BOB GARFIELD A phrase has become a rallying cry, a campaign slogan, and the must answer question for politicians.
NEWS REPORT Do you support defunding the police?
SPEAKER We say abolish the police, because we mean abolish the police.
NEWS REPORT Are you for defunding the police?
KAMALA HARRIS How are you defining defund the police? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. It's a tricky moment for the entertainment wing of the police industrial complex.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG If I knew how to make a police show that would be dramatically resonant and show the way forward when American policing is in total upheaval, I would quit my job as a critic, and become the world's first trillionaire.
BOB GARFIELD Plus, online rumors about small town intrusions by big city agitators led to wild presidential tweets, and quixotic strip mall search parties.
BRANDY ZADROZNY They went to the Wal-Mart. They went to the T.J. Maxx. Someone posted that they had seen a person all in black at Albertsons and that that was ANTIFA.
BOB GARFIELD There's more coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is out this week, I'm Bob Garfield. There is no longer a statue of Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota Statehouse in St. Paul, Twin City to Minneapolis. The toppling, or reckoning, was led by members of the American Indian Movement and others who have for years tried to have the statue removed through official channels.
Another Columbus statue was decapitated in Boston this week, and another was pulled down in Richmond, Virginia, Along with the statue of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.
NEWS REPORT I want to show you what it looks like here now, because you can still see the pedestal on the ground right here covered in spray paint. And right behind that is actually a crack in the sidewalk where that pedestal hit the ground. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Statue of the former Confederate president was put up in June of 1907, and now 113 years later, it has been pulled down.
PEOPLE SINGING Nanana hey hey hey, goodbye
BOB GARFIELD The architects, and enforcers of slavery have been literally deplatformed, and likewise the most omnipresent symbol of race supremacy - the Confederate battle flag. It was not entirely surprising that in these days, the Marine Corps finally prohibited its display on public workspaces, including mugs, bumper stickers and cars. But this other one, this one here, was kind of breathtaking.
NEWS REPORT NASCAR has announced that it is banning the flying of Confederate flags at its races and other events, saying in a statement: "the presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to their commitment to a welcoming, inclusive environment for fans." NASCAR's first... [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD NASCAR, born of bootleggers, and good ol' boys, and Southern culture has at long last repudiated the most ubiquitous totem of racist defiance. Even if this was a woefully tardy surrender to pressure, this formal end to a longstanding practice is the dictionary definition of abolishing, which is so the word of the week. With deep roots in the mid 19th century, until recently, abolitionism has been seen as an artifact of our distant, sordid history. But amid civic outrage about racist policing, it has come roaring back. With various reform exercises over decades proven impotent against deep seeded police racism, activists are seeking in various degrees the wholesale dismantling of municipal police.
NEWS REPORT The organization is calling for defunding the NYPD budget of 5.5 billion dollars, using that money to invest in black and brown communities. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT There is a protest headed to Mayor Libbey Shaaf's house here in Oakland asking her to defund the city's police department. Which... [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT I spoke to the president of the city council, who says they want to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department, and replace it with a new public safety model. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The idea is so radical that some politicians immediately sought to water it down, reinterpreting abolition as just another go at reform.
GOV. ANDREW CUOMO They're saying we want fundamental, basic change when it comes to policing. Our state legislative packages will do that. So I think you will see a shift all across police departments [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But, no, Its proponents mean business, and the business did not just open up in the past three weeks. To understand how we got to this particular demand, we have to go back to September 1998, when 3500 anti-prison academics and activists met for Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, a conference held to strategize and reignite a long simmering movement to abolish prison and the police.
ANGELA DAVIS We want to talk this weekend about radical strategies that help to alleviate the misery and the pain. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Angela Davis, one of the leading figures in the movement at that conference.
ANGELA DAVIS And at the same time move toward the abolition of prisons as the only attempt to solve the major social problems of our time. [END CLIP]
AMNA AKBAR Critical Resistance articulates a critique of what they call the prison industrial complex.
BOB GARFIELD Amna Akbar, is a law professor at The Ohio State University, and writes on today's leftist social movements and their demands. She explains that in 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, some of these abolitionists began to engage with the Black Lives Matter movement, which was composed of a mix of veteran organizers and new activists taking to the streets for the first time. Working together, they reached a point just before Donald Trump was elected when the abolitionist demands were codified.
