"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Against intimidation and for provocation

A four-year old video from Louisiana has been making the rounds on Facebook again -- and it is difficult to know why. I saw it on the page of someone who usually posts generically patriotic material, so I have to assume he was offering this as an example of how "real Americans" deal with internal critics, but I can't be sure. What I can say is that the video -- which shows students at Louisiana State University reacting in anger to a protest by a handful of protesters planning to burn an American flag -- shows that we continue to revile dissent in this country and that the rights of conscience outlined in the First Amendment to the Constitution mean little to far too many people.

Here is the video:

5/5/15: To everyone sharing this story --- this was posted four years ago. We didn't take it down; it's still here. We're unsure why it's being shared again, but for those of you asking/calling/emailing, it didn't happen recently.-------------------------Video of Failed Protest at LSU; Thanks to WBRZ for the video
Posted by KATC-TV 3: Acadiana's Newschannel on Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The thing that bothers me here is not the counter-protest -- that is completely appropriate. You meet speech you dislike with more speech; you meet protests you disagree with with more protest. What bothers me is the efforts at intimidation, the way the crowd moves in on the silent protester, the need for police to protect him, the up-in-your-face verbal assault by the uniform-clad member of the military and the tossing of what I assume are water balloons (can't be sure) at the protester.

The police escorted the protester away and ended the protest, to protect his safety, so it never descended into outright violence. But projectiles were being thrown. Counter-protesters were getting ansty and aggressive. One has to wonder what would have happened had the police not intervened.

And this raises an interesting question: How different is this than what we saw happen in Baltimore or Ferguson, where anger did spill over into violence? Would we have seen the same kind of gleeful dismissal of the protesters we witnessed after Baltimore and Ferguson, especially from conservatives who used the violence as an occasion to call into question "ghetto culture" and the like? Would they, in particular, have used this flag protest to liken the counter-protesters to Nazi Brown-shirts, or attack Southern patriots as a somehow lesser race of people?

My guess is no. My guess is that the folks at Fox News and throughout conservative media would have hailed the counter-protests and patriotic Americans and would have blamed the handful of lefties who planned the initial protest for any violence that might have occurred. My guess is that, rather than the "no-excuse-for-violence-there-is-a-right-way-to-protest" line they have been pushing over the last month, we would have heard some variation of Goldwater's "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" -- conveniently ignoring the second half of his quote in which he says "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." (The line echoes Martin Luther King Jr.'s defense of protest and "extremism" in "Letter from Birmingham Jail.")

As I said, there are differences between what we see on this video and what occurred in Baltimore and Ferguson that go beyond the descent into actual violence. On the one side, we have a crowd representing a majority point of view, a largely (if not completely) white crowd using intimidation to enforce political conformity, seeking to silence dissent, and essentially sacralizing the flag. On the other, we have a people who live in some of the worst poverty conditions in the United States, in a city that has been gutted by political and economic systems that have no use for the city's residents, a people who have been beat down and denied not just their rights but any sense of their humanity for hundreds of years and who still deal daily with the kinds of sleights and assaults that white Americans do not have to endure. One side's patriotism and sense of entitlement are being challenged, the other side's very existence.

Even if we do not tie this video to what has happened more recently in Baltimore and Ferguson, we should be offended by what takes place in this video -- and not by the flag-burner.

Flag burning is a provocative act, a symbolic act designed to underscore our national failings. By burning the flag -- our national symbol -- the flag-burner raises questions about American provenance, about American exceptionalism, about our role in the world and our inaction at home. It is a symbolic assault. It is extreme, to be sure, but it is extreme in the way Goldwater and King use the phrase -- an action designed to wrench us from complacency so that we can see our own failings. (Whether it works, in a pragmatic way, is another discussion.)

As such, the burning of a symbol like the flag is protected speech and protected protest. You don't have to like it. You don't have to agree, but we live in a country in which this is allowed -- as is art work like "Piss Christ," as are cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed (whether presented in satirical publications like Charlie Hebdo or by avowed Islamaphobes and racists like Pamela Geller).

