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If You See Something, Say Something #2

A Weekly Media Criticism from The Shoestring

In a new weekly media column, The Shoestring will reflect on recent local news.

By The Shoestring

Hat tip to The Republican for running the following on their front page Dec 20th. Thanks to Shel Raphen for pointing it out, who tells The Shoestring “The report does not surprise me.”

Capitalism Caffinates

If only there was a café in Amherst that combined the data collection of a company like Facebook with the corporate branding experience of corporate career fair exhibit hall. Ah, but wait…now there is.

Shiru Café quietly opened its doors earlier this month in the former Rao’s/Share spot on Boltwood Walk. And the coffee shop’s business model is literally all business: the drinks are (mostly) “free” to college students—in exchange for a short dossier of personal data (name, email address, student ID, major, areas of interest, etc). Corporate sponsors then pay money to “access” the students via branding opportunities on cups, large computer screens indoors and even those cardboard jackets for when your hot drink is just too damn hot.

In an article in The Gazette this week the cafés manager was quoted as saying that Shiru “is not in the business of selling coffee” or “selling information” but that the data collection is “just for [them] to present to companies to make those connections.”

But given the latest Facebook scandal, this is a bad week to lean on the “It’s cool! We don’t sell the data!” argument. ICYMI: A New York Times investigation revealed that the company—who also swears it doesn’t sell its users’ data—has been providing over 150 “partners” with unprecedented access to all kinds of things (including personal messages) without their consent.

This is the second location that Shiru has opened in the US—it has over 20 shops in Japan and India where huge corporations like Microsoft, Nisan, Mitsubishi and JP Morgan have lined up for sponsorship opportunities. The company hasn’t secured any corporate sponsorships in the US yet.

To call it a café feels like a stretch. It’s more like a weird, dystopian nightmare that on the one hand we probably deserve but we also shouldn’t accept. Coffee shops have long been spaces where people come together in communities face-to-face and that building in particular has been serving that function in Amherst since 1990. Now it’s been replaced with a members-only career fair for college students to recruit them into jobs with corporations that have no foothold in the community and are often responsible for environmental destruction and labor violations. —CC

Will handcuffs stop houselessness?

This is a real headline: “Chicopee police warn public about aggressive panhandlers.”

This is a real quote: “We’re working with the local business to trespass these people from their properties to try to stop this aggressive panhandling,” Chicopee police officer Mike Wilk told Western Mass News this week in what was among one of the worst pieces of local journalism I’ve ever read.

Although the outlet notes that panhandling is not illegal, the article’s primary aim is to funnel vulnerable people straight into handcuffs. Not only does it promote the trespass-workaround to achieve this, but it literally suggests that you do not give people money and that you should call the police if you see a(n “aggressive”) panhandler.

The language used to describe people who ask for money on the street is completely dehumanizing, their voices and perspectives were completely absent from the story. There was no discussion about why anyone is on the street in the first place—just that more policing is what is best for them.

But as policing scholar Alex Vitale noted in an interview with The Shoestring, it is easier to vilify and criminalize people who have difficulty subsisting in a capitalist economy than it is to intervene in housing or job markets—to change material conditions. Further, when The Shoestring spoke to people downtown in Northampton about what they needed most, it wasn’t more policing but rather housing: “Housing has to come first. I have to be able to sleep in a bed, take a shower,” one person told us.

In recent years, economic pressure has continued to push people onto the street, and the problem is only going to get worse. We can face it or just keep finding—and legitimizing—more creative ways to arrest people. —WM

Send in the dogs! The NPD’s hypoallergenic “comfort animal” who is also a snitch.

“A significant portion of [Wallace, the School Resource Officer’] job includes talking to kids that need someone to talk to and would benefit from the presence of a comfort dog,” Chief Kasper told the Gazette, adding: “He is a great community service dog and people want to meet him. It gives us an opportunity to have conversations with people that might not normally sit and chat with us.”

The Gazette’s coverage of the NPD’s recently acquired police dog (“comfort animal”) named Douglas for use in schools misses the mark for several reasons:

  1. It doesn’t raise any questions about the necessity or effectiveness of having police officers in schools. As the ACLU has noted in a comprehensive report about school policing in Massachusetts, there is a significant problem around the criminalization of young people in the state. This is left out.
  2. The stated goal of the dog is two fold: it is supposed to calm people down in traumatic situations and make them more comfortable talking to the police. This is problematic. It is unclear why armed law enforcement—rather than, say, guidance counselors—are best to help students heal in the wake of anything from traumatic events to a hard day at school, both of which are cited as reasons for use of the animal. Likewise, police officers are the doorway to the violent and unjust criminal justice system. This paradox defines a central problem of modern policing: the inhumane unjust, often brutal surveillance, management, and incarceration of certain populations—often marked by geography, race, class, etc.—makes many rightly distrust the police; while, at the same time, the police need information to solve crimes. The police dog, as Kasper nearly admits, is an answer to this contradiction.
  3. The “comfort animal” is the latest inversion of law enforcement’s use of non-human-animals. From horses to canines, police have long used domesticated animals in a quest for management and control. Douglas won’t be sniffing for drugs, he’ll just snitch. —WM

Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring. Candace Clement is campaign director at FreePress. She writes and tweets about internet/tech policy, media, DIY, pop culture & endless frustration mostly.

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