Wednesday, March 4, 2015

ISIS, take 1, 2...: Unintended consequences
of a visual culture

THE MOVIES, America’s indelible and undying contribution to popular culture, has permeated — some will say insinuated itself — into cultures around the world. The relentless motion-picture combine that is Bollywood couldn’t exist without the Hollywood that gave it every letter of its name but one.

The globalization of the Hollywood visual esthetic has had its own benign unintended consequences. Directors from all over the world have taken it and transformed it according to their own singular visions — the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu just won the Oscar for Best Picture doing exactly that, a year after the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón won the Oscar for Best Director last year. And other filmmakers have adopted the Hollywood Look for years.

And technology has played its part. Thanks to such video editing tools as the iMovie software included with iMac computers since 2003, it’s been increasingly easy for everyday people to create You Tube-ready videos with any number of top-shelf special effects.

But lately, in a completely different world, that visual language has been corrupted — the only possible word — by the terrorists of Islamic State, or ISIS, whose videos of human beings murdered on camera has altered the terms of engagement between ISIS and the civilized world.

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In exhaustive, at times brilliant reportage in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Fleishman writes of how ISIS has appropriated the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking for thoroughly malign purposes.

An excerpt: “The Islamic State's production values have steadily improved since the network grew in Iraq and Syria; it now operates or has affiliates across North Africa and the Middle East. The group's ranks have been bolstered by as many as several thousand recruits from Europe, which may be where the organization's videographers learned their trade. The videos, including those showing the deaths of American, British and Japanese hostages, have been frequently released since last summer.

“The most recent films unfold with almost surreal matter-of-factness, taking their time before death is carried out. Cameras pan and glance from different angles; anxiety builds. The executioners are masked and often dressed in black, including the militant who beheaded American hostage James Foley in August. In those videos and in the one in which 21 Coptic Christians were decapitated on the Libyan coast, the killers speak in English and relish in lurid exhibitionism.”

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I WON’T undercut Fleishman’s work by attempting to boil it down here; it deserves to be read and enjoyed in full, on its own terms. I’d only say that it puts the power of our culture, its viral capacities, into sharp focus. If you’ve ever had any doubts about the power of movies according to Hollywood, the ISIS videos you’ve surely seen over the last six months should have set those doubts to rest.

“They want to make sure we get the message,’ Bruce Hoffman, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, told Fleishman. “The world's most powerful media will amplify it and jump on it. ISIS is very sophisticated. They know they're pushing our buttons.”

Fleishman’s story contextualizes what to the unenlightened eye might look like isolated anomalies — the work of terrorist directors fascinated with modern movie style — to reveal how consistently and poisonously well those terrorists grasp that visual narrative ... how thoroughly those killers have learned not just how to push our buttons, but exactly which buttons to push.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The loyal opposition opposes itself

BACK IN the day – in the days and weeks after the November election – it all seemed so clear, so simple, so obvious where things were going. The Democrats — wounded, bloodied and chastened by a midterm election that overwhelmingly rejected them — would come back to a new Congress run by a newly energized Republican majority flush with success, bound to govern as a unified force and ready to mop up the marble floors of Congress with whatever was left of the Democrats. It was all going to be different. It was going to be better.

That was the script, anyway. What a difference a few months makes. After coming back to Washington with a purported agenda to continue blocking legislation from the Obama White House while advancing the GOP agenda — especially on immigration — it’s all different.

The Republican congressional majority may be a majority by party name, but the internal divisions that have plagued them for years – divisions largely hinging on old litmus tests of loyalty and ideological purity – show no signs of letting up.

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The latest example of this played out on Friday. The GOP-majority House of Representatives approved a stopgap funding bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security up and running ... for a week. It’s the same bill passed by the GOP-majority Senate that had already acquiesced to Democrats’ demands to keep President Obama’s immigration policies intact. The funding for DHS remains at current levels, with no layoffs or cutbacks in that vital agency, arguably the most important and public-facing federal agency in the wake of 9/11.

The Republicans’ willingness to knuckle under on the DHS bill, bowing to Democratic demands, puts the lie to the wall of resistance the GOP was prepared to be after the November election. So does the opposition that Speaker of the House John Boehner, a long time in the crosshairs of conservatives, faced from Republicans, who rejected his bid for a three-week stopgap bill — preferring the short-leash option instead.

Since he was re-elected Speaker in January, Yahoo News reported, Boehner “has had to rely on Democratic help in passing the funding bill, after a three-week funding bill was voted down 203-224, with 52 Republicans voting against Boehner. He’s found it routinely difficult to line up a majority on any given bill, especially if the topic is a contentious issue like immigration, education or abortion. Many Republicans campaigned for re-election last fall on promises to stop Obama on immigration, and their inability to do so is infuriating to conservatives.”

