Archive for category: Policy & Law


08 Jul
July 8, 2018

Fifteen years as a newspaperman taught me a few select things. One is this:

It is the god-given right of every American to resent or even hate his local newspaper. Indeed, it is our birthright to hate any and every news organization, print or broadcast. It is not certain that you will avail yourself of that right, or that you will invoke it consistently if you do, but it is there for you whenever life doesn’t go the way you want.

Your hometown newspaper will highlight your most embarrassing utterance at the PTA hearing or detail your company’s bankruptcy, just as it will at some point ignore your daughter’s performance in the school play or miss the zoning hearing at which a porn shop is dropped a block and a half from your son’s middle school. It will herald some political views you abhor and denigrate some politicians you wish to cheer. It will spell your name incorrectly when you are named the Rotarian of the Year and dox you with precision when you are cuffed and processed for driving drunk.

A good newspaper has no real friends and some fixed and certain enemies — namely those who wish to operate without the critique or attention of others. And these are the givens even in a healthy national culture, with a politically mature leadership and norms of governance that discourage the worst fascist impulses.

But now, Trump.

If you think that a great mass of Americans aren’t content to cheer the destruction of open speech or the mechanisms of dissent at this very moment, if you think there is still an abiding reservoir of Mill and Voltaire and Jefferson on which we can draw, then suffer the social media commentary in the wake of Annapolis. Between they-had-it-coming sneers and what-did-they-expect critiques of media performance, the consensus among this president’s supporters has also congealed around the most delicate and ridiculous decouplings of Trump’s fascistic performance from its inevitable outcome:

“He was only attacking Fake News.”

No, the President of the United States was attacking a host of national media organizations by name — so many and so often over the past year that it was in effect an attack on the mainstream media as a whole. And by declaring the very product of so many institutions to be fraudulent and a great national danger, the president was creating a scenario in which any attempt to strike at the product or its creators could be handily elevated to the mantle of patriotism and heroism by extremists willing to do so.

“The shooter had a longstanding beef with the newspaper.”

Yes, he did. For seven years, the man who would shoot up the Annapolis Capital-Gazette’s newsroom bickered over the coverage he had received online and in court. Yet what is also evidenced is that his escalation to violence came at a point after Donald Trump, lost in his own grievances and impulses, used the presidential podium to declare bluntly and openly that journalists and the falsehoods they deliver were the greatest peril to the nation. Chronology makes Donald Trump’s demagoguery more complicit in Annapolis, not less so.

“The gunman was deranged.”

No kidding. And every reporter who ever did the job has stood at the newsroom mailbox or opened his emails to discover that a shallow, but permanent sedimentary layer of mental illness, pathological resentment and disordered thinking undercoats the readership or viewership of every news organization. They’re out there. And what they vent and threaten rarely has any grounding in the necessary or ethical parameters of journalism. Hell, it rarely has any grounding in basic sanity. Professional journalists toss the crazed hate mail and dodge the screamers on the phone extensions and continue to report and file. They shrug it off as a matter of weekly routine. What else, after all, can they do, other than hope that the space between someone’s rage and derangement and any resulting gunfire is not narrowed by political leaders declaring that journalists are the people’s biggest enemy and the greatest threat to the republic?

But no such luck. Donald Trump gleefully delivers the same vitriol to the unhinged supporter as to those grounded or discerning. Of course the gunman had his own grudges. Of course he was deranged. It is ever thus. What other cohort embarks time and again on mass murder? Trump’s declarations of who the great national villains are will reach all ears. And only a self-absorbed fool or an indifferent sociopath would stand behind the presidential seal and tar the press as enemies of the people and not expect an Annapolis, or two, or three, to occur. Trump is not merely one or the other, but clearly, a lethal composite of both.

“Plenty of U.S. Presidents have criticized the press.” 

