Thursday, April 30, 2015


Reviving the hydraulic theory of oppression

by Larry Geller

Most of this originally ran in an article posted on Sept. 18, 2013.

The public reaction in Ferguson and now in Baltimore reminded me that it’s time to revive my “Hydraulic Theory of oppression.”

Honestly, I can’t remember if this is originally mine or not, it has been too, too many years since I have used it at workshops on the Mainland (curious that we don’t discuss oppression and human rights as much in public seminars here in Hawaii as they did in California or Oregon, for example).

This model is not related specifically to the situation of any group of people. I think it has a certain general applicability.

When I speak of “hydraulic fluid,” think of the oppressed communities in Ferguson, Baltimore, and currently and historically elsewhere.

The theory goes like this

If you take any group of people (the hydraulic fluid in the diagrams below) and apply pressure in a number of ways, the pressure in the fluid will build up. It’s always there.

So here we have four pistons, of different sizes, applying pressures of different force and duration. The forces are labeled F1, F2, F3, and F4. There could, of course, be many more. The amount of pressure applied to each piston probably varies from time to time, this is a dynamic model. The point is that the hydraulic fluid is constantly under pressure.

Nationally, the hydraulic fluid pressure is also made up of forces such as the high incarceration rate of African-Americans, the unconscionable numbers killed and maimed by police (who are not held accountable by our system of justice), by the use of SWAT teams in misguided (but racially guided) drug raids, by housing and job discrimination, by efforts to deny the right to vote, and on and on. It’s a complex system of oppression.


Hydraulic 1

In Hawaii, it’s easy to think of what pressures may be constantly felt by Native Hawaiians that are not experienced by others. The F1, F2, F3, F4 and more might be economic marginalization, the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom, suppression of language and culture, and the constant desecration of the Iwi Kupuna. If you stop and think for a moment, there are many more that could be added to the list. Currently Mauna Kea is in the spotlight as one such social pressure applied to a population.

Now, pipes under pressure for some time can hold up, or they might leak.

Hydraulic 2

If the drops look like teardrops to you, that’s probably what they are. Often these tears are not noticed. They don’t seem to bother anyone. They seldom make the news. That’s not to say they’re not real. Usually, the leak is patched but the pressures continue. So more leaks can be expected.

Sometimes, for reasons we cannot exactly explain, and at times that we can’t predict, a big leak that does make a splash in the news occurs.

Hydraulic 3

Often those not experiencing that pressure wonder why the pipes burst. They don’t understand. They may blame an individual or a community for instigating “trouble.”

It’s not necessary to explain in detail why these big leaks occur. That’s the hydraulic theory. They happen because of the unrelenting pressure from a variety of sources. With constant pressure, or maybe there’s some new or increased source, something is likely to give sometime, someplace.


In Ferguson it turned out that the city is financed by police actions resulting in fines against black men. Until the Michael Brown incident, the media did not seem to pay attention to this.

Just about every branch of Ferguson government -- police, municipal court, city hall -- participated in "unlawful" targeting of African-American residents such as Hoskin for tickets and fines, the Justice Department concluded this week.

The millions of dollars in fines and fees paid by black residents served an ultimate goal of satisfying "revenue rather than public safety needs," the Justice Department found.
Justice Department laid out statistics to support their accusations of civil rights violations.
Nothing new to those who live there

To the outside world, the federal findings were staggering, but to Hoskin and other longtime residents, the conclusion was nothing new. They've felt it all along, they say.

It's only now that federal authorities have documented the institutionalized racism, as part of a civil rights investigation after a white police officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, 19, last summer.

[CNN, Policing for profit: How Ferguson's fines violated rights of African-Americans, 6/6/2015]

To understand some of the distrust of police that has fueled protests in Ferguson, Mo., consider this: In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

A new report released the week after 18-year old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson helps explain why. ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-area public defender group, says in its report that more than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the "illegal and harmful practices" of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations — and then arresting people when they don't pay. The report singles out courts in three communities, including Ferguson.

[NPR, In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger, 8/25/2014]

See also: How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty (Washington Post, 9/3/2014)

Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood

More than half of the neighborhood’s households earned less than $25,000 a year, according to a 2011 Baltimore Health Department report, and more than one in five adults were out of work — double the citywide average. One in five middle school students in the neighborhood missed more than 20 days of school, as did 45 percent of the neighborhood’s high schoolers.

Domestic violence was 50 percent higher in Sandtown than the city average. And the neighborhood experienced murder at twice the citywide rate — which is no mean feat in Baltimore.

So far this year, the city counts 68 murders, according to a Web site maintained by the Baltimore Sun. That is after 663 murders were recorded over the three previous years.

Baltimore police have faced a series of corruption allegations through the years. They have been accused of planting evidence on suspects, being too quick to resort to deadly force and, long before Gray’s suspicious death, of beating suspects. Like police everywhere, they have been accused of routinely pulling up black youth.  When he was a teenager, my own son was pulled over while driving his old Honda Civic on several occasions. It has gone on for decades.

[Washington Post, What you really need to know about Baltimore, from a reporter who’s lived there for over 30 years, 4/28/2015]


Although the pressure that an oppressed people may feel is real, it may be invisible to others. They don’t know about the oppression, and so are surprised when something bursts out. Being able to ignore, or not know about, the oppression of others is a privilege, often described as “white privilege.”

