Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and support the show through Patreon/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All of your support so far and hopefully in the future is so much appreciated. Thank you everyone.
Adam: The suspect fled on foot, police say. Call this number if you have any information. The incident took place at the 1500 block of Westheimer. Police say. Sources are telling us. Suspect is thought to be armed and dangerous. We’ve all heard this type of Official Copspeak before. The local press dutifully informs us about quote unquote ‘suspects,’ ‘gang members’ infiltrating our neighborhoods, rampaging through the streets, climbing through windows. The cops of course are just doing their part to keep us safe. Local media and community based messaging boards they pander to read like police blotters. Dial 1–800–985-TIPS for your friendly neighborhood detective.
Nima: But what if, and hear us out, republishing police department press releases is not really journalism, but rather free public relations for an already extremely powerful, routinely violent and often corrupt and deeply conflicted institution. What if the genre of so-called ‘crime’ reporting itself is inherently reactionary and the whole enterprise of how we think about ‘crime’ needs to be deconstructed and reconsidered.
Adam: On this week’s episode, we explore these questions. We’re going to talk about the genre of local quote unquote ‘crime’ reporting, how it came to be and why it’s so tabloidy and racist and why otherwise moral and good people choose to ignore how clearly bad it is on the altar of professional journalist norms.
Nima: Later in the show we’ll be joined by Sharlyn Grace, founding member and co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
Sharlyn Grace: What I would emphasize to people working as journalists now or who will become journalists, is that they are not just responding to a social climate or a political environment, they’re also constructing it. There are many structural issues with the way that we produce news, the way we fund newsrooms and the way that the fear generated by crime coverage gets people to tune in. They require deep thought about how we’re structuring information and how we’re communicating about each other and what’s happening in our world.
Nima: We’ll also be speaking with Malcolm London, a Chicago-based writer, performer and educator.
Malcolm London: You can very easily see that police, all the discrepancies, all the ways in which they lie in the machine replicates itself recognizing that journalism and the fourth estate is also a part of that machine and until folks reconcile with themselves what they are willing to believe, that shift won’t happen. So take inventory yourself. It’s that simple and also that complicated.
Adam: There are three elements of local crime reporting that we think are in urgent need of dissection and reconsideration and they all more or less follow this formula. The first is the media treating the police as the primary, if not only, source of information for a story effectively acting as press agents for the police, letting them drive the narrative and define what crime itself really is or how we view crime as such.
Nima: The second element is the routine plastering of mug shots online, effectively ruining people’s, mostly African American and Latino, lives all on the say so of police on speculation and long before anything actually goes to trial.
Adam: The third trope in this genre is the total omission of any type of crime other than street crime, which is broadly viewed as property theft, muggings, burglaries, murder. On the other hand, other transgressions traditionally ignored by police, such as wage theft, so-called white collar crime and even things like campus sexual assault are largely not seen as local crime stories.
Nima: So with those three tropes, we kind of move into, uh, the implications of what we see from this kind of ubiquitous style of, again, quote unquote ‘crime’ reporting. These reports have real implications on the public’s understanding of and also support for police friendly policies. For instance, a 2015 Quinnipiac poll suggested that Broken Windows policing, which we’ve talked about on the show before, and which is basically the harsh crackdown on low level offenses in order to deter more serious crimes but has far less benign consequences then that, uh, that Broken Windows policing is still largely supported by the general public. The poll found that 62 percent of New Yorkers, for example, where Broken Windows was first pioneered and really implemented by numerous police chiefs under the Giuliani, Bloomberg and de Blasio mayoralties, said that they wanted police to quote, ‘Actively issue summonses or make arrests for so-called quality of life offenses,’ end quote, in their neighborhood.
Adam: Yeah. And the media routinely presents police officers as heroes. Noble, risk-taking, selfless, altruistic, who sacrifice themselves for the good of community. A Gallup poll in late 2017 found that 56 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of police officers as high or very high, an approval rating comparable to high school teachers and dentists. Only 12 percent of respondents had low or very low opinions of police honesty. And this is not a reflection, for the most part, of people’s actual interactions with police. It’s the reflections of how television dramas and local news specifically portray cops.
Nima: So what all this kind of reporting does and what this polling shows is encouraging support for what is known as ‘community policing’ initiatives, generally defined as strategies for building trust between cops and the communities they patrol through cooperative and collaborative efforts between law enforcement, local leaders, clergy, businesses, landlords, homeowners, nonprofits, etcetera. And you know, in the abstract, sure, this, I guess, doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, but here’s the fundamental thing about these efforts and the crime reporting that bolsters support for them and for police more broadly, the solution is always seen as increasing the number of police on the streets. So a few years ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio added 1,300 new police officers to its ‘neighborhood policing’ program. This doesn’t really help assuage the notion that Black and brown communities are effectively occupied and often in service of new colonial residents, the gentrifiers, who we have discussed on the show before.
Adam: So, last year, just to give you some background, we’re going to focus on a website called Block Club Chicago, which for those who are outside of Chicago, you probably haven’t heard of it, but those here probably know it very well. Just for some background, after right-wing billionaire Joe Ricketts of Chicago, he owned DNAinfo and the Gothamist, he closed down both publications after they tried to unionize. The remnants of the employees of DNAinfo Chicago got together and had a really inspired Kickstarter to restart a local news publication. They raised about $180,000 and they founded this new website, Block Club Chicago as a nonprofit. It’s at a .org designation, and it was supposed to sort of usher in a new era of local reporting with a nonprofit based fundraising model that was going to quote, “promise nonpartisan essential coverage of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.”
