Letter To The Millennials

A Boomer Professor talks to his students

Written by

  • Director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”, “To Die For”

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part — because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater. However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters — and indeed, it may be impossible — because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment, and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals. The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times; my generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds. I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1% — “the establishment” — would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets) to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we — both your generation and mine — are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.

So this is the source of boomer disillusionment. But even if we are cynical about political change, we can try to imagine together a future where great artistic work continues to flourish; this, then, is the Innovation and Entertainment part of the course. It’s not that I want you to give up on politics — in fact the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson only reinforce my belief that when people disdain politics, their anger gets channeled into violence. But what I do want you to think about is that art and culture are more plastic — they can be molded and changed easier than politics. There is a sense in which art, politics, and economics are all inextricably and symbiotically tied together, but history has proven to us that art serves as a powerful corrective against the dangers of the establishment. There is a system of checks and balances in which, even though the arts may rely on the social structures afforded by strong economic and political systems, artists can also inspire a culture to move forward, to reject the evils of greed and prejudice, and to reconnect to its human roots. If we are seeking a political and economic change, then, an authentic embrace of the arts may be key. Part of your role as communication scholars is to look more closely at the communication surrounding us and think critically about the effects its having, whose agenda is being promoted, and whether that’s the agenda that will serve us best. One of the tasks we’ll wrestle with in this class will be how we can get the digital fire hose of social media to really support artists, not just brands.

In 2011, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) gave a lecture at the British Film Institute. He said something both simple and profound:

People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the Internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that — at the very least — this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, “What can we do to get people to buy more of these?

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

I think Charlie is right. People are starving, so we give them bread and circuses.

​ But I think Charlie is wrong when he says “there is no winning”. In fact I think we are really in a “winner-take-all” society. Look at the digital pop charts. 80% of the music streams are for 1% of the content. That means that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are billionaires, but the average musician can barely make a living. Bob Dylan’s first album only sold 4,000 copies. In this day and age, he would have been dropped by his label before he created his greatest work.

A writer I greatly admired, Gabriel García Márquez, died recently. For me, Márquez embodied the role of the artist in society, marked by the refusal to believe that we are incapable of creating a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. Yet Marquez never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination. The other crucial aspect of Márquez’s work is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll through a mall in Shanghai and forget that you’re not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. His work was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In a cultural like ours that has so long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over our differences, it is valuable to recognize that there is a difference between allowing our differences to serve as barriers and appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to its people. What’s more, young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.

With these values in mind, my hope is to lead you in a discussion of politics and culture in the context of 250 years of America’s somewhat utopian battle to build “a city on a hill.” I think many in my generation had this utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different than idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I did not aspire to be that professor who quotes Dr. King, but I feel I must. He said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road towards a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with you. It may take even longer than we imagined, but I know your generation believes in justice and equality, and that fills me with hope that the dream of some sort of promised land is not wholly lost. The next step, then, is to figure out how to work together, to learn from the past while living in the present moment in order to secure a better future, and I believe this class offers us an incredible opportunity to do precisely that.

So what are the skills that we can develop together in order to open a real cross-generational dialogue? First, I would hope we would learn to improvise. I want you to challenge me, just as I encourage and challenge you. Improvisation means sometimes throwing away your notes and just responding from your gut to the ideas being presented. It takes both courage and intelligence, but I’m pretty sure you have deep stores of both qualities, which will help you show leadership both in class and throughout the rest of your life. Leadership is more than just bravery and intellect, however; it also requires vulnerability and compassion, skills that I hope we can similarly cultivate together. I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers — and, more importantly, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I am somewhat confused by our current culture and I am looking to you for insight. You need to have that same vulnerability with your peers, and you also need to treat them with compassion as you struggle together to understand this new world of disruption. I know these four elements — courage, intelligence, vulnerability, and compassion — may seem like they are working at cross-purposes, but we will need all four qualities if we are to take on the two tasks before us. One of our tasks is to try to restore a sense of excellence in our culture — the belief that great art and entertainment can also be popular. The second task is for baby boomer parents and their millennial children to form a natural political alliance going forward. As I’ve said, I don’t think the notion that we will get to “the promised land” is totally dead, and with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.

