Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
The recent wave of Republican-backed photo ID laws and restrictions on early and same-day voting have made it harder for people to head to the polls. But that's not the only obstacle to casting a ballot in many precincts. On Election Day two years ago, some voters waited as long as five hours at their polling places. Long lines can depress voter turnout since many voters undoubtedly give up and leave without voting. According to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, in 2012 minority voters, on average, waited longer to vote than white voters did. Nationwide, black voters waited about twice as long as whites.
The waits were especially long in areas with a high proportion of minority voters, according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice. In Florida, Maryland, and South Carolina, which experienced some of the longest voting delays in 2012, precincts with greater populations of black and Latino voters tended to have significantly fewer voting machines and poll workers than whiter precincts. While unexpected voter turnout may have contributed to bottlenecks at polling places, the report's authors conclude that local officials' neglect and failure to prepare played a key, yet overlooked, role.
Take Florida, which experienced the longest voting delays in the country in 2012. In the 10 Florida precincts with the longest delays (which the Brennan Center measured using poll closing times) almost 70 percent of voters were Latino or black. (Most were in Miami-Dade County, home to some of the nation's largest Latino communities.) Statewide, Latino and black voters make up about 30 percent of the population.
Additionally, the 10 Florida precincts with the worst delays also faced serious shortages of voting machines and poll workers. Florida, which has no requirements for the amount of voting resources allotted to each precinct, had an exceptionally high ratio of voters to machines and voters to poll workers compared with other states.
Similarly, in South Carolina, the 10 precincts that saw the longest wait times in 2012 were all in Richland County, where African Americans make up nearly half of the population. Out of the more than 30,000 registered voters in those precincts, 63 percent were African American, more than double the statewide rate.
Those precincts also had significantly fewer voting machines and poll workers, with almost double the number of registered voters per machine or poll worker than the statewide average. By law, the state requires of no more than one voting machine for every 250 voters, a limit which was introduced as part of the Voting Rights Act.
The authors of the Brennan Center report note that Maryland does not provide data on poll workers or demographic data on its registered voters. But there are still notable racial gaps in the available data. All of the 10 precincts which had the highest number of registered voters per machine in 2012 were located in affluent, predominantly African American Prince George's County. The researchers found that P.G. County had the highest number of precincts which violated the state's standard for machine allocation, with an average of 230 registered voters per machine.
As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer points out, the findings in Prince George's County indicate that the uneven distribution of voting resources on Election Day is not necessarily about poor versus rich precincts, but rather an indication of a racial gap in how easy it is for Americans to exercise their right to vote.
A Multimedia Production by Jaeah Lee and James West | Thurs Sep. 18, 2014 6:00 AM ET
On a hazy morning last September, 144 American and Chinese government officials and high-ranking oil executives filed into a vaulted meeting room in a cloistered campus in south Xi'an, a city famous for its terra-cotta warriors and lethal smog. The Communist Party built this compound, called the Shaanxi Guesthouse, in 1958. It was part of the lead-up to Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, in which, to surpass the industrial achievements of the West, the government built steelworks, coal mines, power stations, and cement factories—displacing hundreds of thousands and clearcutting a tenth of China's forests in the process. Despite its quaint name, the guesthouse is a cluster of immense concrete structures jutting out of expansive, manicured lawns and man-made lakes dotted with stone bridges and pagodas. It also features a karaoke lounge, spa, tennis stadium, shopping center, and beauty salon.
The guests at the compound that week were gearing up for another great leap: a push to export the United States' fracking boom to China's vast shale fields—and beyond. Attendees slid into black leather chairs behind glossy rosewood tables, facing a stage flanked by large projector screens. Chinese businessmen wore high-waist slacks with belts clasped over their bellies. I watched as one thumbed through business cards bearing the logos of Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Halliburton. Behind closed doors, a select group of Chinese and American officials and executives held a "senior VIP meeting." Outside, a troop of People's Liberation Army guards marched in tight formation.
The US-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum, sponsored by the US departments of Commerce and Energy, as well as China's National Energy Administration, has convened for the last 13 years. But the focus turned to shale gas in 2009, when President Obama and then-President Hu Jintao announced an agreement to develop China's immense resources. The partnership set the stage for companies in both countries to forge deals worth tens of billions of dollars.
Here at the 2013 conference, the first American to take the podium was Gary Locke, the US ambassador to China at the time. He wore a dark suit and a striped red-and-purple tie; his slick black hair glistened in the fluorescent light. "From Sichuan to Eagle Ford, Texas, from Bohai Bay to the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio, US and Chinese companies are investing and working together to increase energy production in both countries," he proclaimed. US and Chinese companies were so tightly knit, Air China had recently started offering nonstop flights between Beijing and Houston, "making business trips much quicker for many of you gathered here."
The soft, static voice of a Chinese interpreter seeped from the headphones as young women in red vests quietly passed through each row, pausing to pour hot tea, their strides almost synchronized. Tiny plumes of steam arose from the teacups lining each table, like miniature smokestacks. It seemed fitting, because underlying all the talk of new energy was an urgency to wean China from its decades-long addiction to coal. Locke promised that shale gas would do just that: "We can make further strides to improve energy efficiency, produce cleaner energy, increase renewables, and increase supply," he asserted. "Unconventional gas, especially shale gas, is just the start."
