“The Woman Who Saved Our Cities” by Randy Shaw (beyondchron.org)













Jane Jacobs is the leading urban visionary for post-WWII cities. Fittingly, her 100th birthday this year is being celebrated by books, events and a new documentary film. I recently spoke at a SPUR panel titled “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?,” and answering that question increasingly charts policy decisions about cities and neighborhoods.

Peter Laurence wrote an exceptional book on how Jacobs came to challenge the planning establishment that I reviewed earlier this year (“The Roots of Jane Jacobs’ Urban Vision”, June 2, 2016). I described Laurence’sBecoming Jane Jacobs as “an enormous contribution both to our understanding of Jacobs and more importantly to the 1950’s era that shaped both Jacobs’ perceptions and the future of urban and suburban America. “ I deemed it a “must read for anyone working to improve the quality of life in cities today.”

Robert Kanigel’s new book, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, offers the first full biography of Jacobs. Kanigel traces Jacobs’ life with a particular focus on her often overlooked social activism in her adopted city of Toronto. Although Jacobs is typically identified with living in New York City’s West Village, she actually lived longer in Toronto. It was in Toronto where Jacobs skill at promoting livable cities was most appreciated by city officials, and Kanigel brings to light this critical chapter of Jacobs’ legacy

Jacobs, Pre-Death and Life

Kanigel’s search for the roots that explain why Jacobs emerged as the nation’s most powerful voice against massive, planning-driven urban development schemes begins with her childhood years. While Kanigel tries to find evidence that she might have been shaped by her experiences in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he ultimately concludes as Laurence does that it was the time she spent in post-redevelopment areas of East Harlem, West Boston, and Philadelphia that led her to conclude that the people’s needs had been left out of planners’ plans.

Jacobs was also influenced by her walk through Boston’s North End, which remains one of the city’s most popular walking areas for tourists. The North End was precisely the type of mixed commercial/residential neighborhood that the planning establishment destroyed throughout the nation. Planners preferred highrise apartments with surrounding greenery, creating neighborhoods that lacked vitality, social interactions and were fundamentally impractical due to the lack of nearby small businesses.

Kanigel primarily focuses on Jacobs’ insights gleaned from personal visits to these failed areas, whereas Laurence shows how her research and investigation went much deeper. Nevertheless, a reader unfamiliar with how Jacobs came to her views will get the answer from this book.

Jacobs’ Activism

Kanigel particularly explores Jacobs’ lifetime of community-based grassroots activism. Most Jacobs followers know how her publication of the classic Death and Life of Great American Cities coincided with her efforts to stop a highway from going through Washington Square Park. Jacobs also spent years working to stop a proposed Manhattan Expressway from wrecking the Village, Soho, Chinatown and Little Italy. Jacobs began that struggle in 1961 and the highway plan was not killed until 1968.

Jacobs’ anti-Vietnam War activism led her to leave New York City for Toronto in 1968 to protect her sons from the draft. She would live in Toronto until her death in 2006.

In Toronto, Jacobs quickly got involved in batting the long planned Spadina Expressway. Proposed in the 1950’s as part of a network of expressways designed to circle Toronto, Jacobs helped defeat the project in 1971. That victory resulted in the abandonment of the entire freeway project.

Kanigel shows Jacobs to be an effective but ambivalent activist. She repeatedly bemoaned that time spent at public hearings was taking away from her writing time; yet she was continued her activism while writing books into her 80’s.

Jacobs Legacy

Has Jane Jacobs’ legacy been overhyped? Was she right that “eyes on the street,” a mix of residential and commercial uses, and preserving old and historic buildings made for successful neighborhoods?

Kanigel addresses Jacobs critics, particularly sociologist Herbert Gans. Gans argued upon the release of Death and Life that Jacobs underestimated the role of cultural and economic factors—as opposed to the surrounding housing type— that made Boston’s Italian North End a successful neighborhood. He also felt Jacobs was “blind to issues of race and class.”

Gans is not alone in criticizing Jacobs for offering a vision for successful neighborhoods, particularly through historic preservation, that often became a blueprint for gentrification.

