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Commentary: The joy of self-destruction as a UMass fan at Sanford Stadium

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UMass vs University of Georgia football
The UMass Minutemen lost 27-66 to the UGA Bulldogs in Athens on Saturday.

Photograph by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There’s something deranged about watching the University of Georgia playing the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in football. Is this sport? Hell, I could jump off the back of my couch, drunk, declaring that I’m going to break my fall with a ping-pong table and call it a “sport.” People are paid perfectly good money to do things like that, same as playing football. The odds of my success would have been just as good as UMass’s. It’s just as futile a gesture, and we’re all going to be a little sadder for the experience in the morning.

Let’s be clear: The UMass Minutemen are the ping-pong table in this scenario.

Or maybe they’re the guys in the Russian dash cam videos who jump in front of cars, hoping to get run over so they can collect the insurance money. Only this time the driver was in on it.

I bore witness to this depravity in person on Saturday, tickets courtesy of a state senator with enough sense to have something else to do, my UMass alumni t-shirt used for the first and perhaps the only time in an official capacity in the state of Georgia. I found myself picking out the random Massachusite in the Athens bars, pre-gaming hard. People flew down, they told me. It’s snowing in Massachusetts, after all. It’s always snowing in Massachusetts.

UMass vs University of Georgia football
DAndre Swift of the Georgia Bulldogs is tackled in the second quarter by Chinedu Ogbonna and Brice McAllister of the Massachusetts Minutemen on November 17 at Sanford Stadium.

Photograph by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

These crimes against sport are being committed because New England’s safety school has an inferiority complex. In a state with a dozen internationally famous private universities, UMass is where middle-class Massachusetts sends the kids with brains but too much money for financial aid. It’s like Georgia without a HOPE scholarship and a decent alumni network—and without the jocks, because they all go to Boston College.

So UMass decided to try for a little attention in 2012 and moved up to Division I football. It has been an unmitigated and entirely predicted disaster. The Minutemen are 17 and 56 over five seasons. The school can’t give away tickets for a team that routinely loses by 40 points a game. Last week, UMass managed a kick for zero yards against Brigham Young. UMass lost to Florida International—Miami’s equivalent to Georgia State—23-64. UMass doesn’t even belong to a football conference anymore because who wants . . . this?

UMass are drunken men on a street corner offering to let passersby kick them in the balls for a dollar. And Georgia stepped up.

The University of Georgia paid $1.5 million for the privilege of murdering UMass on Saturday. It’s a rounding error for Georgia’s athletics department. But that $1.5 million represents about a sixth of UMass’s ballooning football budget. The difference is that Georgia is good for it. Its football program makes money, because the seats at Sanford Stadium are packed. People show up for games in tricked out campers with UGA Bulldogs professionally stenciled—and licensed, by God—wearing $300 worth of Georgia gear. More people almost certainly attended the game at Sanford Stadium, with its 92,746-seat capacity, than all of the home games UMass has played this year combined.

Student fees and Massachusetts taxpayers cover about three quarters of the UMass athletics budget. The typical UMass graduate will shoulder about $10,000 more debt than a UGA graduate. About $1,600 of that debt will be to subsidize athletic mediocrity.

Not that the University of Georgia has the moral high ground.

Georgia built a temple to the sport—and I only call it that with a laugh after this game—and after about a billion dollars spent over the last 38 years have no national championships. All to lose to Auburn or Alabama or Florida, or every once in a while, Georgia Tech.

Georgia’s nose is pressed up against the glass of the window, looking at the toys.

Georgia’s fans were incredibly polite as I made my way to my seats. They had the courtesy one might expect of running into a neighbor at the liquor store—nice to see you, my wife is fine, thanks, please don’t mention this in church. An actual contest should engender some sense of drama, some nervousness one might think. Instead, people actually apologized to me. And they should have.

The anxieties are there, though, under the surface: the creeping fear of inadequacy. UMass scored an improbable touchdown in the first quarter on a flubbed Georgia punt return. I stood up and shouted “Imagine that! Ha! They said it couldn’t be done!” and for one brief moment, I saw it.

A towheaded boy of about eight sat on the bench in front of me. He turned, wordless, and just stared at me like an axe murderer with ambitions.

Saturday was a war of anxieties. Midway through the third quarter, with the score 50-something to who effing cares, a guy in a Massachusetts shirt climbed into the sacred hedges of the Sanford Stadium sidelines to scream at the UMass athletics director. I talked to him afterward. The sage advice of a guy five fingers down a Johnny Walker bottle couldn’t be worse than what was happening on the field.