Nima: Now unfortunately, with that kind of lofty mission, and certainly a well needed mission, Block Club Chicago still suffers, and particularly on the issue of so-called ‘crime’ reporting, from the same stunted ethical scope that all other local corporate media does as well. So time and again we see that Block Club Chicago’s reporting on, on so-called ‘crime’ consists of pretty much just copying and pasting Chicago police blotters about alleged crimes, with very little to no effort to actually report on any other source other than the police’s. No other side of the story is ever explored. So when they do actually leave their desks, the people writing up these crime stories, crime reports, their interviews are pretty much only with cops. So it winds up being investigative only so far as it is police stenography.
Adam: An article that I wrote for FAIR, FAIR is a media watchdog group that Nima and I occasionally write for, I did a survey along with research assistant John McCullough, we did a survey of two weeks worth of quote unquote ‘crime’ reporting by Block Club Chicago, from late September to early October and found that 61 percent of all the sources they cited were police. The rest were neutral witnesses, victims and zero percent were from adversarial sources. Attorneys of those accused, community activists, Black Lives Matter, Assata’s Daughters, any number of groups that are there to monitor and watch the police were completely left out of their so-called ‘crime’ reporting altogether.
Nima: And so these reports tend to end with the line, which I mean honestly could only come from a police press release, which is, ‘Anyone with information is urged to call detectives.’ That tagline is routinely put at the end of these reports kind of signaling that the source for this and then the ultimate conclusion and the ultimate consequence, the thing that readers should do, the action to be taken, is to then call the cops about these crimes.
Adam: Yeah. This effectively deputizes the reader to be a vigilante or to have more vigilance. It stokes fear and turns the reader into a crime stopper. And this crime stopper trope, which we’re going to get into more detail later, is something very, very common in local TV news and local internet reporting. Obviously Block Club is not alone in this. It’s a very common trope. We’re just using them as a sort of object lesson, but they are one of the worst offenders because they actually literally just cut and paste press releases, which is actually not that common. This is sort of the, this is kind of the lazier, more egregious end of the spectrum. The first problem of course with this is that journalists in general shouldn’t copy and paste press releases. That’s not what journalists are supposed to do. You’re supposed to report, not copy and paste other people’s work. This is something we’ve also talked about is very common with ICE press releases. There’s a common feature where people will literally copy and paste press releases from ICE. Now it’s not considered plagiarism in the journalist’s profession, because that’s supposedly what press releases are for, but it still conveys a degree of half-assery and power stenography. That’s a major problem. Now, if you’re going to copy and paste press releases, you really shouldn’t do it for those in power, which of course the police are. And you should certainly not end the press release with this, with this kind of do your part World War I style propaganda, right? Where the guy’s pointing at the camera saying, ‘do your part.’
Nima: ‘You too can stop local crime.’ (Chuckles.)
Adam: Yeah. Where you ask the average reader to find this suspect. Supposedly they’re supposed to be on the lookout for, right? This is post 9/11, like, lookout for terrorism —
Nima: Right. It’s the whole, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Let’s turn all of our cell phones into, into monitoring devices. It just kind of turns every citizen into a crime fighter, superhero, and cellphones are now the kind of Panopticon of society, all feeding back to police precincts.
Adam: And broader questions as to context about why police are releasing this information is never interrogated. In the context of Chicago, for example, could for example the Chicago Police Department have incentive during this two week sample size, this was during the Van Dyke trials, Jason Van Dyke was the police officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald, an African American teenager, in the context of the police trials, could the CPD be targeting neighborhoods occupied disproportionately by white liberals sympathetic to Black Lives Matter to show them that CPD is on their side? Could these crimes indeed have happened, but have been emphasized by the police for political reasons? Could the police do a straight line? The Obama DOJ did an investigation of the Chicago Police Department and acknowledged that the Chicago Police Department routinely cover up crimes, including by the way the murder of Laquan McDonald, which involved a massive cover up. And so you have this very untrustworthy source that just gets routinely stated as, as this enduring fact and the journalist doesn’t question whether or not there’s any broader context to these supposed crimes. And I got in on it, as you know Nima, on Twitter with one of the reporters, who I won’t name. And she said, ‘Well, it’s important people know about crime trends.’ And I said, ‘You don’t even know if the crime trend happened.’ She says, ‘Well, you’re right, I don’t.’ And I’m like, well, they just took the police at their word. I was raised and I was taught to not trust the police or at the very least be skeptical. Right? You don’t have to be paranoid, but you should generally take it all with a grain of salt and this is very common. This is supposedly this kind of woke, you know, nonprofit, community oriented newspaper that just mindlessly publishes what the police tell them.
Nima: So many of these local crime stories, as we’ve been talking about, report on events that take place in gentrified or rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and it gets again to the ideal audience for these reports. The criminalization of long-time residents of a community is common in these cases and in fact, we would argue, I think required as part of the gentrification process as Abdallah Fayyad wrote in The Atlantic in December of 2017 quote, ‘When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers — many of whom are white — are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.’ End quote.
Adam: Yeah, so there’s this issue of gentrification, which is policing, study after study shows, policing follows gentrification patterns. So the, by definition, the crime, quote unquote ‘crime’ that’s emphasized is going to be at the behest of, in the aggregate, not always, at the behest of gentrifying interest, namely wealthier white people and real estate interests. And it’s, you know, it’s important to note that Block Club Chicago, on its board of directors has two sort of journalist minded people and the third one is someone who works at Oppenheimer & Co., which is a large real estate investment firm. Now, does that inform their coverage? I don’t know. But there’s always real estate interest in how local crime reporting works. As we’ve talked about before, as we’ve talked about in, in New York City, about Kushner and Tompkins Square or The Daily News and Mort Zuckerman, that there’s always real estate interests that are driving this both in terms of who are the people who read it and these kind of community homeowner Facebook groups and also who has influence over the organization itself. And so both the police and the local media work in a kind of a symbiotic relationship of highlighting and focusing certain crime and not others. And this gets to the broader question of what is crime? And I think this is something that you want to tackle. You know you don’t want to get to dorm room about it, you know, we’re hitting the ball and talking about what is crime. But it’s actually a super important question. What is crime? According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute in 2014, the total amount of wage theft in the United States is greater than all personal larceny, robbery, burglary, car theft combined. Which is to say in monetary terms the most common crime scene is the workplace and the most common criminal is an executive or middle manager who steals from their workers. And yet we did a survey of all the coverage that Block Club Chicago has had in the last eight months and they never once covered wage theft. Not once. This is an infinitely coverable topic. You can go to any worker, any domestic worker, any waiter, any bartender and say, hey, have you experienced wage theft? And they’ll say yes, but this is not something that they prioritize. Why is that?
