Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 19 2014 1:21 PM

How Did the Head of the New Black Panther Party Become a Peacemaker in Ferguson?

I keep linking to Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and DeNeen L. Brown's amazing story about the internal divisions among Ferguson protesters. When one progressive activist wondered whether the tales of "out of state" violent types were concocted by police, I pointed him to the story.

But I didn't put two and two together about this portrayal of the wise men trying to calm things down.

There is also another group: the elders.
Malik Shabazz, national president of Black Lawyers for Justice, said he has been patrolling West Florissant Avenue each night, trying to keep the peace. On Friday night, he used a megaphone, telling young people to go home.
Advertisement

Malik Shabazz is better known to consumers of cable news as the former leader of the New Black Panther Party, a singularly ineffective group that spent a decade showing up at civil rights rallies (or Philadelphia polling booths) in black military garb, and becoming a distraction for everybody. Shabazz was quoted, 20 years ago, telling Howard University students that "the Jews" killed Nat Turner and controlled the media and the Fed. Eleven years ago he was quoted doubting the numbers of Jews killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11. And since then he's popped up on Fox News to say offensive things. 

Now he's an "elder." This is a much better career choice for him. Shabazz has been making the rounds in Ferguson, asking for calm and respectful protests. In a CNN interview last night, Shabazz was identified only as an "attorney," denouncing the violent elements of the protests, asking if they were "infiltrators" of some kind.

"They're here, and they're provocateurs," said Shabazz. "They're trying it every night, and I'm determined with the forces that we are working with that we won't allow it. Even if I have to risk my life. I'm not going to see women and children out here hurt. And I'm not going to see the tide turned against us and move in favor of the police."

Shabazz's past has barely been mentioned in the coverage of Ferguson. And there are interlopers there, seeing a fantastic chance at stoking some "revolutionary" violence, as Charles Johnson has been reporting. And the New Black Panther Party guy, that minor TV supervillain, is telling them to knock it off.

Video Advertisement

Aug. 19 2014 12:07 PM

Officer Darren Wilson’s Online Support Group Is As Classy As You’d Expect

One of the stranger subcultures of the #Ferguson moment is the spontaneous support group that's collected to support Officer Darren Wilson. Gideon Resnick reports on the most prominent GoFundMe page and T-shirt campaign and Facebook group of the movement, and got a few comments from organizers. (I've requested some comments, too, because I am absolutely terrible at book leave.) They say what you might expect: They wish this situation weren't racialized. "Al and Jesse would never come out from cowardly hiding if it were a black cop and white offender," says one organizer, very un-racist-ly.

I say this is strange because Wilson has not been arrested. The GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $21,000 (and was started in St. Charles, the conservative county outside St. Louis), explains that "all proceeds will be sent directly to Darren Wilson and his family for any financial needs they may have including legal fees." The legal fees, currently, would pay for nothing. That's sort of why protesters keep taking over the streets. (By contrast, the George Zimmerman defense fund only started going after Zimmerman was arrested.)

Advertisement

Who would be so moved by Wilson's legal non-plight to organize for him? We Support Officer Darren Wilson, the Facebook group, greets visitors with this message: "We do NOT SUPPORT RACISM OF ANY KIND. HATRED, RACISM AND NEGGATIVE COMMENTS OR POSTS WILL RESULT IN YOUR REMOVAL OF THE GROUP." One of the group admins is Ryder Wingrath, who on Aug. 16 changed his Facebook avatar to a meme of solidarity. The change was celebrated on his Facebook wall.

A day before, Wingrath shared a meme (using the "Kermit the Frog sipping tea" format) that... well, it's pretty self-explanatory.

