Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Sidney's Picks: Mitch McConnell & the Minimum Wage; Questionable Behavior in California; Debtor's Prisons

The best of the week’s news:


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Fast Food Forward: Why Now?

cheeseburger with onion



For the first time in the history of the fast food industry the movement for a living wage is gaining real traction. There have been efforts to raise fast food worker pay in the past, but none have achieved the impact of the current campaigns. James Surowiecki of the New Yorker explains why the fast food industry is ripe for rebellion, and why the rebels have such a tough fight ahead of them.

[Photo credit: Roboppy, Creative Commons.]

Civil Forfeiture or Legalized Extortion?

Police Tape

An eye-opening account of the uses and abuses of civil asset forfeiture by 2012 Hillman Prize-winner Sarah Stillman of the New Yorker. Stillman tells the story of one couple from Texas who lost their cash and their car after the police pulled them over and found nothing illegal in the vehicle but threatened to charge them with money laundering and seize their children if they didn’t sign over their assets:

The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services. [NY]

Unlike with criminal forfeiture, the police needn’t obtain a conviction, or even press charges, to confiscate property. Not only that, police departments get to keep whatever they seize, a glaring conflict of interest. When citizens complain, they can be threatened with criminal charges, which they signed away their stuff to avoid in the first place.

But as Stillman reports, some victims are fighting back against overwhelming odds.


[Photo credit: Ian Britton, Creative Commons.]

Sidney's Picks: Religious Corporations, Drugstore Cowboys, & More

  • As pharmacy robberies surge, Big Pharma is running its own private war on drugstore cowboys
  • How failed Florida banks lent millions to mobsters, drug dealers, convicted felons, and developers with prior bankruptcies.
  • Inside XKeyscore, a secret NSA collection tool to capture internet activity.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Fast Food Forward: Strike Wave Spreads

Bigger Big Mac

Sidney-winner Stephen Greenhouse on the wave of fast food strikes sweeping the nation:

From New York to several Midwestern cities, thousands of fast-food workers have been holding one-day strikes during peak mealtimes, quickly drawing national attention to their demands for much higher wages.

What began in Manhattan eight months ago first spread to Chicago and Washington and this week has hit St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich. On Wednesday alone, workers picketed McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants in those cities with an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn. [NYT]

Some fast food workers in St. Louis were inspired by demonstrations in New York and Chicago that they organized an action of their own. 

[Photo credit: Simon Miller, Creative Commons.]

Palm Oil is Unhealthy, Especially if You Make It

As the world market for palm oil expands rapidly due to strong demand for cooking oil in China and India, human rights abuses proliferate in the industry, including child labor, debt peonage, and wage theft:

As it’s grown, the palm oil industry has drawn scrutiny from environmental activists in Europe and the U.S. They decry the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia to support oil palm expansion, which threatens the natural habitats of endangered species such as pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers. The human costs of the palm oil boom, however, have been largely overlooked. A nine-month investigation of the industry, including interviews with workers at or near 12 plantations on Borneo and Sumatra—two islands that hold 96 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil operations—revealed widespread abuses of basic human rights. Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials. [Bloomberg]

E. Benjamin Skinner of Bloomberg documents abusive labor practices at KLK, one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, which has sold its products to the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Unilever. Palm oil and its derivatives find their way not only into processed foods, but also into familiar consumer products like Crest toothpaste and Gillette shaving cream. 


[Photo credit: A truck on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Rainforest Action Network, Creative Commons.]

U.S. Calls on Bangladesh to Investigate the Murder of Aminul Islam

Sidney Award co-winner Steven Greenhouse continues his coverage of worker safety and labor rights in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, the deadliest industrial catastrophe in history, which killed over 1000 workers. On Friday, the Obama administration laid out a set of conditions that Bangladesh will have to meet in order to get its special trade status restored:

Three weeks after announcing it would suspend Bangladesh’s trade preferences, the administration released an “action plan,” which calls on Bangladesh to significantly increase the number of labor, fire and building inspectors and to improve their training. The plan urges Bangladesh to impose stiffer penalties, including taking away export licenses, on garment factories that violate labor, fire or building safety standards.

In addition, the administration recommended that Bangladesh create a public database of all garment factories for reporting labor, fire and building inspections, including information on violations found, penalties assessed and violations corrected, with the names of the lead inspectors.

In addition to its demands for measurable progress on work safety, the administration drew attention to the widespread intimidation of Bangladeshi workers who seek to organize and bargain collectively and urged Bangladeshi leaders to safeguard the freedom of association of their workforce. Finally, the Obama administration called for a transparent investigation of the murder of union organizer Aminul Islam. Islam was an organizer with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, he was murdered after helping Western journalists expose the terrible working conditions that have killed so many Bangladeshi garment workers in preventable fires. The Sidney Hillman Foundation presented its 2013 Officers’ Award for Public Service in Islam’s memory. We hope that mounting international pressure will help bring his killers to justice. 


