Ferguson fight

Last night I attended a community meeting in Ferguson featuring controversial Mayor Knowles, unaware that it would devolve into a full-fledged fight:

A packed community meeting in Ferguson, Mo., descended into chaos Thursday night after name-calling gave way to an all-out brawl that highlighted the simmering racial tensions still present nearly one year after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a police officer.

At least three people were arrested outside the Ferguson Community Center after an informal question and answer session between locals and Mayor James Knowles III was interrupted by protesters.

The tense meeting broke up early and Knowles quickly bolted when a physical encounter turned into a fight.

I co-wrote a piece on it for the New York Daily News. Read more here.

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The Cult’s Eye View: On ‘The Professor Is In’

My latest for the Chronicle is on “The Professor Is In”, a career counseling service that paradoxically highlights the worst elements of academia while encouraging people to join it:

Imagine you meet an escapee from a cult. Having recently fled her confines, the escapee is full of anguished tales from the sequestered realm she once inhabited. She has learned its tacit rules and analyzed its internal logic. She shares this information with an intrigued public, many of whom are members of the cult themselves. The escapee issues dire warnings. The cult is brutal and unfair. The cult is both powerful and rotting from within, its leaders scrambling to assert their relevance through a series of punishing rituals and loyalty tests. The escapee is relieved to have gotten out.

Now imagine the escapee offers to help you join the cult if you are willing to pay her hundreds of dollars.

This is the business model of The Professor Is In, a career-counseling service for would-be academics launched by former professor Karen Kelsky in 2011. An anthropologist, Kelsky quit her job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after years of disgust with the conformity and exploitation of academe. “The culture of higher ed is increasingly soulless,” she writes. “Academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls.”

Read the full article, The Paradoxical Success of the Professor Is In, at the Chronicle of Higher Education

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Uzbeks: “We are not afraid”

My latest for Foreign Policy is on a group of Uzbeks who are using social media to fight back against a ruthless regime:

“Today the main disease of Uzbek society is fear,” says Kudrat Bobojonov, an Uzbekistani journalist exiled in Sweden. “Our group aims to deliver people from fear with positive information, with the most important form of positive information being a flash mob of Uzbeks posting photos of themselves.”

Bobojonov is one of the moderators of “Qorqmaymiz” — or “We are not afraid” — one of the most popular Uzbek Facebook pages. Launched in August 2014, Qorqmaymiz has grown to over 12,100 members, an enormous number for an Uzbek group. (To put it in perspective, Sayyod, Uzbekistan’s premier gossip and entertainment group, has around 30,000 members.) The success of Qorqmaymiz is all the more remarkable since everything about the group — from its criticism of the government to its circulation of censored content to its dissident-fueled camaraderie — is illegal in Uzbekistan.

While popular as a discussion site, the main purpose of Qorqmaymiz is for Uzbeks to post photos of themselves holding signs that say “I am not afraid” — meaning they are not afraid of the government of Islam Karimov, who has been Uzbekistan’s president since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Karimov’s government is regarded by human rights groups as one of the most brutal in the world.

“This is a page [for] Central Asians who believe in liberty,” says the site’s description. “Our slogan: ‘I am not afraid of dictators!’ We kindly ask members of our group to [post] their photos with words in their language: ‘I am not afraid!’”

In Uzbekistan, “I am not afraid” is a subversive statement, punishable by a nebulously defined state law which makes “slandering the regime” a crime. Like most dictatorships, Uzbekistan markets itself as a paradise, boasting of uniformly happy citizens who adore their leaders. Proclaiming that one is not afraid of the government is a dual affront: it implies that the government is fearsome and hurts its own citizens, a view for which one can be arrested in Uzbekistan; and it shows that Uzbeks are willing and able to speak out against the authorities.

Read the full article, ‘We Are Not Afraid’, at Foreign Policy

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A tale of two signs — and two cities

My latest for the Guardian is on the “Black Lives Matter” and “We Must Stop Killing Each Other” signs that are planted on lawns throughout the St. Louis metropolitan region. An excerpt:

St Louis has become a region awash in signs. In the impoverished, majority black north, block after block of houses post signs with a stark message: “We must stop killing each other”.

In the region’s racially mixed, wealthier center, houses post signs with another message: “Black Lives Matter”.

