Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Media Acknowledge Drive to Defund Police—but Seek to Blunt Its Radical Edge

 

Corporate media are typically loath to cover protests (at least, those not of the right-wing variety), as years of FAIR analysis can attest. But the remarkable ongoing nationwide protests against racism and police brutality have not only drawn widespread media coverage, they’ve shifted the national conversation on public safety.

In the little more than two weeks since George Floyd’s brutal death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the idea of defunding the police was mentioned on the nation’s TV networks and in its national newspapers at least 300 times. In the entire year preceding that, it was mentioned exactly twice (Washington Post, 1/10/20; CNN, 6/22/19)—both times using the specter of police defunding as a political weapon, and completely disconnected from any activism advocating for it.

Today, nearly every major outlet has published an article attempting to explain what “defund the police” means—and most are treating the call with seriousness rather than derision. This remarkable shift comes as media outlets have become increasingly critical of the widespread violence by police departments across the country against nonviolent protesters, and against journalists themselves (FAIR.org, 6/9/20).  This reporting on protester demands is a welcome change, and a testament to the power of nonviolent popular uprising.

The public’s perception that crime was rising when it was actually falling (Pew, 11/16/16) was a media failure.

It’s important to remember that media have been complicit in the steady increase in police budgets over the years. While violent crime has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, people have consistently reported for the past 20 years that they believe it is increasing. (See Gallup and Pew research.) Media have played no small role in those misperceptions. The New York Times, for example, mentioned “homicide” or “murder” in 129 headlines in 1990, when the city’s murder rate was 31 per 100,000. In 2013, when the rate had plummeted to 4 per 100,000, it ran more murder headlines—135 (HuffPost, 3/16/15).

And newspapers have long been cheerleaders for expanded policing, like the discredited “broken windows” strategy of ramping up policing of low-level offenses in the hopes of having an impact on violent crimes (FAIR.org, 7/3/16). As Josmar Trujillo has pointed out (FAIR.org, 2/12/16), in the wake of the 2014 protests over the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, reporters and pundits steered the national conversation on police reform toward the idea of “community policing”—a term as agreeable-sounding as it is vague, and which in practice typically means more police, and more reliance on police for community problem-solving—exactly the opposite of what protesters were (and still are) calling for.

Today, even as ideas for police reform that barely surfaced in corporate media in the past are becoming part of the mainstream conversation, media continue to try to steer that conversation away from its radical edge.

Are we sure this is the Washington Post (6/9/20)? “It makes sense to consider changes to ways of doing things that were never optimal but have seemed, until now, so baked-in as to be beyond questioning.”

First, the remarkable: The Washington Post editorial board (6/9/20)—not known for its friendliness to revolutionary ideas—called the “provocative slogan…a welcome call to reimagine public safety in the United States.” The editorial asked whether police really ought to be responding to mental health emergencies, dealing with homelessness, and funding local governments by “extracting fees from citizens,” and opined that “onlookers are rightfully alarmed at plans to slash social services while sparing police budgets.”

The Los Angeles Times editorial board (6/8/20), which, as it openly acknowledged, “has consistently backed the expansion of the LAPD,” argued that the city government’s proposed 8% cut to the police budget should be “the beginning of a larger rethinking of the mission and scope of the LAPD,” and that the city should stop “treating the LAPD as the answer to all public safety problems.” At the same time, the paper clearly attempted to stake out limits on the debate, dismissing local organizations’ call for a 90% police budget cut—with the funds redirected to community services and investment—as “extreme.”

At the Baltimore Sun, the editorial board (6/8/20) weighed in with ambivalent support that served to defang protester demands. “Defund the Police: Not as Scary (or New) as It Sounds,” read the headline, under which the board explained:

Here in Baltimore where the post-Freddie Gray police reform efforts have barely taken root, there’s an urgency to addressing police misconduct and criminal justice disparities (as well as broader societal inequities that transcend policing) but not necessarily to fundamentally changing course.

They concluded: “This much is clear: Defunding is not an anarchist’s plot so much as a continuation of reform efforts, many of which have proven effective.”

Editorial support for protester demands, however tepid, was hardly uniform. The ever-reliably right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial board (6/8/20), for instance, held fast to fear-mongering under the headline, “Defund Police, Watch Crime Return,”  and many big local papers likewise pushed back against calls for police budget cuts (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 6/10/20; San Francisco Chronicle, 6/9/20; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6/8/20).

“Experts Say Not So Fast” (6/7/20), on the other hand, may be the most Washington Post–y headline ever.

There are plenty of other examples of journalists and pundits throwing cold water on protester demands. Under the headline, “Protesters Hope This Is a Moment of Reckoning for American Policing. Experts Say Not So Fast,” Washington Post reporters (6/7/20) warned hopeful protesters that “Floyd’s killing might not be the watershed moment that civil rights advocates are hoping for.”

Elsewhere in the Post (6/7/20), a team of reporters describing the defund police movement framed the dilemma facing politicians:

Officials face a politically fraught decision about how to respond, weighing whether to stand with protesters who are demanding an extreme overhaul at the risk of jeopardizing public safety and taking authority away from police officers in communities that have sought more protection against violent crime.

So to “stand with protesters” means “jeopardizing public safety”—thanks for clarifying, Washington Post!

But this pat framing contradicts some of its own sources, who attempted to explain that calls for defunding the police are not calls for abandonment of public safety, but rather reinvesting in resources that will enhance public safety without the threat or use of force—and not such that “someone just flips a switch and there are no police,” in the quoted words of sociologist Alex Vitale, but over time.

It also quoted Minneapolis City Council president Lisa Bender, who explained the majority’s decision to disband the city’s police department:

It’s our commitment to end policing as we know it, and re-create systems of public safety that actually keep us safe…. Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period.

The paper countered these views with several law enforcement voices, like acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who called the idea of defunding police “an absurd assertion”—and it’s those voices that come through in the paper’s “neutral” reporting voice.

Further down, the reporters wrote:

Though a popular rallying cry at a tense moment, defunding police departments is not always what residents really want, and the issue of just how many officers to put in neighborhoods is complex, particularly in areas with high rates of crime.

As evidence of what residents “really want,” the paper pointed to a forum in Washington, DC, about

how to ensure children and teenagers have safe routes to and from school after students were killed on their commutes. Students said they wanted more officers to patrol their routes, but they also said they hated walking out of their school buildings in the afternoon and seeing police cars parked outside.

That’s the whole point: what people “really want” is safety from violence, but for many, the sources of that violence include the police. When increased policing has always been the only solution given serious discussion in media, most people have had no way to even have a conversation about how to keep safe without having to rely primarily on a force trained in the use of militarized, violent tactics—which leaves them with seemingly contradictory and impossible responses to questions of public safety.

Black Lives Matter has moved public opinion on racism and police violence nearly as much in the past two weeks as it has in the past two years–but Chris Cillizza (CNN, 6/8/20) is here to tell them how politics really works.

CNN‘s Chris Cillizza (6/8/20) devoted a recent column to the rhetorical question, “Is ‘Defund the Police’ a Massive Political Mistake?” Cillizza’s main evidence is a series of tweets by Donald Trump about the “Radical Left” and “Law & Order,” and his campaign’s farcical attempts to link Joe “Shoot ‘Em in the Leg” Biden to the Defund Police movement.

The “heart of the problem,” Cillizza argued, is that while “it is likely that what most people involved in these protests want is not to take all money away from police departments and get rid of cops,” but rather “an examination of the budgets for police departments and a look at the increased militarization of local law enforcement,” Trump will destroy the nuance of that call.

In fact, “defund the police” means different things to different people saying it, but for nearly all of them it means much more than “looks” and “examinations.” They point out that reform has been tried in many places—including Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed—to no effect, which is why alternatives to policing are needed.

But after watering down their demands, Cillizza’s solution to the problem he laid out isn’t using the power of journalism to make sure the conversation doesn’t succumb to Trump’s efforts. Instead, he advocated for politicians to likewise water down calls for deep, systemic change:

Democratic leaders need to change the conversation to be about reforming police departments and re-allocating some resources for more community building and less militarization.

By asking protesters to be less bold, to not overreach, Cillizza adheres to one of corporate media’s most important roles: placing limits on the acceptable and the possible.

Many of those calling to defund the police do mean exactly that. While nearly every outlet has been quick to ridicule the idea of defunding the police entirely as ridiculous—parroting the message coming from police themselves—police abolitionists are indeed pushing people to envision a world where police (and prisons) as we know them are obsolete.

Chicago Reader (8/25/16) on police abolitionist Jessica Disu: “In light of relentless police violence against black people, she says it’s clear that ‘our police is not working—we need to replace it with something new.'” 

Taking away 90% of the LAPD’s budget, as local activists have demanded, is essentially police abolition. As Mohamed Shehk of the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance argues:

Those in power work very hard to make us believe that imprisonment and policing are natural, but we know the opposite to be true. These systems had to be put in place, and must be constantly reinforced and legitimized to the point that we are made to believe that our society will descend into chaos if they don’t exist. In reality, the prison industrial complex is responsible for the chaos that many people experience through separation, destabilization and state violence, especially in Black, Indigenous and communities of color.

Communities past and present have long used practices of resolving harm and conflict without relying on punitive measures, like caging or policing. There are many communities today who by default address conflict themselves because they simply don’t trust the police—for good reason. More and more people have been exploring and practicing restorative and transformative justice models to hold people accountable for harm committed, many of which are inspired by Indigenous and non-Western practices and values. Harm and conflict predate cops and cages, will outlive them, and communities ultimately will continue to have creative ways of addressing and overcoming them.

In a lengthy exploration of police abolition in the independent Chicago Reader (8/25/16), activist Mariame Kaba explains to reporter Maya Dukmasova that the abolitionist project is not just about police, but the whole prison industrial complex, and that it requires rethinking entire systems of crime, punishment, property and social relations: “Abolition is not about changing one thing. It’s about changing everything, together.”

Media wave away this possibility as absurd, but how to move beyond the US’s racist, shockingly violent criminal justice system is a discussion our country not only can but desperately needs to have.

Research assistance: Loretta Graceffo

 

Missing Perspective in Media: Iran/Venezuela Ties Are None of US’s Business

 

The Washington Post (5/23/20) reports that Venezuela is “offering Tehran the prospect of a new center of influence just across the Caribbean Sea from Florida.” (By “just across,” the Post means 1,100 miles away, with Cuba in between.)

The American state not only snuffs out lives by pressing knees to necks domestically, it also seeks to asphyxiate entire countries like Iran and Venezuela. When the US empire’s foes defy Washington’s dictates, corporate media willingly participate in drumming up a crisis over it—even when what’s at stake is something as seemingly mundane as an exchange of goods. This is evident in corporate media coverage of Iranian oil shipments to Venezuela, which has framed the deliveries as a problem that needs to be solved, rather than a commercial transaction that doesn’t concern third parties.

With Iran’s tankers en route, an article in the Washington Post (5/23/20) states:

Venezuela’s US-backed opposition is providing some potential ammunition with claims the Iranians could be transporting more than mere gasoline.

Opposition leaders have warned that Tehran could be providing materials for what they describe as a covert operation to help Maduro’s intelligence apparatus construct a listening post in northern Venezuela to intercept aerial and maritime communications.

“For Iran, an enemy of the United States, this means they are almost touching America’s tail,” said Iván Simonovis, security commissioner for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader recognized by the United States as the nation’s rightful leader.

Maduro’s communications minister dismissed those claims as “absurd.”

The paper presented the issue of whether Iran is secretly sending Venezuela spy tech as a “he said, she said,” as if both claims were equally likely to be true. shred of evidence that Iran’s shipment was geared toward “help[ing] Maduro’s intelligence apparatus,” and the Post opts not to share this with readers.

Raising the alleged danger that Iran and Venezuela might be up to something nefarious, however, helps legitimize the possibility of the US carrying out a military attack to stop the delivery. The Post continued:

US officials downplayed Iran’s suggestion that those forces will confront the convoy. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Thursday he was not aware of plans to launch a military operation against the Iranian tankers.

But a senior Trump administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said the administration “would not abide” Iran’s support of Maduro.

“The president has made clear the United States will not tolerate continued meddling by supporters of an illegitimate regime,” the official said.

At no point is there anything in the article to question the idea that one country sending resources to another may be a justification for launching an act of war. Nor is any counterpoint provided to the idea that Iran is “meddling” in Venezuela by selling it oil, while the US isn’t “meddling” in Venezuela by repeatedly trying to overthrow its government (Grayzone, 1/23/20) and crushing its economy (FAIR.org, 2/6/19).

In such an ideological context, it becomes possible to present adding more sanctions, of the sort that have ravaged the healthcare systems in both Iran and Venezuela (FAIR.org, 3/25/20), as a reasonable reaction to relations between the two: “Analysts say the [Trump] administration is more likely to use additional economic sanctions than force to deter Iranian/Venezuelan trade.” This phrasing obscures the ways in which sanctions are a form of “force,” but that’s exactly the word for sanctions that have caused food shortages in Iran, and are estimated to have killed more than 40,000 Venezuelans from 2017 to 2018 (CEPR, 4/25/19).

The New York Times (5/25/20) describes Iran and Venezuela as “two pariah states run by authoritarian leaders.”

An article in the New York Times (5/25/20) made clear from the start that its audience should be concerned about Iranian/Venezuelan commerce, describing it in the second sentence as “a deepening of economic relations between Venezuela and Iran, two pariah states run by authoritarian leaders.” In other words, the bad guys are joining forces; be alarmed.

