Seattle Activist Group Leads First Successful Campaign to Defund PoliceIn September 2016 the Block the Bunker campaign in Seattle was the first to persuade US city officials to divest from police funding and allocate more tax dollars for community services.
In summer 2016, a coalition of antiracist grassroots organizers protested the city’s plans to spend nearly $150 million on a new police station in North Seattle. In September, the mayor shelved the plans for the 2017 budget and an additional $29 million was added to the affordable housing budget. According to the Movement for Black Lives, no other organization is known to be actively working on divestment policy, and it is the first such campaign to be successful.76
NBC’s KING5 and the Seattle Times covered the story in August and September 2016 but activists’ voices were barely included.77 KING5’s coverage, in particular, emphasized the disruption the group caused during city council meetings.78 No attention was given to the campaign’s success in divesting from police funding and its signifi-cance for antiracism movements across the US. By contrast, in a YES! Magazine article, Melissa Hellmann spoke with the activists and dis-sected the argument that more policing makes communities safer. Palca Shibale, a recent University of Washington graduate and one of the original organizers against the proposed police station, told YES! Magazine that she hoped Block the Bunker would inspire others to organize and address issues of police brutality and gentrification in their own cities. “It’s so important to do whatever you can do in your own spaces to fight for equity, however that looks,” Shibale said. Hellmann interviewed Michelle Phelps, assistant professor of soci-ology at the University of Minnesota, who said there was not a lot of research on alternative strategies to reduce crime rates, but that spending more on police and less on social services puts “a strain on the relationships between communities and police.”
A Seattle city council member, Kshama Sawant, said, “The only reason that this new police precinct is not going to go ahead in this year’s budget is because of the Block the Bunker movement and because ordinary people, young people, and activists came and shut the city all down.”
Melissa Hellmann, “Defunding Police—How Antiracist Organizers Got Seattle to Listen
Fossil Fuel Industry “Colonizing” US Universities
Without the public’s awareness, fossil fuel interests—representing oil, gas, and coal companies as well as utilities and investors—have “colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities,” two researchers at Stanford Uni-versity and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported in the Guardian in March 2017. Fossil fuel interests dominate energy and climate policy research at the nation’s most prominent universi-ties, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley. “The very experts we assume to be objective, and the very centers of research we assume to be independent,” Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran wrote, “are connected with the very industry the public believes they are objectively studying. Moreover, these connections are often kept hidden.” The result is more than a “conflict of interest,” Franta and Supran reported. These are “industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by aca-demia.”
As an example of such “colonizing,” Franta and Supran described in detail a February 2017 event, “Finding Energy’s Rational Middle,” hosted by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. It was not publicly disclosed that Shell Oil Company sponsored the event. The Harvard event featured a docu-mentary film, The Great Transition, produced by Shell and directed by a vice president of an oil and gas company funded by Shell. The Kennedy School has received at least $3.75 million from Shell, Franta and Supran reported.
The report also detailed how the Shell documentary provided sup-posedly objective scholars’ assessments while failing to disclose their fossil fuel industry connections. The people shown in the documentary consistently expressed skepticism about renewable energy solutions and promoted being “realistic” about fossil fuels, while advocating nat-ural gas as a great transition to “clean” energy—without mentioning that methane emissions have even greater impacts on global warming than carbon emissions do. Franta and Supran documented some of the film’s participants’ undisclosed connections to the fossil fuel industry; for example, Amy Myers Jaffe, who is identified in the film as the execu-tive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis, is also a member of the US National Petroleum Council. In the film Jaffe says, “We need to be realistic that we’re gonna use fossil fuels now, because in the end, we are.” Michelle Michot Foss, identified as the chief energy economist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Energy Economics, is also a partner in a natural gas company, and Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the Koch Foundation, among others, fund the Center where she works.
As Franta and Supran noted, the fossil fuel industry often employs the tactic of claiming to promote a “rational middle” between total dependence on nonrenewable energy and total independence from it, and in practice this tactic is used to undermine the shift to renewable energy sources. In this case, the report explained, Shell and allied fig-ures were able to deploy the tactic with “Harvard’s stamp of approval.” Beyond Harvard, Franta and Supran documented that the MIT Energy Initiative is “almost entirely funded” by fossil fuel compa-nies, including Shell, ExxonMobil, and Chevron. MIT has received $185 million from David Koch, the oil billionaire and climate change denial financier, who is a life member of the university’s board. Exx-onMobil funds Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project. UC Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) was initiated thanks to a $500 million deal signed in 2007 with BP. BP appoints half of the
voting members of EBI’s Governance Board.79
Franta and Supran called for universities to stop ignoring the problem of climate change and confront it, either by disclosing financial funding from the fossil fuel industry in order to reduce conflicts of interest, or by prioritizing sponsors and personnel who are “less conflicted.”
