The creeping marauders who don't exist

Trump and Barr plan a crackdown on non-existent forces behind nationwide protests.

It’s a terrifying vision. Shadowy groups of left-wing extremists and anarchists, raising money and sending their foot soldiers all over the country to bring havoc to peaceful, law-abiding communities. 

Except it isn’t happening. With the full investigative power of the federal government behind them, President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr have yet to identify a single incident of this kind — even as they baselessly speculate that this invisible network is roaming the nation to foment unrest and commit violence. In some cases, it’s come down to local law enforcement to convince citizens and right-wing vigilantes that this fantasy is not occurring. These are the same law enforcement agencies Trump and Barr claim to be protecting with what will likely be deemed an unconstitutional order to strip federal funding from what Barr’s Justice Department has now called “anarchist jurisdictions” of New York City, Portland and Seattle.

This is not how any of this works. But you can’t really blame Trump, Barr, their fellow Republicans, the GOP’s media allies and average Americans on Facebook for believing that things do work this way. None of them can really be blamed because the people who believe these things have ever been to a protest themselves, let alone actually protested. 

They’ve never been to a protest or protested because they come from the parts of our society that control it. Simply put, they’ve never had anything to protest against because their interests have always been aligned with the current subjects of nationwide outrage — law enforcement and the structures that uphold systemic racism. So it makes sense that they would have to concoct a reason why people would travel to take part in a protest — entirely their right, regardless of political affiliation — which some people most certainly do. 

But not in the way Trump, Barr and Americans consuming a toxic stew of misinformation from right-wing media helpfully provided to them in heaping quantities by Facebook’s mind-warping algorithms.

Yes, protesters and activists travel, even across the country, to take part in actions. Yes, some of them identify as Antifa and anarchists. But besides the fact that there is no proof they are doing this in large numbers and in highly-organized fashion, there is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about travelling to take part in a protest. It most certainly is not sedition, as Barr would like to charge. Any illegal action would only come at the protest itself. 

Ironically, it’s largely right-wing groups who act in the fashion Barr and Trump claim is rampant on the left. The Proud Boys are regularly seen at events nationwide alongside more militant groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers. In all my travels covering unrest in the last six years, the only somewhat-organized left-wing groups I’ve seen in American cities experiencing unrest are the Revolutionary Communist Party of Chicago, who I first came into contact with in Ferguson, and, far less frequently, the New Black Panther Party and its affiliated splinter groups.

Protesters and activists — or the nebulous Antifa, which Barr and Trump would have you believe is a paramilitary organization and not simply a loose connection of like-minded individuals — aren’t flying around the country for several, very logistical reasons. First, it’s very expensive to do so. My rule of thumb for covering unrest is that it takes a minimum of $1,000, per man, per week to be able to properly function in that environment. (And I do it on the cheap. Television news reporters, with their camera crews and extensive gear, rack up even higher bills.) To parachute in as reporters like myself do — and as Trump and Barr insist Antifa does — requires one to immediately drop upwards of $2,000 on flights, hotels and car rental. Most Americans, especially those on the left, don’t have that kind of scratch just lying around. Secondly, most people simply don’t have the time to drop everything and catch a flight across the country just to join in on protests. Reporters have that luxury because it’s our job. 

Instead, what often happens is that protesters and activists will travel within their region. Situated in between Chicago and Milwaukee, Kenosha surely would have seen more than its fair share of outsiders coming into town following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. But that’s really no different than other cities and towns outside major metropolises. In the wake of George Floyd, Minneapolis would have drawn in protesters from St. Paul, Duluth, Milwaukee and Chicago. (I briefly saw a protester from Chicago that I used to be in regular contact with back in the Ferguson days at the George Floyd memorial.) But any protest in any city now draws right-wing agitators and pro-police types as well — a change from the two years following Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson to the election of Trump, when national media abandoned stories of police killings and the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of his historically fascist presidential campaign.

