Corporations funnel significant funds to anti-reform police foundations, while publicly supporting PR campaigns for police reform.
Corporations funnel significant funds to anti-reform police foundations, while publicly supporting PR campaigns for police reform.
This project was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center.
The video camera pans across an empty front porch. A light breeze rustles the leaves of the trees lining the driveway. An empty bird feeder swings gently from a branch. Suddenly there’s a loud explosion and a distant echo, followed by another and another in rapid succession—a Pennsylvania pastoral obliterated in an instant by sounds of war. A resigned, elderly voice narrates the blasts. “This is what makes this house completely unsellable,” he says. “It makes this house worthless.”
The voice belongs to David Laurie. The explosions are the work of Combined Systems Incorporated, a manufacturer of so-called “less lethal” munitions that sits due west of David and Sandy Laurie’s house in rural Jamestown, Pennsylvania, about 100 yards away and just a little below. Over the years the Lauries have taken it upon themselves to document the experience of living by a tear gas factory, the constant booms, the clouds of tear gas caught up in the eastward breezes.
“Who would buy this place in their right mind,” David’s narration continues, “putting up with this day after day, month after month, for years?” This is what it’s like when the domestic suppression industry moves in next door.
David and Sandy Laurie on the front porch of their farmhouse
Located in western Pennsylvania, Jamestown is home to 730 residents. Many used to work in the region’s steel and railroad industries. Today the town’s largest employer is the school district.
David Laurie cut me off. “I don’t care. You do not have my permission to talk to my lawyer. I want it to be very clear—I’m not consenting to anyone talking to you about our case.” Then he hung up. His former lawyer, Robert C. Martin, had warned me I might run into some trouble with Laurie. “I’ve never been fired, rehired, and fired again like with Mr. Laurie,” Martin said. “He’s a grumpy old man, but I guess who can blame him? I mean, living through what the Lauries have had to deal with all these years with CSI next door.”
I disregarded Laurie’s injunction and reached out to his new lawyer via email to set up an interview with the couple. In March 2021, I drove up to the Lauries’ home. David met me at the side door. His wispy gray hair was combed over his bald scalp, and his brow was pulled downward by what I would soon realize was a permanent frown. At 83, Laurie was a little unsteady on his feet but he could still stand tall when the need arose.
The Lauries’ 150-year-old farmhouse was neatly maintained. Nothing was out of place among the baby-blue carpets, leather recliners, and dark wood furniture—nor was there a speck of dust to be found. Sandy had left a full plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies on both the kitchen and dining room tables.
Over a glass of iced tea and a cookie, David recounted how his family had ended up in Jamestown. They’d bought the property in 1978. As a commercial pilot for the now-defunct TWA and Ryan Airlines, he’d been on the road for decades. He and Sandy were looking for a rural corner of the country in which to raise their two young sons, John and Tom. “It was an entirely different place back then…It was definitely very quiet. This piece next door had a small lake on it and the kids would go catch fish and throw them back in.” David detailed how he and his wife laboriously rebuilt and renovated the farmhouse. He added a “drinking porch,” and Sandy cultivated an abundant vegetable garden in the backyard. The boys spent their childhood playing in the hay fields, wetlands, and woods that made up the 42-acre property.
The Lauries bought their farmhouse in Jamestown in 1978, more than two decades before Combined Systems Incorporated purchased the adjacent property.
CSI tests its munitions in a firing range behind its manufacturing plant.
In 1995, CSI built the company’s new headquarters in Jamestown, and the Lauries’ nightmare began. The pond where John and Tom Laurie fished as kids was replaced by CSI’s manufacturing plant and a firing range. The peace and quiet the Lauries had prized was now interrupted by loud and repeated explosions, by ominous smoke floating in their direction.
Michael Brunn and Jacob Kravel founded Combined Systems Incorporated in 1981. The two Israeli American engineers built their less-lethal weapons company on the multiple patents for future weapons systems they had already developed. In 2005, Kravel told a reporter from the Manufacturer & Business Association’s magazine, “Growth in the company is due to the development of new products, not necessarily 9/11.” CSI initially catered to the US military, federal law enforcement agencies, and some state and local police departments; since 2002 the company has received more than $75 million in federal contracts and grants. However, CSI quickly grew to be a global leader in the less-lethal weapons industry, contracting with security agencies in Israel, Chile, Colombia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Hong Kong (to name a few).
By fall 2020, the company listed more than 130 less lethal products on its website. There were launchers, flash bang grenades, tear gas grenades, tear gas shells, smoke grenades, munitions for breaching barricades, wooden bullets—in all, the sort of crowd-control weaponry that police used on Americans during the George Floyd uprisings of last year. (During a protest in Washington, DC, I was struck by a tear gas canister and lost much of my vision in one eye.) All of these products were manufactured in Jamestown and were tested before shipment to clients. Many of CSI’s products were specifically designed to be loud and cause disorientation. This was particularly true for the company’s line of flash bangs. CSI described its Model 7290 Steel Body Flash Bang as “an ATF-controlled Class-C explosive device that emits a bright light and thunderous noise to distract potentially dangerous individuals.”
An hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh, Mercer County used to be solidly unionized, a stronghold of the United Steelworkers of America. But by 2018, 15 percent of Jamestown’s 648 residents lived below the poverty line. The large industrial manufacturers had long since left the region and the local school district was now the town’s largest employer, followed by a small paint manufacturer. Laurie figures the area’s depressed economy, its negligible property taxes, its lack of zoning regulations, and its strategic location near various interstate highways must have made Jamestown an attractive proposition to CSI’s management and investors.
From his family’s property, Tom Laurie looks out over CSI’s manufacturing site.
Laurie claimed CSI’s management was never transparent about its intentions for the Jamestown site. In public meetings before construction, Michael Brunn played down the size of the future facility and argued there would be relatively little disturbance to the company’s few neighbors. “We won’t set up shop where we’re not wanted,” Brunn said in an August 2, 1995, article in the Mercer County Herald. “It wouldn’t make sense. We are not going to force ourselves down anyone’s throat, that is for sure.”
“They assured everybody that the only thing they were ever going to do was they were going to have one old man who was going to test their stuff with a shotgun twice a week and UPS was going to come and take a small package away, and that was going to be the extent of their manufacturing,” Laurie said. “That was hogwash.” Laurie seethed with resentment as he flattened a white linen placemat in front of him. “When they moved in and started shooting tear gas all over our woods, I went next door and confronted Richard Edge”—CSI’s chief operating officer—“and I said, ‘You’re firing over our property and I want you to stop,’” Laurie paused. “And he said, ‘WE ARE NOT!’”
When CSI didn’t respond to his repeated complaints, Laurie approached local management about buying his property. He argued that for a relatively small investment CSI could buy out its closest neighbor and create a buffer zone between the manufacturing and testing site and the next-closest neighbor. Laurie said management scoffed at the offer. That was when he started keeping notes on the company’s activities, recording and measuring the decibel levels of the explosions, videoing incidents of tear gas drifting onto his property, and documenting CSI’s multiple building fires.
David Laurie empties a box of spent munitions he says he collected from the forest on his property. Representatives of CSI deny the company has fired anything onto its neighbor’s property.
In 2006, CSI reached a formal agreement with the Greene Township board of supervisors. The board granted the manufacturer the right to test munitions at any time from 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. With 72 hours’ notice, CSI could blow up its products outside of these agreed hours. Laurie said the agreement was signed without any public hearing or consultation. In 2007, the Lauries hired a surveyor to check out their property, but he couldn’t finish the job. Laurie recalled the voice message he’d received from the surveyor: “Mr. Laurie you have to come out here because your place is just littered with all of this plastic stuff they have been shooting at your property, and we got chased out of here because of the tear gas, and I won’t come back here unless they agree not to be shooting over where we are working.” That is when Laurie discovered the hundreds of munitions, both live and spent, that littered his woods.
Courtesy of David Laurie
Laurie couldn’t take it anymore. Official CSI testing activity logs show the company was testing on a daily basis, both indoors and outdoors. Often the company would do multiple outdoor test-firing sessions on a single day. In December 2014, Laurie met with a lawyer and persuaded nine of his neighbors to file a lawsuit against CSI. The group lawsuit was short-lived. By 2016 the Lauries and another family were the only plaintiffs. Laurie suspected his neighbors had been bought off, but Sandy Laurie said it was more likely they felt powerless against CSI. “I think that people in an area like this, they figure that the company is so large what can they do? So they just don’t bother and don’t do anything about it.” Laurie wouldn’t be bullied. He wanted CSI to pay for the psychological torture he claimed CSI had inflicted on his family, and he wanted a reimbursement for the depreciation of his property due to CSI’s operations.
CSI hired Timothy Bonner to lead its defense. In 2020, Bonner, a Republican, was elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. He has since co-sponsored a bill that deregulates firearms and protects firearms manufacturers from liability for injuries or deaths caused by their products. In court documents filed by CSI, Bonner argued that all of the company’s operations were within the law. He claimed CSI discontinued outdoor testing of tear gas and other irritants in 2010. He wrapped CSI in the American flag, arguing that the company’s products were essential to the national defense and that the plant brought good jobs to a region in need. Bonner said the plaintiffs knew about the company’s plans before the manufacturing site was built and didn’t complain then. Finally CSI’s defense was anchored in Bonner’s reasoning that testing was limited to 59 seconds a day and was no more a nuisance than the sound of gunshots by local hunters in nearby forests.
