The anatomy of misinformation from a police (LA Sheriff’s Department) Twitter example

Ok, this post risks focusing on small things when there is, in fact, a terrible thing in play: two LASD deputies were ambushed in their car by a gunman who hospitalized them both. It looks like both deputies are hanging in there, and that is great. I wish them whole and well, soon, and the very best care possible so they can be with their loved ones for a long time.

But also, LASD officers killed two men in South LA recently, one in a firefight in Compton and another Dijon Kizzee, in south LA, who was riding his bicycle and was shot over 20 times. Their lives mattered, and the explainations from the LASD, in Mr. Kizzee’s case in particular, are not convincing.

These are the important issues, but I am not particularly qualified to speak to them. Instead, I want to present a little draft case study on misinformation and how it works using social media.

There are news stories circulating—not very many, but enough—that “protesters yelled that they want the deputies to die.” And that is a problem because it is a dangerous, de-humanizing idea, and I want to spend some time with it because it illustrates just how social media can generate misinformation, or last dodgy information, even without Russian trolls to help it along. TMZ’s headline:

Not even trying to be responsible. TMZ, you suck, you have always sucked.

The “protesters want the police to die” story is covered in the news stories, here:

ABC.news story

NBC story

FoxNews

When I critically examine the evidence presented in the stories, I see the following things:

1) there are no photos of a huge crowd in any photo. All the shots are close-ups of individuals (stories where people actually turn out for a protest usually do not have to scramble for images; these are all lousy, even the LA Times which has excellent photogs);


2) once the click-baiting “protesters yell terrible things” is covered (quickly), the stories focus on content: the deputies or the arrest of a KPCC journalist, Josie Huang (which means, click-bait title notwithstanding, the events didn’t merit putting in tons of reporter time, unlike the latter two stories);


3) a report from one eyewitness who credibly relates what he saw, which I think basically describes the actions documented in


4) a cellphone video held by the “protesters” themselves (which I will get to in a second)


5) a tweet from the Sheriff’s office account, which I also need to discuss;


6) a Tweet from a KPCC reporter who was one of two people arrested at the scene because she supposedly failed to follow instructions, etc etc etc who refers to “a handful of protesters” and


7) our mayor condemning the sentiment expressed.

In terms of overlap, it seems pretty clear from reviewing all these bits that 3 through 6 seem to be relating, from different viewpoints, the activities shown in the video (#4). The last is our Mayor taking the easily picked fruit opportunity to reassure the police that he thinks saying they should die is bad. Not the wrong sentiment, for sure, and all part of political leadership, undoubtedly, but it’s along the lines of kissing babies.

The question becomes: when is a protest a protest, and when it is a man with a YouTube channel trying to increase social media hits? Because I see the latter, not the former, in just about all of this.

The video comes from a channel that has 419 subscribers (which is chicken feed in YouTube terms). It is a shaky, 40-minute long video from the “protesters” themselves where nothing much happens. We spend a lot of time watching them watching cars go by, which is itself an indictment of pedestrian amenities in LA more than anything else. There aren’t really any other people around them, so calling this a “protest” is bestowing dignity and intentionality that doesn’t seem merited based on what we got here.(1) The police they engage with handle themselves professionally as far as I can see. And then we get to hear the “protesters” saying various shitty things and insisting they want to enter the hospital. The things yelled are spelled out in this Fox News story:

“That’s why you’re dying one by one, you stupid f—s,” a man can be heard saying. “Y’all gonna die one by one. This ain’t gonna stop.”

“You’re next with the f—— hot pocket,” a man shouted.

“I want to deliver a message to the family of the [inaudible]: I hope they f—— die,” a man yelled.

“You’re next with the f—— hot pocket,” a man shouted.

“I want to deliver a message to the family of the [inaudible]: I hope they f—— die,” a man yelled.

Ok if these are protest chants, they are the worst ones I have ever heard. “A man said”….yes, but in at least two of these it sound like the same man. My hearing isn’t all that great, though, and I obviously wasn’t there, so let’s forget that and go big here. Yeah. Even if you treat these all as different people saying these things….there are maaaaaybe five people. Five.

Thanks to a FoxNews affiliate featuring the video, it has at the time of this writing over 160K views. Now, for a 419 subscriber YouTuber, that can be a big-ish deal. So far, i haven’t seen advertising, but this numbers are were companies begin to pay attention. For videos that do attract advertising, 100K and above can be decent-ish paydays, ranging towards $1500 depending on the advertisers. That isn’t bad granted that this is not polished content. YouTube videos like this are speculative: you won’t hit the 1 million views unless you are very very lucky and you likely won’t be very very lucky unless you make your own luck.

You might also get lucky and have your long, meandering video edited down to a much smaller, more menacing-sounding clip by a YouTube channel owned by the Chinese government. Gosh, that’s sure swell of them. I am sure whoever edited this bit for us was just being helpful and there was no other reason or anything. Cough.

It’s entirely possible that this YouTuber is sincere in their protest, as are his handful of peers. Trying to manipulate social media can be a political tactic instead of a profit strategy. That still doesn’t mean the action or the video is analogous to BLM protests, and it does not mean that BLM protesters share this guy’s feelings or support what he says.

So let’s get to how this likely got picked up by Fox in the first place. The Sheriff’s office tweeted this:

  1. Journalists and editors: Tweets are NOT evidence of anything other than what people say on Twitter; and
  2. I’m going to just say it: it’s a weird tweet. The LASD official feed seems almost never to divulge specifics about active law enforcement actions until they are resolved, and not even then. Their feed is usually very staid, PR, public information stuff: missing people, the Sheriff doing the kissing babies routine (giving out backpacks, wearing a mask, etc), general announcement “law enforcement at Melrose & 3rd, stay out of the area” etc. Useful, and, I’d argue, responsible communication for the most part. But this Tweet is a bad idea.

