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'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, April 27, 2012

Days in the Life of a UC Davis Law Professor 

If you are Alan Brownstein, the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, you serve on a Task Force that condemns the administrative failings of the Chancellor and the vice chancellors responsible for the use of pepper spray against protesting, non-violent UC Davis students while refusing to request their resignations, or disciplinary action of any kind. Indeed, it appears that you demonstrated your qualifications for the Task Force by, shortly after the incident, signing your name to a faculty letter expressing support for Chancellor Katehi, a letter that stated that she is well-qualified to lead our university through this difficult healing process and oppose the premature calls for her resignation. In this, you followed the lead of many of your law school colleagues, including the Dean, who decided that defending the Katehi administration took precedent over requiring accountability for those responsible for calling the riot police on campus that assaulted the students.

After performing such admirable service on the Task Force, you then, with another law school professor, Vikram Amar, publish a piece that contests the characterization of Occupy UC Davis protesters who picketed the US Bank branch on campus as engaging in constitutionally protected speech, which, while legally accurate, provides implicit support for their criminal prosecution by the Yolo County District Attorney at a time when UC Davis is being criticized for taking action against them. You specifically object to the request by the Davis Faculty Association that campus leaders seek dismissal of the charges. While doing so, you can't resist telling us that the membership of the association comprises a very small fraction of professors at UC Davis. In this instance, in marked contrast to your constitutional analysis, quantity matters.

While the rest of us believe that you reside in an intellectual glass house and should express yourself on these matters with care, you actually have the temerity to say the following in support of your position:

The argument that a public university should pick and choose whether obstruction should be permitted or not based on the political content of any particular blockade is also a dubious proposition. Treating one political topic or perspective more favorably than another constitutes subject-matter or viewpoint discrimination – which almost always violates the First Amendment. Moreover, a university engaging in such discrimination demonstrates that it is no longer committed to open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. The university instead morphs into a political institution committed to particular perspectives – so much so that it excuses violations of law in support of its own political positions.

Of course, you might have been more persuasive if it weren't painfully obvious that you had just served on a Task Force that had done something similar by excusing administrative violations, and possible criminal ones as well, involving the Chancellor's Office and the UC Davis Police Department. You, along with the other Task Force members, displayed a remarkable incredulity in regard to these subjects. Fortunately for you, however, there is a happy convergence between your work on the Task Force and your subsequent legal article about the US Bank protesters, a convergence that allows you to continue to please the administrators that you had been selected to purportedly investigate.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Occupy and Inviolability of Private Property 

A couple of months ago, I discussed one of the most difficult challenges facing Occupy, the willingness of middle class progressives to rationalize the abuses of the police because they place a greater priority upon the preservation of social order by law enforcement. Such progressives want to square the political circle by seeking a transformation of American society without conflict. They are most perfectly represented by Chris Hedges, a man who seems to find the verbal abuse of the police at protests more disturbing than police assaults and finds himself incapable of deciding whether protesters should throw tear gas canisters back at the cops who fired them.

But what is it that these progressives believe requires the protection of the police, even at the cost of the violent suppression of Occupy protesters? Upon reflection, the answer is obvious: private property and the hierarchical social relations inscribed by it. Of course, Occupy participants are not all anarchists or communists, far from it, but they have adopted direct action tactics that have frightened progressives with the ghost of expropriation. Initially, occupiers set up encampments in public spaces as a means of highlighting enormous income inequality and corruption. They sought to prefigure an alternative, much more egalitarian, social order that stood in marked contrast to the existing one. If we were living back in the 1960s or 1970s, the government would have responded with a program of increased public assistance, a program that would have drained away support for Occupy by providing housing, jobs, student aid and medical care, but that would have threatened to reverse the neoliberal process of the marketization of all aspects of our lives, and, hence, was never seriously considered.

