Posts Tagged ‘ abuse of power

More Encryption Is Not the Solution

I’m always pleased to see the recognition that, ultimately, politics is just people with lots of weapons doing what they want. In this instance, Poul-Henning Kamp, highlights the fact with respect to encryption as a “solution” to revelations about “government” spying.


Nation-states have police forces with guns. Cryptographers and the IETF Internet Engineering Task Force do not.

Several nation-states, most notably the United Kingdom, have enacted laws that allow the police to jail suspects until they reveal the cryptographic keys to unlock their computers. Such laws open a host of due process and civil rights issues that we do not need to dwell on here. For now it is enough to note that such laws can be enacted and enforced.
. . .
Any person can have the right to privacy removed through whatever passes for judicial oversight in their country of residence, so that authorities can confirm or deny a suspicion of illegal activities.
. . .
if a nation-state decides that somebody should not have privacy, then it will use whatever means available to prevent that privacy.

via More Encryption Is Not the Solution – ACM Queue.

The article is short and worth reading. The author is clearly not an economist, “In the past quarter century, international trade agreements have been the big thing: free movement of goods across borders and oceans, to the mutual benefit of all parties. I guess we all assumed that information and privacy rights would receive the same mutual respect as property rights did in these agreements, but we were wrong.”

He also has an unhealthy optimism that the guys with the guns can be persuaded to dismantle the spy agencies (who, I’m sure, have lots of dirt on the guys with the guns); all -in-all the conclusion section is the weakest part of the paper.

Overall, his point is important: as long as institutions exist that are overwhelmingly recognized to have the right to do whatever they please up to and including caging and killing anyone who doesn’t obey, encryption will, at best, protect small handfuls of people. For people generally, a general solution is necessary, which is a delegitimization of the use of force by “government.”

On Killing Geese (of the Golden Egg Laying Variety)

Under conditions of freedom, human communities do amazing things. In the Western nation-states, two countervailing trends have affected these conditions. Firstly, as superstition and custom are slowly shed in favor of enlightenment and empathy, social strictures and their legal counterparts have fallen away.

Thus, non-anglo-saxon europeans, then africans, then women, then asians, and now children moved with painful slowness into the category of “human” from that of “other.” As collective consciousness about their humanity struggled out of the mire of custom and into the light of reality, the related laws were also forced to change. The privileged classes had to begrudgingly free these categories of people from being the property of others, then allow them to own property, and finally had to allow them free self-expression, travel, and the other unalienable rights of human beings.

The increase in the number and variety of freed–or at least less categorically enslaved–people resulted in the phenomena we’ve witnessed in art, technology, entertainment and the like over the last hundred or so years in the west. Humans, allowed the native freedom to follow their consciences and express their personhood, have fashioned truly spectacular worlds to enhabit.

The reactionary instinct that expressed itself in the upholding of tradition in keeping large swaths of human beings under the control of their “betters,” had to change its skin. It’s moved from superstitious custom into “scientific social management.” Blacks aren’t slaves and aren’t segregated because of their biblically ordained inferiority–that would be silly. Instead, they are jailed for trading in forbidden items. Businesses on the margin are harassed, closed or seized for lack of appropriate paper-work or inability to comply with city codes. Art installations, work shops, light industry, and all the interesting diversity and creativity of organic society are threatened by ever increasing and militarized policing.

This has been the norm in most American cities for quite some time, though most places have pockets of creative and industrious people who manage–at least for awhile–to live their lives and create their worlds without being harassed to the point of extinction.

Example: Code Compliance in Austin, TX

Austin, TX is, or was, a rare example of an entire city where each individual was largely allowed to create, trade, share, live and love as he or she saw fit. For that reason, Austin at the end of the 20th century was an amazing amalgam of human creativity and productivity. Besides the live music that makes the city famous worldwide, places like the Enchanted Forest, the Cathedral of Junk, the Rhizome collective, yards turned into wildlife habitats, ubiquitous food trailers, entire districts of light industry turned into art studios, and clever ventures like the Electric Cabs of Austin really make Austin a stand-out metropolitan area in an increasingly grey and homogeneous America.

The list of such spectacles could, and probably does, fill a book; I mention them because they’ve all been shut down, or are facing constant threats of being so by an ever-increasing tide of city “management”.

