Sunday, November 27, 2011

Do You Believe Everything You Read in Sketchy Online Publications?

We are gullible people.  This is, I realize, a sweeping and imprecise statement, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure quite who I mean by we, but I mean it and I consider it to be one of the most dangerous threats facing humanity. Wait, I mean more dangerous than nuclear armament, global warming and unrest in the Middle East?  Why yes, yes I do.  Because all of those by and large the physical threats to our future as a species are governed by people who make decisions about the stewardship of weapons and fossil fuels and rubber bullets based on their assessment of the information available to them.  In other words, nuclear bombs don't kill people, people kill people, and if people run around just a-believin' every bit of crackpot data that crosses their path, we're some kind of fucked, gang.

I've mentioned journalism and my previous life in the profession in passing a couple of times on this blog in some offhanded ways, but I've recently become fixated on some very specific and very pressing concerns regarding the fourth estate that bear examination.

On my recent trip to New York, I was hosted by someone I knew only very slightly having met her and hit it off when she was a potential ferry passenger and I was stuck in the glass box of my ticket booth. When I got off the bus and she hugged me and gave me keys to her apartment, we'd spent a total of 45 minutes, tops, talking to each other face to face and exchanged a handful of delightful emails over the months that followed.  She's a Columbia School of Journalism-trained professional and freelances for a number of papers including the Boston Globe, the Village Voice and the New York Daily News.  On the second day of my visit, we had a lengthy and passionate discussion of the current state and future of journalism, including the advent of the citizen journalist.  She feels strongly that there ought to be a distinction between professional reporting and crowd-sourced material.  While I tend to be more willing to entertain the possibility that a layman might produce copy worth considering, I share some of her concerns in that I'm not sure that consumers are diligent enough to deal with the responsibility of sorting through the wealth of information reported by non-institutional news sources (or reputable media --cough, Judith Miller, cough-- but that's another story).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Black Friday at the Church of Stop Shopping

On the eve of the day known, depending on where your head's at, as Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day, and heading into a season that tries super hard to make shopping feel like a warm, sparkly, snow-dusted hug, I'm going to take a few loose ends that have been kicking around my brain, weave them into a scarf of a blog entry and give it to you as a gift.

I've never been a huge fan of shopping, with the exception of groceries, which I love beyond reason.  I do like looking at stuff, but somehow poking around with the intention of buying things is a special ring of my personal hell. 

Which is why the very concept of Black Friday makes my head spin. For a girl who likes to take late night walks because I can pretend there's no one else in the city, being jammed  into aisles with dozens of other people is positively claustrophobic.  I dislike being stuck in line with those radically inefficient types who sigh and shuffle and hurrumph at how long it's taking but begin the inevitably long, arduous search for their wallet only when they hear their total.  I dislike cranky, snippy people. People in lines are cranky and snippy. I dislike being cranky and snippy. I become cranky and snippy. Enough.  The particulars aren't important, but you get the idea.  I'm petty and precious and sad, and I can't hack it in the fluorescent lit jungle of Retail Land.  But actively seeking this experience on a day when you're guaranteed the biggest, most aggressive, adrenalized crowds of the year?  How does anyone find that appealing?

Well, sales, stupid. Crazy sales intended to satisfy the already crazy and induce a sense of urgency and madness in those not yet over the edge.  And in a bad economy, the siren song of the discount flat screen gets turned up to eleven.

This is old news, but it's worth examining this year maybe more than others because of...yes, Occupy.  I realize I'm probably starting to sound like an Occupy zealot, but bear with me here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The NYPD is bad news.  The NYPD has always been bad news.  Short of some cataclysmic change in city and police administrative culture, the NYPD will continue to be bad news.

I lived in New York for a few years in the late '90s, when Rudy Giuliani decided to clean up the joint and set about cracking down on drugs, prostitution, and panhandling, among other things.  As a friend and lifelong New Yorker recently told me, "It was good, and then it went to far."  By her account, a new leader in the police department instituted some radical changes and made some really positive change in the city and police culture, but Giuliani got bitten by the green-eyed monster when that guy got credit for cleaning up the city.  So he canned him, and filled the position with someone a little more militant and a little less forward thinking.

By the time I arrived in New York, the police were, under the guise of cleaning up the city, busting skulls pretty much at random, treating drunk revelers talking loudly in nightclub lines with the same violent rigor that they treated armed drug dealers in a sting.  They sodomized Abner Louima (a suspect arrested for accidentally punching an officer while attempting to break up a fight between two women at a nightclub) with the handle of a bathroom plunger.  They shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed and innocent man who they thought matched a suspect's description as he reached for his wallet to present identification.  They fired twelve shots at a mentally ill Hasidic man who was armed with a hammer, and killed him as well.  The response from the department to all of these things felt like a shrug.  Shit happens, right?