In my book on San Francisco’s Tenderloin I describe how fears of gentrification led residents in 1983 to oppose becoming a National Historic District. Most neighborhoods are eager to embrace this designation, which is now associated with increased property values (the national Uptown Tenderloin Historic District covering 31 blocks was created in 2009).

But while the low-income Tenderloin and its 409 historic buildings fulfill Jacobs’ vision, others point to more typical outcomes such as what occurred in New York City, where real estate speculators promoted the idea of “Brownstone Brooklyn” to get upscale buyers to purchase properties that long housed tenants. Transformed neighborhoods like Park Slope also embody Jane Jacobs’ vision for cities, leading some to accuse Jacobs of ignoring the class implications of her work (often cited is the gentrification of her own former West Village neighborhood).

Such criticisms blame Jacobs for developments out of her control. Jane Jacobs could not promise that following her blueprint for successful neighborhoods would keep them low income or prevent tenant displacement, though neighborhoods of mixed incomes was clearly her preference.

Yet critics should acknowledge that Jane Jacobs did more than anyone of her time to publicize the horrors caused to working-class neighborhoods and low income residents by massive new expressways and urban renewal projects. Gans’ claim that she ignored class and race ignores the core arguments of her work. Such criticisms seem to be based not on the impacts of her work but on Jacobs’ own middle-class sensibilities and the white communities where she lived and organized.

Those familiar with Jacobs prior to reading this book will come away even more impressed with her legacy. Her enormous impact on Toronto—which she is widely credited with transforming into a far more livable city—was a complete surprise to me and may be the case with most readers who only know Jacobs through Death and Life and her New York City battles with Robert Moses.

Kanigel has created what will likely become the definitive biography of Jane Jacobs in her centenary year. A documentary film, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, will soon be out and further events are planned commemorating her remarkable life. Jane Jacobs was a woman in an overwhelming male field and lacked a planning degree; yet as Kanigel shows, she became and remains the most important urban visionary of our time.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

To leave feedback, go to feedback@beyondchron.org

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The Blockchain or Open Ledger

Democracy Earth – Power in Your Hands

The internet transformed how we share culture, work together —and even fall in love— but governance has remained unchanged for over 200 years. With the rise of open source software and peer to peer networks, political intermediation is no longer necessary. We are building a protocol with smart contracts that allows decentralized governance for any kind of organization.

Democracy Is Getting A Reboot On The Blockchain

A startup from Latin America, Democracy Earth, is fighting corruption through Internet voting technology.

The Blockchain: A Promising New Infrastructure for Online Commons

Bitcoin has taken quite a beating for its libertarian design biases, price volatility due to speculation, and the questionable practices of some currency-exchange firms.  But whatever the real or perceived flaws of Bitcoin, relatively little attention has been paid to its “engine,” known as “distributed ledger” or “blockchain” technology.  Move beyond the superficial public discussions about Bitcoin, and you’ll discover a software breakthrough that could be of enormous importance to the future of commoning on open network platforms.

Democracy, Earth Rights, and the Next Economy

It is clear to so many of us now that our current form of economy—some call it monopoly or corporate capitalism—does not serve the highest and best interests of either the people or the planet.

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Weekly calendar for activists (from Patricia Gray)

It is not enough for us to talk to friends and bemoan the sad state of affairs in our nation and the world.  We need to join with others to make a ‘critical mass’ or the ‘hundred monkeys phenomenon’ when we all realize that we have the power to change things.

