Lola in The Guardian: Shirley Sherrod’s case exposes ugly media flaws

[Originally published in The Guardian]
The hasty sacking of Shirley Sherrod shows how easily we are manipulated by ‘journalism’ based on inaccuracies
When Shirley Sherrod spoke at an NAACP event and shared a 24-year-old story of overcoming her prejudices, little did she realise the same speech would come back to in a new, highly edited form, putting her at the centre of a national controversy, costing her a job at the department of agriculture and almost ruining her reputation.
Yet that is exactly what happened this week. Rightwing blogger Andrew Breitbart, in cahoots with Fox News, went on a mission – which he claims was to reveal the “truth” about the NAACP – to cause controversy. He took a bite-sized clip from Sherrod’s speech, tagged it with a headline accusing her of being a racist and released it to the world.
The clip showed Sherrod, who at the time was the director for rural development in Georgia, saying that she did not use the full force of her power to ensure that a white farmer got everything he needed. “Racist!” screamed the headlines. We now all know, of course, that the clip told only a fraction of the entire story. From the full video, it is clear that once Sherrod realised that her biases – which were connected to having lived and grown up in the South – had affected her job, she sought to overcome them. Once she had managed to do that, she was able to provide great support to the white farmers – who have publicly praised her helpfulness.
That the media picked up on the story, ran with it and repeated it without bothering to check the video in full is deeply troubling. Unfortunately, “journalism” based on the regurgitation of clips, soundbites and inaccuracies has become all too common. Controversy wins the day over facts, and regardless of the cost – which can include damage to the life or career of an individual, undermining the good work of an organisation (as in the case of Acorn) and losing the trust of the public. Indeed, in recognition of the fact that controversy sells, scandals are increasingly being manufactured and manipulated by the rightwing media to push people out of jobs and to scare the government.
Sonia Sotomayor experienced similar treatment over her “wise Latina” comment. Luckily for her, she got the position she wanted. Others have not been so fortunate. Van Jones, for example, the government’s former green tsar, went through the same thing and was eventually ousted. Outlets such as Fox News are becoming more and more political and are using their influence to shape and direct – often in the worst possible way – the political debate.
Of course, that can only happen if the White House allows itself to be pushed around by overblown, or in this case false, stories. Yet, that is what the White House is doing. It seems like the White House is so afraid of conservatives now that it is constantly on high alert for anything that may come from the right and catch them off guard. But its efforts to respond quickly – hastily – often end up making the White House look foolish.
President Obama has called Shirley Sherrod to apologise. This is after Sherrod apparently received four calls from the White House earlier this week asking her to resign. While I understand that the White House wishes to protect itself and the president, its knee-jerk reactions have become farcical. This case is also a sad indictment on partisan politics and the nature of the political battle between right and left, which is being reduced to dirty tricks.
That the NAACP, itself supposed to be an organisation concerned with equality, was so fast to denounce Sherrod as “shameful” is another surprising twist – it also had to backtrack once the full video was made available. Rather than taking responsibility for not using due diligence and checking the facts, the NAACP said it had been “snookered” by Breitbart and Fox News. The truth is, the NAACP was not “snookered”; it simply failed to act in a professional manner.
Both the NAACP and the White House’s reactions also reveal sensitivities to race-related discussions in this so-called “age of Obama”, particularly since it has been suggested – again by rightwing commentators – that the president favours black people and minorities over white people. The national conversation about race is becoming skewed by rightwing scandals and by inappropriate responses from the other side. This is deeply unhelpful.
Shirley Sherrod has been offered another job at the USDA. She may decline. In the meantime, the government and the country as a whole must use this as a teachable momentand reflect on the nature of the media and politics. One thing is for sure: while we allow ourselves to be so easily manipulated, those with an agenda will continue to exert their control.

Lola in The Guardian: After Oscar Grant, just take guns away from US police officers

[Originally published in The Guardian]

oscar grant mural
 A passerby walks by a mural of Oscar Grant in downtown Oakland, California. Photograph: Susana Bates/EPA

People in America always ask me what police officers do in the UK without guns. They find it hard to comprehend how you can enforce the law or get people to comply without the threat of a gun. I tell them I find it weird and disconcerting that police officers in the US carry guns, particularly when I hear about the various accidents that happen as a result.
One of these “accidents” is currently the source of intense upset and was the reason for several large protests in Oakland, California. Last year, millions of people watched cellphone videos captured at the scene of the shooting and killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police officer Johannes Mehserle on a train station platform in Oakland. We watched in horror as we saw an unarmed Grant, lying face down with a police officer’s foot in his neck, shot in the back by Mehserle, a transport officer.
Mehserle, who was yesterday found guilty of involuntary manslaughter – a charge that carries a maximum, laughable four-year sentence – claims that he did not mean to shoot Grant, mistaking his Taser for a gun. That is one of the reasons why I am deeply thankful that police officers in the UK do not carry guns.
“Oops, I didn’t know” has become a refrain that I have unfortunately heard too often while living in the US. Each year has brought another major incident, usually featuring a police officer who has shot and killed a young black person by accident. Just recently, it was seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Last year it was Oscar Grant. In 2006 it was Sean Bell, who was riddled with bullets on the day before his wedding. All accidents. And these are just the ones that reach national attention.
People all across America are upset, disappointed and angry about the Oscar Grant verdict, which many see as symptomatic of a much deeper issue. They want to know why this type of accident only seems to happen to black kids. It’s hard to remember the last time a police officer accidentally killed a young white person. Why do unarmed black people statistically overrepresented when it comes to police shootings?
When discussing this online, some people said that it is because black people commit more crime and so are perceived as armed and dangerous. Yet even if that is the case, that is still so troubling. This means that in theory any black person is a potential target to be shot and killed, just because there are a small minority of us who commit crime. We are all a potential Oscar Grant.

We need police officers to react to what is happening in the moment, not to what they think they know about people based on prior experience. On occasions it is great that in situations of intense stress, conscious thought takes a back seat and allows for quick, subconsciously driven, gut-instinct level responses. But it can also be fatal when the subconscious thoughts do not line up with reality. Police officer training must entail encouraging officers to examine, uncover and unpack their subconscious notions and ideas about people to ensure that these are not what they are reacting to in the heat of the moment.

In fact, I would go a step further. I would simply take the guns away. It may be time to really rethink the point of police officers routinely carrying guns. At least then this type of incident would not happen. Tasers, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated and employing multi-shot capabilities, are already lethal weapons which can kill as well as stun. Should those not be enough?

The public looks to the police for protection, yet if a trained law enforcement officer cannot even tell the difference between a Taser and a gun, what hope for protection is there? Perhaps without guns, police would have to be more creative and rigorous when it comes to getting their jobs done. At least this way, we’d have less cases of police firing now and apologising later.