Hawa Allan| Longreads | September 2017 | 3580 words (15 minutes)
“Big Brother” has become shorthand for the inescapable gaze of governmental authority, first defined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Everywhere yet nowhere, Big Brother is all-seeing and all-knowing, surveilling not just every person’s movement, but every thought. Where Orwell referred to illicit states of mind as “thoughtcrimes,” Philip K. Dick called them “precrimes” in his 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” in which a futuristic police force arrests subjects for crimes long before they are committed. While Big Brother has become common parlance, the precrime unit illustrated by Dick is a more apt portrayal of the tools authorities have at hand to enforce the law, and commercial entities use to market their goods, in our digital age.
I reached out to Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for a sober assessment of how the current state of governmental surveillance compares to the dystopian futures imagined by Orwell and Dick. When Target can determine if teenager is pregnant before her parents know, does the end of our anonymity as consumers mean the end of our rights to privacy as citizens?
In a collaboration between The New York Times and The Marshall Project, journalist Eli Hager recently published an investigation into Harvard University’s eleventh-hour flip-flop on its acceptance of ex-convict Michelle Jones to its doctoral program in history. Jones, who spent more than two decades in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son — conceived non-consensually when she was 14 — became a stellar academic and published scholar while incarcerated. She was set to attend Harvard this fall, but after her acceptance, two professors questioned whether she had adequately portrayed her crime in her application — something that was not required — and also whether the former prisoner was up to the challenge of an Ivy League environment.
Jones was supposed to be released in October, but received a two-month reduction of her sentence so she could start a Ph.D. program on time this fall. She applied to eight, with Harvard her first choice because of historians there whose work on incarceration she admired.
While those historians embraced her application, others at Harvard questioned not only whether Jones had disclosed enough information about her past, but whether she could handle its pressure-cooker atmosphere.
“One of our considerations,” Stauffer said in an interview, “was if this candidate is admitted to Harvard, where everyone is an elite among elites, that adjustment could be too much.”
Alison Frank Johnson, director of graduate studies for the history department, dismissed that argument as paternalistic.
“Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard,” she said. “Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying?
“We’re not her priests,” Johnson added, using an expletive.
Jones will be attending New York University instead.
Denied citizenship in their home country of Myanmar, denied land, medical care, education and jobs, even denied the ability to walk town to town, the one million Rohingya people who live in this largely Buddhist nation have taken flight to find new homes all over the world. Thousands pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia by boat to find a new home, and the journey is dangerous.
At Granta, United Nations employee Keane Shum shares the Rohingya’s tragic story. Shum is charged with monitoring refugees in Southeast Asia, and she has worked with the Rohingya for three years. As if their suffering back home weren’t horrific enough, the smugglers abuse the Rohingya, underfeeding them, beating, and raping them, then keeping them at sea while they extract more money through ransoms. And when refugees are intercepted, they’re often sent back to a home where they aren’t considered citizens.
Around the same time, the captain of a larger smuggling vessel nearby, carrying as many as 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, also abandoned ship. He also fled on a trailing speedboat, after telling his passengers to sail at 220 degrees in order to reach Malaysia the next morning. But there is nowhere in the Andaman Sea where a heading of 220 degrees will point a ship to Malaysia. The captain was almost certainly directing them towards Indonesia.
Wherever this ship was headed, it ran out of fuel the next day. Passing fishing boats gave some fuel and directed the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Indonesia. The following morning, 11 May 2015, two Indonesian navy vessels arrived with water, dry instant noodles and biscuits, and returned later in the day to tow the ship towards Malaysia. “We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,” an Indonesian navy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse. “We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia nor Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”
The ship drifted for nearly two days until being approached near Penang on the afternoon of 13 May by two Malaysian navy vessels, which also provided food and water. Overnight, the Malaysians towed the ship back into Indonesian territory. When the Malaysians untied from the ship, multiple passengers remember the Malaysians giving instructions to stay put while they went to retrieve other boats in the area. Then we’ll bring you all to Malaysia, the passengers said they were told.
