Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Coverage of the Execution of Troy Davis

The fight to save Troy Davis from lethal injection has been called “the most extraordinary and controversial legal odyssey” in the history of the state of Georgia. That fight came to an end on Wednesday with Davis’s execution, twenty years after he was sentenced to death for the murder of an off-duty police officer. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the shooting of Mark MacPhail and seven of the nine witnesses who claimed to have seen him do it ultimately recanted their testimony. Davis’ case has catalyzed widespread doubts about the validity of eyewitness testimony and the death penalty itself. Here’s a roundup of some the best coverage of this story.

-“Fourteen bankers boxes filled with petitions containing 663,000 signatures were delivered to the [Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles] on Thursday; more petitions delivered over the weekend and earlier this morning brought the total number of people asking for clemency up over 800,000,” reported Kung Li of Facing South, noting that such high-profile figures as Bishop Desmond Tutu, former FBI Director William Sessions and Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., had publicly called for clemency for Davis.

-Legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick of Slate asked whether the uncertainty over Davis’ guilt would turn public opinion against the death penalty.

-Political scientist Scott Lemieux discusses how the legal system’s faith in eyewitness testimony, which was all the evidence there was against Troy Davis, has been profoundly shaken in the years since Davis was convicted. Lemieux argues that new understanding of the limitations of eyewitness evidence created significant doubts about Davis’ guilt, but the justice system proved itself incapable of responding appropriately.

If the system isn’t flexible enough to respond to new knowledge, which tends to pile up in the years or decades between conviction and execution, maybe it doesn’t deserve to wield the power of life and death.

-Troy Davis, a black man, was denied clemency by the same parole board that granted last-minute clemency to a white murderer three years ago. Samuel Crowe confessed to hacking a store manager with a crowbar and shooting him. Crowe reportedly turned his life around in jail, but Davis also changed for the better in jail. The two main differences were race and the fact that Crowe expressed remorse while Davis proclaimed his innocence. At the very least, this is evidence of the perverse logic of a justice system that rewards the outwardly remorseful guilty while punishing those who refuse to admit their guilt (perhaps because they are innocent and honest).

-On the night of the execution, Rutgers historian William Jelani Cobb stood with the crowd keeping a vigil outside the prison where Davis was put to death. “But what was most surprising and disturbing is that the group was more than 90% black. For all the discussion about the implications of the death penalty for the country at large this broke down, as always, to an issue of race and black people would have to do the heavy lifting if any change were going to occur. The racial balance skewed so heavily that when a young white couple sat down on the grass next to me I asked them what organization they were with. The woman’s reply hit me hard: ‘We’re not with an organization. I know Troy Davis – my brother is on death row with him,’” he wrote for Ta-Nehesi Coates’ blog at the

Photo credit: Facing South.

It's a Jungle In There: Inside's Sweltering PA Warehouse is running a sweat shop in Pennsylvania, Spencer Soper reports for The Morning Call. A two-month investigation revealed that, during the summer, the world’s largest online retailer subjected warehouse workers in Lehigh Valley, PA to sweltering temperatures and a punishing pace of work: 

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

Amazon’s warehouse is a microcosm of the new economy. The warehouse is strategically located to put its contents within a day’s drive of a third of the population of the U.S. and Canada. If you’ve ordered someting from Amazon on the East Coast, there’s a good chance your order passed through here. Competition is fierce for these jobs, which pay between $11 and $12/hr.

A carefully cultivated climate of insecurity is integral to Amazon’s business model. Temporary workers work side-by-side with Amazon employees. Employees have little job security and temps have none. High turnover makes labor organizing difficult:

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

Amazon swears that when the heat index rises dangerously high, workers can take unpaid time off without jeopardizing their jobs. “When the heat index exceeded 110, they’d give you voluntary time off,” former warehouse employee Robert Rivas recalled, “If you wanted to go home, they’d send you home. But if you didn’t have a doctor’s note saying you couldn’t work in the heat, you’d get points.” Some workers said the policy had since changed. However, workers flatly contradicted Amazon’s claim that it gave workers regular breaks when it was hot out.

