Building connections and resisting oppressions.

Sounding the Climate Alarm

people climate march 

Over 310,000 people filled the streets for the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. Freelance reporter/photographer Katie Moore was there and filed this report.

The People's Climate March, which took over a wide swath of midtown Manhattan on September 21st, was billed as the largest climate march in history before it even took place. And the projection turned out to be right with over 310,000 people participating in the march, timed two days before the U.N. Climate Summit. But it wasn't just a numbers game. The power also resided in the diversity of the voices present. The march was organized into six broad contingencies with indigenous and environmental justice groups leading the way. They were followed by labor activists, mainstream environmental organizations, anti-capitalists, scientists, and community groups. Field organizer Garrett O'Connor commented, "The organizations participating in the march are many, and the central focus of their everyday work varies greatly. Some are focused on immigration reform, universal healthcare, police violence, LGBT rights, and the list goes on. The march has given space to these groups to interact with each other and understand that climate issues affect everyone."

people climate marcher On the ground, despite being packed in at many places, it was difficult to realize the scope of the march which stretched for over 25 blocks. But there was an energy in meeting people who had come from across the country and hearing different calls of action which ranged from veganism to investments in renewable energy to revolution. Thousands of signs were made that read “I'm Marching For ________” that people then filled in with their own responses which included "the future," "mother earth," "food sovereignty," "penguins," "U.N. action," "gross national happiness," and "all our children."

At 12:58 p.m. there was a moment of silence for the victims of climate change, and at 1 p.m. there was a wave of sound that erupted symbolizing the climate alarm. The march made its way downtown for over a mile and wound down at 34th Street and 11th Avenue. There people could write what they wanted to protect from climate change on ribbons which were hung in a temporary installation. In the march’s attendance were big names such as Al Gore, Ban Ki-moon, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite some disagreements over issues such as the march's route (which did not go by the U.N) and the inclusion of some groups (such as both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear groups), the march was declared a success with over 1,000 organizations participating and no reported arrests. Worldwide, the call for climate change action spawned over 2,800 solidarity events in 166 countries. In Berlin, Germany, marcher Laura Thépot remarked, "I'm very interested in the outcome of our planet's health, even more so since my little boy was born. I would like to ensure that he has a healthy future. In any case, if this march goes down in history like they say it will, we can be proud to tell our son that this was his first demo." Back in New York, hundreds of events were coordinated the week of the U.N. Summit including panel talks, teach-ins, and art exhibits.

The morning after the march approximately 2,500 people gathered in Battery Park in lower Manhattan for a follow-up action called Flood Wall Street. There they heard from author Chris Hedges, and climate activists from around the world. Organizers Lisa Fithian and Monica Hunken led the group in a short nonviolent direct action training and a song was introduced which went:

The people gonna rise with the water
We gonna calm this crisis down
I hear the voice of my great granddaughter
Singing shut down Wall Street now

The protest was formed to hone in on the role of corporations who contribute and profit from climate change. Marchers carried signs that read "Capitali$m has no solutions for climate change" and "Stop climate chaos" and many had committed to being arrested in an act of civil disobedience. The group marched a couple of blocks north to the Wall Street bull where they sat down in the street. Surprisingly, they were allowed to stay, blocking traffic for many hours. As the National Lawyers Guild took down the names of those willing to be arrested, the protesters sang, danced, and ordered pizza. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, they decided to get up and march further, which took them to the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway. Despite a brief scuffle with the NYPD and the deployment of pepper spray as protesters attempted to get further down Wall Street, the group held the space into the evening, chalking messages on the street and speaking about what brought them out. Around 7:30 p.m. police officers began making arrests after issuing dispersal warnings. 102 people were arrested including a man dressed in a life-like polar bear costume (which immediately produced memes including one reading "Polar bear seeks refuge from melting Arctic, gets arrested at #FloodWallStreet").

people climate ribbons Although the outcries concerning climate change were heard globally, the effect of the march is yet to be determined. While the leaders of the world talk about what to do at the U.N. and institutions like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund take positive steps to divest from fossil fuels (announced the day after the march), the movement for climate change action will have to grow, learn, and mobilize; and quickly if the 2 degree Celsius temperature increase scientists have warned about is to be averted. That means the movement must use the energy from the march as a starting point, perhaps even a tipping point of awareness and action. The change that is needed will take ideas and voices on the grassroots level. It will take both mainstream and more radical tactics. It will take collaboration and compromise. It will take personal responsibility and continued pressure on the major polluters of the world. It will take a shift in power and priorities. It will take outrage, celebration, and hope. At one point during Flood Wall Street protesters began chanting “We believe that we will win!” It was an ambitious and broad statement to be sure, but in the moment, after witnessing hundreds of thousands of people from across the country join together in the march and knowing that some of them are willing to engage in nonviolent direct action, it felt like it could be realized. After all, the future depends on it.