AMNA AKBAR Right. August 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, which is a constellation of 50 plus black led organizations, releases a massive policy platform called the Vision for Black Lives. And the Vision for Black Lives has six kind of larger demands, which include: end the war on Black people; Invest, divest; economic justice; reparations; And a few others. And the Vision for Black Lives marks kind of the drift between 2014 and 2016 and the influence of abolitionist politics on racial justice organizing. Because while division doesn't call for outright abolition of prisons and police, the vast majority of the demands reflect an abolitionist ethos. So, for example, the meta-demand, end the war on Black people, includes a list of campaigns or demands like ending solitary confinement, ending immigrant detention, ending cash bail, ending the school-to-prison pipeline. And if you're ensconced in the world of criminal law reform, you would have immediately noticed that these demands were in a very different register than a lot of the demands that come out of mainstream, kind of DC-centric liberal policy reform, which are often focused on questions of how to make these systems work better. And so the vision is released in 2016, in August, Trump is elected in November. His election marks a federal government hostile to racial justice. The push that the vision for black lives is laying out goes local.
BOB GARFIELD And all of this activity is taking place long before the world ever hears of George Floyd.
AMNA AKBAR That's right.
BOB GARFIELD Now we think of Minneapolis as the turning point, but there was actually another inflection point a few months previous. Triggered not by police brutality, but by the coronavirus.
AMNA AKBAR Right. COVID-19, we start to feel the pain of the lack of social services and the lack of the social welfare net. And so you have the explosion of these demands all over the country around canceling rent, around Medicare for all, around free them all, campaigns around the country focused on putting pressure on local and state government and on the federal government to release people held in jails, prisons, and detention centers because of the way that incarcerated people are not able to socially distance. There's no adequate health provision within these facilities.
If you read between the lines, a lot of those campaigns were actually articulating a critique of prisons and jails that was much deeper, an abolitionist critique about how prisons and jails are fundamentally unhealthy. And then, when George Floyd is killed and the police respond in the way that they do to the organic uprisings all around the country, countless numbers of police outfitted in all sorts of expensive vehicles and vests and wood pellets and sound devices. I think it creates another kind of visible moment of the contradictions of life in the United States. We are repeatedly telling the public that we don't have enough money for books in the schools. Our health care workers don't have access to masks, PPE, and at the same time, you have the police forces mobilized like that to crush an organic uprising, responding to the scale and depth of police violence around the country.
BOB GARFIELD So here we are at defund the police. I will confess that when I first heard those words, which, by the way, was only a week ago, I was like, wait, what? How abolish-y are we talking about?
AMNA AKBAR I think for some people, defund is simply about taking money away from the police and maybe investing it in other places. But for racial justice movements and racial justice organizations, defund marks a moment where large swaths of the American public are, one, grappling with the problem being the institution of the police. Right. So it's not simply about an individual bad police officer or an individual incident gone wrong. But the problem is the scale of the police, the power of the police, the tools of the police to use violence against everyday people. For abolitionists, defund is a strategy to delegitimize the police, force a question about what work police are doing in our communities, and how else we might be dealing with social problems like homelessness or domestic violence or theft. Now, a lot of times I think abolitionists are charged as being unsophisticated and impractical. And I think the defund demand and the campaigns against jail expansion or the bailouts and the bail funds all demonstrate direct and concrete ways of thinking about building towards a world where we have no police or prisons, or at least a lot less of it. There is no delusion that we're going to live in a world where people don't harm each other or that no one steals from your house anymore. Part of what it is to live in a society is to have conflict. And right now, our go-to response to all of those things is prisons and police. And the abolitionist invitation is to say, what if we start to think about different ways to respond to those same problems?
BOB GARFIELD I am obliged to ask you about politics. The choice of the words abolition and defund the police, while big, very powerful for rallying support, are also sort of a gift to reactionary criticism and the allegations, which have for decades been made, that the left is out to destroy the society. Does the language of defund, create a opportunity for a political opposition that could crush the movement aborning?
