One weird trick to show support for leftist civil liberties

The last couple of months have seen a lot of intra-left argument about the ACLU. And the last couple of years have seen a lot of argument, all over the place, about “free speech” – what should be included under that banner, what exceptions there should be, what the priorities of people who care about it should be, how tension with other important principles can be addressed.

A clear complicating factor is that many leftists (including me), to varying degrees, don’t believe that “free speech” advocacy in its currently-popular forms either equally protects or is intended to equally protect leftist speech. Quite frequently, it’s a rhetorical club for centrists, right-wingers, and fascists to hit leftists with, and sometimes a way for fascists, who, I have some bad news here folks, do not actually support the same ideals around free speech that centrist-liberal sorts do*, to curry favor with the more oblivious factions of centrists and libertarians. I think this is obviously the case right now for most “free speech” advocacy that is anything other than actual First Amendment advocacy. But what about actual First Amendment advocacy? Isn’t that what all the argument over the ACLU is about? Doesn’t First Amendment advocacy protect everyone? That’s the ACLU’s usual argument for representing horrible people.

Here’s a take that I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone make explicitly before (though I should note that I started thinking along these lines because of a couple of recent-ish comments by Malcolm Harris in a Twitter discussion that I was watching).

It was a mistake for the ACLU to decide, long ago, that it just doesn’t do criminal defense (that link is to the Washtington state affiliate because it was the first that popped up when I searched, but you can find a statement like this on any ACLU affiliate’s website). That it doesn’t do criminal defense even for, say, protest arrestees whose First Amendment rights have been violated. It was a mistake that has had the effect, though not, I strongly suspect, the intention, of convincing many leftists that First Amendment advocacy isn’t really there for them. The ACLU should use some of the large pool of donation money that it has gotten in the Trump era, to hire a few people who could defend arrestees and people under threat from the immigration system, whose First Amendment rights have been violated, as the NLG does in locations where it has the resources (the NLG is a wonderful wonderful organization and you should donate money to your local chapter, but it also doesn’t exist in every city, works on a shoestring budget, and is a bunch of volunteers with day jobs).

The ACLU does laudable work suing police and other state agencies for violating activists’ and others’ First Amendment rights, challenging unconstitutional laws that criminalize activism, and other work that is related to this issue. But when you’re being prosecuted, defending yourself is your first concern. It’s fraught and often unwise to sue the police or any other government agency while you still have an open criminal case (and all but impossible in most states to sue a prosecutor for prosecutorial misconduct). It’s hard to win a case against the police in general, thanks to qualified immunity. If you’re convicted at trial, or if you are intimidated into a plea bargain (even one where you don’t plead guilty but admit to sufficient facts) by the prospect of being railroaded into a significant jail or prison sentence if you assert yourself, you probably won’t be able to successfully sue the state for issues around wrongful arrest or malicious prosecution. You typically have to get rid of the charge first (after which the ACLU can do good things for you). If you’re being prosecuted, after being arrested for what should have been treated as protected First Amendment activity, what you need most is someone to defend you. And that kind of defense is hardly devoid of First Amendment subject matter – a lawyer can, for example, argue for your charges to be dismissed on constitutional grounds, or argue to a judge that First-Amendment-related case law and other material should be incorporated into the jury instructions, or make a closing argument that discusses freedom of speech.

I’ve been there, done that. The first and foremost thing you need if you’re being prosecuted for exercising your rights is for somene to defend you. Period.

This is anecdotal, but my observation is that protests representing different ideologies tend to run into different potential constitutional issues. The ACLU of Virginia landed in controversy for having taken on the case of the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Charlottesville after a rallygoer killed a counterprotester. The (pretty dubious, in my opinion) issue at hand in that case was permits. The rally wanted a permit for one park, the city wanted to give them a permit for a different park, further from downtown and with more space to separate rally and counterprotests. The ACLU of Virginia decided that this was an important constitutional issue that they should prioritize, and that their doing so would benefit everyone’s free speech. If you think I’m being a little snarky there, you’re right. In part that’s because I think the ACLU, which gets far more requests for help than it can take on, should focus on the free speech cases of the oppressed, because I think that, and not the most reprehensible speech, is the most likely to be targeted by the state. In part it’s because I think “which city park do we get a permit for” is of dubious worth as a free speech case. In part it’s because I think they let themselves get suckered by people who wanted blood and terror and were using them in bad faith. But it’s ALSO because in the dozens and possibly hundreds of left-wing protests I’ve been at, permits rarely come up as a constitutional issue. For one thing, at at least 90% of them, nobody obtained or is seeking a permit (and the ACLU will sell you a shirt, which I own, emphasizing that you have a First Amendment right to protest without a permit)! At least in recent times, fascists like permits, perhaps because they tend to carry a certain level of state protection, and various privileges (e.g. around sound amplification), maybe access to a specific venue that requires a permit, and perhaps because they can then run around trying to confuse people by incessantly repeating “We were in the right, we had a permit!” as though the second half of that sentence has something to do with the first. Since most leftist protests aren’t seeking permits, free speech issues at leftist protests aren’t usually about permits, and protecting fascist permit access isn’t protecting the bulk of leftist protests. The free speech issues at leftist protests, in my experience, are usually things like “Police mass-arrested an entire group” or “Police arrested me for filming/watching/photographing” or “Police targeted me because I’m an anarchist.”

You may notice that the leftist free speech issue examples that I gave in the last sentence, if prosecutors decide to run with those cases, all involve prosecution, rather than something like permit wank, and thus require criminal defense. The ACLU, as it operates now, cannot help with those free speech infringement victims’ most basic and urgent legal needs. The ACLU, as it operates now, can’t defend the roughly 200 J20 defendants who are facing decades in prison for having attended a certain march. It can sue on behalf of a few arrestees, which is great and I am extremely glad that they’re doing it, but it’s not what most people need the most. If any arrestees in the recent St. Louis anti-police-brutality protests are prosecuted, the ACLU can’t defend them (though it can file and is filing civil suits on behalf of some people who were brutalized), even if their First Amendment rights were obviously violated. When I was being prosecuted, I was defended by volunteers from the Massachusetts chapter of the NLG, which has defending leftist protest arrestees as part of its mission. They brought in the First Amendment aspects of the case in all the ways that one can do so in an initial criminal trial, that I mentioned earlier in this post. They had assistance in trial prep from other NLG volunteers with various lawyerly day jobs, one of whom was, in fact, an ACLU employee – but he was wearing his NLG volunteer hat, not his ACLU employee hat, when he helped. The ACLU couldn’t represent me against a bullshit politically motivated prosecution. Because that’s not what they do.

When, because of asymmetry in the typical action structures of different ideologies, the structure of the ACLU is such that it can address the typical immediate concerns of fascists exercising their speech rights at demonstrations, but not the typical immediate concerns of leftists exercising their speech rights at demonstrations, leftists pick up on that, and perceive the ACLU’s concept of how free speech should be fought for as unfriendly and unhelpful to them. And friendly and helpful to people who want to kill them. The ACLU then attempts to explain (and I have no doubt that they sincerely believe it) how their work representing fascists protects everyone’s First Amendment rights. And quite a few leftists straight-up don’t buy it. In part that’s because many leftists don’t expect precedents set for groups dominated by white men who claim to be upholding some kind of traditional values, to be consistently and fairly applied by the courts/police/prosecutors to other groups. They don’t expect it to protect them from being brutalized, and that’s not a critique that’s just going to go away. But it’s also because leftists aren’t getting the foremost protection that they need from the ACLU, because the ACLU’s model doesn’t allow it. People have a vague idea that the ACLU’s job is to protect people whose constitutional rights are being violated by the government, and then the government is violating their rights and the ACLU isn’t there.

I realize what a huge departure this would be from its model, but the ACLU should be willing to defend some political defendants at trial. Not to patch up relations with the left, though I think it would be a positive step. Not because it’s going to neutralize every left critique of the ACLU (it isn’t, there are plenty of critiques, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, that have nothing to do with this). But because it’s work that’s really important to civil liberties in the US.

*For example, one fascist group, which has had significant presence at “free speech” rallies, wears and carries paraphernalia that advocates the state throwing leftists out of helicopters, Pinochet-style.

