Saturday, May 30, 2009

Participatory society: Urban space & freedom

By Chris Spannos  (ZNet)

[A variation of this talk was delivered today, Friday, May 29th at the B-Fest in Athens, Greece. The gathering is an international anti-authoritarian festival hosted by the Babylonia newspaper, at the University of Fine Arts in Athens, from May 27-31. The purpose of the gathering is to explore vision and strategy after last December's social uprising there.]
 

Hello, today's track is called "Land & Freedom" and I've been asked to talk on the subject of Participatory Society: Urban Space and Freedom.

Before I begin, however, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today and for hosting this conference. This is the first time I've been to Greece and it is an honor to be here under such circumstances.

Greece knows all too well the barbarism of U.S. imperialism and as Greeks struggle to change their society today so too do we struggle in the U.S. against oppressive forces there. We in the U.S. need to catch up in our political consciousness, organization, and concern for vision. This conference is exemplary in its mission to look at the past and present to strategize for the future. While here I hope to learn from you to see what I can take back home. The overarching goal that should unite everyone everywhere, ultimately, is a hope and effort to overcome today's systemic problems while developing shared vision of a fundamentally new society and the struggle for its realization. That is what we are working towards here today.


Today's cities are far from offering equitable conditions and opportunities to their inhabitants. The majority of the urban population is deprived or limited - in virtue of their economic, social, cultural, ethnic, gender or age characteristics - in the satisfaction of their most elemental needs and rights. Public policies that contribute to this by ignoring the contributions of the popular inhabiting processes to the construction of the city and citizenship, are only detrimental to urban life. The grave consequences of this situation include massive evictions, segregation, and resulting deterioration of social coexistence.

- World Charter for the Right to the City


Over the last few days here in Greece I've been told that almost half the population live here in Athens and also that more than half are located in urban areas throughout the country. So, you may be interested to hear that today, for the first time in history, 3.3 billion people around the globe, half of humanity, live in cities. Over one third of this population does not share in the benefits that cities have to offer. It is estimated that within two decades 60 percent of the earth's population will live in urban areas and, if we continue on the current trajectory, by 2050 the urban population of the developing world will be 5.3 billion (UN projections), primarily in Asia and Africa. Because of these trends this century has been called the "Century of the City" (State of the Worlds Cities 2008 / 2009, UN Habitat).

This rapid urbanization has happened on a pace and scale unprecedented and has set in motion long-term and in some cases irreversible, social, material, and environmental damage. Migration to and between urban centers, natural growth (births outpacing deaths), urban sprawl, increasing fuel and food prices, the need for work, mass use of private transportation, and the convenience of urban lifestyles all contribute to consumption of large amounts of energy and production of excessive amounts of waste. These patterns make today's cities primary sources of pollution. Increasing growth of urban areas means increasing risk of climate change where the underprivileged and disempowered suffer most.

Between and within cities high concentrations of wealth, power, and privilege make spatial and social disparities more, not less, pronounced. Urban inequality directly impacts all aspects of societal life, including health, nutrition, gender and race equality, education, and mortality. Everywhere where this spatial, social, and material inequality reins lack of popular decision-making control reduces people's participation and integration into society.

Based on the above I recognize three major problems:

(1)   Rapid Urbanization is assisted by lack of popular decision-making control over society's institutions and our very own lives, making cities locations where obscene concentrations of wealth and power coexist with mass dispossession of at least half the earth's population with trends forecasting more into the near future.

(2)   The logic of city planning and urban development is driven by the interests of capital and top-down decision making by local, regional, and national governments where the objectives of the rulers over the ruled are contrary to the interests of the rest of us. The system of capitalism, a system defined by private ownership of productive assets, markets with roles for buyers and sellers, and corporate divisions of labor in workplaces has contributed to the misinformed use of human and natural resources where the benefits of city life are made available only for the few while the high costs of urban growth and convenience are socialized for the many.

(3)   UN Habitat reports that in the decade between 1990 and 2000 urbanization in developing regions was characterized by the entry of new cities that did not exist as such in 1990. The report states, "This constellation of 694 new cities started out as rural towns and became urban areas by virtue of changes in their administrative status, natural growth or in-migration." (PDF) The problem is not the number of cities but rather the structures within and between them, and also possibly their size and current rate of growth. But where did they come from? These cities did not appear magically, nor were they the product of divine intervention or an evolutionary outcome hardwired into history. Rather, they are human-made creations. Similarly, so are the vast disparities of wealth and power that exist within and between these cities. The maintenance of urban inequality is made possible through human-made hierarchical institutions that serve elite interests. Therefore, our hope lies in the self-conscious ability of people to carry out their own social and material objectives for the improvement of their own lives and their ability to exercise decision-making control over their own destinies. To accomplish this, and successfully overthrow counter-revolutionary forces (outlined below), we will need shared vision of a society organized around an institutional framework that delivers self-management, classlessness, solidarity, and diversity.

