Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

#Sidney's Picks: Highlights of the Week

Every Friday on Clear it With Sidney, we publish a list of the best socially conscious journalism we’ve seen in the past week. To suggest a story for Sidney’s Picks, tweet @sidneyhillman and use the hashtag #Sidney.

-“Veteran Agitators Flock to Occupy Wall Street,” by Daniel Massey in Crain’s Business Daily, Sep. 29. A sea change for the #OccupyWallSt movement as major New York unions pledge their support.

-“A Spray Like a Punch in the Face,” by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times, Sep. 27. Dwyer notes that all pepper spray cannisters in New York bear the following message, “The use of this substance or device for any purpose other than self-defense is a criminal offense under the law.” Deputy inspector Anthony Bologna was caught on video spraying protesters who had already been trapped with crowd control mesh.

-“Big Business: Undo the Damage of ‘Citizens United’,” by George Zornick in The Nation, Sep. 28. A real man-bites-dog story.

-“Outsize Severance Continues for Executives, Even After Failed Tenures,” by Eric Dash in the New York Times, Sep. 29. Lousy CEOs are still getting hefty severance packages.

-“Companies Use Immigration Crackdown to Turn a Profit,” by Nina Bernstein (past Hillman Prize winner), in the New York Times, Sep. 28. Private immigration detention companies are making big bucks at the expense of human rights.

-“Why the Kochs Want to Make Chris Christie President,” by Adele Stan in AlterNet, Sep. 27. Short answer: union-busting.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Private Prisons Make Big Bucks on Immigration Crackdown

Private companies are reaping huge profits from immigration crackdowns worldwide, Hillman Prize winner Nina Bernstein reports for the New York Times. Bernstein documents how the detention of asylum-seekers and people awaiting deportation has become big business in the United States, the United Kingdom, and especially in Australia:

In the United States — with almost 400,000 annual detentions in 2010, up from 280,000 in 2005 — private companies now control nearly half of all detention beds, compared with only 8 percent in state and federal prisons, according to government figures. In Britain, 7 of 11 detention centers and most short-term holding places for immigrants are run by for-profit contractors.

No country has more completely outsourced immigration enforcement, with more troubled results, than Australia. Under unusually severe mandatory detention laws, the system has been run by a succession of three publicly traded companies since 1998. All three are now major players in the international business of locking up and transporting unwanted foreigners.

Bernstein doesn’t shy away from the detention industry’s appalling health and safety record. She notes that private immigration prisons have been plagued by riots, epidemics of self-harm by inmates, and even child abuse. You’ll be shocked to learn that not everyone who hangs out a shingle as a for-profit detention facility is qualified to do so:

But the ballooning of privatized detention has been accompanied by scathing inspection reports, lawsuits and the documentation of widespread abuse and neglect, sometimes lethal. Human rights groups say detention has neither worked as a deterrent nor speeded deportation, as governments contend, and some worry about the creation of a “detention-industrial complex” with a momentum of its own.

Matthew J. Gibney of Oxford University offers an incisive quote to explain what’s gone wrong with the immigration detention service over the last 15 years: “When something goes wrong — a death, an escape — the government can blame it on a kind of market failure instead of an accountability failure.” In other words, part of what the government is paying for when it privatizes detention is plausible deniability.

[Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons]

NYPD Comish Cracks Down on Bogus Pot Busts

With the NYPD under fire for its harsh treatment and seemingly indiscriminate arrests of Occupy Wall Street protesters, Ailsa Chang’s two-part series for WNYC into alleged illegal searches by NYPD officers seems timely once again. In April, a WNYC investigation unearthed evidence that police officers appeared to be using illegal searches to arrest people for the possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana without probable cause. Young men of color are disproportionally targeted for stop and frisk searches.

This month, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an internal order to stop arresting people for supposedly displaying marijuana in public when the drugs were never visible. NYPD sources tell WNYC that this is the first time that Kelly has addressed the issue since WNYC’s investigation was published.

Twenty-five-year-old Antonio Rivera told WNYC that he was stopped and frisked in the Bronx. The police found a baggie of marijuana concealed in his crotch. The criminal complaint against Rivera claimed the drugs were on “public display,” a more serious offense than simply being caught with a small amount of marijuana hidden on one’s person. Under New York law, people displaying pot get arrested, people caught with hidden drugs get ticketed.

If the drug were on public display, that would give the police probable cause for arrest in itself. So, if an unethical officer searched someone without probable cause and found drugs, s/he could retroactively justify the search by falsely claiming that the drugs were on display.