Corporate news coverage of how the fossil fuel industry has cap-tured energy and climate policy research at US universities is rare, and when the topic is addressed coverage gives the impression of iso-lated incidents. In 2010, for example, the Los Angeles Times empha-sized the benefits of BP’s partnership with UC Berkeley.80 After the Center for American Progress released a 2010 study that documented the fossil fuel industry’s strong grip on university research, this topic received some coverage in the corporate press, including SFGate, but, as with previous coverage, these reports tended to focus on individual cases rather than systemic patterns.81
Greenpeace’s PolluterWatch website maintains an interactive data-base of the Koch Foundation’s funding for colleges and universities, which totaled over $144 million between 2005 and 2015.82
Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran, “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Invisible Colonization of Aca-demia,” Guardian, March 13, 2017, .
Lawsuit against Illinois Department of Corrections Exposes Militariza-tion of Law Enforcement inside Prisons
Against a backdrop of national concern over the militarization of police, Brian Dolinar reported for Truthout that a judge has approved a 2015 lawsuit against 232 Illinois Department of Corrections officers to proceed to the discovery phase. The class-action suit, Ross v. Gossett, brought on behalf of prisoners at Menard, Illinois River, Big Muddy River, and Lawrence Correctional Centers, alleges that the “Orange Crush” tactical team used excessive force, including physical and sexual abuse, when it conducted mass shakedowns in the spring of 2014.83 As Dolinar wrote, “less is known beyond prison walls about guards who regularly brutalize those incarcerated,” but the Illinois lawsuit “names a list of horrific abuses that includes strip searches, beatings and mass shakedowns of cells,” indicating how militarization of law enforcement has occurred inside prisons as well as in public.
Dolinar described the development and increasing use of so-called Special Operations Response Teams (SORTs), also known as tactical teams, in prisons across the US since the 1971 prison rebellion at Attica in New York. Dolinar’s report focused in particular on one such group, within the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), that has come to be known informally as the “Orange Crush,” referencing their orange jumpsuits and extreme “horrific abuses.” IDOC Orange Crush teams, Dolinar reported, first developed in 1996 when Illinois attempted to address the problem of prisons gangs, including the Vice Lords and Latin Kings, that often ran illicit operations with the cooperation of prison authorities.
The lawsuit alleges that Orange Crush teams used tear gas against prisoners and that, at some prisons, officers forced inmates to undergo what are known as “nuts to butts” searches, in which prisoners are forced to walk bent over at approximately a ninety-degree angle with no space between them. According to former inmates, if prisoners were to stand up during this procedure, they could be beaten. Docu-ments released during discovery in the trial have revealed that dozens of inmates have required medical treatment as a result of Orange Crush searches. Officers also allegedly wore riot helmets to conceal their identities.
According to inmate statements, during cell searches some offi-cers removed legal documents that prisoners intended to use in their trials. As Dolinar reported, “The reason why the Orange Crush con-ducted the sweeps is still unclear.”
The lawsuit, filed by the Uptown People’s Law Center and Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago-based firm, seeks to expose the Orange Crush and those who ordered raids at four separate facilities in Spring 2014. After the IDOC sought to have the suit dismissed, District Judge Staci Yandle concluded that defendants “purposely concealed their identi-ties to evade responsibility for their actions.”
Beyond Brian Dolinar’s Truthout report, the alleged abuses by the IDOC Orange Crush unit and the resulting lawsuit have received lim-ited news coverage, with reports restricted to local outlets, such as the Belleville News-Democrat and the Chicago Defender.
Brian Dolinar, Orange Crush: The Rise of Tactical Teams in Prison
Facebook Buys Sensitive User Data to Offer Marketers Targeted Advertising
Julia Angwin, Terry Parris, Jr., and Surya Mattu reported that, since 2012, Facebook has been buying sensitive data about users’ offline lives from data brokers and combining this information with the online data it collects in order to sell this information to advertisers who seek to target specific types of Facebook users for their prod-ucts and services. Facebook, they reported in September 2016, uses a “particularly comprehensive set of dossiers” on its more than two billion members in order to “offer marketers a chance to target ads to increasingly specific groups of people.” As Angwin, Parris, and Mattu described in that report, “we found Facebook offers advertisers more than 1,300 categories for ad targeting—everything from people whose property size is less than .26 acres to households with exactly seven credit cards.”
Their December 2016 report quoted Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Facebook, Chester said, is “not being honest . . . Facebook is bundling a dozen different data companies to target an individual customer, and an individual should have access to that bundle as well.”
