An impassioned analysis of headline-making cases of police shootings and other acts of “state violence” against blacks and other minorities.
Journalist and BET News host Hill (African-American Studies/Morehouse Coll.; co-author: Schooling Hip-hop: Expanding Hip-hop Based Education Across the Curriculum, 2013, etc.) argues that the deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and others are instances of “an increasingly intense war on the vulnerable.” The victims—“Nobodies”—are “Black, poor, trans, queer, or otherwise marked as disposable within the public imagination.” America’s obsession with “free market logic and culture” has devalued the public good and inspired policies that wreak havoc on the vulnerable. For example, the “broken windows” concept of policing, which encourages enforcement of laws against minor crimes, sometimes overcriminalizes harmless rule-breaking. During one such “quality of life” arrest for selling loose cigarettes, Eric Garner, an asthmatic New Yorker, who had been selling “loosies” on the street for years without police interference, was placed in a choke hold and died while repeatedly crying, “I can’t breathe.” In recounting the stories of such incidents, Hill offers valuable perspective and much to ponder: Bland, a young Texas driver who apparently failed to signal and had been impertinent to police before her arrest, was found hanging dead in her jail cell. Deemed a suicide, she had much to live for. Brown, fleeing from a convenience store robbery, was shot dead in the back in Ferguson, Missouri. He was hardly innocent, notes Hill, but “one should not need to be innocent to avoid execution.” By the same token, the behavior of Walter Scott, a South Carolina motorist who resisted arrest and fled after being stopped for a broken taillight, did not warrant death by “excessive force.” Hill’s incisive thumbnail histories of the decaying communities of Ferguson and Flint, Michigan, where government actions led to a water crisis, lend credence to his sometimes-strident insistence that societal forces are stacked against our weakest members.
Timely, controversial, and bound to stir already heated discussion.
A terrifying history of American surveillance in the 21st century that shows how the government has eroded civil liberties since 9/11.
Most people are familiar with Guantánamo torture allegations and National Security Agency wiretapping, but few understand the legal maneuvering that makes such transgressions possible. Greenberg (The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days, 2009, etc.), the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, shows how our right to privacy didn’t change overnight but rather steadily unraveled in Congress and the courts. She opens with the horrific events of 9/11, which led to a widespread overhaul of FBI and CIA practices. Their attempts to “tear down the wall” and share intelligence came with numerous legal side effects. The government tested new policies with the arrest of John Walker Lindh, a U.S.–born jihadi with ties to Osama bin Laden. The George W. Bush administration debated how to prosecute him, whether as a traitor or enemy combatant. At the center of Greenberg’s story is John Yoo, Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General, who helped authorize waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The author fully explains the government’s panicked motivation for permitting torture and secretly watching its own citizens. Yet the book’s central question is timeless: once a government takes rights away, can they ever be restored? When Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, autocracy triumphed. “[MCA] would allow coerced confessions to be entered into evidence,” writes Greenberg. “This abrogation of rights was no longer lurking in the shadows of closely held (and shoddily argued) legal memos; nor was it merely something ‘stumbled upon.’ It was now the law of the land.” That law continues to haunt the current administration, and there have never been enough whistleblowers to amend the damage. “As unambiguous as Obama’s rejection of these policies was,” writes the author, “he seemed at the outset to be averse to rounding up their perpetrators.”
A sophisticated study of executive tyranny in the never-ending war on terror.
A gripping indictment of society’s treatment of “losers.”