In all my perusing the feed, the department really doesn’t says things like “Hey dirtbags at Melrose and 3rd, PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS.” Because that would be weird. Just like this “hey protesters yelling ‘we hope they die’ ” tweet is weird.

As a result of its specificity, I think this tweet, just like the eyewitness and the KPCC journalist, refers to activities of the small group in the video. Now, technically, they DO call themselves protesters. Should the LASD and subsequent media accounts take them at their word go forward with that language. After all, who can claim to represent “protest”? And yet….this is irresponsible social media and media.

If I called myself the Queen of England and walked naked down Crenshaw, the reports would be “woman calling herself the Queen of England walked naked down Crenshaw.” They wouldn’t say “The Queen of England walked down Crenshaw.” Even if I tweeted it.

It’s a bad idea–and bumping up against unethical–for the LASD to post off-the-cuff like this about active events: specifics are easy to get wrong in the moment. And once that happens, the information environment is corrupted.

Really read that tweet. What does it mean? To whom is it really addressed? Do they just want the people who are yelling “we hope they die” to move out of the way, or should all the people move out of the way? Do the people standing in front of the exits and entrances but saying nothing get to stay, then? Does the qualifier include all the protesters there because all the protesters are yelling that one thing? Or do the protesters yelling other, less rotten things get to block the ambulances?

Really, what is the “who are yelling ‘we hope they die’doing in that Tweet? (None of the video evidence we have so far shows anybody saying “we hope they die.” There’s no “we” in any of the statements I could find documented.)

Now, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but still. Who is tweeting this information? An officer at the scene? Somebody who heard this was happening from dispatch or command? Somebody who saw video that hasn’t as yet been released to the rest of us?

By referring to the people as “protesters” (a stretch by the available evidence) and including this little descriptor, this is a special kind of Tweet—a priming Tweet. With priming, the tweet is addressed to an audience, and not protesters. What the LASD tweeter wanted was to get it out there that some mean things were getting said—that information was for the rest of us, which is why the ‘who are yelling’ phrase plunked in there is so useless and confusing when it’s read as a real instruction to people actually there. It’s not. It’s theater.

I mean, if an officer tweets “hey stop or I”ll shoot” and blasts that into the world does that count as a caution so he doesn’t actually have to say it to the suspect? OF COURSE NOT.

Priming is a communication strategy that sets people up to think in a specific way about information: Look at the bad protestors saying the bad things about us and endangering human life by getting in the way of the ambulance.

Do I think this was some grand, sinister plot from the LASD? That’s actually the worse part of this– No, I don’t. Social media doesn’t need intent to work misinformation magic, even though there’s lot of manipulation going on here. (The Chinese government channel type knows exactly what they are doing and why.)

Instead, I think police officers and staffers are human beings, and when terrible things happen, human beings have emotions and social media trades on emotions—the more big-hearted you are, the better. The person running the account, feeling the things it’s natural to feel when colleagues and peers are gunned down, hears something that adds fuels to their emotions–there are people saying terrible things–and emotion fuels the tweet.

It’s also why this story got lodged so hard in the minds of the Facebook conservatives who brought it to my attention in their contempt for protesters. After all, what decent person actively hopes another one dies, especially not two young people with children like these two deputies? It’s a hateful thing, and hateful things stir up deep emotions, and when humans have deep emotions….they turn to their social support networks to…share. That is what I think happened here.

The misinformation is then out and circulating, replicating outrage.

Now, just because it’s not sinister or intentional doesn’t mean it should happen. This is the official account, and as much sympathy as I have for how much pain everybody at the SD’s office must have been in that night, this one is likely over the line in public ethics. That becomes more the case when the ONLY other Tweet that breaks the 4th wall, as it were…that I can find is here:

There are no “dear litterers” or “dear jaywalkers” or “dear drivers who have a tail light out” entries in this feed. The LASD has a standard public agency feed…..with these weird little anti-protester primes sifted in.

That’s what police union feeds are for, not official feeds. In US politics, in general, public communication channels are not supposed to be self-dealing or electioneering. Donald Trump has traduced those norms, and the lines often are not that bright, but that doesn’t mean the norms weren’t a good idea in the first place.

(1) Are we really, really supposed to believe that any of these people genuinely think they can walk into a hospital for a protest or any other non medical reason? Have they been to a hospital in the last 20 years? I mean with the lousy health care set up we have in the US, maybe they haven’t but there’s two armed security guards on the way to my boob doctor. (Maybe they are just really healthy. That woud be nice.)

The divine fire burns sometimes, just like real ones

I am very fortunate during these lousy times. I get the need that many have to point out that the fires, the homicides, the demands for structural change, the pandemic are all the wheat we’ve sown with terrible systems, but that doesn’t make them less punishing to people. After the shooting at Virginia Tech, I didn’t write a word for nearly a year. Nothing I said or did or thought seemed to matter much in a world where a troubled young man could kill 31 people relatively close to me in one morning.

This happened to me when I was an assistant professor, alone, in a department of people who really couldn’t understand what it was like to have it happen, and I went through my days fearing that I was going to lose my job (ie get turned down for tenure) because I was hollow. Again, most senior faculty were not very helpful. One said “The cows would have to milked even if you are hurting, so does writing.” Naturally, but minding cows and creative work are in general different things, as cows know what they want doing and communicate to you that it needs doing. Writing does not.

I thus do have some empathy for the junior faculty out now trying like hell to teach online and write and cope with caregiving at home. I didn’t have children, so I can only imagine the extra work and worry there.