Nima: Well, because the institutional one-sided focus on “crimes” are pretty routinely seen as being committed by, you know, often one-off, if not like serial offenders sometimes, but routinely poor individuals. And that narrative resonates perhaps because of its kind of visceral nature, and the narratives that we have been beaten down with and fed for decades and decades. But there’s also the idea that there is this kind of emotional response, right? Being held up with a gun is more personally and individually frightening to the average reader than not being paid for like working late, right, or, like, working a shift.
Adam: Right. And this raises the question of even if that’s the case, then why ignore wage theft altogether and then the follow up to that is, yes, it’s true that violent crime, as it were, murder, being mugged is viscerally more interesting from a news perspective and I think that would be their argument, but this doesn’t really add up either because Block Club Chicago routinely covers petty shoplifting. In fact, they have a major story where they put up an African American woman who is 18 years old, they put up her mugshot saying this person shoplifted from an Urban Outfitters. So that’s not a violent crime. That’s not a visceral crime. That’s not, shoplifting is just as invasive as wage theft. Yet of course we only cover one form of crime because they’re getting their feeds of crime from the police who serve real estate and white interests.
Nima: Right. The idea that reporting mugshot and all on shoplifters exposes how, you know, it’s not just if it bleeds, it leads, right? Like, that’s not that sensationalist. That’s not a story that demands coverage in this way. So there’s clearly something else going on here and I think that also it gets to part of what we’ve been talking about, which is that the police and in their feeding the press these stories, is never scrutinized about whether they’re telling the truth or not. So we can explore the idea of, ‘Oh well, you know, why would the cops have any reason to lie on their police blotter about certain crimes being committed in certain neighborhoods?’ Like, ‘Isn’t crime bad and therefore they wouldn’t want to do that?’ Like you can, you can go around and around. But the idea is these reports not only reveal that, ‘Oh, well these neighborhoods are in need of policing.’ But they also affirm that cops are on the case, right? So it also kind of has a pacifying effect on the audiences intended that it’s not just, ‘Oh, well, you know, people are being mugged I shouldn’t move to that neighborhood.’ It’s, ‘Oh well people are being mugged in the neighborhood that I’ve moved to, but thank god that’s getting cleaned up and I can also do my part,’ and never investigated is the fact that police routinely lie, like, all the time.
Nima: This is not just some kind of lefty finger wagging like there are plenty of examples to choose from. For instance, a 2015 WNYC radio report described the rampant problem of credibility within the NYPD.
Man: WNYC spent five months looking at how often the NYPD’s 35,000 officers are found to lie and what happens after. We found more than 120 officers with documented credibility issues over the last 10 years. These are mostly officers whose testimony a judge called “unbelievable.” It’s an incomplete list because state law makes most records of police misconduct confidential. Most officers with credibility issues stay on the force anyway. We found 54 who made more than 2,700 arrests after a judge or disciplinary panel found fault with their word.
Woman: The takeaway is the NYPD doesn’t really care when their officers lie.
Adam: In 2016, a Chicago Tribune investigation found routine practice of police officers lying on the witness stand in court citing more than a dozen examples over the past few years in which police officers, according to the judges, gave false or questionable testimony, but they almost never experienced any repercussions.
Nima: And just this past summer, 2018, the Miami Herald reported that police officers in the Miami suburb of Biscayne Bay had been ordered as per department policy to arrest any Black person with quote, ‘somewhat of a record,’ end quote, and then pin unrelated crimes on them. The goal of this blatantly illegal and despicable practice was to achieve perfect crime stats, which the department then bragged about. One cop subject to these directives summarized what his superiors encouraged and it was this quote, ‘If they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglary.’ They were basically doing this to have a 100% clearance rate for the city.
Adam: There is no other institution that lies as frequently, as routinely and institutionally as the police do that would still be given per se credit like the police are as telling the truth. The fact that we have to sit here and explain to our listeners that police lie is absurd, but we have to do it anyway because we have to establish that this is not something we’re just asserting that police routinely lie, as you know, all institutions do. As all governments do, as all, as all corporations do. They lie, you can’t trust them. So why are police, according to local news and local media, local affiliates, Block Club Chicago, New York 1, why are police per se, always telling the truth when it comes to reporting crime and why are they not viewed as a deeply, deeply conflicted institution that should not be seen as the primary mover of quote unquote ‘crime’ stories.
Nima: And also it should probably not be the ones deputizing other citizens to do that job. And that job is what they define as stopping crime. Right? Which is why we get the very common segment on local TV, the Crime Stoppers segment.
Man #1: That is why Crime Stoppers has become such an important tool.
Woman #1: You are urged to call Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers.
Man #2: If you have any information on who these suspects are call Crime Stoppers 1–888-CRIME.
Woman #2: You are urged to call Crime Stoppers or they’re asking you to call 9–1–1
Woman #3: Urged to call the Baltimore County Police Department
Man #3: Urge to call.