The Times quoted “a Venezuela analyst at the Eurasia Group” saying that “the oil shipment highlighted the increasingly parallel economic and political goals of [Iran and Venezuela], as well as the US government’s increasingly limited options to obstruct their relationship,” but offers nothing to question whether or why the US should be trying to “obstruct their relationship.”

The article said that “the US government, distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and having already issued harsh sanctions, is left with few retaliatory options beyond military intervention.” “Retaliatory” implies that Iran and Venezuela doing business with each other is somehow an act of aggression against the United States, a ludicrous proposition, especially given that the US government has long been carrying out a range of attacks on both nations. But such smoke and mirrors are required if “military action” is to be treated as a valid option. That the United States could react to Iran selling oil to Venezuela by doing nothing does not enter into the equation.

The Wall Street Journal (5/20/20) likewise gave credence to the proposition that more sanctions are in order, particularly against Iran, without airing the view that condemning Iran to even greater mass coronavirus death (FAIR.org, 4/8/20) so as to punish it for engaging with Venezuela would be undesirable. The paper said:

Iran’s support for Venezuela underscores the limits of sanctions as a foreign policy tool. After decades of sanctions, Iran has developed an extensive refining industry that makes its own equipment and churns out the motor fuel its population needs. With much of its oil going unsold amid sanctions and a global collapse in demand, Iran is now finding new outlets for its crude among fellow US foes.

What’s worth thinking about, evidently, is sanctions’ effectiveness, not whether they should be levied at all.

The Wall Street Journal  (5/20/20) describes Iran selling oil to Venezuela as “a challenge to the US’s nearly two century–old Monroe Doctrine, which opposes international interference in the Western Hemisphere”—as though US attempts to overthrow Venezuela’s and other Latin American governments are not “international interference.”

Nor does the piece come close to communicating the harm that sanctions have done to Venezuela and Iran. It described sanctions on Iran as “part of a broader strategy to increase pressure on the regime,” as though these measures don’t affect the general public in Iran—when, in actuality, they are killing cancer patients (Foreign Policy, 8/14/19).

The article attempted to absolve US sanctions on Venezuela for their degradation of Venezuela’s oil industry, alleging that refining

plants in the South American nation—which sits on the world’s biggest crude reserves—are derelict after years of corruption and mismanagement that predate the imposition of strict sanctions on its oil sales last year.

This claim is misleading; pre-2019 US sanctions had severely undermined Venezuela’s oil sector. As Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez, a vociferous critic of President Nicolás Maduro, points out (WOLA, 9/20/18), Trump’s September 2017 executive order recommended that financial institutions flag several transactions coming from Venezuela as potentially criminal:

Many financial institutions proceeded to close Venezuelan accounts, reasoning that the compliance risk of inadvertently participating in money laundering was not worth the benefit. Venezuelan payments to creditors got stuck in the payment chain, with financial institutions refusing to process wires coming from Venezuelan public sector institutions. Even Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned firm incorporated in Delaware, had trouble getting banks to issue it letters of credit.

These restrictions impacted Venezuela’s oil industry in several ways. First and most evidently, loss of access to credit stops you from obtaining financial resources that could have been devoted to investment or maintenance….

There are also more direct links between finance and real activity that can lead a firm that gets closed off from financial ties to experience a decline in its productive capacity. For example, one of the most effective mechanisms that [Venezuela’s state-owned energy company] PDVSA had found to raise production in recent years was the signing of financing agreements in which foreign partners would lend to finance investment in a joint venture (JV) agreement as long as they could pay the loan from the JV’s production. The executive order effectively put an end to these loans.

Likewise, before sanctions were imposed, PDVSA had begun to refinance a significant part of its arrears with service providers through the issuance of New York law promissory notes. The executive order also put an end to these arrangements.  What was unusual about PDVSA in 2017 was not that it had a large level of arrears—many oil producers had accumulated arrears after the price plunge. What was unusual is that it was unable to refinance them.

Thus US sanctions had been hampering Venezuela’s oil sector for at least two years longer than the Journal claims.

The paper also quoted Adm. Craig Faller, who heads the US Southern Command in the Caribbean, saying that “Iran’s outreach to Venezuela is meant to help it ‘gain a positional advantage in our neighborhood as a way to counter US interests.’” What’s missing from the piece is any consideration of the possibility that Venezuela is Venezuela’s “neighborhood,” and that what happens in Venezuela might not be a matter of “US interests” but of Venezuelan interests.

The article said that “Iran’s burgeoning efforts to build a trading and political outpost in Latin America present a challenge to the US’s nearly two century–old Monroe Doctrine, which opposes international interference in the Western Hemisphere.” Iran providing oil to Venezuela is “international interference,” but the US trying to be the arbiter of Venezuelan economic activity somehow is not “international interference,” though there appears to be evidence that the United States and Venezuela are not, in fact, the same country.

The Journal excludes from its account the point of view that countries in the hemisphere have a right to buy and sell resources from and to whichever countries they want, irrespective of US wishes. It did share the view of US officials that

the US could also try to confiscate the ships, through a US court proceeding called “forfeiture action” for violating American law…. But with Venezuela unlikely to cooperate with such an order, the legal tool would have to be used when the vessels stop to refuel in ports on their way to Iran, the officials said.

The paper, however, declined to platform anyone objecting to the prospect of US piracy.

There is no shortage of people from Iran or Venezuela, or US writers or peace activists, whom these papers could have turned to provide the points of view that they’ve left out. Yet many dubious-at-best angles on Iranian/Venezuelan relations are offered up as though they constitute the full gamut of takes on the matter.

Media audiences aren’t exclusively composed of unthinking rubes who believe everything they read. Yet if enough people are told, over and over again, that the US has the right to intervene anywhere it wants, and that perceived villains must be thwarted, with little to challenge this perspective, many in that audience are going to come to believe that it’s true.

It Won’t Be Protests That Bring On the Next Big Wave of Covid Infections

 

As an example of “how this might play out,” ABC (6/3/20) compared the protests to a military parade in Philadelphia during the 1918 flu pandemic: “Within a day, every hospital bed in the city was filled and within six weeks more than 12,000 Philadelphians were dead.”

As people across the nation and the world came out to protest the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, corporate media carried a warning: Demonstrations against police violence risk creating a major upsurge in the spread of the coronavirus.

As ABC (6/3/20) put it:

As thousands of demonstrators continue to protest the killing of George Floyd, health experts are worried that a second wave of Covid-19 infections could be sparked by the mass gatherings.

An opinion piece in USA Today (6/8/20) warned, “George Floyd Protests Create Risk of Deadly Coronavirus Resurgence.” “The absence of social distancing during the George Floyd protests could lead to a significant increase in cases in Minneapolis and across the country,” the subhead added.

CNN (6/1/20) reported:

With large groups of people out in hoards close together during the protests, Minnesota Governor [Tim] Walz said he expects a sharp increase in cases of Covid-19 in his state.

“I am deeply concerned about a super-spreader type of incident,” Walz said. “We’re going to see a spike in Covid-19. It’s inevitable.”

The Daily Beast (6/10/20) related:

Top officials on President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force told governors on Monday they were worried about a spike in infections due to the mass protests against racial injustice taking place across the country.

Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator…was concerned that large metro areas—ones already struggling to stabilize case numbers—would experience an uptick in cases because of the protests.

“I don’t think there’s a question of whether there will be spikes in cases in 10 to 14 days,” the Atlantic (6/1/20) quoted a researcher nine days ago.

The Atlantic was particularly urgent in its warnings. “The wave of mass protests across the United States will almost certainly set off new chains of infection for the novel coronavirus, experts say,” Robinson Meyer (6/1/20) wrote. Conor Friedersdorf (6/4/20) told readers that “the risks involved…include at least some chance of death and disease on a terrifying scale.” Alexis C. Madrigal and (again) Robinson Meyer (6/7/20) stated bluntly:

If the country doesn’t see a substantial increase in new Covid-19 cases after this week, it should prompt a rethinking of what epidemiologists believe about how the virus spreads.

Thomas Chatterton Williams in the Guardian (6/8/20)  accused supporters of Black Lives Matter protests of “distorting science”:

The climate change–denying right is often ridiculed, correctly, for politicizing science. Yet the way the public health narrative around coronavirus has reversed itself overnight seems an awful lot like…politicizing science.

But is it? If protests against police killings don’t produce a “second wave” of coronavirus infections, do we really need to rethink everything epidemiologists have told us about how Covid-19 spreads?

In fact, if we’ve been listening to what epidemiologists have told us about the coronavirus, there are reasons to believe that the protests will not have a major impact on the pandemic’s trajectory.

The coronavirus can spread quickly through an enclosed workspace, as illustrated by this map of a South Korean call center, where 44% of workers on one floor were infected; their workstations are marked in blue (Business Insider, 4/28/20).

Most obviously, protests overwhelmingly take place outdoors, and coronavirus transmission occurs overwhelmingly in enclosed spaces. As immunologist Erin Bromage (5/6/20) notes, “Of the countries performing contact tracing properly, only a single outbreak has been reported from an outdoor environment (less than 0.3% of traced infections).” One study estimated that outdoor transmission is 19 times less likely than indoor transmission (MedRXiv, 4/16/20).

Does this mean that no one will catch the coronavirus at BLM protests? To the contrary, we can be statistically certain that some infections will occur. But it does emphasize how dangerous outdoor activities have to be before they can have a significant impact on the course of the pandemic. This is part of why it’s hard to see the impact on new case rates of the anti-lockdown protests that started in mid-April, even though, from news reports, it appears people who demonstrated in favor of lifting coronavirus restrictions were far less likely to wear face masks while doing so.

Another important aspect of protests, whether against police violence or quarantines, is that even when they are huge, they involve a relatively small percentage of the population. If, as seems likely, hundreds of thousands of people across the US came out to express outrage against police killings, that’s still less than a percentage point of the US population.

Protests also tend to take place over a limited time frame. For an activity to have a sustained impact on the course of the outbreak, it needs to be a continuing change in behavior that increases the odds of transmission. In the context of a pathogen that is already widespread in the population, a one-time event can cause a temporary spike—but not a “second wave.”

So far, there’s no sign of any spike related to the BLM protests. In Minnesota, where protests started on May 26, or 15 days ago, average new cases have declined from 704 to 431 per day since then (as of June 9). New York State was averaging 1,468 new cases a day when the protests started on May 28; now it’s averaging 930. These numbers are not so much a defiance of epidemiological observations as they are confirmation.

None of this is to say that activists should not take the coronavirus into account when planning demonstrations; it remains a deadly disease for those who catch it while protesting, even if they are unlikely to shift the course of the national epidemic. Masking is highly encouraged, as is maintaining social distancing to the extent possible. Marches are safer than stationary rallies; clapping is safer than chanting.

“The overwhelming number of people held illegally are those accused of charges that should have resulted in their automatic release,” said the Legal Aid Society (Daily News, 6/4/20).

Police can play a great role in making protests safer, though of course if public safety were their paramount concern, these protests would not be happening. Anti-protest tactics like tear gas and “kettling,” reprehensible at the best of times, should certainly be abandoned in the face of a public health emergency. Holding arrested protesters in crowded cells certainly puts them at high risk for spreading the coronavirus; New York State Judge James Burke’s suspension of the rule that arrestees have to be brought before a judge or released within 24 hours, “because we are in a crisis caused by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic” (1010 WINS, 6/4/20), was a shocking prioritization of bureaucracy over human life.

But those warning that protests against police lawlessness could create a “second wave” of Covid-19—as though we were through with the first wave—are barking up the wrong tree. Of much greater concern than the protests—an outdoor activity with a limited time frame involving perhaps hundreds of thousands of people—is the reopening of the economy, which envisions tens of millions of people returning to mostly indoor workplaces for eight hours a day, five days a week, for the foreseeable future.

If we listened to epidemiologists, we would say that this an extremely high-risk change in behavior. But then, if we listened to epidemiologists, we wouldn’t be reopening the economy yet.

Featured image: Black Lives Matter march on Staten Island (cc photo: Thomas Altfather Good).

 

 

 

 

 

Media Are Slowly Starting to Be Serious About Police Violence

 

LAPD officers attack homeless man Charf Lloyd with projectiles, in a photo taken and posted to Facebook by Kirk Tsonos.

As the George Floyd protests against police violence erupted around the nation, a massive amount of evidence of police brutality was widely captured through social media. Unfortunately,  very little of it made it to mainstream outlets until much later.

For days, Twitter and Facebook were filled with videos of heavily armored police forces indiscriminately pepper-spraying marchers, firing flashbangs at crowds containing children and elderly, and shooting projectiles at people standing outside their own homes. Marchers walked away from protests with all manner of bruises and bleeding wounds, and several lost teeth and even eyes to police projectiles. To many of those immersed in the social media environment, looted or burning buildings seemed relatively unimportant compared to the state violence meted out to the population.

Though the first weekend of the protests saw fires, looting and unruly activism, media coverage generally lacked any serious analysis of the abusive police conduct. Media coverage not only demonized legitimate outrage at a broken system, it whitewashed the role police played in spreading violence and chaos. Since some of the protesters committed destructive acts against property, the assumption seemed to be, none of the protesters had human rights.

USA Today (5/30/20) put together a montage of fires and broken windows to explain the George Floyd protests to its audience.

USA Today (5/31/20) ran a piece, “Peaceful Protesters Lament Violence at George Floyd Demonstrations, but Understand the Rage Behind It.” The only violence discussed at length was the vandalism, looting and instances of fires set during protests. The piece briefly mentioned tear gas and arrests, but did not include them in its examination of how police “overreact” to peaceful protesters.

The Washington Post (6/1/20) and Reuters (5/29/20; republished by New York Times, 5/29/20) followed similar patterns, as did a USA Today video (5/30/20), titled “George Floyd Death Protesters Spread Violence, Destruction Across US Cities.”