We are the majority and we are correct in our concern that things are going very badly and change must be made for the sake of the continuation of any life on Earth. Maybe that sounds extreme—but you must be concerned about things going wrong or you would not be on this list of activists.
We must talk to people who are not our friends–but who are living human beings that need to be made aware of the loss of our democracy and perhaps to join us in changing things in our city, state, nation and world.
The 99% must unite all the working people against the 1%.  We must support each other. Read down this list of events and plan to attend one.
Wednesday Sept. 21
4:00 – 7:00 pm              Ed Roberts Campus
                                   3075 Adeline St.  Berkekey
                                   SAVE ALTA BATES!
                                   Sutter Health has decided to close Alta Bates
                                   Hospital.  The nurses state that this will have a
                                   very significant impact on access and the
                                   delivery of health care to the people in Berkeley,
                                   Alemeda County, Contra Costa County and
                                   beyond.   RNs are committed to ensuring the
                                   residents in all communities to understand what
                                   is going on and why we must fight to keep the
                                   hospital open.
Thursday, Sept. 22
8:00 – 9:00 am          Page St and Steiner
                               S.F. RENTERS DAY OF ACTION AND RALLY
                               They say rent hike, we say rent strike!
                               They say gentrify, we say OCCUPY!
                               Join San Franciscan housing groups in the national
                               Renters Day of Action to declare a renter State of
                               Emergency and take to the streets to demand an end
                               to rising rents, evictions, and gentrification.
                               more info:  alicia@hrcsf.org
12:00 noon       Planning Commission, S.F. City Hall, rm. 400
                       THE FRIGHT ON FOLSOM IS BACK \
                       The plan to demolish an existing industrial building to
                       build 117 housing units – four stories high with some
                       private and public open space.  It is planned to have
                       74 below grade parking spaces.
3:00 to 5:00 pm   S.F. City Hall, room 400
                          DEFEND THE MISSION! 
                          No more housing in the Mission that are luxury units
                          that displace our most vulnerable community members.
                          The land between Folsom 23rd and 24th Street should
                          be reserved for much needed affordable housing.
                          ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!
6:30 – 8:30 pm     St.Mary’s Cathedral 1111 Gough St. @ Geary
Friday Sept. 23
9:00 am – 5:00 pm     Federal Court Building
                               450 Golden Gate Ave.  floor 17, court #6
                               PACK THE COURT! 
                               The city of Berkeley is trying to get the case dis-
                               missed.  We need your presence in the court room
                               to show our communities reject the city’s attempts
                               to escape accountability for Kayla’s death and the
                               violence she suffered, along with so many other
                               people of color, trans women and disabled folks.
                               Hearing  begins at 10 but make sure to get there
                               early so you will be allowed in.  Come at 9 and we
                               will have coffee and food for you early birds.
6:00 – 8:00 pm       California State Capital 
                            NATIONAL DAY OF REMEMBRANCE FOR 
                            MURDER VICTIMS
                            The theme is Remember, Remind, and Respect.
                            Remember our loved ones, remind others we are
                            survivors, teach others to respect survivors grief.
Saturday, Sept. 24
9:45 am – 2:00 pm    S.F. Main Library  Koret AuditoriumSun
                               100 Larkin St. S.F. (enter on Grove)
                               COMMUNITY CONVERSATION ON S.F.P.D
                               The evidence is clear — the S.F.P.D. is badly
                               broken.  You are invited to hear about the Blue
                               Ribbon  Panel’s recommendations for change.
                               10 – 10:15  Welcome and mixer
                               10:15 – 11:00  family stories
                               11:00 – 1:00  overview of report and discussion and
                                                  Q and A
                               1:00  bag lunch and beverages served
                               SFPD San Franciscans for Police Accountability
Sunday Sept. 25 
9:00 am                   UU Center, Franklin @ Geary streets
                               PALESTINE, ISRAEL AND THE 2016 ELECTION
                               Speaker, Richard Becker of the Answer Coalition
                               Richard will speak on how the 2016 election may
                               impact the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
                               He is author of the book Palestine, Israel and the
                               U.S. empire.
4:00 pm            Northbrae Community Center 
                        941 The Alemeda, Berkeley
                        SOLVLING HOMELESSNESS THROUGH  
                        COMMUNITY AND COLLABORATION 
                        The Berkeley Public  Library, the Berkeley Organizing
                        Congregations and the Northbrae Community church
                        are hosting this community forum on Homelessness.
                        Moderator Peter Leyden will engage the 2016 Mayoral
                        candidates to address the problem.
                        All are welcome to attend this event which will be
                         followed by a casual reception where food will be served.
Monday Sept. 26
all day and the next day
                           OCCUPY BEALE AIR FORCE BASE 
                           CAMPAIGN NON VIOLENCE WEEK OF ACTIONS
                            Campaign Non Violence is a long term movement
                            for a culture of peace and nonviolence, free from
                            war, poverty, racism, environmental destruction and
                            the epidemic of violence.
                            come to be united against drones.  Wear white clothing
                            (if you can) and sky blue scarves to stand with the
                            Afghan Peace volunteers.
1;00 – 9:00 pm      Redstone Building   2940 16th St. at Mission
                           CONVENTION FOR PLANING OUR FUTURE
                           What shall Bernie supporters do to move the
                           revolution on?  Shall we go third party?  Vote for
                           Hillary?  We need to discus a 30 hr work week to
                           give people jobs.  We need to get off the use of fossil
                           fuels and build solar powered homes and businesses.
                           There is lots to talk about.  Come and share your ideas.
Tuesday Sept. 17
                           THE BEALE AIR FORCE BASE OCCUPATION
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Do No Harm Coalition UCSF stands with Standing Rock

