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Law and Orders #3: John Gardner of the Utah Highway Patrol tasers Jared Massey in front of his family for questioning why he was pulled over

Update 2007-11-29: Some of the quotes from commenters were re-ordered to correct for a misplaced copy-and-paste.

Cops in America are heavily armed and trained to be bullies. They routinely force their way into situations they have no business being in, use violence first and ask questions later, and pass off even the most egregious forms of violence against harmless or helpless people as self-defense or as the necessary means to accomplish a completely unnecessary goal. In order to stay in control of the situation, they have no trouble electrifying small children, alleged salad-bar thieves, pregnant women possibly guilty of a minor traffic violation, or an already prone and helpless student who may have been guilty of using the computer lab without proper papers on hand. They are willing to pepper spray lawyers for asking inconvenient questions and to beat up teenaged girls for not cleaning up enough birthday cake or being out too late at night. It hardly matters if you are an 82 year old woman supposedly benefiting from a care check, or if you are sound asleep in your own home, or if you are unable to move due to a medical condition, or if the cops attack you within 25 seconds of entering the room, while you are standing quietly against the wall with your arms at your sides. It hardly even matters if you die. What a cop can always count on is that, no matter how senselessly he escalates the use of violence and no matter how obviously innocent or helpless his victims are, he can count on his buddies to clap him on the back and he can count on his bosses to repeat any lie and make any excuse in order to find that Official Procedures were followed. As long as Official Procedures were followed, of course, any form of brutality or violence is therefore passed off as OK by the mainstream media, while a chorus of sado-fascist bully boys in the newspapers, talk shows, and the Internet will smear the victim and howl for the obliteration of any notion of restraints on the use of force in securing compliance with police demands. Then they will sanctimoniously explain how cops need to be able to shove you around and then beat and torture you with impunity so that they can protect you. Whether or we ever wanted or asked for their protection in the first place.

One increasingly popular means for out-of-control cops to force you to follow their bellowed orders is by using high-voltage electric shocks in order to inflict pain. Now, in fact, tasers were originally introduced for police use as an alternative to using lethal force; the hope was that, in many situations where cops might otherwise feel forced to go for their guns, they might be able to use the taser instead, to immobilize a person who posed a threat to them or to others, without killing anybody in the process. But in practice, police culture being what it is, any notion of limiting tasers to those situations very quickly went out the window. Cops armed with tasers now freely use them to end arguments by intimidation or actual violence, to coerce people who pose no real threat to anyone into complying with their instructions, and to hurt uppity civilians who dare to give them lip. They often do so even when the supposed offense that they’re responding to is completely trivial; they often start tasering, or keep on tasering, after their victims have already been rendered helpless by the circumstances or by an earlier use of force. Among civilized people, deliberately inflicting severe pain in order to extort compliance from your victim is called torture; among cops it is called pain compliance and is considered business as usual. So shock-happy Peace Officers can now go around using their tasers as 50,000-volt human prods in just about any situation, with more or less complete impunity. In those rare cases where media criticism, mass riots, or a lawsuit does force some minimal accountability on the police force, the handful of low-level officers who face punishment are portrayed as bad apples and the whole thing is written off as yet another isolated incident.

Last week, the latest isolated incident came to light thanks to a pending lawsuit and a dash camera video posted on YouTube. John Gardner, who works for the Utah Highway Patrol, pulled over Jared Massey on U.S. highway 40. Here is what happened:

The nearly 10-minute video clip, which has drawn nothing but negative comments toward the trooper on YouTube, shows Gardner approaching Massey’s SUV and asking for his driver’s license and registration. Massey asks how fast he was going, which prompts Gardner to repeat his request.

I need your driver’s license and registration ?? right now, the trooper says.

Massey continues to question Gardner about the posted speed limit and how fast he was going but hands over his papers. The trooper walks back to his car.

Gardner returns to the SUV and tells Massey he’s being cited for speeding. On the video, Massey can be heard refusing to sign the ticket and demanding that the trooper take him back and show him the 40 mph speed limit sign.

What you’re going to do ?? if you’re giving me a ticket ?? in the first place, you’re going to tell me why … Massey says.

For speeding, the trooper interjects.

… and second of all we’re going to go look for that 40 mph sign, Massey says.

Well you’re going to sign this first, Gardner says.

No I am not. I’m not signing anything. Massey says.

Gardner tells Massey to hop out of the car, then walks back to the hood of his patrol car, setting down his ticket book. Massey is close behind the trooper pointing toward the 40 mph speed limit sign he’d passed just before being pulled over.

Turn around. Put your hands behind your back, Gardner says. He repeats the command a second time as he draws his Taser and takes a step back.

The trooper points the Taser at Massey who stares incredulously at him.

What the hell is wrong with you? Massey asks.

Gardner repeats the command to turn around two more times as Massey, with part of his right hand in his pants pocket, starts to walk back toward his SUV.

What the heck’s wrong with you? Massey can be heard asking as Gardner fires his Taser into Massey’s back. Immobilized by the weapon’s 50,000 volts, Massey falls backward, striking his head on the highway. The impact caused a cut on Massey’s scalp.

— Geoff Liesik, Deseret Morning News (2007-11-21): Trooper’s Taser use pops up on YouTube

The newspaper account omits that at this point Massey is screaming in pain. While the cop kneels and handcuffs him, he gives Massey a lecture about how he should’ve followed my instructions.

