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On the Media of Counterinsurgency and the Targeting of Decolonize this Place

Last month, a coordinated campaign by the right-wing media and the NYPD was launched against Decolonize This Place, attempting to demonize and discredit recent actions around the MTA by reducing them to the figurehead of a "violent" Palestinian mastermind.

Verso Books11 March 2020

On the Media of Counterinsurgency and the Targeting of Decolonize this Place

Since November 1st of last year, the movement known as FTP has unsettled the ruling factions within the New York City establishment with a series of city-wide transit actions involving mass fare evasion and other acts of defiance toward the MTA and NYPD. Speaking to Black Agenda Report Radio in advance of the J31 action leading from Grand Central Station to Bed-Stuy,  Why Accountability explains what FTP stands for: “Depending on your ideology and doctrine, FTP could mean Feed the People, or Fight the Power, but at this juncture for us it means Fuck the Police.” The catalyst for these actions is the MTA’s decision to place 500 additional police officers in the subways and the subsequent increase in police harassment and violence against Black and brown people that has occured in recent months. The FTP movement is facilitated by what Why Accountability refers to as a “collection of abolitionist organizations” that aim for the “complete abolition of the police department,” while also issuing four more immediate demands: (1) free transit, (2) end to the harassment of vendors, performers, and the unhoused, (3) full accessibility, and (4) cops out of the MTA. 


Clockwise from left: FTP demonstration, Downtown Brooklyn, November 1, 2019 (photo by M Stn Reaves/Shutterstock); Performance by Jehdy, January 31, 2020 (image by MTL+); Paintings by Eddie Arroyo, 2019 Courtesy of the artist)

As we write, an intensive campaign to demonize and discredit the movement is unfolding, one that hinges on pinning these popular actions to a single one of the numerous groups stewarding the movement, namely Decolonize This Place (DTP). In turn, this campaign has focused on one member of that group in particular, Amin Husain. Two weeks ago, the New York Post published an article purporting to expose  "the anarchy-minded professor" at NYU as the "mastermind" behind the "subway riots" that involved a “violent assault against the MTA,” creating an alleged hundred thousand dollars in damage. Deliberately profiling its target as a Palestinian man and imputing to him a patently fabricated incitement to homicidal violence against police (more on which below), this story shows elements of a new strategy at work in the Counterinsurgency-Media Complex (CMC). 

Anonymous letter received at Bobst Library, New York University, February 24, 2020

Anonymous letter received at Bobst Library, New York University, February 24, 2020.

The CMC is a toxic ecosystem involving both state and non-state actors engaged in explicit patterns of narrative-crafting, information-sharing, dog-whistling, and doxxing of movements and certain organizers. This bloc encompasses the NYPD, right-wing media, and alt-right agitators, and, in the case of the current campaign against DTP, the CMC has an international dimension, dovetailing with the Zionist mediasphere and Israeli security apparatus. The CMC is not driven by a single conspiratorial intent, but rather constitutes an infrastructure of resonance for various right-wing actors to target and synergize their tactics and actions as they seek to counteract–and ultimately repress–movements for liberation. Though aiming to seep into broader public discourse beyond its own echo chamber, the CMC also works more specifically to provide initial threshold research and set the agenda for actual measures of state repression as when the Post article specifically notes that “Asked if Husain was being probed in the wild spree or was one of those arrested, the NYPD refused comment. “We don’t ever comment on specifics,” said NYPD Lt. John Grimpel. A spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said they had no arrest records for Husain.” In other words, in the very act of “investigating”, the Post article aims to put Husain directly in the sights of the state, or at least creates pressure for the state to look into him as a criminal threat. 

A core part of this CMC strategy has been to discredit the FTP actions by naming an individual “ring-leader” and projecting a racialized "foreign" identity onto the movement. This ideological move erases the fact that the FTP movement is led by a decentralized network of Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and queer folks and is embedded organically in local communities and long-term struggles for decolonization, abolition and the collective control of land and housing.


