Showing posts with label civil liberties. Show all posts
Showing posts with label civil liberties. Show all posts


what i'm reading: the new jim crow by michelle alexander

When I first heard the incarceration of African Americans in the United States referred to as a "new Jim Crow," I thought it must be hyperbole. So did Michelle Alexander, a fact she discloses in the introduction to her book. As Alexander researched the concept, the more she learned, the more she changed her mind. She changed my mind, too.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander builds an unassailable case that mass incarceration through the (so-called) War on Drugs is the third large-scale caste system that holds Black Americans in a second-class status. This is true even in a society that includes Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, and, of course, Barack Obama.

The first caste system was slavery. The second was the laws and customs of segregation, discrimination, and terror known as Jim Crow. The third and current system is mass incarceration. This includes rules governing local policing, key court rulings, the court system itself, the parole and probation system, and laws that discriminate against former inmates.

* * * *

The numbers are staggering. More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. A greater percentage of African Americans are under correctional control now than black South Africans were during apartheid.

The US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world's prisoners. Black and Latino Americans comprise one-quarter of the US population, but almost 60% of the prison population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

In terms of the War on Drugs, one might think these disparities could be explained by differences in rates of illegal activity. One would be wrong. The data shows that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at very similar rates. When there is a difference by skin colour, the numbers skew towards whites.
Thus, the very same year Human Rights Watch was reporting that African Americans were being arrested and imprisoned at unprecedented rates, government data revealed that blacks were no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites and that white youth were actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
The fact of incarceration alone is only one piece of the picture. Before incarceration, there is a series of court rulings that have gutted constitutional protections (especially the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free of unwarranted search and seizure), and make it impossible for citizens to argue racial bias in any criminal proceeding. There are draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which lead to the normalization of plea bargaining, in which people who have committed no crime plead guilty to some crime, in order to avoid a life sentence. There are huge financial incentives to municipalities to militarize their police forces, and to states for building -- and filling -- prisons.

After incarceration, the system prevents almost everyone who has been incarcerated from re-entering mainstream life. It is virtually impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to access housing, education loans, or jobs. In most states, formerly incarcerated people are stripped of voting rights and from jury rolls -- forever.

Former inmates, as Alexander writes, "will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Right now, about 30% of African American men are automatically banned from jury duty -- for life.

There is a terrible circular logic to the system. As a former US attorney general explained:
Law enforcement officials often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as a justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was, in part, a product of racial profiling -- not a justification for it.

In the years following the release of the New Jersey and Maryland data, dozens of other studies of racial profiling have been conducted. A brief sampling:

• In Volusia County, Florida, a reporter obtained 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops conducted by state troopers. Only 5 percent of the drivers on the road were African American or Latino, but more than 80 percent of the people stopped and searched were minorities.

• In Illinois, the state police initiated a drug interdiction program known as Operation Valkyrie that targeted Latino motorists. While Latinos comprised less than 8 percent of the Illinois population and took fewer than 3 percent of the personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they comprised approximately 30 percent of the motorists stopped by drug interdiction officers for discretionary offenses, such as failure to signal a lane change. [These discretionary offenses are often an excuse to search vehicles or to arrest people for "resisting".] Latinos, however, were significantly less likely than whites to have illegal contraband in their vehicles.

• A racial profiling study in Oakland, California, in 2001 showed that African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be stopped, and three times as likely to be searched.

Pedestrian stops, too, have been the subject of study and controversy. The New York Police Department released statistics in February 2007 showing that during the prior year its officers stopped an astounding 508,540 people -- an average of 1,393 per day -- who were walking down the street, perhaps on their way to the subway, grocery store, or bus stop. Often the stops included searches for illegal drugs or guns -- searches that frequently required people to lie face down on the pavement or stand spreadeagled against a wall while police officers aggressively groped all over their bodies while bystanders watched or walked by. The vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, and more than half were African American. . . . . 
Although the NYPD attempted to justify the stops on the grounds that they were designed to get guns off the street, stops by the Street Crime Unit -- the group of officers who supposedly are specially trained to identify gun-toting thugs -- yielded a weapon in only 2.5 percent of all stops. . . .

Rather than reducing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics following the Diallo shooting* and the release of this disturbing data, the NYPD dramatically increased its number of pedestrian stops and continued to stop and frisk African Americans at grossly disproportionate rates. The NYPD stopped five times more people in 2005 than in 2002 -- the overwhelming majority of whom were African American or Latino.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of The New Jim Crow is Alexander's history of the War on Drugs. The "tough on crime" stance that began under President Nixon and intensified under Presidents Reagan and Clinton was born when rates of drug use and crime were low.

Today nearly one-third of African American men are likely to spend time in prison. Once released, they live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. Alexander builds a case that the War on Drugs was not a response to higher crime rates, but a deliberate plan to dismantle the gains of the civil rights movement. If this sounds unlikely, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alexander has clearly done exhaustive research, but she doesn't exhaust the reader with statistics. Although the numbers are extremely convincing, they are woven into a compelling, readable narrative. It's a disturbing book, as it should be, and an excellent one.

* Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant living in New York City. In 1999, when stopped by the police and asked for identification, he reached for his wallet. Police later said they thought the wallet was a gun. The police shot 41 times. Diallo was 22 years old, and unarmed.

* The Wikipedia article about the Diallo murder contains this:
On March 13, 2015, Capital New York and other news organizations reported that 50 of the 15,000 IP addresses belonging to the NYPD were associated with edits, dating back to 2006, to English Wikipedia articles, including this article on the Amadou Diallo shooting. These IP addresses geolocate to NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza. Detective Cheryl Crispin, a NYPD spokeswoman, said that "the matter is under internal review."


what i'm reading: wild by cheryl strayed, zeitoun by dave eggers

I've just finished two truly excellent works of nonfiction: Wild and Zeitoun. Both books read like fiction, with clean, clear writing and page-turning suspense. Both document almost unbelievable, out-sized events, in one case likely unique, in the other - horribly - anything but. I highly recommend both books.

I didn't expect to like Wild. Something about the phrase "best-selling memoir" just turns me off. But when the book was chosen as one of my Library's "Raves and Faves," I was intrigued. Those are always excellent books. (I'm quite proud that all five of my Raves and Faves suggestions made the list!)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail is a story of perseverance and redemption. Her life unhinged, battered by loss and confusion, the author decides to undertake a wilderness backpacking expedition. This is no casual walk in the woods; she's chosen a trail for which experienced backpackers may spend a year in training and research. Strayed is completely inexperienced and almost comically unprepared - comic, that is, if the consequences of failure weren't potentially life-threatening. At several points in the book, I thought, "Well, she must survive, because she wrote this book...".

Wild is suspenseful, moving, sad, uplifting, heartrending, and joyous. I was filled with wonder at this woman's strength, tenacity, and resilience. Wild left me contemplating that potential in all of us.

Zeitoun is also a nonfiction page-turner. It's almost impossible to write about Zeitoun without spoiling it, and the way in which the story unfolds gives it tremendous power. Perhaps most people reading this review already know the terrible punchline.

