Here is a line from the latest safety advisory for reporters issued by the US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ):
Taking into account the increased levels of violence and tactics used by both police and protesters, ballistic glasses, helmets, and stab vests should be worn. If there is a threat of live ammunition being used, then body armour should be considered.
It is the kind of advice I used to be given before going on assignment to places like Baghdad, Kabul or Mogadishu. But the CPJ is aiming its latest note at US-based reporters more used to covering city hall than documenting running battles between police and demonstrators. It is deeply troubling that an organisation usually advocating for reporters in violent autocratic regimes decides it now has to support those in its own backyard.
One organisation, Bellingcat, has been tracking assaults on journalists since the riots broke out over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. In the first four days of protests, its chief investigator counted more than 100 incidents. (The CPJ counts closer to 200.)
The 101st involved an Australian news crew from Channel Seven. They were beaten while filming outside the White House, as riot police used tear gas and batons to clear the peaceful protesters so President Donald Trump could walk across the street and hold a Bible in front of St John’s Church. (In a speech moments before, Trump had – without irony – declared, “I am your president of law and order”, and “an ally of all peaceful protesters”.)
The startling number of attacks on journalists does not appear to be an accident. Inevitably, anyone reporting in violent places risks being caught in crossfire. But the numbers suggest something more troubling.
Bellingcat’s investigator Nick Waters, wrote
although in some incidents it is possible the journalists were hit or affected accidentally, in the majority of the cases we have recorded the journalists are clearly identifiable as press, and it is clear that they are being deliberately targeted.
The police actions against journalists might seem futile in our social media age when everyone with a mobile phone has the power to act as a reporter, but that doesn’t stop individual cops from lashing out at those they see as actively monitoring them.
There does not appear to be a coordinated strategy. In the United States, policing is generally a state and city affair, so collusion seems unlikely. The CPJ’s Courtney Radsh said the organisation’s experience of tracking violence towards journalists in some of the world’s most hostile regimes shows that the police step up their attacks when they believe they can get away with it.
In the US, the president himself has frequently derided journalists as “the enemy of the people”, who peddle “fake news”, and on Sunday he issued a tweet describing them as “truly bad people with a sick agenda”.
There is no doubt some journalists have behaved unethically or been loose with the facts, and the news business more broadly has not always covered itself in glory.
But as imperfect as it may be, it remains a vital part of the way a free and open democracy works. It acts as a watchdog on behalf of voters, monitoring the behaviour of institutions like the police and government who are supposed to be acting in the interests of the public.
In so many cases in the protests, journalists have clearly identified themselves verbally, with accreditation, with vests labelled “press”, carrying professional-standard cameras, and by their actions, observing rather than participating in the protests. That observation is rarely comfortable for those in authority, but it is a necessary part of the system.
As a recovering journalist and press freedom advocate, I am of course concerned about assaults of my colleagues. But to be clear, this is not about them. What we are seeing in the United States is an attempt to make the public blind to heavy-handed police tactics.
The founding fathers of the United States understood that when they wrote the First Amendment into its Constitution, guaranteeing “congress shall pass no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. (The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of religion, the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.) Attack the press, and you attack the very system that has made places like the US and Australia among the safest and most prosperous in the world.
The reason autocrats in Turkey, the Philippines and Egypt throw journalists in prison with such enthusiasm is because they know a free media empowers the public, and threatens their survival.
If Trump is the patriot he claims to be, he will honour the Constitution and defend the press rather than accuse reporters of “doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy”.
The protests that have engulfed American cities in the past week are rooted in decades of frustrations. Racist policing, legal and extra-legal discrimination, exclusion from the major avenues of wealth creation and vicious stereotyping have long histories and endure today.
African Americans have protested against these injustices going back as far as the post-Civil War days in the 1870s. Throughout the 20th century, there were significant uprisings in Chicago (1919), New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood (1935), Detroit (1943) and Los Angeles (1943, 1965, 1992).
And in what became known as the “long, hot summer of 1967”, anger in America’s cities boiled over. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had ended segregation, but not brought equality. Racial injustice at the hands of police remained. Protesters took to the streets in more than 150 cities, leading to violent clashes between black residents and largely white police forces.
White moderates condemned these armed rebellions as the antithesis of the famed nonviolent protests of civil rights activists. But Martin Luther King, Jr., himself, recognised that the success of nonviolence lay in the ever-present threat of violence.
He noted, too, that riots “do not develop out of thin air.”
The trigger for African-American uprisings in the US has almost always been acts by police forces, such as the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Sometimes, unrest has broken out when police have refused to act on behalf of black residents. When an African-American teenager drifted into the “white” part of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 1919, for instance, a white man on the banks threw rocks at him and he drowned. A policeman did nothing to stop the assailants, nor did he arrest them.
