This week’s Extra! Extra! covers a few topics that haven’t gotten much attention in our coverage lately: big tech and the surveillance state, a look at America’s broken education system from several angles and violence against women. We continue to provide an update on the Black Lives Matter protests, immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Update on the Surveillance State
Natalie: Remember when progressives were calling for the elimination of the Department of Homeland Security and conservatives (both Democratic and Republican) absolutely lost their shit? What better indication that the Department of Homeland Security is a pointless entity than the revelation that it has time to devote to protecting statutes? I am astounded that the government thinks that this is a worthy use of American taxpayer dollars.
The most important question, though, is: what’s the constitutional basis for this? While the memo purports to prohibit “monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment or the lawful exercise of other Constitutional or legal rights, or for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, it’s hard to read this as something other than an effort to do precisely that.
The White House and Congress seem to be on a collision course on this issue, though. Last night the Senate approved the National Defense Authorization Act which included an amendment from Elizabeth Warren to change the names of military installations bearing the names of Confederate leaders. The White House has vowed to veto any bill that seeks to change the names of these facilities but the NDAA passed by such substantial, bipartisan margins in the House and the Senate, a veto override would seem almost inevitable.
Himani: For the various reasons described in this article, this is generally a good thing from a police accountability standpoint. But the question I am always, always left with is: How are tech companies using this data for their own self-serving and nefarious purposes?
Natalie: To your point, Himani, I’m reminded again of Andrew Yang’s campaign plank about treating data as property and I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s the only way to protect ourselves against the misuse of our data by tech companies.
With respect to the article, though, I think this is a really underreported aspect of the pandemic… not just interrogations — but I do think it’s interesting how this takes away officers’ ability to intimidate — but with the conduct of the judicial system as a whole. If we had a working justice department, perhaps there’d be more energy invested in creating a pathway for all aspects of the judicial system to continue working in the wake of this pandemic. Right now, we’re just accepting the suspension of people’s 6th Amendment rights and, honestly, the presumption of innocence, as if it doesn’t matter.
Rachel: I very much agree with Himani’s concerns about the long arm of tech’s involvement here, and hope that on the whole the takeaway that we settle on for this development is not “we need more tech disruption in justice” but “we actually get more and better justice when we abandon the myth of the cop as central and heroic.” The specific things that are being ID’d here as helpful — safer, more open conversations with suspects with community being able to observe the interaction — aren’t just arguments against intentionally threatening and violent police practices, although they are, but are arguments against the cop (even “good” cops like detectives) as primary driver and authority in investigations of crimes overall. The practices described here — intimidating, confusing and threatening witnesses, creating psychologically coercive environments, crafting narratives of guilt and blame that citizens are then challenged to disprove — aren’t just a few occasional police techniques, they’re part of what police are. What’s left when you remove them from interrogation is just “asking someone what happened and documenting their responses,” and evidence here shows that we actually get better results when we do that — and we don’t need a militarized police force for that.
Himani: This was an incredibly disturbing read and is more consistent with my usual understanding of tech’s role in law enforcement and the criminal justice system: more tools for civilian surveillance that no one has any reasonable way of opting out of.
Himani: Related to the above point about surveillance technology, the situation in Hong Kong puts into relief what has been true around the world for a while now: Tech companies hold a substantial amount of political power. Their decisions make and break movements, which is literally the case in Hong Kong right now. Apple invested in the Chinese market, and, to that end, it is willing to cave to the Chinese government’s censorship demands in Hong Kong at this critical moment in Hong Kong’s history.
Update on the Protests and Local Activism
Natalie: It pains me that it’s come to this. It shouldn’t have to come to this. Enough bodies have been sacrificed at the altar of police violence, we don’t need more.
Arrest. The. Cops.
Rachel: This is all so heartbreaking and enraging, and I’m thinking of all these stories in tandem with the absurd statue defense army developments above. Specifically: none of this is necessary. None of this needed to happen, and none of this is about making anyone safer or protecting anyone that matters. It is an exercise of power for the sake of power, harm and destruction for the sake of destruction.
Are We Hurtling Towards an Authoritarian State? Or Are We Already in One?
Himani: This situation in Portland and Trump’s subsequent dispersal of federal forces to cities across the US is just … honestly I have no words. As Slate reports, “The Federal Protective Service has the authority to make arrests ‘if the officer or agent has reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a felony.’” The bar for arresting someone seems to be going lower and lower by the minute. Which is a disturbing prospect, given everything we know about what happens, particularly to Black people, in police “custody” and in correctional institutes. In the words of the late John Lewis, “One of my greatest fears is that one day we wake up and our democracy is gone.”
Natalie: Of course they did. They’ve known for a while.
Back in 2009, the Obama’ DHS released a report called “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment” (PDF) and Republicans lost their shit. The then-Minority Leader John Boehner chided then-Secretary Janet Napolitano, saying, “[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why… her own Department is using [‘terrorist’] to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”
And just as predictably as the Republicans’ knee-jerk response, came the response of Democrats: folding like a cheap suit amid the criticism (despite the fact that they’d issued a similar report on Leftwing Extremism earlier in the year). Napolitano apologized and the report was shelved.
We’ve known for a long time how these groups operate and what their motivations are…and even though this administration feels obliged to divert attention to the lesser threat, the facts still remain.
Natalie: I think this headline is a tad misleading: voting restrictions are ineffective only if you believe that they are a legitimate effort to prevent voter fraud… which, of course, is the reason Republicans give when they’re passing legislation like Voter ID. If you accept that voting restrictions are not actually meant to prevent voter fraud — because, as numerous studies have shown, it hasn’t — but instead to disenfranchise a specific segment of voters, then voting restrictions are highly effective. Voting restrictions are created to reduce the size of the electorate and bolster Republican chances in the general election…whatever it costs, monetarily or in terms of diminishing our democracy, it’s worth it to Republicans.