Massey’s wife Lauren, who was seven months pregnant at the time, gets out of the SUV screaming and is ordered to get back in the vehicle or risk being arrested. Gardner handcuffs Massey and leaves him on the side of the highway while he goes to talk to Massey’s wife.

He’s fine. I Tasered him because he did not follow my instructions, Gardner explains to the audibly upset woman.

You had no right to do that! she responds. You had no right to do that!

While Gardner is still talking to Lauren Massey, her husband gets to his feet and approaches the trooper from behind. Gardner takes the handcuffed man back toward his patrol car and again orders Lauren Massey to stay in her vehicle or risk being arrested.

Officer you’re a little bit excited. You need to calm yourself down, Jared Massey tells Gardner before being put into the trooper’s patrol car where he continues to demand an explanation for his arrest.

— Geoff Liesik, Deseret Morning News (2007-11-21): Trooper’s Taser use pops up on YouTube

Gardner’s response was to sanctimoniously tell Massey, who never made any threatening motion, and who hardly even raised his voice until a weapon was pointed at him, that No, you’re a little excited, because you weren’t following my instructions. As he marches Massey to the police car, and informs him that he’s going to jail, Massey demands to be read his rights. The officer’s response is to threaten Massey with another shock from the taser. Please note that, at this point, Massey is already handcuffed and has done nothing other than talk back.

The video concludes with a demonstration of the cavalier buddy-buddy culture of policing:

When a backup officer arrives on the scene and asks Gardner what happened he tells them Massey took a ride with the Taser.

Oh, how was it? the unidentified officer asks.

Painful, isn’t it? Gardner responds.

— Geoff Liesik, Deseret Morning News (2007-11-21): Trooper’s Taser use pops up on YouTube

After they’ve finished jeering at their handcuffed victim, the other cop asks what happened, Gardner tells some plain lies about the sequence of events, and gets a clap on the back for his efforts. Meanwhile, the bellowing blowhard brigade chimes in in the reader comments:

This reminds me of what is wrong with America, and what, if not rectified will be the recipe for our demise. Respect. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, I was taught to respect authority. That meant my elders, law-enforcement, teachers, whatever. Kids now have this sense of entitlement that is unmatched anywhere else on this Earth. They think that if they make a mistake they can just hit the ‘reset’ button like on their video game and start over. Well, life is not like that. There was once what is called the Greatest Generation. This is not it. What we have is the Worst Generation. No wonder other countries hate us. We are gluttons in every thing we do. This sniveling little brat needs the full measure of the law brought against him and that trooper needs a pat on the back for doing his job. I’m still dumbstruck by this. To have it called into question like the officer was in the wrong. WAKE UP MORONS! It’s not the teacher, the officer, the bus driver, or etc. IT’S YOUR KID.

Erick, 12:44 a.m., 21 November 2007

Accept to sign the paper … Than between a trooper and a driver could be argue, misunderstand, etc. Next step to see a judge to have speeding charge or dismiss the ticket, which the judge, the driver and the trooper have neutral and work together. The trooper has a reason is protect himselif when the driver was too close to him. (the school or the trooper training trained him the rules).

–Anonymous, 6:17 a.m., 21 November 2007

Those officers out in the desert put their lives on the line every day. They don’t know when stopping someone if they are a housewife or a murderer. If an officer places you under arrest you don’t turn around and walk away. The guy was way out of line. Sign the ticket and fight it in court.

not right, 8:28 a.m., 21 November 2007

I think releasing the video is Massey’s way of testing the waters for his lawsuit. But as he should see, he’s not getting everyone on his side. He started the who incident by his disobedience to an officer. He left the officer no choice, and a jury will see that.

Testing the waters, 9:04 a.m., 21 November 2007

As for some requirement to show him the sign I have never heard of anything of the sort. The kid kept ranting about his rights. Funny. Too much tv for him

Relax, 9:44 a.m., 21 November 2007

Please also note that attempting to ask a police officer a question constitutes resisting police, and that a 50,000-volt electric shock is just a natural consequence of the resistance. Cops certainly haven’t any discretion in whether or not to escalate the use of force:

It amazes me that people think that they can resist police and expect to not suffer the consequences. The man was willfully disobeying a lawful command from an officer, and got tasered for it. Why should anyone be surprised? If it were otherwise, everyone would be non-compliant towards officers. If the guy felt that he was being ticketed erroneously, he should have fought his battle in the courtroom, not on the street.

Jim, 7:42 a.m., 21 November 2007

Note that Gardner never, at any point in the video, claimed that anything that Massey did in the encounter was threatening or that he felt he had to defend himself. He explicitly stated, over and over again, to Jared Massey, to his wife, and to a fellow cop, not that the reason for his actions was self-defense, but that it was to coerce compliance. Gardner also never told Massey that he was under arrest until after knocking Massey to the ground with his taser. However, cop enablers are not about to let the mere evidence of their senses get in the way of fabricating excuses for police violence:

Everyone knows you can’t approach a cop from behind, especailly after you have refused to sign the ticket (which you have to do). Then you walk away when he tells you 4 times to put his hands behind his head. The taser wasn’t called for, and then the reason why he was getting pulled over was shady for sure. And the cop started to lie to the other officer in the video about what happended. Both in the wrong, but the kid posed a clear threat by walking behing the officer (twice in fact). STUPID!!!