Zeitoun is the story of one man's, and one family's, ordeal during and after Hurricane Katrina. It is a story that sits at the intersection of two American nightmares: Katrina and the post-9/11 police state.

It is an answer to every person who feels "police state" and "fascism" are hyperbole when applied to the United States. In truth, that depends on your zip code, your skin colour, and your last name.

Considering I last visited New Orleans in 1992, I have a strangely personal relationship with Hurricane Katrina. August 30, 2005, the day Katrina hit New Orleans, was one of the most momentous days of my life: the day my partner and I moved to Canada. As with any move of this magnitude, we were unplugged from the world - no TV, no internet - for a couple of days before, and at least two days after. When we were back online, I struggled to take in the magnitude of what had happened. No matter how much we read, I felt like I never caught up.

In the 10 years since, in any story about the Katrina disaster, the dates jump out at me. I can picture us clearly, driving The World's Fullest Minivan, my beloved Buster between us, Cody hunkered in a cave in the back, starting our new life. Right at those moments, tens of thousands of lives were shattered, ruined, or ended.

The Zeitouns' story is compelling, heroic, and deeply frightening. If you've ever been inclined to think, "That wouldn't happen here," or "But they would never do that", know that it did, and they already have.

As with What Is The What, Dave Eggers is using proceeds from this book to fund many very important and worthwhile causes. I highly recommend picking up a copy.


action bronson, hate speech, and protest: rape culture vs. freedom of speech

As part of the NXNE concert series in Toronto, rapper Action Bronson was slated to perform a free concert in Dundas Square. Bronson is apparently known for lyrics and videos that degrade women and glorify rape. He has also bragged about assaulting a trans woman. Many people felt that this performer was inappropriate for a headliner act and a free event in the heart of Toronto.

A petition was circulated calling for NXNE to cancel the Dundas Square show. Eventually they did. Their statement says they will try re-book Action Bronson as a ticketed event in a different venue.

That seems like a good decision.

However, I was less disturbed by another misogynist shock act than by some of the reaction I read on Facebook, from friends and their contacts. It seems that many progressive people believe that what Action Bronson does should be illegal. Others believe that even speaking in support of such expression should be illegal. I find that deeply troubling.

The people in this discussion seemed not to distinguish between a hate crime and hate speech - or indeed between expression and act, at all.

Most were willing to concede that expression condoning and celebrating rape is not the same as rape itself. But because this expression contributes to rape culture, because it perpetuates and normalizes violence against women, it should be illegal.

I recognize rape culture. I resist it and I detest it. And that's one reason I believe we shouldn't criminalize speech.

Shutting down hate speech doesn't make hate go away. But it does shut down all possibility of education. It allows the speaker to play the victim. It may make our society more polite and pleasant - on the surface - but it does nothing to further a society where all women are valued as equals. And inevitably, it will be used against us.

Throughout history, laws banning or criminalizing expression have been used by the powerful against the less powerful, by the dominant culture against the minority. That's why gay literature was labelled as pornography and banned, while male-dominated, heterosexual porn flourished. It's why the Harper Government can call David Suzuki an extremist, and try to ban criticism of the state of Israel.

When speech and expression are curtailed, history shows us who suffers: radicals, dissidents, peace activists.

If we want to be free to protest and to express political views that are offensive to the powerful, we should be prepared to defend potentially offensive expression for everyone. Criminalizing any expression threatens all expression - and it threatens progressive activists most of all.

And what of fantasy? For many, erotica/porn includes bondage, simulated rape, and all manner of acts that would be criminal if nonconsensual. And of course these acts are depicted in literature, photography, video, and the like. Many people find it triggering and offensive. Shall we ban that, too? (Or is it only offensive if it subjugates women?) If we roll back that clock, all our rights are going with it.

Here is some of the Facebook conversation. Indented text is quoted from commenters. I'm quoting liberally in order to not quote out of context, with my own comments below.
If he wrote that song for an individual, and sent that video to them in the mail, it would be considered a hate crime. So what's the difference between that, and releasing his song to the public? The fact that it's not targeted to an individual? His hate is targeted towards the entire female gender. I think we're talking bullshit loopholes and technicalities here.
Protection of public expression is much more than a technicality. If an individual is targeted - threatened, harassed - that is a crime. (Although not rape. Still not rape.) But we distinguish between those private, targeted actions and public expressions - songs, movies, books, poetry, video. In my view, people must be allowed to express whatever they want in those forms, and not do so in fear of arrest.
Hate speech impedes on people's right to live a life free from worry of abuse. You can't be pro freedom of anything if you support hate speech because it prevents people from having certain freedoms - one of those freedoms is the right to feel safe. Bronson's lyrics are hate speech and add to the pre-existing rape culture problem that is plaguing our society. Bronson also publicly admitted to assaulting a trans woman and misgendering her. THIS IS AN ACT OF VIOLENCE. He's a white man whose violent, misogynistic lyrics and music video imagery specifically target women of colour. . . . The KKK are still allowed to have their say, and operate under the guise of "freedom of speech" and look what's happening! You have cops who are KKK members on the Ferguson police force spreading their views and encouraging whites to shoot up innocent black kids by constantly portraying them as thugs. They get away with it because the media has done everything in its power to instil anti blackness into the minds of whites and non-black people of colour.

The freedom to protect hate speech under the guise of freedom of speech only benefits and serves the white rich cis straight able bodied man. They do not suffer from any forms of systematic oppression.
In the society described above, which I readily recognize as reality, which hate speech is more likely to be protected, "Women are bitches" or "Death to cops"? Once certain expression is illegal, who defines and decides what stays and what goes?

Commenters also noted that the expression in question is without artistic value. That may be true, but in my opinion that is (a) subjective and (b) irrelevant. One person's erotica is another person's smut, and to someone else, it's all garbage.

Other commenters noted that speech that promotes rape culture is as bad as rape. What can I say. It takes a luxury of ignorance to express such hyperbole, and it minimizes the trauma and suffering of every rape survivor.

Some commenters mentioned the general offensiveness of the Action Bronson act. Well, freedom of expression is easy if you're raising money for kids with cancer or posting cute puppy videos. Freedom of expression is tested when the expression is most offensive. A society that values freedom of expression allows space on the fringes. A society that values conformity and politeness more than free speech narrows the field.

That's when I realize that Canadians, as a society, do not really value freedom of expression. They value a quietly polite society, where hate is ignored and so said not to exist.
A few of my classmates were having a discussion about "Game of Thrones" One of the women said "I don't like the show, it glorifies rape." One of the men responded, "what is the big deal, rape is everywhere..." The fact that those words flowed so easily from his tongue..... I am an artist, a woman and someone who has been victimized. Free speech, like art, comes with responsibilities and to abuse that freedom is demonstrating a reckless disregard for others. THAT is a crime. It is no different, in MY opinion, than knowingly getting in a car and driving while drunk.
Criminalizing speech completely shuts down the possibility of education. If we arrest the man who said "What's the big deal about rape?" we lose all opportunity for dialogue, not just with that one man, but with every person who now must suppress his or her speech in order to avoid arrest.