In 1966, a pilot program at the Abilene State School in Texas moved six developmentally disabled men to a ranch run by T.H. Johnson, who agreed to teach the “boys,” as he called them, basic agricultural skills. They would be paid a pittance and board at the ranch, saving the state money and providing Johnson with a source of very cheap labor. Award-winning New York Times writer and columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd: Hope and Redemption in Baseball’s Longest Game, 2012, etc.) rivetingly chronicles the lives of these men and 26 more who worked for the irascible Johnson at his turkey processing plant in Texas and, later, in Atalissa, Iowa. From 1974 until 2009, Johnson’s workers, living in filthy, decrepit housing, were paid far below minimum wage, from which room and board were deducted; were denied medical and dental care; and were violently abused by their overseers. Every day, they caught, killed, and gutted turkeys, work, Barry writes, that was “hard…and repetitive, a bloody, filthy, feathery mess.” Along the way, a social worker discovered the “slave-labor camp” and reported the “human-rights horror” to the Iowa Department of Social Services only to be told that the company’s operation—a “for-profit business model with a paternalistic overlay of limited freedoms and routine discipline”—seemed legitimate. The townspeople of Atalissa liked the “boys,” who sometimes came to town, marched in parades, and bought candy with their small allowances, and the men were proud to be workers; they didn’t openly complain. But one man’s sister, desperate over her brother’s plight, caught the attention of a tenacious investigative reporter, whose exposé shocked the nation. Finally, social services sprang to action, and the men were extricated, cared for, and embraced by those who had long ignored them.
Gently, empathetically, and indelibly, Barry conveys a tale of unthinkable brutality.
We all know that Christopher Columbus and his successors enslaved the natives in the New World. Reséndez (History/Univ. of California, Davis; A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, 2009, etc.) exposes the broad brush that the “other slavery” wielded.
The extinction of the indigenous peoples of America is usually written off as the effect of diseases introduced by Spanish soldiers and colonists. Not so, says the author; it took only 60 years after Columbus’ discovery for a cataclysmic population collapse. They died from slavery, overwork, and famine. Reséndez examines the methods of enslavement, from the 15th-century Caribbean to 19th-century California, and his approachable style eases reading difficult personal stories of slavery and cruelty. That there are so many individual stories illustrates the author’s wide-ranging research. Columbus initially intended to transport Indians to Europe in a “reverse middle passage,” but he was thwarted by Ferdinand and Isabella’s opposition to slavery as well as the need for labor in the mines. In 1542, the Spanish crown passed the New Laws, outlawing slavery, and procuradores, specialist lawyers, were appointed to sue for freedom of those illegally enslaved. Reséndez shows how inconvenient laws were bypassed. First, the parameters of who could be enslaved were not necessarily strictly defined. While the royals insisted their people be treated as vassals, those who enslaved them just changed the nomenclature and methods. Colonists were granted encomiendas, grants of Indians to overlords, or repartimientos, compulsory labor drafts. The growth of peonage—debt slavery—provided even more slave labor. Eventually, Mexican silver mines turned to New Mexico to supply slaves, which gives the author the opportunity to provide the history of peoples in the Southwest. As the Mormons bought slaves to “civilize” them, the Spanish initially enslaved people to “Christianize” them. Both merely created an underclass.
This eye-opening exposure of the abuse of the indigenous peoples of America is staggering; that the mistreatment continued into the 20th century is beyond disturbing.
A consummate chronicler of the American South spotlights the extraordinary history of two kidnapped African-American brothers enslaved as a circus sideshow act.
Expanding on her 2001 co-authored article series in the Roanoke Times, journalist Macy (Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, 2014) reconstructs the folkloric yet true story of brothers George and Willie Muse, who, in 1899, at ages 9 and 6, toiled on a sweltering tobacco farm in Virginia. As black albinos bearing golden dreadlocks, the boys were considered “genetic anomalies” yet visually ideal when spied by Candy Shelton, a white bounty hunter scouring the area for “freaks” to enslave in circus sideshow acts. As circus entertainment crested in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, Macy writes, much money was to be made by sideshow managers eager to exploit those with physical abnormalities. Despite being falsely told that their mother had died, the Muse brothers went on to become “among the top tier of sideshow headline grabbers,” internationally known to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey audiences as “Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages.” Macy vividly illustrates circus life during the 1920s, and she movingly depicts how the brothers’ protective, determined mother, Harriett, eventually discovered and rescued them almost a decade and a half later. She sued the circus only to have George and Willie (along with little brother Tom) inexplicably return to the big top under Shelton’s management with decidedly mixed results. The story draws on years of diligent, investigative research and personal investment on the author’s behalf, and it features numerous interviews with immediate family, neighbors, distant relatives, Truevine townsfolk, and associated friends, most notably Nancy Saunders, Willie’s fiercely outspoken primary caregiver. Macy absorbed their own individual (and often conflicting) interpretations of the Muse kidnappings, condensing and skillfully braiding them into a sturdy, passionate, and penetrating narrative.