Photographs by Katie Moore


Visualizing Inequality


Mapping projects that examine income inequality may help efforts to close the gap.

We recently touched on the nationwide problem of income inequality—but what does that look like in your own neighborhood? Activist Aaron Kreider wanted to find out so he spent a year plugging in income and race data to create, a tool that visualizes the makeup of individual blocks throughout the country.

Kreider who has a background in data visualization and sociology, says, “I’ve zoomed deeper in the data than other people have done before. There are something like 10 million individual blocks in the United States. I was running my computer through the night.” Previously he had developed mapping software that looked at power plants and waste facilities where he noticed that such facilities were often constructed in low-income and minority communities. He expanded his scope for Justice Map using 10GB of information from the 2010 census and Google Maps, as well as a grant from the Sunlight Foundation.

The maps can be exported so that organizations can utilize them to gain understanding of areas they are working in and to develop their own initiatives. An organizer in Louisville, Kentucky is already integrating Justice Map with another mapping project that assesses air quality. In Seattle, it’s being used to determine where there may be a need for low-income housing in the Latino community. In the future, Kreider plans to widen the project to include immigration status, country of origin, and use information from older censuses to examine how cities have changed. He also hopes that it will be an effective resource for city planning and journalists.

Another new map, released by the Tax Foundation, looks at how far $100 goes in each of the 50 states. Not surprisingly, your dollars stretch less in New York and California where $100 buys $86.66 and $88.57 respectively, compared to the national average. Illinois comes in close to the average at $99.40 whereas Mississippi sits at $115.74. One conclusion that could be made from such findings is to establish a higher minimum wage, but to make those adjustments based on regional price differentials. 22 states already do this by setting their own minimum wages beyond the federal rate of $7.25. Additionally, some companies have instituted a similar practice; at Ikea stores in the U.S., the base hourly wages range from $8.69 to $13.22 depending on the location. Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that this may be one way to close in on the income inequality gap on a local level and may be more effective than trying to push a dysfunctional Congress to pass a national minimum wage increase.

Photo by Eric Fischer, licensed under Creative Commons.

One Nation Under SWAT

swat team

How the excessive militarization of the police is turning cops into counterinsurgents 

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Jason Westcott was afraid.

He had discovered via Facebook that a friend of a friend was planning with some co-conspirators to break in to his home. They were intent on stealing Wescott's handgun and a couple of TV sets. According to the Facebook message, the suspect was planning on “burning” Westcott, who promptly called the Tampa Bay police and reported the plot.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, the investigating officers responding to Westcott’s call had a simple message for him: “If anyone breaks into this house, grab your gun and shoot to kill.”

Around 7:30 pm on May 27, the intruders arrived. Westcott followed the officers’ advice, grabbed his gun to defend his home, and died pointing it at the intruders. They used a semiautomatic shotgun and handgun to shoot down the 29-year-old motorcycle mechanic. He was hit three times, once in the arm and twice in his side, and pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

The intruders, however, weren’t small-time crooks looking to make a small score. Rather they were members of the Tampa Bay Police Department’s SWAT team, which was executing a search warrant on suspicion that Westcott and his partner were marijuana dealers. They had been tipped off by a confidential informant, whom they drove to Westcott’s home four times between February and May to purchase small amounts of marijuana, at $20-$60 a pop. The informer notified police that he saw two handguns in the home, which was why the Tampa Bay police deployed a SWAT team to execute the search warrant.

In the end, the same police department that told Westcott to protect his home with defensive force killed him when he did. After searching his small rental, the cops indeed found weed, $2 worth, and one legal handgun—the one he was clutching when the bullets ripped into him.

Welcome to a new era of American policing, where cops increasingly see themselves as soldiers occupying enemy territory, often with the help of Uncle Sam’s armory, and where even nonviolent crimes are met with overwhelming force and brutality.

The War on Your Doorstep
The cancer of militarized policing has long been metastasizing in the body politic. It has been growing ever stronger since the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were born in the 1960s in response to that decade’s turbulent mix of riots, disturbances, and senseless violence like Charles Whitman’s infamous clock-tower rampage in Austin, Texas.

While SWAT isn’t the only indicator that the militarization of American policing is increasing, it is the most recognizable. The proliferation of SWAT teams across the country and their paramilitary tactics have spread a violent form of policing designed for the extraordinary but in these years made ordinary. When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide. Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or large-scale disturbances.