There are two main reasons behind China's newfound zeal for gas. As Michael Liebreich, the founder of New Energy Finance, an energy market analytics firm now owned by Bloomberg LP, put it, "One is to feed the growth. There has to be energy and it has to be affordable in order to continue the growth machine. But the other one is that they've got to get off this coal."
Constituting a whopping 70 percent of China's energy supply, coal has allowed the country to become the world's second-largest economy in just a few decades. But burning coal has also caused irreparable damage to the environment and the health of China's citizens. City officials have been forced to shut down roads because drivers are blinded by soot and smog. China's Civil Aviation Administration ordered pilots to learn to land planes in low-visibility conditions to avoid flight delays and cancellations. Scientists wrote in the medical journal The Lancet that ambient particulate matter, generated mostly by cars and the country's 3,000 coal-fired power plants, killed 1.2 million Chinese peoplein 2010. In late 2013, an eight-year-old girl in Jiangsu Province was diagnosed with lung cancer; her doctor attributed it to air pollution. And earlier this year, scientists found that up to 24 percent of sulfate air pollutants—which contribute to smog and acid rain—in the western United States originated from Chinese factories manufacturing for export.
"The air quality in China has reached a kind of tipping point in the public consciousness," says Evan Osnos, The New Yorker's former China correspondent and author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. "The entire Chinese political enterprise is founded on a bargain: We will make your lives better, if you'll allow us to stay in power." As more Chinese citizens demand clean air and water, China's leaders and foreign businessmen have taken drastic measures to get rid of pollution. Some local officials have tried to wash away soot by cloud seeding, a process in which chemicals are rocket-launched into clouds to make it rain. One company is developing a column of copper coils that will use electric charges to suck soot out of the air like a Hoover. Environmental officials in the northern city of Lanzhou attempted to level its surrounding mountains to let the wind blow the soot away—not to be confused with the city's actual plan to demolish 700 mountains in order to expand its footprint by roughly the area of Los Angeles.
More: The Atlantic's James Fallows on the politics of China's environmental crisis
But China's push to wean itself from coal has also triggered a rush to develop alternative power sources. The natural gas that lies deep within its shale formations is now a top contender. By current estimates from the US Energy Information Administration, China's shale gas resources are the largest in the world, 1.7 times those in the United States. So far, fewer than 200 wells have been drilled, but another 800 are expectedby next year. By then, China aims to pump 230 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually from underground shale—enough to power every home in Chicago for two years. By 2020, the country expects to produce as much as 4.6 times that amount. It's moving at "Chinese speed," as one energy investment adviser put it—the United States took roughly twice as long to reach that volume.
Yet just as fracking technology has crossed over from the fields of Pennsylvania and Texas to the mountains of Sichuan, so have the questions about its risks and consequences. If fracking regulations in the United States are too weak, then in China the rules are practically nonexistent. Tian Qinghua, an environmental researcher at the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences, fears that fracking operations in China will repeat a pattern he's seen before. "There's a phenomenon of 'pollute first, clean up later,'" he says. "History is repeating itself."
When my colleague James West and I traveled to China last September, it didn't take long to see the toll of the country's coal addiction: James had a burning cough by our second day. On a bullet train from Beijing to Xi'an (roughly the distance between San Francisco and Phoenix), we whizzed along at 150 miles per hour through some of China's most polluted pockets, including the northeastern city of Shijiazhuang, where the smog registers at emergency levels for a third of the year—twice as often as in Beijing. A thick miasma hung heavy, clinging so low to fields of corn that it was hard to see where the earth met the dark, gray sky. Every few minutes we passed another giant coal-fired power plant, its chimneys spewing a continual billow of thick, white smoke.
By the time of our trip, villagers living near fracking wells had already complained about the deafening noise of drilling machinery, the smell of gas fumes, and strange substances in their water. One night last April, in a small southwestern town called Jiaoshi, an explosion at a shale gas drilling rig rattled residents awake, triggering a huge fire and reportedly killing eight workers. In the wake of the accident, an official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection said, "The areas where shale gas is abundant in China are already ecologically fragile, crowded, and have sensitive groundwater. The impact cannot yet be estimated."
"We call this Shale County," the driver shouted to us in the backseat as he steered the four-wheel-drive SUV up a steep mountain in Sichuan Province. The clouds faded as we climbed, revealing a quilt of farmland dotted with pingfang, or flattop houses. We drove down a road lined with new hotels, small restaurants, and hardware stores—the markings of a boomtown. Roughly the size of Minnesota, the Sichuan Basin—where many of China's experimental fracking wells are located—is home to some 100 million people, many of them farmers. It's not the only part of China with shale gas, but fracking requires a lot of water, and with a subtropical climate and proximity to the mighty Yangtze River, Sichuan has that, too, making it the nation's first fracking frontier.
With each turn, the road became narrower and muddier, until we stopped at a gate behind which a tall red-and-white drilling rig shot up as high as the lush mountains surrounding it. We were at a shale gas well owned by China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the nation's largest energy companies and its leading oil producer. Most of China was on holiday that week to commemorate 64 years since Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic, but out here there was no sign of rest. Workers in red jumpsuits drove by in bulky trucks. A drill spiraled 3,280 feet underground in search of shale gas, screeching as it churned around the clock.