These rape-culture thoughts don't go away, but they remain unchallenged. All the arrest teaches is forced conformity. As much as "what's the big deal about rape" pains me deeply, I would rather that thought be expressed openly - I would rather see an atmosphere cultivated where people are free to express any thought - so those thoughts can be challenged, examined, and potentially changed. Perhaps the person who expressed the thought would not be changed, but some listeners to the debate might be.

There is also the very huge issue of who decides what speech is criminal. In our society, it will usually be people like Stephen Harper.
but I think if enough people boycott and protest against his music, it will send the message that this type of hate speech is not tolerated.
Boycott and protest? Absolutely! We should, and we must. But if the expression is declared illegal and banned, we lose the opportunity to protest. We lose a huge opportunity for education. Plus the speaker becomes the victim. The only thing we gain is not having to hear something - but those thoughts are still in the person's brain and heart. The hate hasn't gone away.

* * * *

Update. Some of the people involved in one of the several conversations that led to this post feel they were misrepresented, even ambushed. I believe they think I participated in the Facebook conversation as research for my own writing. This is being characterized as deceptive and hypocritical, and contrary to my own principles of free speech.

The reality: after the discussion on Facebook, I had more to say, but - not wanting to use someone else's Facebook page as my own soapbox any more than I had already - I went to my own venue to continue writing.

This post reflects nothing more than my desire to express myself further. People often leave one venue to discuss ideas further elsewhere, both online and in person. It's not unusual, and certainly not duplicitous.

The opinions quoted and referred to in this post are culled from several different Facebook threads. The indented quotes were copied and pasted directly from one thread, but I found those opinions echoed many times over in many places.

I note, too, that one friend retracted her call for Action Bronson to be prosecuted for hate speech, and felt my blog post should reflect her changed opinion. I note that most people who I saw expressing this opinion did not similarly retract it.

I am inviting the parties who believe themselves misrepresented in this post to explain themselves further in comments. We'll put all their comments through moderation, and of course all wmtc readers will be free to respond.


march 14: speak out against bill c-51

Guest post by Allan:

Tomorrow - Saturday, March 14 - there will be protests across Canada against Stephen Harper's latest assault on democracy and free speech - Bill C-51 ("The Anti-terrorism Act 2015").

While Harper states the bill would merely "criminalize the promotion of terrorism" and give the government the power to remove "terrorist propaganda" from the internet, left unanswered is who defines "terrorism" and "terrorist propaganda". The bill is written in such overly broad terms it could be applied to nearly anything the Conservative government wants to deem criminal.

The introduction of C-51 comes on the heels of news that the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's spy agency, is operating a covert, mass surveillance program that monitors the online activities of millions of Internet users around the world. Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto, likened the CSE program to a "giant X-ray machine over all our digital lives. . . . Everything single thing that you do . . . is being archived, collected and analyzed."

To find out where the nearest rally is to you, click here or here. (Information about the Toronto rally is here.)

Amnesty International lists seven reasons to oppose C-51. Other groups endorsing the rallies include:, Idle No More Toronto, Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), Occupy Canada, and Greenpeace Canada.

C-51 will expand the mandate of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) while also allowing the Conservatives to increase their crackdown on legal political dissent.

Paul Champ, a civil liberties lawyer, said there are serious concerns that C-51 "is going to target not just terrorists who are involved in criminal activity, but people who are protesting against different Canadian government policies." Indeed, an internal RCMP report from January 2014, obtained by Greenpeace, reported that the so-called "anti-petroleum" movement is a growing security threat to Canada.

C-51 would relax privacy restrictions, lower the legal threshold for police to obtain a warrant, and allow Canadian authorities to hold suspects without charges for as long as one year. The Toronto Star reported the bill would give 17 security agencies "access to any information in any government department on any Canadian".

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, has sharply criticized the bill, saying it would "allow the Conservatives to turn CSIS into a secret police force". After some initial waffling, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has spoken out against C-51.

Silencing of dissent appears to be one of the bill's main goals. When May asked the public safety and justice ministers during question period if C-51 could be applied to non-violent civil disobedience, such as blockading along a pipeline route, she did not receive a direct answer.

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, said C-51 "proposes an unprecedented expansion of powers that will . . . impose a broad chill on legitimate political speech".

Harper and the Conservatives remain hostile to transparency and accountability. CSIS's internal watchdog was eliminated by the Conservatives in 2012 and C-51 offers little in the way of additional oversight. University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese says the Conservatives want to return to an era when the security services were free to engage in illegal, dirty tricks. He wrote that the bill creates a "secret jurisprudence on when CSIS can act beyond the law".

We must speak out against such obvious anti-democratic activities and resist Harper's totalitarian measures.


we like lists: things we learn from tv detective and murder mystery shows

If you enjoy detective shows, murder mysteries, and legal dramas, you learn a lot of things that don't necessarily reflect reality. Here are some things you may learn from these shows.

1. Women are crazy and kill people.

I have already blogged about and disproportionate percentage of female murderers on TV detective shows.

In reality, about 90% of homicides are committed by men. I don't know what percent of TV murderers are women, but on some shows it's well over half.

2. Defense lawyers are all scum.

On quality police and legal dramas, most categories of people are portrayed as both good and bad. There are honest prosecutors and corrupt prosecutors. There are valiant feminist crusaders and wacko women schemers. But only one character is uniformly and consistently portrayed in a negative light: the defense attorney. On TV, there are no honest defense lawyers. They are all evil magicians who use the law - often dismissed as "a technicality" - to subvert justice.

In the modern justice system, everyone is entitled to a defense. The revelation of scores of wrongful convictions points to the need for such a system. Yet in the world of TV detective shows, when a suspect "lawyers up," she is practically admitting guilt.

The award for the most scummy TV defense attorney of all time goes to Maurice Levy (played by Michael Kostroff), who defends the Baltimore drug dealers and murderers who populate "The Wire". Levy is also the only Jewish character on the show.

In "The Wire," as in many quality shows, characters have a lot of nuance. The good guys are deeply flawed, the bad guys sometimes show compassion, and sometimes it's not so clear who is good and who is bad. Except for defense attorneys. There is only one. And he is very bad.

3. CCTV is an important and useful law-enforcement tool.

The entire UK - and, of course, much of the US, Canada, and elsewhere - is now blanketed in surveillance cameras. Study after study shows that CCTV does very little to prevent crime, except in limited, closed environments such as parking lots or stores. You'd never know this from watching detective shows, in which CCTV is often a crucial link in apprehending very bad people who do very bad things. Yet another cultural trope to remind us that if you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to oppose surveillance - that is, to value your privacy.

Anything else?

thoughts arising from the death of a defender of free speech

This week's obituaries included the last living link to two landmark moments in the history of freedom of expression.

Al Bendich was just two years out of law school when he wrote the brief that is credited with the victory in the famous "Howl" obscenity case. In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's masterpiece "Howl" in book form and sold it in his City Lights bookstore (now a San Francisco institution). Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges; the story of his trial is tremendous. You can read a bit about it in Bendich's New York Times obituary; the movie "Howl" is also a good primer.