With minimal job security, the theoretical option of taking unpaid time off doesn’t change the pressure that workers face to “make rate” despite the heat. Soper has plenty of examples of workers who pushed through even though they had illnesses, like hypertension and asthma, that made the heat especially dangerous for them. They could have gotten notes, but they needed the money, or hoped to get a permanent job.

Amazon is hailed as a business success story. The company generated over $34 billion in revenues in 2010 and CEO Jeff Bezos is the the 30th-richest man in the world.

Amazon revolutionized retail by making everything from books to lawnmowers available at low prices, with lightning fast shipping. Unfortunately, the human cost of these low prices is almost completely hidden from the public.

Kudos to Spencer Soper and The Morning Call for bringing Amazon’s exploitative practices to light.

[Photo credit: Katkamin, Creative Commons.]

Was My Daughter Stolen? Baby-Stealing Scandal Unsettles Adoptive Parents

Jill Filipovic of Feministe points to a disturbing story by John Leland in last Friday’s New York Times about how parents who adopted children from China are coping with the news of of a baby-stealing scandal in Hunan Province, which was reported by Sharon Lafraniere for the Times in August.

Lafraniere reported that, in 2005, 19-year-old Yuan Xinquan was cradling his infant daughter at a bus stop when he was accosted by bureaucrats demanding to see his marriage certificate. When Yuan was unable to produce the document, or pay a $745 fine, the men took his daughter away. He hasn’t seen her since. 

Grieving parents and grandparents told Lafraniere that at least 16 children were wrested from their parents in Longhui County between 1999 and 2006. The kidnapping racket reportedly ended in 2006 after a boy fell from a balcony when officials tried to wrench him from his mother’s arms. The officials are accused of selling the confiscated children for international adoptions. 

Parents who thought that China was their best chance for a “clean” international adoption are reeling from the news, John Leland reports. China’s one-child policy and the strong desire of many Chinese families to have their one child be a boy seemed to create a golden opportunity for Westerners to adopt healthy baby girls. There’s no question that many baby girls were adopted after their parents surrendered them to orphanages.

Now, many adoptive parents are wondering if their own children might have been stolen, and, if so, what they should do about it:

Scott Mayer, who with his wife adopted a girl from southern China in 2007, said the article’s implications hit him head on. “I couldn’t really think straight,” Mr. Mayer said. His daughter, Keshi, is 5 years old — “I have to tell you, she’s brilliant,” he said proudly — and is a mainstay of his life as a husband and a father.

What I felt,” he said, “was a wave of heat rush over me.”

Like many adoptive parents, Mr. Mayer can recount the emotionally exhausting process he and his wife went through to get their daughter, and can describe the warm home they have strived to provide. They had been assured that she, like thousands of other Chinese girls, was abandoned in secret by her birth parents, left in a public place with a note stating her date of birth. [NYT]

Chances are, most of the 64,043 Chinese children adopted to the United States between 1999 and 2010 weren’t stolen from their birth families, in the crudest sense of the term. Lafraniere’s reporting uncovered at least 16 cases of baby theft in Longhui County. Other news accounts estimate that 100 babies were stolen. It is impossible to know whether the Longhui County baby racket was an isolated scheme, or whether it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Focusing on outright theft deflects attention from deeper ethical quandaries surrounding international adoption. Everyone agrees that it’s wrong to steal babies and sell them. But is it okay to adopt a baby whose mother has been forced to give her up because a dictatorial government said she could only have one child and a patriarchal culture said that child had better be a boy?

The pragmatic answer is yes. An orphanage is an alternative to female infanticide, historically a real problem in China. From the child’s perspective, growing up in a loving home is infinitely better than being raised in an institution. The one-child policy will continue whether Americans adopt Chinese children or not. Yet, the one-child policy is coercive. As far as one’s conscience is concerned, is it really that much better to take a woman’s baby if she has been coerced by the state, rather than by corrupt officials?

[Photo credit: SatanYork, Creative Commons.]

Ron Paul, Shiny Penny

Guest post by Tom Watson, cross-posted at Tom Watson: My Dirty Life and Times

It’s no accident that the ugliest moment in last night’s Republican Presidential debate centered around Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his extremist anti-government views.

“What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn’t have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? “Are you saying society should just let him die?” Wolf Blitzer asked.

“Yeah!” several members of the crowd yelled out.

