matt pearce.

matt pearce.

National reporter for the Los Angeles Times; essays, journalism and poetry previously for the L.A. Review of Books, The New Inquiry, The Missouri Review, Salon, and others.

I'm on Twitter.


[Photo from Oakland, by Noah Berger / Associated Press]

The occasion was this Natasha Lennard report in Salon that the Oakland Police Department had prevented arrested Occupy protestors from getting their HIV meds:

Salon has received three firsthand accounts, corroborated by reports from Occupy Oakland’s media team and the National Lawyers Guild, that ill and injured inmates were denied medication including anti-retroviral treatments for HIV-positive detainees.

“I am a person living with HIV and I was held for over 30 hours in Santa Rita and denied my prescription medications on multiple occasions by jail staff,” one 28-year-old arrestee told Salon via email, asking to remain anonymous as his family are currently unaware of his HIV status. “I know three others with HIV and many others with psychiatric prescriptions who were also held without being given their meds,” he added.

Carey Lamprecht of the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter and Occupy Legal collective confirmed that “two HIV positive individuals were held without access to medication for over two days at Santa Rita jail.” Lamprecht added that one man who usually takes anti-retroviral drugs every four to six hours went without a dose for over two days and was unable to access a legal counsel for more than a day while detained, as the large number of arrestees were constantly moved around the jail.

This prompted fellow New Inquiry contributor and all-purpose hellraiser Malcolm Harris to pose a question to Twitter that I challenged, and I thought the ensuing exchange was interesting enough to repost (mostly due to the fact that we barely agree on anything). Edited lightly to compensate for Twitter’s clunkiness; notes in brackets mine.

@destructuremal: Does anyone for a minute think if the roles were switched and occupiers had the police and guards in cells that they would be denied meds? Not a fucking minute, not even by the most anti-cop militant black blocker insurrectionary whatever the fuck.

@mattdpearce: I thought the Zimbardo experiment would have shown there’d be significant doubt as to the answer of that question.

@destructuremal: Re: Zimbardo objections: he details how to resist that interpellation, and it’s exactly what the occupiers are doing.

@mattdpearce: How?

@destructuremal: He wrote a whole handbook thing, the same things that make people able to disobey police orders make them able to not torture. [Malcolm shares "The Lucifer Effect," which I hadn’t seen.]

@mattdpearce: I’m reading a section on avoiding conformity; seems like all it would take are some charismatic leaders and peer pressure, thrown into ambiguous situations in which there are no preexisting norms, like activists imprisoning cops. I have doubts.

@destructuremal: Do you think there are no charismatic leaders of the occupations because there aren’t charismatic people out there?

@mattdpearce: No, that’s the problem; that’s exactly what I think and exactly what would be the risk.

@destructuremal: But for months people have stopped that from happening because they understand how that power works.

@mattdpearce: Typically so do most police re: meds, but that doesn’t stop it [i.e., neglect/abuse] from happening in isolated circumstances when shit gets crazy.

@destructuremal: You misunderstand what police are for and what they do. Typical of what Zimbardo and Milgram describe in conformity. Sry bro.

@mattdpearce: I covered cops for a year. I know exactly who they are and what they do.

@destructuremal: That’s what Milgram and Zimbardo show: ACAB. [All Cops Are Bastards, for the uninitiated.] It’s not about exceptional circumstances within being a cop, being a cop is an exceptional circumstance that makes you terrible.

@mattdpearce: Which is the point [i.e., of saying it’s not about cops being abusive but about being put in any position in which you can potentially inflict abuse]. If protestors detain cops, they become cops. Their ethos may be a deterrent, but it is not a vaccine.

@destructuremal: Thus the cop a good anarchist hates most is the one in her head. We don’t have that saying for nothing.

@mattdpearce: If only everyone were a good anarchist, a good cop, a good citizen, a good banker.

@destructuremal: That’s exactly wrong. We have way too many good cops, good citizens, and good bankers.

[Fellow journo Danny Gold of NYT/NY Post/The Awl decides to step in.]

@DGisSERIOUS: you guys are classifying cops like they’re a subspecies. becoming a cop (or a fireman) is the working class version of going to law school if you’re an upper middle class white college grad. It’s what you do if you don’t know what to do with yourself and don’t have a particular skill. sure, there are some powerhungry psychos but most are in it for the benefits, job security and pension.

@destructuremal: ACAB doesn’t mean anyone who becomes a cop is a bastard, it means being a cop makes you a bastard. Which is true. According to all the social science research, etc. My arresting officer on the bridge was real nice, told us “good work.” Next day I see pic of him spraying a kid in the face.

@mattdpearce: Malcolm and I aren’t arguing demographics but power; the disagreement is that I think protestors would become police.

@destructuremal: It is possible to talk about The Police and Cops without saying every single cop is the same.

@DGisSERIOUS: agreed. i misinterpreted.

@destructuremal: But when they cover their badges and become undifferentiated Cop we get to see what it means to be police.

@mattdpearce: I’d say the same about revolutionaries’ capacity for totalitarianism, which I got to see last week in Cuba.

@destructuremal: Your biggest fear about anarchists is what we’ll do with state power? Be a little more imaginative.

@DGisSERIOUS: uh oh. you two are just getting started right now. … I’m sure Mal has got like 50 tweets he wants to fire off now.

@destructuremal: Meh, not really. Just that when the revolution turns to the state, they usually kill all the people like me. While journalists watch and wring their hands. Historically, you see.

@mattdpearce: We also get tossed behind bars or shot in the streets for wringing our hands. I’m well aware of my lineage.

@destructuremal: No objections here on that. But which way would you rather go?