Do No Harm Coalition UCSF
Stands with Standing Rock Lakota Dakota

#NoDAPL #StandWithStandingRock #DoNoHarm

We acknowledge the ancestors–the Yelamu–on whose land we live and practice our medicine. We acknowledge the powerful medicine that preceded our presence here, a medicine that kept the air, the water, the land and its creatures in vibrant balance for over 10,000 years.

We are the Do No Harm Coalition, over 300 doctors, nurses, students, faculty and staff at UCSF who are committed to ending racism and state-sanctioned violence.

East—To the New Day, to the Standing Rock Lakota Dakota, to the Protectors—We stand with you. We acknowledge your sovereignty and right to protect the water, the health of the people downstream and your ancestral land. We stand with you in opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. We dream of a world where everyone’s way of life is built on practices that will sustain all living beings in peace.

South—To the fire that burns in us, to speak alongside those whose voices have been silenced by 525 years of structural, interpersonal and cultural violence. We hear you. We recognize that when indigenous people gather to protect their rights in this country, the state responds with violence. This is the original racism of this land, and we are standing to change this history. We are watching and demand full respect and dignity for the lives and cultures of the women, men, elders and children who are gathering at Standing Rock. We invite other health workers to stand with us.

West—To the water, that covers 75% of the earth and makes up 67% of our bodies, bathing our cells and supporting every living entity. To the water that connects all of us, the water that the protectors at Standing Rock are defending. To the voiceless water, we add our voices. We stand to protect the water.

North—To the vision of a world where relations are honored and extractions are forgotten. To the vision where we place health and dignity of people and the planet over profit. To the vision of revitalized indigenous presence at the heart of our understanding of our own place here and of our own medicine. To the vision of ending cultural genocide on this land.

The Earth—where the bodies of the ancestors from over 10,000 years provide us with the nourishment for the food we eat and the very place we stand. To the Earth, who is telling us that she is sick and needs all of our participation for healing. To the Earth, We stand with you.

We stand with Standing Rock.

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This is the proposed legislation:


The purpose of this [proposed] legislation is to clarify the duties and responsibilities of peace officers [as defined in California Penal Code and Civil Code] in so far as the lawful use of force is concerned.

WHEREAS recent conflicts in California [and elsewhere] indicate substantial confusion regarding the lawful use of force when unarmed citizens, who may or may not be suspected of criminal activity, are shot by peace officers;

WHEREAS we the people of the State of California have before now relied upon local district attorneys and or the California attorney general to investigate and prosecute the unlawful use of force by peace officers;

WHEREAS this reliance has been misplaced given that in some counties, such as Alameda County, the district attorney has for decades not considered/and or has refused to impanel any grand jury to investigate numerous excessive force complaints against municipal police and sheriff deputies alike;

WHEREAS current state law [CITATION] providing that each municipal and county policing agency investigate its excessive force complaints against its own officers or deputies is ineffective and outdated – for example the Alameda County sheriff has never once found that any such complaint against any of its deputies had merit over for over forty years;

WHEREAS peace officers have a duty to protect all life and are deemed to have violated said duty whenever they use their firearm in the line of duty and injure or kill an unarmed citizen whether or not he is at the relevant time suspected of criminal conduct;

WHEREAS through this legislation we the people wish to clarify that the use of guns by officers who are paid by and entrusted with the public good and safety will be considered only as a “last resort” such that those not willing to risk their lives by not drawing their weapons should not work as peace officers nor should they seek employment as peace officers;

THEREFORE it is resolved that in such instances, the burden of proof shall now shift to the peace officer to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that his use of deadly or potentially deadly force was justified before an administrative five member panel, all members of which shall be expert in police procedures and especially the use of firearms and deadly force; and that failure to satisfy this burden shall result in the officer’s immediate and summary dismissal along with all benefits whether potential, vested or accrued.