But not like this. Not ever with these words. And not with so little regard for the very role of a free press in a republic. A president’s pulpit is vast, constant and immediate. And the grown-ups who have served in that high office understand the importance of their every utterance; they guard against their own excesses and impulses as best they can. They do their damnedest to sound and act presidential, which is to say they conduct themselves as if they were leading not a partisan mob in search of a political pogrom, but instead the whole of a nation in which a free press itself is the only non-governmental occupation enshrined in the founding documents. Until now, a U.S. President might criticize the press coverage of a given issue; he might even deign to critique a particular narrative offered by a particular news outlet; he might piss and moan and do so from the presidential podium.  But never to this moment has a president declared the institution of an adversarial press — a component of democratic governance that Jefferson, for all his combat with a young nation’s newspapers, called more essential to the people’s commonweal than even the mechanisms of government itself —  to be enemy of the American people. That’s fresh. And fascist on its face.

“If this was about Trump, it wouldn’t be the Annapolis newspaper. It would be CNN or the New York Times.”

My god, look at the last contortions required to exempt Donald Trump from any complicity in the violent deaths of working journalists. Rather than admit the transitive power of Trump’s attacks on an independent and adversarial press reaches every news organization and finds the ears of the most disgruntled and deranged consumers — wherever they may reside and whatever prior grievance makes them receptive to violence — those defending this horrifying performance by an American president are fighting a rear-guard action in which Trump must first name the specific media outlet — and then people must immediately be slain there — before we dare reckon with the cost of his demagoguery.

Presumably, if someone marches into the newsroom of CNN or the Washington Post tomorrow and begins a fresh massacre, we will hear from apologists who will note that Trump, in the days after Annapolis, delivered a brief statement that no one should be killed doing their jobs: Absolution in a single, half-assed tweet for more than year of rancid provocation.

Yet all of these arguments and rationalizations — vacant and dishonest as they are — now float through our political ether. They have been launched by some professional commentators for whom partisan maneuver now prevails over all norms of governance, or even the survival of the republic itself. And they have been launched as well by the armies of bots, trolls and rabid ideologues who genuinely believe an American experiment can function with dead journalists and with only those ideas and opinions that our leader shall approve or believe. Or more credibly in the case of the foreign-launched bot diaspora embedded in our social media, they correctly believe that their own national interests will be advanced by gutting the American experiment on precisely these terms.

My guess is that Donald Trump will barely pause before the next displeasing news report, or the one after, returns him to another foaming ragefest at a free press that simply will not anoint him or acknowledge his great qualities and victories. Even after these slayings of reporters and editors at their desks in Annapolis, Donald Trump and his surrogates will continue to assert that Fake News is the greatest threat to America and that our journalists are the greatest enemies of the American people. For them and their purposes, the road to fascism will be held open, willfully and strategically so. This is no miscalculation. This is a campaign. Watch.

*    *    *

As if to mock the viciousness of Trump’s assault on journalism, the dead in Annapolis are beautifully representative of what is so abiding and honorable about the simple act of going to see or learn things, coming back to a keyboard, and in a limited window of time, trying to accurately relate what is known.

These dead can scarcely be caricatured by fascist demagoguery.  They were not the bloated, talking heads of the national news cycle; they were not Beltway-wrapped insiders traipsing into West Wing briefings with credentials in a dangle around their necks. The dead at the Capital Gazette were, by every account, the quiet and careful footsoldiers in a daily war to simply find out enough about what might be happening in Annapolis and central Maryland — be it local court decisions, police blotter items, legislative coverage, school board politics, high school and college sports, or community events — and then get it into print or up on a website.

Two were friends.