From the perspective of those targeted and traumatised by police and discriminated against by society at large, property damage and looting were justified.
In the century after slavery ended in 1865, white Americans had established new ways to exploit black people’s labour and keep African Americans impoverished. These methods ranged from legislation governing work contracts and mobility to racist stereotyping.
Such laws and customs were all underpinned by violence, including murder. From the late 1800s until 1950, more than 4,000 African Americans were victims of lynchings. They were so acceptable they were sometimes advertised in the press in advance. These were extra-judicial killings, but often included the police (or they would at least turn a blind eye to the proceedings).
Black Americans who sought better lives in northern cities found racism there, too. White landlords had a captive market in segregated neighbourhoods, such as New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, which caused them to become increasingly crowded and rundown.
African Americans were often kept out of nicer neighbourhoods in cities nationwide, either through violent acts perpetrated by white residents or even by police officers themselves. The houses of middle-class black Americans in the Birmingham, Alabama, suburb where political activist and philosopher Angela Davis grew up were bombed so often the area was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill”.
Even the presence of black officers in the police forces of northern cities could not alter the fundamentally racist operations of police forces.
The protests of the 1960s were driven in part by police brutality, but also by the exclusion of African Americans from full civic participation.
Even if African Americans could accumulate the capital to acquire a mortgage, a system of laws known as “redlining” prevented them from purchasing property.
That, in turn, thwarted black families’ efforts to accumulate wealth at the same rate of white families. African Americans lived, therefore, in neighbourhoods that were poorer. Those communities had worse sanitation, no green spaces, grocery stores with high prices and poorly resourced schools.
All the while, it was African Americans who continued to work in low paid domestic and service labour jobs that propped up a booming economy that disproportionately benefited white Americans. It’s no wonder the writer James Baldwin said in 1968,
After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think [that accusation] is obscene.
The effects of those policies are still in evidence today – and play a significant role in the discrimination and disenfranchisement of many African Americans.
Black families and individuals enjoy a drastically lower median level of wealth than whites or Asian Americans. This is true even among African Americans with high levels of education and high salaries. Generations of discrimination have left their mark as black Americans have been denied the gradual accumulation of largely untaxed wealth in housing and inheritance.
Echoing Baldwin, the comic Trevor Noah observed this week,
If you felt unease watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Police in America are looting black bodies.
In the wake of the 1967 unrest, federal policies shifted under President Lyndon Johnson from the “War on Poverty” to the “War on Crime”. African Americans were increasingly targeted in the expanding “law and order” and mass incarceration machine.
Today, black Americans, especially men, remain the overwhelming targets for police forces. Young black men are killed by police at a rate of 21 times that of young white men. African American women, too, are vulnerable, as several recent high-profile incidents prove.
African Americans are also more likely to be arrested, charged with crimes, convicted and sentenced than white Americans.
All the while, police have been trained and equipped in ways that have blurred the line between civilian police and military forces. The violence of these police forces is becoming more difficult to justify, hence Slate running an article in the last week with the title “Police Erupt in Nationwide Violence”.
Until then, as civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill said this week,
if the rule of law is to prevail, then the people have to see some justice. If it always produces a result that is unjust, then how can we tell people to have faith in the justice system.
Violence has erupted across several US cities after the death of a black man, George Floyd, who was shown on video gasping for breath as a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck. The unrest poses serious challenges for President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden as each man readies his campaign for the November 3 election.
If the coronavirus had not already posed a threat to civil discourse in the US, the latest flashpoint in American racial politics makes this presidential campaign potentially one of the most incendiary in history.
COVID-19 and Minneapolis may very well form the nexus within which the 2020 campaign will unfold. Trump’s critics have assailed his handling of both and questioned whether he can effectively lead the country in a moment of crisis.
And yet, he may not be any more vulnerable heading into the election.
As the incumbent, Trump certainly faces the most immediate challenges. Not since Franklin Roosevelt in the second world war has a US president presided over the deaths of so many Americans from a single cause.
The Axis powers and COVID-19 are not analogous, but any presidency is judged by its capacity to respond to enemies like these. With pandemic deaths now surpassing 100,000, Trump’s fortunes will be inexorably tied to this staggering (and still rising) figure.
Worse, the Minneapolis protests are showing how an already precarious social fabric has been frayed by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Americans have not come together to fight the virus. Rather, they have allowed a public health disaster to deepen divisions along racial, economic, sectional and ideological lines.