AMNA AKBAR So we have a moment right now where there is a growing left who are trying to disrupt consensus over a number of different issues and trying to disrupt politics as usual. And so whether you're talking about the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal or the Democratic Socialists of America calling for us to cancel rent around the country, all of these different campaigns are coming out of a moment where the failures of neo liberalism, the exploitation and stratification of capitalism, the violence of white supremacy have been made clear. And all of these different organizations, these movements, the aligned elected officials, are all calling for a radical rupture with the way that we think about how we should relate to each other, what we expect of the state, what are our basic entitlements as human beings. And so while there might be a right wing backlash, we are living through an era of a right wing backlash, we can't be so fearful of a backlash that we can't imagine together and fight together and build together the world that we want to live in. And so I think this idea that we shouldn't fight big, dream big, organize together is in part to blame for where we are.
BOB GARFIELD Understood. But do you worry that the political right is now going to be able to terrify swing voters into not risking throwing in with the left, less pandemonium reign?
AMNA AKBAR Part of what I'm seeing and what I'm so kind of excited and hopeful about, even though I also feel cautious and I feel a lot of the trepidation that you're articulating, is that it feels as if we're in a moment that could unleash a much more hopeful politics in the United States and a much more hopeful, inclusive vision that will shift people's kind of expectations or sense of what's possible.
And as much as who is at the top of the food chain, the president of the United States matters for who the United States is, how we respond to crises like COVID-19, what kind of player we are in the world, politics is local and there are all sorts of other decisions at every level of interpersonal relations, city and state government, that also make a profound difference for the daily condition of everyday people's lives.
Part of what's really important about what's going on right now is that it is exploding the concept that politics is only about voting for the president of the United States. Politics is about a lot more than that, including protests and uprising, including casting a ballot, including leaning into local political struggles over whether to defund the police.
BOB GARFIELD Amna, thank you so much.
AMNA AKBAR Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Amna Akbar is a professor of law at The Ohio State University. Coming up, when cops lie. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Week before last, a protest making its way through the Bronx in New York City was met with what our WNYC Gothamist colleague Jake Offenhartz called, "a premeditated operation to trap, pepper spray, bludgeon and arrest marchers en masse at the stroke of curfew." NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea told him, oh, no, no, there was no choice.
DERMOT SHEA We intercepted them literally, literally, Jake, as they were bringing a gun and gasoline and weapons to the scene of that. That's actually what happened. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Nope, none of that except the name Jake was true. The episode was a tale of two forms of police brutality. One is excessive force wielded primarily against people of color. The second is violence against the truth. The planted evidence, the false police testimony and the suborning of perjury used to frame the innocent, sometimes to close cases, sometimes to protect the guilty, sometimes to settle scores. And the justice system knows it. Certainly in New York, where local DA's maintain lists of cops with credibility problems. Whether because false testimony subverts justice or just endangers prosecutions, they share info about who in blue is just not to be trusted. Till now, who they have not often shared the lists with are defense attorneys or the public. Enter then another WNYC Gothamist colleague, investigative reporter George Joseph. He's used Freedom of Information filings to dislodge such lists, and for the past 14 months has been reporting on police lies and cover ups in and around New York City. George, welcome to On the Media.
GEORGE JOSEPH It's great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD In the course of your reporting, about tainted prosecutions in the city of New York, you came to discover about an adjoining jurisdiction just north of the Bronx in Westchester County, the town of Mount Vernon. There was a whistleblower, a cop who had learned of all sorts of illegalities within the department but could get nobody to pay attention.
GEORGE JOSEPH The officer is named Murashea Bovell, he goes by Mike. And at first, what I did know is that this guy is an active cop. He had already filed a lawsuit previously, which failed for procedural reasons, in which he accused fellow officers, who are still on the force by the way, of stealing and assaulting residents in broad daylight in front of fellow officers.
BOVELL I saw guys getting beat up, I saw money being taken, reports being changed. I saw what was happening and people weren't standing up. [END CLIP]
GEORGE JOSEPH For years, he had tried publicly to file harassment complaints with the city, to file legal actions, a lawsuit, for example, in 2015, and he didn't see any change in the narcotics unit, which he was making allegations about. He didn't see any change with new leaders coming to the city or the police department.
