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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Photo Credit: Victoria Pickering

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, when he decided to protest, William Smith, 27, used a red marker to write a message on the back of a flattened cardboard box: “Kill Racism, Not Me."

As he stood alone, somber, he thought about George Floyd, a fellow black man whom he'd watched die on video as a Minneapolis cop kneeled on his neck eight days earlier. “Seeing the life leave his body was finally the last straw that broke the camel's back for me," he said.

But he also thought about people he knew, a handful of them, who died after catching the new coronavirus. “They were living in impoverished areas. Couldn't get proper treatment. Lived in crowded conditions, so social distancing was hard to do. And they were still forced to go to work and be put in harm's way."

When speaking out against the loss of black lives, it is tough to separate those who die at the hands of police from those who die in a pandemic that has laid bare the structural racism baked into the American health system. Floyd himself had tested positive for the coronavirus. Eighteen black protesters interviewed by ProPublica were well aware that black lives were being lost to the virus at more than twice the rate of others, and that societal barriers have compounded for generations to put them at higher risk.

It was fueling their desire to protest and their anxiety about joining the crowd. But they flocked to the White House on Tuesday afternoon, one day after peaceful protesters there were tear-gassed so that President Donald Trump could hold up a bible for a photo op at St. John's Episcopal Church. There were tanks on the streets, along with a battalion of federal agents, military troops and police. Many of the protesters said they were willing to sacrifice their bodies, either to violence or the virus, to be heard.

In front of the White House stood Caleb Jordan, who turns 21 on Saturday. He showed up with an overstuffed backpack to make sure his 62-year-old grandmother, Carolyn Jackson, had enough water to drink and a hoodie to protect her arms in case of violence. “I don't know what I would do if anything happened to her," he said. Some people had on masks. Some did not. Some pulled their masks down to talk or breathe. “I'm not comfortable with that," he said. She's got a chronic lung condition, and he had been so worried about her catching the coronavirus in the past few months that he wouldn't hug her. But then she mentioned that she drove by the protests on Sunday, and immediately he asked, “Why didn't you take me?"

He had been losing sleep over what he was seeing in social media and on TV, having nightmares in which he was fighting a “real-Jim-Crow-looking white guy in a white button-down shirt, black tie, sleeves rolled up." His mom told him he was fighting racism. “It's like obstacle after obstacle," he said. “If it's not police beating us up, it's us dying in a hospital from the pandemic. I'm tired of being tired. I'm so tired, I can't sleep." It was something he continued thinking about until he couldn't help himself, sending a text at 3 a.m. asking his grandmother if they could attend together. “I thought about it and said, 'This is a teachable moment,' " she recalled.

So Jackson took the day off from her job as an accountant at a hospice organization and put on some peace sign earrings and a T-shirt from the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. On the car ride into the city, her grandson asked about her struggles with race. She explained what it's like being a professional black woman with over 30 years experience who still feels overlooked for opportunities because of questions about her qualifications. Her awareness of being treated differently dates back to how her white paternal grandmother favored her lighter-skinned cousins. She found solace in her black maternal grandmother, who would comb her hair while she sat between her legs. Jackson wants her grandson to feel that kind of comfort from her.

That desire extends to her mission to help the black community understand palliative care is an option that can offer dignity and support at the end of life. “Because when people hear hospice, their hands go up and they say, 'I don't want to hear it.'" She's also heard that resistance when it comes to getting tested for the coronavirus; she has gotten tested twice and plans to get tested again. She feared being exposed on Tuesday, but being here with her grandson was too important to miss. “We internalized a lot with my generation," she said, “but I think it's important for him to see this."

N.W.A.'s “Fuck Tha Police" blared from a nearby speaker outside St. John's Episcopal Church until an interfaith group of men and women bowed their heads and began to pray. Among them was Timothy Freeman, pastor at Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, who wore a brightly colored kente cloth-inspired mask, its vibrant yellows and reds standing in stark contrast to his ministerial black suit and white clerical collar.

Freeman, 42, knows eight people who have been diagnosed with the virus; one died. For two weeks, a sick friend had a fever and could barely move from fatigue but refused to get tested, running through all the scenarios of what might happen if he had it: What if he wound up isolated in an ICU with no one to advocate at his bedside? Another sick friend worried an ambulance would take him to a hospital that he didn't trust. These conversations, the pastor said, are always infused with an awareness of the medical system's record of neglect and abuse of black people, from dismissing their pain to using their bodies for research without consent. The virus has forced this all top of mind.