This first-rate journey into human trafficking, slavery, and familial bonding is an engrossing example of spirited, determined reportage.
Newsweek Middle East editor di Giovanni (Ghosts by Daylight: A Modern-Day War Correspondent's Memoir of Love, Loss, and Redemption, 2013) dives headfirst into the nightmarish shadow world of modern Syria.
At the beginning, the author relates how a diplomat friend told her “not to start working in Syria. He said it would engulf me as Bosnia had done, and he suggested gently that this was probably not a good thing emotionally. Even so, I went.” Throughout the story, di Giovanni’s quest seems almost suicidal, but the fruits of her labor are astonishing. She profiles ordinary Syrians struggling to survive while also chronicling her own death-defying journey. Locals guided her through ruined churches, bomb-addled tenements, and dubious border crossings. Even as Western readers have gradually begun to understand the complexities of the Syrian conflict, di Giovanni brings daily life into focus. “What does war sound like?” she asks. “The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact—enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee. What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, or rubbish rotting, of the heady smell of fear.” In her gutsy and sensitive narrative, the author offers the surreal imagery of a place without reason. During her first drive to Damascus, she stopped at a roadside Dunkin’ Donuts serving only cheese sandwiches. Later, a physician took a break from his dying patients to play a lonely game of foosball on the hospital roof. Di Giovanni interweaves biblical references and anecdotes about her own motherhood into the story, which may strike some readers as forced or even melodramatic. But the author is a master of war reporting, especially its civilian side. Thanks to her bitter sacrifice, Western readers may begin to appreciate the chaos that Syrian refugees continue to flee.
This brilliant, necessary book will hopefully do for Syria what Herr’s Dispatches (1977) did for Vietnam.
In this heart-rending, beautifully crafted book, Guardian editor at large Younge (The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, 2013, etc.) explores the least-known but most common form of American gun violence involving children and teenagers—not mass school shootings but single, isolated killings, an average of seven daily, in neighborhoods across the country. For 18 months, he investigated the lives of victims between the ages of 9 and 19 who were shot dead on an arbitrarily selected date (Nov. 23, 2013) in varying circumstances: while opening a door, from a passing car, while walking home at 1 a.m. from a McDonald’s, while playing with a gun with a friend. The victims are all poor, working-class males (seven black, two Hispanic, one white) who made poor decisions in “a brutalizing, unforgiving environment.” In Younge’s empathetic telling, they are seen as vulnerable children, some innocent, some not so, all loved by their families. The victims include Tyshon Anderson, 18, a Chicago gang member; Samuel Brightmon, 16, a trusting black kid caught in random gunfire in Dallas; Edwin Rajo, 16, an impulsive Honduran whose girlfriend did not realize there was a bullet in the gun’s chamber; and Tyler Dunn, 11, slain accidentally during rural Michigan’s hunting season. The author discusses such factors as the availability of guns, the challenges of parenting in poor neighborhoods, and the development of adolescent brains. “When it comes to protecting children around guns, parents are flawed and laws are clearly inadequate,” he writes. Younge says fear of gun violence in impoverished areas is such that one mother was happy her 14-year-old son was locked up—“it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighborhood.”
Important, deeply affecting, and certain to alarm readers who care about the lives of children in a gun-ridden society.
Salon contributing writer Dayen illuminates how, during the past 10 years, home buyers ended up illegally evicted from their residences as the result of dishonesty, greed, and heartlessness involving mortgage lenders, mortgage servicers, investment bankers, and unscrupulous lawyers.
