Monday, March 31, 2014

Deep conversation about journalism, history, place, and time.

[Caveat: this occurred at the bar, between me and a friend's friend]

He: you work for Reuters? I have a beef with Reuters.
Me: what's that?
He: The AP calls it the "West Bank," but you guys refer to it as the "occupied West Bank."
Me: That bothers you?
He: Yeah, it's editorializing.
Me: Does it matter to you that three successive Israeli heads of government have referred to the West Bank as "occupied?"
He: Yeah, well that started with Barak.
Me: Actually, it started with Sharon.
He: Whatever. It's totally immaterial what a head of government says.
Me: So how do you think we should refer to it?
He: How about Judea and Samaria? It's been called that for thousands of years. When you decide which name to use, are you better using the one that's been around for thousands of years or the one that's been around for sixty years?
Me: Where do you live?
He: NoLiTa.
Me: Oh, really?

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Big Data and big city policing

Before Google knew what ads to send your way, before Amazon knew which deals to offer you, before OKCupid knew the types of men or women likely to catch your eye - okay, before the Internet - Bill Bratton used Big Data to fight crime.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio tapped Bratton, who ran the New York City Police Department from 1994 to 1996, to be the next police commissioner. If it feels like a blast from the past, it should: Despite his short tenure, Bratton is more closely associated with the city's precipitous drop in crime throughout the 1990's than any other commissioner.
Bill Bratton on the cover of
TIME Magazine, January 15, 1996

And crime did drop. Well, the drop started a few years before Giuliani took office, before Bratton got to work. But America noticed the drop when Bratton was in charge, and he got the lion's share of the credit.

There are two policies associated with Bratton's time at the top. The first is "broken windows," which prior to Bratton's ascent was just a theory. Simply, it held that once the windows of a vacant building were broken, crime would engulf the neighborhood around it. Under Bratton, it meant devoting police officers to prevent smaller, quality of life infractions in an effort to drive down overall crime rates: Arresting fare beaters at subway turnstiles, removing graffiti from subway cars, cracking down on squeegee operators at the entrances to bridges and tunnels.

The second policy is CompStat. Bratton collected reams and reams of data from precincts and made precinct commanders responsible for driving the numbers down, category by category. Crime patterns were mapped, and resources allocated accordingly. High crime areas were flooded with police patrols, giving rise to the "impact zone" method of police work. These zones would become one of the lasting, if lesser-known, Bratton legacies.

Whether or not Bratton's tactics were instrumental or not is still a subject of debate. That's the funny thing about police work: When numbers go down, everyone takes credit. When numbers go up, we're told that sometimes crime just goes up. Perhaps crime fell because the crack epidemic petered out, or because the economy started to improve, or because of Roe v. Wade, or because schools stopped using lead in their classroom paint. These are all serious proposals.

"Broken Windows" and CompStat gave Bratton his legacy, for which he's both praised and reviled. The collateral damage of flooding high-crime (and, it must be said, lower-income and majority-minority) neighborhoods with cops on the lookout for petty infractions, seeking to show rising arrests and falling crime, fell disproportionately on the law-abiding residents of those neighborhoods. Bratton was notoriously dismissive of this unintended consequence. Chasing petty arrests in poor neighborhoods is what drove the number of "stop-and-frisk" encounters to over 600,000 per year. Ending "stop-and-frisk" was a cornerstone of de Blasio's mayoral campaign.

So why does a liberal like Bill de Blasio want a guy like Bratton? Some of his leftist allies have decried the decision as a betrayal. But for the mayor-elect, it's a simple calculation: He hopes that his critics on the right will see Bratton as a tough-on-crime policeman, and his allies on the left will see the cop as a technocratic policy man.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Tehran, Geneva, and Munich

Shortly after negotiators in Geneva announced a six-month interim agreement on Iranian uranium enrichment, I saw this posted on Facebook: "1938 redux."

Briefly, here's what the interim accord reached in Geneva states: Iran will be able to mine and enrich uranium to three percent purity, a level sufficient for domestic energy consumption and insufficient for weaponization. Iran will convert its current stockpile of twenty-percent enriched uranium into lower-purity fuel grade material. Iran will submit to daily inspections of its nuclear enrichment facilities, and every stage of its nuclear activities will be monitored. In exchange, Iran will have a small portion of its international assets unfrozen. Most of the international sanctions against Tehran will remain in effect. This deal will last for six months, while negotiators assess its success and work toward a final treaty.

