Close Newsom's Eviction Loophole!
Sign the Petition:
Sign the Petition:
First the good news - the State intends to extend the pandemic eviction protections that we have had since September. For those of us unable to cover the rent during COVID, we will have more time to get back on our feet.
But we all know that whenever that rent comes due, we’ve got a big problem. We’re not going to get back pay; how are we going to pay back rent?!
Today, Governor Newsom announced a plan that attempts to tackle this problem with $1.5 billion in federal rental assistance funds. Many tenants will get relief. Unfortunately, this proposal leaves tenants at risk of eviction and crushing housing debt, for one simple reason - it depends upon the voluntary participation of landlords.
Join us in telling our state legislators - we need a plan that ALL eligible renters can benefit from, not just those lucky enough to have a willing landlord!
Eighty percent of tenants at risk of eviction right now are people of color . A program that allows unscrupulous or racist landlords to opt out is a giant loophole that means more families, disproportionately Black and Brown, will be pushed out of their homes and into homelessness.
Click here to urge your legislators to get this right - act now to prevent evictions, but take more time to get the rent relief program right!
There are many good and fair landlords. Unfortunately, there are also many landlords who show a total disregard for their tenants, and sometimes want to push them out. They may want to slap on some paint and double the rent, leave their property vacant, or just evict a tenant they happen not to like. Consumer and fair housing protections exist for a reason - abuse and discrimination are rampant.
Relief for renters cannot be optional.
Urge your legislators to close the loophole on rent relief and pass immediate eviction protections!
We are close to passing the eviction protections and rent relief that we desperately need - but we cannot pass a bill with loopholes that perpetuate racist displacement and puts our lives in the hands of landlords’ discretion. The stakes are too high.
This is a profound matter of racial justice. Take action now!
Pass COVID Protection and Debt Relief
Stop the Eviction Cliff!
Forgive Rent and Mortgage Debt!
Millions of Californians have been prevented from working and will not have the income to pay back rent or mortgage debts owed from this pandemic. For renters, on Feb 1st, landlords will be able to start evicting and a month later, they will be able to sue for unpaid rent. Urge your legislator and Gov Newsom to stop all evictions and forgive COVID debts!
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock our state, with over 500 people dying from this terrible disease every day. The pandemic is not only ravaging the health of poor, black and brown communities the hardest - it is also disrupting our ability to make ends meet and stay in our homes. Shockingly, homelessness is set to double in California by 2023 due the economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19. 
Housing is healthcare: Without shelter, our very lives are on the line. Until enough of us have been vaccinated, our best weapon against this virus will remain our ability to stay at home.
Will you join me by urging your state senator, assembly member and Governor Gavin Newsom to pass both prevent evictions AND forgive rent debt?
This click-to-call tool makes it simple and easy.
Renters and small landlords know that much more needs to be done to prevent this pandemic from becoming a catastrophic eviction crisis. So far, our elected officials at the state and local level have put together a patchwork of protections that have stopped a bad crisis from getting much worse. But many of these protections expire soon, putting millions of people in danger. We face a tidal wave of evictions unless we act before the end of January.
We can take action to keep families in their homes while guaranteeing relief for small landlords by supporting an extension of eviction protections (AB 15) and providing rent debt relief paired with assistance for struggling landlords (AB 16). Assembly Member David Chiu of San Francisco is leading the charge with these bills as vehicles to get the job done. Again, the needed elements are:
Improve and extend existing protections so that tenants who can’t pay the rent due to COVID-19 do not face eviction
Provide rent forgiveness to lay the groundwork for a just recovery
Help struggling small and non-profit landlords with financial support
Ten months since the country was plunged into its first lockdown, tenants still can’t pay their rent and debt is piling up. This is hurting tenants and small landlords alike. We need a holistic approach that protects Californians in the short-run while forgiving unsustainable debts over the long term. That’s why we’re joining the Housing Now! coalition and Tenants Together on a statewide phone zap to tell our elected leaders to act now.
Will you join me by urging your state senator, assembly member and Governor Gavin Newsom to pass both prevent evictions AND forgive rent debt?
Time is running out. California’s statewide protections will start expiring by the end of this month. Millions face eviction. We have to pass AB 15 before the end of January. And we will not solve the long-term repercussions on the economic health of our communities without passing AB 16.
ASK YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS TO SAY YES ON AN EVICTION MORATORIUM AND RENT DEBT FORGIVENESS -- AB 15 AND AB16!!!
Let’s do our part in turning the corner on this pandemic. Our fight now will help protect millions of people in California. And when we fight, we win!
Elderly and Disabled Subjected to Horrific Conditions During COVID Outbreak at California Prison in Vacaville
For Immediate Release
For more information, contact:
Vacaville-An outbreak of Covid-19 is raging out of control at the California Medical Facility, a prison in Vacaville that holds many elderly and high-risk people. On December 11, the number of positive cases at CMF was 2. On December 12, the prison went into lockdown. Within five days, the number of cases had risen to 58. As of January 17,, the number of positive cases was 260 (almost 13% of the population). At the height of the outbreak, the total was 463. In all, 520 people (almost 26% of the population) have been infected, and seven have died.
D-dorm at CMF is currently being used as the triage / covid positive dorm. The dorm was formerly used to house the dogs that were part of the Paws for Life program. The dogs were removed shortly after the start of the pandemic, and the dorm was not cleaned prior to being used for quarantine. Staff are not stepping up to help clean, and the few incarcerated who are well enough to clean are not being given adequate cleaning supplies. Laundry is not being picked up. The strain of covid that is moving through CMF is causing severe diarrhea. Several people have soiled themselves and do not have access to clean clothes. Each person is only being given one roll of toilet paper per week.
Around the end of December, a man fainted and defecated on himself. When medical staff refused to respond to calls for help, other incarcerated people in the dorm, who were themselves ill, cleaned him up and carried him to his bed before he was finally taken to an outside hospital. In a similar incident, a man fainted and was refused medical attention for hours before finally being carried out on a stretcher. Staff are hesitant to call ambulances because of Plata v. Newsom, the ongoing litigation against the corrections department for its substandard healthcare.
As in other prisons ravaged by Covid, the layout of CMF, along with reckless actions by staff, are exacerbating the situation. Some correctional officers are not wearing masks or refusing to wear them properly. Many refuse to wear gloves. Some are moving around from positive to negative units. People who are sick are not being given access to over-the-counter medications, and only a select few are being given antibody treatments. Poor ventilation within the prison is also a facilitator of the spread.
The ramifications of the outbreak extend beyond the physical illness caused by the virus. The incarcerated have been moved from one area to another in hopes of containing the virus. This has presented additional problems of loss of property. Access to phones has been restricted drastically so families are not in contact with their loved ones. The hearing impaired are further restricted, as they are barred from the specially-equipped phones they would normally use. The disabled population at CMF, who are supposed to have assistance with various daily living tasks from other incarcerated people have seen this help severely hampered by the outbreak. People with disabilities are required to be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and no alternative accommodations for the disabled at CMF have been offered. Many of the population at CMF are over 60, with medical conditions such as diabetes, HIV and high blood pressure--all of which put them at higher risk of serious complications. Some have covid risk scores, as defined by California Correctional Health Care Services as high as 16.
The sudden and relentless spike in cases, as well as the prison's failure to take any substantive steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, have caused shock, fear, and outrage among loved ones of those inside.
"This outbreak has been climbing steadily for an entire month with cases increasing almost every day," said Olivia Campbell, an advocate for the rights of the incarcerated. "Efforts to get it under control have been insufficient and incompetent at best. But I think it's much more sinister. When you have correctional officers purposely infecting people, and so-called medical professionals neglecting elderly, sick, disabled people, leaving them to their fates in appalling conditions, in a congregate setting, in a facility that is supposed to have adequate medical services, I really don't even have words for how cruel and despicable that is."
Reporters Without Borders
After overlooking the fake news and hate speech that Trump posted throughout his four years as US president, Twitter unilaterally decided on 8 January to permanently close his @realDonaldTrump account and then, a few days later, 70,000 other accounts linked to the pro-Trump QAnon movement. Facebook, Instagram and Twitch also suspended the presidential accounts for an unspecified period, while Amazon then suspended the pro-Trump social media Parler.
All of these decisions were taken by private-sector companies without any democratic or judicial control!
The laws of the public arena used to be established by parliaments and enforced by judges, but private-sector corporations are now in charge. Their norms are not defined within a democratic framework with checks and balances, they are not transparent and you cannot appeal to any court before they are carried out. The organization of the online public arena should not be left to market forces or individual interests.
It was to propose democratic safeguards for the digital arena that RSF launched:
The Forum on Information and Democracy in November 2019 with 11 organizations, research centers and think-tanks based in all continents. In November 2020, it published 250 recommendations on platform transparency, content moderation, the promotion of the reliability of information, and messaging apps when their massive use goes beyond the bounds of private correspondence.
The Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), which is producing a set of machine-readable standards so that search engine algorithms can give preference to media that adhere to journalistic methods and ethics. These standards, which can also be used by advertisers, are the result of a self-regulatory initiative in which entities from all over the world collaborated under the aegis of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN).
Resources for Resisting Federal Repression
Since June of 2020, activists have been subjected to an increasingly aggressive crackdown on protests by federal law enforcement. The federal response to the movement for Black Lives has included federal criminal charges for activists, door knocks by federal law enforcement agents, and increased use of federal troops to violently police protests.
The NLG National Office is releasing this resource page for activists who are resisting federal repression. It includes a link to our emergency hotline numbers, as well as our library of Know-Your-Rights materials, our recent federal repression webinar, and a list of some of our recommended resources for activists. We will continue to update this page.
If you are contacted by federal law enforcement you should exercise all of your rights. It is always advisable to speak to an attorney before responding to federal authorities.
State and Local Hotlines
If you have been contacted by the FBI or other federal law enforcement, in one of the following areas, you may be able to get help or information from one of these local NLG hotlines for:
- Portland, Oregon: (833) 680-1312
- San Francisco, California: (415) 285-1041 or email@example.com
- Seattle, Washington: (206) 658-7963
If you are located in an area with no hotline, you can call the following number:
Know Your Rights Materials
The NLG maintains a library of basic Know-Your-Rights guides.
- Know Your Rights During Covid-19
- You Have The Right To Remain Silent: A Know Your Rights Guide for Encounters with Law Enforcement
- Operation Backfire: For Environmental and Animal Rights Activists
WEBINAR: Federal Repression of Activists & Their Lawyers: Legal & Ethical Strategies to Defend Our Movements: presented by NLG-NYC and NLG National Office
We also recommend the following resources:
- Grand Juries: Slideshow
Movement for Black Lives Legal Resources
We’ve seen the DNA evidence in the Kevin Cooper case. It points elsewhere.