And so at the same time as he was making these public allegations, he was quietly, on his own for years, calling up his colleagues, casually talking for hours about many different things, occasionally slipping in questions about things he had seen, in the hopes that they would talk about what they had seen.
OFFICER You guys have nothing.
BOVELL Oh, what do you mean? The cops don't lock him up for no reason, right?
OFFICER Yes, it was a false arrest. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He was driving one of those armored police Humvees through the blue wall of silence, informing on other cops can yield horrible consequences. What repercussions has he felt?
GEORGE JOSEPH Quite a bit, in addition to silence treatment and people not talking to him anymore. He's also, he's alleged, found a rat toy placed by his locker. There is a time when he was at roll call and a supervisor joked about rats being in the building and he claims was gesturing to him while doing so.
SUPERVISOR That said, there's rats. The rats here. Headquarters. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD All right, we've discussed the blue wall of silence, which is a kind of honor code among the dishonorable. But there are also statutory obstacles against revealing police misconduct to the public. Tell me, please, about 50-A
GEORGE JOSEPH 50-A is a very New York specific law that was initially conceived of as a privacy law to protect the personnel records of police officers. I don't think people really disagree that things like officer's medical records or Social Security numbers need to be handed out to the public or public records requesters like me.
The issue is it's been increasingly interpreted by courts and agencies in a very capacious way, such that things that some would argue were not intended to be covered by the law, and I'm stressing point, some would argue, are now covered and protect vital records of public interest, including police disciplinary records. So whereas in Ohio, where I've reported before, I can do a public records request for a police disciplinary investigation, and not only do I get the administrative police investigation files, I can even get the audio of the interviews with witnesses after the investigation has concluded.
But here in New York, we don't even get to know the outcome of the disciplinary investigations or the substance of the allegations in the first place when police internal affairs bureaus conduct such investigations. In our reporting in Mount Vernon, for example, I've had to rely on leaked documents and documents from sources that are not through official channels to even be able to see and get at some of these internal police misconduct allegations and records.
BOB GARFIELD As we have this conversation, there is a motion in the New York State Assembly to repeal 50-A. And it, I suppose, because of this political moment, has an awful lot of support. Let's just say it has passed by the time this conversation finds its way to the audience. Do you think that will change the dynamic for people like you and for the public trying to get information on cops with an unsavory past?
GEORGE JOSEPH Yeah, I think it'll really be opening the floodgates. For me personally, as a journalist who is investigating a very specific context right now in Mount Vernon, and a very specific group of officers, I'm very excited for these records to become public.
BOB GARFIELD Society has faced these questions before on the matter of pedophile priests. Historically, there were complaints and they were either ignored within the diocese or the priest was shuffled from one parish to another. The Vatican itself was a part of this process. The parallels seem eerily familiar. And yet there doesn't seem to be the consensus on the issue of cops with a bad history, as there was for priests. Is this a moment when society's reckoning on this subject is subject to rapid change?
GEORGE JOSEPH Yes. I think what's tricky about systematic reform, though, is unlike the Catholic Church, which is a famously hierarchical institution in which decisions are made at the top, and someone, in some group, let's say the Curia, can be held liable and has information in their possession that they should have acted on.
Our system of law enforcement in the United States is so decentralized, there are hundreds of police departments and law enforcement agencies and prosecutors offices across the country that are all in communication with each other but are acting and operating separately. And so every single place has to have a separate political battle and reform discussion for change to happen.
Often people talk about the federal level, what did Trump or Obama do? But they're really not making decisions for day to day policing. They can sometimes use grants or Justice Department investigations to try to have some leverage over police departments if they want to, but the real policymaking and culture setting is at the ground level. So it's a tougher problem than the Catholic abuse scandal. We do see officers who are fired or who are quietly dismissed going to other departments. There is a big investigation by a consortium of California media groups, and they tracked how officers with really egregious cases of abuse, in some cases criminal convictions, were either allowed to stay on their forces, especially in small towns that are broke and are desperate to have police, or are allowed to move on to other towns like that. So it is a big problem.
BOB GARFIELD When you write stories like this, there are two possible effects, sometimes both. One is that police departments just, you know, do not return your calls, they slow roll every request and so forth and so on. You get a little taste of the blue wall of silence. The other is that other informants, whistleblowers emerge to put you onto still more stories, much like Bovell appeared in your life, which is happening to you?
