In the social media age, birdwatching and policing clash

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 31, 2020

It’s hard to see that we are making progress.

The Minneapolis police killing of a man in custody the day after a New York Central Park racial incident involving a white woman’s hysterical 9-1-1 call threatening to activate the police against a black man while he was birdwatching is disturbing. In this era of social media, widespread use of cellphone video technology, and COVID-19-induced social anxiety, the legal and political system appear woefully inadequate.

In Minneapolis, another black man, 46-year old George Floyd, suffocated in police custody when three police officers, one with his knee on the back of his neck, pinned Floyd, who was already handcuffed, to the ground for eight minutes while bystanders urged the police to let him breath as they filmed the incident for social media. Why would police do that? They were not threatened. What were they thinking, with their hands in their pockets, all macho-like, three of them, with a fourth supervising, holding down a handcuffed man?

Not unexpectedly, violent protests in the Twin Cities ensured for several nights and were exacerbated by the county prosecutor saying it would take time to examine the evidence, and not all the evidence supported charging the four officers, who have been fired from the police department.

The Central Park unleashed dog incident, while much smaller in scale, is also distressing. Early on Memorial Day, Christian Cooper, a black man, was birdwatching in a section of Central Park when Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman, approached him with her unleashed dog, in violation of the posted requirement that dogs be on a leash so as to reduce scaring away of birds. Mr. Cooper asked her to leash her dog. Their interaction went viral on social media and is available on YouTube along with dozens of commentaries.

The incident is a textbook depiction of “white privilege,” a term I am slow to use. Watching the YouTube video, most would agree that Ms. Cooper is asserting the power of intimidation by shouting at the birdwatcher, and then at the 9-1-1 operator, that “there is an African American man threatening me and my dog.” It is impossible not to conclude that Ms. Cooper expected law enforcement to intercede on her side. What would cause a white woman to instigate such a confrontation?

Of course, the first hypotheses is that Ms. Cooper was fearful, as any women might be, when bumping into any man, white or black, on a path in Central Park. We are in a sorry state if that is true, but women, and men, should look out for their own safety. It is likely Ms. Cooper had walked in Central Park before and would have brought along pepper spray if she thought it was necessary. She most certainly would not repeatedly have moved toward Mr. Cooper as she shouted at him as he stood still.

On the contrary, I submit that Ms. Cooper took offense at being corrected by a black man, by having it pointed out that her failure to leash her dog invaded his opportunity to enjoy birdwatching in Central Park. Our prevailing culture is alert to occurrence of men threatening women, but it gives lots of leeway for whites to intimidate blacks and then implicitly claim they were afraid.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Tom’s offense was feeling sorry for a white woman; in Central Park, Ms. Cooper’s complaint was that a black man asked her to comply with the law. It is unlikely she felt her safety was threatened or she would not have advanced toward him saying “please stop filming.” She must have felt insulted that she was being corrected by a black man.

The Central Park incident is minor compared to the recent record of police killings of black men dating back to that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but as a social problem it may be more widespread. Sadly, reader comments and reactions to major news articles about the Central Park incident give credence to black men feeling unsafe due to the potential distorted claims of white women. In 2015, during the protests on the Mizzou campus, I asked an African American graduate student if he ever felt unsafe on campus. His reply: “Only when I’m walking in a parking garage at night and about three white undergraduate women are walking towards me.”

Bad police behavior needs to be outlawed and punished. The price of the social unrest in the Twin Cities should motivate Minnesota and national policymakers to address police practices. Social media will continue to capture, and circulate, videos of police overreaction until such bad practices are stopped.

Likewise, white personal attitudes about blacks, particularly black men, need quiet reflection, examination and corrective action. Ms. Cooper states that she is not a racist. Apparently she has contributed to so-called liberal causes and candidates, yet when confronted with an uncomfortable situation, of her own making, she played the race card — she attempted to intimidate a black man by threatening to bring law enforcement, a system that Mr. Cooper likely distrusts, down on him because he asked her to comply with the law.

Part of whites’ racial reeducation certainly involves learning factual history and awareness of the African American experience, but in 2020 it requires that whites accept blacks in leadership roles such as in the Minneapolis police departments, as sports coaches, schoolteachers, doctors, judges, and as president.