Nearly a half-century later, that’s no longer true.

In 1984, according to Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26 percent of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80 percent and it’s still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.

As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.

Upping the Racial Profiling Ante
In a recently released report, “War Comes Home,” the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 80 percent of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to execute a search warrant.

Pause here a moment and consider that these violent home invasions are routinely used against people who are only suspected of a crime. Up-armored paramilitary teams now regularly bash down doors in search of evidence of a possible crime. In other words, police departments increasingly choose a tactic that often results in injury and property damage as its first option, not the one of last resort. In more than 60 percent of the raids the ACLU investigated, SWAT members rammed down doors in search of possible drugs, not to save a hostage, respond to a barricade situation, or neutralize an active shooter.

On the other side of that broken-down door, more often than not, are blacks and Latinos. When the ACLU could identify the race of the person or people whose home was being broken into, 68 percent of the SWAT raids against minorities were for the purpose of executing a warrant in search of drugs. When it came to whites, that figure dropped to 38 percent, despite the well-known fact that blacks, whites, and Latinos all use drugs at roughly the same rates. SWAT teams, it seems, have a disturbing record of disproportionately applying their specialized skill set within communities of color.

Think of this as racial profiling on steroids in which the humiliation of stop and frisk is raised to a terrifying new level.

Everyday Militarization
Don’t think, however, that the military mentality and equipment associated with SWAT operations are confined to those elite units. Increasingly, they’re permeating all forms of policing.

As Karl Bickel, a senior policy analyst with the Justice Department’s Community Policing Services office, observes, police across America are being trained in a way that emphasizes force and aggression. He notes that recruit training favors a stress-based regimen that’s modeled on military boot camp rather than on the more relaxed academic setting a minority of police departments still employ. The result, he suggests, is young officers who believe policing is about kicking ass rather than working with the community to make neighborhoods safer. Or as comedian Bill Maher reminded officers recently: “The words on your car, ‘protect and serve,’ refer to us, not you.”

This authoritarian streak runs counter to the core philosophy that supposedly dominates 21st-century American thinking: community policing. Its emphasis is on a mission of “keeping the peace” by creating and maintaining partnerships of trust with and in the communities served. Under the community model, which happens to be the official policing philosophy of the U.S. government, officers are protectors but also problem solvers who are supposed to care, first and foremost, about how their communities see them. They don’t command respect, the theory goes: they earn it. Fear isn’t supposed to be their currency. Trust is.

Nevertheless, police recruiting videos, as in those from California’s Newport Beach Police Department and New Mexico’s Hobbs Police Department, actively play up not the community angle but militarization as a way of attracting young men with the promise of Army-style adventure and high-tech toys. Policing, according to recruiting videos like these, isn’t about calmly solving problems; it’s about you and your boys breaking down doors in the middle of the night.

SWAT’s influence reaches well beyond that. Take the increasing adoption of battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) for patrol officers. These militaristic, often black, jumpsuits, Bickel fears, make them less approachable and possibly also more aggressive in their interactions with the citizens they’re supposed to protect.

A small project at Johns Hopkins University seemed to bear this out. People were shown pictures of police officers in their traditional uniforms and in BDUs. Respondents, the survey indicated, would much rather have a police officer show up in traditional dress blues. Summarizing its findings, Bickel writes, “The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors.”

Where Do They Get Those Wonderful Toys?
“I wonder if I can get in trouble for doing this,” the young man says to his buddy in the passenger seat as they film the Saginaw County Sheriff Office’s new toy: a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. As they film the MRAP from behind, their amateur video has a Red Dawn-esque feel, as if an occupying military were now patrolling this Michigan county’s streets. “This is getting ready for f**king crazy times, dude,” one young man comments. “Why,” his friend replies, “has our city gotten that f**king bad?”

In fact, nothing happening in Saginaw County warranted the deployment of an armored vehicle capable of withstanding bullets and the sort of improvised explosive devices that insurgent forces have regularly planted along roads in America’s recent war zones. 

Sheriff William Federspiel, however, fears the worst. “As sheriff of the county, I have to put ourselves in the best position to protect our citizens and protect our property,” he told a reporter. “I have to prepare for something disastrous.”

Lucky for Federspiel, his exercise in paranoid disaster preparedness didn’t cost his office a penny. That $425,000 MRAP came as a gift, courtesy of Uncle Sam, from one of our far-flung counterinsurgency wars. The nasty little secret of policing’s militarization is that taxpayers are subsidizing it through programs overseen by the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department. 

