Behind Bars

The Real Looters

By Bonnie Weinstein

When the verdict came down July 8, 2010 finding killer-cop Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter with a “gun enhancement” instead of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, for the murder of 22-year-old, unarmed, Oscar Grand January 1, 2009, the community of Oakland mobilized. Thousands came out to Oakland’s City Hall to protest the verdict—a slap on the wrist that could result in Mehserle serving as few as four years or less for his crime, counting time-served. The involuntary manslaughter conviction carries a sentence from two, three or four years in prison. For personally using a firearm in the commission of a felony for which he was also convicted, Mehserle’s sentence can be enhanced by three, four or ten years.

Mehserle’s sentencing has been postponed until November 5. A massive protest demanding, “Justice for Oscar Grant” and “Jail Killer Cops” is scheduled for Saturday, October 23, 2010 in Oakland, California.

Stealing sneakers

The protest of the Mehserle verdict was overwhelmingly peaceful until the Oakland police started moving the crowd off the streets after it turned dark. News footage showed they cordoned off all corridors leaving only one way out for protesters, and began moving in full riot-gear against the crowd. In the crush and confusion tempers flared and some shop windows were broken. There is some evidence that this was initiated by police provocateurs. It is also true, that some private property was damaged and items “looted” from stores. People were caught on video by in-store and police cameras and the media made the most of it. The next day the media—on TV and in the newspapers—appealed to the public to help the police identify those caught on video swiping sneakers.

While grabbing shoes—or whatever—from broken store windows is not a revolutionary act and certainly shouldn’t be encouraged, these actions are a reflection of the power capitalism and its advertising has on working people—especially on youth. And it expresses the anger felt by those that can’t afford such luxuries as designer sneakers, yet who are the common victims of police oppression, violence and murder.

As there is a huge inequity in the distribution of wealth in this country, there is also a huge inequity in the punishment of criminal acts such as theft. A corporate executive gets a “golden parachute” for stealing billions of dollars from pension funds, but a 15-year-old gets two years or more in jail for stealing a pair of sneakers. This is not mythology—these are the basic facts of life under capitalism that plagues masses of impoverished working people—because capitalists create, orchestrate and command the law to their own advantage.

Stealing sneakers is a serious crime for youth

The anger in the community of Oakland and in communities across the country at the callous Mehserle verdict in the face of irrefutable evidence caught by cell phone video is palpable. The injustice of the verdict echoes the injustice of the capitalist system as a whole. Such murders by police have happened before and since the murder of Oscar Grant.

Certainly the “looters” were angry at the verdict but what makes some of them take that anger out by grabbing some sneakers from a store? Why are sneakers so important that someone would risk jail time to get a pair? Or express their anger to a vicious murder in that way? It turns out that capitalism is responsible for that, too.

In an August 4, 2010 article titled, “How Disney Magic and the Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age,” by Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock1:

“Kids of all ages now find themselves in what the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy call ‘a new marketing ecosystem’ that encompasses cell phones, mobile music devices, broadband video, instant messaging, video games and virtual three-dimensional worlds, all of which provide the knowledge and information that young people use to navigate their place in families, schools and communities. Disney along with its researchers, marketing departments and purveyors of commerce largely define and control this massive virtual entertainment complex, spending vast amounts of time trying to understand the needs, desires, tastes, preferences, social relations and networks that characterize youth as a potential market…

“According to The New York Times, Disney is at the forefront of finding ways to capitalize on the $50 billion dollars spent worldwide by young boys between the ages of six and 14. As part of such an effort, Disney seeks the advice of educators, anthropologists and even a research consultant with ‘a background in the casino industry,’ not only to study all aspects of the culture and intimate lives of young boys, but to do so in a way that allows Disney to produce ‘emotional hooks’ that lure young boys into the wonderful world of corporate Disney in order to turn them into enthusiastic consumers.”

Disney is just one example. Corporations spend massive amounts of money on advertising campaigns convincing youth that they must wear a particular kind of sneakers or jeans. Then when some of these youths, who have no jobs; whose parents have no jobs, or have slave-wage jobs, react to a verdict that says it’s okay for cops to shoot unarmed Black youth in the back; while they’re on the ground; while another cop has his knee on the back of the youth’s neck; and while four or five other cops are standing around; and when this murder is clearly caught on video tape; they are made out to be hard criminals for stealing a pair of sneakers out of anger and frustration with the verdict of involuntary manslaughter when it was clearly murder in cold blood. (It was reported by witnesses at the scene that while the cops were upon him holding him face-down on the ground and screaming at him to put his hands behind his back, Oscar kept pleading with them that his hands were trapped under him because the officer had his knee on Oscar’s neck. He kept repeating, “I surrender, please don’t shoot me, my hands are trapped, please don’t shoot. I have a little girl.”

This brutal murder and the callous verdict is a message sent out loud and clear to these young people that they are worthless, undeserving of life, expendable—certainly not deserving of a new pair of sneakers—let alone a decent education, healthcare or a job.