This is, at least, the plan. Of course, as the great critic James Agee once said, “Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”

 

 

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Cornel West talks Ferguson, Hillary, MSNBC — and unloads on the failed promise of Barack Obama

Cornel West: “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency”

Cornel West: "He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency"
Cornel West (Credit: Albert H. Teich via Shutterstock)

Cornel West is a professor at Union Theological Seminary and one of my favorite public intellectuals, a man who deals in penetrating analyses of current events, expressed in a pithy and highly quotable way.

I first met him nearly six years ago, while the financial crisis and the presidential election were both under way, and I was much impressed by what he had to say. I got back in touch with him last week, to see how he assesses the nation’s progress since then.

The conversation ranged from Washington, D.C., to Ferguson, Missouri, and although the picture of the nation was sometimes bleak, our talk ended on a surprising note.

Last time we talked it was almost six years ago. It was a panel discussion The New Yorker magazine had set up, it was in the fall of 2008, so it was while the financial crisis was happening, while it was actually in progress. The economy was crumbling and everybody was panicking. I remember you  speaking about the financial crisis in a way that I thought made sense. There was a lot of confusion at the time. People didn’t know where to turn or what was going on. 

I also remember, and this is just me I’m talking about, being impressed by Barack Obama who was running for president at the time. I don’t know if you and I talked about him on that occasion. But at the time, I sometimes thought that he looked like he had what this country needed.

So that’s my first question, it’s a lot of ground to cover but how do you feel things have worked out since then, both with the economy and with this president? That was a huge turning point, that moment in 2008, and my own feeling is that we didn’t turn.

No, the thing is he posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.



That’s exactly what everyone was saying at the time.

That’s right. That’s true. It was like, “We finally got somebody who can help us turn the corner.” And he posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln.

Yeah. That’s what everyone was saying.

And we ended up with a brown-faced Clinton. Another opportunist. Another neoliberal opportunist. It’s like, “Oh, no, don’t tell me that!” I tell you this, because I got hit hard years ago, but everywhere I go now, it’s “Brother West, I see what you were saying. Brother West, you were right. Your language was harsh and it was difficult to take, but you turned out to be absolutely right.” And, of course with Ferguson, you get it reconfirmed even among the people within his own circle now, you see. It’s a sad thing. It’s like you’re looking for John Coltrane and you get Kenny G in brown skin.

When you say you got hit hard, are you talking about the personal confrontation you had with him?

I’m just thinking about the vicious attacks of the Obama cheerleaders.

The personal confrontation you had with him is kind of famous. He got angry at you because you were saying he wasn’t progressive enough.

I just looked at him like “C’mon, man. Let the facts speak for themselves. I’m not into this rhetorical exchange.”

Is there anybody who thinks he’s progressive enough today?

Nobody I know. Not even among the progressive liberals. Nobody I know. Part of this, as you can imagine, is that early on there was a strong private-public distinction. People would come to me and say privately, “We see what you’re saying. We think you’re too harsh in how you say it but we agree very much with what you’re saying in private.” In public, no comment. Now, more and more of it spills over in public.

There’s a lot of disillusionment now. My liberal friends included. The phrase that I have heard from more than one person in the last year is they feel like they got played.

That’s true. That’s exactly right. What I hear is that, “He pimped us.” I heard that a zillion times. “He pimped us, brother West.” That’s another way of saying “we got played.”

You remember that enthusiasm in 2008. I’m from Kansas City. He came and spoke in Kansas City and 75,000 people came to see him.

Oh yeah. Well we know there were moments in Portland, Oregon, there were moments in Seattle. He had the country in the palm of his hand in terms of progressive possibilities.

What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans? Why does he need to seek a grand bargain?

I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.

And so what did he do? Every time you’re headed toward middle ground what do you do? You go straight to the establishment and reassure them that you’re not too radical, and try to convince them that you are very much one of them so you end up with a John Brennan, architect of torture [as CIA Director]. Torturers go free but they’re real patriots so we can let them go free. The rule of law doesn’t mean anything.

The rule of law, oh my God. There’s one law for us and another law if you work on Wall Street.