Take the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) may be an obscure agency within the Department of Defense, but through the 1033 program, which it oversees, it’s one of the core enablers of American policing’s excessive militarization. Beginning in 1990, Congress authorized the Pentagon to transfer its surplus property free of charge to federal, state, and local police departments to wage the war on drugs. In 1997, Congress expanded the purpose of the program to include counterterrorism in section 1033 of the defense authorization bill. In one single page of a 450-page law, Congress helped sow the seeds of today’s warrior cops.

The amount of military hardware transferred through the program has grown astronomically over the years. In 1990, the Pentagon gave $1 million worth of equipment to U.S. law enforcement. That number had jumped to nearly $450 million in 2013. Overall, the program has shipped off more than $4.3 billion worth of materiel to state and local cops, according to the DLA.

In its recent report, the ACLU found a disturbing range of military gear being transferred to civilian police departments nationwide. Police in North Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, received 34 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, two robots that can be armed, military helmets, and a Mamba tactical vehicle. Police in Gwinnet County, Georgia, received 57 semi-automatic rifles, mostly M-16s and M-14s. The Utah Highway Patrol, according to a Salt Lake City Tribune investigation, got an MRAP from the 1033 program, and Utah police received 1,230 rifles and four grenade launchers. After South Carolina’s Columbia Police Department received its very own MRAP worth $658,000, its SWAT Commander Captain E.M. Marsh noted that 500 similar vehicles had been distributed to law enforcement organizations across the country.

Astoundingly, one-third of all war material parceled out to state, local, and tribal police agencies is brand new. This raises further disconcerting questions: Is the Pentagon simply wasteful when it purchases military weapons and equipment with taxpayer dollars? Or could this be another downstream, subsidized market for defense contractors? Whatever the answer, the Pentagon is actively distributing weaponry and equipment made for U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns abroad to police who patrol American streets and this is considered sound policy in Washington. The message seems striking enough: what might be necessary for Kabul might also be necessary for DeKalb County.

In other words, the 21st century war on terror has melded thoroughly with the 20th century war on drugs, and the result couldn’t be anymore disturbing: police forces that increasingly look and act like occupying armies.

How the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice Are Up-Armoring the Police
When police departments look to muscle up their arms and tactics, the Pentagon isn’t the only game in town. Civilian agencies are in on it, too.

During a 2011 investigation, reporters Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz discovered that, since 9/11, police departments watching over some of the safest places in America have used $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to militarize in the name of counterterrorism.

In Fargo, North Dakota, for example, the city and its surrounding county went on an $8 million spending spree with federal money, according to Becker and Schulz. Although the area averaged less than two murders a year since 2005, every squad car is now armed with an assault rifle. Police also have access to Kevlar helmets that can stop heavy firepower as well as an armored truck worth approximately $250,000. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1,500 beat cops have been trained to use AR-15 assault rifles with homeland security grant funding.

As with the 1033 program, neither DHS nor state and local governments account for how the equipment, including body armor and drones, is used. While the rationale behind stocking up on these military-grade supplies is invariably the possibility of a terrorist attack, school shooting, or some other horrific event, the gear is normally used to conduct paramilitary drug raids, as Balko notes.

Still, the most startling source of police militarization is the Department of Justice, the very agency officially dedicated to spreading the community policing model through its Community Oriented Policing Services office.

In 1988, Congress authorized the Byrne grant programs in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which gave state and local police federal funds to enlist in the government’s drug war. That grant program, according to Balko, led to the creation of regional and multi-jurisdictional narcotics task forces, which gorged themselves on federal money and, with little federal, state, or local oversight, spent it beefing up their weapons and tactics. In 2011, 585 of these task forces operated off of Byrne grant funding.

The grants, Balko reports, also incentivized the type of policing that has made the war on drugs such a destructive force in American society. The Justice Department doled out Byrne grants based on how many arrests officers made, how much property they seized, and how many warrants they served. The very things these narcotics task forces did very well. “As a result,” Balko writes, “we have roving squads of drug cops, loaded with SWAT gear, who get money if they conduct more raids, make more arrests, and seize more property, and they are virtually immune to accountability if they get out of line.”

Regardless of whether this militarization has occurred due to federal incentives or executive decision-making in police departments or both, police across the nation are up-armoring with little or no public debate. In fact, when the ACLU requested SWAT records from 255 law enforcement agencies as part of its investigation, 114 denied them. The justifications for such denials varied, but included arguments that the documents contained “trade secrets” or that the cost of complying with the request would be prohibitive. Communities have a right to know how the police do their jobs, but more often than not, police departments think otherwise.

Being the Police Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
Report by report, evidence is mounting that America’s militarized police are a threat to public safety. But in a country where the cops increasingly look upon themselves as soldiers doing battle day in, day out, there’s no need for public accountability or even an apology when things go grievously wrong.