A major New York Times article (5/28/20) described “skirmishes” with police. The language implied a parity between unarmed protesters and heavily armed and armored militarized police. One of the most common terms used to describe police violent incursions into protesters’ space was the benign word “clashes.”

Even when outlets described the rampant police violence against protesters, the language used still protected police from scrutiny. Media Matters (6/2/20), examining how media headlines sanitized police violence, found multiple uses of passive voice to avoid ascribing agency. For example, instead of declaring that police were targeting journalists, Reuters (5/31/20) merely wrote, “Journalists Targeted in Attacks.”

Reuters (6/1/20) reported that tear gas apparently fired itself at protesters while Trump coincidentally happened to be speaking.

Media Matters also found outlets describing inanimate objects committing violence instead of attributing actions to officers. For example, the Independent (5/31/20) ran the headline, “NYPD Vehicle Rams Crowd of Demonstrators in Brooklyn,” while Reuters (6/1/20) had “Tear Gas Fired on Protesters Near White House as Trump Speaks.”

Even coverage of police abuses sometimes attempted to falsely equate these abuses to protesters’ actions. For example, a USA Today (5/31/20) story that showcased police attacks on journalists tried to implicate protesters in attacks on journalists, writing, “Members of the news media appeared to be targeted, by police and protesters alike.”

The only case presented involving demonstrators was when protesters outside of the White House chased down and yelled obscenities at a Fox News camera crew as they chased them away. No physical violence occurred other than someone throwing water on the crew. For some reason, this minor incident was included in a long list of police using rubber bullets and arbitrary arrest to subdue reporters.

The Intercept (6/4/20) ran a piece by Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which noted that assaults on journalists have come overwhelmingly from police–83% of the time, according to the Foundation’s numbers, not counting dozens of arrests of journalists by police. At least some of the remaining assaults were not by protesters, Timm noted, citing an attack on Philadelphia TV reporter Jon Ehrens by “what appears to be police-aligned white nationalists.”

Slate (5/31/20) was one of the first outlets to focus on police violence as its own phenomenon in a headline “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide.” This article included some of the ample evidence of police violence widely distributed through social media.

Perhaps the increasingly overt abuses of journalists prompted outlets to be more critical of police. In one high-profile incident, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested on live TV despite clearly identifying themselves as press. Another incident saw a local news crew clearly and deliberately targeted with pepper balls by police. These incidents, along with days of massive social media backlash against police violence, likely contributed to the broader refocus on law enforcement abuses over the course of several days.

New York Times editorial (6/4/20) on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: “As evidence of police abuse has mounted, he has averted his eyes.”

By mid-week, outlets were starting to bring serious attention to police violence. The New York Times (6/4/20) published an editorial headlined “”Mayor de Blasio, Open Your Eyes. The Police Are Out of Control,” with a subhead reading, “This Is Not What Serving and Protecting Should Look Like.” Newsweek (6/4/20) ran a piece centering state violence, headlined “Protest Leaders Largely Calm Amid Unrest as Police Violence Tests Mayors and Governors.” Pieces from the Washington Post (e.g., 6/6/20) also show increased scrutiny of police brutality.

Critical coverage of police tactics has an enormous effect on how elected officials and police officers view abuses by their forces. The threat of negative representation in the media puts pressure on them to seriously address abuses — at least the obvious abuses caught on camera. Even after many mayors indicated that abuses wouldn’t be immediately dealt with early in the week, cracks in that facade are beginning to appear.

On Sunday, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis city council pledged to disband the city’s police department, asserting that it can not be reformed. House Democrats on Monday put forth a  bill to address (rather timidly) some complaints about police.

Two officers involved in forcefully knocking down and injuring a 75-year-old man, then lying about it, have been suspended from the Buffalo Police Department. Six Atlanta police were booked on charges involving excessive force after tasing and dragging two college students out of their car; a Philadelphia police commander was charged with aggravated assault for bludgeoning another student in the head. Only sustained media attention to such abuses will create the conditions for ongoing calls for justice to be answered.

Featured image: Slate photo depiction (5/31/20) of police violence. (Photo: Jason Redmond/Getty Images)

 

Reporting Curfews Through Official Eyes - For cops, protest is a problem and silence the solution

 

The Washington Post (6/1/20) depicted curfews as “necessary to discourage the arson and smashed storefronts engulfing cities still struggling to contain the coronavirus that has killed more than 100,000 people this year.”

For well over a week, uprisings have surged throughout the country in pursuit of justice for George Floyd, a black man who was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, as well as other victims of racist US state violence. As a maneuver to suppress these protests, more than 200 municipal US governments, including those of New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, instituted daily curfews.

The curfews, which began on May 30, are quite clearly a punitive measure meant to throttle protesters’ ability to demonstrate without fear of arrest or assault from police. This is far from the first time curfews have been deployed to stymie anti-racist dissent: Since at least the 1940s, governments have routinely implemented them during popular revolts throughout the United States, including those in Watts in 1965 and Ferguson in 2014. Yet, according to leading media narratives, the curfews aren’t deliberate measures of cruelty that infringe upon fundamental rights; they’re the hard but necessary choice that dedicated city officials must make in the interest of public safety.

NBC News (5/30/20) published a summary of curfews in major US cities, characterizing local governments as “bracing” for another night of protests. In a story headlined “Curfews Follow Days of Looting and Demonstrations,” the Washington Post (6/1/20) described the restrictions as “a measure pandemic-weary government officials hoped would deter violence and stanch the damage to their battered cities.” Who, exactly, was responsible for that “violence”—police armed with rubber-jacketed bullets, teargas, flash grenades, pepper bombs and batons, or protesters equipped with none of those weapons—wasn’t specified.

The New York Times (6/2/20) reported the curfew as ” a solution of some kind to a level of pandemonium on city streets that longtime New York leaders said had no recent parallel.” How the paper described this “pandemonium”: “Looters shattered plate-glass windows in the Flatiron District and SoHo, and stole what they found inside. They set scaffolding on fire.”

The New York Times (6/2/20) portrayed New York City’s first curfew since World War II as “a solution of some kind to a level of pandemonium on city streets that longtime New York leaders said had no recent parallel.” (As with the Post story, any role police played in said “pandemonium” went unaddressed.) The Times lauded the decision, which “did not come easily,” as one of careful consideration, appearing to find far more value in making unpopular choices that benefit police than in heeding the urgent demands of an aggrieved public.

The number of city and state officials and police departments cited in these stories far outnumbered that of civilians affected by these curfews. NBC News published quotes from 12 mayors, one governor and one police department, while the Washington Post solely cited “officials,” including five mayors and one police chief. Meanwhile, the New York Times spoke to current and former police—among them Bill Bratton, an architect of stop-and-frisk with a history of violence against protesters—as well as elected officials and a nonprofit executive. Only one source acknowledged the potential dangers of the curfews for late-shift workers, especially those who are black. Worse, none of the reports included commentary from protesters or workers the curfews could imperil.

This, in part, explains why media failed to capture the inequities these curfews enabled. After curfews were instated, arrests soared in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City and elsewhere, while police violently targeted those out after curfew, in some cases forcibly removing drivers and passengers from cars in order to arrest them. Compounding this, city governments repeatedly gave residents virtually no notice when issuing curfew notifications, further endangering those who were demonstrating, or merely outside, at the time of the announcements.

Meanwhile, workers in commercial food delivery and healthcare were unable to work or return home from work, while food pantry organizers were prohibited from feeding those in need—despite the fact that the work of both groups has been deemed “essential” during the pandemic. Public transit closed with the enactment of the curfews, stranding riders while leaving them vulnerable to arrest and abuse for simply existing in public after an hour chosen at the whim of government.

CNN (6/2/20): “Many cities have enacted curfews to curb the violent and destructive nature of some attendees of these protests.”

Even when media acknowledge that the curfews are, at the very least, contestable, there’s little to no focus on the barbarism of those policies. CNN (6/2/20) conceded that the curfews in Los Angeles and New York were “the harshest in decades,” only to rely on the perspectives of LAPD Chief Michael Moore, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Vox (5/31/20) and Wired (6/4/20) addressed the heightened risks people of color face when curfews are imposed. Their primary concern, however, was whether curfews would “work”—a word tacitly defined by police and the governments that buttress them—and whether curfews could “pit residents against law enforcement,” a question that ignores the very reason for the uprisings.

There are signs that curfews are dwindling, if just temporarily. After threatening to extend curfews until protests stopped, the city of Los Angeles revoked its particularly draconian curfew, which lasted for at least 12 hours for multiple days. (It’s likely that this was partially a result of an emergency lawsuit from the ACLU and Black Lives Matter, though a number of other factors, including pressure from businesses and police PR campaigns, may have contributed.) Other cities have taken similar measures.

USA Today‘s headline (6/4/20) presumes that curfews were at some point necessary.

Still, the city’s largest newspaper framed the softening as a testament to police and governments’ success at quelling crowds. In a story announcing the curfew cancellation, the Los Angeles Times (6/4/20) patronizingly presented the change as a reward to a populace that had engaged in “peaceful” protest, publishing Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s remark that curfews aren’t “needed anymore”—as though a policy criminalizing antiracist protest was ever “needed.” A recent USA Today headline (6/4/20) echoed this sentiment: “In CA: In Some Cities, Nighttime Curfew Deemed No Longer Necessary.”

As curfews elsewhere continue and police resume use of horrific, even deadly tactics, news media will have a choice: Use historical context and information from protesters on the ground to convey what’s truly at stake, or continue to defer to the deceptive pablum of police departments and mayoral offices. Given major publications’ patterns of pro-police PR (see FAIR.org, 9/2/15, 10/10/18, 1/15/20, 5/28/20), it’s not hard to imagine what that choice will be.

Featured image: New York Times photo (6/2/20) of police arresting protesters on 42nd Street after curfew (photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times).

Top 16 Euphemisms US Headline Writers Used for Police Beating the Shit Out of People

 

What NBC (5/31/20) described as “more aggressive tactics” included firing paint ball rounds at residents as they stood on their porches.

“After Curfew, Detroit Police Act Aggressively to Disperse Protesters Who Refused to Leave” (Detroit Free Press, 5/31/20)

“Minneapolis Officers Use More Aggressive Tactics Against Protesters as Rallies Flare Around US” (NBC News, 5/31/20)

“An Agitated Trump Encourages Governors to Use Aggressive Tactics on Protesters” (CNN, 6/1/20)

“Police Turn More Aggressive Against Protesters and Bystanders Alike, Adding to Disorder” (Washington Post, 5/31/20)

“After Curfew, Protesters Are Again Met With Strong Police Response in New York City” (New York Times, 6/4/20)

“Six Atlanta Police Officers Charged in Forceful Arrests of College Students in Car” (ABC News, 6/2/20)

“Despite Curfews and Heavy Police Presence, Protests Persist Across the Country” (NPR, 6/2/20)

“Low-Flying Helicopters, Heavy Police Presence Used to Disperse Protesters After DC Goes Under Curfew” (Washington Business Journal, 6/2/20)

“While Tensions Between Police and Protesters Boiled Over in Some Cities, Other Officers Joined the Movement” (CNN, 6/1/20)

“’Rush the Crowd’: Protesters Clash With Officers at End of Peaceful Rally” (WDJT, 6/4/20)

“Fiery Clashes Erupt Between Police and Protesters Over George Floyd Death” (New York Times, 5/30/20)

“Clash Between Police and Protesters in Brockton Brings Out Fireworks and Tear Gas” (WBTS, 6/2/20)

“De Blasio Denounced After Police Forcefully Clash With Protesters” (New York Times, 6/4/20)

“Mayor Downplays Rough Police Treatment of NYC Protesters” (AP, 6/5/20)

“Floyd Protests Suppressed in NYC as Police Enforce Curfew” (KIRO, 6/3/20)

“Retreat or Deploy? Nation’s Police Try to Balance Protest Response” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5/30/20)

 

 

Media Downplay Global South Leadership on Covid-19 - Only Westerners, it seems, are deserving of praise

 

Or perhaps that title should go to Vietnam’s Nguyễn Phú Trọng (Atlantic, 4/19/20).

Amid the Trump administration’s calamitous response to the Covid-19 pandemic, media have been looking to other countries for inspiration in responsible leadership during a period of crisis. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been one popular pick, having capably managed to limit the damage to only 1,504 infections and 22 deaths, as of June 5.

A widely shared article in the Conversation (4/5/20) described Ardern as putting on a “masterclass in crisis leadership.” The Washington Post (4/7/20) characterized her government’s response as a “triumph of science and leadership.” Elsewhere, she has been praised as “the most effective leader on the planet” (Atlantic, 4/19/20) who “should be teaching the rest of the world” (Guardian, 4/10/20). The Financial Times (4/19/20) unironically anointed her “Saint Jacinda.”

Despite its obvious geographical and economic advantages, New Zealand certainly deserves praise. But less deserving have been the European countries corporate media consistently highlight as outstanding performers. With over 185,000 cases and 8,763 deaths, Germany has one of the highest per capita fatality rates in the world. Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel has drawn effusive praise as somebody who “embraces science” (Atlantic, 4/19/20; Guardian, 4/16/20; Financial Times, 4/3/20). CNN (5/7/20) proclaimed her a “global leader on coronavirus”; Vox (5/21/20) said she’d been “praised for her clear and effective communication with her country — and the world.”

In its editorial on crisis leadership, the New York Times editorial board (4/30/20) also praised Merkel (while attacking China for supposedly covering up the outbreak). They highlighted and applauded the leadership of several other countries, including Denmark, Norway and Finland. Amazingly, the editorial also singled out and commended Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose inept response has led to Italy having the third-highest number of deaths in the world at the time of its publication.