Both are in wrong!!, 7:32 a.m., 21 November 2007

From the video I saw, the guy deserved it. He was ignoring orders, started to walk back to his car and started to put his right hand in his pocket. I can see why the officer wanted to end his refusal to obey right then. It’s easy to see that the officer might have been concerned that the guy was going to reach for a gun, or go get one from his car, or just get in his car and take off. Had the driver obeyed, there would have been no need for the Taser. But, looks to me like he asked for it. No sympathy from me.

Deserved it, 8:41 a.m., 21 November 2007

It is pretty apparent from the you tube video that the gentleman that was tasered was not cooperative with the officer. While he had a right to ask the questions he asked, he has a responsibility to follow the directions given him by police. I stand by the officer; when someone chooses to act the way this gentleman did, and place an officer in a situation where he may feel at risk, that person has to accept the consequences for his actions.

Derek, 9:19 a.m., 21 November 2007

Third, you start walking away from a cop that is telling you that you’re under arrest, expect something bad to happen.

l, 10:11 a.m., 21 November 2007

I think the officer was well within his rights to protect himself. When a command is given, you obey it? If you don’t then it is considered not compliance, then you fry them.

Funny, 12:58 p.m., 21 November 2007

Meanwhile, an anonymous contemptuous thug asks:

OK all you couch-Cops, once the guy refused the cop’s orders and was walking back to his car, clearly to drive away, what do you think the cop should have done? Some how, some way, he had to keep the driver from doing that. Had he not, how do we know there wouldn’t have been a much more dangerous high-speed chase. It’s clear the guy wasn’t going to sign the ticket, and when you don’t do that, cops are instructed to arrest. The solution wasn’t to let the guy go free just because he disagreed. The driver caused this confrontation.

Better suggestion, 9:00 a.m., 21 November 2007

Even if it were clear, which it certainly is not, that Massey intended to drive away, the notion that the cop Some how, some way … had to keep the driver from doing that is completely preposterous. If he just drove off, then the cop can bloody well look up his license plate number and mail him the ticket. But the notion of letting a Bad Guy temporarily get away with a minor speeding infraction is so repugnant to the nature of both cops and their sycophants that no solution other than a 50,000-volt shock on the side of the road even comes to mind.

Meanwhile, while many commenters show a healthy outrage at Gardner’s obviously abusive behavior, most of them seem to feel compelled to pepper their statements with cavils about how Massey could have acted better, or about how I support police officers, I have sympathy for the difficult situations policemen face, both people behaved badly, The public should be respectful of law enforcement as a matter of principle, etc. etc. etc. Most of those who suggest a concrete penalty for Gardner suggest that he should be reprimanded, or re-trained, or reassigned to a desk job, or temporarily suspended, or perhaps even fired. To hell with that. The behavior of both Gardner and his fellow cops, based on the contents of the video and the laggard pace of the investigation, is despicable. Gardner should be indicted and prosecuted for assault and battery, and he should be forced to personally pay compensation for Massey’s pain and suffering.

If you??re baffled that cops could feel free to indulge in this kind of outrage, and that numerous fellow cops, prosecutors, and freelance bullies would rush to defend it, while even the opponents make only timid and isolated efforts at mild criticism, it may help to remember that in most of America, there is no such thing as a civil police force anymore. What we have instead would be better described as elite paramilitary cadres, often referred to as Troopers and organized into a chain of command with military ranks, who are occupying what they regard as hostile territory. Here as elsewhere, the occupation forces are going to serve and protect us, whether we want them to or not, and if we don??t like it then they??ve got more than enough firepower to make sure they can protect the hell out of us all anyway.

The Progressivism of Fools

But I repeat myself.

Last month The Nation had an excellent and infuriating article on the paramilitary assaults and round-ups staged by La Migra at a chain of meat-packing plants across the country.

Working on the meatpacking floor can be a grueling, monotonous, dangerous routine, making thousands of the same cuts or swipes every day, and annual injury and illness rates might run 25 percent or more, but a union job with a wage of $12-$13 an hour, enough to support a family, seems worth the pain and risk.

At least until December 12, the holiday celebrating the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. What materialized in front of the Swift gates that morning was more like a vision of hell. Shortly after 7 am a half-dozen buses rolled up with a small fleet of government vans, which unloaded dozens of heavily armed federal agents backed by riot-clad local police. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents sealed off all entrances and exits and formed a perimeter around the factory. Then others barged inside and started rounding up the whole workforce.

Some of the frightened workers jumped into cattle pens; others hid behind machinery or in closets. Those who tried to run were wrestled to the ground. Sworn statements by some workers allege that the ICE agents used chemical sprays to subdue those who didn’t understand the orders barked at them in English. The plant’s entire workforce was herded into the cafeteria and separated into two groups: those who claimed to be US citizens or legal residents and those who didn’t.

While the Greeley plant was being locked down, more than 1,000 ICE agents simultaneously raided five other Swift factories in Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Utah and Minnesota. By the end of the day, nearly 1,300 immigrant workers had been taken into custody–about 265 of them from Greeley. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff boasted that the combined raids amounted to the largest workplace enforcement action in history. ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers would later claim that Operation Wagon Train, as the raids were dubbed, dealt a major blow in the war against illegal immigration.

