Long Story Short: Cops and robber barons


illustration by JP Thimot


What’s up?


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s this extremely wealthy guy in public office in Washington, DC, who is under an investigation that just advanced to a more serious stage, but he says it’s all “left-wing lies,” “fake news," and a “partisan witch-hunt.”


No, not that guy! But Western New York’s Republican Congressman Chris Collins is one of President Trump’s most ardent supporters.


The details:

The US House of Representatives Committee on Ethics has extended its review of Collins’ role in attracting investors to an Australian biotech company, Innate Immunotherapeutics. That extension is like DEFCON 3 for lawyers. The Ethics Committee reports that it received a referral from the independent nonpartisan investigative Office of Congressional Ethics, something that occurs only when there is “substantial reason to believe” some serious improprieties went down—specifically, legal or House rule violations. These committees are looking into whether Collins—the firm’s largest shareholder—talked friends and colleagues into buying shares of the company’s stock at a discount, while using his influence to make the stock grow in value. It’s called insider stock trading, and they locked up Martha Stewart for the same sort of thing. A number of prominent investors have been interviewed.  


With this announcement, the committee includes a disclaimer stating “that the mere fact of a referral or an extension, and the mandatory disclosure of such an extension and the name of the subject of the matter, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee.” Of course it doesn’t. And this may all come to nothing, just as Collins insists. But the congressman also bragged within earshot of reporters about “how many millionaires I’ve made in Buffalo the past few months.” And Congresswoman Louise Slaughter alleges that Collins’ helped pass the 21st Century Cures Act to benefit Innate—in violation of the STOCK Act.  


Under normal conditions, such accusations might be fatal to a politician’s reelection hopes. But Collins’ supporters needn’t worry; there’s nothing normal about the Congressman’s highly gerrymandered district, which affords him cover for anything short of murder. That may be why, in a display of political hubris, Collins just ran for and was reelected to the board of directors of—wait for it—Innate Immunotherapeutics. The Buffalo News quotes several ethics experts who characterize this as “irresponsible,” and having “the appearance of impropriety."


The takeaway:

The committee said it would announce its course of action regarding Collins on or before Oct. 12. Ironically, Innate Immunotherapeutics’ only experimental drug failed in trials, and the company is now on the verge of collapse. Collins lost his investment, and his friends are now presumably unmade millionaires. 



Freedom Wall is coming


Whether you are black, white, brown, yellow, or presidential orange, you need to visit this buzz-generating artwork by artists John Baker, Julia Bottoms-Douglas, Chuck Tingley, and Edreys Wajed. It’s located at Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street, and, at nearly eleven feet tall and 300 feet long, you can’t miss it. It comprises twenty-eight painted portraits of local and national men and women associated with civil rights throughout history. The artists have been working on this most of the summer, and they’re nearing the final stages.


Something special

The Freedom Wall is not cutting edge art, as you might expect of a public art project commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.  It isn’t highly conceptual; its premise is the unpretentious notion that this gateway to the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor should commemorate black leaders. It’s also far from radical in its execution; the four artists paint in representational styles, ranging from graphic illustration to academic rendering.


But even in its incomplete state, the work is having an impact it on the community that is nothing short of inspiring. As the artists labor in the summer heat, they are inundated with a near-constant outpouring of gratitude from passersby. Horns honk; people shout approval or express gratitude; many stop to chat. Some ask to take selfies with the painters. A few of the living local portrait subjects, like Arthur O. Eve, have stopped by the wall to visit. Buffalo activist and writer Eva Doyle comes by every day. Parents bring their children. One proud parent recently brought his talented sixteen-year-old son to show his drawings to the painters. There are even signs that the work is becoming a tourist destination. The powerful images convey a sense of pride and dignity, triggering a feeling of social collectiveness. It’s an affirmation of hope, a remedy for the sort of hate displayed recently in Charlottesville.


In many ways, the bumpy road the Albright-Knox traveled to arrive here lends the work added significance.  It was a process that ultimately engaged a community, imparting it with a sense of ownership. One technical note: the work is complicated by the nature of the wall surface, which has deep vertical ridges. So every brushstroke has to be vertical as well. Imagine trying to paint something accurately while only brushing up and down. 


Mark your calendars

A celebration is planned for September 17, 2 p.m., at the Wall.