And so here we are, more than ten years later, watching the NYPD refuse access to credentialed reporters from organizations like the New York Times and Reuters as officers in riot gear evict the denizens of Zuccotti Park.  Pardon me if this suggests that unnecessary force is not just likely, but probably part of the plan.

The same New York friend I mentioned above, who is not a protester or a radical, told me, "I don't trust them.  I try not to have to deal with them ever."

What I'm saying here, is that the NYPD is pretty far from the protect and serve ethos that was, once upon a time, a sentiment sacred to law enforcement officers who were justifiably proud of the work they did to keep the populace safe.  And the public is far from holding in their minds the image of Officer Friendly, the approachable beat cop who's tough but fair and looks out for your kids.

I'm appalled by the way the NYPD has handled OWS.  When we were there, there were officers stationed along the sidewalks telling passersby to keep moving, to keep the sidewalks clear as they tried to read the protesters signs on Broadway or watch the drummers at the other end of the park, and they were not nice about it.  I do a fair amount of crowd control involving hundreds of people at work on busy summer days and I understand how easy it is to get frustrated when people just won't listen, but we're talking about a dozen people at a time walking by and slowing down to look.  They were moving along, though slowly, but the officers were extremely loud and extremely aggressive shouting at what were mostly tourists to move along.  Guess what, NYPD?  There were a lot of people from elsewhere that were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, or maybe hadn't even heard about your terrible reputation.  Way to spread the word that you're a bunch of power-hungry dickheads to every corner of the world.

And they're not the only department overstepping their bounds and generating a shameful public image across the country.  Oakland, another department notorious for its aggressive and antagonistic behavior has showed their true colors, landing more than one veteran in the hospital with head injuries sustained from rubber bullets. And sure, in chaotic situations these types of injuries are not uncommon, but if there was any doubt the police were deliberate in their decision to inflict damage as opposed to controlling the crowd, this video, in which a group of protesters rushes to the aid of Scott Olsen, a young veteran who suffered a fractured skull and brain swelling after being hit in the head with a tear gas canister should put those doubts to rest.  No one is behaving aggressively, or even looking at the police.  They're attempting to address the needs of an injured man lying on the street.  The flashbang thrown here reportedly landed only a foot or two from Olsen.  You might also watch this, in which students at Berkeley are beaten at length for refusing to disperse.  Note in particular the three officers in riot gear in the lower left corner who separate a young man from the crowd and really put their backs into it, then slink off behind the bushes to disappear into a larger crowd of officers.  That student was later taken to the hospital having been beaten extensively in the head and ribs.

It's horrifying.  It's egregious. It's absolutely shameful.  But I'd like to address the collateral damage, outside the physical wounds of protesters, namely the honor and dignity of police everywhere.

My uncle, William Baker, has spent a lifetime in law enforcement, starting as an officer in a small town force where he eventually became the chief.  After a brief stint in the Department of Public Safety in Massachusetts, UMaine law, and Haiti doing police training under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, he returned to police work as the chief in Laconia, New Hampshire.  Laconia, known for its down and dirty "Bike Week" had both some serious public safety concerns and a deeply antagonistic relationship with the police.  A tremendously personable guy and a cop for all the right reasons, one of Bill's main goals in the town was repair the terrible community relations.  He instituted a mentoring program pairing officers with at-risk youth and promoted other outreach opportunities in which community members got to know the officers on the streets and were encouraged to approach them not just in emergencies, but with their concerns and suggestions as well.  To the dismay of motorcycle enthusiasts, he cleaned up some of the seedier elements of Bike Week (cole slaw wrestling, anyone) and went so far as to ban weapons in the tow during a year when several of the larger biker gangs in the country were publicly warring.

When he left Laconia, he decided to go back to his roots and took a job as a rank and file officer in Biddeford, then decided it was time to leave that type of work to younger men and became the chief in Westbrook.  Like Laconia, Westbrook was a town with a number of chronic problems, most notably drugs, and he immediately began an aggressive campaign to curb that activity in the city.  He also worked with his officers to improve the culture and morale of the department, promoting transparency and community outreach.  Though, again, unpopular with people often engaged in less than legal activities, he was successful in creating community buy in and repairing the relationship of the community at large and the department.  He now works as a consultant for the FBI.

There are two major reasons that people go into police work: 1) Because they want to give back to their community and help people and 2) Because they've got some power and control issues and enjoy working in a position that gives them both.  Unfortunately, the former, like my uncle are increasingly a minority.