If community policing rests on mutual trust between the police and the people, militarized policing operates on the assumption of “officer safety” at all costs and contempt for anyone who sees things differently. The result is an “us versus them” mentality.

Just ask the parents of Bou Bou Phonesavanh. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 28, the Habersham County Special Response Team conducted a no-knock raid at a relative’s home near Cornelia, Georgia, where the family was staying. The officers were looking for the homeowner’s son, whom they suspected of selling $50 worth of drugs to a confidential informant. As it happened, he no longer lived there.

Despite evidence that children were present—a minivan in the driveway, children’s toys littering the yard, and a Pack ‘n Play next to the door—a SWAT officer tossed a “flashbang” grenade into the home. It landed in 19-month-old Bou Bou’s crib and exploded, critically wounding the toddler. When his distraught mother tried to reach him, officers screamed at her to sit down and shut up, telling her that her child was fine and had just lost a tooth. In fact, his nose was hanging off his face, his body had been severely burned, and he had a hole in his chest. Rushed to the hospital, Bou Bou had to be put into a medically induced coma.

The police claimed that it was all a mistake and that there had been no evidence children were present. “There was no malicious act performed,” Habersham County Sheriff Joey Terrell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was a terrible accident that was never supposed to happen.” The Phonesavanhs have yet to receive an apology from the sheriff’s office. “Nothing. Nothing for our son. No card. No balloon. Not a phone call. Not anything,” Bou Bou’s mother, Alecia Phonesavanh, told CNN.

Similarly, Tampa Bay Police Chief Jane Castor continues to insist that Jay Westcott’s death in the militarized raid on his house was his own fault. “Mr. Westcott lost his life because he aimed a loaded firearm at police officers. You can take the entire marijuana issue out of the picture,” Castor said. “If there's an indication that there is armed trafficking going on—someone selling narcotics while they are armed or have the ability to use a firearm—then the tactical response team will do the initial entry.”

In her defense of the SWAT raid, Castor simply dismissed any responsibility for Westcott’s death. “They did everything they could to serve this warrant in a safe manner,” she wrote the Tampa Bay Times— “everything,” that is, but find an alternative to storming the home of a man they knew feared for his life. 

Almost half of all American households report having a gun, as the ACLU notes in its report. That means the police always have a ready-made excuse for using SWAT teams to execute warrants when less confrontational and less violent alternatives exist.

In other words, if police believe you’re selling drugs, beware. Suspicion is all they need to turn your world upside down. And if they’re wrong, don’t worry; the intent couldn’t have been better.

Voices in the Wilderness
The militarization of the police shouldn’t be surprising. As Hubert Williams, a former police director of Newark, New Jersey, and Patrick V. Murphy, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, put it nearly 25 years ago, police are “barometers of the society in which they operate.” In post-9/11 America, that means police forces imbued with the “hooah” mentality of soldiers and acting as if they are fighting an insurgency in their own backyard.

While the pace of police militarization has quickened, there has at least been some pushback from current and former police officials who see the trend for what it is: the destruction of community policing. In Spokane, Washington, Councilman Mike Fagan, a former police detective, is pushing back against police officers wearing BDUs, calling the get-up “intimidating” to citizens. In Utah, the legislature passed a bill requiring probable cause before police could execute a no-knock raid. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has been a vocal critic of militarization, telling the local paper, “We’re not the military. Nor should we look like an invading force coming in.” Just recently, Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department agreed with the ACLU and the Los Angeles Times editorial board that “the lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be blurred.”

Retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has also become an outspoken critic of militarizing police forces, noting “most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy, and interpersonal skills.” In other words, community policing. Stamper is the chief who green-lighted a militarized response to World Trade Organization protests in his city in 1999 (“The Battle in Seattle”). It’s a decision he would like to take back. “My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose,” he wrote in the Nation. “Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict.”

These former policemen and law enforcement officials understand that police officers shouldn't be breaking down any citizen's door at 3 a.m. armed with AR-15s and flashbang grenades in search of a small amount of drugs, while an MRAP idles in the driveway. The anti-militarists, however, are in the minority right now. And until that changes, violent paramilitary police raids will continue to break down the doors of nearly 1,000 American households a week.

War, once started, can rarely be contained.

Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union and a TomDispatch regular. You can follow him on Twitter@mharwood31.

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Copyright 2014 Matthew Harwood

Photo courtesy Jason Eppink, licensed under Creative Commons

Caught on Camera


Recording police interactions leads to better accountability for all parties involved.