By Nicholas Kristof, Opinion Columnist, Jan. 23, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/23/opinion/sunday/kevin-cooper-dna.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
When a neighbor arrived at the Ryen home on June 5, 1983, to pick up his son from a sleepover, he couldn’t process what he saw through the window. He thought all the red must be paint.
Doug and Peggy Ryen had both been stabbed to death. So had their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and the neighbor’s 11-year-old, Chris Hughes. The Ryens’ son, 8-year-old Josh, had been left for dead with his throat slashed but survived.
It was an unimaginable tragedy, and it has been followed by another unimaginable tragedy, one that has lasted almost 38 years: A man who is very likely innocent appears to have been framed for that crime and remains on death row today.
The horrifying murder of a beautiful white family in Chino Hills, Calif., created enormous public pressure on the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office to solve the crime. Although Josh had indicated that the attack was committed by several white men, the sheriff announced just four days after the bodies were found that the sole suspect was Kevin Cooper, a young Black man with a long criminal record who had recently walked away from a minimum-security prison and then hid in an empty house near the Ryens’.
I have written about Cooper before, most notably an extensive investigative essay in May 2018 that led two governors, Jerry Brown (reluctantly) and Gavin Newsom (readily), to order comprehensive DNA testing in the case. The testing has finally been completed, and I’ve obtained the lab results. So here’s where we stand, and why Newsom should create a high-level panel to review the Cooper case and make a recommendation about possible clemency. It’s up to Newsom, who has imposed a moratorium on executions, to resolve what appears to be a horrendous injustice.
Sadly, a tan T-shirt believed to have been worn by one of the killers didn’t produce enough DNA to provide a profile. The DNA degraded over the decades while California authorities blocked the testing that Cooper had pleaded for, letting officials run out the clock. Likewise, hairs found clutched in the victims’ hands weren’t Cooper’s (no hairs from an African-American were found at the crime scene) but didn’t lead to a match with a suspect, either.
The most significant result was from an orange towel apparently taken by one of the murderers from the Ryens’ home, perhaps to wipe off sweat, and then discarded. It yielded a full DNA profile, and it’s not Cooper’s or any of the victims’ — but it hasn’t been matched to anyone else. Match that DNA, and we may quickly solve these murders.
There was other progress while the DNA testing was underway. The pro bono legal team working for Cooper, led by Norman C. Hile from the Orrick law firm, has written to Newsom describing a witness willing to testify in court that a different longtime suspect in the case recounted, not long after the murders, how he had killed the Ryens and Chris Hughes.
Two other witnesses, also willing to testify in court, say in written statements that this same person bragged to them more recently about having murdered an entire family, saying, “We butchered all of them.”
This other suspect is a white man whom I’ll identify just by his first name, Lee, for he must be presumed innocent. Lee is a convicted murderer who had completed his sentence and been out of prison for less than a year when the Ryens were killed.
Lee came to the attention of the authorities during the investigation after his girlfriend, Diana Roper, fingered him as the killer: She reported that he had returned home late on the night of the killings wearing bloody coveralls, in a car that resembled the Ryens’ station wagon.
Roper turned Lee’s bloody coveralls over to the sheriff’s office — which eventually threw them away without testing them. By then, the sheriff’s office had arrested Cooper, and deputies didn’t want a complication.
The DNA on the orange towel is not Lee’s, and he has denied to me that he was involved in the Ryen murders. It’s important not to try to free one innocent man by rushing to judgment about another. Still, the DNA testing and these witnesses add to the evidence that Cooper is an innocent man on death row.
“The case gets stronger and stronger for innocence,” said Tom Parker, a former deputy head of the F.B.I.’s office in Los Angeles, who has worked without charge to investigate the Cooper case. He added that as a 30-year law enforcement veteran, he is sickened by what he sees as a pattern of racism and “institutional corruption” that led to the railroading of Cooper. “It cuts a hole in your gut, it does,” he said.
There is growing recognition in criminal justice circles that Kevin Cooper may be innocent. “The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him,” William A. Fletcher, a distinguished federal appeals court judge, declared in a lecture. Four other federal circuit court judges joined in a remarkable 100-page dissent Fletcher wrote warning that California was preparing to execute an innocent man.
The deans of four law schools and a former president of the American Bar Association have expressed concerns about the case. An excellent book, “Scapegoat,” has been written about it, and a documentary is in the works. Kim Kardashian visited Cooper in 2019 and has embraced his cause.
Yet Cooper remains in prison. That’s partly because the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office continues to resist an investigation into whether he is innocent, just as it previously resisted comprehensive DNA testing.
The D.A.’s office notes, for example, that Cooper’s blood was found on that tan T-shirt apparently worn by the murderer. That’s true: Testing years ago confirmed that it is Cooper’s blood — but also suggests that sheriff’s deputies spilled the blood on the shirt to frame him.
Deputies took a sample of Cooper’s blood after his arrest, using a chemical called EDTA to preserve it in the test tube. Cooper’s blood on that shirt had elevated EDTA in it; in other words, it seemed to have come not from his body directly, but from a test tube.
In addition, before the latest round of DNA testing, a vial of Cooper’s blood was found to be nearly empty, with just residue in the bottom.
“Based on my 25 years of experience with DNA testing, I can’t imagine any testing that would consume that much blood, even with multiple rounds of testing,” said Bicka Barlow, a DNA expert and lawyer who is consulting for Cooper’s side.
Relatives of the victims are convinced that Cooper is guilty, and San Bernardino authorities argue that there is plenty of forensic evidence against him — a bloodstain, shoe prints, cigarette butts, and so on. If you trust the sheriff’s office, it’s compelling. But significant questions have been raised about every element of this “evidence,” with indications that it was systematically planted to frame Cooper.
Could the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office really have planted evidence, including placing Cooper’s blood on the tan T-shirt? We do know that the sheriff’s office had a history of going rogue. Floyd Tidwell, the sheriff, was himself later convicted of four felony counts for stealing 523 guns from the evidence room. Tidwell denied any wrongdoing in the Cooper case; he died last February. Also, one of the sheriff’s lab technicians on the case, William Baird, acknowledged to me that he had stolen heroin from the evidence room, but denied having framed Cooper.
The injustices may go well beyond Cooper. William Richards, prosecuted by the San Bernardino County authorities in the murder of his wife and sent to prison for life, was exonerated in 2016 after junk science on bite marks was discredited and after it was revealed that a longtime forensics expert in the sheriff’s office appeared to have planted evidence. This was the same expert who had “found” evidence against Cooper. At least eight other people now serving long prison sentences may also have been framed by the same person, according to Parker, the former F.B.I. official.
The biggest problem with the case against Kevin Cooper, though, is simply that it doesn’t make sense.
The prosecution theory that Cooper single-handedly invaded the Ryen home seems to me preposterous. The medical examiner concluded that at least three weapons — a hatchet, an ice pick and one or two knives — were used to stab the victims approximately 140 times, and the attacker(s) appear to have discarded tan and blue shirts worn in the attack.
So as he mounted this attack, Cooper was juggling three or four weapons? Pausing in midassault to change shirts? And how could a 155-pound man like Cooper enter the house, with the Ryens’ dogs presumably sounding an alarm, and then overpower both Doug Ryen, a former military policeman, and Peggy Ryen, strong and athletic — each of whom had a loaded gun by the side of the bed?
And even if all this somehow were possible, why would Cooper, when fleeing in the Ryens’ car, have left bloodstains on three seats and thrown the hatchet used in the attack out the passenger side window?
Yet California for almost 38 years has prepared to ignore all this and execute a Black man who is probably innocent. Democratic and Republican politicians alike have mostly averted their eyes, presumably in part for fear of offending voters who might be upset at the exoneration of a Black man convicted of a brutal crime against a white family.
So, after a year in which America has looked anew at racism in the criminal justice system, let’s be frank about race.
“If I was a white man, or if I was a wealthy Black man, I would not be in prison right now,” Cooper told me in a phone call from San Quentin. Of course he’s right.
Yet fundamentally Cooper blames himself, for fleeing the minimum-security prison. “If I had not put myself in that position for those body snatchers to get their hands on me, I would not be here today,” he said. “I have to take responsibility for my actions.”
This is not a case just of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The entire system failed, decade after decade.
Conservative law enforcement officials in San Bernardino County blocked comprehensive DNA testing for years, but so did Democratic politicians like Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris when they were attorneys general of California. The latest California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whom President Biden has named to his cabinet, also did not authorize testing.
Harris has told me she regrets her failure to allow testing. Cooper was asked by a Sean Hannity representative for an interview before the election, apparently in hopes that he would denounce her. Cooper refused.
“I got integrity,” he said. “I know those people don’t give a damn about me, don’t care about my situation.”
One challenge in cases like this is that the criminal justice system establishes considerable barriers to finding someone guilty in the first place, but then after conviction places significant impediments to free that person even when new information comes to light.
“The legal system is deeply, deeply committed to closure, finality, procedural exhaustion, and there are some good reasons for that,” Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney, told me. “But when it comes to executing a man or woman who may be innocent, there’s no excuse for closing the door because of procedural issues.”
Boudin has set up a six-member panel — with a retired judge, a forensics specialist and other experts — to review old cases in San Francisco about which doubts have arisen, and it’s a model for what the governor should create to review Cooper’s conviction in Southern California.
“We have to be equally committed to doing justice retrospectively as to do it prospectively,” Boudin told me. “Anybody who is fair-minded has to know that the situation is not perfect, that mistakes are made.”
While running for D.A., Boudin applied to visit Cooper in San Quentin but says he was denied permission by the California Department of Corrections.
Let me be honest: I don’t know for certain that Cooper is innocent. We all need a dose of humility about our capacity to discern the truth.
What is indisputable is not Cooper’s guilt or innocence, but doubt. When federal judges, law school deans and others believe that a man has been framed, and when another person is said to have privately confessed to the murders, how can we keep a man on death row because, well, it’s possible he’s guilty?
Now it’s time for Governor Newsom to order an investigation to review the Cooper case and examine whether an innocent man has been framed. We can’t undo the tragedy that unfolded 38 years ago in the Ryen home, but we can end another.
Prosecute the Capitol rioters. But new antiterrorism laws could end up targeting people of color.