What is offensive and scary to me, in the end, is not the counter-protest itself, but the form it takes, the intimidation and the sense that it is OK to berate (and possibly beat) people into silence, and that this sort of violence in the cause of the status quo seems OK to too many.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

More notes on racism, riots and the police

One of the things that has struck me about the debate over police brutality and the uprising in Baltimore is its reductive nature -- both sides demonizing everyone on the other side, failing to acknowledge the difficulties that both sides live with every day. I can't pretend to know what it is like to live in a place like Ferguson or West Baltimore, where money and jobs are scarce, where the police appear as overseers and occupiers; I also can't pretend to know what it is like to do a job in which there is a chance that any interaction can turn violent in a second.

Worth reading, via Tracey Michae'l Lewis-Giggetts.
Posted by Hank Kalet on Friday, May 8, 2015

But while there is a lot of gray in this debate, it is not one in which blame can be spread equally. The power structure -- of which police are a part -- is responsible for the creating conditions in which American citizens feel like an oppressed and occupied population. History argues that this is the case, the history of slavery, Jim Crow in the South and a de facto Jim Crow in the North that played out in housing policy (as outlined in Ta Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations"), union membership and hiring, the deindustrialization of our cities, white flight, school funding fights, etc.; the war on drugs and the general use of war rhetoric in the public policy arena, especially as it relates to black youth; and the victim blaming we see regularly on cable television that pretends that the occasional success story (i.e., Barack Obama or Cory Booker) proves it isn't public policy but personal character that determines all outcomes.

In a lot of ways, the protests -- and riots -- in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere were almost inevitable. Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were spark and the long-term conditions were the fuel, though it is hard to know why these specific cases were the ones to ignite what has happened and not others that were equally alarming. (I won't call them tragic, because I try to reserve the use of the word to the Aristotilian use -- via Joyce -- in which tragedy is the result of hubris, the tragic outcome a result of an individual's excessive pride and something caused by his or her own actions.) Violence can follow when subjugated people -- or people who view themselves as subjugated -- feel as though their concerns are being ignored.

Coates, in an essay shortly after last month's riot, was critical of those calling for calm and criticizing the youth in Baltimore from afar. The riot, he said, was "an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain," but also a response to something deeper.
Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.

The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this.
The calls for non-violence, he adds, came from people "charged with enforcing the very policies that led to Gray's death, and yet they can offer no rational justification for Gray's death and so they appeal for calm." That, he said, is disingenuous.

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called rioting an immoral act, but also made clear that "riot is the language of the unheard" -- a line he used a number of times, including a little remarked upon speech ("The Other America") and this CBS interview. King was critical of violence on moral and tactical grounds, but he understood its genesis. The Black Power movement of the time was a response to the failures of white America to address not only segregation but economic inequality and the race-based, though seemingly race-neutral policies used to enforce the status quo.

The police are a part of this legacy, though their part is complicated and not completely or even mostly of their own creation. They have been put in an untenable position, having these racist and military tropes drilled into their heads repeatedly. They have been told they are fighting a war, so it should be no surprise when they act like soldiers and treat the "bad guys" not just as people who may have broken a law but as the enemy and, as we do to all enemies in war, as less than human.

Radley Balko put it this way in an interview a few years ago:
I think rhetoric is very important. For one, declaring war on drugs, crime, etc. conditions the public to be ready to give up some essential rights in order to win the war, as often happens during war. But it also of course has an effect on police, who have come to see themselves as soldiers on a battlefield instead of peace officers.

The war rhetoric has also been accompanied by efforts to dehumanize drug offenders. One Nixon official called them "vermin." William Bennett once floated the idea of public beheading of drug dealers. Daryl Gates once equated drug use with treason. When you tell the public that drug offenders are less than human, the public is more tolerant of treating them that way.
Part of this is the history of American police forces -- which were created to protect property and wealth and keep the rabble (blacks, Jews, the Irish, the Italians, workers) in check.
Before the 19th century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. In the northern United States, there was a system of elected constables and sheriffs, much more responsible to the population in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working-class neighborhoods.
Today's police are very different than those early forces -- far more professional and, in many places, better connected to the communities in which they serve. But their main focus remains the same -- keeping order -- and that infuses everything they do. They've also become their own standing interest group, with leaders fighting to protect members and to maintain long-won prerogatives, and the ability to influence local and state politics. (In this way, the police unions are no different than the teachers or other public employee unions, though they rarely end up the butt of criticism in the same way that teachers do.)
 If it sounds like I am being critical of all police, then you're misreading my intent. There are good cops out there -- most cops, in fact, are well-intentioned, are professional, are only interested in protecting the community. But they operate in a system designed to stifle their best impulses. Systemic reform is needed -- not just within individual police departments or even within the larger police culture, but at a societal level, a cultural level, a broad economic level. Democratizing police culture is a start, but it won't go very far until we acknowledge that we need to fix the rot at the core of the American economy and address hundreds of years of willful neglect of (and, in too many cases, outright hostility toward) Black Americans.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

All in the details

I found this paragraph interesting in today's New York Times' story on the drone program.