Trump has, of course, often sought to gain from such divisions. But the magnitude and severity of the twin crises he is now facing will make this very difficult. By numerous measures, his is a presidency in crisis.
Trump, a ferocious campaigner, will try to find ways to use both tragedies to his advantage and, importantly, makes things worse for his challenger.
For starters, Trump did not cause coronavirus. And he will continue to insist that his great geo-strategic adversary, the Chinese Communist Party, did.
And his is not the first presidency to be marked by the conflagration of several US cities.
Trump may not have healed racial tensions in the US during his presidency. But, like coronavirus, he did not cause them.
Not unhappily for Trump, Minneapolis is a largely Democratic city in a reliably blue state. He will campaign now on the failure of Democratic state leaders to answer the needs of black voters.
Trump will claim that decades of Democratic policies in Minnesota – including the eight years of the Obama administration – have caused Minneapolis to be one of the most racially unequal cities in the nation.
In 2016, Trump famously asked African-Americans whether Democratic leaders have done anything to improve their lives.
What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?
He will repeat this mantra in the coming months.
It also certainly helps that his support among Republican voters has never wavered, no matter how shocking his behaviour.
He has enjoyed a stable 80% approval rating with GOP voters throughout the coronavirus crisis. This has helped keep his approval rating among all voters steady as the pandemic has worsened, hovering between 40 and 50%.
These are not terrible numbers. Yes, Trump’s leadership has contributed to a series of disasters. But if the polls are correct, he has so far avoided the kinds of catastrophe that could imperil his chances of re-election.
Biden should be able to make a good case to the American people at this moment that he is the more effective leader.
But this has not yet been reflected in polls, most of which continue to give the Democrat only a lukewarm advantage over Trump in the election.
The other problem is that the Democratic party remains discordant. And Biden has not yet shown a capacity to heal it.
Race has also long been a source of division within Biden’s party. Southern Democrats, for instance, were the key agents of slavery in the 19th century and the segregation that followed it into the 20th.
After the 1960s, Democrats sought to make themselves the natural home of African-American voters as the Republican party courted disaffected white Southern voters. The Democrats largely succeeded on that front – the party routinely gets around 85-90% of black votes in presidential elections.
The challenge for Biden now is how to retain African-American loyalty to his party, while evading responsibility for the socio-economic failures of Democratic policies in cities like Minneapolis.
He is also a white northerner (from Delaware). Between 1964 and 2008, only three Democrats were elected president. All of them were southerners.
To compensate, Biden has had to rely on racial politics to separate himself from his primary challenger – Bernie Sanders struggled to channel black aspirations – and from Republicans. And this has, at times, caused him to court controversy.
In 2012, he warned African-Americans that then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would put them “all back in chains”. And just over a week ago, he angered black voters by suggesting those who would support Trump in the election “ain’t black”.
Biden is far better than Trump on racial issues and should be able to use the current crises to present himself as a more natural “consoler-in-chief”, but instead, he has appeared somewhat flatfooted and derided for being racially patronising.
The opportunities COVID-19 and the Minneapolis unrest might afford his campaign remain elusive.
America enters the final months of the 2020 campaign in a state of despair and disrepair. The choice is between an opportunistic incumbent and a tin-eared challenger.
But the US has faced serious challenges before – and emerged stronger. Neither the civil war in the 19th century or the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 20th halted the extraordinary growth in power that followed both.
Moreover, the US constitution remains intact and federalism has undergone something of a rebirth since the start of the pandemic. And there is a new generation of younger, more diverse, national leaders being forged in the fire of crisis to help lead the recovery.
At age 77, in his twilight years, the third time was the charm for Joe Biden.
He prevailed over a field of 24 Democrats from across the political spectrum and has emerged as his party’s nominee for president in a manner unthinkable in January: a united party, from left to right, across race and creed, age and ideology. He is the victor despite mediocre fundraising, no digital media traction, no base of wild enthusiasts. Voters had to consider his appeals before coming to understand and then accept that it was indeed Joe Biden, who failed in his bids for the White House in 1988 and 2008, who was the strongest Democrat to go up against Donald Trump and take him out.
Biden’s essence is unchanged from that first race more than three decades ago. As Richard Ben Cramer reported in his legendary account of the 1988 campaign, What It Takes, Biden realised:
What Americans wanted from their government [was] just a helping hand, to make the fight for a better life for their kids, just a platform to stand on, so they could reach higher … That was his life: he was just a middle-class kid who’d got a little help along the way … and that was all he had to show. But that’s what connected him to the great body of voters in the country. That’s all he needed!
Fast-forward to Biden as vice president in the Obama administration. I captured his addresses to the Democrats in the House of Representatives. This is how I recorded two journal entries for my book (with co-author Bryan Marshall) The Committee, on Obama’s historic legislative agenda in Congress.
