Saturday, September 24, 2011

So What's a Crime? Thinking about Protesters & Market Speculators

Last Monday, I visited Liberty Park in Manhattan while making my way to catch the Staten Island Ferry.  It was the day before NYC police would arrest protesters from OccupyWallStreet for criminal acts such as: writing with chalk on the sidewalk and wearing masks on the back of their heads.  

Just down the street from Liberty Park is Wall Street, which was barricaded and had police and security presence.  Only the sidewalks remained opened for pedestrians as police and security stood behind the barricaded streets.  The sidewalks were crowded as people walked. The side streets and Wall Street were closed to most pedestrian and vehicle traffic, with the exception of some who I assume work at Wall Street.

The next day I was driving and had my iPod on shuffle when Kronos Quartet's "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover" from Howl, U.S.A. album came on.  The composition is nearly 11 minutes and contains phrases and words uttered by J. Edgar Hoover during his 48 years as FBI director.  The audio files are part of speeches that were declassified.  A fuller explanation of the Kronos Quartet composition can be found here.

As I listened (again and again) I thought a lot about fear and crime and continued to wonder about the actions that get labeled and processed as criminal, as well as the myriad of actions that do not. Several weeks ago I read about Alan Knuckman,  a 42-year-old analyst with Agora Financials who in a story about how commodity traders at the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) are artifically increasing the costs of food globally in order to turn a greater profit said:

"I don't believe in politics. I believe in the market, and the market is always right."

Horand Knaup, Michaela Schiessl, and Anne Seith authors of the article, How Global Investors Make Money Out of Hunger, write:

The age of cheap food is over," predicts Knuckman, noting that this can't be such a bad thing for US citizens. "Most Americans eat too much, anyway."
For his fellow Americans, who spend 13 percent of their disposable income on food, the price hike may be an annoyance. But for the world's poor, who are forced to spend 70 percent of their meager budgets on food, it's life-threatening.
Since last June alone, higher food prices have driven another 44 million people below the poverty line, reports the World Bank. These are people who must survive on less than $1.25 (€0.87) a day. More than a billion people are starving worldwide. The current famine in the Horn of Africa is not only the result of drought, civil war and corrupt officials, but is also caused by prohibitively high food prices.

Knuckman refers to the fact that the poorest of the poor can no longer pay for their food as "undesirable side effects of the market." Halima Abubakar, a 25-year-old Kenyan woman, is experiencing these supposed side effects at first hand.
She is sitting in her corrugated metal hut in Kibera, Nairobi's biggest slum, wondering what to put on the table this evening for her husband and their two children. Until now, the Abubakars were among the higher earners in Kibera. The family managed to feed itself adequately with the monthly salary of €150 that Halima's husband earns as a prison guard.
But that has suddenly become difficult. The price of corn meal, the most important food staple in Kenya, is now at a record high after increasing by more than 100 percent in only five months. Potato prices went up by a third, milk is also more expensive, and so are vegetables.
Abubakar doesn't know why this is the case. She only knows that she suddenly has to pay close attention to how she spends the family's meager daily food budget of about 300 shillings (€2.30). Her first step was to switch to a cheaper brand of corn meal. It doesn't taste of much, but at least it fills one's stomach. She sometimes goes without her own lunch so that her children can have enough to eat.
In the article, the authors state:
In 2009, the US investment bank earned more than $5 billion in commodities speculation -- more than a third of its net earnings.

"What we are experiencing is a demand shock coming from a new category of participant in the commodities futures markets," hedge fund manager Michael Masters conceded in testimony before a US Senate committee addressing the food crisis in 2008.
As long as the market is not regulated, the number of speculators making money at the expense of hungry people will continue to grow, fears UNCTAD economist Flassbeck. The consequences would be devastating. According to the World Bank, an increase of only about 10 percent in worldwide food prices results in another 10 million people slipping below the poverty line. Even though there is enough food, many die of hunger simply because they can no longer afford to pay for it.
So what's criminal?
  • Writing on sidewalks with chalk?
  • Wearing silly masks backwards?
  • Making billions at the expense of hungry people?
  • Raising food prices globally in order to make money and knowingly causing human deaths?
  • Not regulating the market?

Towards the end of the Kronos Quartet piece, the voice of J. Hoover can be heard saying:
Fear, fear, fear silences the voice.
Fear, fear silences the voices of protest.
Fear, fear, fear silences the voice.
Fear, fear silences the voices of protest.
There is no place in America for vigilantes, rabble rousers, the lunatic fringe.
Fear, fear, fear.
Fear silences the voices of protest.
Fear silences the voice of our society.
Fear silences the voice.
I made the one-minute video below by remixing a small section from the Kronos Quartet piece with images I made in Manhattan of the protesters, the police, and those out and about on Wall Street.

Music from "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover" by Kronos Qaurtet
Images by Mary Ann Reilly


  1. such an intense video and well written piece Mary Ann,,, I hope the darkness is swift for there must then be a dawn.

  2. ME too, Lina. Not sure it will be swift though. Power tends to want to keep power.

  3. Great blog and video, Mary Ann. Bizarrely, I was in Manhattan that same day; interestingly, for all that was going on in Wall Street, anything north of there was completely normal. Tourists stared up at the almost-complete "Freedom Tower" (many, like me, unable to get visitor passes for that day). Juxtaposing that view with your blog makes me wonder if we haven't allowed the word "freedom" to undergo the same kinds of redefinition that have changed the meaning of words like "poverty" and "patriotism." (Shameless plug: I wrote a piece on that on my blog last week). I wonder whether the battle is truly for language: when the semiotics are wrenched from us--both subtly and brutally--then we lose the connections between ideas and soul. It's fundamentally depressing--and enervating--to think about....