He graduated from UMass in the 1980s, he told me. He met his wife at UMass. He lives near UMass. His five kids go to UMass. He drove down for the game. He camped out along the road in Virginia on the way. It’s snowing in Virginia.

“They need to fire the coach,” he said. I looked up at the scoreboard. In the time it took me to walk over to him, Georgia had scored another touchdown.

“I don’t think the coach is the problem here,” I replied.

The futility of the moment, of everything about the moment plainly weighed on him. “We’ve been doing this, what, six years? We’re still, what, four and nine after this, again? Something’s gotta change, man.”

But get rid of the program? Never. It doesn’t matter that the faculty, half the student body, and a lot of alumni think this is stupid. This man’s pride is at stake. When there’s hell to pay for acquiescing to sanity, he’s going to be one of the toll takers. College administrators put those hedges up for a reason.

Georgia opens against Arkansas State in 2019, paying $1.8 million to do so. UMass plays Auburn in 2020, earning $1.9 for the privilege.

Why does Rice play Texas? For the money, Jack. For the money.

George Chidi, a former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, works on social policy related to homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse problems in downtown Atlanta.

Faces of a Movement: Meet 3 Atlanta women of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter isn’t a traditional civil rights organization. It doesn’t have a headquarters, 501(c)(3) status, or a chain of command. It operates on the local level rather than nationally. But the movement is producing leaders, most of whom are not preachers or politicians—or even men. Meet three of the women behind Black Lives Matter in Atlanta.

Black Lives Matter
Mary-Pat Hector (left) and La’Die Mansfield

Photograph by Sheila Pree Bright

Mary-Pat Hector
18, Lithonia
Just over two years ago, Hector won a $50,000 fellowship from a national nonprofit that supports young peace activists for creating the “Think Twice” anti-gun-violence campaign, which U.S. Representative Hank Johnson has praised on the House floor. In December 2014, Hector helped organize a flash-mob-style die-in demonstration at Lenox Square on one of the year’s busiest shopping weekends in an effort to draw attention to police brutality. There were no arrests, and some shoppers cheered and even joined in the group’s chants.

Last spring Hector, who also serves as youth coordinator for the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, graduated from high school. The Lithonia teenager started at Spelman College last fall as a political science major.

La’Die Mansfield
32, Atlanta
A veteran of Atlanta’s Occupy movement, Mansfield runs the Hello Racism! group and social media feed and has helped lead #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations. Last June, when local preacher Markel Hutchins held a meeting to launch his own Black Lives Matter–like group, Mansfield stormed the podium, bringing with her family members of a man killed by DeKalb police last year. She announced that the very people who’d been most active in protesting violence against African Americans weren’t represented onstage.

“In the civil rights movement,” she says, “there were clearly one or two people identified as leaders. Now there’s not one single leader, but there are people who lead.”

Black Lives Matter
Keiota Jones

Photograph by Sheila Pree Bright

Keiota Jones
33, Duluth
Before her graduation this summer, Jones served as president of the Georgia Gwinnett College Democrats, taking part in a series of “Moral Monday” protests at the Georgia State Capitol. Last year Jones was among two dozen activists arrested during a sit-in at the Capitol to protest Georgia’s “Stand Your Ground” laws.

“I consider it a revolutionary act to intentionally acknowledge and support black lives,” says Jones. “Black people’s needs have never been a priority of any system in America.”

For Jones, the Black Lives Matter movement also means advocating for a stronger social services net for everyone.

This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.

DeKalb Commission approves $12 million soccer stadium deal

Atlanta United practice facility
Rendering courtesy of AUFC

Government-subsidized pro sports stadiums are more than a questionable idea; they’re a cliché of a questionable idea, as John Oliver’s viral rants on HBO have explained.

One would think that having former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers literally waiting in the wings to tell the DeKalb County Commission how riddled with corruption its county is—“rotten to the core” is how he put it in a letter this week to the county—might engender a sense of fiscal restraint in the board. Given the recent conviction of suspended CEO Burrell Ellis for trying to shake down a county vendor for campaign cash; lingering unresolved corruption complaints against other DeKalb officials; and intense investigations at the local, state, and federal level, appearances should matter.

Or not. At its public meeting Tuesday morning, the Commission kicked Bowers out of the hall. Then, commissioners voted 4-3 to hand Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank an estimated $12 million in incentives to build a training complex for his new Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United.