The importance of accountability via photography and video is gaining favor both within police departments and with the general public. One in six police departments in the U.S. have instituted body cameras which attach to the front of officers’ uniforms. Bill Bratton, the NYPD Commissioner remarked, “Officers not familiar with the technology may see it as something harmful. But the irony is, officers actually tend to benefit. Very often, the officer’s version of events is the accurate version.” Complaints against the police have been shown to drop significantly – in Rialto, California, they were down 88 percent after cameras started being worn by officers. For the NYPD to fully implement a camera program, it would cost an estimated $32 million which seems like a hefty amount. But considering they paid out $152 million in settlements in just one year, it may be worth the money. 

With the ubiquity of smartphones, people have the tools to make public officials more accountable. Cases of police brutality have been catching the public’s attention, mostly due to the violent incidents being caught on tape. In July two dramatic videos were captured: Marlene Pinnock, a 51-year old woman, was beaten by a California Highway Patrol officer, and Eric Garner was killed after the NYPD put him in a chokehold. Both scenes were recorded by nearby witnesses. Pinnock said, “Without the video my word may have not meant anything,” while Garner’s death has officially been ruled a homicide.

The website Photography is Not a Crime publishes user-submitted videos and photographs documenting police abuse ranging from physical violence to unlawful arrests to cases where officers have deleted images from cameras that have been seized. The problem of police brutality even applies to animals. This website has a map of user-submitted "puppycides." Another initiative is the “Stop and Frisk Watch” app which is a specialized resource that allows users to record the police. The app then sends the footage to the New York Civil Liberties Union. It also includes a “Know Your Rights” component which is an important element since taping police officers in public places is protected by the First Amendment, however state laws vary on some aspects of this, such as recording audio conversations (some states require consent of both parties).

Photo courtesy of the author.

Demolition Symbolizes City’s Downfalls


The battle for 5 Pointz embodies the value we put on gentrification and public art.

When I lived in Queens, New York, I often made my way over to Long Island City, a neighborhood that borders the East River, to check out 5 Pointz. The site consisted of a 200,000 square foot building covered in graffiti, which I preferred over MoMA’s PS1, which sits nearby. There, I found artists re-covering the walls with murals and tags, small crowds in the courtyard blaring music and dancing, curious onlookers, and locals hosing down their food carts which were stored in the bowels of the building. The warehouse, which was originally a water meter factory, has had its walls covered by well-known street artists from around the world and been featured in movie scenes.

But in 2013, the site turned into a symbol embodying the tension that gentrification provokes and also questioning the value of public art. In a deal worth $400 million, the property is slated to be converted into two high-rises and retail shops. Despite protests and injunctions which called for the building to be given historic landmark status, the exterior was painted white during the night of November 19.

Since then, a group of street artists has filed a lawsuit pursuing damages for the destruction of their work, and artists gilf! and BAMN have wrapped banner-sized, yellow-and-black police-like tape reading “GENTRIFICATION IN PROGRESS” around the building. Asbestos removal has also been carried out in preparation for the demolition and renderings for the new development have been created. Included in the plans is a wall for artists to paint on although they will have to get permission. There are also 210 affordable housing units in addition to the 1,000 apartments—no word yet if the design includes a ‘poor door’ —a set up employed at other mixed-income buildings that has subsidized tenants using a separate entrance.

With demolition coming in the next two weeks, the outlook for the site is pretty bleak. Symbolically, 5 Pointz illustrates the city’s disposition towards its artists and public spaces as well as the growing complications that gentrification bears. While there are positive aspects of gentrification such as increased local revenues and more social integration, these are often accompanied by negative repercussions like displacement and neighborhood polarization. In many ways this case also resembles problems we face on a national scale as income inequality continues to grow and money’s influence shuts out the voices of the people.      

Photo courtesy of the author.

The End of the Generational Alphabet


Generation Z possesses unprecedented attributes.

For Generation Z-ers, growing up in a post 9/11 world with social media at their fingertips has been the norm. And undoubtedly, they will inherit a world wrought with challenges, from increasing income inequality to the environment. But the group, defined loosely by those who are 18 and under (making up about a quarter of the population in North America), shows great promise. In a study undertaken by Sparks & Honey, an advertising group, they found that the lifestyle Generation Z is looking for differs from their predecessors in Generation Y. Not only do more of them want jobs that have a social impact, but they are also more tolerant of diversity and varying gender roles.

However the digital influence on the so-called “screenagers” or first generation “digital natives” is a hotly contested realm. Crowdsourcing and open access education have allowed them to create opportunities and be exposed to experiences not otherwise available. A number of teenagers have already made inroads in innovative technology and medicine. Take Ann Makosinki who invented a flashlight that obtains its power via heat from the human hand or Angela Zhang who came up with an MRI scanning protocol that detects tumors more accurately.

