Senator Chris Murphy is not the ‘Elizabeth Warren of foreign policy’


Reposted at The Huffington Post.

On Thursday afternoon the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law hosted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) for a discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

During the Q&A, I asked (broadcasted on Periscope) Murphy – who self-describes as a progressive on foreign policy and whom Buzzfeed called the “Elizabeth Warren of foreign policy” – why he voted in May 2014 to confirm David Barron to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals. Barron, as acting head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote the legal memo that justified the extrajudicial drone killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman) in Yemen in 2011.

“I don’t hold any judge to one decision,” Murphy said. “That’s a judge that had a long history of other decisions that were a pretty good advertisement.”

Aside from the fact that Barron was not a judge who issued rulings as a judge before Murphy voted to confirm him to do such a thing, since Barron joined the First Circuit the panel has not made any major decisions on issues of national security or the war on terror that he has voted in.

The one questionable move by Barron – the subject of my question to the Senator – that doesn’t disqualify him from the likes of Sen. Murphy is quite a significant one: enshrining in law the presidential power to authorize the extrajudicial assassination of a U.S. citizen without trial. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, called this legal memo “disturbing … ultimately an argument that the president can order targeted killings of Americans without ever having to account to anyone outside the executive branch.”

If, by “other decisions that were a pretty good advertisement,” Murphy meant legal positions Barron had taken prior to joining the Obama administration, Murphy isn’t particularly wrong. In a 2008 Harvard Law Review article, Barron urged executive branch lawyers to push back against the executive’s increasingly monopolistic power as commander-in-chief:

[E]xecutive branch actors, particularly those attorneys helping to assure that the President takes care the law is faithfully executed, should not abandon two hundred years of historical practice too hastily. At the very least, they should resist the urge to continue to press the new and troubling claim that the President is entitled to unfettered discretion in the conduct of war.

But by 2010, just two years later as a lawyer in the Obama administration, by drafting a legal memo that further legitimated the president’s sweeping powers, Barron had acted in direct contradiction to what he advocated lawyers do in his article. So for the sake of Barron’s credibility in the mind of Sen. Murphy, Barron’s poor actions in 2010 invalidated his noble stance in 2008. It’s a classic case of a government official’s actions not matching their words. What Murphy considers to be Barron’s “other decisions that were a pretty good advertisement” thus remains unclear.

In his answer to my question, Sen. Murphy continued, “I also will probably have an unsatisfactory position to you and to some others when it comes to some of the new tools at the president’s disposal to keep this country safe.

“I would argue that we should put in place a much more comprehensive and meaningful review process when it comes to our drone strikes. I think Congress has to get in the game here. Congress has to be involved in that oversight process, or we could consider setting up some judicial oversight process to authorize drone strikes. But what we’re doing now is unsatisfactory,” he said, stopping short of explicitly opposing presidential power to authorize the assassination of U.S. citizens or detailing what exactly about drone program he finds “unsatisfactory.”

He also told me, “I also am somebody who ultimately did vote for the renewed version of the Patriot Act. I think that there are ways that we made it exponentially better, but I don’t deny that it is important to give the administration some new tools with which to try to track terrorists down.”

Murphy didn’t specify what “new tools” the president should and shouldn’t have to “track terrorists down.” Was he referring to the government’s “death by metadata” program (officially known as Geo Cell) in which the NSA “geolocates” the SIM card associated with a suspected terrorist, enabling the CIA or military to launch a strike on the individual in possession of the device? If so, that doesn’t seem like a very “progressive” position. According to The Intercept:

One problem, [a former drone operator] explains, is that targets are increasingly aware of the NSA’s reliance on geolocating, and have moved to thwart the tactic. Some have as many as 16 different SIM cards associated with their identity within the High Value Target system. Others, unaware that their mobile phone is being targeted, lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members.

Some top Taliban leaders, knowing of the NSA’s targeting method, have purposely and randomly distributed SIM cards among their units in order to elude their trackers. “They would do things like go to meetings, take all their SIM cards out, put them in a bag, mix them up, and everybody gets a different SIM card when they leave,” the former drone operator says. “That’s how they confuse us.”

Was Murphy referring to the government’s dubious Terrorist Screening Database, nearly half of whose 680,000 people are not affiliated with any terrorist group? Or was he referring to the no-fly list, whose length Obama has increased ten-fold since taking office?

Murphy’s support for the renewed version of the Patriot Act, known as the USA Freedom Act, doesn’t put him in the progressive camp, either. He had a chance to join fellow senators, led by libertarian Rand Paul, who opposed the act on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough in restricting the NSA. That faction simply wanted Section 215 of the Patriot Act – the section that gives the government broad surveillance power – to sunset as scheduled.

Although Jaffer, the ACLU lawyer, called the USA Freedom Act a “milestone,” he also said, “The bill leaves many of the government’s most intrusive and overbroad surveillance powers untouched, and it makes only very modest adjustments to disclosure and transparency requirements.”

To his credit, in September Murphy spearheaded a bill (that failed to pass the Senate) to block a huge U.S. arms deal to Saudi Arabia in light of the Kingdom’s brutal war against Yemen. That’s what a progressive foreign policy position looks like.

While Sen. Murphy often lands to the left of the majority of Congress on foreign policy, it’s otherwise clear that if he wants the “progressive on foreign policy” label, he needs to reconsider his positions on several aspects of the war on terror.

Disclosure: This writer provides research assistance to the Center on National Security on a weekly basis.

Photo: Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

At Company’s New York Office, Activists Protest Facebook’s Collaboration with Israel on Political Repression

Outside of Facebook’s office at 770 Broadway in New York on Friday afternoon, activists protested Facebook’s recent partnernership with the Israeli government to crack down on “incitements to violence.”

Despite the constant heavy rain, nearly two dozen protesters showed up to the event, organized by the Samidoun Palestinian Political Prisoner Solidarity Network and NYC Students for Justice in Palestine.

“We’re here today in solidarity with Palestinians who have been protesting Israel’s new agreement with Facebook, as well as its deletion of Palestinian content, which has been an ongoing problem for years,” Joe Catron, one of the event’s organizers, told me.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Facebook and the Israeli government have teamed up to “tackle incitement” online “as the government pushes ahead with legislative steps meant to force social networks to rein in content that Israel says incites violence.”