Instead, with the federal government guiding them behind the scenes, cities, starting with Oakland in October of last year, cleared out the encampments with force. There was an initial broad based criticism of these police attacks, but, as it became apparent that Occupy had evolved into a loose coalition of anti-authoritarians, people of color, the homeless and other marginalized people, such criticism dissipated. Meanwhile, particularly on the West Coast, occupiers organized more confrontational actions in response, such as the November 2nd general strike in Oakland, the December 12th port shutdown, the January 20th Occupy Wall Street West protests and the attempted seizure of the Kaiser Auditorium on January 28th. The failure of Occupy to extract any meaningful political response to the distress of millions of impoverished Americans and the interrelated corruption of the financial and political systems was pushing its participants towards more and more radical approaches. Within occupations, this resulted in increasingly acrimonious personal conflicts, as most publicly displayed in Oakland, while the progressives that should have been allies became hostile.

One might call this the operational explanation for the evolution of Occupy. Such an explanation elides, however, a more engaged one for why this evolution occurred, and necessitates an investigation as to the perspectives about private property held by those within Occupy and those outside of it. Within Occupy, the creation and manipulation of scarcity, particularly in relation to the lack of housing and social services, is associated with the conscious decision to allow properties to remain vacant instead of using them to address human needs. Such a stance is not, paradoxically, necessarily in opposition to capitalism, as mercantilists like John Locke justified the seizure of the lands of indigenous peoples for the reason that it had not been efficiently utilized. Governments in South America still possess the authority to seize vacant land and facilities upon the payment of compensation on the basis of that such lack of use constitutes waste, as the Chavez government has done on occasion in Venezuela. Of course, there is a distinction to be made between seizures to generate economic activity and seizures to address social needs, but the essential point is that even previous capitalist and pre-capitalist, mercantile societies did not consider private property to be so sacrosanct. In today's postmodern world, however, the dead weight of empty residential and commercial buildings serves the essential purpose of preemptively suppressing any resistance by intensifying poverty, while retaining the illusory promise of future, lucrative development opportunities directed towards the upper middle class. So, those involved in Occupy find themselves pulled by gravity into a confrontation with the legitimacy of private property itself.

Conversely, middle class progressives perceive the situation very differently. Beyond being a measure of their personal economic well-being, private property makes them feel more secure because it, by its very nature, excludes. Hence, they respond with dismay if the construction of a low income housing project is proposed near where they live. For them, Occupy threatens to level social differences to an exponentially greater degree bordering on nihilism. Participants within Occupy may be focusing upon empty lots and empty buildings, sometimes in the possession of churches and universities, as with the 888 Turk Street takeover and the UC farm plot in the Albany, but the progressive middle class perceives the peril. It is not just that they frequently identify with the institutions involved and their administrative practices, such as the University of California in the case of the seizure of the farm plot, but that they understand that, if not stopped, the trickle could become a flood that approaches the steps of their homes. Incapable of forcing the government and transnational financial insitutions to adopt Keynesian social welfare measures that would alleviate the distress experienced by those associated with Occupy, they find themselves caught between hammer and anvil, between a rapacious neoliberal regime that puts their livelihoods, and those of their children, at risk, and an increasingly radicalized, anti-authoritarian social movement that threatens to dismantle what limited defenses against such impoverishment that remain.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Comment Policy 

Today, I discovered that some of you may have had difficulty posting comments here, because of the new Blogger settings. Hopefully, I have fixed the problem. Anyone interested in posting comments here should be able to do so.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Day at the Playground 

Yesterday, I took my five year old son Daniel hiking in the East Bay hills just to the southeast of UC Berkeley, near Panoramic Way. It was the first time that we did it, because, until now, I wasn't confident that he had the strength, endurance and coordination to make his way along such a steep path. I needn't have worried, he made his way along the trial almost effortlessly, at least in comparison to me. After taking a lunch break, he urged me to take him a little farther into the hills, which I did. I had made the mistake of telling him that I had seen a fox up there at dusk about 10 years ago.

After exiting down the Arden Steps and along the Mosswood Path, we returned to our car and made our way over to People's Park in a search for a parking space near Telegraph, where we could get something more to drink as we had run out of water. Fortunately, there was a water fountain at the restrooms by the basketball court. Upon quenching his thirst at the fountain, he noticed a small playground nearby. I used the word "playground" advisedly, because it consisted of a small slide, about five or six feet tall, a slight structure with two swings and a small sandbox that was partially overgrown with grass. But he recognized none of these comparative defects with the more recent grandiose ones that he visits in Sacramento. He asked me if we could go there, and I reluctantly said yes, not because I was dismissive of the playground, but because of fatigue.

