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St. Louis Police Team Up with Media to Smear Black Lives Matter Protesters

Black Lives Matter protest
Flickr user fibonacciblue

St. Louis Police Team Up with Media to Smear Black Lives Matter Protesters

On September 15th, a Missouri judge found white former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of the 2011 slaying of black motorist Anthony Lamar Smith. The second the verdict was announced and activists poured into the streets to protest, local police and government officials with the help of local and national media began framing the protest narrative as one of random, irrational “violence” from “agitators” in urgent need of coordinated crackdown.

The questionable verdict at the heart of the case–in which a white police officer threatened to “kill” a “motherfucker” while carrying an AK-47 on his person–was quickly set aside, and the media in St. Louis covered the spectacle of the occasional rock throwing and broken window. A typical media pattern emerged in the days followed: context was largely stripped away, the occasional act of property destruction was centered above all else, and pro-police voices vastly outnumbered those of activists and the broader black St. Louis population.

Both local and national media routinely ran reports citing little more than government officials or Stockley himself. Articles about the initial unrest in major outlets such as CNN (23/1), Washington Post (10/2), New York Times(7/0) set the tone, featuring a total of 40 quotes from government officials (or the acquitted police officer) and only three from protesters or those representing the Smith family. Local media fared worse. Outlets such as Fox affiliate Fox 2 dedicated entire posts to trivial property damage comprised entirely of St. Louis PD press releases and tweets.

Given that the police and government officials served as the primary source for the majority of the coverage, the narrative surrounding the protests, understandably, was pro-law enforcement in nature. It would take something as egregious as an unmarked police car backing into a crowd of protesters or riot police stampeding an old lady on video to solicit negative coverage.

Meanwhile, the police departments and Missouri governor Eric Greiten used social media to publish full-blown agitprop; unlike with Ferguson in 2014, this time police were prepared with aggressive social media spin. The St. Louis police department Twitter account took the unprecedented step of doxing arrested protesters, publishing their full names and addresses in a transparent attempt to shame the arrestees before they had seen a lawyer, much less been found guilty of any crime. After immediate backlash they defended the decision by insisting “arrest records are open records” — a dubious justification since the police Twitter account had heretofore never done this.

The next day, county police tweeted out a picture of an officer holding what was clearly labeled “apple cider” (commonly used by activists to ameliorate pain from tear gas) and insisted it was “unknown chemicals used against police”. This too was mocked but not before the propaganda goal of 1,400 retweets was achieved.

Even the governor got in on the act, tweeting out a police video of a protester being dragged away and–falsely it turns out–accusing him of breaking windows. “Some criminals broke windows… Officers caught ’em, cuffed ’em, and threw ’em in jail.” the presumably macho Governor tweeted despite the man in the video doing no such thing.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the Baltimore unrest in April 2015, when several media commentators noted the BPD Twitter account had gone from providing routine information to peddling falsehoods and hysteria. Instead of criticizing the use of government resources to propagandize against its own citizens, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave their efforts a glowing write up, playing up the us-vs-them approach:

But while activists spread their message and mastered tools such as live-streaming video and sharing photos that characterized protests and the issue of police brutality, local police departments often let the narratives go unanswered on the platforms where they were shared.

Not anymore.

The whole premise of the article is that local and state authorities–with their sizable public relations departments and cozy relationship with the press–are somehow a scrappy underdog fighting back against Big Protestor. While the piece does briefly mock the apple cider incident, it ignores the incendiary doxing of arrestees and mostly treats aggressive social media propaganda as a long overdue corrective. (It should be noted, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has glaring diversity issues: 9 percent of their columnists and zero percent of their editorial board are black in a city that’s 49 percent African-American. 5 of the 7 members of their editorial board–which has written several hand-wringingeditorials telling the protesters to shape up–are white men.)

The uses and misuses of the St. Louis County Police Department’s Twitter account typified the incestuous relationship between local media and the police since, it turns out, the @stlcountypd account is run by former Fox 2 reporter Vera Culley — who left her job as a local reporter to work for the police at the height of the Ferguson unrest. Her powerpoint on how the police should “engage” social media with “facts” during the Mike Brown protests can be found here.

Compounding the bias is the fact that St. Louis local television news–like many local markets throughout the country–is growing increasingly concentrated and right-wing in nature. In addition to the standard issue Fox News pro-police bent on the Tribune-owned Fox 2 affiliate, the St. Louis ABC 30 affiliate is owned by Sinclair, a documented far right, pro-Trump media conglomerate (note: Tribue was recently purchased by Sinclair. Assuming the deal is approved, this would render 3 out of 5 of local TV networks in the St.Louis area Sinclair-owned).