The society I advocate is called a Participatory Society and has consequences for how we orient ourselves to the problems mentioned above. I will now focus on these consequences and along the way outline a new institutional vision as a proposed solution.

~ more... ~

The Black Shirts of Guantánamo

From Little Known Military Thug Squad Still Brutalizing Prisoners at Gitmo Under Obama by Jeremy Scahill (AlterNet)

As the Obama administration continues to fight the release of some 2,000 photos that graphically document U.S. military abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, an ongoing Spanish investigation is adding harrowing details to the ever-emerging portrait of the torture inside and outside Guantánamo. Among them: "blows to [the] testicles;" "detention underground in total darkness for three weeks with deprivation of food and sleep;" being "inoculated … through injection with 'a disease for dog cysts;'" the smearing of feces on prisoners; and waterboarding. The torture, according to the Spanish investigation, all occurred "under the authority of American military personnel" and was sometimes conducted in the presence of medical professionals.

More significantly, however, the investigation could for the first time place an intense focus on a notorious, but seldom discussed, thug squad deployed by the U.S. military to retaliate with excessive violence to the slightest resistance by prisoners at Guantánamo.

The force is officially known as the the Immediate Reaction Force or Emergency Reaction Force, but inside the walls of Guantánamo, it is known to the prisoners as the Extreme Repression Force. Despite President Barack Obama's publicized pledge to close the prison camp and end torture -- and analysis from human rights lawyers who call these forces' actions illegal -- IRFs remain very much active at Guantánamo.

IRF: An Extrajudicial Terror Squad

The existence of these forces has been documented since the early days of Guantánamo, but it has rarely been mentioned in the U.S. media or in congressional inquiries into torture. On paper, IRF teams are made up of five military police officers who are on constant stand-by to respond to emergencies. "The IRF team is intended to be used primarily as a forced-extraction team, specializing in the extraction of a detainee who is combative, resistive, or if the possibility of a weapon is in the cell at the time of the extraction," according to a declassified copy of the Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta at Guantánamo. The document was signed on March 27, 2003, by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the man credited with eventually "Gitmoizing" Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons and who reportedly ordered subordinates to treat prisoners "like dogs." Gen. Miller ran Guantánamo from November 2002 until August 2003 before moving to Iraq in 2004.

[ ... ]

The IRF-ing of Omar Deghayes

Perhaps the worst abuses in the Spanish case involve Omar Deghayes, whose torture began long before he reached Guantánamo, and intensified upon his arrival.

A Libyan citizen who had lived in Britain since 1986, in the late 1990s, Deghayes was a law student when he traveled to Afghanistan, "for the simple reason that he is a Muslim and he wanted to see what it was like," according to his lawyer, Stafford Smith. While there, he met and married an Afghan woman with whom he had a son.

After 9/11, Deghayes was detained in Lahore, Pakistan, for a month, where he allegedly was subjected to "systematic beatings" and "electric shocks done with a tool that looked like a small gun."

He was then transferred to Islamabad, Pakistan,where he claims he was interrogated by both U.S. and British personnel. There, the torture continued; in a March 2005 memo written by a lawyer who later visited Deghayes at Guantánamo, he described a particularly ghoulish incident:

    "One day they took me to a room that had very large snakes in glass boxes. The room was all painted black-and-white, with dim lights. They threatened to leave me there and let the snakes out with me in the room. This really got to me, as there were such sick people that they must have had this room specially made."

Deghayes was eventually moved to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he was beaten and "kept nude, as part of the process of humiliation due to his religion." U.S. personnel placed Deghayes "inside a closed box with a lock and limited air." He also described seeing U.S. guards sodomize an African prisoner and alleged guards "forced petrol and benzene up the anuses of the prisoners."

"The camp looked like the Nazi camps that I saw in films," Deghayes said.

When Deghayes finally arrived at Guantánamo in September 2002, he found himself the target of the feared IRF teams.

"The IRF team sprayed Mr. Deghayes with mace; they threw him in the air and let him fall on his face … " according to the Spanish investigation. Deghayes says he also endured a "sexual attack." In March 2004, after being "sprayed in the eyes with mace," Deghayes says authorities refused to provide him with medical attention, causing him to permanently lose sight in his right eye.

~ more... ~

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