As he climbed up the stairs of the slide, I looked around and thought about Daniel and his willingness to play in what others would consider the daunting atmosphere of People's Park. In the trees just to the east, and near the small amphitheatre to the west, homeless people were either sleeping or relaxing as the wisps fog floated past the sun. The playground and the bathrooms displayed the worn, rustic quality associated with facilites that had been there for many years. Of course, none of this made the slightest impression upon him. For him, the homeless people were people like anyone else, and the playground and bathrooms were, well, just a playground and a bathroom. Later, another, slightly older little boy named Phoenix came by, and Daniel played with him for about half an hour or so. Despite his hippie parents, Phoenix wore a Spider Man shirt, which delighted Daniel, who identifies with him as well. Like me, his parents had apparently conceded the struggle against popular culture, perhaps with the expectation that they could eventually induce resistance through familiarity.

After Phoenix left with his parents, I thought about how Daniel has yet to display the socially judgmental behaviors of older children and adults. If people are nice to him, he is nice to them. He doesn't care about their appearance, and hasn't yet internalized the markers of social status. In Sacramento, his favorite playground is located in Southside Park, a park situated in a lower middle income neighborhood with an old housing project, Seavey Circle, nearby. Seavey Circle has long been known for having a veritable rainbow of tenants, including immigrant families from Russia and South and Southeast Asia, and he joyfully plays with anyone who wants to play tag or hide and seek. He asks the Hmong families at the lake nearby if he can help them fish, and they invariably briefly allow him to do so. He prefers this playground to one a few miles away in McKinley Park in East Sacramento, a more exclusive, upper middle income neighborhood, for reasons that have nothing to do with race, class or poverty.

As he slept in the carseat while I drove home, I wondered when Daniel would start distinguishing people and places as we all too often do. Upon entering elementary school? Upon participating in activities like soccer and Little League baseball? For me, in the 1970s, I didn't begin to encounter social differences until I went to junior high school, but things have obviously changed for the worse, with children seeking to differentiate themselves from one another at much younger ages. Baudrillard was, I think, on the mark when he asserted that the transformation from primitive to feudal to mercantile to capitalist society was instigated by a human desire for hierarchical differentiation, and not by material scarcity, as claimed by Marxists. Fortunately, Sacramento is not as extreme as the coastal regions, where families search for pre-schools that will expose their children to French and classical music, while providing them with the latest technological baubles. No child has ever been dropped off at my son's pre-school with a cell phone, as happens in the Bay Area. In one notorious incident, a mother wondered whether she should get her four year old son a phone after the other kids at his pre-school teased him upon discovering that he had been talking into a toy one.

Sadly, Daniel will probably begin to do it sometime soon. It is, arguably, the most essential cultural norm in this society. It is pervasive in every aspect of our relationships with others. But, to his credit, he has a strong, oppositional nature, one that will place him at risk of being characterized as hyperactive, particularly in future educational settings that value conformity. Fortunately, he does think for himself, which my wife and I encourage, and, hopefully, he will successfully call upon this quality as necessary to engage the world on his terms, and not those imposed by others.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The UC Davis Pepper Spray Report 

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, in a classic instance of battered liberal syndrome, Reynoso supports the retention of Chancellor Katehi to carry out the reforms mentioned in the Task Force report:
She should not resign. The balance is that she has done a lot of good despite this drastic poor judgment.
INITIAL POST: No doubt some of you have noticed that I haven't posted anything for almost two weeks. The reasons for it are fairly mundane, the ones usually associated with life, work and family. I anticipate, however, posting some new entries in the next few days.

Meanwhile, the Reynoso report about the UC Davis pepper spray incident was released last week. It is called the Reynoso report because former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso chaired the Task Force that carried out the purported investigation at the direction of the university. How credible is it? Based upon media coverage, you might think that the investigation was pretty rigorous, after all, Reynoso and the other members of the Task Force were pretty critical of the administrative culture associated with the incident.