This Sinclair-owned ABC 30 affiliate’s only news show since 2015 (they dumped straight news in 2001) is a commentary show called The Allman Report, hosted by Jamie Allman. An infotainment firehose of rightwing red meat typically ripping off the latest headlines from Breitbart and Daily Caller, The Allman Report occasionally features a liberal foil but mostly features rants and tabloid segments against “social justice warriors” and Colin Kaepernick from its titilar blowhard. Headlines include “Protests, Violence Impact On St. Louis Area Economy”, “Should Children Be Pushed To Protest?” and dispatches from Allman’s cherry-picked black anti-protester voice “Mr. White” who is, not surprisingly, “mostly on the same page” as Mr. Allman.

In the two weeks since the verdict, Allman (despite the best efforts of his seemingly earnest but dopey liberal sidekick) has worked to smear and demagogue the protests on a near daily basis. The show consistently featuresadditional commentary from the dubious Show-Me Institute, a local far right “think tank” funded by the Koch Brothers-created State Policy Network.

Another dodgy example of local media working in tandem with police was local affiliate KMOV, who “obtained” a private jailhouse phone call made by an elderly, black protester arrested and another reporter for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A report on the call, supposedly acquired through a “public information request”, propped up the police’s narrative of events, complete with random editorializing (either done by the reporter or the police, it’s unclear). Note how all the interjections mitigate charges of police misconduct:

  • “In the call from jail, Frye makes it clear that she wasn’t hurt…”
  • “Frye says prior to that, she did hear a dispersal order from police…”
  • ”When asked what she wants the public to know, she makes does not reference the actions of law enforcement during the arrests”.

The article is of little news value other than making the police’s case for them. This ethos is consistent with KMOV’s other reporters, such as Lauren Pozen, who was bizarrely interested in discerning who at one protest (where widespread police abuse was documented) was a demonstrator and who was a shopper. While reporting live at the Galleria Mall protests she tweeted out in regards to one arrestee, “I did look (sic) the 18 year old on twitter. Profile says #blacklives matter.” The implication being that anyone with a show of support for BLM is per se worthy of arrest.

Another popular media angle played up beyond any objective news value was the theme that the protests were doing irreconcilable damage to the local economy. In addition to conservative press like Daily Caller, the story was echoed by ReutersSt. Louis Post-Dispatch, and CBS 5 . All took a decidedly business-friendly tone, populating their stories with real estate developers and right-of-center economists expressing fears the protests could harm the local economy and even cause Amazon to pass up St. Louis as a location for its second headquarters.

Again and again, how the occasional broken window harmed local businesses, potential economic development, and local police was the the center of the story. What was rarely covered in real time was the rampant police abuse in response to the protest, such as the mass arrests at the Galleria Mall protest––which the American Civil Liberties Union has since filed suit over and two top city officials called “disturbing.” Police claims of self-reported injuries were repeated without question while activists claims of excessive force and arbitrary arrest were not aired, much less used as a frame, until some City Council members, the ACLU, and the Mayor called for an investigation several days later–after evidence of abuse became too great to ignore. For days, dozens of stories led off with the “Protesters in St. Louis turned violent” set up without ever entertaining the possibility it was the police sparking violence or, at the very least, helping to do so with their aggressive tactics.

It’s difficult to marshal support for police reform when so much of how the public perceives not just police killings, but the backlash against them, through a decidedly pro-state lense. Local Black Lives Matter activists–underfunded and impromptu, by definition–have a hard time competing against police Twitter accounts with sizable journalist followings, slick public relations departments, and the assumed gravitas of “officials say” talking points ready to be cut and pasted. Those covering similar events should correct for this, not give undue deference to police claims. Instead, the focus should be political context over riot porn and the rights of people over the spectacle of damaged property.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Nevada Supreme Court says man cannot be tried again after prosecutors hid evidence

Nevada Supreme Court says man cannot be tried again after prosecutors hid evidence

A former Las Vegas hospital executive cannot be tried again on charges of theft and misconduct after prosecutors withheld hundreds of pages of evidence in his first trial.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Lacy Thomas, the former chief executive officer at University Medical Center, cannot go on trial again due to the misconduct of the Clark County District Attorney’s Office. The first attempt to try Thomas ended in a mistrial in 2010.

“All evidence before the district court in this case suggests that the prosecutor intentionally and improperly withheld exculpatory documents,” the Nevada Supreme Court wrote in a majority opinion authored by Justice Lidia Stiglich. “This conduct was egregious, and caused prejudice to Thomas which could not be cured by means short of a mistrial. Therefore, double jeopardy bars reprosecution of Thomas on all counts.”

