|In 2001 Bush Jr had to cancel a planned visit to Switzerland admist fears of being arrested [GALLO/GETTY]|
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Since the inception of the “Occupy” movement, perplexed pundits and commentators have sought to understand what the Wall Street protesters are all about. For the mainstream media, so accustomed to easy bullet points and a straight list of demands, Occupy has been frustratingly elusive and inchoate. The idea that Occupy is somehow “immature” for not articulating such specific demands is misplaced, though there is some truth to the notion that the movement has, up until now, fulfilled a largely symbolic role as it calls attention to various abuses and excesses within the capitalist system. Yet, judging from recent developments, Occupy may be shifting from this symbolic nature of protest and moving toward more overtly political actions.
Take, for example, demonstrators’ recent effort to arrest former President George W. Bush no less. Following up on rumours that Bush was meeting with corporate executives in New York, protesters headed to the headquarters of Goldman Sachs. Before convening an improvised General Assembly in front of the building, which lies just blocks from the Occupy encampment in Liberty Plaza, activists chanted “Arrest George Bush!” Later, an employee at Goldman Sachs confirmed to Politico that America’s forty third president had indeed been present in the building.
Security was reportedly tight at Goldman Sachs, though there was no indication that protesters had the opportunity to confront Bush before he left. It’s unclear what Bush was doing at Goldman, but a producer for Countdown with Keith Olbermann reported that the former president had visited the investment firm for a “tribute” event. Bush’s visit further outraged the protesters, who launched a mock trial of Goldman for the firm’s various misdeeds in relation to the financial meltdown of 2008, including felony fraud, perjury and “theft of $78bn in taxpayer money”. Later, activists personally delivered their guilty verdict to Goldman’s corporate headquarters and about a dozen demonstrators were arrested in a sit down protest.
Uniting disparate wings of the US left
Holding Bush and his coterie accountable for the nation’s economic mess is certainly desirable, but if the young and idealistic protesters are shrewd, they might take advantage of the current political momentum by uniting with the older, anti-war wing of the American left. At local protests here in New York, this generational divide can sometimes seem jarring. Yet perhaps, as Occupy continues to mature as a movement, these differences can be bridged, specifically by pressing for a more concerted and ongoing campaign against the likes of Bush and the neo-conservatives who perverted the democratic fabric with impunity.
For years, the anti-war left has dreamt of doing just that. More often than not, however, such pleas have been met with stony silence by the population at large and a tone deaf Obama administration which has been far too willing to simply “move along” and forget past misdeeds. Shortly after taking office, Obama crucially misjudged the mood of the American public by failing to prosecute the CIA for torture and appoint an independent prosecutor to examine previous crimes. The recent action in front of Goldman Sachs, however, suggests that the former president may have finally outlived the good graces of the American people.
Foreign governments far ahead of Washington
It’s about time: for years, Bush has faced opprobrium abroad yet here at home he has enjoyed a charmed life back in Texas. On a certain level, it’s absurd that American human rights groups should have to appeal to foreign governments to prosecute Bush when he travels, yet that is apparently the only remedy available to progressive lawyers who despair at their own Department of Justice.
“Bush went ahead with his appearance in Vancouver, the effort was surely a warning call to the former president.“
– Nikolas Kozloff
In early 2011, Bush was obliged to cancel a planned trip to Switzerland amidst concerns that local protests might highlight the former president’s treatment of detainees. International human rights groups had called for legal action against Bush for sanctioning torture, and activists planned to file an official criminal complaint against him with Swiss prosecutors. One party to the complaint, the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, pointed out that Bush had already approved water boarding, which is considered torture and a crime under various statutes as well as the War Crimes Act and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, an agreement which the US has already ratified.
On another occasion, when Bush planned to visit Canada to attend an economic summit, human rights groups again sought to exert pressure by calling on Ottawa to arrest and prosecute the former US president. Under its international obligations, Amnesty International declared, Canada was required to hold Bush to account for crimes under international law. Failure to do so, the organisation argued, would demonstrate Canada’s contempt for fundamental human rights and the country’s commitment to the Convention Against Torture. Though the Canadian government dismissed Amnesty’s call and Bush went ahead with his appearance in Vancouver, the effort was surely a warning call to the former president.
Bush’s charmed life in Dallas
Leaving office in January, 2009 Bush flew back to Midland where he was raised. As it turned out, this was a safe bet and a huge crowd of 30,000 people turned out for the event. Since his return, the former president has reached out to friends, stalwart supporters and even teenage fan boys, living a charmed life out of the public eye with little to fear either from the local community or prosecutors.