The Lauries have installed solar-powered game cameras along their property line to record their neighbor’s activities.
Berms and barricades designed to reduce the impact of accidental explosions at the CSI site can be seen from the Lauries’ property.
For six years the case languished in legal to-and-fros, changes of attorneys, and a judge recusal. David Laurie’s son Tom put his life on hold to come home and support his parents. The case had taken its toll on all of them. “You go outside to enjoy a summer day and you hear huge blasts and smells and things like that,” Tom said. “Inside its the same thing. Birthdays, Christmases, holidays of any kind—it’s just nonstop interference. It’s debilitating in a sense. Whatever joy other people are experiencing during those times—I don’t want to say it’s better, but it’s definitely not tainted by what we’re experiencing. That’s what probably sticks with me the most. It is tainted, like bad water. It’s drinkable but…”
The case is set to go to trial next March. (Bonner has recused himself.) While David Laurie was overjoyed that his family would finally get their day in court, he was less enthusiastic about the possible outcomes. After two decades of battle with CSI, he recognized the enormous challenge of winning against the weapons manufacturer. His retirement had been spent fighting the company. His savings were depleted, and he knows no one will ever want to buy the family home.
When I asked the Lauries how CSI had altered their view of the world, Tom responded without hesitation: “It just proves to me that there’s probably better, safer, healthier ways to take care of crowd control or whatever the issue is, other than this stuff. There’s a reason it is banned in warfare. Living next door, you have a very real experience of what other people go through. And it just shouldn’t be used. Period. On anybody, for any reason.”
David Laurie interrupted his son: “I had an AR-15, and I sold it. It just seemed to me that it was something to use that was just evil. So I sold it.” All of the family members agreed they’d never go see fireworks again.
A hacker’s release last week of data from the Oath Keepers organization—which played a key role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection—revealed the breadth and depth of the penetration into the ranks of law-enforcement authorities by such far-right extremists. It also revealed the importance of weeding them out from the ranks of police officers—and the urgency of acting quickly.
Not only was there a surge in interest in joining the group after the Jan. 6 violence, but the interest was pronounced among law-enforcement officers. A survey of the data by USA Today found more than 200 people who signed up to join the group over the past decade who identified themselves as members of a police agency; of those, 21 are still serving today.
How a surge in police force against demonstrators collided with last summer’s protests.
This story contains detailed depictions of violence against protesters that may be disturbing to some readers.
When 21-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, activist Cheyenne Osuala was violently arrested at a protest in July 2020, she tried to get the whole thing on video. An officer grabbed her, slammed her up against a wall, and started pulling the handcuff so far behind her back that her wrist fractured. As he tugged her arm further and further, she remembers screaming, standing on her toes to try to relieve the pain.
She dropped her phone during the attack, but shaky footage from a bystander shows the officer pushing her face-first against the wall while other protesters scream for her release.
Osuala said she was gathered with a small group of protesters outside of a parking garage when she noticed plainclothed men on the roof shooting pepper balls down at the people gathered below. Concerned that the men could be counterprotesters looking to harm their group, Osuala and other protesters asked Louisville police officers to confirm if the men on the roof were police. Osuala says the officers told them they weren’t aware of anyone currently stationed at the top of the parking garage, so they headed up to find out who the men were — and why they were firing at a peaceful crowd.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Protesters at a May 2020 demonstration in Louisville, among a series of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests last year that drew tens of millions of demonstrators — an unprecedented number.
That’s when, she said, officers followed them into the parking garage, blocked them from leaving, and arrested her, breaking her wrist in the process. She was later charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct, although both charges were later dismissed by a judge.
Osuala filed a complaint with the Louisville Metro Police Department but received no response. She later filed a lawsuit, alleging that she was wrongfully arrested and assaulted by the department’s officers, and this spring, the Justice Department separately opened an investigation into the Louisville department’s practices, including use of force against protesters. (Louisville police did not respond to requests for comment.)
Osuala said she can recall the experience in excruciating detail, but said that she still won’t go back and watch the video. “It was too traumatizing,” she said.
The broken wrist and resulting nerve damage eventually healed, but in the months that followed, she was left feeling powerless. “I still remember feeling his weight on top of me. He was so much bigger,” she said. “It felt like a power trip. He wanted to hurt me, and I couldn’t do anything.”
In uprisings last summer that drew tens of millions across the country — an unprecedented number — protesters called for an end to police brutality. Amid the mostly peaceful protests, some demonstrations, many spurred by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, were marked by incidents of police violence. In the first two weeks of demonstrations, more than 10,000 people were arrested. The total today sits at more than 17,000, according to the Washington Post. Most arrests were for low-level offenses, such as curfew violations or failure to follow dispersal orders.