The question by the CNN anchor - and by the way, how disgraceful was CNN in “partnering” with the fanatical hate-mongering Tea Party Express on the production? - was aimed squarely at Paul’s hard-core conservative libertarianism, a deeply corrosive, amoral force in today’s Republican Party. Paul attempted to soften his response (and the audience’s evident blood lust) by pulling back to the 30,000-foot “Founders” level, the usual 18th century refuge for scoundrels and hypocrites who seek to run the very government apparatus they’d like to abolish. They selectively divine the intentions of Jefferson and Madison (often skipping over Hamilton, the nation’s first great liberal crusader) in a naked attempt to create a laissez faire playground for big business, a kind of giant mainland Cayman Islands.

And every four years in this sad era of never-ending wars, Ron Paul pulls in a few suckers on the civil libertarian left with the shiny penny of vast cuts in defense and military spending (hint: it’s isolationism, folks), while tossing all entitlements and infrastructure and regulation out with the bathwater - along with civil rights, of course.

I agree with Adele Stan on AlterNet: “There are few things as maddening in a maddening political season as the warm and fuzzy feelings some progressives evince for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the Republican presidential candidate. The anti-war Republican,’ people say, as if that’s good enough.” She details Rep. Paul’s radical record in the post, but here’s the gist:

But Ron Paul is much, much more than that. He’s the anti-Civil-Rights-Act Republican. He’s an anti-reproductive-rights Republican. He’s a gay-demonizing Republican. He’s an anti-public education Republican and an anti-Social Security Republican. He’s the John Birch Society’s favorite congressman. And he’s a booster of the Constitution Party, which has a Christian Reconstructionist platform. So, if you’re a member of the anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-black, anti-senior-citizen, anti-equality, anti-education, pro-communist-witch-hunt wing of the progressive movement, I can see how he’d be your guy.

This is the man who gave the keynote speech at the 50th anniversary gala of the John Birch Society. Yet many progressives automatically bestow most-favored Republican status on Paul every four years. In one respect, Glenn Greenwald (undoubtedly the preeminent civil liberties blogger on the left) is right: Paul is neither a “fruitcake” nor a “whackjob.” His ideals and ideology are deadly serious, and the product of many years’ labor. He should not be dismissed as “weird” because he doesn’t have Mitt Romney’s hair or Rick Perry’s chest-thumping bluster; both of those guys are essentially professional actors. Ron Paul’s the real deal.

But that real deal is a vision for America that guts the very society created (imperfect and always-challenged, especially in a nation where nearly 50 million people now live in poverty) by our representative democracy. Yet the liberal web is chock-a-block with appreciations for Paul. Dig this from Charles Davis at Counterpunch, who claims Paul “is more progressive” than Barack Obama. (Well yeah, if by “progressive,” you mean “wants to do away with almost all domestic social spending.”) It’s textbook liberal Paul love:

Ron Paul is far from perfect, but I’ll say this much for the Texas congressman: He has never authorized a drone strike in Pakistan. He has never authorized the killing of dozens of women and children in Yemen. He hasn’t protected torturers from prosecution and he hasn’t overseen the torturous treatment of a 23-year-old young man for the “crime” of revealing the government’s criminal behavior.

Can the same be said for Barack Obama?


Let’s just assume the worst about Paul: that he’s a corporate libertarian in the Reason magazine/Cato Institute mold that would grant Big Business and the financial industry license to do whatever the hell it wants with little in the way of accountability (I call this scenario the “status quo”). Let’s say he dines on Labradoodle puppies while using their blood to scribble notes in the margins of his dog-eared, gold-encrusted copy of Atlas Shrugged.

So. Fucking. What.

I’ll admit it does have a ring. And yeah, people are angry and rightfully so. But to answer that final question: imagine the demolition of the entire Federal government, back to a level that would barely sustain a loose agrarian federation of competing states. Think of the pain, the anarchy, the tribal and regional disorder. Think of the crowd at the GOP debate lustily cheering death among the uninsured. That’s Ron Paul in charge. So applaud the anti-war talk all you’d like, but pass on the politician and his twisted ideology.

[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.]