Together, the signs tell the story of a region struggling to deal with questions of race and violence in the aftermath of the Ferguson events and a spate of homicides.

On the blighted city’s Page Boulevard sits Better Family Life, a nonprofit organization whose vice-president of community outreach, James Clark, spearheaded the “We must stop killing each other” campaign.

“One day I walk into the gas station, and a young man says: ‘With all this crime and violence going on, man, we got to stop killing each other,’” Clark recalls. “Next day, walk into the office, a young man is standing at the front table: ‘Mr Clark, man, my cousin got killed last week. We got to stop killing each other.’ Walk into my office after about an hour, a grandmother calls: ‘Mr Clark, my son didn’t come home last night. We don’t know where he is. We got to stop all this killing.’ For about three days, that message came to me.”

After years of a steady drop in crime, homicides surged in St Louis in 2014, up more than 30% from the year before. The trend continues in 2015, with incidents including two rolling gun battles on the highway, a toddler shot in a park, and a homicide near the baseball stadium in broad daylight. Most of the victims were black.

The violence has prompted more than 2,000 homes in the St Louis region to place “We must stop killing each other” signs on their lawns since April.

According to Clark, “we”, in St Louis, is everyone.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian

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More on the Andijon massacre

I have an op-ed about the Andijon massacre in the New York Times:

On May 13, 2005, military forces dispatched by the government of Uzbekistan fired on a massive protest in the city of Andijon, killing hundreds of Uzbek citizens. The day before, thousands had gathered in Andijon’s Bobur Square to protest the imprisonment of 23 businessmen and, more broadly, to protest the deteriorating social, political and economic conditions of Uzbekistan.

The next day the crowd grew to over 10,000, some drawn by an expectation that President Islam Karimov would come to address the protest. Instead, demonstrators were greeted by gunfire. According to eyewitness accounts, the military fired indiscriminately, killing innocent bystanders. Human rights activists put the death toll at more than 700.

This is one narrative of what has come to be known as the Andijon massacre. It is the narrative that the Uzbek authorities do not want you to hear. According to the Uzbek government, what happened was this: A jailbreak of criminal businessmen led by a band of terrorists resulted in a necessary military response. Only 187 people were killed, all of them armed insurgents.

Immediately following the violence, the Uzbek government expelled all journalists and human rights campaigners from Andijon and forbade an international investigation. The title of Mr. Karimov’s 2005 book on the events sums up the insular regime’s philosophy: “The Uzbek People Will Never Depend on Anyone.” The Andijon massacre was Uzbekistan state business, and anyone who dared promulgate a version that contradicted the official narrative faced arrest or exile.

There was one problem: the Internet. During the crackdown that followed the massacre, many of Uzbekistan’s journalists, writers and activists were driven from the country. Most were given asylum in Europe and North America, where many obtained regular Internet access for the first time.

Read the whole thing, Uzbekistan’s Forgotten Massacre, at the New York Times.



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The payday loan crisis

My latest article for the Guardian is on the explosion of payday lending, which is a huge problem in Missouri and in the U.S. in general:

I am driving down Route 180 in St Louis, Missouri, past empty plazas and vacant shops, down a stretch of road that terminates in an abandoned mall. Yet on this road are promises of wealth: “Loans Up to $10,000” says one sign, “Advances up to $500” says another. In contrast to the faded retailers surrounding them, these new storefronts are cheerful, decorated with pictures of flowers or gold or the American flag.

This is the alternative economy of payday loans, which has sprung up where the old economy has died.

In St Louis, a payday loan is something with which you are either intimately familiar or completely oblivious. The locations of payday loan outlets correspond to income: the lower the regional income, the more payday loan centers you will find. The 249 payday lenders in the St Louis metro area are almost entirely absent from wealthy or middle class areas. The outlets supply small loans – usually under $500 – at exorbitant interest rates to be paid off, ideally, with one’s next paycheck.

“You only see them in poor neighborhoods,” says Tishaura Jones, the treasurer of St Louis and an active campaigner to regulate the industry. “They target people who don’t have access to normal banking services or who have low credit scores. It’s very intentional.”