Well, think again. Nathan Brown, a UC Davis English professor, nails it:

The Reynoso Report is based on the fact-finding of Kroll Securities, and the manifest conflicts of interest inherent in the appointment of Kroll have been well documented. Thus we might reasonably expect Kroll’s report to offer something like a best-case assessment of the administration’s involvement in the pepper-spray affair. And indeed, the fact-finding upon which the report is based is often middling and ineffectual. On the key issue of the Chancellor’s actual orders on and prior to November 18, it has very little to say. Rather, it relies primarily upon an interview with the Chancellor conducted after the fact, on December 20, to gauge her position. Given the international condemnation the Chancellor was facing at that time, no one should be surprised to find her remarks composed of efforts at self-serving revisionism. The report states openly that Kroll relied upon UC Davis in the area of document production; it was deemed infeasible for budgetary, timing, and other reasons for Kroll to conduct an independent, systemic forensic review and analysis of UC Davis servers, hard drives, and electronic devices. In other words, only those documents (such as administrative emails) that UC Davis itself offered for inspection were reviewed. In short, on the key matters of concern we might expect the report to address, Kroll’s fact finding leaves serious omissions.

So, if you believe UC administrators were forthcoming in producing records, you will find the Kroll, and, by extension, Reynoso Task Force investigations more credible, to the extent that you don't, you won't. At this point, it might be worthwhile to recall why the selection of Kroll to conduct the investigation was so contentious, as explained by The Council of UC Faculty Associations:

By deepening UC's links to Kroll, you would be illustrating the kinds of connection between public higher education and Wall Street that the Occupy UC movement is protesting. Kroll's parent company, Altegrity, provides data-mining, intelligence and on-the-ground security to financial institutions and governments seeking to head off and defeat both private sabotage and public protest. In addition, Altegrity's parent company, Providence Private Equity, is a major global investor in for-profit higher education companies that benefit from the decline of publicly funded higher education.

We already know that Kroll has provided security services to at least three UC campuses for the past several years. This in itself would disqualify Mr. Bratton from participating in the investigation you propose, even if the role of Kroll and its affiliated companies in defending the financial sector against OWS did not raise further questions about its pro-Wall Street and pro-privatization bias.

A truly independent investigation that would allow UC to provide a credible response to the events at Davis (and the other campuses) needs to address several questions that would not be seriously considered if you hire Kroll.

•What was your role and that of UC General Counsel in the events at Davis? Did you, as a distinguished first amendment scholar, tell chancellors and campus police chiefs that protests (especially protests against UC's own policies) are part of the DNA of this University that should not be addressed using the same techniques that UC has developed (likely with the help of Kroll) to deal with terrorists, shooters, and cyber-saboteurs? (Even if you have been a zealous defender of the rising student movement to restore public higher education, such a conclusion would not be credible coming from an investigation tainted by Kroll's conflicts of interest outlined above.)

•What was and is the role of Kroll in helping banks and public institutions (including UC) investigate and defeat movements such as OWS and their campus counterparts? Is Kroll now acting as a liaison between universities, city governments and the Department of Homeland Security in defending the financial sector against protests occurring on what used to be considered public spaces? Are protests against Wall Street in such spaces now considered a threat to the security of the nation, the city and the public university? (The growing securitization of public space has been a major obstacle to first amendment activity since 9-11.)

•How much money has UC and its individual campuses paid to Kroll for security services? Were these contracts issued as sole source contracts or was there open bidding? Were Kroll's services confined to protecting, for example, the privacy and integrity of data systems and faculty and staff conducting animal research or did they extended to what Kroll's website calls "organizational threats" arising from the dynamic and sometimes conflicting needs of the entire campus population? (This could be a description of the student protests that you rightly regard as central to our history as a university.)

•What led to the issuance of false and misleading statements by University of California officials (Chancellors and their assistants, spokespeople, and police chiefs) in the aftermath of police violence at Berkeley and Davis? Did you encourage these efforts at spin control? (Dishonest statements seriously damage the university as an institution devoted to truth and protect only the individuals whose decisions are in question.)

The broader issue is how protest can be part of what you characterized as our university's DNA when the right to protest is not formally recognized within the university's own codes of student and faculty conduct.

