From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.

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The Death of Dontay Ivy and “Walking While Black”

March 1, 2016

I’ve been reading District Attorney David Soares’ letter to Mayor Sheehan on the death of Donald (Dontay) Ivy while in police custody. I’d like to discuss some of what came out of the D.A.’s investigation.

Donald Ivy went out to an ATM, to collect disability benefits, intending to come home. David Soares describes Dontay’s first encounter with the police that night. Two officers [quote] “approached … [Dontay Ivy] sitting on the steps of a property in the South End. The officers approached … in an attempt to learn if he was trespassing.” [close quote] Satisfied that he was’t, they left. Have you ever rested on the steps of a building? Did you think you were trespassing? You weren’t and he wasn’t unless the owner or tenant conveyed an objection or he had gone through a lock, door, fence or barricade. For the police, the mere fact that an African-American man was sitting on some steps was enough to check on him.

A little later that evening, Dontay was walking on Lark Street. Soares noted that it was 26 degrees according to “historical weather data.” But the officers’ became concerned because he was wearing a winter coat, what they called “a ‘puffer’ coat,” [close quote] was [quote] “walking heavily on his left arm” [close quote] and [quote] “appeared to be bunching up his left hand into his sleeve.” [close quote] I’ve done that, sometimes to shelter something from the weather, sometimes because one hand was colder, because of the way I’d been using my hands or had somehow restricted circulation in one hand.

According to District Attorney Soares, one officer said [quote] “the way he was walking didn’t seem right.” [close quote] I don’t know why – a crick, a cramp, or a little arthritis. I can imagine someone coming up to me and asking if I was OK. But the officers asked to see Dontay’s hands and wanted to know where he was going. I can’t relate to that from my experience. Can you?

Apparently because Dontay had on a loose fitting winter coat, whatever he was able to afford on his disability check, one of the officers [quote] “was under the impression that Mr. Ivy might have had a weapon, or possibly drugs.” [close quote] That inference was’t backed up by anything found on Mr. Ivy. It’s an inference that could easily be drawn about most of us sometimes, but I suspect few of us have had police make that kind of inference about us – certainly not if we have white skin and decent clothes.

The report continues that one officer [quote] “noticed what appeared to be a tied-off plastic baggy of the sort used to package drugs on the ground, about ten to twelve feet away from Mr. Ivy, near where he had been walking.” [close quote] If I had to explain every plastic bag found near me when I’m out for a walk, neither the police nor I would have time for anything else. And plastic bag stories are so common in cases where police are trying to justify a search that everyone in the criminal process has become enormously skeptical. It later turned out that the bag was empty.

After they questioned him further, they decided to pat Dontay down. According to the police, he consented, but reacted to being touched by pulling his hands down. Soares’ letter says, “From interviews with members of the Ivy family, we are led to believe that, as part of his mental illness, Mr. Ivy did not like to be touched.” [close quote] Mr. Ivy was under medication for his illness. Let me add that I have learned, from experience and from some direct remarks, that many African-Americans do not like to be touched even in ways that are completely unexceptional in the U.S., including a tap on the shoulder which got me a withering look from a speaker at an event of an organization of which I was a board member.

Obviously things kept getting worse until, as David Soares summarized the findings of the medical examiner, [quote] “Mr. Ivy suffered from an underlying condition that made him particularly susceptible to a heart attack brought on by the stress of the incident with the police.” [close quote] By the time of his death, that stress included the officers attempt to handcuff him, Ivy’s attempt to flee, a chase, subduing Ivy with handcuffs, leg restraints, a police baton and several taser strikes.

Clearly before the stress killed him, the stress led Ivy to do some things that were unwise, that I as an attorney would have advised against had I been able to reach him. But people doing stupid things under stress is a fact of being human. Interestingly, at one point, one of the officers told Dontay they were going to detain him because he couldn’t follow the officer’s instructions to keep his hands up, adding [quote] “You’re making me a bit nervous.” [close quote]

It’s striking how ordinary all this is – Dontay’s behavior before the police stopped him; his obvious fear of the police and what they were doing is also ordinary, especially in the Black community; the officers’ fear that Ivy had a gun, even though based on a string of inferences from very ordinary behavior, and fear about a possession which, under recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, would arguably have been within his rights.

But from all those very ordinary facts, a man is dead and the D.A., the grand jury, the police chief and the Mayor all apparently find no one blameworthy. What it means is that for [quote] “walking while Black,” [close quote] a man needs the savvy of a criminal defense lawyer and the courage to deal with stressful situations by focusing on how scared the police are because of the color of his skin.

— A shorter version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 1, 2016.


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