A few years later, Bendich would successfully defend the performer Lenny Bruce. Of the four court trials that Bruce would endure, the case that Bendich defended was the only one to end in acquittal.

* * * *

I noticed Bendich's obituary while the law - and its many uses and abuses - was on my mind. We had just seen the documentary "West of Memphis," about a horrendous injustice perpetrated by the justice [sic] and legal systems in the US state of Arkansas. (A feature film "Devil's Knot" was also made about this case. It is terrible. Skip it and go straight to "West of Memphis".)

"West of Memphis" is the story of how three teenage boys were convicted of a crime they did not commit, while the man who very likely did murder three young boys was never even arrested. Two of the teenagers were sentenced to life in prison; one received the death penalty. Only massive, sustained, unrelenting public pressure - and the involvement of several high-profile celebrities such as musical artist Eddie Vedder and director Peter Jackson - resulted in the release of the convicted men, but not before they served 18 years in prison and without exoneration.

The personal and specific stories of what happened to these young men is awful enough, but far more terrible is the knowledge that these wrongful convictions were not unusual. The only unusual part was the public spotlight and their eventual release.

As we've learned through the work of people like Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, and Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, wrongful convictions occur all the time. While they may happen for many reasons, most wrongful convictions have one root cause: political pressure. Prosecutors feel they must produce a suspect and get a conviction in order to retain public confidence in the criminal justice system, and ultimately, their jobs.

What kind of justice is that?

I can think of few things more awful - more frustrating, more anger-producing, more disillusioning - than a person serving time for a crime he did not commit. And I can think of few things more useless in terms of justice. Wingnuts who complain about the (supposedly) liberal fixation on wrongful conviction conveniently forget that each wrongful conviction represents a murderer and/or a rapist who is free to continue to terrorize and kill more victims.

* * * *

I used to refer to myself as a law-school refugee; when I was in university, I was under a fair bit of paternal pressure to take the LSATs, apply, and attend law school. The idea held a certain amount of appeal. (Me and my subconscious puns.) Through my early 20s, I still occasionally considered it, to get involved in constitutional law, as practiced by organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and other left-leaning public-interest groups.

"West of Memphis" left me thinking about the many paths lawyers may take. For a long time, I worked as support staff in law firms where wealthy lawyers help even more wealthy corporations make more profit, pay less taxes, destroy the environment, and buy legislation to do more of all three. They're on one end of a spectrum that ends, for me, with the legal warriors who work to overturn wrongful convictions, defend the environment, defend free speech, defend human rights and civil liberties.

So... thank you, Al Bendich!


guest post: "rob ford, eid prayer and the silencing of dissent"

Rob Ford, Eid Prayer and the Silencing of Dissent
by Fizza Mir

July 30, 2014

My Eid started out like most, enjoying a morning coffee after a month of abstinence, rushing to get to the downtown prayers at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and navigating through hoards of playful children and beautifully dressed congregants. The khutbah was moving and poignantly addressed the state of our Ummah. Even as we celebrated the end of a blessed month, our hearts were heavy and our thoughts consumed by the horrors unfolding in Gaza, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma . . . it seemed like an endless list of places. The Imam spoke proudly of the Arab Spring, a pride all Muslims shared. He spoke of the courage, fortitude and resilience of people who overthrew decades of tyranny for a chance at democracy and despite the unfathomable violence they suffered, the multiple prison terms they endured, the daily fear they confronted, they fought on.

After prayer, the festivities began. Families gathered around shared meals and children enjoyed carnival rides and activities - my son's favourite was the "Birds of Paradise" presentation. Approximately two hours into the festival my 13 yr old daughter and I spotted Rob Ford and his entourage making their way up the escalator. I was both surprised and disgusted to see him there, but was confident that he would simply be ignored and his appearance would be brief and uneventful. We continued browsing the maze of vendor booths and as we made our way back around I was aghast to see the swarm of people that had gathered around Ford! Taking selfies with him, shaking his hand, greeting him like some sort of celebrated hero and Ford was clearly revelling in it all. What was happening? What exactly was I witnessing here? Were people really not aware of Ford's racist belittling of immigrants? Did they not see how Ford's drug use spurred a police raid on the Somali community, while he and his privilege walked away free and clear? What about his relentless lying, persistent bullying (I could post several links here), his lewd comments directed at other councillors? What about his support for Israeli apartheid? Was this really someone people wanted to shake hands with, be photographed with, share an Eid selfie with???

At first my daughter and I just stood around watching the side-show in disbelief. Then we noticed a man weaving through the crowd shouting "Rob Ford's the best!" Like us, he had a darker complexion and could easily be mistaken for one of the congregants attending the festivities. He continued to yell, "Rob Ford, Rob Ford, Rob Ford!" urging the people around him (mostly boys and young men) to join his chant and it became apparent that he was part of Ford's campaign. What's worse was that there were various media crews filming the entire spectacle. Rob Ford had managed to co-opt our event, use minorities as his doting props and the footage would show the Muslim community seemingly cheering for this man. My spontaneous reaction was to try to counter the chants, I booed, I yelled "Go Home!" Nothing terribly articulate or witty, but nothing remotely profane either. I was immediately confronted by a couple of men and a woman who said I was being rude and that "he was a human being too," and I was obliged to be nice to him on Eid. Really? Was I obliged to let a loathsome man and his manipulative campaign team spin our special day into an apparent pro-Ford rally? Did we not just listen to an entire khutbah about justice and solidarity and standing up to tyrants? Not only had white, male privilege helped Ford evade any responsibility for his reprehensible actions as Mayor, but now I was expected to uphold that system of privilege by members of my own community, to be the model minority, to not make this man feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. My attempt at yelling was getting nowhere, I wasn't loud enough and frankly yelling just isn't my style, so we left, but the circus continued.

I searched for the rest of my family (my husband was at the carnival rides with our youngest) who were completely unaware of Ford's presence. After relating the incident, my older daughter suggested I quietly hold up a sign in protest and her friend suggested a slogan. My goal was to hold the sign behind Ford so it could potentially be captured in all the selfies. It was an attempt to do something; even something minor to interrupt what I feared would become an evening news segment about how Muslims celebrating Eid were expressing their support for Ford. My sign read, "Go Home! We can't a-Ford you!" Again, pretty benign as far as protest signs go. As I made my way back to the crowd and tried to position myself directly behind Ford, it wasn't long before a man, who I'm assuming was an Eid event organizer took the sign right out of my hand. He said it was his event and I wasn't allowed to hold up that sign. He said I was embarrassing myself and when I assured him that I wasn't the least bit embarrassed and that I was proud to express myself, he said he was embarrassed for me.

WATCH VIDEO 1: My sign is taken away. I asked a friend to help me blur out this person's face as it's not my intention to target him. But I did want to include this video because it illustrates what was happening and shows the crowd that had gathered around Ford.

Apparently standing there silently with my sign was more detrimental to our community's reputation than a swarm of rowdy, impressionable youth being incited to chant Ford's name. Apparently it was more necessary to confront me, than to stop the man who was manipulating the crowd. I was silenced, not Ford; I was expected to not make a scene, not Ford; I was treated like I was the problem, not Ford.