Facebook collects information on users in many ways beyond users’ posts and “likes.” For instance, many websites include a Face-book link where a visitor to the site can like it on Facebook. In such cases, even if the website visitor does not choose to like the site on Facebook, Facebook is still able to track that the page was visited— linking back to the user. The data brokers from which Facebook buys additional information track offline sources, such as supermarket loyalty cards, mailing lists, and public records information (which includes records of home or car ownership).
Facebook seeks to puts users at ease by providing an opt-out option. However, as Angwin, Parris, and Mattu wrote, “Limiting commercial data brokers’ distribution of your personal information is no simple matter.” Even getting data brokers to share the informa-tion that they have about you (and can sell) could require sending the last four digits of your social security number, as in the case of Acxiom, one of six data brokers from which Facebook buys personal information. Reporter Julia Angwin noted that in 2013 she tried to opt out from as many data brokers as she could find. Sixty-five of the ninety-two brokers she found required her to submit some form of identification.85 “In the end, she could not remove her data from the majority of providers,” despite the fact that she had not signed up for any of these tracking services herself, the December ProPublica story reported.
One of the ways ProPublica gathered data for its report on Face-book’s data collection processes was by asking Facebook users to share with ProPublica the categories of interest that the site assigned to them. ProPublica collected more than 52,000 unique attributes that Facebook had used to classify users’ interests.
Although Facebook’s methods of collecting data about the plat-form’s users have received corporate coverage, this reporting has not explained the specific tactics used or the information obtained by data brokers. For instance, a 2010 Wall Street Journal article described how Facebook reported that “it had placed some developers on a six-month suspension from its site” because “a data broker” had “been paying application developers for identifying user information.”86 Rather than appearing as an isolated and unusual case as the Wall Street Journal report implied, Facebook’s practice of engaging data brokers and selling user data to advertisers seems, according to Pro-Publica’s 2016 reports, to be systemic and, apparently, entirely accept-able to Facebook.
Julia Angwin, Terry Parris, Jr., and Surya Mattu, “Breaking the Black Box: What Facebook Knows About You
Julia Angwin, Terry Parris, Jr., and Surya Mattu, Facebook Doesn’t Tell Users Everything It Really Knows About Them.
Eight Use of Force Policies to Prevent Killings by Police
Killings by police are not inevitable or difficult to prevent, according to a September 2016 study by Campaign Zero, a police-reform group formed in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests. The study, “Police Use of Force Policy Analysis,” examined police departments in ninety-one of the nation’s largest cities and found that departments with stricter use of force regulations killed significantly fewer people. Noting that many police departments fail to establish “common sense restrictions” on use of force and that police violence is “distributed disproportionally,” with black people being three times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts, the study’s authors wrote, “fundamentally changing use of force polic[i]es can dramati-cally reduce the number of people killed by police in America.”87 As Jamilah King reported in Mic, the study is “the first wide-scale anal-ysis to demonstrate the connection between differing ‘use of force’ policies and the rate of police killings.”
Campaign Zero identified the following eight guidelines, restricting when and how police officers should use force, that greatly decrease the likelihood of civilian deaths:
- Require officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to force.
- Limit the kinds of force that can be used to respond to specific forms of resistance.
- Restrict chokeholds.
- Require officers to give a verbal warning before using force. Prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
- Require officers to exhaust all alternatives to deadly force.
- Require officers to stop colleagues from exercising excessive force.
- Require comprehensive reporting on use of force.
Campaign Zero found that, on average, “each additional use of force policy was associated with a 15% reduction in killings,” and that implementing all eight guidelines would result in a 54 percent reduc-tion in killings for the average police department. Taking into account the number of arrests made, assaults on officers, and community demographics, Campaign Zero reported that police departments with all eight use of force policies implemented “would kill 72% fewer people than departments that have none of these policies in place.”88
As King reported for Mic, Campaign Zero determined its find-ings by combining police department data on use of force policies, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and records of police-involved killings dating back to 2015, as compiled by the Guardian and the Washington Post.
In her coverage of the Campaign Zero study, Alice Speri of the Intercept noted that just thirty-four of the ninety-one police depart-ments studied by Campaign Zero had policies requiring officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to force, and only thirty-one of the ninety-one departments required officers to exhaust all alterna-tives before resorting to deadly force. Just fifteen of the ninety-one departments required officers to report on all uses of force, including threatening a civilian with a firearm.
Yet, as King reported in Mic, Campaign Zero found significant dif-ferences between metropolitan police departments that had four or more of the policies in place and those that did not. For example, Washington, DC, and Miami did have four or more of the policies in place, and these cities had relatively low rates of police killings (between six police killings per million residents for Washington, DC, and ten per million for Miami). By contrast, the police depart-ments of Orlando, Florida; Stockton, California; and Oklahoma City each implemented fewer than four of the use of force guidelines, and these cities had the nation’s worst rates of police killings (between twenty-one police killings per million residents for Oklahoma City and twenty-five per million for Orlando).