A licensed occupational therapist for 19 years who spent a decade managing a skilled rehab facility, Freeman said he has seen racial disparities in health care firsthand and that access to adequate insurance coverage is crucial. “I have seen diagnostic tests not performed … and hospitalizations cut extremely short — or not happen at all — because of insurance." COVID-19 is affecting black and brown people in disproportionate numbers, “and not just because we're black and brown, but because of the social and economic conditions people are forced to live in," he said.

“All of it comes together. What happened with George Floyd publicized to the world the experience that we live," he said. “It's a conglomeration of everything."

A block away from the prayer group, Elizabeth Tsehai, 53, drove slowly in her BMW SUV, honking her horn, as federal agents in riot gear began to march past the crowd just behind her. She had a Black Lives Matter T-shirt displayed on the dashboard and a bike rack on the top of her car that she joked made her look like the “caricature of a soccer mom."

She stopped her car on the road and remained there as protesters to her left took a knee. There was some heckling from the crowd but no one was in anybody's face. A Secret Service agent warned her to move. Her response: “Arrest me. I can't breathe!" Agents then pulled her from her car and to the ground and handcuffed her. “I didn't resist because I know they just arrest you for resisting arrest," she said. “But the minute they pulled me up on my feet, I was talking all kinds of trash."

Her car was left unlocked in the middle of the street, where it was protected by protesters. She was questioned and released. She said agents told her they were afraid she was going to hit protesters because people have been using their cars as weapons. They told her to move it and leave. The Secret Service did not respond to questions about this incident.

“Ordinarily, I would not get involved," Tsehai said. But George Floyd's death was enraging, as were “all of the things that came before it."

All of the things.

How a white nurse looked her up and down when she arrived at the hospital to give birth to her son and sneered, “Can we help you?"

How her brothers, who live in Minneapolis, recount being pulled over by police for driving while black.

How a black man couldn't watch birds in Central Park last week without having the police called on him.

“The pandemic is hitting black people hard and exposing these structural inequalities," she said. “Then on top of that, you get Amy Cooper … weaponizing her white privilege at a time when he might end up in jail, where infection is rife.

“But when they manhandled protesters who were peaceful, that was a bridge too far," said Tsehai, who grew up in Ethiopia under an authoritarian regime during a period known as Red Terror. She didn't know life without a curfew until she moved to the United States to attend Georgetown University 35 years ago.

“Moments like this are quite unusual," she said. They can also inspire change, a message she shared with her children, ages 12 and 14, when recounting her ordeal with them. “I want these children to live in a different world. It's not enough to read about it and get outraged and talk about it at the dinner table. Silence makes you complicit."

With fake news on Facebook, trolls on Twitter, and viral outrage everywhere, it's easy to believe that the internet changed politics entirely. In Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy, historian Claire Bond Potter reveals the real roots of today's dysfunction by situating online politics in a longer history of alternative political media. Soon after World War II, pioneers on the left and right began to develop alternative outlets that made politics more popular, and ultimately, more partisan. When campaign operatives took up e-mail, blogging, and social media in a new century, they supercharged those trends.

The following is drawn from Chapter 8, MYBARACKOBAMA, which looks behind the pioneering digital strategies of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

The same passion that brought [veteran Democratic consultant David] Axelrod to Obama also drew a much younger, but equally successful, digital alternative media professional to the campaign. When 23 year-old Chris Hughes took leave from Facebook, the company he had cofounded with Mark Zuckerberg three years earlier, to work with the Obama campaign, he found that despite its eighteen million users, Axelrod and his seasoned operatives neither knew nor cared about the alternative media platform devoted to personal storytelling, friendship, and community building. And yet, everyone in Obama headquarters used digital tools nonstop. Speechwriter Ben Rhodes remembers the young digital natives on the campaign routinely "communicating by Instant Messenger even when we were sitting next to each other." However, Hughes was warned not to speak of Obama as a "Facebook candidate," and to instead say that he was an "organizer," like everyone else, because "the campaign and its energy were not about Facebook at all." Undaunted, Hughes spent his early weeks building a social network around the candidate, using all the digital tools available. Most crucially, he brokered the purchase of a popular MySpace page, MyBarackObama, that a supporter had built after Obama's 2004 convention keynote. It had already accrued 160,000 subscribers.

While they made an establishment campaign consultant like Axelrod nervous, he knew these techniques were the future. Netroots volunteers had ideas about how to "brand" their candidate and "sell" him to their peers, and they were not shy about sharing them with the campaign chiefs. Axelrod had interacted with these activists before when he ran Deval Patrick's 2006 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts. These "young insurgents, some of whom were refugees from Howard Dean's failed presidential bid . . . had glimpsed the potential of the Internet," Axelrod recalled, "and tech-savvy Massachusetts proved to be fertile ground for their new, expansive digital strategies."