In Minneapolis, there were all kinds of rumors about white supremacists embedding themselves with protesters to stir unrest — rumors I tried, and largely failed, for days to confirm or deny. (The closest anyone got was police saying a man holding an umbrella who was caught on camera casually smashing the windows of an Auto Zone just prior to a particularly violent night of rioting was a white supremacist intent on stirring the pot. Police have issued a warrant for “the Umbrella Man.”) In Kenosha, the only outsider proven to have caused violence was a white, Trump-supporting teen and wannabe cop who killed two protesters and injured a third with his assault rifle. 

The myth of the professional rioter is an especially powerful one, particularly for those Americans who have never attended a protest, seen a riot in person, or protested themselves. 

Many Americans are primed to believe that outside agitators are sowing destruction because it’s easier than dealing with the fact that so many people are so genuinely enraged. To do that, to understand that society can break down so quickly into chaos, is to confront an uncomfortable truth that terrifies many. It would also require those people, including Trump, Barr, and much of the Republican Party, to confront the reasons that have caused the rage.

The photo in this post came from that particularly violent night in Minneapolis, when much of the neighborhood around a Minneapolis police precinct burned. Thanks to everyone who continues to read these increasingly-sporadic posts. Since covering the Rayshard Brooks killing in Atlanta, I’ve been buried in my private research work which has left little time for new, original reporting. There have also been the not-so-small matters of getting married and buying a home, which have taken up quite a bit of time. I may get out to Portland before the election to cover the ongoing events there for a book I’m pitching about the events of this summer and the months approaching the election. Until then, onward.

An introduction

To new followers and old friends.

Hello and welcome. Some of you reading this will have discovered me through my coverage of the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis. Others might be wondering why I’m writing a re-introduction to myself. The answer: More than 1,000 people followed me on Twitter in the week and a half I was in Minneapolis, and I want them to see a sampling of my work. 

For the uninitiated, I’ve been reporting on American crime, life and death for 10 years, since I began at my hometown newspaper in Peoria, Illinois. From there, I worked at a newspaper in northern Minnesota where I covered issues affecting the Native American community, primarily homelessness, and then had a tiny stay at a paper in North Dakota before setting out as a freelancer in 2013. Since then I’ve covered police shootings and unrest in Ferguson and across the country, crime, police killings and misconduct in Chicago, national breaking news events including the Las Vegas massacre, extensive immigration coverage from the border, money-in-politics watchdog journalism, and, of course, the never-ending story of American death. I write regularly for The Daily Beast, and have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Esquire, the Guardian and more. Recently, I’ve also written some food and lifestyle features for Heated Mag and InsideHook.

Just before Minneapolis, I covered the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, a little more than an hour south from my home in Savannah.  

I planned to spend this summer working on Unsolved Georgia, an investigation I launched in November of the murders of more than 600 women killed throughout the state since 1976. But because that project means so much to me, and because I want to do right by the victims, I’ve put Unsolved on hold. That’s because the story of the moment —police killings and the activist response to them, which will now become a focal point of the race for the White House — would drastically overshadow any progress I could have made in investigating hundreds of unsolved murders. 

I’ll now be focusing my efforts on police killings. Having covered so many of them over the years, I’m particularly well-suited to take on this assignment, which will entail diving into the more than 460 fatal police shootings — to say nothing of other fatal altercations — that have occurred as of mid-June.

This is my newsletter, Where Do We Go From Here, which often contains the extras from my stories. I’m heading to Atlanta now to cover the killing of Rayshard Brooks. Thanks for stopping by. 

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery and why it didn't need to happen

Arbery was killed when his killers didn't call for help. They and others believe that was their right.

The pain and anger never really go away. They just simmer underneath the lid of the pot. But sometimes the heat gets turned up and the cook doesn’t know, and when he goes to take the lid off the whole thing goes boiling over.