Wingrath appears to be the outlier among the admins, at least in what he's willing to bleat about in public. And the joiners are not all white people. But you wouldn't be wrong to assume that the recruits to the Darren Wilson movement are pretty conservative. Jessie Rhys, whose avatar is the icon of the conservative Oath Keepers, frequently shares memes about (ironically) the free-speech crackdowns of the Obama regime, and stuff like this:

Ryan Lord, another member of the group, has the same Wilson support badge as Wingrath, but a slightly busier churn of comments and memes. For example:

And this criticism of Capt. Ron Johnson:

Where does this sentiment come from? Lots of sources, and lots of resentments. There is the sense that Mike Brown (like Trayvon Martin) was sold by a pliant media as a sweet kid, when the evidence they're seeing is that he wasn't. (As Jonathan Capehart points out, the leaks about Brown's history from police to reporters have been ... selective.) Brown, like Martin, has been the subject of fake viral photos meant to prove his thuggishness—although I think only Brown's fake photo was shared by a Missouri cop who pointed out that white people didn't riot after O.J. was acquitted. In Missouri, as in Florida, the Obama administration (Eric Holder's DOJ, specifically) has been intervening, and to some this seems like a race-baiting administration stoking racial tension, not responding to it. 

The crisis in Ferguson has the potential to change the way conservatives view crime, and policing, and the relationship between civilians and the state they're allegedly the masters of. And to some people, change is terrifying in a way that a midnight formation of police in riot gear is not.

Aug. 19 2014 9:33 AM

What Should Protesters Be Demanding in #Ferguson?

The front page of today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch portrays an unnamed police officer firing cans of tear gas. It's an image for the ages.

Advertisement

But when you read down the page, you can be excused if you don't know what the protesters want. The people who gathered in Tahrir Square in 2011 wanted Mubarak to go. The people who gathered outside the Capitol in April 2010 wanted Congress to vote down the Affordable Care Act.

What do the people in Ferguson want? We have some ideas, but they're not leading the coverage and they're not shared by the protesters. The front page of this paper gives us an update on Mike Brown's autopsy, on school closures, on how the protests are "embod[ying] conflict for viewers around the world," and on injuries sustained in the protests. In an editorial, the newspaper calls for "leaders" to "emerge" and "communicate clearly, among themselves, among each other and to the public," until the unrest can end. It's echoing the sentiments in this Julie Bosman report, which finds protesters and would-be community leaders squabbling and directionless. 

We learned three years ago, after the first Occupy protests, that mass arrests and police state tactics were surefire ways to get activists covered by the press. We also learned from Occupy that protests with uncertain themes and no leadership can peter out, leaving nothing behind but some slogans. ("We are the 99%.") In Ferguson, as at some Occupy protests, we see the arrival of some thugs who want to puff out their chests and toss Molotov cocktails in the name of "justice." (What's more cowardly than inciting violence when you know someone else, or a collective, will take the blame?)

I talked to a friend who'd been observing protests in Ferguson for an NGO, then poked through Twitter and some of the stories about the Brown family. What can the protesters demand? Here are three ideas.

1. Arrest Officer Darren Wilson. I covered the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's killing in Sanford, Florida, and while that city was on edge it never became the scene of Ferguson-style protests. You can count the reasons—the killing happened at night, in a gated community, so there was no rally; Sanford is a racially stratified city, not a mostly black suburb; the alleged killer was not a cop. "If we was in California," one Sanford resident told me, "they'd be burning this up."

But nothing burned up, and after George Zimmerman was arrested the tensions faded away. The idea that a kid could be shot and the shooter could walk away without a charge—that was the outrage. Benjamin Crump, who represented Martin's family, is representing Brown's family with the same public argument. "What else do they need to arrest the killer of my child?" he asked at a press conference yesterday, quoting Brown's mother. 

2. Demilitarize the police. The transfer of military ordnance to police departments, a sleeper story for the better part of a decade, has become a national scandal. Even in the Pew Research poll that finds whites and blacks divided in their responses to Ferguson, a plurality of whites say that the cops have gone "too far" responding to the protests. Any of them watching CNN yesterday saw Jake Tapper report, in disbelief, at "a scene out of Bagram" concocted to shoo away peaceful protesters.

Libertarians and liberals in Congress are already talking about demilitarizing the police; Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson has a bill ready to go. There might be space, too, for an investigation along the lines of the Kerner Commission, which could pull the cops out from behind their masks and anonymous threats to reporters.

3. Turn out the vote. The day after Mike Brown was shot, Mother Jones ran the numbers and noticed that Ferguson, a mostly black city, was almost entirely run by white politicians. Only three of 53 police officers were black. More than 92 percent of the police searches that happened in Ferguson happened to black people.

ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser asks whether the timing of the city's elections—April, not November—guarantees a whiter electorate and a less representative local government. 

The fact that Ferguson’s elections are held at a time when few, if any, high-profile candidates are on the ballot contributes to an almost comically low voter turnout rate in these elections. In 2013, for example, just 11.7 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot.
Turnout is especially low among Ferguson’s African American residents, however. In 2013, for example, just 6 percent of eligible black voters cast a ballot in Ferguson’s municipal elections, as compared to 17 percent of white voters.

And "outside agitators"—the civil rights groups, not the bottle-throwing people—have already started responding to this. At his first speech in Ferguson, Al Sharpton condemned the city's low voter turnout. The Center for Constitutional Rights is offering voter registration near the scene where Mike Brown died. I learned this via Charlie Spiering, who reports that Missouri GOP chief Matt Wills condemned the voter registration as "not only disgusting but completely inappropriate."

That seems like a fantastic reason to do it.

Aug. 18 2014 8:48 AM

Missouri’s Governor: Cops Released Mike Brown Robbery Video to “Besmirch” Him

Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, was one of the goats of last week's Ferguson coverage. He did not spring into action when protests began in the suburb of St. Louis. Only after two journalists were illegally detained by cops who wouldn't give their identities, and the story exploded, did Nixon come to Ferguson and start making orders.

He's in it now. This morning Nixon issued an executive order that will send the National Guard to Ferguson. Half a day earlier, he appeared on Face the Nation and criticized the decision of Ferguson police to release a surveillance tape showing Michael Brown apparently robbing a store.

Advertisement

"It had an incendiary effect," said Nixon. "When you release pictures and you clearly are attempting to besmirch the victim of a shooting ... there are a lot of folks who are concerned about that."

Nixon, in other words, agrees with the Obama administration. NBC News has reported that Eric Holder's DOJ urged the police not to release the video. Over at Breitbart.com, this is seen as a stumble that allowed a "gentle giant narrative" about Brown to take hold, only to be shattered. But think about the timeline. On Aug. 13, the reporters were arrested and video of Al Jazeera crews sprinting from tear gas went viral. On Aug. 14, Missouri State Police Captain Ron Johnson took charge of the situation, walking with protesters, talking them down, leading to the quietest night since the shooting. 

On Aug. 15, the video dropped, and in a spectacularly clumsy fashion—the police put it out, then sowed confusion about whether this was the reason Brown came into deadly contact with an officer. (It wasn't.) Anyone who paid attention to George Zimmerman's trial in the killing of Trayvon Martin could remember how the dead teen was portrayed as an up-to-no-good "no limit" thug, and that this helped Zimmerman got off. And—wonder of wonders, the calm was shattered on the night of Aug. 15. The state of emergency was declared the very next day. We'll simply never know if, had the police held off on the video (until, say, a trial), the calm of Thursday night could have spread. Nixon will never know, either. You can see why he's angry.

Programming note: I am trying to finish my book about progressive rock, so this blog won't be updated at the usual pace. Last time I went on leave, Eric Cantor lost his primary; this time, the leave that was scheduled to begin last Wednesday was waylaid by the Ferguson story. Oh, I'm not complaining, just explaining why I won't be chasing every detail from Missouri. (In other words I'll be covering it as much as FiveThirtyEight.)

My colleague Jamelle Bouie has been reporting from Ferguson. Read him, read his tweets, and follow coverage at The Slatest.

Aug. 15 2014 7:53 PM

Rick Perry Indicted After Cutting the Funding for a State Corruption Investigation

Ah, Travis County—homeland of weird-keeping, scourge of powerful Texas Republicans. Less than a year after Tom DeLay finally beat the illegal-fundraising charges of Travis County DA Ronnie Earle, Rick Perry has been indicted on counts of abuse of power and coercion of a public servant by a Travis County grand jury.

Advertisement

Christopher Hooks, a sharp, Austin-based reporter who has written for Slate, explained it all back in April. The story began when Earle's successor, Rosemary Lehmberg, "was pulled over near Lake Travis, west of Austin."