Z is for zombie because this topic never stays dead

I’ve been seeing a resurgence in recent months of people arguing about the use of “Zionist” and related terms, people using those terms while obviously not knowing what they mean, and so on, so I guess I need to do a post on this, to try to make the discourse less terrible and useless. This is an argument for using terms correctly, and being aware of context, and also an argument that using precise language would avoid a lot of nonsense and carry more informational content. It is NOT an argument that you shouldn’t use the words “Zionist” and “Zionism” when you are talking about Zionists and Zionism, but explains what those do and don’t mean, and why some people instinctively wince at them, and explains other relevant words. It is also going to be US-centric, because that is the context that I know.

Zionism and the uses and misuses of the term

Zionism is a political ideology, a Jewish nationalism – perhaps more accurately, nationalisms, since it has many forms/factions – that says that there should be a Jewish state – not a state for all who live there that happens to have a Jewish majority or be a Jewish cultural hotbed, but a Jewish state, this is important because I was confused about it for a long time and know other people who have been too – in the historic Land of Israel. Historically, there were some factions of Zionism that weren’t oriented around a state (for instance, that focused on a cultural homeland but not a state-based one, or emphasized Jews coming together worldwide to take care of each other), or were oriented around a different kind or place of state (for instance, a binational state of Jews and Palestinians working the land of a mutual homeland together with equal rights, a position that is now overwhelmingly considered anti-Zionist rather than Zionist). These factions tend to have either died out or been redefined as not Zionism by larger parts of Zionism, since or before the establishment of the State of Israel. You may, occasionally, meet someone who calls themselves a Zionist on the basis of adherence to one of these non-Jewish-state-based ideologies, but in my experience this is very uncommon. So non-Zionism and anti-Zionism generally mean lack of adherence to, or opposition to, this set of “Jewish state” nationalisms. Certainly, when I describe myself as anti-Zionist, this is what I mean.

There is also a thing called Christian Zionism. Many forms of it are extremely creepy, hoping for mass conversion of Jews, or eventual annihilation of Jews during the End Times. Prominent Christian Zionist John Hagee has said that Hitler was sent by God to speed up the formation of the State of Israel. Some are more of the form “We need the Jews in Israel to be the front lines against the Muslim hordes,” which is also creepy, not to mention extremely Islamophobic. There are more Christian Zionists in the US than there are Jews of any attitude toward Zionism (and the numbers aren’t all that close). If you are scrutinizing Jews’ views on Zionism but not Christians’ views, then, IMO, you are messing up and being antisemitic, and if you are assuming that people defending Israeli atrocities are Jews you are definitely messing up and being antisemitic.

There are also people, Jewish and not, who are very defensive of Israel and/or anti-Palestinian, but aren’t Zionists. Perhaps they don’t care about Zionism per se but believe that Israeli Jews are getting a raw deal or see Israel primarily in terms of Israeli Jewish family and friends. Perhaps their key motivation is Islamophobia or anti-Arabism and they don’t care about Israel but really don’t like Palestinians.

One problem in a US context, that a lot of non-Jews on the left don’t realize, is that there is a long and vicious tradition of white supremacists/white nationalists/Nazis in the US (who are not known for caring about Palestinians) using “Zionist” as a code word for “Jew.” Jews are mostly very familiar with this usage. This causes a lot of Jews to have an instinctive reaction of fear or anger when hearing someone rant on angrily about how bad Zionists and Zionism are. Which poses a problem, because actual Zionism is an ideology, an ideology that forms the basis of a powerful country’s political system, that affects the lives and deaths of millions of people around the world in extremely significant ways, and therefore we need to be able to talk about it. My own view is that it’s a harmful ideology and we need to be able to oppose it. Palestinians, especially those living in Israel/Palestine, where there’s no context of USian white nationalists using the word “Zionist” in inappropriate and oppressive ways, need to be able to talk about it. But I think that in the US, this complicating factor makes it very important to not be sloppy, and for white Gentiles in particular to be mindful about how they’re coming off. Blame it on the white nationalists, who ruin everything.

A quick note about “Zio.” This is another white supremacist/white nationalist/Nazi code word for Jew, popularized by people like KKK leader David Duke. Unlike Zionism, “Zio” is not a political program, about which discourse and debate is warranted. There is no legitimate reason to call someone a Zio. Don’t.

Another problem in a US context is that a bunch of people on the left are using “Zionism” to mean something narrower (or broader) than Zionism. A bunch of you out there think that “Zionism” means the specific political programs regarding Palestine of the last few Israeli governments, or a set of wars on Gaza. Someone I was talking with on Twitter encountered someone who thinks Zionism means a Jewish state that includes all of Jordan and most of Egypt. A bunch of you think anti-Zionism is the same thing as opposing the Occupation (and that that’s all that BDS, which I support, is asking), or opposing specific wars, or supporting the mainstream two-state solution, and that when you protested Operation Protective Edge in 2014 the people protesting with you were the anti-Zionists and the people counterprotesting you or trolling you online were the Zionists. Meanwhile, the center and right are doing their own versions of this. I’ve encountered plenty of people in those camps who think that Zionism means “believing that Jews should be allowed to live anywhere in the Israel/Palestine area at all” and/or that anti-Zionism means that Jews should be forcibly expelled from the area or killed.

One of the more blatant examples of the confusion, and how it obscures what people are trying to say, that I’ve seen recently, came from Ruptly’s Twitter account in March. Covering protests and counterprotests of the hawkish AIPAC conference in DC, (content note: link has a video showing hate symbols and physical violence/people being clubbed) they tweeted “Clashes break out between Zionists and anti-Zionist groups at AIPAC conference in Washington.” Which was inaccurate – the group being described as anti-Zionist, anti-Occupation Jewish group IfNotNow, explicitly takes no position on Zionism. The group described as “Zionists,” the JDL, are definitely Zionists, but this is a very vague way to describe them when a more precise one would be both more descriptive and more damning. Without going into the use of the word “clashes,” one of my least favorite ways to describe violence in protest settings, “Zionists and anti-Zionist groups” could have been rephrased here as “Kahanists and anti-Occupation Jews” (or, if they were afraid nobody would understand that wording, something like “far-right Jewish nationalists” instead of “Kahanists,” a word which I explain later in this post), and this would have been correct instead of incorrect and painted a clearer picture.

If Alice and Bob are having an argument in which they throw the words “Zionism” and “Zionist” around, and Alice considers herself an anti-Zionist because she supports a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank/Gaza/East Jerusalem (which is actually called liberal Zionism), and Bob considers himself a Zionist because he thinks Israeli Jews should not be forcibly expelled from Tel Aviv, and Candace, listening to their conversation, is thinking only about white nationalist usage of “Zionist” any time either of them says it, not only is this conversation not conveying any information, I would say that it is conveying anti-information, and everyone is probably leaving it both angrier and more confused than they started out.

Sometimes, Zionism is in fact what you are talking about (for instance, if you are talking about the Nakba, or resistance to Palestinian Right of Return, or the meaning of “Jewish state”), and I don’t think anyone needs to use a euphemism there. In particular, it is, reasonably often, what Palestinians are talking about, and is the political system that Palestinians in Israel/Palestine live under (and in my experience, Palestinians there, unlike many USians, know what Zionism is). And, of course, if you want to express non-adherence to or opposition to Zionism, the terms “non-Zionist” and “anti-Zionist” become important. It took a long time for me to become comfortable calling myself anti-Zionist, and it is important to me to be able to do so.

Other times, a different, more precise, word or phrase would provide more and more accurate information. So here is a short glossary of useful words.

Some useful words

Hasbara/Hasbarist – A form of Israeli propaganda aimed at an international audience, both elite and grassroots, to portray Israeli government behavior past and present in a positive light, often while portraying Palestinians or other Arab societies in a negative one, or someone who practices this form of propaganda. Please read this explainer on hasbara. In recent years, it has been particularly and intentionally aimed at international LGBTQ audiences and audiences of color (cis straight people in the US wondering why left queer spaces seem to often be flashpoints of controversy on Israel/Palestine: it is a reaction to this). If remembering the term is too hard, you can always use “propaganda” and “propagandist,” but it’s worth noting that this is a particular type of propaganda.