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THE SAME thing happened earlier, on Thursday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Woodstock (or the Coachella) of American conservatives. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who’s made a career of championing his independent political spirit, often to the consternation of his fellow Republicans, took to the microphone to declare himself a “disruptive app” on the party landscape, and to condemn his party’s elder statesmen.

Cruz has a reputation of hewing to his principles, regardless of how it endangers the fortunes of his party in particular and the fortunes of the country in general. We all remember the utterly disastrous 2013 government shutdown Cruz presided over, and the one that happened about a year later.

He’s swung for the fences and whiffed before — on defunding Obamacare, and pushing back against the immigration policy. Now, though, Cruz may be trying to straddle the fence on the DHS matter. On Wednesday, Cruz indicated he wouldn’t block an agreement between Democratic and Republican leaders to proceed with the bill to keep DHS operational. The same damn bill he condemned a day earlier at CPAC. Will the real Ted Cruz please stand up, please stand up?

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This latest evidence of bifurcated Republican identity showed up on Thursday. That was when some GOP lawmakers, standing on conservatives’ laissez-faire corporate principles, pushed back against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to establish new net neutrality rules that seek to ensure all Internet traffic is uniformly regulated.

Those Republicans conflicted with others of the party, who hope to hash out a compromise with congressional Democrats — imagine that! — amounting to a “resolution of disapproval,” an administrative expression of their discontent with the FCC’s sweeping ruling, which treats the Internet as a utility.

“Right now, it’s just a function of playing this out and seeing if there are any Dems that are willing to play ball, and then we’ll go to plan B,” Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told Politico last week. But right now, plan A is still legislating on this.”

The proposed resolution of disapproval is a down-in-the-weeds issue, and practically speaking it reflects a relatively minor difference between Republicans on the issue. But it’s just one more thing that points to a divergence of opinion in the GOP where there shouldn’t be one — one more proof of a disconnect we were led to believe ended last Election Day.

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FRANKLY, AND despite all the talk about a new Republican identity forged in the heat of last year’s election battle, we might have expected this. Our Congress, a legislative body long choked by pettiness and lassitude, has habits that are hard to break. But the difference goes beyond lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The matter of immunization is one of the hot-button divisions announcing itself in the slow but steady runup to the 2016 presidential election. On Feb. 2, Bloomberg Politics reported on where two possible GOP contenders for the nomination stand on the matter: opposing sides.

"Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society,” said Dr. Ben Carson, a well-known neurosurgeon and conservative speaker, wrote in a statement to Bloomberg Politics’ Steven Yacchino.

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“Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them.”

But that don’t quite jibe with where Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is on the issue. “I'm not anti-vaccine at all,” he told Laura Ingraham recently. “But particularly, most of them ought to be voluntary. What if you have someone not wanting to take the smallpox vaccine and it ruins it for everybody else? I think there are times where there can be some rules, but for the most part, it ought to be voluntary.”

There’s more. The wave of laws governing recreational marijuana has created a split between younger and older Republicans. On Friday, the Pew Research Center released a survey that found that 63 percent of millennialls who self-identify as Republicans favor pot’s legalization. It’s a marked departure with their older counterparts: the survey found that 47 percent of older Republicans (35-50) support legal pot.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Films and movies:
The disappointments of Oscar 2015

WITH AN 18 percent drop in viewership this year from 2014, the Oscars telecast may have become the last, final cultural victim of the era of seriously lowered attention spans and seriously increased distractions that we live in. Or maybe it was something else, something deeper.

Thanks to a spate of nominated films that not nearly enough people saw (much less got passionate about); and a weak rationale for excluding at least one other well-received film with clout with critics and audiences — a film whose racial undertone is the kind of thing that gives Oscar hives — the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may slowly be making the Academy Awards the niche event it apparently wants to be.

OK, that’s over the top. Anything that gets 36.6 million people around the TV fireplace for three hours-plus in the digital age can’t really be called “niche.” But Sunday’s broadcast was watched by that 36.6 million people, the Oscars’ lowest viewership since 2009 — this after recent years of steadily inclining viewership (and in spite of Neil Patrick Harris’ tighty-whiteys). What the hell happened?

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Part of it was that Academy voters fell in love with films, while the rest of the country was trying to fall in love with movies. While the spiritedly eccentric “Birdman” won for Best Picture, and prestige period films in British locations did well (“The Imitation Game” won for Best Adapted Screenplay, “The Theory of Everything” got Eddie Redmayne a Best Actor Oscar), other films with wide populist appeal and a correspondingly healthy box office — “Gone Girl,” “Interstellar,” “The Lego Movie,” “Selma” — couldn’t get arrested.

“Gone Girl” has grossed $167 million domestically, and $368 million worldwide as of Feb. 19, according to Box Office Mojo. “Interstellar” has grossed $187.5 million domestic, $672 million worldwide. “The Lego Movie”? $257 million in the USA, $468 million worldwide. “Selma”? $49.6 million in domestic receipts since a limited opening on Christmas Day. These were the numbers that put butts in the seats, all year long.