Woman #4: Urged to call —
Woman #5: You are urged to call —
Man #4: Urged to call —
Man #5: Now if you recognize the man or the Mustang in the video you are asked to call Crime Stoppers. Back to you.
Adam: As Josmar Trujillo detailed in FAIR, friend of the show Josmar, detailed for FAIR last year that the Crime Stoppers, the New York Crime Stoppers, every city is different, there is a federal Crime Stoppers, there’s other cities, but then New York Crime Stoppers is funded by the Police Foundation Project, which is a parallel private foundation set up to fund NYPD initiatives. And New York 1, which is a 24 hour news show in New York, a search of New York City in NY1’s coverage shows hundreds of segments and thousands over the past years, according to Josmar, about imploring people to send tips to the Police Foundation’s Crime Stoppers headlines, in fact, most if not all of NY1’s Crime Stoppers stories finished with these instructions. Quote, ‘Anyone with information on the case should contact the Crime Stoppers hotline at 1–800–577-TIPS, or text CRIMES and then enter TIP577, or visit www.nypdcrimestoppers.com.’ Now again, this raises the question of why doesn’t NY1 just get funded by the police if they’re going to act like public relations for the police?
Nima: But the collusion between the media and the police goes far beyond that. They also pat each other on the back all the time. So this past summer, 2018, NY1 was actually honored by the Police Foundation and specifically by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for featuring Crime Stoppers coverage. So they were lauded for kind of doing the cops PR for them. Local reporter Clodagh McGowan accepted the “Chief of Detectives” award directly from O’Neill on behalf of the New York 1 news team and its parent company Spectrum Media. McGowan said, quote, ‘I think it’s so important that we have this partnership with the NYPD where they can impart, share with us, some of the media, of the videos, the pictures that they collect, and we can turn it around, get the information and get it on the air.’ So again, this is where the routine practice of posting mugshots of saying, the cops said this happened, this suspect did this, we’re looking for these people, if you see anyone who fits that description of a young Black person, of a young brown person, call up the tip line. And this goes all the way up to stories in the local press about gang raids, which we have discussed before.
Adam: Yeah. The New York Daily News is the worst offender at this. They literally hide in the bushes waiting for the, they’re tipped off by the New York Police Department to embed with them as they do these kind of sexy gang raids, pre-dawn raids — the Zero Dark Thirty language — and they publish the faces of people, you know, put their alleged crimes up again, indelibly on the internet for all of time. The New York Daily News says, without qualification, they don’t even do the ‘police allege’ or ‘police say,’ they refer to those arrested as quote, ‘120 violent hoodlums,’ and quote, ‘unrepentant gang-bangers.’ Again, along with their names and faces. Now the NYPD, this is entirely on the NYPD’s say-so. They don’t know any of this. They were just arrested. They don’t know if there was innocent people caught up in the dragnet. They don’t know. They don’t care. The police word is as good as any because they are not separate from the police. They are part of the police propaganda apparatus and quite open about it. This is not some abstract claim. This is something that they themselves view themselves as. And when you, when you see these interviews and hear them talk they’ll sort of say that they’re there to sort of stop crime. They are vigilantes.
Nima: So we see not only the militarization of police departments around the country, but also then local media serving as embedded reporters. And so having that relationship just further militarizes what we see not only from cops but also from the press. That they are working hand in glove to share this common story.
Adam: In 2010, The New York Times reported that this Police Foundation, the quote unquote ‘nonprofit wing’ of the Police Department, paid for a high-status journalist to ride along with the Police Department. They set up a journalist to go with Police Task Force to visit police stations and observe police working in counterterrorism. Dan Rather joined a search, this is The New York Times words, quote, ‘Dan Rather joined in a search for a robber at a housing project.’ Unquote. Barry Diller, who is the owner, who is the main owner of The Daily Beast, was assigned to a Police Department’s Harbor Unit. So here you have, you have journalists sort of partnering with this foundation to kind of get inside the NYPD and of course what they’re getting is a public relations tour.
Nima: Right. It also generates massive donations from these high-profile celebrities and business people to the New York City Police Foundation. So for instance, Barry Diller, after being on the Harbor Unit, his company, IAC, which he’s the chairman of, and Chelsea Clinton sits on the board as well, IAC donated at least $10,000 to the foundation after, after his fun little pretending he’s a harbor cop and Dan Rather admitted to donating money after he got a flak jacket and started running around the projects like a fucking hero.
Adam: And, of course the whole thing is so mindless, you know, I use the word mindless and people sometimes think I mean that it somehow gets people off the hook, but it’s, it’s mindless in the sense that it’s just the way it is. And people don’t think, you know, I waited tables at a restaurant that held a benefit for the, for the NYPD Foundation in 2009 and it was hosted by ESPN’s Dan Patrick who did a Q&A with, with Ray Kelly, you know, this is a normie sports reporter and this was supposed to be, it’s just normal, right? The police are our friends, they’re just buddies. There was no sense at all that, that journalists should be inherently adversarial to the police, or as they would any other institutional power.
Nima: To further discuss the collusion between the media and the police as well as broader problems in “crime” reporting, we are going to be joined by two guests, Sharlyn Grace, founding member and co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund and Malcolm London, a Chicago-based performer, activist, poet and writer. Stay with us.
Nima: Joining us now from Chicago are Sharlyn Grace and Malcolm London. Thanks so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Malcolm London: Thanks for having us.
Sharlyn Grace: Thank you for having us.