As Alex Kane reported in The Intercept in June, Israel has been aggressively monitoring the content of Facebook posts by Palestinians. Human rights groups have documented that as many as 400 Palestinians have been arrested in the past year for the content of their social media posts. “This is a brutally effective form of censorship in the Middle East, where online communication is a popular organizing tool that’s generally seen as independent of government interference,” a Huffington Post reporter wrote.

The AP report prompted journalist Glenn Greenwald to ask, “Do you trust Facebook — or the Israeli government — to assess when a Palestinian’s post against Israeli occupation and aggression passes over into censorship-worthy ‘hate speech’ or ‘incitement’?” He also pointed out that “it’s actually very common for Israelis to use Facebook to urge violence against Palestinians“:

In 2014, thousands of Israelis used Facebook to post messages “calling for the murder of Palestinians.” When an IDF occupying soldier was arrested for shooting and killing a wounded Palestinian point blank in the head last year, IDF soldiers used Facebook to praise the killing and justify that violence, with online Israeli mobs gathering in support.

According to Israel’s Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked – who, ironically enough in a now-deleted genocidal Facebook post, called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes” a day before six Israelis kidnapped and burned alive Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khudai – Facebook has granted 95 percent of Israel’s 158 requests to remove content in the last four months.

More than a week after the AP report, the Electronic Intifada reported that Facebook, undoubtedly a hugely influential force in journalism, had deleted the accounts of editors at two prominent Palestinian publications. “We believe this is the result of the agreement between Israel and Facebook. It is very strange that Facebook would take part in such an agreement, given that it is supposed to be a platform for free expression and journalism,” one of the newspapers said. The next day, Facebook admitted the editors’ accounts were deleted in error.

“Facebook is a private company, with a legal obligation to maximize profit, and so it will interpret very slippery concepts such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘inciting violence’ to please those who wield the greatest power,” Greenwald wrote.

The protest outside Facebook’s office lasted from 4 p.m. to about 6:30 p.m.

See my coverage of the protest on Periscope here


What type of investigation did the FBI conduct into Ahmad Khan Rahami?

As news breaks that Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami’s father contacted the FBI two years ago to report that he feared his son was a “terrorist” (as did the father of the “underwear bomber” to the CIA), a slight discrepancy has surfaced between reports published by The New York Times and The Guardian. While the Times reports that the FBI conducted an “assessment” of Rahami after his father’s warning, The Guardian uses the phrase “preliminary investigation.”

Although The Guardian quotes the FBI as stating, “In August 2014, the FBI initiated an assessment of Ahmad Rahami” (emphasis added), the paper uses the term “preliminary investigation.”

The FBI conducted a preliminary investigation into Rahami after his father contacted them following a 2014 stabbing to express concerns that his son was a terrorist.

…The FBI did not clarify if it interviewed Rahami, who was captured in a shootout with police yesterday, in 2014, but confirmed it conducted a preliminary investigation.

The Times, however, consistently uses the word “assessment” throughout its story:

The information was passed to the Joint Terrorism Task Force led by F.B.I. in Newark. Officers opened what is known as an assessment, the most basic of F.B.I. investigations, and interviewed the father multiple times.

…The assessment of Mr. Rahami illustrates the challenges the F.B.I. faces as it solicits information from the public about people who might pose a threat and then must sort through what is credible, while balancing the need to protect the country without overstepping its authority.

…Like Mr. Rahami, one of the Boston bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was the subject of an assessment in 2011.

…While the federal assessment of Mr. Rahami was closed weeks after it began…

While this discrepancy between The New York Times and The Guardian may appear to the average reader as simply a difference in word choice, there’s actually a legal or operational difference between an FBI “assessment” and a “preliminary investigation.” According to the Times:

Depending on the intensity and urgency of an inquiry, there are three types of investigations the F.B.I. can undertake with varying levels of intrusive techniques.

The first is an assessment, in which agents use basic techniques like conducting interviews, talking to confidential informers, using physical surveillance and checking databases and public records.

Next come preliminary and full investigations, which can be initiated if agents believe a federal crime has been committed or there is a threat to national security. Those investigations can involve polygraphs, undercover agents and mail searches.

Both assessments and preliminary inquiries have time limits.

A full investigation has no such time limits, but does eventually require review and employs powerful electronic surveillance tools, requiring the approval of a court warrant. Among other things, it allows for the secret interception of international communications.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a law and policy institute that closely monitors the FBI’s tactics, adds a fourth category:


According to the FBI’s own Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG), assessments and preliminary investigations are indeed separate entities. The DIOG defines yet another category, “enterprise investigation,” which “may only be opened and operated as a Full Investigation and is subject to the same requirements that apply to a Full Investigation… although there are addition approval requirements that affect Enterprise Investigations.” An enterprise investigation can only be used on “the most serious criminal or national security threats.” Its purpose is to “examine the structure, scope, and nature of the group or organization.”

Unless The Guardian knows something I don’t, it’s likely that it simply didn’t consider the real differences between “assessment” and “preliminary investigation.” The distinction seems rather harmless, but nonetheless important to point out.


At RNC, Media Put a Happy Face on Suppression of Speech


Originally published at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

News media could either be our ally or our enemy—we wanted them as an ally,” Laurie Pritchett said in a 1985 interview about his strategy as police chief in Albany, Georgia, during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s desegregation efforts in 1962.

Pritchett famously ordered his officers to enforce the city’s segregation laws nonviolently and arrest as few protesters as possible. He knew that if he had acted as other police departments had—like Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses in Birmingham (1963) and Jim Clark’s Bloody Sunday in Selma (1965)—news media would show the country how brutally oppressive police were, inspiring greater public support for King’s cause. In short, he beat nonviolent protesters at their own game by exploiting the media.

At the Republican National Convention this past week, none of the fears about a violent disaster bore fruit. Journalists and private citizens who worried about Ohio’s open-carry gun policy and the recent increase in public tension between cops and protesters were relieved that the week passed without a single gunshot fired or tear gas canister thrown. Like Pritchett’s officers in Albany, police in Cleveland—whose department was found to have practiced a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations in a Justice Department investigation—exercised restraint compared to how police have handled protests in Ferguson (military trucks, sound canons, tear gas, rubber bullets) and Baton Rouge (hundreds of arrests).

Just as Pritchett expected in 1962, media jumped to praise law enforcement. “Credit where it’s due: The police nailed it,” Vox staffer German Lopez (7/22/16) wrote. In a list that reads like a police officer’s handbook, he offered three detailed explanations for why the police “nailed it”:

Read the rest here.