The posture of Lee May, interim county CEO, toward Bowers’ investigation seems to have shifted since he enlisted the veteran prosecutor in March. Five months ago, May presented Bowers’ arrival like Elliot Ness come to clean house. The presence of an outside investigator, disconnected to local politics, suggested a no-holds-barred approach. The price tag seemed startling of course—$500,000 or so, billed in chunks of $400 or so an hour—but conceding to a culture of corruption would be more expensive.

But county commissioners haven’t cooperated with the inquiry. Two weeks ago, the commission effectively voted to shut down the investigation by stripping funding from the budget.

Facing Bowers’ complaints, May shot off a note Wednesday to say he “wholeheartedly disagree(s) with the opinion that DeKalb County is rotten to the core,” and that “it appears the only thing we have to show for (the investigation) is a two-page letter full of salacious—but vague—innuendo.”

Bowers is refusing comment, at least until his report describing county employees’ profligate thefts of government funds—from jelly beans to cruises on the county dime—goes public on October 6.

The fuse on the bomb is burning, but DeKalb commissioners appeared unconcerned when they announced the terms of the stadium deal last Wednesday. They held the special-called meeting six days later, denying public comment from the floor. Because why would public objections matter? Surely a county commission with this track record could be trusted to decide—without tiresome public input—whether to spend half of this year’s county budget surpluson a stadium, right?

Under the deal, Blank gets use of the land tax-free for 30 years and the team pockets any ticket revenue. The deal obligates the county to remediate the land for development and to pay Blank $7 million to house its parks department in a 6,000-square-foot facility that critics say shouldn’t cost more than $1 million to build. In return, the county receives only vague promises for using the sports fields when Blank doesn’t need it.

The land for the soccer complex, behind the county jail on Memorial Drive near the Kensington MARTA Station, today is a sea of parking lot asphalt looking onto a half-demolished apartment complex.

Reversing decline on Memorial Drive is cited by proponents as a rationale for the extravagant deal. But Commissioner Kathy Gannon cited Coolray Field in Gwinnett County as a cautionary tale when explaining her no vote. Gwinnett officials blew millions building a new stadium using public bonds, only to be stuck holding the bag for a massive loss when parking revenue and ticket sales fell sharply below expectations. And promises of nearby economic development never materialized.

But May has argued that the stadium would be the largest economic development investment in South DeKalb in decades, noting how millions in county money had been spent in mostly white north DeKalb to preserve land from development.

Also noteworthy is the racial split over the Blank deal. All four commissioners who supported the deal are black. The three voting nay are white. It might be too early to describe the commission as racially divided, but a pattern seems to be emerging. On high-profile decisions—from appointing board members to large spending decisions like the controversial purchase of a YMCA building—board votes have split along racial lines, even though both Kathy Gannon and Jeff Rader are progressive white Democrats. The stadium vote is the first major issue with a fully constituted board in about two years, now that Mereda Johnson has been seated in the southeast DeKalb district. Black commissioners outnumber white commissioners now. And all four voted together to quash public comment.

Welcome to the post-Burrell era!

Atlanta march and vigil connect Charleston shooting, #blacklivesmatter movement

 

A march and memorial service held Friday night in Atlanta lamented this week’s deadly shooting in a historic African American church in Charleston. Speakers and participants connected the massacre in South Carolina to larger issues of violence and racism—and the national #blacklivesmatter movement.

Georgia NAACP state president Francys Johnson said that office-holding “extremists” who block hate crimes legislation should be held accountable for incidents like this week’s shooting in Charleston. “It is they who must answer for the lack of justice,” Johnson said of politicians who do not acknowledge a connection between violence and racism. “The logical conclusion of racism is genocide,” he said.

Johnson’s address in the sanctuary of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church capped a march of about 200 activists, who had made their way from the state capitol steps to the church in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district in memory of the nine people killed in Wednesday’s shooting at Emanuel AME church.

Big Bethel and Emanuel are both iconic institutions in the civil rights movement, and senior pastor Rev. John Foster said that the churches also shared a connection in this week’s events. Denise Quarles, a member of Big Bethel and the City of Atlanta’s former director of sustainability, lost her mother Myra Thompson in the attack, said Foster. “There is a kinship between Big Bethel and Emanuel,” he said. “We’ve both been burned down. We’ve been praying for Denise. We want to be a blessing to her.”

Atlanta_Charleston_march_June2015From the pulpit, Johnson also invoked the deadly police shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York, and other high profile incidents involving police force against African Americans. He issued a broad call for justice, connecting the Charleston shooting to the #blacklivesmatter movement.