But with the exception of Rosamund Pike’s nom for Best Supporting Actor in “Gone Girl,” those films were shut out of the mainstream Oscar competition. “Interstellar” was nominated for work in the technical categories (Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, for which it won) but none in the more popularly anticipated creative categories.

Films that didn’t open that widely — Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” — got great buzz from critics and moviegoers alike. Alas, not much love from the Academy voters: “Unbroken” got technical nods for cinematography, film editing and sound mixing, but other than that? Bupkis. And Jolie, for whom the film was a deeply-realized passion project, didn’t even get a nomination for Best Director. It’s grossed at least $115 million domestic, $160 million worldwide, according to

“Guardians of the Galaxy,” a popcorn movie if there ever was one, garnered one nomination, for Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and winning nothing.

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IT’S SOMETIMES easy to forget that, at the end of the day, despite all the customer-facing razzle-dazzle, the Oscars are the movie industry’s celebration of itself. It’s not the raucous, quasi-populist bacchanal of the Golden Globes, and it sure as hell ain’t the People’s Choice Awards.

Since there’s a degree of exclusivity built into its infrastructure and history, we shouldn’t be surprised that the industry insiders populating the Academy voter rolls tend to reward their own. On that basis, we shouldn’t be surprised that “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s towering, powerful drama of civil rights protest in the crucible year of 1965, was largely ignored by Academy voters. For any number of reasons.

Some were logistical and technological; according to at least one report, the film was subject to editing that was too close to last-minute, snarling the process of getting physical screeners —the actual discs of films in contention— into the hands of members of the Screen Actors, Producers and Directors Guilds, the people most ready to make a difference in the fortunes of “Selma” and every film from Hollywood last year.

Tim Gray of Variety reported on Feb. 3: “It can cost up to $800,000 and take three to six weeks to manufacture, watermark and ship discs. This lag time was the reason guild voters didn’t get screeners of 'Selma’; a final print was delivered Nov. 26, so screeners were not available until Dec. 18. The 'Selma’ problem would have been solved with streaming: It takes only a few days to two weeks to encode and upload a title, at a fraction of the cost.”

One reason may have been historical: not longer after it was released, the film faced a concerted pushback by historians and editorialists who claimed that the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson contained historical inaccuracies that largely sidelined LBJ’s efforts on behalf of the Voting Rights Act.

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But in a Jan. 15 analysis, Kyle Buchanan of Vulture offered up the elephant in the American room, that other possible reason, the one people don’t want to talk about:

“It’s true that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture last year, but it may be just as true that some Oscar voters, still recovering from that harrowing picture, were now reluctant to watch another important historical drama about race. Ninety-three percent of Oscar voters are white, and while the Academy is making a concerted effort to diversify its ranks — and is now presided over by its first black president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs — progress has been slow.”

DuVernay’s film of protesters who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, in the face of Alabama cops determined to keep that symbol of resistance from taking place, has been widely praised by critics and the public. Which raises the question of how and why a relatively minor, administratively procedural matter should scuttle the legitimate chances of such a galvanizing picture to vie for Oscar gold.

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THE ONE unalloyed triumph of Oscar glory for “Selma” was, well, “Glory,” the John Legend-Common composition that took the Best Song Oscar on Tuesday. But despite this moment, and if we didn’t know it already, what the 87th Oscars ceremony showed us (along with the process that led to it) is that Oscar plays by its own rules. Always has, always will.

The problem is that this year’s golden-dude derby showed the industry’s mattering less to the people it should matter to more: the paying customers, the everyday people who go to the movies. That much is reflected in the viewership numbers just released.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The new playa:
How Larry Wilmore changes late-night

ON JAN. 19, after considerable media fanfare, veteran TV writer-producer Larry Wilmore debuted “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central. Wilmore, who created “The Bernie Mac Show,” played an early role in ABC’s new and brilliant multiracial bellwether series “Blackish,” and who for seven-plus years was Jon Stewart’s minority-affairs go-to as Senior Black Correspondent on CC’s “The Daily Show,” followed Stewart that night and kept his promise to shake things up in the exclusivist late-night desert that, until that night, defined the chieftains of America’s TV after dark.

Wilmore’s been all over the place from the jump, weighing in on issues from the furious controversy over Bill Cosby addressing rape allegations to normalizing relations with Cuba, from the firmness of Tom Brady's footballs to the need for taking climate change seriously. “If we don’t figure this out,” he said, “it won’t be just black people saying ‘I can’t breathe.’”

And on Feb. 4th, in what Mediaite called the first great “Nightly Show” segment, Wilmore engaged in a deep dive on the particularly sensitive issue of black men and the police with a panel of four black fathers.