At various times the cook has been law enforcement agencies, entire cities and some whole states. At all times the cook is just the guy manning the stove for the kitchen in the restaurant of the United States of America, which is badly managed and has been for years.

Black America’s pain and anger — over slavery, segregation, voter suppression, police shootings and a general sense that many African-Americans remain second class citizens — is always simmering. It sometimes goes boiling over when a killing brings all those issues back to the surface, which is what is happening right now in Brunswick, Georgia.

Last night, hundreds of people protested in front of the home of a white man who gunned down a black man for little reason other than that the black man was running in the white man’s neighborhood, I reported yesterday at The Daily Beast. The shooter’s father, an ex-cop himself and a former investigator with the local district attorney, must never have been a great investigator because he could point to zero evidence that the dead black man was the same person who had stolen twice from the neighborhood. It was just a hunch, and when Arbery ran by that day the father, Gregory McMichael, figured he was the thief plaguing the Satilla Shores neighborhood in suburban Brunswick.

Gregory’s son, Travis, is Arbery’s killer. There’s a complicated timeline that has yet to be fully straightened out — and probably won’t be unless Gregory decides to talk to me again or until this case goes to trial — but the timeline of Arbery’s last moments are available on video for all to see. They show the 25-year-old running around to the front of Travis’ truck where he meets the younger McMichael. A shot rings out, then the pair appear to the left of the truck, clearly fighting and struggling over the shotgun. They briefly go off-screen and a second shot is heard. If you look closely, you can see a cloud of blood splatter floating through the air from their direction. Then back on screen, a continued struggle, and the final shot into Arbery before he collapses and Travis walks away.

After that, Travis yells something that’s unintelligible. (I’m having the video and audio slowed down and analyzed with forensic-level audio plugins to try to determine what Travis said and other unanswered questions from the video.) Then, the video stops.

There are lots of legal issues in this case: The citizen’s arrest statute, Georgia’s stand-your-ground law, and the state’s open carry rules will all play a role. But the bottom line is that this never needed to happen. If Arbery really was a thief, as the McMichaels say they believed, a response from law enforcement might have netted a different result. The McMichaels could have called the police. Sure, Arbery could have reacted to police officers the same way he did with Travis. But the cops would have had badges and uniforms. Arbery would have known who they were. As it stands, Arbery — whatever he was doing in Satilla Shores that day — was confronted by two armed white men, not in any uniform, wielding guns at him.

He was then presented with the choice none of us ever want to grapple with: fight or flee. Arbery apparently chose to fight which, ironically, is his right under Georgia law. That law will now determine the fate of the McMichaels, who made their own choice that day. They chose to take matters into their own hands instead of calling the police, and choices have consequences.  

Who to blame

It's a simple list: the president, his administration, Republicans and you, if you voted for him.

Every day I sit on my back deck and watch the elderly in their walkers and scooters go down Habersham Street to get groceries at Kroger, where some of them will contract coronavirus, get sick and possibly die. We’ve put up flyers offering to get their groceries for them but no one has called yet. An older woman told me yesterday that “the good thing about this virus is that it’s about to get hot and the heat will kill it.” Two men in their late 60s insisted that only people over 80 should not be going out in public.

“Not us,” they said.

This is what happens when there is not just a vacuum of leadership — as displayed so efficiently in recent weeks by the president and his administration — but a purposeful downplaying of the crisis in an attempt to spin the news to bolster Trump’s chance at re-election.

People will die because of this.

We should have seen this coming because what we are witnessing is the natural result of a government that has been dismantled and remade to do one thing above all else: protect Donald Trump’s ego.

The lack of preparedness for even becoming president; the belief that the whole of government was a waste of time, money and resources; the idea that only Donald Trump could fix all of our nation’s ills; the breaking down of the bureaucracy, replacing dedicated civil servants with inexperienced political sycophants — all of it is, in large part, why we’re where we are today. It is why the three babbling heads of Fox & Friends who, like most of the network, the president and his party, lied to you for weeks about the threat of this virus, must sit six feet apart from each other. It’s why many of you are sitting at home right now. It’s why some of our parents and grandparents will die. It’s why we will likely now enter into a recession.