By Adama Bah, Jan. 25, 2021,
Ms. Bah is an immigration activist.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/opinion/domestic-terrorism-capitol-riots.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Adama Bah, Immigration activist. (Screen shot from video)
transcript“What we witnessed yesterday was not dissent. They weren’t protesters. They were a riotous mob, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists.” [SHOUTING] “We don’t have a domestic terrorism law.” “We don’t have many of the tools to battle domestic terrorism.” “I think it’s time that we had a domestic terrorism statute.” “The people who stormed the Capitol definitely need to face consequences. They are filled with hate. But we should not call them terrorists, and we should not pass a new anti-terrorism law. ” Can I act funny?” “Yeah.” [SINGING] [GENTLE MUSIC] “In 2005, I was 16 years old. My apartment was raided by the NYPD Terrorism Task Force, FBI. They came, ripped the blankets off my head. My father and I were detained and put in handcuffs. The government suspected me of being a potential suicide bomber. Ooh. I was trying to avoid my emotions — depression, fear, anger. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I was still treated as a criminal. I was honestly just a 16-year-old, a typical 16-year-old. My grades were great. My friends were awesome. I was into boy bands. [LAUGHS] When I hear people say we need to expand the war on terror, or we need to make new laws, it’s an insult to me because, for some reason, they found the laws to detain me and accused me of terrorism. And these people essentially passed the most secured building in the country just fine. History shows that having anti-terrorism laws just affect people like myself. “Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, former Army buddies with a grudge against the government, planned the bombing.” After the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton passed a law giving the FBI more power to go after terrorists. The law didn’t go after people that looked like the Oklahoma City Bomber. “From now on, we can quickly expel foreigners who dare to come to America and support terrorist activities.” “The same thing
The famed conductor traveled at night, employing deep knowledge of the region's environment and wildlife to communicate, navigate, and survive.
By Allison Keyes, Reporter, Audubon Magazine, February 25, 2020https://www.audubon.org/news/harriet-tubman-unsung-naturalist-used-owl-calls-signal-underground-railroad
Many people are aware of Harriet Tubman's work on the Underground Railroad and as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. Fewer know of her prowess as a naturalist.
At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, Maryland, Ranger Angela Crenshaw calls Tubman “the ultimate outdoors woman.” She even used bird calls to help guide her charges, eventually helping some 70 people, including her parents and four brothers, escape slavery.
"We know that she used the call of an owl to alert refugees and her freedom seekers that it was OK, or not OK, to come out of hiding and continue their journey,” Crenshaw says. “It would have been the Barred Owl, or as it is sometimes called, a 'hoot-owl.' 'They make a sound that some people think sounds like ‘who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?’ ”
That nugget comes to Crenshaw from the park’s historian, Kate Clifford Larson, author of the Tubman biography Bound for the Promised Land. “If you used the sound of an owl, it would blend in with the normal sounds you would hear at night. It wouldn’t create any suspicion,” Crenshaw says.
Harriet Tubman spent much of her young life in close contact with the natural world. Likely born in 1822, she grew up in an area full of wetlands, swamps, and upland forests, giving her the skills she used expertly in her own quest for freedom in 1849. Her parents were enslaved, and Tubman’s owners rented her out to neighbors as a domestic servant as early as age five. At seven, she was hired out again, and her duties included walking into wet marshes to check muskrat traps. Tubman also worked as a field hand, in timber fields with her father and brothers on the north side of the Blackwater River, and at wharves in the area. All of this helped when, later, Tubman made 13 trips back to Maryland between 1850 and 1860 to guide people to freedom. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison dubbed Tubman “Moses.”
“It was in those timber fields where she learned the skills necessary to be a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad,” Crenshaw explains, “including how to read the landscape, how to be comfortable in the woods, how to navigate and use the sounds that were natural in Dorchester County at the time.”
Being able to travel and navigate was paramount for people risking their lives for freedom, and that's why it helped that Tubman was an astronomer, too, says Eola Dance, former coordinator for the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program. Like other freedom seekers, Tubman used the North Star and the Big Dipper to orient herself.
“Tubman was leading family members as well as strangers from Maryland to Philadelphia, New York and as far as St. Catharine’s, Canada, by traveling at night, using science to find her way," Dance says.
Botany proved another necessary skill; people used plants for food and other survival needs. “Whether it was using certain plant life to quiet babies, or it could be relieving pain or cleaning wounds, this was the type of knowledge that Tubman had,” Dance says. Travelers along the Underground Railroad would have also looked for vegetables such as okra, tomatoes, collard greens, and trapped animals, such as muskrats, she notes.
Tubman’s natural expertise also helped her after her Underground Railroad days when she served in the Union Army, says Dance. She arrived at Fort Monroe, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in 1861. Her experience with the waterways she crossed repeatedly while shepherding freedom seekers was essential again.
“If you’re thinking of traveling from Maryland through Pennsylvania, Tubman would have had to cross several rivers, creeks, and streams, and that would have been important not only directionally, but also something we don’t talk about as much: as in the way people were tracked,” Dance says. “Freedom seekers would have been tracked by dogs, and by traveling through the water and knowing these waterways, it would have aided them in throwing off their scent so that the dogs would not be able to find them.”
At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, Crenshaw likes to memorialize Tubman's connection to birds through verse. She’s memorized former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hayden’s poem Runagate, Runagate, which mentions Tubman, and also the owls she mimicked with such accuracy.
Hoot-owl calling in the ghosted air,
Five times calling to the hants in the air,
Shadow of a face in the scary leaves,
Shadow of a voice in the talking leaves.
Combined, Harriet Tubman’s understanding of the human environment, surrounding landscapes, and wildlife prepared her for both the great and small tasks of the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. To Dance, what's incredible is that Tubman began acquiring her expertise as a child, while doing what she had to do to just survive. “We don’t really think about what knowledge and skills she had to have,” Dance says, “in order to accomplish the impossible.”
Companies inspired by the cryptocurrency are creating social networks, storing online content and hosting websites without any central authority.
By Nathaniel Popper, Jan. 26, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/26/technology/big-tech-power-bitcoin.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage§ion=Business
SAN FRANCISCO — Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, publicly wrestled this month with the question of whether his social media service had exercised too much power by cutting off Donald J. Trump’s account. Mr. Dorsey wondered aloud if the solution to that power imbalance was new technology inspired by the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
When YouTube and Facebook barred tens of thousands of Mr. Trump’s supporters and white supremacists this month, many flocked to alternative apps such as LBRY, Minds and Sessions. What those sites had in common was that they were also inspired by the design of Bitcoin.
The twin developments were part of a growing movement by technologists, investors and everyday users to replace some of the internet’s fundamental building blocks in ways that would be harder for tech giants like Facebook and Google to control.
To do so, they are increasingly focused on new technological ideas introduced by Bitcoin, which was built atop an online network designed, at the most basic level, to decentralize power.
Unlike other types of digital money, Bitcoin are created and moved around not by a central bank or financial institution but by a broad and disparate network of computers. It’s similar to the way Wikipedia is edited by anyone who wants to help, rather than a single publishing house. That underlying technology is called the blockchain, a reference to the shared ledger on which all of Bitcoin’s records are kept.
Companies are now finding ways to use blockchains, and similar technology inspired by it, to create social media networks, store online content and host websites without any central authority in charge. Doing so makes it much harder for any government or company to ban accounts or delete content.
These experiments are newly relevant after the biggest tech companies recently exercised their clout in ways that have raised questions about their power.
Facebook and Twitter prevented Mr. Trump from posting online after the Capitol rampage on Jan. 6, saying he had broken their rules against inciting violence. Amazon, Apple and Google stopped working with Parler, a social networking site that had become popular with the far right, saying the app had not done enough to limit violent content.
While liberals and opponents of toxic content praised the companies’ actions, they were criticized by conservatives, First Amendment scholars and the American Civil Liberties Union for showing that private entities could decide who gets to stay online and who doesn’t.
“Even if you agree with the specific decisions, I do not for a second trust the people who are making the decisions to make universally good decisions,” said Jeremy Kauffman, the founder of LBRY, which provides a decentralized service for streaming videos.
That has prompted a scramble for other options. Dozens of start-ups now offer alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Amazon’s web hosting services, all on top of decentralized networks and shared ledgers. Many have gained millions of new users over the past few weeks, according to the data company SimilarWeb.
“This is the biggest wave I’ve ever seen,” said Emmi Bevensee, a data scientist and the author of “The Decentralized Web of Hate,” a publication about the move of right-wing groups to decentralized technology. “This has been discussed in niche communities, but now we are having a conversation with the broader world about how these emerging technologies may impact the world at quite large scales.”
Bitcoin first emerged in 2009. Its creator, a shadowy figure known as Satoshi Nakamoto, has said its central idea was to allow anyone to open a digital bank account and hold the money in a way that no government could prevent or regulate.
For several years, Bitcoin gained little traction beyond a small coterie of online admirers and people who wanted to pay for illegal drugs online. But as its price rose over time, more people in Silicon Valley took notice of the unusual technical qualities underlying the cryptocurrency. Some promised that the technology could be used to redesign everything from produce tracking to online games.
The hype fell flat over the years as the underlying technology proved to be slow, prone to error and not easily accessible. But more investments and time have begun to result in software that people can actually use.
Last year, Arweave, a blockchain-based project for permanently storing and displaying websites, created an archive of sites and documents from the protests in Hong Kong that angered the Chinese government.
Minds, a blockchain-based replacement for Facebook founded in 2015, also became an online home to some of the right-wing personalities and neo-Nazis who were booted from mainstream social networks, along with fringe groups, in other countries, that have been targeted by their governments. Minds and other similar start-ups are funded by prominent venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.
One of the biggest proponents of the trend has been Mr. Dorsey, 44, who has talked about the promise of decentralized social networks through Twitter and has promoted Bitcoin through the other company he runs, Square, a financial technology provider.
His public support for Bitcoin and Bitcoin-related designs dates to around 2017. In late 2019, Mr. Dorsey announced Blue Sky, a project to develop technology aimed at giving Twitter less influence over who could and could not use the service.
After shutting down Mr. Trump’s account this month, Mr. Dorsey said he would hire a team for Blue Sky to address his discomfort with Twitter’s power by pursuing the vision set out by Bitcoin. On Thursday, Blue Sky published the findings of a task force that has been considering potential designs.
Twitter declined to make Mr. Dorsey available for an interview but said it intended to “share more soon.”
Blockchains are not the only solution for those in search of alternatives to Big Tech’s power. Many people have recently migrated to the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram, which have no need for a blockchain. Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal, has said decentralization made it hard to build good software.
The experimentation with decentralized systems has nonetheless ramped up over the last month. Brave, a new browser, announced last week that it would begin integrating a blockchain-based system, known as IPFS, into its software to make web content more reliable in case big service providers went down or tried to ban sites.