Everything That Is Broken in the American Education System
Natalie: I’ll admit: I’m surprised it took this long for Republicans to use the pandemic as an opportunity to undermine public education. I thought, for sure, that there’d be a big push for a divestment from public schools during the pandemic and a reallocation to pre-existing online schools like Connections Academy that already have the infrastructure in place to support online education. Then, once schools moved to reopen, there’d be a shortfall and kids would move to charter/private schools out of necessity. But no matter what path they took: the idea that Republicans — especially Besty DeVos, given her history of grifting money from Michigan to fund unaccountable charter schools — would seize on this as an opportunity to erode our public education system.
Himani: Unlike Natalie, I really didn’t see this coming because I was so caught up in the healthcare and economic side of what was going on with the pandemic. There are so many things I can say about “school choice” and all of its failings, but I will focus on just two. First, the Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this year that many schools receiving state money have explicit anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Second, school choice has had a direct role in increasing inequality. As Michael Seeling explains writing for SSIR: “School choice doesn’t necessarily drive schools to compete for best practices; it more often drives them to compete for the best kids, the students who are easiest—and cheapest—to teach.”
Himani: Natalie perfectly captured everything that needed to be said about this in our conversation in Slack: “Small government conservatism being proven for the farce that it is!”
And for further context on this point:
Would that be the same Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) who in 2017 said, “I’m glad to see Congress push back against this federal overreach. Now states and local communities can decide how best to educate their children.”
Is Sen. Cotton now against local control?
— LuciaMF (@Lucia_Flevares) July 23, 2020
Also, because I am bad with names, it wasn’t until I did some digging into this latest news that I discovered that this is the same Tom Cotton who wrote that infamous op-ed for the New York Times invoking the US military to respond to the Black Lives Matter protests in June.
Rachel: As a ~media professional~, I have to admit that my first thought in reaction to this story was what a resounding testimonial it is to the success of the 1619 Project — although Cotton’s vile move here isn’t something to celebrate, it’s hard to imagine a clearer sign that your work on clarifying the real facts of America’s history is doing its job than hardline Republicans doing everything in their power to suppress it.
Natalie: This is the most infuriating story I’ve read in the last weeks.
Understanding Native Rights and Tribal Sovereignty
Natalie: Both these pieces were really helpful for me. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in reading the Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, it was hard to get my mind around the selective enforcement of treaties and respective for Native sovereignty…and both these pieces helped crystallize my thinking on those issues a bit more.
Rachel: I echo Natalie, and want to point up the question in the Intercept article — what if all Native treaties were upheld? — and its significance. Clearly America right now is going through something of a mainstream (white) reckoning of just how much of the fabric of its identity and present as a nation was formed by chattel slavery — a lot! arguably all of it! — and similarly, the questions of what treaties were made with the Indigenous people of North America from when it was colonized into the 19th century and the ways in which they were broken have had a determining role in almost everything about our nation as it is today. Looking at that closely has to be part of any conversation around what justice looks like and how it can be embodied.
Natalie: So the Department of Homeland Security has time to watch statues but it doesn’t have time to run a basic records check to see if its employees have histories of child abuse? The agency is behaving similarly with subcontractors who, according to a recent report by the Associated Press, are keeping migrant children as young as 1 year old, IN HOTELS to skirt the asylum process and allow for immediate deportation. DHS and ICE claim those subcontractors have been trained but won’t say “whether they’re licensed child care professionals or have received FBI background checks”
This is infuriating.
Rachel: So even just within the realm of domestic immigration policy, we can see a multiplicity of the ways that the Trump administration has undermined even the limited advances made by previous leaders — with DACA, they tried to shutter the program and ended up going through the court system, but with some programs like asylum, they (in an extreme oversimplification) just… quietly stopped doing it. As we are being reminded in so many ways right now, there’s what the law says and what those in power actually do, and sometimes even when they’re in conflict, nothing happens. Even though Trump’s admin lost on DACA—- a huge victory that I don’t want to dismiss or undercut! — there’s a remaining question of whether they’ll actually, like, do it. This court order is an attempt to make them do so, instead of starving the DACA program through inaction where they failed to effectively execute it; will it work? We’ll see!
On Violence Against Women
Rachel: My feelings on all of these stories together are a sort of Greek chorus of “I told you so”s of varying emotional registers. We know that repeatedly demonstrated misogyny is a prime indicator for violence! We have seen this so, so many times! Why do we keep having to read stories like this and think “oh, look, it happened again”? We know that when women don’t have access to resources to safely leave their homes or be financially solvent outside of a marriage or nuclear family, they are at incredible risk for violence, and they die. Why do we have to watch that happen over and over and over again on a policy level? We know that there are myriad ways forward that don’t rely on a carceral state, and that if you just listen to criminalized folks like sex workers or women trying to escape violence (arguably a criminalized demographic especially when those people are women of color and Black women), you can see them modeled in real life! I think there is maybe some kind of crystallized larger lesson to take from these stories together that I am a little too worn out from reading these over and over to articulate – maybe it’s just that yet again, these are the places the state (globally) is repeatedly failing us; these are the places where the most successful solutions are being modeled by communities that care about each other.
Natalie: Imagine my shock.
Natalie: We don’t think enough about what these folks are witnessing…sure, they see death regularly but not like this…not so many people, in a relatively short amount of time, at the hands of the same malady. It’s awful. These will be the uncounted casualties of COVID-19…those workers who have to stare an unprecedented amount of death in the face and either learn to live with it or take their own lives, like Dr. Lorna Breen or John Mondello.