Because the painstakingly documented scheme consists of highly technical maneuvering related to mortgage documents and land records, the author tells the saga mainly through the individual cases of three home buyers—originally strangers to each other—who educated themselves to fight back: Lisa Epstein, a cancer nurse; Michael Redman, an auto dealership employee; and Lynn Szymoniak, a lawyer who investigates insurance fraud. Dayen chronicles their financially and physically draining campaigns to save their homes from illegal foreclosures and battle on behalf of millions of additional individuals. The author begins with Epstein's case, followed by Redman’s; one-third of the way into the narrative, the two of them meet Szymoniak, and Dayen describes how they pooled their meager resources to raise public consciousness at huge personal sacrifice. The author populates the book with hundreds of other individuals, many of them villains, cowards, or clueless men and women, many of whom had the authority to halt the fraudulent behaviors. In addition, the author occasionally addresses readers directly about the mechanics of the foreclosures, which have affected all 50 states but have been concentrated in Florida, California, Nevada, and Arizona. Wisely, though, Dayen rarely shifts the focus from the instructive, compelling sagas of his principals. Although the efforts of the whistle-blowers have educated countless citizens facing foreclosure—including the massive reach of a 60 Minutes episode—hundreds of thousands of houses remain empty as the former residents scrape by in what they hope are temporary quarters. Dayen relates how prosecutors, judges, and the Department of Justice have caved to powerful mortgage industry donors while illegal foreclosures continue.
An inspiring, well-rendered, deeply reported, and often infuriating account.
A funny, personal, and professional history of the Rolling Stones.
The facts are well-known and have been reported ad nauseam: English poor boys (except for Mick Jagger) form blues band, forsake modest ambition for global domination, soar to immortality on the strength of great songs and classic albums, enjoy enough highs (girls, cars, mansions, drugs) to weather the lows (busts, divorce, addiction, death), and are still going at it, a chugging machine as indestructible as it is increasingly irrelevant. So what does longtime journalist and author Cohen (Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, 2013, etc.)bring to this sodden, sordid tale? The passion and disappointment of a fan who knows (and reports) the facts but can’t stop cherishing the myth. As a writer for Rolling Stone, Cohen toured with the band and got close to them, and he seems to have read every single book about the subject; by his own admission, he has studied the Stones “as the ancients studied war. It’s my Hemingway, Dickens, Homer.” Cohen weaves together the peak events with a supple sense of the band’s inner dynamic and unbreakable bonds, and he captures their public and private evolution—whether it’s the way producer Andrew Loog Oldham ratcheted up the band’s hoodlum mystique or how Jagger and Keith Richards mapped out a strategy for long-term success, which ultimately meant wresting control from founder Brian Jones, thus setting in motion the latter’s demise. Cohen sees them up close, such as when he describes Richards literally convulsing his way to sobriety, and far. Here is his succinct overview of the band’s 1969 Altamont disaster: “Mick Jagger had long pretended to be the devil. Then one night he threw a party and the real devil showed up.”
A compact and conversant history that makes the story new again, capturing the Rolling Stones in all their Faustian glory.
Former Human Rights Watch researcher Rawlence (Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa's Deadliest War, 2012) tells the distressing story of Kenya’s vast Dadaab refugee camp, where nearly 500,000 people fleeing civil war in nearby Somalia live in a “teeming ramshackle metropolis” the size of Atlanta.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews conducted during a series of extended visits to Dadaab since 2010, the author plunges readers into this hellish city of “mud, tents and thorns,” where three generations of displaced persons have lived amid malnourishment and disease. With remarkable intimacy, Rawlence recounts the stories of nine individuals, including Guled, a former child soldier, and his wife, Maryam; Nisho, who finds work as a porter; and Muna, a beautiful, independent woman who was one of the first Somalis to arrive in the camp. As he weaves this complex, densely detailed narrative, Rawlence reveals the humanity of these people in crisis who must struggle to survive in the overcrowded camp—run by the Kenyan government with United Nations funding—where bribery, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and cultural clashes are commonplace. While Kenyan leaders demonize the refugees and want them out, local politicians, military, and police all benefit from exploiting the refugees in Dadaab and in Somalia. For their part, those living in the camp remain mired in “a culture centered on leaving”; they long to resettle in Canada, the United States—any country that will take them. “There was a crime here on an industrial scale,” writes the author, who intersperses his story to cover outbursts of international concern, evinced by visiting celebrities and TV reporters and meetings of international and humanitarian-aid leaders striving to understand the “refugee crisis.” The disjuncture between the harsh realities of life in the camps and the view from the boardrooms of world power centers is extraordinary and damning.