“The IPFS network gives access to content even if it has been censored by corporations and nation-states,” Brian Bondy, a co-founder of Brave, said.
At LBRY, the blockchain-based alternative to YouTube, the number of people signing up daily has surged 250 percent from December, the company said. The newcomers appear to have largely been a motley crew of Trump fans, white supremacists and gun rights advocates who violated YouTube’s rules.
When YouTube removed the latest videos from the white supremacist video blogger Way of the World last week, he tweeted: “Why do we waste our time on this globalist scum? Come to LBRY for all my videos in HD quality, censorship free!”
Megan Squires, a professor at Elon University who studies new computer networks, said blockchain-based networks faced hurdles because the underlying technology made it hard to exercise any control over content.
“As a technology it is very cool, but you can’t just sit there and be a Pollyanna and think that all information will be free,” she said. “There will be racists, and people will shoot each other. It’s going to be the total package.”
Mr. Kauffman said LBRY had prepared for these situations. While anyone will be able to create an account and register content on the LBRY blockchain that the company cannot delete — similar to the way anyone can create an email address and send emails — most people will get access to videos through a site on top of it. That allows LBRY to enforce moderation policies, much as Google can filter out spam and illegal content in email, he said.
Even so, Mr. Kauffman said, no one would lose basic access to online conversation.
“I’d be proud of almost any kind of marginalized voice using it, no matter how much I disagreed with it,” he said.
Virus cases are surging among incarcerated people at prisons and jails. But state officials have not announced when they will be vaccinated.
By Troy Closson, Jan. 26, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/26/nyregion/new-york-vaccine-prisons.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage
When New York announced new vaccine eligibility guidelines two weeks ago covering millions of additional state residents, one particularly hard-hit group remained unmentioned: the nearly 50,000 people incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails.
Now, with state supplies dwindling and no clear plan for vaccinating incarcerated people, the virus that tore through the state’s correctional facilities in the spring is roaring back behind bars. At least 5,100 people living and working in New York’s prisons have tested positive and 12 have died in recent weeks, outpacing even the early days of the pandemic.
But how and when to vaccinate incarcerated people as millions around the state wait has raised legal, logistical and ethical questions that the state has so far struggled to answer.
Across the country, the arrival of a vaccine was hailed as a harbinger of the pandemic’s eventual end. But administering the limited supply has proved challenging, and correctional facilities — where more than half a million people have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic — present additional complications.
Officials grappling with the same difficult questions have come to different conclusions, creating a patchwork of policies and timelines that vary dramatically, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, a research nonprofit devoted to reducing mass incarceration. But at least 27 states directly name inmates in their public plans, and about a dozen place them in the first phases of vaccine distribution — including Massachusetts, where tens of thousands of prisoners are set to be vaccinated by the end of next month.
Others plan to vaccinate prison and jail workers before incarcerated people, breaking with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends vaccinating everyone at correctional facilities simultaneously. Some, like New York, do not address those behind bars at all.
“We have people dying on a weekly basis,” said Stefen Short, a lawyer for the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. “What are the plans? There’s got to be a consistent message coming out of Albany and coming out of these agencies on this. Otherwise, you’re just generating a lot of fear.”
Vaccinating incarcerated people in the early stages of distribution has proved politically fraught. In New York, state senators have questioned whether prioritizing people in prisons makes sense. In Colorado, a draft plan to offer the vaccine inside prisons was met with fierce backlash for, as one district attorney wrote in The Denver Post, prioritizing “the health of incarcerated murderers” ahead of “law-abiding Coloradans 65 and older.”
New York officials said the state was preparing a plan. But public health experts broadly agree that incarcerated people are at particularly high risk for contracting and spreading the virus, as at least 8,800 people living or working in New York’s prison system have tested positive since the start of the pandemic.
And because guards, lawyers, workers and people entering and leaving custody move between the facilities and the community at large, the public health implications of outbreaks behind bars extend far beyond the prison walls. Officials said last fall that an outbreak at Greene Correctional Facility near Albany was linked to cases at an assisted-living facility and an elementary school.
The absence of any clear plan for incarcerated people has left their relatives and advocates confused and concerned.
“I really don’t understand it,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the Board of Correction in New York City. “But the consequences will be quite severe.”
For Jeanette Velazquez, the uncertainty has been frustrating.
Her brother, José Leon, is incarcerated at Adirondack Correctional Facility in upstate New York with several underlying health conditions, including hypertension and colitis. But he was not among the thousands of inmates granted early release last year to stem the spread of the virus.
Now, Ms. Velazquez said, her brother has taken his own precautions out of fear: Mr. Leon, 62, stopped going to communal mess halls and began skipping meals; he stays as isolated as possible; and, after years of his calling her regularly, Ms. Velazquez said she has not heard from him in days, unsure whether he is avoiding public spaces or if something went wrong.
Mr. Leon, who is one of three plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit over prison conditions during the pandemic, is serving a sentence of 15 years to life for sexual abuse, prison and court records show.
“I’m scared that he’s not going to make it,” she said, adding: “He’s not getting the medical attention that he really needs, and him not making it home alive, that’s my concern. It’s like he has a death sentence.”
To be sure, the first weeks of the state’s vaccine rollout have not been seamless for the public at large either. Medical providers were forced to throw out shots early on as other doses sat unused for weeks. Once the rollout sped up, New York’s reserve of first doses was depleted, and thousands of vaccination appointments were canceled. Even as inmates clamor for eligibility, millions of people who already qualify continue to wait.
Once we take care of the pandemic, we need to sort this out.
By Thomas L. Friedman, Opinion Columnist, Jan. 26, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/26/opinion/us-capitalism-socialism.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock
I understand why Democrats are fuming.
Donald Trump ran up budget deficits in his first three years to levels seen in our history only during major wars and financial crises — thanks to tax cuts, military spending and little fiscal discipline. And he did so prepandemic, when the economy was already expanding and unemployment was low. But now that Joe Biden wants to spend more on pandemic relief and prevent the economy from tanking further, many Republicans — on cue — are rediscovering their deficit hawk wings.
We need to do whatever it takes to help the most vulnerable Americans who have lost jobs, homes or businesses to Covid-19 — and to buttress cities overwhelmed by the virus. So, put me down for a double dose of generosity.
But, but, but … when this virus clears, we ALL need to have a talk.
There has been so much focus in recent years on the downsides of rapid globalization and “neoliberal free-market groupthink” — influencing both Democrats and Republicans — that we’ve ignored another, more powerful consensus that has taken hold on both parties: That we are in a new era of permanently low interest rates, so deficits don’t matter as long as you can service them, and so the role of government in developed countries can keep expanding — which it has with steadily larger bailouts, persistent deficit spending, mounting government debts and increasingly easy money out of Central Banks to finance it all.
This new consensus has a name: “Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest,” argues Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, author of “The Ten Rules of Successful Nations” and one of my favorite contrarian economic thinkers.
“Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest” — a variation on a theme popularized in the 1960s — happens, Sharma explained in a phone interview, when government intervention does more to stimulate the financial markets than the real economy. So, America’s richest 10 percent, who own more than 80 percent of U.S. stocks, have seen their wealth more than triple in 30 years, while the bottom 50 percent, relying on their day jobs in real markets to survive, had zero gains. Meanwhile, mediocre productivity in the real economy has limited opportunity, choice and income gains for the poor and middle class alike.
The best evidence is the last year: We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has crushed jobs and small businesses — but the stock market is soaring. That’s not right. That’s elephants flying. I always get worried watching elephants fly. It usually doesn’t end well.
And even if we raise taxes on the rich and direct more relief to the poor, which I favor, when you keep relying on this much stimulus, argues Sharma, you’re going to get lots of unintended consequences. And we are.
For instance, Sharma wrote in July in a Wall Street Journal essay titled “The Rescues Ruining Capitalism,” that easy money and increasingly generous bailouts fuel the rise of monopolies and keep “alive heavily indebted ‘zombie’ firms, at the expense of start-ups, which drive innovation.” And all of that is contributing to lower productivity, which means slower economic growth and “a shrinking of the pie for everyone.”
As such, no one should be surprised “that millennials and Gen Z are growing disillusioned with this distorted form of capitalism and say that they prefer socialism.”
n the 1980s, “only 2 percent of publicly traded companies in the U.S. were considered ‘zombies,’ a term used by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) for companies that, over the previous three years, had not earned enough profit to make even the interest payments on their debt,” Sharma wrote. “The zombie minority started to grow rapidly in the early 2000s, and by the eve of the pandemic, accounted for 19 percent of U.S.-listed companies.” It’s happening in Europe, China and Japan, too.
And it’s all logical. Prolonged and increasingly generous bailouts, where governments are willing to buy even corporate junk bonds to prevent foreclosures, added Sharma, “distort the efficient allocation of capital needed to raise productivity.”
The past few years should have been an era of huge creative destruction. With so many new cheap digital tools of innovation, so much access to cheap high-powered computing and so much easy money, start-ups should have been exploding. They were not.
“Before the pandemic, the U.S. was generating start-ups — and shutting down established companies — at the slowest rates since at least the 1970s,” wrote Sharma. “The number of publicly traded U.S. companies had fallen by nearly half, to around 4,400, since the peak in 1996.” (The number of start-ups has increased in the pandemic, but that may be because so many businesses closed.)
Alas, though, big companies are becoming huge and more monopolistic in this easy money, low interest rate era. It is not only because the internet created global winner-take-all markets, which have enabled companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple to amass cash piles bigger than the reserves of many nation-states. It’s also because they can so easily use their inflated stock prices or cash hoards to buy up budding competitors and suck up all the talent and resources “crowding out the little guys,” Sharma said.
Meanwhile, he added, as governments keep stepping in to eliminate recessions, downturns no longer play their role of purging the economy of inefficient companies, and recoveries have grown weaker and weaker, with lower productivity growth. So it takes more and more stimulus each time to prop up growth.
This is all actually making our system more fragile.
Now that so many countries, led by the U.S., have massively increased their debt loads, if we got even a small burst of inflation that drove interest on the 10-year Treasury to 3 percent from 1 percent, the amount of money the U.S. would have to devote to debt servicing would be so enormous that little money might be left for discretionary spending on research, infrastructure or education — or another rainy day.
Sure, we could then just print even more money, but that could threaten the status of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and raise our borrowing costs even more.