The next day, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi, acknowledged to the Associated Press that Malaysia had turned back both this ship and Hasina’s. “We have to send the right message,” he said. “They are not welcome here.”
When a reporter asked bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, the line he uttered became such a popular way of stating the obvious that it became known as Sutton’s Law: “Because that’s where the money is.” In 2015, 70-year old retired California detective Randy Adair landed in prison after robbing his fifth bank, confounding his friends and old coworkers. Why would a respected lawman with a pension and family commit crimes? In Los Angeles Magazine, journalist Jeff Maysh asks that same question and finds out how things went wrong for Adair.
His first was on the afternoon of March 24, 1969, when a silent alarm inside the United California Bank in Mid City signaled a robbery in progress. Exiting the bank with the cash and a loaded revolver when Adair and company arrived, the thief turned and ran back into the building. They found him in a second-floor restroom, where Robert Lee White surrendered. He’d eventually confess to being the Wilshire Bandit, who’d hit nine banks in the area, and to being the Blue Blazer Bandit of Fort Worth, Texas. Adair’s career was in full swing.
As the arrests mounted, the detective earned praise from superiors for his “initiative, his alertness, and his imagination.” He felt proud to wear the badge and enjoyed the perks: Half-price chili burgers at Tommy’s on Beverly and free smokes at Sam’s Corner Liquor Store on 6th left him with enough cash to play the ponies and buy bottles of Jim Beam.
If there’s a point when Randy Adair began edging toward the day that he, too, would begin robbing banks, it’s probably here. The gambling and booze would figure prominently in his life, as would the health problems that he traces back to a January night in 1971. That’s when Adair, cruising through Westlake in an unmarked car, spotted smoke billowing from a fire in the basement of a rundown apartment building. With no sign of the fire department, Adair dashed into the building. “The place started really filling up with smoke bad,” he said. “They had paint and loads of cables covered in grease and oil. Highly toxic fumes.” He could barely see or breathe as he began to carry residents—some too drunk or disabled to move—over his shoulders to safety.
When tourists buy Gucci purses in Manhattan’s Chinatown, most of them understand that the bags are fakes. That’s why they shop in Chinatown; all the prestige of the brand at a fraction of the price. But scores of other counterfeit items make it into the world economy without any of us consumers knowing it: phones, pharmaceuticals, clothes, car parts, circuit breakers. The bulk of these come from China.
For California Sunday Magazine, reporter Joshua Hunt shadows one of the private detectives that Western corporations pay to protect their intellectual property by cracking down on Chinese counterfeiters. In China, knockoffs are a $400 billion dollar industry. The black- and gray-markets fill domestic stores with fake wine and fake food, and detectives have to be able to distinguish the quality fakes from the cheap ones to do their job well. This detective can, because he used to make his living in the underground market.
On a hot afternoon last summer, Azim led me through the vast underground market beneath Shanghai’s Science and Technology Museum. His boss, Angelo Krizmanic, joined us, posing as a foreign businessman interested in some luggage for his girlfriend. “Most of these stores cater to Western tourists who come here specifically to buy knockoffs,” Angelo told me. “Tourists don’t know how to spot a quality fake, so the stuff on the shelves in these shops is garbage. But if you know the difference between a shit knockoff and a really shit knockoff, you can get yourself invited into a shop’s backroom. That’s where the real business goes down.”
We approached an upscale shop selling luxury handbags that Angelo visited, undercover, semiregularly. A salesman in shorts and a navy T-shirt named Kevin bounded toward us, gold chains bouncing off his chest. He spoke to Angelo like an old friend. Kevin led us into the store and pushed against a part of the wall that gave way to reveal a hidden room, roughly 8 feet by 10 feet, with deep shelves that overflowed with counterfeit Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton luggage, purses, and wallets.
Kevin said the market gets raided weekly, but he isn’t concerned. “I pay every month, so no trouble.” He used to be able to bribe police with counterfeit Louis Vuitton, but since China’s president, Xi Jinping, intensified anti-corruption measures in 2012, bribes are increasingly cash only.