There was far less praise for leaders in the Global South. Indeed, the only one mentioned by name was Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, and this was primarily because she “sent millions of face masks to the United States and Europe”—although with 443 total cases and only seven deaths, Taiwan has had a far more enviable record on Covid-19 than most of the countries featured in the editorial. True Asian leadership, according to the Times editorial board, is helping white people, apparently.

Time soon told that Sweden’s coronavirus plan was giving it the highest death rate in the world (New York Times, 5/15/20).

The New York Times (5/15/20) also published an article praising Sweden’s “more measured approach” to the virus, which essentially involved keeping most businesses open and carrying on more or less as normal. Maud Cordenius wrote that the “aggressive bombast” other countries have used “would not resonate” in Sweden. “Time will tell if my country’s coronavirus plan was wise,” she concluded. That time was five days; on May 20, Sweden became the country with the highest Covid-19 death rate per capita in the world, 50% worse than even the US (FAIR.org, 4/30/20, 5/27/20).

The problem with much of the reporting focusing on rich, developed countries where media have foreign correspondents is that it ignores often superior responses to the virus from much of the Global South, countries that have nothing like the resources of advanced Western states. Cuba has successfully bent its curve downwards, and has sent medical staff to dozens of countries around the world (FAIR.org, 4/14/20, 5/31/20), including to crisis-struck Italy, held up as a model of leadership.

The Indian state of Kerala, extremely poor by international standards, recorded its first coronavirus case a month before New Zealand. Yet an impressive feat of organization from local authorities has limited the outbreak to just 1,588 cases and 14 deaths.

Vietnam was hit by COVID-19 even earlier than Kerala, yet the entire country mobilized against the threat in a manner oft-compared to the struggle against the US military during the war. Whole towns were quarantined after a single confirmed case. Citizens have their temperature constantly checked in public buildings and transit hubs like bus stations. Food is provided to anyone self-isolating to make sure nobody needs to endanger themselves or others by leaving their homes. They have also created and mass-produced test kits, all costing less than $25 each, and giving results in 90 minutes, exporting them around the world. To date, Vietnam has still to record a single death.

But when commenting on Vietnam at all, media tend to brush off the country’s success as not down to leadership or the nationwide determination to stop the pandemic, but to its authoritarian government (e.g. NPR, 4/16/20; BBC, 5/15/20). Foreign Policy (5/12/20), for instance, published an article called “Vietnam’s Success Is Built on Repression,” which informed readers that Vietnamese authorities digitally track citizens. Wow—imagine living in a country where security services surveil your phone and social media! (For more on Vietnam, see FAIR.org, 5/15/20.)

The problem, for corporate media, is the orientation of these governments; Vietnam, Cuba and Kerala are all overtly Communist. A system media has been insisting cannot work (FAIR.org, 2/8/19, 2/3/20, 3/6/20) cannot easily be praised, so it is ignored or denigrated. Don’t expect to see any fawning articles declaring Raul Castro a saint, or wishing the “inspirational” Nguyễn Phú Trọng were president of the United States any time soon.

Perhaps the only country that moved quicker than Vietnam was Mongolia, which shut down schools, universities and other public buildings and restricted border crossings in January, before any cases had even been found. Throughout February, the country was doing what we now wish we had done: stockpiling PPE, procuring test kits and cancelling public events. To date, it has still yet to record a single in-country transmission, the only cases detected coming internationally. Yet corporate media ignore these examples in favor of praising white Western leaders with palatable political backgrounds.

One Asian country that has received praise is South Korea, a close US ally (Time, 4/30/20; Business Insider, 5/2/20; Guardian, 5/20/20). The country was hit badly at first, but through strict surveillance and contact tracing has managed to limit the outbreak to 11,668 cases and 273 deaths, far more than Kerala, Vietnam or Mongolia. Despite this, the Atlantic (5/6/20) described their response as “exceptional”—something, in an Asian context at least, it clearly was not. Indeed, per capita, South Korea lost considerably more people to the virus than China, much less Taiwan, Vietnam or Mongolia.

The cold, hard fact is that, in comparison to many countries in the Global South, the West’s response has been atrocious. Even New Zealand’s performance is surpassed by a number of nations, particularly in Asia. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s response should have been the benchmark for rich, developed countries, not the exception.

However, for political reasons, many of the world’s best performers are ignored in favor of Ardern, or even far less deserving figures in Europe. A toxic mix of political expediency, ignorance and the general assumption that Western countries must know better has infected our media, leading to a pandemic of biblical proportions.

Total confirmed deaths per capita from Covid-19, as of June 4, 2020, for selected countries on a logarithmic scale. (Note: Deaths in Vietnam, Mongolia and Taiwan are too low to show up on this scale.) (Chart: 91-VIDOC)

Featured image: Vox depiction (5/21/20) of Andrea Merkel, offered as an illustration of “female leaders around the world” who “have won praise for their handling of the crisis.”

There, I Fixed It for You… - Corporate media headlines revised as though they were journalism

 

 

Wall Street Journal (5/27/20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denver Times-Call (5/28/20)

 

 

 

 

Reuters (5/29/20)

 

 

 

 

 

Washington Post (5/29/20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Washington Post (5/29/20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

NPR (6/2/20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York Times (6/4/20)

 

 

 

 

 

NPR (6/4/20)

 

 

 

 

New York Post (5/31/20). Don’t see anything wrong with this one, actually.

 

 

 

 

Washington Post (6/1/20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graphics: Deborah Thomas

Featured image: Wall Street Journal image (5/27/20) of a protest bonfire.

Alicia Bell on Police Attacks on Journalists, Elliot Mincberg on Trump’s Judges

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KPIX 5 News reporter Katie Nielsen handcuffed by Oakland police. (photo: Erin Baldassari via US Press Freedom Tracker)

This week on CounterSpin: Police attacks on journalists covering historic, nationwide anti-police brutality protests are shocking and appalling. Will they lead reporters to back off, covering racial injustice from a safe distance? Or will they encourage them to work more deeply and consistently to amplify precisely those voices that the “forces of order,” as CNN called them, so vehemently want to silence? A lot depends on which course they take, both for racial justice and for journalism. We talk with Alicia Bell, organizing manager with the group Free Press.

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Brett Kavanaugh

Also on the show: It’s hard not to fixate on the end of the nightmare that is the Donald Trump presidency. But we do need to remember that just as there was a lead-up to Trump, there will be a legacy—one powerful part of which will be the judicial appointments, nearly 200 so far, he has made to federal courts around the country. People For the American Way has been tracking Trump appointees and the impact they’re having on issues from abortion rights to, well, police accountability. We talk about the project, Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears, with Elliot Mincberg, senior fellow at People For the American Way.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent press coverage of Covid-19 economic relief proposals.

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WOLA: Media’s ‘Left’ Source for Pro-Coup Propaganda in Venezuela

 

WOLA’s David Smilde

The mass media, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman documented decades ago, are structurally dependent on pre-ordained “experts,” who play a decisive role in filtering the information reaching the public.

When it comes to Venezuela, one DC-based think tank has become the Western media’s go-to source for confirming the US elite’s regime change groupthink (FAIR.org, 4/30/19): the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Styling itself the “leading source for independent analysis and commentary on Latin America,” WOLA is regularly cited in corporate media reporting on Venezuela across the media spectrum. Founded in 1974 and originally part of the progressive Central American solidarity movement, WOLA moved to the right in the 1990s, until by 2002 it was calling (12/02) for a “negotiated and peaceful settlement” to the “political impasse” in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez had been reelected with 60% of the vote two years earlier. But WOLA’s  “progressive” reputation—based on its decades-old critiques of Reagan administration Central America policy—still allows it to position itself as the gatekeeper of legitimate “opposition” to US Latin America policy.

WOLA’s in-house Venezuela “experts”—Tulane University sociologist David Smilde and former Open Society Latin Americanist Geoff Ramsey—excel at disseminating polite, proceduralist criticisms of US policy while validating the imperial assumptions that justify Washington’s aggression. They demarcate the leftmost extreme of acceptable opinion on Venezuela, effectively boxing out any genuinely dissenting views.

Constructively Criticizing the Godfather

The Trump administration on March 31 unveiled a “democratic transition” plan to replace Venezuela’s Maduro government with a five-person junta composed of opposition and ruling party loyalists, in defiance of the country’s constitution.

The corporate media dutifully touted the reasonableness of the Mafia-like “offer,” unanimously ignoring Washington’s threat to ramp up deadly economic sanctions until Maduro cried uncle (FAIR.org, 4/15/20).

Apparently concerned that its blackmail was too subtle, the Trump administration announced the next day, April 1, an “anti-drug” operation in the Caribbean targeting Venezuela, which was widely reported as one of the largest military deployments in the region since the US’s 1989 invasion of Panama.

The “transition” plan and military escalation came just days after the US Department of Justice on March 26 unsealed “narco-terrorism” indictments against Maduro and other top Caracas officials, including a $15 million bounty on the Venezuelan leader’s head.

Like clockwork, WOLA stepped in to rationalize US policy, even while quibbling with some of its “contradictory” elements.

In the Washington Post (4/14/20), WOLA’s Smilde explained how maintaining a $15 million bounty on Maduro would help Venezuelans “turn to national reconciliation and reconstruction.”

Smilde and Abraham Lowenthal of the Woodrow Wilson Center, writing in the Washington Post (4/14/20), applauded the Trump administration’s gunpoint “proposal” as a “step in the right direction.”

The authors notably refused to call for rescinding the indictments—which they acknowledged were part of a politicized pressure campaign—or easing illegal US sanctions in a bid to secure Chavista buy-in for the plan. Instead, they urged Washington, represented by war criminal Elliott Abrams (CounterSpin, 3/1/19), to offer “guarantees for indicted officials” against extradition, as if Maduro would resign his elected post with a $15 million price on his head and a US fleet on his doorstep.

Ramsey had likewise taken to the Post editorial page (3/27/20) a few weeks earlier to gently criticize the “narco-terrorism” charges as feckless and politically motivated, but he conceded their core premise that Venezuela is essentially a narco-state:

There’s no question that organized criminal elements, including drug-trafficking organizations and Colombian guerrilla groups, have penetrated state institutions in Venezuela. The allegations are not surprising given the clear corruption and authoritarianism of the Maduro regime, and they are serious.

Ramsey (Washington Post, 3/27/20) argues that indictments are the wrong way to secure “a peaceful, negotiated and orderly transition” in Venezuela.

Ramsey presented no evidence to support these significant claims, merely linking to another Post op-ed (7/5/19) by Venezuelan emigre blogger Francisco Toro, whose main source regarding Colombian guerrilla activity in Venezuela is none other than the Colombian government, which was caught lying on that very subject last year.

Ramsey levels such accusations against Venezuela without saying a word about his own government’s well-documented role in abetting drug money laundering, and waging imperial dirty wars in league with narcotics traffickers, among any number of other examples of systemic US lawlessness.

Compared to gangster states like the US, the Maduro “regime”—which was reelected in 2018 by a greater percentage of the electorate than Trump in 2016 or Obama in 2012—is infinitely less “corrupt” and “authoritarian.” Western liberals and leftists’ refusal to acknowledge this reflects imperial indoctrination and arrogance (FAIR.org, 2/12/20).

Indeed, for Ramsey, Washington’s sin is not its sixth coup attempt in 20 years against an elected government, but its “baseless optimism”: its belief “that if they just saber-rattle hard enough, the Maduro regime will collapse under its own weight.”

Revealingly, his op-ed contained no mention of US sanctions, estimated to have killed tens of thousands—sanctions that WOLA initially embraced, then very inadequately critiqued, and often, as here, helped the media ignore entirely.

Sycophants for Sanctions

WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey

WOLA has long been given a prominent media platform to make the liberal case for US sanctions as a legitimate means of forcing the Maduro government to “negotiate.”

Both Smilde and Ramsey were cheerleaders for the Trump administration’s August 26, 2017, financial sanctions, which effectively cut Venezuela off from global credit markets, denying the country desperately needed loans to finance its economic recovery. Crucially, the move blocked Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA’s US-based subsidiary, Citgo, from repatriating profits, which were averaging $1 billion per year. For reference, Venezuela’s medical imports totaled $2 billion in 2013.

Smilde told the Associated Press (8/25/17) that he backed the sweeping unilateral measures, which the outlet disingenuously mischaracterized as “limited sanctions targeting future indebtedness.”

The Tulane University professor’s most vocal concern was that even more severe economic sanctions “would bolster his [Maduro’s] discourse that Venezuela is the target of an economic war.”

At the time, Smilde and Ramsey released a statement on behalf of WOLA praising the “virtues” of the financial embargo, which they claimed

complicate[s] the Maduro government’s finances in such a way that…will not have an immediate impact on the population (although in the longer term, they likely would).

In fact, even anti-Maduro economist Francisco Rodríguez, considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Venezuela’s economy, immediately raised fears that the coercive measures “risk worsening the country’s already deep economic crisis” (Financial Times, 9/12/17).

No, says Smilde (New York Times, 1/14/18)—instead it should “continue to pressure Mr. Maduro by deepening the current sanctions regime.”

Several months later, Smilde (New York Times, 1/14/18) doubled down, urging Washington and its allies to “continue to pressure Mr. Maduro by deepening the current sanctions regime.”

Despite warning against “widening economic sanctions to an oil embargo,” he praised the existing financial sanctions, which he credited with “bringing the Maduro government to the negotiation table.”