An engineer whom we'll call Li Wei greeted us, peering out from under a hard hat. In his mid-20s, with a brand new degree, Li worked for a Chinese energy firm partly owned by Schlumberger, the Houston-based oil service company. Last July, Schlumberger opened a 32,000-square-foot laboratory in the region devoted to extracting hydrocarbons from shale gas resources. Like many other engineers at China's new wells, Li had never worked on a fracking operation before. We watched as he shooed away neighborhood kids playing by a brick structure straddling a pool marked "hazard" as though it were their tree house.
At first, Li said, drilling here didn't go so smoothly: "We had leaks, things falling into the well." They had to slow down operations as a result. Still, the team planned to drill and frack about eight other new wells in the area in the coming months.
China's early fracking operations face many risks, but the incentives to keep drilling are too good to pass up. Based on early sampling, Bloomberg New Energy Finance's Liebreich estimates that China is currently extracting shale gas at roughly twice the cost of the United States. Analysts expect those costs to fall as China gains experience, but even at current levels, shale gas production has been up to 40 percent cheaper—and geopolitically more desirable—than importing gas. As China's demand for natural gas continues to grow—between 2012 and 2013 it grew at 15 times the rate of the rest of the world's—domestic reserves will become increasingly important, says Liebreich: If China can continue to extract shale gas at the current cost, that "would be a game-changer." The "golden age" of natural gas that took root in North America, the International Energy Agency declared in June, is now spreading to China.
All that growth comes with a steep learning curve. Fracking requires highly trained engineers who use specialized equipment to mix vast quantities of water with chemicals and sand and shoot it into the ground at high pressures, cracking the dense shale bed and releasing a mix of gas, water, and other sediments to the surface. That's why service companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton have much to gain: China needs technology and know-how—and is willing to pay handsomely. "Selling the picks and shovels for the gold rush would be the analogy," Liebreich says.
No wonder, then, that multinational oil and gas giants have pounced. In 2012, Royal Dutch Shell inked a contract with CNPC. A company executive pledged to invest around $1 billion a year for the next several years in shale gas. BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Hess also have signedjoint venturesto exploreshale prospects with Chinese energy companies. In return, Chinese companies have invested in US fracking operations. Since 2010 the Chinese energy company Sinopec, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), and the state-owned Sinochem spent at least $8.7 billion to buy stakes in shale gas operations in Alabama, Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming. Chesapeake Energy alone got $4.52 billion out of its deals with CNOOC.
More: The Atlantic's James Fallows on the American companies working in China
"The reason Chinese oil companies have gone after Chesapeake in the past year was because they wanted to apply the technology to tap the world's No. 1 shale gas reserves in China," Laban Yu, a Hong Kong investment analyst, told Bloomberg News. Whether or not China will be able to replicate the American shale gas revolution, it is clearly determined to try.
One humid and drizzly night, James and I found ourselves in Chongqing, a hilly metropolis on the Yangtze whose population is more than triple that of New York City. Chongqing's GDP grew an astonishing 12.3 percent in 2013, 4.6 points higher than the runaway Chinese economy as a whole. Its skyline looks like every major world city smashed into one—including near full-size replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. The area is also home to castles modeled after those in France's Loire Valley, as well as "Foreigner Street," a 24/7 theme park where visitors can wander through an Egyptian pyramid haunted house, play mahjong by a Venetian canal, or sing karaoke under Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer. Foreigner Street also boasts a 1,000-toilet public bathroom, the world's largest.
Aerial view of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings in Chongqing, China, August 27, 2013 Chang xu/Imaginechina/AP
Chongqing is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, in both height and sprawl, with a half-million new residents arriving each year. It is something of a gateway to China's vast and relatively undeveloped west, booming like Chicago in the late 19th century. Its per capita natural gas consumption rate is one of the highest in the country and is currently rising by 8.5 percent a year, according to a reportby the US Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the natural gas produced in Sichuan's fields ends up here. The city's officials expect that the municipality will need 530 billion cubic feet of natural gas by 2015—2.5 times the figure in 2011.
Chongqing's urban center is only 200 miles from the mountainside fracking fields we visited, but it might as well have been a different planet. From our hostel, we followed the neon lights until we reached Jiefangbei, a glitzy shopping district named after the tower it encircles, built in the 1940s to commemorate victory over the Japanese during World War II. Now banks, hotels, and skyscrapers dwarf the monument, their electric facades flashing the night sky, their tops fading into the clouds. People clutching umbrellas hurried past the Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Gucci stores that were studded with giant lightbulbs.
Chongqing's unbridled growth is paralleled by a widening wealth gap and rampant corruption. It's a place where laobans—bosses—reserve $100 tables and drink $200 bottles of Moët & Chandon at nightclubs mere blocks from where porters haul shipments of clothes or steel goods from the riverbanks to shops atop the city's steep hills for a few pennies. It's also so overrun by triads—Chinese mafias sometimes deployed by the government as backup muscle—that when the city cracked down on crime in 2009, one criminologist estimated that at least 77 officials were arrested for colluding with gang members and protecting them from the law.
More: The Guardian's Jonathan Kaiman on local corruption and grassroots protests
"Let some get rich first, and others will follow" is the philosophy that has driven China's economic reforms since 1979. But the disparity between rich and poor has grown so much that, during a meeting of China's top political advisers earlier this year, one attendee opined that the quality of life for 90 percent of peasants was no better than it was 40 years ago, in part due to burdensome medical expenses and limited access to education. In April, researchers at the University of Michigan calculated that in 2010, China's Gini coefficient—a measure of income inequality—was 0.55, compared to 0.45 in the United States. The United Nations considers anything above 0.4 a threat to a country's stability.