A significant, timely, and gloomy tale that reveals the human costs of a growing world crisis.
A thorough survey of the genesis of the Islamic State, from al-Qaida wannabe to lethal caliphate.
The Islamic State emerged strong from the shattered democratic ideals of the Arab Spring and, before that, the devastating sectarian violence that resulted from the American invasion of Iraq. In this rigorous synthesis of what is actually known about the jihadi terror group, Middle East scholar Gerges (International Relations/London School of Economics and Political Science; Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?, 2012, etc.) looks at its power center and leaders and the troubling incursions by the group into Iraq, Syria, and Kurdish territories since the summer of 2014. He also examines its enormous wealth from oil and the black market and recruiting attraction for young, disaffected rural, religious men. In contrast to al-Qaida, which was nearly destroyed by the death of Osama bin Laden and swore vengeance on the “far enemy” (the U.S., Israel, and the Western powers), the Islamic State has focused its fury on the “near enemy,” the apostate Shias. Gerges sees this as an ongoing genocide in contrast to the relatively few deaths of Western journalists and others. The group’s leadership, especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has thus co-opted the global jihadi movement, moving into the chaotic vacuum left by the American invasion of Iraq, appropriating the Baathist tools of repression, and offering “aggrieved Sunnis a potent pan-Sunni (Islamist) identity.” Though the Islamic State perversely took credit for the unleashing of popular discontent during the Arab Spring, Gerges points to the power grab resulting from the “grand collusion” between Arab autocrats and their patrons to maintain the status quo. The author looks carefully at the rise of leaders such as al-Baghdadi, but he concludes that the ideological-driven terror organization will eventually self-destruct because it cannot supply the civil state and institutions of freedom and social justice that the Arab people desperately want and need.
A specific, timely, well-rendered exegesis of the unfolding global threat.
For centuries, spies could only listen to enemy communications. In this thoughtful, opinionated history, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist warns that in today’s cyberage, “once they hacked a computer, they could prowl the entire network…they could not only read and download scads of information, they could change its contents—disrupt, corrupt, or erase it—and mislead or disorient the officials who relied on it.”
In the 1983 movie, WarGames, a teenager unwittingly hacks into the United States’ defense system, nearly causing World War III. One viewer, an alarmed President Ronald Reagan, commissioned a groundbreaking 1984 directive giving our largest intelligence agency, the National Security Agency, responsibility for securing computer networks. Then the issue basically vanished for a decade. Soviet technology was far behind America’s. In the mid-1990s, teenage hackers broke into American military computers, and a Russian intelligence agency did the same, so the issue was revived. Experts agreed that attack is the best defense, and Slate “War Stories” columnist Kaplan (The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, 2013, etc.) delivers an eye-opening account of the dawn of cyberwar in 1995, when the air war in Serbia was won through crippling of its air defenses by information warfare. A decade later, the Stuxnet computer worm wreaked havoc on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, a triumph of digital skulduggery but perhaps an act of war. Though enthusiasts ignore the implications, Kaplan does not. Iranian hackers are inflicting expensive revenge, and a Chinese government agency is devoted to extracting useful information from American computers. Readers may take comfort knowing that we have the capacity to do the same.
An important, disturbing, and gripping history arguing convincingly that, as of 2015, no defense exists against a resourceful cyberattack.