About halfway through, you probably figured out that Kroll is just a fox that investigated what the other foxes did at the henhouse. Sadly, people like former Chief Justice Reynoso, and one of my former law professors, Alan Brownstein, provided a fig leaf of respectability to it. Don't be confused by the highly critical autopsy of administrative practices exposed by the Task Force's investigation of the incident. While embarrassing for the criticized administrative figures, like Chancellor Katehi, Vice Chancellor Meyer and others, it is the price of their survival, a form of public flagellation that enables them to remain in their roles, retaining their autocratic, neoliberal control over UC Davis while temporarily disguised as reformers of the campus police department. Typical of liberals of their era, Reynoso, Brownstein and the others who served on the Task Force were all too willing to accept the ground rules that no one should be punished for their malfeasance and ineptitude in the misguided hope that the substance of their report might lead to some positive change. In this respect, the release of the report is an allegorical episode that exposes the naivete of those who believe that powerful institutions can be persuaded to change their abusive practices by an appeal to reason.

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Friday, April 06, 2012

The Death of Dimitris Christoulas 

If you haven't heard, Dimitris Christoulas killed himself on Tuesday evening in protest of the policies of austerity that are brutalizing the people of Greece:

An elderly man who took his life outside the Greek parliament in Athens , in apparent desperation over his debts, has highlighted the human cost of an economic crisis that has not only brought the country to the brink financially, but also seen suicides soar.

As Greeks digested the news, with politicians clearly as shocked as society at large, mourners made their way to Syntagma square, where the retired pharmacist shot himself with a handgun.

The 77-year-old pensioner pulled the trigger as people were emerging from a nearby metro station in the morning rush hour. One witness told state TV that before shooting himself he had shouted, I'm leaving because I don't want to pass on my debts.

As the YouTube video report indicates, Christoulas isn't the only person who has recently killed themselves because of their personal and economic distress. In his handwritten statement, he concluded:

. . . . One day, I believe, the youth with no future will take up arms and hang the national traitors at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did with Mussolini in 1945 (at Milan’s Piazzale Loreto).

According to the Guardian:

A picture of the man who has come to embody the inequities of Greece's financial crisis has begun to emerge, with friends and neighbours shedding light on the life of the elderly pensioner who killed himself in Athens on Wednesday.

Named as Dimitris Christoulas by the Greek media, the retired pharmacist was described as decent, law-abiding, meticulous and dignified.

The 77-year-old had written in his one-page, three-paragraph suicide note that it would be better to have a decent end than be forced to scavenge in the rubbish to feed myself.

With his suicide he wanted to send a political message, Antonis Skarmoutsos, a friend and neighbour was quoted as saying in the mass-selling Ta Nea newspaper. He was deeply politicised but also enraged.

Until 1994 Christoulas was a local chemist in the central Athens neighbourhood of Ambelokipoi. A committed leftist, he was active in citizens' groups such as I won't pay, which started as a one-off protest against toll fees but quickly turned into an anti-austerity movement.

Christoulas planned his action so meticulously that he paid all of his debts in advance. Meanwhile, suicides continue to skyrocket in Greece, and so many children are going hungry that some of them are fainting in class:

The serious economic crisis that has gripped Greece for the last four years could have serious repercussions for even the youngest swathes of the population. The physical and psychological development of youngsters in the country is at risk because of malnutrition caused by poverty, and so, therefore is their very future. The alarm has been raised in a report on the situation of young people in Greece drafted by Unicef's Greek committee and by the University of Athens. The report, entitled The condition of youth in Greece, 2012 says that 439,000 children in the country are currently living below the poverty line - underfed and in insalubrious conditions - in families that represent 20.1% of Greek households

. . . . The report also cites a number of cases of children fainting in class because of malnutrition. These cases were given significant media coverage in December when the director of the Athens orphanage, Maria Iliopoulou, complained that around 200 cases of malnourished newborns had been registered in the space of a few weeks because their parents had been unable to feed them appropriately. Iliopoulou also claimed that teachers from schools close to her institution would queue up every day for a plate of food for their neediest pupils. In many schools in Athens the situation is even more dramatic, Iliopoulou said at the time, because some children have fainted from hunger in classrooms. The Ministry of Public Education, which initially dismissed the claims as propaganda, was forced to recognise the seriousness of the problem and subsequently decided to hand out to pupils from the poorest families meal vouchers with which to buy breakfast from the school canteen. The Unicef report ends with an estimate from the Ombudsman for children, who says that there are around 100,000 minors working in Greece to contribute to the meagre and often non-existent family budget.