That’s exactly right. Even with [Attorney General] Eric Holder. Eric Holder won’t touch the Wall Street executives; they’re his friends. He might charge them some money. They want to celebrate. This money is just a tax write-off for these people. There’s no accountability. No answerability. No responsibility that these people have to take at all. The same is true with the Robert Rubin crowd. Obama comes in, he’s got all this populist rhetoric which is wonderful, progressive populist rhetoric which we needed badly. What does he do, goes straight to the Robert Rubin crowd and here comes Larry Summers, here comes Tim Geithner, we can go on and on and on, and he allows them to run things. You see it in the Suskind book, The Confidence Men. These guys are running things, and these are neoliberal, deregulating free marketeers—and poverty is not even an afterthought for them.

They’re the same ones who screwed it up before.

Absolutely.

That was the worst moment [when he brought in the Rubin protégés].

We tried to point that out as soon as he became part of the Rubin stable, part of the Rubin group, and people didn’t want to hear it for the most part. They didn’t want to hear it.

Now it’s six years later and the search for the Grand Bargain has been fruitless. Why does he persist? I shouldn’t be asking you to psychologize him…

I think part of it is just temperament. That his success has been predicated on finding that middle ground. “We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re not rich. We’re not poor. There’s no classes in America. We are all Americans. We’re the American family.” He invoked the American family last week. It’s a lie, brother. You’ve got to be able to tell the truth to the American people. We’re not a family. We’re a people. We’re a nation. And a nation always has divisions. You have to be able to speak to those divisions in such a way that, like FDR, like Lincoln, you’re able to somehow pull out the best of who we are, given the divisions. You don’t try to act as if we have no divisions and we’re just an American family, with the poor getting treated in disgraceful ways and the rich walking off sipping tea, with no accountability at all, and your foreign policy is running amok with Israelis committing war crimes against precious Palestinians and you won’t say a mumbling word about the Palestinian children. What is history going to say about you? Counterfeit! That’s what they’ll say, counterfeit. Not the real thing.

Let’s talk about Ferguson. All I know about it is what I’ve been reading in the newspapers; I haven’t been out there. But I feel like there’s a lot more going on there than this one tragic killing.

Oh, absolutely. I mean, one, we know that this is a systemic thing. This thing has been going on—we can hardly get a word out of the administration in terms of the arbitrary police power. I’ll give you a good example: Carl Dix and I, three years ago, we went to jail over stop and frisk. We had a week-long trial and we were convicted, we were guilty. While the trial was going on, President Obama came into New York and said two things: He said that Michael Bloomberg was a terrific mayor even though he had stopped and frisked over four and a half million since 2002. Then he went onto say that Ed Koch was one of the greatest mayors in the last 50 years. This is right at a time when we’re dealing with stop and frisk, arbitrary police power, and Bloomberg is extending stop and frisk and proud of it. At least Bloomberg is honest about it. Bill De Blasio is just trying to walk a tightrope in this regard. At least Bloomberg was honest about it. He was glad that stop and frisk was in place. When we went to jail he said, “Y’all are wrong. If stop and frisk is stopped, then crime is going to go up…”

I just give you that as an example in terms of arbitrary police power because in Ferguson we’re talking about arbitrary police power, and this particular instance of it has been going on for a long time. The Obama administration has been silent. Completely silent. All of a sudden now, you get this uprising and what is the response? Well, as we know, you send out a statement on the death of brother Robin Williams before you sent out a statement on brother Michael Brown. The family asked for an autopsy at the Federal level, they hold back, so they [the family] have to go and get their own autopsy, and then the federal government finally responds. [Obama] sends Eric, Eric’s on the way out. Eric Holder’s going to be gone by December.

Oh, is he?

Yeah, he’s already said, this is it. He’s concerned about his legacy as if he’s somehow been swinging for black folk ever since he’s been in there. That’s a lie. He’s been silent, too. He’s been relatively silent. He’s made a couple of gestures in regards to the New Jim Crow and the prison-industrial complex, but that’s just lately, on his way out. He was there for six years and didn’t do nothing. See what I mean?

I see exactly what you mean, but I look at the pictures at Ferguson and it looks like it could be anywhere in America, you know.

Absolutely. It looks like it could be New York, Chicago, Atlanta, L.A. It’s like they’re lucky that it hasn’t hit New York, Chicago, L.A. yet, you know.

When they rolled out the militarized police, it frightened people. Something is going on here. It’s not breaking down the way it usually does. People are reacting to this in a different way.

