July 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

July 2012

Is There Racial Bias in "Stand Your Ground" Laws?

So-called “stand your ground laws,” which allow people to shoot in self-defense without first attempting to flee, appear to increase the homicide rate. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, many have wondered whether whites who claim to have been standing their ground against black assailants are more likely to be excused under “stand your ground” than blacks who claim to have killed whites for the same reason. PBS/Frontline investigates with the help of an analyst from the Urban Institute.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, All Rights Reserved.]

Did Lax Safety Procedures Kill a UCLA Chemist?

Jim Morris of Mother Jones reports on the safety crisis facing the university chem labs:

Sheri Sangji was on fire instantly. The 23-year-old research associate had accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe while conducting an experiment in a UCLA laboratory. In the syringe was a solution that would combust upon contact with air. It spilled onto Sangji’s hands and body. 

She wasn’t wearing a lab coat; no one had told her to. The fire burned through her gloves, then her hands. She inhaled toxic, superheated gases given off by her burning polyester sweater, a process that accelerated as she ran and screamed.

Sangji’s supervisor is facing criminal charges in connection with her death. This is the first time a university professor has been charged for endangering a lab worker.

[Photo credit: tk-link, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Black Voter Suppression, Summer Storms, and More

  • The latest threat to the ozone layer? Freaky summer storms
  • When “informed consent” is anything but. RH Reality Check reports on a federal court ruling to uphold a South Dakota law that requires doctors to mislead women about the risks of abortion

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Pam Belluck on her New Book "Island Practice"

Pam Belluck, the talented New York Times health reporter who exposed the truth behind Plan B labels, talks about her new book, “Island Practice”:

In her new book, “Island Practice,” the New York Times reporter Pam Belluck tells the story of Dr. Timothy Lepore, a quirky 67-year-old physician who for the past 30 years has been the only surgeon working on the island of Nantucket. But Dr. Lepore (rhymes with peppery) is no ordinary surgeon. Life on an island, even one that has become a summer playground to the rich and famous, requires a certain amount of resourcefulness and flexibility. [NYT]

Dr. Lepore’s ecclectic practice as been full of memorable incidents, like the time he reached into a stab wound to massage a patient’s stopped heart because there was no time to get him off the island.

“Island Practice” has already been optioned for TV by the creators of “24” and “Friday Night Lights.”

Chicago Police Taze More, But Keep Shooting

Taser bills its less-lethal weapons as tools to reduce police shootings. According to the marketing pitch, officers will be less likely to shoot suspects if they can disable them with electric shocks. That promise has not come true in Chicago, Dan Hinkel and Alex Richards report for the Chicago Tribune:

In 2010, the city armed hundreds more officers with the weapon, fueling a 329 percent jump in Taser use, from 195 incidents in 2009 to 836 in 2011. Yet shootings by police didn’t drop significantly during that period, according to figures from the city’s Independent Police Review Authority.

The numbers raise questions about how often police use the weapons to defuse confrontations that might otherwise escalate to use of deadly force. Civil lawyers and department critics have alleged that, rather than deploying Tasers to subdue dangerous criminals, officers have sometimes drawn them on mildly obstinate suspects.

The best line in the story goes to a Florida policing consultant:

“The big investment in Taser is meant to preserve lives,” said Roy Bedard, a Florida-based consultant on policing and use of force. “If you’re Tasing more people and you’re still shooting more people, well, something’s wrong.”

Despite the lackluster outcomes, the Chicago Police Department is replacing its 600-Taser arsenal with the $1300 X2 model, for even more firepower.

[Photo credit: hradcanska, Creative Commons.]


Even Some New Yorkers With Jobs Can't Afford Groceries

NYT metro reporter Gina Bellafante critiques Mayor Bloomberg’s claims of job creation in New York City:

Despite job growth in certain knowledge-class and service sectors, unemployment has been rising. On Thursday, the State Labor Department reported that the city’s unemployment rate climbed to 10 percent in June, exceeding the national figure by close to two percentage points. The unemployment rate in the city is now nearly twice what it was five years ago and has been running higher than the figures for Atlanta, Boston, Houston and Chicago.

While it is indeed a very good time to be moving to New York with a Stanford M.B.A. and a business plan to create the Twitter of 2014 (as suggested by the barely post-adolescent tech entrepreneur Josh Miller when he stood next to the mayor at a press event in May), it is a far less auspicious moment to be someone who already lives here and is looking for cleaning work, say, in the offices of the Twitter of 2012.