Before walking away, the organizer said to me, "Would the Prophet do this?" As if silently holding up a sign was shameful or unislamic. Our Prophet (PBUH) was an example of truth, justice and strength. He was kind, but firm. He was gentle and courageous. And when I think of his example I try to emulate this well known Hadith: "If one of you sees something wrong, then change it with your hand; if you cannot, then change it with your tongue; if you cannot then hate it in your heart - but this is the weakest of faith." (Sahih Muslim)


The bullying didn't end there. Soon after my sign was taken from me, a reporter who had witnessed the incident asked if I would mind speaking with him about why I felt a need to hold up that sign. As we tried to proceed with the interview, the same man who had been urging youth to chant "Rob Ford" began disrupting us. He started shouting at the reporter and then started shouting at me, trying to drown out my voice. At the end of the video you can also see how he was able to get bystanders to also begin shouting at me. Was this not disruptive, offensive, abusive behaviour? Did the organizer not feel a need to intervene when I was accosted by Rob Ford's campaigner? Was my sign more belligerent than this man's behaviour? Of course not! But I'm the easier target. It's easier to shut down a Muslim woman than to deal with Ford's bullies.

WATCH VIDEO 2: Rob Ford's campaigner disrupts my interview. He tries to intimidate the reporter then towards the end he begins shouting at me and encourages those around him to join his chant.

Post-9/11 and especially in the current Conservative climate, I recognize that Muslim communities and institutions operate under tremendous pressure and are justifiably fearful of 'rocking the boat.' The NSA/FBI's surveillance practices remind us that Islam and Muslims are under constant suspicion, and perpetually countering the Islamophobic narrative is challenging and exhausting.

I understand the desire to protect our collective reputation. But silence is not the answer. Quashing dissenting voices will not make us more palatable. As fully engaged and integrated Muslims, voicing criticism is our right, our duty, our strength. It's not an "embarrassment" and it never will be. What's embarrassing is the ignorance, the need to appease and the shameful lack of courage that was demonstrated on Eid.

As a Muslim woman of colour, I'm accustomed to being judged for my beliefs, my choice of dress, my political/social views, but I don't expect and won't accept such discriminatory treatment from members of my own community. Sure, Rob Ford's presence kind of ruined my Eid, but bullying and intimidation is his modus operandi - I know that. Being silenced and dismissed by some members of my own community was far more disappointing.

(Note: I didn't realize until after the fact that my daughter had recorded what was happening on her cell phone. Thanks for your quick thinking, Y!)

[Wmtc note: The man who organized the Eid event responded to Fizza's note, both on Facebook and with a phone call. Fizza thanks all her friends and allies for the support she received, and notes: "I just spoke with Z on the phone, as he reached out to personally apologize and clarify his position. We had a nice chat and I think we've both learned a lot from this experience. I'm so pleased that this has led to such meaningful dialogue, debate and introspection; it gives me such hope for our community moving forward. I still think we need to continue calling out and exposing Rob Ford for the bully that he is. Far too many people are still falling for his lies."]


freedom to read week 2014: celebrate your freedom to read

Image from Freedom to Read website
Freedom to Read Week 2014 runs from February 23 to March 1. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Freedom to Read Week in Canada.

Freedom to Read Week - called "Banned Books Week" in the United States - encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, a human right guaranteed to us under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For me, it is also a time to celebrate the library as a bulwark against censorship, and for library workers to reflect on our jobs in a broader political context.

FtRW 2014 is especially important to me, because it's my first FtRW as a librarian. I chatted with the Freedom to Read organizers at the recent OLA Conference, and will tweet this post for their collection. There are some wonderfully creative FtRW displays. Yellow caution tape is very popular, as are books in chains. Some libraries have done "mug shots" of customers and staff holding challenged books. In a library particularly beleaguered by community censors, a program where local writers and readers take turns reading passages from challenged books is a good awareness-raiser.

I created this display of challenged books - books that people wanted removed from public libraries - in the Mississauga Central Library. It incorporates two of my personal display goals: mixed collections (fiction, nonfiction, youth fiction, and graphic novels, all in the same display), and visually accessible signage. I had a great time researching titles, making signs, then trekking through the library with a cart and a clipboard, pulling books. (I love my job!)


surveillance at the border: outrage fades as we accept the new normal?

The surveillance state continues to grow; news of its magnitude continues to trickle out. Some people shrug, claiming only criminals and terrorists need be concerned, but in these extreme conditions, that attitude looks increasingly ridiculous - or government-sponsored. The rest of us shudder and shake our heads... but what more?

The Canada-US border has become another instrument of the surveillance state. For decades, people have claimed that border agencies had access to all our personal information, including tax and credit status. In the past, that was a myth. Now, what was once paranoid rumour appears to be true.

We, the surveilled, are not consulted on these changes. The changes are not open to public debate. Neither we nor our elected representatives have an opportunity to vote for or against them. They are being instituted by fiat. Those magical words - "national security" - make everything possible.

Some stories.

September 2011 (note date): Canadians with mental illnesses denied U.S. entry, Data entered into national police database accessible to American authorities: WikiLeaks

June 2012: "The United States will be allowed to share information about Canadians with other countries under a sweeping border deal.".

November 2013: Disabled woman denied entry to US based on medical records: The issue is not the US's border policies. The important piece of the story is how the US border had access to a Canadian's health records.

November 2013: Accusations that private health details of Canadians being shared with U.S. border agents sparks probe: NDP provincial health critic France Gelinas has been contacted by three Ontarians who have been denied entry to the US based on their personal health history.
Gelinas said another person she spoke to told her that they had been turned away at the border over a physical ailment that had nothing to do with mental health.

She wouldn’t provide any details to protect the person’s privacy, but Gelinas said she was told that the U.S. agent in that case also mentioned a fairly recent, specific medical episode that happened in an Ontario hospital.

Gelinas said at first she tried to find some explanation for why U.S. authorities might have the information, such as police records. She asked many questions, but nothing seemed to explain how the Department of Homeland Security got the information.

“The amount of their personal information that is spit back at them is astonishing,” she said.

“I have no idea how this could happen, but it did. I believe those people. They have given me physical, tangible proof that this happened.”

A person’s medical history must remain confidential, she said. To hear that specific details of a person’s medical history is being shared with a foreign government is “extremely alarming.”
December 2013: Toronto woman with bipolar disorder refused entry into U.S. for being a ‘flight risk’. This occured about a year earlier. The woman came forward after reading the highly-publicized story in November.

January 2014:
Canadian border officials plan to share personal information obtained under a new Canada-U.S. border data exchange program with other federal departments, the Star has learned.

The program, in which Ottawa and Washington will start sharing their citizens’ travel and biographic data this summer, means anyone from Canada travelling to or from the United States by land can have his or her information passed on to federal departments.