More than 50,000 people were arrested for marijuana posession last year, the highest number in a decade. Jeannette Rucker, a supervising prosecutor at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office told WNYC that she throws out 10 to 15 arrests for public display of marijuana every day because the police report debunks the charge (e.g., the report says the drug was found in the suspect’s pocket).

[Photo credit: jtl308, Creative Commons.]

New York Times Makes Excuses for NYPD Brutality

Why did a deputy inspector for the NYPD pepper spray a group of women on the sidewalk after they had already been penned in with crowd control mesh? Joseph Goldstein of the New York Times thinks it’s their terrorism training:

When members of the loose protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street began a march from the financial district to Union Square on Saturday, the participants seemed relatively harmless, even as they were breaking the law by marching in the street without a permit.

But to the New York Police Department, the protesters represented something else: a visible example of lawlessness akin to that which had resulted in destruction and violence at other anticapitalist demonstrations, like the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in London in 2009 and the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.

The Police Department’s concerns came up against a perhaps milder reality on Saturday, when their efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated: protesters were corralled by police officers who put up orange mesh netting; the police forcibly arrested some participants; and a deputy inspector used pepper spray on four women who were on the sidewalk, behind the orange netting.

The police’s actions suggested the flip side of a force trained to fight terrorism, in a city whose police commissioner acknowledges the ownership of a gun big enough to take down a plane, but that may appear less nimble in dealing with the likes of the Wall Street protesters. So even as the members of Occupy Wall Street seem unorganized and, at times, uninformed, their continued presence creates a vexing problem for the Police Department.

This argument about terrorism is a complete non sequitur. The Occupy Wall Street protesters had been camped out since September 17, so the police had had ample opportunity to observe that these protesters were neither terrorists nor window-smashing anarchists.

It’s not like protests are a rare event in New York. In a city this size, with this many opinionated residents, someone is bound to be protesting something on any given day. Crowd control is the NYPD’s bread and butter. Saturday’s breakaway march to Union Square, while un-permitted, wasn’t even particularly large by New York standards.

Pepper spraying an immobilized person would be against NYPD policy, even if the target were a suspected terrorist.

As Goldstein notes later in the article, the NYPD has clear guidelines on the use of pepper spray:

According to the Police Department’s patrol guide, officers may use pepper spray under certain conditions, including “when a member reasonably believes it is necessary to effect an arrest of a resisting suspect.” The guide also advises that the spray should “not be used in situations that do not require the use of physical force.”

The video shows the officer spraying the women and walking away. He doesn’t make any effort to arrest them, and none of the other officers do either. He just leaves the victims writhing in their orange cage.

Who's Covering the #OccupyWallStreet Protests?

The Occupy Wall Street protest kicked off on September 17 as activists answered the call of the culture-jamming group AdBusters and allied organizations. Their goal is to occupy Wall Street for several months. The protesters have set up tents, kitchens, and other infrastructure to support a long-term occupation.

My colleague Joe Macare of In These Times has a good synopsis of the intensifying police pressure on the demonstrators.

So far, most of the media coverage has focused on the police reaction to the protesters, as opposed to the protesters’ anti-capitalist agenda. To be fair, the protesters’ leaderless approach makes it difficult to distill any unified message, beyond a shared frustration with the power of banks and big business.

More than 80 people were arrested on Saturday during a breakaway march towards Union Square. Some of of them were committing civil disobedience by walking on the street, while others were apparently arrested on the sidewalk, according to Democracy Now!. The police used orange mesh and physical force to break up the crowd. A video released by the protesters and reposted on the New York Times’s City Room appears to show a high-ranking NYPD officer pepper spraying a group of women whom the police have already corralled on the sidewalk with orange mesh (a crowd control tactic known as “kettling”).

James Fallows posted a slowed down, annotated version of the video at Fallows describes what he sees in the video:

He walks up; unprovoked he shoots Mace or pepper spray straight into the eyes of women held inside a police enclosure; he turns and walks away quickly (as they scream, wail, and fall to the ground clawing at their eyes) in a way familiar from hitmen in crime movies; and he discreetly reholsters his spray can.

You may have already seen this. If you haven’t, it is worth knowing about. If this is what it looks like, it is outrageous. The mayor and others should say something. And this man can certainly be identified.

The pepper spray incident was a big story for the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid.

Zucotti Park, where the protesters are encamped, is a privately-owned public park. The landlord, Brookfield Office Properties Inc., wants the protesters evicted, but surprisingly, the NYPD wants them to stay put, according to the Wall Street Journal

[Photo credit: David Shankbone, Creative Commons.]

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]