Instagram post by Take Back the Bronx, February 23, 2020

The basic logic is as follows: if the narrative in the media is defined around violent masterminds and foreign influences, it will serve to both deflect attention away from the anger that poor and working class New Yorkers rightly feel toward the NYPD and the MTA, while also providing cover to De Blasio and Cuomo as they continue to ignore popular demands around policing and transit. 

We should also note from the outset that the logic of the CMC is inherently patriarchal. By distorting the true composition and logic of the movement, the CMC seeks to frame the entire political landscape of the city in masculinist terms: a violent, foreign Arab man versus the force of the law, the police, and the supposed public interest. Such a frame sets two related objectives in motion: (a) legitimizes present and future government violence and repression against the movement and (b) influences future participation in, and tactics and direction of, the movement. Simply put, violence by the state often solicits violence on the street, which, in turn, keeps children, families, and possibly elders home, thereby excluding large swaths of the population who are otherwise sympathetic to the demands from actively participating and shaping the movement. Therefore, it is more acccurate when we speak of CMC to think of the Patriarchal-Counterinsurgency Media Complex, and to add from the outset that FTP stands as much for Fuck the Patriarchy as Fuck the Police.

Beginning with an acknowledgement that New York City stands on unceded territories of the Lenni Lenape and was made possible in its very foundations through the labor of enslaved African people, FTP takes aim at the ongoing structural violence of settler colonialism and racial capitalism as manifested through the actions and policies of the MTA and NYPD. From its inception, the police as an institution has protected property and brutalized people, especially the enslaved, the Indigenous, dispossessed, the displaced, the impoverished, and the criminalized. Broken Windows policing, which lies behind the current MTA policy, is one iteration of this legalized, racialized violence in the service of property, wealth, and control. The CMC’s narrative of “violent assault on the MTA” aims to deflect public attention to these actual state-sanctioned forms of violence. It instead points to physical damage to turnstiles and subway walls as indications of a potentially murderous “spree” against the city itself to be defeated through intensified security measures. Legality is not the same as justice, and it should not be allowed to set the parameters for the actions of the oppressed. Genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow  were all undertaken in the name of law. Who invokes the law? Who does the law protect–people or property? These are the questions that lie at the heart of recent actions, and which has provoked such an intensive reaction by the CMC. 

Below we will chart the step-by-step unfolding of the CMC campaign and elaborate on its tactic of individualization, which has been a way to distort the movement in terms of its racial composition, signal to anti-Palestinian constituencies, and further inflame the alt-right driven "campus wars" at places like NYU (where BDS initiatives and resolutions have been adopted by students and faculty in different bodies of the university). The CMC narrative has yet to break through into the mainstream liberal media in a significant way. Rather than waiting for distorted or partial fragments of the story to appear, we put forth the following media analysis to inform those who may be unclear about what has transpired so far, and to those who have reached out with statements of support. We see this media analysis as a form of real-time collective self-defense, one that flows back into the work of building solidarity and strengthening our movement. Along with clarifying and counteracting the logic of the CMC, we consider the present text an invitation to engagement for those who have thus far remained on the sidelines as FTP moves into the Days of Spring with a diversity of aesthetics, tactics, and energies.

 The Logic of the CMC: Demonize, Discredit, Divide

The Post article on February 16 has been the crux of the CMC campaign so far. It condensed earlier talking points from the NYPD, introduced the racialized profile of Husain into the storyline, and then set the stage for a flurry of viral media stories with Fox News, Breitbart, and the Jerusalem Post among others. This has in turn led to direct harassment against Husain from the alt-right, including calls for NYU to terminate his employment and outright death threats.