Wilmore appears on a set whose backdrop is a Robinson-projection view of the world upside down, and it’s an apt visual metaphor for Wilmore’s own industry; maybe never before has the world of U.S. electronic media been in such a heads-is-tails situation vis-à-vis race and ethnicity.

Wilmore’s program takes its righteous contrary place in a late-night environment where Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel are the walking symbols of the white male hegemony that’s characterized late-night broadcast TV almost exclusively since Steve Allen pioneered late-night on the “Tonight Show” in 1954.

And Wilmore breaks the mold in other ways. As an experienced TV comedian, writer, producer, showrunner and now the host of a major late-night franchise, he’s precisely the kind of success that has a big influence on Hollywood: one whose diversity is as much about what he does as who he is.

The fact that he’s African American complicates things wonderfully (for viewers) and seriously (for risk-averse TV suits).

The good complication for TV viewers is obvious; as an insider Wilmore plays a big role in programming that pushes back against a TV landscape that overlooks or marginalizes minorities, broadening our own perspectives and exposing us to the perspectives of others.

For TV executives, Wilmore frustrates the creative inertia that defines the U.S. entertainment industry on matters of race. It’s no longer enough to say or think that “there’s nobody out there.” And it hasn’t been for a long time.

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WILMORE MAKES his ascendancy in what can fairly be called the Shonda Rhimes era – an ongoing period in which the creator and/or executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “Private Practice” and (our latest guiltless pleasure) “How to Get Away With Murder,” has obliterated old assumptions about blacks and the power equation in modern Hollywood.

Shows like Fox’s “Empire” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” ABC’s “Blackish” — and the full-on commitment ABC has made to more diverse programming (“Fresh Off the Boat” just debuted, “American Crime” breaks in March) throughout the calendar — are also indicators of how the landscape is changing.

Rhimes’ juggernaut has raised the bar and the stakes for broadcast networks and their counterparts throughout the television universe. “Diversity” may be the hot buzzword for programmers right now, but whether the spate of minority-themed shows represents a sea change in perspective or just a momentary spasm is yet to be seen.

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According to a Directors Guild of America study released in January, first-time minority directors helmed only 13 percent of episodic programming (read: dramatic shows) over the five-year life of the study (2009-2014). So much for bringing along the next generation.

There’s more that’s just as dispiriting in the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Citing figures from the 2011-2012 season, the study found that minority show creators were only 4.2 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; minorities were lead actors in 5.1 percent of broadcast comedies and dramas; and 62.5 percent of the writing staffs of those broadcast comedies and dramas were 10 percent minority or less.

In some metrics, the study found, minorities got better representation on cable properties – but in other ways less representation as well. One graph from the survey found minorities and women panoramically underrepresented anywhere from 3 to 1 to, in one case, 12 to 1.

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TO NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, the time’s more than right for television execs to adopt a mainstream mentality vis-à-vis minority viewers — an assessment, finally, of minority audiences as something other than “minority.”

“On top of just wanting to reflect how the world looks, diversity is good business," Salke told The Hollywood Reporter. "A show like Empire is a turbo boost to the change. It's a wake-up call that there's a gigantic audience that doesn't want to see themselves reflected in token casting. They want authenticity.”

Late-night is something of a litmus test for television as a whole; that’s why Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” could be such a game-changer. The role of late-night has genuinely evolved in recent years. From the beginning, Stewart and “The Daily Show” deftly blended reporting and on-point commentary; his Comedy Central counterpart, Stephen Colbert (who replaces Letterman on “The Late Show” later this year) joined, and then dominated, the national conversation. Late-night has become a source of actual news for the younger demographic of viewers that the industry and its advertisers covet.

And with Stewart’s Friday announcement of plans to step down from “The Daily Show” sometime later this year, the wagering over his replacement has already begun, with a number of names already floated. In the parlor game of name-dropping to come, most of the prospects will be white males. So why not Larry Wilmore? As someone with the multi-hyphenate talents Hollywood both needs and craves, he’s in the perfect position to be for late-night what Shonda Rhimes is for prime-time: An example of what happens when you change the game by changing the players.

Also published at Medium. Image credits: Wilmore: Peter Yang/Comedy Central. Rhimes: via; possible original derivation: ABC. Directors by ethnicity chart: Directors Guild of America.

This is where you can reach me now

Nothing is worse than an itch you can never scratch.

— Leon in ”Blade Runner”

A LOT CAN happen in nine weeks, believe me. Since your not-quite-humble narrator last checked in:

ISIS’ pointlessly ruthless atrocities have continued unabated, killing more innocent people in secret undisclosed locations. In the days before Christmas, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a gunman with Ferguson and retribution on his mind, killed two New York City police officers in Brooklyn, before committing suicide.

Last month President Obama delivered the 2015 State of the Union, by most estimations an address that gave us a good long glimpse of the Barack Obama we fell in love with: bold, cocky, aspirational, just this side of smashmouth.