This time out, with the pandemic, I haven’t written much at all this year. I’ve been off a bit with publishing anyway, investing heavily in multiple book projects, and thus had to turn a “I didn’t publish anything” faculty report this year, which hurrrrrrrrrrrrt. Now, in reality, I am doing all sorts of things. I’ve got a large group of PhD students who need attending. I have been learning–or I thought I was–how to manage my time given the new realities of my health. Even though I try and try to internalize the idea that I am not my work or my writing…that message doesn’t move from my head really into my heart the way it would if I truly believed it.

That said, my new, 8-to-5, five days a week schedule has been difficult to maintain with a new course prep and everything else going on this semester, and my writing, which wasn’t going fast anyway, suffered even more.

So last night I just felt–for the first time in months, absolutely pregnant with ideas for writing about a book chapter I have been dreading a bit, as it’s due in January. Instead of going to bed at a normal time, I stayed up to write. I’ve done this a million times, I said to myself. I’ve written 10,000-word reports in a day, good reports, in spurts of manic creativity. Note these were never deadline-driven bits of inspiration. Going right up to the deadline forces me to work but I’ve never considered that work to be any good in particular.

Instead, I am talking about being the creative zone, when the ideas and words are coming easily, and fast. When that magic carpet ride shows up, I’ve always hopped on it and ridden until the magic ran out.

Last night, I did that, and wound up with what I think are 2500 pretty damn good words and solid analysis. I stayed up most of the night, from 3 until 10 am, high on creation and surging with the stress of ideas I felt needed to express. I slept for an hour this morning before dogs and street noise demanded I get up.

And now I am sick. Really sick. I’m not sure how sick, but it feels bad, and I have a three-hour seminar with PhD students this afternoon–one that leaves me drained under the best of circs. I was so weak I could barely hold a piece of toast this morning. I have been here, sorta, before: creating in bursts like this has left me emptied and (often) dehydrated as my focus prevents me from drinking water. (Lisa never forgets to eat. I’m not THAT crazy you know.)

Today, however, is somebody 50 years old with a serious chronic illness, and my ’emptiness’ today feels less like a little hangover and more the fatigue that I imagine one feels when one has fought for one’s life. That stress is not good. It likely never was good, but I had the reserves of youth to manage it before.

I don’t know what to do with this, other than to see it as potential evidence in the “retire to a small town and open a cafe to serve people pancakes and pie” idea. (Before you object, remember, I’m not getting much writing done anymore anyway, and you’ve never had my pie or pancakes, which are good if extant evidence serves.) If I can’t work normal hours, and rest, and this is how my creativity works…I can’t do this anymore.

The other idea is “jot down notes in a notebook and GO THE EFF TO BED YOU IDIOT and write when you are rested,” but that has never worked either. I roll around, stressed with the ideas, not sleeping, composing in my mind, my whirling brain on fire, annoyed if anybody talks to me or if I have to tear myself away. Maybe that happens even if I do go try to ride off into the sunset and pancake land.

I don’t know what to do, but I do know that my feelings of frustration about not writing much with the pandemic made me more susceptible to ignoring the “let’s keep the old girl running” time management plan I crafted precisely to keep myself from getting in a hole like this one. The last time I did it, I could barely function teh rest of the semester.

Don’t get old, don’t get sick. There’s wisdom you can’t get everywhere.

Of course I’m knitting during Zoom meetings. You mean the rest of you are just sitting there???

I got a note from a senior faculty member whose communications with me always, always seem to be double-coded in a secret neurotypical language designed to make feel judged and put down, and yet paranoid and weird for reading too much into things when really no put-down was intended.

IMA just gonna say it: NTs, y’all exhausting to autistics. For all the whining and complaining about “how to handle children/people with autism” y’all really discount how much work and pain y’all cause us constantly. (Seriously I just saw a curriculum on autistic girls where one rubric of their behavior was “responds to teasing appropriately” and I am assuming the right answer is “girl is learning to accept bad treatment because that’s what we want from autistic girls” instead of what it should be (punching people in the nuts and throats).

Here was the statement: I see from Facebook your knitting needles are busy.

Now, is that a dig? IN the academy, you aren’t supposed to have hobbies. You are supposed to be research production machines. Doing one’s own garden when one could pay non geniuses to free you up to do your genius things? Unheard of!! So knitting. Tsk. Guess we know what this or that isn’t done.

Or maybe they were just noting that I share my knitting on Insta. I dunno.

ANYWAY, I went away from this interaction feeling super judged and I just wanna know: are the rest of you JUST SITTING THERE ALL DAY ON ZOOM CHRIST HOW HAVE YOU IMPLODED YET IF SO?

At least when we were on campus, even back-to-back meetings usually entailed GETTING UP AND GOING TO A NEW ROOM. Or a little jaunt across campus.

How can you stand to sit there and look at your own stupid talking face?

AND HAVE YOU NOT NOTICED THE WORLD IS ON FIRE AND PEOPLE ARE DYING AND TRANSIT IS DYING AND CITIES ARE STRUGGLING AND THE POLICE ARE STILL MURDERING PEOPLE WITHOUT APPARENT HESITATION AND 17 YEAR-OLDS BECOME THE VIOLENT WHITE SUPREMACIST DEATH FANTASY TO KILL SWEET KIDS WITH SKATEBOARDS AND THESE BILLIONAIRE LUNATICS ARE TEEING UP TRUMP AND CO FOR ANOTHER FOUR YEARS.

Knitting calms me and keeps me from screaming like this on Zoom. Is it any wonder I am getting a lot done these days? How are you keeping your rage and stress from killing you?

The problem with Karen and Karening is white people

It has finally happened; somebody I know and love was a called “Karen” by a white man in LA after she asked him to socially distance. ZOMG THE WHITE WOMAN STEPPING ON EVERYBODY’S NECKS HERE.

I don’t know who first used the name Karen to stand in for a white women drawing on white privilege, but it is clever, and when used among Black Americans, it has force and value, because it is a term coined in a culture that has specific meanings and relationships to the term.