That’s true. It’s a great moment, but let me tell you this though. Because what happens is you got Eric Holder going in trying to create the calm. But you also got Al Sharpton. And when you say the name Al Sharpton, the word integrity does not come to mind. So you got low-quality black leadership. Al Sharpton is who? He’s a cheerleader for Obama.

I haven’t followed him for years; I didn’t know that.

He meets with the president regularly.

I did not know that.

On his show on MSNBC…

I knew he had a show, I just…I guess I don’t watch it enough.

You gotta check that out, brother.

That’s the problem with me, I don’t watch enough TV.

It’s probably good for your soul but you still have to be informed about how decadent things are out here. But, no: MSNBC, state press, it’s all Obama propaganda, and Sharpton is the worst. Sharpton said explicitly, I will never say a critical word about the president under any condition. That’s why he can’t stand what I’m saying. He can’t stand what I do because, for him, it’s an act of racial traitorship to be critical of the president. There’s no prophetic integrity in his leadership.

I understand that. I think a lot of people feel that way. Not just in a racial sense but because Obama’s a Democrat. People feel that way in a partisan sense.

I think that’s true too. You have had some Democrats who’ve had some criticisms of the president. You’ve got some senator that has been critical about his violation of civil liberties and so forth, and rightly so. But Sharpton, and I mention Sharpton because Sharpton is the major black leader who is called on to deal with arbitrary police power. So, Trayvon Martin, what did he do? You got all this black rage down there calling for justice. Has there been justice for Trayvon Martin? Has the Department of Justice done anything for the Trayvon Martin case? None whatsoever. The same is true now with Ferguson. They call Sharpton down. He poses, he postures like he’s so radical. But he is a cheerleader for the Obama administration which means, he’s going to do what he can to filter that rage in neoliberal forms, rather than for truth and justice.

One last thing, where are we going from here? What comes next?

I think a post-Obama America is an America in post-traumatic depression. Because the levels of disillusionment are so deep. Thank God for the new wave of young and prophetic leadership, as with Rev. William Barber, Philip Agnew, and others. But look who’s around the presidential corner. Oh my God, here comes another neo-liberal opportunist par excellence. Hillary herself is coming around the corner. It’s much worse. And you say, “My God, we are an empire in decline.” A culture in decay with a political system that’s dysfunctional, youth who are yearning for something better but our system doesn’t provide them democratic venues, and so all we have are just voices in the wilderness and certain truth-tellers just trying to keep alive some memories of when we had some serious, serious movements and leaders.

One last thought, I was talking to a friend recently and we were saying, if things go the way they look like they’re going to go and Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and then wins a second term, the next time there’ll be a chance for a liberal, progressive president is 2024.

It’d be about over then, brother. I think at that point—Hillary Clinton is an extension of Obama’s Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, national surveillance, national security presidency. She’d be more hawkish than he is, and yet she’s got that strange smile that somehow titillates liberals and neo-liberals and scares Republicans. But at that point it’s even too hard to contemplate.

I know, I always like to leave things on a pessimistic note. I’m sorry. It’s just my nature.

It’s not pessimistic, brother, because this is the blues. We are blues people. The blues aren’t pessimistic. We’re prisoners of hope but we tell the truth and the truth is dark. That’s different.

 

Thomas Frank Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include “What’s The Matter With Kansas,” “Pity the Billionaire” and “One Market Under God.” He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/24/cornel_west_he_posed_as_a_progressive_and_turned_out_to_be_counterfeit_we_ended_up_with_a_wall_street_presidency_a_drone_presidency/?source=newsletter

Ferguson Feeds Off the Poor: Three Warrants a Year Per Household

By Michael Daly

In the chamber where Officer Darren Wilson received a commendation six months before killing Michael Brown, a minor court generates major money from the city’s poor and working people.

The Ferguson Police have now released a video that shows police Officer Darren Wilson receiving a commendation six months before he became known to the whole nation as the cop who gunned down an unarmed 18-year-old.The irony is obvious to anyone who watches the footage of this proud young officer receiving the award at a ceremony in the City Council chamber as Ferguson’s six council members applaud.

“Officer Wilson, in recognition of outstanding police work while investigating a suspicious-vehicle call,” Chief Thomas Jackson says in making the presentation. “Acting alone, you struggled with one subject and [were] able to gain control of the subject and his car keys until assistance arrived. Later, during the interview, it was discovered that the subject was breaking down a large quantity of marijuana for sale.”