If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for this. You chose him because you believed, like he told you, that only he could fix it. You should have known better. All the evidence from a lifetime of his cons and failures was available to you, but you ignored it. You ignored it because you were scared, or you’re a racist, or you don’t have much fulfillment in your life so you saw him as someone who was sticking up for you, or you have a terrible job and you thought this successful man could help make you more successful. You were wrong about all of those things, and now we’re all paying the consequences.

This pandemic would have been bad under any president but the unflinching lights of time will show that it was worse than it needed to be because of the man that 63 million of you chose to put in the White House. 

Some of you will say that this isn’t helpful, me saying this. That this is a time when we should be coming together for the common good. But, no, you don’t get to say that. Because the common good is what Trump has worked against for the last three years. If you voted for him, you voted against the common good. 

Three weeks ago the president, the Republican Party and their allies in the media were telling you that this virus was a “hoax,” or that the media was simply “weaponizing” it to take down Trump. Now, you are sitting at home on the advice of scientists, experts and career government officials who — despite the best efforts of the trio above — still go to work every day to keep you safe. 

Three weeks ago we had the “greatest economy in the world,” the president incessantly reminded us. On day three of the quarantine, the Treasury Secretary is warning of 20 percent unemployment, and three years of stock market gains have been wiped out. 

Four years ago, Trump told us all that he was the only one who could fix it. Now, we know that the only thing he was ever capable of was breaking it.

***

For those of you who have been following my posts on Instagram and Facebook about Unsolved Georgia, my project documenting the murders of hundreds of women here, thank you for your patience. As with most things in this country and world right now, I’m pushing back the launch of the project until the worst is behind us. Until then, be safe and healthy.

These proceedings

In the latest chapter of the Right's grievance wars, Republicans want you to believe an impossible story.

In recent weeks, I’ve become very good at identifying the congressman who’s speaking at any given moment, despite my back being turned to the TV while I work at my desk. I’ve memorized their voices because I’ve sat through dozens of hours of the impeachment hearings. This is a luxury reserved for a small class of people that includes journalists, pundits, politicians and their staffs, and all the people who make a living by paying attention to and documenting the news of each day.

We are a tiny minority. Most Americans will get their impeachment news in highly-distilled snippets, either from their local newspaper, which will run AP wire of the day’s developments, or their local television station, which will lean on their parent networks to tell the story. Beyond that, Americans will have their choice of partisan publications, websites and networks to learn of everything that happened in Washington while they were at work. 

Few will spend days on end watching the hearings live, like I have, to reach the fullest understanding of what has been transpiring for the last three weeks. 

What they’ve missed is actually pretty simple, and perfectly-suited for the failed both-sides coverage that daily journalism provides to most Americans. Democrats and Republicans are telling two stories. The first, the one that we know because a handful of witnesses have gone under oath to attest to it, is that Donald Trump extorted the president of Ukraine in an attempt to disparage his biggest political threat, Joe Biden. The second, the one that no one ever mentioned until after Trump was caught in his failed shakedown, is that he was actually trying to root out corruption in Ukraine, an issue he cares deeply about. 

Only one of these stories is true, but to know that you’d have to have been paying deep attention to this saga since at least September. The impeachment hearings will not inform you that the second story, the Republicans’ story, is complete and utter bullshit. Only the months and years worth of reporting on Ukraine that have become so much the focus of the American political world in the last three months will tell you that. And most Americans don’t have the time for such intensive reading.

So Republicans are capitalizing on this, exploiting the complexities of this story to hoodwink the ill-informed. But their flailing attempts to defend Trump are available for all to see, and they’re constantly evolving.