Police Keep Blocking Access to Cleveland’s Public Square Using “T-Formation”

(See my Perisocope video of the police action here.)

For the past hour and a half, police have gradually pushed demonstrators and other members of the public out of the center of Public Square in Cleveland, the site of 2016’s Republican National Convention.

A local ABC reporter told (about 4:30 in the Periscope video) her TV audience that police used a “T-Formation,” though it was difficult to make out the T-shape from any side of the park.

Earlier, several different groups were demonstrating, including the Industrial Workers of the World, young people chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and a few Jesus proselytizers.

At the beginning of the police action, an officer informed me as I was leaving the square that I wouldn’t be be able to return. By the time I began heading back to the center, police had cleared the area.

One officer explained to me (about 8:30 in the Periscope video) the reason for the spatial restriction: “We had some issues before. Just, uh, keep everybody safe.”

Minutes later, police began to loosen their formation, letting people back into the center again.

As I began drafting this post, a line of bicycle officers rushed back into the center to reclose the square. There were at least three officers at the center with riot gear: plastic face mask, helmet and military-style backpack.

As of publication (about 6:05 p.m.), several of the bicycle officers rushed out heading east on Superior Avenue. A line of white-uniformed officers have entered the center of the square.

Several passersby have said, “good luck, guys” to the line of officers.

I will update this post as necessary.

Prophets of Rage Take Over Streets of Cleveland on Day One of Republican National Convention

Day one of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, began with an eerie hush. The streets were empty for much of the morning as a few drivers and walkers (including Wolf Blitzer) alike tried to figure their way around the 10-foot tall fence – plastered with “No Drone Zone” signs courtesy of the Federal Aviation Administration – that surrounded the Quicken Loans Arena (“The Q”) and its neighboring buildings, dividing the city in half. The cloudy sky threatened rain.

By noon on the day whose theme was “Make America Safe Again,” crowds gathered for pro- and anti-Trump rallies, vendors set up shop to sell Trump t-shirts and hats, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a small press conference.

While corporate media reported from inside The Q and focused on demonstrations in downtown Cleveland, a little-covered rally hit the streets of Cleveland’s east side. Organize! Ohio’s End Poverty Now rally at a vacant lot on East 45th Street between St. Claire and Superior Avenues featured activists and performers from Cleveland and across the country. New York’s notorious Revolutionary Community Party flooded the crowd.

Breaking with the morning’s eerie hush and the clouds’ abandoned threat, Prophets of Rage – a supergroup featuring Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine (who hijacked the 2000 Democratic National Convention), Chuck D of Public Enemy, and B-Real of Cypress Hill – roared onstage. “Thank you for coming out today with your joy and your militancy. As soon as this next song is over, we Prophets of Rage, and you, are going to march for the End Poverty Now march, on that street right over there… We’re going to let those motherfuckers at the RNC know that we’ve had enough of their bullshit,” Morello told the sizeable crowd.

Prophets ended their set with “Killing in the Name,” one of RATM’s most famous songs, which, as Morello reminded everyone, has been used to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. “This is our revenge. We’re now going to use this song to torture those sons of bitches at the RNC with your help,” he yelled.

Moments later many of the audience members joined Organize! Ohio on the march toward downtown. After heading south on E. 45th, it turned westbound onto Payne Avenue until E. 22nd where police blocked passage. The march ultimately reached downtown via Chester Avenue. As promised, Prophets of Rage marched with the crowd. A massive bicycle army of cops dressed up like Christian Bale’s Batman followed closely behind. (See my coverage of the march on Periscope here.)


The rally and march were intentionally planned for the 50th anniversary of the Hough riots in which four black Cleveland residents were shot and killed by police and another 275 were arrested. “We insisted that we this not [sic] along the formal route, but on the East Side – to make that connection and show how little things have actually gotten worse,” one of the march’s organizers told Cleveland’s east side has for decades suffered from police brutality, most famously for the 22-minute car chase in 2012 in which 13 officers fired 137 shots, killing both Malissa Williams and Timothy Russel. The decision to march in this part of town demonstrated how little corporate media cares about how the policies of the people it usually reports on actually afflict people on the ground.

As the march dissolved downtown, Prophets of Rage regrouped to play an impromptu “concert” at Public Square. While DJ Lord played the studio versions of a few RATM, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill songs, Chuck D and B-Real sang through megaphones and Tom Morello air-guitared.


“Inside the RNC, a thinly veiled racism, sexism and imperialism is being put forward as their platform. Out here, human rights, respect for the planet and resistance to oppression is what we sing about,” Morello said.

All photos and videos taken by me.

The Fordham Observer’s Milquetoast Journalism Manifests Itself Perfectly in Story About Its Own Well-Being

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If you haven’t heard, The Fordham Observer, Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s only university-sanctioned undergraduate student newspaper for the past 35 years, is in trouble.

On April 21, the department of Communication and Media Studies announced to The Observer’s editorial board via an email from Jacqueline Reich, CMS’s chair, that it had decided to cease academic support to the paper effective May 21. CMS cancelled all the credit-bearing Observer-affiliated journalism workshops planned for the Fall 2016 semester, leaving the paper’s staff without advisors – typically CMS professors who have professional journalism experience – and without the opportunity to earn academic credit for Observer-related work.

While The Observer’s editorial board was notified of CMS’s decision, one constituency – arguably the most important – was not: its readers, who rely on the awardwinning paper for campus news. Deeming this news unnewsworthy, The Observer (for which I have written several times) failed to investigate or even file a report on the decision in its own right.

On June 25 – more than two months after CMS’s decision – the paper did, however, publish a simple write-up of the correspondence among concerned alumni, the CMS department and the dean of FCLC. The report, written by news co-editor Stephan Kozub, rather than investigating why CMS decided to cut ties with The Observer, instead focused on a letter sent to CMS signed by 115 Fordham alumni in support of The Observer.

Because this piece marked the first public acknowledgement by the paper of CMS’s decision, it’s likely that many readers were initially perplexed by the story’s headline, “Over 100 Alumni Sign Letter Supporting Observer.” What caused 100 alumni to send a letter in support of The Observer? Why hasn’t The Observer reported on the answer to the previous question? Readers soon find out in the article’s lead (emphasis added):

Over 100 alumni have signed and sent an alumni-written letter to the Communication and Media Studies (CMS) Department in support of The Fordham Observer following the department’s decision to cut ties with the award-winning student publication.