Jackson adds, “Great job, Darren.”

But there is another, unnoticed irony in the venue itself. Three times a month—one day and two nights—the City Council chamber also serves as home to the incredibly busy and extremely profitable Ferguson municipal court.

A report issued just last week by the nonprofit lawyer’s group ArchCity Defenders notes that in the court’s 36 three-hour sessions in 2013, it handled 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. That is an average of 1.5 cases and three warrants per Ferguson household. Fines and court fees for the year in this city of just 21,000 people totaled $2,635,400.

The sum made the municipal court the city’s second-biggest source of revenue. It also almost certainly was a major factor in the antagonism between the police and the citizenry preceding the tragedy that resulted when Wilson had another encounter with a subject six months after he got his commendation.

And any complete investigation into how Michael Brown came to be sprawled dead in the street with a half-dozen bullet wounds must consider not just the cop but the system he served, a system whose primary components include a minor court that generates major money, much of it from poor and working people.

Five of the six City Council members who meet in this chamber are white, even though the city itself is more than 70 percent black. The City Council appoints the municipal judge, currently Ron Brockmeyer, who is also white.

But when this same chamber serves as Ferguson Municipal Court, a disproportionate number of the defendants are black.

The immediate explanation is that the bulk of the cases arise from car stops. The ArchCity Defenders report notes: “Whites comprise 29% of the population of Ferguson but just 12.7% of vehicle stops. After being stopped in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 6.9%) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4% vs. 5.2%).”

Lest anyone contend that blacks inherently merit greater police attention than whites, the report offers another statistic.

“Searches of black individuals result in discovery of contraband only 21.7% of the time, while similar searches of whites produce contraband 34.0% of the time.”

That would suggest both that whites were more likely to be stopped when there was actual probable cause and that blacks were more likely to be stopped when there was not. And the antagonism sure to be generated by such racial disparities was magnified by the sheer number of cases.

The report cites a court employee as saying the docket for a typical three-hour court session has up to 1,500 cases. The report goes on to say that “in addition to such heavy legal prosecution,” the Ferguson court and others like it in nearby towns “engage in a number of operational procedures that make it even more difficult for defendants to navigate the courts.”

The report goes on, “For example, a Ferguson court employee reported that the bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late to receive an additional charge for failure to appear.”

The lawyers of ArchCity Defenders specialize in representing the indigent and the homeless. They noticed that many of their clients had multiple warrants on minor charges issued by municipal courts in Ferguson and the other 80 municipalities in St. Louis County that have their own courts and police.

“They didn’t just have one case, they had 10 cases,” says Thomas Harvey, the organization’s 44-year-old executive director.

The warrants too often precluded the clients from securing shelter and services, and access to job programs. The lawyers sought some remedy in the issuing courts.

“It kept being about the money,” Harvey recalls. “We were telling the court, ‘They don’t have any money because they’re homeless.’”

That same venue where Wilson received his commendation and the City Council members applauded is where justice is insulted wholesale three times a week.

The clients felt sure they were being targeted because they were black and poor, and told the lawyers tales of unfair treatment by everybody from the cops to the bailiffs to the judges.

“I’ll be real honest, I didn’t believe them,” Harvey says.

With the help of college students, ArchCity Defenders started a court watch program eight months ago. They concluded that much of what their clients had been saying was all too true. Impoverished defendants were frequently ordered to pay fines that were triple their monthly income. Some ended up with no income at all as they sat in jail for weeks, awaiting a hearing.

ArchCity decided to focus on what seemed to be three of the worst cities.

“Three courts, Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create inefficiencies,” the subsequent report says.

The report was all but complete and just needed an introduction when Harvey went on summer vacation. He chanced to return the day after Michael Brown was shot to death by Officer Darren Warren.

“I got off the plane saying, ‘I got to finish this and get it out,’” Harvey recalls.

Harvey understood that whatever the particular details of the tragedy, there was also a larger context.

“It’s not just about Michael Brown and this officer,” Harvey says.

The statistics assembled for the report concerning race and car stops in Ferguson were no great surprise, especially considering that its police department is proportionately even whiter than its City Council, with just three blacks among its 52 cops. The number that jumped out was the huge revenue, big bucks for a little burg.