A few weeks back, the Seattle Seahawks — my team! — handed the New England Patriots their fourth Super Bowl victory in a deservedly improbable, utterly unnecessary pass on the 3-yard line — or was it the 2? — that was intercepted with seconds left on the clock.

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Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, paid the price for misremembering personal events. Williams, who apparently recalled a successful 2003 RPG attack on his helicopter over Iraq when there never was one, was furloughed for six months from arguably the best gig in broadcasting. Lester Holt is filling in.

In the last few months, Cuba released an American prisoner, an overture meant to support the White House inclination to explore normalizing relations with the island nation. Ohio State upset Oregon to win the first undisputed, undilutable college football championship. David Carr, a beloved columnist with The New York Times, died, as did Edward Brooke, former Massachusetts senator, veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon, legendary football coach Jerry Tarkanian, actress Donna Douglas (Elly May on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” if ya don’t know) and Gary Owens, the celebrated voice of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” died at the age of 80.

In that same time, yours truly made the move almost 1,100 miles south, vacating the lush rainforest of Seattle and moving to Los Angeles, where media opportunities are more plentiful and the sun is a more reliable everyday companion article.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Live from America, it's Protest Night!

SIMILAR TO the way the Occupy movement took over the national center stage, outrage over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the grand-jury exonerations of the police officers responsible, have focused the media (especially television) on the thorny issue of police-minority relations in an unprecedented way. The daily real-time census of protests around the country, combined with compelling profiles and interviews, has led to a groundswell of examination of the racial divide in America.

The result: a nonstop focus on something that the media has been historically inclined to ignore, or certainly underreport. We're used to flood-the-zone TV coverage of major domestic events; what's happening now is a remarkable breadth of attention being paid to our national blind spot. “Flood-the-zone” coverage takes on a new meaning when the nation itself is the zone in flood.

Network reaction to the Garner and Brown decisions, and their aftermath, has been deservedly panoramic. Reporters from the networks and many local affiliates hit the streets and stayed there as nationwide protests consumed the popular attention. The broadcast and cable networks are still devoting top-of-show segments to the Brown-Garner fallout, some of them with the kind of sub-branded content (ABC's “Race and Justice in America” segment of “World News With David Muir”  is one example) that tells the viewing public the topic's escalated in importance, and more than a one-and-done event. ...

Read the rest at BuzzFeed

Image credit: CNN screengrab

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trying to breathe in Ferguson, New York

I CAN’T BREATHE.” If you’re the one using this statement of pulmonary distress, you’re a party to sudden, existential fear. If you’re in the company of someone saying those words, you are, or should be, a captive of nothing less than your own humanity. What’s wrong? What can I do? Do you have an inhaler? How can I help you?

A Staten Island grand jury on Wednesday exempted one monster of a police officer from this basic clause of the social contract, deciding on Wednesday that Eric Garner had no rights to physical relief that a cop is bound to respect — and by extension, that African Americans in the city of New York have no rights that the New York City Police Department is bound to respect.

The grand jury decided there was “no true bill” in the case of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Garner, 43, a Staten Island resident and father of six children, with an unauthorized choke hold on July 17 in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island, as recorded in a cell-phone video from start to finish.

In the desperate moments before he died, Garner told the officers “I can’t breathe.” Told them 11 times.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

The medical examiner's office determined that the cause of Garner's death was "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police," has said. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide.

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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York told us what was obvious. “The decision not to indict ... is a miscarriage of justice, it’s an outrage, it’s a disgrace, it’s a blow to our democracy, and it should shock the conscience of every single American who cares about justice and fair play.” Rev. Al Sharpton said “we are dealing with a national crisis ... This is not an illusion, this is a reality that America has got to come to terms with.”

Their indignation was no partisan exercise. They’re Democrats, but condemnations of the grand jury’s action came from across the ideological spectrum. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a longtime fixture on Fox News and a reliable water carrier for the conservative agenda, called Garner’s death “clearly a case [of] criminally negligent homicide.”

He was joined by Fox News syndicated columnist and contributor Charles Krauthammer, who called the grand jury’s decision “totally incomprehensible.”

Over at Red State, Leon H. Wolf called the decision “really and truly baffling to me, and infuriating besides. I understand the vast majority of cops are good at their jobs and conscientious about protecting the civil rights of citizens. But there are without a doubt bad cops who make bad decisions and when they do so from a position of authority the damage they can do is exponentially worse.”

The bipartisan disgust at the grand jury’s abdication of moral responsibility, and the growing furor among protesters across the country (already inflamed over the Ferguson grand jury’s decision a week before) suggests, like nothing else could, that the United States has hit the tipping point, finally reaching the high-water mark after which nothing stays the same. Nothing.

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THE long unwillingness to pursue indictments in such egregious cases of police misconduct points to many things in our society, first among them a willingness to turn the blind eye to such injustices, and an implicit acceptance of such state-sanctioned murders as so much collateral damage — the uncivilized “price we pay” for living in a presumably civilized society.