We have to help the middle class and working Americans – the people who sent us here.
It is absolutely clear that the decisions we made are working. And the public understands they are working […] The American people understand that the Republicans have rejected the notion of compromise. That’s not the way the American people want us to do business […] We can’t straighten them out, but the American people will in November […]
We will win based purely on the merits of our position. America is going to get an absolutely clear comparison this year. It’s a stark, stark, stark, contrast […] Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.
This has been Biden’s whole life – connecting with the gut of middle America. His 2020 message is the same as he ran on in 1988. And the task is the same as when he was on the ticket with Obama in 2008: to ensure America recovers from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Biden was responsible for ensuring the delivery of the American Recovery Act – the first piece of major legislation enacted after Obama and Biden took office. Ultimately, it spurred a decade of economic growth and full employment. So Biden has been there and will work to do it again.
We know only that it will be a woman. The oped pages and social media are on overdrive on who is best. Two things are paramount to Biden, because he knows the job and he knows what has to work.
Especially given his age, it is imperative the vice president be fully qualified and capable to step in to serve as president on her first heartbeat after his last – and is seen as such by the American people. This is where Sarah Palin was such a failure for John McCain in 2008.
Other mediocrities, both callow (Dan Quayle under George H.W. Bush) and criminal (Spiro Agnew with Richard Nixon) served but did not ascend to the presidency. Others, starting with Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter, and then Al Gore under Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney under George W. Bush, became true partners in governance, with real power and responsibility, and remade the office. That is the Biden template.
Biden insisted on – and received from Obama – a promise that he would be the last person in the room with the president before major decisions were taken, so he could give the full benefit of his judgment – whether the president took it or not. (Obama did not take Biden’s advice on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.)
Biden wants a vice president who can do the same with him. The virtues she would bring to the ticket, such as Amy Klobuchar’s ability to drive votes for Biden in the Midwest, and Kamala Harris, who can bring a surge of African American voters to the polls, are but the icing on the judgment Biden will make.
The second factor is chemistry: Biden has to feel with his selection the same intensity that marked Obama’s bond with him over their eight years together. So a woman who is absolutely qualified and star-studded won’t get it if Biden feels they cannot do great things together through shared conviction and trust.
Given the strike rate of vice presidents who have become president – five of the past 11 since 1952 – Biden’s choice will likely affect the future of the Democratic Party and the country for perhaps the next 12 years.
Ask anyone in America who is politically attuned and they will tell you this is the most important election of their lifetimes. President Donald Trump has the bully pulpit of the White House where, as we have seen during the pandemic crisis, he can command the airwaves for hours every day to pound home his message. He has a TV network that has effectively become a state media channel. He has a Republican senate that will provide no check on his misbehaviour and no effort to protect the election against Russian interference or voter suppression.
Trump has 90% loyalty in the Republican Party. He has the power to declare national emergencies and launch military action to defend the United States. His campaign has a viciously effective social media war machine. He will conservatively outspend Biden by well over US$100 million. His base has not cracked – it is solid at 46% – after the pummelling Trump triggers from what he calls “fake news” and “the enemy of the people”, and after the disgrace of impeachment.
Trump’s avalanche of lies will continue unabated. He is the most shameless and relentless campaigner in modern American history. And if gets enough votes in the key states he won in 2016, he can be re-elected.
Biden’s task is clear: to take back those traditionally Democratic states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin – that Trump won in 2016’s outburst of populist anger at the political establishment, which included Hillary Clinton. And he must withstand and neuter the unprecedented charges of conspiracy and corruption that Trump is unleashing with “Obamagate”.
As of now, Biden leads Trump nationally by three to nine points in the polls. He is leading in three key battleground states, including Florida, and has a chance to capture Arizona and North Carolina. Trump is targeting Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico. The consensus today is if the election was held now, Biden would win.
November is increasingly becoming a referendum on Trump and his management of the pandemic, and whether voters, facing disastrous hardship (over 16 million Americans lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs), trust Trump to restore the economy.
Biden’s message is already clear: Trump’s failures to appreciate the pandemic and act to protect the American people unnecessarily cost tens of thousands of lives. Biden helped bring the nation back from the Great Recession in 2009 – and knows how to do it again in 2021.
Biden’s campaign launch video in April 2019 could not have been clearer:
I wrote at the time [of Nazis marching in Charlottesville in 2017] that we’re in the battle for the soul of this nation. Well, that’s even more true today. I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen […] The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America, is at stake. … Even more important, we have to remember who we are. This is America.