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The poetry of Sarah Menefee (peoplestribune.org)


Sarah Menefee has a new book of extraordinary poetry, Human Star. Her other books include I’m Not Thousandfurs and The Blood About the Heart. She has been a homeless and anti-hunger activist. She is available to speak through Speakers for a New America.Human Star book cover

Listen to Sarah speak with PTR correspondent, Jesú Estrada, about her work and ideas for a new society. (28:23) MP3

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“Five Years Later, Occupy Gets Its Moment” by Bill Scher

Given up for dead, the leftist movement born in Zuccotti Park had an unlikely big year—but it’s still not clear how its supporters can turn its energy into permanent wins.


It was five years ago today that hundreds of activists descended on New York City’s Zuccotti Park, 5 blocks from the New York Stock Exchange, to “Occupy Wall Street”— a blunt but effective idea that resonated far wider that their original numbers would ever suggest. The organizers were shrouded in mystery. Their goals were vague. But they sought to emulate the social-media driven protests in Egypt that (briefly) toppled a dictator and, in the words of one organizer “rise up and reform the global economic system.”

The round-the-clock encampment and “general assembly” lasted for two months and gained national attention before being forcibly shut down, but not before sparking a multitude of protests around the world and permanently altering the national dialogue about economic inequality. It’s because of Occupy that today we regularly hear broadsides against “the 1 percent” and critiques about the system rigged for the rich.
Story Continued Below

Since then, Occupy as a functioning movement has largely ceased to be. Its mirror-image populist rival, the Tea Party, had a higher arc and more immediate political success, channeling its anti-Wall Street conservatism into enough midterm electoral wins to get a genuine seat at the table in Congress.

But in 2016, to a degree nobody expected, Occupy finally got its moment on the national stage. You could even argue that its heart is now beating more loudly than that of the Tea Party, whose momentum has been gutted by the raw and ideologically impure populism of Donald Trump. This year, Bernie Sanders rode a wave of Occupy energy to do what no self-described socialist had ever done: win more than 20 presidential primary contests and play a major role in shaping a major party platform.
Today, it’s Occupy rather than the Tea Party that can claim some ascendancy: the banner of the Tea Party’s extreme fiscal conservatism is carried by fewer congressional Republicans, who are seen as pesky nuisance by Republican leaders who just want to keep the government open. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee is leaning on Sanders and his progressive energy in order to keep the party coalition together.

But even in a moment of relative triumph, the movement formerly known as Occupy still faces the challenge it was born with. Its leaders need to do something they, and many millennial activists, appear allergic to doing: build a centralized, top-down, hierarchical organization, and prioritize a few key policy goals. Otherwise their movement stands ready to vanish into the administrative priorities of Hillary Clinton, precisely the kind of candidate they arose to run against.

It was the Tea Party that came first, sparked in decidedly non-populist fashion on February 19, 2009 by a rant on the business TV network CNBC. Government overspending quickly became an organizing principle, solidified during nationwide rallies on Tax Day 2009. In the summer, foot soldiers—arguably directed by the Washington, DC conservative and business-backed organization FreedomWorks—sought to derail Obamacare by angrily confronting congresspeople in town halls. They made a lot of noise, but they failed in their quest to stop Obama from enacting his signature policy goal.

Still, the Tea Party shook up Washington in the midterm elections, dispatching several “Establishment” Republicans in primaries then powering the takeover of the House. The results gave America the feeling that Tea Party fervor—a long, loud complaint about both the financial crisis and the Democrats’ response to it—was sweeping the land. (The fact the three Senate pickup opportunities for Republicans were blown by ideologically extreme Tea Party candidates was often overlooked.)