Consider the level of detail explaining why the Times was identifying officials, despite a government request not to do so. The paper saw it as allowable

because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.
It's a gutsy move from a news organization that often abides by these kinds of requests, and the level of detail offered explaining the paper's reasoning underscores this. It demonstrates that the needs of the readers come first while signaling that the decision was a deliberate and thought-out one.

So kudos to the paper, though I should point out that this also sets its mixed record on unnamed sources. This level of explanation should accompany every use of an unnamed source -- as should the implied level of discussion. That the Times -- and far too many other papers -- fails in this regard remains a major problem with the modern reporting process.

Monday, April 6, 2015

In journalism, it's trust but verify

Columbia University has issued a 13,000-word dissection of Rolling Stone's now discredited bombshell campus rape story, a story that was originally published in November. I still need to digest the whole thing, but based on a reading of news reports -- The New York Times, NPR, Buzzfeed -- two things seem clear:

1. Rolling Stone failed to follow solid reporting practices, failing to gain independent verification of any of the story's elements and, in the process, pretending that a single source was good enough for a 9,000-word piece designed to demonstrate how American universities are not handling rape accusations properly.

As Buzzfeed writes:
The publication of “A Rape On Campus” prompted protests on campus, but soon fraternity members and people who knew Jackie began to come forward disputing her account. The fraternity did not hold a party on the night in 2012 she said she was raped, and none of its members matched the description of her attacker. Her friends later told reporters their memories also didn’t match up with the Rolling Stone story. The magazine never contacted them before publication, they told the Washington Post.

The Columbia report identified this failure by Erdely and her editors as the most critical.

“In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped,” the report said. “That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.”
This would seem to be Journalism 101 -- you can believe your source, but you still need independent corroboration or, at the very least, other voices that support and/or contradict the main narrative. The Rolling Stone piece, however, lacked any of that.

2. The magazine, even as it offers its mea culpas, continues to point the finger at its source, calling her a fabulist and manipulator.

Here is Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone founder and its current and long-time publisher, discussing the Columbia report with he Times:
The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”
From a journalism standpoint, this is nonsense. Sources lie all the time. They misremember. They make things up. Our job as reporters is to sort through the stories as we collect information from multiple sources in an attempt to verify. Sometimes, we are successful -- Rolling Stone has done some very good work over the years and still has a solid reporting team in place -- and sometimes we fail. But our failures should never be based on a lack of reporting. And that is what happened here.

Perhaps "Jackie" did "manipulate the magazine's journalism process," as Wenner says. But that is mostly because the process was flawed, as other Rolling Stone staffers involved in the story admit. I think that's always a possibility -- we have to start by believing women who say they were raped, but before we run their stories in our magazines or on our websites, we should make a concerted effort to verify those stories. If we can't -- well, that raises a set of other questions. Why not? What impediments may exist that prevent verification? Do we have enough to at least support the accusations? What other voices do we need in the story? Should we run the story with a counter-narrative to show that there are doubts? And so on.

There need to be strong processes in place to ensure all questions are asked and answered before anything moves forward. Columbia apparently found that it wasn't the case at Rolling Stone, at least on this story, which is why Rolling Stone has to bear the blame for what went wrong.

Everyone makes mistakes -- Rolling Stone is not alone in this and piling on is far from useful. It also is not useful to point the finger at "Jackie" -- that is a different issue, a different story. This story is one of journalistic failures. Rolling Stone deserves credit for inviting in an outside "investigator" and opening its processes up for review. It deserves credit for publishing the full report on its site and a long excerpt in print. The hope is that it fixes the flawed processes identified in the report and that other news organizations can learn from Rolling Stone's mistakes.

The hope is that we can prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future. Wenner's comments, however, leave me wondering if that is possible.