In these cases, specifically, the reactionary branch of government is Austin’s Code Compliance Department. This department didn’t exist in the year 2000, hence the freedom that lead to Austin’s reputation as a haven for creators, eccentrics, artists and musicians–oh, and prosperity.

Following a well understood pattern, as prosperity increases, those that make a living by stealing (what they prefer to call “taxing”) from the productive find themselves awash with money to spend. In a bid, I suppose, to garner votes from the 10%
or so
of residents who are willing to use force to instantiate their visions of an ideal society, Austin government used the extra money to build and empower a Code Compliance Department.

In doing so they are making a bid to kill the golden goose. In a city that recently laid off hundreds of school teachers due to budget shortfalls, Austin City Council still sees fit to spend 10 million dollars a year destroying the peaceful and beautiful fabric of the creative community. The anonymous reporting system used by the department has also turned neighbor against neighbor as petty feuds blow up into neighborhood-wide “floods of calls,” ultimately resulting, in the case of one South Austin neighborhood, in

violation notices to 76 homeowners in the neighborhood, telling them they must apply for permits for improvements such as garage conversions and carports.
Those who fail to correct the problem could be criminally charged and fined up to $2,000 per day or have their utilities disconnected, according to recent letters sent to homeowners that gave them a March 26 deadline to comply.

The situation is heartbreaking. For all the victims of Austin Code Compliance Department and all the additional victims of the general increase in policing of victimless crimes by the numerous, ever replicating, expanding, and tremendously expensive city bureaucracies, the situation is intolerable.

And make no mistake, all of Austin, at least those that constitute that which deserves to be called Austin, are collateral damage of these fights. We’re the ones who remember what Austin once was, and who must watch, powerless, as our money goes to the greying of this vibrant city, as our neighborhoods are homogenized, our neighbors fined, jailed, and brought into “compliance,” and our artists, inventors, and creators are driven out of their homes, studios, and communities, some never to return.

Local Thugs Enforce Transportation Monopoly

A buddy of mine recently pointed me at an interesting story. A local business, Electric Cabs of Austin, shuttles people around downtown Austin in electric carts at no charge.

“We actually got the idea from the city of Austin, who was operating golf carts in the downtown area. And we decided to take it one step further,” said Nielsen [the owner]
He bought five electric, golf-style cars and hired friends to drive them around the city. Just like the pedicabs, they ask for tips only.

They make their money from selling advertising space on the carts themselves.

This is the sort of spontaneous activity that adds to the deep reservoir of color and charm in what would otherwise be just mid-size city in Texas.

The Austin municipal government, like all governments, tries to remain relevant by jumping on various bandwagons that emerge organically from the wider community. To demonstrate its commitment to a cleaner, greener city, Austin government has installed a hundred or so electric car charging stations in anticipation of emissions free[1] transportation. You would imagine that the city council would be all in favor of an electric cab company, right?

OK, I sort of cheated on that last question, because I forgot to mention that the gas powered cab companies that currently hold all the licenses to give rides to people have paid the mayor and the city council tens of thousands of dollars towards their campaign funds.

For unrelated reasons, I’m sure, the city council has been unable to figure out a way to license Electric Cabs of Austin for . . . wait for it . . . 3 years.

My more advanced readers will already skip to the part where it’s criminal to interpose oneself between someone who wants a ride and someone who is willing to give them a ride. Nielson, the owner of the Electric Cab Company, though, is more of a business person than an agorist martyr; he’d rather just get the permission slip from the nut-jobs at city hall than rot in prison on principle. I’m sympathetic. Apparently, he’s trying to run the cab service despite the legal hangups and has wracked up 200+ tickets and arrests among his driving staff. So maybe he’s part agorist martyr.

A twist on the story, and this is also a staple of government, is that nobody is really clear on exactly what law is being violated. City Council candidate Kris Bailey, who has no chance of ever being elected because he is relatively sane (Green party, pro-marijuana legalization, etc.) tried to find out on what grounds the city police have issued 200+ tickets and made arrests of the electric cab drivers:

There is no law actually prohibiting him from operating this business, it is true but, the enforcement side of the city (the police) have taken this lack of a law regulating the business as operating in violation of a law. He [Nielson, the owner] is violating a law that does not exist. . .
I met with multiple council members and made several phone calls, wrote emails, etc…. I realized that he was right, he is being ignored, and the City of Austin does not wish this business to exist. [Here’s the whole post for people who have Bookface accounts]

Baily, as part of his City Council campaign, I presume, took one of the cabs for a spin one evening:

I gave 2 rides on Friday night. The first ride was to a couple of women who when dropped off handed me a few dollars and thanked me. I did not charge them. They voluntarily handed me the money. At this point, 3 APD [Austin Police] officers stopped me and wrote me a ticket for “Operating without a permit” and “no chauffers license.” I tried to explain the permit and license do not exist, they did not care. I asked if they had read the ordinances I was supposedly violating, I asked multiple times and the officers refused to quote the law I was breaking. They told me if they saw me operating again, they would arrest me.