“Anybody who makes a revenue source a line of a budget becomes dependent on it,” Harvey suggests.

But if the system’s objective was money, the result was still that many people felt targeted because of race and class.

 

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/22/ferguson-s-shameful-legal-shakedown-three-warrants-a-year-per-household.html

The U.S. government’s creeping war on journalists

A new poll reveals that three quarters of reporters agree the public isn’t getting the information it needs

The U.S. government's creeping war on journalists
Barack Obama (Credit: AP/Susan Walsh)

As states move to hide details of government deals with Wall Street, and as politicians come up with new arguments to defend secrecy, a study released earlier this month revealed that many government information officers block specific journalists they don’t like from accessing information. The news comes as 47 federal inspectors general sent a letter to lawmakers criticizing “serious limitations on access to records” that they say have “impeded” their oversight work.

The data about public information officers was compiled over the past few years by Kennesaw State University professor Dr. Carolyn Carlson. Her surveys found that 4 in 10 public information officers say “there are specific reporters they will not allow their staff to talk to due to problems with their stories in the past.”

“That horrified us that so many would do that,” Carlson told the Columbia Journalism Review, which reported on her presentation at the July conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Carlson has conducted surveys of journalists and public information officers since 2012. In her most recent survey of 445 working journalists, four out of five reported that “their interviews must be approved” by government information officers, and “more than half of the reporters said they had actually been prohibited from interviewing [government] employees at least some of the time by public information officers.”

In recent years, there have been signs that the federal government is reducing the flow of public information. Reason Magazine has reported a 114 percent increase in Freedom of Information Act rejections by the Drug Enforcement Agency since President Obama took office. The National Security Agency has also issued blanket rejections of FOIA requests about its metadata program. And the Associated Press reported earlier this year that in 2013, “the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year.”

Those revelations foreshadowed a recent letter from more than half of the government’s inspectors general saying that federal agencies’ move to hide information from them represents a “potentially serious challenge to the authority of every Inspector General and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”



In that letter, the inspectors general assert that agencies are saying information is “privileged” and therefore must be kept secret. That is one of many increasingly creative rationales that public officials are now citing as reason to keep government information secret.

In Chicago, for example, officials in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration rejected a request for documents about an opaque $1.7 billion fund that is often used for corporate subsidies, some of which have flowed to the mayor’s political donors. In a letter explaining the rejection, the officials said it would take too much staff time to compile the data and that therefore the request was “unduly burdensome.”

Likewise in Rhode Island, Democratic State Treasurer Gina Raimondo rejected a newspaper request for information about the state’s hedge fund contracts on the grounds that she wanted fund managers to “keep this information confidential to help preserve the productivity of their staff and to minimize attention around their own compensation.”

That denial was one of many similar rejections from states seeking to keep the details of their Wall Street deals secret.

Carlson’s polls from 2014 show that three-quarters of journalists surveyed now agree that “the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.”

That’s the whole point of government secrecy, of course — and the ramifications are predictable. In an information vacuum, the public is being systematically divorced from public policy, which is exactly what too many elected officials want.

 

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books “Hostile Takeover,” “The Uprising” and “Back to Our Future.” E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/21/the_u_s_governments_creeping_war_on_journalists_partner/?source=newsletter

Democratic Party operatives seek to stifle opposition, facilitate police crackdown in Ferguson, Missouri

By Eric London
18 August 2014

Democratic Party-affiliated organizations led by Al Sharpton held a meeting Sunday at Greater Grace Church outside Ferguson, Missouri in an effort to diffuse opposition to the August 9 police murder of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Over 700 people attended the meeting, a reflection of the mass anger in Ferguson over the killing of Brown and the militarized crackdown on protests that has followed. From start to finish, however, the meeting bore all the trademarks of a carefully planned Democratic Party operation, orchestrated by Sharpton’s National Action Network in close collaboration with the police, the local Democratic machine and the Obama administration.

Al Sharpton arrives at Greater Grace Church on Sunday

Aside from Sharpton, who gave the keynote address, the line-up included Democratic Congressman William Clay, Martin Luther King III, attorney Benjamin Crump, and Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. Jesse Jackson was also present but did not speak.

The message issued by all the major speakers was clear: go home, register to vote and pray.

