming) while many of the Occupy the Farm activists ended up spending much of their time protesting the construction of grocery stores.

The documentary is called “Occupy The Farm”. I paid $0.99 to watch it on Amazon. Review in California Magazine: “Getting a Front Row Seat at Occupy the Farm: The Movie”


On the road to May Day: A non-report-back from Denver 2017

Diogenes Asking for Alms
Figure 1. “Diogenes Asking for Alms” by Jean-Bernard Restout (1767). Here Diogenes is begging from a statue, which he did to practice being rejected.

A spectrum of beggars

Being asked why people give to beggars but not to philosophers, Diogenes said, “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.”

Every other day of the year I’m dismissive toward churches, parties, unions, and holy days; but on May 1st, I’m somehow always hopeful that a large number of radicals will turn out and cause trouble. It’s been a few years since I’ve written a post complaining about the tameness of May Day in Denver. That’s because I realized that I’m too shy to contribute to or get much out of protests and stopped attending them. This year, however, with good weather, the drama around Trump, and the centennial of the 1917 revolutions, I thought the demonstrations could be big. I searched online and saw that the Democratic Socialists of America and some other groups planned a “May Day Against Trumpism” at the capitol building. Wanting to not miss out, I took the bus to the city.

Between Union Station and Denver’s capitol building is a mile of pedestrian shopping called 16th Street Mall. Recounting one’s walk down 16th Street Mall is often to sketch a continuum-forming typology of beggars:

Diagram of begging typology.
Figure 2. A print-quality diagram depicting the perfectly sensible multi-dimensional typology of begging. I’m not at all embarrassed of the concept or drawing. The bus icon is by Naomi Atkinson; the capitol icon is by Loren Klein (CC-BY-3.0). The lines were drawn by me: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Click image for SVG version.

Almost as soon as I stepped outside of the bus station a woman approached me and asked if I had “a dollar or something to help with food.” I remembered that I had grabbed some extra change with my bus fare and handed her the two dimes. She cheerfully assured me that every little bit helps. This is the unpretentious beggar: she offers nothing in exchange for taking money except to live and beg another day. Every other beggar I’d meet on my way to the capitol would present their case as an exchange; they’d tell me that either I or an even more helpless third party somewhere would benefit from my donation.

A girl with a clipboard standing at the nearby intersection who witnessed my twenty-cent donation caught my eyes and asked, “Do you want to save a child with me today?” From what I gathered before the crossing light changed, the plan was for her to get paid to solicit donations for some sponsor-a-child charity scheme and for me to give her my money. I couldn’t even think of a sensible response to that offer of teamwork and just awkwardly shook my head before crossing the street. Later down the mall I met some more clipboard beggars, and I did much better. One girl got my attention with a friendly greeting and then explained that with Trump in office it is very important that I give to the ACLU. I told her I didn’t have any money. She was understanding and told me that I could donate online whenever I do have money.

A man begging on behalf of Save The Children, an organization currently helping victims of the Syrian civil war, asked if he could talk to me about their work. I told him I don’t have any money, and he politely asked if he could give me his spiel anyway. So I listened. When he got back to asking for a donation I wished him luck and walked on. It turns out that while he’s trying to extract money from unemployed anarchists on the mall, the President and CEO of Save the Children, Carolyn Miles (whose background is in marketing, specifically in selling American Express cards to college students), is paid $455,000 per year.

Further down the mall I looked down and walked fast to avoid interacting with a pair of clipboard-holders wearing Greenpeace shirts.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. When I crossed to the other side of 16th Street, on the first block of the mall, there was a man playing the flute along to some kind of electronic jazz music playing from a loudspeaker while also talking to passers-by trying to get them to dance. It was a tough crowd, but he was a skilled performer and there were several dollars in the wooden box on the ground in front of him.

Unlike most beggars, buskers are generally not only tolerated but desired by downtown business improvement districts because they provide some cultural authenticity which makes shopping a less sterile experience. People often give to buskers because they genuinely enjoyed the performance rather than out of pity, in which cases street performing is a commercial art rather than begging proper. While I’ve not witnessed them in Denver, other cases in which unsolicited services are pre-rendered with the expectation of payment, such as squeegee beggars who clean windshields at stoplights for donations, probably rarely make that transition (and so precede busking in the spectrum).

The claim that donations are actually payment for a service is a rhetorical game Diogenes played when he said people should pay him “not for alms, but for repayment of his due” (presumably for being such a great philosopher). And like some guilt-tripping clipboard beggars, he also tried leaning on potential donors' sense of fairness and morality to reason them into giving to him: “If you have already given to anyone else, give to me also; if not, begin with me.”

Jesus, the founder of the other ancient tradition of begging which has been gnawing the foundations of Western civilization for over 2,000 years, also gave some rather cynical advice on how to handle beggars. Included in his Sermon on the Mount are three of his most characteristic pronouncements. The first, “Do not resist an evildoer,” is followed by three examples of enduring more abuse than one’s day-to-day abusers expect (if someone slaps your face, turn turn the other cheek; if someone sues you for the literal shirt off your back, give them your cloak too; if you are conscripted to walk a mile, walk two miles). The third is “Love your enemies,” after which Jesus points out that even tax collectors — the very agents of exploitation — are nice to their friends, so that should be, like, the absolute minimum standard of behavior.