Again, just like Rodney King’s question “Can’t we all get along?” after the Los Angeles 1992 violence and the calls for forgiveness for Dylann Roof, the shooter in the 2015 Charleston church murders, it was the victim, Mr. Cooper, who showed mercy for the offender. He questioned whether Ms. Cooper being fired by her investment firm employer for her racist behavior was appropriate. Now it is time for police departments to examine their behaviors taking black men’s lives. Way too often, an apology, and a legal settlement, is due.

Local boy, now Harvard prof, writes book about heartbreak of St. Louis

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN May 24, 2020

The title, “The Broken Heart of America,” caught my attention; the subtitle, “St Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” demanded my attention. The author, Walter Johnson, required my ordering the book the day it was published.
I spent a month of my COVID-19 respite soaking up the 528-page book about the role St. Louis played in American history. It is not al together a pretty picture.

The demise of St. Louis is heartbreaking. With a current population of 300,000, a decline of almost two-thirds since 1950, the city today is smaller than it has been at any time since 1870. St. Louis is one of the 10 most segregated cities in the United States and has the highest rate of police shootings in the United States. In spite of that, it has turned out accomplished musicians, writers and businesses and has three of the wealthiest suburbs: Town and Country, Ladue and Frontenac.

While I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, St. Louis has held my interest since grade school geography. Perhaps it is the confluence of the two mighty rivers, Stan Musial (born in Donora, Pennsylvania), the Dred Scott decision, or ragtime music, but I was always more aware of St. Louis than, say, Cincinnati or Memphis or Minneapolis. Despite never actually having lived in St. Louis, I know its physical layout rather well. Over my teaching career, I asked students what they used to call “the St. Louis question” (i.e. “where did you go to high school?”) and then made it a point to drive past that high school next time I visited the city.

I recognized, of course, that the author Walter Johnson is the son of the late MU economics professor Walter Johnson and the late community activist and preschool provider Mary Angela Johnson. The younger Johnson has the same passion for social justice and keen analytical eye of his parents.

Johnson is a world-class historian whose earlier two works won about every major award for history books. He is Winthrop Professor of History and professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and he is from Columbia — right there on Edgewood Avenue. The first sentence on his Harvard website bio proclaims he was selected to the Rock Bridge High School Hall of Fame in 2006. In other writings, Johnson’s belief that we all are created equal built up anger when he looked at the hypocrisy in his hometown and American society. He seems to have put that agitation to good use.

“The Broken Heart of America” is a riveting analysis of the role St Louis played since even before our independence up to Ferguson in shaping our governance, especially racial and poverty practices and policy. Johnson connects the dots from the importance of Jefferson Barracks as an active military installation for relocating Native Americans, to the pivotal role of Civil War skirmishes at what is now Saint Louis University in the center of the city, to the evolution of federal housing policy eventually reducing racial discrimination. The book is full of interesting historical details, such as the proposal to move the U.S. Capitol to St. Louis in 1875 and the role played by Missouri leaders such as Carl Schurz as Secretary of Interior and leader of liberal Republicans after the Civil War, that support Johnson’s thesis of St. Louis’ pivotal position in American history.

St. Louis played a mighty part in the early civil rights movement. Johnson argues that while Greensboro, North Carolina, is often cited as the place of the first sit-ins in early 1960, they also occurred at luncheon counters in St. Louis’s department stores in 1947. Much national attention was given to St. Louis for protests concerning lending practices at the Jefferson Bank the week of the March on Washington in 1963.

Johnson is expert at filling in the details of urban planning and redevelopment that eventually resulted in relocating African Americans’ business and homes that gave rise to black neighborhoods like Ferguson. Johnson’s telling of the creation of Pruitt-Igoe, perhaps the most notorious federal housing project in America, captures the dynamics of intergovernmental relations. In 1954, the project was to have two separate complexes — one for blacks named for African American airman Wendell O. Pruitt, and another for whites named for U.S. Congressman William Igoe. A year later a federal court decision involving St. Louis Housing Authority ended racial segregation with white flight spreading to the suburbs and public housing making tearing down black neighborhoods politically feasible. The project never flourished and its decline became a nation symbol of the perils of government efforts to achieve equitable economic development. Pruitt-Igoe’s implosion was nationally televised in 1972.

Johnson is the director of the Commonwealth Project at Harvard that aims to demonstrate a new way for universities to engage with social problems by involving professors and students with local cultural producers, activists, attorneys and politicians in community-led justice initiatives and historical research. Johnson has brought groups of Harvard students to experience St. Louis and has had several graduate students write dissertations relating to St. Louis.