What nobody, including ICE, can answer is why, if the real targets were those people with stolen Social Security numbers, federal officials didn’t go quietly into the Swift factories and, armed with warrants, simply arrest the suspects. Why the brash paramilitary operation? …

… The aggressiveness of the arrests and what followed have startled many. I was amazed by the force used, by the heavy armament, says Democratic State Representative James Riesberg. Amazed that so many didn’t have the bond hearings they were owed, that so many were held without their location disclosed.

When news of the raids broke, Rodriquez entered the plant but ICE officials prohibited him from getting personal information from the workers to pass on to their families. ICE treated the workers like animals, he says. Didn’t let people eat or drink anything. Didn’t let them go to the bathroom. Wouldn’t let workers use phones to make arrangements for kids in school or at home. He adds, This was something you think you might see on TV, but never did I imagine I would actually live through it.

The Greeley Latino community, about 35 percent of the population, was not totally unprepared for the disaster. Political events of the previous year had spurred community organization and generated vibrant new leadership. As word of the raid flashed on local Spanish-language radio, hundreds of worried family members and protesters converged on the factory gates. Local police mobilized to keep the crowd at bay as their loved ones were handcuffed and loaded by ICE into waiting buses. The militarized sweep hit the community like a hurricane, says 33-year-old Sylvia Martinez, one of Greeley’s most prominent new Latino activists. It’s frightening to see the power that the federal government has to blow through here and leave a shambles, she says as we eat lunch at one of the town’s many Mexican restaurants. This has been our Katrina, a man-made Katrina. There’s no information, no accountability.

Marc Cooper, The Nation (2007-02-15): Lockdown in Greeley

And what, you might ask, can we find in the Letters section of the most recent issue (dated April 2, 2007), in response to the obvious injustice of this large-scale assault peaceful and productive workers, followed by shipping them off to holding pens en masse and holding them incommunicado without due process, solely on the basis of their nationality? A protest of the government’s practice of international apartheid, and the assault on immigrant workers by which that practice is enforced? Solidarity with the courageous stands against power taken by the union local and the families of the disappeared?

In a couple of letters, sure. In the numerical majority of letters, no. What we have instead is a gang of comfortable Progressives whose only thought is to escalate efforts to jail immigrant workers and/or those who offer them work. Here’s a sample:

The game until now has been an elaborate choreography among the employers who need the immigrant workers, the immigrants who want these jobs, the communities who need them, the cattlemen who depend on them and the government whose basic motto has been: Don’t ask, don’t tell, says an immigrant advocate. The employers don’t need the immigrant workers. The corporations profit from paying coolie wages [sic!] to the illegals. The communities certainly don’t need them. Many communities are hard-pressed to deal with the exploding immigrant population. The cattlemen depend on the immigrants the same way the corporations do. The cheap labor is a source to be exploited. Product prices would increase if corporations were forced to pay fair wages to US citizens to perform unsavory or labor-intensive jobs. I, for one, would gladly pay more for products made in this country, by citizen labor.

Philip Ratcliffe

Philip Ratcliffe is, of course, perfectly free right now to find sellers who will certify nativist hiring standards and to pay them more for their products. But he has no business trying to force that policy on the rest of the consumers in the country–let alone to force it on immigrant workers who have done nothing worse than do work for willing employers and customers. It’s also interesting to note the explicit effort to pry the nativist rhetoric of coolie wages out of Sam Gompers’ cold, dead hands and dust it off for re-use by early 21st century Progressives. (Also the revival of the rhetorical tactic of labeling entire ethnic groups of workers as coolie labor, even when the workers you’re proposing to exile from the country are in fact unionized and being paid a living wage). But anyway, in case the racism wasn’t explicit enough for you, though, there is always this one:

Re: Lockdown in Greeley, How Immigration Raids Terrorized a Colorado Town by Marc Cooper [Feb. 26]. Why is The Nation so intent on jamming Latino illegal aliens down the throats of their readers and ignoring the other side of the story? I don’t know anyone who is not in favor of sending these people back home and cracking down on corporate America for hiring them. They are costing taxpayers a fortune while enriching corporate America, and they are changing the fabric of American culture. America is importing poverty, something we have plenty of already, since the Republicans and corporations have been running the country. Immigration needs to be controlled, and we need a balance of people coming in from different countries. There are too many Hispanics and Latinos in the country, and they shouldn’t be rewarded for breaking the law.

Jeanne Picard

Well, then.

Immigrant workers are indeed among the most downtrodden and exploited workers in the country. But that’s not because there is anything wrong with moving from one place to another in order to find work. That’s something that working folks have done throughout all known history, and for very good reasons. It’s precisely because the know-nothing blowhard brigade has criminalized their existence and put them constantly at risk of being jailed or shot. Among the worst of the lot, because they are the most insidious, are those who propose walling off labor at national borders in the name of labor solidarity, and attempted to tie nativist policy in with pseudo-populist economics. But of course international apartheid does nothing to benefit workers as a whole; at the most, it only benefits the most privileged working folks–the American-born workers and those who had the resources or the good luck to secure a visa–at the expense of all those other working folks — dehumanized into an anonymous mass of poverty by the nativist rhetoric — stuck on the wrong side of the wall. Those who consider native-born American workers more important or more deserving of an opportunity to work without being shot or jailed, just for having been born here, would do well to shut the hell up about the working class and just admit that they are not Leftists but rather belligerent nationalists. The rest of us would do well to dissociate ourselves, as completely as possible, from the crypto-racism and occasionally overt racism of this unwelcome Progressive-era legacy.