But the refusal to hold police accountable when they should be also stems from a simple but rarely-explored fact: No one wants to be the one to do it.

The longstanding line against indicting police officers for such actions is the result of a reluctance on the part of prosecutors and the grand juries that work on their behalf to be the one to bring an indictment against such officers. There’s an unspoken fear that, if such an indictment comes, a wave of others will follow. No city or state wants the distinction of making that kind of history. They’d rather not take the chance. To one degree or another, that cowardly, cynical calculus lies behind the exoneration of every criminal wearing a badge in this country.

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It’s also entirely possible that local grand juries may be making their decisions on indictment of criminal cops in part with the expectation that the federal government will jump in with a federal review of the cases in question — thereby freeing them to make findings that dovetail with past practice, secure in having “done right” by the police and in knowing that the burden of indicting criminal cops will be something they don’t ever have to deal with.

Ferguson: The St. Louis Rams 5

FIVE MEMBERS of the St. Louis Rams formed another team on Sunday. But the team that Jared Cook, Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey and Chris Givens joined over the weekend had more than touchdowns in mind. As the nation grapples again with race and police practice — components of the Gordian knot that defines and cripples America — their action on Sunday raises questions of where the line between professional athletics and personal expression about a social wrong is really drawn, or whether that line should even exist.

Before the Rams flattened the hapless Oakland Raiders 52-0, the five Rams players sprinted from the tunnel during pregame introductions at Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis with their hands in the air in the posture of surrender, a nod to the “hands up, don't shoot” meme employed across the country by those protesting the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, by former Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

"We kind of came collectively together and decided we wanted to do something," tight end Jared Cook told ESPN later. “We haven't been able to go down to Ferguson to do anything because we have been busy. Secondly, it's kind of dangerous down there and none of us want to get caught up in anything. So we wanted to come out and show our respect to the protests and the people who have been doing a heck of a job around the world.”

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Protests over the protests started right away. Interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, Mike Ditka, that leading light of social commentary, said he was said “embarrassed for the players more than anything, They want to take a political stand on this? Well, there are a lot of other things that have happened in our society that people have not stood up and disagreed about.”

The Time Out Sports Bat & Grill, in St. Louis, took the unusual step of disavowing the Rams team completely. In a tweet on Monday, the bar management announced it would now pledge allegiance to the Kansas City Chiefs, a cross-border NFL rival, “due to the bone headed ‘hands up, don't shoot’ act by the number of Rams players.”

On Wednesday, in a tweet that dialed back the position of the first one, the bar management tried to explain itself, using the CAPS LOCK mode common to online hysterics. “We are NOT TAKING SIDES ON THE FERGUSON TRAGEDY. We DISAGREE WITH BRINGING THE PROTEST TO A NATIONWIDE PROFESSIONAL SPORTING EVENT,” it read, drawing a tidy but nonexistent dividing line between sports and society.

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THE OUTRAGE against the Rams players who had the nerve to exercise their constitutional rights of free expression has an underlying assumption that, because they work for the quasi-monopoly of the National Football League, they’ve somehow vacated those rights, that they’re no more than slave labor in football uniforms.

The counter-argument will be that, as employees of the NFL, the Rams players should be barred from making such personal commentaries as a condition of their personal services contracts — an exception to the blanket civic protections of the First Amendment. Except ... there isn’t such an NFL prohibition against this kind of commentary. Nowhere in the NFL Personal Conduct Policy is there anything that outlaws the actions taken by the Rams players on Sunday. The policy generally states that NFL personnel must avoid “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.”

The policy then goes on at length to specifically bar players from engaging in obviously criminal behaviors from fraud to racketeering, from domestic violence to violence against other employees, from possessing a firearm in a workplace setting to conduct that “imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person.”

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There’s nothing in that three-page policy that expressly forbids an NFL player from speaking his mind, verbally or otherwise, about anything under the sun. The squishiest part of the policy — the one that might apply to the five Rams players — prohibits action “that undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL players.”

But after the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident, the numerous domestic-violence incidents that preceded that one, and especially after the clearing of Rice to play professional football earlier this week, it’s an open question as to how bad any NFL player has to be to undermine the “integrity and reputation” of a league that’s gone to great lengths to do just that on its own. A gesture of solidarity with beleaguered citizens of the team’s home state — citizens that are part of that team’s fan base — would hardly seem to hit that behavioral threshold.

Unless, of course, that part of the policy was intended to be imprecise and situational and a judgment call according to the NFL leadership and any people the NFL thinks it has common cause with. Like police officers.

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JEFF ROORDA, a spokesman for the St. Louis Police Officers Association and apparently no student of the First Amendment or the league’s personal conduct policy, lit into the Rams with an inane, tone-deaf statement that called for the Rams hands-up players to be disciplined or punished.