And THAT is the problem with Karening. Black Americans using it to call out behavior that harms them is not the problem. The problem is that when the term moved into mainstream American culture, it became another cudgel to use on white women, and white men like cudgels. White Americans can’t leave anything Black people create alone, and when Karen moved into the mainstream, it changed its meaning.

White men are not subject to violence from Karens. White American male use of the term “Karen” calls on the alllllllllllllllll the cultural baggage that silences all women, including white women, objecting to and reporting to rape and intimate partner violence. When Black men talk about Karen, they are speaking to the legacy of white women calling out police or mobs to do violence to THEMSELVES. There is a universe of difference there, and it is one reason why white men maybe just shouldn’t goddamn go there.

The mainstream problems with Karen are particularly hard to grapple with. Every so often I have asked, and have seen other people ask, what is the male version of Karen? And I get answers. I’ve even given some answers. But none of them are very convincing. Because mainstream culture likes to punish women and it does not like to punish white men. (Black men are a whole different story.) White women should have to sit with Karen NOT because white men are telling them to, but because Black people are telling them to.

But it’s hard to accept that when white men are calling women who displease them “Karen” because they know it will hurt and discredit them. Then, the term really does become just a new form of “bitch.”

The choice isn’t taking away Karen use. The choice is for white people, particularly white dudes, to shut up with it. Condemning the term robs Black people of a useful and necessary term to confront real problems. Messing up the term by having white dudes take it up as a trendy word to say “bitch” de-emphasizes and obscures what Black people need the word to convey.

WUUUUUUUT all the woke white boys says? I’m using Karen to fight racism and white feminism which needs disciplining by ever-so-much-knowledgeable-about-emancipation me. Uh-huh. Oddly, I think you can call out white women abusing their privilege by telling them their behavior is uncool. “Hey don’t do that, it’s harmful.” Wow. That wasn’t that hard. Black people are overburdened by the work of educating white people on race; shorthand lingo makes sense there. I think it’s fair to expect white guys to do a little work.

So maybe this is a moment where white people maybe accept that this is a term that isn’t for them to use.

So this imposter syndrome thing…

I have earned both tenure and full professor at a very competitive R1. This morning I woke up really really early because I am starting my 28th semester teaching my 52nd college class today.

I rolled around most of the night and finally fell asleep about 6 am where I proceeded to have a dream in which

…..my advisor told me I’d never turn out to be much of a scholar.

Two points:

  1. My advisor never said any such thing to me. Ever. I can’t imagine him saying anything like that to anybody. A couple of members of my senior faculty have hinted at it plenty of times, but senior male faculty can be insecure and thus catty bunch so I will chalk it up that. (Yes, I just called male faculty “catty” and it felt as good as you might think. I encourage more people to say it more often because it’s both true, edifying, and extremely satisfying.)
  2. If I can feel this way as old and as far into the academy as I am, I think just about everybody probably expect to happen and to recognize what it is and forgive themselves the time when it sneaks up on them, too.

Good luck everybody. I am going to try not catch or give Covid to anybody and may be some use to my students. My goals have changed with the times.

Can my fellow urbanists be just as outraged by the LA wage disparity between male and female city workers as they are about Robert Reich?

Robert Reich is acting like a rich suburban white guy, and while his conduct is bad and I’m all for calling it out, I’m missing the discussion on Twitter and Facebook about this report from David Wagner at the LAist.

Dealing with worn and inflexible gender categories aside, the report shows that the gender wage gap in LA is bigger than in any other major city in the US, and I think I should probably dig up the entire audit if I can find it. I am wondering how much of this disparity comes down to our the police budget (it’s huge) Of the top 100 earners, only 2 are women.

Now, why should or would urbanists care about wage inequality when we have Robert Reich to kick around?

The outrage directed at Reich is a response his buttheaded opposition to what is in reality a pretty small development that includes some housing for extremely low-income people. I’ve looked at it; the proposal isn’t a bad development proposal by any stretch. Whether he knows it or not, Reich is contributing the poverty and labor issues he’s built a luminary academic and political career on. I pointed out yesterday on Twitter that while YIMBYs have made the connections between place-hoarding and poverty, it’s still a huge gap in the thinking of most people and the major political parties (although the Sanders campaign got right up next to it; hopefully that will live on.)

So, Lisa, why are you busting into this conversation to make it your GENDER PARITY STUFF HUH? Way to make it ALL ABOUT YOU, lady. (You’d be dead shocked at how often I hear this when I bring up gender oppression.) I mean, people are going without housing because of Reich. Why distract from this very important housing argument?

Well, it turns out gender wage disparities have a lot to do with poverty which has a lot to do with struggles for housing, and the privileges enjoyed by the Robert Reichs of this world are mirrored systematically in the disadvantages faced by women in the workforce. Ever-rising house prices due to scarcity from chronic undersupply is one problem, but its demand-side counterpart is wage theft, stagnation, and poverty.

And when we talk about poverty, we are talking about women; the wage gap is far worse than the average for Black and Latino women than it is for white women or the average when they are all put together. That is one reason why I want to see the full audit. I’m not sure if California allows those numbers by race to be reported, but if we did report them, we have every reason to believe, based on priors, that LA pay gap for Black and Latinx women working for LA is bad, indeed. The aggregate numbers reported here for LA are worse than the gap estimated globally by the International Labor Organization. In the US, the National Partnership for Women and Families reports the following breakdown of the wage gap by race, relative to white men:

  • Asian women make 90 cents for every dollar
  • White women make 79 cents
  • Black women make 62 cents
  • Native women make 57 cents; and
  • Latina women make 54 cents

Given how many city workers in LA are likely Latinx, this prior is not good news. They get a double dose of low wages and housing discrimination.

