Knitting for black power

For the Guardian I profiled the Yarn Mission, a group of black St. Louis women fighting racism through knitting. Yes, knitting:

In a coffeehouse on the south side of St Louis, a group of women discuss how to knit, purl and dismantle white supremacy.

They are The Yarn Mission, a collective formed in October 2014 in response to the violence and police brutality in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

The Yarn Mission seeks to “use yarn to promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression”. The group, founded by CheyOnna Sewell, a PhD student in criminology, seeks to spark conversation about race and police brutality by engaging with curious passersby as they knit, all while providing a comforting activity for beleaguered activists.

“As a black woman, you’re invisible,” says Taylor Payne, a member of the group. “But knitting makes people stop and have a conversation with you. If someone asks me what I’m doing, I say, ‘I’m knitting for black liberation.’ Sometimes they respond and sometimes I just get ‘Oh, my grandma knits,’ like the person didn’t hear me. But at least it opens the door to talking about my experiences.”

Sewell and Payne are protesters who have been active in the Ferguson movement since it began last summer. According to Sewell, the Yarn Mission forces local citizens to see Ferguson activists in different ways.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson’s radical knitters, at the Guardian. And check out their website too!

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Central Asia’s stand against corruption

My latest for Foreign Policy is on how Central Asians are using the internet to document and battle a familiar scourge — corruption, particularly that of the police:

In Kazakhstan, activists are mounting dash cams to cars to film traffic police and showcase their shakedowns on YouTube. In Uzbekistan, renegade lawyers are dispensing online advice on how to lawfully deal with crooked cops and shady bureaucrats. In Tajikistan, a viral video of a driver who ignored a command to pull over by a policeman and then drove forward as the cop clung to the hood of his car spurred national discussion of corruption among traffic police. In Kyrgyzstan, activists from the banned religious group Hizb-ut Tahrir are posting bloody selfies taken after harsh interrogations by security services.

According to Central Asian analysts, corruption is endemic in the region. “Corruption is at every level here,” political analyst Dina Baidildayeva says of her native Kazakhstan. “Be it education, healthcare, road accidents, kindergarten. The majority don’t believe they can change anything and don’t really want change because they are used to corruption from a very early age. You can finish school by buying your diploma. You can bribe your professors to pass exams. As a result we don’t have qualified teachers, doctors. Most people even think that it’s normal for officials to steal public money. Who wouldn’t?”

Until recently, Central Asians had little recourse to address this devastating problem. Not only are organizations that criticize state institutions banned or highly discouraged, merely noting a civic problem — like bribery, crime, or police brutality — can be considered an affront to authorities, who will deny the problem’s existence and likely punish the individual who exposes it. Since state surveillance is an ingrained practice and laws that protect citizens exist more on paper than in practice, any attempt to challenge corruption invites a swift — and brutal — crackdown.

Read the whole thing, Dashcams for Freedom, at Foreign Policy

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Covering Ferguson

I have covered Ferguson since August 9, 2014, tweeting about a then unidentified teenager being killed by police within hours of the tragedy occurring. Below are the articles I’ve written over the past year. I will have a few more to add soon.


Ferguson, Inc. (3/4/15)
Ferguson Won’t Heal (12/1/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14)
Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)
After Ferguson (8/26/14)

Al Jazeera

St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon (8/27/14)


In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott (11/30/14)
Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years (11/23/14)
The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts (11/17/14)
“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear (10/21/14)

New York Daily News

Fight breaks out at Ferguson meeting one year after shooting (7/31/15)
Spotlight shines on Ferguson, MO, but racial conflicts grip many US cities

The Guardian

Ferguson’s radical knitters (8/6/15)
Hey neighbor! A ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign on your lawn is an act of solidarity (6/1/15)


The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back (4/14/14)

(Predates the violence in Ferguson, but concerns North County and majority of interviews took place in Ferguson)


NPR, “Cashing in on Ferguson”, On the Media  (3/13/15)

NPR, On the Media, “The Media Came to Town” (8/22/14)

This Is Hell, “After Ferguson” (9/5/14)

Al Jazeera English, Listening Post, “Ferguson: Riots, race and the media” (11/29/14)

McGraw Show, KTRS, “Ferguson and the Politics of Fear Debated” (10/24/14)


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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 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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