Then one year later, Occupy showed up. Occupy was less organized and less policy-specific than the Tea Party. It created a “general assembly” on the street, giving the appearance of a movement creating its own government; it railed against Wall Street control of the economy. Like the Tea Party, it never coalesced around a leader; unlike the Tea Party, it never formulated a list of demands, or rallied around actual legislative targets. This was by design. Said one organizer at the time, “making a list of three or four demands would have ended the conversation before it started.”

But what Occupy’s conversation did was give the Tea Party’s narrative of bloated government some genuine competition among anti-establishment populists. The movements had some overlap, particularly in their opposition to the Wall Street bailout. But each was, underneath, firmly rooted in more traditional left-wing and right-wing ideologies. It’s a stretch to say Occupy saved Obama’s re-election—the growing economy deserves the lion’s share of credit—but the manifestation of grassroots passion on both sides of the spectrum kept Democrats from assuming it was necessary to drift rightward to politically survive.

Both the Sanders and Trump campaigns have ties to Occupy and Tea Party activists. Two Occupy alums created the volunteer group “People for Bernie” which popularized the #FeelTheBern rallying cry. And Trump hired Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson as his spokesperson.

But the core of the Trump campaign has nothing to do with the Tea Party’s obsession with overspending and debt. Tea Party Republican congresspeople demanded budgets that were balanced in five years; Trump has no plan to balance the budget. His campaign is populist and anti-establishment, but mainly animated by anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Sanders campaign, on the other hand, was a true reflection of the Occupy spirit. Not only was Sanders laser-focused on curtailing the power of Wall Street and corporate influence in politics, but the underlying premise of the campaign was an upgrade over the original General Assembly in Zuccotti Park: that change would come only through a mass movement of small donors overwhelming the moneyed interests. Every Sanders rally was like Occupy on Tour. There was even a time when the Occupy’s “open mic” rule of the General Assembly seem to be in effect, when Black Lives Matter protests took the stage and Sanders conceded the stage.

Clearly the slow pace of middle-class recovery, juxtaposed with the minimal accountability for the bankers that sunk the economy eight years ago, continued to fuel passions. The anti-corporate fervor wasn’t enough to get Sanders the nomination, or stop Hillary Clinton from scooping up tons of Wall Street cash. But you can still see Occupy’s embers in the Democratic Party platform and in Clinton’s rhetoric.

Big challenges remain for those who want Occupy’s embers to once again become a roaring fire. Clinton’s fervent belief in working within the system and comfortable relationships with Wall Street titans make her an unlikely vehicle for radical change. And the most likely electoral outcome—a Democratic presidency with at least one Republican-controlled house of Congress—does not create the conditions for a radical break with the status quo. Small-bore compromises along with, in the most optimistic of scenarios, breakthroughs on a few pressing issues, will be in the offing. The most that a revitalized Occupy movement can expect to accomplish is to rally enough grassroots pressure to deprive bipartisan proposals with sufficient support from the left to pass. Realizing left-wing goals like breaking up the banks or enacting single-payer health care will remain mere dreams.

Despite its high point this year, the movement is likely to remain hobbled by the strategy that limited it in the first place: its commitment to a decentralized, mostly leaderless vision of activism. That ethos prompted many Bernie Sanders’ aides to quit his Our Revolution organization, on the grounds that the group would be raising fat checks instead of building a bottom-up grassroots movement. It also shapes Black Lives Matter, another movement that has done a better job driving conservation than locking down policy wins. (A Black Lives Matter-related group recently unveiled an ambitious list of 40 policy recommendations, but in going far beyond its original focus on police brutality into areas such as the military budget and slavery reparations, the effort is likely to be too diffuse to secure concrete victories.)

There is a reason why the next president won’t be somebody who did not come out of either the Occupy or Tea Party movements, and it’s not just about money (remember, Sanders outspent Clinton). Winning requires more than starting conversations. It takes realistic goals, robust organization and tenacious follow-through.

Social media makes it easy for passionate, youthful activists to start a movement, but hard to establish leadership, reach consensus on specifics and set priorities. Maybe making a list of three or four demands would have ended the conversation before it started. But once the conversation has begun, you need to take it somewhere. That’s something Occupy was not able to do—and five years later, after hitting an unlikely high-water mark long after those park protests, it’s not at all clear that its veterans believe it is something it needs to do.