When you read through books liked Evicted, you see women struggling with health and ableism as part of poverty as well.

Economists with the Institute of Women’s Policy Research find that eliminating the gender wage gap could HALVE the poverty rate of working women.

If Robert Reich should be a better leader (and he should), so should the City of LA. Not cool.

;

The Big Dig and reparations for and from freeways

My apologies if this is rough. I am out of practice and WordPress is giving me nonsense today.

We had a great piece from Dr. Destiny Thomas on reparations for white supremacy in Curbed here. In addition to the reparative components has some suggestions for institutional land reforms that could alter land development. Highly recommended reading. Some of these are short-term implementations (like the freight tax. It’s a legislative change; find a way around Interstate Commerce Clause objections, go, dedicate the funds to surrounding communities) and some are medium to longer-term, like the community land trust formulation (land assembly takes a little time, but it’s hardly impossible. We do it for developers.)

I just want to provide an example and extension to some of Thomas’ ideas here. Whenever the movement to tear down statues to racists comes up, somebody from urbanism chimes in that freeways, too, are racist monuments of a sort. This fact is a good to remember and it gives us a chance to revisit Eric Avila’s lovely writing in Folklore of the Freeway and Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. This is a good analogy on one hand, and a bad one on the other. We probably wouldn’t, for example, have to look too dreadfully hard to find racism in the rail development of any given city. So just because we want to root out and confront racism doesn’t mean we want to physically tear down every structure that racism touches. Why? Transit, just like freeways, provide essential mobility, and we want to keep it, even as we subject it to scrutiny to see if it works for Black residents properly or not.

Freeways are not a good, pro-social source of mobility in the city, and in the long-term, it’s strongly desirable that they go away. They are poisoning the air and crashes kill people. But right now, a lot of not-rich and not-white people use them every day to get between home and work. Transitioning from the existing infrastructure to a better future isn’t as simple as chirpy white urbanists want it to be when they pull out examples of freeway deconstruction to tell us that “of course we can get rid of freeways, it’s happened before.” We’ve gotten rid of specific links, not entire systems. And even the former takes thought and care. After the initial wrong of freeway development, Black and Latinx people have incorporated the freeways into their decision-making, as bad as freeways are, and helping people have viable options other than the freeways has to be part of a transition away from them.

Which, as I have noted, is one reason why people in the region are working pretty hard to try to boost transit, both construction and use.

That said, we do have some surprising examples for how to think about building Thomas’ thought into a post-freeway future. One example is the Big Dig or Central Artery Tunnel Project. The Big Dig became a poster child for wasteful infrastructure projects, and it merited the moniker. It was massively overbudget, but it was a huge project that included some significant transit projects under its umbrella.

Cut out that tunnel and you have a relatively lower cost land reclamation project and a bunch of transit projects. And that is the interesting part. Because the Big Dig made new urban land available for development in Boston. Pretty decently prime real estate, too, if I understand the Boston landscape well enough to say. Now, reclaiming urban land from freeways is a hell of a struggle; it’s got lead and plenty of other toxics that we have to think about when we redevelop because it’s not good to clean up one environment just to wreck another with toxic soil dumps. After that concern, however, we can imagine a lot of urban land reclaimed in high-price locations throughout Los Angeles.

That land could mean a lot of opportunities for land trusts and in some instances (with the 10 and the 101), for direct reparations payments to the Black families subjected to human rights violations at the hands of Caltrans during 1940s and 1950s, prior to the protections of the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Estate Acquisition Act. That was passed in 1970, too late to protect a lot of California families. We should be providing reparations at both the community level and the individual level, and there are people in my neighborhood alive who still remember the 10 being built through here. Surely at least some of these famililes can be found and their residential histories validated well enough to make reparation with part of the reclaimed value.

Given that many of these folks are seniors, the reparations could be made now and borrowed against future land reclamation because taking down and rebuilding in freeway locations is a really long-term endeavor.

Professor Julian Agyemon talks about “joined-up thinking” in environmental justice thinking–about making connections between different venues and mechanisms of injustice. To me, connecting long-term plans with help for past wrongs is part of that joining up.

Planning and Mass Incarceration Special Issue JPER are free to download this week

And if you get this to this post too late, I may, or may not, send you what you are looking for if you ask me. (Plausible deniability is everything.)

In my social policy and planning class, I teach a section on how mass incarceration affects community health and development, and there are wonderful articles to read there. I’m going to just index them with links to the authors. I’m so grateful to the authors and the editors.

Before I go on: it’s obvious. Black Lives Matter, and US institutions from the the feds to the locals behave as though Black Lives do not matter, in everything from policing to education to parks. Planners* should be on the side of people in need, and Black Americans have told us again and again that they are in need and at risk no matter how many street improvements of TIF districts. (*When I say “Planners” I actually mean “decent human beings” but it’s a professional blog, and whatever one does for a job, I take the morally complicated stance and one should come to it first and foremost as a decent human being.)

I add a shortie to this: since becoming disabled, the hateful conduct of the police and security, including USC security, is no longer theoretical.

If I missed any of y’all or y’all’s friends’ Twitter or faculty pages in my Googling, let me know so I can fix it.

This JPER Special Issue is edited by:

Here a link to their introduction to the issue.

From Revanchism to Inclusion: Institutional Forms of Planning and Police in Hyde Park, Chicago by Steven Averill Sherman (@stephenasherman)

Planning and policing are two critical racial projects in the racial state. Planning scholars’ understanding of the police usually focuses on the police violently removing people from urban space, yet critical criminology literature shows their function to be more diverse. I employ an exploratory case study, centered in the South Side of Chicago, to develop propositions to guide emergent research that centralizes the police within planning. The propositions (1) impel further investigation into how police not only exclude people but also define who belongs and (2) draw attention to how planning institutions can create new forms of police.