Pairing of stills from CBS2 News television broadcast, January 31, 2020 (image courtesy of Decolonize This Place)

Prior to the Post story, the earliest indication that the CMC was kicking into full gear came on the day before the J31 action at Grand Central Station, when Donald Trump Jr. retweeted alt-right agitator Andy Ngo's tweet about a promotional video for the action, which he linked to the specter of "Antifa" that has preoccupied the Right since the election of Trump. The video in turn was featured on mainstream pre-coverage of the action the following day, where it was juxtaposed with images of Police Commissioner Dermot Shea warning that "While the NYPD will always protect people's right to protest, we will not accept illegal behavior that threatens the safety of others." Minutes after the action began, the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) tweeted “The anti-cop agitators causing havoc in our city tonight have made it clear that violence against cops is on their agenda. Weapons like this are being displayed on social media. ALL MEMBERS: REMAIN ALERT AND BACK EACH OTHER UP.” This message was accompanied by screen shots of a dark-skinned hand holding a knife imprinted with the initials FTP and the phrase “Aim for the Neck.” What was this image? In an act of "fake news" worthy of a paramiliatary propaganda campaign, the image was lifted by the PBA from the Instagram account of a boutique sportswear brand called Fuck the Population that happens to design knives with menacing "urban" aesthetics.


Tweet from the NYC Police Benevolent Association, January 31, 2020

The PBA is widely recognized as an "unhinged" supplement to the official communications of the NYPD, which through its provcations aims to push the public conversation further to the side of the police. This was on full display the day after the J31 actions when Shea, in a press conference with De Blasio, explicitly attributed to the organizers of the action an alarming incitement to murderous violence: “You can’t have a situation where people are putting up on social media intending what they’re going to do. ‘Knives, aim for their neck, blind police officers.” In other words, the Police Commissioner himself, with the acquiescence of the Mayor, was citing the patently false quotation attributed to FTP organizers manufactured by the PBA.


Tweet from @AshAgony, February 20, 2020

Two weeks later, after most media coverage of the J31 action had passed, Shea’s quote about the knife resurfaced in Isabel Vincent's "investigative" piece about Husain for The Post, which highlights his connections to Palestine and names him as a participant in the 1987 uprising against the Israeli occupation. The figure of the knife-wielding Palestinian is a major trope in the contemporary Israeli CMC; in some cases it has been shown that IDF soldiers have planted knives on Palestinian youth they have harassed and killed. This is the same logic that can be seen in the actions of the NYPD, when, for instance, 19 year old Adrian Napier was held at gunpoint in the subway by officers falsely accusing him of having a gun before ultimately charging him with fare-evasion (video of this incident sparked the first FTP action in November). The Post article functions as a virtual knife-planting on Husain, and by extension the movement he is charged with masterminding.

 Here we can learn from Palestine about the specifically patriarchal logic of the CMC. The IDF has developed an entire tactical logic wherein centralizing, targeting, and attacking male activists serves to not only erase women’s leadership, but also to create vast amounts of extra and exhausting reproductive labor for women when it comes to defending and caring for de-capacitated or incarcerated sons, brothers, husbands, and comrades. As Hadeel Badarneh explains in an article for the movement magazine Anemones, this form of counterinsurgency works to reify gender roles, and by default forces men into internalizing a damaging ideal of the war-like hero or the sacrificial martyr that is ultimately disempowering for the movement as a whole.

*Framing Husain as the central, individual leader of FTP serves several additional purposes in the narrative of the CMC, including the weaponization of the implied association of a Palestinian with anti-Semitic terror. This in turn overlaps with Islamophobic profiling and violence at a global level in the post-9/11 era, from Trump's birther campaign against "Barak Hussein Obama" and  the villification of congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, to the remergence of xenophobic Fascism in Europe, and the Hindu nationalist mass killings of Muslims sanctioned by Narendra Modi.

The Post’s choice to highlight Husain's status as a professor (actually an adjunct instructor) at NYU also feeds into several other narratives of the alt-right and Zionist media. NYU has a small but proactive and well-connected Campus Republican chapter that has worked to manufacture crises at the school by inviting figures like the Proud Boys’ Gavin McInnes. In this strategy, NYU in general is framed as an example of the "highjacking" of higher education by cosmopolitan radical elites devoted to brainwashing otherwise innocent and free-thinking students whose own "freedom of speech" is seen to be endangered. Second, NYU has for years been a battleground around BDS, with threats of violence and legal cases mounted against Students for Justice in Palestine and allied groups as the movement has gained ground there. NYU is currently being sued, on grounds of anti-Semitism, by the Department of Education office headed up by the notorious Arabphobe Kenneth Marcus.The logic here is to identify Husain as the face of campus (anti-semitic) Leftism more generally, which is seen as a threat to education.