At the height of the protests that June, police were repeatedly recorded using force, many of them punching, kicking, or shoving protesters. One criminal defense lawyer collected nearly 300 videos documenting police violence across the country. Among these videos were incidents where officers beat unarmed protesters in Las Vegas, fired tear gas canisters into a crowd in Dallas, and pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters in Columbus, Ohio.
One video showed officers in riot gear in Buffalo, New York, shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, leaving him unconscious and bleeding on the sidewalk. In New York City, an officer was caught on camera violently shoving a woman to the ground. Another video shows a group of officers beating protesters with batons in Philadelphia.
Some departments also reportedly used rubber bullets and tear gas as a form of crowd control. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, reporters filmed an officer shooting a protester in the head with a foam bullet, fracturing her eye socket. In one of the most controversial and widely shared incidents, police used tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters outside the White House in Washington, DC, to allow for President Donald Trump’s photo session outside of a church.
After protesters were arrested en masse, for some, the physical trauma was immediate. Explosive imagery from some protests shows people bleeding from projectiles, choking on tear gas, or left with swollen wrists after being detained for hours. In the face of an increasingly militarized police force — armored vehicles, military-grade riot gear, flash grenades, sound cannons, and tear gas canisters — protesters were left reeling from violence that felt like it belonged on a battlefield.
In the aftermath of the uprisings, another kind of pain lingers. While their physical wounds may have long since healed, some protesters, like Osuala, said they have been left with deep psychological scars that remain open and raw.
“I feel like we’ve all been through the war,” Osuala said. “All the people who have really been out there from the beginning and have stayed out there consistently — we all have PTSD.”
Vox spoke with several protesters about the lingering effects of last summer’s protests. Now that much of the attention on the George Floyd protests has faded, Osuala and protesters like her say they’re left wondering how to put the pieces back together when it feels like the rest of the world has moved on.
Since the protests began last summer, some therapists, including a few Vox spoke with, have reported an influx of patients experiencing hypervigilance, anxiety, panic, and nightmares from their involvement in the demonstrations.
Licensed psychotherapist Cheryl Ades has seen a spike in the number of people coming to her practice with protest-related trauma. “The level of PTSD is going to be extreme,” said Ades, who works with protesters as a part of the network Therapists for Protester Wellness in Louisville. “It might not hit for a while — a few months, a year, five years — but it’s going to come down on people sooner or later.”
Months after the demonstrations, dozens of evaluations of police departments across the country exposed the full scope of the violent response. These reviews found that officers behaved aggressively and used crowd-control munitions indiscriminately against largely peaceful demonstrators. Their tactics, the reports found, often escalated violence instead of defusing it.
These findings were the culmination of a broader shift in American policing, said Jennifer Earl, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and an expert on policing tactics.
From the civil rights movement in the 1960s to last summer’s protests, police departments using military-grade riot gear have increasingly become the norm in American cities. In part due to the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows law enforcement agencies to receive military hardware, American police departments have access to a wide arsenal of such equipment. From 1998 to 2014, the value of military equipment sent to police departments shot up from $9.4 million to $796.8 million.
“The access to militarized equipment means they’re approaching the protests in a different way — with a sort of warrior mentality,” said Earl.
As the police response becomes more militarized, so do the tactics of protesters on the ground. “It contributes to the feeling of protests as a war zone,” says Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies social movements in the US. “If you tear-gas people in the streets, they’re not going to go home and say they’re not going to go out again. What happens is that everybody goes home and comes out with gas masks and with helmets, leaf blowers, and umbrellas.”
Experts say that decades of research have led to a similar conclusion: Escalating force leads to more violence, not less. Police wearing riot gear and deploying military-style weapons is more likely to lead to the same kind of violence they were supposed to prevent.
Increased violence also leads to increased emotional trauma. A report by the nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland in 2020 noted that experiencing or witnessing violence in a protest setting was linked in recent research to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
For some Black protesters, the trauma of violence experienced on the ground is only intensified by the ancestral trauma of centuries of oppression, experts say. “It’s personal,” says Jennifer Mullan, a psychologist whose Decolonizing Therapy business provides resources for therapists to address inequities in the mental health industry. “It’s tied to your liberation and the liberation of your people. This is something that many people of color have been experiencing our entire lives. These communities are already in a heightened state of trauma. It just amplifies the trauma of protest.”
Cory, a community activist from Los Angeles who is being identified only by his first name due to safety concerns, says protesting is just another part of survival. “[Being a Black person is] like trauma upon trauma. I’m literally fighting against these people who could kill me during a traffic stop. There’s so much more invested for me.”