The ruling is likely to please criminal justice advocates who fear that prosecutors can often withhold evidence with no serious punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court refused declined to take a strong stand against this earlier this year in Turner v. United Stateswhich ruled that the withheld evidence in that case was not material in the murder of Catherine Fuller in the District of Columbia.

Prosecutors in that case did not provide defense attorney’s with the name of another man who’d been seen in the area where Fuller was murdered, and that man, James McMillan, was convicted of a similar murder seven years later. But writing for a 6–2 majority Justice Stephen Breyer found that even if the defense had that information, the seven men convicted of Fuller’s murder would have still been found guilty.

Thomas was arrested on allegations that he steered millions of dollars in University Medical Center contracts to friends and associates. Some of those contracts were duplicative of other work or completely unnecessary, prosecutors said.

But two weeks into Thomas’ trial it came out that prosecutors had not turned over 577 pages of documents, mostly minutes from weekly meetings held by hospital department heads and executives with a company that had a contract with the hospital.

In ordering a mistrial District Court Judge Michael Villani ruled that the documents could have helped defense lawyers find other witnesses.

“The court finds that the defendant has been substantially prejudiced by the lack of disclosure,” Villani said in declaring the mistrial.

But Clark County prosecutors working first for District Attorney David Roger, and then Roger’s successor, Steve Wolfson, have been seeking to retry Thomas since the original mistrial in 2010. Defense lawyers argued that double jeopardy prohibited it.

The trial court ruled that Thomas could be tried again because prosecutors didn’t deliberately withhold the documents, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

Prosecutors said they didn’t intentionally withhold the documents, but two police detectives testified they informed Deputy District Attorney Scott Mitchell about the material and handed over documents to prosecutors.

Mitchell, the lead courtroom prosecutor, told the trial court he’d never seen the documents before, but the testimony of the police detectives makes that difficult to believe, Stiglich said.

“These statements were directly contradicted by the testimony presented at the evidentiary hearing, which established that Mitchell had been provided with the documents on multiple occasions, and informed of their contents,” Stiglich wrote. “This strongly indicates that the failure by the prosecution to disclose the documents was intentional.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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Like during the Civil Rights Movement, peaceful NFL protesters have exposed the mean-spirited bigotry of America

Like during the Civil Rights Movement, peaceful NFL protesters have exposed the mean-spirited bigotry of America

The American Civil Rights Movement had many aims, but one of the central goals of peaceful, non-violent marches and demonstrations was to expose those who opposed equality and freedom for what they truly were — hateful, mean-spirited bigots. The strategy of non-violence in the face of racist taunts, death threats, police dogs, water hoses, and even violent physical confrontations was rooted in ancient theologies and philosophies, but its practical, immediate goal was to help show the world that the fight for equality had sides — good and evil, right and wrong.

When young Freedom Riders had their bus bombed and burned as they neared Anniston, Alabama it exposed those who opposed them. When Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor turned high pressure hoses on peaceful protesters, it exposed him for what he truly was. When milkshakes and sodas were poured onto the heads of peaceful people aiming to integrate lunch counters, it exposed just how cruel segregationists were willing to be to make their point. When churches were bombed and little girls were blown to bits, when peaceful leaders were shot and killed on balconies and doorsteps, when sweet little black girls were booed and hissed at by grown women as they walked into their newly integrated schools — the world was watching — and what they saw ultimately provided the public pressure and momentum needed for the passage of the groundbreaking legislation known as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Peaceful protestors and demonstrators, who are simply asking for reasonable, meaningful reforms on issues of police brutality and continued racial inequality, are being cruelly demonized, ridiculed, and harassed.

It’s hard to fully recognize and understand a moment of history when you are in it, but right here, right now, we are in a moment that is painfully similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Peaceful protestors and demonstrators, who are simply asking for reasonable, meaningful reforms on issues of police brutality and continued racial inequality, are being cruelly demonized, ridiculed, and harassed.

Last week, in Saint Louis, hundreds of protesters took to the street after a judge issued a not guilty verdict in a case where Jason Stockley, a white police officer, shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man. During a brief car chase, Stockley can be heard on a recording saying, “We’re going to kill this mother fucker, don’t you know it.” Stockley also instructed another officer to ram the police car into Smith’s vehicle. Moments later, Stockley exited the vehicle and shortly thereafter killed Smith.

