Category Archives: Featured

Women's March in Washington DC, 21 January 2017

Music and Protest Marches

As a child of parents who came of age in the early ‘60s and had music on all the time, I associate marches and protests with the folk music revival.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the great We Shall Overcome, which has a somewhat tangled and clouded history, with origins perhaps in a refrain sung by slaves and adopted by Black churches in the early 20th century.

Here are four versions sung by people who had a hand in making it the powerful symbol it has become. The first is by Pete Seeger, who’s version is the one I learned from as kid. He may (or may not) have been the one who rewrote the lyrics to become “We shall overcome…” rather than “We will overcome…” He’s perhaps the most associated with the song.

However, a much less well-known folklorist, Guy Carawan, modified the song to be easier to sing in large groups and introduced it to activists at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

But it was another famous folk singer, Joan Baez, who at the age of 22, performed the song at the 1963 March on Washington. This video, from the National Archives, doesn’t necessarily do a great job of capturing the sense of the crowd, but when it pans up to the face of Lincoln, it does make me tear up.

Finally, here’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who can’t be beat for the sheer power of her voice. Jackson also sung at the March on Washington and sung Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite gospel song, Take my hand, Precious Lord, at his funeral in 1968.

Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the words to We Shall Overcome multiple times, including in his final sermon before his assassination. The language Dr. King used in that sermon are particularly important to remember today. As he said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It has been covered many, many times, including by Bernie Sanders in 1987, when he was still mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Listen, if you dare. Actually, and fortunately, Bernie isn’t doing the singing, but he introduces the song and then a talented group of Vermont performers do the actual singing, with the occasional interjection by Sanders.

Other more recent covers include the British folk/punk singer Frank Turner, Roger Waters in support of Palestinians ending the blockade of Gaza, and even versions in Hindi and Bengali.

See the article at The Atlantic by David A. Graham for a history of the song focusing on Carawan’s contributions. Carawan died at age 87 in 2015.

Drones for Law Enforcement — but with what privacy and fourth amendment protections?

Ars Technica reported yesterday on the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) acquisition of two drones.  Of course, use of drones still needs approval from the FAA.   According to the ACSO, “The reason for specifically acquiring this is search and rescue.”  However, according to the ACSO General Order supporting the drone use, search and rescue is the 4th out of 10 uses.   These includes two that are very broad — “post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation” and pretty much anything related to a felony.

Drones can be a good thing.  In fact, for the stated goal, search and rescue, drones can be great.   In comparison to other aerial surveillance options (e.g., helicopters or planes) they’re cheaper and easier to implement.   ACSO says they’re spending $97,000 on this, which is a very little compared to a helicopter.  And training is certainly a lot easier too.

So what should government agencies do when they want to use drones?  The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists three requirements for drone legislation.   While two of these deal with private and commercial use of drones, the third emphasizes the need for law enforcement to get a search warrant when using drones for investigative purposes.  The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office policy, as currently posted, does not require a warrant for any use of drones.  Similarly, the ACLU recommends that the following be included when government organizations implement a drone program.

  • USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
  • DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
  • POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
  • ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
  • WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Note that one of these recommendations is that the public actively participates in the  decision to set up a drone program.   However, in Alameda County Sheriff’s Office situation, the Sheriff seems to have excluded critics from the process — EFF and the ACLU of Northern California only found out about the press conference from a story in the newspaper.  And I’d go even further here.   When a government agency sets up any program like this, including drones, surveillance cameras, automatic license plate readers, and so on, the public should be involved, there should be regular (e.g., annual) reviews of such programs, and independent evaluations conducted to determine if these programs are meeting the goals set for them.  This can help eliminate wasteful programs and reduce “mission creep.”

I also want to mention the “public” survey that Sheriff’s office has touted as support for their purchase (given that my day job is actually conducting surveys).  According to the reporting, they did get over three hundred responses.  But this survey clearly suffers from selection bias — the people who responded to the survey aren’t representative of Alameda County residents, but people who attended a “Cop Shop Barbecue” (and paid $12 to do so).