More than a year after her arrest in June 2020, 20-year-old Judith Velasquez finds herself trapped in a recurring flashback. When she closes her eyes, she’s back on the police bus in Los Angeles, packed alongside dozens of other protesters, her hands cuffed. It’s completely dark; the only light comes from faded street lamps seen through the reinforced glass windows. She can barely make out the silhouettes of those around her.
“I was terrified,” Velasquez said about the several hours she spent on the bus after being arrested for breaking curfew. “We were completely vulnerable in the dark, just waiting for them to do something.”
All the while, she said, people were screaming and pleading to be released. Some were shaking uncontrollably. According to Velasquez, one protester urinated on her seat after hours without access to a bathroom.
Every time Velasquez sees a police car — a regular presence in her working-class Latino community in Los Angeles — she freezes. “I see the red, white, and blue lights, and it takes me back,” she says. “I start shaking so hard. Because I remember how there was nobody to protect us. They could do anything to me.”
Like Velasquez, Cory says he has signs of PTSD. Difficulty sleeping, distressed by loud noises, nightmares, flashbacks.
Months after the George Floyd protests in Los Angeles, Cory found himself on the streets again to protest Dijon Kizzee’s fatal shooting by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
On the first night of protests in September 2020, he was heading toward the front lines when there was a sudden shift in the air — he turned around to look at the line of officers, looked back at the crowd, and then, he says, there were rubber bullets flying all around him. He started running, diving behind a box truck for cover while the officers continued to fire at him. There was so much tear gas on the streets around him that he couldn’t breathe. (Vox has corroborated Cory’s account with other protesters and news sources.)
Over the four days of demonstrations in Los Angeles, Cory says that the protesters experienced continual violence. As they took cover from pepper balls and chemical irritants fired by the sheriff’s department, he watched someone get hit in the head with a concussion grenade. A friend of his was struck by several pepper balls, fracturing her hand and leaving her bleeding on the sidewalk.
The impact on his mind and his body was immediate. “I couldn’t really sleep, I couldn’t really go out. My nervous system was so fucked that I couldn’t think straight.”
These symptoms are now a constant presence in his life. When he goes back to the locations where he’s experienced violence, his anxiety spikes. Loud noises send his heart racing. He has trouble concentrating and often finds himself dissociating.
“It was like being in a war zone,” he said. “Watching that happen, watching people get brutalized — it will never leave me.”
The nature of this ongoing violence — night after night, week after week — can make the path to healing complicated.
Ihotu Ali, a Minneapolis-based healer and organizer, says it may be impossible to completely recover from these experiences. “If you continuously break your leg … it’s never going to heal.”
Tasos Katopodis /Getty Images
A woman reacts to being hit with pepper spray during protests in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2020.
When protesters turn to therapy for support, they can come away feeling even more traumatized. As both a community organizer and a mental health therapist in Los Angeles, psychotherapist Devon Young has seen it happen time and time again. “They’re experiencing trauma on the ground and then go to look for support from these experts,” she said. “But they might not find validation or recognition in that industry, which tends to overlook marginalized experiences. Not to mention barriers like money and health insurance.”
Thinking back on everything she’s been through, Velasquez knows there’s no turning back now. Her outrage has only grown over the past few months, amplified by the fact that it feels like the rest of the world has moved on.
“It’s been years of pain, years of people suffering at the hands of the system and on the streets,” she said. “If you can go back to normal after this, then you exhibit a privilege that I can only dream of.”
In the face of militarized policing and the continued deaths of Black people at the hands of police, Mullan acknowledges that many activists feel a need to stay on the front lines. But she stresses that community healing is just as important — and can even act as another form of resistance.
“We know the reason why they inflict this violence. They want to take us off the streets, to split us apart,” she said. “That’s why it’s deeply necessary for us to lean on each other for healing. Even as things are burning down around us, our communities become a form of home. We educate each other, take care of each other, support each other. It’s the opposite of what the system wants us to do. They don’t want us to come together.”
Instead of relying on systems that have consistently failed the most vulnerable in the protest community, Mullan encourages a shift toward community-based care. “Trust in the community, in the possibility for transformational restorative justice work, can be extremely healing for people who are on the front lines. Community can become a point of healing.”
Young echoes the need for a transformative shift in therapy for front-liners. “We need to build a better mental health infrastructure,” she said. “And it won’t come from the state. It needs to happen from within activist circles. We know the fight will continue and these traumas are going to occur. The best we can do is create support systems that are built by the people.”
For Velasquez and other dedicated protesters, stopping the fight for justice isn’t an option. The more the police try to drive them off the streets, they said, the more determined they are to stay.
“There’s something that stays with you after you’ve gone through something like this,” Velasquez said. “Even with everything that happened, I kept going.”
While her experiences left a deep emotional impact, she also remembers how the protesters kept their spirits up on the prison bus: singing songs, chanting protest slogans, pulling up each other’s masks, and finding ways to break free from the plastic cuffs. “We were all supporting each other,” she said. “And we weren’t quiet for one second.”