The clause in bold – “following the department’s decision to cut ties with the award-winning student publication” – should be the big news. But because The Observer had previously relegated this decision to the category of Better Left Unreported, it reduced the information to dependent clause status, a common tactic among corporate media outlets to downplay the significance of something. It’s a journalism phenomena colloquially referred to as beating around the bush: reporting on something in a roundabout way with the assumption that readers already know about what is indirectly being referred to. (A prime example, which I have written about before, is how The New York Times doesn’t report on most victories of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but rather tries to frame the momentum in the context of anti-Semitism and how Zionists on college campuses are “offended” and “traumatized” by criticisms of the Israeli government.) In this case, The Observer avoided reporting on an administrative decision that threatens its longstanding academic structure and instead issued a write-up about alumni reactions to that decision, amounting to a grave disservice to its readers.

It’s not until the second half of the fourth paragraph, following a quote from the alumni letter, when The Observer finally explains the implications of the CMS decision.

In cutting ties with The Observer, CMS has also decided to cancel all journalism workshops affiliated with the newspaper scheduled for the Fall 2016 semester, according to an April 21 email from Reich.

That information deserves a story of its own, one thoroughly and aggressively investigated.

The piece relies on quotes from an alumnus to condemn CMS’s decision:

“Since work for The Observer was done as part of academic courses and with the support of an experienced academic advisor with a background in journalism, student-journalists had a layer of protection between themselves and administrators who may want controversial stories reported a certain way or not reported at all,” Anthony Hazell, a member of the Fordham Observer Alumni Steering Committee, said. “With The Observer now being overseen solely by the administration, it puts students under the direct supervision of university staff who will be more inclined to advise against publishing articles that could be considered bad press for Fordham or that would not be a good fit with the university’s Catholic identity.”

The Observer’s choice to level an important critique of the decision using a quote from an alumnus – in The Observer’s classic pseudo-objective milquetoast style of journalism in which one side says X and the other side says Y and that’s the end of the story – reveals a hesitancy on the part of the paper’s editorial board to unequivocally condemn the decision. Although an editorial would have been more potent and more appropriate, The Observer took the safe route at the expense of its readers.

Regarding The Observer’s recent decisions, Ben Moore, editor-in-chief of The Observer, told me via email that the editorial board “decided that we would approach and report on the story from impartial angles, as it directly affects and actively involves our members.” Moore justifies his paper’s lack of initial reporting on the CMS decision by invoking the useful tenet of journalism that prevents journalists from improperly placing themselves at the center of the story. Although this journalistic practice usually serves a good purpose, sometimes reporters are the center of the story – most notably since the Obama administration has made it much more difficult for journalists to do their job by aggressively prosecuting their sources. CMS’s decision puts the entire Observer at the center of the story, so reporting it as such is responsible journalism. It is a journalist’s duty to hold those with most power accountable, even when – especially when – powerful people exercise their power in a way that harms journalists.

Moore offered a further justification: “We have received support from many different constituents of the Fordham community, many of whom are well-briefed about our current circumstance.” Although it was clear in The Observer’s report on the alumni letter, this defense amounts to an admission that the paper assumed readers knew about the CMS decision. Of course some members of the Fordham community know what had happened; that’s inevitable. But they deserved at least an early confirmation from The Observer itself. Before the several stories of government surveillance broke, many Americans suspected their emails and phone calls were being tracked. Using the assumption that readers already know about something to justify not reporting on it undermines the significance of a paper like The New York Times or The Guardian publishing a report confirming the existence of surveillance programs – and the many reforms implemented as a result of this reporting. Journalists who use this excuse degrade their own job and diminish their influence in political debate.

Yesterday Moore confirmed to me that The Observer is “currently investigating the CMS decision and will be publishing a comprehensive report.”

Readers deserve not only a comprehensive report of the CMS decision, but also a thorough explanation (read: apology) of The Observer‘s recent editorial decisions.

The Supreme Court Just Agreed with Me on Arizona’s Redistricting Plan


Yesterday, in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a lower court’s decision to uphold a legislative map drawn by an independent redistricting commission that ensures representation among voters of color. Republican voters sued on the grounds that they believed the map violated the “one-person, one-vote” principle because it was too favorable to Democrats. Last June, the Court ruled that Arizona voters could make the process of drawing congressional district lines less partisan by creating this very independent redistricting commission through a ballot initiative. In another case about “one-person, one-vote,” earlier this month the Court ruled that states may create equal congressional districts based on a state’s total population as opposed to the number of eligible voters.

Last fall, I took a constitutional law course taught by Robert J. Hume, chair of the political science department at Fordham University and author of Courthouse Democracy and Minority Rights: Same-Sex Marriage in the States. At the end of the semester, we held a moot court based on Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. I played the role of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and wrote a decision for this case as if I were she. What follows is that paper, submitted December 2015, in which I rule in favor of the Commission – just as the Supreme Court did yesterday. 

Voters in the state of Arizona challenge the map drawn for legislative districts by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC). The plaintiffs argue that the map, which took effect in 2012, violates the “one-person, one-vote” principle – based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause ­– by creating underpopulated Democratic-leaning districts and overpopulated Republican-leaning districts. The AIRC denies the charge that the map was motivated by partisanship, asserting that the population deviations are the result of a good-faith effort to obtain federal preclearance as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. Since then, however, in Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, making Section 5 completely useless by declaring unconstitutional Section 4(b), the coverage formula based on patterns of historic voting discrimination that determines which districts are required to obtain preclearance under Section 5.

Thus before this Court are three main questions: 1) Does the AIRC’s desire to gain partisan advantage for one political party justify intentionally creating over-populated legislative districts – that result in voters being denied Equal Protection because their individual votes are devalued – violate the one-person, one-vote principle?, 2) Does the AIRC’s desire to obtain favorable preclearance review by the Justice Department permit the creation of legislative districts that deviate from the one-person, one-vote principle after?, and 3) Even if creating unequal districts to obtain preclearance approval was once justified, is this still a legitimate justification after Shelby?