This interim deal struck between the West and Tehran has many opponents, from Jerusalem and Riyadh to Washington. But I worry that at its core, the view that this agreement amounts to a capitulation to the Ayatollah on par with Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler reflects a misunderstanding of history, diplomacy, and scientific fact.

Hitler abrogated treaties aimed at containing Germany first in 1936, when his soldiers reoccupied and remilitarized the Rhineland. Then again in 1938, Hitler executed the Anschluss, wiping Austria from the map through simple extortion. Months later, in Munich, with Nazi divisions poised to attack the Sudetenland - a fight they very likely would have lost - France and Britain abandoned Prague.

In contrast, sanctions against Iran have crippled the economy and caused widespread inflation. The country is desperate for trade, and choking under an oil embargo. Its banks cannot access foreign reserves. Its people go to black-market dealer in an effort trade worthless rials into dollars. But for the efficacy of international sanctions against Tehran, there would be no accord in Geneva.

This agreement allows Iran to continue enriching uranium. Unsurprisingly, President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly claimed this as a victory. He's said over and over since the accord was signed that enrichment at Natanz, Fordow, and Isfahan will continue unabated. Many view this as a clear signal that the West has been duped. To jump to this conclusion is to fail to understand diplomacy. The genius of this agreement is that it seemingly allows both sides to claim a political victory. This is the very essence of diplomacy. This interim agreement freezes any steps Iran might take toward building a stockpile of weapons-grade material, and rolls back any efforts they've already taken, while granting Iran the ability to pursue a civil nuclear power program - one that Tehran as disingenuously claimed all along as its goal. What this agreement does, in fact, is turn what was generally suspected to be a lie into a verifiable truth: Iran will be actively constrained to civilian uses of nuclear power. It can claim this is no constraint, because that was its goal all along. But it will not be able to build a bomb.

And for those who view any enrichment as dangerous, they may find some reassurance in the basics of nuclear physics. Uranium enriched to three percent purity cannot be used to build a nuclear bomb. Even uranium enriched to a dangerously high level - twenty percent - cannot be used on its own to build an atomic weapon. Only once a sufficient stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, about 250 kilograms, is refined further into ninety percent purity, can a real nuclear weapon be built. This deal gives inspectors access to every stage of Iran's nuclear fuel cycle, including the enrichment of newly-mined uranium, the depletion of its stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium, and the transport and disposal of fuel rods. If any goes missing, the inspectors will see. If, in fact, Iran does pursue a weapons program under this agreement, the West will know. And when that happens, the West can respond. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I've arrived.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Law and privilege

I briefly stepped out of a party at a friend's apartment and onto West 89th Street last night. In the elevator ride down I gulped the last of my vodka and tonic - because I know the law - but held on to my red plastic cup. 

I set the cup on a post box next to me and stood on the street fiddling with my phone, then looked up and saw two officers from the 24th Precinct approaching me, their patrol car idling. 

"Good evening sir," and office said. 
"Good evening," I replied, with a cheer boosted by alcohol. 

"Have you been drinking tonight, sir?"
"Yes I have, upstairs."

He pointed at the cup. 
"Is this yours?"
"Yes. It's empty."

He verified my claim, then wished me goodnight and he and his colleague departed. 

Two observations:
1. In this city, police officers exit their vehicles and confront people over red plastic cups. 

2. If you're white, polite, and standing on West 89th Street, you get to go back upstairs and tell people what just happened. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Slavery on screen

My friend Michael Schwartz was 11 years old when Schindler's List hit the big screen. He told me that his father pulled him out of class one day to see the film.

If I had kids, I'd do the same with 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen has made an important film, and a masterful one. In short: it forces your face into some of the blood and shit legalized and practiced by the authors of the U.S. Constitution, and ignored by Confederate apologists and Gone With the Wind romanticists. And some shit should not be forgotten.

One thought on the film's execution, derived from charges leveled by its critics:
Some have complained that a film about slavery ought not be about the exceptional life of Solomon Northrup, a free man kidnapped into slavery then emancipated, but about the legion of blacks who were born and died in bondage without record and without dignity. It's the same criticism Stanley Kubrick reportedly leveled against Stephen Spielberg: "The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t."

McQueen has a retort to this built into his film.