"You've got this 'damn the torpedoes' development strategy that sets out all sorts of quotas, expectations, and productivity targets that are not constrained or balanced in any way by environmental protection or public participation to hold people to account," says Sophie Richardson, director of Human Rights Watch's China program. Throw in corruption, she adds, and you see a toxic mix, one that has contributed to an unprecedented level of social unrest. By the latest official estimate, China has an average of 270 "mass incidents"—unofficial gatherings of 100 or more protesters—every day. In a 2014 study of mass incidents, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that they were usually sparked by pollution, land acquisitions, labor disputes, and forced demolitions.
Fracking may soon join that list. Protests have already stymied drilling operations in Sichuan. From 2010 to March 2013, the Wall Street Journalreported, Shell had lost 535 days of work at 19 of its shale gas wells due to villager blockades or government requests to halt operations. "There are a lot of people in China who don't want to take political risks—they have too much at stake," Osnos says. "But when it comes to something as elemental as their health, and that's what pollution really is about, then they're willing to take a risk."
Despite being touted as a cleaner alternative to dirty coal, fracking in China comes with plenty of environmental problems. The country's shale gas lies deeper underground and in more complex geologic formations than those deposits in the flatlands of Pennsylvania, North Dakota, or Texas. As a result, researchers estimated that the Chinese wells will require up to twice the amount of water used at American sites to crack open the reserves. Indeed, researcher Tian Qinghua points out that it's hard to imagine how there will be enough water to support an American-style fracking boom in a country with less water per capitathan Namibia or Swaziland, where land twice the size of New York City turns to desert every year. Today more than a quarter of the country has already dried up, the equivalent of about a third of the continental United States.
An engineer who formerly designed cigarette and paper factories in the 1990s, Tian—who is in his 50s with spiked hair, rectangular glasses, and a professorial air—traces his environmental conversion back to the time he trained a group of technicians from Burma at a sugar factory in Yunnan Province. If they built a factory like this one back home, they asked him, would their river become black like the Kaiyuan River? "I began to doubt my career," he told us, sipping hot green tea out of a glass beer stein. "All the factories I designed were heavy polluters." He quit his job and began pursuing environmental research. "I wanted to pick a career I could be proud of by the time I retire," he said.
Anatomy of a Fracking Site
Drillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The wastewater that flows back up with the gas is then transported to disposal wells, where it is injected deep into porous rock. Scientists now believe that the pressure and lubrication of that wastewater can cause faults to slip and unleash an earthquake. Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett Brownell
In addition to his concerns about fracking's enormous appetite for water, Tian also worries about its waste: the chemical-laden water that comes back out of the rock with the natural gas. In the United States, it is typically stored in steel containers or open pits and later injected underground in oil and gas waste wells. In China's early wells, wastewater is often dumped directly into streams and rivers. If fracking—most of which takes place in China's breadbasket—contaminates water or soil, Tian argues, it could jeopardize the nation's food supply. In a seismically active area like Sichuan, leaks are a major concern: Even a small earthquake—which, emerging evidence suggests, wastewater injection could trigger—might compromise a well's anti-leak system, causing more pollution. In the past year alone, more than 30 earthquakes were recorded in the Sichuan area.
In 2012, Tian and his team from the Sichuan Academy of Environmental Sciences proposed environmental standards for fracking in the province. Lacking financial and political support from the government, the proposal languished in the bureaucratic process and never became law. In June, Beijing officials announced that China will adopt new standards for shale gas development before the end of this year. But without proper enforcement, Tian says the standards will not necessarily prevent China's growing fracking industry from discharging waste and pollution—a cost he fears the environment can't afford.
Back at the guesthouse compound in Xi'an one evening, after the conference had adjourned for the day, we sat for a lavish banquet of salty braised greens, fried eggplant, steamed fish, and roasted pork. A thin film of soot clung to the marble floors, tablecloths, and curtains.
I shared a table with Ming Sung, a lean, wispy-haired man in his late 60s who serves as the Asia-Pacific chief representative for Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based partnership between environmental advocates and the private sector that's focused on reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Sung, who spent 25 years as an engineer and manager for Shell, now splits his time between Texas and China, helping US and Chinese oil and gas companies lower their emissions.
Sung told us that shale gas, despite its reputation as a cleaner fuel, could be a huge pollution problem, if the technology wasn't handled correctly. For example, he says, if "you don't seal the wells properly, methane will leak." Although natural gas can generate electricity at half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, methane is as much as 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period. (Some scientists argue that carbon dioxide is still more potent because it lasts longer in the atmosphere than does methane, which has an atmospheric lifetime of 12 years.) The EPA estimates that drilling for natural gas emits 0.04 to 0.30 grams of methane per well per second in the United States, the annual greenhouse gas equivalent of as many as 24 million cars.