Obama's 2008 victory would later be framed in terms of the campaign's mastery of digital alternative media channels, but its leadership, drawn from the political consulting establishment, was reluctant to give authority to progressive populists at the grassroots who might be difficult to control. The many successes of the Dean campaign, such as DeanLink and CivicSpace, built on the early popularity of social networking sites like Friendster and Facebook. But its failures—the high burn rate of campaign funds, overreliance on digital outreach, failure to cultivate mainstream media outlets, and supporters' often eccentric and unrestrained sense of humor—told a cautionary tale about progressive populism's potential for sending a campaign off the rails. Hughes struggled to persuade Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe that social media networks were made up of real people, a new generation of potential political junkies who influenced each other. Making good on Obama's promise that "this campaign is about you," Hughes argued, was more important than Axelrod's insistence that the campaign, not a network of digital volunteers, control the message. Initially rebuffed as "the crazy tech guys in the corner," Hughes and his team began to prove their point with results. By the end of the campaign, the MySpace platform Hughes bought had racked up 2 million friends. Supporters had "planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fundraising pages."

While Obama did not seem to have to work hard to be liked by Democrats, despite her extensive digital outreach, Clinton was saddled with a perception that she was unlikable, stiff, and inauthentic. As cultural critic Susan Bordo reflected later, even Clinton's accomplishments were used against her. Her "polish and poise" were read as insincerity, her familiarity with a broad range of issues as ambition and opportunism. The liberal and feminist blogospheres split bitterly on this issue. Obama and Clinton partisans littered each other's blogs and supporters' social media with vicious comments. Bloggers at Daily Kos, journalist James Wolcott wrote, "faced off like the Jets and the Sharks," a reference to the 1957 Broadway play about gang rivalries, West Side Story.

Unquestionably, the Obama team owned YouTube, and that, too, became a vehicle for creating suspicion about Clinton as conspiracy theories circulating about her on conservative populist sites leaked into the Democratic primary. In March 2007, Obama supporter Philip de Vellis created a mash-up of the now-classic Apple "1984" ad. Now titled "Vote Different," it superimposed Clinton's campaign launch speech on the screen that had displayed Big Brother in the original version. Designed to emphasize Clinton's establishment credentials and association with a controlling federal government, by implication, it promoted Obama's antiestablishment, even revolutionary, potential. As Clinton spoke, the same torpid audience listened, but the hammer thrower wore a singlet with the Obama campaign logo. The final screen read: "On January 14th, the Democratic primary will begin. And you'll see why 2008 won't be like '1984.'" Like the earlier Macintosh ad, this video went viral. One media scholar, blogger, and confessed political junkie remained unsure about how such interventions would reshape the campaign, but admitted that he found "the underlying message of citizen empowerment" in the video "irresistible."

Clinton partisans continued to resent what they saw as mainstream and alternative media bias against their candidate. Indeed, the New York Times assigned newcomer Amy Chozick to Clinton, perhaps believing that her gender was more important than experience: Chozick had never covered a single political campaign and never fully connected with the candidate. Worse, as younger female voters migrated to Obama, some older progressive white women, whom Clinton had imagined to be her core constituency, cooled on her as well. In 2007, a multigenerational group of women writers, journalists, and academics agreed that Clinton was not resonating with them. Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary was a collection of essays published as the campaign was getting off the ground: in them, feminists agreed that Clinton did not meet the challenge of authenticity, which was "shaping up to be the buzzword of the 2008 campaign." Why was she simultaneously so well-known and so unknowable? they asked.

How had professional media women who had supported Clinton through the eight years of her husband's presidency and worn buttons that asked voters to "Elect Hillary's husband" come to dislike and distrust her? How did media women fail to identify with an establishment candidate whose life, successes, and challenges, in many ways, paralleled their own. One answer was that feminism was no longer a sufficient bridge between generations, nor did it speak to the growing partisan divide between establishment liberals and progressive populists in the Democratic Party. Novelist Lorrie Moore saw Clinton's public persona as "too often in pragmatic retreat, overmanaged, increasingly botoxed and schoolmarmish." Political journalist Jane Kramer, reflecting on the Cleavagegate controversy, wanted Clinton to be "a good, generous, and loving person and a steely, scary, effective person." According to novelist Lauren Collins, compared to Obama's direct online connection to voters, Clinton's budding social media presence was "frumpy," just an online version of her managed mainstream media image. Ignoring Obama's thin history as an elected official, Judith Thurman charged that Clinton had paid her political dues, but "not from her own account," running for Senate in a state "where she had no roots" (something that was far from unprecedented, particularly in New York). Some of the authors remarked that Clinton's feminism was simply outdated. "There's something about the reality of Hillary Clinton, the accommodations she's made and the roles she's played, that leaves many of us cold," grumbled Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.