Religious paeans set the tone of the meeting, which unfolded as an exercise in obfuscation. Bishop L.O. Jones introduced the speakers by announcing his support for Johnson, who was appointed last Thursday by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon to oversee the antidemocratic crackdown that has swept the city. Nixon has declared a “state of emergency” to facilitate police repression.

The night after the event, police under Johnson’s direction fired tear gas and deployed armored vehicles against peaceful protesters, well before the midnight curfew, which has now been extended indefinitely.

“Captain Johnson has been doing a very fine job,” Jones said. “He is a fine man, he is working very hard, and may he be in our prayers.”

Johnson has played a central role in the ruling class’s efforts to divert opposition to widespread police brutality. As an African-American man from Ferguson, the political establishment felt he was well qualified to play the role of “good cop,” while giving them room to intensify the attack.

With consummate hypocrisy, Johnson told the audience: “I will protect your right to protest.” He then added that he hoped the events would teach him “to be a better black father.”

“This is my neighborhood,” he claimed. “You are my family, you are my friends. I am you.”

Johnson’s cynicism was outdone only by Sharpton himself, who expressly encouraged those in attendance to appeal to the most right-wing elements of the ruling class. Naming Florida’s Republican Governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by name, Sharpton shouted demagogically: “Nobody can go to the White House until they stop by our house.”

Sharpton went on to proclaim, “We’re not anti-police, we’re not anti-sitting down and solving the problem.”

He then denounced the residents of the town for not voting for the Democratic Party in recent elections: “Some of y’all that are mad now weren’t mad three weeks ago for election day,” he said. “We’ve got to vote. Twelve percent [election turnout] is an insult to your children.”

He went on to insult those who stayed out to demonstrate at night: “There is a difference between an activist and a thug,” he said. He concluded his remarks by calling for a voter registration drive and for young people to join his personal political machine, the NAN.

The biggest applause from the audience came when Sharpton made a brief reference to the immense social and economic crisis in Ferguson and similar cities throughout the country, saying that if the government had money to militarize the police, it had money to spend on jobs programs to put people to work. This point was greeted with a standing ovation.

Sharpton and all the main speakers at the event, however, are Democratic Party politicians and strong supporters of the Obama administration. Under Obama, vast resources have been handed out to the banks and Wall Street, while the ruling class has waged war against the jobs and living standards of the working class. Obama has also presided over an immense increase in the militarization of the police as part of a broader assault on basic democratic rights.

Several speakers made direct appeals to Obama. When Congressman Clay said, “I want to give a big shout out to the president and Attorney General Holder for stepping it up,” the applause was subdued. After Clay’s comment, a majority of the audience began engaging in side conversations. The parents of Michael Brown found their way off the stage.

The hollow refrain issued by the speakers stood in stark contrast to the explosive tensions that hung over the suburban city of 20,000 as the meeting took place. Several hours after the conclusion of the meeting, thousands of demonstrators gathered along West Florissant Street before dusk fell. The mood was a mix of elation and apprehension as the curfew approached.

Alongside the imposition of a curfew, Nixon has asserted for himself the powers available to him during a “state of emergency.”

According to Missouri law, a state of emergency may be called during a “man-made disaster of major proportions.”

Such a disaster allows the governor “to assume all direct operational control of all emergency [i.e. armed] forces and volunteers in the state” and to “seize, take, or requisition to the extent necessary to bring about the most effective protection of the public” any transportation, housing, or energy sources in the area.

The meeting called yesterday only confirms that the entire political establishment—including the likes of Sharpton and Jackson—are united in their determination to suppress and if necessary violently repress with all the powers of the state the popular opposition that has erupted over the police murder of Michael Brown.

Notes on Rabaa: revolt does not happen in a vacuum

by Philip Rizk on August 17, 2014

Post image for Notes on Rabaa: revolt does not happen in a vacuumOne year after the Rabaa massacre, Egypt’s prisons are full of dissidents of all political stripes. If we don’t stop this, we face a future of horrors.

I met Bassem Mohsen for a few moments in July 2013. He was upbeat and hopeful that the army had taken hold of power from the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remember being surprised by his quick optimism. He believed that these generals were different than those who had ruled during the period of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, following former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. After all, they had deposed our most recent nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood.