For an extensive, insightful analysis of what happened to St. Louis, I suggest you first place a hold on the book at the Columbia Public Library and then watch and listen to Professor Johnson yourself in an online lecture for the Missouri Historical Society this Thursday at 6 P.M.

Why won’t Americans wear face masks?

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 17, 2020

Americans don’t like wearing face masks. Face masks are often thought to be an easy way to reduce the chance of airborne pathogens, such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, from being transmitted from human to human. Along with social distancing, face masks are a relatively inexpensive way to stop the spread of COVID-19. While culture and prior history affect America’s resistance to wearing face masks, ultimately politics is also an influence.

Compared with Asia and Europe, face mask use is not a widespread practice in the U.S. Protective masks are required in most German states and recommended in shops and restaurants and at bus stops and on public transit throughout Germany. Italy strongly recommends wearing face coverings but reportedly a price ceiling has resulted in a severe shortage of masks.

America was unprepared for COVID-19 — not only government officials, but more importantly culturally. Epidemics and pandemics are not part of how we see the world. Before this spring, few of us remember anything about the 1918 influenza. Researchers at Indiana University asked residents of that state how likely it was that their family would be harmed by a major disease outbreak in the next 10 years. Only 18% of survey respondents said “likely” or “very likely” compared to the 43% of respondents who said it was likely their families would be impacted by extreme weather, the 49% who expected a government shutdown, and the 56% who thought an economic crisis would affect them.

Americans living in the Midwest or Northeast prepare for the winter by buying snow shovels and gloves, but few citizens stored face masks in case a pandemic would come to town.

A Gallup poll conducted in mid-April reports 36% of American adults always wear a mask, 32% say “sometimes” and 31% say “never.” Gallup found a clear gender gap with 26% of men indicating they always were a mask, compared with 44% of women.
In the April survey I conducted of Columbia and Boone Country residents, 51% of respondents replied they wore face masks when they went in a grocery store. There is not much of gender gap with 53% of women, and 46% of men saying they “always wear a face mask” while 20% of women and 28% of men say they have worn a mask “a few times.” Folks over 70 are less likely to say they wear a mask “a few times” or “never” (7% compared with more than 20% for other age groups).

My actual observations of face mask use in three Columbia stores last week found fewer than the 51% who claim they always wear a mask while at a grocery store. Standing in the checkout area of three stores, I found that 23 shoppers wore masks and 46 did not. That is one-third of shoppers wearing masks — about what the Gallup poll predicted.

The benefit of citizens wearing face masks is not to the wearer of the masks but to the people who are saved from receiving droplets of COVID-19 when the wearer sneezes, coughs, slobbers or spews spittle when talking face-to-face. Therefore, wearing a mask brings a public benefit at a private cost or discomfort.
This point seems to be under-appreciated when pointing to Asia as an exemplar of mask wearing. Yes, many Asians wear a face mask almost as a cultural practice and have done so for more than a decade — well before COVID-19 came upon us. The Asian social practice has been largely motivated by experience with air pollution. Citizens can protect themselves from respiratory aliments by wearing a face mask. Compared to Americans, many Asians already owned and had prior experience with face masks before COVID-19 appeared. Americans did not even know where to obtain masks.

In addition to cultural differences in face mask use, national officials sent confusing and mixed signals about the need and benefit of face mask use. Even while suggesting citizens wear face masks, President Donald Trump said that he would not be wearing one. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) along with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams in February recommended people do not wear masks unless they were sick or a medical worker. At the beginning of April, Adams changed his views in accordance with evolving CDC and WHO policies that now recommend face mask use when social distance is impossible or difficult. Taken as a whole, few citizens would receive the message that wearing a face mask should be a top priority.

Unfortunately, wearing a face mask now has political undertones indicated by Gallup Poll’s finding that face mask use differs by political party. Forty-nine percent of self-identified Democrats report that they always wear a mask compared with 26% of Republicans.
Other polls find that COVID-19 itself has become a partisan issue.
Almost all Democrats (92%) say that opening the country is not a good idea compared with 35% of Republicans. Republicans are more willing than Democrats to participate in all sorts of activities including going to a restaurant and getting a haircut. The perception of the threat of COVID-19 is a political issue with Democrats (89%) more likely than Republicans (69%) concerned someone in their family will be affected.

Wearing a face mask at the time of COVID-19 evidently reflects not only the wearer’s belief about COVID’s threat to public health but also about the role of government. America has become hyper-political when even a pandemic has become political.