Kahanist – A follower of the ideas espoused by far-right Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane, including anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism and support for expulsion of Palestinians, anti-intermarriage views, belief that all Jews should live in an explicitly non-democratic Jewish Israel covering the territory of several modern Middle Eastern states and Egypt, opposition to liberal religious thought, anti-leftism/anti-communism, and support for violence against those perceived by Kahanists as enemies of the Jewish people (which includes Jews who support Palestinian/Muslim/Arab rights). Perhaps the best-known Kahanist organization in North America and Western Europe is Kahane-founded paramiltary group the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which was near-dormant in the US for some years after being caught trying to assassinate Rep. Darrell Issa in 2001, but has been active in Canada, and appears to be recently trying to reorganize in the US. Israel banned the two Kahanist former political parties, Kach and Kahane Chai, after the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in the West Bank, in which JDL/Kach activist Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounded 125 more as they prayed at a mosque.

Likudnik – A supporter of Likud, Israel’s largest right-wing party, to which the current Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, belongs.

Israel hawk – Self-explanatory, I think? Useful in that it doesn’t make any assumptions about ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc. Or even whether the person is a Zionist. Possibly the best generic term for trolls in your Twitter mentions calling you names for expressing too much sympathy for Palestinians. I have sometimes used “pro-Israel” in scare quotes for this, but I should switch because this is better.

Pinkwashing – An LGBTQ-related subset of hasbara. Probably the term in this blog post that’s more likely to get me in trouble, because I run into a lot of people who believe that use of the term “pinkwashing” is inherently antisemitic, and there’s a lot of confusion about what it means. So I will get myself in more trouble by reupping this post on the topic, especially Part 3. I think this is a term that’s both valuable and specific, which is why I’m including it. but it’s useful to make sure that the person you’re talking to knows what you mean by it.

A tale of three protests

A small tale of three protests in Washington, DC, this calendar year, and their sequelae*…

January 20, 2017: Roughly 230 protesters, street medics, legal observers, and journalists, were mass arrested on Inauguration Day in DC during a black bloc anticap/antifa march that broke chain store windows. Police surrounded the march and did not allow anyone to leave, gradually taking people from the crowd to jail over a period of several hours. Some of those were pepper-sprayed, tear gassed, shot with less-lethals, or cut with shrapnel from concussion grenades. 213 are still charged with felony rioting, a charge that carries a potential 10-year sentence, and one who had that charge has taken a plea deal. The large majority are not alleged to have broken windows or done anything except be associated with or in proximity to the march, and as the article at that link makes clear, US attorneys in DC are treating things like black clothing and chants of “Whose streets?” as evidence.

February 16, 2017: Six protesters – four Jews, two Muslim Arabs – were arrested protesting the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Three of the Jewish protesters paid small fines that day, the fourth was transferred to traffic court. The two Muslim Arab protesters, alone, were criminally charged by US attorneys in DC, with charges carrying up to six months in jail, simply for standing up and peacefully interrupting a speaker. The two men are fighting their charges, rejecting a plea deal and asking for a trial. American Muslims for Palestine, where they work, has been campaigning to raise awareness of what has happened and get the charges dropped, using the hashtags #DroptheCharges and #SelectiveProsecution, in conjunction with IfNotNow, the DC and NYC chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, Code Pink, FOSNA, USPCN and USCPR.

March 26, 2017: Progressive Jewish group IfNotNow protested the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference. People in the IfNotNow group, and later a Palestinian-American man curious about what was happening, were repeatedly attacked, with flagpoles and fist/foot strikes, by the JDL (Jewish Defense League), a Kahanist paramilitary group. JDL members also threatened to snap off the fingers of a Palestinian Al Jazeera reporter and hassled Code Pink demonstrators across the street. The Palestinian-American man they attacked was hospitalized, having to get 18 stitches, and nearly lost an eye. An IfNotNow Boston member received a concussion. There was minimal police intervention until there had been multiple attempts pushes by the JDL into the large IfNotNow group, at which point they formed a line between the groups. In the second video in +972 Magazine’s article about the events, one can see police belatedly and briefly talk to a JDL member in a blue hoodie after one of his own people pulled him to the side. They did not, however, arrest him, even though as that video and others show, he had already attacked multiple people. This left him free, as can be seen in the first video, to participate in the attack on the Palestinian-American man (which police were rather slow to stop, being apparently more concerned with containment). Two JDL members were eventually arrested (see here to get a sense of how reluctant the police were to do that). One was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon (which carries up to 10 years in prison), and one with assault (I have seen conflicting reports about misdemeanor assault, which carries up to six months in jail, vs assault with serious injury, which carries up to 10 years in prison), though hate crime enhancements allow for up to 1.5 times the maximum sentence in all cases. No other JDL members have been charged by US attorneys in DC, though the first video clearly shows more than two people attacking the Palestinian-American man.

From these three incidents, all involving the US Attorney’s Office in DC and DC law enforcement (though the Friedman case presumably involved the Capitol Police rather than DC’s MPD), I have some of the following inferences and thoughts.

– DC police consider broken windows in a business district to warrant more urgency than people in a protest setting being attacked and beaten.

– DC police consider every politically aligned person in the vicinity culpable and subject to arrest if someone breaks windows in a business district, but not if someone attacks people who are in a protest setting. They didn’t even consider the people who actually committed the attacks culpable, only arresting two after a lot of advocacy by the Palestinian-American man’s daughter, and after those two attempted to flee the scene.

– The US Attorney’s Office in DC considers breaking windows, or being in proximity to and in rough political alignment with, someone who broke windows to be a crime roughly as severe (minus the hate crime enhancement) as beating someone in a protest setting with a flagpoles and fists/feet and putting them in the hospital.

– Two Muslims who protested at a Senate committee hearing are being prosecuted while most of the JDL members who attacked people outside of AIPAC are not, and that says something unflattering about the US Attorney’s Office in DC and its priorities.

– DC police do not prioritize the safety of Arab or progressive Jewish bodies.

– The US Attorney’s Office is engaging in racist selective prosecution of Muslim Arab protesters relative to white Jewish ones.

– Does the US Attorney’s Office buy into both stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs being inherently threatening, and stereotypes about Jews being weak and unthreatening (for that matter, do the police, and is that relevant to how they handled the AIPAC protests)?

To learn more about how you can help the two Muslim Friedman hearing protesters who are facing selective prosecution (especially if you are in the DC area and could do court support!) see here. I can’t find anything about ongoing support requests from Kamal Nayfeh, the Palestinian-American man beaten by the JDL. To support the legal fund for those arrested on Inauguration Day, go here.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I was a medic at the Inauguration protests (not on that particular march, though I saw the kettle from the outside and treated some of the people who had been on it, either on the streets, for those who managed to flee before police closed in, or later at jail support), and at the IfNotNow AIPAC protest. I was not part of the Friedman protest, though I am friends with one of the Jewish arrestees.

Toxic masculinity is bad for the Jews

Hello everyone. I apologize for being so bad about posting. I’m trying to finish my dissertation and apply for postdocs; it makes it hard to do longform writing that isn’t dissertation-related.

I’m not going to recap what went down with the JDL (Jewish Defense League) at the action I medicked for IfNotNow (a progressive Jewish group that I am also a member of), because I have already done that a bunch of times on Twitter and elsewhere this week, mostly in rapid-fire bursts of tweets/messages. For that background (all links here get content notes for physical violence, anti-Arab/Islamophobic bigotry, intra-Jewish conflict), read this +972 Magazine article (with the note that the events of the second video actually happened before those of the first) and these two Twitter threads. Violence and injury always have a context, and for me, and I assume for most people, this affects the emotional response. I don’t have the same emotional response to a broken arm where someone fell at a LARP that I do to a broken arm that police broke. I don’t have the same emotional response to someone punching a Nazi propagandist vs punching a queer person. Even cases that are similar aren’t the same – because of something early in my street medic career, I have a much more intense emotional response to people being hit with batons or anything baton-like than I do to people (including myself) being pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed. Various aspects of the context of this particular situation have caused it to hit, emotionally, like a speeding truck.