Perhaps less famous (though not less vexing) than those two paradoxical sayings is found right between them: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Jesus’s first followers were propertyless peasants who had left even their homes, were used to putting up with abuse at the hands of their social betters, to going without sufficient clothing, to walking more than even soldiers, were more often beggars than givers, and who nevertheless treated everybody well. Whatever the deeper and more general applications of these sayings, then, on their surface they not only presented the lifestyle of the early Christians (that which potential followers would be expected to adopt), they also seem to be lightheartedly self-serving in the same style of the Cynics who taught that it was virtuous to give to homeless philosophers.

The co-optation of Christianity by the rich and powerful not long after Jesus was executed imbued these sayings with even greater difficulty for their future audiences, especially “give to everyone who begs from you” which cannot be so easily philosophized away as a paradox. As an example, consider the case of a 19th-century Russian aristocrat named Leo Tolstoy who after a legendary career as a novelist attempted to take the sayings of Jesus seriously. His struggles with “do not resist an evildoer” produced several works which had profound influences on social justice movements around the world and are still read by pacifists and anarchists today. But it wasn’t until he was quite old that he finally got the courage (if sneaking away from one’s wife in the middle of the night counts as courageous) to leave all of his possessions by setting out on train with nothing but the clothes of a standard Russian peasant. He developed pneumonia and died within days of leaving home.

The pretensions of the cynical beggar are ironic in that the audience is aware of the rhetorical game, but like in the case of the street performer, it is the decision of those who give as to whether they are giving out of pity or gratitude. Beyond that, the type of beggar represented by the Cynic and the Christian are honest both in the sense that they present neither sob stories nor pretended friendliness, but even more so in that they invite their listeners to throw off their own pretensions about the society they are living in and reproducing. That is, to the Cynic and the Christian, giving to beggars is not in tension with more systematic solutions to poverty, it is the systematic solution to poverty. The clipboard-holding fundraiser, in contrast, who has perfected the sob story, the salesman-like friendliness, and who claims salvation is found in non-profit organizations, is perhaps the paragon of the dishonest beggar.

I didn’t have occasion to mention it, because I have thankfully never been a witness or victim to a robbery (not that such crimes are unknown on the 16th Street Mall), but robbers also make no claim to be helping their victims and should logically precede the unpretentious beggar in our spectrum. While of course theft and robbery, being characterized by their involuntary demands, are not begging properly, even muggers sometimes couch their activity in the language of a market exchange (‘your money for your life’).

Julian, the fourth-century Roman emperor (a nephew of Constantine) who tried to peacefully revert the empire from Christianity back to Paganism, was annoyed with the openly atheist and crude Cynics of his day. He wanted all Cynics to be as pious and educated as he imagined Diogenes and Crates were, and argued that most Cynics were even worse than bandits and pirates who were at least decent enough to be ashamed of their lifestyle and live in their faraway hideouts instead of preaching at people in the streets. He also referred to Cynics as “monks,” intending the association with Christians to be an insult (Christians were only one or three gods away from being atheists themselves).

At many of the intersections along the mall I saw newspaper salesmen — often older men with all of their possessions in bags on the ground at their feet — selling the Denver VOICE for a suggested $2 per copy. Originally founded 20 years ago as “a grassroots newspaper created by homeless people for homeless people,” the VOICE is now written for a general audience and sold by homeless vendors (who buy the papers for $0.50 each) as a way for them to earn some income. (The Denver VOICE is independent, but its operating model is influenced by similar street newspaper vending networks which operate in cities around the world.)

These charity vendors, whose sales depend at least as much on pity as on satisfying the wants of their customers, are located in the middle of the murky space where begging becomes selling (somewhere to the retail side of the children in third-world cities who sell trinkets to Western tourists).

Of course the entire mall is lined by actual retail shops and beggardly advertisements. Salespersons and advertisers (and the business owners they work for) likely imagine they are much further along the spectrum of begging than they actually are.

Downtown business associations and city councils will often commission artwork to help beautify shopping areas and, as in the case of buskers, will happily tolerate some guerrilla murals which provide a degree of authenticity to the shopping environment. But for the most part any art or graphic design which might distract from the commercial purposes of the property is forbidden. In the words of the street artist Banksy, “The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl their giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. They expect to be able to shout their message in your face from every available surface but you’re never allowed to answer back.”

Banksy’s observation echoes one by GK Chesterton a hundred years earlier that “It is really not so repulsive to see the poor asking for money as to see the rich asking for more money. And advertisement is the rich asking for more money”:

A man would be annoyed if he found himself in a mob of millionaires, all holding out their silk hats for a penny; or all shouting with one voice, “Give me money.” Yet advertisement does really assault the eye very much as such a shout would assault the ear. “Budge’s Boots are the Best” simply means “Give me money”; “Use Seraphic Soap” simply means “Give me money.” It is a complete mistake to suppose that common people make our towns commonplace, with unsightly things like advertisements. Most of those whose wares are thus placarded everywhere are very wealthy gentlemen with coronets and country seats, men who are probably very particular about the artistic adornment of their own homes. They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.