Pissing in the wind from a great height, Roorda wrote this on Sunday: “[N]ow that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson's account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ferguson: Outrage, while supplies last

BLACK FRIDAY, the day of the locusts that descend on Walmarts and targets across our bargain-besotted country immediately after Thanksgiving, was not particularly too good this year.

A survey released Sunday by the National Retail Federation found that consumer spending dipped from last year’s levels. The survey came out Sunday and so didn’t include that day’s totals, but expectation-based estimates determined that sales would be down about 3.5 percent.

The foundation blamed it on a lot of things, including consumer exhaustion with the hand-to-hand combat of store shopping on the busiest retail business day of the year.

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“A strengthening economy that changes consumers' reliance on deep discounts, a highly competitive environment, early promotions, and the ability to shop 24/7 online all contributed to the shift witnessed this weekend,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement, as reported by AFP and in Business Insider.

There may be other reasons, as hard-wired in the national experience as economics. Partly because of panoramic weekend protests over a grand jury’s exoneration of Darren Dean Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot Michael Brown Jr. to death on Aug. 9, the American attention span has changed about race, the media and our values.

Over the weekend, the union of commerce and civic concern made sure the phrase “Black Friday” will never mean the same thing again. On Monday, a White House initiative and its counterpart in Ferguson made sure that, one way or another, the country will never be the same again.

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SO MUCH has happened in the last 72 hours, it’s hard to keep everything straight. On Friday, shoppers in malls and shopping districts across the country encountered protesters, by the hundreds or the thousands, who voiced outrage at the Ferguson grand jury’s pass on any punishment for Wilson, who killed the unarmed Brown in an encounter whose specifics remain in dispute.

You could say it started near the epicenter. Malls in Richmond Heights, Des Peres, Chesterfield and St. Louis, Mo., were the targets of protesters who crowded escalators, conducted die-ins and carried signs announcing the fact that BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Protesters snarled traffic in Oakland; at the West Oakland BART station, protesters took the novel tack of linking themselves together with bicycle locks and duct tape, forming a chain of protest that was stronger than just holding hands. In San Francisco they took to the streets near Union Square, the city’s glitziest shopping district.

In Seattle, the tree-lighting ceremony at Westlake Center had to contend with Ferguson protesters who made their way through the ceremony and into the Westlake Center mall, then moved down the street and onto the upper floors of the vast Pacific Place shopping mall nearby.

Similar protests took place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami and other U.S. cities, with some even calling for boycotts of stores, appealing to the better angels of consumer nature. The same thing happened on Sunday, and again on Monday, almost certainly at a shopping mall near you.

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But for governments state and federal, Monday was a Rubicon-crossing day on all matters Ferguson. That’s when President Obama announced he would sign an executive order meant to connect federal government largesse — hundreds of millions worth of military-grade equipment and technology sent to law enforcement agencies — with enhanced training for law enforcement officers.

The president proposed a sweeping $263-million program that would include emphasis on police-community relations, and $75 million intended to cover half the cost of 50,000 body cameras, for use by cops around the country — the better to prevent the next Michael Brown/Darren Wilson incident.

And in Missouri on Monday, the Ferguson Commission (the panel put together by Gov. Jay Nixon for the purpose of preventing the same thing), began its work ... facing the protesters that matter, the ones who live in the belly of the beast.

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YOU’RE forgiven if your eyes glazed over slightly when you saw the word “Ferguson” in direct apposition to the word “Commission.” As a nation, we’ve been down this official road before, with varying degrees of success.

The Warren Commission investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, yielding results that many have doubts about today. The Kerner Commission examined the cause of race riots in 1967, ylelding results that were hopeful at first but ultimately challenged by political pushback, changes in the economy, and the inherent contradiction of the commission’s support of more police surveillance and informants — a version of the same antagonistic police culture that would give us ... the Ferguson Police Department.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson: The hammer and the nail

ON THE same day Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation for which that medal stands took a giant lurch backward, into the era of feverishly fabricated, desperately rationalized darkness that made their sacrifice what it is today.

Darren Wilson, a white police officer for the city of Ferguson, Mo., was cleared late Monday of any and all charges for the August 9 killing of Michael Brown, Jr., by a grand jury manipulated by a prosecutor’s personal and political mission, and a governor’s own invertebrate inclinations. Despite numerous eyewitness reports that suggest Wilson’s actions may well have been a murder in everything but name, the Ferguson cop walked on charges of first and second-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Wilson now joins George Zimmerman, the slayer of Trayvon Martin, in that dim outback pariah zone of the American consciousness, a space inhabited by our national cyphers and trivia-question answers, people of rash action and weak judgment.

And the cynicism that ran through the legal process of a sad episode yielded something apparently inescapable: the continuing devaluation of African American lives. As former prosecutor Paul Butler told MSNBC, “it does seem as though an unarmed African American man or woman has no rights that a white cop is bound to respect.”