Adam: So the issue of today’s show is ‘crime’ reporting. As we discussed earlier in the show, one of the primary problems with local crime reporting as we identify it, is the default institutional belief among reporters that the police are at best your friends and at worst a kind of neutral entity. Police department claims are rarely verified and largely taken as gospel. In your opinion, how is this assumption one that one can sort of begin to deconstruct? Because it is kind of mindlessly accepted amongst people we’ve talked to. In the work that y’all do in, in sort of your own personal views in general, what are the ways we can kind of begin to deconstruct this idea of police as kind of neutral arbiter? Just kind of just-the-facts-manism.
Malcolm London: Listen to Black people. I don’t think I’ve ever had the notion or assumption that police were my friends ever since I’ve been alive. And so that experience is, you know, I would say collective one from the side of the city that I live on. I suspect it’s a similar experience, for the majority of people who look like me. And so I think for years folks have been saying this and so I think how to tell somebody that, you know, police are racist and policing is racist or that maybe they are unfriendly to certain kinds of people, I think is one that folks have been saying. So I would say start listening to those people, listening to people of color and believing them when they say these things so you can very easily see that police, all the discrepancies, all the ways in which they lie and the machine replicates itself, recognizing that journalism and the fourth estate is also a part of that machine. And until folks reconcile with themselves what they are willing to believe, that shift won’t happen. So take inventory of yourself and it’s that simple and also that complicated.
Sharlyn Grace: Yeah, I would just second everything that Malcolm said. I mean, I actually talk a lot when we talk about bond court and bail reform here about the role that police report’s play in bond court and reporting from bond court and talk about how the Black Lives Matter movement has taught white people, but people in the US, I think white people especially, that police lie, right? The Laquan McDonald video and subsequent trial of Jason Van Dyke has reinforced for everyone who’s paying attention that police lie in their reports, they lie in their press releases and that taking what is said as truth is deeply, deeply damaging and naive of the role that police play in US society.
Nima: So one subject that we think is kind of crucial to so-called ‘crime’ reporting is basically what is considered crime in the first place. So, you know, a lot of this reporting is almost limited to what’s generally considered, let’s say street crime, right? So crime that strikes fear into the hearts of comfortable middle class, often white residents, stuff like robberies, burglaries, shoplifting, you know, but all the way up to like murder but rarely reported on if really ever are other crimes, wage theft, massive white collar crimes. Um, where do you see that kind of fitting into this reporting that one side can strike the fear into the hearts and the other side goes completely ignored.
Malcolm London: Yeah. I think for me, I had that realization in high school, I’ll speak from personal experience and I went to realizing the dichotomy of justice and how it is very warped and different depending on who you talk to. And so in the microcosm that was my high school, I went to a high school called Lincoln Park High School and it was located in the neighborhood, that was going through gentrification but directly next to, what infamously known as Cabrini-Green. And that neighborhood I saw, I was in double honors and IB programming and I saw how separate justice was when they’re very, I’m 16 years old, all kids in this high school smoked weed and experimented with drugs and all the kids who had the most heavier drugs were the wealthy kids and the kids in IB and the kids I am in class with. The kids who had like the shitty reggie weed with seeds in it were the kids who were getting arrested, who’s lockers were being sniffed, who, who dogs are being called. And they looked like me and I saw very literally in high school, I said, ‘Well, there’s something wrong.’ My school is saying drugs is wrong, but the people who are getting arrested and the people that are being targeted in my school when I know this kid who was a good friend of mine, his folks were from Winnetka and he lived, you know, they had a house in Winnetka and a house in Lincoln Park on the coast, I mean, not the coast, sorry, I’m from Chicago. We view Lake Michigan as a coast, but on Lakeshore Drive, I’ve been to his house. This kid moved more weight than anybody I’ve ever known. You know, the fear that he never had was being targeted by police. And so for me, we have to be honest about the way the justice system moves. And so even when we look at a white collar crime, right? The 2008 home crash, the stock market crash, these are people doing gambling with money, taking things from banks, some of the most violent crime is happening in the stock exchange because of who they are taking advantage of, the money that they’re playing with and the narrative of the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We have to, as participants in this democracy, have to realize what we define as violence, what we define as crime because I think a young person selling a dime bag of marijuana to anybody to survive is not a crime. I don’t define that as crime. The law defines it as crime and crime has to be defined as harm not necessarily an attack on property.
Sharlyn Grace: Yeah, I mean, I think Malcolm covered most of what I would touch on or say. What I was going to say is that I generally don’t use the word ‘crime.’ Like when I’m talking.
Sharlyn Grace: It’s a meaningless word. It’s a dog-whistle for racists to refer to Black people or cities or urban environments. When I want to talk about something that’s an undesirable social behavior, whether that’s wage theft or locking people up in cages, incarcerating people, then I talk about harms, because I don’t talk about crime. I think what Malcolm said about how the government defines crime and who benefits from those definitions and shifting definitions, is important to center in this conversation. I think there are so many things considered crimes and covered extensively as such in the media, whether that’s turnstile jumping, getting on the train, like what is the crime in using, people using public transportation to get around the city, of transportation that they pay for, that we all pay for and we want people to use or marijuana or other drugs that have gone back and forth between being crimes or not being crimes at different times. And what everyone with any investment in human wellness knows as a public health matter, that would be better addressed without criminalization. We continue to criminalize it because it serves other purposes of social control. So.
Adam: So on the issue of crime reporting, we talk about the very nature of what it is to have crime. Now, one response that our critics give us, because this is something we’ve talked about before in social media and reporting, is that editors will say, editors and writers at these publications, we’re speaking about New York 1 or local news or Block Club Chicago, what they’ll tell you is that they’re under pressure to report the news and that street crime is per se news and that these kind of broader epistemological problems aren’t really in their scope of professional obligation, is sort of a variation on, you know, hey, ‘I’m just a comedian,’ right? Sort of don’t judge what I say. ‘I’m just a comedian.’ ‘I’m just a reporter.’ ‘I’m just a journalist.’ ‘I’m just reporting the facts.’