Rob Hiaasen, who worked for years with my wife in the features section of the Baltimore Sun, was a deft and delicate voice, crafting stories that delivered ordinary and extraordinary people both. His byline was always an invitation to travel to some part of my city and spend time encountering life on a scale that other reporters recognized as precisely human. He was a pro, with a light common touch to his copy and an eye for the common man to be so honored with that gift. Personally, the memory that keeps biting me is Rob accompanying my wife — though this was years before Laura Lippman and I dated — to a coffee shop across Calvert Street from the Sun newsroom to toast with lattes the sale of her first novel. For me, having published a book, the ritual was simply a chance to encourage another Sun scribe who had grabbed at the brass ring. But Rob showed so much pride in his colleague that you would have thought Laura’s first manuscript was his own. He was beaming.

John MacNamara was a friend from days shared putting out a college newspaper, the University of Maryland Diamondback, where John covered basketball and football. His first love stayed sports reporting and he was, among other duties, still covering UM athletics for the Capital Gazette when he was killed. In a newsroom of ranting undergraduates, he was the most humble and genuinely sincere creature to ever endure a copy edit. What I think I will always remember is glimpsing the quiet pain on John’s face when Pete Bielski, the sports editor, had dummied too few column inches for a basketball photo, so that the choice was either cutting off Buck Williams’ legs in mid-jump shot or cutting four inches of Mac’s game story. I swear, I think John cut his own copy before doing violence to the image of Williams delivering from the top of the key.

These are the people I see when I think of the president declaring time and again for the villainy of journalists, or when I read the online screeds of his followers and devotees validating or excusing the insanity, stepping sideways from the pathetic spectacle of a United States President using his bully pulpit to, well, bully the free press of a republic.  It is a reach to claim — and so I have not — that Donald Trump contemplated all of what was to come when he began his prolonged campaign against the American press. I don’t think he imagined the blow landing on Rob Hiaasen or John McNamara or the other committed journalists murdered with them, or that the violence would explode at a community-based newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, or even that the reckoning for his adversaries in the press would be so lethal. I don’t think Donald Trump imagines very much at all. But premeditation is scarcely required for a verdict of gross negligence — for me to say, deliberately and dispassionately, that this empty, soulless man, in his unfitness for the high office, in his petty rancor and heedless verbiage, purposely created a climate that helped to murder my friends.

That he will never reflect on his role or the context and nuance of his personal responsibility is certain. The man thinks, speaks and acts simply and crudely, and always in his own self interest. He is at every moment feral, ever seeking satisfaction and avoiding pain: Much of nation’s press has not validated him. It has criticized him forcefully and willfully. Furious and wounded, he fires back not merely at the critics but the very idea that anyone anywhere has the right or responsibility to ever treat him so. And the dead men and women in Annapolis are merely collateral to that. They are not important to the only outcomes that matter to Donald Trump, his close allies, or — most grievous of all — to a great mass of Americans who actually believe that a free and unfettered press is what actually ails this tottering republic. This is not only Trump, or the hangers-on gathered around his throne; this is us, too, undeserving of this democracy, its constant cost, and its fixed responsibilities.

What leaves me today with little hope is not the ignorant, hollow man at the center of this guttural descent into fascism. Donald Trump, it is now clear, can’t help but be what he has always been. Never mind a presidential moment or two, this man can’t even rise to the level of civic responsibility to which we once held the average adult citizen. Nor is this even about the enabling, sycophantic party in power, which would rather gorge on tax cuts and Supreme Court seats than address the rot now coursing through every putrifying limb of our body politic. Massed capital long ago purchased the Republican Party in full; there is no longer pretending every last shard of conscience or patriotism wasn’t included in the sale. No, this is about, us — too many of us who still think ourselves to be men and women worthy of a republic yet can sit compliant for what is now happening.

A citizen of the United States.

Who in the hell is that guy? What the hell is he thinking? How in the name of every rightful profanity I can summon are so many Americans trading their entire political birthright for porridge this foul? What do they think is coming when they rally to an authoritarian’s self-serving maneuver and cheer loudly at the idea that a free press is their biggest enemy? What do they think they win when a gunman marches into an American newsroom and executes five journalists at random? Cash money? More racial privilege? A new burst of freedom?