At a moment when progressive populism was on the ascendant in the Democratic Party, Clinton's inability to persuade voters that as a woman, she, too, was an outsider to the establishment, was fatal to a national candidacy. By contrast, the Obama team, however reluctantly at first, successfully leveraged digital alternative media support to redefine the race as a generational contest and capture everyone outside the establishment, regardless of gender or race. The Democratic National Committee helped to push this narrative by reframing traditional political rituals. On July 23, 2007, the eight candidates in the race—Clinton, Obama, Joe Biden, Edwards, Christopher Dodd, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson—debuted in a debate broadcast on CNN and YouTube, where viewers were invited to send in their questions. The United States Department of State billed the event as a triumph of American political values, inspired and facilitated by the internet. "Politicians accustomed to controlling discussions saw people in T-shirts pose cheeky, incisive questions from all over the country and the world," one press release read. "One question came from an aid worker surrounded by children at a refugee camp in Darfur, Sudan." YouTube was becoming a primary destination for all populist political junkies that year. When they learned that Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul was receiving more hits on YouTube there than any Democrat or Republican, the Republican National Committee quickly announced a YouTube debate for November.

Social media was now a routine tool for political campaigns and for the political establishment. Politicians used it not only to capture the grassroots zeitgeist but also to reach demographics beyond the youth vote, as older people increasingly adopted Facebook. And yet, although the internet was still cheap, it was also still a labor-intensive site for strategizing a campaign. Before turning over the Barack Obama MySpace page to the campaign, its creator had invested thousands of unpaid hours administering it. By March 2007, he sometimes spent his entire evening just approving friend requests. Perhaps this was why one marketing professor who reviewed the sites and apps being used by every campaign in 2007 found many of them hard to navigate, disconnected, and sometimes abandoned.

While maintaining control of their message, the Obama team found creative ways to keep the netroots occupied and energized, while generating content that had a fresh, antiestablishment look. Midway through the primary season, the campaign launched a contest that invited supporters to produce their own political commercials. Sponsored by MoveOn, the "Obama in 30 Seconds" contest was inspired by an earlier, far more divisive 2004 MoveOn contest, "Bush in 30 Seconds," in which political junkies had been invited to create attack ads. This time, makers were carefully instructed to create a positive message. Of course, both worked, since the secret to YouTube virality was to inspire emotion in viewers that caused them to want to view the video repeatedly and share it with others. Videos created by the grass roots were likely to meet that standard; carefully crafted and focus-group-tested videos generated by the Clinton campaign were not.

Organizations like MoveOn, Blue State Digital, and ActBlue, which emerged from the 2004 campaign with powerful email lists of progressive populists, played a game-changing role in 2008 as digital alternative media moved to center stage for fundraising and voter outreach. Well in advance of primary voting, MoveOn, now a political action committee, endorsed Obama, the first time it had ever explicitly supported a candidate. It was also a sign that the netroots alternative media apparatus was throwing its weight behind a challenge to the Democratic political establishment whose most influential, often invisible fundraisers and power brokers were used to picking the candidate they planned to support. MoveOn was now a fundraising and digital alternative media giant. Yet the organization still insisted on its grassroots identity, the importance of small-donation fundraising, and on acknowledging its constituency as collaborators from whom it solicited advice and ideas, not just money. By extension, Obama became the grassroots candidate, a brand that was, ironically, strengthened by his thin political experience.

Why not invite voters with no experience in campaign advertising to join the party? The MoveOn contest rules stated that the ads were not for profit and could not be copyrighted. Instead, the group encouraged the use of the Creative Commons license developed by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. Capitalizing on the cultural obsession with reality television contests, the crowd would vote to choose the finalists. The winners would be chosen by a jury of celebrity Democrats that included blogger Markos Moulitsas; progressive actors Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Adrian Grenier; feminist Naomi Wolf; and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. Running the contest allowed MoveOn to identify even more potential Obama supporters as they registered with the site to view the videos and choose their favorites, adding 5.5 million emails to their supporter list. Data collected during those visits also identified the digital profile, and physical location, of each participant. The winner, "Obamacan," featured John Weiler, an Air Force veteran and Republican crossover voter. It ended with a catchphrase that gestured to the growing political divisions between right and left that digital alternative media were accelerating: "Bringing America Together."

Excerpted from Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy by Claire Bond Potter. Copyright © 2020. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.