But researchers worry about the costs of connectivity. There’s been an uptick in kids with spatial skills problems purportedly due to dependence on digital devices—when Google maps gives directions on a screen, translating that to the real world can become a befuddling experience. Additionally technology presents a divide between adults and children which may change the way they communicate (and may cause disagreements between the generations). And while the top two-thirds of young adults may fare better than previous generations in terms of things like education, the bottom third may not be as lucky. Other issues include shrinking attention spans, online bullying, and obesity. However making generalizations about a generation that’s still growing up should be taken with a grain of salt. Robert Barnard, CEO of Decode, a company that collects data on youth, said at times, “You’re really looking at the way their parents are operating, not who they are.”

Photo courtesy of Joris Louwes, licensed under Creative Commons.

Interview: Activist Cecily McMillan


Utne Reader recently spoke with 25-year old activist Cecily McMillan, who was released from jail earlier this month after being convicted of assaulting a police officer at a 2012 protest.

On March 17, 2012, hundreds of people gathered in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of Occupy Wall Street, to celebrate the six-month anniversary of the movement. That evening, the jubilant mood turned angry as the NYPD ordered the park cleared and began arresting people. One of those arrested was Cecily McMillan. She was charged with assaulting a police officer and was convicted this May. McMillan, now 25, served 58 days at Rikers, the main New York City jail. During her incarceration, she got to know many of the women there and was also visited by Pussy Riot. A petition to end human rights abuses at Rikers can be found here.

During the trial, it was emphasized that you’re more of a reformer. Do you still believe that this line of activism is the best way to create change?

That’s a really complicated question. A lot of people would like to just boil this down to an either or scenario. In terms of my own personal politics, what would I like to see? I would like to see prisons be abolished completely. What we need in this country is a true rehabilitative process – food sources, daycare, job programs, domestic abuse programs, drug rehabilitation. You want to create jobs, keep people out of jail, you want to see citizens flourish to their fullest capacity which to me sounds like democracy, you have to get rid of prisons. So is that revolution over reform? The discussion is there.

But in terms of what I’m advocating for right now, the grand expertise of Cecily McMillan is very, very, very little at 58 days where I had an entire group of supporters on the outside. I was able to get medication when other people weren’t because there were people on the outside standing up for me. So is it right for me to come out and talk about my agenda and my politics and my platform? No. I was asked by these women in my last week to voice their opinions, their demands, their realistic points of view from an understanding of the struggle that is much deeper than mine. I think they have something solidly to offer about the solutions and in that degree, I do believe in reform.

What is the point of sitting around a table talking about revolution all of the time if there are people dying in jail, if there are people being abused in jail, if there’s not safe medical care in jail? So in that sense, revolution, in my thought, in the world we live in today, starts with a social movement and social movements are gained through pathways that are socially acceptable, pathways that are socially accessible. And most of the time, that’s couched in a conversation about reforms and if we do our jobs correctly as organizers, then what we’re able to entice is a growing movement where the public has been activated, the public has taken on a greater democratic role in showing up, as we saw in the 60’s – people hitting the streets, people engaged in voter registration.

If you transfer privilege enough and allow for a variety of diverse voices, then there’s a variety of diverse problems and there within, if you put up the right coalitions, then you have a series of back-to-back-to-back movements which can lead to the structural changes we want to see. I think we have to use the façade of democracy that is left to take over that term, reclaim that term, and apply that term in a way that more people can engage in, in a way that more people can enter the discussion, in a way to reclaim our democracy and move forward from there. I don’t know if that makes me a reformist. I think it makes me a realist. 

What are some of some of the specific changes you’d like to see in the prison system and how did these get formed through your experience?

The big platform that we’re calling for is tri-fold. It calls for medical and mental health changes, a procedural grievance change, and greater education and rehabilitation programs.

The first one is that all inmates should receive a thorough physical as well as a psychological evaluation upon entering Rikers, that all inmates should have from that point, prescribed to them all current medications and forms of treatment, and that immediately specialty appointments should be set up and scheduled for inmates. When you go in now, you get a physical. A physical that has not been really thorough, you don’t have a doctor listening to you, you’re not listing your medical history. They’re just giving you a rapid HIV test or taking your blood to make sure you don’t have hepatitis B - they’re just covering their backs.

In terms of psycho-social examination, you don’t get called down for about a week. It’s not a hospitable environment; you get the sense that you’re in an asylum. I think that having an adequate, safe psycho-social examination upon entry would be a good thing. You do not get the medications or the treatments that you are prescribed. If you were per say undergoing therapeutic treatment for bipolar or PTSD or AA, that’s not something that you will necessarily have available.