But I actually want to discuss it in the context of something else I’ve been thinking about, which is the way that cultural construction of masculinity, the gender-policing of men, affects some Diaspora Jews. I don’t have a ton of data here, this is mostly observation-based. Antisemitic stereotypes of Jews are often about ugliness, and, particularly when aimed at Jewish men, physical weakness, neuroticism, and effeminacy, the notion that Jewish men are particularly unlikely to meet cultural ideals of masculinity and that that (because this is how misogyny works) that makes them inferior. To pick a high-profile example of this from a few years back, The Forward had a very good article in 2013 about how the absurd “Pajama Boy” Obamacare-advertising controversy (I am sorry for reminding you of this exceedingly silly episode in national political discourse, but it is relevant) was grounded in antisemitism. It’s unfortunately not very hard to find antisemitic assholes propagating the idea that Jews are weak cowards who were passive in the face of genocidal violence (not going to go looking for citation links for this one, folks).

Any oppressive stereotype is subject to being internalized by the people it’s aimed at, and this one is no exception. April Rosenblum mentions it in the internalized oppression section of her leftist-to-leftist zine on identifying and resisting antisemitism, which, seriously, you should all read in full. This one is also, to a degree that I find pretty disturbing, intertwined with traditional Zionist ideologies (see especially the two paragraphs starting with “Sternhell distinguishes…”). See also here. American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley covers the links between Zionist thought and antisemitic stereotypes of Jews, and especially Jewish men as weak, in a characteristically grotesque cartoon from 2008. Internalized shame among Jewish guys over feeling like they aren’t physically strong enough or can’t defend themselves is by no means a Zionism-specific thing (though I think Zionism plays interestingly into young US Jews’ self-concepts – look at the common idealization, by all genders, of IDF soldiers as symbols of Jewish physical prowess and ability to protect ourselves, the cliches about hooking up with them on Birthright trips). I happen to love progressive superhero Captain America, and often wear a Cap bracelet or t-shirt. But Noah Berlatsky points out, reasonably, that Steve Rogers (and Clark Kent) are wimpy Jewish stereotypes transformed into physically powerful mainstream men.

I participated an interesting conversation earlier today on Twitter with Noah about Holocaust-related media, in which Inglorious Basterds (which I have not seen, because Tarantino’s style of violence tends to distress me and I often don’t get through his movies when I try) came up. Noah makes a good case, as far as I can tell having not seen the movie, about it being more complex than some of the commentary makes it sound. But – not necessarily through any fault of the movie, people read odd things into movies – it seems like there’s a subset of Jewish men who react to it the way that Tarantino’s Jewish friends did, or that Jeffrey Goldberg did before he’d cooled off from the initial high of the movie. A revenge fantasy for personal experiences where they or family members couldn’t protect themselves. I don’t see that tendency, and what it’s responding to, as separable from the idealization of the IDF. As Goldberg, who discusses his own experiences with childhood antisemitic bullying in the linked piece, says, “When I came out of the screening room the night before our interview, I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank—and possibly the East Bank.” After internalizing the idea that you’re not capable of fighting back, the idea of not just being able to defend yourself, but to be able to dominate your enemies, terrorize them, prove that you too can be the masculine ideal, can be appealing.

The question of whether the mainstream masculine ideal is something worth emulating, worth showing off your conformity to, sometimes gets lost in this sort of discourse. It shouldn’t be. Most activist spaces that I’ve been in, women and nonbinary people, are the majority, and that’s not a bad thing. IfNotNow puts great emphasis on “relational culture” (cultivating personal connections between members), something generally coded as strongly feminine, to the extent of having a specific role tasked with propagating relational culture (the Hivekeepers), and providing training in it. At meetings, I often hear people request that cis men take on roles that are traditionally heavily done by cis women and by trans folks of any gender (and the cis men are pretty good about responding). Song, art, education, community gatherings, are all treated as important. In my opinion, all of this is very good and cis men shouldn’t be embarrassed to be associated with it (and indeed, in IfNotNow, as far as I can tell, they aren’t).

None of this is separable from the JDL, an organization founded, ostensibly, for Jews to defend themselves and other Jews from violence, with a long history of attacking Palestinians and other Arabs, progressive Jews, and others. They were a mixed-gender group at AIPAC, but while the women shouted and did things like rip up a Palestinian flag, it was the men getting physical. And they didn’t fight the way that someone fights in self-defense. They fought to physically dominate, terrorize, throw their weight around, make a statement of power. That’s what people ganging up on someone and causing them 18 stitches in their eye is. That’s what beating someone up while they’re fleeing, or holding someone down with your flag to beat them, or shoving into and hitting a group of physically untrained people who are singing, is. It’s not a fight exactly, it’s a chance to show off your power and masculinity, it’s symbolism and statement. And against whom? An elderly Palestinian man – horrifying but unsurprising given the rabidly anti-Palestinian sentiments of Kahanism and the history of JDL members’ attacks on Palestinians and other Arabs – and the progressive Diaspora Jews that they despise.

It’s not an accident that the JDL is trying for a comeback in the US now. Fascism, white nationalism, Trumpism, are ascendent, and so is antisemitism. Kahanism is pretty fascist and virulently Islamophobic, making the current US potentially fertile ground. But the other side of it is that a lot of Jews are genuinely and reasonably freaked out. Antisemitic hate crimes have spiked in places like New York City. Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized, Jewish journalists are receiving dozens or hundreds of death threats from Nazis, Nazis are going after a Jewish community in Montana. College students are finding swastikas in their dorms and bathrooms, a student at my own university was attacked by a driver asking for directions. People are worried, people want to do something (and for some right-wing and/or very Islamophobic elements of the Jewish community, the idea that the something they do should be against Trumpism, well, that’s something they have a vested interest in not believing). People, especially the young guys for whom vulnerability goes the most against what they’re told they should be, and plays the most into what they fear being and want to vanquish in themselves, are looking for ways to not be vulnerable. I’d previously seen a couple of old guys who are not rightists saying that maybe it was time to bring back the JDL. Well, they’re back, and recruiting at AIPAC, and they and their sympathizers are bragging about how much the college kids loved them, and how much fun they had partying with attendees after. I don’t know how much of this is truth vs propaganda, but the fact that I could see it being true is disturbing. Hell hath no fury like worried young men, with their elders carefully cultivating their Islamophobic bigotry and their rejection of everything that society has taught them is bad in their own community, trying to assert their masculinity.

Make new activists, and keep the old…

I’ve been seeing some argument lately around how people new to activism and how people not new to activism talk to and about each other.

To those who are bitter. To the ones who were derided as foolish children because of the issues they fought for, issues which perhaps are newly fashionable. To the ones who couldn’t get their liberal friends to go with them to protests, lefty fundraisers, lobby days, canvasses. To the ones who came back from protests and cried alone in their rooms because most of the liberals all around them didn’t know, and possibly didn’t care, what had happened to them, and the liberal and centrist press that paid attention at all treated them as the villains. To the ones who still carry a burning anger because their sacrifices and the sacrifices of those they work with have been treated as a punchline. To the ones who are still being blamed for the world’s ills by high-profile hacks, even as you fight, as you’ve fought for years, to repair the world. To the ones who have been building and maintaining the infrastructure that left organizing depends on for years, watching great piles of newbies rush in and say “Wow, it sure is a good thing that we started fighting so early in the Trump administration, with those Women’s Marches! Look how on top of things we are!” while ignoring (or even continuing to vilify) you.

I see you.

But remember this – no matter how dedicated you have been, there is some issue where the people who have been working on it might feel this way, and you are the newbie. That’s not a knock on you, it’s an acknowledgment that we can’t do everything, that we can’t keep up with everything, and that sudden turns for the worse legitimately lead to new urgency on issues that maybe we felt some way about but weren’t acting on, or highlight issues that we didn’t see. There’s also some useful tactic or organizing method, maybe even one that you’re trying to learn now, where you’re the newbie! We can’t know everything, we can’t do everything! We should not treat our pet tactic or method as the only one worth doing (I am looking at both protesters and electoral politics activists here, as both have a tendency to treat anyone who doesn’t do their thing, including each other, as being insufficiently active, and their thing as the often-unfairly-dismissed-but-clearly-the-best form of activism). And we shouldn’t make assumptions about what people believe or have been doing because they’re new in our settings!
And remember that very few of us were raised to be left/progressive activists (and if you were, you might consider the advantages that that gave you). And very few of us, even if you started your activist life as soon as you were old enough to have both political awareness and the practical ability to act on it, started with what we would now consider perfect politics, at what we would now consider a high level of activity. Many of us, even if we started early, have had periods where we retreated from political involvement altogether. And we might have had really good reasons for that – mental health, trying to pass classes and graduate from college, illness/disability that made involvement hard, military or other service that legally restricted your political involvement, an employer who would have fired you if they’d found out, an abusive home situation, needing to work two or three jobs in order to pay the bills, taking care of children or elders or a partner, and so on. Similarly, people whose life situations have precluded much or any involvement should not be disrespected, either in general or as they try to become more active.

