CVIndependent

Thu12032020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

This is the final Democracy in Crisis column that I will be writing.

I remember the urgency with which it started. I was super-stoned in a Denver hotel room just days after Trump was elected. Editors at various alternative newspapers had been wringing their hands about how to deal with Trump. Many of these papers had been militantly local during the Obama era—when I was managing editor of Baltimore City Paper, my unofficial motto was “militantly Baltimorean.” But now it seemed that whenever someone picked up their local paper, they would want to see some news from the “alternative” angle—the independent, insouciant and fiercely opinionated alternative press.

Now, more than 70 weekly columns later (the Independent ran the column once or twice per month), either that has changed, or I was wrong-headed from the start. The Trump regime has taken up so much air from every other story that, while it is wildly important and has implications everywhere, each of these papers is better served covering the ways in which Trump’s policies affect their local communities.

If it were like the old days, when papers were fat and had money, a national column would be great. But this is a time of crisis for the press as much as it is for democracy. David Simon, creator of The Wire, has said the death of newspapers will usher in—or has already started ushering in—a golden age of corruption, because there is no one left to watch City Hall. Except for the wretches who work for the paper you’re reading right now.

Support them now, or you will miss them when they are gone. Since the beginning of this column in January 2017, my own home paper, the Baltimore City Paper, was shut down. We immediately responded with an attempt to start a new paper. We partnered with the nonprofit Real News Network and the Washington Blade and founded the Baltimore Beat. It lasted for four months before the people with the money pulled out.

Now, in Baltimore—where we will have more than 300 murders again this year, where we had a major police corruption scandal that will overturn nearly 2,000 cases, where the police commissioner was federally charged and resigned after only months in office—we have no outlet like the paper you are holding. There is no single place where you can mourn for those murdered, mock the bullshit politicians, and celebrate some artistic or culinary innovation or creature comfort. There is nowhere for this voice. And our city sorely misses it.

The art and music scenes are less cohesive, hardly scenes at all anymore. New writers aren’t following their passions and learning their chops. People aren’t doing insane experiments—like when I once listened to only local music for an entire year. (Music writers, take note.)

The Washington City Paper, one of the other early sponsors of this column, came dangerously close to death during the last year; an execution was stayed only by the intervention of a billionaire, a local rich dude. The Bezos model seems to work in Washington, but we can’t all count on that.

I’ve gotten countless emails from other editors saying something like, “Hey, man, we love the column but can’t afford it anymore.” I was once in the same boat myself as a managing editor. It is brutal.

Between the first draft of this column and this final version, five of my fellow reporters were murdered in their newsroom, an hour away from my own. Every reporter I have ever known has been threatened or maligned at some point, and this has gotten so much worse under Trump. We don’t need the CNNs and MSNBCs. We need the Annapolis Capital Gazettes and all the small, struggling papers that carried this column. Fuck you, Milo, and fuck you, Trump.

I learned from Spy Magazine that every good column has heroes and villains. Donald Trump was one of Spy’s main villains back in the 1980s, and he was the overarching villain of this column. But there were also all of those who enabled him, and whom he enabled, especially Michael Flynn, the alt-right goons of Charlottesville and the dark corners of the web—Project Veritas, and the ever-so-silly and sad “Western chauvinist”™ frat of the Proud Boys, whose litigious western chauvinist™ lawyer threatened legal action against the papers carrying this column.

Foremost among the heroes are the 230 people arrested during the inauguration protests. The very first column detailed those protests, after I was gassed and pepper-sprayed and almost arrested by the mobs of cops with covered faces who ultimately kettled a large group of protesters. The protesters were all charged with the few windows that were broken on the theory that because they wore black and were part of a “black bloc” protest, they all conspired to damage the property. They were facing more than 60 years each.

After a year and a half of the government paying two U.S. attorneys to prosecute the case, and a full-time detective and part-time Trump lover Gregg Pemberton to work it, several defendants have been acquitted on all counts, and the charges against many others have dropped. This includes the charges against Elizabeth Lagesse, one of the real heroes of this column, who taught herself everything possible about the case and went to nearly every proceeding, and filed suit with the ACLU against Washington, D.C.’s police department.

Aaron Cantú, a journalist at the Santa Fe Reporter, is still facing charges. Over the last year and a half, the #Resistance has half-heartedly fallen in love with the “free press,” railing against Trump’s tweets while still lying to us if they are politicians—and ignoring Cantú’s plight if they are Beltway journalists. He has been living under serious criminal charges for a year and a half because he covered a protest. And he’s a hell of a good reporter.

But the real heroes of the column are the alternative papers that ran it and the readers who followed along. I am so grateful to have been able to have a home in each of your cities and towns. And I learned so much from having editors in Colorado Springs or Jackson Hole, and so many others.

Mary Finn spent countless hours filing FOIA requests—some of which we are still waiting on (fingers crossed)—and editing the column. Brandon Soderberg was a tireless editor and a great friend and collaborator through this.

Brandon and I will be writing a book over the next year, so if you enjoyed the column at all, keep an eye out for it.