We live in a hyper-aggressive culture, and a lot people go into police work hopped up on adrenaline-seeking and unresolved anger, despite attempts by police academies to screen for and train out those tendencies.  Plus, it's a job that, depending on where you work, can pretty easily cultivate a bad attitude.  Imagine doing a job where most of the time, the fact that you were called in is a bad thing.  Either someone has committed a crime and they're obviously not glad to see you, or someone has been the victim of a crime and your arrival is part and parcel of that negative experience.  Police officers deal with people assaulting, insulting, spitting, vomiting and bleeding on them on a regular basis.  That's a pretty tough gig.  It certainly doesn't excuse the outrageous behavior we've seen across the country, but it's worth keeping in mind before we start painting all police officers with the same brush.

I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear or read, "Fuck the police," or hear them referred to as "pigs."  Because I'm not sure, given the extreme situations in which those sentiments are expressed, that the people expressing them will ever be able to separate the heinous actions of those particular officers or departments from the badge in general.

And likewise, I feel deeply angry at the officers perpetrating these offenses, not just for the sheer inhumanity of it, but because they have betrayed the dignity and respect of their position.  They've corrupted what ought to be a noble institution and rendered it infinitely more difficult for their more upright brethren across the country to the kind of good work that everyone in uniform should be known for.

I'm sad for the dozens of victims of police brutality these past few days. I'm sad for every officer who reports for duty with a sense of pride in their community and concern for the public and is met with disdain and mistrust.  I'm sad that we live in a culture that has allowed this sort of behavior to escalate to such a dire, dangerous, monstrous state.

Don't fuck the police, fuck that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, All I Ever Wanted II: Total Inspiration

I've been worried since my last post that it might have been too negative, or given the mistaken impression that I'm not a huge fan of OWS after my visit, which is anything but the truth.  Looking back, though, I think it's a pretty honest assessment of the camp itself.  The main point, of course, was that there's a significant difference between the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park and the protest movement it symbolizes.

But now get ready, because this is going to be a long freakin' post, and roughly halfway in I start gushing like a weird little fangirl.

After spending some time in the park, we went to 60 Wall Street, a cavernous lobby space open to the public that protesters have been using for teach-ins and working group meetings. (This weekend they'll be having a public reading of Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" there). We went there to attend a teach-in, and sat down near a likely-looking circle.  As it happens, they were OWS, but not the group we were looking for. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, All I Ever Wanted

It's becoming more and more difficult for me to articulate my thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and the larger Occupy movement, and I'm not sure whether visiting Zuccotti Park made that more or less so.  I think it's fascinating and really important to think and talk about the very complex issues facing the movement and to do so critically and impartially despite my support.  I am wary, however, of having any criticism I might have used to discredit the movement, so I feel increasingly pressure to make sure I'm speaking very precisely.  There were some parts of my visit to OWS that were a bit disheartening, but others that were utterly transcendent.  Whatever shortcomings I might identify, I am, now more than ever, a huge supporter of this movement and extremely impressed with the work that's being done and the extraordinary level of complexity and organization within the group.

Since I tend to think of my experience there in two parts, I'm going to split this into two posts. For one thing, it'll just hang together better, and for another, I'm fully aware that I'm, well, wordy, to put it kindly. And so.

I guess as good a starting point as any is the peculiar semantic dissonance of the term "occupation" and the actual structure of the protest group.  I've had a number of discussions lately with Occupy skeptics, and it's occurred to me that despite the fact that a huge majority (read thousands upon thousands) of participants and supporters are not actually, literally occupying tents in Zuccotti Park or other designated spaces across the country, the encampments, because they are a visible, tangible, 24-hour manifestation, are the sum total of evidence for how many people judge the movement.

On the one hand, I understand.  If you aren't already predisposed to support it based on the vague ideas presented in the mainstream press, it's difficult to invest the time and energy necessary to understand the layers upon layers of nuance the movement engenders.  And it's called "Occupy" which suggests (again, to those disinclined to really examine it) that somehow the physical presence of protesters in tent cities is somehow the point.

On the other hand, that's some pretty goddamn lazy thinking.  As I mentioned in my last post, I'm group shy and took my time getting comfortable with Occupy, but I spent some time trying to get a feel for it, and found it relatively easy to get a handle on.  Granted, as my high school history teacher taught me, I went directly for the primary source readings,,, participants blogs, etc., because if you want to know what people are talking about, you'll always to better to ask directly then to accept someone else's account of what they seemed to be saying.  Particularly when "someone else" is a reporter who may or may not have done their research.

At any rate, this question of Occupy Wall Street (or anywhere else) as a physical occupation of a particular space versus a larger philosophical and/or off-site presence is important and I became more cognizant than ever that the physical occupations, while symbolically important, should not be the standard by which the movement is judged. Because if I were to judge OWS by Zuccotti Park, I would have been very disappointed.