You were probably the newbie once – I certainly was – and the people who were old hands when you were the newbie could have been bitter and angry in the same way that some old hands are being now. They could have said “Where the hell were you before?” Maybe some of them did. But I would hope that some of them said “I’m so glad that you’re here!” That they welcomed you, supported you, mentored you. Because that’s how we create new activists, now, then, and always. Don’t be an activism hipster who gets upset when their favorite cause or method goes mainstream. That’s the opposite of successful strategy.

To the newbies. I am, so, genuinely, glad that you’re here. Nobody should be yelling at or mocking you for being newbies. Remember that the people who were already doing whatever you’re doing now are sources of knowledge, and that they have been acting as keepers of the infrastructure that is enabling you to do what you’re doing now. Remember that their movements laid the groundwork for the current moment, and respect that (this all goes for experienced people branching out into new areas as well). But you don’t have to take “Where were you before?” shit from the experienced people. Movements always need new blood and new energy, and your presence is as valid as anyone else’s.

Let’s go out there and organize stuff!

We need to talk about how we talk about the black bloc

Ever since I checked social media after medicking the Inauguration Day protests in DC, I’ve been seeing bad, frustrating takes on the black bloc. For the uninitiated, a black bloc is a group of protesters who wear all black, including bandannas or other masks, to anonymize themselves, and usually move as a group or set of groups. The stereotype is that they are anarchists, but they don’t have to be, they can be socialists, social democrats, whatever, it’s not like anyone’s checking your papers at the entrance. And oh, did people – including some liberal journalists – have a lot to say about the black bloc, and black blocs in general. Starbucks and bank windows smashed on the anticap/antifa black bloc march! Objects thrown at police! A trash can and a limo set on fire! The Internet was full of people decrying the black bloc for this (I’m not sure if a black bloc actually did all of these things, especially given how much of it had been mass-arrested by the time of the trash can and limo, but it is unfortunately common for people to attribute anything they don’t like that happened at a protest to the black bloc, which I have seen people do even when there is video evidence that it was someone else).

Now, in almost five and a half years as a street medic, going to dozens if not hundreds of actions, some of which had black blocs of varying sizes and levels of organization, or a few individuals in black bloc gear trying to be a bloc, I have certainly met black blockers that I wanted to drop-kick over the nearest fence, for endangering others, disrespecting locals or local context, or just being aggro assholes. But.

The discourse about the black bloc is dangerous, hurtful, and bad. A writer for ThinkProgress (!) tweeting that he feels sorry for the poor cops who have to deal with black bloc anarchist assholes is bad. Progressives tweeting, as the Women’s March started, that they were going to come down themselves to kick the black bloc’s ass if it got their family/friends at the Women’s March tear gassed, is bad. And it’s bullshit for multiple reasons, including the fact that much of the non-arrested part of the black bloc in DC was spending the day at jail support bringing food, water, and moral support, for released arrestees, so this amounts to kicking people while they’re down. Being at jail support with them to medic for released arrestees, melancholily watching happy Women’s Marchers go by (nice job Women’s March, y’all did an awesome action!), after having spent the previous day doing things like splinting a white-faced black blocker’s elbow as she tried to stay stoic and her friends, some of whom were also wounded, tried to be comforting, I was upset by this.

I’m going to assume, for the purpose of this post, that my reader is someone who doesn’t like smashy tactics (I don’t either, actually). Readers who think smashing a bank window or setting a limo on fire is awesome are probably not the ones talking shit about the black bloc. I’m not going to try to make a case for those tactics, which I just said I don’t even like. Lord knows you can find endless pro and con arguments online. I’m also not going to go too deeply into police behavior at the Inauguration protest, which should probably be its own post. I’m going to talk about the purposes and behavior of black blocs, and the Inauguration Day black bloc, beyond smashy tactics, and what can happen to them as a result.

The night before the Inauguration, there was an antifa protest of the Deploraball, the alt-right/white nationalist Inauguration party. A lot of people got pepper-sprayed, in several rounds over the course of the evening, so there was plenty for us medics to do. At one point, a pair of medics was treating someone on the ground. A bunch of people were trying to push their way into the scene, including photographers and a couple of presumed alt-righters trying to start something, and other medics (including me) and black blockers were trying to make sure that the medics had space to work. The guys trying to start something started kicking at the medics who were on the ground.

The black blockers protected the medics on the ground and got the guys kicking at them away from them. They also defended another medic coming in, who was threatened with violence by a large male reporter when she tried to get past him (he was afraid she would spill water on his camera), getting between her and him.

At one point during the action, a guy got hit directly in the face with what I can only describe as a pressurized hose of pepper spray at close range, and dropped to the ground so abruptly, close enough to the police line that anyone who went after him was in danger of the same, so incapacitated, that a few people initially thought he’d been shot. He couldn’t even crawl. I pulled up my goggles and went in to get him, with my medic buddy behind me. Who else came in to help him? Four or five black blockers, who helped me carry him to a safer space far more efficiently than I could have done on my own. Two of them took the highest-risk area at the end of him closest to the police line, hunched over with their backs turned, shielding him and partially shielding the rest of us, at risk to themselves. The rest of us had more ability to see the police line and watched their backs for any attack as we carried the victim to a safe place for treatment.

On Inauguration Day itself, there were a bunch of peaceful blockades of security checkpoints. black blockers (of all genders – women and nonbinary people bloc too, and plenty of them were there for this) joined in at the outside line of the feminist checkpoint blockade – the part most vulnerable to violence from Trump supporters or from cops trying to yank it apart to pull the Trump supporters through – and reinforced it. This is shown in the photo below.

Black blockers stand in an arm-linked line with other protesters in the outer blockade line at the Inauguration Day feminist checkpoint blockade. Police and the checkpoint tent are faintly visible in the background.

In this video of an elderly woman and a disabled man, among others, being pepper-sprayed, you can see that at least one of the people who runs to their aid is a black blocker. You can also see, right around 1:10, with context in the 10 seconds or so before that, black blockers picking up a crying child and carrying the child to safety. According to Crimethinc (whatever you think of Crimethinc, they’re good for “What were those people thinking?”), a black blocker deflected a concussion grenade thrown by police at a woman and a baby, and the fires and barricading were started to prevent the police advancing on a permitted, intended-to-be-low-risk rally happening a short distance away. You might think that wasn’t a good way to protect the other rally! But it’s certainly worth noting! As the other behaviors mentioned in this paragraph, that didn’t involve setting fires, are worth noting.

Here’s the thing: This protective function of a black bloc is not at all unique to the Inauguration protests. One reason that medics often get along well with blockers is that they’re two groups who often run into danger to help a downed protester. The black bloc at the NATO Summit protests in 2012 was explicitly intended to protect other protesters, and was publicly advertised as such (and didn’t smash anything). They also rescued an innocent photographer who was about to be arrested for taking photos. I would say that protection is a major purpose of black blocs. Street medics often have a certain amount of camaraderie with many black blockers for exactly this reason – mutual interest in protecting the bodies of protesters, and mutual willingness to be first responders in situations of danger – and it’s not rare for street medics to come from the bloc, to have been frequent black blockers before they became street medics.

But what about the anticap/antifa black bloc march that smashed windows, how does that square with protection? Well, what about it? It started at a different time than anything else. It was in a different location than anything else. It was publicly advertised as a black bloc anticap/antifa march, nobody went to it thinking it might be a nice low-key march to take their children to. It wasn’t there to endanger large low-risk actions (Twitter commentary about how the speaker will kick the black bloc’s ass if they get the speaker’s family members tear gassed to the contrary).