The WOLA fellow’s defense of sanctions came just 48 hours after Rodríguez published another article (Foreign Policy, 1/12/18) revealing that Venezuelan imports had declined by a further 24 percent in the two months following the August measures, “deepening the scarcity of basic goods.”

Smilde’s indifference to Venezuelans’ suffering under the sanctions he championed was only matched by his contempt for their political will, refusing to acknowledge that over 55 percent of the population unsurprisingly opposed the noose around their economy’s neck, even according to pro-opposition pollster Datanálisis.

Even more cynically, Smilde sought to frame his endorsement of the financial blockade as dovish opposition to US military intervention: “A military strike against Venezuela would be folly,” he warned, taking the standard liberal stance that casts Western aggression as a “blunder” at worst—never a brutal crime.

Art of the Cover-Up

But as the deadly toll of US sanctions became increasingly difficult to justify, WOLA eagerly assisted the corporate media in concealing their existence.

Ramsey (New York Times, 8/29/18) calls on the US to “help out” refugees with “a commitment to defending and restoring their rights”–in other words, a continuation of the policy of destroying their country’s economy.

Writing on the one-year anniversary of the sanctions, Ramsey and WOLA Andes director Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli penned an op-ed (New York Times, 8/29/18) accusing Maduro of having “brought his country to its knees.”

Under the ironic headline “Venezuelan Refugees Are Miserable. Let’s Help Them Out,” the authors related harrowing stories of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, with one key omission: They failed to dedicate even one line to the US financial embargo that exacerbated Venezuela’s economic crisis and fueled the “exodus” they decried.

This elision was especially glaring, given that not just Rodríguez (Foreign Policy, 1/12/18) but a growing number of internationally renowned intellectuals and human rights activists, including then–UN independent expert Alfred-Maurice de Zayas (Real News, 3/14/18), were sounding the alarm bells about the sanctions’ lethal impact.

Ramsey and Sánchez-Garzoli proceeded to blame the collapse of Colombia’s peace process on Caracas (which incidentally helped negotiate the accords), absolving Bogotá and Washington of their almost exclusive responsibility for the failure:

As the exodus grows, it also threatens to undermine Colombia’s peace process.

Colombia has promised to improve badly needed services to marginalized communities as part of an accord with FARC rebels, and the arrival of Venezuelan refugees has complicated the situation.

The authors made no mention of the Colombian state’s systematic violation of the peace accords, including the assassination of at least 75 social leaders from January through August 2018. Sánchez-Garzoli was doubtless aware of this fact, having published a WOLA statement on the very topic eight days prior.

Instead of denouncing the Colombian narco-state’s reign of terror, WOLA sympathetically urged Colombian President Iván Duque (FAIR.org, 7/2/19)—the protegé of ultra-right paramilitary-linked former President Álvaro Uribe—to “lead a regional protection and assistance effort for fleeing Venezuelans.” An informed reader would have to conclude that Ramsey and Sánchez-Garzoli’s purpose was to whitewash the US and its ally (Extra!, 4/01; FAIR.org, 2/1/09; Colombia Reports, 12/29/19) as they menaced Venezuela.

Days before Maduro’s inauguration for his second term, Smilde and Lowenthal (The Hill, 1/6/19) called for “the internal mobilization of a unified opposition, in tandem with international pressure” to force the Venezuelan president to enter “negotiations.” Here “international pressure” was a not-so-subtle euphemism for sanctions, which they steered clear of mentioning, let alone denouncing.

Smilde was certainly cognizant of the data pointing to a plausible causal link between the US financial blockade and Venezuela’s collapsing oil production, as WOLA published an article by Francisco Rodríguez (9/20/18) making such a case months before. Yet he and his colleague remained silent on that, preferring to encourage the right-wing opposition to unify and mobilize against the Venezuelan government—incidentally, just as the opposition had in the violent US-backed coup attempts of 2002, 2002/03, 2013, 2014 and 2017.

To this end, Smilde and Lowenthal compared the difficulty of transition from Chavista governance with the challenges faced by movements that resisted various dictatorships: Pinochet’s Chile, apartheid South Africa and Communist Poland. In reality, Chavismo’s opponents face less formidable challenges than third-party candidates in the US.

Faux Opposition to Mass Murder 

WOLA’s defense of sanctions continued after the previously unknown head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled parliament, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself “interim president” of the country on January 23, 2019, with Washington’s blessing.

You know you’ve made it in Washington when CNBC (1/24/19) calls you a “pro” when it brings you on to discuss the best strategy for regime change in an official enemy state.

Speaking to CNBC (1/24/19), Ramsey argued against a US oil embargo, on the grounds that the existing sanctions afforded necessary “pressure” on Maduro:

There already are a series of important sanctions against Venezuela. The US has leveled strong financial sanctions that restrict the government’s ability to get access to new debt…. I don’t think there’s any shortage of pressure. What we need is engagement.

In addition to continuing to back the sanctions, WOLA refused to call out Guaidó’s self-swearing in as a coup attempt, even though it triggered a de facto trade embargo, given that the US and its allies no longer recognized the Maduro government’s right to invoice Venezuelan oil exports.

Rather, Smilde told Democracy Now! (2/5/19) that “it’s a plausible interpretation that if there’s…not a legitimate president, it will be the National Assembly president that steps in as interim president.” He did raise concern about the US recognition of Guaidó creating “a real difficulty in Venezuela in terms of the lack of funds coming in,” but at no point did he condemn it as a coup.

WOLA released a statement criticizing the oil embargo that the Trump administration formalized on January 28, though it stopped short of calling for the illegal measure to be unconditionally rescinded.

Despite acknowledging that “sanctions have punished and weakened populations” in Zimbabwe, Syria and North Korea, the think tank merely suggested that the new measures should be lifted “if there is no way for the human cost of these oil sanctions to be avoided.” WOLA made no mention of the previous financial sanctions exacerbating “the severe hardships and suffering” that they decried.

However, as sanctions predictably caused drastic fuel shortages across Venezuela and Washington moved to tighten the deadly siege, WOLA still refused to demand that they be lifted. The fact that prominent economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot published a study (CEPR, 4/19) finding the August 2017 financial sanctions responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths over the following year was apparently of negligible concern to them.

Smilde (New York Times, 6/11/19) compares talks between the Venezuelan government to the “democratization process in Poland, Spain, South Africa, Chile and Brazil”—though replacing an elected president with the kind of junta Smilde envisions would seem like a step toward the dictatorships of Chile and Brazil rather than away from them.

Meanwhile, Smilde and Lowenthal were quite busy penning op-eds urging “strong international support” for Norway-mediated talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition (New York Times, 6/11/19; The Hill, 7/3/19).

“Strong international support” evidently meant continuing devastating sanctions, because in neither piece did the authors call for sanctions relief.

The Times article—published five days after the Treasury Department banned the export of diluents to Venezuela, which are vital for gasoline and diesel production—did not even contain the word “sanctions.”

In the absence of any credible domestic opposition to its coup policy, the Trump administration doubled down in August, expanding the existing embargo to an Iran-style ban on dealings with the Venezuelan state, enforceable via secondary sanctions on third party actors.

WOLA teamed up with several Latin American partner organizations to issue yet another deferential statement (8/6/19) expressing “deep concern about the potential for these broad economic sanctions to aggravate Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency.”

As it had in January, WOLA politely recommended that perhaps the Trump administration should lift its illegal blockade “if there is no way to avoid the human cost of these measures and provide humanitarian assistance with the urgency and breadth that is required.”

In comments to corporate media, Ramsey criticized the escalation as an electoral ploy “built on Cold War rhetoric” (New York Times, 8/6/19), but he once again parroted US propaganda that sanctions were motivated by an interest in democracy (Bloomberg, 8/9/19):

If there are clear, verifiable signals that new presidential elections would be free and fair, the US government could be interested in ways to loosen the impact of economic sanctions without lifting them entirely.

The August 2017 financial sanctions, which Ramsey helped justify and then conceal, were levied 16 months before the deadline for Venezuelan presidential elections. Like the US embargo on Sandinista Nicaragua in the 1980s, the sanctions had absolutely nothing to do with whether Maduro won “free and fair” elections, which he had in 2013 and did again in 2018 (FAIR.org, 5/23/18).

Rather, the US blockade is a naked expression of imperial might, which WOLA and other Western propaganda amplifiers hide behind empty rhetoric about “democracy” and “human rights.”

‘The People Capturing Police Violence on Video Are the Ones Enhancing Public Safety’ - CounterSpin interviews with Alex Vitale, Chase Madar and Shahid Buttar on racist policing

The May  29, 2020, episode of CounterSpin featured archival interviews about police racism with Alex Vitale (originally aired 10/27/17), Chase Madar (10/23/15) and Shahid Buttar (9/9/16). This is a lightly edited transcript.

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<a href=”http://www.fair.org/audio/counterspin/CounterSpin200529.mp3″><strong>MP3 Link</strong></a>

New York Times (5/26/20)

Janine Jackson: This week on CounterSpin: The May 26 New York Times reports that authorities are looking into “the arrest of a black man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee.” Police murder yet another black person in broad daylight, and the Times can’t bring itself to use active verbs.

George Floyd was killed by a police officer who remained on the force despite a record of violence and complaints, his murder was covered up as a “medical incident” by the police department, and, when people protested the killing, police tear-gassed and shot at them with rubber bullets. Now law enforcement will investigate law enforcement.

Seeing all of this, again, more people are coming to consider that racist policing cannot be “reformed” with an occasional lawsuit and some implicit-bias classes. CounterSpin has had unfortunate occasion to discuss the issue many times. We talked about the history of policing with professor and author Alex Vitale. We’ll hear some of that conversation today.

Many hold out hope for justice from the courts for police crimes. We talked about the problems with that path with civil rights attorney and author Chase Madar. We’ll revisit that as well.

And: Without the bystander video, we’d only have the police version of George Floyd’s death. We wouldn’t know he said he couldn’t breathe, that multiple people pleaded with the cops to stop what they were doing. The New York Times calls that “video raising questions about the police narrative”; actually, it’s communities desperate to be believed when they say law enforcement doesn’t value their lives, using one of the few tools left to them. We talked about supporting these critical witnesses with Shahid Buttar, then-director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

That’s all coming up this week on CounterSpin. CounterSpin’s brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

***

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MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: The litany of instances of police violence and misconduct is both infuriating and almost numbing. Our guest’s new book suggests we reconsider our understanding of policing, see it less as a tool that has on some occasions been used for abuse, and more as a tool for abuse, a system that does considerable harm even when functioning as designed. That reflects more closely the history of the institution in this country, and it’s really only seeing things that radically—going to the root—that lets us see a way out; not a way back to some imagined time in which there was harmony between police and community everywhere, but forward to a time in which policies of punishment don’t distort so many societal functions, and consign huge numbers of, especially, black and brown people to the margins.

The book is called The End of Policing; author Alex Vitale is professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Alex Vitale.

Alex Vitale: Thank you.

JJ: People are offended, I think morally, when you suggest that the inequity of the impact of policing is not a bug but a feature. I think we tend to think of it as an institution made in a lab, you know: We need protection from criminals, so let’s create “law enforcement.” I wonder if you would tell us a little bit of the actual history of US policing, that shapes the role that we see it playing today.

Alex Vitale: “If we embrace supposed reforms to policing that just re-empower the police, and relegitimize the police, without really addressing the negative consequences of what they’re doing, then we haven’t really accomplished anything.”

AV: Sure. There’s a standard liberal narrative, academic narrative, historical narrative, about the police that begins with the London Metropolitan Police formed in 1829. And the idea that’s propagated behind it, is that it was an improvement over the kind of semi-professional watch, that was made up of volunteers and others pressed into service, that would walk around at night, on the one hand, and the use of the militia to put down riots and disorder, on the other hand. And the feeling was that this would be a civilian force under the control of local authorities, and would engage in a kind of neutral enforcement of the law.

But the reality is, is that the model for the London Metropolitan Police actually is directly tied to the British occupation of Ireland. And the person who creates the London police, Robert Peel—Robert, Bob, the Bobbies—had been in charge of the British occupation of Ireland, and it was there that he begins to develop the idea of a civilian force that could be used to put down rural uprisings more efficiently than relying on the British army, which would have been tied up in the Napoleonic Wars, was overstretched and highly indebted. So he creates the Irish Peace Preservation Force, which is located in local communities, which allows for better surveillance and preemptive action to put down social unrest.

London, during this period, is awash in this newly industrializing working class that’s come from rural areas, and the job of the police was to micromanage the lives of this new industrial urban workforce, in a way that tried to mold them into a reliable workforce. So there were all kinds of little minor nuisance laws that were enforced, as well as proscriptions on, you know, drunk and disorderly behavior, etc., that had the purpose of getting people to go home to their families, get up in the morning and go to work and be productive, and to try to stamp out lifestyles that weren’t tied to a standard industrial work life. At the same time, they put down riots, they put down labor movements, they attacked strikers, etc.

And we can see this in the US context as well, with the creation of forces to drive Native American populations out, to drive out Mexicans from what was becoming Texas at the time, to stamp out workers movements, to shoot miners in Pennsylvania, etc. And so the book basically argues that the origins of policing should be understood as intimately tied to three major forms of accumulation during the 19th century, and these are slavery, colonialism and the new industrial workforce.

JJ: The definition of crime itself has been very much shaped by the social control impetus of the enterprise of policing.

AV: It was a new way of constructing state power that was more fine-tuned than relying on the army and the militia. It was able to produce legitimacy for the state in a way that the army was not; it relied on brute power. And so this was much more efficient for the state.