GEORGE JOSEPH It's definitely both. And I wouldn't have it any other way. You know, you can't control how people are going to react to your reporting. All you can do is hope that it's accurate and helps people understand reality better. And if they choose to shut you out because of that, then that's on them. But there are a lot of people that are in the system, that are in police departments, that are in prosecutors offices that want the right thing to happen and want the truth to come out. And so they do reach out and they do have stories and that does lead to more investigations. And that is certainly happening right now.
BOB GARFIELD George, thank you so much.
GEORGE JOSEPH Thanks, Bob. Appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD George Joseph is an investigative reporter for WNYC and Gothamist.com. On Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill repealing 50-A into law.
Lying cops, brutal cops, racist cops. Why, for much of white America, does this come as such a shock? Some of the answer may have to do with heads in the sand. Some with our own deep prejudices. But what about just cultural indoctrination? We are a TV society. Could it be that our notions of police and policing are distorted by the entertainment we've been fed and happily swallowed our whole lives? Washington Post culture columnist Alyssa Rosenberg says - yeah, that - and wrote a column last week demanding a serious reckoning among the storytellers behind cop TV and movies. She especially targeted the long running, so-called reality series, Cops, writing that canceling the program "would be a start." And incredibly, Hollywood obliged.
NEWS REPORT It's the end of the line for the TV show Cops after more than a 30 year run. [END CLIP]
ALYSSA ROSENBERG I'm as startled as anyone else, and I certainly don't think I deserve credit for Cops' cancelation. But, you know, I think that is a signal to a lot of other networks and studios, that if you're going to make really sweeping statements about what your values are and how your work should uphold them, you know, show us the receipts.
BOB GARFIELD We first spoke to Rosenberg in 2016 when she wrote a series of articles examining the relationship between Hollywood and the police, from Dragnet to The Wire. This time around, I asked her, remind me, why the audience's endless appetite for this genre?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG So I think that cop shows are perfect dramatically. The commission of crime produces stakes, and that's what viewers tend to want in their television shows. The investigation of crime produces a plot and then the arrest and prosecution of a suspect provides a morally satisfying conclusion. So, there's a reason that cop shows are sort of as close as you get to a platonic ideal to emerge from American popular entertainment. They're just good television.
BOB GARFIELD The premise of your most recent piece and of the series you did four years ago is that the hagiography has an effect. It may not reflect reality, but it influences perceptions of police work. Tell me how so.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG I went back and watched and read a 100 years of this stuff, and pop culture paints the police as more effective than they actually are. And if you watch Law and Order or Chicago PD or any of the sort of mainstream network police shows, you would assume that most of the time when a crime is reported, it is investigated and the police identify a suspect and arrest them and try them. That is not true. Almost 40 percent of murders in the United States are not cleared. But again, one of the things that you see in the 70s as crime rises has the number of crimes that are cleared falls, is stories that suggests that cops sort of are set apart from their fellow citizens, that they are not given the tools that they need to do the job. They are sort of martyrs who will not properly be understood for the sacrifices that they're making on behalf of their communities. And, you know, I think that we're seeing the consequences of that mentality, that image right now. I mean, I think a lot of what's happening in the protests against police brutality in the United States is an effort to reassert democratic control over police departments that have come to behave as if they are not answerable to their communities, and that the idea of serving and protecting is sort of a sick joke.
BOB GARFIELD So there's a trope that flows from what you just said. And that is the heroic police officer who is chafing with the bureaucratic limitations of how he's permitted to go about his job. And he goes out on a borderline vigilante effort to bring the bad guys to justice.
HARRY Well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That's my policy. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD So the Dirty Harry-ization of television, do you believe it has led to the Dirty Harry-ization of real life cops?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG I think it's really hard to ascribe causality, but yeah, I mean, I think the proliferation of images of The Punisher, for example, on patches that police officers wear on their uniforms, speaks to that. I mean, The Punisher is a comic book character. He's a vigilante. He operates outside the law.