The narrative, simplified, is one of a man betrayed, kidnapped, enslaved, unbowed, wins his freedom. A shallow viewer will view the betrayal as the original sin of the story, righted by a righteous man's forbearance. But upon his release, Northrup hugs farewell to one of the tortured and forgotten victims of American slavery, a woman for whom there is no primal betrayal or redemption. There is only slavery. That is what McQueen wants us to see, and take home. He used a simple narrative to draw us into a theater, and then forced us to face a greater evil untempered by that touching story.

It's a happy ending for one black man. It's unending misery for every other in the film.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A farewell to a neighb, and a blog

Nick Juravich, author and chronicler, will close down his blog. He's asked me to write a little something about it, and the neighborhood it documented. 

A reporter covering the overnight shift for a New York tabloid gets a memo, via e-mail, outlining how to do the job. Fires, shootings, car crashes happen all over the city, but "nice neighbs," the email says, are more important.

I started that job in 2009, and moved to Franklin Avenue in June that same year. Over the course of that summer, Franklin Avenue turned from a place the tabloid disdained to one it appraised. 

If one stood on the rooftops and looked west, this change could be seen coming, blowing out of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, rolling up Eastern Parkway and carried by numbered subway cars. It brought me and thousands like me to Crown Heights, and we changed the neighborhood. Franklin Avenue in September wasn't what it was in June. The jerk chicken shop below my apartment shuttered (later, the space would become Barboncino). Up popped Pulp and Bean, and Dutch Boy, and Breukelen Coffee House. Until that point, I'd imagined 'gentrification' as a slow and steady process. But what I saw wasn't a trickle. It was a tsunami.

Here are dispatches from my memory of Franklin Avenue over that summer, experiences that haven't repeated themselves in other places I've lived.

1) A older man named Harry worked a chair at Ja-Don's barber shop, two doors down from my apartment. When he wasn't cutting hair, he stood on the sidewalk, leaning on a parking meter. "Hey Harry," I'd say to him. "All right," he'd say, and hold out his fist for a bump. Harry liked to wear t-shirts printed with the word "Brooklyn" in different typefaces. I once asked him where he got all his t-shirts. His daughter, he said, had a t-shirt shop. I said they looked good. "I'ma getchu one," he said.

One day I went down to do laundry and get a trim, but Ja-Don's was shuttered. Harry stood next to his parking meter. 

"You're closed?" I asked. He nodded. 

"I'll come back tomorrow," I said, carrying my clothes across the street. 

"You could pay me today, help me get something to eat," Harry said. I shook my head. 

"I'll see you tomorrow," I said. The next day he cut my hair. I paid him. He gave me a plastic bag. Inside I saw a t-shirt. 

Ja-Don's survived the summer, and Harry continued to stand post outside and occasionally cut my hair for for two more years until I moved out of the neighborhood. I don't know if rising rents squeezed the salon owners, and whether they started renting a chair to Harry at higher rates, and how this may have impacted his bottom line. Since leaving the neighborhood, I get my hair cut elsewhere. I still have the t-shirt. 

2) The popping sound made by a semiautomatic pistol often registers at a higher pitch than one might have come to expect from film and television. On two occasions I heard those reports from my second-story window that summer. Given the nature of my work I hurried down to the street and walked in the opposite direction of those running and shouting. On the first such occasion, I walked over and stood in front of a stoop between 95 South and a laundromat. A young black man sat on the stoop clutching his leg. Another man crouched next to him, putting pressure on the wound beneath his pants. His sweats were stained dark and wet. The paramedics and police were there in moments. I knew enough then about precincts and CompStat to realize I'd arrived in time to see something that had become almost vanishingly rare. This will sound odd to residents who rightfully believe that a single shooting is one too many. But Franklin Avenue's bad old days are long over. Murders, rapes and robberies plummeted over the previous decade. In my experience, white people from Manhattan eventually got around to asking me if Franklin Avenue was 'safe.' I would respond by saying, "compared to what?" You were more likely to have your iPod snatched in Midtown than Crown Heights. Central Brooklyn was safe compared to East New York, East New York safe compared to the South Bronx, and the Bronx was safer than Trenton, Baltimore, or Chicago. An irony then: the changes on Franklin Avenue meant long-time residents could enjoy dropping crime rates just as they felt more and more pressure from rising rents. Their neighborhood was safer than it had been in decades, and but prices were pushing them out. At the same time the newly arrived young, white professionals and students found the place imminently affordable, but were deeply concerned about the pistol shots on their block.