While I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if a significant number of people are okay with unfettered use of drones, the one poll I’m familiar with actually suggest the opposite.   A Monmouth University poll from 2013 (PDF) showed that three-quarters of respondents wanted law enforcement to have to get a search warrant from a judge before using drones versus only 14% think that law enforcement agencies should be able to decide on their own when to use them.



Cool TED Talk on using surveillance to reveal government atrocities

Here’s a very cool TED talk on human rights activists turning surveillance on its head — using  tiny hidden cameras to document atrocities for the world to see, and for the oppressors to know that the world sees their actions.  It’s by Oren Yakobovich, head of the human rights organization Videre.

We should remember that in the US, we should have the right (except under very limited circumstances) to film or photograph government officials, including the police, while they are performing their duties.

A good resource for this is the Photography is not a Crime website.  The Washington Post also just had a decent article on this issue.  And here’s an ACLU post on it by Jay Stanley, which includes an incident that the ACLU-NJ handled where the police not only detained a student for filming them, they illegally searched her phone and deleted the video.

A related issue exists when citizen journalists and activists want to film local governmental meetings.   While a government agency can place reasonable restrictions (e.g., time, place, and manner), they (at least in NJ) can’t forbid video audio or video taping.  The ACLU-NJ has a PDF pamphlet on New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Do I have the right to record public meetings? Although the Sunshine Law does not address this topic, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in Tarus v. Pine Hill, 189 N.J. 497 (2007) that members of the public have a common law right to videotape public meetings, subject to only reasonable restrictions. You also have the right to audiotape public meetings as well. A public body may adopt written policies that reasonably restrict recording to ensure that the recording does not disrupt the meeting. The policies could require you to sign up in advance to record the meeting and may limit the number of people recording and the number of cameras, as well as their position, lighting and location.


Criticism from the Police used to stifle dissent

The latest major example of the police or government “expressing their opinion” in a way that stifles dissent happened after Sunday’s St. Louis Rams/Oakland Raiders football game. Five Rams players (Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Kenny Britt) entered the stadium in the now classic “hands up/don’t shoot” position, as many protestors are doing.  Following this, the St. Louis police association strongly expressed their disapproval and “… called for the Rams and the NFL to apologize and discipline the players involved.”

This is certainly not the first time government officials tried to use the power of their office or position to stifle the free speech of NFL players.   In 2012, when Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo expressed support for marriage equality, Maryland House of Delegates member Emmett C. Burns Jr called on the team owner to discipline Ayanbadejo and tell him to not talk about the issue.

In my home state of New Jersey, a similar incident happened in Trenton, also about the killing of Michael Brown. In this case, the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) authorized a mural, and the artist painted a picture of Michael Brown with the words “Sagging pants is not probable cause.”  However, after the Trenton Police and the TDA had “discussions” the city painted over the mural.   Fortunately, the ACLU of New Jersey and the Trenton NAACP have voiced their disapproval and made OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests to understand how this happened.

Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Do the police and government officials really think they’re just using their first amendment rights to express their opinions?  I don’t think so. In most cases, they’re surely fully aware that people do what they say because of the power they have.  Their thoughts aren’t merely contributing to the marketplace of ideas, but they are using their power to accomplish what they want.

But it really doesn’t matter if government officials and the police think they are merely expressing their opinions.  We need to ensure that they don’t succeed in stifling free speech.

"Thank You Volunteers" cake

Non-profit micro-volunteering

Huffington Post has a short article on how to recruit non-profit board members who are concerned about the amount of time that it takes to be on a board.  Most of their suggestions are really ideas about how to run an efficient board (and letting potential board members that you do so).

However, sometimes being a board member isn’t the best use of time.  More and more I’m trying to think of “micro-volunteering” opportunities, both for my own service and for others who might work with the organizations I’m involved with.   Peggy Hoffman of Mariner Management and Marketing has written a lot about this concept.   Micro-volunteering can be as simple as asking people to be greeters at events, tweet about upcoming activities, or review papers for you.  These are short assignments, and often ones that can be done virtually.

This may require more oversight or thought (e.g., chunking volunteer efforts into discrete pieces), but the payoff can be worth it.  By engaging more volunteers, in roles that extend beyond your typical activities, you can expand your volunteer base and get more people with a greater connection to your organization.  This also can serve as a “feeder” to other, more long-term volunteer activities, including board service.