  4. Enervate is a good term. It is draining especially as the ideological battles in our government wage on with little to no regard for its citizens. While many of us have been living our rather modest lives, politicians & heads of public institutions have been positioned by hedgefunders, billionaires (am I redundant)to further deplete the public of its money, heart, and soul. They are a vile group whose sense of market values are sociopathic, such as Knuckman above. Only a sociopath can knwoingly increase food costs at such a rate that it causes death and not feel any obligation.

    I'm not confused by what it means to be partiotic and although I don't begin to fully understand the movement happening in NYC (it seems to blur a bit), I do support their right to protest and concur that givernment is owned, not by the people, but by the wealthy.

    None of the would be candiates prancing about to be president interest me as they all utter the same tired phrases and seem more intent on hating President Obama then in representing any actual ideas. A few also seem crazy.

    Meanwhile the country fails: economically & politically.
    Democracy is shaky.
    And the way we have come is not the way we can continue on.

  5. I will say that I'm finding Jon Huntsman a bit different. I went to a local town hall last night to hear him in a small group (less than 100). While he spent the first 15 minutes giving the usual stump speech, the Q&A revealed someone different in three important ways for me. First, he's truly passionate about science and education, and misses the "blue sky" visions that we had about things like going to the moon or building the transcontinental railorad--and he sees a role for government in those kinds of unifying goals.

    Secondly, he was truthful about the pain we're going to continue to feel if (when) we shrink government and displace even more jobs through that shrinkage; he believes that smaller government has to be paced with growth in order to not make things worse, and admits that there are no silver bullets.

    Finally, he talked a lot about compassion, and believes there IS a role for government in helping people.

    These are things you just don't get to hear in a debate. He's not everything I want in a candidate, but he's remarkably cogent, has a tremendous love for science and education and --not least-- nobody seems to own him (at least, not yet). He's also gaining in the polls up here. Now, if only his handlers would let him act like the iconoclast (centrist) he might actually be, wouldn't that be refreshing...

  6. @Michael, that's important to know. Thanks. Wish he could have a chat with his fellow GOP in Congress:)

  7. We are not try to showing off to the world by making instructures and go to the moon. We are only try to create more jobs. When more people work the tax decrease because we share. We become richer and many things will be affordable to us. While there were more demand they made too much, then companies lock up the production and lay-off workers and raise the comsumer prices. The buying power would not imcreae when public has a little money so they monopolyse the food price, take our choices away because we need foods. They buy up the small business try to do the right ways and compete against the Big companiese and sell cheeper. The Big companies sell and buy from over-seas to keep from lower the prices and increase employers yet still getting rich. And they make us believe the reason for the bad economy is Obama's over spending plan. He is not over spending he is re-investing. Do not forget Big business and the wall street brought us in this mess. The American poors looks over eating isn't because we have eating too much but because we have no other food but unhealthy junks. For instance have you read "nutrition Fact" rately? there are nothing but sugar, carbo even in food led to believe the nutrition rich foods, honey, Tofu, Milk, green-tea and etcetera. They are selling chinese made goods not only WallMart but also in the 5thAvenue. When the business sell things cheep they kill small business and when they raise price up we'll have no choice but buying expensive necessities. And we'll have no choice but working for any wages. Both parents and kids start to workk for foods. All those against Obama are for monopoly, Kill the competitions like federal vs. private industries. They are not capitalists. They are not to willinng to compete in fare fight. If this is the "Class War" the Obama stood up to save us from monopoly.

  8. @anonymous One argument I hear and support is that taxes are the burden of the middle and working classes, while the wealthy pay a considerably lower percentage of taxes. This could be altered, but no one in Washington DC who reprrsents us (including President Obama) seems inclined to actually have an equitable tax burden.

    I am not sure who you mean when you say "WE".

    Let's not forget that behond "big" business are people, some of whom may well live where you do or me (though I s doubt that). Certainly some live here in NJ.

  9. @anonymous: While I agree with you that we need jobs, it's not unreasonable to think that government can spur growth through a "blue sky" vision, one that can initiate with government and spread rapidly through the private sector.

    Recently, as the space shuttle program ended, thousands were let go from NASA, and that was just the tip of the iceberg for job losses related to that change. Think how many would be put to work enabling, for example, a mission to Mars? (I'm not advocating that, by the way: it's just an example.)

    More importantly, for the last decade this country has been most "proud" of our wars, and that's just fundamentally wrong IMO. There's something to be said for national pride in a big way. Pride can yield unity, and unity can lead to a willingness to shared sacrifice. Our country has a proud history of such behavior. Imagine a country willing to share and sacrifice for a blue sky idea and you might find a country with less disparity between rich and poor as many bond around a common vision. At least, I'd like to think so.

    I would also take issue with your statement that being against Obama = being for monopoly. Not at all true. In fact, Obama has done nothing to change the legal environment for monopolies. He actually had a chance in the Affordable Care Act; he could have tried to revoke the insurance industry's anti-trust exemption but he chose not to fight that battle, so insurance companies are still legally permitted to collude.

    I'm against Obama for one simple reason: he's tremendously under-qualified for the job (though, now, with 3 years of OTJ training, he's a bit better.) We elected him for one reason: to make us feel better. He hasn't provided the leadership to make that happen.

  10. Mary Ann: Nice little conversation we've got going here. Maybe you can entice more people to join?


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