***

In order, here are Republicans’ defense of the president so far:

  1. He didn’t extort the president of Ukraine. In fact it was a “perfect” call.

  2. Ok maybe Trump did extort Zelensky, but that’s his right as president in order to achieve his foreign policy goals.

  3. He ended up giving him the military aid eventually (after he got caught, they always fail to note) so no harm, no foul. And besides, that’s more than Obama did.

  4. Zelensky publicly said he felt “no pressure” from Trump, so there you have it.

And now, now that Republicans are being confronted by Democrats who are pointing out the many flaws in Republicans’ ever-changing defense of the president, they’ve come up with what they believe is their best story yet:

  1. Ok, Trump did extort Zelensky, but he did it to make sure he was “the real deal” and was actually going to take on corruption in Ukraine. Also the Bidens should be investigated.

Ensuring Zelensky was “the real deal” is Rep. Jim Jordan’s favorite line at the moment. He and every other Republican in Congress want Americans to believe that Trump held up the aid because he had great concerns about Zelensky’s commitment to attacking corruption. The major problem with this story is that no one really said this until weeks after the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky was released.

If this was their primary defense, one would think they’d have said so back in September. But it isn’t. The Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader story Americans will hear in aggregated form through the media until the Senate eventually votes against impeaching Trump (which they will), has not been Republicans’ primary defense because it is not true. This is a story that no one came up with until after Trump had been caught.

Republicans still employe defenses 1 - 4 occasionally. Mostly they revert to “Zelensky said he felt no pressure.” As in last week, when Rep. Louie Gohmert said, “I’ve never sent anyone to prison in a case where the victim didn’t know they were the victim,” referencing both his days as a judge and Zelensky’s public comment.

But, like many victims of many crimes — including women who have been sexually assaulted by powerful men, like the three dozen who’ve accused Trump himself of doing — Zelensky is prohibited by fear of retaliation from speaking out.

He is the head of a vulnerable, fledgling democracy that is almost entirely reliant on the U.S. to fight a hot war against Russia, and yet Gohmert expects him to tell the world that, yes, he actually did feel pressure from the man who holds the purse strings that keep Ukraine free. 

***

Republicans have decided that the Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader defense is a hill they’re willing to die on. It’s a good defense for them because no one can really prove or disprove it — to do so you’d have to know what was in Trump’s heart. Somewhere in there, Republicans insist, is a long-held belief that Ukrainian corruption must be stamped out, and he’d be the one to do it. 

They’re going to die on the hill of that defense because they’re now saying they’re a part of its completely untrue core: Jordan and others are going on the record each day saying they support the withholding of aid to make sure that Zelensky was “the real deal.” They’re on record as saying that the Bidens should be investigated — “This Burisma stuff, there’s something happening there,” Gohmert insisted last week. But there’s a very simple reason Americans shouldn’t believe Republicans when they say there’s enough smoke for Biden to be investigated: they looked at that same smoke for eight years and never did anything about it.

Following these proceedings, Americans will have even more evidence that Republicans’ final defense, this fantastical story of Trump crusading against corruption first and exposing the Bidens’ role in it second, is a farce. Once the Senate votes not to impeach Trump, they’ll have the numbers and momentum they’ll need to launch a full investigation of Biden and Burisma. But they won’t.

Republicans will get away with that obvious hypocrisy for the same reason they’ve convinced generations of working class Americans to vote against their own interests in electing the GOP to be the majority party in this country: grievance. Republican voters won’t bat an eye when the Congress in 2020 fails to take up an investigation of the Bidens because those voters are conditioned to understand that this is all about winning. The lack of an investigation won’t matter because they’ll have won — they’ll have staved off the impeachment of Trump, who was being attacked by people who hated him. People who hated them. 

Photos in order: Carter for president, ‘76 at Pinkie’s in our new home of Savannah. A monument to the Confederate dead in nearby Forsyth Park. Sunset from a few thousand feet over the city’s west side. The new direction I briefly mentioned in my August post closing out my tenure as an immigration reporter is nearly upon us. More on that in a post in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading.

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