Even with the progress the movement has made over the past year, Velasquez can’t help but feel disillusioned with the system. Looking back on everything protesters have been through — and continue to go through — she says no amount of accountability or reform can make up for the impact of her experiences. But through community healing, she’s found a way forward.
“They’re not going to protect us,” she said. “But we can protect us.”
Julia Dupuis is a Los Angeles-based writer covering protest movements and police violence.
This week is quite a historical week as it relates to the African liberation struggle within the confines of the colony known as the U.S. In August of 1971, George Jackson, who was incarcerated in California, was murdered inside prison walls there. As a response to his murder and oppressive prison conditions, incarcerated persons from all walks of life banded together at Attica Prison in New York and staged a rebellion that saw about 40 people slaughtered by prison officials and police. In August of 1989, Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and . . .
The post Huey Newton, George Jackson & What They Mean to Us appeared first on Hood Communist.
It’s always possible to produce alarming headlines about crime—even in the safest year in New York City history, as the New York Post (7/30/18) demonstrated.
The stories were horrible.
A woman tied up and fatally shot in her own apartment. Her neighbor was killed in his apartment two days later in the same way. In another tragic episode, a young teenager was killed in a horrendous machete attack in the Bronx that made national headlines. The New York Post (7/30/18) reported on a violent stretch of seven hours where 16 people were shot, one fatally, in 10 separate incidents: “Gunfire Explodes Over Seven Bloody Hours in NYC.”
There were almost 300 reported murders in New York City that year, almost one per day. There were over 20,000 reported felony assaults, about 55 per day, and more than 12,000 robberies, 35 on an average day. The year was 2018, and it was the safest year in New York City’s recorded history. In a city of over eight million residents, crime, even in the safest times, will always be a headline.
Fast forward to 2021 as the city, and nation, begin to climb out of a pandemic that saw mass economic and social fallout—to say nothing of the lives lost. A historic, once-in-a-lifetime worldwide event destabilized the lives of countless people, and also led to an undeniable rise in shootings and homicide across the country. However, right-leaning media have used the uptick in certain crime categories to weaponize a counter-narrative to social justice movements, one that argues we need more cops and law enforcement to save our cities.
The narrative isn’t a new one, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be a genuine one. Local conservative tabloids, like the Post and the New York Daily News, have for years tried to stir fear of a city overrun by crime (FAIR.org, 6/21/21). As we’ve pointed out at FAIR (6/28/18), the local tabloids were apocalyptic in their predictions for the city when stop and frisk, a dragnet policing tactic, was ruled unconstitutional in its application by the NYPD. These papers have supported controversial police tactics like “broken windows”—a crackdown on minor offenses in poor communities, no matter the costs on vulnerable populations. (“Broken Windows ‘Works,’ and if It Hurts Immigrants—‘Too Bad,’” was how FAIR summarized the Daily News‘ position—3/8/17.)
The Post, which has been sounding the alarm bells since Democrat Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, has operated much like a media outlet that wants crime to increase. It seems to have an ideological drive to frame the city the way police unions in the 1970s once did: as “Fear City” The cartoonishly predictable newspaper’s pro-police bias is well-documented.
To the New York Post (2/18/20), “squeegee men” have long been a terrifying symbol of disorder.
Their fascination with squeegee workers (people that go up to cars to clean windshields for tips), for example, is in itself a master class in hyping a moral panic for a larger public policy goal. In 2014, Post headlines railed against squeegee workers making a “comeback” (the prevailing belief being they were run out of the city by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani) and “terrorizing” the city (8/7/14). In 2020, before Covid, the Post editorial board (2/18/20) was arguing that with squeegee workers “back,” “the bad old days can’t be far behind”—only to then run a story (5/31/21) declaring that the “pandemic gives way to return of NYC’s infamous squeegee men.”
Unable to decide whether squeegee workers are now “back” or had already “returned” (or perhaps never really left at all), the Post‘s reporting was never anything less than a naked attempt to signal a shadowy side of Gotham that is perpetually lurking around the figurative corner. With certain categories of city crime increasing from the previous year, media fearmongering has hit the ground running.
In the city, tabloid and television media have tried to explain crime increases—often described as “crime waves”—primarily in two ways. One, as a result of police reforms, notably New York state’s passage of legislation aimed to modestly reduce the use of cash bail (reforms that were watered down amid right-wing scare tactics). And secondly, to a “defunding” of police, as some municipalities have reduced official police spending. Quoting controversial former police commissioner William Bratton, the Post (6/10/21) made both arguments, claiming that city and state lawmakers (who make and maintain laws to make crime, well, illegal) “went too far to aid criminals.”