Thoughts from my pretend class about whether to re-open amid COVID-19

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 10, 2020

The past two months are the first time since 1982 that I have not taught a public policy or politics college class. I miss it. It is my own fault. I could have a taught a virtual class using Zoom, but I chickened out. I had not even heard of Zooming back in mid-March. This past week, I Zoomed three times for different purposes.

I miss not having a class discussion about COVID-19 with a specific focus, such as, “Is it too early for Columbia and Missouri to open up?” In classes, I never tried to preach my point of view because I would rather listen and watch about 50 upper-class students discuss a hot topic.

My MU political science courses typically consisted of about two-thirds suburban students, a few from St. Louis or Kansas City and a few from rural Missouri. Usually, they were balanced in terms of gender and ideology. I seldom had more than three black students. Among those who revealed their party identification, Republicans usually outnumbered Democrats by a few.

Over the years, my classes had some wonderful and memorable discussions because the students engaged the topic and cared. There was little grandstanding. I still remember the first class after 9/11, the class after MU’s “cotton ball incident” in 2010 and a semester-long discussion about the federal budget deficit in 2011. I learned early in my career that big juicy topics, like abortion, gay marriage and the death penalty, seldom made for engaging class discussions because everyone knew their opinions and tended to repeat the same old stuff their parents told them.

But “Is it too early for Columbia and Missouri to open up?” would make for a thoughtful, lively, civil discussion because it matters, and most people have conflicting views. It would be 50 people trying to figure it out and make a good decision. If it was near the end of the semester, it would be 50 people who I knew, cared about and would be pulling for to contribute to class discussion and to consider new ideas that might be unsettling to them. It would involve 50 people who could hold each other accountable because they had gotten to know them and their preexisting opinions over the previous few months.

I would have written “Is it too early for Columbia and Missouri to open up?” on the board and said, “Let’s make a list of topics and themes that we can discuss one-by-one next class. Will everyone write a few ideas on your laptop?” And then I would have waited. After a minute or two, just when a few students began to stir, I would have looked at someone who was average or typical in his or her participation and asked, “So what do you think?” Most likely, that person would have respond “Yes, it’s too early; people are still dying in Missouri and all over the U.S.”

There would be a few mentions of social distancing and testing. Sooner or later, someone would state there are estimates of more than 150,000 COVID-related deaths and the need to “flatten the curve.” That may have sparked a student across the room to say “Flattening the curve might flatten the economy.” The unemployment rate might hit 14.7% already, it could reach 20%? Who knows? That’s a depression. For what?”

Then, all heck would break out like a family argument at Thanksgiving dinner. “Sure, people are dying, but does keeping everyone shut-in do anything? Why can’t we just wear face masks and social distance?”

To which someone would say, “Like everyone will do that. It’s public contamination. I don’t want to get sick or my grandparents to die, because someone who may be asymptomatic spread the virus at a coffee shop.”

A student near the window would chime in: “Isn’t that the risk we take? Or decide to take? People overly concerned about COVID-19 can decide to stay home. I thought it was still America, where people decide what to do, not let government tell them what to do.”

Somebody would ask, “When will this end? No one seems to know. Not only isn’t there an end game; there is no announced goal. It can’t be the new normal.”
A quiet student might say, “I agree. I’m from southern Missouri. My parents drive to Jeff City for jobs they are over-qualified for, and now, they might lose them. Where are we going to find summer jobs? I guess, if you are from Ladue, your parents will take care of you, but some of us have to work and borrow to be here.”

A student trying to change the subject might say: “How did COVID-19 become an ideological issue. No, now it’s a political issue. Maybe the media made it a hot political issue instead of reporting what the experts say.”

Someone might respond: “We know why. The president has offered no leadership. He hasn’t even taken the symbolic action of putting on a face mask. Just wait till he tests positive, and then, we will be required to wear mask all the time, even sleep in one.”

A student in the front row might say, “Don’t forget federalism. It’s the governors who oversee public health. They closed their states; now, they are opening them. Maybe we have overreacted in Boone County with only one death and a few hospitalizations, but evidently, they were slow to act in New York City.”
A few minutes after the class was supposed to have ended, I would say, “Well, that’s a good list to get us started. We will resume this discussion next week.” Students would be talking with one another, as they gather up their stuff and walk out the door.

I miss having those kind of class discussions. It’s hard to imagine a Zoom class could approach that level of intensity and insight, but that may be the new normal.

Second survey shows Columbians worrying less, still positive amid COVID-19

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 3, 2020

I conducted a second survey last week of Columbians about their concerns and reactions to COVID-19. The first survey in March focused on reactions about city and school responses, while this second survey asks more about individuals’ behavior and concerns.