In a sense, Johnson preached to the choir. State Sen. Vincent Fort and Atlanta city councilman Kwanza Hall, sitting in the pews after the march, both favor changing hate crimes legislation at the state level.

Georgia civil rights attorney Mawuli Davis, a march organizer (pictured above), made the connection explicit during a brief interview at the outset of the march. “We have to stay on the path that black lives matter,” Davis said. “The underlying fabric woven into the fabric of society is a disrespect and disregard for black life. It resonates through police and other places. This is an extreme expression of the cultural roots of American society that has to be rooted up and destroyed.”

Fort compared conditions today to that of Alabama under the governorship of segregationist George Wallace in the 1960s. “Every politician that uses code words like ‘thugs’ and other words at this state capitol are creating an atmosphere to allow people like this to perpetrate murder and terrorism,” he said. “Let us mourn tonight and let us stand up and organize tomorrow. Or else our presence here is a fraud.”

The demonstration was peaceful. Marchers sang hymns as they made their way down Piedmont Avenue, interrupted at one point by two young white people in a silver pickup truck who chanted “Black or white, guns are right!” at the procession. They refused to identify themselves.

But people plainly remain furious, and are searching for ways to channel that anger into productive action.

Aurielle_Lucier“I think if we knew the answer, we would have done it already,” said Katlyne Hill, 38, of Lithonia, as the march made its way through downtown. “We have to keep pushing, just like our forefathers did. They went out every day and were attacked every day. … I have some friends who say it has to be better because we have an African-American president, but I’ve never seen it like this before. Every week, I turn on the news and someone is being gunned down for the color of their skin. It’s worse. I think it’s gotten worse.”

“We need to make space for the anger, the righteous rage,” said Aurielle Lucier, a march organizer and a cofounder of the It’s Bigger Than You campaign for social justice (right). “It is something that has been nestled in us for so long. We’ve had young people that have hitting these streets since August. … when does it end?”

Commentary: Why isn’t every cop wearing a camera by now?

Last month, a DeKalb County patrolman shot and killed an unambiguously unarmed man, drawing an investigation and protest. Two weeks ago, a North Charleston police officer shot and killed an unambiguously unarmed man, drawing an investigation and protest.

There are differences between these two killings, of course. We know that Anthony Hill was unarmed because according to witnesses, he was completely naked when Robert Olsen shot him dead at a Chamblee apartment complex. We know Walter Scott was unarmed because an observer recorded officer Michael Slager as he shot Scott five times in the back before placing what appears to be a Taser near Scott’s dying body.

Witnesses have been challenging the official response of the DeKalb police, that Hill charged Olsen, forcing him to kill the Air Force veteran. But despite video evidence showing Hill’s erratic behavior before his death, there’s no recording of the shooting. We’re left with an account that sounds more or less indistinguishable from that of the North Charleston police before bystander video eviscerated it.

The scandal isn’t Hill’s death, necessarily. It’s that, even in the age of ubiquitous video, we’re left guessing what happened.

DeKalb interim police chief J.W. Conroy told me last year that they had been experimenting with body cameras even before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, with generally favorable results. In practice, the cameras were working as desired, he said, but there were policy considerations to work out around non-enforcement contact with the public, legal issues raised by the use of cameras-on-private-property, and cost—both for the cameras and data storage.

On the legal question, police departments have cited a quirk in Georgia law barring anyone from recording video in a place with a general expectation of privacy. Lawmakers drafted the law to prevent unwanted snooping—using spy cameras to catch the nanny in the bathroom, for instance. But the law inadvertently made it illegal for police to record video without permission in someone’s home . . . even if they’re serving a warrant there.

The ambiguity made policies for camera use problematic.

The legislature fixed that problem this month by passing SB 94, which added a police exception to the law against video recording in a home without consent. The law applies only when a police officer has the legal right to be present in someone’s home, although civil libertarians would have preferred a consent requirement when not serving a search warrant.

And cost? I find that unconvincing. Relative to the value of the evidence, a camera is cheap. If a community pays a cop $30,000 a year to sit in a $50,000 car with a $1,000 gun, a $2,000 computer, and a $3,000 radio, it seems that it should not be hard to find $500 to spend on a camera to improve the quality of evidence in an age where practically everyone in America carries a video camera in their smartphone.