It’s unlikely that bail reform has had a major impact on crime, because bail reform hasn’t had all that much impact on bail. (Chart: Center for Court Innovation)
Data, however, doesn’t back the assertion that bail reform has led to crime increases. The Center for Court Innovation found “no evidence to support the claim” that bail reform was behind a spike in gun violence. In a more recent publication, the New York City–based non-profit that works closely with the state’s court system (not exactly a radical anti–law enforcement outfit) also found that more people have been in pre-trial detention, despite what the mayor and police commissioner were telling the public:
Beginning in May 2020, and increasing throughout the summer as some New York City public officials made unsupported claims linking bail reform to a spike in gun violence, judges reverted to setting bail more often. Combined with the effect of the July 2020 amendments to the original legislation—which made more cases again eligible for bail—this contributed to a steady, months-long rise in the number of people in jail awaiting trial.
A police commissioner telling you that you need more cops (Fox News, 9/25/20) should be treated with the same skepticism as a McDonald’s executive telling you that you need to eat more burgers.
What about “defunding” the police? Since those three magic words were seen on protest signs of George Floyd demonstrators last year—and become the fascination of right-wing pundits (and even establishment Democrats, as I wrote about last year—Medium, 11/16/20)—some have claimed that not only have the police been defunded, but that that defunding is to blame for increases in violence.
The New Republic (5/26/21) did a rather succinct job last month of bursting that bubble, showcasing the National Fraternal Order of Police’s twitter graphic of “SKYROCKETING MURDER RATES,” which claimed elected leaders in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles “turned the keys over to the ‘Defund the Police’ mob.” The FOP, the New Republic‘s Matt Ford pointed out, actually
took care not to link the rise in homicides explicitly to actual material declines in police budgets. That’s because some cities did not actually “defund the police” in any meaningful way.
In other words, the very premise that reducing, even moderately, police spending caused a crime increase was flawed, because the asserted cause didn’t really happen in some cities.
In fact, that’s the case in New York City, a city that conservatives have breathlessly complained “defunded” the police (with help from the police commissioner: “Dermot Shea: Defunding the Police in NYC Had a ‘Significant Impact’ on Crime Surge”—Fox News, 9/25/20). New York did reshuffle some school police spending. However, the much-hyped decrease in the police budget by $1 billion annually was found by an independent budget watchdog to be only about a third of that. Any of the so-called cuts wouldn’t figure into the policing puzzle, because increases in shootings began early last summer, before the “defunded” budget would have even been felt in the police department.
In fact, the city saw crime increases as its police department was still far and away the largest and most expensive urban police department in the history of mankind. (This, of course, begs the question as to why the police themselves aren’t blamed for the increase in violent crime, because they certainly are given the credit when there is decrease in crime.) Further undermining the supposed causal relationship between “defunding” police and increases in crime is the fact that several cities saw increases in violent crime even as they increased police spending (Chicago Tribune, 6/10/21).
Fox News‘ Laura Ingraham (6/10/21) explains how criticizing racist police violence causes crime to increase.
While local media has been increasingly reporting about crime for more than a year, national outlets have also piled on. Fox News host Laura Ingraham (6/10/21) ranted against activists in Minneapolis recently: “Now, a year after the ruinous deadly riots that ripped apart America, we see the corrupt poisonous fruits of BLM’s work.” The show, framed as Ingraham’s analysis of “the radicals behind America’s crime wave,” also included an interview with right-wing pundit Heather MacDonald—who was promoting a crime wave six years ago, when there was no crime wave (FAIR.org, 6/10/15).
MacDonald’s visceral hatred of the Black Lives Matter movement led her to complain to Ingraham that “thanks to this phony, racist attack on law enforcement, Black lives are the ones that are lost.” MacDonald, who is frequent contributor to the Post, the Wall Street Journal and City Journal (the magazine of the right-wing Manhattan Institute), has also claimed that “No, the Cops Didn’t Murder Sean Bell” (City Journal, Winter/07) after cops murdered Sean Bell, so you have to take what she says with several mountains of salt.
Attempts to tie violent crime to the racial justice movement has been an ongoing theme for the right since Black Lives Matter entered mainstream national discourse. MacDonald’s initial attempt to do so was with the conservative fairy tale known as the “Ferguson Effect” back in 2015, when several media outlets, including the New York Times (6/4/15), opened their pages for her to argue that the “vitriol” of protesters and police critics led to cops not being “proactive” enough to stop crime.
Columbia University professor Bernard Harcourt, a critical theorist who countered the Broken Windows theory of policing and also debunked MacDonald’s “Ferguson Effect” fiction, notes the historical parallels:
The attacks on the movement to defund policing or reform bail come straight out of the conservative playbook. It’s the same script from the 1960s and the reactionary response to the civil rights movement.