The Canada Border Services Agency confirmed the new practice and said data would be passed on only in accordance with stringent rules.
January 2014: If you need extra evidence of how these practices are not for our own safety:
Canada’s border agency misled the public on its highly touted “most wanted” list by inaccurately portraying some people as war criminals, says Canada’s Privacy Commissioner.

The finding came more than two years after refugee advocates complained that border officials violated the individuals’ privacy rights by posting their mug shots and personal information, including date of birth, on the Internet and social media.

Although the federal privacy watchdog said Canada Border Services Agency’s information disclosure was justified in its attempt to locate those wanted for removal from Canada, it chided officials for the loose use of the term “war criminals” to describe the people on the list. . . . .

Toronto immigration lawyer Angus Grant, who represented the complainant, said the commissioner’s finding vindicated what refugees’ advocates had said all along.

“The list was created for political purposes,” said Grant, calling the most-wanted list the Conservative government’s attempt to “vilify refugees on its own assertion that they were war criminals.”
It's not only health records, and it's not only entry to the US that's at issue.

November 2013, from DeSmog Blog: The Day I Found Out the Canadian Government Was Spying on Me: CSIS and RCMP spying on activists, and sharing that information in classified meetings with - you guessed it - Enbridge. Talk about the petrostate!

October 2013, from The Guardian: Canadian spies met with energy firms, documents reveal:
Government agency that allegedly spied on Brazil had secret meetings with energy companies.

* * * *

We must try to keep these stories alive. Government spying should be an election issue.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Open Media privacy petition


canadian woman refused entry to u.s. based on confidential health records

According to this news story, a Canadian woman named Ellen Richardson was refused entry into the United States because of a prior medical condition. That is, when the US border guards swiped her passport, information taken from her health records came up.

Now, the US can refuse entry to any non-citizen for any reason or no reason. The more important question is why was a Canadian's confidential medical information in the Department of Homeland Security database?? How did it get there? How many of our health records are in the DHS database? You don't need to wear a tinfoil hat to ask these questions, and imagine the troubling scenarios they raise.

When Richardson and the Toronto Star asked for an explanation, they were told:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection media spokeswoman Jenny Burke said that due to privacy laws, "the department is prohibited from discussing specific cases."
How's that for irony? Richardson contacted her Member of Parliament.
MP Mike Sullivan said what has happened to his constituent is “enormously troubling. . . . How did U.S. agents get her personal medical information?"

He said he will be getting in touch with federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart “and demanding to know how this happened. We’re very concerned if Canadians’ personal medical information is being communicated to U.S. authorities."

Richardson has also spoken to her lawyer, David McGhee, about what she believes to be a “breach of privacy" as well as an act of discrimination against people with mental health issues.

McGhee has sent a letter to Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews asking how this breach could have occurred.

“The incident in 2012 was hospitalization for depression. Police were not involved,’’ McGhee said. “I’ve asked Deb Matthews to tell me if she’s aware of any provincial or federal authority to allow U.S. authorities to have access to our medical records. Medical records are supposed to be strictly confidential."

U.S. authorities “do not have access to medical or other health records for Ontarians travelling to the U.S.," said health ministry spokeswoman Joanne Woodward Fraser, adding the ministry could not provide any additional information.
This is not the first time a story like this has surfaced. But each time it does, it is presented without context or explanation... and then we all move on. These questions are ripe for some investigative journalism, from someone who can afford to do such things. The Toronto Star, for example, might be interested.


on the internet, everybody knows you're a dog (the story behind the iconic cartoon)

We all know the iconic cartoon the title of this post refers to. Boing Boing has republished a story about it, originally run in The Magazine, an ad-free, reader-supported magazine that looks really interesting.

It's a wonderful little piece: the story behind the story, a glimpse into the life of people who try to earn a living from their own considerable talents, and a look back at the early days of the internet, and how things have changed, before tinfoil-hat predictions were proven to be not paranoia, but prescience.

Go here to read the story (really, it's fun), and here to see the rest of this cartoon. Please click through. The talented people at Joy of Tech get paid by clicks.


And now...


snowden: mass surveillance threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time

The heroic Edward Snowden, in his own words, via Jesselyn Radack, at the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee in Brussels.
I thank the European Parliament and the LIBE Committee for taking up the challenge of mass surveillance. The surveillance of whole populations, rather than individuals, threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time. The success of economies in developed nations relies increasingly on their creative output, and if that success is to continue, we must remember that creativity is the product of curiosity, which in turn is the product of privacy.

A culture of secrecy has denied our societies the opportunity to determine the appropriate balance between the human right of privacy and the governmental interest in investigation. These are not decisions that should be made for a people, but only by the people after full, informed, and fearless debate. Yet public debate is not possible without public knowledge, and in my country, the cost for one in my position of returning public knowledge to public hands has been persecution and exile. If we are to enjoy such debates in the future, we cannot rely upon individual sacrifice. We must create better channels for people of conscience to inform not only trusted agents of government, but independent representatives of the public outside of government.

When I began my work, it was with the sole intention of making possible the debate we see occurring here in this body and in many other bodies around the world. Today we see legislative bodies forming new committees, calling for investigations, and proposing new solutions for modern problems. We see emboldened courts that are no longer afraid to consider critical questions of national security. We see brave executives remembering that if a public is prevented from knowing how they are being governed, the necessary result is that they are no longer self-governing. And we see the public reclaiming an equal seat at the table of government. The work of a generation is beginning here, with your hearings, and you have the full measure of my gratitude and support.


snowden, greenwald, miranda, and the creeping police state: one month later, we should still be disturbed

One month ago, something happened that should trouble us gravely.

Something happened that people who believe in democracy and free speech and an independent media and civil liberties and human rights should find appalling and unacceptable.

It's old news by now; anything that occurs one month ago is ancient history. I wasn't able to blog about it at the time, and in a way that is good. Events of great significance occur - our rights continue to shrink, governmental powers continue to expand, fascism and police states continue to be normalized - and we rarely have a moment to process one slippery step before we slide into another.

On August 18, 2013, a man named David Miranda was taken into custody at London's Heathrow Airport. Miranda is the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald. And Greenwald, you'll recall, is one of the two people with whom Edward Snowden entrusted his evidence of the massive domestic spy campaign being perpetrated by the US government, with the help of Microsoft, Google, Verizon, Yahoo, among other of the world's largest corporations.

Miranda was detained for nine hours under "schedule 7", some fine print in the UK's sweeping so-called anti-terrorism laws that gives police broad powers and ordinary citizens little recourse. Throughout, Miranda was denied the right to his own counsel. He was not charged with an offense. Media he was carrying was confiscated, but we know that doesn't take nine hours to accomplish.

As I said, I'm sure you read about Miranda's detention when the story broke in August, and I hope you are not so jaded that you merely shrugged, without finding it truly chilling. In any case, for the sake of this post, let's take a moment to think about it and let it sink in all over again.

The government has a massive, secret program through which it spies - constantly and without cause or provocation - on its own citizens. Someone inside the survellience program courageously comes forward to reveal it. In doing so, the whistleblower risks everything. He must leave his country, must fight for sanctuary and safety, must start an entirely new life.