Read the full article The US payday loans crisis: borrow $100 to make ends meet, owe 36 times that sum at the Guardian

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The Andijon Massacre: Ten years later

May 13, 2015 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the Andijon massacre: the day military troops in Uzbekistan shot and killed over 700 Uzbek citizens gathered at a protest in Andijon’s Bobur Square. Those of you who know me for my writing on Ferguson or the U.S. economy may not know I spent the majority of my academic career writing about the Andjion massacre and its impact on Uzbek citizens. It is important we commemorate this anniversary and do not forget the tragedy of Andijon. In the interest of education, here is a guide to my research on the subject:

Inventing Akromiya: The Role of Uzbek Propagandists in the Andijon Massacre. In this paper, I proved that the group the Uzbek government blamed for the massacre, “Akromiya”, was a fabrication. I also analyzed how the myth of Akromiya was propagated by certain members of the international community. This paper rendered me effectively banned from Uzbekistan, but it has been used in UN hearings and in many asylum cases so I’m glad I wrote it.

Poetry of Witness: Uzbek Identity and the Response to Andijon. Political poetry is extremely important in Uzbek culture. This paper analyzes three poems written about the Andijon events and the arrests of their authors and those who dared distribute them or read them aloud. The cases of these dissident poets touch on a number of theoretical issues—among them nationalism, authoritarianism and literary politics—which rose to the fore as a result of the Andijon events.

A Reporter Without Borders: Internet Politics and State Violence in Uzbekistan. This paper is about the life and death of Alisher Saipov, a reporter who covered the Andijon events for the website Ferghana.ru and was murdered by Uzbek state agents as a result of his public criticism.

Digital Freedom of Expression in Uzbekistan. This policy paper traces the history of internet censorship in Uzbekistan, paying particular attention to the websites that sprung up in the aftermath of the Andijon massacre, which sent so many of Uzbekistan’s journalists into exile.

Digital Memory and a ‘Massacre’: Uzbek Identity in the Age of Social Media. This paper, co-written with fellow Central Asia scholar Noah Tucker, compares online media about Andijon with online media written about the killings of hundreds of Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.

The Curse of Stability in Central Asia. This is an article I wrote for Foreign Policy on how “peace”, in Central Asia, is often a form of silencing. It discusses the Andijon massacre as well as other instances of state violence in the region that were covered up by government officials.

Can Minor Languages Make Revolution? This 2014 article is my most recent longform popular work on Uzbekistan, and gives a good sense of where things are at now. It discusses the difficulty Uzbek activists have in using the internet to draw attention to their causes, and focuses on two female journalists whose online hunger strike was completely ignored. While not on Andijon per se, it provides important background information on Uzbekistan.

Where following the law is radical. This article for Al Jazeera details the attempts of a group of Uzbek lawyers to explain to their countrymen their legal rights. It is useful for those seeking to understand the justice system (or lack thereof) in Uzbekistan.

I have written a great deal more about Uzbekistan and Andijon, but those are the most relevant works. You can find the rest of them here and here. I will also be participating in a roundtable discussion on Andijon on May 14 at George Washington University, so if you’re in the DC area, come watch.

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My new book – The View From Flyover Country

Big news! I’ve collected the best of my essays from my time at Al Jazeera into an ebook, available as a Kindle download for $5.00. If you would like to support my work – or simply want a copy of the best of it in one place – you can buy it today. The collection contains works on a variety of topics including labor exploitation, race, higher education, and freedom of speech. A full table of contents is below.

Buy The View from Flyover Country today!

PART I: The view from flyover country

The view from flyover country
The peril of hipster economics
Expensive cities are killing creativity
Mourn the fall of the mall

PART II: The post-employment economy

Surviving the post-employment economy
Meritocracy for sale
Survival is not an aspiration
Zero opportunity employers
A government shutdown, a social breakdown
The men who set themselves on fire
Charity is not a substitute for justice
The unaffordable baby boomer dream
The millennial parent
Mothers are not ‘opting out’ – they are out of options

PART III: Race and religion

The wrong kind of Caucasian
The fallacy of the phrase ‘the Muslim world’
In the trial of Trayvon, the US is guilty
St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon
The freedom to criticize free speech

PART IV: Higher education

The closing of American academia
Academic paywalls mean publish and perish
Academia’s indentured servants
The political consequences of academic paywalls
The immorality of college admissions
College is a promise the economy does not keep