But beyond the mechanical risks of fracking, there's a more fundamental problem: Shale gas might not even significantly reduce China's coal dependence. In the United States, fracking proponents have argued that natural gas is crucial to help with the shift from the dirtiest fossil fuels to renewable resources. But that argument falls apart in China. Unlike what happened in the United States, the Energy Information Administration's future projections of China's energy demand suggest that in 2040, coal will continue to dominate while natural gas, even with a golden era, will fuel only 8 percent of demand. "The whole pie is growing so rapidly that you still see a very carbon-intensive mix," says Rachel Cleetus, a senior economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. As China continues to grow its economy and expand its cities, it will need every resource it can get—coal, gas, solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. James Fallows, a senior correspondent at The Atlantic who spent many years covering China, notes that the Chinese government "is pushing harder on more fronts than any other government on Earth" to develop energy sources other than coal. "The question is, will they catch up? Who will win that race between how bad things are and how they're trying to deal with them?"
Despite all these unknowns, the Obama administration is now encouraging other countries to tap their shale reserves. A year after Obama and Hu announced their shale gas agreement, in 2010, the State Department launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative, an "effort to promote global energy security and climate security around the world," as one researcher put it. As a JPMorgan research memo stated, "Unless the popular environmental concerns are so extreme, most countries with the resources will not ignore the [shale gas] opportunity."
Toward the end of our trip, we visited a village near Luzhou, a port city on the Yangtze with a population bigger than Los Angeles. We met a middle-aged woman named Dai Zhongfu, who told us that in 2011, Shell and PetroChina set up a shale gas well right next to her house. Standing under the shade of her plum tree and sporting a cropped haircut and a navy blue windbreaker, Dai said that occasionally someone would show up here and take a water sample from her well. They never identified themselves or returned with the results. By the time we arrived, Dai and her neighbors had grown wary of outside visitors; when we first met, her neighbors mistook us for water testers and advised her not to bother talking to us.
As the drilling continued, Dai said, her groundwater started to run dry, and now only rain replenished it. She doubted the water was fit for drinking. "After you use it, there's a layer of white scum clinging to the pot," she said. They couldn't even use it to cook rice anymore. "You tell me if there's been an impact!"
When I asked Dai why she and her neighbors hadn't protested, she said, "You know that we rural folk really have no recourse." The drilling was over, and now that the well was producing, all that was left were a few surveillance cameras and a concrete wall. "Now there's no chance they'll pay attention to us—where we get our drinking water, how we use it," Dai said. "People here have been abused so much that they're afraid." ∎
FBI data classifies all victims of justified homicides by police as "felons"—why?
Jaeah LeeSep. 10, 2014 2:08 PM
"Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son": Louis Head, stepfather of Michael Brown, holds a sign in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
One consensus that's emerged in the month since a police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: We have no way of telling exactly how often these types incidents occur on a national scale. The FBI's database of justifiable homicides—in which some local law enforcement agencies voluntarily report how many alleged criminals died at the hands of police in the line of duty—has come under particular scrutiny for giving a very limited view of the use of lethal force by law enforcement across the country.
But while many reports (from USA Today, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and others) have rightly focused on the gaps in the FBI data, there's a bigger question we seem to be glossing over: Would Brown's death show up in that data to begin with?
The killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty.
The killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.
That raises the question: What is a felon? "A felon in this case is someone who is committing a felony criminal offense at the time of the justifiable homicide," according to a statement provided by the bureau's Uniform Crime Reporting staff. That definition differs from the common legal understanding of a felon as someone who has been convicted of a felony.
Felonies are usually understood as serious criminal offenses such as murder and assault. But what does the FBI count as a felony, then? "We do not have a standard definition for a felony criminal offense as this varies from law enforcement jurisdiction to jurisdiction," the UCR staff states.
Let's say a cop shoots and kills a suspect and later found to be justified in doing so because he felt his life was in danger. And let's say that the local law enforcement agency later reports the death as a justifiable homicide to the FBI. Under the FBI's definition, the victim is then counted as a felon killed by a peace officer in the line of duty, regardless of whether that suspect was in fact a criminal, or may have later been found innocent.
These loose definitions raise some important questions in the wake of Michael Brown's death. Was Brown committing a felony when Officer Darren Wilson shot him, for instance? Ferguson authorities have claimed that Brown was a robbery suspect and that he assaulted Wilson prior to the shooting. But as is often the case with lethal use-of-force cases, the exact circumstances of Brown's death remain in dispute. So long as the police have the final say, we'll be stuck with unsatisfactory data that fails to give us the big picture on what happens when encounters with the law turn deadly.
Plus: the crazy way the FBI classifies all police shooting victims as criminals.
Jaeah LeeSep. 10, 2014 6:00 AM
Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, August 2014
Since a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one month ago, reporters and researchers have scrambled to find detailed data on how often cops wound or kill civilians. What they've uncovered has been frustratingly incomplete: Perhaps not surprisingly, law enforcement agencies don't keep very good stats on incidents that turn deadly. In short, it's a mystery exactly how many Americans are shot by the police every year.
However, as I and othershavereported, there is some national data out there. It's not complete, but it provides a general idea of how many people die at the hands of the police—and the significant racial disparity among them:
• The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting program records that 410 people were killed in justifiable homicides by police in 2012. While the FBI collects information on the victims' race, it does not publish the overall racial breakdown.
• The Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that between 2003 and 2009 there were more than 2,900 arrest-related deaths involving law enforcement. Averaged over seven years, that's about 420 deaths a year. While BJS does not provide the annual number of arrest-related deaths by race or ethnicity, a rough calculation based on its data shows that black people were about four times as likely to die in custody or while being arrested than whites.