Oops: UBS Says "Rogue Trader" Lost $2 Billion

UBS said on Thursday that a “rogue trader” had “lost” $2 billion in “unauthorized trading.” That’s what they say in the press release. The police report is probably more blunt. A 31-year-old UBS trader has reportedly been arrested for fraud.

According to the New York TimesDealBook blog:

The incident raises questions about the bank’s management and risk policies at time when it is trying to rebuild its operations and bolster its flagging client base. The case could also bolster the efforts of regulators who have been pushing in some countries to separate trading from private banking and other less risky businesses.

That’s the understatement of the day.

[Photo credit: Images of Money, Creative Commons. Courtesy of]

California Water District Launders Propaganda Through Google News


The Central Basin Municipal Water District of California paid $200,000 taxpayer dollars to a consulting firm to write pro-CBMWD propaganda “in the image of real news,” Sam Allen reports in the LA Times. The scheme is laid out in documents obtained by the Times and posted online. CBMWD contracted with unnamed journalists to write favorable stories about the agency’s water recycling initiative and other programs.

These stories were published on a site called News Hawks Review, which Google categorizes as a news site. A reader who searched for the right keywords on Google News would see these stories and assume that they were reading independent news coverage.

Celebrities often resort to similar tactics to burnish their online images, but according to Allen, this is the first time a public agency has gotten caught trying to launder press releases through the Google News system.

[Photo credit: Elada 1, Creative Commons.]

Recommended Reading: The American Jobs Act

President Obama outlined his plan to reduce unemployment last Thursday before a special joint session of Congress. Here’s a roundup of reactions to the American Jobs Act.

-Obama’s jobs plan calls for an infrastructure bank, but is it an infrastructure privatization scheme in disguise? As Reuters Muniland blog reports, Obama’s infrastructure bank would provide subsidized loans exclusively to public-private partnerships: “The essence of the American Infrastructure Financing Authority is to use the full faith and credit of the U.S. government to loan funds at below-market rates to public-private partnerships — in other words, to privatize the cash flows from public assets.”

-Eleanor Smeal of Ms. Magazine notes that Obama’s plan, if enacted, would prevent the layoffs of about 280,000 teachers and extend unemployment insurance benefits for 2.6 million unemployed women.

-E.J. Graff of The American Prospect wonders if preventing public sector layoffs will be enough to shore up women’s position in the economic recovery. Women have actually lost jobs since the recovery began in 2009, while men have very gradually gained ground. Public sector cuts in female-dominated professions, like teaching, have been a major conributor to women’s unemployment. Though, perhaps even more worryingly, the overwhelmingly female-dominated administrative support sector of the economy (office managers, secretaries, etc.) has been decimated. There’s no guarantee that these jobs will return when the economy recovers.

-Shani O. Hilton of Colorlines argues that Obama’s plan doesn’t have enough targeted interventions to help people of color, who are experiencing even higher rates of unemployment than whites.

-At the end of the day, debating whether the American Jobs Act has the right ratio of payroll tax credits to infrastructure spending is sort of like debating how many Keynesian angels can dance on the head of a pin. There’s no chance that the bill will pass in anything like its current form. As I argue at my new In These Times blog, Duly Noted, the real function of Obama’s speech was to shift the blame to the House Republicans for their intransigence in the face of the unemployment crisis. It’s about time.

[Photo credit: Kristin Wolff, Creative Commons.]

Dismal August Jobs Report At a Glance

The economy added zero jobs in August, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall unemployment rate remains at 9.1%. Minorities and youth are suffering disproportionately: 8% whites, 16.7% of blacks, 11.3% of Hispanics, and 25.4% of teenagers are unemployed, just like last month.

The 45,000 striking Verizon workers may have edged the numbers up slightly, but the fact remains that private sector job growth is the slowest it has been since last May, even if you take the strikers into account.

The private sector added about 17,000 jobs last month, but the public sector cut about the same number.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.

[Photo credit: Kieran Bennett, Creative Commons.]


Recommended Reading: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

-Bob Herbert of Demos argues for major investment in infrastructure to help put Americans back to work. He cites some striking statistics on joblessness and the state of our infrastructure: 14 million Americans are officially unemployed and nearly half of them have been out of work for more than 6 months; 75% of American schools have structural deficiencies, 15% of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient, and another 12% are functionally obsolete. It will cost an estimated $3-$4 trillion over the next decade to make the necessary repairs.