I decided that the Austin Police Department does not have the right, nor the authority to shut down a business on a whim. I picked up another person, and gave him a ride. I dropped him off where he asked to go. The police officers saw him hand me $4 (again, I did not charge him) and immediately came to me and put me in handcuffs. I was arrested without discussion or hesitation and taken directly to jail.

Baily is very generous to the folk who caged him that night, but he’s a politician and has to go easy on “law enforcement.” Essentially, the police are hired thugs for the other cab companies in Austin. As Kevin Carson notes in a recent essay,

the true nature of regulation as a naked power grab by incumbent businesses is nowhere more apparent than at the local level. At the lower levels of government, conventional, brick-and-mortar business establishments are heavily involved in using regulatory enforcement to shut down low-cost competition.

Brick and mortar doesn’t apply directly here; I’ve also noted this trend, locally, in a piece on food trucks–another wonderful feature of Austin–and their creeping strangulation at the hands of larger contributors to political campaigns. The point stands though, where the interests driving national political policy have a 24 hour PR outfit in the mainstream media to provide a sheen of legitimacy to wars and regulations, the “naked power” serving concentrations of capital is far easier to see on the local level.

A last note along these lines. The United States is experiencing unemployment around 22%.
Nothing outside of murder or theft should be illegal for a small business owner. The idea that people are being fined, jailed, and otherwise disallowed a living for giving somebody a ride, cooking somebody a meal, cutting hair, painting nails, or selling something some sunday school teacher doesn’t approve of is atrocious; over 20+% unemployment, it’s ridiculous.

OK, two last notes along these lines: this is not some crazy aberration. Protecting established wealth against emerging ingenuity (usually among the poor) is the very and sole purpose of government; read Kevin Carson, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Gabriel Kolko–I know I repeat myself, but seriously, read that shit. It’s time to trust in our fellow humans and allow them to arrange their lives according to their own choosing and not some lunatic who’s trying to micro-manage the lives of hundreds of thousands of strangers.

  1. [1] At least in the city itself, the poor bastards by the power plant still get the emissions

Framework of Fear

Banking provides an archetypal example of a system held in place through fear.  I find banking especially interesting because of the amount of propaganda required to conceal its nature.  War is easy to justify with appeals to nationalism, patriotism, racism, and religion.  Stockpiling wealth by annihilating foreign populations is considered admirable by many (twisted ass-hats) in our society.  Banking, however, requires much more misdirection because nobody, not even an ass-hat, wants to be robbed to fill the vaults of institutional wealth.

The four-actor framework I (made up and) outline below works for a number of fear-based institutions and issues: war, health-care, criminal justice, education, etc.   While it applies to any violence based public crime, I’ve filled-in-the-blanks according to a banking based example with the aggregated groups in order from largest to smallest.

1.  Victims: the usual cast of fixed-income folks, the working (and non-working) poor, elderly, and disabled.  The list is now joined by large swaths of the middle class who tried to get something–a lot of something–for nothing via “investment.”  They had their money herded into the coffers of the wealthy by tax protection schemes such as the 401K and by corporate leaders who promised never-ending profits to workers who put all their money into company stock.  The victims were encouraged by every conceivable government and media outlet to invest.  The victims are now looking at having their remaining assets devalued by trillions of “new” dollars that are flowing directly into the pockets of the richest and most politically connected group of people on the planet (see “beneficiaries” below).

2.  Propagandists: rivaling the victims in size are the propagandists.  The propagandist just needs a few catch phrases and pseudo-historical instances that will strike terror in the carefully conditioned soul of the listener.  In the case of banking “bailouts”, their job is easy.  Two acceptable solutions to the banking problem exist: giving the ruling economic class everything they want immediately, or reorganizing the banks and insurers in some way to give the ruling economic class everything they want in the future.  Anything else will result in “financial collapse.”