So, yes, yes, yes — we must, right now, help our fellow citizens, who are hurting, through this pandemic. But instead of more cash handouts, maybe we should do it the way the Koreans, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Chinese and other East Asians have been doing it — cash assistance to only the most vulnerable and more investments in infrastructure that improve productivity and create good jobs. The East Asians also focus on making their governments smarter, particularly around delivering things like health care, rather than bigger — one reason they have gotten through this pandemic with less pain.
Biden plans a big infrastructure package soon. He totally gets it. I just hope that Congress, and the markets, don’t have debt fatigue by the time we get to the most productive medicine: infrastructure.
Going forward, how about more inclusive capitalism for everyone and less knee-jerk socialism for rich people. Economies grow from more people inventing and starting stuff. “Without entrepreneurial risk and creative destruction, capitalism doesn’t work,” wrote Sharma. “Disruption and regeneration, the heart of the system, grind to a halt. The deadwood never falls from the tree. The green shoots are nipped in the bud.”
I left my hometown because I felt alienated from its conservative values. Turns out many in my community had forgotten our progressive roots.
By Abby Lee Hood, Jan. 30, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/30/opinion/hillbilly-redneck-progressivism.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
NASHVILLE — I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “redneck,” but when I was growing up in Middle Tennessee it was usually spoken with pride — tossed around at the bluegrass festivals I went to. My grandfather would pick guitar, and I’d play fiddle, usually in a circle of old-timers under a shade tree at the Summertown Bluegrass Reunion.
I lived on a small farm in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., about 80 miles south of here. Like a lot of families, we had a few animals, a garden and some land; we weren’t professionals or anything. I lived in a trailer with my mom, right in my grandparents’ front yard. I learned to raise goats and gut deer. Whenever we’d go to a swimming hole, my Pepaw would point and say, “I used to have a house there,” because his parents were sharecroppers and they moved around.
As I got older, it began to feel as if there were two parts of me, and they didn’t get along. In high school, my parents told me I was “a freak” for supporting marriage equality, and in church I was told almost everything about me was a sin, including my sexual orientation. I couldn’t come out, and I was inundated with conservative rhetoric. I was a hillbilly — one used to hearing my family worry about paying the bills and making ends meet. I knew we struggled. But I couldn’t see how immigrants were the problem when it was the price of milk going up.
I felt unwelcome and lost at home. So I left for art school in Chicago. There, I finally felt safe enough to be openly bisexual and grew more progressive in my politics.
But looking back, I wish I had realized that my redneck roots didn’t contradict the other parts of myself as much as I was raised to believe. The conservative community I felt alienated from had forgotten its progressive roots. The fact is, in the early 1900s rednecks and hillbillies weren’t backward; they were ahead of the times.
During the West Virginia mine wars in the 1920s, rednecks formed a multiracial coalition of coal miners, and they forced cafeteria workers to serve everyone in the same room. Rednecks organized through the Industrial Workers of the World and the United Mine Workers of America, both of which are still active today. Miners led strikes, protests and even armed clashes against coal companies. In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie, the writer of “This Land Is Your Land,” performed at union meetings and composed “All You Fascists Bound to Lose.” He also performed with Pete Seeger, who would play “Which Side Are You On,” written by the musician and activist Florence Reece in the midst of labor unrest in Harlan County, Ky.
At the same time that my roots were rotting, students hundreds of miles away in West Virginia were also being alienated from this heritage. In the 1920s, a coal-funded nativist organization called the American Constitutional Association began a decades-long campaign to obliterate stories about the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was the largest armed labor uprising since the Civil War, led by a group of miners who in 1921 were fed up with deadly working conditions and being paid with company scrip, a kind of miner currency that could be used only at company stores.
That cover-up campaign continues. According to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum director, Mackenzie New-Walker, many state schools are still heavily influenced by coal companies, whose owners and executives sit on university boards and donate to high school football teams. The American Constitutional Association and the coal companies made sure students didn’t know about the miners who wore red bandannas and organized an integrated army of immigrants, whites and African Americans decades before Brown v. Board of Education made it to the Supreme Court. The bandanna wearers were called “rednecks,” and at the time, it was an insult. Their activities were even a crime.
Chuck Keeney, a professor, historian and the great-grandson of the labor leader Frank Keeney said the miners were sworn to silence about the Battle of Blair Mountain to protect their comrades. But that caused them to lose control of their narrative. Today, redneck culture has become less about building solidarity among working folks and more about supporting white nationalism. Urban Americans often think of rednecks as backward, and make jokes about us being uneducated and inbred.
“The stereotype is a backward, culturally ignorant group of people,” Mr. Keeney said. “People don’t know the history of these resistance fighters.”
By the time I was born, Appalachian and Southern folks were less focused on fighting wealth inequality and more focused on stripping away human rights, including my own. Country music shifted to focus more on beer, trucks and girls in shorts. Guthrie’s brand of country was all but dead.
Even in Chicago, I couldn’t escape parallels to my family. My mother told me about buying lunch from a vending machine with change when she was pregnant. There were days I had nothing but change and used it to get food from the university’s vending machines. Every experience I’ve had, be it social, financial or political, has pushed me further left. In the Blair Mountain miners, and in leftists in general, I found my roots and my people — working-class folks who know struggle but embrace social freedom and equality.
On a recent postelection drive home, my eyes couldn’t help but snag on Trump flags flying outside what might best be described as shacks. Those folks deserve so much more, but I’m not convinced they’d say the same of me.
The truth is, Republican voters who fight against expanding human rights — who love songs like “If the South Woulda Won” and refuse to support Medicaid expansions that would provide health care to thousands in the South — are simply not rednecks, although they might think of themselves that way. Republican supporters bastardize hillbilly history; you can’t claim to be from “Hicktown” if you don’t fight for the hicks in it.
When I interviewed Mr. Keeney, author of “The Road to Blair Mountain,” he told me rednecks need “identity reclamation.” He’s right. Leftists owe it to ourselves to pick up a history book and counter the propaganda against unionization and organizing.
“You can embrace the term ‘redneck’ as what it meant to the miners,” Mr. Keeney said. “Reach back into our radical roots, our resistance roots. That’s who we really are.”
Rednecks — real rednecks — have always been my people. If conservatives put differences aside to fight for a more prosperous, equitable America, like the miners did, I could be their people, too.
Abby Lee Hood is a journalist who grew up in rural Tennessee who reports on labor and justice.
Innocent people are in jail because detectives tricked them.
By Saul Kassin, Jan. 29, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/opinion/false-confessions-police-interrogation.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Most Americans don’t know this, but police officers in the United States are permitted by law to outright lie about evidence to suspects they interrogate in pursuit of a confession. Of all forms of subterfuge they deploy — like feigning sympathy and suggesting that a suspect’s confession might bring leniency — this one is particularly dangerous.
In Frazier v. Cupp (1969), the Supreme Court made it lawful for the police to present false evidence. “The victim’s blood was found on your pillow,” “You failed the polygraph,” “Your fingerprints were on the knife” and “Your friend said she wasn’t with you like you said” are some common but brazen lies told. There is almost no limit to the type or magnitude of deception permitted — one lie or many; small lies and whoppers; lies aimed at adults or anxious and unwary teenagers.
In the United States and elsewhere, confession evidence serves an important function in the administration of criminal justice. Yet the history of wrongful convictions points to countless innocent people induced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
A bill awaiting legislative action in New York, Senate Bill S324, would finally put a stop to this in the state. It would bar police deception in the interrogation room and require courts to evaluate the reliability of confession evidence before allowing it to be used.
In the database of the Innocence Project, false confessions contributed to the convictions in 29 percent of its 375 DNA exonerations. Over all, 8.26 percent of these wrongful convictions originated in New York State; 45 percent of these New York cases involved false confessions.
Historically, New York City has been something of a hot spot. On Aug. 28, 1963, two young professional women on the Upper East Side were killed. Eight months later, with these “career-girl murders” still unsolved, homicide detectives interrogated George Whitmore, a 19-year-old African-American man and produced an exquisitely detailed 61-page confession to those murders and other crimes.
Whitmore signed the statement attributed to him but then later recanted. It turned out that he had a solid if not ironic alibi: He had been with friends on the South Jersey shore watching the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech televised from the Lincoln Memorial. After spending nine years in and out of prison, he was finally exonerated of all charges. His false confession was notable. In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court cited the Whitmore case as the “most recent conspicuous example” of police coercion in the interrogation room.
Twenty-five years later, the Central Park jogger case elicited five false confessions, four on videotape for everyone to see — five in a single investigation, in the spotlight of Manhattan, while the world watched.
Other instances not so high in profile are equally tragic. Accounting for hundreds of years of wrongful incarceration, false confessions have occurred throughout the state. In most of these cases, detectives mischaracterized the evidence.
Consider what happened to 17-year-old Martin Tankleff. In 1988, he woke up early one morning to find his mother laying in her bloodied bed and his father slumped in his bloodied study chair, gurgling air but unconscious. Mr. Tankleff called 911. Although he had no cuts or bruises and no history of violence, he was separated from family members and interrogated.
After hours of accusations and denials, the lead detective launched into a series of lies about evidence, culminating in a staged phone call to the hospital. He returned with good news and bad. The good news, he told Mr. Tankleff, was that his father had regained consciousness. The bad news was that his father had said Mr. Tankleff was his attacker. Both statements were untrue (his father had been in a coma and died shortly thereafter).
Mr. Tankleff became disoriented and lost his grip on reality. My father never lies, he thought. If he said I did it, I must have. Mr. Tankleff broke down and confessed, then almost immediately recanted, after which he was tried and convicted. Eighteen years later, his conviction was vacated. He is now a New York-based lawyer and criminal justice reform advocate.
This type of deception is still very much in use. Consider the plight of Malthe Thomsen, born and raised in Denmark in a family of educators. In 2014, at 22 years old, Mr. Thomsen came to New York for a six-month teaching internship at a private Manhattan preschool.
One day, an assistant teacher at the school alleged that Mr. Thomsen was molesting children. The school investigated, cleared Mr. Thomsen, and fired the assistant, who had a history of making false accusations. She then filed a complaint with the police. Without warning, a sex-crimes detective woke Mr. Thomsen at 6 a.m., took him to a police station, interrogated him off camera for four hours, and then delivered him to an assistant district attorney for an on-camera confession.
The lead detective had told Mr. Thomsen that surveillance videos showed him touching children in sexual ways. That was false. No such footage existed. Mr. Thomsen had no idea that the police could misrepresent evidence. In Denmark, as in most Western countries, this tactic is not permitted. Mr. Thomsen began to doubt himself; he went on to sign a confession. Then he went on camera and said, “This morning, I had a rude awakening.”