My only and very brief encounter with Bassem left me disappointed. A mutual friend had told me about his constant involvement in all stages of the January 25 revolution. He had already paid the price — he was incarcerated, and then lost his left eye in the critical battle of Mohamed Mahmoud in November 2011. It made me angry that this popular sentiment of black-and-white thinking could be so widespread, even among the most outspoken proponents of the revolt of our times.

Less than a month later, the soldiers Bassem had cheered for carried out a crime as they massacred Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a sit-in at the Rabea al-Adaweya mosque. Thousands killed, thousands injured, thousands arrested — most of whom are still jailed today. The biggest bloodbath the Egyptian army carried out on its own population.

Four months later, Bassem’s body was transferred from his native Suez to Cairo’s Qasr al-Aini hospital after an army sniper’s bullet penetrated his forehead.

At the hospital, his friend Eno, overcome with sorrow, told me that Bassem had joined the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators that day not in support of their cause, but out of protest against the police and military’s killing spree since taking power. I had been disappointed with what seemed to me Bassem’s simplistic analysis months earlier, but he clearly did not linger long in his short-sighted trust in the generals.

Unlike Bassem, I had opposed the military when they were celebrated into power on July 3. And again, unlike Bassem, I did not take to the street despite my rage at the horrors that ensued. After the decisive divide-and-rule tactic that the military and police generals carried out that July, I drew back, feeling with many around me that we needed to bide our time to be able to speak or to act again. Following a period of naive optimism, Bassem could clearly do no such thing. Injustice was injustice, torture and killing was just that, and he took to the street even if alongside his former enemy.

The coup that Bassem and I oppose not only eventually metamorphosed the Muslim Brotherhood into a terrorist entity, and condemned any other opposition with widespread popular blessing. This legitimization also opened a path of unprecedented police brutality.

Egyptians lost much support in the days following June 30, 2013, when they chanted into power the same police and military forces that they had chased out of it less than three years earlier. The widespread indifference toward the August 14 massacre that accompanied a rising fascistic spirit just confirmed that fall from grace.

One year after the massacre, Egypt’s prisons are full of dissidents and innocents of all political stripes. Every Friday, protesters take to the street against the newly gained power of the police and military. These are not just supporters of the Brotherhood. Hundreds of Bassems pass through the morgues, thousands fill the decrepit cells of the prisons — these are the “unknowns” with the courage to dissent. If these acts of protest are reported at all, the pro-military media will usually paint them wholesale as Muslim Brotherhood members, banned and thus deserving to be captured or killed.

Though I do not affirm the Brotherhood’s cause to return to power, I believe in their right to dissent. All those that risk their bodies, like Bassem, risk the bullet. I will by no means try to justify the shocking actions of Egyptians that started the morning of June 30, the rise of the fascistic, the acceptance of the torment of others. The most powerful tool to these ends is the discourse of terrorism that has fed into the deep fear in the hearts of so many living inside a regime of terror.

There is a vital lesson to be learned in Egypt: no revolt happens in a vacuum. Egypt’s revolutionaries cannot face the local police and military believing that we are unrelated to the incarceration of protesters in Bashar al-Assad’s dungeons, the neo-liberal policies spreading across the globe or black youths shot dead in the inner cities of the United States.

No revolt exists in a vacuum. And in this power balance we are all black, we are the underdogs, we are the wretched still trying to fight ourselves free from the stranglehold of the colonizer, metamorphosed into the prison warden in dark skin and leaders that are our kin, but still hold the whip over our heads. The lesson we must glean is that as our world becomes ever smaller, the weapons that your leaders grant ours are never to be trusted, and must be smashed.

Bassem Mohsen

The bombs dropping on Gaza are made far away, and the blood they shed is on the hands of those who do not stop them from reaching the mercenaries. The consequences of sealed borders preventing the dying from receiving some care lie on my shoulders. The twisted tales told by the agencies in your neighborhoods that falsify the history of the outcasts is a responsibility we must bare.

Like Bassem, we must find the courage to try and stop them, or else we prepare a future of horrors.

Rest in peace Bassem. We continue your struggle.

Philip Rizk is a filmmaker based in Cairo and a member of the Mosireen video collective. This piece was originally published on Mada Masr.

 

 

http://roarmag.org/2014/08/bassem-mohsen-belated-obituary/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29