The CMC is thus using NYU as a media platform and a lever of punishment. In some ways, this campaign overlaps with those targeting professors like Steven Salaita, George Cicciarello-Maher, Jasbir K. Puar, Rabab Abdulhadi and many others. These campaigns have been widely condemned not only as violations of academic freedom but also as assaults on the traditions of autonomy and self-governance maintained by universities. However, whereas those scholars were targeted largely on the basis of their individual speech and their public status as professors, Husain is being demonized as the orchestrator of J31, framed as a violent attack on the MTA and by extension the entire city.

It is not only NYU that the Post article aims to entangle in its demonization narrative. The story also notes that DTP and Husain have been involved in recent actions surrounding the institutions of the art system. These have included conflicts around Creative Time, the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum, the AMNH, and, most recently, the successful campaign to remove Safariland CEO Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney last year.  Safariland products were found to have been used against migrants at the U.S. border, as well as against demonstrators in sites of civil unrest ranging from Tahrir Square to Puerto Rico,  Ferguson, and Gaza. The NYPD and NYC Department of Corrections have also been clients of Safariland, and the corporation is responsible for producing drug-testing kits that have been found defective by human rights groups. The global geography of violence mapped out by Kanders’ portfolio forme a kind of invserse map of solidarity, highlighting, for instance, connections between the Black and Palestinian freedom struggles, which have been increasingly aligned since the Ferguson uprising. This potential bond linking Ferguson to Palestine (which is among the meanings attached to the acronym FTP) is one of the implicit alarms set off by Decolonize This Place in general, and which is now working below the surface in the CMC campaign. It is widely known that the NYPD and the Israeli security apparatus train together, exchange technology, and share intelligence. In this light, the Whitney crisis then might be understood as the crux of the Post story, which is in turn the crux of the current CMC campaign overall.


Decolonize This Place action at the Whitney Museum, March 22, 2019 (image courtesy of Andres Rodriguez)

A week after the Post story about Husain, the anti-Zionist Israeli/British architect Eyal Weizman was denied a visa to enter the United States to attend a retrospective of his own work with Forensic Architecture (FA), which had been important actor in the Biennial crisis last year and worked closely with Decolonize This Place. The reason given by Homeland Security was that an algorithm had identified him, or someone associated with him, as a "security threat." A few days after news broke of Weizman's being denied entry to the US, he received an inquiry for comment on the story from a journalist at the New York Post named Isabel Vincent: the same person responsible for "The Anarchy-Minded Professor" profile of Husain.


Email from New York Post reporter Isabel Vincent to Forensic Architecture, February 20, 2020, forwarded to Decolonize This Place by Eyal Weizman

There is no single smoking gun here, but there are many tracks and trails leading us back to the CMC whose logic we articulated earlier. De Blasio may not be directly parroting the alarmist language of the Post and other outlets, which are constantly “at war” with his administration and blaming the “vile creatures” who supposedly make up his constituency for the random shooting of police officers in early February. Still, De Blasio indirectly benefits from the work of ideological displacement performed by the CMC. If a movement around transit and policing is recoded as a security threat, De Blasio is under less pressure to actually address the crisis of the MTA and cleavages among ruling elites and that criminalization offers legitimacy to wage his own war on the FTP movement. At the same time that the Mayor attacks Bloomberg (for racist policing) and lauds Bernie Sanders at the national level for advocating universal public goods, he has authorized the racist MTA policing and has failed miserably to address Wall Street’s capture of the MTA’s finances. 