"Welcome to murder alley," a white kid said to me that night while we watched police tape off the street.

3) A corollary of the changes in Crown Heights that summer was a rising level of neighborhood clout with the city's power brokers. In plainer terms: it seemed that more white people, more new businesses, and higher rents merited better services. The first such service was blue. The police department demarcated a stretch of Franklin Avenue as an Impact Zone and flooded it with additional officers. A Skywatch observation post loomed outside Nam's organic produce market. The neighborhood was abuzz with police interaction. Residents complained about increased stops and unjustified searches. I took notice of which patrolmen's lapels carried the "77" of the local precinct, and which the initials of the Brooklyn North Patrol Bureau which supplied the 'impact zone' officers. Cops assigned to the Seven-Seven often had at least a few years behind the badge. But those from Brooklyn North were often rookies on their first patrol assignment, and they knew nothing about the neighborhood. I'd prepared a short speech, in my head, in case an officer decided to arbitrarily search me. Once, walking down Franklin, I witnessed a small commotion in the middle of the block. Three or four plainclothes cops were helping a handcuffed man into the back of an unmarked Crown Victoria. They were backed up by two cars from the 77thPrecinct. I asked an onlooker if he saw what happened. He said no, but pointed to the female cop, part of the Impact Zone contingent, standing next to him. "Maybe she knows." 

So I asked her. She shook her head. 

"Nothing came over your radio?" I asked.

"They're on a different frequency," she said.

"But you're part of the Impact Zone," I said. She turned to me and frowned. I continued, "you're one of the 24 cops dedicated to this area. I thought you operate out of the Seven-Seven, so why would you be on different frequencies?" 

"Move along," she said. The arrest was over, the crowd dispersed, and I walked the few steps to my front door, when I noticed the cop following me. I turned to her.

"How do you know all that, about who's assigned where?" she asked.

"I go to community board meetings," I said.

She frowned. I decided to push back a bit.

"Why does it threaten you to get asked those kind of questions?"

"Because I don't know who you are, or who you're with." she said. Up until that point, if a cop wondered who I was 'with,' it meant 'which newspaper.' But Iwasn't wearing a press badge, and I didn't hold a notepad or recorder.

'Who I'm with?'” I repeated.

You could be with a gang,” she said.

"I could be with a gang?" I said.

She nodded. I called my 'stop and frisk' speech to mind. Then she walked away. I haven't had the opportunity to use that speech ever. I probably never will. 

I didn't have the wherewithal to see a larger picture in anything happening along Franklin Avenue. I knew the neighborhood was in flux, but I knew that neighborhood change was a constant in New York City. I would ruminate on these themes and come up with nothing that satisfied.

Only at the end of that summer did I become aware of Nick Juravitch's efforts to measure the transformation. I turned to his blog with increasing frequency for both a deeper and broader perspective on the neighborhood. Nick, more than any other writer, helped me sharpen my own thinking on the subject. There's nothing I can write about this thing we've come to call gentrification that hasn't been better outlined elsewhere. A few observations, though, culled from almost five years of reading. First, this thing we call 'gentrification' is not a problem of it's own but a symptom of enormous and myriad economic realities, beginning most obviously with income inequality. It might be easy to hate the new coffee shop for displacing the nail salon, but boycotting the coffee shop won't change the forces that put it there. Second, while gentrification might be something that can be restrained or hastened by City Hall, it cannot be fought block by block. The efforts by the Crow Hill Community Association to ameliorate the negative impacts of the change (as Nick documented) were an acceptance of this reality. Which points to a third observation: by the time you notice neighborhood change, it's a foregone conclusion. That, I think, is the message researchers will take from “I Love Franklin Avenue” when they study the different ways residents described gentrification in the first decade of the 21st Century. Which isn't to say Nick predicted all of this; it just means he understood that what had started would continue to run its course, and he learned this sooner than many. I'll certainly miss ILFA, as much as I miss living on Franklin Avenue. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Quick fiction break

I recently tore through "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," by Ben Fountain . It's a short novel about a 19-year-old U.S. Army soldier coming back to America for a short visit before redeploying to Iraq. It takes place over the course of a day at a Dallas Cowboys game. He gets drunk, meets wealthy oil millionaires, falls for a cheerleader, and considers going AWOL. It's about the huge divides in the U.S. between rich and poor, young and old, those who start wars and those who fight them.