And so there is criticism and condemnation, but not much understanding. Why can’t “they” just go back to being quiet?? The Internet has brought with it an army of “trolls,” but even outside of newspaper comment sections, opinions are usually all over the map, and often unkind.

‘Way back in the ‘80s, racism, oppression, domestic violence, and related concepts such as white privilege were more often discussed in community settings (that is, outside of sociology or psychology courses in universities), it seems. A classic reference is Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, dating from 1989 or so. 

There is white privilege, and there is male privilege. It’s all a fabric, all related. When something breaks into the news, how often do editors dig deeper than the shallow facts of who-what-when-where? They don’t dig because we don’t want to read it, perhaps. But on the other hand, that’s a massive failure to report the news.

No, even when the editors are handed oppression or racial discrimination on a platter, they usually do not draw any connection. As an example, Republican state legislators have a clear objective of suppressing minority voting rights, a blatant example of discrimination. That they can still get away with it today is significant, but the fact that the perpetrators are not constantly called in the media on their racism is also significant.

There is great inequality in this country even today. Oppression is still the name of the game in many states. It’s connected with a persistent and pervasive racism.

Sometimes I wonder if the many workshops and all the trainings of the 1980s and 1990s were for naught.

As I said, it’s possible that the “hydraulic theory” is not originally mine. I attended many workshops years ago and co-lead a men's group. Perhaps someone else originated this model. I’ve found it useful, though, and thought I should set it down for whatever it is worth.

That we remain unconcerned about conditions that oppress people across the country is partly a failure of the mainstream media perhaps, but we are the ones buying the newspapers and letting them get away with it. They give us only what we ask for. The privilege is that we don’t want to know what is going on in St. Louis or in Baltimore. We, and our newspapers, can ignore what might and ought to be 20150430 S-Amore prominent in our concern.

Heck, the front page of today’s Star-Advertiser has a large photo at the top which is not even identified. We are supposed to know that this is a (momentarily) famous sports figure.

But heck again, most readers probably do know who he is. That’s the privilege at work. The ongoing protests in cities across the country since August? Not reported in our newspaper.


I appreciate your hydraulic theory of oppression; a very good analogy. Hopefully for those of us here on lower levels of the food chain, the pressures are building across the land and the large blowouts that are bound to come will result in positive change to how decisions are made in government and the large international corporations that seem to hold such great control over every facet of our daily lives. Hopefully such change can occur without bloodshed or widespread social disorder. That's a lot to hope for I know but something's bound to give in the near future.

Larry, Don't worry. You are articulating a model of oppression which is widely shared, but generally implicit. People can only stand so much oppression, so many insults to their pride, so few options for happiness or a better future, before they "erupt" in anger, "explode" with rage, "rise up" against the forces which are holding them down.

Let me suggest your "hydraulic" metaphor is misleading, as water (or "hydraulic fluid") can compress. A gas analogy might be more appropriate. Or, one can imagine plants trying to crack through a hard surface to reach sunshine and air and freedom!

Repression DOES work. The human spirit CAN be crushed. The yearning for freedom and dignity CAN be demoralized and defeated. That is the temptation for the torturer, the secret police. It would be nice to think repression will be overthrown in the end and that "Good will triumph in the end." But as Keynes famously said, "in the long run, we are all dead anyway."

Contrast this with Orwell's warning from 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

Or, from Jack London's "The Iron Heel":

“We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces. The world is ours, we are its lords, and ours it shall remain. As for the host of labor, it has been in the dirt since history began, and I read history aright. And in the dirt it shall remain so long as I and mine and those that come after us have the power."

Human aspirations can be compressed. Aspirations, ambitions and hopes can be trampled underfoot.

London focussed on repression as the means of maintaining corporate and State domination. Orwell added control over language and history. Huxley added distractions like sex to his dystopian vision. We can see the pressure of frustration which we all feel, the "quiet desperation" (and often not so quiet desperation) we all feel, gets misdirected towards scapegoats like other ethnic groups, other nations, vulnerable minorities. We willingly distract ourselves by watching sports, buying the latest material objects, chasing after sex (or viewing porn online). We drink, take alcohol, smoke crack or obsess on fitness. In our hunger for community, we enter into mega-churches, listen to talk radio, Fox News, root for a political party or candidate.

What is being suppressed, compressed, oppressed and repressed is not an inert substance like water. We are conscious, sentient beings. Our consciousness can either aid in our acceptance of defeat or can inspire us to resist. That resistance can be unfocused or its can be focused through a common analysis of who our adversaries are and through a strategy for fighting back.


Well said. Well said.

Sure, the hydraulic fluid could be a gas. You covered far, far more territory than I did.

You've given me a great lead to post a link to a speech that Chris Hedges prepared for delivery in Canada but ended up posted on the web when he could not get there. One of the headlines on a website over his speech is "They have won, and it is up to us". Later today maybe.


Ooops. Significant typo in my comment. I wrote:

" water (or "hydraulic fluid") can compress." Er, no. I meant to write the analogy was not apt because water CANNOT compress.

Yes, a gas would be much better. But my nice drawings wouldn't work.

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