In the late stages of the primaries, the overwhelming sentiment of most Democrats was simple: get rid of Trump. As voters could see limits to the appeal of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg simply could not reach critical mass, they decisively concluded it was Biden that everyone knew and trusted to do the job and free the country of Trump.
Because first they want America healed, too.
US President Donald Trump, who tweeted more than 11,000 times in the first two years of his presidency, is very upset with Twitter.
Earlier this week Trump tweeted complaints about mail-in ballots, alleging voter fraud – a familiar Trump falsehood. Twitter attached a label to two of his tweets with links to sources that fact–checked the tweets, showing Trump’s claims were unsubstantiated.
Trump retaliated with the power of the presidency. On May 28 he made an “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship”. The order focuses on an important piece of legislation: section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996.
Section 230 has been described as “the bedrock of the internet”.
It affects companies that host content on the internet. It provides in part:
(2) Civil liability. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1).
This means that, generally, the companies behind Google, Facebook, Twitter and other “internet intermediaries” are not liable for the content on their platforms.
For example, if something defamatory is written by a Twitter user, the company Twitter Inc will enjoy a shield from liability in the United States even if the author does not.
Within the US legal system, an executive order is a “signed, written, and published directive from the President of the United States that manages operations of the federal government”. It is not legislation. Under the Constitution of the United States, Congress – the equivalent of our Parliament – has the power to make legislation.
The text of the order includes the following:
It is the policy of the United States that such a provider [who does not act in “good faith”, but stifles viewpoints with which they disagree] should properly lose the limited liability shield of subparagraph (c)(2)(A) and be exposed to liability like any traditional editor and publisher that is not an online provider …
To advance [this] policy … all executive departments and agencies should ensure that their application of section 230 (c) properly reflects the narrow purpose of the section and take all appropriate actions in this regard.
The order attempts to do a lot of other things too. For example, it calls for the creation of new regulations concerning section 230, and what “taken in good faith” means.
Trump’s action has some support. Republican senator Marco Rubio said if social media companies “have now decided to exercise an editorial role like a publisher, then they should no longer be shielded from liability and treated as publishers under the law”.
Critics argue the order threatens, rather than protects, freedom of speech, thus threatening the internet itself.
The status of this order within the American legal system is an issue for American constitutional lawyers. Experts were quick to suggest the order is unconstitutional; it seems contrary to the separation of powers enshrined in the US Constitution (which partly inspired Australia’s Constitution).
Harvard Law School constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe has described the order as “totally absurd and legally illiterate”.
That may be so, but the constitutionality of the order is an issue for the US judiciary. Many judges in the United States were appointed by Trump or his ideological allies.
Even if the order is legally illiterate, it should not be assumed it will lack force.
Section 230 is part of US law. It is not in force in Australia. But its effects are felt around the globe.
Social media companies who would otherwise feel safe under section 230 may be more likely to remove content when threatened with legal action.
The order might cause these companies to change their internal policies and practices. If that happens, policy changes could be implemented at a global level.
Compare, for example, what happened when the European Union introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Countless companies in Australia had to ensure they were meeting European standards. US-based tech companies such as Facebook changed their privacy policies and disclosures globally – they did not want to meet two different privacy standards.
If section 230 is diminished, it could also impact Australian litigation by providing another target for people who are hurt by damaging content on social media, or accessible by internet search. When your neighbour defames you on Facebook, for example, you can sue both the neighbour and Facebook.
That was already the law in Australia. But with a toothless section 230, if you win, the judgement could be enforceable in the US.
Currently, suing certain American tech companies is not always a good idea. Even if you win, you may not be able to enforce the Australian judgement overseas. Tech companies are aware of this.
In 2017 litigation, Twitter did not even bother sending anyone to respond to litigation in the Supreme Court of New South Wales involving leaks of confidential information by tweet. When tech companies like Google have responded to Aussie litigation, it might be understood as a weird brand of corporate social responsibility: a way of keeping up appearances in an economy that makes them money.
When Trump made his order, he called it a big day for “fairness”. This is standard Trump fare. But it should not be dismissed outright.
As our own Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recognised last year in its Digital Platforms Inquiry, companies such as Twitter have enormous market power. Their exercise of that power does not always benefit society.
As for Twitter, the inclusion of the fact check links was a good thing. It’s not like they deleted Trump’s tweets. Also, they’re a private company, and Trump is not compelled to use Twitter.
We should support Twitter’s recognition of its moral responsibility for the dissemination of information (and misinformation), while still leaving room for free speech.
Trump’s executive order is legally illiterate spite, but it should prompt us to consider how free we want the internet to be. And we should take that issue more seriously than we take Trump’s order.