As Mitchell N. Berman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the Texas Law Review, “The core principle of republican government is that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.” This is a founding principle which many of our past decisions have been based on. The one-person, one-vote principle was first established for U.S. congressional districts in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1 (1964), and for state legislative districts in Reynolds v. Simms, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), which Chief Justice Earl Warren later called the most important decisions of his term. “As nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.” Wesberry, supra, 7-8. Similarly, in the latter case, the Court ruled, “The Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis. Simply stated, an individual’s right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living in other parts of the State.” Reynolds, supra, 568. Acknowledging that it is impossible to create districts with the exact number of eligible voters, Chief Justice Warren wrote, “a State make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts, in both houses of its legislature, as nearly of equal population as is practicable.” Id., 577. Though the Court ruled that districts must be relatively equal in population, it did not define how great of a deviance from the ideal population is acceptable.

Nearly twenty years later, the Court defined an allowable amount of deviance in Brown v. Thomson, 462 U.S. 835 (1983): “an apportionment plan with a maximum population deviation under 10% falls within this category of minor deviations.” Brown, supra, 842. In the case before us now, according to the AIRC’s data, no district is more than 4.7 percent underpopulated, and no district is more than 4.1 percent overpopulated. Thus, the relative small population deviations themselves do not indicate a violation of the one-person, one-vote principle.

1) Partisan Advantage

The plaintiffs claim that because nearly all of the underpopulated districts elected a Democrat in 2012, and nearly all of the overpopulated districts elected a Republican, the map may have been created with the intention of getting more Democrats elected. The Supreme Court, however, has never explicitly dismissed partisan motivations as a redistricting tool. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, 541 U.S. 267, 306 (2004), the Court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the partisan motivations for redistricting. Justice David Souter’s dissent – which simply offered different reasons for coming to the same conclusion – stated, “the issue is one of how much is too much… Instead of coming up with a verbal formula for too much, then, the Court’s job must be to identify clues, as objective as we can make them, indicating that partisan competition has reached an extremity of unfairness.” Vieth, supra, 345. Although partisan motivations are subject to being declared an invalid justification for a redistricting plan in future cases, we cannot rule in this case whether they are or not mostly because of the primary reason offered by the Commission for creating the map, which we will expand on in the next section.

(It’s also important to point out what Grant M. Hayden, research fellow at Hofstra University and former appeals court law clerk, noted in the California Law Review, namely, that partisan motivations do not always result in an outcome favorable to the creators of congressional districts. “While majority-minority districts reliably increase the number of minority officeholders, they may do so at the cost of electing candidates in surrounding districts with agendas that are at odds with minority interests,” he wrote.)

2) Attempt to Obtain Favorable Preclearance

To determine whether the partisan competition has reached the “extremity of unfairness,” we must examine the AIRC’s primary reason for creating the map as it did and determine if that reason takes precedence to the partisan outcome of its map.

Deviations from the ideal population are constitutional if they are “based on legitimate considerations incident to the effectuation of a rational state policy.” Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 579 (1964). And in Karcher v. Daggett, 462 U.S. 725, 729 (1983), the Court ruled, “Any number of consistently applied legislative policies might justify some variance.” For the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, that “rational state policy” or those “consistently applied legislative policies” is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And the Court in Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952, 977 (1996), wrote, “we assume without deciding that compliance with the results test, as interpreted by our precedents… can be a compelling state interest.” Thus the Commission claims that its map’s deviations from the ideal population in several districts were a good faith effort to achieve §5’s preclearance. Because the Justice Department does not reveal its requirements to achieve preclearance, the defense claims that due to this “regulatory uncertainty,” it had to “to be cautious and to take extra steps” in terms of overpopulating and underpopulating certain districts.

According to Jason Maschmann in the St. Louis University Law Journal, the Department of Justice “uses a ‘nonretrogression’ standard. That is, a proposed plan will not be cleared if the plan will lead to a retrogression in the voting effectiveness of minorities.” The Court has declared that §5 of the VRA was created “to insure that no voting-procedure changes would be made that would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise. Beer v. United States, 425 U.S. 130, 141 (1976). One method of retrogression, according to the Court, is when a new voting law hinders the ability to people of color to “elect their candidates of choice.” Id.; 52 U.S.C. § 1973c(b). Later Courts have defined retrogression in terms of these “ability to elect districts”: “there is no retrogression as long as the number of ability districts remains the same” from the old map to the new map. See Reno v. Bossier Parish Sch. Bd., 520 U.S. 471, 478 (1997) and Texas v. United States, 887 F. Supp. 2d 133, 157 (D.D.C. 2012) (citing Abrams v. Johnson, 521 U.S. 74, 97–98 (1997)).

With advice from its counsel, the Commission created 10 ability-to-elect districts (out of 30 total districts in Arizona). While partisan motivations may have played a role in creating these districts, we agree with the lower court’s ruling that the primary motivation was to achieve preclearance under §5, a legitimate justification for the population deviance.

As the lower court stated, “As a practical matter, changes that strengthened minority ability-to-elect districts were also changes that improved the prospects for electing Democratic candidates. Those motivations were not at cross purposes. They were entirely parallel.” Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 993 F. Supp. 2d 1042, 1061 (2014 U.S. Dist.). If the goal of a new legislative map is to strengthen the vote for people of color, and they happen to vote predominantly for Democrats, that does not mean the map is based on partisan motivations or violates the one-person, one-vote principle. It does not matter what party people of color affiliate with – all that matters is that a district exists such that they get to elect a candidate of their choice. The results of the election, i.e. which party wins, does not matter in determining whether the one-person, one-vote principle has been violated if the redistricting plan was created to pass preclearance.

3) Post Shelby

The final point to decide upon is whether the desire to achieve preclearance is still a valid justification after the Court effectively rendered §5 useless in Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013). The map went into effect in 2012, before Shelby County. Of course, the Commission should not have to predict how the law will change in future court decisions or to base its map on what it thinks will prevail in the courts. Thus, the fact that the Court has since removed the preclearance requirement does not mean that the Commission’s motivation for achieving it should be thrown out. Moreover, it is the duty of this Court to uphold constitutional principles to protect those to whom these principles have so long been denied by a state-sponsored system of racial hierarchy.

The ideals of the Voting Rights Act are enough to justify the Commission’s 2012 legislative map. The Commission made a good faith effort to achieve preclearance. After Shelby effectively removed the preclearance requirement, the rest of the VRA still stands. And so do its ideals. The progress made by the spring 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama – wherein black people were slaughtered by law enforcement on their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday – cannot be reversed. That campaign put utterly necessary pressure on Lyndon Johnson to pass the VRA. The Shelby County decision, in its pursuit of a “colorblind society,” in part erased some of that progress. Jason Maschmann’s response more than 20 years ago to Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993), which mandated that redistricting based on race must uphold strict scrutiny, applies quite well to the present: “The idea of a color-blind society which the modern Court hopes for is an attractive one. The reality, unfortunately, is that such a society does not yet exist. Racial discrimination in voting is a well-documented problem which continues through today.”