Bill Scher is the senior writer at the Campaign for America’s Future, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ” along with the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis.  Follow us: @politico on Twitter | Politico on Facebook

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Occupy the Cinema: “SNOWDEN” by Bill Arceneaux (Occupy.com)


That is how President Obama described Edward Snowden in a press clip during the end credits of Oliver Stone’s latest blockbuster burner, “Snowden”. Despite his talk about transparency and assistance to whistleblowers, Obama’s administration has more or less towed the status quo in Washington. To denigrate a former intelligence worker and agent as “a hacker” draws unfair and incorrect parallels to groups like Anonymous and even movies like “Hackers,” in which young hooligans take down and build up computer systems while drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos. At least, that’s the comparison Obama hopes to make. And why not treat it this way?

Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour,” the as-it-happened document(ary) about Snowden’s delivery and explanation of the data he was handing over in a Hong Kong hotel, was as tense and nerve-wracking as any recent film I’ve seen. We could feel the weight of the world resting on a few individuals as they talked with each other and huddled together, expecting police to knock down the door at any moment. In that presentation, Edward is likable and relatable enough, but more of a mysterious vessel and representation of spy game anxieties. In “Snowden,” he’s been given, believe it or not, more of an identity; rather, he becomes more identifiable for mass audiences.

At the heart of Stone’s film is the evolution of inner turmoil and disillusion with the U.S. government that Edward feels in his work. He begins as an idealistic post-9/11 Captain America gung-ho type, raring to join special forces but settling for CIA. He’s not Dick Cheney nationalistic, of course, but holds patriotic principles that he applies to his skills online. An expert for sure, he’s almost given an Imitation Game Alan Turing-style status as someone who could help win wars. Well, pre-emptive wars, anyway.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward with much resolve and surprising stoicism. Had all of this been happening to me, I would’ve played my hand more obviously, mostly through sweat glands. Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden wants field action, but learns that he wouldn’t be the best at face to face confrontation. As the events draw near, he’s forced to adapt and prove himself capable of the biggest of tasks. Gordon-Levitt wears this in his eyes and his smile. The movie wears this in its cutting and on its sleeve.

Oliver Stone is not quite at peak self here, but has returned to form somewhat: quick cuts, changes in video and film look between time and settings, and visual trickery of subtle and not so subtle manners. In an office-to-webcam conversation with his friend/teacher/superior, played by the excellently righteous Rhys Ifans, Edward’s suspicions, his stress and the importance of what he must do become increasingly apparent.

Beyond the simple juxtaposition of a looming giant face on a screen over a normal-sized young man, there is a particular zoom-in closeup that floored me with both awe and laughter. No, it wasn’t a joke, but the snap speed of how it was done gave me that chilling response. Stone has a few other moments like this throughout that will feel cornball and cheesy, but they still work well enough in the context of the story. Heck, even the end credit Peter Gabriel song fits. Almost fits, anyway.

“Snowden” is as “anti-establishment” as a Hollywood production nowadays can get. Which means not by much, but subversiveness certainly hangs in the air. Where “Citizenfour” felt underground and something you’d watch in secret, “Snowden” is more “Fahrenheit 9/11”: loud and trying to reach everyone in the auditorium from the front row to the back seats. It’s a movie that nearly goes out of its way to connect with everyone possible, but course corrects just enough to maintain its own voice. And very much so, this is in Oliver Stone’s angry and in-tribute voice.

I’ll never forget Obama appearing on Zach Galifianakis’s cult web show “Between Two Ferns” and making the joke that “no one is listening to your calls…” Nicely timed, nicely delivered, but with an attitude of carelessness. I guess if he treats it this way, we all should? Relax, the source is nothing more than “a hacker.”

Snowden, Edward Snowden, NSA leaks, NSA surveillance programs, Oliver Stone, Citizenfour, Laura Poitras

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Why Haven’t Either 9/11 Or Occupy Changed The World?

Redacted Tonight host Lee Camp covers the fallout of 9/11 fifteen years later, as well as the remaining legacy of Occupy Wall Street five years later. Is the US more peaceful or more fair for every citizen because of these events? Why haven’t we dedicated more resources to peace instead of war? Why has the American public still been unable to wrest power from the big banks? This and more on Redacted Tonight.

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