Further reading:

Well, thank God #5

I’ve been meaning to take note of the Directors’ Guild’s recent triumph over insurgent customers for a few days now:

A federal judge has issued final cut to studios, ruling that companies that snip out potentially offending material from movies for home viewing violate copyright laws.

Businesses that edit sex, profanity and violence out of DVD and VHS copies in an appeal to some viewers’ tastes are illegitimate, said Richard P. Matsch of U.S. District Court in Denver.

Four companies that do so must stop and turn over their copies of expurgated films to Hollywood’s major studios.

Audiences can now be assured that the films they buy or rent are the vision of the filmmakers who made them and not the arbitrary choices of a third-party editor, Directors Guild of America President Michael Apted said in a statement.

The studios and several prominent directors — including Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh — have been fighting movie sanitizers in court since 2002, saying that retailers such as CleanFlicks had no right to copy and distribute their own versions.

Retailers asserted that their cleaned-up copies made fair use of the movies under copyright law and that they bought one copy of the original for each modified version they rented or sold. That ensured more sales and exposure than such movies would have received had they not been edited to be more wholesome, the retailers argued.

We’re disappointed, CleanFlicks Chief Executive Ray Lines said. This is a typical case of David versus Goliath, but in this case, Hollywood rewrote the ending. We’re going to continue to fight.

As many as 90 video stores nationwide — about half of them in Utah, where CleanFlicks is based — purchase movies from his company, Lines said.

The owner of the four CleanFlicks shops in Utah County, Daniel Thompson, told the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City: I think it’s ridiculous that you can’t watch a movie without seeing sex, nudity or extreme violence. I don’t understand why they’re trying to keep that in there.

The dispute is about artistic integrity, said Apted, who directed Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Directors put their skill, craft and often years of hard work into the creation of a film, he said in the statement. So we have great passion about protecting our work, which is our signature and brand identification, against unauthorized editing.

— Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times (2006-07-10): Sanitizers of Home Video Lose in Court

My God, it’s a good thing we have the federal courts there to stand athwart our DVD players shouting No! If the judicial branch of the government weren’t there to keep customers from going around watching films any old way they want–if the federal judiciary weren’t there to force Mormon families to look at boobies and guns the way the Directors’ Guild authorized them to do–then who would? It’d be mere anarchy!

The latest technological weapons may have been taken out of the hands of viewers, but it is still a dangerous world for artistes. Viewers will find all kinds of improvised devices for skipping over sex and violence. Perhaps with faith and perserverance the Directors’ Guild can convince the courts to further protect their artistic vision, by having all the fast-forward buttons in America stuck in place with super-glue.

(Hat tip to Tom Woods at the LRC Blog.)

Anarquistas por La Causa

Today, 31 March 2005, is César Chávez Day–the 78th anniversary of Chávez’s birth near Yuma, Arizona, and a state holiday (I’m told it’s officially celebrated in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Michigan) commemorating his lifelong work as an union organizer, agitator, and Chicano activist in the Southwestern United States. Chávez, together with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the ground-breaking United Farm Workers, and organized and inspired a generation of organized labor and Chicano community activists. Hugo Schwyzer has some more thoughts on Chávez’s legacy today; and of course you can find plenty to read from the United Farm Workers’ website.

As far as commemorating Chávez goes, they’ve said it better than I could. I’ll be commemorating the day by talking some more about libertarianism, organized labor, and the struggle of farmworkers in southern Florida–the workers organized by Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Taco Bell Boycott they launched and, just a few days ago, won–a campaign that was directly inspired by the UFW grape boycott that Chávez helped craft and win, and a campaign that was thrilled to receive the UFW’s endorsement in August 2001.

A few days ago, I prodded Daniel D’Amico in this space and in commentary on his blog over his criticisms of the Taco Bell boycott. He’s since come back with a reply to my prodding and to some similar concerns raised by other commentators. And since we have a nice convergence between the date and a question that might be of some interest–that is, libertarianism and labor, and the compatibility of principled anti-statism and a fighting labor movement–I figured that now is as good a time as any to offer a response to the response.

Before we begin, though, let’s hop onto a long tangent about terminology. Daniel leads off his argument by saying:

The Austrian school and libertarianism alike are against government control of market transactions, but the CIW appears to be refraining from such tactics, so what’s my problem anyway? Simply put I believe, there are more ways to be anti-capitalist than just using government. Mainly promoting ideas that capitalism is evil or claiming it resorts to rampant market failure are, in my view, anti-capitalist.

Some of Daniel’s other commentators had asked him what he thought made the boycott anti-capitalist, but I didn’t and I’m not going to. I don’t have any strong opinions on whether or not the Taco Bell boycott is anti-capitalist because I haven’t got any strong opinions about what capitalism (or, a fortiori, anti-capitalism) means. It seems to me that has been used to describe at least three different things, two of which are mutually exclusive and one of which is independent of those two. These are:

  1. The free market: capitalism has been used, mostly (but not exclusively) by its defenders to just mean a free market, i.e., an economic order that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion).