Latinxs in the Kansas City Metro Area: Policing and Criminalization in Ethnic Enclaves by Dr. Janet Garcia-Hallett @JGarciaHallett ; Dr. Toya Like ; Dr. Theresa Torres ; Dr. Clara Irazabal

This study explores the socio-spatial, economic, and policing inequities experienced by Latinxs in the Kansas City metropolitan using geographic, census, and police data as well as qualitative analysis of interviews and workshops. Data show there has been an expansion of Latinx enclaves over time in the metropolitan area and suggest that enclaves function as both a protective factor for Latinxs against socio-structural hardship and also render them highly visible as targets for disproportionate criminalization. To redress the latter, we offer planning recommendations for community development and policing that promote socio-spatial equity in law enforcement practices while adapting to demographic shifts.

Local Planning in the Age of Mass Decarceration by Dr. Courtney Knapp (@courtneyknapp81)

This exploratory study discusses the results of a nationwide survey of planning directors, designed to understand whether local agencies understand and actively engage with reentry and social integration efforts targeting formerly incarcerated people. The results suggest agencies play administrative-bureaucratic roles facilitating environments that affect housing and employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated populations, yet many appear unaware of how regulatory and policy frameworks translate into local infrastructures of inclusion and exclusion. These knowledge gaps are exacerbated by engagement practices that tend to privilege security and incarceration stakeholders over those connected to reentry, including formerly incarcerated people themselves.

When Prison Is the Classroom: Collaborative Learning about Urban Inequality by Dr. Justin Steil and Dr. Aditi Mehta @AditiMehta12

This article analyzes the pedagogy of an urban sociology course taught in prison, with both outside and imprisoned students. The course examined the production of knowledge used in the field of planning and sought to facilitate the coproduction of new insights about urban inequality. Participant observation, focus groups, and students’ written reflections reveal that, in comparison to traditional classroom settings, students explored with greater complexity their embodiment of multiple social identities, wrestled more deeply with the structural embeddedness of individual agency, and situated their personal experiences in a broader theoretical narrative about urban inequality. Building trust in the face of significant power disparities within the classroom was essential to learning. The findings highlight the importance of new locations of learning that enable classrooms to become contact zones, pushing students to collaboratively reimagine justice in the city with those outside the traditional classroom.

From Jails to Sanctuary Planning: Spatial Justice in Santa Ana, California by Dr. Carolina S. Sarimiento

Today’s immigrant rights movements bring attention to jails—some cities’ largest public safety expenditures—as primary sites for deportation operations. This article examines how these movements push for sanctuary while challenging jails’ political and economic place in cities. With qualitative and archival data from a case study in Santa Ana, California, this research finds that by ending U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracts, exposing the economic and political interests invested in jails, and pushing for jail reuse alternatives, sanctuary planning threatens public investment in police and security infrastructure. Challenges to these movements include jurisdictional fragmentation with diverse approaches to detention.

Beyond Safety: Refusing Colonial Violence Through Indigenous Feminist Planning by Dr. Heather Dorries and Dr. Laura Harjo (@lauraharjo)

Settler colonial violence targets Indigenous women in specific ways. While urban planning has attended to issues of women’s safety, the physical dimensions of safety tend to be emphasized over the social and political causes of women’s vulnerability to violence. In this paper, we trace the relationship between settler colonialism and violence against Indigenous women. Drawing on examples from community activism and organizing, we consider how Indigenous feminism might be applied to planning and point toward approaches to planning that do not replicate settler colonial violence.

In addition to this nice issue, some of the best writing in the past 2 decades has come from Black writers telling you about anti-Black racism. If you have to pester people for things to read in order to learn, you aren’t paying attention. Here’s a bunch.

Dr. Ibram Kendi’s @DrIbram writing is crystal clear and he’s written us an instruction book.

Here are some cool things that have crossed my desks about Black and NBPOC urbanists on Twitter who have insightful feeds to follow, put together by Lynn Ross @mslynnross.

Keith Benjamin (@rkbtwo) compiled a long list of Twitter resources on the intersection of anti-racism and place-making


T. Greg Doucette (@greg_doucette
) compiled a huge list of all the video evidence of American police across a bunch of US cities acting like the SS for anybody who needs more help understanding the problem. (h/t to my friend Shane Phillips @ShaneDPhillips for passing that one along.

If I *beg* you to stop saying “LA has no transit” will you stop saying it? Please? Pretty Please?

Pretty please with sugar on top? Would rainbow sprinkles do it for you?

A general overview of why: People not engaged with transit as an important part of their awareness wind up crediting it, while everybody who lives and works in LA transit knows perfectly damn well we need to improve it. Thus there is no audience for the statement. LA does not need smartest boys and girls talking shit about our transit and putting more dust in the air, whether it is ever-so-clever NY writers trading in cliches or transit nerds who want to demonstrate how smart they are about operations. Go bother Orange County, would you? They deserve it.

Actually let’s get real. Just like there is endless money for the NYT to pay twats like David Brooks, there is endless money for them to pay journalists to grind out the same dipshit stuff about Los Angeles they have since forever. Who am I to disrupt this grand mill of dumb writing about LA?

But I expect my transit brothers and sisters to do better by our system here in LA.

Here are some individual reasons why saying “LA has no transit” is counterproductive.

  1. It misleads people unfamiliar with the region into thinking that no matter what, transit is not an option, so they make dumb residential choice and car purchase decisions when they come here, thereby reinforcing one of the tricky things about transit in LA.

My life in LA as a transit expert is governed by nontransit scholars moving here from other places, plunking themselves in some westside neighborhood (because, grabs pearls, the gangs!) which has had bad transit *on purpose* for decades, and then lecturing me on how bad LA transit is and how great it was in San Francisco. This is analogous to me plunking my big fat arse in Marin and then bitching that I need a car in San Francisco when I didn’t need one in LA.