Ben Fountain writes fiction so wonderfully that you might as well give up trying to write fiction. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Covering "stop and frisk," for better and for worse.

On Monday a federal judge found the New York Police Department's controversial "stop, question, and frisk" program disregarded the constitutional rights of thousands of New Yorkers.

It's a milestone in a long-running battle between Michael Bloomberg and civil rights activists, a story that has been told from nearly every angle imaginable, and from some not-so-imaginable.

For journalists covering the city and the police department, stop and frisk was something of an albatross. For years it didn't go away and it didn't develop. The basic contours of the story were well known. Two months of argument in Federal Court this year were its procedural highlight thus far.

In many ways the story was ready-made for lazy journalism students eager to piece together something resembling a social justice story. All the assets just lay there: the numbers were readily available. The expert critics would answer your questions. An afternoon in Brownsville would net you dozens of residents ready to decry the NYPD. Crib a few quotes from Commissioner Kelly and Michael Bloomberg given at press conferences and radio interviews through the years and you had "both sides" of the story. Write it all up, or edit all your video together, and you had something that looked like a serious expose. Of course, most of these stories exposed nothing new.

One of the most disappointing efforts came out of the New York Times' video department: "The Scars of Stop-and-Frisk" featured softly strummed guitar strings and heuristic rack-focused camera shots, but failed to seriously interrogate the main subject of their interview. Yes, many young black men can tell this story. And their stories should be told. But there was nothing revelatory in this video.

Real revelation was rare, but some truly remarkable journalists showed that even in the busiest media market in the nation, overcrowded with overachievers, talent and skill can unearth that which can actually bring about change.

Three pieces of journalism did more to change criminal justice policy and public perception than any others, and they're due all the credit that comes their way.

The first is the radio piece by former WNYC correspondent Ailsa Chang uncovering a cruel corollary effect of "stop and frisk." Suspects stopped and told to empty their pockets would occasionally display small amounts of marijuana carried for personal use. Carrying small amounts of marijuana is not a crime in New York City, but publicly displaying the drug is. Chang's reporting revealed that more than 50,000 people had been charged with misdemeanor possession in 2010, the highest number in a decade. These misdemeanor charges can mar a young man's life for years to come. Moreover, regardless of the legality of stop and frisk, the demand that suspects empty their pockets was illegal. Chang rightfully won a DuPont award for her story, but more importantly her reporting led Commissioner Kelly to repudiate the practice. Full disclosure: I went to graduate school with Ailsa Chang, and she kicks ass.

The second is the series (and now book) "The NYPD Tapes: Inside Bed-Stuy's 81st Precinct" by Village Voice reporter Graham Rayman. Rayman tells the story of Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, a patrolman who took issue with his precinct's abhorrent practice of downgrading serious crimes while writing countless low-level summonses in order to keep the bad numbers down but their productivity - at least on paper - up. Schoolcraft surreptitiously recorded his fellow cops issuing the directives for quotas and downgrades, until he was uncovered. The department retaliated by first having Schoolcraft committed to a psychiatric institute and then firing him. Schoolcraft has sued the department and has been compared to Frank Serpico, the whistleblower whose revelations led to the creation of the Knapp Commission. But Graham is more than Schoolcraft's confessor: he's an apt observer of the department, and keenly tied the push for summonses at one precinct to the department-wide pressure for more stops and frisks. He painted a picture of a police force with a top down mandate to show dropping crime numbers, the full weight of which fell on the shoulders of mostly innocent young black and Hispanic men in poor neighborhoods.

The third is the video produced by The Nation featuring a young man who made an audio recording of his own encounter with police in Harlem. The video brings the audience closer than any other account so far to the moment when police overstep their authority. It's not merely a recollection, it's the real sound of a policy at its ugliest. And the video went further: It gave readers the voices of cops who disagree with the policy. Yes, the police officers faces are disguised in old-school nightly-news witness-protection style. It's a reminder that those who want to tell a story ought to do it the right way, by getting readers as close as possible to the point at which it occurred, as told by people who can tell the story as best as it can be.

I don't mean to detract from much of the excellent analysis of the overall program. From Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ernie Naspretto, and even the much-derided Heather Mac Donald, a great deal of good writing has hardened positions on the issue. But before the opinions are written, the story has to be told. And it has to be told right.