THE PUNISHER It's not vengeance. No, not vengeance - it's punishment [END CLIP]
ALYSSA ROSENBERG The idea that police officers would identify with a figure like that, instead of understanding Frank Castle as, you know, a criminal, a perversion of their mission, I think is really telling.
BOB GARFIELD What do you think TV shows can do to avoid portraying an ideal that just simply, you know, insults the reality on the streets?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG Look, I would say I don't have the answer to this. If I knew how to make a police show, that would be dramatically resonant and show the way forward at a moment when American policing is in total upheaval. I would quit my job as a critic, move to Hollywood and become the world's first trillionaire. Right. I would say broadly on network television, the big innovation has been to tell more stories starring minority cops. And, you know, I think those perspectives can be valuable, at the same time, Hollywood has a long history of using black and female and gay cops sort of to argue in favor of the police as a sort of citizen machine. Often those minority cops are transformed by the experience and end up functioning sort of as an advertisement for the broadmindedness of their police departments rather than bending their departments towards their communities. But I have to say, when I have interviewed Dan Goor, who's the showrunner for Brooklyn 99, he has in the past described it as sort of a hopeful model for what policing can be.
GINA Come on, Jay, just explain the deep rooted, institutionalized racism that remains pervasive in this country to this day.
JAKE Gina, they're children.
GINA So, put it in a song, Jake. Watch this. Racism. [END CLIP]
ALYSSA ROSENBERG I think that's valuable. I think art can show us how the world should be in addition to how it is. It can be prescriptive as well as diagnostic. But if you're making a comedy about policing, and you're in an environment where the police are killing people and it's being caught on video, if it feels like change is never going to come, if it feels like that model is never going to be realized, that hopefulness can feel sort of sour. I have more faith in the Brooklyn 99 writers than I would in the staff of a lot of other shows to do that. But it's a near impossible task.
BOB GARFIELD If we can agree that it's remarkable that Cops just vanished overnight, this bottomless treasure chest for Hollywood. I wonder about the genre itself, because if it becomes more nuanced, if it focuses more on the policed, than on the police themselves, if it tells stories where the stakes are lower and the gunplay not present. Is anybody gonna watch 'em? And as a consequence, is there anyone in Hollywood who's gonna produce them?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG Well, it's worth noting that Cops was not getting a huge audience, even by cable standards, and so it was easier to cut it loose. But look, we're asking a really fundamental question, both in the streets and at our keyboards as critics right now, which is what do we want the police to do? What are the police for? And, yeah, this conversation may result in us as a society reaching conclusions about what we want policing to be that are less cinematic. I love cop shows. I would not have spent so much of my career thinking about them if I didn't find them endlessly diverting and fascinating and troubling. But I would trade the entertainment of police shows for clarity about what we want policing to be and a greater ability to do it in a way that works for the communities who are supposed to be served by cops and the cops themselves.
BOB GARFIELD Alyssa, thank you so much.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG Oh, my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD Alyssa Rosenberg is an opinion writer covering culture at The Washington Post. Coming up, ANTIFA, or Antichrist, this is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. By now, you've probably seen the countless videos and still images of police violence against protesters in towns and cities across the country. Among the most senseless assaults was the case of 75 year old Martin Gugino.
NEWS CLIP You have an officer shoving an elderly protester entirely unprovoked, which results in a 75 year old man hitting the ground with blood pooling from his head onto the concrete, as you see there. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But according to President Trump, the whole thing was an elaborate ruse, an act of terrorism even.
ANDERSON COOPER Quoting his tweet, Buffalo protester shot by police, could be an ANTIFA provocateur. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yes. Once again, inviting Americans to disbelieve what we've all seen with our own eyes. But this latest exercise in presidential gaslighting fit right snug with an all encompassing ANTIFA conspiracy theory that has temporarily replaced Obamagate and Deep State as the go-to boogey man in right wing media. Rudy Giuliani on Sebastian Gorka's radio show.
RUDY GIULIANI It will help a lot in being able to tie together some of the loose ends that could tell you then how well organized this is. You can answer that Soros question, too, if you can get into their books. How much money does he donate and how closely associated is he with it? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD As ANTIFA has been increasingly portrayed by the right as Antichrist, NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny has traced the path from careless web chatter, to the president's Twitter, to an actual conspiracy, a disinformation campaign centered in right wing media. Brandy, welcome to the show.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD First, let's work on definitions. What is ANTIFA? What isn't it?