A second, common scenario in my life: student/faculty moves to DTLA from outside the region and then says to me “I bought a car because everybody said I would need one, but I don’t!” No, you don’t. BECAUSE THERE IS TRANSIT IN LA. But you got stuck with the expense and difficulty of a car because people promulgated a lazy myth instead of really talking about which locations in LA are accessible to where and which are not.

It is possible to make stupid residential location decisions in any region with regard to transit; there are inaccessible parts of the NY, Chicago, Boston, Philly, and DC regions. It is easier to luck into a good transit neighborhood in places like those where service spans, frequencies, and OD pairs are better than LA, but if you do some research you will find that some areas of LA have entirely satisfactory, 20-minute commute transit trips. We are working on making that better, but EXACTLY HOW ARE YOU HELPING BY ACTING LIKE THAT DOESN’T EXIST AT ALL, ANYWHERE ? HOWWW is this helping? How?

Feel free to say things like “LA has spotty transit, so be careful where you pick your hotel/apartment.” But saying “there is no transit” just contributes bad information, and don’t we have enough of that in the world already?

2. The “There is no transit in LA” narrative excuses people in LA who are perfectly well-served by transit from not taking it because it’s just not “there.” Or it’s supposedly “no good.”

Look, every year except this year in PPD 245, I give students an extra credit assignment to ride the train from USC to downtown LA. These are undergrad students, most of them are around 18 to 20 years old, most are from the region, and most of them HAVE NEVER SET ONE FOOT ON TRANSIT in their entire lives.

This would be a different story if I worked at one of the Cal States.

Many of them tell me their parents “are worried about them doing the assignment because transit in LA is so bad/unsafe.” (Risking fiery death by crashing and burning up on the freeways between LA and Orange County is apparently safer.)

The students are floored–utterly floored–by how nice and easy this little trip is. We spent $900 million dollars on that damn train, the campus has three–COUNT ‘EM, three!–stops, THEY GET A DISCOUNTED PASS EVERY SEMESTER….and without my class, most do not set a foot on that train even though it goes to a vital downtown with tons of things of to do in one direction and in the other direction to ONE OF THE NICEST GODDAMN BEACHES ON THE PLANET…and they STILL haven’t gotten on it.

Of course, these are my white students, usually. My Latinx and Black students are mostly like “I’ve ridden the bus with my mom since I was a little kid and now I get credit for taking a ride…thass good.”

Which is another point:

3. Saying “there is no transit in LA” erases the fact that LA Metro and the many service providers in the region are supplying an essential service—millions of rides every single day for riders, many of whom use LA transit as an important part of their economic survival.

No, these riders aren’t getting the service they ideally should get in a better world, but goddamnit they exist, they have been loyal customers for years, and it’s not like LA Metro, Foothill Transit, etc etc staff spend their days watching tv and huffing glue. There are a lot of operators driving buses right now risking the worst contagion threat we have seen in 100 years to provide service, only to have knuckleheads dismiss it all for a clever turn of phrase.

That is deeply uncool, brothers and sisters. It erases how some groups in LA have, through their daily practices, kept our system going (yes, with subsidies, but so what?) and done the right thing vis-a-vis climate change without all the bells and whistles and conveniences y’all think we’re supposed to have in order for you to acknowledge transit’s existence in LA.

(The above is a roundabout, white lady, perhaps even Karen-esque way of saying that erasing transit in LA is a l’il racist, so knock it off, or I want to talk to your manager.)

4. Promulgating the notion that there is no transit in LA means developers who are not dialed in/sympathetic likely overlook opportunities, unchecked. I can’t be everywhere, all the time, people.

Some even do dumb things like, say, build an entire big, giant LA Live complex without improving the transit walking environment one little jot. Or….

I was once dragooned into one of the infinite planning meetings conducted by developers of one of the many, varied and myriad stadium proposals that LA had floating around for years. The site had access to an Amtrak branch that had been left unused.

I asked who owned it. Well, Amtrak, jovial developer said.

Have you thought about asking whether Amtrak might be willing to make the line available to provide some special service on game days?

Developer looked at me like I was the dumbest dumb girl in the entire world of dumb girls.

“Errrrr, nobody wants to take a train to the stadium.” he said and moved on to other, smarter people.

EVERYBODY WANTS TO TAKE THE TRAIN TO THE STATION. Moreover, everybody ELSE wants EVERYBODY AT THE STADIUM to take the train. Even more moreover, you can sell more concession-stand beer to people who aren’t going to drive away from your stadium.

Erasing what is erases what can be, too. I very much doubt that running special service would have penciled out for anybody, especially because he wanted to bank on parking fees, but it wasn’t like I suggested he go plant potatoes on the moon. (The margin on beer has GOT to be better than trying to get what you pay to provide parking in a place with land prices like LA. Think of the shoppes you could put on that land instead.)

(This site was not chosen but the issue remains.)

5. Reasons 1 through 4 make you sound like either a clueless outsider, a sheltered suburban child, or a hater who doesn’t actually *want* LA transit to make it onto anybody’s radar because that would ruin your dunks.

One of my (beloved) friends in the physics department once said (IN A PUBLIC FORUM NO LESS) that people who claim they can’t take transit in LA are “stupid or lazy or both.” Now, I am a gentler soul than he, and having studied mode choice for a long time I understand that there are many, many sound reasons why transit may not be a great option for you or any, one individual.

But please bear in mind that not everybody is as kindly as your dear Auntie Lisa and every time you say “there is no ….blah blah blah”…my friend and others like him are probably judging you in the very harshest of terms.

So let’s come up with a new shorthand for characterizing LA, okay?