Police found an open vodka bottle in the car and arrested her. She verbally berated the arresting officers, and she didn’t stop the verbal abuse when she got to jail. Lehmberg was strapped into a restraining chair. Hours after her arrest, she blew a .239, almost three times the legal limit. Lehmberg’s jailers starting filming her, as they sometimes do with uncooperative detainees. That footage quickly found its way into the hands of media outlets. It’s incredibly embarrassing stuff—from Lehmberg’s thinly veiled threats against sheriff’s deputies, to her repeated requests to call Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton (“He’s not going to let me sit in jail all night”) to the placement of a hood, commonly known as a “spit mask,” on Lehmberg’s head. She ultimately pleaded guilty and served about half of a 45-day jail term. Calls for Lehmberg to resign started circulating immediately. She didn’t.

And here's the video.

Had Lehmberg resigned, Perry would have gotten the chance to replace her, ending for at least a short while the irritation of liberal Travis County DAs. So he threatened to veto funding for the DA's Public Integrity Unit, unless Lehmberg resigned. She didn't resign. He cut the funding. That neutered, to the tune of $8 million, an investigation of fishy grants disbursed by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Conservative reaction on Twitter has boiled down to (I'll paraphrase) "What, the IRS slow-walking Tea Party applications isn't a scandal, but cutting funds for a drunk-driving DA is?" Well, apparently, yes. It is.

Aug. 14 2014 4:55 PM

Did Anyone Actually Yell “Kill the Police”?

Unsurprisingly, Radley Balko has the best and most measured take on the timeline in Ferguson and the mistakes that cops made in overzealously controlling civilian protests. (Read this interview with Norman Stamper if you need a sidebar.) I learned plenty from Balko, and one claim jumped right off the page. The story that protesters chanted "kill the police" was thinly sourced.

How could that be? The story was everywhere. This weekend Fox News report begins with the hook that as a crowd gathered outside the scene of Brown's death, "some people [were] even yelling kill the police." And here the problem starts, because the video doesn't really prove that, at all. One, the crowd's chants are indistinguishable. Two, Fox News' video was taken at night—but Brown was shot in the afternoon.

Advertisement

So who yelled "kill the police"? Let's go to the contemporary print reports, which credit the "kill the police" chant to the Associated Press. Here's where the AP got the scoop:

St. Louis County police said a large crowd confronted officers following the shooting, yelling such things as "kill the police."

ABC News, reporting independently on the story, cites St. Louis County police department spokesman Brian Schellman for the "kill" quote. So there you have it: The police department says that people yelled "kill the police," but no video has emerged of anyone saying it, despite the presence of media and countless cellphone cameras.

Four years ago, several black members of Congress said that they'd been heckled, spit at, and called the N-word on their way out of health care votes. Andrew Breitbart offered a $100,000 reward for any video proof that this had happened. No proof emerged. On the right, and more widely, the idea that Tea Partiers yelled racial slurs at John Lewis, et al. appeared to be debunked. 

So what should happen with the possible canard that the people at the first protest of the Michael Brown killing were yelling about murdering cops? We've come a ways since Sunday, but that detail definitely colored the way this story was received.

Aug. 14 2014 2:57 PM

Everybody Chill: People Around Ferguson Are Still Buying Lots of Guns

It may be the most reliable story in the aftermath of a shooting, or a police action. People get spooked. People buy guns. St. Louis' KMOX reports on the gun sales in Bridgeton, a Missouri suburb about 7 miles from Ferguson.

Sales have quadrupled at ‘Metro Shooting’ in Bridgeton according to owner Steven King. He says sales have mainly been to men, but not all:
“Probably a dozen or two dozen guns to females, single mothers. We’ve sold to black people, white people. We’ve sold to asians who have businesses on West Florissant.” said King. “They’re just afraid of what's going on and they’re coming in to purchase either additional firearms or their first firearm.”

How reliable is this trend? Frank Miniter, author of The Future of the Gun, pointed me to Florida data on background checks. In February 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford. The results are highlighted.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 2.58.24 PM

Looking at that chart, you'll also see surges in background checks in November 2012 (the re-election of Barack Obama) and the winter of 2012/2013 (the Newtown shooting and subsequent discussion of the first possible gun safety bill in 20 years).