We Keep Us Safe: The CMC Cannot Defeat the Movement


Our analysis above counters the CMC as an opportunity to learn as we continue to build power together. Fighting oppression and protecting our communities are two sides of the same coin, as expressed in the abolitionist chant heard at FTP actions, "Who Keeps Us Safe? We Keep Us Safe!"


FTP banner making party, November 2020 (image courtesy of MTL +)

This dialectic of negation and affirmation is at the core of FTP as a movement, with the phrase “Fuck the Police” as a baseline. This phrase is deeply unsettling to power. It cannot be uttered in public by officials or mainstream media, and yet they constantly point to it with asterisks, abbreviations, and blurs. These graphic traces point to the anxiety on the part of the powerful facing a movement that is not chained by respectability politics and affirms the power of refusal. Fuck the Police is a daily practice: everyone who hops a turnstile, holds the door, swipes it forward, films the cops, or supports their incarcerated friends and family is already enacting it. Fuck the Police comes from the people, and has an array of cultural expressions. The phrase was popularized in part by the 1988 NWA song of the same name, prefiguring the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992. It has since then informed works by other artists ranging from J-Dilla to RMR, while also undergoing a resurgence on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York in 2014-2015.

As a political logic, FTP involves a commitment to divest from the police as a necessary condition of any positive demands. The defiant energy of "fuck" creates space for the proliferation of multiple iterations linking a shared horizon of liberation with a specificity of struggle. This is expressed, for example, when we see the phrase used in the context of the Wet'su'eten blockades to signify  "Fuck the Pipelines." As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson puts it, "Indigenous blockades don't just decry destruction–they affirm life." In New York City, the Indigenous Kinship Collective (IKC) have been core organizers of both FTP and solidarity actions with Wet'SuwEt'en, linking that continent-wide struggle to the imperative of Indigenous land restoration in the heart of the fossil-fueled settler-colonial metropolis.

10-Fuckthepipeline 11-IKC

Indigenous Kinship Collective, solidarity action with Wet'SuwEt'en blockades in front of the United Nations, February 12, 2020 (top image courtesy of MTL +; bottom image courtesy of Roxy Romero)

Another iteration that connects FTP to the sustaining life and relations of the city over time is Feed the People, as currently being practiced by NYC Shut It Down in the Bronx and Harlem. Feed the People as a phrase bears directly on the history of counterinsurgency. FBI Director J Edgar Hoover famously remarked that the biggest threat posed by the Black Panthers lay not in their military organization, but in their free breakfast programs and community kitchens. The work of NYC Shut it Down, We Keep Us Safe,  Comité Boricua En La Diáspora, Take Back the Bronx, and Swipe It Forward, exemplify the Black Radical Tradition of mutual aid in recent years, building on the everyday work of care already at work in communities as a matter of survival.


Black Panthers Survival Program, circa 1969 (photographer unknown); NYC Shut It Down Feed the People action, October 19th, 2020, Hunts Point, the Bronx (image courtesy of NYC Shut in Down, image pairing by MTL+)

Grounded in generations of struggle and embodied in everyday actions, the energies of FTP are building in New York City. People are losing fear, opening their imaginations, and acting in ways that exceed activism in the accepted sense of the word. The backlash by the CMC is not a surprise, and its attempt to establish an opposition between violence and nonviolence will not dictate the terms of our strategy and tactics. The CMC will not distract our focus from the basic demands of the movement. Since its inception as a settler-colony and slave economy, the status quo of New York City has favored violent repression of the majority of its population, period. FTP confronts this violence head on, holding space for a diversity of tactics and aesthetics as we move into Spring 2020, expanding and multiplying its sites of action throughout the city. 