As the St. Louis police broke up the protests and ordered people to disperse, some officers could be heard shouting, “Whose streets? Our streets,” which is as an appropriation of a well-known Black Lives Matter chant. Interim St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said later that evening that the over 80 people arrested that evening (which included an AP journalist) are “criminals,” and he told the press that his officers “owned the night.”

As Carimah Townes reported earlier today for In Justice Today, a few miles away, at the Saint Louis Galleria mall, which is across the city boundary into Saint Louis County, a group of people gathered to protest the verdict in the Stockley case, as well. Here, too, the police deployed overly aggressive tactics in the process of arresting 22 people. When officers roughly detained the 13-year-old grandson of Karla Frye, a 56-year-old black woman who serves as an elder in church and runs a non-profit organization, Frye apparently tried to jump on the officer’s back to stop him.

The officer is seen moments later choking Ms. Frye. You know what Robert “Bob” McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney did? As Townes reported, he charged Ms. Frye, an elderly black woman, with assaulting a police office, rioting, and resisting arrest. She was arrested and held on a $10,000 bond.

If Saint Louis County and Bob McCulloch sound familiar to you, it is because he failed to secure a grand jury indictment against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. During the unrest that followed both the shooting and failure to indict Wilson, law enforcement used military-grade vehicles and riot gear to patrol the protests that erupted.

Saint Louis isn’t alone. In the wake of videos emerging of police shootings and excessive force from around the country — in some ways, the modern analogue to the photos of Bull Connor and the high pressure fire hose — protests have erupted in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and other cities, large and small, across the country. Through these videos, and the protests they have inspired, Americans are becoming awakened to the extreme callousness with which officers police mostly poor, mostly black and brown, communities.

Indeed, the desire to bring attention to police brutality led NFL players like Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem. This form of peaceful protest, which respects and reflects the best of our country’s traditions of civil rights driven dissent, created an opportunity to amplify the already bubbling national conversation about brutality and discrimination in policing.

And, then, Donald Trump happened. Last Friday, Trump, at a political rally in Alabama, called peaceful non-violent protesters in the NFL “sons of bitches” who should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem. Never in modern American history has the President of the United States spoken so openly with such cruel vulgarity about peaceful protesters. Yet, since then, Trump has apologized for neither the sentiment nor the language. That’s because Trump’s failed presidency needs to mainstream, as a form of distraction, the horrible bigotry often exhibited by anonymous white supremacists and trolls on the Internet.

Trump’s hate-filled stump speech is purifying, though. When it comes to police shootings or the use of excessive force, we know that race drives outcomes in the same way we know that gravity exists. What Trump’s speech did, though, is to lay bare the racism that hides just under the surface in America. The President gives permission to people like Paul Smith, the Pennsylvania fire chief who posted on Facebook that he was putting Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on a list of “no-good niggers.” How racist do you have to be, and how racist must you assume your Facebook friends to be, to post something so horrible on social media?

Trump’s words also gives cover to people like Colonel Kriste Kibbey Etue, the Director of the Michigan State Police, who posted a message on Facebookcalling the athletes who took a knee against injustice this past weekend “ingrates” and “anti-American degenerates.” She later issued a half-hearted apology in which she basically said she was sorry she posted it on Facebook, but failed to acknowledge the fact that it is deeply disturbing for one of the highest ranking law-enforcement officers in the state of Michigan to think what we now know she thinks about these peaceful protesters.

Her actions are not without troubling context, though. In 2013, two black cops with the Michigan State Police won a huge lawsuit against their department for racial discrimination. In the years since, those same officers have said they have faced mistreatment and retaliation from within the department. The recent comments from their own Director only serve as more evidence that all people are not seen as equal there — from the top down. If the Etue sees peaceful NFL players who demonstrate as less than fully human, how must she and the officers under her command feel about the everyday people they are paid to serve across the state? How must it affect criminal investigations when a leading member of an essential law enforcement agency has such demeaning thoughts about people?

Just yesterday it was revealed that the owner of a very popular, upscale Wisconsin restaurant publicly called for protesting NFL players to be killed.

Over 200 NFL players took a knee or a seat during the National Anthem this past weekend. Hundreds more demonstrated in other ways. The harsh, demeaning backlash we are seeing from many white people in power only confirms the need for people to protest in the first place. The hope is that this ugliness gives salience to the underlying fight for a fair and humane justice system in the same way the lunch counter provided a window for empathy and attention during the Civil Rights Movement. Trump, the fire chief, and the director of the state police have each exposed that what’s really in their hearts isn’t patriotism and love of country, but bigotry and plain old meanness. It’s up to us to convert that hatred into the fuel we need to transform the justice system.

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