Aug. 14 2014 12:47 PM

Rand Paul: “It Is Impossible for African-Americans Not to Feel Like Their Government Is Particularly Targeting Them”

187127682-sen-rand-paul-listens-during-a-news-conference-on
Rand Paul, at the crossroads of black outreach and libertarianism.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

One of the sillier questions of the #Ferguson outrage was Where's Rand Paul? The Kentucky senator had been carving out room for himself to call for criminal justice reform. This was his issue, wasn't it? An unusual number of reporters (myself included) questioned when Paul would respond to the crisis, and then reported on how.

The wait is over: Paul, who's in Kentucky at the moment, has written his thoughts up for Time.com. What, like he was going to take a pass? (The magazine has placed him on its "Time 100" list of influential people for two years running.) And he hits the sweet, green spot between libertarianism and black American outreach. "If I had been told to get out of the street as a teenager," writes Paul, "there would have been a distinct possibility that I might have smarted off. But, I wouldn’t have expected to be shot." Later, he sympathizes with blacks who "feel like their government is particularly targeting them." It's exactly what Paul does when he talks about drug laws and felonies, giving examples of how so many white people have escaped the life-changing criminal judgments of black people who behave the same way.

Advertisement

Next: the libertarianism. Paul cites a trio of conservative/libertarian writers: Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, the Cato Institute's Walter Olson, and the Heritage Foundation's Evan Bernick. I'm surprised that there's no direct quote of Radley Balko, who, as I wrote this morning, was one of the first scholar/reporters to obsess over police militarization. My hunch was that Balko, who now works at the Washington Post, is not as obvious a source to to cite if you're crediting the libertarian movement with these insights, but apparently the op-ed simply ran long. Nevertheless, you get some seriously Balkofied arguments at the end:

Big government has been at the heart of the problem. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement. 
This is usually done in the name of fighting the war on drugs or terrorism. ... When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Paul has just embraced a reform agenda that "Orange Line" libertarians have been calling for since at least the middle of the Bush presidency. Balko, et al. had frequently spotlighted individuals, often black, who were victimized by no-knock raids by militarized police. Paul has joined the conversation as the whole world has started watching.

Aug. 14 2014 11:27 AM

This Video of Tear-Gassed Journalists Is Great for Foreign Propaganda Outlets

Al Jazeera's own reporting on the incident amounted to one line. In a long piece about Ferguson, Missouri police firing tear gas at protesters, the network added that "Al Jazeera journalists covering the protests in Ferguson on Wednesday night were also tear gassed by police."

Anyone wanting to see how it went down had to click over to local KSDK, which posted nearly complete video of the reporters being gassed and running, before SWAT teams show up to plunk their lights and cameras onto the grass. Later, the video picks up an exchange between cops and reporters being told to leave.

Advertisement

"We're OK here," says a reporter.

"We don't want you here," says a cop. "Somebody's going to get hurt." Like, say, by tear gas.

 

Al Jazeera's experience made me curious about how RT, the Russian propaganda channel with reporters in the U.S., was covering Ferguson. Thoroughly. In aggregation-heavy posts, RT is asking what "press freedom" means in America if reporters are tear-gassed while setting up for a story. At PressTV, the Iranian propaganda channel, there's little original coverage, but there is an essay by an American explaining how "decades of social decay have gotten us to the point where the thin veneer of civilization that we all take for granted every single day is wearing dangerously thin." Telesur, the Venezeulan propaganda channel, is missing its opportunity for coverage, and the news of arrested journalists broke around noon in North Korea but I don't see the Central News Agency making hay yet. The material's just waiting for them.

Update: The Wrap got more details from the police, who claim the tear gas was fired unintentionally, and that they reunited reporters with equipment. That's in the video—that's the sound you hear of the police telling the reporters to get scarce.