The judgment of the district court is affirmed. It is so ordered.

Photo: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Q&A with Prof. Christina Greer on the Presidential Election


A condensed version of the following interview, conducted on April 6, was originally published at the Fordham Observer. Until I can afford to upgrade my website, unfortunately I am unable to upload the audio file of the interview.

Gunar Olsen: This is Gunar Olsen with the Fordham Observer, and I’m speaking with Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the American Dream. She appears regularly on MSNBC and NY1 to talk politics, and she’ll be on a panel about the election at Lucky Jack’s in the Lower East Side on April 14 ahead of the New York primary on the 19th.

Let’s start with the Democratic field. Compared to other Democratic primaries you’ve followed in your lifetime, where does this one stand in terms of substance, in terms of talking about actual issues, in terms of pursuing a progressive agenda?

Christina Greer: Goodness, that’s a loaded question. Well in the past I have to say, even in 2008, I can’t say the election was this exciting. If you all remember in 2008, John Edwards and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – and of course John Edwards had to bow out – and we were essentially going state by state between Clinton and Obama, and there was sort of a different division obviously in how they wanted to get things done but not necessarily in what they wanted. Yes, there were conversations about war, whether or not Obama supported the war; he did not because he wasn’t even in the Senate at the time of the vote. And so that was sort of the biggest issue there.

This year it seems as though there’s a much larger core of ideas and how to implement them and some real divisions within the larger party about what the direction should be and what a Democratic candidate should look like. Should they be more centrist, like a Hillary Clinton, or should be in some ways, to use Bernie Sanders’ own terms, more radical? And there are many Democrats who don’t feel comfortable with the radical candidate just because they know that bipartisanship is the only way we’ve ever gotten anything done in American democracy, but others feel like this is the time. If not now, then when? She’s someone who’s not going to essentially look like a Republican half the time and really go for what Democratic ideals should be.

So we’re actually at more of a division than many people anticipated largely because many people did not anticipate Bernie Sanders even making the inroads that he has. He showed up, especially as a 74-year-old, pretty obscure senator from a small state. Most people have never heard of him before, and now we see he’s created a national movement in much the way Barack Obama did in 2008.

Gunar Olsen: One of the issues that has come up has been reparations. In an interview with Fusion in January, Bernie Sanders said he doesn’t support reparations for black people. His statement set off – what I found to be – a really important back on forth on the left about reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates quickly criticized Sanders. And then people further to the left pushed back on Coates: Cedric Johnson in Jacobin wrote “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him,” that got some good attention. Jacobin also ran a pro-reparations piece by Brian Jones. As usual, Adolph Reed said some things that were highly critical of Coates’ work. What did you make of this conversation?

Christina Greer: Well it depends on what you make of the conversation of reparations. I mean I think it’s an important conversation to have, but I think there are more important conversations to have about the institutions in which that money or those resources would be played out. What is the point of reparations in some ways if all the institutions will still be white owned and in some ways white supremacist? So I think that it’s an important question.

The fact that Bernie Sanders is entertaining the question says something about what he’s willing to do. I think a large frustration with people who aren’t supporting Sanders is that he never instigates any of these conversations. He’s always brought into the conversation often times reluctantly, and then he champions it, which is great, but he’s clearly not a leader on anything race related.

Gunar Olsen: One campaign tactic that Hillary Clinton has been using is the exploitation of identity politics, a type politics popular among social justice activists on college campuses, indeed especially here at Fordham. She’s been tweeting about intersectionality and recognizing her privilege. She’s using her gender to make the ‘elect a woman’ argument. Do you think these appeals are genuine? Do you think her policies will benefit the marginalized communities she’s claiming to help, or do you think, as Michelle Alexander wrote in the Nation, that “Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve the black vote?”

Christina Greer: Well I mean Hillary Clinton is a complicated figure largely because she’s been known for so long. I’m actually still uncertain as to what exactly she believes largely because people are allowed to change, but we also do know that this is something she definitely desires.

When it comes to the black vote, as I talk about in my book Black Ethnics, how can we really define that? Yes, there are large – 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratically in the general election, but that’s for complicated reasons. And the group is not a monolithic group, ethnically, geographically, financially, whatever it may be. Republicans have essentially written off black Americans, and so the choices are limited. But I think black people are very strategic voters, so when they’re looking at someone like Hillary Clinton, who in many ways is the presumed nominee, there’s a reason for many black voters to vote to protect their interests as opposed to take a gamble and vote for a possible candidate that might not make it.

You also can’t assume that just because one is black that they’re also liberal. So they may vote Democratically, but there’s still several conservative Democrats out there. If we think about southerners – not just black Southerners –  but southerners period, we know that a Democratic southerner from say Texas is more conservative than probably a Republican from New York City. So when we have these labels, we also have to recognize that these labels are multifaceted and pretty complex depending on our geographic space and who and what we’re talking about.

Gunar Olsen: Both Michelle Alexander and Shaun King at the New York Daily News said that the problem with Sanders is that he’s running in the Democratic Party, a party dominated by right-of-center neoliberals like Obama and Clinton. When asked whom she is supporting, Angela Davis said that we need a new party. What is your take on Sanders in the Democratic Party or a third-party run?

Christina Greer: I think what this race is really showing us is that the labels we are using are in many ways inaccurate. In the old days, Sanders would be a Democratic, Clinton would be a Republican, and then the Republicans would just be off the pond. We have no idea where they would be because they have shown themselves to be so extremist on the presidential level. Now obviously on the local level it’s a little bit different.

We know that Obama is not a liberal. Lots of people have been disappointed. Unfortunately they weren’t paying attention to anything he said in 2008 because if you were looking beyond his skin color, you would know for a fact that he never said he was going to be a liberal, he never said he would implement liberal policies. His skin color is liberal but that’s pretty much it. And he’s a centrist Democrat, and that’s, in the past, who we’ve tended to elect to be our president, centrist Democrats. So when it comes to the comparisons of the Obama era and today, we also have to be real about why and how we voted for Obama, and for some people, with the excitement of voting for Obama, they weren’t paying attention to some of the rhetoric that was quite clear that they weren’t paying attention.