He and wife Laura bought a house in Dallas and started to promote a $300m library, museum and think-tank which will be located at Southern Methodist University. Bush wants to start a “freedom institute” designed to enhance his own reputation, which will emphasise a so-called “freedom agenda” for the Middle East. Meanwhile, Bush has been raking in the cash through his memoir, Decision Points.
“He is in home territory for sure, no question about it. And that’s where he wants to be,” remarks Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. “He doesn’t enjoy naysayers and critics and opposition. Never has. And right now, he needs that nurturing cocoon that he is in. He is not calling people who didn’t support him. He is calling people who supported him, those 14-year-olds.”
Reportedly, Bush is remarkably unchanged by his time in Washington and appears relentlessly upbeat. The former president spends time with good buddies such as baseball legend Nolan Ryan, who organised one of the rare public appearances Bush has made since leaving Washington. Ryan, the president of the Texas Rangers, invited Bush to throw out the first pitch of the season. “He was well received,” Ryan said. “It was a very positive day.”
Besides Ryan, other Bush friends include billionaire Tom Hicks, a man who made the former president wealthy by helping him buy the Texas Rangers. Hicks assisted George and Laura in Dallas by helping them get settled, and today the couple lives right next to his estate. Yet another Texas billionaire, titanium magnate Harold Simmons, also lives nearby. It was Simmons who helped bankroll Bush’s nasty Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry in 2004. “We’ve got a lot of friends down here,” Bush says. “It’s been fun to reconnect with them.”
From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Dallas
Despite this warm reception, Bush might encounter some resentment and even opposition in the long term. Texas has been shifting politically since Bush served as governor of the state in the 1990s. At that time, Bush was a media darling and enjoyed high approval ratings. GOP leaders courted the governor at his stately mansion in Austin, later throwing their support to his presidential campaign.
Today, Bush still enjoys some popularity amongst base conservatives but needless to say his “brand” has been severely tarnished. Though Texas is still reliably Republican, Obama garnered 44 per cent of the vote in 2008, up from Kerry’s dismal tally of 38 per cent in 2004. Worst of all for Bush and his handlers, there has been some resistance to the former president’s think-tank or policy institute. Reportedly, critics believe the project may harm Southern Methodist University’s academic reputation and gloss over problems with the Bush presidency.
What is more, Texas finds itself in difficult straits with the recession threatening to undermine local urban economies.
“Bush has enjoyed impunity and it is disgraceful that few have questioned his efforts to create a freedom institute in Texas.”
– Nikolas Kozloff
Perhaps, Bush will have to be selective about his public appearances in future and needless to say Republicans are hardly flocking to the former president for endorsements or support in their bid to fault Obama and the Democrats for creating the nation’s economic mess.
The rise of Occupy Dallas might also give Bush some pause. Inspired by their New York compatriots, local activists recently held protests in town designed to persuade people to close their bank accounts and transfer funds to credit unions. The Dallas Morning News reported that eight protesters were arrested after demonstrators marched to several local banks.
Ending the reign of impunity
Though it would be a leap for activists to suddenly shift gears and start to protest George Bush, such efforts would be in keeping with the overall direction of Occupy right now which seems to be shifting from largely symbolic protests to more overtly political demonstrations. Moreover, though occupy encampments in various parts of the country originally looked to New York for guidance the movement has now become more diffuse with local activists calling their own independent actions [take, for example, Oakland’s recent decision to call a general strike which prompted New York activists to launch their own solidarity march amidst calls of “Oakland is New York! New York is Oakland!”]
For far too long, Bush has enjoyed impunity and it is disgraceful that few have questioned his efforts to create a freedom institute in Texas. While it’s doubtful that the authorities would ever investigate the former president for war crimes or torture, pressing for such efforts would send an important signal that activists are not willing to put up with a legal double standard in this country anymore.
If Occupy Dallas were to voice its opposition, activists in other regions would certainly answer the call. Take, for example, the increasingly more militant Occupy DC, which might exert pressure on the Department of Justice within the local milieu. If protests were to spread, Bush might find that he has difficulty in travelling not only to foreign lands but also to domestic destinations within the US itself. More importantly perhaps, such demonstrations might spur efforts to unite Occupy with the anti-war movement and thus further galvanise the ongoing season of protest.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.