This whistleblower, Edward Snowden, entrusts two people - one journalist and one filmmaker - with the evidence he has gathered. And the partner of the journalist is detained under anti-terrorism laws.

Large numbers of ink and pixels have been expended on this topic, but I saw none more responsible and less equivocal than those from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. He writes:
On Sunday morning David Miranda, the partner of Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, was detained as he was passing through Heathrow airport on his way back to Rio de Janeiro, where the couple live. Greenwald is the reporter who has broken most of the stories about state surveillance based on the leaks from the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Greenwald's work has undoubtedly been troublesome and embarrassing for western governments. But, as the debate in America and Europe has shown, there is considerable public interest in what his stories have revealed about the right balance between security, civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy. He has raised acutely disturbing questions about the oversight of intelligence; about the use of closed courts; about the cosy and secret relationship between government and vast corporations; and about the extent to which millions of citizens now routinely have their communications intercepted, collected, analysed and stored.

In this work he is regularly helped by David Miranda. Miranda is not a journalist, but he still plays a valuable role in helping his partner do his journalistic work. Greenwald has his plate full reading and analysing the Snowden material, writing, and handling media and social media requests from around the world. He can certainly use this back-up. That work is immensely complicated by the certainty that it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe. The Guardian's work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper.

Miranda was held for nine hours under schedule 7 of the UK's terror laws, which give enormous discretion to stop, search and question people who have no connection with "terror", as ordinarily understood. Suspects have no right to legal representation and may have their property confiscated for up to seven days. Under this measure – uniquely crafted for ports and airport transit areas – there are none of the checks and balances that apply once someone is in Britain proper. There is no need to arrest or charge anyone and there is no protection for journalists or their material. A transit lounge in Heathrow is a dangerous place to be.

Miranda's professional status – much hand-wringing about whether or not he's a proper "journalist" – is largely irrelevant in these circumstances. Increasingly, the question about who deserves protection should be less "is this a journalist?" than "is the publication of this material in the public interest?"

The detention of Miranda has rightly caused international dismay because it feeds into a perception that the US and UK governments – while claiming to welcome the debate around state surveillance started by Snowden – are also intent on stemming the tide of leaks and on pursuing the whistleblower with a vengeance. That perception is right. Here follows a little background on the considerable obstacles being placed in the way of informing the public about what the intelligence agencies, governments and corporations are up to.

A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more."

During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian's reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government's intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK. But my experience over WikiLeaks – the thumb drive and the first amendment – had already prepared me for this moment. I explained to the man from Whitehall about the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organisations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments. Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?

The man was unmoved. And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian's long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian's basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. "We can call off the black helicopters," joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won't do it in London. The seizure of Miranda's laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald's work.

The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it. Most journalists can see that. But I wonder how many have truly understood the absolute threat to journalism implicit in the idea of total surveillance, when or if it comes – and, increasingly, it looks like "when".

We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint. Those colleagues who denigrate Snowden or say reporters should trust the state to know best (many of them in the UK, oddly, on the right) may one day have a cruel awakening. One day it will be their reporting, their cause, under attack. But at least reporters now know to stay away from Heathrow transit lounges.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression issued a stern caution about this, noting:
The protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violations. . . . The press plays a central role in the clarification of human rights abuses.
This is good, but useless. The forces that shape our world are increasingly decided outside any democratic body, whether in a G20 Summit or an arcane provision of a law that no one has read or debated. The UN's warning is a sneeze in a storm.

UK journalist Philip Bump also explains why this should cause us concern, and points out a few people who care, and a few who don't.
David Miranda, who was detained for eight hours and 55 minutes by British authorities over the weekend because they thought he was carrying NSA documents for The Guardian, is taking legal action against the government — a move that could crystallize the conflict between state security and journalism.

The British government's conflation of journalism with terrorism in the case of David Miranda is problematic largely because journalism, like terrorism, is no longer performed by discrete, centralized entities. Instead, journalists and those performing journalism around the world operate in small cells or individually. You post a video of police detaining a suspect to your Facebook wall, and you're committing an act of journalism — one that authority figures may not see as subject to First — or Fourth — Amendment protections.

In the battle with the security state, those who might commit acts of journalism have three choices: acquiesce, push back, or step away.

Miranda, who is Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald's partner, is choosing option two. The BBC reports that Miranda is taking legal action of an unspecified nature, challenging his detention and seeking to prevent the government from reading the information on the devices it collected. What that information is may only be known by filmmaker Laura Poitras, the person with whom it originated in Berlin, but there's little doubt it includes encrypted files related to the Snowden leaks.

The British Home Office released a statement about the Miranda incident. It reads, in part:
If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that. Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.
The most important word in that statement is "would." Not "could" help terrorism — a standard so loose that it might apply to millions of pieces of information and real-world objects. But "would." The British appear to be echoing the NSA's line that detailing how the government does its work is itself an aid to terrorists. (A claim perhaps undermined by the recent embassy closures.) It also appears to echo the argument made by the government in the Bradley Manning case: publishing information is aiding the enemy.

There are some to whom this argument is compelling. The British paper The Telegraph defends the authorities' action in detaining Miranda, as does the editor of Kernal magazine. (His article begins "PRISM blogger Glenn Greenwald’s Brazilian boyfriend, David Miranda…," providing a clear indicator of where his argument was headed.)

Rising to the defense of the American government is Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker. Toobin was criticized for his critique of the Snowden leaks earlier this month; Tuesday's essay is a continuation of that critique. "To be sure, Snowden has prompted an international discussion about surveillance," Toobin argues, "but it’s worthwhile to note that this debate is no academic exercise. It has real costs." Those costs are literal — the NSA having to build new surveillance systems — and figurative: "What if there is no pervasive illegality in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs?" Toobin states that there is "no proof of any systemic, deliberate violations of law" revealed by Snowden, then noting of the Post revelations about privacy violations that "it’s far from clear, at this point, that the N.S.A.’s errors amounted to a major violation of law or an invasion of privacy." Incidental violations of privacy law, averaging seven a day, are acceptable to Toobin, as a cost-saving measure.

Those specific defenses aside, the intentions of the British authorities cannot be considered outside of the context of their behavior. Late Monday afternoon, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger revealed the paper's encounters with British authorities over this information. In a weirdly archaic move, representatives of the government's intelligence arm forced the destruction of hard drives containing Snowden information, as though that limited their ability to travel. The authorities threatened Rusbridger, prompting the paper to decide to move its reporting on the topic out of the country.

And then there's the treatment of Miranda himself. For eight hours, he was denied the right to his own counsel. The end result was confiscation of his electronic media, something that could have been accomplished in less than an hour. But, Reuters reported on Monday, that wasn't all that the authorities hoped to accomplish.
One U.S. security official told Reuters that one of the main purposes of the British government's detention and questioning of Miranda was to send a message to recipients of Snowden's materials, including the Guardian, that the British government was serious about trying to shut down the leaks.
In other words, intimidation.