Gunar Olsen: So what advice would you give to (1) the Sanders campaign to pick up more delegates in the remaining primaries and (2) the Clinton campaign to keep up her pledged delegate lead.

Christina Greer: Well the Sanders campaign so far they’re galvanizing young people and they would just have to keep stressing turn out and that this movement is real and not be discouraged even if the math doesn’t look in their favor. For many people, if Sanders is their first choice, they are making the argument for themselves, saying well, he probably won’t win, so I’ll just vote for my second choice and that’s what happens quite a bit. If he can convince people to vote for their first choice, I think he’s got great momentum.

Similarly though for Hillary Clinton, I think she needs to convince people that she needs to be judged as 21st century Hillary Clinton, and that even though she may have cosigned on her husband’s record, is it a fair assessment for her to be judged a) for things that she said 25 years ago – Biden said some pretty horrendous things, I’m sure if we all look back on ourselves, we aren’t the people we are today, hopefully we’re not, we’ve evolved – and really convince people that she’s the smartest person in the room, which I do think, you know, is usually the case. But lots of people have such a bad feeling about her, and she’s actually not a great candidate. And in governance, that may be a different story, but as far as on the campaign trail, she just doesn’t know how to bring it home. If she can convince people that she has the CV that no one else in the world has, and that we should trust her, even though we’ve known her for so many years, then I think she can make those inroads.

Gunar Olsen: Let’s move to the Republican field. How do you explain the violence inflicted by Trump supporters on nonviolent protesters, particularly black people, at his rallies? What does it signify and what does it say about the United States? Do you think it could get worse?

Christina Greer: Oh I definitely think it could get worse because it’s the fabric of this nation. We have a presidential candidate who’s essentially said, “We no longer have to live in the shadows.” And so the silent majority can now speak, and that means they can say pretty horrendous things about multiple people. These groups have been in existence, they’re not new, many of them though haven’t voted before or they reluctantly voted for a Democrat that didn’t satisfy their – or a Republican that didn’t satisfy their needs. And Trump is essentially saying, “It’s okay to say these inappropriate statements out loud, it’s acceptable because you’re with me now.” And I think a lot of people are feeling really relieved that he’s given them the permission to say and do things that they’ve felt for quite some time.

Gunar Olsen: So a question about the media. Glenn Greenwald wrote that the rise of Trump shows the danger and sham of compelled journalistic ‘neutrality.’ You were recently on a panel at the New School and you talked about the media’s role in the rise of Trump. What’s the connection?

Christina Greer: Well I think the media is complicit, and there are lots of people who disagree on this point. The fact is that he’s gotten $2 billion in free media since he announced. The only person who gets more free media is the president of the United States. So when journalists keep asking, “Why is Trump surging in the polls?” Well because you’ve been talking about him nonstop on air in a 24-hour news cycle, and so if you stopped doing that, we might see that maybe – it sort of depends on [inaudible] the dog. For a lot of people who weren’t paying attention or who didn’t think of him that seriously or they’ve heard every single journalist talking about him consistently, and so then they started to think about him more and more. And he’s already had a 10-year head start on many of the candidates because he’s a celebrity with his reality shows.

Gunar Olsen: What’s all this talk about a contested Republican convention? How could this play out?

Christina Greer: Oh I think it can play out, and if the Democrats aren’t careful, I think it will also play out in Philadelphia as well. So essentially there are lots of different rules in place. I mean I always tell my students, “The beauty and the curse of American democracy is that even though we have something written down, we always have a trap door where we can circumvent it.” So there are rules, the rules for Democrats are somewhat different than the rules for Republicans because Democrats have superdelegates. But Reublianas have to get to a certain number. If Cruz takes his win in Wisconsin and starts surging in the polls, we may see that neither Republican gets the requisite amount to actually win the nomination straight out at the convention. If that’s the case, it could be contested. That also means that Reince Priebus, who the head of the RNC, could exercise certain provisions in their bylaws where they could throw in a third candidate as well, someone obviously with the name like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney have been thrown around, someone who’s a little bit more palatable to the vast majority of Republicans in the party. Unfortunately in America, we have such low voter turnout for the primary, many times these people are not representative samples of the larger party.

Gunar Olsen: Currently the frontrunners in each party — Clinton and Trump — are very unpopular among the general electorate. In a recent CBS/NYT poll, 57 percent of voters said they have unfavorable views of Trump and 52 percent of Clinton, the highest numbers since the poll began in 1984. (This is in contrast to Sanders, who has 60 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable ratings in a CNN poll.) How is this happening? And how strong is the argument that Democrats should elect Sanders because he has a better chance of beating Trump?

Christina Greer: Right, and I don’t necessarily think that Sanders has a better chance of beating Trump. I think Sanders benefits in many ways from what Obama benefited from in 2008, which is that he’s relatively unknown. So yes he’s been in the Senate but his record in the Senate is not terribly impressive. And so there’s not much to stick to him based on what he’s done or hasn’t done because that a) wasn’t his office and b) he’s been living the great life of a senator and been delivering for the state of Vermont as he should as a senator.

With Hillary Clinton, she has a lot more net negative largely because we’ve known her for 25 years, she was secretary of State, she did cosign some of her husband’s most draconian policies in the 90’s, and even some upstate New Yorkers have issues with her from when she was senator obviously and voted for the Iraq War.

So both of these individuals, Clinton and Trump, have large negatives, but we also need to look at the number of people who are actually showing up. So if we think about Washington state, I believe Bernie Sanders got 19,000 votes and won the primary. When Obama won the Democratic state of Washington, he got 1.9 million votes, so we’re seeing a huge percentage of the Democratic primary not showing up for a primary because many people when they about elections, they think about November, they don’t think about early 2016.

Gunar Olsen: What worries you most about a Hillary Clinton presidency, and what worries you most about a Donald Trump presidency?

Christina Greer: A Hillary Clinton presidency, I worry that she’s a hawk. We see that Obama presented himself as a dove, and Hillary Clinton presented herself as a hawk in 2008. We see that Obama has a lot of hawk in him when it comes to foreign policy and also middle of the road policies when it comes to the welfare state and poor Americans. I think Hillary Clinton will be more hawkish than our current president, that does worry me because if obviously we think about interacting, intervening abroad, that does have real economic consequences domestically when it comes to education, infrastructure, and our day to day lives.