Published in National/International

Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels used pseudonyms in the non-disclosure agreement worked out by the now-president’s seemingly suicidal lawyer Michael Cohen. They called themselves David Dennison and Peggy Peterson—but Trump still didn’t sign it, which has gotten him into a fresh pile of shit.

Stormy Daniels is already a nom-de-porn, but even people like Trump and Daniels, whose livelihoods require an extreme level of visibility, crave privacy almost as much as they demand a spotlight.

But privacy is contradictory in our half-online lives. We can post without anyone knowing who we are, but we also broadcast the details of our lives on numerous platforms and essentially carry tracking devices in our pockets. Our emails damn us, even in their absence—just ask Hillary—and our texts can be turned against us, as FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page can surely attest to, as theirs were blasted around the world. Our dumb Facebook posts and tweets follow us as we try to move into more respectable environs—see whatever Nazi-sympathizer The New York Times op-ed page hired and fired this week.

In this context, law-enforcement officers are demanding a kind of privacy not afforded ordinary citizens. This is particularly clear in a recent filing in the case against protesters and bystanders caught up in the Disrupt J20 protests against Trump’s inauguration.

After losing the first trial against six defendants late last year and dropping charges against more than 100 others—who needlessly spent months fighting against what were ultimately unsustainable charges—prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff is gearing up to try the remaining 58 defendants. She found an undercover agent who has been infiltrating “the anarchist extremist movement” to testify as an expert witness on the “black bloc” technique—wearing black clothes, covering up identifying features and moving as a “bloc.”

The government is charging numerous people who—even prosecutors admit—did not physically break any of the windows that were smashed during the inauguration, and who engaged in no other violence. But if they covered their faces or wore black clothes, they abetted the anonymity of those who did, and are therefore guilty of the crimes, the government claims.

But the government doesn’t want to reveal the name of its witness, who is allegedly an expert on these same techniques—which are intended to protect privacy. Kerkhoff moved that she be called by a pseudonym “Julie McMahon”—with a possible nod to the McMahons of professional wrestling fame, or maybe to a tabloid divorcee who allegedly pursued Bill Clinton and was named “The Energizer” by the Secret Service. However they came up with the name, the government argues that she won’t be able to continue her undercover activity if her identity is known.

“Given the repeated efforts to publicly disseminate identifying information about the prosecutor and law enforcement officers involved in this case (to include an MPD officer who acted in an undercover capacity), the government submits there is a reason to believe that the expert will be targeted in the same manner,” Kerkhoff argues.

Kerkhoff argues that when an undercover police officer testified in the first trials, people identified him. That’s not the fault of the press or the public; don’t call an undercover officer to testify if you don’t want to blow their cover. Or should they get to testify wearing black masks?

“Further, when the MPD officer stepped outside of the courthouse during his testimony, his photograph was taken and was disseminated on multiple social media accounts and in various media outlets,” the motion reads.

When he is outside of the courthouse, it is neither illegal nor illegitimate to take his photograph. Kerkhoff complains again that “as the prosecutors and lead detective left the courthouse, their photograph was taken and published in media outlets.”

So, the black bloc is bad for not wanting to be surveilled and identified—not to mention tear-gassed and hit with chemical grenades—by the state, but the agents of the state deserve anonymity, even in what used to be called “open court.”

The government also went to great lengths to prohibit the public from seeing police body-cam footage—while Det. Gregg Pemberton spent a year combing through all of the personal data on the cellphones of those who were arrested. He has personally told me that he saw me all over the videos he had scoured, and that he was looking for evidence of an illegal action. He is armed. And he is afraid of a photograph?

The department, meanwhile, denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Unicorn Riot to see his overtime slips during that period, despite allegations that he had falsely charged the city overtime while defending himself against a DUI charge in a previous case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington and the MPD fought to protect the identity not only of their undercover officers, but also of the far-right slime-ball Project Veritas operative who infiltrated an alleged planning meeting.

Meanwhile, a list of the names of everyone arrested during the J20 protest was leaked to far-right site Got News from the official police computer of Metropolitan Police Department employee Rachel Schaerr, according to the metadata on the spreadsheet. The names are still on the site which calls them “LEFT-WING ANARCHISTS AND ANTIFA TERRORISTS.”

This is part of a trend in which law-enforcement officials want ever-greater access to information about individual citizens, while seeking to further shield themselves. The Maryland judiciary recently removed the names of police officers from its public database. If I were arrested and cleared of all charges, my name, address and birthdate would have remained public unless I made the effort to expunge it. But the officer who arrested me would have remained unknown to the public. The move occurred amid one of the craziest police-corruption scandals in modern history—and stoked a serious uproar that caused the court to reverse its decision and put the officers’ names back.

“It’s disgusting, and it’s dishonorable,” said David Simon, creator of The Wire, about the attempt to hide police officers’ names in Maryland. “And generations of police officers who were capable of standing by their police work, publicly standing by their use of force, their use of lethal force, and their powers of arrest—those generations are ashamed right now because this present one is pretending they are incapable of that level of responsibility.”

Baynard Woods is a reporter for the Real News Network and the founder of Democracy in Crisis, a project of alternative newspapers across the country. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter: @baynardwoods.

Published in National/International