Meanwhile, the march itself got surrounded and mass arrested – everyone who wasn’t able to leave in time, including protesters, a bunch of medics, at least one legal observer, reporters. Juveniles. Now charged with felony rioting, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison. A medic was shot in the back with a less-lethal. People were tear-gassed while unable to escape because they were surrounded in a mass arrest situation. People had shrapnel injuries from grenades, and were near-incapacitated from pepper spray. People spent the night in jail unable to wash the pepper spray off their bodies and out of their hair. Do you really want the focus of what you are saying about this to be a few broken windows and talking about how much you dislike the people on that march? Again, it’s okay if you oppose breaking windows – I am talking about priorities here. Do you understand what a betrayal it feels like to me when you jump on the chance to demonize battered and now-facing-outrageous-charges people who I talked to, treated, helped when they were released from jail? When you talk about how you are part of “the Resistance” and this is practically the first thing you do in the Trump era? There’s room for complex critique and discussion (paired with acknowledgment everything else in this paragraph), but I’m not seeing much of it, compared to “Black bloc bad. Scary anarchists.” You have to at least acknowledge that the group who did things you don’t like and the group who protected other protesters were the same group.

Here are some other reasons, besides breaking things or protecting other people at protests, that people black bloc, based on comments they’ve made to me over the years:

– They are women and/or trans and/or visibly queer and are trying to conceal this through black bloc garb so that the police or counterprotesters don’t target them for sexual violence.

– They want to protect themselves from identification and violent retaliation by neo-Nazis/white nationalists that they’re protesting (see also, the blocker who punched Richard Spencer, and on that note, if you are hating on the bloc but enjoying the video of Spencer being punched, you are being a huge hypocrite, because that would not have happened without the bloc).

– They enjoy the solidarity of being in an easily demarcated group.

– They are organizers at something where police have been stalking and harassing organizers in between actions and thus want to keep their identities as secure as they can for as long as they can.

Finally, I want to address the “white male left from outside DC” commentary that I’ve been seeing around (that black blocs are white male leftist outsiders endangering everyone else). Anecdotally, white men are overrepresented in black blocs (it’s a risky activity, after all, and risky activities are more accessible to people with certain kinds of privilege). However, if you think women, nonbinary people, and people of color, don’t bloc, you are kidding yourself (though it’s true that all the ones I’ve wanted to drop-kick over the nearest fence were white guys). I’ve even medicked a march, a few years back, with an all-woman black bloc! I did jail support for the Inauguration Day arrestees, I saw a lot of blockers unmasked, I saw the ones at the jail support rally up closer than you would see them in a video, some of them were unmasked part of the time during jail support, I can assure you that there were plenty of people in the black bloc in DC who weren’t white men. I can definitely assure you that there were people in the black bloc, and every other action there, from DC. If you go around stating that the people who smashed the windows on the anticap/antifa march were white male outsiders, and you don’t know specifically who they were (their looks, not necessarily their names), you are not stating a fact, you are pushing propaganda that’s meant to discredit protesters.

In conclusion, please think before you say something quick, superficial, and demonizing, about the black bloc.

End note to journalists expressing concern that smashy tactics will play into Trump’s hands: Your profession literally controls whether the focus of stories about the protests is, for example, “Protesters smash bank windows and burn trash can” or “Police surround entire march of anti-Trump protesters to arrest it, shoot marchers with projectile weapons, throw concussion grenades into crowds of unarmed civilians including children.” Many of you have high follower counts on Twitter, that include lots of other journalists and pundits, so your personal tweets also count for more than most people’s in shaping public opinion. If you’re worried about playing into Trump’s hands, well, don’t facilitate it.

“You’re here”: A story for the age of Trump

Here is a story about coalitions and working together that seems appropriate for our time.

In May of 2012, after a winter and spring of Occupy infighting about ideology and tactics, I was pretty insecure about how other activists saw me. Back then people weren’t saying “left” and “liberal”, they were saying “radical” and “liberal”, but the arguments weren’t all that different (and anyone who thinks that people on parts of the left using “liberal” as an insult was invented in the 2016 Democratic primary is ridiculously wrong – not only has that been a thing since I’ve been heavily involved in activism, it was a thing for a long time preceding that, probably decades). I was once told by someone that I came to the wrong party, at the party of a group that I belonged to and they didn’t, for mildly objecting to two people tipsily shouting increasingly escalated tactical ideas at each other in the middle of a public pizzeria.

It was the end of the NATO Summit protests – antiwar and other left-wing protests of the 2012 Chicago NATO Summit, at which there was severe brutality and repression leading to the hospitalization of more than two dozen activists (and most of the media treated it like nothing had happened or like it was the result of some kind of equal “clash”). I was in the Wellness Center, a space staffed mostly by nurse street medics and others with office-type or clinic-type medical training that was sort of an intermediate space between the streets and the hospital. I was soaking my aching feet (I got bad blisters on my heels the first day I was there, and then temporary nerve damage, including severe pain, in my feet, from walking on my toes ten or twelve miles a day because of the blisters). I was talking to another medic, who had brought his buddy in for emotional crisis support.

I can’t remember what we were talking about or why I said anything, but at some point I looked at my toes and said self-consciously that I wasn’t as radical as many of the other people at NATO. He said “You’re here. That seems plenty radical to me.” And who the hell knows why one comment had such an effect, but my months of insecurity vanished in an instant.

I’m not saying that there aren’t real ideological, emphasis, and framing differences within the broader progressive coalition that warrant discussion. There are (though I am going to say that using Bernie and Hillary, or random media personalities, as proxies for varied and complicated differences, is not the best idea). But in the age of Trump and Trumpism, of white nationalists gaining influence at the highest levels of power, of the new attorney general pick being a guy who was considered horrifyingly racist even by the standards of the ’80s, and the American Nazi Party cheering the president-elect’s choice of senior counsel, I’m going to suggest that coalitions are made of the people who show up, not the people who are the most left, or the most pure, or the most “pragmatic” by however we are measuring that today, or whatever. Maybe there should be a little more “You’re here” going around.

Indigent defense funding: A major and underappreciated issue

Terminology note for this post: When I talk about public defense, I mean the defense, in a criminal case, of someone who can’t afford a lawyer, by a lawyer whose job it is to defend indigent clients. When I talk about indigent defense, I mean both the public defense system, and the common system, used because there are far too many indigent clients for most public defense systems to handle, of conscripting private lawyers into defending indigent clients in criminal cases.

The Marshall Project, which is in general a great source for news and commentary about the criminal legal system, has an excellent and disturbing three-part series out about underfunded public and indigent defense in Louisiana and other states. The articles talk about group plea deals involving dozens of indigent defendants from unrelated cases, long waiting lists for indigent defense services, the single public defender of one Louisiana parish (working with no health insurance) handling up to 50 cases simultaneously (including major felony cases), defendants who only get thirty seconds to speak with their lawyer before pleading guilty to felonies, insurance and real estate lawyers conscripted into indigent defense, and much more.

The Sixth Amendment Center has much more. This report talks about denial of counsel for misdemeanor cases around the US. It notes that in one Michigan county, which imposes a $240 charge for all misdemeanor legal representation, 95% of defendants waive having a lawyer at all and 50% plead guilty at their first appearance. It notes that 13 states have no statewide structure to ensure public defense, and nine states have a statewide structure but misdemeanor prosecution takes place outside that structure. It has chilling publications on the state of indigent defense in Utah (where according to the Marshall Project, 62% of misdemeanor defendants have no access to a lawyer), Delaware, Nevada, and Mississippi. It has news and state-by-state data on indigent defense systems.

Let me tell you a story.

Not very long ago, I was a criminal defendant, and was acquitted at trial of two charges, with the third dropped. As is not uncommon with high-profile political defendants, I had strong representation. I was represented by lawyers from the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild of Massachusetts. My lawyer, though experienced, was not a criminal defense attorney, but during the late stages, the trial and trial prep, he had a co-counsel, my other lawyer, with experience defending activism-related criminal cases. Over 14.5 months, I had many meetings with my lawyers, both in my original group of defendants and on my own. As much as I didn’t want to take a deal admitting responsibility when I didn’t think I’d committed a crime, the prosecution was pushing for jail time, and I was terrified and unsure – and my lawyers had many long conversations with me about what was likely, what was possible, what our strategies could be. Despite how long the process takes, how many hours of work, my lawyers were able and willing to push through to trial – they are busy people, but not to the point of barely keeping their heads above water. During the trial, my lawyer spent hours composing his closing statement (I think he called me about six times the evening before the last day of trial to ask for my feedback on different things he wanted to put in). We had detailed discussions about what my options were, what was happening, relevant case law. Since I was testifying in my own defense, we had witness prep, with a simulated direct examination, and a simulated cross examination in which another lawyer from the NLG Mass Defense Committee, a tough career public defender, played the part of the prosecutor and critiqued my performance as a witness afterward.