Adam: This seems kind of pat to me. It seems kind of cheap to me. If any of these reporters are listening or if any perspective reporters, anyone who’s in journalism schools listening to this, what would you all say to them and is this good enough? And what is the obligation of a reporter to think critically about these broader questions without getting too philosophical, but I mean, on a day-to-day basis what do you think their obligations are?
Sharlyn Grace: I actually think about this a fair amount, because of being an advocate and an organizer and trying to get coverage for our issues and thinking about who will cover it and the way that beats are divided up and who is at different outlets and the different frames that outlets have. And, and I think what I would emphasize to people working as journalists now or who will become journalists, is that they are not just responding to a social climate or a political environment. They’re also constructing it.
Sharlyn Grace: There are many structural issues with the way that we produce news, the way we fund newsrooms and the way that the fear generated by crime coverage gets people to tune in. They require deep thought about how we’re structuring information and how we’re communicating about each other and what’s happening in our world. But it is very easy to look at the different styles of different publications and different individual journalists and see who is committed to interrogating underlying causes of certain sorts of behavior. Who is actually making an effort to speak to people from communities that are impacted by, who are oftentimes most likely to be criminalized, but also experiencing the most harm versus only quoting people who are a part of law enforcement or part of the formal criminal legal system, um, part of the state apparatus. Who’s using language that labels people permanently in relation to criminalization and who is using people first language or describing actions instead of describing whole people in relation to one event.
Adam: ‘Suspect.’ ‘Criminal.’ Right.
Sharlyn Grace. ‘Felon.’ Yes. All of those things. I think along with that, one thing that it’s important to do is to interrogate words that journalists often use naively or intentionally as objective that are highly subjective words like ‘violent,’ as Malcolm touched on earlier on, that really have no consistent meaning and to, as much as possible interrogate dichotomies that are offered such as ‘victim,’ ‘perpetrator,’ other labeling words that seek to divide people into neat categories that usually don’t exist if they’re actually explored further.
Malcolm London: Yeah. Agreed.
Nima: Yeah. So what then do you see as being systems that can be produced or created or supported or that currently exist to kind of redress this issue of local news as police blotter and then where do police fit in and do they ever? What kinds of things would warrant their involvement or are there, are there none?
Malcolm London: The country and the time in the world that we live in cannot ever get safe under the assumption that those in power one to keep us safe. And I feel like that’s where we have to begin to think critically, right? I mean, like in this moment of global warming, of extreme wealth and extreme poverty in this moment of famine, we live in the most technologically advanced time in human history. If you believe for one second we just haven’t figured it out then, my golly, you have a beautiful heart —
Sharlyn Grace: (Laughs.)
Malcolm London: A very, very naïve mind. And we have to stop. You know, I, I’ve been organized for a long time. I’ve been in spaces where I talked to a lot of white, moderate, liberal folks in pertaining to America and that really wholeheartedly believe that, oh man, you know, ‘That poverty over there is just, if those kids just had a good mentor then racism would end,’ and that shit is dumb.
Sharlyn Grace: (Laughing.)
Malcolm London: And we have to, we have to think about that and we have to encourage and move people to get beyond that mindset because it’s a dangerous one. Ignorance is dangerous, not bliss. And so right now, so when you asked me that question, I say: No, the police do not belong. No, policing does not belong in keeping anyone safe, because policing in and of its existence exists to protect and uphold and maintain the status quo of white supremacy, of racism, of sexism, of transphobia, of gender binaries. All of that shit is connected. Really all you have to do is listen to the people who are marginalized. Start there. That’s really all you have to do. If you know you don’t know shit, then go learn. You know what I mean? So, so yes, the police do not belong in the world that I want to live in. And what I mean is not that there shouldn’t be safety or that there shouldn’t be people dedicated to helping people and people who are funded by taxes to help people. No I want, I want that system, but it doesn’t look like men with guns who are trained for six months and are awarded the ability to murder and get away with it consistently since the inception of their existence. That isn’t isn’t the world that I want to live in. Right? And so the media, do I think there should be a conglomerate owned by another holding company on top of another holding company who all have the same message, who give this atrocious cheeto more time and who don’t criticize enough Barack Obama and Democrats and the policies that they have? And no, I don’t want that type of media. I want a critical one that, that allows for journalists to have an opinion that allows for the people who do investigative journalism to not be afraid to say that something is wrong. I don’t want to be informed by people who can’t, I don’t know the codes and ethics of journalism, but right now they’re being used to, at least from my perspective, marginalize folks farther and uphold this illusion of free speech.
Sharlyn Grace: Malcolm’s being very humble and talking abstractly but I think that part of the way we reframe this, people don’t have to consciously become critical media consumers when there is a national and even global potentially paradigm shift around what policing is and what it means and the role that police play. And that Malcolm and so many thousands of other people have been really crucial in making that paradigm shift happen. So I mean like social movements are important for improving our media coverage, our media consumption. And then I would also just say there are new efforts to reshape media and I think City Bureau in Chicago is one of those ideas that is just critical and as giving, is really focused also on giving young people of color and people of color from neighborhoods in Chicago access to creating media and telling their own stories as opposed to having some kind of sort of like colonial model and people who live in the suburbs are going out into neighborhoods and they’re doing quote unquote ‘crime’ reporting. And then also I’m really excited about the conversation interrogating the idea of objective journalism. So, like, Lewis Wallace’s book that will try to have a public conversation among and within the journalism profession about this myth of objectivity.
Adam: Can you talk to us about City Bureau? Like what specifically that they’re doing that’s different cause I think that’s the kind of logical rejoinder to this, people will have, which is ‘Okay, well you think the way we do it is bad, but what is, what is an alternative?’ With an understanding that of course it’s not perfect, but like what are the steps?