Good news, with a grain of salt


The Buffalo News headline reads “City cops found to be unlikely to fire fatal shots.” So you wonder, darkly, don’t they practice? But this isn’t about weapon precision; it’s about not using a gun to kill in the line of duty. Of the 100 largest police departments in the country, Buffalo is one of only three that did not have a single fatal shooting from 2013 to 2016 (a streak which ended tragically with one death this year). The other two were suburban communities. CNN joined the chorus of praise, featuring Buffalo as a model of restraint in a series on police shootings.


The details:

The shooting data is provided by the website, Mapping Police Violence, a title that implies an activist agenda. The News article also claims that the website ranks Buffalo police as having sixth-lowest “police homicide rate.” “Homicide” would be an inflammatory and inapt description for every civilian death occurring during a police interaction, but a search of the website did not turn up anything with that title. Email requests to the News for clarification were not answered.


The rest of the story:

While not shooting people is unquestionably an accomplishment in US law enforcement circles, it’s not the complete picture. The implication is that gunfire represents injustice, and the absence thereof implies the opposite. But according to a study prepared by Open Buffalo, for the Partnership for the Public Good, there’s plenty of social injustice outside of police shootings. African-American and Hispanic populations in Erie County are disproportionately represented in each stage of the criminal justice process, from arrest through sentencing. And while poverty and joblessness both play a role in this disparity, they don’t account for all of it. The study states, “Research suggests that residential segregation, implicit racial biases, and the disparate impact of various laws, policies, and practices, particularly those associated with the ‘War on Drugs,’ play a role, especially for African-Americans.”


Have you, or anyone you know, ever been caught in possession of marijuana, and the consequence was a fine, probation, or nothing at all? Well congratulations for being white. Erie County was one of the twenty-five counties in the United States with the highest number of African-American arrests for marijuana possession in 2010. They are also more likely to be prosecuted, and receive harsher sentences than us white folks.


The Broken Windows theory of policing has contributed to these disparities, with impoverished communities (specifically Buffalo’s East and Lower West Sides) being aggressively targeted. Unconscious bias—the hardest to combat—plays a role in the overall injustice system, starting with policing. And this doesn’t even begin to address issues of police brutality, abuse of authority, and cover-ups—as spotlighted by recent accusations against officer Joseph Hassett,  who is charged with two counts of third-degree assault and one count each of official misconduct and second-degree offering a false instrument for filing.


It warrants repeating that the majority of police officers are honorable public servants, working under difficult and often hazardous conditions. It’s important for everyone to remember that. But the Buffalo police union contract  affords officers accused of crimes special privileges that the general public does not enjoy.  It’s part of a system of laws and regulations that insulates police from accountability for misdeeds, including—as we have seen too often—murder and manslaughter.


More good news and another grain of salt

Two reports from the Partnership for the Public Good—a community-based think tank serving over 200 community organizations in Western New York—outline the problem, and suggest a way forward. Buffalo Police have made some progress toward implementing “Community Policing,” a law enforcement philosophy that dramatically shifts police culture toward positive community interactions and crime prevention. Done properly, it represents a radical overhaul of philosophy, policies, and practices, to one where police work to develop strong community ties. Toward this end, Buffalo has hired some community police officers, initiated a degree of training, begun collaborating with community groups, improved language access for refugees and immigrants, and created a scholarship program to diversify recruits. But much more can be done.


More good news comes in the form of a recent announcement by Mayor Byron Brown that Buffalo Police will soon begin using body cameras.  While this is a positive step forward, it’s not a panacea. Video evidence never “speaks for itself.” Everyone sees something different, and police convictions are still extremely rare, even with video evidence.    


The takeaway:

Education and parenting experts stress the importance of positive reinforcement in modeling behavior. Between CNN and the Buffalo News, the Buffalo police have received a big Doctor Roberts injection of positivity. Let’s hope it encourages them to build on their successes. The public should learn about Community Policing and advocate for it in Buffalo.   



A quickie shout-out


Alan Bigelow is a creative writer and Professor of English at Medaille College. He is also a recent recipient of the Robert Coover Award for a Work of Electronic Literature, and winner of the Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition.


Some details:

For quite a few years now, Bigelow has been creating what he calls webyarns, online digital stories that play out on your computer, tablet, or phone at the click of a key (the digital equivalent of turning a page). But while these webyarns always include some text, they are not limited by words to tell their stories. Bigelow incorporates a variety of audio/digital effects that, humorously and often covertly, contribute to the story as it unfolds. These are not online books, and they’re not quite works of digital art; they’re a unique hybrid art form of Bigelow’s own design.


His most recent webyarn is entitled How to Rob a Bank, Parts 4 and 5. They are sequels to earlier works, but don’t worry; you can jump right in here.



Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Spree.


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