Granted, I also experienced a downside to being a high-profile political defendant – the District Attorney’s office threw everything they had at me, in a way that would not have happened if I had been an ordinary misdemeanor defendant (I could make that a post in its own right, because it’s a pretty absurd story, but it’s out of scope for this post). However, it is still true that if I had been an ordinary defendant, and couldn’t pay for a private attorney, I would not have been able to fight my case the way I did. And without an attorney with the time and resources to know the case in depth, to give me individualized attention, to have the resources to push it to trial without breaking the (time, energy, resources) bank and have that reflected in tone and attitude when we discussed options, I would have been more likely to be confused and frightened into caving.

Everyone should have that. An attorney who can afford to follow through on a client’s right to trial, gain real familiarity with their case – that’s the basics of effective representation. There’s an unfortunate stereotype of public defenders as bottom-rung lawyers who couldn’t get anything better. That stereotype is definitely not true for the people I’ve met who work in public defense, and in big cities, despite the abysmally low pay in many states (local folks, that includes Massachusetts), public defense jobs are highly competitive. And there is some evidence that career public defenders get their clients more acquittals and shorter sentences than private attorneys conscripted by the courts for indigent defense. The problem is that we don’t dedicate enough resources to indigent defense, even as the need for resources has grown. Mother Jones has some distressing statistics on how much time attorneys on indigent defense cases are actually able to spend on cases, vs how much is recommended by national advisory bodies. And how much money states have to spend on defense per case. Even the highest-spending states average well under $50 per case. It’s grotesque. The Yale Law Journal, in an essay warning public defenders to be wary of implicit racial bias in how they prioritize cases, likened indigent defense to medical triage, “determining which clients merit attention and which ones do not.”

According to the Marshall Project’s first story in the above-linked set, 90% of criminal defendants in the US qualify as indigent. According to the same story, since the constitutional right to counsel was established by Supreme Court decision Gideon v Wainwright in 1963, the rate of incarceration has more than quadrupled. Mass incarceration has put the current strain on public defense systems. But the strain on state indigent defense systems also feeds mass incarceration. Defendants with public defenders who take their cases to trial are twice as likely to be convicted as those with non-indigent-defense private attorneys – disparities not explained by case characteristics, amount of evidence presented at trial, and attorney skill. The underfunding and overworking of public defense offices promotes burnout and high turnover, which promotes longer sentences, as a 10-year veteran public defender, on average, reduces length of incarceration by 17% compared to a first-year public defender. The fact that we don’t properly fund public defense, and either throw unfunded mandates at public defense systems, or contract out indigent defense to (sometimes unpaid) private attorneys who may know little about criminal defense and have paying clients to deal with, leads to more convictions and longer sentences, as indicated by both some of the links in the previous paragraph, and this study of the federal indigent defense system, which found that the difference also had a disproportionate impact on people of color and immigrants.

In other words: More experienced public defenders do better for their clients than less experienced ones, but the overwork and underfunding burns public defenders out. Public defenders do better for indigent clients than court-appointed private ones, but in many locales, public defense systems simply can’t afford to take on more than a small fraction of the indigent cases. And private non-indigent-defense defenders, in a comparatively luxurious situation as they take cases voluntarily and can charge clients who go to trial for the extra time spent on the case, are more likely to get their clients acquitted than public defenders, who are working with very limited resources.

What can we do about this? I’d like to see the anti-mass-incarceration movement place more emphasis on indigent defense funding. You can learn a lot about your state’s system and how it is funded on the Sixth Amendment Center’s website and on your state government’s website. You can pressure your state legislature and governor. But even more than that, right now, state indigent defense gets very little federal funding. And compared to a lot of what the federal government spends its money on, funding states’ indigent defense systems with vastly more money than they have access to now would be a financial drop in the bucket. The government could also adopt national standards for indigent defense systems. You can contact your representative, your senators, the president, the Department of Justice, about these issues and the increased role that the federal government ought to be taking. You can make this an issue in your protest organizing, or run an awareness campaign.

As this will probably and unfortunately be a medium or long term goal, you can also donate to the Sixth Amendment Center, which provides indigent defense systems evaluation, standards development, and public education/awareness-raising. Or to Gideon’s Promise, which provides training, continuing education, mentorship, and leadership development, for aspiring and current public and indigent defenders, primarily in the South, where the need is most dire. And you can share information with others about this underappreciated issue.

Who do you protect? Illustrative RNC stories

I already told you all some stories about the RNC. Here’s a few more. You may notice a theme emerge.

During the flag-burning protest arrests, my medic buddy at the time, N (a tiny trans man, maybe 5’3″ or 5’4″ with a slight build) and I were caught in a crush. After it became slightly less crushy, we stood to watch the arrestees be led away, to see if we could count them or if any were obviously injured. a huge Bikers for Trump man (at least 6’4″ or 6’5″, and broad-shouldered) in a bulletproof vest strode between the police bike line and myself/N. The Bikers for Trump guy said “Move back.” N calmly asked “Sir, are you an officer?” The Biker for Trump shoved him, hard enough to knock him back three or four feet despite all the crowd in the way, and loudly threatened to kick our asses. N looked at the actual police officer a few feet away, with other police officers in a line on either side of him, and said that the Biker for Trump had shoved him, not that this wasn’t plainly obvious since the cop had watched the whole thing. The cop told him he should have moved back, then.

It’s rather disturbing that police would allow an ultranationalist vigilante biker gang to “help” with crowd control (i.e. hassling people standing in a public space not doing anything wrong).

The Biker for Trump continued to shove, growl at, and threaten N as the police watched dispassionately. I’m hardly an imposing physical presence myself – narrow-shouldered, curvy, not notably muscular, only coming up to the Biker for Trump’s shoulders – and was not thrilled about the idea of confronting a huge and probably armed ultranationalist vigilante who had already threatened to kick my ass, but this seemed like it was not getting better and you look out for your medic buddy, so I stepped forward and snarled “Leave him ALONE!” The Biker for Trump glared at me, but oddly, stopped shoving, though he continued to loom angrily over us.

After N and I moved back onto the sidewalk – again, right in front of a police line – we were confronted by two Trump-supporting dudebros, whom I will call Trump bros. One of the Trump bros called N a “commie” and loudly threatened to pin him down on the ground and…he opted not to complete the rest of his sentence, leaving us to infer either a sexual or physical image, I’m not entirely sure which he was going for. It was a hot day, and after turning his attention from the Trump bros, N started to take out his water bottle. The cop in front of us told him to stop and told us to keep our hands visible. He did not tell this to the Trump bros, who kept on engaging. So we stood there, two street medics, with our hands visible, palms out, while the Trump bros continued to give us shit (including repeatedly suggesting, toward the end, that N’s gender and political views were because he’d been molested by his family, and telling him what pretty eyes he had), and N periodically attempted some kind of civil discussion.

At one point they directly threatened to beat us up (again, all this is happening a few feet away from cops who are making us keep our hands out, palms visible, while not reacting to the Trump bros). I said something like “Gee, you guys are very friendly to first aid providers.” The guy doing most of the talking sneered and said that he knew all about “first aid providers,” that we commit vandalism and violence all over the country, and asked “What kind of first aid provider wears goggles?” in reference to the swim goggles hanging around my neck because people had reported the use of chemical munitions during the arrests. I looked at the cops, curious to see whether they would have any reaction to this. They did not.

I was boggled about what to say. When you’re a street medic, you might be providing first aid to people while stuck in a cloud of tear gas, or while pepper spray is flying around (usually sprayed by cops, but (content note: graphic pepper spray photos) Trump supporters have pepper-sprayed people before). If nothing else, you might want to avoid getting the pepper spray from a patient’s face or body into your own eyes by accident. How do you explain this to someone to whom it’s not obvious? How do something as benign as swim goggles become considered a sign of violent intent? They’re no more violent than the bulletproof vests that the city EMTs were wearing, and far more subtle. How does first aid become a sign of violent intent? This is not the first time I’ve run up against this mentality, but I’ve never stopped being confused by it.