Bellafante reports that low-wage workers in New York are battling high unemployment and dwindling purchasing power. In the 1960s and ’70s a full time job at minimum wage was enough to lift a family above the poverty line, but that is no longer the case, according to a recent by a local social justice organization. Today’s full-time minimum wage worker supporting a family of three makes just 82% of the federal poverty threshold.

[Photo credit: Shawn Hoke, Creative Commons.]

The Aurora Shooting and Gun Culture

Great piece by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker about the Aurora shooting and American gun culture:

The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen again.

Gopnik cites another important essay by his colleague Jill Lepore, an American history professor and New Yorker staff writer. Therein, Lepore debunks many of the myths surrounding the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.

#Sidney's Picks: Debunking Aurora Web Pranks; Union Drive in MS; Marriage and the Middle Class

  • Rumors are flying in the wake of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Gawker media reporter Adrian Chen explains why “clues” linking the shooter to the online community 9gag are probably internet pranks   
  • Joe Atkins of the Jackson Free Press takes us inside the UAW’s high-stakes battle to unionize Nissan in Mississippi. Hillman trustees Bruce Raynor and Danny Glover are there.
  • Katha Pollitt of the Nation takes Jason DeParle to task for his sentimental paean to marriage as a path to economic stability. “Do we really need a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times to tell us that a woman with a college degree and a good solid marriage is better off than a college dropout raising three kids alone?” she asks
  • Greg Ousley killed his parents 19 years ago, at the age of 14. Prison officials in Indiana hope he’ll be paroled in a few years. Should he be? 
  • These are my guys forever.“ John Gravois reports on an innovative new program that places disabled veterans in family homes

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

The Kay is a Lie! Mary Kay's Pyramid of Broken Dreams

Mary Kay Cosmetics bills itself a woman’s ticket to a pink Cadillac, but it’s really a quasi-pyramid scheme in which aspiring sellers are pressured into buying expensive inventory on their Mary Kay credit cards and recruiting their friends to do likewise. Few sellers make a decent living, and many plunge themselves into debt.

Virginia Sole-Smith reported on the pink, shimmery menace for Harper’s with support from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

[Photo credit: kwalk628, Creative Commons.]

Massey's Millions Scant Consolation to Grieving Parents

Gary and Patty Quarles lost their only son, Gary Wayne, in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Earlier this year, they negotiated a multi-million dollar settlement from Massey Energy, the company whose negligence and greed killed Gary Wayne and 28 other men.

At first, the Quarles were determined to sue, because they knew that’s what their son wanted. They didn’t have to guess. He told them so before he died. But in the end, Massey came up with an offer that Patty Quarles felt she couldn’t refuse, for the sake of her two grandchildren, whom Gary Wayne had entrusted to her care.

None of these sorries made [Patty Quarles] feel better. And the financial settlement, perhaps the biggest sorry of all, brought its own burden.

On one hand, as many miners did, her son had explicitly talked about suing the coal company if anything ever happened to him. After his divorce, he changed his beneficiaries to his two children and, as he wrote on the legal form, “Mom,” with her legal name in parentheses.

Her son’s decision told her that he trusted her to handle things right, that he wanted to take care of his children, of his dad and of her. And this was what she carried with her into the final mediation at the golf resort, when she was almost blind with a migraine headache, the blackout curtains in the hotel room drawn.

She thought about his wishes, about her grandchildren having a future outside coal mining, about her husband, who was still sitting over there humming to Ralph Stanley.

I wanted it over,” she said. “I wanted it over so bad.”

At the same time,” she said, and now Patty Quarles was crying, “this is your mom saying this is what your life’s worth. Like your mom has sold you out. . . . When the lawyers said 3 million I was so mad I couldn’t see straight. I wouldn’t have settled. I wouldn’t have settled for one red cent.”

And then she did.

She is legally prohibited from saying how much the settlement was. But she can say that when her husband saw the amount, she thought he was going to pass out. And that when she finally agreed to it, she felt anything but better.

 ‘Gary Wayne, well, this is what you was worth,’ ” she recalled thinking, and in that sense, the settlement has inflicted pain on top of pain.

Stephanie McCrummen’s story is a devastating portrait of grief, doubt, and the special love between parents and their adult children. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

As horribly as the Quarles are suffering, they fared better than most of the survivors of workers killed on the job. There are over 4000 such fatalities each year, and most families never see a cent of compensation.

Gary and Patty continue to lobby for tougher mine safety regulations in the hope of protecting other miners.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]