  2. The corporate State: capitalism has also been used, sometimes by its opponents and sometimes by the beneficiaries of the system, to mean a corporate State–that is, active government support for big businesses through instruments such as subsidies, central banking, tax-funded infrastructure, development grants and loans, special tax exemptions, funding plants, acquiring land through eminent domain, government union-busting, and so on down the line. Since government intervention is always, by nature, either services funded by expropriated tax dollars or regulations enforced from the barrel of a gun, it’s worth noting that being capitalist in the sense of a free marketeer requires being anti-capitalist in the sense of opposing the corporate State, and vice versa. The fact that state socialists and the anti-communist Right have spent the past century systematically running these two distinct senses of capitalism together (in order to make it seem that you had to swallow the corporate State if you believed in the free market–which the Marxists used for a modus tollens and the Rightists used for a modus ponens) doesn’t make these two any less distinct, or any less antagonistic.

  3. Boss-directed labor: third, capitalism has been used (by for example, Marxians and socialists who are careful about their use of language) to refer to a specific form of labor market–that is, one where the dominant form of economic activity is the production of goods in workplaces that are strictly divided by class. Under capitalism in the third sense, most workers are working for a boss, in return for a wage; they are renting out their labor to someone else, in order to survive, and it is the boss and not the workers who holds the title to the business, the shop, and the tools and facilities that make the business run. (Or, as the Marxists would have it, the means of production.) It’s worth noting that capitalism in this third sense is a category independent of capitalism in either of the first two senses: there are lots of different ways that a free labor market could turn out (it could be organized in traditional employer-employee relationships, or into worker co-ops, or into community workers’ councils, or into a diffuse network of shopkeeps and independent contractors) and someone who is an unflinching free marketeer might plump for any of these, or might be completely indifferent as to which one wins out; whereas an interventionist statist might also favor traditional employer-employee relationships (as in Fascism) or any number of different arrangements (as in various forms of state socialism).

With these distinctions on the table, it’s worth pointing out that many 19th century libertarians–Benjamin Tucker chief among them–who considered themselves both radical free marketeers and radical critics of capitalism; what they meant was that they attacked capitalism in senses (2) and (3)–holding that state intervention on behalf of big business was unjust and at the root of most social evils, including the exploitation and impoverishment of workers which they identified as being part and parcel of capitalism in the third sense. (They also believed that exploitative and impoverishing practices would collapse in a free market; although many of the practices of landlords, bankers, bosses, etc. were not coercive in themselves, Tucker and his circle argued, they were evils that workers would not put up with if it weren’t for a background of systemic coercion and restriction of competition. So they were worth railing against, even if they were not themselves forms of aggression.)

I point all this out because I don’t think there’s actually anything about being a libertarian, or an Austrian about economics, that requires you to plump for capitalism in the second or third senses. Both Austrian economics and libertarian theories of justice require you to be a free marketeer, of course, but whether that makes you capitalist, anti-capitalist, or just doesn’t decide the matter one way or another depends on how you pin down the term capitalism. Part of my worry is that the way that statists have jammed together three completely different concepts under the chimerical term capitalism has tended to blind libertarians, in the 20th century, to some of the insights that their forbearers in the 19th century had. The idea is usually that if something is anti-capitalist, it is therefore anti-libertarian. But that only follows if it’s anti-capitalist in the sense of wanting to use violence to intervene in the free market. My worry is that Daniel has probably got a good argument for showing that CIW’s actions are anti-capitalist in senses two and three, and mistakenly figured that undermining capitalism in those senses tends to undermine capitalism in the first sense, and therefore destructive. In order to try to avoid confusion on the matter, I’m going to be sticking to the term free market when I talk about what Austro-libertarians are committed to defending.

With that out of the way, let’s look at what Daniel objects to in the rhetoric of the Taco Bell boycott and its supporters. Here’s one objection:

Simply put I believe, there are more ways to be anti-capitalist than just using government. Mainly promoting ideas that capitalism is evil or claiming it resorts to rampant market failure are, in my view, anti-capitalist.

There are two things that this might mean.

  1. It might mean that you can undermine capitalism in the sense of the bosses’ labor market without going for government intervention. That’s certainly true, but it’s not yet clear that this is a vice. If you think (as I do) that there are serious economic problems with the sort of bureaucratic, boss-controlled, centralized, top-down corporate commerce that rose to dominance in the 20th century, then undermining that–by pointing out, for example, that it typically involves crippling knowledge problems, fosters a culture of petulant entitlement among the decision-makers, exploits the workers and systematically shuts them out of important channels for autonomous and rewarding labor, and so on–then undermining capitalism in that sense can only be counted as a good thing. If you also think that the cultural and material conditions created by boss-directed labor profits from and tends to promote the growth of corporate statism that expropriates wealth in order to support the bosses, then that gives you even stronger libertarian reasons to support anti-capitalist agitation in this sense. And indeed there are good reasons for Austrians and their fellow-travelers to think these charges against boss-centric are solid–the knowledge problems that Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard pointed out in central planning also apply when that central planning is done by bureaucratic corporations; the potential of free market competition ameliorates the problem but doesn’t eliminate it, and if decisions are being made on the margin in a market that is already dominated by centralized interlocking bureau-corps, which are supported not only by their existing market share but also by a network of cultural attitudes towards work and jobs, it looks like it is going to be a long, hard struggle to undermine those structures and make the threat of serious competition into a practicable reality. The sort of long, hard struggle, in fact, that groups like the CIW are, at their best, engaged in.