PART V: Media

Managed expectations in the post-employment economy
Who is a ‘journalist’? People who can afford to be
Blame it on the internet
When mainstream media is the lunatic fringe

PART VI: Beyond flyover country

US foreign policy’s gender gap
Snowden and the paranoid state
Iraq and the reinvention of reality
Where following the law is radical
Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being?
The telegenically dead


In defense of complaining



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Beverly Hills, Missouri

I’ve been moving away from op-ed lately to concentrate more on original feature reporting. My latest for the Guardian is on the impoverished town of Beverly Hills, Missouri, which has a population of under 600 but whose police wrote over 3800 tickets last year:

A far cry from its California counterpart, Beverly Hills, Missouri, is a 10-minute drive from Ferguson, the city synonymous with racial strife. At first glance, Beverly Hills is one of many St Louis suburbs that makes Ferguson seem comparatively fair and functional.

Less than 600 people live in Beverly Hills, which is 0.09 square miles. Blink and you miss it, unless you are pulled over by one of their 13 police officers – that is, one for each of its 13 blocks – and become incorporated into its system of human currency. In 2013, the town’s municipal court generated $221,164 (or $387 for each of its residents), with much of the fees coming from ticketing non-residents.

Like much of the surrounding area of St Louis’s North County, Beverly Hills feels like suburbia in free fall. The children of Beverly Hills are tied to the failing Normandy school system, which in 2014 was denied accreditation for poor performance. The shops of Beverly Hills have been replaced by predatory loan centers, with a title loan outlet, a payday loan outlet, and two rent-to-own furniture outlets in the plaza across from the police station. The main shopping center, festooned with fading pictures of palm trees, is for lease, and includes a grocery store offering on-the-spot check cashing. The homes of Beverly Hills fell in value following the 2008 housing crash, which disproportionately affected St Louis’s majority black suburbs. Per capita, income stands at $14,411.

In March, the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report highlighted traffic ticket schemes as a racist means of boosting small town revenue. In July 2012, the town held a community day event. “Got warrants from Beverly Hills?” the flyer asked. “Come join us at Beverly Hills Amnesty Day.” There, residents could watch a car show, enter a raffle, and “set a new court date for a non-refundable fee of $30”.

Beverly Hills is one of many tiny St Louis County towns whose right to existence has come into question after the Ferguson fallout. Civic groups like Better Together STL have called to incorporate St Louis’s 90 municipalities into a larger whole, and national news organizations have singled out the town as an example of aggressive policing.

But there is more to Beverly Hills than rapacious officials and suffering citizens. In fact, to hear city officials tell it, that is not the story at all.

Read the full story, Down and out in Beverly Hills, Missouri, at the Guardian

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As the Whirl turns

My debut article for the Guardian is on the 77-year-old St. Louis crime tabloid the St. Louis Evening Whirl:

“Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. Pow. That’s how three street goons came at a dude as he said goodbye to his lovely wife on the North Side last week. If that’s too much for you, pick up the Times and read the theatre reviews.”

So begins a typical article from the Evening Whirl, St Louis’s weekly print tabloid which bills itself as “an uninterrupted crime-fighting publication since 1938”. As the world’s attention fell on Ferguson last fall, the Whirl, resolutely non-digital, flew under the radar. But the paper is a St Louis institution: a 77-year-old, African American-run media enterprise that speaks to the complicated questions of race, crime and policing dogging the region today.

For those 77 years, the Evening Whirl has covered the underworld of St Louis in lurid language, cataloging crimes under headlines like “Loon Chucks Shiv at 5-0” and “Bungling Bandit Bagged and Booked”. Regular features include a column called Where Not To Be, which provides a helpful map of where readers are most likely to be murdered, and Behind the Bars, an advice column from a prisoner named Jus Bleezy, who in the latest issue calls upon readers not to flush their lives “down the drain for a chain and some street fame”.

Many articles start with a question: “WHY did a stone-cold gunslinger end a South Side squabble with slugs?” asks one query. “WHO is the con man from the womb who can steal the tighty off your whities that is being sought by North Patrol?” asks another. There are no bylines, giving it the feel of omniscient narration from an alternatively bemused and outraged voice.

Read the whole thing, “Inside St. Louis’s Lurid Crime Tabloid”, at the Guardian

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