BRANDY ZADROZNY So ANTIFA is a loose collection of hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand radical groups and people, generally the far left who share an ideology and tactics. The way that I best describe it is if you see a Nazi, punch, a Nazi, you don't go call the cops and say there's a Nazi. And it's rooted in the idea that, you know, the Nazi party would have never come to power in Germany if people had literally fought them in the streets. The modern movement came to Europe in the 60s and then to the U.S. in the 70s and 80s with ANTIFA people fighting skinheads at punk rock shows. I think the idea behind the antifascist ideology is that fascism and the far right is inherently violent. It violates and it hurts marginalized people, people of color. They believe that it is inherently right to fight, sometimes violently, a movement in the far right that is violent itself.
BOB GARFIELD The president is treating Antifa as his latest boogeyman, but the foundation for the conspiracy theory was laid years ago. Was there a particular moment when fears about ANTIFA, you know, went primetime.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I think when they pop back on the scene happen to be at Donald Trump's inauguration. People who are labeled ANTIFA were seen wreaking havoc in the streets. There is a big moment where someone who is labeled as an ANTIFA punched Richard Spencer, who coined the alt-right. And then what happened in 2019 was the punching of Andy Ngo.
BOB GARFIELD This guy is a right wing provocateur who had himself been going after ANTIFA members, identifying them, doxing them on his blog.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Right. Andy is a self-described journalist, but definitely a conservative provocateur. He trolls the left endlessly. He used to go and film these protests and he's been charged with selectively editing what he shows. He's also pushed several hoaxes, claiming that mass murders were perpetuated by ANTIFA, which later turned out to be false. And he's also been outed as being pretty chummy with the white nationalists that he says that he covers. At one event in 2019, he was punched and several milkshakes were thrown on him. And he claimed that, with the help of police, claimed that there was cement in the milkshakes that turned out also later to be false. But the event itself was all filmed, and he used it to propel himself into the national conversation. Jake Tapper came out in defense of Ngo. And what that did was solidify this idea of I'm objective, this is wrong too, the left does it too.
BOB GARFIELD Tapper, who, you know, whose heart was in the right place condemning violence, has been accused of trading in false equivalency.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah, you can't equate ANTIFA with the far right. What's hard about these online spaces, is you know, for reporters who reported on extremism, you know, relentlessly for the last few years, we sort of know the game. And so we know who these characters are. So then when someone like Andy Ngo pops up in a video that looks like he's been beaten up, we can say, okay, well, but there's probably more to this story. But the images itself are violent. So that's the sort of problem with ANTIFA, too, is that things like this can sort of throw the narrative askew and give people like President Trump, and crazy far right blogs like Gateway Pundit, it gives them ammunition and it lets them sort of create this martyr story for their movement as the persecuted, the censored right, when that's just not really the case either.
BOB GARFIELD And so they did when protests erupted after George Floyd's death. The right wing media and politicians used images of looting and arson in Minneapolis as proof of ANTIFA insurrectionism. Now we're used to seeing this kind of rhetoric flourish on social media, and the right wing media like Fox. But what made your recent piece so fascinating was watching the conspiracy theory playing out IRL. Tell me about Klamath Falls, Oregon.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Klamath Falls is a sleepy little town in Oregon, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Nine out of 10 residents are white. It is a gun loving, God loving, you know town. And last Sunday, on a closed private Facebook group where, these Facebook groups are everywhere, especially with the depletion of local news, we've really seen these pop up and it's like, you know, lost wallets, lost keys. There's a sale at the local whatever, but it's also a rumor mill. So what we saw is on Sunday, a girl just out of high school posted. "I don't mean to alarm anybody, but I'm hearing something from local law enforcement that there are two busses headed this way from Portland full of ANTIFA, loaded with bricks, they're going to come to Klamath Falls, destroy it, murder police officers, and they're gonna go into all the white neighborhoods and mess them up." And then someone else posted a notice from a local commander of the Oregon Air National Guard. And it was a screenshot of a DM that he had allegedly sent his team. And it said, "stay away from downtown, we have intel, there's going to be bus loads of ANTIFA coming tonight." And off line people started this scavenger hunt for these buses of ANTIFA. You know, they went to the Wal-Mart, they went to the T.J. Maxx. someone said that I saw a U-Haul parked in front of The House of Shoes. You know, someone posted that they had seen a person all in black at Albertsons and that that was ANTIFA. And they took this threat so seriously that by, you know, eight o'clock that evening, hundreds of them lined the street.