And the state immediately began on this kind of mythmaking, of saying that, well, of course we understand the state is legitimate, because these are liberal democracies of some form, and therefore any expression of state power is legitimate. But all of that discourse completely hides slavery, completely hides the suppression of workers’ movements, and so the actual tasks of this seemingly legitimate state are in fact designed to reproduce race and class inequalities, and the police are just a softer touch in carrying out that mission.

Verso (2017)

JJ: So what are some of the alternatives to policing that the book is getting at?

AV: What I do is I take eight areas of policing, and look at the origins of that kind of policing, what the problem is it claims to be trying to solve, and then look at the literature that shows just how many problems that kind of policing actually produces, rather than resolves, and then try to lay out a series of alternatives to relying on police.

So we don’t need nicer school police, we don’t need better-trained school police. The whole idea of school policing is deeply flawed. All the research shows that it doesn’t make young people any safer, it contributes to an environment of insecurity for young people; it’s also often demeaning, degrading, abusive and at times even deadly to these young people.

There are alternatives to relying on police to deal with discipline issues in schools. And there are schools that are using these methods, like restorative justice programs, where the whole school is oriented, not towards driving people out of school and into the criminal justice system, but in trying to actually resolve problems. And they use various forms of peer mediation, peer adjudication.

We could look at a community schools model that’s being tried out in some areas, where the school is seen as a resource center for the whole community, so that after hours, on the weekends, there are classes and services available to the families of students. So that if there is a mental health issue, if there is an English-as-a-second-language problem that maybe is contributing to financial insecurity, if there are nutrition issues, health issues, the school could be seen as a resource for that, rather than just another place where young people are criminalized.

New York Times (10/24/17)

JJ: Many would say it’s time for a bold vision. I’m reminded, though, of an op-ed I just saw a few days ago, saying that calling for universal healthcare is going to re-elect Donald Trump. It seems like people who want things really to change are seen as antagonists, not just of conservatives or the right wing, but of many people who define themselves as centrists. You get this feeling of, oh, we also want this social change that you’re calling for, but if you really push for it, well, then you’re to blame for anything that happens. It’s hard not to hear a kind of “go slow, go slow,” which, I just wonder, that seems something we have to fight against as well. Bold ideas require courage, and not least the courage to hold one another up when we’re being attacked as being somehow the real reason that we can’t see any change.

AV: Well, I have two thoughts on that. One is that if we embrace supposed reforms to policing that just re-empower the police, and relegitimize the police, without really addressing the negative consequences of what they’re doing, then we haven’t really accomplished anything, and we’ve actually maybe made things worse.

The other is that policing is overwhelmingly a local concern, and the vast majority of policing happens in major urban areas, the majority of which are run by Democrats. And so we should not be paralyzed about broader national political trends in trying to do something about this. Wherever you’re listening to this, there are local politicians who are empowering the police to be a coercive force, in a way that lets them off the hook from engaging in real problem-solving that will produce real justice for people, and we can do something about that, wherever we are.

***

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Janine Jackson:  When the Cuyahoga County prosecutor released two reports asserting that Cleveland police officers acted reasonably in shooting a 12-year-old boy holding an air pistol within seconds of arriving on the scene, it was seen by many as preparing the public for the fact that the prosecutor would not be strenuously pursuing indictment of the officers before the grand jury.

And for many, that’s depressing, but not terribly surprising. There are some who believe law enforcement don’t make mistakes, or any mistakes they make should be overlooked, because they have a hard job. Those that don’t share that view look to the legal system to bring justice when police officers fail, but every day brings evidence that that faith is misplaced, that the mechanisms that in theory should serve as checks on police power either exist in theory more than in practice, or don’t exist at all.

How can those outraged by police violence turn anger into change? Here to discuss the issue is Chase Madar; he’s a civil rights attorney and the author of the book The Passion of Chelsea Manning. Welcome to CounterSpin, Chase Madar.

Chase Madar:  Great to be talking with you.

JJ: The fatal shooting of Tamir Rice by Officer Timothy Loehmann was heartbreaking. It didn’t come out of the blue, though. The Cleveland Police Department has already been cited by the Justice Department for excessive force, for which officers are rarely disciplined. A 2013 investigation by the state attorney general found “systemic failure,” that was their term, systemic failure in the department. There’s just a lot of wrong in this story, from the failure to vet Loehmann, who had a terrible record, to the harassment of Rice’s family; it’s staggering.

But now all the attention is on the prosecutor and the grand jury, as if some measure of justice will come from that process. But the law on police shootings just doesn’t work the way that people might imagine it does, does it?

Chase Madar: “The laws as they actually exist in the United States, not as we wish they might be, but as they actually exist, are incredibly deferential to police officers using lethal violence.”

CM: No, it doesn’t, and it’s important to face that head-on from the very beginning. I think there is a very hard-wired tendency among Americans in general, and liberals in particular, to think that even when things are going wrong, that the law is good and fundamentally on our side, that the law is synonymous with justice.

And people like to think this, whether it’s regarding the dysfunction of our financial system, that it must be the result of crime rather than the ordinary workings of our financial laws. People think that anything that goes wrong in wartime must be a crime, even though the laws of war are incredibly permissive, really have the function of licensing acts of lethal violence, more than restraining it.

And this goes double, triple, quadruple for police violence. In fact, the laws as they actually exist in the United States, not as we wish they might be, but as they actually exist, are incredibly deferential to police officers using lethal violence. And this is not just a matter of local aberrations in places like Ferguson, Missouri, or Staten Island; the laws really shielding police violence from accountability—that goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, and it’s a part of Supreme Court jurisprudence that police can really fire with a great degree of latitude.

JJ: What is that legal underpinning? There’s something called “objective reasonableness” that seems to get to the heart of the actual standard in play when police kill somebody.

CM: In the 1985 landmark US Supreme Court case of Tennessee v. Garner, the Court set up an “objectively reasonable” standard for whether or not a police officer can use lethal force. And, of course, this sounds wonderful; what could be better, an objectively reasonable standard? You got to be objective, that’s good; and reasonable, who could be against that?

But the way this has worked out in actual practice in courts, including the Supreme Court in subsequent decisions about police violence, is that it is incredibly deferential to police officers; it’s really what seemed objectively reasonable to the police officer at that moment, without any second-guessing being allowed, without any hindsight being allowed, and it’s more of a subjectively reasonable test.

Now, there are limits; I don’t want to say that absolutely anything goes. But if there’s any conceivable way to justify what a police officer has done, it’s probably going to hold up in court. And those of us who know the law were therefore not so surprised by the no bill of indictment handed down for the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, or by the police strangulation of Eric Garner in Staten Island, which also came up with a no bill of indictment in the grand jury. And what I mean by that is, these cases were not even brought to trial; they were deemed by the grand jury to be not trial-worthy, not strong enough.

Looking at the other mechanisms where you think you might be able to restrain police violence, or control and regulate the police use of violence, they usually come up empty-handed too. You might think that suing a police department, OK, while it doesn’t result in a criminal conviction or prison sentence for police officers, shouldn’t that install good behavior or better behavior, shouldn’t that incentivize good behavior? Surely the financial hit of a big multi-million dollar payout will set up a new incentive structure, and will deter bad behavior in the future. It makes common sense, but it turns out to be all wrong.

In fact, the payouts that police departments routinely give out, especially in big cities, that money does not come from police department budgets at all; it comes from, usually, a general city budget. The individual police officer at fault doesn’t have to pay any money himself or herself. And in New York City, even if there’s a successful suit against a police officer, I was told by Ron Kuby, a veteran civil rights litigator who sues the police routinely, that the report of this lawsuit won’t even be put in a police officer’s permanent record, or in his or her file.

JJ: Ultimately the taxpayer is paying for —

CM: Yes, ultimately it’s the taxpayer; that’s the cruel irony of this.

JJ: I think people want police who kill people who pose no threat to them to go to jail, just like criminal bankers—not because they think jail fixes everything; I think it’s the double standard that galls, the “one law for me, another for thee.” We have people doing life without parole for marijuana offenses. But if we want institutional change, how far would even criminal prosecutions go toward achieving that?

CM: They should be used, and they should even result in convictions sometimes. But if we want real institutional change, then I think we’re going to have to have a different focus, and a broader focus than that. Because criminal prosecutions, using that as the spear tip, really doesn’t seem to work to reform police departments, to change police behavior. And I think when it comes to reforming police departments and police behavior, it’s either go big, and look at the really big picture, or just—that’s just the only way. Or nothing.

***

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Ramsey Orta’s video showed NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo using a fatal—and illegal—chokehold on Eric Garner.

Janine Jackson: If the expression “I can’t breathe” holds power for you, it’s because of Ramsey Orta. He’s the one who held his cellphone camera steady while New York police Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked the life out of Eric Garner in July of 2014.

Garner was Orta’s friend. He used to give Orta’s daughter a dollar to spend at the local store every time they walked past. Ramsey Orta’s been sentenced to four years in prison, stemming from drug and weapon charges, those that stuck among the many and various police have brought against him since the Garner video came to light.

Chris Leday uploaded video of Alton Sterling’s killing at the hands of Baton Rouge police. Reporting to work the next day, he was arrested, handcuffed and shackled by civilian and military officers. First he “fit a description,” then it was assault charges that didn’t exist; finally, it was unpaid traffic tickets.

Diamond Reynolds, who filmed the killing of her partner, Philando Castile: handcuffed and held in jail for eight hours, separately from her four-year-old daughter.

If you’re seeing a frightening pattern here, you’re doing more than most mainstream journalists. The targeting of citizen journalists for retaliation by law enforcement would present concerns enough for freedom of speech, and for the rights of communities to maintain their own safety, were it not matched with a disheartening absence of support from a media establishment that has premised thousands of stories on their world-changing work.

Joining us now to talk about what protections exist for civilian journalists, and what more may be needed, is Shahid Buttar. He’s director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He joins us now by phone from San Francisco. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Shahid Buttar.

Shahid Buttar: Thank you so much for having me, Janine.

JJ: The expression “kill the messenger” comes to mind, or at least fail to support, much less celebrate, the messenger, to the extent that they’re not sure they’d do the same thing again. First of all, regular people who film police actions are on the right side of the law as it exists, aren’t they?

Shahid Buttar: “What we’re talking about is criminalizing transparency to protect illegitimate uses of power. And that, of course, is what the Constitution is supposed to stop.”

SB: Absolutely. The First Amendment unambiguously protects the right to observe and record police activities. And the failure of police departments and agents and officers around the country to respect those rights, and, similarly, the failure of the journalistic profession, I think, generally to stand in solidarity with those rights—that is to say, the right of the press, which does not make a distinction between professional and grassroots journalists—is alarming.

And I think this is one of the places where the rubber hits the road, in terms of the words in the  Constitution and the rights they aim to protect, that being the rubber hitting the road of social practice, and in this case, public safety agencies that perceive any threat to their own political power as analogous to a threat to public safety.

And that, of course, precisely gets the relationship wrong, because the people who are capturing police violence on video, they are the ones enhancing public safety here, as well as standing behind very well-settled law, that unfortunately the agencies, and unfortunately a lot of journalists, choose to disregard.

JJ: It isn’t as if we’re talking about a mere legal abstraction. Of course, the context is we’re talking about vulnerable people and communities who have this almost accidentally democratic tool, or technology, that they can use to get some hope of awareness for things that they’ve lived with forever.

And that brings me to the journalistic point. Activist and writer Josmar Trujillo wrote that these copwatchers are not only willing and able to do work that reporters, mainstream reporters, either won’t or to some degree can’t do. They’re looking at issues of policing that impact communities of color the most. And it matters that they are oftentimes of these communities, they have also insights that matter.

FAIR.org (3/23/16)

And what Josmar  was saying was, it’s not enough to simply say they should be allowed to film; we really do have to be outraged collectively when they are harassed. And he made the point that for an individual cop watcher, having police arrest you and take your phone and erase your footage, it’s like if you raided the offices of CNN, and destroyed their files and their equipment, and we should see a commensurate response from journalists.

SB: I absolutely agree. I mean, the journalistic profession has been taking it on the chin at the hands of the government for decades. And to watch the ranks of journalists fail to internalize that attack is disappointing.

I go back to the Justice Department, monitoring the cell phones of AP journalists in Washington, right? Or the repeated attempts to force reporters to divulge their sources in the context of investigations of national security leaks. Or, for that matter, the vilification of whistleblowers, which is no different.

Across all of these contexts, what we’re talking about is criminalizing transparency to protect illegitimate uses of power. And that, of course, is what the Constitution is supposed to stop, right? We’re supposed to be committed as a country to transparency, and to reining in arbitrary power, but we actually, in each of these situations, whether it’s criminalizing and persecuting whistleblowers for revealing fraud, waste and abuse or lies by executive officials, or whether it’s jailing grassroots journalists who are recording the police departments in their communities using arbitrary violence to, in some cases, kill people, extrajudicially, without ever proving guilt of any offense at all, let alone a serious one—and I’ll just throw in an added gloss here—this is at the same time, mind you, that senior executive officials do lie about grave issues of global importance, and get away with it.

***

Janine Jackson: That was Shahid Buttar. Before him, you heard Chase Madar and Alex Vitale.

Writers Leave UAW, but Pledge to Keep Fighting for Freelancers’ Rights

 

Members of the National Writers Union proclaiming their UAW affiliation in happier times. (photo © Thomas Altfather Good)

 

The National Writers Union—which represents independent journalists, in addition to authors, playwrights and screenwriters—is disaffiliating from the United Auto Workers, which it has been part of since 1992. And the reason for the divorce raises concerns about how to advance labor rights in the media industry, which is notorious for its reliance on freelancers.