  2. On the other hand, this might mean that there are ways to undermine the free market other than calling down the government. That’s true, I guess, but it’s unclear that the things Daniel cites are examples of it. It’s true that spreading economic fallacies is dangerous, and undermines people’s willingness to stand up for economic freedom even if the person spreading the fallacies isn’t personally calling for government intervention. But whether saying capitalism is evil or that capitalism involves frequent and systemic market failures does that or not depends on whether the critic is using capitalism in the first sense, the second sense, the third sense, or an unstable congerie of different senses. If it’s in the first sense, then clearly it involves an economic fallacies–liberty as such is always an economic (and moral) good, and the Austrians have shown that, while the utopia of neo-classical equilibrium is just that–utopian nonsense–liberty doesn’t create systemic market failures, but rather creates the opportunities and incentives to overcome them. But if capitalism is being used in the sense of the corporate State, then both the condemnation and the accusation of systemic market failure are obviously right. If it’s being used in the sense of boss-directed labor, then the charges involve economic fallacies and undermine the free market only if you think that boss-directed labor is a necessary condition for a free market (which it obviously isn’t), or a necessary condition for a flourishing free market (which is a premise that has not yet been convincingly argued). In fact, I’d say that the history of big business support for stifling Progressive regulation–cf., for example, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism–the economic record of big corporations over the past century, and the considerations about bureaucratic planning that I mentioned above are all very good reasons for saying that the link doesn’t exist, that if anything boss-directed labor is corrosive to the free market, and that if it takes a fighting union to weaken or supplant it, then that’s as good an argument as any for vibrant, agitating, government-free union organizing.

    Now, it’s true that most labor organizers and labor activists today are hardly consistent libertarians, and it’s likely that their rhetoric is going to jostle back and forth between different meanings as they go along just as much as when anyone else uses the terms. But that’s not a reason to issue a blanket criticism of the action as anti-market; it’s a reason to call for a clarification of the argument, and an attempt to grasp the dominant principle in the particular case–as stated in their talk and as manifest in their actions. Coming back to the CIW and their supporters specifically, it would be a lot easier to convict them of being swayed mainly by anti-market maxims if they were, for example, a State-protected union, or if they were calling for State action against Taco Bell or its contractors, or if they were proposing that the free market in farm work is the problem, rather than the practices of specific farm employers. But they aren’t; they are making a point specifically about the common labor practices of farm employers in southern Florida, as far as I know aren’t attributing their evils to the free market (maybe their supporters in JVC were making this claim; I don’t know), and they did a lot of really quite fascinating and groundbreaking work in doing labor organizing and achieving goals without the suffocating help of the federal labor bureaucracy. All of these facts are well worth noting when we try to piece out what we should think of as the dominant trends in CIW’s campaign.

The other strand of Daniel’s objection I find a lot more puzzling: he objects that their means (boycotting) are not efficient in obtaining their ends (higher real wages and living conditions for the Immokalee workers), that this is so because the boycott strategy ignores the effects that a drop in demand for tacos will have on wages related to the production of tacos, and so that alternative means would be more effective at obtaining the ends of higher wages and living conditions for the Immokalee workers.

It seems to me that the question of obtaining the end has already been settled now that the boycott has been won. Taco Bell established a pass-through program, the workers will be getting more money, and whatever effects the slow-down in Taco Bell sales might have had on the workers have now ended with the boycott. Workers will be getting about $100 more or so per year, and the amount will increase if CIW can leverage their success in the Taco Bell campaign to convince other companies to adopt a similar policy. So I’m especially puzzled by Daniel’s argument that the drop in demand for tacos (and thus tomatoes) hurts the CIW workers rather than helping them. Sure, the boycott may have hurt their income for the three years of the boycott–although my suspicion is that the change on the margin per worker was probably pretty negligible. But people make decisions that will result in less income for the short term in order to get a better result in the long term all the time. Boycotts and strikes are an example; so are school, investment, and quitting your job in order to become an entrepreneur. One thing you have to keep in mind here is that it was the workers themselves who decided that the trade-off of potential present losses for future gains was worth it; that doesn’t guarantee that the decision was a wise one, but it’s certainly not a bizarre sort of decision to make and here, at least, it seems to have begun to pay off.

Daniel’s right to point out that the Taco Bell boycott didn’t encourage consumers to patronize competing tomato-purchasing industries (in order to keep tomato prices steady or raise them by increasing demand for substitute uses of tomatoes, while encouraging Taco Bell to change its ways in order to recapture some of the lost business). But surely here he has misunderstood the strategy behind the boycott. Tomato-pickers aren’t paid directly by the tomato-using industry that consumers buy from; they’re paid by big tomato farmers, who put sell their tomatoes to Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Heinz, Pace, et al. as contractors. Since none of those competing tomato-users has a pass-through system either, there’s no reason why the boycott should want to funnel business to them; that would merely be shifting business from one sharp dealer to another; and while it might give Taco Bell an incentive to change its ways, it would reward other tomato-using companies for engaging in exactly the same practices as Taco Bell.

Further, Daniel’s too uncharitable to the CIW when he suggests the following as an alternative, higher-valued use of resources that the CIW could have employed:

Any form of productivity. Allegedly the housing prices in the Immokalee area are exorbitant, and contribute to the poverty conditions of those who live there. So this is an entrepreneurial area that could host the energy of riled activists that is instead being diverted by this boycott. If these activists were instead producing houses, clothes, and consumable goods to be exchanged with the Immokalee workers they would be more successful in improving their quality of life.