BOB GARFIELD You did not attend the protests, but it was live streamed on Facebook by one of the armed men in attendance. You did speak with some of the local protesters. So paint the scene for us.
BRANDY ZADROZNY The Black Lives Matter protest started with a couple of people out with some signs. And by nighttime, maybe 100, maybe 150 people were on the side of the street. They were saying the names of people of color who've been killed in police custody. What was notable about it, too, was that even this is a town where nine out of 10 people were white. But during the protest, it was white, black, Latino people, members of the Native American Klamath tribes and LGBTQ communities. It was really, really a diverse coalition of peaceful people. It was it was lovely. It's what's been happening all over small towns. Even sunset towns have had people come and say, no, this is an important movement, and they've been protesting.
Now, on the south side of this street, maybe 200 mostly white neighbors had come and they were leaning against storefronts. They were wearing military fatigues, bullet proof vests. They had blue bands tied around their arms and they were carrying, you know, flags, American flags, Trump flags, but also lots of weapons. So we saw baseball bats, hammers, an ax, and then lots of guns. I talked to one resident. His name's Fredrick Brigham, and he is one of the town's only black people. And he came through and he said it felt like walking through an enemy war camp. And on that side of the street throughout the night, there was lots of chanting to the Black Lives Matter protesters, a lot of making fun of them. A lot of USA, USA, and a lot of go home, which was particularly striking because these people were from there. This is their home.
BOB GARFIELD So what happened when the buses arrived and the ANTIFA marauders stepped down and started throwing punches?
BRANDY ZADROZNY The buses never came. They never arrived. The peaceful protest went on and then a bunch of armed people shuffled home. The next day, people logged back onto Facebook to report what they had seen. And a surprising number of people reported that they had run ANTIFA off, even though there is no ANTIFA to be seen.
BOB GARFIELD So they actually saw the monsters under the bed.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I don't - if ANTIFA never came, if they have to say that to themselves, and what they did was stand across the street and intimidate a bunch of mostly young, mostly people of color, and really prove the whole reason that those protesters would have been out there in the first place. So I think instead of do that, because that's real hard, what's easier to say was that, OK, well, we were just protecting our town if ANTIFA did come and, you know, if ANTIFA ever does come. Well, then we'll be here.
BOB GARFIELD Now, this is Klamath Falls. Various versions of this story played out elsewhere. Can you give me some examples?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Sure. In Forks, Washington, there is the situation where locals felled trees with chainsaws to block this road because they feared that a multiracial family inside was actually ANTIFA people. And they had to be saved by local high schoolers. This is happening in South Bend, Indiana. It's happening in Idaho. It's happening in Florida. It's literally happening in every single state. And we can almost always find an original group that was operating locally on Facebook that helped spread this rumor.
BOB GARFIELD The fact that ANTIFA never arrived in Klamath Falls, the fact that these buses never existed to begin with does no harm to the political right. The president's campaign for reelection greets you on its web site immediately with a prompt that says stand with President Trump against ANTIFA. There's a significant chunk of the electorate that's prepared to believe it, and act accordingly. We have been reporting various versions of this story for four years. If it's going to be simply disbelieved by the audience, why do we bother?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Wow. I for a long time have stopped thinking that I can really change anyone's mind that's fully entrenched. I want to reach the fence sitters. I hope that when someone sees this that doesn't know what to think, that it'll be a little drop in the bucket for truth. And then if I can't do that, I think it's just important to document what's happening, so in 10 years, when we look back and realize that this was all a political ploy, we can know what happened.
BOB GARFIELD Brandy, thank you very much.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD Brandy Zadrozny, is a reporter with NBC News. You can read more of her reporting on NBCNews.com.
That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin. and Eloise Blondiau. With more help from Eleanor Nash.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone, will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.