Tension has been building for a while. As the NWU said in a statement:

In December 2018, we were informed by the UAW legal department that a voluntary agreement we had reached with The Nation was a violation of the Sherman Act and an antitrust violation. We were told not to renew this agreement, and not to negotiate any new agreements. Despite getting three legal opinions supporting our work, the UAW legal department declined any further discussions.

NWU president Larry Goldbetter: “I almost welcome a challenge.” (photo © Thomas Altfather Good)

The timing was curious. As NWU president Larry Goldbetter told FAIR, this came as the union was set to reestablish these types of agreements with publications, and to embark on a mass organizing project for freelancers. He said:

Previously, we had 18 of these agreements going back a decade ago. Then the union hit a rough time, a health insurance debacle, lost members, got put into trusteeship, and these agreements either lapsed or these employers went out of business. So we started renewing them. The Nation was the first one. We wanted to find friendly places, and knock out a string of them. The Nation was tremendously cooperative and accommodating. Then we got one with In These Times and then Jacobin, and at the end of 2018, we were ordered to stop.

Goldbetter believes the NWU—which is talking to other big unions about re-affiliating—will continue to settle more of these types of agreements, despite the UAW’s expressed concern that, because freelancers function as independent contractors, they may run afoul of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits “price-fixing.” As Goldbetter sees it, there are all sorts of independent workers who are also covered by collective-bargaining agreements, like professional athletes and movie directors. “There’s decades of cases, and there are certainly rulings against people trying to organize, but there are more rulings in favor than there are against,” Goldbetter said. “We’re confident that if we do get challenged, we would win. I almost welcome a challenge.”

The legal issues the UAW brought up aren’t out of nowhere, and they can create headaches for labor. Sanjukta Paul, a labor law professor at Wayne State University, wrote in an article abstract for the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal (8/21/15):

The threat that organizing for decent wages and working conditions will be prosecuted as price-fixing is a powerful constraint upon [freelance] workers’ ability to take action to change their circumstances…. The default rule that workers and other less-powerful economic actors are subject to the heavy hammer of the price-fixing doctrine for cooperation in pursuit of a decent livelihood ought to be revisited.

The UAW may be touchy about legalities because it’s under federal scrutiny (New York Times, 3/5/20).

And the UAW has reason to be worried about legal issues. The New York Times (3/5/20) reported that a federal corruption probe into the union has widened. Given the anti-union tendencies of the current administration, it’s not out of the question that it would pursue an antitrust case against the NWU. Such charges might not hold up in court at the end of the day, but such legal action—or the threat of it—is a good way to hinder and harass a union. Goldbetter believes the UAW’s antitrust concerns stem from the Department of Justice’s interest in UAW corruption.

Rideshare apps like Uber have invoked the antitrust argument to keep their drivers from organizing. But Sam Estreicher, a labor law professor at New York University, argued in Bloomberg (1/16/18) that this line of thinking is “based on a failure to understand why concerted activity by workers is protected against antitrust liability,” and that “labor’s antitrust shield was established by the 1914 Clayton Act.”

Hiba Hafiz, a labor and antitrust law professor at Boston College, told FAIR that agreements between independent workers and an employer that merely sets pay rates, just like they would for staff workers, are typically viewed as legitimate labor agreements in the eyes of antitrust law, as long as agreements don’t affect product markets. But, she noted, because employers have used the antitrust line against freelancer organizing, it can make worker advocates nervous. “There are extreme remedies under antitrust law; it’s treble damages,” Hafiz said in a phone interview. “They don’t want to take on that risk. It’s a litigation risk and a budgetary decision.”

For freelance media workers, it’s going to be incredibly important for the NWU to navigate the media terrain and remain unhindered by legal obstacles. As has been pointed out, while there has been much fanfare about the success of the Writers Guild of American East and the NewsGuild organizing new media companies as well as traditional newsrooms (FAIR.org, 6/18/19, 12/18/18), these stories are about traditional employees. Union agreements of those sorts don’t do much for the freelancers who provide an enormous amount of journalism.

Goldbetter is determined to establish more agreements with media outlets. “The content of the agreements sets minimum rates,” he said. “To set a floor where there is none.”

Featured image: National Writers Union members marching under the standard of the UAW in the 2015 NYC Labor Day parade. (photo © Thomas Altfather Good)

Proposals to Ease Covid’s Blow on the Hardest Hit All but Ignored by Corporate Media

 

Ability to cover expenses during the Covid crisis varies greatly by race, class and gender. (Pew, 4/21/20).

As rent deferrals are ending in many states, leaving renters on the hook for the back payments, nearly a quarter of all households are at risk of eviction or foreclosure, according to one estimate (Washington Post, 5/31/20).

The poor and people of color are the hardest hit, not just by the novel coronavirus but also by the economic fallout: More than half of lower-income adults say they or someone in their household has lost work, while only 32% of upper-income adults say the same. Meanwhile, the vast majority of those low-income households don’t have emergency funds to weather such hard times. And more black and Hispanic households report having lost work and lacking emergency funds than white households (Pew Research Center, 4/21/20).

It’s easy enough to find reporting in major US news outlets describing the hardships many Americans are facing. But lamenting inequality is one thing, and acknowledging—or, God forbid, highlighting—efforts to rectify it are very much another for corporate media (see, e.g., FAIR.org, 4/10/20), who all but ignore serious, popular proposals that would prioritize those hardest hit, including communities of color and the poor.

There are plenty of ideas out there for measures that would truly help people, particularly those hardest hit by the crisis. The People’s Bailout, for instance, endorsed by hundreds of progressive groups and almost 100 members of Congress, calls for Congress to adhere to five principles in crafting Covid-19 relief packages:

  1. Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions.
  2. Economic relief must be provided directly to the people.
  3. Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives.
  4. Make a down payment on a regenerative economy while preventing future crises.
  5. Protect our democratic process while protecting each other.

Among their more specific demands, the People’s Bailout calls for regular direct cash payments; free and accessible testing, treatment and PPE; and a halt to evictions, foreclosures, and water and electricity shut offs.

FAIR found just two mentions of the “People’s Bailout” in major media outlets—both in Washington Post coverage of Earth Day (4/21/20, 4/22/20).

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been only two mentions of the People’s Bailout in leading national news outlets, both in the Washington Post‘s coverage of Earth Day (4/21/20, 4/22/20). In a Nexis search, FAIR found no mentions at all in the New York Times, LA Times, USA Today, NPR or the TV news networks.

Or take the April 13 letter to Congress signed by a long list of national, state and local organizations, including Oxfam America, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO, calling for $500 billion in unrestricted aid to state, local, territorial and tribal governments—which are required to balance their budgets in the face of unprecedented shortfalls—in addition to payroll guarantees, continued unemployment insurance payments, another round of cash payments (regardless of immigration status), stronger worker protections and full funding for frontline workers’ health and safety. (See CounterSpin, 4/17/20.)  Not a single leading network or newspaper reported on this letter.

These aren’t wild ideas; even the bipartisan National Governors Association called for $500 billion in aid to states. But their call has gotten far less attention than Trump’s top “economic relief” priority: a suspension of payroll taxes, which would provide little in the way of economic relief (particularly to the unemployed, who are no longer paying such taxes), but would seriously endanger the Social Security program it funds (Reuters, 3/11/20), and it has gotten little support on either side of the aisle. And yet, in the seven weeks since the NGA put out its call, the outlets ran only 35 stories that mentioned it, while Trump’s payroll tax cut proposal netted 95 mentions.

In an interview (Vanity Fair, 5/13/20), Joe Biden called for “rent forgiveness and…mortgage forgiveness” as a response to the Covid crisis—a proposal that was noted by almost no other major media.

In an interview with James Hamby on Good Luck America, a documentary series on Snapchat (also published in Vanity Fair, 5/13/20, where Hamby is a contributing writer), presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made a startlingly progressive appeal for rent forgiveness:

There should be rent forgiveness and there should be mortgage forgiveness now in the middle of this crisis. Forgiveness. Not paid later, forgiveness. It’s critically important to people who are in lower-income strata.

It was a remarkable position for the self-consciously centrist candidate to take, and yet there was virtually no coverage of it in the country’s major news outlets. FAIR found one brief mention in the 22nd paragraph of a New York Times article by Carl Hulse (5/15/20) about potential blowback from Republicans’ resistance to further economic recovery measures.

That article is instructive about which recovery measures are even allowed in the media debate. The piece, which quotes a handful of Democratic and Republican members of Congress, informed readers:

Members of both parties concede that the $3 trillion measure that Democrats were speeding through the House is several bridges too far, considering its giant cost and the underpinning of progressive policies on immigration and other issues that could never clear the Republican-controlled Senate.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that while Hulse describes Republican resistance as “born of spending fatigue and policy divisions,” less Timesian assessments could occasionally be found elsewhere, as at Bloomberg (5/19/20): “Republicans are concerned that providing more assistance to states and individuals would slow movement by governors to lift business restrictions.”

Of course, to many both inside and outside of the party, that Democratic bill is not ambitious enough, as it included almost no key progressive demands—such as a federal paycheck guarantee program, ongoing direct monthly payments, an eviction and foreclosure moratorium, and an expansion of Medicare and Medicaid (Sanders.senate.gov, 5/14/20; Intercept, 5/15/20).

But Hulse’s piece is typical of corporate media, relying heavily on government (and corporate) sources, and marginalizing voices that should be crucial to the national conversation. As a recent FAIR study (5/22/20) of the networks’ Sunday morning political talkshows found, the guests given a platform to shape the discussion around both public health and economic strategies during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic were overwhelmingly government officials; independent public health experts, and especially public interest groups, were sidelined. And by sidelining those voices, media sideline real solutions to the inequality they feign to care about.

Featured image: New York Times photo (4/12/20) of Floridians waiting in line to sign up for unemployment benefits.

NYT’s Obit Doesn’t Understand Why Larry Kramer Is the Icon We Need Now

 

The subhead of the New York Times‘ obituary for Larry Kramer (5/27/20) originally declared that “his often abusive approach could overshadow his achievements.”

The New York Times’ obituary of Larry Kramer (5/27/20) announces in its lead that Kramer “helped shift national health policy in the 1980s and ’90s,” but the rest of the obituary doesn’t explain this absolutely justified introduction.

To read it, you would think Kramer was a moderately successful writer and an ill-tempered activist. Though both Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and the AIDS Coaltion To Unleash Power (ACT UP) are mentioned briefly, you would have no idea that they are two of the most important public health organizations of the 20th century, and the most important public health organizations for LGBTQ+ people in the last two decades of the century.

If you sift through the swipes at Kramer (“raucous, antagonistic,” “enjoyed provocation for its own sake”; an early edition called him “often abusive”), you find a striking acknowledgement of Kramer’s role in the development of HIV treatment and the reform of FDA processes: “essential” in the opinion of none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci. It’s striking, because Fauci was the target of so much of ACT UP and Kramer’s rage during the early AIDS crisis. “Even” officials (like Fauci) whom Kramer condemned at the time, says the Times, recognized that Kramer was sounding the alarm on a public-health emergency. Yet these attestations to his accomplishments feel like asides in the piece.

Nowhere in this obituary is there any comprehension of the horror of those years—the constant death, the fear, the tremendous courage, the anger. Identified initially as a “gay disease,” the onset of AIDS in the early ’80s further stigmatized queer people; gay men were shunned, evicted, disowned, fired and dying by the thousands. Infection and stigma spread to other marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. With no funding, no research, and not even government acknowledgement of the crisis, entire populations were essentially left to die in a modern plague. Trauma and terror shaped an entire generation of queer people, and those of us who survived feel the devastating losses to this day.

New York Times photo (5/27/20) of a demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange by the group ACT UP, which had a total of five lines devoted to it in the Times’ obituary of co-founder Larry Kramer.

Into this nightmare, Larry Kramer threw his whole self with equal parts desperation and determination, fueled by righteous rage. Movements are never made by one person, but he played an outsized role in that generation’s fight for our lives. In the 1980s—the worst years of the AIDS crisis—Kramer was a founder of GMHC, which provided everything from crisis counseling to legal aid at a time when HIV+ people were treated like modern-day lepers; a founder of ACT UP, which changed both US healthcare and activism forever; and the author of The Normal Heart, a gut-wrenching play about the times that went on to win a Tony in 2011 for Best Revival of a Play.

These achievements would be remarkable under any circumstances, but in the midst of a plague, they were truly extraordinary. ACT UP in particular played an enormous role in the course of the AIDS pandemic: It combined research, direct action, education and lobbying, and without it, untold thousands more would have died.

Yet GMHC gets four lines of mention in this obituary, and ACT UP five. By contrast, Kramer’s less successful literary ventures get a total of 57 lines. (The Normal Heart gets 13.) Moreover, ACT UP is summed up pejoratively: its

street actions demanding a speedup in AIDS drugs research and an end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians severely disrupted the operations of government offices, Wall Street and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

The Times doesn’t mention that those disruptions were ultimately largely successful.

The most unfair—and the most revealing—line in the obituary, though, is the one about enjoying provocation for its own sake. In context:

Mr. Kramer enjoyed provocation for its own sake — he once introduced Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York to his pet wheaten terrier as the man who was “killing Daddy’s friends” — and this could sometimes overshadow his achievements as an author and social activist.

The encounter with Koch related here is anything but “provocation for its own sake.” It’s a speaking-truth-to-power moment in which Kramer confronted an official whose decisions did indeed have life-or-death consequences for New Yorkers at risk for AIDS, and who deserves shared blame for the city’s death toll because of those decisions.