Samuel Sinyangwe, one of the study’s researchers and authors, told the Intercept that few departments have implemented all or most of these policies, partly due to “resistance from police unions that claim more restrictive policies will endanger officers.” On the con-trary, the Campaign Zero study showed that the numbers of officers assaulted or killed in the line of duty decreased in proportion with the number of regulations adopted by their department.90
Sinyangwe, the Campaign Zero researcher, told Mic, “Two years ago we didn’t even have the data to know which police departments were killing people at higher rates than others and why . . . Now we can identify the key policies to prevent these killings.”
Kate Stringer’s YES! Magazine article, “We Already Know How to Reduce Police Racism and Violence,” predated the publication of the Campaign Zero report, but offered insights on how cities could interrupt police violence, based on findings of previous research. Her report cited prior studies encouraging support for police reforms which included training officers against racial bias, hiring more female officers, hiring to match communities’ racial diversity, opening departments to research, and using body cameras.
As of June 2017, Campaign Zero’s findings appear to have been completely overlooked by the nation’s major corporate news outlets.
Kate Stringer, We Already Know How to Reduce Police Racism and Violence
Jamilah King, Study: More Restrictive ‘Use of Force’ Policies Could Curb the Epidemic of Police Violence,
Alice Speri, Here are Eight Policies That Can Prevent Police Killings
Juvenile Court Fees Punish Children for Their Families’ Poverty
Low-income children across the US are being imprisoned when they or their families cannot afford to pay court fees, Nika Knight reported in Common Dreams. Aside from court costs, low-income children also face fees for probation, health tests, care, and other services in juvenile facilities. This amounts to “punishing children for their fam-ilies’ poverty,” Knight wrote, “and that may be unconstitutional.”
Knight’s article drew on a 2016 report by the Juvenile Law Center, a legal aid advocacy group, which reviewed statutes in all fifty states and the District of Columbia to assess “the legal framework for finan-cial obligations placed on youth in the juvenile justice system and their families.”91 The Juvenile Law Center also conducted interviews with 183 people involved in the juvenile justice system—including lawyers, family members, and adults who had been incarcerated as children—across forty-one states. Noting “stark racial disparities” in the juvenile justice system generally, from arrests to diversion and detention, the study’s authors wrote that costs, fines, fees, and res-titution “exacerbate racial disparities in the juvenile justice system,” in some cases creating what they described as “modern-day debtors’ prisons.” Notably, the Juvenile Law Center’s report not only identi-fied problems in the system but also highlighted solutions, including promising practices, legislative remedies, and case studies of juris-dictions that no longer impose court costs, fees, and fines in their juvenile systems.
Knight’s article identified “myriad ways” that juvenile court sys-tems levy fines on children’s families “and then imprison those chil-dren when their families are too poor to pay the mounting costs.” These include, for example, monthly fees on families whose chil-dren are sentenced to probation, the costs of “diversion” programs intended to keep children out of detention, and charges for court-ordered evaluations and tests (such as mental health evaluations, tests for sexually-transmitted diseases, and drug and alcohol assess-ments). When families cannot afford to pay these fees and fines, chil-dren may be incarcerated instead.
The Juvenile Law Center report described the fines imposed by juvenile court as “highly burdensome.” For example, in Alameda County, California, the average cost of juvenile system involvement is $2,000 per case. Cost can be “significantly higher,” according to the report, in cases in which young people are incarcerated for extended periods of time.
Furthermore, Knight reported, in some states parents themselves may also face imprisonment if they fail to pay fees and fines levied against their children. Incarcerating parents puts children further at risk and adds to the stresses on families already struggling with the consequences of poverty. According to the report’s authors, “When
parents face incarceration or mounting debt for failure to pay, they have even fewer resources to devote to educating, helping, and sup-porting their children.”
While noting that a detailed analysis of these policies’ constitu-tional implications went beyond its scope, the Juvenile Law Center report noted prior legal decisions in which the Supreme Court has held that courts must consider “alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment” for poor defendants. The Supreme Court has also repeatedly held that constitutional protections must be cali-brated to the unique developmental needs of adolescents.
In August 2016, the New York Times published a substantial article on the Juvenile Law Center’s study, describing low-income juve-niles—and especially racial minorities—as overburdened by fees. However, the Times article did not mention that parents in some states were also being jailed, and the report overlooked the precedent of Supreme Court decisions upholding additional protections for ado-lescents.
Nika Knight, Debtors’ Prison for Kids: Poor Children Incarcerated When Families Can’t Pay Juvenile Court Fees