If the cynicism, partisan apologia and indifference that follows Annapolis is any indication, we are not going to remain even a flawed democratic experiment for very much longer. Not when a significant number of us are both incapable of exercising citizenship in such a sophisticated form of self-governance as a republic and undeserving of the benefits of such. Too many will know democracy only when it is gone. And if the journalists are dead or cowed, then some of us will find a fresh American hell without a single moment of reckoning.



Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

18 Dec
December 18, 2015

March 1992 Twigg Simon Bal Sun Article

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.

In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.

Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.

It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.

A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would.  I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.

The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.

Mr. Privett was white, by the way.  The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.

Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race.  I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone.  And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.

“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.

I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.

Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this.  And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.

I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this.  I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past.  But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.

Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray.  But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.

Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely.  Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him.  His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter.  Privett was The Other.  Some dope fiend. With AIDS.  Fuck him.

And now Mr. Gray.

If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.


American torture

10 Dec
December 10, 2014

Here’s the sad fucking truth:

Our democracy, our republic, is very much weaker than we imagine if this report can only see the light of day after our government first issued preemptory promises not to prosecute the persons that did these things to other human beings in our names, or ordered that these things be done to other human beings in our names.

That there are elements of the American government still arguing against this cold blast of truth, offering up the craven fear that the rest of the world might see us as we actually are, or that our enemies will perhaps use the evidence of our sadism to justify violent retribution or political maneuver — this further cowardice only adds to the national humiliation.

This is not one of the world’s great powers behaving as such, and it is certainly no force for good in the world.  This might as well be the Spanish national amnesia following the death of Franco, or a post-war West Germany without the stomach for the necessary self-reflection. Shit, even the fragile, post-apartheid democracy of South Africa managed to openly conduct hearings and attempt some measure of apology and reconciliation in the wake of the previous regime’s brutalities.  Not us. Not the United States. We’re too weak to endure any such moral reflection without the attempt itself descending into moronic partisan banter. That’s right. Here, in America, we are — today — actually torturing other human beings with exacting cruelty in secret and then arguing about whether we can dare discuss it in public.

Fuck writing reports. Fuck arguing about reports. For the very soul of the country, some people must go to prison for these crimes against humanity, and for ordering crimes against humanity in my name, in your name, in our names. They were working not to save our country, as claimed. They were working to destroy this republic.

Who has the courage to begin?  Is there a single American political leader? No. Not a one.

The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. III

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

Note:  These essays were, of course, written before St. Louis County prosecutors and Ferguson police relented and revealed the identity of the officer sho shot and killed Mr. Brown.  Both the cost to their credibility in the delay inherent in their delay and to the civil peace of that town remains relevant, however.  Moreover, the problem with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies nationally trying to maintain anonymity in such incidents is on the rise. So the essays stand as argument,  regardless.  – DS


August 14, 2014

Mr. Thomas Jackson

Chief of Police

Ferguson, Missouri


Chief Jackson:

Regard this as an open letter in light of your department’s unwillingness to properly identify the officer involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in your jurisdiction this last week.

Understand that I am someone with a high regard for good police work.  I covered a large municipal department for a dozen years and spent that time writing in detail on extraordinary efforts by professional detectives and officers, and, too, on systemic and individual failures within that same agency.  I am not unsympathetic to the complex truths of practical policing.

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The endgame for American civic responsibility Pt. II

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

Seven years later, from the Baltimore City Paper of February 12, 2009, as the militarization of American police work continued apace, infecting not merely the federal agencies so much less accountible to individual jurisdictions, but municipal police departments that claimed to be directly in the service of specific communities:

Police work, it is said, is only easy in a police state.  So welcome to the city of Baltimore, where a police officer who uses lethal force and takes human life is no longer required to stand behind his or her actions and suffer the scrutiny of the public he or she serves, where the identity of those officers who use lethal force will no longer be known, where our communities are now asked to trust in the judgment of those who clearly don’t trust us.

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