The other two demands: the DoC [Department of Corrections] review the inmate handbook and follow a grievance process for inmates to be able to report indiscretions with the rules. The final thing is all inmates should have access to educational, career, and mental health programs. At this point only a small handful of people really have access to any programs, determined upon how long you’re staying or if you’re a detainee or sentencee inmate.

Can you tell us a little more your friendship with Judith [an inmate McMillan met at Rikers] and what transpired?

They moved her to our building and when she first came there, Buddha [another inmate] introduced her to all of us. She was funny, she was interesting, she was in good spirits. Over the course of three days, she was prescribed 190 micro millimeters of methadone liquid which is a very dangerously high dose of methadone in liquid form for back pain. She deteriorated and it is in our opinion that it caused liver failure but that’s not confirmable. But she went from totally alert and going down that morning to get commissary, so we had just spent a lot of time together, and you get a feel for how someone is doing—to the first day after she took the prescribed liquid methadone, fading in and out consciousness. Then the second day she wasn’t really able to get up at all, she had stopped eating which you know when someone’s not eating right after commissary … Stopped conversing with people, rolling forward, rolling backward.

By the third day she was coughing up blood, to the point she was splattered with her own blood down her chest. So the CO [correctional officer] was very helpful in this case and she called down for medical, medical came up. Despite the obvious case that she was far too delusional to make any medical decisions for herself and despite the fact that we inmates had specifically called attention to that and told them everything that had happened, after two plus weeks of arguing with these people [medical] to give her the correct medication, she was not inclined to go downstairs with them. We were like ‘No you have to take her down, there’s blood all over her, look at the blood in the bathroom’ They said she refused medical advice. She continued to throw up. We had the CO call down a couple more times but they said, 'We’re not coming up, she refused medical attention.' Eventually the inmates in the room got pretty rowdy, and two of the girls ended up getting her dressed and carried her downstairs which means the CO had to let us do that. They are not allowed to break orders and that’s breaking the order. That is being helpful beyond what the code of ethics technically allows a CO to do. So you have to think in different terms, when you think in jail. They brought her down and they waited there with her until they saw that she was being taken to the emergency room and she was placed under critical care until her death.

I was more shocked more often by a greater humanity displayed on behalf of a handful—a handful—of COs and often appalled at the complete lack of humanity of medical and mental health staff.

What’s your opinion of the police and how can that system be improved?

That’s a big one and one that I am most hesitant to address. I remember being a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and being down there at Zuccotti and wanting to talk about economic justice and corporate personhood and create our own micro-society where we could re-imagine how things could work if we just worked together. And all of the sudden we got de-railed by the FTP [fuck the police] narrative. I mean that makes sense, they were the first obstacle in our faces, keeping us from moving forward.

But the police, like the COs, generally speaking, if I can say it from the mouth of someone that knows better – Natasha Carter, a woman I was in there with. She said, ‘The only people who think there’s a real difference between the COs and the inmates are people who have never been to jail. These folks come from our neighborhoods. There isn’t a CO in here that doesn’t know an inmate from the outside. These are the ones that were able to get a job that has a pension and insurance.’ But who really wakes up and says I want to live in a prison or I want to be sent out to the same neighborhood that looks like my neighborhood and pick up people who look like me? In that degree, is the biggest problem the police or is the biggest problem the fact that we don’t know who’s giving the orders or why. Where are the community oversight councils? How was it that deBlasio [mayor of New York City] who we liberal people elected, got away with naming the very man who invented stop and frisk as the commissioner after we called for stop and frisk reform?

We set up an entirely unaccountable system from the COs to the NYPD to the judicial and prosecutorial overreach that has enabled an entire Rose M. Singer Center [the unit at Rikers where McMillan was housed] of people where I never met a single other person who ever went to trial. We as citizens, especially those of us who call ourselves politically inclined, we’ve got to say how did we have the concept of democracy that inferred our elected officials were accountable to us and where did that accountability go? I think Occupy did the biggest jump in getting close to this, to examining that question, but we haven’t really followed up.

What are you up to right now and what do you have planned for the near future?

I have another trial September 15 where I am facing another year in Rikers. At this point there seems no indication that I can expect any fairer of a trial.

So right now I am working on staying in my house, avoiding contact with police officers as not only a logical thing, but as a tenet of my probation. All of my friends are setting up trips to come see me in New York because I cannot leave as per my probation. I am writing, possibly a book, that’s … weird. But that’s what I’ve been asked to do on behalf of my thesis requirements. So I finished my classes, technically I graduated in Rikers. Now I’m just in thesis mode. And appeals court.  

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