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We knew something heavy was coming when the drum roll started. Seven or eight minutes before St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch went into a room at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, the county seat and 11 miles south of Ferguson, someone in the crowd outside — somebody with a nice sense of drama and American military tradition — began a prolonged drum roll, the kind before a ceremony, or an execution, maybe, in the era of the Civil War.

It may well have been a flourish before the summary execution of proper prosecutorial conduct. McCulloch launched into a bizarre 25-minute disquisition by turns rationalization and incident report, praisesong for the grand jurors and indictment of the media.

Some of the problem with McCulloch’s soliloquy wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it. Mostly with his head down, buried in his prepared statement, McCulloch might as well have been reading from an actuarial table or documenting the fine points of an insurance policy. He made the obligatory acknowledgement to the Brown family of the pain and heartache of their son’s death, but it was pro forma. There was very little heart behind it.

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NOT NEAR as much heart as he put into his shots at the media. “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media,” McCulloch said, completely overlooking his role in giving the media, and everyone else, exactly that — in a number of targeted leaks of information intended to smear Michael Brown’s character and reputation.

From the beginning, McCulloch embarked on a strategy breathtaking for its manipulation of legal practice. McCulloch, with a generosity uncommon to prosecutors, decided to give the grand jurors all the available evidence in the Michael Brown case — to effectively flood the zone with evidence, both that consistent with what a prosecutor requires, and information commonly used at trial by a defense attorney.

A number of exhibits — Brown’s toxicology workup, an unrelated video of Brown minutes before the fatal encounter with Wilson — were introduced by McCulloch’s staff, in what amounted to character assassination by way of an unusually generous prosecutorial largesse.. The county prosecutor was doing the work of a defense attorney. Wilson’s defense attorney. Maybe at no other time in the history of American jurisprudence has a lawyer worked both sides of the street, as prosecutor and defense counsel, at the same time.

“This prosecutor bent over backwards to insure that there would not be charges filed,” said legal analyst Lisa Bloom on MSNBC. “He rigged the system to get the results he wanted.”

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Some of what McCulloch said Monday night (much of it already on the record), left open challenges by the Justice Department, which we can almost certainly expect as the closing statement of Eric Holder’s career as U.S. attorney general.

At one point Monday, McCullouch said: “A nearby tenant, during a video chat, inadvertently captured the final 10 shots on tape. There was a string of several shots, followed by a brief pause, following by another string of several shots.”

Transcript of the grand jury proceedings

Considering the low threshold for an indictment on a charge of voluntary manslaughter — probably the one and only charge Wilson was really facing — the question is, how could a sequence of several shots, followed by a brief pause, followed by another string of several shots not rise to the level of at least voluntary manslaughter?

Wilson’s pause in the slaughter — that break for reflection, for thinking — will almost certainly be an issue in any follow-on actions by the Justice Department, which, thanks to groups like CREDO and ColorOfChange, is being pressured to make a top priority in the sunset of Holder’s Justice Department career.

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THE EVENTS of Monday night throw shadow on the sunset of another political career: President Obama. Presiding over yet another teachable moment in the national history, Obama made an impromptu address to the country from the White House Briefing Room not long after McCulloch’s statement.

“First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law,” the president said. “And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction. But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.”

The president’s speech was perfectly necessary. But in some ways its timing, and television’s use of that timing, were perfectly awful. On MSNBC, and probably other networks, viewers were witness to an arresting real-life coincidence that split-screen technology made the most of.

On one side of the screen, Obama spoke with force and clarity about the need for calm in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury proceedings. On the other side of the screen — in a surreal, tragically ironic real-time juxtaposition, were images from the streets of Ferguson: tear gas aloft, police cruisers rocked by protesters, cops advancing.

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That juxtaposition — not before and after, but now and also-now, distilled everything of the national dynamic about race; it explained, like no words could, the schizoid comfort/discomfort zone we live in as a nation. How on racial issues we’ve gotten comfortable with a perverse balance of the anodyne and the anarchic.

The president got this himself, made it clear later in the speech that he understands how that split-screen applies to anywhere in the nation. Twenty-four hours later, you could juxtapose other related events from more than 100 different locations, across the country.

And the networks did just that, juxtaposing events in Oakland, Calif. (where protesters lay down on the highway in protest of the grand jury’s decision) and Chicago (where protesters hit the downtown streets in vast numbers).

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WHAT WENT down on Monday and Tuesday in Seattle (where protesters snarled traffic on the interstate and staged spot demonstrations on Capitol Hill) was much the same as what happened in New York City (where protesters filled Times Square, shut down three city bridges and splashed NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton with red paint). You could split-screen Los Angeles with Salt Lake City. And Denver with Cleveland. And Milwaukee with Miami. And Albuquerque with Atlanta. And Dallas with Minneapolis.

“We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson,” Obama said Monday. “This is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.
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