Aug. 14 2014 9:32 AM

Law-and-Order vs. Overkill: The Conservative Response to #Ferguson

This blog has defined "Hannitization" as the method of cleaning up a messy situation by doing a soft-touch interview with Fox's Sean Hannity. (Hannity himself uses the verb "Hannitize" to describe the act of being convinced by him. Really, he does.)

Hannitization is not confined to raw politics. Last night, around the time that two journalists were being arrested for failing to flee a locked-down McDonald's quickly enough, Hannity got an exclusive with Ferguson's police chief, Thomas Jackson. Now, the slow and stingy flow of information from Jackson's office is a real issue on the ground. The name of the officer who killed Michael Brown has not been released. The police department has not said whether eyewitnesses who have been talking to the media have been interviewed by police, too. And while it's not the key issue in the Brown case, the heavy militarization of the police forces, a trend that had been covered by the libertarian journalist Radley Balko and the Pulitzer winner Matt Apuzzo, has broken out as a controversy.

Advertisement

Hannity asked about none of this.

Indeed, the whole interview is a chance for Jackson to reiterate that the cops are doing the right thing. Here's how it ends:

HANNITY: You are certain that an altercation occurred and a shot was fired within the car, meaning Mr. Brown was in the car at some point?
JACKSON: He was, he was -- yes.
HANNITY: In other words, he wasn't handcuffed in the car. He went in the car of his own volition.
JACKSON: Yes.
HANNITY: And do you believe there was a struggle for that gun?
JACKSON: That's what the county police chief said in his opening statement. He's the one that took the -- his officers are the ones that took the statement from both the officer and the witnesses.
HANNITY: What about the unrest that has taken place now in your city? Do you believe a lot of the looting and a lot of what has happened is a result of outside agitators, as some have suggested, or do you think this is just a community angry at what happened?
JACKSON: No, it's a lot of outside agitators that are causing the violence. We've had some -- several very peaceful protests. I mean, they're angry. They want -- they have questions they want answers to. And I understand that. I get that.

Outside agitators! That's a whip-smart line to use on Fox News, which ran so much footage of the New Black Panther Party's bumbling 2008 "protection" of a Philadelphia polling place, and the subsequent legal cases against the NPP, that the Panthers practically qualified for the Screen Actors Guild.

Hannity's warm-milk interview gets at a division in conservative America. I mentioned that the reporter who's been on the "militarized police" beat the longest is Radley Balko. (While at the Cato Institute, in 2006, he published a paper on paramilitary police raids.) And in a popular column for National Review, Charles C. Cooke argued that the conservatives trying to change the subject in Ferguson to black-on-black crime are making themselves and their peers sound callous. "The question of who guards the guardians pertains now as keenly as it ever has," he wrote. "The Right’s answer should be 'we do' — and we’re happy to hang them high if we know that they have transgressed."

The absence of President Obama from the conversation is one reason that the pro-cop, change-the-subject argument has been limited largely to buffoons. Yes, he put out a statement about Brown, and Todd Starnes, a Fox News commentator who can be counted on to react to events in a stupid way, asked why Obama didn't say anything about the police officer. (You know, the one whose name isn't being revealed.) But Obama has been on vacation, and taken his lumps, in a marked contrast to his quick, televised response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. That response, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, fired the starting gun on conservative media coverage of Martin as a thug who was up to no good and could have killed a guy.

The modern GOP, the one that elected Richard Nixon and bult its base in the South and the suburbs, established early on that it was the "law and order" party. The crime waves of the 1960s and 1970s and the crack wars of the 1980s were crucial to Republican dominance, and led to tough-on-crime legislation that's still on the books. Only recently, as violent crime rates have tumbled, has the libertarian tendency of the GOP reasserted itself. We've seen the "Right on Crime" Republican legislators pass prison reform bills; we've seen Rand Paul talk about restoring the voting rights of felons, and shrinking the number of crimes that can be classified as life-ruining felonies. 

It's an open question: Which of these tendencies will characterize the conservative response to Ferguson? The law-and-order tendency that assumes the cops pointing their guns at protesters are preventing the outside agitators from doing something wild? Or the libertarian tendency that asks if you really want a photo of the occupation of Crimea to be indistinguishable from a photo of the St. Louis metro area?

READ MORE STORIES