I serve on city council for DeKalb County’s Pine Lake, with a public safety budget of about $200,000 and the equivalent of about four full-time police officers. We somehow found the money for cameras this year.

In the most recent session, Georgia’s legislature wouldn’t consider bills from Senator Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and Representative Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) mandating cameras on police, despite overwhelming public support. In a recent Economist/YouGov poll, 88 percent of respondents said they supported the use of body cameras by police.

Of course, mandating that police wear body cameras raises a host of questions. Will we hold police officers accountable when we find a suspect beaten by cops who, somehow, forgot to turn their body cameras on? Will policies mandating how video is preserved or copied have staying power? Will the footage be exempt from states’ open records laws? Will prosecutors present footage from police cameras in the same way they do in cases against Joe Citizen?

We live in a society in which the police assert a right to know everything about us, while insisting that we can know nothing about them.

What’s a citizen to do? Well, resist.

Record police when they’re arresting someone. You have the right to do so in public or on your own property, even when the police say you do not. Use this app from the ACLU. It streams directly to the web, so law enforcement can’t erase the video if they snatch your phone. Lock your phone if an officer tries to take it from you. The U.S. Supreme Court last year declared it illegal for police to force you to unlock your phone without a warrant.

We should not only ask police to wear cameras. Police officers should face consequences for confiscating other people’s cameras. It says something that Feidin Santana, the man who captured the video of Walter Scott’s apparent murder at the hands of a police officer, felt he had to hide while recording the footage.

ChidiAtlanta-based journalist and commentator George Chidi is working on a book about civic participation which his experiences both as an Occupy protestor and a city councilman overseeing a small police force. He tweets at @neonflag

 

 

Commentary: The brilliant strategy of Rev. Creflo Dollar’s request for a $60 million private plane

Let’s unpack Rev. Creflo Dollar’s request for $60 million from supporters for a G650 jet for the hustle it really is: a salesman using the door-in-the-face trick.

Ask for something outrageous, and when the world laughs and says no, dial down to something that sounds comparatively reasonable, even though it’s probably not. On Friday, the Rev. Dollar posted an online video suggesting that his followers chip in to help him replace an aging private plane—and thus continue round-the-world spreading of the Gospel by Dollar, his wife Taffi, and members of his College Park World Changers Church International. By the end of the day, the video was removed from the web, and Dollar was the object of social media flaming.

A colossal tactical error, right? No. Dollar enabled  an old-school sales compliance technique practiced by everyone who’s worked a phone during an NPR membership drive. The good reverend can come back with a more modest request and cite the struggle of fundraising in a faithless world. His people will fall for it. And by laughing at Dollar, we’re helping him.

When police arrested Dollar on child abuse allegations in 2012, social media filled with scorn. But did you see his defenders? People who have supported him in the past really, really don’t want to believe they’d been conned. So his followers doubled down in exactly the same way that people keep thinking that 9-11 was an inside job or Obama was born in Kenya or vaccines cause autism. The rest of us might claim to hate these people. But our hate makes it worse.

Let’s put this to bed: Creflo Dollar cannot financially justify owning a G650 jet any more than any preacher anywhere can justify driving around in a Bentley or lining the walls of the church with Italian marble and Corinthian leather or living in a fabulous gated mansion. This is especially true when that preacher lives in metro Atlanta, amid one of the widest gaps between wealth and poverty in America.

The whole idea disgusts anyone who isn’t in on the game.

A 2007 AJC article pegged World Changers at about $69 million a year in revenue. If that seems outlandish, consider what 50,000 people putting a $20 in the offering plate once a week means: $50 million a year, not counting sales at the gift shop. Dollar’s congregants aren’t poor. That’s a myth. They’re gullible, and they’re committed. But they’re not poor. Dollar wouldn’t bother ministering to poor people. That’s not where the money is.

But God giveth, and God taketh away. Lo, witness the fall from grace of Bishop Eddie Long, who has been abandoned by the power brokers of Atlanta, forced to close satellite ministries in other states, and probably can’t get a good table at Paschal’s on short notice any more, not since he settled allegations of improper contact with male members of his church.

I would like to think this is the shock that sends the sheep running from the guy with the shears. But consistency is a powerful psychological force, and Dollar has mastered it.

Publicity has drawn attention to his cause. When God tells Dollar he only needs a $5 million plane next week, he may just get it.

Chidi Atlanta-based journalist and commentator George Chidi is working on a book about civic participation which includes a section on the role of the African American church in politics and the impact of “Prosperity Gospel.” He tweets at @neonflag

 

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