Harcourt notes conservatives see easy political opportunities from high crime or increases in crime. “It’s what turned crime into a national priority with Goldwater and Nixon.”
Rudy Giuliani took credit for a decline in crime that was going on all over the country. (Chart: Pew Research, 11/20/20)
New York City—where our crime increases, notably in reported shootings and murders, still only result in a fraction of city crime levels in the early 1990s—has experienced this before. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani was elected twice on a law and order platform that seized on fear of crime and laid the groundwork for decades of mass arrests and stops of mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers.
After his election, in a sort of inverse of what is happening today, Giuliani took credit for declines in crime in the ’90s that began a year before Giuliani became mayor and were part of a nationwide crime decrease. “The same politicization of crime happened in the 1990s with broken windows policing. Each time, it’s just manipulation to score a political point,” Harcourt reminds me. That crime decrease benefited not only Giuliani and law and order Republican politics, it also gave police leaders like William Bratton, Giuliani’s commissioner, political power by defining them as saviors of the city.
However, more than a quarter century later, there is no consensus of what caused that crime decline. Similarly, the causes of this current crime increase probably won’t be clear for a long time—although the pandemic’s destabilizing effects on society are a very likely culprit—so the voices that claim to immediately know the causes are saying so based on a predetermined agenda. “If there are national trends in crime and strong variations in policing across jurisdictions,” Harcourt notes, “it’s likely that police strategy has little to do with those trends. And that applies when crime is going down, as well as when it is going up.”
The media, unfortunately, tend to gravitate to quick assessments rather than correct ones. As such, the industry’s tendency to rely on police for answers—which they habitually do in everyday crime blotter journalism (Washington Post, 6/30/20)—subtly works to center police expertise, and therefore power.
What makes this a CNN headline (6/9/21) is that Fox News would have left out “potentially.”
CNN (6/9/21) did its part with coverage warning its audience of a “bloody summer,” featuring an interview with a representative of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group. The network didn’t focus on why crime has gone up, but rather on the police response to it. In fact, CNN quoted four police leaders and one former police commissioner, which narrowed the entire concept of crime to something that only police are experts at addressing. This sort of journalism, while not as inflammatory as the New York Post or Fox News, reinforces the politics that favor police as saviors.
Chuck Wexler, spokesperson for the policy group, told CNN, “It’s challenging to be a police officer right now but it’s also from a police chief’s standpoint. They’re not getting much sleep.”
CNN‘s Jim Sciutto followed up with a police ride-along piece (6/22/21) where they quite literally jumped into police cars so that cops could explain to them the crime situation. “Here’s what they told us about spiking crime in the city,” which was part of the story’s headline, is in fact what any reasonable person would identify as police stenography—uncritically regurgitating police talking points. CNN apparently likes to embed themselves with cops. In 2014, CNN‘s Jake Tapper agreed with the police chief’s request for the network to report alongside cops after initially reporting on how militarized police were attacking protesters (FAIR.org, 8/19/14).
If one doesn’t simply take the police’s word on what is causing crime, there are numerous factors to consider. For example, in addition to the pandemic’s social economic and human toll, there has been an unprecedented surge in gun sales across America that can often work their way into urban centers.
Whatever the reason for certain crime increases—and again, while some violent crimes, like shootings, have increased, overall crime in America has not (FAIR.org, 6/21/21)—the media’s fascination with crime and crime-fighters embraces simplistic, digestible police-provided soundbites (e.g., “NYPD Blames Police Reform for Violent Holiday Weekend“—NY1, 7/6/20) and ready-made police heroes.
This form of journalism completely omits the idea that social and socio-economic stability profoundly affects crime—which might make people want to address crime by addressing those underlying conditions, rather than reflexively relying on police. By hyping a crime trend and platforming police experts in how to deal with it, the media show that they aren’t neutral observers but actually providing a journalistic cover to the idea that police—or the “thin blue line“—are the only thing standing between us and bloody carnage.
On June 16, 2021, the late rap icon Tupac Shakur would have turned 50 had he survived a still unsolved drive-by shooting in Las Vegas 25 years ago. Few knew that behind his “gangsta rap” façade, Tupac was an activist leader who worked to counter CIA drug trafficking through street gangs.
The post Tupac Shakur Would Have Turned 50 Today–If He Hadn’t Threatened Deal Between Drug Traffickers and U.S. Banks Making Billions Laundering CIA Drug Money appeared first on CovertAction Magazine.
Report from so-called Minneapolis, where a non-profit funded by the City attempted to evict and shut down George Floyd Square. from stolen Dakota Land Since the murder of George Floyd, while radicals continue to struggle for liberation, we have also seen a disturbing yet albeit predictable wave of counter-insurgency fronts in the Minneapolis area. The… Read Full Article