This is money we are going to have to spend if we wish to enjoy the amenities of industrialized living, like roads, bridges, running water, and treated sewage. So, why not take advantage of record low interest rates to tackle the twin crises of unemployment and decaying infrastructure? 

-The Republicans go medieval on the NLRB. “Rarely has a federal agency been attacked with as much vitriol as the National Labor Relations Board now faces,” reports Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times. Conservative newsletters assail the board as a bunch of “socialist goons.” Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachamann has even sworn to abolish the NLRB if elected.

It makes sense that the GOP is targeting the NLRB right now. The NLRB is one of the remaining outlets for the Obama administration to make pro-labor policy with a divided congress. For example, as Greenhouse reported yesterday, the NLRB released a decision on Tuesday that will make it easier for nursing home workers to unionize. The nursing home decision was one of three pro-union decisions handed down ahead of the departure of chairwoman Wilma B. Liebman, whose term is up. 

-Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post on what Steve Jobs and Apple could do for the working class–namely, invest some of the company’s $76 billion pile of unspent cash to build state-of-the-art factories in the United States, instead of offshoring those jobs. This kind of foward thinking by American manufacturers would not be without precedent. Henry Ford was an arch capitalist, but he knew that his business couldn’t thrive without a healthy middle class of car buyers, so he cooperated with Franklin Roosevelt on the New Deal. Ford’s logic applies to iPads as well as Model Ts.

-International student strikers rallied in Harrisburg, PA on Monday to protest the guest worker program that brought them to the U.S. under the guise of a “cultural exchange” and set them up in low-paid jobs for a Hershey subcontractor. Three hundred student workers walked off the job two weeks ago. Thirty student workers were scheduled to travel to New York for a rally outside the Hershey store in Times Square, Wednesday.

[Photo credit: Washington Department of Transportation, Creative Commons.]

Stetson Kennedy, Investigator Who Infiltrated the Klan, Dead at 94

Stetson Kennedy, the folklorist, journalist, and undercover investigator who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, has died at the age of 94. According to his New York Times obituary:

As an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Kennedy, by his own account, infiltrated the Klavern in Stone Mountain and worked as a Klavalier, or Klan strong-arm man. He leaked his findings to, among others, the Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, the Anti-Defamation League and the producers of the radio show “Superman,” who used information about the Klan’s rituals and code words in a multi-episode story titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”

In a celebrated exploit, he stole financial information from a wastebasket outside the office of the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Sam Roper, in Atlanta.

The information led the Internal Revenue Service to challenge the group’s status as a charitable organization and demand nearly $700,000 in back taxes. He helped draft the brief that Georgia used to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947. 

No doubt, Kennedy’s sense of humor helped sustain him during his long career as a self-described “dissident at large.” He founded a rival “Ku Klux Klan” so that he could sue the real Klan for using the name.

In later years, Kennedy was criticized for failing to properly credit other undercover agents in his expose of the Klan. Kennedy was part of a team of three people who infiltrated the Klan, not the lone investigator he described in his most famous book. He admitted to creating a composite character under his own name, arguing that it made a more compelling story.

Kennedy was unrepentant about that decision. His goal was to tell people about the Ku Klux Klan; he was less concerned about the mechanics of telling what he knew. As Bill James notes in his recent book, Popular Crime, non-fiction authors of that era had a lot more leeway to use undeclared fictional devices: “Book writers of the 1940s did many things that would never be tolerated for a modern writer who wished to remain respectable.” Thankfully, the standards for narrative non-fiction are more rigorous today.

Note that exposing the Klan wasn’t an achievement prudent people clamoured to take credit for. One of Kennedy’s team members was a Klan defector turned labor organizer, a man who might have been reluctant to share the spotlight.

In any event, Kennedy produced voluminous documentation to support the claims he made about the Klan. There’s no question that he helped infiltrate the group and did great harm to the organization by holding its secretive rituals up for ridicule.

Stetson Kennedy deserves to be remembered for his bravery and his contributions to American journalism, even if his storytelling devices wouldn’t pass muster today.

[Photo credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.]