He was arrested, charged, labeled a “sex monster” in local newspapers and sent to Rikers Island. Lacking any evidence, Manhattan prosecutors ultimately dismissed all charges. Mr. Thomsen returned home, traumatized; the city paid him an undisclosed sum. Shortly before he died at age 27, he told his story in a Danish documentary titled “False Confessions.”
Scientific proof of the risk posed by false evidence lends credence to these tragic stories. This proof is derived from two sources. First, basic psychology shows that misinformation renders people vulnerable to manipulation. Specifically, false information (as presented through confederates, counterfeit test results, false feedback and the like) can substantially alter people’s visual perceptions, beliefs, emotional states, memories and even certain physiological functions — as seen in the classic placebo effect in medicine.
Second, recent experiments specifically demonstrate the effects on confessions. By bringing subjects into the laboratory and accusing them of crashing a computer, cheating on a test or stealing money, researchers have found that false evidence typically doubles and triples the number of innocent subjects who break down and confess. In some instances, these subjects actually come to believe in their own culpability. This effect is particularly pronounced in juveniles and sleep-deprived adults.
That’s why there is a consensus on this issue within the scientific community. The American Psychology-Law Society published a white paper cautioning of the risk of presenting false evidence; the American Psychological Association passed a resolution stating the same. In a recent survey of 87 Ph.D. confession experts worldwide, 94 percent endorsed as highly reliable the proposition that “presentations of false incriminating evidence during interrogation increase the risk that an innocent suspect would confess”; 100 percent agreed “misinformation about an event can alter a person’s memory for that event.”
You might think that the entire law enforcement community would oppose the New York legislation. Not so. The International Investigative Interviewing Research Group, a Europe-based network of law enforcement practitioners and academics, submitted a letter of support to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — both because of the false evidence effect on innocent suspects and because “sanctioned deception by an investigator [also] serves to undermine the legitimacy of the court and wider principles of justice.”
Closer to home, letters of support were also sent by Chicago’s Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, one of the largest police training companies in the United States, and several members of the federal government’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which brings together intelligence professionals from the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the Defense Department for national security purposes.
Col. Steven M. Kleinman, a former Air Force intelligence officer who has interrogated terrorists and violent extremists, put it this way: “While this tactic might appear benign at first glance, it has proved to be insidiously problematic as a factor in generating false confessions nationwide.”
In August, for the first time since Gallup began tracking the question 27 years ago, a majority of Americans said they lacked confidence in the police. Senate Bill S324 offers a step toward regaining that trust.
Dr. Kassin is a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied false confessions for 40 years.
We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.
By Shoshana Zuboff, Jan. 29, 2021https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/opinion/sunday/facebook-surveillance-society-technology.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
Two decades ago, the American government left democracy’s front door open to California’s fledgling internet companies, a cozy fire lit in welcome. In the years that followed, a surveillance society flourished in those rooms, a social vision born in the distinct but reciprocal needs of public intelligence agencies and private internet companies, both spellbound by a dream of total information awareness. Twenty years later, the fire has jumped the screen, and on Jan. 6, it threatened to burn down democracy’s house.
I have spent exactly 42 years studying the rise of the digital as an economic force driving our transformation into an information civilization. Over the last two decades, I’ve observed the consequences of this surprising political-economic fraternity as those young companies morphed into surveillance empires powered by global architectures of behavioral monitoring, analysis, targeting and prediction that I have called surveillance capitalism. On the strength of their surveillance capabilities and for the sake of their surveillance profits, the new empires engineered a fundamentally anti-democratic epistemic coup marked by unprecedented concentrations of knowledge about us and the unaccountable power that accrues to such knowledge.
In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.
The horrific depths of Donald Trump’s attempted political coup ride the wave of this shadow coup, prosecuted over the last two decades by the antisocial media we once welcomed as agents of liberation. On Inauguration Day, President Biden said that “democracy has prevailed” and promised to restore the value of truth to its rightful place in democratic society. Nevertheless, democracy and truth remain under the highest level of threat until we defeat surveillance capitalism’s other coup.
The epistemic coup proceeds in four stages.
The first is the appropriation of epistemic rights, which lays the foundation for all that follows. Surveillance capitalism originates in the discovery that companies can stake a claim to people’s lives as free raw material for the extraction of behavioral data, which they then declare their private property.
The second stage is marked by a sharp rise in epistemic inequality, defined as the difference between what I can know and what can be known about me. The third stage, which we are living through now, introduces epistemic chaos caused by the profit-driven algorithmic amplification, dissemination and microtargeting of corrupt information, much of it produced by coordinated schemes of disinformation. Its effects are felt in the real world, where they splinter shared reality, poison social discourse, paralyze democratic politics and sometimes instigate violence and death.
In the fourth stage, epistemic dominance is institutionalized, overriding democratic governance with computational governance by private surveillance capital. The machines know, and the systems decide, directed and sustained by the illegitimate authority and anti-democratic power of private surveillance capital. Each stage builds on the last. Epistemic chaos prepares the ground for epistemic dominance by weakening democratic society — all too plain in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
We live in the digital century during the formative years of information civilization. Our time is comparable to the early era of industrialization, when owners had all the power, their property rights privileged above all other considerations. The intolerable truth of our current condition is that America and most other liberal democracies have, so far, ceded the ownership and operation of all things digital to the political economics of private surveillance capital, which now vies with democracy over the fundamental rights and principles that will define our social order in this century.
This past year of pandemic misery and Trumpist autocracy magnified the effects of the epistemic coup, revealing the murderous potential of antisocial media long before Jan. 6. Will the growing recognition of this other coup and its threats to democratic societies finally force us to reckon with the inconvenient truth that has loomed over the last two decades? We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we cannot have both. A democratic surveillance society is an existential and political impossibility. Make no mistake: This is the fight for the soul of our information civilization.
Welcome to the third decade.
The Surveillance Exception
The public tragedy of Sept. 11 dramatically shifted the focus in Washington from debates over federal privacy legislation to a mania for total information awareness, turning Silicon Valley’s innovative surveillance practices into objects of intense interest. As Jack Balkin, a professor at Yale Law School, observed, the intelligence community would have to “rely on private enterprise to collect and generate information for it,” in order to reach beyond constitutional, legal, or regulatory constraints, controversies that are central today. By 2013, the CIA’s chief technology officer outlined the agency’s mission “to collect everything and hang on to it forever,” acknowledging the internet companies, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Fitbit and telecom companies, for making it possible. The revolutionary roots of surveillance capitalism are planted in this unwritten political doctrine of surveillance exceptionalism, bypassing democratic oversight, and essentially granting the new internet companies a license to steal human experience and render it as proprietary data.
Young entrepreneurs without any democratic mandate landed a windfall of infinite information and unaccountable power. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, exercised absolute control over the production, organization and presentation of the world’s information. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has had absolute control over what would become a primary means of global communication and news consumption, along with all the information concealed in its networks. The group’s membership grew, and a swelling population of global users proceeded unaware of what just happened.
The license to steal came with a price, binding the executives to the continued patronage of elected officials and regulators as well as the sustained ignorance, or at least learned resignation, of users. The doctrine was, after all, a political doctrine, and its defense would require a future of political maneuvering, appeasement, engagement and investment.
Google led the way with what would become one of the world’s richest lobbying machines. In 2018 nearly half the Senate received contributions from Facebook, Google and Amazon, and the companies continue to set spending records.
Most significant, surveillance exceptionalism has meant that the United States and many other liberal democracies chose surveillance over democracy as the guiding principle of social order. With this forfeit, democratic governments crippled their ability to sustain the trust of their people, intensifying the rationale for surveillance.
The Economics and Politics of Epistemic Chaos
To understand the economics of epistemic chaos, it’s important to know that surveillance capitalism’s operations have no formal interest in facts. All data is welcomed as equivalent, though not all of it is equal. Extraction operations proceed with the discipline of the Cyclops, voraciously consuming everything it can see and radically indifferent to meaning, facts and truth.
In a leaked memo, a Facebook executive, Andrew Bosworth, describes this willful disregard for truth and meaning: “We connect people. That can be good if they make it positive. Maybe someone finds love. … That can be bad if they make it negative. … Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack. … The ugly truth is … anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”
In other words, asking a surveillance extractor to reject content is like asking a coal-mining operation to discard containers of coal because it’s too dirty. This is why content moderation is a last resort, a public-relations operation in the spirit of ExxonMobil’s social responsibility messaging. In Facebook’s case, data triage is undertaken either to minimize the risk of user withdrawal or to avoid political sanctions. Both aim to increase rather than diminish data flows. The extraction imperative combined with radical indifference to produce systems that ceaselessly escalate the scale of engagement but don’t care what engages you.
I’m homing in now on Facebook not because it’s the only perpetrator of epistemic chaos but because it’s the largest social media company and its consequences reach farthest.
The economics of surveillance capitalism begot the extractive Cyclops, turning Facebook into an advertising juggernaut and a killing field for truth. Then an amoral Mr. Trump became president, demanding the right to lie at scale. Destructive economics merged with political appeasement, and everything became infinitely worse.
Key to this story is that the politics of appeasement required little more than a refusal to mitigate, modify or eliminate the ugly truth of surveillance economics. Surveillance capitalism’s economic imperatives turned Facebook into a societal tinderbox. Mr. Zuckerberg merely had to stand down and commit himself to the bystander role.
Internal research presented in 2016 and 2017 demonstrated causal links between Facebook’s algorithmic targeting mechanisms and epistemic chaos. One researcher concluded that the algorithms were responsible for the viral spread of divisive content that helped fuel the growth of German extremist groups. Recommendation tools accounted for 64 percent of “extremist group joins,” she found — dynamics not unique to Germany.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018 riveted the world’s attention on Facebook in a new way, offering a window for bold change. The public began to grasp that Facebook’s political advertising business is a way to rent the company’s suite of capabilities to microtarget users, manipulate them and sow epistemic chaos, pivoting the whole machine just a few degrees from commercial to political objectives.
The company launched some modest initiatives, promising more transparency, a more robust system of third-party fact checkers and a policy to limit “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” but through it all, Mr. Zuckerberg conceded the field to Mr. Trump’s demands for unfettered access to the global information bloodstream.
Mr. Zuckerberg rejected internal proposals for operational changes that would reduce epistemic chaos. A political whitelist identified over 100,000 officials and candidates whose accounts were exempted from fact-checking, despite internal research showing that users tend to believe false information shared by politicians. In September 2019 the company said that political advertising would not be subject to fact-checking.