But look, these are things that the CIW is already working on. They have already established, among other things a (tremendously successful) grocery store in Immokalee (run on a co-op model, providing goods at near-wholesale prices) and a multilingual community radio station (which helps keep workers communicating and up-to-date on community news). CIW isn’t just a fighting labor organization–although it is that; it’s a community organization and they’ve put a lot of resources into improving living conditions in Imokalee on the ground. They’ve done this in a lot of ways: by putting money into producing community resources, by organizing general strikes and boycotts to negotiate higher wages, by exposing slavery rings, fraud, and violence in the fields (sometimes through the government, sometimes through the press, and sometimes through direct action by workers). The workers have made their decisions about when and how to apply their resources by developing strategies over time to prioritize their needs, and when they launched the Taco Bell boycott it was because they decided it would be worth it to use some resources in the boycott in order to gain better pay and conditions later using a public education and pressure campaign. Now, the mere fact that they decided that this would be best doesn’t mean that they were right; but it’s important to see that their decision wasn’t different in kind from any number of other decisions in the free market, such as: quitting your job, going back to school, starting your own business, investing your money in what you think will be a winning stock, buying a tool, etc. There are plenty of cases where each of these decisions would be wise and plenty where each would be foolish; that depends a lot on the specifics of the case at hand. In this particular case, it looks like the boycott has paid off nicely for the workers–both in direct results and in precedent for future campaigns–and unless you can come up with some pretty specific plans and give some pretty strong reasons in favor of thinking that they would have been a better way to improve farmworkers’ quality of life, I think the presumption is going to be in favor of chalking this campaign up as a good move for the workers.

Of course, you might instead argue that it benefitted the workers, but only at the expense of either Taco Bell, or consumers, or both. That’s a separate argument, but it’s one worth worrying about when we talk about campaigns in which part of the outcome is raising the price of a consumer good. But of course here we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the marginal increase in price of the tomatos for Taco Bell is $0.01 per pound of tomatos; in total it will cost Taco Bell about $100,000 / year more than they spent before. If Taco Bell eats that cost it will hardly be noticed, and if the fraction of that cost on the margin is passed on to Taco Bell patrons, it will hardly make a difference. But also, second, that even if the change were likely to make a difference on the margin, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the change in price comes at the expense of the people buying the tacos. One way to look at CIW’s strategy in the Taco Bell boycott is that they were working to earn more money for themselves by changing consumer preferences; what they aimed to do, and succeeded in doing enough to win the boycott, was to educate Taco Bell consumers and get them to recognize the worth of a decent standard of living for farmworkers, and to take that value into account when they deliberate over purchasing a taco. Of course, once they take that into account, they will be willing to pay more for the taco in order to secure the decent standard of living for farmworkers. But it’s not at all clear that this is an loss to them. Sure, it means more money going out, but it’s money being exchanged for something they now value. You could argue that they only ought to value the pleasure of eating the taco, and drop the sentimental concerns about farmworkers; but Jesus, why would you argue that? The market isn’t an arena for machines to maximize their store of precious metals or for hedonic calculators to maximize their bodily pleasures; it’s a process that emerges from the deliberations that free human beings make about what they want and how they can achieve it. People have every right to value tasty food, of course, but they have just as much right to value solidarity with fellow workers, concern for fellow human beings, charity for people suffering, and a lot of other things that come into play when we think about the labor practices of the people we do business with.

Finally, Daniel is again too uncharitable when he worries that the CIW’s practices and demands aren’t as free of government meddling as I’ve made them out to be. Let me be clear–as far as I know, CIW aren’t principled anarchists; while I’m excited about the model of organizing that they’ve developed, and I think their successes have a lot to do with the fact that they are free from both the worm of government union protections and the hook of government union controls, I don’t claim that they’re any kind of infallible resource. My point here has been to draw out the aspects of them that have something to teach libertarians. But it’s not fair to accuse them of grabbing for government backing based on this line from their press release:

The Company indicated that it believes other restaurant chains and supermarkets, along with the Florida Tomato Committee, should join in seeking legislative reform, because human rights are universal and we hope others will follow our company’s lead.

It’s not fair because (1) the statement about seeking legislative reform came from Taco Bell, not from the CIW; and because (2) it’s not specified what sort of legislative reform they mean. There are two different things that CIW has objected to in southern Florida: (1) the prevalent low wages and harsh working conditions; and (2) the use of fraud, coercion, and outright slavery against immigrant farm workers. Both of the complaints were part of the Taco Bell boycott campaign, and if the legislative reform is aimed at dealing with enslavement of farmworkers or making local law enforcement more responsive to issues of slavery and trafficking, then there’s no reason at all why an anarchist should object. If Taco Bell is proposing some kind of bureaucratic labor regulation by the Florida legislature, then yes, we’ll have to oppose that when the time comes. But that suggestion came from Taco Bell, not CIW, and if CIW were to come out in support of it, I wouldn’t be terribly shocked, but it would represent a substantial break from the strategy and tactics behind all of their successful organizing and activism so far.

So enjoy César Chávez Day, and wish the Coalition of Immokalee Workers well on their recent victory. It’s OK. In fact, if you care about workers bettering their lives without coercion and in organizations autonomous from the State, it’s pretty exciting. Even if you’re a libertarian. Really. I promise.

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