A few hundred high-level propagandists can be identified.  But most are victims serving double-duty.  Whenever someone parrots the “financial collapse” line without any idea what that means or why, he or she qualifies as a propagandist.  If someone gets really upset when it is pointed out that he/she has no idea what that means or why, he/she is exhibiting the behavior that keeps alive all things evil in our world–smile and nod politely and then get the fuck away from them.

3.  Enforcers: there’s a long and complex tale about how the banks and the government worked out the current financial system.   Your friendly neighborhood libertarian or anarchist will be all too happy to regale you with this tale.  It suffices to say that people have been arrested and have had their customers’ assets stolen for attempting to provide competing banking services.  This doesn’t include those (actual) criminals arrested for creating counterfeit currency–something that only politically connected banks are authorized to do.  It sounds trite, but it’s true (trite and true?), professions that allow an individual to become, or remain, inconceivably wealthy cannot exist when others are not threatened with violence for competing.
4.  Beneficiaries: with all the levels of misdirection, it is difficult if not impossible to be clear who is benefiting from this mess–hence the large and growing reactionary punditry claiming this or that shadowy organization or traditionally scape-goated race is ‘running’ the entire scam.  I don’t think that greed requires much internal organization to thrive.  It requires sufficient propagandists to keep the population terrified of not shoveling wealth to the wealthy and sufficiently brutal enforcement to keep the remainder in line and producing.  The beneficiaries’ numbers are dwarfed by the victims, which has much to do with their extreme wealth–a few tens of thousands of dollars from a few hundred million people adds up quickly.

Fuck the Police

In the days before I had received any moral training beyond, “do what we say,” I thought that police were a great way to get people to do what they should.  At that time, police brutality was simply the result of bad people not following orders.  I can’t remember any specific police abuse stories from this time.  I was never exposed to a harsher indictment of police than accusations that they spent too much time eating donuts.

By the time George Bush Sr. laid waste to Iraq and had begun starving the population, I had figured out that Republicans were using the police to convert the poor into money for the prison-industrial complex.  I don’t remember blaming the police for this–I assumed they were following the orders of 12 years worth of a republican legal appointees.  I still had in my head the Plantonic ideal of the public servant who was a different species of person–one who would eschew self-interest and would, without oversight, behave justly.

Even before I had my string of personal encounters with police, I had developed a hearty dislike for them.  This marked the high-point for my blood pressure when I would hear about police gunning down unarmed people or sodomizing prisoners with toilet plungers — like they do.

I’m not sure exactly when this happened, but I arrived at a profound understanding of a very simple truth: you cannot reliably arm someone, give them near-immunity from the law, and expect non-horrible things to happen.  The task becomes yet more difficult when you first advertise to every evil cretin that cannot hold other employment that you are looking to arm people and give them near-immunity from the law.  I understood that police brutality is like any brutality resulting from radical power disparity.  If the victim cannot disengage, the transgressions will only grow increasingly ugly and depraved.

All that to say that I am no longer shocked by cops hurting people and stealing stuff.  Nevertheless, I am, well, almost impressed by what I read at  I heard a story about a cop, Cujdik (pronounced Kudj-DICK), who was knocking off tobacconists, convenience stores and other small businesses (all immigrant owned).  His “Narcotics Task Force” would raid the business, cut the wires to the surveillance cameras, steal merchandise and take all the cash in the store.  The charges were nonsensical–in one instance, the store owner had zip-lock bags that were classified as drug paraphanalia–and were always suspended or dropped by the judge during trial.

If reading about this kind of sick shit is your thing, as it is for me from time to time, I will save you some effort:  I’m providing this service because I had to search through the 60+ stories at that matched the search: “police misconduct.”  Everything from judges getting 2.6 million in kickbacks for sending kids to juvenile facilities, to the myriad sex crimes committed by police, to my personal favorite, the drug dealer who joined the police force and began raiding his competitors.

I won’t be highlighting police abuse stories in the future, unless more drug dealers become cops–that’s precious.  I am still recovering from my upbringing, where all authority figures were to be obeyed unquestioningly, so I need to revisit that tendency from time to time.  The take-home lesson is not that authority must be questioned, but that authority based on violence is not authority at all.

Oh, and if you think, like I tend to, “what do you expect from Philly?” check out this tale of Texas police who extorted money, jewlery and sometimes cars from 140 mostly African-American motorists.  And they beat some of them too.