Noura Jackson spent nine years in prison after being convicted of murdering her mother, despite a complete lack of physical proof — and other evidence that could have been used to support her claim of innocence was withheld by prosecutor Amy Weirich. This isn’t the first time Weirich has been found to have withheld evidence. And according to other lawyers who spoke with Emily Bazelon, whose impressively deep dive into the case appears in The New York Times Magazine, the convict-or-else attitude that drives prosecutorial misconduct is alive and well in Weirich’s office.
Weirich is now the district attorney, overseeing all prosecutions in Shelby County, Tennessee.
When Amy Weirich learned to try cases in Shelby County in the 1990s, her office had a tradition called the Hammer Award: a commendation with a picture of a hammer, which supervisors or section chiefs typically taped on the office door of trial prosecutors who won big convictions or long sentences. When Weirich became the district attorney six years ago, she continued the Hammer Awards. I spoke to several former Shelby County prosecutors who told me that the reward structure fostered a win-at-all-costs mind-set, fueled by the belief that ‘‘everyone is guilty all the time,’’ as one put it. ‘‘The measure of your worth came down to the number of cases you tried and the outcomes,’’ another said. (They asked me not to use their names because they still work as lawyers in Memphis.) One year, the second former prosecutor told me, he dismissed the charges in multiple murder cases. ‘‘The evidence just didn’t support a conviction,’’ he said. ‘‘‘But no, I didn’t get credit from leadership. In fact, it hurt me. Doing your prosecutorial duty in that office is not considered helpful.’’ Weirich disagrees, saying ‘‘Every assistant is told to do the right thing every day for the right reasons.’’
In the middle of the night on December 15, 2012, Lois Gomez sat up in bed. She thought she heard something. She listened. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she hadn’t heard anything. She went to the kitchen for a drink of water. It was two or three in the morning, only a few hours before her shift at Perdue and her husband’s shift at Tyson. Now she definitely heard something. A banging on her front door — which in itself was odd; friends and family knew they always used the side entrance — and someone yelling: “Your garage is on fire! I’ve already called 911!”
She stood frozen in the kitchen trying to process the information. Christmas lights, she thought. Her outdoor Christmas lights were halfway up, but she and her husband had recently decided to visit his family in Texas for the holiday and she’d been trying to figure out whether to bother with the rest of the decorations, which were meanwhile stored in the family’s detached garage, which was now on fire. Christmas lights, along with the expensive music equipment for her son’s rock band.
It had been a rough couple of months. For one thing, she wasn’t getting along with her next-door neighbors. She’d been close with the woman who’d owned that house before, Susan Bundick. They brought each other dinner sometimes, or stood and chatted in their backyards. But one Sunday afternoon, Lois was outside emptying the aboveground backyard pool to close out the summer season, and she saw the police were at Susan’s house. They told Lois her neighbor had died. Now, Susan’s daughter lived in her mother’s old house and things weren’t as pleasant. Tonya was fine, kept to herself, but Lois had a few run-ins with Tonya’s new boyfriend, a squirrelly redheaded guy whose name she didn’t know. He’d done a few little things, like dumping a bunch of branches on their lawn instead of disposing of them like he was supposed to. Once he’d accused her of making racial slurs against Tonya’s kids. The accusation was ridiculous. Lois’s husband was from Mexico, and her four grandchildren were partly black.
She’d also been having nightmares about the arsonist. In one dream, she went into her kitchen late at night and saw someone racing through the yard, an intruder wearing dark-colored sweat pants and a hoodie. “What are you doing?” she called. The figure turned and looked at her but she still couldn’t see his face, and he eventually disappeared behind her detached garage. She woke up and realized it wasn’t real.
Anytime a commercial vessel is lost, the incident is recorded with a quill pen in a leatherbound book at Lloyd’s, a London institution that blends age-old ritual with modern finance. Contrary to common belief, Lloyd’s isn’t an insurer, or even a company in the usual sense of the word. Since its origins in a 17th century coffeehouse popular with traders who funded sea voyages, Lloyd’s has evolved into something like a stock exchange for risk, where actual insurers come to buy and sell exposure. These companies form syndicates and get insurance of their own from even larger re-insurers, who are re-re-insured in turn. These layers constitute one of the world’s most essential and least understood markets, where premiums alone generate about $40 billion a year. Anything that might be lost or cause a loss, from Bruce Springsteen’s voice to a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, can be insured via Lloyd’s, but shipping remains at its core. Some 80 to 100 major vessels are lost each year, and the Brillante was one of the largest of 2011.