@mattdpearce: You can at least write stuff if you get tossed in prison, I guess. Though see "Before Night Falls" as to why this sucks.

And with that, the conversation ended, though Malcolm later passed along this Peter Frase article called "No Police Order," which he described as “much more palatable.”

The Revolution That Wasn’t

My latest on Egypt for thenewinquiry:

by Matt Pearce

“I am not a hero. I was only using the keyboard, Mona, on the internet, I never put my life in danger, the real heroes are the ones on the ground. … This revolution belonged to the internet youth, then the revolution belonged to the Egyptian youth, then the revolution belonged to all of Egypt. It has no hero, no one should steal its thunder, we are all heroes.”
-Wael Ghonim, Google executive and an architect of Egypt’s January 25 revolution; interview (in Arabic) on Dream TV, February 7, after release from imprisonment

November 20, 2011

They were doing it for dignity, they were doing it for Egypt, they did it for their sons and daughters and the wives they didn’t have yet, they did it for the hell of it, they did it because Fuck the Police, they did it just to do it in the street where everybody else was doing it: These mostly young men, wrapped in dark jackets and keffiyehs, breaking up sidewalks with poles and small boulders to create more ammunition to throw at the state security forces with frightening, insane confidence. They did it because it was now November and no longer January, they did it because they wanted their revolution back, they did it because they’d gotten used to doing it and had sworn they’d do it again.

They’d been throwing rocks since afternoon after setting a police truck afire and had gotten quite organized by the time I arrived at Tahrir Square after midnight. Self-appointed watchmen banged on the metal railings to warn where there was imminent danger, which seemed like it was almost everywhere, and volunteers lined up with vinegar and solution to purge the tear gas from stinging eyes and lungs as medical staff organized field hospitals to handle the wounded, whose numbers had already reached the hundreds. They’d seen this all before, after all. They were men of the square, there to fight and perhaps to die, and if they were to die, they already knew how they would go about it.

Read More


(from We Are The 99 Percent)

Right now, we’re at a weird moment where the Occupy Wall Street protests seem poised to become an honest-to-god political movement and will start to be treated as such. I’m a journalist, so I notice this mostly through how the media behaves. Coverage has slowly gotten less derisive and more thoughtful as the protests make that mystical move from Fringe-y to Legitimate, a process inevitably helped along when journalists start projecting their own views onto what a pretty messy movement is actually “about.” Case in point, Ezra Klein:

…this is why I’m taking Occupy Wall Street — or, perhaps more specifically, the ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ movement — seriously. There are a lot of people who are getting an unusually raw deal right now. There is a small group of people who are getting an unusually good deal right now. That doesn’t sound to me like a stable equilibrium.

The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy — work hard, play by the rules, get ahead — has been broken, and they want to see it restored.

Is this journalism? Or is this Ezra Klein telling protesters: “No, you’re not anarchists or socialists. You’re *actually* concerned about social contracts.” Blank canvas, meet moderate projection. But perhaps this is how movements are forged, with intellectual elites like Ezra Klein helping guide a social movement toward popular respectability.

The other day I tweeted that “Occupy Wall Street reminds me of the Tea Party: A band of people unified by outrage and not much else.” It’s informative here to look back at how the Tea Party also began: Fringe-y, disorganized, hard to pin down, derided. Sound familiar? The Economist’s Matt Steinglass has a word of caution to the Occupy doubters by recalling the Tea Party’s rise:

The invocation of a new Tea Party seemed like a slogan pitched to eighth graders working through the American history year in their junior-high curriculum. And, as tea-party rhetoric caught on and spread around the country, many of the things said and done under its rubric were…well, not very intelligent or attractive. People with very limited or idiosyncratic fringe understandings of the financial system were making passionate pitches to abolish the Federal Reserve. It seemed hard to imagine how those people could find common cause with the Wall Street traders who initially cheered Mr Santelli. And that’s not even taking into account the birthers, or the get-your-government-hands-off-my-Medicare folks. How could these people seriously hope to get anything accomplished?

As it turns out, they did. You don’t necessarily know, at the beginning of a movement that generates a lot of spontaneous grassroots energy, which direction it’s going to go, who’s going to get involved, or what its lasting effects will be. The various tea-party organisations have pulled plenty of silly stunts over the past two years, but they have also shifted the right wing of Congress dramatically to the right, virtually paralysing the country’s legislature. Whatever ineffectual and indeed offensive, anti-intellectual nuttiness the tea-party movement embraced, it also effectively focused the political attention of dissatisfied conservatives on the spectre of government action, creating a space where all sorts of different actors could intervene and grow.

It’s obviously way too early to declare Occupy Wall Street as the blue-hued reincarnation of the Tea Party. But legitimacy is slowly arriving. Some unions are starting to throw their memberships behind the cause, as well as two Democratic U.S. representatives who have now lent their imprimatur while party leadership hangs back to get a better read on the ball. As Dave Weigel notes, “It’s tempting to compare this to the Tea Party, which a few Republicans (Bachmann, Gohmert, Gingrich) embraced right away, as leading Republican candidates hedged on whether to attach their names to it.”

Like Steinglass, I don’t really consider myself to be some kind of social-movement wizard who could say whether Occupy Wall Street will turn into anything — or whether Obama will yoke it for his re-election chances, or whether it will instead yank him to the left. But unless you’re heartless, you can’t read ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ tumblr and not be a little moved. (My bias: My generation, when it comes to the need for a degree and the ensuing unemployment/student debt, seems to have been tricked into a playing game it can’t win.) What are the solutions? I have no idea. And I’m not sure a lot of other people know the answer either. But I’m guessing most meaningful movements begin with people asking questions very loudly.