No wonder Christoulas believed that the young are going to hang the politicians.

Hat tip to Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Protesting Students Pepper Sprayed at Santa Monica College 

There are reports that approximately 30 students were sprayed. From NBC Los Angeles:

Priscillia Omon, 21, said she was standing behind the police officer when he pulled out the pepper spray and fired it in the mouths and eyes of people standing arm’s length away.

She described a man next to her convulsing and spitting up foam after being hit with the pepper spray. A family, including a 4 year old, were in the crowd when the officer used the pepper spray, Omon said.

Students were protesting a two tiered cost system for essential classes for graduation that even the Los Angeles Times found objectionable:

So it's perfectly understandable why Santa Monica College officials, scrambling to make ends meet, have proposed increasing fees for certain in-demand classes to about $600 to $800 per course, or a little more than four times the standard price. The courses would pay their own way, allowing the college to accommodate more students.

Understandable, but wrong. Creating a two-tier system of fees sets a serious precedent that could change the basic nature of the community college system. Once a handful of courses pay for themselves, the temptation to add more would be hard to resist, and the temptation for other campuses to join in would be overwhelming. College fees are set by the Legislature and overseen by the systemwide chancellor's office in Sacramento. A single campus should not have the authority — and it's doubtful it does — to set the price for a community college education.

It appears that the incident erupted out of the misguided use of an old tried and true tactic for discouraging public comment on a contentious issue: hold the meeting in the smallest room possible. According to the LA Weekly, the administration selected a room designed to hold only a dozen outsiders.

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Monday, April 02, 2012

OccupySF Occupies 888 Turk Street 

UPDATE 2: Meanwhile, Jessica Hollie of Occupy Oakland was assaulted by a federal marshal while ustreaming the federal raid on the Oaksterdam marijuana dispensary in Oakland. The officer assaults her at the 22:00 mark of the ustream. Raucous scenes as the crowd is outraged over the force used during the raid and subsequent arrests:



Video streaming by Ustream

UPDATE 1: 75 arrested at 888 Turk Street after an SFPD raid that started at approximately 1:35 PM today.

INITIAL POST: Justin Beck ustreamed it live yesterday:



Video streaming by Ustream

EyeofRah of OccupySFTV is ustreaming live from the roof of the building this morning:



Live Video streaming by Ustream

He is reporting that there are 8 police vehicles at the scene. Of course, it is anticipated that the police will raid it. There's a march from the Civic Center to the building starting in about half an hour at 10:00am. A call for support has gone out through the Twitter hashtag #888Turk. You can obtain real time updates there as well, including new livestream and video sources throughout the day.

Here's the statement released by OccupySF:

. . . . Occupy SF, through the OccupySF Commune, has inhabited a vacant building onTurk St. for the purpose of creating a community center in the spirit of this building’s original intention–to create a center for health and healing.

In a city with ten thousand homeless people and thirty-two thousand vacant but habitable units, it is a crime against humanity that people are prevented from sleeping through the night as part of a political protest or as a basic human right. The city wants OccupySF and the homeless off the street–harassing, intimidating, and arresting us every night–so now we are inside creating a vibrant space for health, humanity, and free expression.

This building has been empty for five years and was previously a mental health clinic providing a valuable service to the community. Five years ago the Board of Supervisors cut the funding to this vital community center causing many people with mental illness to be put out on the street and become subject to arrest and harassment simply for now existing in these very same streets they were forced into. This funding cut was brought on by the international financial crisis caused by a corrupt banking system which profits off the backs of the 99%.

This Turk St. building is owned by the Church and the owners, therefore, pay no property tax for it. It has been vacant and unused for over five years and no services have been provided here. Further, the owners have failed to register the building as vacant, avoiding their duty to pay vacancy fees to the public coffers. The building is now occupied by a group of people willing to offer services such as food, housing, education, and community-building skills for free.

We assert our human rights to free expression, dissent, and 24-hour protest without undue harassment.

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