Murnick recalls learning in 2001 that her childhood best friend, Ashley Ellerin — an ex-girlfriend of Ashton Kutcher’s — had been stabbed to death at 22 in L.A. Ellerin had visited Murnick at college in New York just eight months before. During that visit, Murnick got a peek into the fast life Ellerin had been hiding from her parents and others who’d been close to her growing up.
On our walk from the subway across 110th Street toward my apartment, she told me that her part-time job at Sephora was just something she held on to so her parents would stay off her back. Actually, she was spending more of her time — and making a lot more money — at a strip club, working bachelor parties and pole dancing for tips; occasionally there were arrangements that happened in hotels, too. She relayed the information with the same casual remove she had used to give the waiter her order at lunch: The chopped chicken salad, no onions, honey-mustard dressing on the side.
You had to have a manicure and pedicure every week, she was saying, which was kind of a drag, but even a tiny chip in your nail polish could ruin the fantasy. She usually did light colors or French; once she had put baby blue on her toes and it hadn’t gone over well. Tanning too — religiously. Men expected you to be a certain way, and attempting to work around that was more trouble than it was worth.
I tried to appear blasé, to take it in stride, but what I really felt was utter confusion. Was I angry at her? Was she telling me this to brag? Should I be wearing my concerned hat now, or would that be unfairly judgmental? I hadn’t yet seen any comparable life developments in a friend and didn’t know what it all meant, for either of us or the two of us. Maybe this was good, cool, right — To each her own? You go, girl? — and I was the one with a problem, a prude. Did everything make sense now, or did it all make even less sense than before?
We rounded the corner onto Amsterdam Avenue. Ashley’s confessions were picking up speed — actors, crystal meth, the lease to her car being paid for by some guy in his 50s, how much she charged for an hour. She talked of martinis and pills and being on top during sex; the guys always told you they wanted you to go as slow as possible, but she still found ways to get through it quickly. It was almost as if she needed to get everything out before we entered my apartment, an unmasking in public so we could be on the same page in private.
Health certificates, bovine bullet wounds, viral outbreaks, livestock animal abuse — these are just a few of the issues facing Nevada’s specially trained team for agricultural crime. They’re armed with guns and veterinarian supplies. They cover huge rural areas larger than some eastern states, and they call themselves “cow cops.” Tay Wiles shares their story at High Country News. Will someone make a Netflix series out of them, please?
All these shootings were a reminder of the vulnerability of northern Nevada’s ranches. They are some of the largest in the nation, requiring so much space for forage that there’s no way to strictly monitor where the cows go, what they do and whom they encounter. “Off the top of my head, it’s happened at least once to all of our friends,” Dave Stix Jr., president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, said of the shootings. “Shit, you might was well start at the top of the list of all of our members — guarantee they’ve all had one killed or maimed.”
With their proximity to Elko, Jon Griggs and Mitch Heguy’s ranches are particularly vulnerable to mischief. Heguy became increasingly paranoid about who was driving by his property — found himself writing down license plate numbers of vehicles he didn’t recognize. “We leave the access (to BLM land) through our private land open,” he said. “We don’t lock it up, but we could.” Most visitors coming and going are relatively harmless. Griggs once found a group of dirt bikers tearing up a remote area of his rangeland. When he asked if they knew where they were, the bikers said, “Oh, we thought we were just out in the hills.”
But the shootings were different, something menacing. By the summer of 2015, the reward was up to $28,700. Wright and his team had only been able to verify that about 25 of the dead animals had been shot; infection can make it difficult to determine the cause of death, and the spray of a shotgun can make an infected bullet wound hard to differentiate from something like pigeon fever. Wright had told the press his team identified “persons of interest” in the case, but they led nowhere. The case was cold.