Note: Most arrest-related deaths by homicide are by law enforcement, not private citizens. Rate calculated by dividing deaths by the average Census population for each race in 2003-09. "Other" includes American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiians, other Pacific Islander, and persons of two or more races.
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Vital Statistics System offers another view into officers' use of deadly force. In 2011, the CDC counted 460 people who died by "legal intervention" involving a firearm discharge. In theory, this includes any death caused by a law enforcement or state agent (it does not include legal executions).
The CDC's cause-of-death data, based on death certificates collected at the state level, also reveals a profound racial disparity among the victims of police shootings.Between 1968 and 2011, black people were between two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites. Annually, over those 40 years, a black person was on average 4.2 times as likely to get shot and killed by a cop than a white person. The disparity dropped to 2-to-1 between 2003 and 2009, lower than the 4-to-1 disparity shown in the BJS data over those same years. The CDC's database of emergency room records also shows similarracial disparities among those injured by police.
However, these numbers provide an extremely limited view of the lethal use of force by law enforcement. For reasons that have been outlined by USA Today, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and others, the FBI data is pretty unreliable and represents a conservative estimate. Some 18,000 agencies contribute to the FBI's broader crime reporting program, but only about 750 reported their justifiable homicide figures in 2012. New York state, for example, does not report justifiable homicides to the FBI, according to bureau spokesman Stephen G. Fischer Jr.
The FBI's data only counts "felons," but its definition of a felon differs from the common legal understanding of a felon as someone who has been convicted of a felony.
It's also not clear that Brown's death—the circumstances of which remain in dispute—would show up in the FBI's data in the first place. (Ferguson reported two homicides to the 2012 Uniform Crime Report, but neither were justifiable homicides, according to Fischer.) The FBI's justifiable homicide data only counts "felons," but its definition of a felon differs from the common legal understanding of a felon as someone who has been convicted of a felony. "A felon in this case is someone who is committing a felony criminal offense at the time of the justifiable homicide," according to a statement provided by Uniform Crime Reporting staff. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook describes the following scenario to illustrate what constitutes the justifiable killing of a criminal caught in the act:
A police officer answered a bank alarm and surprised the robber coming out of the bank. The robber saw the responding officer and fired at him. The officer returned fire, killing the robber. The officer was charged in a court of record as a matter of routine in such cases.
And since the classification of felonies—usually serious criminal offenses such as murder and assault—may vary by jurisdiction, UCR staff states, there is no standard definition of the word.
This leaves much room for interpretation. Was Michael Brown committing a felony at the time Officer Darren Wilson shot him? Local authorities in Ferguson have claimed that Brown was a robbery suspect and that he assaulted Wilson prior to the shooting. Whether Brown's case might be classified as a justifiable homicide hinges on the details of what happened in the moments before his death and whether local investigations determine that Wilson was justified to shoot. The FBI's records ultimately rely on police departments' word and the assumption that the victim was a criminal.
BJS, meanwhile, collects its data from state-level coordinators that identify arrest-related deaths in part by surveying law enforcement agencies. But the majority of these coordinators do not contact each law enforcement agency in their states, so BJS has no way of telling how many deaths have gone unidentified, according to spokesperson Kara McCarthy. BJS collects some details about each reported death, such as how the victims died, whether they were armed, whether they were intoxicated or displayed signs of mental illness, and whether charges had been filed against them at the time of death. It does not collect information about whether the victims had any prior convictions.
Some of the gaps in the FBI and BJS data can be filled in by the CDC data, but there are limitations here, too. The CDC data does not evaluate whether these killings were justified or not. The agency categorizes fatalities by International Classification of Diseases codes, which are used by coroners and medical examiners to record the medical cause, not the legal justification, of death. And death certificates aren't immune to reporting problems, explains Robert Anderson, chief of the CDC's Mortality Statistics Branch. This data is still "at the mercy of the medical examiner and coroner," who often write death certificates and may not include details about officer involvement. Anderson says those details are necessary in order for the CDC to categorize a death as a legal intervention.
Better data, and the will to collect it, is necessary to get the full picture of how many criminals and law-abiding citizens are killed by police every year. Until then Michael Brown—and others like him—may never even become a statistic.
We also spoke with the six-time Grammy nominee about religion, almond milk, and feuding with Eminem.
Jaeah LeeSep. 2, 2014 6:00 AM
Moby is tired. Since he released his 11th and latest studio album,Innocents, last October, the six-time Grammy nominee has been crisscrossing the country on tour and spinning DJ sets at electronic dance music festivals, not to mention starring in a video with Miley Cyrus and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne. But then again, he reminds me, "I've been traveling for the last 25 years."
Indeed, the last quarter century has been an epic voyage for the 48-year-old musician. Born in Harlem and raised in Connecticut, Moby (born Richard Melville Hall, an actual descendent of Moby Dick author Herman Melville) has led a prolific, star-studded career that has included collaborations with Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Slash, Gwen Stefani, and countless other A-listers. Longtime fans will remember his punk-inflected days in the early '90s, although most of us are more familiar with his quieter, cinematic sounds, which have graced Hollywood blockbusters such as Tomorrow Never Dies and The Bourne Identity.