[Photo credit: Rushdi13, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Moral Monday Mania; Occupy FL; Faulty FBI Forensics

The best of the week’s news: 

  • The Moral Monday movement catches fire in North Carolina: A multi-racial coalition fights for voting rights and the social safety net.
  • What do hungry seniors, bored preschoolers, frustrated campers, and unemployed defense workers have in common? They’re all collateral damage from the sequester.
  • Chicago retail workers offer bold solution to gun violence: Higher wages.
  • Sociologist Lisa Wade debunks hookup culture hysteria.


[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Rolling Stone's Jahar Tsarnaev Cover is Perfect

Rolling Stone put a selfie of Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover of their August 1st issue, and all hell broke loose. The headline for Janet Reitman’s cover story reads: “The Bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster.” CVS is refusing to sell it, Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston called the cover a disgrace, and people I’m 99% sure have never read Rolling Stone are loudly threatening to cancel their subscriptions.

Their complaint is that Rolling Stone has glamorized terrorism.

Rolling Stone’s art directors didn’t make this image, Tsarnaev did. It was culled from one of his social media accounts and published in the Washington Post and the New York Times. It’s a self-portrait of Tsarnaev doing his best impersonation of a sensitive, moody rock star, presumably taken around the time he was planning to blow up the Boston Marathon. You can tell it’s a selfshot because Tsarnaev’s right arm is outstretched inside his baggy Armani Exchange t-shirt in the universal symbol for “selfie.” It’s like a million teenage selfshots in which the photographer strains to project an idealized image. 

Everyone assumed Jahar was an assimilated American, and what’s more American than wanting to be a rock star? Jahar captured the look better than most. Keep in mind that while Jahar was playing pop idol on the internet, his older brother and future accomplice Tamerlan had sworn off not just rock but all music because he thought music was anti-Islamic.

The shaggy, sensitive-looking photo was one of the many carefully curated images Jahar presented to the world. Janet Reitman’s cover story is a profile of a guy who was everybody’s favorite all-American stoner jock kid brother until he became a terrorist. The central mystery of his story is the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Putting a self-portrait on the cover captures that mystery perfectly. The question isn’t just “how did an innocent little boy grow up to be a big bad terrorist” (which you could ask any terrorist); the question is “how did Jahar fool everyone into thinking he was an innocent little boy until it was too late?” 

“Listen,” says Payack, “there are kids we don’t catch who just fall through the cracks, but this guy was seamless, like a billiard ball. No cracks at all.” And yet a deeply fractured boy lay under that facade; a witness to all of his family’s attempts at a better life as well as to their deep bitterness when those efforts failed and their dreams proved unattainable. As each small disappointment wore on his family, ultimately ripping them apart, it also furthered Jahar’s own disintegration – a series of quiet yet powerful body punches. No one saw a thing. “I knew this kid, and he was a good kid,” Payack says, sadly. “And, apparently, he’s also a monster.” [Rolling Stone]

It’s absurd to think that a cover that plainly identifies Tsarnaev as “the bomber,” a follower of “radical Islam” and “a monster,” glamorizes him. Who is that supposed to impress? The two most likely candidates are aspiring terrorists and Jahar fangirls. 

Aspiring Islamic terrorists probably regard Rolling Stone as a decadent Western abomination, given its hardline editorial stance on the inherent goodness of music and boobs. They are unlikely to find Jahar’s selfie treatment particularly inspiring. 

Of course the Jahar fangirls, the small but creepy subculture of teens in love with Jahar, are swooning over this picture. But they got ahold of it long before Rolling Stone did. Sadly, high profile killers attract groupies. But a magazine can’t program to the lowest common denominator. If you let the reactions of the Jahar fangirls influence your behavior in any way, the terrorists win. 

Mega-Camp Can't Save the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America tried to distract the public from recent sex abuse- and anti-gay discrimination controversies by building scouting’s answer to Disney World: a 10,600 acre park with five miles of ziplines and an an 85,000 seat stadium. The Summit, as the base is known, is projected to cost nearly half a billion dollars by the time of its estimated completion in 2015. However, Reuters reports that project costs are rising rapidly while fundraising is lagging behind, putting major stress on the organization’s finances. Meanwhile, the Scouts’ compromise to welcome gay scouts but exclude gay scout leaders has alienated both liberal and conservative groups and some corporate sponsors. Declining membership suggests that scouting is struggling to remain relevant.