Compared to March, respondents are worrying a bit less and have even more positive views of local government reactions. One key finding is that 67% think Monday is too early to allow Missouri’s and Columbia’s stay-at-home orders to expire while 20% said, “May 3 seems about right.” Back in March, 73% of respondents said that the stay-at-home orders should have been established earlier.

The second survey was conducted April 24 to April 30 and attracted a more representative sample of local residents in terms of gender balance, with 40% males compared to 33% in the first survey. Younger age respondents also were a larger part of the second survey, with those under 40 comprising 30% of respondents as compared to 20% in the March survey. I did not ask ethnic background in the first survey, but this second survey has 7% African American or black, 4% Asian American, 5% “international visitors” and 2% Hispanic. Slightly more than half of respondents live in the 65203-ZIP code, which encompasses southern and western Columbia. That represents about twice their proportion of the Columbia area.

Responses were gathered from three main sources: the Missourian website and social media, my Facebook and email contacts and “pass-thrus” from contacts I explicitly asked to forward the survey to people they knew. For each survey, there are about 260 responses.

Health concerns still dominate financial concerns by roughly the same margin. In March, health was chosen over finances 78% to 22% and in late April the split was 72% to 28%.

Overall, general concerns about health due to COVID-19 decreased from 93% to 78%. Respondents were asked about actions they have taken to monitor their health. Except for “using the internet” to read about COVID, selected by 80% of respondents, concern about COVID apparently does not motivate individual action. Only 35% of respondents indicated they have taken their temperature within the preceding 14 days, 9% have requested medical advice, 4% used an oximeter and 3% visited a medical clinic or office. Several respondents specifically mentioned following the CDC guidelines and Department of Health regulations. Some added they were disinfecting their home and a couple said they have not left their home since the stay-at-home order was announced.

Only 51% of respondents indicated they wear a face mask whenever they go to the grocery store, while 23% have worn it a few times. A full 20% said they never, or not very often, wear a face mask. One person thought we need more local guidance on face masks and said “the CDC tells us to be wearing them, but the employees of the health department are not wearing them.”

Favorable views of how neighbors and shoppers are doing socially distancing themselves increased only a few percentage points — 85% not up from 78% in March — while overall favorable views of how city and county government performed stayed steady at 82%, with 15% going from “satisfactory” to “very well.” In March, 13% replied, “they don’t seem to know what they are doing” but that response declined now to 9%. Several respondents made it clear that city and county policymakers are doing better than state and federal officials.

When asked “overall, how well is your area dealing with COVID-19?” positive responses increased from 79% in late March to 96% at the end of April. Yes, only 4% said “not very well.”

For the first time, respondents in April were asked how we should pay for the increased spending of state and local government. One-third said “the federal government should bear the cost,” followed by 18% saying “we will have to increase taxes,” 11% said “cutting waste in government spending should be enough,” with only 5% saying “other valuable programs will need to be cut.” A quarter of respondents said, “I don’t know, but it is a big problem.” Nearly 10% of respondents added comments, most of which were thoughtful and said, “some combination of the above.”

The survey found little support for protesters in several states, including Missouri, who demonstrated against the stay-at-home orders. Only 10% agreed with them, compared to the 60% who said the protestors “need to realize that the public health threat requires stay at home” and 24% who responded to the more extreme “I disagree with them — they must be nuts.”

More than a quarter of the respondents indicate some level of discomfort and stress during this stay-at-home period. When asked “how have you been,” 27% said “well — better than I expected” and 39% said, “Good. It’s a challenge, but I’m facing it.” Twenty-two percent said “so-so. Some good days, some bad days,” and 5% said “bad” or “very bad.” Several respondents added comments using the words “stress,” “anxiety” or “feeling isolated,” while several said they are getting used to being home.

When asked where will be the first place you go when the stay-at-home order is lifted, the largest response, 37%, was “I will stay at home,” followed by 16% saying “to a restaurant,” and 13% “back to work.” Eight percent chose the public library over the 4% who said the mall.

The snapshot of Columbia’s reaction and concerns I see in these two surveys is one of reasonable people trying to make it through this unusual experience. People are concerned about the disproportionate impact on the elderly, the poor and those who are homeless but are generally supportive of local government officials. Many respondents are concerned about how we will come out of this and about the long-term impacts.

The full results, and additional survey questions, are at online at