Sharlyn Grace: Well, one thing that City Bureau is focusing on getting access to journalism as a career, as a profession to communities that are the subject of journalism but are underrepresented in newsrooms. Some of the ways they’re doing that is through fellowships again, that prioritize young people of color and people from neighborhoods in Chicago that are disproportionately criminalized and getting them writing and telling stories from their neighborhood. They, in addition to doing stories, they also do public events, so providing different ways of consuming news and discussing news. So they have weekly public newsrooms on the South side of Chicago, where they will have people in, guest hosts. So the public newsroom to talk about things that may have been covered or things that are newsworthy they have a documenters program that sends people out to cover public meetings. So things that are increasing access to information that is supposed to belong to the public, is supposed to be accessible to the public, but it’s very often not because of scheduling or other reasons that people can actually go to these meetings about governance, governing their neighborhoods, their city, their county, and making that more accessible.
Adam: Yeah. One of the things that emerges is a kind of ecosystem of quote unquote ‘crime’ reporting that goes through these neighborhood watch Facebook groups. This is, I think what generates a lot of traffic for publications like Block Club Chicago, right? Sort of many times they literally just copy and paste police blotters, which is obviously very problematic. There’s this sort of intersection that Nima and I talk about offline between what is a very fascist threat, I think, a kind of vigilante-ism and white liberal new homeowners, especially in gentrified areas. There’s a study we link to in the show notes and we talked about earlier, there’s a study that shows that police disproportionately target gentrifying areas because real estate interests want the quote unquote place ‘cleaned up.’ Right?
Sharlyn Grace: Well, I would say that there is an active collaboration between these neighborhood groups, again, disproportionately in many in many gentrified neighborhoods occupied by newer residents, by whiter and wealthier residents, than the people who have lived in the neighborhood in the past, there is active collaboration and cooperation and that it is a, it is an explicit strategy. So actually as part of the We Charge Genocide, there was a project where people would go to the community policing meetings, CAPS meetings that the Chicago Police Department held in different precincts and I’ve been to probably half a dozen CAPS meetings myself as part of that effort and I was going in Albany Park, where I lived at the time, and there would be strategizing among the gentrifiers and the police at these meetings about how to target problematic buildings, what they would call ‘problematic’ buildings. And the police would share strategies for using things like administrative violations. So city tickets for different things like maybe violations around porches or um, I don’t know if the lawn or something like different kinds of what we think of as administrative violations in order to flag the property so that there could be greater police attention and resources directed at that. And it would be things like families of color where, you know, white people who are at the CAPS meetings believe that there is some kind of drug trade happening in relation to the house or just that the kids were, the teenagers were loud or people came and went at different times or the same social norms that these white people wanted in their new neighborhood that they have claimed as their own were not being observed by their neighbors. And there was an active, very explicit conversation among people at the CAPS meetings and the police about how to criminalize that behavior, whether or not it was actually a crime and how to turn violations of white social norms, white wealthy social norms into criminalized behavior that the police could then be motivated to respond to or called to respond to. And so I think it’s really important that we know that and we talk about it not as like a happenstance or something that is accidental or coincidental because white people love the police and they move to a neighborhood they call them. It is intentional, it is explicit, it is advocated for by people we pay with tax dollars. We all pay, everyone who lives in the City of Chicago pays for the employees of the Police Department who work with CAPS and they are actively working to expel our most vulnerable residents and neighbors from these neighborhoods. So that’s just a reality that everyone should reckon with and that deserves more attention than it gets I think.
Malcolm London: Yeah, we have to do that tough work of admitting or at least opening our eyes to the realities of where we live and a lot of it is not, I love that you said about, it is not a coincidence that these things are happening and that people aren’t, you know, inadvertently, replicating a system that they think is icky. It’s that you are truly a participant. Whether it’s from the side of journalism, whether you live in a neighborhood that you just want to move to because it’s cheap and how you show up. Yeah. And that exam part, that is a through line, but we just have to be brutally honest with ourselves about what we’re doing and how we show up for each other.
Nima: Yeah. I think the point that criminalization of communities as being integral to gentrification, not a byproduct, is a point that we made earlier on the show and that I think can’t be stressed enough and also speaks to the purpose of Broken Windows policing. What do you guys see as being something you guys are really paying attention to, maybe locally in Chicago or more nationally, that we can all also pay attention to and support the good work that you guys do.
Malcolm London: Yeah, I mean right now in Chicago, the epicenter of this fight and what we’re talking about, they’re trying to build a $95 million cop academy, and No Cop Academy in Chicago currently right now, and I think political education around what is it, shortly after the named conviction of Jason Van Dyke, more political education is seeing that one, around the fact that one conviction does not change the power police have over Black people’s lives. And so those are two that folks can keep their eyes on.
Sharlyn Grace: Yeah, I would obviously second No Cop Academy. That campaign is just incredible and really inspiring and it’s already been successful at slowing the pace of sinking more money into the Chicago Police Department and also at undermining this fantasy that training of police will reduce their violence. And I would add, if I put on like my more like policy wonk hat, one thing that I would say I think helps this conversation is when there is more public availability of information about what’s going on because one thing I’ve noticed locally and journalism covering ‘crime’ in air quotes, covering, um, criminal justice reform, covering social movements, that are working against criminalization, working for Black liberation, is that journalists, when they are reliant on system actors to get information, to get data, there’s a big emphasis on data, there are only certain people within the system who release data to journalists that it creates a power relationship there, that I see in reporting that, you know, you can’t say X thing about this office because then next time you want to write a story about Y thing they won’t give you the data and they’re the only ones that have it. So I think the more information that we have, so there isn’t that power relationship in being able to cover basic things about what we’re doing as part of our courts and how we’re treating our fellow community members, and also so that people who are, who want to interrogate the narrative in news stories or the official narrative from the criminal punishment system about what’s happening, also have access to information and can interpret it differently, can ask different questions of it, can challenge the official narrative.