To placate his critics in 2018, Mr. Zuckerberg commissioned a civil rights audit led by Laura Murphy, a former director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. The report published in 2020 is a cri de coeur expressed in a river of words that bear witness to dashed hopes — “disheartened,” “frustrated,” “angry,” “dismayed,” “fearful,” “heartbreaking.”
The report is consistent with a nearly complete rupture of the American public’s faith in Big Tech. When asked how Facebook would adjust to a political shift toward a possible Biden administration, a company spokesman, Nick Clegg, responded, “We’ll adapt to the environment in which we’re operating.” And so it did. On Jan. 7, the day after it became clear that Democrats would control the Senate, Facebook announced that it would indefinitely block Mr. Trump’s account.
We are meant to believe that the destructive effects of epistemic chaos are the inevitable cost of cherished rights to freedom of speech. No. Just as catastrophic levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere are the consequence of burning fossil fuels, epistemic chaos is a consequence of surveillance capitalism’s bedrock commercial operations, aggravated by political obligations and set into motion by a 20-year-old dream of total information that slid into nightmare. Then a plague came to America, turning the antisocial media conflagration into a wildfire.
Epistemic Chaos Meets a Mysterious Microorganism
As early as February 2020, the World Health Organization reported a Covid-19 “infodemic,” with myths and rumors spreading on social media. By March, researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center concluded that medical misinformation related to the coronavirus was “being propagated at an alarming rate on social media,” endangering public safety.
The Washington Post reported in late March that with nearly 50 percent of the content on Facebook’s news feed related to Covid-19, a very small number of “influential users” were driving the reading habits and feeds of a vast number of users. A study released in April by the Reuters Institute confirmed that high-level politicians, celebrities and other prominent public figures produced 20 percent of the misinformation in their sample, but attracted 69 percent of social media engagements in their sample.
A study released in May by Britain’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue identified a core group of 34 extremist right-wing websites disseminating Covid disinformation or linked to established health misinformation hubs now focused on Covid-19. From January to April of 2020, public Facebook posts linking to these websites garnered 80 million interactions, while posts linking to the W.H.O.’s website received 6.2 million interactions, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 6.4 million.
An Avaaz study released in August exposed 82 websites spreading Covid misinformation reaching a peak of nearly half a billion Facebook views in April. Content from the 10 most popular websites drew about 300 million Facebook views, compared with 70 million for 10 leading health institutions. Facebook’s modest content moderation efforts were no match for its own machine systems engineered for epistemic chaos.
In October a report from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University estimated the number of avoidable Covid-19 deaths. More than 217,000 Americans had died. Tragically, the analysis concluded that at least 130,000 of those deaths could have been avoided. Of the four key reasons cited, details of each one, including the “lack of mask mandate” and “misleading the public,” reflect the orgy of epistemic chaos loosed upon America’s daughters and sons.
This is the world in which a deadly mysterious microorganism flourished. We turned to Facebook in search of information. Instead we found lethal strategies of epistemic chaos for profit.
In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a short book of seminal importance, “The Social Construction of Reality.” Its central observation is that the “everyday life” we experience as “reality” is actively and perpetually constructed by us. This ongoing miracle of social order rests on “common sense knowledge,” which is “the knowledge we share with others in the normal self-evident routines of everyday life.”
Think about traffic: There are not enough police officers in the world to ensure that every car stops at every red light, yet not every intersection triggers a negotiation or a fight. That’s because in orderly societies we all know that red lights have the authority to make us stop and green lights are authorized to let us go. This common sense means that we each act on what we all know, while trusting that others will too. We’re not just obeying laws; we are creating order together. Our reward is to live in a world where we mostly get where we are going and home again safely because we can trust one another’s common sense. No society is viable without it.
“All societies are constructions in the face of chaos,” write Berger and Luckmann. Because norms are summaries of our common sense, norm violation is the essence of terrorism — terrifying because it repudiates the most taken-for-granted social certainties. “Norm violation creates an attentive audience beyond the target of terror,” write Alex P. Schmid and Albert J. Jongman in “Political Terrorism,” a widely cited text on the subject. Everyone experiences the shock, disorientation, and fear. The legitimacy and continuity of our institutions are essential because they buffer us from chaos by formalizing our common sense.
Deaths of kings and peaceful transfers of power in democracies are critical moments that heighten society’s vulnerability. The norms and laws that guide these junctures are rightly treated with maximum gravity. Mr. Trump and his allies prosecuted an election-fraud disinformation campaign that ultimately translated into violence. It took direct aim at American democracy’s point of maximum institutional vulnerability and its most fundamental norms. As such, it qualifies as a form of epistemic terrorism, an extreme expression of epistemic chaos. Mr. Zuckerberg’s determination to lend his economic machine to the cause makes him an accessory to this assault.
Like baseball, everyday reality is an adventure that begins and ends at home base, where we are safe. No society can police everything all the time, least of all a democratic society. A healthy society rests on a consensus about what is a deviation and what is normal. We venture out from the norm, but we know the difference between the outfield and home, the reality of everyday life. Without that, as we have now experienced, things fall apart. Democrats drinking blood? Sure, why not? Hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19? Right this way! Storm the Capitol and make Mr. Trump dictator? Yeah, we’ve got that!
Society renews itself as common sense evolves. This requires trustworthy, transparent, respectful institutions of social discourse, especially when we disagree. Instead we are saddled with the opposite, nearly 20 years into a world dominated by a political-economic institution that operates as a chaos machine for hire, in which norm violation is key to revenue.
Social media’s no-longer-young men defend their chaos machines with a twisted rendition of First Amendment rights. Social media is not a public square but a private one governed by machine operations and their economic imperatives, incapable of, and uninterested in, distinguishing truth from lies or renewal from destruction.
For many who hold freedom of speech as a sacred right, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States is a touchstone. “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas,” he wrote. “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” The corrupt information that dominates the private square does not rise to the top of a free and fair competition of ideas. It wins in a rigged game. No democracy can survive this game.
Our susceptibility to the destruction of common sense reflects a young information civilization that has not yet found its footing in democracy. Unless we interrupt surveillance economics and revoke the license to steal that legitimates its antisocial operations, the other coup will continue to strengthen and produce fresh crises. What must be done now?
Three Principles for the Third Decade
Let’s begin with a thought experiment: Imagine a 20th century with no federal laws to regulate child labor or assert standards for workers’ wages, hours and safety; no workers’ rights to join a union, strike or bargain collectively; no consumer rights; and no governmental institutions to oversee laws and policies intended to make the industrial century safe for democracy. Instead, each company was left to decide for itself what rights it would recognize, what policies and practices it would employ and how its profits would be distributed. Fortunately, those rights, laws and institutions did exist, invented by people over decades across the world’s democracies. As important as those extraordinary inventions remain, they do not protect us from the epistemic coup and its anti-democratic effects.
The deficit reflects a larger pattern: The United States and the world’s other liberal democracies have thus far failed to construct a coherent political vision of a digital century that advances democratic values, principles and government. While the Chinese have designed and deployed digital technologies to advance their system of authoritarian rule, the West has remained compromised and ambivalent.
This failure has left a void where democracy should be, and the dangerous result has been a two-decade drift toward private systems of surveillance and behavioral control outside the constraints of democratic governance. This is the road to the final stage of the epistemic coup. The result is that our democracies march naked into the third decade without the new charters of rights, legal frameworks and institutional forms necessary to ensure a digital future that is compatible with the aspirations of a democratic society.
We are still in the early days of an information civilization. The third decade is our opportunity to match the ingenuity and determination of our 20th-century forebears by building the foundations for a democratic digital century.
Democracy is under the kind of siege that only democracy can end. If we are to defeat the epistemic coup, then democracy must be the protagonist.
I offer three principles that can help guide these beginnings:
The democratic rule of law
The digital must live in democracy’s house, not as an arsonist but as a member of the family, subject to and thriving on its laws and values. The sleeping giant of democracy finally stirs, with important legislative and legal initiatives underway in America and Europe. In the United States, five comprehensive bills, 15 related bills, and one important legislative proposal, each with material significance for surveillance capitalism, were introduced in Congress from 2019 to mid-2020. Californians welcomed landmark privacy legislation. In 2020 the Congressional Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law issued a far-reaching analysis of the antitrust case against the tech giants. In October the Department of Justice, joined by 11 states, initiated a federal antitrust suit against Google for abuse of its online search monopoly. By December the Federal Trade Commission filed a landmark lawsuit against Facebook for anticompetitive actions, joined by a suit from 48 attorneys general. Those were swiftly followed by a suit launched by 38 attorneys general challenging Google’s core search engine as an anticompetitive means of blocking rivals and privileging its own services.
Antitrust arguments are important for two reasons: They signal that democracy is once again on the move, and they legitimate more regulatory attention to companies designated as market dominant. But when it comes to defeating the epistemic coup, the antitrust paradigm falls short. Here’s why.
The turn to antitrust recalls the anticompetitive practices and concentrations of economic power in the Gilded Age monopolies. As Tim Wu, an antitrust champion, explained in The Times, “Facebook’s strategy was similar to John D. Rockefeller’s at Standard Oil during the 1880s. Both companies scanned the horizon of the marketplace, searching for potential competitors, and then bought them or buried them.” He added that “it was precisely this business model that Congress banned in 1890” with the Sherman Antitrust Act.
It’s true that Facebook, Google and Amazon, among others, are ruthless capitalists as well as ruthless surveillance capitalists, but exclusive focus on their Standard Oil-style monopoly power raises two problems. First, antitrust did not succeed that well, even on the terms of its late-19th- and early-20th-century prosecutors and their aim of ending unfair concentrations of economic power in the oil industry. In 1911 a Supreme Court decision broke up Standard Oil into 34 fossil fuel industry companies. The combined value of the companies proved greater than the original. The largest of the 34 had all the advantages of Standard Oil’s infrastructure and scale and quickly moved toward mergers and acquisitions, becoming fossil fuel empires in their own right, including Exxon and Mobil (which became ExxonMobil), Amoco and Chevron.
A second and far more significant problem with antitrust is that while it may be important to address anticompetitive practices in ruthless companies, it is not sufficient to address the harms of surveillance capitalism, any more than the 1911 decision addressed the harms of fossil fuel production and consumption. Rather than assess Facebook, Amazon or Google through a 19th-century lens, we should reinterpret the case of Standard Oil from the perspective of our century.
Another thought experiment: Imagine that the America of 1911 understood the science of climate change. The court’s breakup decision would have addressed Standard Oil’s anticompetitive practices while ignoring the far more consequential case — that the extraction, refining, sale and use of fossil fuels would destroy the planet. If the jurists and lawmakers of that era had ignored these facts, we would have looked on their actions as a stain on American history.