The Columbia Journalism Review offers a broader sense of the effect on journalism — behavior performed by far more than just journalists.
In light of Rusbridger’s disclosures, it’s even clearer that the detention of Miranda is part of an attack on American journalists authorized at the highest levels of the British government, and it’s an attack that is at the very least implicitly backed by the Obama administration. …

This is police-state stuff. We need to know the American government’s role in these events—and its stance on them—sooner rather than later.
The founder of law site Groklaw offered her response to the government's surveillance systems in a post this morning. In short: she's closing the site. That's stepping away from the fight, and a natural reaction to intimidation. But only one of the three responses — acquiescing, pushing back, or avoidance — offers the hope of reform.
And finally, for reference, The Guardian has an excellent page full of stories and links about what's at stake: The NSA files.


a witchunt and its backlash: interest in "a people's history" surges, thanks to censorship attempts

Once upon a time in the state of Indiana...
Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, one of the country’s most widely read history books, died on January 27, 2010. Shortly after, then-Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels got on his computer and fired off an email to the state’s top education officials: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away.”

But Gov. Daniels, now president of Purdue University, was not content merely to celebrate Howard Zinn’s passing. He demanded that Zinn’s work be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
The irony makes your head spin. I'd love for this guy to challenge A People's History on a factual basis. I'd love for him to find one sentence in the book that is "anti-factual".

In any event, this email exchange occurred in 2010, shortly after Zinn's death. We know about it now because the Associated Press obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. Bill Bigelow, co-director of the Zinn Education Project, "Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-hunt" (quoted above).

Now Common Dreams has this uplifting follow-up.
Public demand for Howard Zinn's classic book A People's History of the United States is surging, something likely to make former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels none too happy.

In July, the Associated Press revealed that Daniels, who is now president of Purdue University, sought to ban the works of Howard Zinn from Indiana classrooms.

But since his "anti-Howard Zinn witch-hunt" has been exposed, Zinn's People's History has become "a hot read at libraries" in the state, the South Bend Tribune reports.

St. Joseph County Public Library, for example, which only had one copy of Zinn's People's History just weeks ago, has now upped the number to 19 due to patrons' interest, but even that wasn't enough. They're all checked out now, and there are 10 people on a waiting list.

At Indiana University South Bend, the book isn't even on any required reading list for the fall 2013 semester, but all the available copies are currently checked out, the Tribune continues.

The surge in interest in the book hasn't been limited to Indiana either.

The Zinn Education Project, which promotes and supports teaching a people’s history (upper and lower case) in middle and high school classrooms, has also received a surge of interest in its teaching materials since Daniels' censorship attempts were exposed.

"Thanks to the exposure generated by former Gov. Mitch Daniels' attempt to ban Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States from Indiana schools and teacher education programs, the Zinn Education Project has been flooded with visitors looking for people's history teaching materials," Bill Bigelow, Zinn Education Project co-director, told Common Dreams via email.

"Teachers and parents have told us that they are redoubling their commitment to teach people’s history in the face of the proposed censorship. We invite other governors to attempt to ban Zinn's works—it helps introduce A People's History of the United States to huge new audiences," Bigelow added. 
Ask for it at your library today!


three library issues, part 2: rfid self-checkout

Increasing numbers of public libraries are moving towards a self-checkout system, based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. This is not the slow and often painful process you encounter in Ikea or Home Depot, where customers are forced to supply free labour by doing the work of cashiers, while corporations pocket the savings. (I've been planning to write about that for a while; future post.)

RFID in libraries is a simple process: you can view an example here. Customers can check out a big stack of items by placing the entire stack on the sensor and inserting their library card into a slot. RFID checkout eliminates the need to scan the barcode of each item individually, and several customers can check out all their items at the same time. Libraries will (or at least should!) still have a circulation clerk on hand to greet customers and help people who don't want to use the RFID equipment.

I have mixed feelings about this. RFID checkout is quick and easy to use. It does make the checkout process faster and more efficient. It also puts people out of work. And there are privacy issues inherent in the use of RFID that are largely being ignored.

First the labour issue. I don't expect companies to retain outdated technology in order to keep people employed, and in the public sector there is an obligation to hold down costs. But is the technology actually outdated, or is some corporation profiting from their ability to convince us that it is?

As the Mississauga Library System transitions into RFID self-checkout over the next couple of years, no one will be laid off (or so we are told), but people who leave or retire will not be replaced. This has been the case for many years; the workforce is being cut by attrition. Lower-skilled jobs continue to disappear, and options for decent employment continue to shrink.

The Mississauga Library is aggressively promoting RFID self-checkout to staff. In addition to saving time and being more efficient, we are told that self-checkout improves staff health and safety, and improves customer privacy. This strains credibility. The health of circulation staff has not been a major concern, and while circulation clerks will no longer see what items a customer borrows, RFID is not a privacy protector. It is a privacy threat. For more information on RFID privacy issues, see "RFID tags: Big Brother in small packages" by Declan McCullagh at CNET. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, authors of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID follow RFID-related news on their website, A more nuanced view is found here: How RFID Will Impact Consumer Privacy.

Customer privacy is of the utmost importance to the library, given the library's strong commitment to intellectual freedom. The ALA has formulated policy and best-practice guidelines for the use of RFID, but whether any given library system will follow them, I cannot say.

Karen Schneider, Chair of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee, has written an excellent paper outlining the pros and cons of RFID use in the library. Among the concerns, she writes:
8. Librarians nationwide have acknowledged that privacy concerns related to RFID are new territory. No profession cares more about its users’ privacy than librarianship. However, we are only beginning to connect the dots with respect to RFID. We as a profession need to develop best practices for RFID and advertise these practices widely. We can either manage this issue or let it bite us in the fanny as watchdog organizations and the general public ask, correctly, why, and how, we are implementing this technology in libraries.

9. Libraries are part of the general world commons, and none of our actions take place
in a vacuum. There is an inexorable march toward RFID in libraries, for highly
compelling reasons outlined in the first section of this testimony. However, we cannot
assume that our tags cannot be read by (or have no interest to) other organizations, or that we are not contributing to the accumulated It has been observed that libraries adopting RFID en masse send an overarching message that we understand and approve of this technology.

10. Libraries have proved vulnerable to national agendas. Recent legislation (CIPA and
the Patriot Act) demonstrates that libraries have become highly porous battlegrounds for
some of the larger privacy and public -forum debates in our society. With CIPA, many
library budgets became dependent on the telecommunications discounts made available
through E-Rate, essentially forcing some libraries to adopt draconian policies and
procedures that limit Constitutionally-protected speech to adult users. With the Patriot
Act, we have seen the government become increasingly inventive and aggressive in its
efforts to track the reading habits of library users.
We're told the principal reason for adopting RFID in the library is as a cost-cutting measure. Will it really save money? The system purchased by Mississauga costs $2.6 million, which doesn't include staff training or maintenance or future related costs. I honestly don't know how this compares to the savings in labour. It's possible that public funds have merely been shifted from employing people in the community to purchasing equipment and maintenance contracts from private vendors.

The frustrating part of this, for me, is the same as with most technological changes: the technology drives the change. This is available, so we'll use it. Those of you who want to study the issues can do so later, when it's too late.