When he isn't writing, spinning, performing, or recording his music, Moby likes to raise some hell. A longtime vegan and animal rights activist, he has testified before Congress in defense of net neutrality and raised money to keep California from shuttering its domestic-violence shelters. But unlike his heroes—Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Chuck D among them—Moby usually steers clear of activism in the music itself. "Whenever I've tried to write issue-oriented or political music," he explains, "it just hasn't been good."
In advance of our exclusive rollout of his latest music video, "The Last Day," Moby regaled me with stories about (almost) rubbing shoulders with Prince, his activist origins, and coming to terms with his feud with Eminem. Check out the video below, and stay for our conversation.
Mother Jones: So, tell me what you've been up to this past year?
Moby:Innocents. What I love about making albums in the 21st century is that so few people buy albums! I can make an album without any commercial concerns whatsoever. There's something sort of emancipating about that. An artist in 2014 who is thinking about album sales is either sadly deluded or has to make so many commercial compromises that it sort of takes the joy out of making music.
MJ: I can kind of sympathize with that as a journalist working both in print and online. So how does a musician make a living now?
Moby: Oddly enough, I think that the current climate enables a lot of musicians to do relatively well. Twenty-five years ago, you could be a bass player in a folk-rock band and do pretty well—that sort of means that you're going to have to go get a day job. But a lot of my friends have learned how to write classical music for movies and produce other people and do remixes, and DJ and go on tour, and do all these different things. The more diverse their approach, the better their chances of actually having a career.
MJ: Like much of your work, the tracks on Innocence have a subtle quality. Is that intentional, to make music that contrasts with—as you phrased it at one point—the "bombastic" tunes we hear so much, in the Top 40 and whatnot?
Moby: Yeah, I have nothing against bombastic music, but when it comes to making albums, I'd prefer to make music that has a sort of vulnerable subtlety to it. That's what I was trying to accomplish with the song and the video.
MJ: Over the years, you've collaborated with icons from Michael Jackson to Lou Reed. Who's on your wish list?
"I think it'd be great if Prince made an album of just romantic, slow ballads."
Moby: Well, my main interest is just to work with people who have beautiful, interesting, emotive voices; I'm not too concerned whether someone is famous. But I guess the two people on the planet that I would love to work with: One is James Blake—I just think his voice is so touching and beautiful, and his approach to music is really interesting. And also, at some point in my life, I'd love to make an album with Prince. I love Prince. I've just never been interested in his fast, exciting music. But I love the ballads that he writes, and I think it'd be great if he made an album of just romantic, slow ballads.
MJ: Have you ever approached him?
Moby: Once, in 1988, I danced next to him and his security guard at a nightclub on 14th Street in New York City. I think it was called Nell's. And then, about 12 years ago, I dated a woman who had grown up in Minneapolis and at one point had gone to a party at Prince's house and turned down the offer to have a threesome with him. So that's the only contact I've had. I can't even call either of them technically a contact. It's more just like six degrees of separation.
MJ: So, you talk about being drawn to subtlety, yet some of your earlier work had inflections of punk and was a lot louder. Was there a moment of transition for you?
"To choose one type of music at the exclusion of another would feel kind of sad and arbitrary."
Moby: When I was very young, I played in a punk-rock band, but I also studied music theory and classical music. In the late '80s and early '90s, I was playing a lot of electronic music but also playing drums in a punk band and writing experimental film music for friends of mine. I guess I've never seen the need to choose one type of music at the exclusion of another. That would feel kind of sad and arbitrary.
MJ: You're credited, though, for helping usher electronic dance music into the mainstream.
Moby: In some ways it's hard to see electronic music as a genre because the word "electronic" just refers to how it's made. Hip-hop is electronic music. Most reggae these days is electronic. Pop is electronic. House music, techno, all these sorts of ostensibly disparate genres are sort of being created with the same equipment. So it's sort of ironic for me to be associated exclusively with electronic music considering my background is punk rock and classical.
But in the early '90s, when I was making techno and electronic dance music, it really felt like I was working in this maligned ghetto. A lot of music journalists wouldn't take it seriously, so it's been nice to watch electronic music rise to prominence. One of the things I love is how egalitarian it is. Up until the rise of electronic music, if you were a musician in Portugal or Germany or Italy or Japan, and you didn't sing in English, you really were limited: You could be successful in the country where people understood your language. The world of electronic music is completely international. You have DJs from Finland making huge records for people in New Zealand, DJs in South Korea making huge records for people in France. By the fact that it doesn't cost anything to make, and that it transcends language, nation, and barrier, it accidentally accomplishes a lot of really remarkable things.
MJ: So does Eminem now look foolish for claiming "no one listens to techno"?
"What I also found really odd, when I was criticizing Eminem for being misogynistic, is how few people came to my defense."
Moby: I have a weird passing respect for him. I think he's quite talented. And in 2004, he put out a song called, I forget what it was called, but he made this really powerful video that was a call to arms to get inner-city youth to vote. The fact that he dissed me—he said I was too old and nobody listens to techno—it's sort of ironic, because now he's quite a lot older than I was when he made fun of me for being too old, and clearly everybody in the world is listening to techno. But I learned a lesson: Never have public feuds with anyone who's surrounded by people who carry guns.
The way the feud started was that I had assumed, as we got into the '90s, that things like homophobia and misogyny were old, pernicious things that were sort of fading away. And I found it incredibly disheartening that in the late '90s, suddenly pop culture became even more misogynistic and more homophobic, and so I criticized Eminem for having lyrics that were egregiously homophobic and egregiously misogynistic.