The Times’ failure to recognize the Koch anecdote as a deliberate political act goes to the heart of the underlying problem with this obituary—and it’s the problem with much of the New York Times’ coverage of social movements. To acknowledge the role that Kramer and ACT UP played in US politics is to admit that direct action, civil disobedience and other disruptive strategies of power from below work. Which is to say, the Times has it exactly backwards: Kramer’s confrontational approach didn’t “overshadow his achievements,” they are what made his achievements possible.

This truth could hardly be more relevant right now. Jeff Bezos is making headlines as the world’s potential first trillionaire, while he cuts hazard pay for Amazon workers. Trump forces immigrant workers back to unsafe meatpacking plants, while speeding up the deportation of children. Governors are “reopening” despite expert warnings, while BIPOC communities suffer and die disproportionately. Tens of millions face housing and food crises, while corporations walk away with the relief funds meant for small businesses. And police are savaging anti–police violence protesters from coast to coast, while Trump cheers from the only place in America that has consistent testing and contact tracing.

If ever there was a time to act up, be confrontational, disrupt and demand an end to this dystopia, it is now. Larry Kramer was right: “If you write a calm letter and fax it to nobody, it sinks like a brick in the Hudson.” Let’s honor his legacy and raise hell.

Featured image: Detail from a New York Times photograph of Larry Kramer, taken by Sara Krulwich, that accompanied his Times obituary (5/27/20).

ACTION ALERT: You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your communication in the comments thread.

 

US Campaign Against Cuba’s Medical Brigades Targets Healthcare, Not ‘Forced Labor’

 

For decades, Cuba has sent tens of thousands of its medical professionals abroad to work in countries where natural disasters or poverty have left people without healthcare.  In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the catastrophic US response to it, the absurdity of a propaganda war against Cuban medical missions has become more obvious than ever. But you can’t rely on corporate media to explain why.

An article cited by Sen. Marco Rubio in support of punishing Cuba was debunked at the time by FAIR (3/26/19).

On May 7, 2019, US Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a letter that urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to increase pressure on governments benefiting from what he alleged was the “forced labor” of Cuban doctors. Rubio’s letter even claimed that the practice constitutes “human trafficking” by Cuba. Two months later, Pompeo took to Twitter announcing new sanctions on Cuban officials involved with its medical missions.

One piece of supposed evidence Rubio presented in the letter was a New York Times article (3/17/19) from last year by Nicholas Casey, which was completely dismantled by Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz on FAIR.org (3/26/19). Casey’s article bizarrely depicted Cuban doctors in Venezuela as agents of the Cuban government who coerce voters and even perpetrate electoral fraud.

Last month, Michael Kozak, assistant US secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, reiterated Rubio’s attack lines on the Cuban missions. He scolded governments who accept Cuba’s medical help by saying, “Crises don’t justify trafficking medical professionals, who need protection now more than ever.”

Spreading allegations that don’t stand up to minimal scrutiny is the opposite of caring about the working conditions of the doctors. But the sources US journalists usually rely on—the right-wing media in Venezuela, for example—have been doing that for many years.

From inciting violence to demanding liberation

Twitter (4/15/13)

In 2013, as 18 medical centers in Venezuela were set ablaze by supporters of the US-backed opposition, one prominent opposition journalist, Nelson Bocaranda, spread an allegation  to about a million Twitter followers (4/15/13) that Cuban doctors were hiding away voting materials inside medical centers.

Journalist Eirik Vold moved to Venezuela in 2002, and initially lived in a wealthy part of Caracas, where everyone seemed to consume vehemently anti-government private media. He wrote in his book Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution Up Close (p. 148; see also Venezuelanalysis, 4/7/17):

The first time I heard about the Cuban doctors, for example, was in an El Universal article that described the scandal of a child who died from alleged malpractice at the hands of a Cuban doctor.

But in the US, as the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in increased demand for Cuban doctors around the world, the emphasis appears to have shifted from vilifying them to casting them as victims of exploitation.

Belén Fernandez has already addressed for FAIR (4/14/20) some of the wilder claims about Cuba’s medical brigades that have appeared in the US media. Examples include the frenzied output of the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady (3/22/20), and her editors who denounced Cuba’s supposed “slave trade in doctors”; and the Panam Post (3/30/20), which claimed Cuba has a “shortage of hospital staff” because of its medical brigades. As Fernandez noted, the latter claim was so outlandish that even Reuters (3/22/20) debunked it, noting that even subtracting doctors serving abroad, Cuba still has “one of the highest” number of doctors per capita in the world.  “It’s hard to avoid them” in Cuba, wrote British journalist Ed Augustin (Nation, 5/22/20), who has been based in Havana for the past seven years.

How does Cuba pay for it?

In fact, according to the UNICEF figures, Cuba has since 2000 consistently maintained a lower child mortality rate than the US. Since 2009, it has also maintained a lower infant mortality rate than Canada. That’s an astounding achievement for a country under a ruthless US embargo for 60 years.

Belly of the Beast‘s “Cuba’s Door-to-Door Doctors” (4/17/20)

Independent US-based journalist Reed Lindsay and his team at Belly of the Beast have begun to produce documentary videos on Cuba. One short video succinctly captures Cuba’s proactive approach to healthcare that, combined with an ample supply of doctors, helps explain Cuba’s success.

Sometimes US corporate media produce articles that subject the claims made about Cuba’s medical brigades to some scrutiny, albeit very inadequately. One example is a Washington Post article (4/10/20) by Anthony Faiola and Kimberley Brown, which quoted Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch (HRW):

What these doctors are doing is heroic. But how the Cuban [government] treats them is disgraceful, taking credit for their good deeds while pocketing most of their earnings, denying them basic freedoms of speech and movement, and keeping them and their families back in Cuba in a situation of perpetual duress.

Vivanco’s (and HRW’s) pro-imperial bias is something I’ve written about before for FAIR ( 8/31/18). In a recent Spanish-language interview (BrujulaDigital, 5/15/20) Vivanco referred to the US-backed dictatorship in Bolivia, installed in a military coup incited by a dishonest OAS electoral audit (FAIR.org, 3/5/20), as a “democracy.”

So it’s very unsurprising that Vivanco would accuse Cuba, a state the US treats as an enemy, of simply “pocketing” the hard currency it receives for sending doctors abroad, rather than investing, as it must, in the system that trains its medical professionals. Nobody made this obvious point in the Post article by Faiola and Brown. The article describes the medical brigades as “a major source of income,” but neither the reporters nor anyone they quoted noted that hard currency is required to sustain them—and Cuba’s healthcare system in general. Getting hard currency is especially important for Cuba, because US sanctions greatly increase the costs of importing medicines, medical supplies and technology.

That’s quite an omission, when you consider how reflexively the question “how are you going to pay for it?” is thrown at US politicians like Bernie Sanders who advocate Medicare for All (FAIR.org, 2/29/20) and free college (both of which Cuba has). If that’s considered a crucial question in the most powerful country in the world, why not in Cuba, a small island subjected to a brutal US embargo? (By the way, that embargo has been overwhelmingly denounced by the UN General Assembly in 28 consecutive resolutions.)

Could socialism be a motivating factor?

John Kirk (cc photo: Karla Renic)

I contacted John Kirk of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who has researched Cuba’s foreign policy and its medical brigades for many years. He provided a credible analysis of why so many Cuban doctors choose to serve abroad.

Kirk lived with Cuban medical professionals as they worked in El Salvador and Guatemala. Over a 12-year period, he interviewed 270 Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians who had spent at least two years working abroad. One of Kirk’s books about Cuba is Healthcare Without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism (published by University Press of Florida).

Speaking by telephone, Kirk provided some figures for Cubans who had worked in Brazil:

They went because they earned $1,000 per month, as opposed to $70 back in Havana. Yes, the Cuban government took 75 percent, $3,000 on top of the $1,000 that they earned. “How do you feel about that?” I asked [the doctors]. The general response was, “It would be nice to earn more money, but bear in mind that our regular salary, insignificant though it may be, is still being paid to our families back home. So what we are earning here is on top of the regular salaries. The money that goes into the Cuban government’s pot subsidizes the healthcare system for the entire population.”

In fact, even the one Cuban doctor the Washington Post (4/10/20) quoted (a defector, of course) said he volunteered to go on missions to make much more money than he could in Cuba.

Kirk said that nobody he interviewed claimed they were pressured to serve abroad; the monetary incentives alone make that very easy to believe. He added that many, for personal reasons, had turned down opportunities to go on second or third missions without repercussions.

Professional development is another incentive that Kirk mentioned—the opportunity to gain experience treating patients with conditions they would seldom (if ever) see in Cuba. He told me that when Ebola struck West Africa, the Cuban government had thousands more volunteers willing to go than it accepted.

Kirk described other incentives as well:

Another reason they went is because it is the kind of thing that everybody is doing—a kind of rite of passage. It’s like backpacking in Europe in the 1960s for North Americans: Everyone was doing it. At one point, 25 percent of Cuba’s doctors were working abroad. Everybody knew somebody who was abroad, or was about to go abroad. It’s also important to bear in mind the social ethos, if you like, the ethic of Cuban society. Kids from preschool are conditioned, socialized, whatever word you want to use, to think of themselves as part of a collective.

Another way to put it is that a socialist ideology can motivate people to help others. In Western media, socialist ideology is generally invoked only if it can be linked to repression or inefficiency, not a healthcare system in the Global South that in various ways outperforms those of many rich countries.

But Cuba is a dictatorship!

If anyone dares to point to any of Cuba’s achievements, the objection is inevitably raised that Cuba is a dictatorship. Cuba has indeed resorted to one-party rule to prevent itself from being destroyed by the US—which, by the way, has killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans through economic sanctions since 2017, imposed in an effort to oust Venezuela’s democratically elected government.

In defiance of US threats, Iranian tankers began to arrive in Venezuela on May 23, bringing desperately needed gasoline. Iran has formally complained to the UN about US threats against the tankers.

Democracy does not protect a foreign government from US military or economic attack—mainly because US’s own democracy is severely stunted by its corporate media. They constrain every public debate, including those about Cuba’s medical brigades or anything related to Cuba.

Newsweek Fails to Note That White House Reopening Guidelines Make Absolutely No Sense

 

Newsweek (5/27/20)

Newsweek (5/27/20) had a piece with the headline:

Illinois Is Only State to Meet All Federal Criteria for Reopening, Will Move to Phase 3 on Friday

What was missing from the piece? Any indication that this doesn’t make a damned bit of sense.

“Data from ProPublica shows that Illinois has hit the five main guidelines issued by the White House in order to safely reopen businesses and relax social-distancing protocols,” Newsweek‘s Jeffery Martin reports. He gives the reader no clue that Illinois has one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in the nation—full stop.

With 1,984 new confirmed cases a day (as of May 27, averaged over seven days), it is behind only California in the number of new infections. On a per capita basis, it’s second only to the District of Columbia. It’s adding cases at 20 times the rate that it was when it decided that the virus was spreading so fast it had to shut down its economy.

(And no, Illinois’ outbreak doesn’t look bad just because the state tests a lot: New Mexico, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana are all testing at a higher rate and finding fewer cases per capita.)

The state now has the third-highest daily death toll, losing (on a seven-day average) 80 people a day; only New York and New Jersey lose more. (Per capita, Illinois’ rate of Covid-19 death is the seventh worst in the nation.)

Honestly, does this look like the one state in the country that is ready to safely reopen?

Chart: 91-VIDOC

Meanwhile, Newsweek reports that “Alabama, Alaska and West Virginia have only attained passing grades in one out of the five criteria.” As it happens, Alabama and West Virginia are doing a terrible job controlling their coronavirus outbreaks, with daily new cases soaring over the past week. But Alaska continues to be one of the few states or territories that can claim to have actually contained the spread of the virus, with an average of only 1.4 new cases found per day, and no new deaths since May 6. Here’s Alaska’s outbreak compared to Illinois’ on a per capita basis:

Chart: 91-DIVOC

Just so you’re clear: According to the White House, the blue line represents the state that has met the requirements that indicate it is ready to safely reopen—and the yellow line is the state that still has a long way to go.

What this means is that the White House guidelines have absolutely no bearing on whether a state is actually ready to reopen. Illinois met them, Newsweek reports, because:

For two consecutive weeks, Illinois has shown a decrease in positive results per 100,000 people tested. Overall positive test results have also dropped. More than 100,000 individuals per day have received coronavirus tests. Illinois has also had more than 30 percent of ICU beds available while visits to hospitals for flu-like illnesses has decreased.

So if you go from an extremely high rate of coronavirus infection to a merely very high rate, you are making progress and are therefore ready to reopen. You’re giving a lot of tests, which means you are ready to reopen. And you’ve got some empty hospital beds, which is good, because if you rely on criteria like these to tell you that you’re ready to reopen, you’re likely to put a lot more people in the hospital.

These criteria don’t tell you whether you’ve successfully contained the virus; you can virtually stop transmission, as Alaska and a handful of other states have, and still flunk them. That’s because containing the virus is not the plan, and seems to have never been the plan. Instead, the strategy is to allow the virus to spread throughout the population, hopefully at a rate that will keep the healthcare system from completely collapsing.

But the prime objective is to force workers back into the workforce as quickly as possible, regardless of the toll in lives: As Bloomberg (5/19/20) reported on why more stimulus money is not forthcoming, “Republicans are concerned that providing more assistance to states and individuals would slow movement by governors to lift business restrictions.” If carried out, this program would inevitably mean that the 100,000 who have so far been killed by Covid-19 (by the official count) will be a small fraction of the total lives lost.

It’s critically important that media provide accurate reporting on what our governments are choosing to do, and what price we are likely to pay for their choices. Instead, Newsweek is giving us the latest fashion reports on the emperor’s new clothes.

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