Indeed, the court’s decision did ignore the far more pressing threats to American workers and consumers. A historian of American law, Lawrence Friedman, describes the Sherman Antitrust Act as “something of a fraud” that accomplished little but to satisfy “political needs.” He explains that Congress “had to answer the call for action — some action, any action — against the trusts” and the act was their answer. Then as now, people wanted a giant killer.
They turned to law as the only force that could right the balance of power. But it took decades for lawmakers to finally address the real sources of harm by codifying new rights for workers and consumers. The National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed the right to unionize while regulating the actions of employers, wasn’t enacted until 1935, 45 years after the Sherman Antitrust Act. We do not have 45 years — or 20 or 10 — to linger before we address the real harms of the epistemic coup and their causes.
There may be sound antitrust reasons to break up the big tech empires, but carving up Facebook or any of the others into the surveillance capitalist equivalents of Exxon, Chevron and Mobil would not shield us from the clear and present dangers of surveillance capitalism. Our time demands more.
New conditions summon new rights
New legal rights are crystallized in response to the changing conditions of life. Justice Louis Brandeis’s commitment to privacy rights, for example, was stimulated by the spread of photography and its ability to invade and steal what was regarded as private.
A democratic information civilization cannot progress without new charters of epistemic rights that protect citizens from the massive-scale invasion and theft compelled by surveillance economics. During most of the modern age, citizens of democratic societies have regarded a person’s experience as inseparable from the individual — inalienable. It follows that the right to know about one’s experience has been considered elemental, bonded to each of us like a shadow. We each decide if and how our experience is shared, with whom and for what purpose.
Writing in 1967, Justice William Douglas argued that the authors of the Bill of Rights believed “the individual should have the freedom to select for himself the time and circumstances when he will share his secrets with others and decide the extent of that sharing.” That “freedom to select” is the elemental epistemic right to know ourselves, the cause from which all privacy flows.
For example, as the natural bearer of such rights, I do not give Amazon’s facial recognition the right to know and exploit my fear for targeting and behavioral predictions that benefit others’ commercial aims. It’s not simply that my feelings are not for sale, it’s that my feelings are unsale-able because they are inalienable. I do not give Amazon my fear, but they take it from me anyway, just another data point in the trillions fed to the machines that day.
Our elemental epistemic rights are not codified in law because they had never come under systematic threat, any more than we have laws to protect our rights to stand up or sit down or yawn.
But the surveillance capitalists have declared their right to know our lives. Thus dawns a new age, founded on and shielded by the unwritten doctrine of surveillance exceptionalism. Now the once taken-for-granted right to know and to decide who knows about us must be codified in law and protected by democratic institutions, if it is to exist at all.
Unprecedented harms demand unprecedented solutions
Just as new conditions of life reveal the need for new rights, the harms of the epistemic coup require purpose-built solutions. This is how law evolves, growing and adapting from one era to the next.
When it comes to the new conditions imposed by surveillance capitalism, most discussions about law and regulation focus downstream on arguments about data, including its privacy, accessibility, transparency and portability, or on schemes to buy our acquiescence with (minimal) payments for data. Downstream is where we argue about content moderation and filter bubbles, where lawmakers and citizens stamp their feet at recalcitrant executives.
Downstream is where the companies want us to be, so consumed in the details of the property contract that we forget the real issue, which is that their property claim itself is illegitimate.
What unprecedented solutions can address the unprecedented harms of the epistemic coup? First, we go upstream to supply, and we end the data collection operations of commercial surveillance. Upstream, the license to steal works its relentless miracles, employing surveillance strategies to spin the straw of human experience — my fear, their breakfast conversation, your walk in the park — into the gold of proprietary data supplies. We need legal frameworks that interrupt and outlaw the massive-scale extraction of human experience. Laws that stop data collection would end surveillance capitalism’s illegitimate supply chains. The algorithms that recommend, microtarget and manipulate, and the millions of behavioral predictions pushed out by the second cannot exist without the trillions of data points fed to them each day.
Next, we need laws that tie data collection to fundamental rights and data use to public service, addressing the genuine needs of people and communities. Data is no longer the means of information warfare waged on the innocent.
Third, we disrupt the financial incentives that reward surveillance economics. We can prohibit commercial practices that exert demand for rapacious data collection. Democratic societies have outlawed markets that trade in human organs and babies. Markets that trade in human beings were outlawed, even when they supported whole economies.
These principles are already shaping democratic action. The Federal Trade Commission initiated a study of social media and video-streaming companies less than a week after filing its case against Facebook and said it intended to “lift the hood” of internal operations “to carefully study their engines.” A statement by three commissioners took aim at tech companies “capable of surveilling and monetizing … our personal lives,” adding that “too much about the industry remains dangerously opaque.”
Groundbreaking legislative proposals in the European Union and Britain will, if passed, begin to institutionalize the three principles. The E.U. framework would assert democratic governance over the largest platforms’ black boxes of internal operations, including comprehensive audit and enforcement authority. Fundamental rights and the rule of law would no longer vaporize at the cyberborder, as lawmakers insist on “a safe, predictable, and trusted online environment.” In Britain the Online Harms Bill would establish a legal “duty of care” that would hold the tech companies responsible for public harms and include broad new authorities and enforcement powers.
Two sentences often attributed to Justice Brandeis feature in the congressional subcommittee’s impressive antitrust report. “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” The statement so relevant to Brandeis’s time remains a pungent commentary on the old capitalism we know, but it ignores the new capitalism that knows us. Unless democracy revokes the license to steal and challenges the fundamental economics and operations of commercial surveillance, the epistemic coup will weaken and eventually transform democracy itself. We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have surveillance society, but we cannot have both. We have a democratic information civilization to build, and there is no time to waste.
Dr. Zuboff, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, is the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.”
In response to the fascist riot at the U.S. Capitol, Facebook engaged in a flurry of dangerous and misguided corporate authoritarianism. I, along with a number of other leftwing organizers, was deemed a threat to the inauguration of Joe Biden and placed on a restricted list that limited my ability to communicate with others. My account could no longer create Facebook groups or events, two tools that I’ve used over the last decade to coordinate protests and build entire organizations. I was also banned from commenting in Facebook groups, liking Facebook pages, and messaging Facebookpages. The restriction was to be removed the Saturday after the inauguration, but it only fully ceased apparently after public backlash. This is part of a long history of Facebook treating leftwing activists as if they were far-right extremists, and a pattern of silencing those who speak out against racism and fascism.
Facebook’s latest sweep went relatively unnoticed by most media outlets and was simply framed as a restriction of events in and around Washington, DC leading up to the inauguration. Gizmodo was one of the first publications to pick up the story, but the majority of its article barely mentions the fact that leftwing users in the United States were targeted and effectively silenced. Most of the relevant content of the article was pulled directly from a blogpost from Facebookitself. Gizmodo, like most other outlets that reported on the decision, seemed to imply that these bans were a net positive and, if anything, a little later than it would have preferred.
The lack of in-depth reporting on what was a massive new development in Facebook’s struggle to monitor itself is unfortunate. This sweep wasn’t as simple as restricting events around a certain location, which should be a troubling development on its own. Facebook targeted users across the U.S., and while Facebook has publicly claimed it sought out users with past violations, many of the leftwing users targeted had no such violations, according to Facebook itself. Attempts to seek clarity or appeal the decisions have been shut down by Facebook, and the scope of the restrictions have not been made public.
Strictly speaking, this may not be a legal or constitutional infringement on free speech; Facebook, as a private company, sets its own policies about who can use its platform and what opinions they can express. But it sets a dangerous precedent, one made more alarming by Facebook’s history of suppressing Black viewpoints and its tendency to see far-left and far-right activists as the same.
In August 2020, Facebook expanded its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy,” aimed at removing the presence of far-right extremists from its website. It rid itself of many QAnon groups and far-right militias. But it is also struck at leftwing organizations, seeming to accept Trump’s post-Charlottesville “both sides” moral equivalency with little thought. Facebook removed It’s Going Down, a platform that has long provided on-the-ground analysis of mass protests. It also removed CrimethInc, an anarchist publication that provided a teenage me with a new lens in which to view formative events like the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 economic crisis. While both these sites are keystones of the left, they were quickly disappeared from Facebook with little public attention or reaction.
Facebook has also targeted individuals for merely speaking out against racism or responding to hate crimes. Natasha Marin, a Black anti-racism consultant, was temporarily banned for sharing a screenshot of a racist message she received. In response to Liam Neeson’s confession that he once roamed the streets looking for Black men to harm, Carolyn Wysinger, an activist and high school teacher, posted that “White men are so fragile, and the mere presence of a Black person challenges every single thing in them.” It was a reasonable response to Neeson’s remarks and the long history of white men murdering random Black men. Facebook responded by deleting the post and threatening Wysinger with a temporary ban. The list goes on.
While Facebook may place the blame on complicated algorithms that they are working to address, it is clear the problem is deeper than that. In 2018, Mark Luckie, a Black former Facebook employee, illustrated a racist culture at Facebook. He and other Black employees have made frequent complaints about being aggressively accosted by security, dissuaded from joining Black working groups, and being called aggressive or hostile for simply sharing their thoughts in meetings. One employee shared a story in which they were asked to clean up after two white employees, despite being a program manager. In June 2020, Mark Zuckerberg declared that Black Lives Matter. A few months later, he restricted political posts in Facebook’s internal employee forum and banned the placement of text on profile pictures, preventing both employees who wanted to “Make America Great Again” or proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” from expressing themselves outside of specific, moderated groups—or through the use of pre-approved profile frames.
The conflation of the far-right with those speaking out and organizing against injustice continues to this day. On top of restricting my profile, and the profiles of others, Facebook has also moved to ban a new slate of leftwing organizations and individuals. The Socialist Equality party and the International Youth and Students for Social Equality were banned earlier this month with no warning or reason. Facebook has recently reversed this decision, but only after inquiries from the Financial Times. And now, Facebook is considering removing posts that critique Zionism.
Facebook has significant power and influence, and decisions like this are a clear argument for the desperate need to regulate the tech behemoths that increasingly decide who and what is heard. While my restriction was temporary, what is stopping Facebook from instating such measures again in the future, particularly during a moment of mass upheaval? The inauguration was such an event; Black radicals and others had every reason to protest the inauguration, but Facebook determined that any such protests were unacceptable. An organization which finds it so difficult to distinguish fascists from Black leftwing activists should not be trusted to make such decisions.
Akin Olla is a Nigerian-American political strategist and organizer. He is the host of This is The Revolution podcast.