What I also found really odd, when I was criticizing Eminem for being misogynistic, is how few people came to my defense. I'm not trying to look for pity or sympathy. I was just surprised that so many people in the world of entertainment seemed to be okay with misogyny and homophobia as long as they were profiting from it. And I asked this one question, which was not necessarily for Eminem, but any musician: If you take a song that talks about committing acts of violence towards women and gay people, and if you change the subject and instead have songs about committing acts of violence against Jews and blacks, would the entertainment industry still be okay with it? Clearly the answer is no.
MJ: Your song "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad" came out around that time. Any connection?
Moby: Not really. I always just made music that resonates with me emotionally. A lot of my heroes are people who've written very political, issue-oriented music—Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and John Lennon and Neil Young and Chuck D. I wish that I could write politically inspired and issue-inspired music as well as Neil Young, but honestly, I just can't.
MJ: But you're a serious activist offstage. How did that all begin?
Moby: I was raised by very progressive intellectuals. At Thanksgiving and Christmas we'd sit around and talk politics and semiotics and art theory. It was instilled in me that every individual should do what they can to try and make things better. I have such a disparate list of causes, but the guiding principle is simply—and maybe this sounds obnoxious—that I'm offended by two things. One, when the actions of institutions or individuals involve the imposition of will upon people or animals. That violates my basic ethical understanding of the world. You can do basically whatever you want to, but the moment that you impose your will on another person or animal, that's when we are allowed to say you have committed an ethical breach.
"I'm offended by the is-ought fallacy, which has been used to justify slavery, women not being allowed to vote, children working in factories."
The other is: As a philosophy major, there's one logical fallacy that really stuck with me. It's called the is–ought fallacy. It states that because something is, it ought to be. That's been used to justify slavery, women not being allowed to vote, children working in factories, cigarette smoking, the use of DDT. It's so pernicious and asinine, but people still keep going along with it. When we look at factory farming, for example, the justification that most people have is, "Oh, well, we've always had factory farming, therefore we should continue to have factory farming." It's so illogical. The only people who benefit from it are the people who own the factory farms—everyone else is just lazy or complicit.
MJ: What other experiences or people have shaped your outlook?
Moby: Everyone from Jane Goodall to John Robbins, Peter Singer: I can't even count the activist heroes I've had. Two of the things that I've learned over the years is how can you be an effective and sustainable activist? And I don't mean driving a Prius. How can you apply yourself in a way that can be sustained over decades? Because I've seen a lot of my activist friends get burned out. And I see a lot of activists wasting time on actions that might not necessarily achieve their goals.
Moby: I've seen friends who are so well intentioned, and they have these great NGOs or charities, and at some point they decide to have a benefit concert. So they spend a year organizing a concert when they know nothing about organizing concerts, and at the end of the day either the concert doesn't happen or it does, and they end up losing money and not drawing awareness to what they're doing.
MJ: What would you consider a successful model of activism?
"For me to go up against Monsanto in a financial realm is absurd. But on a media level, a grassroots level, that's where we win."
Moby: I think it's really being clear-eyed and having goals that are in line with a rational understanding of your resources. If I'm fighting factory farming, I don't have their financial resources, but I have media resources they don't have. So for me to go up against Monsanto in a financial realm is absurd. But on a media level, a grassroots level, that's where we win. Luckily, in the online platform insincerity becomes pretty apparent pretty quickly.
MJ: Which brings me to Gristle, your 2010 book of essays about factory farming and meat consumption.
Moby: I've been an animal rights activist and a vegan for 28 years. The entire time, I've asked myself: How do I best advance an animal rights agenda? At the time my friend Miyun Park at the Humane Society and I put out Gristle, there was this new wave of animal media from Food Inc. to Jonathan Safran [Foer]'s book EatingAnimals to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. We wanted to put out a very factual resource that would be a companion to all of this other media. It's not a fun book, and it's not really a pop-culture book. It's more academic, in a way.
MJ: Can we expect more books from you in the future?
Moby: I hope so. I'm not quite sure what. I'm writing a memoir right now about my life in New York from 1989 to 1999.
MJ: You've identified as a Christian. How do you square your religious views with your 2002 song "We Are All Made of Stars," which seems to espouse evolution over creationism?
"If I had to label myself now, I'd call myself a Taoist-Christian-agnostic quantum mechanic."
Moby: It's a great question. In high school I was a punk-rock atheist. Then I became what I'll call a sort of Kierkegaardian Christian. There was a time when I was a very serious Christian. Over time, I started becoming more and more aware of the vastness and complexity of the universe, which led me away from any sort of conventional Christianity. I realized the universe is 15 billion years old and unspeakably complicated. I still love the teachings of Christ, but I also believe that the human condition prevents us from having any true objective knowledge and understanding of the universe. All human belief systems are inherently flawed. If I had to label myself now, I'd call myself a Taoist-Christian-agnostic quantum mechanic. Also, there's nothing in the actual Bible that limits a Christian in their appreciation of or interest in science. Anti-science is purely a function of ignorant fundamentalism.
MJ: Before I let you go, I've gotta ask: As a vegan who's into sustainability, what's your take on almond milk?
Moby: I make my own every now and then. It takes about 30 seconds and tastes great. But honestly, I'm not too concerned about almond milk.