Shop and restaurant owners on the 16th Street Mall have been known to be hostile to the more needy beggars operating on their turf and have enlisted the police to carry out revanchist actions against the most vulnerable. In 2012, legislation criminalizing the act of sleeping outside with shelter (defined as “any tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing”) was passed on behalf of downtown business owners. Under the authority of that code, police have conducted winter raids on homeless camps to confiscate blankets. Recently three individuals accused of camping with shelter were tried by jury, convicted, and sentenced to several days of forced labour.

The City of Denver in collaboration with downtown business owners has installed mechanical panhandlers — modified parking meters — which are meant to compete with live beggars. The city has promised the money collected by the machines will go toward “job training, meals and permanent housing options that help get people back on their feet,” but it has been caught spending it instead to help fund the police sweeps of homeless camps.

The mall ends where 16th Street dead-ends into Broadway. To the north is the financial heart of Denver’s business center. On 16th Street itself are the two Denver World Trade Center buildings and Republic Plaza (the tallest building in Denver); scattered beyond those are more high-rise office buildings and skyscrapers. These buildings exhibit almost none of the colorful and chaotic elements of the shopping mall and are instead dark, sleek, and inauspicious.

The craft of capital allocation and investment, which is practiced in many of these buildings, does not depend on demanding, begging, or offering so much as on staking ownership and simply taking interest. Like the robber on one end of our spectrum, we have financial capitalism on the other: the bandit subsumed. The full spectrum of begging plays out between these dialectical bookends of the modern capitalist economy, as it does everyday between Union Station and Broadway.

Walking a block south on Broadway brought me to the state capitol building. I could see maybe 100 demonstrators nestled up on the steps waving red and black flags. A large banner facing the street read “No War But Class War,” and another further back read “Workers & Oppressed People of the World Unite!” There were no police or pro-Trump counter-protestors in sight.

The prospect of joining them seemed both socially overwhelming and boring. Like some sort of party. So I continued walking down Broadway and spent my afternoon in the Denver Public Library. It was a good May Day.

Other people’s May Day 2017

Of course, some people actually followed through on their plans to attend a May Day demonstration. The local Fox News affiliate was kind enough to both get the word out about various May Day protests in Denver as well as to follow up with a short video and a couple of pictures from the event at the capitol: “May Day events taking place in Denver” (Fox31, 1 May 2017). More photos can be found on the Facebook event page.

A few cities around the world saw major protests, with the riot in Paris getting the most headlines because protesters responded to police tear gas with spectacular petrol bombs. Hundreds of protesters and six cops were injured during the clashes.

In the United States the most unusual thing about May Day this year was the presence of Trump-inspired right-wing counter-protesters who turned up in several cities. Seattle was unusually quiet though there was a minor confrontation with participants of a “Stand Against Communism” rally.

The most rowdy demonstrations were in Portland and Olympia. In Portland a minor riot broke out after a few protesters threw full cans of Pepsi at riot police who responded by charging into the mostly peaceful crowd of marchers. The bloc’d up [mostly-anarchist, no doubt] protesters who instigated the police response have been criticized for endangering the rest of the march.

There was also a small riot in Olympia where protesters threw rocks at police (and some counter-protesters threw rocks at marching demonstrators). In one unfortunate and embarrassing instance, a protester tried to pepper spray some taunting counter-protesters and accidentally sprayed passers-by including a dog. Most cops are not even that irresponsible with chemical weapons.

The Red Guards Austin, a Maoist group which has gained some notoriety in recent months due to their open-carry demonstrations, tried to march in Austin, but they were surround by an alarming number of reactionary counter protesters. Apparently racists and anti-communists of the InfoWars variety are numerous in the Austin area (I didn’t realize until now that Alex Jones lives in Austin and hosts his show there). Some Red Guards members were carrying rifles, and so were a few of the right-wingers. In their public self-criticism which they posted to their weblog, the Red Guards described this scary moment:

Early on in the march a fascist named William Fears physically assaulted one of the comrades who was guiding chants and for this Fears came very close to forcing our units to use lethal force. Those in attendance could see fear in his eyes as the Partisan unit moved into the ready position prepared to chamber a round.

My impression is that the Austin PD did a good job keeping the groups apart and possibly from literally killing each other. The independent journalist Kit O’Connell was present and wrote a good postmortem of the event: “Unpacking The Fascist Rampage On May Day In Austin: What Happened, What Went Wrong.” I could not find a single report from a main stream news outfit.

Sources of quotations

The sayings of Diogenes quoted above can be found in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book VI. Those of Jesus are recorded in Matthew 5:38-48. Julian’s thoughts on Cynics are preserved in his seventh Oration: “To the Cynic Heracleios.” The Banksy quote is from his introduction to Wall and Piece. GK Chesterton’s opinion on advertisements can be found in his 1920 book The New Jerusalem.


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