Ways Forward: The City, The Museum, The University

The analysis, organizing, and actions that have come together around the MTA and the NYPD in recent months should not be read as an indication that our movements have simply moved away from other kinds of institutions. Groups like Art Space Sanctuary, Chinatown Art Brigade, and IKC have kept up the pressure on museums (including MoMA) and other cultural institutions as they relate to war, state violence and displacement. We know that much of the movement work in recent years has also intersected in various ways with mapping the University as a site of injustice, a place of building relations, and for exercising leverage. How can student movements see the campus organizing as strategically linked to the city’s broader fabric of resistance? Like the museum, the university stands on stolen Indigenous land. It is a core part of the urban economy, built environment, and intellectual infrastructure of the city. It is full of discontented students, workers, artists, and professors who are already organizing on various campuses across NYC and beyond.

Channeling decades worth of organizing amongst working class students (including the occupations of the 70s and the 1995 battle between 25,000 CUNY students and Giuliani's police force at City Hall Park) the Free CUNY (in collaboration with the People’s Cultural Plan) movement has linked its demands for the abolition of tuition and the raising of adjunct pay rate to 7K per class with the FTP call for free transit, and the removal of cops from subways, schools, and museums. This finds resonance with the struggle of graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, who were fired last week for staging a wildcat grading strike due to the liveability of their wages in that rapidly gentrifying city. 

Private universities like NYU are themselves vast real estate empires; like museums, their boards are rife with oligarchs, climate criminals, and war profiteers; and their global branding around diversity and excellence rings hollow for students mired in debt, implicated in gentrification, and facing dim career prospects as either precarious cultural workers or professional-managerial automatons. Of course, the experience of such students is itself not homogenous in terms of race, class, gender, and national background within an overwhelmingly white dominated institution. The task of deconstructing whiteness in such spaces–and in the movement at large–is crucial. Black, brown, and Indigenous people know their only choice is to fight, but they cannot win alone. White people are ready to act, but they know they cannot lead.

Reexamining the legacy of "race traitors" from John Brown to Marilyn Buck should be on the agenda, and the example of Black Panther Fred Hampton’s multiracial Rainbow Coalition remains a crucial historical touchstone. Becoming accomplices (rather than “allies'') to the movement is not only a task for white people per se; all those in the university and the art system who have resources and power must unlearn their privilege and give of themselves, especially when it comes to things like offering space, infrastructure, printing capacity, food, skills, media contacts, arrests, and whatever else the movement needs. These forms of mutual aid are not merely transactional; they build relations, trust, and solidarity over time and radically change the culture of the institution from within while taking guidance from the city-wide movements.


4th Annual Anti-Columbus Day tour, Central Park, October 14, 2020 (image courtesy of MTL+)

This is what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney meant by the Undercommons, a powerful vision that has sometimes been reduced to an academic buzzword in recent years. The Undercommons does not mean more conferences, more journal articles, more exhibitions with radical or even "decolonial" content. Rather, it means erasing the imagined line that separates the institution from the city, such that it becomes accountable to the needs and desires of the people. These institutions must become sanctuaries, autonomous zones, and basecamps for a different form of life, work, and study altogether–beginning with a recognition of the fact that they stand on occupied Indigenous land and actively contribute to a racial-capitalist system whose violence continues to intensify. As Areilla Azoulay has put it in her call to withdraw from business as usual at cultural institutions: “Imagine going on strike.”


Post shared by Conor Tomás on Facebook, March 11, 2020.

With this call in mind, we conclude by saying not only Fuck the Post, but also by saying Thank You to the the workers, the staff, the colleagues at NYU who have expressed solidarity since the CMC attack has begun; those who have welcomed us at the door, who have shared their ink and paper, who have invited us to use classrooms and bathrooms and fridges, or even just signalled to us with a smile and a fist-bump. Finally, we especially thank the students who have publically spoken out, including Governance Council of Minority and Marginalized Students at NYU who have issued a statement in opposition to the “racist, Zionist, carceral agenda” at work in the attacks on their teacher and the movement in general. The movement is a liberation train writ large, its powers of refusal growing stop by stop, meal by meal, classroom by classroom, building by building, block by block, until we all get free.


Professor Amin Husain teaching class on "Art, Activism, and Organizing" at NYU, February 18, 2020 (image courtesy of MTL+)

Filed under: police, us-politics