I’ve already talked about the police attacking those counterprotesting the Westboro Baptist Church with bikes. There was a separate occasion in which they forcibly cleared everyone except the Westboro Baptist Church from Public Square, filling it with hundreds of police. The people attacked and forcibly removed were primarily left-wingers, doing the same thing that the WBC was doing – shouting at their opponents. The WBC, however, was not attacked, and not cleared out.

The fact that the police thought the medics were big-time “anarchist troublemakers” became kind of a running joke for us. I was in a small group of medics at one point who were surrounded by police and questioned for supposedly using the portapotties too much, by which I mean an average of once each (supposedly out of concern for our wellbeing, which I’m sure is why they needed more cops than medics, slowly maneuvering to be on all sides of us, to ask). Several medics were searched during the RNC. One medic team was carrying a bag of bananas to a free food distribution site, and had their bag of bananas searched. Another had their container of plastic water bottles searched.

Of course, it wasn’t just medics getting searched. Note how these protesters were surrounded and searched to confiscate a gas mask and a spray bottle. Meanwhile, this neo-Nazi* vigilante found carrying a knife longer than 2.5″, temporarily banned in the event zone under the same ordinance as gas masks, was handled in a less escalated fashion and allowed to put the knife in his car rather than having it confiscated.

Before the RNC and DNC, the DHS and the FBI put out a briefing on possible “domestic extremist” violence at the conventions. Their categories included both left-associated and right-associated types of extremism. However, in their “Potential Threat Indicators” list, the only ideology singled out as a potential threat indicator is anarchism (and even though it has to be coupled with other factors to be a threat indicator, it’s the only political view so singled out – neo-Nazi flags or signs, for instance, aren’t listed as a potential threat indicator when coupled with other factors). You know what else is singled out as a potential threat indicator? Treatments for tear gas/pepper spray (or “eye drops”)! Oddly, guns are not a potential threat indicator, though “unusual” requests for shooting lessons or range time are. As a street medic with a plastic bottle of liquid antacid + water in my bag, I’m apparently considered more of a potential threat than a neo-Nazi with a gun. At least, unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not (*gasp*) an anarchist street medic, though I gather that the cops at the RNC assumed we were all that in any case.

You get the idea. I noticed a pattern in how left-wingers and right-wingers were assessed and handled in Cleveland by law enforcement, with left-wingers treated with more suspicion and more force (while right-wingers were allowed, in some cases, to get away with vigilantism, not to mention threats and assault/battery). And in how showing up to help people was seen by both Trump supporters and law enforcement as suspicious.

Remember this photo from a previous post? Those guys had uniforms that said “Police” so I assumed they were police. I talked to another medic at the DNC, who was also at the RNC, who, when I described these guys, including the rifles with what appeared to be silencers, reported hearing the guys with rifles with apparent-silencers, telling someone that they were actually a militia group. If we are actually talking about the same guys with rifles with apparent-silencers, that’s pretty disturbing, because that would mean that they were impersonating police and the police allowed this to happen. I haven’t been able to find confirmation one way or another on this (and I spent a fair amount of time looking, but I haven’t been able to even find a reference to or photo of these guys other than my photo). They’re from Texas, I’d guess, judging by the Texas flags on their vests. If anyone has a clue who they are – police, militia, or something else – let me know.

*I know the Soldiers of Odin claim not to be neo-Nazis. The SPLC, as you will see if you follow my link, thinks otherwise. And, pro-tip, if you want to claim you are not neo-Nazis, you probably shouldn’t call yourselves Soldiers of Odin. Or be founded by a violent and avowed neo-Nazi. Or (content note: very disturbing photos of Nazi crap and vigilante imagery, descrptions of racist violence) keep Nazi items, posters, and magazines in your headquarters.

Hitting people is not “soft”: Reporting and police tactics

I became infuriated, during the RNC, when someone showed me this NPR piece referring to what the police were doing there, particularly the tactic of hitting people with bikes, as “soft force tactics.” The first time the police did this, I was nearly knocked to the ground, as the person in front of me was hit by a bike and slammed into me. Had there not been a larger Fox cameraman for me to be slammed into in turn, I would have. The first injury I provided care for at the RNC was to someone who had a three-inch-long cut down their leg from being hit by a bike (bikes have some relatively sharp bits on them, notably on the pedals). Cops were shoving people with bikes in crushes where there wasn’t really anywhere to move. Furthermore, they were usually doing so for no reason at all. That first time, when I almost got knocked over? The Westboro Baptist Church was protesting. Other people were counterprotesting. Both groups were shouting, but there was no violence. The cops decided that they wished for the groups to be further apart, so they hit counterprotesters (not Westboro people) with bike lunges to drive them back, meeting lack-of-force with force. There was another time when they cleared the entire public square, except for Westboro, by force, simply because some people were yelling back and forth with Westboro.

Certainly, hitting people with bikes was not all that was going on. I had just made it onto the site for the Revolutionary Communist Party’s flag-burning. I saw them getting hit, shoved around, slammed up against the fence, people fleeing the area gasping to get their breath back. In my own area, I got to watch horse cops ride through a crowd, at faster than walking pace, and hit several people, fortunately none harder than a bump. I also did jail support for those arrestees, which included not only a bunch of RCP folks but a journalist and a bystander. A protester had a bone broken during that melee! People were choked, pulled up against and over barriers with an arm to the throat, hit. People, including elders with preexisting conditions, were thrown to the ground. Police sprayed some kind of irritant, possibly a tactical fire extinguisher, all over the place. Police hurt people who were restrained to stop them chanting toward the cameras. Several arrestees had injuries, some went to the hospital after getting out. And you know, flag-burning is legal. The guy whose Supreme Court case established it as protected speech, was the one burning the flag in this case, and was one of the arrestees. I’m not sure why the police used force or made arrests at all – they’re claiming that they gave a dispersal order, which is contested, but also jumps right over the question of what grounds they had to order the dispersal of people engaging in Constitution-protected speech.

After the convention I spent more than $30 replacing medic kit supplies that I used at a convention where supposedly nothing happened and the police were so soft and gentle. And then we had the DNC, where also supposedly nothing happened, and most of the time nothing did, but there were still a few people who got pepper sprayed, and a few, including a medic, who were beaten up.

My observation here, which has been my observation for years, is that the way a lot of media assess police tactics is completely broken and back-asswards. They look for the dramatic photos, and for the novel. So tear gas is seen as very escalated and violent on the part of the police. People being hit with blunt force, thrown down, those are seen as nothing. Handcuffs being “too tight” is also seen as nothing. And yet, I would rather be tear gassed – and I have been tear gassed before, so I don’t say that from a place of unknowing bravado – than beaten up. Or subject to a cop who sees handcuffs as punishment devices – I’ve known someone who was long-term disabled from that, at another action where police were widely reported as having been soft and gentle. Being hit once by a bike or horse is not quite the same as being beaten up, but it can cause actual injuries, especially if done hard, or in a tightly-packed crowd where it’s difficult to move away from what’s hitting you, or if you fall down.

I’m not even talking about batons here, as they got little use at the recent conventions, but I would take most tactics over being beaten in earnest with a baton. Because I was a medic at the NATO summit protests in 2012, and I saw what happens to people when you beat them in earnest with batons. And yet, I remember seeing news stories after that talking about how Chicago had acquitted itself so well, had banished the specter of 1968. More than two dozen protesters went to the hospital in one afternoon (and I can guarantee you that’s probably no more than half the number that should have gone). I know someone who had to change careers because of the injury they took there. But, you know, no tear gas!

I am not saying that tear gas is a minor thing (it isn’t, it sucks and if the canisters are fired from a weapon they can be extremely dangerous projectiles in their own right). I’m saying that I wish more journalists had the experience and savvy to assess police tactics in a way that looks at risks, effects, and whether force is even justifiable at all in a particular situation, and not just flashy pictures and novelty. There are some who do, but it would be nice if it were standard.


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