Adam: Well, I think that’s a good place to end. Thank you so much guys.
Nima: Yeah, this has been so great. We’ve been speaking with Malcolm London, a Chicago-based performer, educator, activist, poet, writer, as well as Sharlyn Grace, founding member and co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund. Thank you so much both of you for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Sharlyn Grace: Thank you.
Malcolm London: Thanks for having us, man.
Adam: Yeah, so that was a, that was some interesting perspective. I’m having moved from New York to Chicago it’s always, I don’t want to make the show too Chicago focused, but uh —
Nima: Yes, you do.
Adam: A little bit. Hopefully me being here we can highlight some of the Chicago activists and, of course, Sharlyn, co-founder of the Bond Fund, we did a fundraiser for the New York Bail Fund, uh, Chicago Bond Fund, you know, came first.
Adam: So yeah, we talk about these things in the abstract and there’s a reason why we had the defense attorneys in the live show. There’s a reason why we have activists here. You have to sort of reiterate that these racist practices and police stenography are not academic problems. They actually really have a negative effect on how activists do their jobs and how defense attorneys do their jobs, that they do carry a lot of water for forces that we think are broadly not, not good. I do want to point out that after the FAIR piece published Block Club Chicago published a response after the got, the piece went, not viral, but it was passed around a bunch of circles, their response, which we’ll have in the show notes called, ‘Why (And How) Block Club Chicago Covers Crime’ doesn’t really engage my piece directly even though clearly that’s what it’s responding to. In fact, they’re so petty, they simply say, quote, ‘This week, we received some questions on Twitter about why we report on crime.’ These weren’t questions on Twitter. This was a response to my piece. And just be clear, it wasn’t just my piece. There were contributions by Sarah Lazare and research assistant John McCullough. Nima, like what we talked about offline, they were sort of very defensive.
Adam: Didn’t really address the substance of it and then cynically used a rape from 2015 that they used a mugshot in to capture a rapist allegedly as a really cynical kind of shield against criticisms that they publish mugshots of victims. None of the issues of police stenography were really addressed, they hid behind this idea that they were somehow doing what the quote unquote ‘residents’ wanted without any indication as to what makes a ‘resident,’ what the racial or class makeup of these supposed ‘residents’ are, what percentage they are hiding behind this sort of nebulous will of the people is, is just an iteration of the Fox News ‘some say’ ‘some are saying.’ This way, they don’t have to be accountable to anything, right? Because they can say, ‘Oh, well the people want this. Some nebulous free market demands it therefore our mindless police stenography is justified.’
Nima: Yeah. I think that’s such a critical point to make that this kind of reporting is so constant. It is built into our environment of receiving media, of kind of the air we breathe. This is the essence of how journalism about these issues works so that we barely even notice it. It is just baked into what we understand about our own communities, about our own society and about our role, the role of police and the role of the media in it. So thrilled that we were able to talk to Sharlyn and Malcolm to highlight this stuff and to get back to this topic, which we’ve addressed a number of times on the show, but hopefully from different angles each time and can illuminate different aspects of this trope and narrative that we find really important to delve into.
Adam: And I beg people who are listening, who are either journalists or perspective journalists like please, please think about the genre you’re working in. I know you’re poor and hungry and I know that you have $80,000 in student debt sometimes, but know that there is no neutral actor here, that you are acting as a de facto agent of the police and the state. And that comes with certain responsibilities. And that’s all I’ll say. I don’t want to scold too much, but think about it, you know, I’m finger waggin’ a little bit.
Nima: Yeah. A little bit, just a little bit. But, you know, talk to other people.
Adam: Consult them.
Nima: It’s not, don’t stop at just the cops.
Adam: Please god, go talk to someone else. But like, it’s really someone else, not some like, you know, token Democratic operative, like, go to an actual activist, talk to an abolitionist. Talk to someone who thinks the police are bad, try to get other perspectives.
Nima: Before we go, we wanted to do a little bit of Citations Needed housekeeping. There have been some corrections that we want to make on some previous episodes which we wanted to do on air to really make it official. There’s a ton of work and research and writing that goes into each of our episodes, but of course Citations Needed, uh, we don’t always get everything exactly right during our conversation. So we wanted to point out some of those things. Number one, in Episode 52: Attacks on Affirmative Action and the Commodification of Diversity, we said that Nancy Leong coined the term ‘racial capitalism.’ That is not in fact true. She uses it in her work, but the term actually originated with Cedric J. Robinson, namely in his seminal 1983 book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.
Adam: In Episode 48: Shifting Media Representations on Abortions (Part I), I screwed up. I said that the paywall on JSTOR was there so academics could protect their IP, but it’s absolutely not for the benefit of academics, it’s for the publishers. A couple academics pointed this out to me, I apologize.
Nima: And in last season’s Episode 45: The Not-So-Benevolent Billionaire (Part I) - Bill Gates and the Western Media, we refer to Eli Broad as the founder of Gap. He is not, in fact the founder of Gap. He is the founder of KB Home and also a huge charter school supporter. But we regret those errors.
Adam: Yeah. So any corrections you have or anything that we get wrong, by all means, let us know. We try to read everything. Thank you so much for your support and your keeping us honest.
Nima: So now we will really leave it there follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. Your support really means everything to us. It keeps the show going. An extra special thanks to listener Andrew Schustek for donating some super sweet microphones and other equipment to the show that has been also really amazing. So thank you. And of course an extra special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan and the music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, October 17, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.