With Donald Trump, everything worries me because a) not only does he not have a record but I do think he has narcissistic, megalomania qualities and you can’t really take him at his word. So one day he’ll say he’s for something and the next day he’s against it and the third day he says he’s for it again. So I don’t feel comfortable with a person like that interacting with Putin or Kim Jong Un or our allies at the UN because tough talk and big talk in the boardroom is very different when you’re talking with heads of state where you can just call them pigs, and obviously his gender politics I think are probably the nadir of American politics and we probably haven’t seen someone so [inaudible] ever in our democratic history.

Gunar Olsen: So speaking of foreign policy, while Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to decline to speak at AIPAC, Clinton seemed like she was trying to position herself to the right of Donald Trump on Israel. Although Sanders reaffirmed his support for guaranteeing Israel’s survival, he did call for an end to the blockade of Gaza, criticized Israel for controlling water in the West Bank, and for mounting disproportionate responses to attacks. How does this affect his campaign? And more broadly, do you see Sanders’ speech as the beginning of a trend of national politicians who aren’t afraid to strongly criticize Israel?

CG: I don’t think it’s the beginning of a trend. I think that for people who are progressive in this country, it’s refreshing to hear a candidate not actually cater to this particular group, which Democrat and Republican candidates always cater to this specific group. So he is one in very few that I do not think are this national trend because many Democrats and Republicans alike believe that to get the support of AIPAC financially but even just on paper means a lot, not just in the campaign phase but also in the governance phase. Keep in mind the position of Israel in the Middle East is a very strategic position, and many world leaders want that relationship as strong as possible for all the things that we do in the dark.

Gunar Olsen: Since you teach a course on campaigns and elections, how would you design a primary system to either maximize or minimize the ability of an outsider candidate, like Trump or Sanders, to break through?

CG: I don’t think that democracy is set up to minimize people. I think if the public speaks then we should listen. My issue is that it’s only a small percentage of the public speaking. I really wish we could figure out a way to get more people involved, to actually turn out to vote. We know that there are costs to voting, not just $2.75 to take the subway to your polling station but trying to find childcare and healthcare and get off of work if you’re working two minimum wage jobs and you could lose your job if you leave early to go vote. So we really need to think about the strategies that other countries utilize that are really effective where they have weekend voting on a Saturday and a Sunday, or certain states where you can vote for two weeks or early voting or make it really easy to just mail in your ballot.

Some people argue that it shouldn’t be easy to vote, but we make it pretty difficult for people and it’s a pretty complex system. We’re a highly educated people, and I talk to my students all the time, and they’re even still confused about where they should register. Do they go online? Should they have to show up? There are a lot of intricate processes. They’re really confused about the date in New York: we’re voting in April for the presidential primary in June, for the congressional primary in September, for the state legislature primary, and then in November for the general election. Many people don’t understand what all these dates mean, and so it’s a larger education process that also needs to happen to explain to American voters what all these different levels and layers of American government really mean because they don’t really know who they’re turning out for. And part of the problem is that we have such an incumbency advantage for people who have already been in office. Many people aren’t inspired to turn out for someone who’s already been in office for 20 years and they just assume well they’re gonna be in office anyway and they essentially run pretty much unopposed every single time they’re up for office.

Gunar Olsen: Again, I’ve been speaking to Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics. She’ll be discussing the election at Lucky Jack’s on April 14th. We will link to your book and the panel at the Observer’s website. Thanks so much for chatting!

CG: Thank you, Gunar!

The Selective Nature of Performative Politics

It’s now common for online activists to quickly – or, as some of my Facebook friends do, two weeks after the fact without checking an article’s publication date – call attention to atrocities in non-Western countries that mainstream media deem unworthy of attention. Although this style of activism pushes back against the media’s racist obsession with Western victims of terrorism, too often these activists stumble over violence carried out by their own government or fail to recognize their own government’s complicity in the very atrocities they are calling attention to. For some, it’s simply a form of performative politics to prove to everyone that They Care™ about black and brown people.

Most recently this activism has centered on the killing of 14 civilians by AQIM gunmen in the Ivory Coast (which this Washington Post journalist reported on as if he were writing a tragic novel in his sophomore year of college during his free time), an ISIS suicide attack on a soccer stadium in Baghdad that killed 25 people, and the Taliban bombing in Lahore whose death toll surpassed 70. In November 2015, while the establishment media had a context-free field day – several field days, rather – with the Paris attacks, it was ISIS’s other attacks in Beirut and Baghdad that forced online activists to do the work of journalists.

Though these activists deserve credit for bringing attention to the racist nature of corporate media, it’s quite rare to see them condemn the U.S.’s role in Saudi Arabia’s brutal year-long war on Yemen, the nearly unconditional American support of the apartheid government of Israel, or U.S. complicity in the creation of ISIS. Similar to how establishment journalists in the U.S. reflexively exonerate their government, this type of activism is a form of selective, borderline nationalist outrage that fails to criticize the actions of one’s own government. It’s easy to condemn a terrorist group for killing innocent civilians and the media for blatantly ignoring violence against nonwhite people, but it’s a whole other thing to criticize your own team.

One could argue that the very reason these activists fail to point out the wrongdoing of their government is the deferential nature of mainstream media, and thus they deserve some slack. But if they are clearly savvy enough to notice what our malleable media isn’t covering well, shouldn’t they also be able to see how it acts as the government’s PR wing, uncritically filing reports that are essentially the same as press releases from governmental agencies?

But perhaps this is my own form of performative politics: criticizing other people for not seeing what I’m seeing, for not getting angry at what I’m angry at, and positioning myself at the ultimate arbiter of noncontradiction; and if so, I’ll willingly accept that critique.

What inspired this particular post was the lack of outrage at a new report by Human Rights Watch which found, after comprehensive on-site investigations, that U.S.-made bombs were used in one of the deadliest airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in the year-long war on Yemen. The March 15 “double-tap” bombing of a market in the town of Mastaba killed at least 119 people, including 25 children. The report so far has only gotten the attention of the usual lefty journos: Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Ben Norton published write-ups at The Intercept and Salon respectively. Vice, whose Yemen coverage has been fantastic lately, did the same. But this latest news of continued U.S.-sponsored war crimes in Yemen has not yet been signal boosted by the activists who love to point out when the media ignores victims of terrorism in places like Pakistan and the Ivory Coast. Who knows, maybe I’ll see HRW’s report being shared by all my Facebook friends two weeks from now. In this case, much better late than never.