Add that to the fact that such things as “designer” clothes and other such objects are actually necessary to have if you want to be considered for a good-paying job. They have been designed to be symbols of affluence setting you “apart and above the rabble.”

The boss looks for the well-dressed potential employee—the “successful” potential employee. This is the whole message of the advertising, TV, movie, mass-media world of capitalism. They even teach these things in the classrooms—how to dress for success, etc.

These youth under ordinary circumstances wouldn’t do these things if it weren’t, so to speak, “a window of opportunity” to get the things they think they need because society tells them they do. Under capitalism, one’s self-worth is determined by his or her accumulation of wealth. No wealth, no worth. This is a continual capitalist mind-game.

Of course you have to look successful and capable to land a job in the best of times. Now, they run a credit check on potential employees no matter how qualified you are or how well you dress for a job interview! You not only have to have the qualifying credentials and look the part, your bank account has to substantiate it!

Capitalism engenders a tremendous sense of want among the masses. And it reinforces that want by making possession of such things a necessity if “you want to get ahead” or even to get into a school—let alone get a job. And at the same time, having these things doesn’t mean a damned thing if there are no jobs to be had.

It’s like putting food in front of starving people then calling them criminals for being tempted into taking it.

Stealing is legal for capitalists

In a May 28, 2010 article by Les Leopold2 titled, “The Ten Wealthiest Financiers in America Are Not Worth $900,000 an Hour,” written in the form of a letter to “Messrs, Tepper, Soros, Simons, Paulson, Cohen, Icahn, Lampert, Griffin, Arnold and Falcone”:

“That the ten of you personally received $18.7 billion (not million) from your hedge fund proceeds in 2009 is quite a feat, given that it was the worst economic year since the Great Depression. You each got roughly $36 million a week—over $900,000 an hour! Meanwhile, as result of the Wall Street shenanigans you helped engineer, 29 million Americans are now without work or forced into part-time jobs…”

The letter goes on:

“As you know, you probably would have earned little or nothing in 2009 if the American taxpayer hadn’t bailed out the entire financial system. That $18.7 billion you collected didn’t fall from the sky. Fearing another great depression, we poured nearly $10 trillion into the financial sector in the form of loans, liquidity programs, asset guarantees and the like. Those taxpayer subsidies should have gone to enhancing the public good, not pumping up obscene levels of private gain. Instead the net result of our mammoth rescue effort is that 150,000 teachers are laid off while you collect more than $36 million a week…

“It’s a troubling saga of public decay: Your high-flying financial manipulations helped bring down our economy. Millions of people lost their jobs and were no longer able to pay taxes; businesses everywhere went under. And now state and local governments are going broke and slicing their budgets. Tens-of-thousands of teachers are losing their jobs. (Those of you who live in New Jersey are watching this play out with a vengeance, as school programs are slashed to the bone.) Meanwhile, you walk away with billions, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.”

So just who are the real “looters?”

We do have to discourage anger-driven behavior in the movement—so that the police do not have an excuse to use lethal measures to protect private property. In fact, we must protest the use of lethal force to protect private property vigorously! We must insist that human life is more important than private property.

While we don’t condone the theft of sneakers, the youth who took them should be defended and the truth about the injustice of the capitalist system that puts people in this position must be exposed.

Capitalism is guilty of obscene theft on a massive scale. That’s where the blame lies—not with disadvantaged, marginalized, criminalized, oppressed, hungry and often desperate youth who grab a pair of designer sneakers on their way home from a just protest. The fault is squarely with the system of racist, sexist, capitalist class-oppression that makes having material things a key to success while insuring that masses of working people do not have access to them. It’s an oxymoron because you can’t have these things if you are not “successful” in the full capitalist sense of the word. And, of course, by their own definition, less than one percent of the human population on the planet can be considered to be “successful, worthy human beings.” And that is the capitalist class itself, armed with self-issued licenses to declare war, to murder and to steal from working people with impunity.

The capitalists are obscene looters who do not stop short of mass murder to maintain and accumulate as much loot as they can steal. That is what their wars and police forces are for. The capitalist class is the criminal and must be held responsible for their actions by the masses of working people on this planet once and for all.

1 “How Disney Magic and the Corporate Media Shape Youth Identity in the Digital Age,” by Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed

Wednesday 04 August 2010

2 The Ten Wealthiest Financiers in America Are Not Worth $900,000 an Hour

By Les Leopold

“On behalf of the 3 million young people who would have been their students, I have a proposition for you: Donate 50 percent of your 2009 earnings to keep those 150,000 teachers in their classrooms. Each of you, on average, still would net over $935 million dollars for the year (you should be able to scrape by on that) -- and the money you’d forgo would ensure that 3 million kids would get an education. That the ten of you personally received $18.7 billion (not million) from your hedge fund proceeds in 2009 is quite a feat, given that it was the worst economic year since the Great Depression. You each got roughly $36 million a week -- over $900,000 an hour! Meanwhile, as result of the Wall Street shenanigans you helped engineer, 29 million Americans are now without work or forced into part-time jobs.”

May 28, 2010