Densit(ies) and the virus in the room

I am going to preface this post with my belief that virtually all coronavirus hot-takes are terrible.  I am a little conflicted by my own attitude here because I think that it’s important for people to discuss what is going on to help others make sense and meaning out of it. But I am a slow thinker (ha hah hah aha yeah, enjoy that one, smartest boys, but I am too tired and too depressed to refine my own phrasing), and I am uncomfortable with the idea that we can conclude much about anything in the middle of something like the pandemic. Maybe that’s just me.

I’ve been squirming a lot lately because the pandemic and its spread hits at the heart of a cherished urban value—population density—to which YIMBYs and other urban fans have attached a lot of normative force. Inevitably, density comes up as a factor in the spread of the virus, and inevitably there is petulance— and sometimes (ick) even denial— in response. Density can’t be factor! Or if it is a factor, it’s a good one! Our wonderful social cohesion in San Francisco means we’ll do better than those sprawled yoinks in Los Angeles! We all just know this. Cars made us overweight and sick and that’s why we are struggling with the virus now! It can’t be density’s fault. The virus can be spread with cars! Etc.

We fall into these all-or-nothing “density good” and “density bad” discussions, and I just can’t with them. People who don’t like urban densities latch on to any downside of density, like the virus, to say “density bad” and this proves it. And people who like urbanity ignore or discount the downsides of density and act like anybody bothered or concerned about those things are opportunistic scaremongers rather than people who weight the downsides and upsides differently than them.

I’d really like to see density reframed significantly in the way we think about it.


I asked the question on Twitter: what if density isn’t a regional phenomenon and in two seconds I got: “well what it is then?” and I didn’t answer then because whatever remains of my life is insufficient to spend any of it arguing with randos on Twitter anymore.

Density is densities

Here’s the answer: In cities, density is; densities are. That’s all, but quite a bit, because as Louis Wirth noted, relative density is a defining factor of cities. Whether densities are good or bad depends on how people adapt in and manage them, and what spatiality they manifest depends on the boundary you place around them. That boundary is a subjective choice. (I don’t have any baggage with the subjective, but you may. I suggest therapy. ) Cities contain multitudes of densities even if we tend to measure only one, quite static component of it.

Take a peek into the very cool material coming from spatial theory, (Environment and Planning D is a fertile ground for this thought) and you will see that regional, static measures of density miss a lot. At its most basic, density in cities and human settlements is fluid; it changes even throughout the day, it moves. Remember all those animations about movement into and out of Manhattan? That’s watching density morph and change. If you laid a 1-km grid over New York at 1 pm and counted you would get a much different cell count than if you did that at 1 am. More complicated is thinking about the ways in which individual factors of wealth, perhaps, or other personal markers interact with context to make “people per square mile” into a much richer concept (billionaires per square mile). Yes, with lots of urban models you have to pick a spatial boundary and take an average measure, but the information you are missing is consequential, including exactly how a person came into contact with a virus.

Density even poorly measured has a been significant factor in just about every regression model of behavior and choice that social scientists have published for the last 40 years, and that is a big, honking boatload of studies. So, of course, density is likely a factor in the spread of the virus. It was a factor in the spread of the plague that decided the Peloponnesian War. It was a factor with the Black Death. Epidemiologists and urban health specialists have this covered. Density is likely a factor, and likely an important one, and sadly not one that by itself favors human life in the context of coronavirus spread. Density is life-supporting in myriad other ways, but with disease spread, it’s likely not a help.

Lost in all this is that density/densities was never unambiguously good in terms of its consequences on human life. It’s just that the spread of deadly virus is current and terrifying, but density doesn’t help with myriad other things like terrorism. Population density doesn’t help with congestion; imagine Manhattan with straight Euclidean zoning. It would be godawful. Instead, mixed land uses helps manage the congestion from population density.

Cities are where we manage densities

Density doesn’t do our work for us beyond delivering the things, like customers or transit patrons (same thing) that density has always been good at delivering. I wrote a paper about this for JAPA: yep, emissions per person are lower with density, but the total number of people exposed to things if you do have an air quality problem goes up with density. Somebody from the EPA called me about that study told me that they were going to cite it by including the first finding but not the second. I responded that of course they could do what they wanted to, it was their report, but it was irresponsible to act like the first happens and the second doesn’t.

My point with that study and my argument here is simply that the downsides of density do not mean we flush it (like we could if we tried). It means that when we build new infill housing to densify, we don’t put the new housing by existing freeways, for frack’s sake. Of course people who don’t want to give up living in a single-family house in a suburb aren’t going to sign on, but their preference weighting of consequences isn’t the issue. The issue is that density and its downsides require urban innovation, and in truth people innovate around density’s downsides all the time.

Let’s take examples that may seem trivial vis-a-vis the virus; sometimes it helps to go simpler. Nobody is born into the world knowing that if you want to stand on the subway escalator you stand to right so that people who want to use the escalators like stairs can move freely on the left. That’s a cultural innovation that developed because of density and crowding. When the owner of a noodle shop in Tokyo notices they can’t fit as many customers in the place as they could because the shop is getting crowded, they change things up so they offer more standing areas. Etc etc.

In the case of viruses, residents in Asian cities seem to me to already have adapted to these problems, at least in part. As soon as the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan hit the news, I began seeing some of my international students on campus with masks right away. That’s a cultural innovation that US residents didn’t twig to properly because of misinformation. I bet we don’t do that again.

It sickens me to frame the ungodly suffering and death we face with Covid-19 as a time for learning and innovation, but the facts are that all times, even bad ones like this, are times for learning to cope with the problems of living together. Cities pose this problem to us in the starkest terms, but if anything, the quarantine reminds us just how beneficial being together is. None of that goes away because of densities’ downsides.